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The Holidays and the regretful respect of Dickens

I cant believe it’s been over a month since the last post!  It’s back into the busy times again, with work piling up, the mornings getting earlier and the evenings getting later.  Still, despite all that, there is something truly wonderful about this time of year.  There is a hum in the air, a mysticism floating on the wind.  From Halloween through Christmas day there is a definitive nostalgia, and lately I’ve been wondering about what books to read to feed into this nostalgia.

The strange thing for me is that whenever I think of a Christmas read, I always come back to Dickens  What’s surreal about this is I don’t even really like Dickens.  To me it seems a shame that the man got paid by the word to write his novels in serial form, because invariably his books became droll and drawn out.

Even with this realization, we have have a trope named after the man, and there’s no better nomenclature for December other than Dickensian.  It’s dreary, but somehow hopeful.  Totally overwhelming, but somehow comforting.  Completely serious, but somehow infused with whimsy.

I’m in the process of reading Bleak House by Dickens, and where the name is apropos, it is also completely ridiculous.  This is something I’m finding more and more with Dickens the more of his work I read.  As droll as he can be.  As long winded.  He still hits the notes he’s striving for.

This brings about the regretful respect, because I keep getting brought back to him.  After every book I read of his (Bleak House will be my fifth), I think how bored and angered I am at his writing style.  Then time passes and the only thing that sticks is those characters and events and the recollection of the rabbit holes he falls into disappear.  What remains is the whimsy and pride and adventure infused within the pages.

This is why Dickens reminds me so much of the Holiday season.  Though there may be hard times, there may be strife, there may be frustration, but once you’ve been through it, the only thing that sticks is the whimsy and the wonder.


Stories to put you in the mood for Halloween

This time of year is the best time of year.  You move from the gaiety of Summer into the comfort of Fall.  This is the time of year that people come together.  This is the time of year that people gather around the kitchen table, or the fire place and talk and tell stories.  This is the time of year for mystery and imagination.  This is the time of year for ghosts, goblins, witches and ghouls, but it is also the time for wonder, love, and mystics.

So this list of recommendations is for Halloween.  Bear in mind that Halloween is not about Horror, although that plays a part.  Halloween is a celebration of the unknown.  It is an aknowledgement of our fears and an accumulation of love for those close to us and those we have lost.

Halloween is Gothic.  Halloween is mysterious.  Halloween is horrifying.  Halloween is fun.

So here is your list…enjoy…if you dare!

10.  “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” by Ambrose Bierce

Set during the end of the Civil War, this decidedly Gothic tale follows a Confederate soldier who miraculously escapes his execution.  Beautifully told, remarkably human and emotional, and yet powerfully cruel, this short story will put your brain in the right mindset for the coming holiday.  With a brutal twist ending that will shock you.

This story was the only “Twilight Zone” episode filmed in Europe and one of the very, very few that were not written by Richard Matheson, nor Rod Serling.

9.  “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” by Robert Louis Stevenson

Subtext abounds in this morality tale.  More about the duality of human nature than an actual monster tale, but then again thats what Halloween is all about.  Dressing up as something else to trick others.  The real question in the book though is which one is the real person, is it Jekyll…or Hyde?

8.  “The Picture of Dorian Gray” by Oscar Wilde

Another story about the masks we wear.  Dark and absolutely Gothic, this book is beautifully told and very nearly asks to be read by candlelight.  A faustian like tale that can spark the imagination, and with a full moon shining in through the window, you’ll get the full effect of Halloween.

7.  “Hell House”  By Richard Matheson

Matheson absolutely has to be on this list  and I’ve chosen this one because horror is a staple of Halloween and this is the most terrifying book I’ve ever read.  It follows a group of Scientists trying to debunk a haunted house.  With a twist ending that will keep you up through Halloween, you have to read this book…but only if you aren’t feint of heart.

6.  “The Haunting of Hill House”  by Shirley Jackson

To follow up Matheson’s haunted house tale, is Shirley Jackson’s masterpiece.  Beautifully told, this story is less a horror story and more of an American Gothic story.  Dont get me wrong, there are still horror elements to the tale, but this one is much more subtle and a bit more haunting.  This is the perfect book to read on Halloween night.

5.  “Salems’ Lot” by Stephen King

I struggled with the idea of putting Stephen King on this list because it just seemed so obvious, but this is the book to be on a Halloween list if there ever was one.  Everything takes place in the town and the horror just rises as the story progresses.  It even has an expedition to a potentially haunted (though it was much more malicious than that) house, which, in my youth was a Halloween staple.

4.  “Halloweenland” by Al Sarrantonio

This is actually the third book int he series of Detective Bill Grant, but it’s enough of a stand alone that I thought it more prudent here.  This book has it all (though not as well written or produced as some of the other books on the list), A carnival, Halloween night, and Samhain himself (though under a different name).  Just a fun way to get in the mood for Halloween.

3.”Dark Harvest” by Norman Partridge

The October Boy comes alive…This book is very short, but extremely fun.  The winner of the Bram Stoker award in 2006, this book is about The October Boy, or a creature who rises from a pumpkin patch and tries to kill (He even has a jack-o-lantern head).  The catch is the young men in the town are also trying to kill him.  An excellent morality tale and a book which throws classic horror standards on their head.

2.  “Something Wicked This Way Comes” by Ray Bradbury

There is nothing like a Carnival to bring you into the mood of Halloween.  Especially a supernatural carnival.  Another book which is beautifully written and does a spectacular job  highlighting the mood for young people and for bringing the nostalgia of the wonder and imagination back to the adults who read it.

1. “October Dreams” edited by Richard Chizmar and Robert Morrish

The Ultimate Halloween book.  This book has a number of short stories which are collected by Chizmar (The editor/operator of Cemetery Dance Magazine: http://www.cemeterydance.com), nostalgia and October dreamer extraordinaire.  This book not only has short stories from the leaders in the horror genre, but it also has the favorite memories of some of these genre giants.  Ever wonder what Ray Bradbury remembers best about Halloween?  Here it is.


The art of cohesion

Currently, I’m in the middle of writing the tenth book in the Elsie Jones Adventures (The first of which will release in the spring of next year), and I’ve been thinking more and more about process.  The closer I get to the fifteenth book (The concluding book of the series) , the more difficult it is to write the books because there is so much more that goes into them.

The first three were pure adventures.  They each had a beginning middle and end, and for the fifteen book arc, I could act like a writer from the TV series Lost and make up anything I wanted to.  Books four, five, and six got to explore the over all story arc while still being complete adventures, but I still didn’t have to bring things together.  Then in books seven, eight, and nine, realizations began to take place and the over all story arc became clear.  Now writing book ten I’m having trouble with a clear vision to the end.

My writers group, The Live Poets Society, contains a mixture of writing concepts.  There are those that write only what’s on their mind at the time and then go back later and bring it all together, there are those that write from start to finish with an arc in mind, and then there’s me, who comes up with a complete outline before writing a single word in the story.

I know the main contention to writing an outline first.  People tell me all the time.

“I don’t want to be contained.  If I get into some good writing I don’t want to have to keep it to the outline.”

Believe me I felt the same way before I had a writing contract.

Writing an outline first is like doing your due diligence in a research project. The outline is the creative outlet.  when you’re writing an outline, you get to come up with the plot line.  You are not bound by having to deal with language or grammar, you are not bound by having to keep your own thoughts out of the text.  You can do whatever you want to, then when you’re done, you have a complete story arc, not just a beginning, and end and some random scenes you really want to write.

When I first started writing Elsie Jones I wrote from the cuff.  I had a vague idea of what I wanted and I wrote what came to me, flowing through my fingers onto the screen.  Now I have the outline to make sure that things don’t get too screwy.

Do I always stick to the outline with zeal?  No.  Things always come up when you’re writing, but outlining is a great way to brainstorm and keep your thoughts linear.  When you have a complicated subplot that ranges over fifteen books, but each book has to be a contained adventure all it’s own you get a bit bogged down in the minutia.  The only way out of it is to outline.

Give it a shot.  Do some outlining of your own.  See how it strikes you.  I guarantee your stories will be better and more cohesive.


The Rise of Literary Reading

I’ve recently read a couple of articles which have struck cords with me.  The first was from the Washington Post (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2016/09/07/the-long-steady-decline-of-literary-reading/) and the second was from a website called read it forward (https://www.readitforward.com/essay/article/list-books-saved-life/).  The Washington post article was basically talking about how people don’t read literature anymore and the second article was how literature saved the authors life.

We’ve become such an interesting society that everything has to be an all or nothing.  You have to either read literature or not.  You have to like a political candidate or you have to hate them.

This is a topic which could go on for a long time, but I’m going to narrow the focus to follow along the lines of literature.

In my opinion, society needs literature, and I don’t say that because I’m a writer and I think that it’s survival is necessary to my survival as a writer, or because of some nostalgic feeling I have.  Society needs literature because literature makes you think, and that is something that is seriously lacking in our culture at the moment.

We take things as people give them to us.  You read an article from the Washington Post and all of the sudden you’re worried about books being in decline; and yes, at a quick glance it does seem disturbing that there are virtually no literary authors on the top money lists.  HOWEVER, you must understand that the money lists which are written out by Forbes are entirely skewed.

The idea of a money-list is ridiculous, and also the idea of a books purchased list is equally absurd.  The reason is availability and accessibility.  You can say that literary reading is in decline since the 1800’s because no body reads those types of books anymore.  That’s wrong for two reasons.  1.  Dickens in his time was considered popular fiction…NOT literature, and 2.  How many times do you walk into an airport and find Proust on the shelf?

Literary reading is on the rise, not the decline.  Just look at Jonathan Franzen, who is holistically a literary author.  When he wrote “The Corrections” and famously snubbed Oprah Winfrey, he was one of the top grossing authors of the year.  The only reason he was however was because Oprah mentioned him and people ran out in droves to read it, that and the millions he won from literary awards.

The problem isn’t literature and its rise or fall, but in how the media perceives it.  If the Washington Post came out with an article saying how more people than ever were reading literature and three titles were amongst the top (for my own edification I’ll say these three “Freedom” by Jonathan Franzen, “A Hologram for the King” by Dave Eggers, and “Cloud Atlas” by David Mitchell {runner up to “Art of Fielding” by Chad Harbach}) then those three titles would be best sellers.

Once that happened then more people would be writing articles like Jonathan Russell Clark wrote about how literature and reading saved his life.  People would think more.  People would analyze situations better.  People wouldn’t be so trusting of one source, but they would look for the counter argument.

You heard it here first.  Literature is on the rise.  There is a reason Barnes and Noble is still around, years after E-readers saturated the market.  I challenge you to read a literature title.  One that makes you think.  One that makes you analyze it’s meaning.  One that makes you question your own reality.


A New Spring

“I don’t need to tell you that writers sometimes get ideas which practical-minded individuals regard as chimerical” – Henry Miller

 

I just finished reading “The Grapes of Wrath” for the first time (I know, I know, I’m way to old and love Steinbeck way too much not to have read this earlier, but bear with me), and while I was reading it people kept saying “Oh man, Steinbeck is SOOOOOO depressing!”  Every-time this happened I would give a demure smile and a slight nod, because I half believed them.  I love Steinbeck because of his readability, his tone, and his brief and wonderful, bright bursts of beautiful, insightful writing, but people don’t get this from him because of his content.

As my eyes scanned over the last few words of “The Grapes of Wrath” and I shut the book, my mind began to scan for potential meaning behind the final few pages.  Were they depressing?  Yes.  Was the book dark and dreary?  Probably.  But there is an image which sticks in my mind, even now, hours after finishing it.  It’s such a small thing that most people who read the book probably will focus on the death and uncertainty which is prevalent…and they wouldn’t be wrong.  The Joads go through so much throughout this book, that I actually felt like each chapter was going to end in another heartbreak, another setback.  Then there was that image right there at the end, which changed the tone of the entire book.

Ruthie found a flower.

That was it.  Ruthie found a flower.

What stuck with me was the symbolism of it.  Steinbeck writes this book alternating chapters between the story of the Joads and a social commentary, and the downer of this book comes to an end with that flower.  The last couple of the lines of the last bit of the commentary are as follows:  “And the women sighed with relief, for they knew it was all right-the break had not come;and the break would never come as long as fear could turn to wrath.

Tiny points of grass came through the earth, and in a few days the hills were pale green with the beginning year.”

Spring is a time of re-birth.  The breaking of spirit would not come, because through the depths of despair comes the realization that you’re alive.  Sometimes you have to hit rock bottom before you realize what you have in front of you.  The harder the winter, the darker and colder it gets, the brighter the spring.  The ground needs the snow and the cold to be able to have a re-birth, to bring about spring and spring is hope.

Sometimes horrible things happen to you.  Sometimes life is depressing.  Sometimes life is almost too much to overcome.  But as long as there is determination, as long as there is hope; one day while you’re walking on the broken pieces of what you thought your life should be, you’ll find a flower, and a new spring will bloom.


Top Ten Autumn Books

I read these stupid posts, from these blog sites who want to be real news, and every time I think to myself, “I can compile a list so much better than that!”  Half of the books seem to be listed because they’re popular, not because of the subject matter, and it seems as though the author of the article hasn’t even read them.  And the other half seem to come out of left field.

So here is my foray into the world.  It could be horrible, it could be insightful, I just hope it inspires people to read some books that they might not have read before.

I’m choosing my top ten books to get in the spirit of Fall, mostly because it’s my favorite time of year, but also because of the broad range of books that will fit.  This is the time of changing seasons, of baseball, of melancholy, of the beginning of school.  This is the time where you take that last trip to that browning mid-west field, that last trip to the tire swing at the lake, before it gets just too cold.  This is the time of year for nostalgia.  These ten books will have some or all of these qualities.

10.  “West of Here” by Jonathan Evison

This is a beautifully written novel portraying a life of the town Port Bonita.  There is some jumping around between time frames, but you get the feeling of a wonderful Autumnal read.  Broad sweeping landscapes including everything from watermills and flumes, starting from people trying to live a life in the old west, to the modern time and how people just want to disappear.  The novel drips with nostalgia, and is a perfect read for early September, to get you in the mood to sit next to the fire and dream of the soft, colorful, chilly fall.

9.  “Lonesome Dove” by Larry McMurtry

I don’t think this list could be complete without this epic western.  Every time I drive through the country of California and see the broad waves of grain and browning fields, this novel always comes to mind.  It’s about a cattle drive to the north, which starts in the late summer and goes through fall and into winter.  There is death and despair, there are shootouts and classic western dialog, but this novel won a Pulitzer for a reason; it is a perfect slice of life of Americana, and it will bring you into Autumn.

8. “The Book of Lost Things” by John Connelly

I personally have to have a book on this list which has a bit of magical realism and a bit of fairy tale.  This is a slightly tragic tale of a young boy who takes solace in his books, so much so that he is brought into them; into a sort of fairy tale land and has adventures.  My first instinct in creating this list was to include “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe”, but I thought I could find a book that had that autumnal feel without going down an overused road, and “The Book of Lost Things” is it.

7.  “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” by John Berendt

This is the only non-fiction book on here, and where there could be some which are better, I cant think of a better setting to move into October and the fall, than Savannah.  There is old magic in Savannah and that is part of this books charm.  There is even a scene where the narrator heads into a cemetery and interviews (or tries to at least) a “witch woman”.  Filled with intrigue and dripping with atmosphere, you cant go wrong with this one.

6.  “Needful Things” by Stephen King

Yep, there is a bit of horror on this list, though this one I wouldn’t really consider all that scary.  This is the “last Castle Rock story”, where the devil comes to Castle Rock and opens up a curio shop.  This story is another that you can really curl up by a fire and get into fall.  It’s a small town feel, with incredible description and unforgettable characters, then you have the magic of a curio store called, yep you guessed it, “Needful Things”, and if there was ever a secondhand store that didn’t have a nostalgic feel, I don’t know what does.

5.  “Water for Elephants” By Sara Gruen

Train jumping, The Dust Bowl, a traveling circus and a tragic love story.  This isn’t much more you need for a good Autumn book.  The atmosphere is all consuming and the characters are full and lush and the story is beautiful.  You can actually (figuratively) see the changing of the leaves while reading this one.

4.  “Bethany’s Sin”  By Robert McCammon

This one piggy backs the King book.  It is the last horror story on the list.  This is the story of  small town.  It’s beautiful, socked in by trees, the neighbors are nice and come to your doorstep with pies.  This is the quintessential small town nostalgia, perfect for fall.  On top of that it has all the hidden secrets and horrors that a small town needs to have to be a good autumn book.  It all starts with the sounds of horses hooves pounding through the town at night…

3.  “Old School” by Tobias Wolff

The easiest comparison to this novella would be to “The Dead Poets Society”.  This book takes place in a preparatory academy, and really, what is a list about autumnal books without having a book about going to school?  This is a beautiful and literary book and will only take you an afternoon to read it, but just wonderful.

2.  “For the Love of the Game” by Michael Shaara

So if an Autumn list isn’t complete without a book about school, then it really isn’t complete without a book about baseball.  This is a wonderful novella told through the course of one game.  It tells of a lifetime of ups and downs.  A life time of love and loss.  A lifetime of baseball, and where we head into October and the playoffs, I cant think of a better book to read.

1. “The Cider House Rules” by John Irving

This had to be my number one book for a seasonal book.  Even though the book takes place over a much longer time period than one season, there is such feeling and melancholy layered in this book.  Apples are finally ripe in the fall and this book centers around an orphanage and a cider house.  You can see the colors while you’re reading through the book and on top of that Irving has such a deft pen, that you get to know these characters like no other.  This book is the ultimate and will get you in the spirit of fall.

 


The stylizing of reading

I worked in a bookstore for a number of years and during that time I wondered what people bought books for.  The conclusion I have drawn over all this time is that people read books for three reasons.  The first is that they don’t want to miss out on what’s popular (a condition my wife lovingly calls a FOMO…fear of missing out.  This is an oversimplification of the category, but I think you understand the meaning.), this is how such shlocky writing such as 50 Shades of Gray came into popularity.  It wasn’t that it was original, nor was it good (or even OK writing, frankly the chapter I read was just plain, bad.  Poor character construction, poor grammar, poor sentence construction, etc, etc.), but it was brought up on a morning talk show and it blew up in popularity.

The second reason people pick up books is the travel read.  Though i call this the travel read, it’s real range is much farther.  This is the book that people pick up to read on the airplane yes, but it’s also the book that people pick up as mindless entertainment (as much as reading can be mindless).  This is the category for such authors as James Patterson.  People pick him up because it’s easy to read, with super short chapters and simple language.  This is the largest reading group, because it’s about simple entertainment.  This is the reality TV category of reading.  When you want to read, but you don’t want to think and just want the story to be laid out for you in a simple and entertaining fashion.  Most times these books are flat but accessible.  The characters are one note tropes (the detective that just has one last case before retiring, the ambitious journalist who just needs to get that story, etc.), and the dialog is trite and simple, but they hit all the right notes that the readers want.  These are the definition of cookie cutter.

The last group is the serious reader.  This is cut up into two categories.  The first is the “Librarian reader” and the second is the “Academia reader”.

The Librarian reader is the reader who just loves to read.  This is the person who prefers reading to watching TV.  This is a person who is an indiscriminate reader.  This person will read anything from the Twilight Series to “Huckleberry Finn”.  From “The Girl on the Train” to “Little Women”.  This is the category I fall under.  It’s the category of person who just loves to read and partially studies the reading.  It doesn’t really matter what the Genre is, this person will read anything.  Personally I go so far as to finish everything.  Even if I hate it.  I look for anything redeeming about the book.  I look for plot sub-devices, I look for character development and depth, I look for subsumed nuances in theme, I look for grammatical and paragraph structure acumen.  This may seem strange to some people, but it’s because I love the medium so much.  I love everything about reading and writing, and most times when I get to sit down and read or write, it’s the highlight of my day.  I understand that I’m a strange subset of this Librarian reader because I straddle the line of the Academia reader.

To that end, the Academia reader is the person who studies the text.  This is a person who reads only Philosophy (if you’re reading this you know someone like this); the person who looks down on James Patterson and abhors E.L. James.  The person who studies the text and looks for extra nuance.  The person who has read “Notes from the Underground” and “Atlas Shrugged” 42 times.  This is a person who can quote text from Schopenhauer, Shakespeare and Cicero.  They look less for the structure of the book and more for the meaning.  They look at Grammar as subtext instead of an interesting way to structure.  This person is a philosopher at heart and will stay with a book for a year at a time.  They may not read a lot of books, but they know more about what they know than anyone.

So which is it?  Which category do you fall under?  What type of reader have you always wanted to be?  What type of reader do you aspire to?  And for all those writers and people who want to be writers, which is the category you think is the most important to be a writer?


I just can’t put it down!

It’s late in the day and with all the construction that’s been going on in my house, I’ve only now had a chance to sit down and write tonight.  I thought I might pick a few genre’s and pick a book that I feel is a must read in that category.  Disagree?  Lets talk about it over twitter,Facebook, or Goodreads (or respond to the blog!)!

https://www.facebook.com/seanmmcbrideauthor/

https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/1553528.Sean_McBride

 

Literature:  John Irving  “A Prayer for Owen Meany”

I’m convinced that this is the best of Irving’s many works.  Irving has an amazing capacity to make a character realistic, more so that any other author out there.  What’s more amazing is that he makes you love them.  His characters are always flawed (which is probably what makes them so real), but because of those flaws the characters become your friends.  Owen Meany is no different, but what makes this book stand out is it’s structure.  Like Chekhov said if there’s a gun in the first act it has to go off by act five.  This book opened my eyes to what real literature should be.  Read it.

 

Fantasy:  Brandon Sanderson “Mistborn, The Final Empire”

This is the first book of a trilogy (and a much broader spectrum of books under the mantle of Mistborn), but you can read this one as a stand alone.  What starts off as a heist book, evolves into something so unique, epic and beautiful that it’s hard to put down, even with its 500 plus pages.  People talk all the time about book hangovers.  Where you put the book down and you are so satisfied that you are actually a little depressed because you didn’t want it to be over.  This is that book.

 

Horror:  Richard Matheson  “Hell House”

In a genre where things have gotten so trite and the writing so dime store, it has gotten very hard to find a good horror book (and believe me I try every October. I try to read 3 or 4 of them in that month in honor of Halloween).  This, from the grandfather of horror, is probably the best written and the scariest.  While reading it you want to put it in the freezer to hide it away like Joey from “Friends” does, but it’s so engrossing that you really cant stop.  Matheson was the creator of the trope (He wrote for Twilight Zone which most of his short stories are produced on screen, and most of his books have been made into movies multiple times; the most recent being “I Am Legend”), giving a group of scientists a chance to try and disprove a haunted house.  Get ready for a roller coaster.

 

Science Fiction:  Orson Scott Card “Ender’s Game”

Many people have had to read this book in high school, and where I never had to I think it could have been a good addition.  This is a fabulous coming of age book, in addition to a treatise on war and society.  The Eponymous Ender is a brilliant Hero (I use a capital because he’s a Campbell mythic hero) who does what needs to be done to get farther in life.  With teenage angst, pain of family and friends and more drive than many characters do in the genre.  Another can’t put it down.

 

Classics:  Fyodor Dostoevsky “The Gambler”

I wanted to add a classic that many people might not have read. This is a preamble to James Bond in both feel and character (James Bond in the Books that is).  This is the story of a man who develops an addiction to gambling because of the influence of the young girl he’s chasing after (It’s a little ironic because Dostoevsky himself was a gambler and partially wrote this book to pay off gambling debts).  It’s a great realistic tale.  The characters a horribly flawed and they make realistic decisions.  In the end the gambler finds his reason for being after being lost in the black hole of a gambling addiction and you see light at the end of the tunnel, but Dostoevsky weaves it so beautifully that there is reason to doubt.  If you’d like to read a Russian classic (they are some of the best after all), but are daunted by Brothers Karamazov, Anna Karenina or War and Peace check this one out…might open some doors for you.

 

That’s all for now!  What are your favorites in these genres?


JK Rowling and how to sell books

I just recently finished reading “A Casual Vacancy” by J.K. Rowling (if you want to read the review check out my goodreads page:

https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1682813893?book_show_action=false)

and it got me to thinking about why certain things become famous and have a huge following and others do not.

Throughout my writing career I have always thought (and fought against) that if you wanted to be successful you needed to create a cookie cutter plot with predictable characters.  One of those novels that appeals to the masses (think James Patterson, Dean Koontz, or anything in the romance section of Barnes and Noble), because they can get into a familiar mode and have a nice escape from the strain of their lives, but yet something that they don’t have to work to hard at.

“The Casual Vacancy” opened my eyes to a new reality.

In general the book was panned.  People flocked to it, but not because it was critically received, more so because it was the next novel of the phenom who created Harry Potter.  I experienced a wonderful, realistic novel.  A novel where there was sex and violence and rape and drugs and expletives around every corner.  A novel seeming so innocent (much like its characters), but with a sinister undertone which threatens the status quo and propriety.

What jumped out at me was the depth of character and place.

What made Harry Potter popular?  Was it the fact that it was a young reader novel about a wizarding school?  Was it because it followed the archetype of the Joseph Campbell hero?  Was it timing?  Did Rowling sell her soul to the devil for fame and fortune?

No.

It was her incredible ability to tell a story.  It is her depth of character.  It’s her ability to make the characters three dimensional, with quirks, flaws, and complexes.  It’s her ability to make her characters just like your friend or neighbor, your mother or brother.

It’s also her use of language.  She and another author, Stephen King, have the ability to tell a story.  Not write a novel, not to tell a story of place, not to tell a story of a person, but to tell a tale.  These two are the epitome of readability, because while your reading the books you can nearly see yourself sitting around a camp fire while they stood before a group and told their story.  It’s the readability that they share and that makes them so popular.

This is a hard thing to pin point, because it’s not about how to place a verb, it’s not about how to construct a sentence.  It’s about how everything flows off the page, and lights up in your mind like the TV screen.

It’s these two things that create popularity.  Readability and realistic characters.  And luck, a whole lotta luck.  If you can get it into the hands of the right people and you have these characteristics you have that international bestseller.


The Construction of the Craft

I’ve been hard at work for approximately ten months now developing a children’s chapter book series called The Elsie Jones Adventures.  I’m having a blast writing them, and coming up with the concepts for each individual book, however it is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do, because everything in the series has to be cohesive.  It’s a fifteen book series and each book is a stand alone (except for maybe the 15th), but each book also pushes the overall plot line forward for the series.

While I’ve been writing this series I’ve been continuing and completing a number of long running series of books.  Most of these series are in the save vein, where they have stand alone books, but each volume pushes the larger story farther towards the completion of the series.

This is what’s scary, hard and, oddly enough, rewarding in both process of reading and writing a large series: Making sure that the whole story makes sense, and you eliminate continuity errors.

The first few books don’t seem to be that much of an issue because you can keep adding plot points, but as the series progresses, you need to begin to close the loopholes (creators of LOST didn’t understand this simple point).

So I’ve thought a lot of the process of all this over the past few years, and if anyone has any feedback regarding it, it would be fun to talk about.

My process has evolved over the past year, much more than it has in the ten years previous.

When I first started writing I would just sit down and let the story take over.  This is a big argument within the writer community because nearly half of all writers do it this way, where the other half are outliners and planners.  I thought I could be a free story writer, where the story and the characters told me where the story was going and the story would tell itself, however I have found over time that I get lost in the middle of the story and the characters and the plot lose their way.

I have become a planner because of this, and developing Elsie Jones, I’ve become a planner more and more.

The biggest contention to outlining that I’ve heard (and said) is that free writers feel as though they are trapped within the outline.  However almost all writers know how the story begins, maybe a few plot points int he middle, and then how the story ends.  This is nearly the same as outlining.

Just because you’ve created an outline doesn’t mean that you cant change it if the character comes alive and the outline no longer makes sense.  You still will probably have the same ending, but the path to the ending is fluid (it’s like Game of Thrones.  Weiss and Benioff don’t know the path Martin is going to take to get to the end, but they know the end.  So the books and the show will diverge, more than likely from this point out, but they will end the same way).  Then through subsequent drafts you can hone the story, tighten it up into a beautiful little story.  If you consider yourself a free writer, try this.  Sit down and have a brainstorm session and write it down.  I even put in dialog and description of the events which are particularly vivid to me.  Then the first draft can be about the construction of the book and developing the voice and life of the character instead of worrying about the path of the book.

The reason this is so particularly on my mind now is I’m in the middle of book 9 of The Elsie Jones Adventures (Take a look at my books page of this blog for more info) and I have quite a few plot points that I need to bring back together to finish up the story.  I’ve had to go one step beyond the mere outlining and create diagrams and lists and character sketches.  I’ve had to do this because if I just free wrote the rest of the books, I would leave a bunch of hanging loose ends and have plot points which didn’t make sense.

So I wonder at what other people think.  I wonder how other people write.  Lets start a dialog and improve the writing in the world.