Category Archives: Commentary

On critique partners

I was reading Write Anything Andrea Allison’s post about Beta Readers (the first person who reads your draft to seriously critique it) and it got me thinking about how lucky I am.

One of the most important criterion for a critiquer is trust. I’ve dropped from writing groups before because I didn’t trust the people who were critiquing my work. Let’s face it, as Annie Lamott funnily says, writers are basically envious of each other’s successes. Some are just meaner about it than others.

I have three readers I completely and utterly trust. They’re painfully honest and sometimes I want to tell them “you’re not my friend anymore” (that’s usually when they’re right; I hate that). The beauty of it? They are avid readers and much better writers than I am but they have decided not to put themselves through the publishing ringer. They leave that to me.

This means that I get the benefit of their great talent, abilities, insight, and honesty without the competition.

I have no idea why they still go through my manuscripts. We started out taking writing classes together and critiquing was part of the process. Fifteen years later, although I’m the only one who was fool enough to keep at it, they are still watching my back.  I find myself blessed.

So Peggy, Robyn, Jim (you know who you are), thanks. Again.

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Fiction Friday >> Time Warp

[Fiction] Friday Challenge for May 8, 2009
A man is given the ability to go back in time and change one event in his life.

It was true. He was here, five years into the past. He could relive this day, change everything. Amazingly, he had been given a second chance at making things better, at undoing what he had set in motion, what had changed his life and the lives of so many around him. He had hurt so many by that single act, that single choice. He hadn’t realized the impact it would have. It was only in retrospect, looking back at the events that led to that day, that hour, that minute, that he had given himself the luxury of regret. How many times had he wished it could all be undone, rewound, reshot, like the takes of a movie, until he had got it right. And now it could happen, it could be done. He could reshape this moment and all the moments that would come after. He didn’t know if his life would be better for it but at least he would not have that one excruciating regret.

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How to create mood with words

I recently finished Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher and was astonished and amazed at the flowery prose. At first I thought well, yeah, he wrote it in 1839 so that explains it. But I’ve read other Poe stories and none of it was so over the top. So I reread it and realized that Poe had used this type of prose to create the mood — and that was the only goal. There is no moral to the story, no position (social or political), simply words that, combined, create this feeling of horror that spreads throughout. Here is an example:

I looked upon the scene before me–upon the mere house, and the simple landscape features of the domain–upon the bleak walls–upon the vacant eye-like windows–upon a few rank sedges–and upon a few white trunks of decayed trees–with an utter depression of soul which I can compare to no earthly sensation more properly than to the after-dream of the reveller upon opium–the bitter lapse into everyday life–the hideous dropping off of the veil. There was an iciness, a sinking, a sickening of the heart–an unredeemed dreariness of thought which no goading of the imagination could torture into aught of the sublime.

With this introduction to the House of Usher, Poe continues to heap words onto the mood:

The vault in which we placed it (and which had been so long unopened that our torches, half smothered in its oppressive atmosphere, gave us little opportunity for investigation) was small, damp, and entirely without means of admission for light; lying, at great depth, immediately beneath that portion of the building in which was my own sleeping apartment. It had been used, apparently, in remote feudal times, for the worst purposes of a donjon-keep, and, in later days, as a place of deposit for powder, or some other highly combustible substance, as a portion of its floor, and the whole interior of a long archway through which we reached it, were carefully sheathed with copper. The door, of massive iron, had been, also, similarly protected. Its immense weight caused an unusually sharp grating sound, as it moved upon its hinges.

There is no real point to this story, except for placing a protagonist in a surreal situation and make him experience terror. No writer could get away with this kind of “arabesque” today but there is something to say about studying the master of the mood.

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Jacket Copy Sells Books

I’ve been musing, intermittently, on this blog and in polls, on the value of a good book cover. What is a good book cover and does it sell book? Who is influenced by a book cover? Many authors, when asked, will tell you they hate the book covers of their novels, most of the time because they’re not representative of their story/content. Same thing for the title. How compelling does it have to be? Does the title influence book buying?

It turns out that both do, but only in conjunction with how compelling the jacket copy (or back copy) –the blurb that tells you what the book’s about– is even more important. In a commissioned study of over 3600 readers, Publishing Trends noted that “The job of writing jacket copy shouldn’t be foisted off on editorial assistants—it is the second most important book purchase factor (after favorite author).”

It seems that most reader want real information about the book and a prosaic representation of the message the book cover and title send. Interestingly enough, reviewers such as The New York Times have less than a 13% influence on book buying. In addition,

The importance of various elements of jacket copy also varies by age. Younger book shoppers are more interested in character detail and brief promotional statements or quotes—31% of readers under 18, for instance, said they’d be most influenced by a statement like “Sometimes what happens in Vegas follows you home.” And even though they might have little else in common, the under-18 crowd shares the preference for a snappy promotional statement with readers over 65, 25% of whom are most influenced by these statements. Younger and older shoppers don’t want to work hard to figure out what a book is about, so flap copy aimed at them should cut to the chase.

This means that, for an author and publisher, knowing your audience is crucial in how you write jacket copy. Still, the article concludes that there is no magic bullet. As we say, to each his own, even when it comes to blurbs.

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How posts can snowball

I came across this post:

This crossbow should automatically classify you as “Most Wanted”

It’s very short, with a sarcastic bent to it and I almost didn’t read the 89 comments attached to it. Then my brain said: 89 comments? My curiosity led me to go down and start reading, which made me realize that there are a lot of people who:

  1. don’t have a sense of humour; or
  2. aren’t quite there in the brain department; or
  3. have no life whatsoever.

Regardless, it made me smile on a Friday. A fun way to procrastinate all those tasks you need to do.

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