Science knows no country

Science knows no country, because knowledge belongs to humanity, and is the torch which illuminates the world. Science is the highest personification of the nation because that nation will remain the first which carries the furthest the works of thought and intelligence.

Louis Pasteur

Writing Locations as Characters

From Writers in the Storm:

Where we choose to set our stories is an important decision. It can inform everything that happens in the story, from plot points and character development to pacing and mood. For this reason, I like to treat my locations as I would the characters in my stories.

Just like people, locations can have certain traits that bring out their personalities and influence the way our characters interact with them. Each location we choose has its own unique set of physical characteristics as well as a general feeling or mood that it gives off.

. . . .

Character Traits of Locations

Setting Type

Setting type is the physical location where your story takes place. It can be a real location or a fantasy world. Maybe it’s all happening in your main character’s head, like a dream. Every location has its own personality. Even dream worlds have characteristics that impact the narrative and are often reflective of the person dreaming.

Another example might be an urban setting as opposed to rural. Both have their own obvious characteristics, such as population density, that sets them apart, but there are similarities as well. A big city might have a small-town feel, whereas a small town could be laid out to exude more of a big city attitude. The architecture and street layouts also lend character to a particular location. Narrow avenues with old-world cottages might add warmth and feel like an old friend, whereas tall glass-shrouded buildings and a maze of traffic clogged streets could feel cold, inducing stress and anxiety.

Terrain

The physical terrain of a story’s location can have a major influence on how the characters interact with it and with each other. If a character is familiar with the terrain, they may see it as an ally working to give them an advantage over an opponent. On the other hand, it may be a hindrance, throwing obstacles in the protagonist’s path. Sometimes the terrain itself is the antagonist and the thing that must be overcome to reach a satisfying ending.

Climate and Weather

Climate and weather may sound like the same thing, but they are different animals. Climate is the long-term average of the atmospheric behavior of a particular place, whereas weather is more isolated—it’s what’s happening right now. I like to think of climate as a location’s overall personality and weather as its current mood.

Most writers use weather almost instinctually. We all know how a raging storm, or a gentle rain can set a mood, but there are so many other things we can accomplish if we anthropomorphize things a little. Fighting an angry wind or beating back the cruel rays of the Sun breathe life into weather and set it up as an opponent that must be vanquished if our hero is to succeed. Weather can also be fickle and turn on a dime, lashing out like a scorned lover or throwing a tantrum like a three-year-old child who doesn’t want to take a nap.

Climate is a little trickier and requires more thought. The long-term nature of climate is what dictates things like flora, fauna, and seasons. It also sets expectations in the same way a parent might explain what to expect to a child before entering a museum or attending a funeral. Of course, we all know expectations and reality don’t always line up. It’s in that gap where the best stories are born.

Just like terrain, climate and weather can become the main antagonist. Look at Jack London, for example. In many of his stories the main character is fighting with the physical world rather than another person.

Link to the rest at Writers in the Storm

Tough Topics

From Kristine Kathryn Rus ch:

To survive the first few weeks of 2021, I have read a lot. I have also watched a lot of television. And I’m writing on a project just for me, something I haven’t done for a long time. The project just for me does some things that long-time friends might not approve of. The project just for me discusses a few things that people in my world probably would prefer me not to discuss. The project just for me is a tiny and somewhat joyous rebellion in the middle of the cluster**** that has been our lives in the past year.

I can’t tell you how much I enjoy that little bit of freedom. I know quite well that the project just for me will eventually get published. In the past, I would have lied to myself and said I wasn’t going to publish that project at all.

But now, I know it will and, honestly, with all the horrors of this last year, I no longer care about the opinions of the minions that are quick to condemn or even about the opinions of the friends who, with a gasp, will wonder if I really should go there.

. . . .

I’m going there.

And it’s not really rebellion. It is a return to the writer I was before I became known. I have tried other ways of handling that return in the past. I’ve written under secret pen names. I’ve written in other genres. I have, as I mentioned above, written things I promised myself would never see the light of day.

None had that overall sense of freedom that this past year have given me.

It took a bit of analysis to figure out why. Right now, I have bigger things to worry about than my reputation. 

. . . .

Will our country survive this mess? Will our friends make it through the economic hard times? Will our business?

And so on and so forth. Much more important things than a ding to my writerly purity, if I ever had such a thing.

And no, I don’t normally allow critics’ voices in my head. But, no matter how hard I try to fight it, there is a construct of who I’m expected to be as a writer. Sometimes I like breaking that construct. Sometimes I like creating a new construct. But whenever I think about the construct, it takes energy. I either have to embrace it or push it aside.

For some reason, since things have gotten worse worldwide, the construct has crumbled. All of the constructs have crumbled. At least in my head.

I also find that I’m exceptionally impatient with the pushback against discomfort in entertainment. This thing in that story, it makes a reader uncomfortable, and for that reason, that story is suddenly questionable.

Some of the points are real good ones. I’m tired of books in the canon of whatever genre that are filled with racist and sexist stereotypes. I think those books should be removed from what passes as canon. I think the books should not go away; I think that they should be studied as part of the historical past.

We can even build on them. Here: this racist story is the basis for that marvelous piece of modern fiction. Or: let’s read this original story filled with hate, and see how it was answered by this no-longer-marginalized writer. I think there’s a place for fiction that holds discredited notions, but that belief comes from my background as a historian and my love of the way things evolve.

. . . .

I recently recommended in my monthly recommended reading list a lot of stories from an anthology that includes stories from the past 100 years, but did not recommend the anthology.

The anthologist and I disagree about something: he is willing to put his name on a book that contains racist epithets in the title of a story, as well as making those epithets and their stereotypes the basis of that particular story.

When I edit an anthology, I figure there’s a better story that deserves my readers’ attention. I don’t need to be the person to keep something deeply offensive visible in the world. If someone wants to find that crap, well then, they can search the old anthologies and original publications for it. I don’t need to bring it into 2021.

Link to the rest at Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Here’s a link to Kris Rusch’s books. If you like the thoughts Kris shares, you can show your appreciation by checking out her books.

Covid Update

PG and Mrs. PG each received their second Covid vaccination today (Pfizer for Covid aficionados).

The talking Covid drums have been saying that side effects from the second vaccination can be more difficult than the first. For PG, the only side effects he has experienced from the second is feeling a bit tired, hence, he will do a little blogging after lying down for an extended (and atypical) nap after receiving his vaccination and may take another nap thereafter.

Mrs. PG is still snoozing after watching an episode of Virgin River, based upon a 19-book series of the same title.

Time, unfortunately

Time, unfortunately, though it makes animals and vegetables bloom and fade with amazing punctuality, has no such simple effect upon the mind of man. The mind of man, moreover, works with equal strangeness upon the body of time. An hour, once it lodges in the queer element of the human spirit, may be stretched to fifty or a hundred times its clock length; on the other hand, an hour may be accurately represented on the timepiece of the mind by one second.

Virginia Woolf, Orlando: A Biography

What We See When We Read

From The Paris Review:

If I said to you, “Describe Anna Karenina,” perhaps you’d mention her beauty. If you were reading closely you’d mention her “thick lashes,” her weight, or maybe even her little downy mustache (yes—it’s there). Matthew Arnold remarks upon “Anna’s shoulders, and masses of hair, and half-shut eyes … ”

But what does Anna Karenina look like? You may feel intimately acquainted with a character (people like to say, of a brilliantly described character, It’s like I know her), but this doesn’t mean you are actually picturing a person. Nothing so fixed—nothing so choate.

*

Most authors (wittingly, unwittingly) provide their fictional characters with more behavioral than physical description. Even if an author excels at physical description, we are left with shambling concoctions of stray body parts and random detail (authors can’t tell us everything). We fill in gaps. We shade them in. We gloss over them. We elide. Anna: her hair, her weight—these are only facets, and do not make up a true image of a person. They make up a body type, a hair color … What does Anna look like? We don’t know—our mental sketches of characters are worse than police composites.

Visualizing seems to require will …

… though at times it may also seem as though an image of a sort appears to us unbidden.

(It is tenuous, and withdraws shyly upon scrutiny.)

*

I canvass readers. I ask them if they can clearly imagine their favorite characters. To these readers, a beloved character is, to borrow William Shakespeare’s phrase, “bodied forth.”

These readers contend that the success of a work of fiction hinges on the putative authenticity of the characters. Some readers go further and suggest that the only way they can enjoy a novel is if the main characters are easily visible:

“Can you picture, in your mind, what Anna Karenina looks like?” I ask.

“Yes,” they say, “as if she were standing here in front of me.”

“What does her nose look like?”


“I hadn’t thought it out; but now that I think of it, she would be the kind of person who would have a nose like … ”

“But wait—How did you picture her before I asked? Noseless?”


“Well … ”

“Does she have a heavy brow? Bangs? Where does she hold her weight? Does she slouch? Does she have laugh lines?”

(Only a very tedious writer would tell you this much about a character. Though Tolstoy never tires of mentioning Anna’s slender hands. What does this emblematic description signify for Tolstoy?)

Some readers swear they can picture these characters perfectly, but only while they are reading. I doubt this, but I wonder now if our images of characters are vague because our visual memories are vague in general.

* * *

A thought experiment: Picture your mother. Now picture your favorite literary character. (Or: Picture your home. Then picture Howards End.) The difference between your mother’s afterimage and that of a literary character you love is that the more you concentrate, the more your mother might come into focus. A character will not reveal herself so easily. (The closer you look, the farther away she gets.)

(Actually, this is a relief. When I impose a face on a fictional character, the effect isn’t one of recognition, but dissonance. I end up imagining someone I know.* And then I think, That isn’t Anna!)

Link to the rest at The Paris Review

There are a number of additional images in the OP.

Amazon Recommendations and Also Boughts

PG put a link to this article at the bottom of a prior post but then realized that it definitely deserved its own post.

From David Gaughran:

Amazon recommendations drive millions of dollars of book purchases every single day, and Also Boughts are central to this system, which can lead to panic when they periodically disappear.

Also Boughts play an important role in Amazon recommendations — that process of pairing books to readers like some literary version of Tinder — but the exact role in Amazon’s recommender system can be misunderstood.

So let’s break it all down today, and show you the exact role Also Boughts play in Amazon recommendations, and why you need to protect yours.

What Are Also Boughts?

Also Boughts reflect the other purchases your readers are making, and also influence which readers Amazon recommends books to next. As a result, Also Boughts have become the focus of attention among savvy self-publishers in recent years.

You can view them on any book’s product page on Amazon, where you may have noticed a strip of books usually placed underneath the product description, headlined with “Customers who bought this item also bought.” It looks like this:

Also Boughts example - customers who bought this item also bought

The Also Bought strip doesn’t update as frequently as some parts of the Kindle Store, but it usually refreshes twice a week, on Thursday and Sunday evenings, which means they are a relatively up-to-date indication of how Amazon’s system views your book.

Meaning that authors watch them very closely.

Amazon’s system is always trying to determine what kind of products each individual customer is most likely to purchase, so it can make more accurate recommendations. One thing which is super important in this process is the connection between products. People who buy printers tend to buy ink, for example, and recommending a printer-buyer some ink to purchase will elicit a lot of clicks.

But it’s not just obvious pairings like leathers and feathers, Amazon’s system is constantly analyzing what everyone purchases and then using that to predict what they will buy next, in its never-ending quest to maximize sales by crunching All The Data.

The net effect when it comes to authors is this: if your book appears in the Also Boughts of a book in your niche which is selling well, this can lead to a considerable spike in sales. Conversely, if something goes wrong with your Also Boughts, it can lead to a measurable dip.

It was understandable that authors would begin worrying when Amazon seemed to remove Also Boughts from book pages, with some speculating that Amazon would stop recommending books organically and only give visibility to those using Amazon Ads.

But that’s not how the recommender system works. And I can show you exactly what I mean.

How Amazon Recommendations Really Work

Amazon makes millions of book recommendations to readers every single day — both on-site in various slots around the Kindle Store, and by email as well. These recommendations take many different forms.

Some Amazon recommendations are very top-down, but most are either personalized for each individual reader, or contextual — based on what the reader is viewing at that moment, or the place they are in the Kindle Store, or an action they just performed. And all of this is completely unaffected by Also Boughts disappearing from book pages.

Let me give you an example.

During the research process for my book Amazon Decoded, I conducted a number of revealing experiments.

Have you ever noticed what happens when you buy a book in the Kindle Store? Specifically, have you noticed what happens on-screen afterwards? Amazon never misses a trick and as soon as you complete payment, a confirmation screen appears recommending more books.

Amazon is split-testing things all the time, so you may see this play out slightly differently each time you purchase a book, but, commonly, you will see Amazon push the book in the #1 Also Bought slot pretty hard.

(Unless there is an audiobook edition which is Whispersynced, then Amazon will often favor that recommendation instead. It can experiment with other approaches, such as a carousel of books, but this will also be heavily influenced by the Also Boughts of what you just purchased.)

If that #1 Also Bought is also the next book in the series, then Amazon will helpfully flag that it is indeed the next in the series – which can really drive that spillover when you are promoting Book 1, especially if you have also discounted Book 2.

(Assuming your Book 2 is that #1 Also Bought, of course, and that your series metadata is in perfect shape.)

This is the kind of thing that doesn’t happen so much on the other retailers, because they simply don’t have recommender systems quite as sophisticated as the one powering the millions of recommendations Amazon makes every day.

Other retailers do have rudimentary recommendation engines, but Amazon is quite literally years ahead of the competition, and it doesn’t feel like that gap is closing because fundamentally different philosophies are at work.

Link to the rest at David Gaughran

6 BookBub Ads Features You May Not Know About

From BookBub Partners:

2. Browse “Related Authors” for your author targets

For many advertisers, choosing author targets is a critical part of creating successful ad campaigns. To help make it easier for advertisers to discover author targets with large audiences on BookBub, we added a tab to the author targeting module of the ad creation form to surface “Related Authors.”

BookBub Ads - Related Authors

After you select at least one author target for a campaign, we’ll generate a list of other authors who share readers with the author(s) you’ve already selected. Of course, you should always test your targets to determine which will be the most effective for your particular books and campaigns, but we hope this will help you find new audiences to test out!

3. View improved stats for individual author targets

When you’ve added more than one author target to a campaign, you can view the impressions, click-through rate (CTR), and cost-per-click for each target under the “Aggregate Stats” tab. These stats are now visible for each target as soon as your ad starts serving impressions.

BookBub Ads data

We recommend waiting to draw conclusions about an author target’s effectiveness until you have at least a few hundred impressions. The more data you have, the more reliable the results.

Note that many of our readers fall into the targetable ad audiences of multiple authors. If a reader who sees an impression of your ad falls into the audience of more than one of the authors your ad is targeting, we include the stats from that impression under each of those authors. This may help you collect data more efficiently than if you were to target each of those authors’ audiences with separate ad campaigns.

Link to the rest at BookBub Partners

PG notes that BookBub is not the only book promo service used by indie authors (there are quite a few).

However, PG included this excerpt because it highlights what can often be a useful principle for marketing and promoting a book (as well as a great many other things) – Watch what your competitors are doing to sell their books and try to determine if it’s working well or not.

One of the common things that advertising agencies do is to carefully monitor all the advertising and marketing activities undertaken by companies that are competitive with the agency’s clients. For example, Coke’s ad agency watches what Pepsi is doing for advertising and promotion and vice-versa.

Sometimes this practice results in copy-cat advertising, but more often, it may disclose something more subtle: the competitor has discovered a consumer segment (let’s use single women over 40 who have a reasonable amount of disposable income as an example) that responds positively to a certain type of message and has created advertisements that carry that message and is placing them in online locations that attract such visitors (or magazines focused on such readers or television programs with a high percentage of such viewers).

BookBub’s suggestion is the same. Very few readers only read books by a single author. One of the reasons that genres exist and are cultivated by publishers and bookstores is that the best way to sell more books to those types of readers.

We’ll take an example: Mystery and Crime Fiction (which are actually two genres, but are often lumped together):

Some basic sub-genres would be:

  1. Detective Novels (Agatha Christie, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and Sue Grafton are some well-known examples)
  2. Cozy Mysteries (Dorothy L. Sayers, Elizabeth Daly and sometimes, Dame Agatha again)
  3. Police Procedural (Ed McBain, P. D. James, and Bartholomew Gill)
  4. Caper Stories (W. R. Burnett, John Boland, Peter O’Donnell, and (sometimes) Michael Crichton)

So, if you write detective novels, you might want to see if you can successfully promote your book by targeting readers who like Sue Grafton’s books. In a crude way, you might use an advertising headline that reads, “If you like Sue Grafton books, you’ll really love mine!”

However, as an indie author who has complete control over your advertising and needs no one’s approval to spend some of your hard-earned royalties to generate more royalties, you can be much more sophisticated and cost effective. You can use the techniques described in the OP and also learn more about Amazon Recommendations and Also Boughts.

David Gaughran has written an excellent post on that very subject.

To me

To me, murder seems to be the ultimate form of social distancing.

J. P. Pulkkinen, Finnish crime novelist

Not Dark Mysteries

From Book Riot:

A Midsummer’s Equation by Keigo Higashino

I love Higashino’s detective mysteries and wish they’d all get translated — he’s huge in Japan! First, a note on the whole #6 in the series — you don’t have to read these in order, you actually technically can’t unless you read the untranslated original works because they have not all been translated to English, and the ones that have been were done out of order. Publishing, am I right? So pick up whichever sounds the best first, and then read them all.

Now about A Midsummer’s Equation: it has so many elements of the genre stitched nicely together it makes for a perfect curl-up-with-a-mystery-book read. The premise is: a guest dies at a family inn in Hari Cove, a now economically struggling tourist town, and the question is, “was it murder or an accident?” You follow the family inn members, mostly the visiting nephew and the daughter who works at the inn but is also fighting a company from undersea mining their ocean. We then also follow not one, not two, but three crime solvers: the small town police who rule the man falling into the water an accident; the Tokyo police who ask for an autopsy and suspect foul play, especially upon realizing it is a former detective who has died; and Manabu Yukawa, a physicist and college professor who is referred to as Detective Galileo as he assists the Tokyo detectives.

There’s a lot to love here, from the way the mystery is built and unraveled, reminding me of old school mysteries with a bit of Sherlock: the different perspectives; a nice armchair trip to Japan; and Detective Galileo bonding with the inn’s nephew and performing science experiments with him. If you’re looking to watch a complex mystery solved and don’t want dark, gritty, nor graphic, this is your book. (TW brief discussions of possibility of suicide/mentions past cancer death, side character with brain tumor)

Link to the rest at Book Riot

PG doesn’t include many book reviews in TPV, but he’s finding the usual grist for his mill to be a bit sparse today.

So now do you see why books are hated and feared?

So now do you see why books are hated and feared? They show the pores in the face of life. The comfortable people want only wax moon faces, poreless, hairless, expressionless.

Ray Bradbury, Farenheit 451

Banned Books

From The American Civil Liberties Union:

Ideas are powerful. That’s why intellectual freedom is protected by the First Amendments — and it’s also why sometimes governments try to suppress them.

For nearly 100 years, the ACLU has fought to make sure Americans have the right to read what they want. Despite our many victories, there are still misguided attempt to ban books. The American Library Association keeps track — some of the most frequently challenged books from 2015 include the best seller Fifty Shades of Grey along with Fun Home and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (both of which were turned into Tony Award-winning Broadway shows, by the way).

But you can’t keep a good book down. See the menu below for more on those “dangerous” collections of words.

Link to the rest at The American Civil Liberties Union

PG acknowledges that there are meaningful distinctions between a government agency attempting to prevent people from reading books about certain subjects and a private publisher acting in the same way.

However, he suggests the human impulse of someone with a bit of power to ban the dissemination of ideas that don’t fit in with their opinions or prejudices is at the root of both actions.

Big Publishing Pushes Out Trump’s Last Fan

From The New York Times:

If you were a certain kind of distinctly Trumpy public figure — say Donald Trump Jr. or Corey Lewandowski — looking to sell a book over the last four years, there were surprisingly few options. The Big Five publishing companies in New York, and even their dedicated conservative imprints, had become squeamish about the genre known as MAGA books, with its divisive politics and relaxed approach to facts. And small conservative publishers probably couldn’t afford you.

So if, like the younger Mr. Trump in 2018, you found yourself rejected by most New York publishers, there was one last stop: a corner cubicle in the fifth-floor offices of the Hachette Book Group in Midtown Manhattan. There, Kate Hartson, the editorial director of the conservative Center Street imprint, was the one mainstream editor who would buy what no one else would — and make a tidy profit for her employer.

Ms. Hartson, a fit 67-year-old who once ran a small press specializing in dogs, had all the trappings of a liberal book editor, including an apartment on the Upper East Side and a place in Hampton Bays. But she also seemed to be that rarest of figures in New York media: a true believer in Donald J. Trump, people who worked with her said. She published “Triggered” by Donald Trump Jr., Mr. Lewandowski’s “Trump: America First: The President Succeeds Against All Odds” and the work of other Trump die-hards like the Fox News host Jeanine Pirro and Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker.

But Hachette, like The New York Times and other media companies, has been torn in recent years between the politics of its staff and its historic commitment to publishing conservative speech. Its liberal proprietors, of course, always abhorred the conservative content while cashing the checks. At Hachette, this meant employees having their salaries paid by Donald Trump Jr. while objecting to publishing liberals who had fallen out of favor, like Woody Allen or J.K. Rowling.

Ms. Hartson’s list was a somewhat more direct attack on her colleagues’ politics. The last book she bought was the forthcoming “Woke Inc.: Inside Corporate America’s Social Justice Scam,” by Vivek Ramaswamy. And so last month, even as Ms. Hartson was riding high with the best-selling political book on Amazon, “Unmasked: Inside Antifa’s Radical Plan to Destroy Democracy,” Hachette fired her.

The official reasons for Ms. Hartson’s termination, two people familiar with it said, were mundane. But she told associates that she believed she’d been fired for her politics. In a Zoom meeting with employees on Jan. 26, the chief executive of Hachette Book Group, Michael Pietsch, and Daisy Hutton, the executive who oversees Center Street, didn’t mention Ms. Hartson. But they reassured employees that they had learned the lessons of the Capitol siege of Jan. 6: no hate speech, no incitement to violence, no false narratives. And they’ve separately made clear to both editors and agents that they’re shifting back toward think tank conservatives, and away from fire-breathing politicians. (Ms. Hartson didn’t respond to questions about her views and her firing.)

“The conservative movement is in a state of flux, and the next few years will be a particularly rich time for conversation about the future of conservatism in America,” Ms. Hutton, who is based in Nashville and whose background is primarily in Christian publishing, said in an email. “Center Street will continue to publish thoughtful, provocative, lively and informative books that contribute meaningfully to the shaping of that conversation.”

Hachette is hardly the only mainstream publisher steering away from MAGA books. Simon & Schuster invoked its “morals” clause to cancel the publication of a book by Senator Josh Hawley, Republican of Missouri, after he objected to the results of the November election and cheered the protests right before violence broke out. Simon & Schuster, two sources familiar with its plans said, will also stop publishing the right-wing activist Candace Owens.

Link to the rest at The New York Times

It appears to PG that Hachette and other members of Big Publishing have decided that some things are just more important than publishing books that a great many Americans enjoy buying and reading.

“Not our sort of customers, you know.”

Large advances notwithstanding, PG suggests this is yet another shot in the arm for Amazon’s sales.

And one more reason to reopen fewer physical bookstores when the lockdowns in various locations lift enough to allow for most individuals to think about whether they want to go to a local bookstore and look at books for old times sake.

Perhaps combining bookstores with antique stores might be a good marketing move.

As PG mentioned a day or two ago, he and the French language began a difficult relationship when he was a fainéant during an introductory French class in college, but he didn’t recall that hachette was a synonym for belette.

That said, PG needs to leave off using his French language skills to trash others.

The Johnstown Flood

A locomotive whistle was a matter of some personal importance to a railroad engineer. It was tuned and worked (even “played”) according to his own personal choosing. The whistle was part of the make-up of the man; he was known for it as much as he was known for the engine he drove. And aside from its utilitarian functions, it could also be an instrument of no little amusement. Many an engineer could get a simple tune out of his whistle, and for those less musical it could be used to aggravate a cranky preacher in the middle of his Sunday sermon or to signal hello through the night to a wife or lady friend. But there was no horseplay about tying down the cord. A locomotive whistle going without letup meant one thing on the railroad, and to everyone who lived near the railroad. It meant there was something very wrong.
The whistle of John Hess’ engine had been going now for maybe five minutes at most. It was not on long, but it was the only warning anyone was to hear, and nearly everyone in East Conemaugh heard it and understood almost instantly what it meant.

David McCullough, The Johnstown Flood

Smalltime

From The Wall Street Journal:

Do we really need another Mafioso-in-the-family memoir? I mean, seriously, we’ve had books that could be called Mafia Wife, Mafia Dad, Mafia Son, Mafia Stepdaughter, Mafia Uncle, Mafia Dachshund, Mafia Goldfish—okay, well, I made up a couple of those, but you get the point. When Al Capone’s purported grandson publishes a memoir, and he has, I think it’s safe to say we’ve reached saturation.

Which is why I was surprised how thoroughly I enjoyed Russell Shorto’s “Smalltime: A Story of My Family and the Mob.” Even more so once I realized a more accurate subtitle for the book would be “Searching for Grandpa: Second-in-Command of the Johnstown (Pa.) Mob.” In other words, this is not Mafia history that will send Geraldo Rivera scrambling to open a Shorto family safe anytime soon.

And that, oddly, is part of the book’s charm. The author of well-received histories of Amsterdam and New York City, Mr. Shorto has produced something that feels altogether fresh, a street-level portrait of how his late grandfather helped build what amounted to a Mafia small business—or businesses, actually, everything from the numbers and rigged card and dice games (Grandpa’s specialty) to pool halls, a cigar store, bars, bowling alleys and pinball arcades. There’s a murder mystery here—there has to be, right?—but make no mistake, this is a spry little book about small business.

As Mr. Shorto tells it, he had only the vaguest notion of his namesake grandfather Russell “Russ” Shorto’s career until an elderly cousin buttonholed him and urged him to write a book. Mr. Shorto is reluctant—“not my thing,” he avers—but soon finds himself in a Johnstown Panera Bread, surrounded by a gang of ancient, white-haired wise guys dying to tell him about the old days. Grandpa Russ, it seems, had a long run as a mid-level Mafia bureaucrat, running a sports book and crooked card games among other things, until his drinking got out of control and the law finally came calling.

For Mr. Shorto, the challenge is Grandpa Russ’s personality, or lack of one. He was a quiet man and, despite all the Panera chats, remains a cipher for much of the book. The story opens up once Mr. Shorto goes in search of the public Russ, tracing his family from its Sicilian roots and cataloging his newspaper clippings and arrest and FBI records. What emerges is the gritty tale of a talented card-and-dice cheat who gets his break in the late ’30s when a buttoned-down Mafioso named Joseph “Little Joe” Regino, who made his bones in Philadelphia, marries into Russ’s family and opens a Mafia franchise in Johnstown.

This was industrial-age Pennsylvania, and postwar Johnstown was a city of steel factories, whose workers quickly cottoned to the backroom gambling and after-hours places Russ and Regino opened. Russ’s masterstroke was something they called the “G.I. Bank,” a thrumming numbers operation that proved a cash machine. They invested the profits in a dozen local businesses and paid off the mayor and cops, while allowing them to make periodic “raids” to sate the newspapers. A handful of foot soldiers would get pinched, a few hundred dollars in fines would be paid, and they would do it all again the next year.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

Betsy and George

PG isn’t being a slacker, but he thought of this song out of the blue.

Stan Freberg worked for a variety of New York City advertising agencies and was named as one of Advertising Age’s Top 100 People in Advertising at one point in his career.

However, the general public knew him best as a creator and performer of slightly-strange satirical television skits and songs, including the following.

The Art of Story Structures

From Write to Done:

Picture this: In a sudden burst of divine inspiration, you find yourself visited by the ancient Muse who bestows upon you the perfect idea for your very own novel. It’s every author (and aspiring author’s) dream. But once the initial adrenaline wears off, it can quickly morph into a nightmare. Between the scattered plot points and fuzzy technicalities, it’s difficult to imagine that any organized form of writing can come from this creative vision.

Enter the art of story structures.

. . . .

In essence, a story structure is the roadmap for your story.

At their best, story structures help you to visually align the events of your novel in an organized and logical sequence, making it easier to draft the story itself by defining the important plot points.

There are various kinds of story structures, each suited to a different type of writer, but all of them generally consist of:

  • a conflict
  • a climax
  • a resolution

Next, we’ll take a closer look at these common elements.

. . . .

Keeping in mind that there are multiple methods that authors use to structure and outline their stories, we’ll focus on some of the main aspects that remain the same throughout each technique.

  1. The Opener: This is perhaps one of the most important aspects of any story. In this portion, you identify both the protagonist and the driving force of the entire plot. Be it a quest, a problem, or a challenge, this force must be strong enough to propel your character through the entire story and compel your readers to stick around till the very end.
  2. The Catalyst: This is the event that gets the ball rolling. The catalyst is the moment where the problem becomes so undeniable that it finally forces the protagonist to act in order to avoid the worst possible result or consequence. The stakes should be high.
  3. The Tension Grows: With the stakes floating comfortably in the upper atmosphere, it’s time to take them to the stars. This portion of the story should involve a series of crises that fit logically into the plot while progressively getting worse. These are what motivates your protagonist to continue fighting the problem and working towards the desired solution.
  4. The Climax: Many people are tempted to mistake the climax for the end of the story, but it’s far from it! This is the point in the story where things have escalated to their absolute worst. Hopeless and faced with utter failure, this is a turning point for the protagonist; they must decide whether to continue on against all odds or to give up and accept the worst.
  5. The End: It all comes down to this. Using what they’ve learned along the way, your protagonist must act and either succeed or fail. Ideally, an ending will both satisfy the reader as they complete their journey with your protagonist and leave them wanting more.

Seven Story Structures

One: Dean Koontz’s Classic

This structure is simple enough to be ideal for writers who prefer a loose approach to outlining. It consists of only four steps:The sooner the trouble, the better. The moment the stakes are high enough to carry the plot of your novel, throw your character head-first into the thick of it. Before you take this high-dive, though, make sure you’ve developed your character into someone your readers are genuinely invested in.

It’s all downhill from here. Everything that your character does should inevitably make their dilemma even worse. It’s important to make sure that each problem proceeds logically from the one before it, but the deeper the trouble, the better.

Enter utter hopelessness. This is what your protagonist has been training for. Everything they learned in overcoming the previous obstacles should come into play here as the reader (and maybe even you yourself) wonder how the protagonist is ever going to escape the inevitable.

Success or failure, against all odds. Loyal readers expect an ending that neatly ties up the story. Whether that ending is one of victory or disappointment depends on the individual circumstances of each story; either way, this portion should provide a sense of closure for your readers and the protagonist.

Link to the rest at Write to Done

Suite bergamasque

PG will stray far from his normal subjects for a moment.

Sometimes PG has a college radio station that plays classical music playing in the background while he works in his office.

A bit earlier this morning, that station played Suite bergamasque by Claude Debussy.

Debussy began composing this piece around 1890, at the age of 28, but significantly revised it just before its 1905 publication.

The composer had resisted the publication of his earlier piano works because they were much different than (and he thought, inferior to) his mature style. However, a French music publisher persuaded Debussy to allow the publication after Debussy spiffed it up a bit. (PG thinks “spiff” is a musical term. Debussy would have said, “les sous-vêtements de ma mère“)

PG has queued up the best-known portion of this piece, often known as Clair de Lune, which PG seems to recall means moonlight in French.

Or perhaps, eating snails by moonlight. (He barely passed the only French class he attempted in college.)

.

Opening Scenes: 3 Critical Elements

From Writers Helping Writers:

One of the most common questions I get as an editor is, “Am I starting my novel in the right place?” Let’s discuss how you can craft an opening that subtly shows you are, in fact, starting in the right place and feel confident about your choice.

We often think we need to open with a huge bang, something that’ll catch the reader’s attention and play out like a blockbuster movie. But here’s the thing about those high-powered opening scenes: readers don’t care because they don’t yet know the characters or the baggage they bring onto page one. Readers don’t know what the events mean for the characters, or what’s at stake for them.

There’s no doubt it’s difficult to balance establishing the protagonist’s ordinary world, or before, while hooking readers. Ordinary world sounds boring, right?

. . . .

But the trick to establishing your protagonist’s ordinary world and crafting a successful opening scene isn’t in impressing your reader as much as you think it is. The trick is in crafting an interesting event that somehow impresses your protagonist. To do that, we need enough of a glimpse of their before to understand how whatever happens toward the end of your opening will change their lives.

Think of your opening as having 3 parts:

  1. Let us meet your protagonist. We need a clear understanding of who they are and what they believe about their world when we meet them. Preferably, this is done through interesting action and dialogue. Meaningful action that will reveal something about their current beliefs and personality. Think of protagonist Katniss in The Hunger Games, waking up to find she’s alone in her bed when typically, her younger sister is beside her. Her immediate concern flares in the form of dialogue and action. We become acquainted with Katniss on a deep level before she steps foot into the arena, and all she’s done is wake up. No car chases. No mythical beings showing up. Just normality with an interesting twist.
  2. The primary external event toward the end of your opening scene leads to a noticeable turn. The “turn”— or the “opportunity,” as it’s called in the One Stop for Writers’ Story Mapping tool—is the moment the opening’s main event impacts the protagonist and leads to a decision of some sort. In light of establishing your character’s ordinary world, your reader will better understand the context and meaning of this new event. So going back to The Hunger Games, the turn is when Katniss’ younger sister’s name is called to become a tribute in the games. It’s the moment that forces Katniss to make some sort of a decision. By then, we know Katniss’ primary goal is to protect her sister (ordinary world) and that this “turn” will force her hand. And because we felt Katniss’ reaction to feeling that cold spot in the bed where her sister should have been, the event of having her name called has context. We already know what Katniss cares about and why, which makes the event far more engaging. 

Link to the rest at Writers Helping Writers

Using “He said.” in your dialogue?

From Dave Farland:

I don’t often give actual tips on how to compose stories. I tend to focus my lessons on storytelling to things that you can’t learn elsewhere.  Yet from time to time, it might be worthwhile to actually give a few technical tips. Today we will go over one on how to improve your dialogue. 

A few years ago, I listened to a bestselling writer give perhaps the worst advice on dialog tags that I’ve ever heard.  He told new writers, “Never use the word said.  It’s boring and repetitious.  Worst of all, it doesn’t really tell us much about the feeling behind what has been spoken.”

His advice was that you should “mix it up, and never repeat verbs that deal with speaking on the same page.  If you are forced to use the word said, he suggested that you add an adverb to it in order to define the quality of the words spoken.  

Given his advice, you might have a teen “mumble” one sentence:

“I don’t want to go to church,” she mumbled.

While the reply would use a different verb:

“Well you’re going to go, Missy,” Dad retorted.

The problem that arises is that we find ourselves using a lot of verbs that seem rather silly when put into a string of tags.  Thus, you might have people mumbling, shouting, profaning, teasing, snarling, squealing, averring, blaming, and so on in rapid succession.   

Do you see the problem?  When you handle dialog that way, you fall into a trap where your characters seem to be emotional butterflies, endlessly flitting from one powerful emotion to another.  Sometimes authors even fall into the trap of using unfortunate combinations:

“Why don’t you come over to my place?” she teased.

“Sure!” he ejaculated.

In reality, people don’t flit from one powerful emotion to another.  Each person that you meet has something of an emotional tone about them.  Some people are stern most of the time, while others might be thoughtful, pleasant, or excited.  So when you write about that person, you’ll most often be depicting that person with his or her natural tone. The link is to a lesson on common mistakes writers make in regards to tone. 

Many a literary writer would suggest that we use the words said or asked when we make our attributions.  Both of these words are neutral in tone.  This allows the writer to imply the tone through the content of the dialog.  If I write:

“Get your butt out of my chair,” he said. 

I don’t need to modify it with a verb like roared, shouted, fumed, and so on.  Nor do I really need to add an exclamation mark.  The tone of the speaker in this case is implied by the content of the sentence.

Another advantage of plain old said is that it’s invisible in your writing.  You can repeat the verb in every line of dialog in a short story, and no reader will ever complain.  (In the same way, character names don’t attract too much attention.  If you’re writing about the Wizard Wythian, you can repeat his name a dozen times on a page without the reader feeling that it is overused.)

But there are a couple of problems when using said.  Often a writer might modify the word for greater effect when a different verb would be more suitable.  For example, you might say “she said very softly,” when “she whispered” actually conveys the same information more concisely.

For this reason, many literary writers will tell you to “get rid of adverbs,” the words that end in –ly, and as a result they will search through a document during their editing process trying to get rid of as many –ly words as possible.

However, getting rid of all of your adverbs can lead to new problems.  If you’ve read a lot of authors from the past 70 years, you’ll find that their style is becoming increasingly homogeneous as they allow their writing to be informed by such strictures.  In short, too many a writer now writes in an abbreviated Hemingway-esque style that feels smooth and professional but which also sounds like the same voice as any of ten thousand other writers.  You can learn to write in that homogeneous tone by following a popular handbook, Strunk and White’s Elements of Style.  For this reason, I’ve heard authors complain that Strunk and White have stolen the voices from an entire generation of America’s young writers.  We sound like clones.

Link to the rest at Dave Farland

PG notes in passing that, for him, using the term, “ejaculated,” in place of “said” has presented a mental speed-bump for some time. He has less of a problem if it is used in a period piece, but on occasions when female characters ejaculate, he finds the term to be a bit more off-putting.

But PG is ancient, quirky, opinionated and suffering from the severe effects of being socially isolated from many of his stabilizing and sanity-enhancing human resources other than Mrs. PG for an extended period of time, so his thoughts on this subject should likely be disregarded.

Book Cover 101: Covering A Cross-Genre Novel

From Writers in the Storm:

Here on Writers In The Storm we’ve talked about putting the promise of your genre on the cover and how vital it is for selling your novel. As I’ve said before, a good cover is a contract with the reader that this story fits in the genre they’re looking for.

But what if you’ve written a cross-genre story? 

Here’s the short answer: it’s almost impossible to do both at once. You have to lean one way or another, or you’ll miss both sides.

Let’s say, for example, you’ve written a sci-fi/romance novel. Think carefully about the main story elements. Is the romance really front and center? Or is it more interstellar shenanigans with strong romantic elements?

My latest series, Raegan Reid, is a blend of urban fantasy and sci-fi. When I look at it objectively I see that it’s heavier on the urban fantasy elements. If I put a typical urban fantasy cover, a badass female protagonist standing in a sinister city landscape, and then tried to insert a futuristic element into the background, I would end up with a confused cover and no one would buy my book. It would leave both urban fantasy and science fiction readers scratching their heads, and their main thought would be: “I don’t know what that is, but I’m pretty sure it’s not for me.”

You do not want that reaction for your book.

Steps to a successful cross-genre cover.

1. Take a step back and analyze the major story elements in your novel.

  • What genre do they belong to?
  • Which reader is it going to appeal to more?

Typically, you’ll find you’ve got more elements of one genre than the other.  

For instance, I did not lean into the science elements hard enough in my story to market it to science fiction readers. If your cover incorrectly promises your genre, you’ll end up with angry readers, bad reviews, and a mental cross beside your name when it’s seen on future books.

As a side note, some genres are more accepting of experimentation, while other genres are more purist. If you’ve read within the genres you’re publishing in—as you should have—you’ll know which is which.

2. If your story is truly evenly balanced and you can tip either way, consider which genre has the biggest audience. You are seeking the largest pool of potential readers, because a bigger pool means more potential customers.

For instance, if your sci-romance is equal parts science fiction and romance, I’d lean romance. Biggest. Genre. Ever.

If you’re still not sure, take a look at the covers from your comp authors, and see which genre they’ve chosen to highlight. If they’ve been selling well…it’s a smart move to mimic their approach.

Link to the rest at Writers in the Storm

Book PR and Marketing Questions Answered

From Writer Unboxed:

I spend a good portion of each day answering questions. There are the mom questions…”what did you pack me for snack?” There are the wife questions … “do I have 10 minutes to finish up this deck before dinner?” While the dog can’t speak, his eyes, tail wags, and door scratches are just loaded with questions. And since almost everything is about food, my answers don’t require much thought or even complete sentences. But then I’ll get a client question, which might go something like this: “My publisher got me something called a BookBub deal that’s running early next week in the historical fiction category, and my first question is, what’s BookBub? My second question is what else is it that I should be doing to support that deal? My third question is what will you be doing to support that deal?

These questions require greater thought, a review of the calendar, a discussion with my team, and a strategic plan. Sometimes still a client is having trouble understanding it all and then we make arrangements for a call where I lead him or her to various websites and social media platforms to get a clearer picture.

. . . .

1. [Insert Author Name] is on [Insert National Morning Show like Good Morning America] talking about the same thing my book is about. Why didn’t they choose me and can you go back to them?

We don’t usually get feedback about why a producer went with one author over another, but the reasons can be many including: that particular author may have an already established relationship with the network/show and is called on to be their expert on that topic whenever it is in the news; the author may be more well-known and have a larger following on social media, which is definitely a factor when producers are considering guests; that author may have an affiliation with an organization that can help amplify the segment that others do not; and that author may have clips to past TV interviews that show they would be engaging and have experience on TV. Those are just some possible reasons and publicists rarely, if ever, get feedback as to why a specific author was not booked. The producers do not have the time or bandwidth to report back with that level of feedback. I don’t expect they will be covering this topic again so soon, but I will continue to follow up as is appropriate to be sure you are on their radar as an expert for future bookings around the topic.—Kathleen Carter is a book publicist and founder of Kathleen Carter Communications, a literary p.r. agency.

2. Why did [Insert Bookstagrammer or Book Blogger Name] post that negative review? Can you get them to take it down?

Although it doesn’t happen very often, a blogger will sometimes post a negative or lukewarm review of a book. In my experience, this happens if a character or situation depicted in the novel makes the reader connect negatively on a personal level. More and more we see movies and television shows proactively post trigger warnings, and unfortunately, this has not yet been adopted by the book industry. The reader may have also selected a book to read that wasn’t the right fit after seeing others review it, and then find that they could not connect with the novel.Due to the strong relationships that I have built with the blogger community, typically an open and honest discussion will happen if a reader is not enjoying the book. Sometimes all it requires is a follow up on how negative critiques of a book can change ratings on review sites and what books will work better in the future to feature on social media. As a facilitator of virtual book tours, these situations help me in understanding the types of books that a certain blogger may or may not enjoy in the future and bring me closer to my community of bloggers.—Suzanne Leopold, founder of Suzy Approved Book Tours. 

3. I have a really friendly relationship on Instagram with this [Insert Book Media Professional or Book Influencer] but they didn’t include me in their monthly round-up or event—did I do something wrong? 

Book influencers must diversify their lists based on genre, publisher, time of the year, etc. They simply cannot include every book or author. That doesn’t mean they won’t promote your book elsewhere or that they won’t promote your next book.—Andrea Peskind Katz, founder of Great Thoughts blog and the Great Thoughts’ Great Readers Book Salon on Facebook.

. . . .

5. My book is not selling—the PR nor advertising is leading to sales, what can you do to fix this? 

The job of advertising and PR is to interest someone in a book. Then the book itself must clinch the sale when the potential reader goes to the retailer. Most readers need to read the book’s full description, still be interested enough to read the book’s excerpt, and then usually check other readers’ opinions in the form of reader reviews —both the good and the bad ones. (Many readers say the bad ones are even more important.) And then lastly a potential reader will check out the price. That alone can kill sales if the author is not already a favorite. I’m a writer too and I think a copy of my book should be worth more than a latte — but readers have endless choices of books on sale for $2.99 or less and sometimes a high priced book is what is throwing off sales.So other than price, if the ads and PR were done correctly, the problem is on the retailer’s page. There are so many things on that page that can turn off a reader and kill a sale. Is the book’s description doing its job? Positioning the book correctly? Is the synopsis compelling enough?  Is the book’s excerpt strong enough? The first five pages of a book are its most important.Also are there enough reader reviews on the page? Generally, you need at least 20. If you don’t have those, you need to get them — which can often be accomplished by a $119 eBook giveaway at Goodreads.  A few weeks after one of those, more reviews do appear. I think the hardest thing to accept is not every book finds its audience even when you do everything right because it is not about a book being good or bad — but about the book being appealing that clinches a sale.

When you do everything right and the book still doesn’t sell (and it has happened to me with my own novels) the best advice I can give is to write the next book.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

PG will drop in one bit of information that some visitors to TPV may not understand.

Advertising and Public Relations are two different things.

Advertising is where you pay to put up an advertisement somewhere – online, print, video, etc. Within limits, the person or entity has complete control over the content and appearance of the advertising. Typically, advertising will look different than whatever content the advertising platform produces itself (if it does that sort of thing). An advertisement in The New York Times will likely have some features that make it look different than NYT news content.

A reputable advertising vehicle may decline to run your ad if you claim your book has been #1 on the New York Times Bestseller List for 50 weeks in a row if that’s not a true statement, but most will allow quite a bit of latitude in your description of your book.

Public Relations (sometimes called Publicity) is focused on gaining favorable comments in a variety of media vehicles that don’t qualify as paid advertising in that vehicle. Persuading the New York Times editors to have the Times book review editor accept a copy of your book and write a review of it is typically a public relations or publicity project.

While that sounds free, most of the books the Times includes in its book reviews are pitched to the editors by public relations professionals who have developed a good relationship with the Times editorial staff over a period of time by bringing worthwhile books and information about authors to the Times staff. If Publicist A has a track record of identifying and suggesting books that are going to be big sellers that will be interesting to Times readers, when Publicist A calls or emails an editor, the editor will pay attention to what the Publicist says.

While an advertising agency or advertising professional doesn’t want to get on the NYT list of deplorables, the NYT will accept quite a few different types of advertisements from a wide range of advertisers so long as somebody’s willing to pay the rather large bill the Times will charge to publish the advertisement.

On the PR side of things, there’s a lot more persuasion that goes on and the results are less certain. The NYT may accept a book for review, then write a negative review about the book or defer publication of the review until after the book’s initial introduction push is done or review the book along with several other competing books in its genre in a single article. Typically, the Publicist gets paid regardless of the outcome of her/his efforts with respect to a certain book.

While PG has used the NYT as an example, the same general distinction between advertising and publicity applies to most other large and mid-sized media organizations.

Down on the smaller end of things, some bloggers or websites will write a review for a price or if an advertisement is purchased, likely to appear at the same time or near the same time the review appears. In some cases, a platform will publish an advertisement that looks like a written review.

An indie author can, of course, do both advertising and public relations and a great many have already learned how.

PG would be interested to hear anything that authors would like to share about their experience with advertising and public relations efforts for their books. You can send him info through the Contact PG button at the top of the blog.

There is only one place to write

There is only one place to write and that is alone at a typewriter. The writer who has to go into the streets is a writer who does not know the streets. . . when you leave your typewriter you leave your machine gun and the rats come pouring through.

Charles Bukowski

Is Your Novel Ready to Publish? 12 Signs You’re Still in the Learning Phase of Your Writing Career

From Anne R. Allen’s Blog… with Ruth Harris:

If you’ve used the pandemic lockdown as a time to write that novel you always knew you had in you, congratulations! You’ve taken the depressing, horrific lemon that was 2020 and turned it into literary lemonade.

You deserve a great big “Congrats!” and several pats on the back. You are awesome.

But if you’re thinking of publishing that novel now that you’ve finished it, you might want to hold off for a bit. Especially if you’re hoping to make some money from it.

Even though you’ve typed that satisfying “the end” on that book, chances are good that it’s not ready to publish. Or even to go to an editor. 

Self-publishing has freed up a lot of writers and allowed them to express themselves without the restraints of corporate publishing. But just because you CAN publish that magnum opus with a minimum of fuss doesn’t mean you should—yet.

The truth is it takes a long time to learn to write well. Even if you were an English major. If you’ve only written one novel or memoir, you’re still in the learning phase. Keep writing and start something new. Write some short pieces and start sending them out to journals and contests. Work on your next book. Start a blog and learn to write for an online audience.

And read, read, read. Read books on craft and marketing as well as novels in your genre.

. . . .

Signs You Aren’t Ready to Publish

Here are some tell-tale signs that writers are still in the learning phase of their careers.

1) Wordiness

There’s a reason why agents are wary of long books. New writers tend to take 100 words to say what seasoned writers can say in 10. If your prose is weighty with adjectives and adverbs, or clogged with details and repetitive scenes, you’ll scare off readers as well.

2) Writerly Prose

This was a hard lesson for me to learn. It turns out those long, gorgeous descriptions that got so much praise from your English teacher and your college boyfriend can actually be a huge turn-off for the paying customer who’s searching for some kind of story in there.

We need to learn to use description to help the reader get oriented in the scene, not to show off.

3) Episodic Storytelling

I admit my own guilt on this one too. I could never end my first novel, because it didn’t actually have a plot. It was a series of related episodes—like a TV series. I will always be grateful to the agent who read my whole manuscript and told me I’d written a fine sitcom, but a novel needs one big, over-arching plot.

Learning to plot and pace a novel is way harder than it seems. Seasoned novelists make it seem effortless. You’ll learn, too. It took me a longer time than most, but I got it eventually.

Critique groups often don’t catch this problem, if each episode has a dramatic arc of its own.

4) A Hackneyed Opener

Beware overdone opening scenes. The most clichéd opener is the “alarm clock” scene—the one where your protagonist wakes up and gets ready for his day. Film teachers say, “78 % of all student films start with an alarm clock going off.”

Why? Because it’s an obvious place to start.

But obvious is not what we want. That’s what makes something into a cliché—a whole lot of people have used a phrase or situation before you. So if your opener is similar to one you’ve seen in a ton of movies, and read in lots of books, you’re probably going to want to change it. Try moving your story ahead a few scenes. Or behind. Do something new and different and creative.

Link to the rest at Anne R. Allen’s Blog… with Ruth Harris

Only the mediocre

Only the mediocre are always at their best.

Jean Giraudoux

Letter to the Editor: We Need to Define ‘Conservative Publishing’

From Publishers Weekly:

In response to your January 25 story “Houses Divided,” which asks, “In the wake of the events of January 6, will the Big Five think twice about publishing conservative authors?,” it’s important to clarify what publishers mean when they say conservative and why it is that your article and the phrase “conservative publishing” misrepresents exactly what critics take issue with. The fact is, while it may have taken Simon & Schuster a little over 24 hours to change course on its publication of Josh Hawley’s forthcoming book The Tyranny of Big Tech, it took exactly seven business days for Regnery Publishing, which coincidentally is distributed by Simon & Schuster, to acquire it.

Hawley’s response to his contract cancellation included an accusation of the violation of his First Amendment rights. This is a sentiment echoed by some in the industry, who view the responsibility to publish a wide range of viewpoints as a First Amendment issue. S&S is not the American government or a public institution and therefore does not fall under the protection of the First Amendment.

As cultural institutions, publishing houses certainly have a responsibility to document the many faces of society, including the 74 million Americans who voted for Trump. However, the framing of these viewpoints is an even more daunting task. From an innocent pat on the former president’s head by a late-night television host to the publication of a noted transphobic professor, the output of cultural institutions has an impact on the collective consciousness of American society. When the messenger upholds the dehumanization of Black, Indigenous, racialized, LGBT+, and disability communities, their message can and has led to violence against these communities.

For many years, publishers have been quietly profiting off of this violence and vitriol, all the while systematically excluding those on the receiving end from the publishing world. And even in the last decade when strides have been made, largely led by a “new generation” of publishing professionals and smaller indie publishers, to be more inclusive of minority communities both in books and offices, these “controversial” authors have continued to be published under the cloak of “conservative” presses.

The demise of “conservative” publishing is being framed as an issue of liberalism v. conservatism or left v. right. This is not only wrong but dangerous rhetoric. Younger industry members are not calling for the halt to reprints of Capitalism and Freedom by Milton Friedman or the muzzling of Grover Norquist, for a more contemporary example. Conservative houses and imprints like Regnery are responsible for publishing and giving a platform to a particular brand of conservative: far right and inflammatory.

Grouping the Norquists of conservatism with Josh Hawley, Jordan Peterson, and former president Trump and his administration normalizes the spread of misinformation and harmful stereotypes. It continues to frame the discontent of the critics of these titles as “silencing opinions” rather than forcing publishers to contend with the actual harm that is done when they give a platform to these writers. Finally, it also builds a readership that publishers are profiting from while turning a blind eye to the culture they have chosen to curate.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

PG hesitated before deciding to excerpt from the OP.

For those outside of the United States, in PG’s observation and experience, the nation is more riven now than at any time since those who objected to the United States’ participation in the Vietnam War and the accompanying drafting of young men who strongly opposed the war into the Army to go fight it were demonstrating and rioting in a variety of places across the country.

Many demonstrations were peaceful while others either transitioned from peaceful to violent or included a violent component in them from the start. The extent and vitriol of the protests caused one American president to decline to run for reelection due to the virulent hatred of him manifested by a large number of Americans, particularly those who were fighting in Vietnam or were concerned about being drafted into fighting that war.

Among PG’s age cohort during that time period, it seemed that almost everyone knew someone who had died in Vietnam. For PG, it was an acquaintance who was a hear behind him in high school, a pretty ordinary and low-key guy who started working on his father’s farm after graduation, then was drafted and went to Vietnam.

The army assigned him to carry a flame-thrower into combat. PG understands that it was a terrifying weapon for the enemy, throwing out tongues of flame a hundred feet or more long that incinerated almost anything they they touched.

Unfortunately for PG’s high school acquaintance, carrying a flame-thrower entailed strapping on a pair of tanks that contained highly-flammable gelled liquid that provided fuel for the flames. The word that came back from Vietnam was that PG’s acquaintance had probably died when a heavy bullet hit his tanks, causing a massive fireball than instantly incinerated him. The coffin sent back to his family was firmly sealed.

It took a long time for traditional publishers to begin publishing books by angry former soldiers about their experience in Vietnam in part because the political establishment in the United States had supported Presidents Kennedy and Johnson in their Vietnam policies. That establishment included traditional publishing and a lot of others in positions of cultural power in New York City, Washington DC, etc.

The control of traditional publishing in the United States is still held by the same class and type of people who have controlled it for a long time. As happens with many people who live within a limited geographical space, a relatively narrow sphere of acquaintance and experience, people who work in publishing seldom hang around with those whose political and/or cultural opinion differs from their own.

People who are like those who work in publishing and their social associates tend to publish books reflecting the values of that slice of the United States. These days, they may be willing to publish books by angry racial minorities who excoriate those who are perceived to be oppressing them directly, indirectly or by simply existing. These would be the right kind of radicals or protesters.

However, traditional publishing is highly intolerant of anyone like “the Norquists of conservatism with Josh Hawley, Jordan Peterson, and former president Trump and his administration” and believe that such persons should not be permitted to spread their ideas among those the publishers think of as the sort of people who will purchase the right kind of books and keep traditional publishers from sinking for a bit longer.

It’s a cultural decision, not a monetary one. After all, a significant number among the despicables have money and read and will buy books they think they will enjoy.

The Hack’s Guide to Rewarding Yourself

From Writer Unboxed:

It seems like only yesterday you woke up with an idea. That idea metastasized in your mind into something grander, something that screamed to be written down lest it sit and fester inside your brain a moment longer. Each day, your book ruled your life, either by cracking the whip as you sat at your writing desk, or haunting you like a phantom on the days you dared take time to relax. You skipped parties, blew off friends, and alienated your family in service to your craft until one day you finally finished the book. After all that work, you’ve earned a small slice of cake!

Obviously, the ultimate reward for any author is to have your book turned into a prestige TV series. When does that day come, though? Writing is, at its core, an exercise in delayed gratification, with wide variation in the length of that delay and the quality of that gratification. Even the fastest writer can spend months pouring their heart and soul into a book that can be consumed in a matter of hours—a ratio that is, at best, a meditation on the nature of art, and at worst, an outright scam. For many writers, “After my book is finished…” has the same energy as “When the pandemic is over…” and “When Daddy gets back from the store with cigarettes…” When writing success always seems just over the horizon in perpetuity, it’s up to you to reward yourself for finishing a draft, a chapter, a single page if that’s what you need to keep going.

To tide you over until you sign your big publishing deal, here are a few ways you can reward yourself for meeting your writing goals.

  • More writing time! It’s a pandemic, so that means no dining out, no drinks at your favorite bar, no parties with friends. May as well reward yourself by getting a head start on your next draft. What fun!
  • Ice cream. Calories don’t count if they’re consumed within twelve hours of finishing a short story, forty-eight for a book. They also don’t count if consumed immediately after getting dumped for neglecting your relationship while you writing.
  • Read a book. Pick up a paperback and fill yourself with rage that such a terrible book got published while you toil in obscurity. For a change of pace, read a masterpiece and fill yourself with despair over how much time you spent writing a book so inferior.
  • Takeout food. Take a break from cooking and have food delivered from your second-favorite restaurant (your fave having unfortunately shut down during the pandemic). When your food arrives, strike up a conversation with the delivery driver about how nice it is to talk to another human being. You may have to speak up as they slowly back away.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

Most cynics

Most cynics are really crushed romantics: they’ve been hurt, they’re sensitive, and their cynicism is a shell that’s protecting this tiny, dear part in them that’s still alive.

Jeff Bridges

Light Blogging Today

PG needs a bit of a break from his usual daily activities and won’t be posting as much as usual today.

He expects the break will help him recharge his pandemically-drained batteries a bit and will return to blogging with somewhat enhanced zest and verve.

Although he doesn’t usually talk much about personal matters here, he will mention that he is scheduled for his second of two doses of anti-Covid vaccine this coming Friday and is very much looking forward to being released from house arrest a few days thereafter.

Although he has been cooped up with Mrs. PG, his favorite person in the world, PG is looking forward to re-engaging with the larger meat-space world on a more frequent basis. He probably knew this before, but he will appreciate his interactions with friends, neighbors and the local physical society to a greater extent than he has in the past as a result of his isolation from them for an extended period of time.

That said, he must also acknowledge that the technology-supported interactions with those who comment on TPV and occasionally interact with him via email have been and will continue to be appreciated to a greater extent than they were before this enforced isolation from the larger physical world.

Thanks to all those who contribute to the conversations here.

And it seems people should not build houses anymore

And it seems people should not build houses anymore; it seems people should stop working and sit in small rooms on second floors under electric lights without shades; it seems there is a lot to forget and a lot not to do and in drugstores, markets, bars, the people are tired, they do not want to move, and I stand there at night and look through this house and the house does not want to be built.

Charles Bukowski

PG hasn’t ever read a book by Charles Bukowski and doesn’t think he would necessarily enjoy the experience, but he does enjoy excerpts that include the unique voice of some of Bukowski’s characters and the gritty sense of down and out they convey.

Perhaps it’s time for PG to put up some more Raymond Chandler quotes. He doesn’t have quite the same voice Bukowski does, but they both understand life on mean streets.

11 Fictional Hotels for Your Fictional Vacation

From Electric Lit:

In the epic words of Phoebe Bridgers: “I want to live at the Holiday Inn, where somebody else makes the bed.” Don’t we all, Phoebe—especially after months of various travel restrictions and working from home on top of crumpled sheets that need to be washed. But if it’s looking tricky to stay in a real-life hotel anytime in your near future, there’s fortunately an overwhelming number of books suitable for your fictional getaway.

It’s not surprising that the hotel novel has become a literary genre in its own right—hotels have proven to be fascinating settings for fiction: a mixture of the intimately private and corporate conglomerate, the foreign and the mundane. Going beyond well-known classics like The Shining and Grand Hotel, here are 11 novels to immerse yourself in the world of hotels, hospitality work, and bed-making. And you won’t need to check out of these fictional hotels by 11 a.m.

Here Comes the Sun by Nicole Dennis-Benn

What does it cost to craft a pristine hotel experience at an “exotic” location? Here Comes the Sun takes place at a luxury resort in River Bank, a fictional Jamaican town. 30-year-old Margot is a worker there, trying her best to support and protect her artistic younger sister. Although she has sex with the wealthy white guests for extra income, Margot is forced to keep her love for Verdene, the village’s ostracized lesbian, undercover. However, Margot and her community must reckon with imminent destruction when developers plan to build another resort that will put many villagers out of work. Dennis-Benn’s unflinching yet compassionate debut is a searing look into the tourism industry and its effects on women’s communities. 

. . . .

I Hotel by Karen Tei Yamashita

The I Hotel (short for “International Hotel”), a Bay Area landmark in San Francisco’s Chinatown, is the centerpiece of Yamashita’s kaleidoscopic novel. Separated into ten novellas on different groups of Asian American activists from 1968 to 1977 (one novella for each year), I Hotel is an ambitious exploration of the Yellow Power Movement, when Asian Americans fought for representation and economic equality. Yamashita uses a diverse array of narrative and structural choices, including forms such as graphic art, stage dialogue, and philosophy; her cast of characters is as equally diverse, including a whole range of hyphenated Asian identities. (And for another book that connects hotels with historical Asian American events, check out Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford, which addresses Japanese internment camps during WWII.)

Link to the rest at Electric Lit

Sarcastic vs. Sardonic vs. Facetious

From Daily Writing Tips:

Reader ApK has asked for a discussion of the words sarcastic, sardonic, and facetious
all examples of verbal irony.

verbal irony: the expression of one’s meaning by using language that normally signifies the opposite, typically for humorous or emphatic effect.

Sarcastic derives from the noun sarcasm.

sarcasm: a sharp, bitter, or cutting expression or remark; a bitter gibe or taunt.

Both the noun and the adjective derive from a Greek verb that had the meanings “to tear flesh, gnash the teeth, speak bitterly.”

Among the usual synonyms for sarcastic and sardonic are words that conjure up hurt and pain: caustic, scathing, trenchant, cutting, biting, sharp, acerbic.

caustic: burning, corrosive, destructive of organic tissue
scathing: from the verb “to scathe”: to injure, hurt, damage
trenchant: having a sharp edge, for cutting
acerbic: bitter, sharp, cutting

Sardonic does not have a corresponding noun in modern English, but it does derive from a Latin noun, sardonius, a poisonous plant that grew on the island of Sardinia. This plant was said to produce facial convulsions resembling horrible laughter, usually followed by death.

Link to the rest at Daily Writing Tips

The Joy of Trollope

Equestrian statue of Charles I, Charing Cross looking down Whitehall, via Wikimedia Commons

From The Wall Street Journal:

Fans of the Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope (1815-1882) can take comfort in his inexhaustibility. My case is probably typical. I began reading him in my 20s, some 40 years ago, and have turned to him regularly, if in spurts, ever since. In a recent tallying-up I discovered I’d read 18 of his novels, or roughly one every two years. But there are 47 novels in all, leaving me with nearly 30 to go—some 60 years of Trollope to unfold. I find the image heartening: myself as an advanced centenarian, still with a few unread novels before me.

Trollope occupies a peculiar—a distorted—place in the American imagination. Fate has conspired, with the able assistance of the BBC, to portray him as a creator of landscapes so English that, under his spell, the rest of the planet falls under a distant haze. Trollope once remarked, “Visitors to England who have not sojourned at a country-house, whether it be the squire’s, parson’s, or farmer’s, have not seen the most English phase of the country.” Those country houses loom large in the BBC’s fetching Trollope adaptations, emerging in the 1970s with the vast 26-episode “The Pallisers,” continuing in the ’80s with the seven-episode “Barchester Chronicles” and extending into our century with “He Knew He Was Right” and “The Way We Live Now.”

Readers who first meet Trollope via television may be surprised to discover that in his time he was a footloose cosmopolite. Most of his early wanderings were business travel. Trollope worked for 33 years as a civil servant in the British post-office system, 20 of these years in Ireland, where the ghost of his disastrous childhood (“I was ill-dressed and dirty” and “despised by all my companions”) was successfully laid to rest. (“But from the day on which I set my foot in Ireland all these evils went away from me.”) He was later dispatched on post-office business to Egypt and Malta and Cuba. Still later, as a full-time author, he kept journeying abroad and wound up claiming five different continents as backdrops for his books: Europe, North America, Africa, Asia and Oceania. It would be hard to name another 19th-century European novelist whose work was so far-flung.

Trollope’s six Palliser novels are often regarded as the crowning summit of his ranging, mountainous output. They make up a loosely bound set. Conceived singly rather than collectively, they were published over 16 years, in the midst of other projects. What chiefly unifies them are their overlapping characters and their ongoing, clamorous obsession with parliamentary politics, especially the seesawing battle between Conservatives and Trollope’s own beloved Liberals. Pursuing a lifelong dream (“to sit in the British Parliament should be the highest object of ambition to every educated Englishman”), Trollope once stood unsuccessfully for the House of Commons, and the Palliser sextet might be viewed as a benevolent revenge upon an unobliging electorate.

The final—and to my eyes the finest—volume in the series, The Duke’s Children,” has a curious publication history. In 1878, when he submitted the novel, Trollope was in a slough, commercially and critically, and his publisher convinced him to excise 65,000 words from the outsized manuscript. For more than a century, this was the “Duke’s Children” known to the world. But in 2015, on the occasion of Trollope’s bicentennial, the Folio Society published a deluxe limited edition of the restored text in England, and Everyman offered a hardcover in the States. The book, edited by the American scholar Steven Amarnick, now appears in paperback, as an Oxford World’s Classic (678 pages, $16.95). At long last, all the children of “The Duke’s Children” are fully born.

The duke of the title is Plantagenet Palliser, probably the most memorable and certainly the noblest of Trollope’s creations. When we meet Plantagenet, in “Can You Forgive Her?,” he’s a commoner, but life has soaring grandeurs in store for him. With the death of a titled uncle, Plantagenet becomes the Duke of Omnium. And as a shyly reluctant but ever-dutiful politician, his rise is meteoric: initially, Chancellor of the Exchequer; eventually, Prime Minister.

In addition to unrivaled power (“the leading man in the greatest kingdom in the world”), Plantagenet represents something else no less notable: the near-mystical blending of traits that constitute the ideal “English gentleman.” For Trollope, as for his contemporary Gerard Manley Hopkins, the concept subsumed the personal within the national. As Hopkins put it: “If the English race had done nothing else, yet if they left the world the notion of a gentleman, they would have done a great service to mankind.” Trollope in his posthumous autobiography observed, “I think that Plantagenet Palliser, Duke of Omnium, is a perfect gentleman.” He added, acknowledging the daunting ambition of his task, “If he be not, then I am unable to describe a gentleman.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

Entry to the Strand from Charing Cross, 1841