Wednesday, October 31, 2012


Not all people and not just anywhere. The book WEIRD THINGS PEOPLE SAY IN BOOKSTORES by Jen Campbell narrows it down for you. Apparently working in a bookstore has a perk I wasn’t aware of: laughing at customers.

Although perhaps it would be better to keep a straight face in the hope of keeping a book buyer. So here goes. Hands at the ready to cover the guffaws.

1. “Do you have any books by Jane Eyre?”

2. “Did Charles Dickens ever write anything fun?”

3. “I’m looking for some books on my kid’s reading list. Do you have ‘Tequila Mockingbird’?”

4. Customer: “Do you have the Dinosaur Cookbook?”
Bookseller: “The Dinah Shore Cookbook?”
Customer: “That must be it. I wondered what she was up to.”

5. “Do you have ‘Fiddler on a Hot Tin Roof’?”

6. “What books should I buy so guests looking at my bookshelf will think, ‘Wow, that guy’s intelligent’?”

7. Customer: “Have you read every single book in here?”
Bookseller: “No, I can’t say I have.”
Customer: “You’re not very good at your job, are you?”

On a more serious note, book news this week is about the 110-year-old library in Philadelphia that’s haunted, the Penguin-Random House merger, and the coming Christmas season Battle of the Tablets starring Apple, Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Barnes & Noble and Samsung (I hope I didn’t miss anyone).

All that on top of a election campaign which spent four billion (with a B) dollars and took three years. I need a nap.

Thursday, October 25, 2012


The week before Halloween is a time of television horror films which I don’t like, so I retreat to my office and do something useful. Like writing a mystery novel.

I don’t like being scared--never have--since childhood when I was taken to a movie theatre to see a film called THE BLACK CAT. I don’t know how old I was and perhaps, today, I wouldn’t have been allowed in the theatre. But I was part of a group including my sister and five cousins, all older than I was. I still remember clutching my oldest boy cousin and burying my face in his coat.

Later I went “trick-or-treating” and then had children who did the same. My most vivid memory of those days is the one in which my youngest son refused at first to participate in the ritual. He said it was for little kids and he was too old for that, although he was probably nine at the time. He refused to let me buy a costume for him, or even suggest ways he could disguise himself. But, finally, that very afternoon, he abruptly changed his mind.I think he realized he’d miss out on gathering a bag of candy.

“It’s too late to buy a costume now,” I told him. “What do you want to do about that?” He didn’t answer, just went upstairs and when he came down I saw him wearing a long black coat of his father’s. He had painted a thick mustache and eyebrows on his face with my mascara and held a large round ball point pen in his hand as if it were a cigar. A large black hat completed the look and he went forth with a paper bag in his other hand. I followed a little way behind and watched him approach our neighbor’s house. When she opened the door and saw him, she said, “Why if it isn’t Groucho Marx!” I had no idea how he knew what Groucho looked like, but he acquired more candy than usual that year.

Movies are spookier than books, but after reading Stephen King’s THE SHINING, I haven’t read another. On the other hand I love mysteries, especially cozies. It’s the puzzle that interests me, and I like to try to figure out “whodunit” before the end.

I write mysteries too--as yet unsold--and also romantic suspense. I enjoy the challenge of creating a group of characters who might be the killer, and then hiding the truth from the reader as long as possible. As E. L. Doctorow said, “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.”

Wednesday, October 17, 2012


No, I’m not going to quote mine. Or the second one. What hurts is that both were from Publishers Weekly but I rationalize that they should never have allowed a man (I’m guessing) to review romance novels. Today, thanks to Mags Storey alerting me to Flavorwire’s article “Fifteen Early Scathing Reviews of Classic Novels,” I can retaliate by quoting a review by PW of the classic novel, WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE by Maurice Sendak in 1963: “...illustrations ...are accompanied by a pointless and confusing story.”

The New York Times had more than its share of the fifteen scathing reviews of books now considered classics. Such as:

LOLITA by Vladimir Nabokov. 1958. “There are two equally serious reasons why it isn’t worth any adult reader’s attention. The first is that it is dull, dull, dull in a pretentious, florid and archly fatuous fashion. The second is that it is repulsive.”

ABSALOM, ABSALOM by William Faulkner. “...a penny dreadful tricked up in fancy language....The characters have no magnitude and no meaning because they have no more reality than a mince-pie nightmare.” Clifton Fadiman, 1936.

CATCH 22 by Joseph Heller, 1961. “The book is an emotional hodgepodge.”

THE CATCHER IN THE RYE by J.D. Salinger. 1951. “It’s too long. Gets kind of monotonous. And he should have cut out all those jerks... They depress me.”

In 1885 the New York Times published the review of Mark Twain’s HUCKLEBERRY FINN from the Springfield Register, which had stated that its “perusal cannot be anything less than harmful.”

Other reputable reviewers had some not-so-nice comments about books considered “classic,” too.

“It is no discredit to Walt Whitman that he wrote LEAVES OF GRASS, only that he did not burn it afterward.“ The Atlantic, 1867.

WUTHERING HEIGHTS by Emily Bronte. “It is a compound of vulgar depravity and unnatural horrors.” Graham’s Lady’s Magazine. 1848.

“THE GREAT GATSBY is an absurd story...Mr. Scott Fitzgerald deserves a good shaking.” Saturday Review, 1925.

MOBY DICK. “If there are any of our readers who wish to find examples of bad rhetoric, involved syntax, stilted sentiment and incoherent English, I...recommend this volume of Mr. Melville’s.” Democratic Review. 1852

MADAME BOVARY. “Monsieur Flaubert is not a writer.” Le Figaro 1857.

Now doesn’t that make you feel better? Repeat after me, “Yes, but they could be wrong.”

Wednesday, October 10, 2012


I suspect most of you know what that title means. It’s the nickname for the National Novel Writing Month, now in its 13th year of existence. The idea is to write a novel, a minimum of 50,000 words, during one month. The month is November, so if you’re planning to enter, start getting prepared.

Although tempted many times, I’ve never entered, and the reason is simple. They picked the wrong month. November is a poor choice, because of time. How can one write 50,000 words when there are only thirty days in November and one of them is Thanksgiving? Plus, did no one think of Christmas shopping?

Any month with thirty-one days would have been better (averaging only 1613 words per day instead of 1667). October comes to mind, in case you consider July and August too hot and January too soon after the holidays. On the other hand, if “writing that book” was your New Year’s resolution, January seems ideal. “Strike while the iron is hot” and the Muse is calling you, right?

I was tempted to try because dashing off an entire novel without worrying about bad spelling, inadequate research and plot holes gives way to the thrill of typing “The End.” My NaNoWriMo book would be just a first draft, and everything could be fixed later. After all, there are no prizes and no one will actually read it unless I want them to.

Finishing a book is the hardest part of novel writing. How many people do you know who say they’re writing a novel, but have only the first chapter or three? For years? In one writing group I belonged to, we strove to win the FTDB Award, the letters standing for, “Finish the Damn Book.” With NaNoWriMo, you finish the book in thirty days. Okay, maybe your book isn’t truly finished on November 30, but 50,000 words is a great start.

So, even though I’m not going to do it--at least not this year--here are the rules if you want to. Register at the site before November 1st and submit your 50,000 words (not one word 50,000 times) for verification. It doesn’t cost a thing, and you can brag about it on your blog. Some authors have sold those novels, although presumably after a little rewriting.

In fact, Anne R. Allen has tips and more information on her blog. Would you believe NYT best-sellers started out there? I started this post before I knew about hers and decided maybe two notices are not too much. So, go for it and happy speed-typing.

Anne R. Allen

Wednesday, October 3, 2012


Several years ago, an article in a writing magazine (either THE WRITER or WRITERS DIGEST, I subscribe to both) pointed out that the number one problem of beginning novelists was the placement of back-story. You know about back-story, the information about the characters or plot that the writer wanted the reader to know. They most often put it in the very beginning of the novel, sort of like the first stories we read as children. “Once upon a time there was a magical kingdom, and in this kingdom lived a beautiful princess...”

I haven’t read a similar article lately, and assumed that writers might have conquered that bad habit. I’ve seen many articles about “hooking” the reader with a Killer first sentence, first paragraph and first page. If the author did that, the back-story problem would disappear, right? Wrong.

I recently read a novel where the author wrote an exciting first scene of the heroine being sent away to marry a man she never met (historical romance, right?) which was then followed by 105 pages of back-story. It took the heroine from birth to age eighteen, with descriptions along the way of her parent’s lineage, her step-parents’ seven children, her playmates at eight, her hobbies at twelve and her horse-riding accident at sixteen. Finally, on her eighteenth birthday, the author got back to the actual story.

Admittedly that’s an unusual example, but what other things happened to back-story? In my experience as a reader of fiction by unpublished or self-published writers, I sometimes found it turned up as a Prologue. A murder, violent encounter, or the princess meeting Prince Charming would be written in a way to “hook” the reader, and then the first chapter got the back-story anyway. But at least only twenty pages, not 105.

Second, the back-story simply got shunted off to chapter two, where it remained as boring as it was before. Often, chapter two would be a traveling scene, and the author used the time consumed by the journey–by plane, train or automobile–to acquaint the reader with the Princess’s deceased parents, wicked stepmother, or a local curse. Which at least was entertaining. Unfortunately, in many of today’s contemporary novels, the back-story is no more interesting than reading a resume by a job applicant.

So the question for newbie writers is: Can back-story be made compelling? And the answer is “Yes.” The trick, according to best-selling authors, is to break up the back-story into small chunks and scatter them throughout the book. Not just anywhere, of course, but at the place where the reader needs that information. For instance, if the Princess is going to lose her slipper in front of the Prince in chapter ten, you don’t need to tell us in chapter two that her feet are so dainty she has trouble keeping slippers on them. We’re smart readers and will figure that out.

This is often where “plotters” and “pantsers” diverge. Plotters might write out the entire back-story upfront, whereas “pantsers” just start writing, and–at a particular point in the story–decide the reader needs to know something from the hero’s past, and writes in then and drops it in. I’m a “plotter” myself, so I had to learn to make a list of the elements in my character’s past life and pull them into the story at the point the reader needs the information. And not before.

My current WIP, set in the year 1960, required a lot of research, and it was tempting to describe the story world immediately, but I resisted. Instead, I focused on plot, and only stopped to insert back-story at the point I actually needed it.

How about you? Do your Beta readers or critique group sometimes complain your narrative is boring? Perhaps it’s a back-story problem. Or do you have a system in place to avoid it?