Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Lovely Bones

This is a book with too much realism… and not enough of it.

That went through my head right after I’d read through the first half of The Lovely Bones and skimmed the second. I first became curious about Alice Sebold's bestselling novel when I watched the beautiful, chilling trailer on YouTube, and after that I had to read the book. Thanks to a contest on the blog Bookin' with Bingo, I got a copy of my own.

My name is Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973.

That’s the start of the novel. Talk about a first sentence that yanks you in by the throat.

The book is told from the point of view of a girl who, after her rape and murder by a man from her neighborhood, goes to heaven. Or what could be heaven, if it wasn’t a perfect world in which she’s trapped, watching as her family tries to pick up the pieces and as her murderer lives out his mundane facade. As life goes on, which it is wont to do, though not always as it should be.

While Susie’s father does suspect the correct person, there’s no evidence to back up this intuition. Susie’s killer, Mr. Harvey, has murdered half a dozen girls already, and he was careful. Here’s where the book is most realistic, by the way. Mr Harvey accosts Susie alone, at night, and picks the correct time – just before a snowfall that destroys any traces the police dogs might have found. Later he dismembers her body, puts the remains in a safe and dumps that into a sinkhole.

After the house changed hands, the new owners tsk-tsked at the dark spot on the floor of their garage. As she brought prospective buyers through, the realtor said it was an oil stain, but it was me, seeping out of the bag.

All that remains is a fallen elbow-joint (which the police later find). I kept hoping the sinkhole would be drained and the remains found, but they never are. Again, that’s very true to life. And Susie’s father doesn’t deliver dramatic vigilante justice. The one time he does come close to using physical violence on another person, the attempt backfires with disastrous results.

The rest of Susie’s family changes as well. Her younger sister closes off, forcing herself to toughen up both mentally and physically (very plausible). Her mother, a housewife already unhappy with her marriage, has an affair with the detective in charge of the investigation (less plausible). Meanwhile, Susie is adapting to her heaven – while also realizing that she won’t grow up and will miss out on so much in life.

The problems began here, since a protagonist who can’t really do anything isn’t going to be very gripping – and a murder mystery that will never really be solved is probably not going to help. Susie is a precocious and sympathetic character, but she has no flaws and no obstacles to overcome in her heaven.

There is a chapter towards the end that seems to have been included to compensate for this, where Susie falls back to earth, possesses the body of another girl and has sex with the boy who gave her her first kiss. It’s a bit like Ray Bradbury’s “The April Witch”, but the characters in that story ring true. In this chapter, I didn’t buy it.

And Susie’s heaven, while clearly meant to be a beautiful and welcoming place with fields of flowers, gazebos, music, friendly dogs, etc. was a little like a Thomas Kinkade painting. Attractive scenery, but there’s not much depth or events of consequence. There are hints that there’s more to eternity than a pretty, perfect world, but I don’t recall anything more than these hints.

After the second half of the book I started skimming. Sebold’s style is much like Susie’s heaven; it’s sweet and flowery to compensate for the fact that very little is happening. There’s a lot of symbolism, much of it to do with the ocean – and the salmon is the fish that has a long journey before it finally reaches its home, and dies. So I’m pleased that I read this book… but I can’t see myself reading it again.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Five even more expensive ways to be printed

Inspired by the recent Harlequin developments, I searched for more vanity presses and found an even heftier price tag for vanity publishing than xLibris’s $13K Platinum Package. This post is the sequel to Five expensive ways to be printed and Five more expensive ways to get into print.

We’ll start with the cheapest, though. That’s the upfront vanity arm of a “traditional publishing company” created by an ex-PA author.

1. Publish4U, $725

As well as calling itself self-publishing to appear more palatable, this press’s spiel includes the usual claims – self-publishing is the wave of the future, commercial publishers don’t want you unless you’re a celebrity, etc.

Wait! There's more ... you will also receive 15 copies of your book, gratis! Our gift to you.

And you’ll only have to sell each book for $48.33 to recoup your investment.

2. Pinnacle Package, AuthorHouse $1999

That’s the basic fee for this package. There’s an additional $500 to have the printing expedited, and editing can be up to $0.084/word. Which may not seem like a lot, put this way, but that means editing for my 116,000-word manuscript Before the Storm would cost $9744.

3. EntryWay Publishing $2500

Entry Way Marketing will retain 10-25 copies of the book (for which the writer paid? -- Marian) in order to help you sell the books. Of these books, 5 or more will be designated towards booksigning events. When a booksigning event is scheduled, 10 of the books will be shipped ahead of time to the bookstore location so that you will not have to worry with getting them there. This amount automatically ensures you two book events.

What’s really scary, after reading the above paragraph, is that this operation charges for editing as well.

4. Video Plus Package, Westbow Press $6499

This package includes “80 Free Paperback Copies” and “20 Free Hardcover Copies”. I’m glad they’re free. Imagine how much they would cost if you didn’t fork over $6500 for them.

You also get a “Complimentary Author Copy” and a “Windshield Flyer”. Apparently just the one, maybe so you can sell your one Complimentary Author Copy.

5. The Writers’ Collective $18,000

If I hadn’t read it for myself, I might not have believed it.

Our authors typically pay an average of $2k-$3k for pre-press charges which include a digital galley run. Add another $10k for a 5000 copy print run (hard cover) and $5k for a publicist, and you’re up to about $18,000, paid out over the year it takes to launch the book.

Plus, this has got to be one of the most unprofessional websites I’ve ever seen, even for a vanity press. The “What’s New” page leads to an article about how the “publisher” lost 65 pounds with some sort of aquatic aerobic exercise.

Writers, of course, stand to lose a whole lot more.

Monday, November 23, 2009

The Language of Love and Respect

Back in the ‘90s, I read a few books on the Christian view of marriage. I requested Emerson Eggerichs’ The Language of Love and Respect from Thomas Nelson to see if it offered any new advice, and also because – according to the blurb – it dealt with communication between couples. I’d hoped for something a little more egalitarian than books published a decade or two ago.

Unfortunately, the problems with this book are twofold. Firstly, the theme is a repackage of the “Men are from Mars, women are from Venus” idea, except the author presents it as “men are blue, women are pink”. While there are differences between men and women – in general – I’m not sure that these always apply, and what the genders have in common is just as important as what’s different. Maybe even more so.

The references to “your pink wife” and “Pinkie” also struck me as somewhat patronizing. Then again, this book is subtly misogynistic, which is my second concern. For instance, on page 145, wives are cautioned against behaving in a “masculine” manner. Are husbands told not to be “feminine”? No, they’re warned about being “effeminate”.

This book takes it for granted that men are providers, such that their wives should respect and thank them for it. On the other hand, when women work outside the home, this is a pass-the-time deal; they don’t need to discuss their jobs or be praised for anything they accomplish in this field. Here are some “energizing remarks” that the book suggests women can make to their husbands:

“You’ve made it possible for me to be a full-time mom… Let’s set aside some time tonight just for us. I want to hear about what’s happening at work.”

In an economic recession where both spouses may well need to work, this seems belittling to me. Though it’s not as bad as the advice on sex.

Regardless of how a husband communicates his need for sex, the best approach is for a wife to realize that his need for sexuality is usually one of his strongest and she should try to meet that need even if she doesn’t feel like it.

Perhaps she can lie back and think of England.

What about the rest of the book? It can be summed up in a lot fewer than 355 pages – men, love your wives unconditionally, and women, respect your husbands unconditionally. And what if your spouse, for whatever reason, doesn’t deserve such unwavering devotion? If your spouse is an addict or promiscuous or beats your children? Love or respect them unconditionally anyway, because you’ll be rewarded in heaven for it. The same blanket solution applies to the vast, vast spectrum of marital problems.

Because of this, I think this book would work well for a small segment of Christian couples – those who share the author’s views and who don’t have any serious problems in their marriages. For everyone else, I wouldn’t recommend it.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Harlequin Horizons

I’ve been reading about Harlequin's new vanity press imprint for a little while now, but this is the first time I’ve visited its website.

The intent behind creating Harlequin Horizons is to give more aspiring romance writers and women’s fiction writers the opportunity to publish their books and achieve their dreams without going through the submission process with a traditional publishing house.

Well, at least they don’t claim that they’re offering writers the opportunity to reach readers, have their books in stores or recoup their investment (much less make any money). Harlequin Horizons offers writers five packages :

Basic $599
Horizons $799
Aspirations $999
Marketing Plus $1199
Booksellers $1599

The last time I saw a table like this, I was searching for vanity presses to include in my regular “five expensive ways to get into print” post. I would never have expected to see something similar under the umbrella of an actual publisher… and there are additional charges for editing, marketing and so on. Such as a personalized email campaign for $12,000.

And there’s the “Hollywood Book Trailer” for $20,000.

Harlequin is likely to profit. The allure of its brand will overcome the upfront cost for some (if not many) writers, and Harlequin holds out the carrot of picking up certain books for commercial publication. Which books would those be?

While there is no guarantee that if you publish with Harlequin Horizons you will picked up for traditional publishing, Harlequin will monitor sales of books published through Harlequin Horizons for possible pick-up by its traditional imprints.

I wonder if any writers will buy up their own books in bulk so that Harlequin will consider them.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Inappropriate descriptions

I’m back! Finally recovered and caught up on the classwork I missed while I was ill. NaNo is shot, of course. Especially since I’m also on the first round of edits for the manuscript Samhain Publishing accepted. But I did manage to get around 4000 words of the new novel done, and I’ll keep writing.

Plus, I did a bit of reading while I was recuperating, which was when I found an, um, interesting use of description. It was a paragraph describing how the heroine happened to be an orphan, and it read something like this.

Her father had shot her mother three times in the chest with a Winchester pump-action 12 gauge shotgun before putting a .357 caliber bullet in her head.

Focusing on the hardware rather than the humanity is not a good way to make readers connect emotionally to a character. In fact, presenting a traumatic event in this police-report way is likely to have the opposite effect. Either the readers will detach from the story, or they’ll wonder if the author has a gun fetish, or both.

This technique’s distaff counterpart is the detailed description of the characters’ clothes and accessories. It has its place – Confessions of a Shopaholic and the Gossip Girl novels wouldn’t be the same without their brand-name references. But with the Shopaholic novels, the description recedes as the tension ramps up. And the Gossip Girl novels maintain the same flip, breezy tone no matter what’s happening to the characters, so the descriptions don’t seem wildly inappropriate.

Sometimes it’s necessary to include such details. Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackalwould not have been the same without the meticulous listing of everything the Jackal buys as he plans the shooting of President de Gaulle. But that listing comes well before the actual assassination attempt, and only after the readers have been hooked on the situation and on the calm, dangerous assassin.

Most writers enjoy writing some kind of description – with me, it’s scientific equipment and clothes – but this has to be held in check and used in the correct place. Much like the Winchester pump-action 12 gauge shotgun, come to think about it.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Woe is I

I thought the only book on grammar that I would ever need was Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style (Original Edition). It probably still is, but there’s another that I just plain want, and that’s Patricia T. O’Conner’s Woe Is I.

This book is filled with useful advice and examples, but is also a breezy, amusing read. I like the wrongly constructed sentences such as “Already housebroken, the Queen brought home a new corgi”. Other examples draw on characters from both P. G. Wodehouse and The Simpsons.

If a sentence has a smaller sentence within it (surrounded by dashes or parentheses), don’t use a period to end the “inside” sentence: When Apu made him an offer – “I could use some help around the store” – he accepted.

The book also discusses grammatical rules which may no longer be in effect (e.g. “never split an infinitive”) and includes a section at the start about why English is so complicated compared to languages such as Esperanto. It would be a good addition to a writer’s bookshelf – and a great gift to someone who needs help with grammar but doesn’t want anything dry or didactic.

Because a book with sections titled “Metaphors Be With You” and “Comma Sutra” is anything but.


The title “Woe is I” sums up how I’m feeling right now. I caught what hopefully isn’t the flu last week and am trying to recover before classes start again on Monday… and before the Anatomy practical test on Tuesday. So NaNo (and pretty much everything else) is on the shelf right now.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Five uses for snakes in fantasy

The use of snakes in symbolism is fascinating. Eternity is depicted as the Ouroboros, a snake biting its own tail, and the snake’s body can be in the shape of a figure-8 turned on its side, which is the symbol for infinity. And the snake is the guardian of the tree which gives humankind the gift of the knowledge of good and evil. Or as Satan’s fleshly guise, it tempts them to their first sin, depending on your point of view.

Snakes aren’t too well represented in speculative fiction, though. They (or their derivations, such as snake-people) tend to be evil, but there’s a great deal more potential to them. So here are a few uses for snakes in fantasy.

1. As shapechangers

Speaking of the bible, remember what happens when Moses throws his staff down before Pharaoh’s court? Even with fairly primitive special effects - compared to what modern CGI is capable of doing - this looked very cool when I watched it in the de Mille production of The Ten Commandments.

Snakes could use this ability to hide from prey and predators alike, and there are so many long straight objects into which they could transform – signposts, spears, even the columns of buildings if the snake was large enough (pythons, constrictors, etc).

2. As medical aids

I first read Vonda N. McIntyre’s Dreamsnake when I was fourteen, so I didn’t understand much of it. But I liked the heroine’s profession. An itinerant healer in a world blasted by nuclear war, she doesn’t have a lot of medical equipment, but she has three snakes (a cobra, a rattlesnake and the titular dreamsnake) whose venom she can alter for medicinal purposes while using their fangs as natural hypodermic needles.

I’d love to see something else along these lines, especially if the snakes’ poison did something unusual. The dreamsnake’s venom, for instance, is hallucinogenic. Maybe other snakes have venom that’s anesthetic, or which causes obedience and pliability: the fantasy version of Thorazine.

3. As defenders

A snake once spread its hood to shade the Buddha as he slept. In thanks, he marked the snake with a symbol on its hood – which all cobras now have.

Unfortunately, even when snakes appear in fantasy as protective familiars, they tend to do so for the villains (e.g. Nagini, from the Harry Potter novels). I’d like to see them in more positive roles, tamed or befriended by the protagonists.

By the way, in Tanith Lee’s Delusion's Master, the gods deal with people’s hatred and fear of the snake by altering his body: they give him four legs, a tail, pointy ears and soft fur. People love this new animal, the cat, and don’t notice that he has the snake’s slit-pupilled eyes and tendency to hiss when he’s angry.

4. As hunters

This one’s simple. Just train the snakes to return home after a meal and then make them regurgitate whatever they’ve swallowed.

5. As dwellings

At first I thought of the bones of giant snakes being used as the frameworks of houses – the ribs could be pillars – but why not take it one step further? Let the snakes be alive. If the people living in them were intimately connected to the snakes’ nervous systems, like the pilots of the Leviathans in Farscape, they could sense what the snakes detected and change their directions of movement.

Of course, they wouldn’t be able to do too much if the snake was really determined to engage an enemy. I’m thinking the “Battle speed. Attack speed. Ramming speed!” scene in Ben-Hur, except, you know, from the point of view of people living inside a giant semi-sentient snake.

Only a few modifications would be needed – dwelling cavities other than those in the alimentary canal, a ventilation system and ways to exit the snake other than the cloaca. Maybe multiple openings in the snake’s side which can be closed in an emergency? I’d also love a scene where the dwellers lure their enemies or prey into the (disguised) maw of the snake.

And when we fell together
all our flesh was like a veil
that I had to draw aside to see
the serpent eat its tail.
Leonard Cohen

Monday, November 2, 2009

Emotional outbursts

From characters, not writers. I recently read a critique of a story which included this caution, since the author explained that the characters (who were the gods of mythology) were extremely emotional.

Be careful with this. Your gods may come across as unstable teenagers with insane emotional reactions. In mythology the gods were very reaction-prone, but keep in mind those are old stories, colored by the storyteller to entertain an audience that did not have TV or movies or cheap books.

This made sense to me, since an excess of emotion can easily edge over into melodrama. On the other hand, the less-is-more approach doesn’t always work. One reason I love Gone With the Wind
is Scarlett’s passion, especially in the early scene where Ashley rejects her and she smashes a china statue. It doesn’t come off as unrealistic or melodramatic. So, what makes the difference?

1. The character has a good reason to act this way.

Scarlett is an unstable teenager. If she had been a powerful being who had lived for hundreds of years, like the Valar of The Silmarillion
, I’d expect her to be more mature, but she’s sixteen and in calf love, so she gets a pass on her volatile behavior.

2. The character is not always dramatic and emotional.

What’s interesting about Scarlett’s behavior in that part of Gone with the Wind is that she doesn’t continue being violent and out of control. Instead, after she realizes that Ashley doesn’t want her and that the other guests are talking about her flirtatious behavior, she closes herself off instead. And in a detached way, she decides to marry a man she despises, just to show that she doesn’t care about Ashley.

She’s still irrational, of course, still making decisions that are very wrong and which will end up having repercussions for the rest of her life. But she’s doing this in a way that’s completely different from her previously open, emotional state. There’s variety, in other words – and a hint that despite her immaturity, she’s capable of being cold and manipulative.

3. The character is contrasted with others who are more rational.

Contrasting volatile characters with calm stoic ones can be a great deal of fun for writers. I enjoy the interactions between the main characters of Matthew Woodring Stover’s Iron Dawn – the heroine, Barra, is short-tempered and often explosive, but her partners are both calm and steady in their own ways.

Sober dispassionate characters act as great foils for the more emotional ones.

4. The scene itself is more than just an emotional deluge.

When the emotion takes center stage without interesting characterization or humor or a gripping plot as counterbalance, it can seem angsty or soap-opera-esque.

I recently read a Meet Cute scene where the hero pays for a few of the heroine’s groceries after his dog pounces on her in a store. Her response was to get worked up and call him a “horrible man”, which is not really the kind of passion that endears me to a protagonist. Charged confrontations, occuring for good reasons, usually go down better than teenage tantrums.


NANO OUTPUT : 1396 words. Got to write more!

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Obstacles Welcome

As a (relatively new) immigrant to Canada, I enjoy reading Spunky Immigrant Makes Good stories. So when I browsed the first few pages of Obstacles Welcome: How to Turn Adversity into Advantage in Business and in Life online, and realized the author, Ralph de la Vega, had left Cuba alone at the age of ten to eventually become the CEO of AT&T Mobility, I had to read further. Thomas Nelson sent me this book as part of the Book Review Bloggers program.

I loved the sections of the book which dealt with immigrant-related issues.

The US government had a food program for Cuban refugees that consisted of blocks of cheddar cheese and containers of Spam-like meat the size of paint cans.

de la Vega describes what enabled him and his family (who eventually joined him in the States) to rise above their circumstances. As well as their adaptability – they learned English and worked hard at jobs to which they weren’t accustomed – they placed an emphasis on staying in school. For them, degrees led to opportunity, and one of the themes in this book is that nearly everything can lead to opportunities of different kinds. de la Vega didn’t have money, but he had dreams, determination and the willingness to step well out of his comfort zone.

“Be comfortable with being uncomfortable”, in other words.

The immigrant issues span the first three chapters of the book, and the rest deals with business situations such how At&T achieved sales in Latin American markets, and the merging of Cingular with AT&T Wireless. This would probably be helpful to readers who are more interested in business. There’s a great deal about a company’s vision, its treatment of customers and how leaders can inspire the people around them, although nothing struck me as really groundbreaking here.

So my favorite part is still the start, where, in Miami, a ten-year-old boy who can’t speak English (no ESL programs those days) wonders if God is punishing him. Then he picks himself up and goes on from there to lay the foundations of the American Dream.