Close Range Review

 

 

Close Range coverI came to this book with some unease. My first encounter with Annie Proulx’s collection subtitled “Wyoming Stories,” was the final one, “Brokeback Mountain,” in which a cowboy discovers, as an adult, that he’s gay. Uh, yeah, sure. The story was a “political” assignment by one of my English professors, and it set my expectations when, probably 15 years later, I finally picked up the book again.

Proulx starts “A Lonely Coast” late in the book this way:

“You ever see a house burning up in the night, way to hell and gone out there on the plains?… And you might think about the people in the burning house, see them trying for the stairs, but mostly you don’t give a damn.”

That seems like a fitting metaphor for the entire book. Every one of the people in these stories lives a life of nothing but tragedy, heartache, and loss. They never stop to admire a sunset or a field of wildflowers, or breathe deeply the scents of new-grown grass and the plants of the Wyoming plains. Any joy they have is fleeting, artificial, not to be trusted: it will only lead to more pain.

This sort of literary drive-by schadenfreude is not for me. It betrays a “life sucks and then you die” nihilism I simply don’t share. If this is Proulx’s world, I’m glad I don’t live in it. I don’t know why anyone would want to read about it, much less write about it.

Yes, Proulx is a master of the well-turned phrase, the concise and insightful description, but those masteries cannot overcome the miseries of these depressing and dismal stories.

The high plains of Wyoming can be a desolate place, to be sure, and ranching is a hard life. But not this desolate, and not this hard, not all the time.

Your time and money can be better spent on other books.

Critique Technique Table of Contents

Here’s a Table of Contents of all of the Critique Technique posts to make it easier to go directly to the post you want to read.

Introductory Posts

Part 1: Critique, Technique, and Procedure

Part 2: Series Overview

 

Reader Response

Part 3: How Do You Feel?

Part 4: Authorial Intentions and Tracking Your Own Responses Updated!

 

Beginnings and Endings

Part 5: Weak or Missing Hook Updated!

Part 6: The Wrong Beginning Updated!

Part 7: Scene and Chapter Endings Updated!

Part 8: Story Endings Updated!

 

Characterization

Part 9: Characters and Conflict Updated!

Part 10: Poor Characterization Updated!

Part 11: Lack of Character Development Updated!

Part 12: Showing and Telling in Character Development Updated!

Part 13: Timing the Reveal Updated!

Part 14: Out-of-Character Behavior

Part 15: Unclear Character Goals

Part 16: Unclear or Insufficient Obstacles

Part 17: Dialect, Foreign Languages, and Jargon

 

Setting

Part 18: Lost In Space

Part 19: Vague Setting

Part 20: Too Much Setting Detail

 

Plot

Part 21: Unclear Plot

Part 22: Overly Complex Plot

Part 23: Confused Storyline

 

Flashbacks, Flash-Forwards, and Backstory

Part 24: Unclear Transitions

Part 25: Misused Story or Flashback

Part 26: Tangents

 

Narrative and Dialogue

Part 23.5: Read-Out-Loud Tools

Part 27: Narrative and Dialog

Part 28: Awkward Dialog

Part 29: Writers’ Tics

Part 30: Too Many Words, or Too Few

Part 31: The Wrong Words

Part 32: %*@!$#^!!!! (Swearing)

Part 33: Contradictions

Part 34: Imbalance Between Narrative and Dialog

Part 36: Name-Calling

Part 37: As You Know, Bob

 

Pace

Part 38: The Pieces of Pace

Part 39: Pace: Speed It Up, Whoa It Up, or Change It Up

 

Description

Part 40: The Gray Haze

Part 41: What Was That Again?

Part 42: The Dreaded Expository Lump

Part 43: Too Many Notes

Part 44: Telling, Not Showing

 

General Story-Telling Problems

Part 45: Pop Goes the Reader!

Part 46: No Story Arc

Part 47: Padding

Part 48: Danglers

Part 49: Stating the Obvious

Part 50: Head-Hopping

Part 51: Point of View Shifts

 

Mechanical Errors

Part 52: Spelling

Part 53: Punctuation

Part 54: Grammar Errors

Part 55: Manuscript Format

 

Positive Reinforcement

Part 56: Good Job!

Part 57: Great Start!

Part 58: Magic Middles

Part 59: Ending a Scene or Chapter Well:

 

Other Topics

Part 35: The Critiquer’s Mind

Part 60: The End

Bonus Material: Life on the Other Side of the Critique

 

 

Lilith’s Fall Review

4 star rating

 

 

It’s fair to say that I don’t read erotic science fiction romances very often—like almost never—but hey, it’s good to broaden your horizons, right?

Lilith's Fall coverLilith’s Fall is the first book in Susan Trombley’s Shadows in Sanctuary series. Lilith Galeron is a mild-mannered (her best friend Stacia calls her “boring”) but highly skilled computer programmer living in Dome City, a collection of large, connected domes on an unnamed planet. The society is tightly controlled by a religious leadership called the Diakonos, whose rule is enforced by police known by the Orwellian name of the Peace Keepers.

But there’s trouble in paradise and Lilith is suddenly arrested by the Peace Keepers, who wrongly allege that she’s involved with a shadowy revolutionary group called the Commemoro. She is taken to a secret prison where she’s thrown into a cell with a huge, dark, winged and horned creature from a species she’d only heard about, called the Demons. It turns out that this particular demon, or umbrose, as the race calls itself, is the duke, one of the senior leaders, of his people. Ranove is big, he’s bad, he’s built (and wearing only a thong), and the Peace Keepers expect him to do bad things to Lilith, like kill her. Maybe even eat her.

Instead, of course, after some serious initial awkwardness, Ranove and Lilith start to fall for each other. Ranove stages a bloody escape, which lets Lilith try escape, too. However, she’s foiled by the isolated location of the prison until Ranove finds her and carries her off to his people’s last redoubt in the heart of a dead volcano. There they’re protected (they think) from a seemingly similar but white-skinned race called the adurians who are their mortal enemies, and who are also allied with the Diakonos in Dome City. Once there, while Lilith tries to adjust to umbrose culture, she and Ranove consummate their relationship. Conveniently, they’re physically, but not genetically, compatible.

More adventures ensue. Lilith and Ranove are separated, come back together, and are separated again. During their final separation, Lilith discovers that Stacia and other friends were in fact part of the Commemoro, and faced with no other choice, joins them. A Commemoro attack on an adurian compound results in Ranove and Lilith being reunited, and the revolutionaries and umbrose reluctantly join forces to rescue Balfour, the umbrose’s prince, whom the adurians are holding and torturing, and to end the reign of the Diakonos. The rescue succeeds, at great cost, and Lilith and Ranove are reunited for good.

True to the conventions of erotic romance (so I’m told), the sex scenes between Lilith and Ranove hold nothing back. However, for this reader, they were not overdone and were appropriate to the relationship. Lilith and Ranove are fully-developed characters, with needs beyond the physical, and with fears and concerns, struggles and triumphs. The supporting casts of humans and umbrose play their parts well and set the stage for the series’ second book, Balfour’s Salvation.

It would be easy to project our own society’s struggles with race onto this story, or to see parts of the story as a commentary on how certain earthly religions control their believers. I can’t say whether either of these was Trombley’s intent, however. Instead, she plays up the contrast between one’s expectations about someone based on their appearance, the stories others have told or have been told about them, and who and what they really are. Ranove can be one really bad dude, but Trombley does not give him a heart of gold. Instead, she develops his concerns and motivations, so the reader can identify with him as someone fighting for a cause greater than himself… and, oh, by the way, for the love of a woman who’s very different from him.

Highly recommended for the SF romance reader. Recommended for any SF reader interested in reaching into new areas of the genre, at least so long as they’re not squeamish about sexually explicit scenes.

 

Spirit Walk Review

 

 

 

Best novel I’ve read in quite a while. And a debut novel at that.

Jay Treiber is a rare individual: a college English literature professor who can also write it, and write it well.

College English professor Kevin McNally has been struggling for decades with his guilt over an incident that happened when he was a teenager. This is the kind of subject that could lead the author and reader down a rat hole of angst, self-loathing, and neurotic navel-gazing but  Treiber avoids this trap. Instead, he chooses to have McNally seek resolution of that guilt, and forgiveness for what happened, through a skillfully interwoven series of story lines that mix McNally’s present and past.

By itself, that’s not unusual, but the story’s location and characters are. McNally comes from a line of southeastern Arizona ranch families, with friends and acquaintances on both sides of the border with Mexico, but perhaps as a way to escape his past, he left the small border town of Douglas to teach in Tucson—away, but not that far away. In telling the parallel stories of McNally’s return and of the original incident, Treiber takes the reader on journeys into worlds many have never experienced: the rugged high-desert canyons and mountains of far southeastern Arizona, far southwestern New Mexico, and the bordering lands of northern Mexico; the lives of the people who ranch and hunt on that land; and the drug smugglers who cross it.

The story revolves around McNally and Amanda Monahan, the 15 year old daughter of an area rancher. Raised in the ranch life, Mandi is no girly-girl. She’s a skilled hunter, and also the secret heart-throb of 17 year old Kevin. While the two families and other friends are out on a deer hunt, the party splits up. Mandi, hunting with Kevin and his friend Armando “Mondy” Luna, takes down a buck. Kevin wants to offer to help her field dress the animal and take it back to the family truck but she seems so well able to handle the tasks that he and Mondy leave her to chase after a crippled black jaguar known as “Old Pete,” which they’d spotted. When the hunting parties return to their parked trucks sometime later, the deer’s head and carcass are there, but Amanda is not. Neither are Kevin and Mondy. The families wait for them for a while, then start searching, not knowing that the kids are not together. No one, as it turns out, knows that Amanda has been captured by a group of drug-runners, who now face the problem of what to do with her.

The “young Kevin” story splits again and again as it follows Amanda, the druggies, the boys, and the different pieces growing search party. The “old Kevin” story line stays focused on McNally as he searches for the truth about a past he doesn’t clearly remember. Treiber weaves in and out of these bifurcating story lines like Old Pete weaving in and out of the bushes, trees, and rocky terrain, sometimes spotted but rarely seen clearly or for long.

The story lines all come together in a climactic shootout between the searchers and the druggies, but it would be a spoiler to reveal who dies. It does, however, finally clarify the real reason for McNally’s guilt, which Treiber skillfully misdirects our attention from throughout the book.

All this said, there were a few things about the book I found disappointing. Toward the end, the adult McNally goes on a peyote-fueled trip to the site of the search, led there by an old Indian friend. This was too much of a southwestern search-for-meaning-story cliché and is the least well done part of the entire book. It doesn’t even contribute much to the final resolution.

As I neared the climax of the story, I realized that the names of two of the key characters, Amanda and Armando, sounded suspiciously alike. After reaching the end, I couldn’t help but wonder if Treiber, English lit professor that he is, hadn’t tried to be oh-so-clever with these names, creating the symbolic parallelism that those professors love. The meanings of the two names are relevant: Amanda means “lovable” or “worthy of love,” and Armando means “soldier.” Both names are appropriate to their roles, so I wouldn’t be surprised if Treiber consciously chose them. Or maybe he didn’t, and their meanings and the similarities of their sounds just slipped by author and editor alike.

Finally, Treiber mixes in Spanish dialogue, which is appropriate for some of the characters, but he does not always provide a translation, and context is not always helpful. For those of us who don’t speak Spanish, this adds verisimilitude but is also a stumbling block.

In the end, these faults matter little. Treiber’s characters are finely drawn. Even the struggling adult McNally is sympathetic enough to keep the reader following him. Treiber clearly knows and loves the portion of the desert southwest the story is set in, and he places the reader right there with the characters. And no dilettante professor, he doesn’t shy away from the details of the weapons the hunters, sheriff’s deputies, and druggies use, or from the hunting—for people or game animals—that is so much a part of this area and of the story. By the end, the adult McNally’s spirit walk has led him to a place at which his spirit is recovering, if not yet fully healed.

Highly recommended.

Children of the Thunder Review

 

 

 

Dark, dystopian, and deeply flawed. And yet….

Author John Brunner’s late 20th century England is a mess: the economy is collapsing, environmental degradation is rampant, the government is corrupt, religious fundamentalists are taking over, and a renegade general is advocating xenophobia and racism at home and nuclear war abroad. Things in the U.S. are similar, minus the general. Meanwhile, Japan and continental Europe are doing fine, or better.

Peter Levin is a freelance reporter. Few newspapers will buy his work and they are in danger of closing. Claudia Morris is an American sociologist. She made her name with a provocative book, but she now thinks she might have gotten her thesis wrong, and has come to England on sabbatical to do research and write a new book. She and Levin had met previously, and they meet up again.

Meanwhile, a baker’s dozen of just past puberty children scattered across the British Isles and in Italy have discovered that they have the power to control the people around them, and they’re wielding that power to get everything they want, including the deaths of those who threaten them.

And here’s where the first flaw shows up. Brunner tells the story of all but one of the children while Levin and Morris meet. Levin fumbles around trying to find paying work while she struggles to keep the funding for her studies coming. There’s little evidence of a connection between the Levin/Morris story line and those of the children for well over half of the book. A science fiction reader will trust the author to eventually bring parallel story lines together, and Brunner eventually does, but even then, the children seem to be of secondary interest Levin and Morris. The early portions of the book are such a disjointed mess that it’s often tempting to put the book down.

Other flaws: Written in the mid-1980s, the book seems to have been created in haste for the domestic British market, and so was not “translated” into American English for this publication. (My copy of Children is the first of three books collected into one hardback.) For someone like me who’s worked with Britons, this isn’t much of a problem, but for others, even the non-slang terms will cause American readers to stumble.

Speaking of slang, Brunner chose to create a whole new set of slang and swear words for his characters. It turns out that he did not make up the words he chose, they were terms from previous eras, some quite obscene in their original usage. This wouldn’t be much of a problem except that Levin, the children, and even the American Dr. Morris, who, by the way, is also a Jewish lesbian, swear like sailors. It’s annoying and unnecessary.

As a writer, I notice dialogue tags. Writers today are taught to use very few: said, asked, thought, maybe one or two others. Brunner, however, resorts to what are called “Tom Swifties,” after the Tom Swift adventure novels, in which each dialogue tag is overdone and accompanied by an adverb to overdo them even more. Brunner’s characters shout angrily, exclaim excitedly, growl menacingly, and so on. It’s annoying tremendously.

And yet, for all this, I kept reading. The story picks up once Levin and Morris hear about the kids. With the help of Levin’s estranged teenage daughter, who comes to live with him after her mother is killed by a plane crash in her neighborhood, they start to investigate the children. One of the children brings all but two of the others to live with him. He kills the Italian boy because he’s a potential rival. The other child (spoiler alert) is Levin’s daughter, and she’s in cahoots with the rest of them.

Levin and Morris suspect that these children were all created via artificial insemination (referred to by the British slang term “artinsem”) with sperm from a single donor, so they try to find him. It turns out (more spoilers) that Levin, who was also a sperm donor as a young man, is that man, something that’s only revealed at the end of the book, when the children show him their amoral, power-mad nature and ultimate plans to take over the world, by among other things, making Levin father more of them, including with Morris.

In true dystopian fashion, the bad guys (the kids) win, and the person we thought was the good guy (Levin) is in fact at fault for the whole mess.

It’s a tribute to Brunner’s skill as a writer that he was able to keep me interested in such a flawed work all the way to the end, but in the end the flaws drive the rating down, although to a higher score than I first thought I would give it.

Fancies and Goodnights Review

3-star rating

 

 

I had been looking forward to reading this collection of short stories for literally over ten years. I was first introduced to it via one of its stories, “Are You Too Late or Was I Too Early,” while taking classes for my Master’s Degree in the mid-2000s. That brief story, with its never-saw-it-coming twist ending, enchanted me. And Ray Bradbury, my all-time favorite author, wrote the introduction. How could I not enjoy the other 49 stories?

Well, it turns out that the book in total, and the individual stories, were less than I had hoped. To be clear, John Collier was a very skilled writer. Even though the stories were all written in the 1930s and 1940s (the book was first published in 1951), each one is tight and clean, not a word wasted. But they are uniformly dark, which became tiring. Virtually all of the characters are scoundrels, and if the protagonists were not done in by their own weaknesses and failings, they were defeated by antagonists who were even worse scoundrels than the protagonists.

Almost all of the stories have a twist ending, and not an O. Henry kind of twist. It became a kind of game to try to guess the actual ending. Once I realized that virtually every story was going to have that twist, I started picking out the clues Collier would leave that presaged the end. But there was little satisfaction in guessing right, or nearly so. Few endings provided a real surprise.

Oddly, there was one set of stories that did not have twist endings, and even showed a wry sense of humor missing from the others. These stories all included the Devil, and in each case, the protagonist triumphed, unlike the other stories, and Old Scratch got his comeuppance.

The stories reflect the attitudes and beliefs of the time when they were written. Racism is casual and common. Women are either harpies and dangerous, or stereotypical housewives, naïve and ignorant servants of their husbands.

And then there’s the cover (not Collier’s fault), a bizarre, bilious green dreamscape of men wearing ice skates, overcoats, and fedoras, and carrying overlong hockey sticks, that has nothing to do with any of the stories behind it. I got really tired of looking at it. What was the publisher thinking in selecting it?

I imagine that if I’d read just one or two of these stories, then had a long break from them, as if I was reading them in some magazine, I would have enjoyed them more, but 50 in a row became wearing, even when spread out over the course of several months.

John Collier was no doubt a skilled story-teller, but his work is also an acquired taste, and one that, after this full multi-course meal of it, I am not inclined to acquire.

Invasion! Review

 

 

The premise of Invasion! The Forgotten Adventures of Dolley Madison, Book One is clever enough. Dolley Madison, wife of America’s fourth President, James Madison, had another life during the War of 1812: a turbaned crusader, along with her trusty sidekick and servant girl Sukey, harrying and perplexing the invading British Army at every turn, rallying and leading American troops, turning the tide of battle after battle. Unbeknownst to historians everywhere, or forgotten by them, she was America’s secret weapon.

A clever premise, yes. In execution, not quite so much.

In his end notes, author Neil Garra reports that at one time he built war games for a certain government agency located in Maryland (likely the National Security Agency), and that around that same time he’d become fascinated with Dolley Madison and the history of the War of 1812. The Forgotten Adventures was the result. This is both good news and bad news.

The bad news is that Invasion! reads much like a video game, and has many of such games’ weaknesses. There is little in the way of character development. Dolley and Sukey spend 60 of the first 90 pages learning how to become Rangers after they fought off an attack by robbers while traveling to Fort Lafayette, near Pittsburgh. But that’s about it. From that point forward, Dolley and Sukey become the female Batman and Robin of the early 19th Century. They win every battle they enter. If they’re ever in any real danger, they emerge from the battle unscathed. If they’re captured, they’ll escape. After the first encounter or two, the reader has no reason to worry: he or she knows they’ll survive. The only question becomes where they’ll go and who they’ll defeat next.

Garra tries to add some depth to Dolley by giving her and her husband a sex life, but every episode (each no more than PG rated) feels tacked on, as if someone had told Garra that adding sex scenes would make Dolley more of a real person. They don’t. They contribute nothing important to the larger story.

The same is true for the religious elements. Like Dolley, Garra was raised a Quaker but later left the denomination. Through roughly the first half of the book, Dolley takes part in religious activities—attending a church service at Fort Lafayette, teaching or quoting long passages from the Bible, praying for forgiveness before or after killing an enemy (or many of them)—and then they largely fade from the story. As with the sex scenes, these events feel tacked on, and for a reader who doesn’t share those beliefs, they can also feel like the author is rubbing the reader’s face in them.

The book is not a complete loss, however. Garra clearly did a lot of research on the early part of the War (Invasion! ends with the attack on Fort McHenry in September of 1814), both armies, their weapons, and their leaders, the politics of the fledgling United States, and the topography and geography of the area around Washington City and Baltimore. He even uses the fact that Dolley was sometimes called the “Presidentress” rather than the “First Lady.” Garra uses these details so well that the reader can feel as if they’re in the location, watching events unfold.

Garra’s character’s dialogue is also comfortable and realistic, although this reader got tired of every character exclaiming “Huzzah!” Surely the people of the time used other exclamations too. Certain other expressions, like “gotta” and “gonna,” seemed out of place for the time as well.

In sum, Invasion! seems to be more a history of the early part of the War of 1812, with an action/adventure story featuring an unlikely pair of heroines laid over the top, than an action/adventure story featuring an unlikely pair of heroines set in the War of 1812. The difference is significant, and it left this reader disappointed.

 

Light of the Dragon review

Marielena is a young and extremely powerful witch, Sinnie a just-hatched baby dragon. No, wait. Let me let author Susan Trombley introduce them to you.

“Marielena ran as the world shattered around her. The ground cracked and crumbled beneath her feet. The roar of dragons and gods rent the air. It was the end of times, and it was Marielena’s fault. … It was Marielena’s magic that had built the gruesome portal, powered the gate, and provided the key. She’d done as they’d demanded, and she had doomed them all. …

“Then Marielena saw it, a small glow like a shard of sunlight trapped within the rubble. … The glow belonged to the burgeoning aura of a tiny dragon, uncurling its round body and serpentine tail from the remains of an eggshell held within a broken box. It looked up at her and blinked its violet eyes. It mewled again. Marielena sank to the ground, and the baby dragon climbed into her lap.”

All this, and much more in the first two pages of Chapter 1.

For years, Marielena wanders, determined to protect Sinnie from other dragons and from any members of the Cult of Solendar who might have survived the catastrophe Marielena caused. Desperate to know more about dragons so she can raise Sinnie properly, the two journey to the Academy of Magic, where Marielena meets two other young misfits, Jayce, a powerful talent who can’t control is own powers, and Katreen, whose true skills lie undetected by the mages of the Academy. Together, they end up having to battle forces far stronger than they are, individually or together, even after Jayce and Katreen discover and learn a little of how to use their powers. Help comes from unlikely sources, including Lord Valon, a centuries-dead battle mage whom the Archmage of the Academy had resurrected and then lost control of, and Valon’s mechanical golem. Valon, too, is not what he seems.

Trombley weaves together multiple storylines as the three teens, Valon, Sinnie, and others, are thrown together, then torn apart, then thrown together again. Each character is distinct and well-rounded. Even Valon turns out not to be the villain the historical documents at the Academy make him out to be, and he discovers a softer side he never knew he had. (Being dead for a thousand years will do that for you, I guess.)

In the end, all of these characters, and a few others, work together, at extreme peril, to triumph over the destroyer-god Solendar. Or do they? Light of the Dragon is billed as the first book in a series, and Trombley certainly left the hooks in place for more stories to follow.

If I have a quibble, it’s with the prologue. The opening scene of Chapter 1 absolutely rocks, but it’s buried behind a prologue that I feel didn’t add anything, and in fact might take away from the end of the book. At the very least, it has little connection to the first 250 pages, and what connection there is is confusing at best.

Some readers may also stumble over a few of the terms Trombley uses: “rota” for day, “cycle” for year, “sunbirth” and “sundeath” for sunrise and sunset, respectively, but she’s consistent about using them and they give this story world a special twist that distinguishes it from similar ones.

Light of the Dragon is a Young Adult book that will appeal to young and not-quite-so-young adults alike. An engaging and enjoyable read. Where I can give it 4.5 stars, I do. Where I can’t, that’s a shame because this book deserves more than four.

 

Fatigue, A Stalled Book, and Art in the House

Oy veh. What a week the last few weeks have been. Stress levels haven’t been just through the roof, they’ve been somewhere out beyond the orbit of the Moon, so my body’s said, “OK, I’ve had enough of this fun.” Welcome to knock-you-flat-on-your-back fatigue. To quote the lyrics from the ’70’s rock band Spirit, “It’s nature’s way of telling you something’s wrong.” Boy, howdy.

That Stalled Book

I’d like to blame it all on the draft of book #3. Progress has come to a screeching, grinding halt. I shouldn’t be surprised: I knew, even as I was writing the second draft, that there were significant problems. Then my writers’ group found what they found, and my own read-through and analysis found even more.

OK, fine. I’ll interview my characters. That’s a technique that’s helped before. It sounds schizophrenic, I know. They’re my inventions, but I’m going to interview them?

It’s kind of like “method acting”: putting on their personality while an anonymous interviewer peppers them with uncomfortable questions. One of my characters got so annoyed she dropped the f-bomb several times! Well, that’s who she is.

So that helped. But not enough. The problems are WAY deeper, especially with two story-lines, and so far I don’t have any answers. SIGH.

Head, meet brick wall. Oh, you’ve already been introduced? Well, meet it again! THUD.

And this is a job I WANT to do?

Yeah, it is.

I know the right answers, the right insights will come eventually. I just hope it will be before the year 2525. “If man is still alive. If woman has survived….”

The Old House

The news hasn’t all been bad, though. Remodeling work has started on the old house. The old flooring has been ripped out, the new tile is going down, replacement exterior doors are almost on order, the new exterior paint colors have been selected. And I’m not living there while this is all happening.

That should be a stress reliever. Yeah, well. When the house is sold….

Art in the House

Who’s Art? No, not Art. Art, like in artwork. Week by week I’ve been putting up more and more of the stuff that’s been in boxes for the last six to ten years. Or longer. Like this batik that my Dad bought ages ago and no one ever had a place to put it.

Peacock batik

It brightens up the powder bath, don’t you think?

This Dancing Rama batik is one that I hung in my house in Oklahoma, but it’s been in storage since I left.

Dancing Rama batik

But the pieces I really wanted to get up were two stained-glass windows.

Stained glass windows

My Dad and I found them in the feed room of an old chicken coop that used to be on our property in Denver. We had no idea where they’d come from or how old they were. A neighbor who did stained glass rehabilitated them, and years later they hung in a north-facing window in the house my parents moved to. But then they went into storage and had rarely seen the light of day until a few months ago.

I asked my cabinet builder, Jeff McClain, to tighten up the frames a bit.

Stained glass windows close-up

Speaking of Jeff, he also delivered this display cabinet for the “oriental” bedroom recently.

Oriental bedroom display cabinet

Little by little, the house comes together.

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Book 3, Starting Draft 2

One of the things writer Anne Lamott is famous for is her advice, “Give yourself permission to write a shitty first draft.” To me that’s a kind of liberation theology for writers, but that’s a subject for another time. Today I’m going to continue to pull back the curtain on my writing process, at least as it relates to getting all the scenes in order for the second draft of this book.

So: “Give yourself permission….” Done.

“Write a shitty first draft.” Done.

OK, maybe “shitty” is a relative term, but while my read-through of the first draft got a “not bad” rating, as I wrote last time there were problems with the timeline, that is, the sequence of events in the plot. Timeline is especially critical for this book for two reasons.

  • One, it needs to end at a certain time of year in order to take advantage of certain weather phenomena in Dallas.
    • One-a, there are other events in the book that take place outdoors. They needed to fall at times of the year when they could take place outdoors or something would have to change.
  • Two, this book, like its predecessors The Eternity Plague and Chrysalis, has five–count ’em, five–interconnected story lines happening at once, so the sequencing of the events in each story line needs to be right.

Since I knew I had problems, and on top of that I had about 50 scenes that weren’t organized into chapters, I had two tasks that needed to happen pretty much in parallel: figure out the overall timeline and get those scenes into chapters. Then I could look for the scenes I already knew were out of order and identify where they should have gone.

Because I’m a “plotter”–that is, I work from an outline–building an updated outline of the story would take care of those tasks. I do this using Microsoft Excel. Yes, the spreadsheet program. I have a column for the chapter and scene number, a column for each major and key minor character, and a column for the timeline. With Excel, I can have as many columns as I want and not have to worry about trying to fit them all into one page, even in landscape format, which is what I’d have to do if I tried to use a Word table.

Since there are five major characters–Janet Hogan, the protagonist; Lisa Lange; Sarah Green-Dale; Reverend Will Baxter; and Lew Crandall–that’s where the spreadsheet started. Then I added the key minor characters associated with them, plus one for “Others.” To make them easier to see, I color coded the cells on the spreadsheet row with the characters’ names: pink for Janet and her crew, red for Lisa and her crew, etc.

Instead of one chapter/scene column, I put two in this time: one for where each scene fell in draft 1 and the other for where they needed to go in draft 2. Next, I added one column for how each scene related in time to the one before it, and one more for what calendar month and year that scene fell in.

Then, on the row for each scene, I wrote a brief description of what happened in the scene in the column or columns for the characters involved.

The end result: 18 columns by 142 rows! In other words, this, taped up on my guest bedroom wall:

The Draft 2 outline

Yikes. That’s three landscape-format pages wide by 10 pages tall! It’s so big, I had to split it into two 3-pages-wide by 5-pages-tall sets. This technique is NOT for everyone!

Before I printed this monster out, I did that sorting of which scene needed to go where. Here’s an example from the beginning of the novel.

Chapter 1 scene sequence

Outlined in blue, you can see how I planned to bring three scenes from chapter 2 forward into chapter 1.

I also worked out the timing. Here’s the timeline for those same scenes.

Chapter 1 timeline

But aren’t those August 26th scenes out of order? Well, by strict definition, yes, but hey, I’m a writer–I can finesse that! “Two weeks earlier…”

Great! Now I had a plan and could start editing.

But of course, no plan survives first contact with reality, and that’s what happened today. I was chugging along, working on what was supposed to be scenes 7 and 8 of chapter 1 when I discovered that they needed to go before the three scenes I’d pulled in from chapter 2, not after! D’oh! OK, that’s an easy fix.

These are some of the reasons why the first draft of a novel should NEVER be the final draft.

And you thought writing a novel was easy.

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