Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Book Review: Harvard Yard

Copyright © 2011, Steven E. Houchin. All rights reserved.

Part of his Peter Fallon series, Willian Martin has crafted a fascinating novel that follows a Boston family with a secret through many generations.

In 1604, Robert Harvard turns to his friend Will Shakespeare, needing advice on just the right words to express his love for Katherine Rogers. Shakespeare conjures up a few phrases, such as “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” Two years later, Will Shakespeare gives the couple a gift for their new son, John: a handwritten play named Love’s Labors Won, a companion to another play, Love’s Labors Lost. In 1625, when the plague is about to take Robert’s life, he tells his son “a man is known by his books”, and extracts a promise that John will cherish all of Robert’s books, especially Love’s Labors Lost.

Twelve years later, John Harvard arrives in Puritan Boston, bringing with him his father’s books. Thus begins a story of the founding of Harvard College and a missing Shakespeare play that spans 400 years, told through the lives of the fictional Wedge family of Cambridge, Massachusetts.

In 1638, John Harvard dies at 30 without an heir and wills his trunks of books to a student he had sponsored at the new college, Issac Wedge, and also gives an £800 donation to the college itself. When cataloging the books, Isaac discovers the play and decides it must be hidden from the Puritans, who believe plays are evil.

In the present day, antiquarian book dealer Peter Fallon is on the trail of the possible lost play. But, he soon finds others will kill to possess it. As Fallon discovers each new clue to its location, the scene changes to the past - and another Wedge descendant - where the origin of that clue is revealed.

Harvard Yard is a long read (600 pages or so), but well worth it if you like historical novels.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

PNWA Author Panel: Poisoned Pen Press

Copyright © 2011, Steven E. Houchin. All rights reserved.

Last month, I attended the September member meeting of the Pacific Northwest Writer’s Association. The program consisted of a five-person panel of authors who have published books with Poisoned Pen Press of Scottsdale, AZ, which is an independent publisher of various mystery genres. According to the panelists, the editors are Barbara Peters and Annette Rogers. Unlike the big New York publishers, they take unagented submissions. They accept works between 60,000 and 90,000 words.poisoned pen press logo

The panelists raved about how the editors spent a lot of time with them to get their book just right. In general, they recommend that authors start out querying small, independent presses because the author has a good chance of receiving good feedback on their work, even if rejected. Like any other publisher or agent, 99% of submissions will be rejected; they receive a lot of poorly-written submissions.

Poisoned Pen’s advances aren’t large: about $1000. But, there isn’t a lot of deadline pressure, and they won’t necessarily drop you as an author because of poor sales. After your book’s first print run, they utilize Print On Demand for subsequent orders, and distribute through Ingram Publisher Services. This means your book never goes out of print. From day one, your book is published in hardcover, trade paperback, audiobook, and large print.

On the subject of marketing your book, the panelists emphasized the importance of sending out advance, pre-publication review copies to the big industry reviewers, such as Library Journal or Booklist. Poisoned Pen will send out the review copies. Once the book is published, these reviewers will not look at the book. They only review advance copies. Unfortunately, most newspspers no longer review books. Ones that do: LA Times, Seattle Times, Washington Post.

Also attending the meeting was a man (I didn’t get his name) from New Libri Press, a small publisher in Mercer island, WA.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Book Review: Operation Mincemeat

Copyright © 2011, Steven E. Houchin. All rights reserved.

The subtitle of this non-fiction book draws you right in: How a Dead Man and a Bizarre Plan Fooled the Nazis and Assured an Allied Victory. Author Ben MacIntyre doesn’t disappoint in this true tale of British intelligence operatives who came up with an ingenious scheme to deceive the Nazis.

The year is 1943. The Allies have defeated the Nazi army in North Africa and are planning their next strike at the Axis: the invasion of Italy. If successful, they hope to knock Italy out of the war and secure Allied naval dominance of the Mediterranean. But the key to victory in Italy first requires the conquest of the island of Sicily, so that its large contingent of German and Italian troops and planes aren’t left in the Allies’ rear during the campaign. An attack on Sicily was obvious. Everyone knew it, including the Germans, who were expected to massively fortify it in advance, making its invasion a costly, bloody cover

Enter a couple of screwball-thinking intelligence officers in London: Ewen Montague and Charles Cholmondeley. They came up with an audacious and risky plan to make the Germans think the Allied attack would occur in Sardinia and Greece: dress up a corpse as a high-ranking military officer, plant fake invasion documents on it, drop it in the sea, and let it float into enemy hands. Operation Mincemeat was born.

MacIntyre’s book is filled with wry humor and short biographies of the numerous characters involved as he describes in amazing detail the operation’s inception, planning, execution and aftermath. He tells of the trouble finding and preserving a suitable corpse whose body won’t be missed; the planning for how to drop a corpse at sea so that it will drift to just the right target area (in Spain) where it is sure to be noticed by Germans (but not be too obvious); and the anxiety whether the Germans will buy the ruse and reposition their forces.

Once I started reading, I couldn’t put the book down, finishing in just a couple of days. The research to uncover all the details seems to be exhaustive. The history is fascinating, and the characters colorful and believable. It even mentions the participation of a British intelligence officer named Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond.

Even though Operation Mincemeat is non-fiction, it reads like a spy thriller and is definitely worth the read.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Point Of View Versus Perspective

Copyright © 2011, Steven E. Houchin. All rights reserved.

While reading some articles on the craft of writing, I noticed the terms Point Of View and Perspective used interchangeably, while other times they had distinct meanings. So, which is it?

Two concepts are at play here:

1.How does the narrator tell the story?
2.Which character (if any) tells the story in a particular scene?point of view

I’ve usually considered #2 above as point of view (POV), but I’m not sure that is right. Sources I read online indicate #1 is actually POV, called narrative point of view or viewpoint by Wikipedia. This definition of POV means essentially the choice of a first, second, or third person narrator. Within a novel, the viewpoint usually stays consistent, but in rare cases an author may switch from one to the other between different chapters.

For #2 above, Wikipedia discusses narrative voice, which may be the same idea as perspective. This deals with whether or not the narrator of a particular scene is a specific character, knowing only what that character sees, hears, feels, and thinks (person-limited). Alternatively, the narrator may know everything about every character (omnicient), or tell the story only by observing from a distance, knowing nothing of characters’ thoughts (objective). Of course, there are variations of these types of narrative voices, such as a storytelling narrator who sticks to one character’s perspective in each scene, but is not that character himself.

For example, if Joe is a person-limited narrator, then the sentence
Joe didn't see the bus bearing down on him
violates Joe’s perspective: he can’t describe something he doesn’t see yet. But, an omnicient or objective narrator can tell this to the reader.

So, I have to ask myself if it makes sense to change my own usage of the the term POV, and whether to preach the difference at fellow writers who may not wish to be lectured. Does it really matter that much as long as the idea gets across?

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Book Review: Strange Cargo

Copyright © 2011, Steven E. Houchin. All rights reserved.

A few years ago, I read Jeffrey Barlough’s House In the High Wood, and thoroughly enjoyed it. Recently, I read his novel Strange Cargo (third in his Western Lights series). It’s a great book, but not quite as good as the former.
Strange Cargo cover
Strange Cargo takes place in a frigid alternate Victorian-like world that in the past was rocked by the “great sundering” - a cataclysmic event that leaves mankind clinging to the mild coastal edges of an English-like civilization. The reader is introduced to three main storylines that crisscross one another as the novel goes on.

First, there is the Cargo family, from the town of Cargo, who learn from an attorney, Mr. Liffey, that they are to inherit the estate of Joseph Cargo, the grandfather of the clan. But, not all of the estate; some of it is left to an unknown Mr. Squailes of the town of Nantle. Mrs. Cargo is especially appalled at the Squailes bequest. So, they all book ship passage to Nantle to find and interrogate the “interloper Squailes.” The Cargos don’t know that Mr. Liffey is often haunted by some kind of sinister presence whenever he is alone.

Next is Miss Wastefield, who is plagued by a locked trunk that murmurs strange things to her. She cannot throw it away, because it always comes back. She travels to Nantle with her little monkey Juga after hearing from a Mr. Thistlewood who claims he can help with the trunk.

And then there is Mr. Threadneedle of Smithy Bank who, after buying some strange stones from a trader, discovers they have the power to levitate objects. So, along with his young helper Tim Christmas, he constructs a contraption within his carriage house that allows the building to fly like an airship. During test flights in the fog, a few people around Nantle spot the flying house, but aren’t believed when they report it.

As the three stories are told, the main characters cross paths with each other and numerous other cast members in and around Nantle, including a Mr. Lanthorne who seems to vanish and reappear at will; monsters called Triametes who eat humans; rooming house owner Mrs. Matchless and her other guests, and several lovable street hooligans.

Strange Cargo’s prose has a distinct old English quality that is captivating, but a bit hard to read when it reverts to the dialect of the lower classes. I found the Miss Wastefield storyline particularly unsatisfying in its resolution because it has a damsel-in-distress theme where she isn’t really saved by the hero. She does discover how the sundering occurred, but never tells anyone else (except the reader). The sundered alternate world created by the author is fascinating. His characters have an innocence and charm about them that is appealing. Strange Cargo is a definite recommended read.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

It's Real Life, For Once - Part II

Copyright © 2011, Steven E. Houchin. All rights reserved.

In my June 3rd posting on this subject, I mentioned that my writing is far removed from real life. Mobsters, spies, con-men, Pinkerton detectives, extortionists ... not me, no way.  But then, once in awhile, real life - even mine - provides material for a story.

This spring, an envelope from 49 years ago came into my hands. It was unopened, addressed in a kindergartener's scraggly handwriting - my own. What could be inside? Why was it never opened? I wrote a story about it that speculated on its journey. When I read it to my Thursday critique group, the response was so positive that I polished it up and submitted it to a local senior newspaper: Northwest Prime Time.  Within hours I received a "Yes" - they'd like to print it, assuming the month's layout will allow it.  If it makes the issue, it'll be my second non-fiction item published.

That's non-fiction 2, fiction 0.  Hmmm ... not a lot of progress for a determined fiction writer.

Anyway, what was in the envelope?  Ahhh ... stay tuned for the story's publication announcement.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Uhhh ... Where Are We?

Copyright © 2011, Steven E. Houchin. All rights reserved.

One of the things I often see when editing or critiquing a manuscript is that the author launches into a new scene or chapter without setting the scene. Instead, we’re subjected to paragraphs of dialog or narration about what the characters are doing. It’s like the characters are floating in a black void, detached from time and place. The reader will manufacture his own mental image of the scene, immerse himself in it, and then is later jarred out of the story when the author finally gives a hint of where or when the action is taking place.

What does it mean to set the scene? At the minimum, the reader should learn exactly where the characters are, and when the action takes place at the point the scene has changed. If a chapter ends with Suzie hanging on the 33rd floor ledge by her fingernails, and the next chapter starts with Suzie still hanging on, then little scene-setting is necessary. Mentioning Suzie and the crumbling ledge is sufficient. But, if the next chapter has Rex sipping a latte and scanning the newspaper’s obituary columns, the reader will be confused if Rex starts chatting with someone or the narrator discusses Rex’s angst over his business dealings. How much time has passed since Suzie’s unfortunate predicament? Is Rex walking along the sidewalk 33 floors directly below Suzie? Or is he about to turn the corner and stumble across her splattered corpse? Is he walking at all? Or is it days later and he’s reading her obit sitting in a cafe? The time and place set the reader’s anticipation of what may happen next.

Beyond the minimum scene-setting (“Rex walked along the sidewalk sipping his latte”), the author can provide richer detail of the scene. As Rex walks along the sidewalk, what does he pass by? Small storefronts nestled together in an ancient brick building, with smells of roasting chicken, garbage, cigars, bus exhaust? Do cars roar by? Does the wind kick up scraps of paper? Rain falls like a fine mist? Is he cold because he left his overcoat at the office? Are scary-looking homeless guys loitering about? As far as setting the timeframe, the narrator can give a hint that it is night (“the glare of a passing Taxi’s headlights”), and the reader knows Suzie’s trouble was at noon. Surely, Suzie is no longer hanging on. Or, Rex hears a streetside clock strike noon.

In my opinion, the scene-setting should begin within the first paragraph of the new scene. More can be added as the scene goes on, but the longer the author waits to set it up, the more the reader constructs his own time and place - maybe incorrectly. That can lead to confusion or frustration later, and diminished reader enjoyment of your story.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Move the Story Forward

Copyright © 2011, Steven E. Houchin. All rights reserved.

Keep the reader turning the page. I always try to keep that in mind when I write a short story or a chapter in a novel. In a critique group recently, I was reminded of that when one of my group-mates observed that my chapter ended by wrapping up a mystery, but didn’t provide any teaser to propel the reader on to the next chapter where, presumably, things will begin to unravel (not for the author, of course, but for the characters).

“Why should I turn the page?” she asked.

Ouch! She was right. Mystery and conflict remain for the reader to discover, but I failed to show that. When I read or hear stories from other aspiring writers in my little world, I often think the same thing. Here are some common deficiencies:
  • Description - The story is crammed with flowing, minute descriptions of people, their movements, things, the weather, sounds. Description is great if it is done right, if it sparks your mind’s eye (see my blog posting Descriptive Dalliances). But, is the story lost in all the picture-painting? After 10 pages of prose, will the reader say, “All those words just to pick up the bloody knife in his hand?”
  • Pleasantness - The story’s characters go on and on in pleasant conversation about what they plan to do later or what they just finished doing or what they wish they could do. At the end of the chapter, they might walk out the door to actually go do something. But, the chapter is stuck in neutral up to that point. Maybe somebody should cry, or yell, or argue, or faint along the way. Hints about coming trouble can trickle out. Dinner can burn and fill the house with smoke. Aunt Agatha can reveal something shocking. These incidents can be used to set up future tension, or flesh out the characters’ relationships, and to cause the reader to wonder what it portends in coming pages.
  • Fizzled ending - The chapter comes to an end, but it feels like nothing interesting will happen next. A couple sits on the picnic blanket gazing out over the lake holding hands. Okay ... so? What if instead, they hear a strange rattling sound, but dismiss it? The reader might think, “Oooh. A rattlesnake?” This is basically the art of the cliffhanger - adding it at the end of each chapter or scene to spur the reader to stay tuned.
  • Preaching - One of the biggest turn-offs in a novel is when the author fills the pages with some agenda they feel strongly about: religion, environment, politics, conspiracies. These subjects don’t need to be eliminated altogether, just included in a subtle way that doesn’t overwhelm the story or bore the reader.
  • Blandness - This may seem obvious, but it happens a lot for aspiring writers. Characters engage in mundane dialog, or speak in ways that aren’t realistic. The narrator tells us facts and figures that may be nice for a scholarly article, but don’t hold interest in a novel where the reader wants action or romance or humor. Or, the pages may be filled with continuous dialog with no scene-setting, gestures, pauses, description, or narration.
You can probably think of several more substandard writing aspects than this. The bottom line is: will the reader feel compelled to turn page after page? If so, then you’ve done something right.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Book Review: Bel Canto

Copyright © 2011, Steven E. Houchin. All rights reserved.

Ann Patchett's award-winning novel Bel Canto takes place in a Latin American nation, where attendees at a birthday party in the Vice President's mansion find themselves taken hostage by a rebel force.  The rebels plan to kidnap the President.  But he canceled his attendance at the last minute to stay home and watch his favorite TV soap opera.  The rebels aren't sure what to do, so they hold onto the most prominent men and the one woman at the party who matters: opera singer Roxane Coss, who was the party's entertainment.  Weeks go by.  Negotiations are stalled.  The rebels' strict regimen toward the hostages slackens, and life inside the mansion becomes a small, insular world of its own as hostages and some of the younger rebels bond.  Roxane Coss, deciding she must sing to keep her voice strong, practices her opera daily - delighting rebels and hostages alike.  Life outside the compound is nearly forgotten.  The standoff will never end, they think, so this is all there is.

The entire story takes place in the mansion.  As the story goes on, we see numerous characters contribute their own skills to the smooth operation of their new world.  A pianist.  A cook.  A translator.  The Vice President, who essentially becomes the housekeeper.  Many of the young rebels, who have lived only in the backwoods, learn about society and luxury they've never imagined before, such as watching TV for the first time.   One character, a multilingual Japanese translator named Gen, falls in love with Carmen, one of the young rebels.

Patchett does a masterful job of developing each character without dumping loads of backstory on the reader.  The reader feels sympathy for a General with the disease shingles, which causes an ugly, painful rash on his face. Or Cesar, who learns he can sing opera beautifully.  Or Carmen, who helps Roxane Coss arrange an amorous tryst with a Japanese businessman.  The reader begins to live vicariously in the little false world of the hostages, which is bound to come to a tragic end.

Patchett's language is lyrical, the descriptions rich and humorous at times.  She does not stick to any one character's point-of-view, but rather lets it flow from one person to the next, paragraph by paragraph - and makes it work.

If you long for a novel that explores complex situational character relationships, Bel Canto is worth your time.

Friday, June 3, 2011

It’s Real Life, For Once

Copyright © 2011, Steven E. Houchin. All rights reserved.

I just sent off a short story for Writers Digest’s “Your Story” Contest #34. The rules specified to start off with the line of dialog, “You won’t believe what came in the mail today.”

My novels and short stories are based upon anything but my real life. After all, I usually don’t shoot at people, or steal wartime secrets, or blackmail my parrot’s previous owner, or time warp back to 1889 to chase down an arsonist, or wear clown makeup to bed. Although, come to think of it, the clown makeup sounds intriguing.

But, for the Your Story contest, the opening line immediately brought to mind my elderly aunt who passed away a few years ago. The postman’s arrival seemed the big highlight of her day, judging by the attention she gave to all the junk mail that poured in. Scams and gimmickry abounded in nearly every envelope - all clearly aimed at taking advantage of the elderly, who are often all too susceptible to emotional pleas. Added to that, her world was rocked when mail delivery was changed to 5:00 pm. Horror of horrors. What would she have to talk about if not the mail? What would she do with herself all day? The change to her routine drove her to distraction until, mercifully, the postal service moved her delivery back to late morning.

So, my beloved aunt provided the exact subject matter I needed for my short story. The precious pieces of mail, the scams she fell prey to, the junk she ordered, the altered delivery time. No guns or clowns or parrots or arson. Just real life put down on digital paper with a bit of author’s poetic license to weave it all together. Whodda thunk?

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Literary Contest Update

Copyright © 2011, Steven E. Houchin. All rights reserved.

I've just updated my author website with the latest fiction contests I have researched for the rest of May 2011 and into June and July.  Check back often to see any additions.

Book Review: Monkeewrench

Copyright © 2011, Steven E. Houchin. All rights reserved.

Monkeewrench is a Minneapolis software company developing a macabre game: Serial Killer Detective. When real life corpses begin to appear exactly as depicted in the game's gruesome scenarios, Detective Leo Magozzi suspects one of Monkeewrench's five employees, who all carry guns and a puzzling past: they don't seem to have one.

At the same time, over in Kingsford County, Wisconsin, Sheriff Michael Halloran struggles to solve the murder of a couple whose bodies are found in the pews of the local Catholic Church. When he and a deputy go to search their house, a rigged shotgun on the back door kills the deputy. The dead couple aren't who they seem, either.

Author P. J. Tracy (i.e. mother and daughter writing duo Patricia and Traci Lambrecht), swap back and forth between these two unconnected murder storylines until they cleverly come together when Magozzi and Halloran both follow the clues to a Catholic School in New York. The Mother Superior there casually comments to Halloran's deputy that "in all the years she's been at the school they have never once gotten a call from a law enforcement agency before, and wasn't it peculiar that this morning she had two." The two cases spiral together after that.

The novel's characters display distinct attributes and attitudes. The detectives are suitably jaded, and the Monkeewrench people are dubious of anything the police might do. The author keeps you guessing as to the culprit, leading you down multiple paths of suspicion, creeping inexorably to the big climax. Along the way, the ride-along with Magozzi and Halloran is enjoyable.

Unfortunately, the ending breaks a cardinal rule (in my opinion) of a whodunit mystery: the murderer is a minor character who is hardly seen onstage throughout the novel. Thus, the ending feels too contrived, like a Perry Mason episode where the little-seen gardener suddenly confesses on the witness stand, having some heretofore-unknown motive. Regardless, Monkeewrench is well written; a great read and worth the time you spend with it.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Self-Publishing Workshop Post Mortem

Copyright © 2011, Steven E. Houchin. All rights reserved.

Recently, I attended a self-publishing workshop at a local bookstore. The presenters were Bob Lanphear, a book designer, and Lorrie Harrison, an editing and publishing consultant.

Editing Process

Lorrie began by discussing the editing process your book should go through before self-publishing. 1) Self-proofreading to create a clean manuscript, 2) Peer review (critique) to make sure the story is viable, 3) Professional line editing.

She stressed that writers need to belong to a “tribe” of other writers and supporters, rather than write in isolation. One online proofreading tool that was mentioned is ErrNET, which is purported to take as input your PDF-format manuscript and will spit out errors it finds.

Layout and Graphic Design

Bob discussed the options for self-publishing. You can use Internet print-on-demand (POD) options, such as Amazon’s Create Space or Lulu. You can try do-it-yourself layout and design with software such as Adobe Illustrator, Microsoft Publisher, or GIMP. There are self-publishing companies that print as many copies as you want to pay for with little editorial input. Or, you can partner with a local creative team (which is what Bob and Lorrie are).

A number of time-consuming steps are taken during the self-publishing timeline: assembling graphic input, cover design, interior page design, page layout, proofing and prep for printing, actual print production, development of an eBook, and book promotion.

A book cover isn’t about what the author likes, but what will attract the audience. He often has to challenge the author’s preconceptions about design and recommends he/she browse the bookstores to see the designs of similar works. People do judge by the cover. And, depending on the type of book, the page design can influence the reader’s experience and appeal to emotions. Good cover art can carry over to other promotional materials, such as the book’s web site, posters, blurbs, bookmarks, audio CD.

He listed a number of reasons why a book can fail:
  1. The book is unnecessary, already been done.
  2. Bad cover design.
  3. A lame title.
  4. No professional editing/proofreading.
  5. Thinking too small—not trying for large sales, give away too few review copies.
  6. Old fashioned promotion.
  7. Trying to do it all yourself rather than hire interns or professionals.

Lorrie talked about marketing your book. Ninety percent of a book’s success is author promotion. Two key things you must know before selling your book: 1) Why am I writing this book? 2) Who is my audience?

If you plan to use self-publishing to snag a traditional publisher, they will evaluate your book’s velocity—how many copies sold in 2 or 3 months. So, be prepared to create demand as soon as your book is published.

If your dream is to have your book on the shelf in Barnes and Noble or Borders, you will be working through a distributor. You will get paid when the distributor sells copies of your book to the retailer. But, any unsold copies can be returned after 12 months, and you have to return any money received for them.

Lorrie shared ideas for better ways to market the book:
  • Your website should allow purchases. This way, you keep 100% of the profit. Make sure to buy the Internet domain name for your book’s title. A web site also establishes your brand as an author.
  • Look at traditional, non-book retail catalogs who might be willing to carry your book (such as clothing retailers for a book about fashion). Knowing your audience helps identify these retailers.
  • Contact independent bookstore managers to arrange readings, signings and to provide promotional materials like flyers.
  • Give away lots of free copies, such as leaving in waiting rooms (doctor, dentist), or where people congregate. Same for promotional items like customized bookmarks.
  • Make sure your marketing plan is organized in advance, before the book hits the streets.
Some books about marketing and promotion Lorrie recommends:
  • “Dan Poynter’s Self-Publishing Manual: How to Write, Print and Sell Your Own Book” - Poynter.
  • “1001 Ways to Market Your Books” - Kremer.
  • “Jump Start Your Book Sales: A Money-Making Guide for Authors, Independent Publishers and Small Presses” - Ross.
  • “Guerrilla Marketing for Writers : 100 Weapons to Help You Sell Your Work” - Levinson, Frishman, Larsen.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Spark Your Imagination With Writing Prompts

Copyright © 2011, Steven E. Houchin. All rights reserved.

Short stories, as with all fiction, require inspiration. Sometimes, real life can supply all you need. Scenes from movies or books can spark ideas. Or, you may have a fertile, twisted imagination.
For me, I’ve found that writing prompts are a great starting point. A writing prompt is a one or two sentence scenario from which a writer can construct a scene. Some are purely exercises, such as describing some object in your bedroom. Others place a character in a frightening or offbeat situation.

Here is one interesting prompt:
You have been captured by cannibals. How do you try to convince them not to eat you? If that fails how do you attempt to get away?
Here is one that is more of an exercise:
Write a scene where shadows or lighting create a mood.
Two writing prompts that particularly intrigued me turned into great short stories that received laughs and even applause at a writers workshop I regularly attend. I maintain a text file on my computer system to save interesting prompts as I come across them. I also jot down my own ideas, some of which are bare-bones notations, like:
An overgrown cemetery.
Or ...
A pet snake gets loose.
These are little things that flash into my mind or appear in a movie, and seem at the moment to have potential.

An excellent site to find writing prompts is Writer’s Digest. They add to them regularly and keep a long list of the older ones. So, if your imagination needs a jump start, take a look at it, or use your favorite search engine to find other writing prompts online.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Descriptive Dalliances

Copyright © 2011, Steven E. Houchin. All rights reserved.

My recent foray into short story writing has included an effort to construct eye-catching or offbeat descriptions of things. When I see that in other authors' work, the image they paint jumps right off the page and fully materializes in my mind.

Here are some descriptions I've read that caught my eye. They go beyond the obvious and mundane, or say a lot with little:

  • At the open neck of her white shirt, which revealed hundreds of freckles, Coy caught the gleam of a silver chain. - The Nautical Chart by Arturo Pérez-Reverte.
  • Big John Masters was large, fat, oily. He had sleek blue jowls and very thick fingers on which the knuckles were dimples. - Spanish Blood by Raymond Chandler.
  • Back and forth in front of them, strutting, trucking, preening herself like a magpie, arching her arms and her eyebrows, bending her fingers back until the carmine nails almost touched her arms, a metallic blonde swayed and went to town on the music. - The King in Yellow by Raymond Chandler.
  • A sudden emptiness seemed to flow now from the windows and the great doors, endowing with complete isolation the figure of the host, who stood on the porch, his hand held up in a formal gesture of farewell. - The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
  • Sophie Winslow and her flamingo-pink lips stood between him and the restroom. - Border Songs by Jim Lynch.
  • The floor between them was mined with Subway wrappers, Burger King sacks, and Pizza Hut boxes, the coffee table an avalanche of grease-stained magazines and unopened mail. - Border Songs by Jim Lynch.

Here are a few of my own descriptive lines I've written recently:

  • Blanden's greasy black hair and skinny moustache looked uncomfortably like a certain German Führer from the past.
  • The nearest working streetlamp - more than a block away - stood as a lonely sentinel, winking on and off at random intervals.
  • Knee-high weeds gawked at him on both sides of the walkway, a ragtag lineup of lookie-loos anxious to see what would happen next.
  • Dull gray wings hugged rows of ribbed white feathers along his underbelly. Round white patches ringed his beady, push-button eyes.
  • A piss-colored circus-tent housedress bulged over her ample frame, its pattern of delicate blue flowers mingling with spatters of crimson pizza sauce.
  • Across the room, a huge hi-def TV hung on the wall with two potted fichus trees standing guard on either side. On screen, the Home and Garden channel flaunted images of ritzy beach condominiums.

One of the great benefits of participating in a critique group is to put such descriptions to the test. Do they evoke appreciative comments from the other writers? Or, do they miss the mark and serve only as distractions? Are they noticed at all? Either way, it can be fun to conjure up odd ways to describe ordinary things so they seem not so ordinary after all.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Book Review: The Treasure of Israel

Copyright © 2011, Steven E. Houchin. All rights reserved.

Where do I begin with S. J. Munson's novel, The Treasure of Israel? From the first pages, the words sloppy, amateurish came to mind. The formatting is jarring, almost as if the author's rough manuscript was dumped into a book-espresso machine and vomited out as-is. Blank lines separate paragraphs. Scene breaks are marked (or is it marred?) by multiple blank lines and gaggles of asterisks.  The use of dashes is seriously inconsistent (some long, some short). Was no editing done by the publisher, Revival Nation Publishing of Ontario? Well, considering their web site is defunct, it's hard to tell the quality of their products. One profile of them indicates they dedicate profits to Christian ministry work -- a laudable goal, but no excuse for a sloppy end product. Maybe it is strictly vanity publishing.

To say the novel's characters are thin is an insult to all thin characters ever created. To quote Admiral Nimitz (Henry Fonda) from the movie Midway when discussing Objective A-F: "Thin? Damn near invisible!"  The main character is Michael Grammaticus, not to be confused with his father from the opening chapter, Michael Grammaticus. The storyline has a poor man's Da Vinci Code feel to it, where a secret left behind by the deceased Michael Sr. propels Michael Jr. into danger and intrigue following clues among Rome's ancient churches. And we have, of course, the obligatory accidental female sidekick babe who latches on for the ride. The dialog among the characters usually consists of pointless arguments and dribbling banter that pretends to be clever but fails miserably.

The only interesting part for me were the flashbacks that detailed the history behind the treasures of the ancient temple of Israel. If those portions are true, then it represents a significant body of research.  But, who knows how much is just made up?

Dive into a good Clive Cussler novel instead.  The Treasure of Israel is definitly a book to skip.

Book Review: Summer's Lease

Copyright © 2011, Steven E. Houchin. All rights reserved.

I recently finished John Mortimer's literary novel Summer's Lease. At first glance, it would seem to be another tedious story of a dysfunctional family. I was pleasantly surprised when plot elements of mystery and intrigue were introduced early.

The main character, Molly Pargeter, lives in England. She is "big-boned", has led a dull life lacking in ambition, and admires Italian paintings. She arranges a long summer vacation in Tuscany for her family: husband Hugh and the children. The arrangements are made by letter correspondence with a mysterious S. Kettering, who gives Molly precise, detailed instructions about use of his villa "La Felicita", such as "Above all, avoid flushing the lavatory next to the small sitting-room more than once in any given half hour or serious results may follow." Much to her chagrin, her gadfly father, Haverford Downs, manages to invite himself along. He writes a declining column for a low-rent publication, the Informer, convincing the editor that Tuscany was just the place to inspire his writing.

Once in Tuscany at La Felicita, Molly begins to notice odd happenings, the most dramatic of which is the sudden lack of water at the villa, including the remarkable disappearance of the pool's water overnight. She also becomes obsessed with meeting her landlord, S. Kettering, after finding a cryptic note that seems to indicate his imminent murder.

The story pulls the reader along from one curious event to another, as Molly's determination grows to find answers to the mysteries she sees. Along the way, her father makes mischeif, a murder happens, and Molly finds out her husband has been hiding something from her. The language is deliciously English, and there is a good cast of bit-players who keep things interesting.

Summer's Lease will keep you turning the page.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Beta Testing Your Novel

Copyright © 2011, Steven E. Houchin. All rights reserved.

When I'm not writing novels or short stories, I develop software to keep the lights on and the fridge stocked. A key stage of the software development cycle -- the steps taken to engineer a software product and release it to the world -- is "beta testing."

There comes a time when the development work is essentially finished, but the product is in a rough, largely untested form. The engineers have run it through rudimentary tests, and the quality assurance team has subjected it to some of their battery of standard tests. But, it is still imperfect. That's where beta testing comes in. You send a series of these rough versions to your best customers, who have bravely volunteered to be Guinea Pigs, with the understanding they will use it every day and ruthlessly report back on its bugs.

This concept is also valuable to writers -- especially for novels and non-fiction books. Once we have edited our first draft into a readable second draft, we are at the stage where we need honest, knowledgeable "beta readers." These are people you trust, who will dedicate themselves to read through your manuscript, cover to cover, without delay, and make detailed notes on its flaws and charms. I have been trying to find a few "right" beta readers for a long time, but as yet without success.

Family usually doesn't qualify because they will feel compelled to say nice things to you or, conversely, they still hold a grudge from when you were 11 years old and will rip your work apart just for sport. If they say, "It's great. I loved it," are they really cringing inside about how lame the story was and how it's better suited for insomniacs?

I've tried local librarians and booksellers, but they insist they and their staff are overwhelmed by required reading. Writer friends ought to make good beta readers because they have more knowledge of the mechanics of writing. But a writer whom you barely know, and who doesn't care if a friendship ever develops, may be the ideal beta reader. They have no axe to grind either way. They'll let the chips (and worn out clichés) fall where they may. And you should get the honest feedback you really need.