June 9

Quote the Writer, Not the Character [Writing]

Okay, I know this will sound strange, but it annoys me when someone quotes a character from a work of fiction instead of the writer. I should let it go, I know, but I think it comes from my belief that writers are under appreciated in general. 

It happens often enough in fiction. I mean, I can understand it to a certain point. People are probably more familiar with the character than the faceless writer. For example, if someone quotes a line from a Sherlock Holmes story, it’s usually attributed to Holmes and not the author, Sir Author Conan Doyle. Elementary, my dear Watson. Sherlock Holmes and Watson illustration.

But I think it’s even more prevalent in television and film. How often do you hear someone quote a line from, say, Casablanca (“Here’s lookin’ at you, kid”) or The Terminator (“I’ll be back”) and attribute it to the character or the actor? Happens all the time.

Casablanca movie poster.

As a writer, I find it annoying. I mean, after I’ve spent time and effort to write a great story I would prefer to be the one credited with a memorable line. That came out of my head, from my imagination. I feel like it’s only fair.

And, full disclosure, I’m guilty of it, as well. I figured I should own up before someone goes back through my old posts and highlights every instance where I quoted a character. I’m sure there are more than a handful.

My partner has tried to help. After telling me to get over it – repeatedly – she’ll then suggest I try looking at it from another perspective. Writers want to be read, and as long as people are reading my stories, why should I care if they quote me or one of my characters? The character came from my head, as well, so if they get the credit, I sort of get it, too. 

She’s right, of course. You can quote me on that.

RB

 

June 8

Saying Goodbye to Dick Robinson [Books]

Just a quick post to say thank you and goodbye to one of the people who helped me develop a love of books and reading. Although you may not know who he is just from his name, Mr. Robinson had a huge impact on getting young people to read here in the U.S. Dick Robinson

For nearly five decades, Mr. Robinson was the CEO of Scholastic Books, Inc. If you aren’t familiar with Scholastic Books, they have been arranging and hosting book fairs in public schools since the 1970s.

Interesting note: The article at Publishers Weekly states that Scholastic starting hosting book fairs in schools in 1981. However, I remember attending the fairs when I was in elementary school in the 1970s. Weird…

To understand how big of an impact Scholastic has had on the book business, consider they are responsible for approximately 120,000 yearly book sale events. That is getting a lot of books into the hands of a lot of kids. And I think that’s amazing.

One of the cool things about Mr. Robinson is that he considered reading a civil right. He was adamantly anti-censorship and incredibly pro-literacy. He also acknowledged that Scholastic played a big part in broadening children’s understanding of the world around them. Scholastic books logo

He once said: “Research says that if children choose and own their books, they are much more likely to finish them.” I can attest to that. Over the years, they have received a great deal of my book money, and I’ve finished every single book I’ve purchased from them. I spent many wonderful hours roaming the shelves at the book fairs they held in the schools I attended, carefully choosing which ones I wanted to read, which adventures I wanted to go on.

Mr. Robinson’s passing is like losing a piece of my childhood. For what it’s worth, thank you, Mr. Robinson. Thank you for educating me, entertaining me, and for showing me the wonders that lie on a bookshelf.

RB

June 7

Writing About Reading is Complicated [Books]

I feel like it’s becoming more complicated to write about reading. It used to be that if I wanted to read a story, I’d pick up a paperback or hardback book and dig in. Afterwards, I could tell people I read an amazing book (or sometimes not so amazing). It was cut and dried.

Accusing Mr. Darcy Cover.Recently, I enjoyed my first audiobook. It was a wonderful story by Kelly Miller entitled, Accusing Mr. Darcy, and set in the world of Jane Austin. It was a great experience. I was already a fan of podcasts (even hosting one myself), but I’d never delved into the realm of having a book read to me. It felt like I was a kid again listening to an adult read me a bedtime story. No complaints here.

But when I sat down to write a review of the story I ran into an obstacle. That is, how do I explain how I experienced the story? I mean, it’s not like I read the book. I listened to it. But then, is it still considered a book if it’s audio? Wouldn’t it be more accurate to say I listened to a story?

My head was spinning more than usual.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not against audiobooks. In fact, I plan on recording my short story collections in order to give readers (listeners?) another option for enjoying my fiction. Plus, if it gets more people to buy more fiction, I’m going to support it. It’s important for authors to reach the broadest audience possible.

In my head, however, I’m still adapting to the medium. I’m old-school in that I like physical books. I like to hold them in my hand, feel the paper under my fingers, smell the ink, hear that spine crack when I first open it, and see them lined up on my shelves like badges of honor. Story collections.

With audiobooks, and ebooks, there’s no paper, no ink, no way to display them. Yes, I own a Kindle and I use it fairly often (generally for books that are unavailable in print or for public-domain titles I download from Project Gutenberg). It actually took me a while to take the ebook dive. It’s convenient, a bit lighter in weight than a physical book, and I can slip it into a pocket on my backpack with ease. But still…it’s not REAL.

I think the thing I have to get over is the fact that, with audiobooks, I can’t say I’ve read them. And it sounds weird to me to say, “I listened to a great book this weekend.”

Yeah, I know, I sound like one of those old men who complain about how much better things were when they were young. Look, I’m all for progress. Like I mention above, if another format gets people buying more fiction, then I’m going to support it. Audiobooks, ebooks, hell, maybe even animated books that have the characters pop up on the page and act out the story for you.

Just like language, the way stories are told is going to evolve over time. If storytelling can be experimental, then so can the way we enjoy them.

I’ll be listening to more audiobooks in the future and looking forward to the next great advance in storytelling.

RB

May 14

Book Review – Norwegian Wood

This is the third book by Haruki Murakami that I’ve read, the first two being The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. I thoroughly enjoyed those stories, a mix of reality and existential imagery, very similar to the magic-realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez (who is also one of my favorite authors).

Norwegian Wood was Murakami’s first novel, apparently semi-autobiographical. I went into it expecting a story like what I’d read in his other two novels, but instead was pulled into a sort of coming-of-age story about a young man who is caught between to loves.

As I made my way through the novel I kept expecting something to happen, something a little odd or a little wondrous. In the other two novels, strange things happened. A man was caught between worlds, there were mysterious characters, intrigue, adventure. I was impatiently waiting for these elements to appear. Norwegian Wood book cover

But they didn’t. The story sort of meandered mid-way through, the protagonist was confused and depressed, seeking answers. I could relate to that, remembering how it was when I was twenty years old and wondering if I’d ever really fall in love. The characters were all relatable, very distinct and three-dimensional. I understood their motivations, their wants, their confusion.

I feel the characters were what kept me interested in the story. I wanted to see how they changed and grew. Sometimes a certain piece of a story can be enough to make it worthwhile. In this case, characterization did the trick.

This wasn’t a great novel. At least, from my Western viewpoint. I know that Norwegian Wood was a bestseller in Japan when initially released back in the late 1980s. I guess it’s a cultural difference, something that younger Japanese readers can relate to and understand. I get that.

I’m not disappointed that I read this, but I was expecting more. If nothing else, it gave me a glimpse into Japanese relationships, the angst of being a young man seeking himself and trying to understand the women in his life. Those things are cross-cultural, in a way.

If you’re interested in an interesting coming-of-age story, then by all means pick up a copy. If you’re looking for a story with elements similar to Murakami’s other books, then I suggest you pass on it.

RB

May 5

Book Review – A Quiet Rebellion: Posterity

I’ll admit it, I’m a sucker for a good fantasy book series. The problem is that too many of them follow overly-familiar tropes. There’s the orphan who finds out they are actually royalty and must retake the throne. Or there’s the ancient evil that is returning and a plucky group of misfits have to learn to work together to defeat it. I mean, I’ll still read those stories, but in limited quantities.

But every so often a writer comes along and tries something new, a little different from what I expect. That’s the case with M.H. Thaung’s Numoeath series. The first two books (which I’ve reviewed here and here) were well-written, well-plotted, and overall fun to read. The characters were believable. No one was perfect, they all had some baggage they were carrying, made bad decisions for the right reasons, and basically behaved like real people.

The second book, Restitution, ended in a way that made me wonder what Thaung was going to do in the third book. It was somewhat of a cliffhanger, but even more so, I was thrown by an unexpected twist with the fates of several characters. Honestly, I thought the second book was dovetailing into a nice, clean ending. I was pleasantly disappointed. In fact, the ending of the second book stuck with me for several days after I finished it. I like it when an author can keep me engaged even after the last page.

The third book, Posterity, picks up immediately after the second, and expands on some of the history of this land and this world. I was hoping for that. Thaung does a wonderful job of building the world in the first two novels, but she doesn’t delve into too much of the history, leaving that for the final book. Was I happy with the payoff? Absolutely. In fact, even though she answers many questions and expands on the world-building, there’s still so much more left for her (and hopefully, us) to explore. book cover

Luckily, Thaung has also written some additional pieces that take place in this world. It excites me to think about world-building from a writer’s perspective. It makes me wonder how much she planned ahead of time, like, was Thaung piecing it together as she wrote? Or did she focus on the geographical area where the main story takes place, and now she’s slowly exploring the rest of the world? Either way, I find it all easy to visualize, easy to immerse myself in. It’s a world that comfortable and familiar, but still different than ours.

As far as the overall story is concerned, I think it’s good. Very good. There’s a potential coming crisis, but throughout the story questions arose about the legitimacy of the crisis. As a reader, I wasn’t sure who to believe in the story. Everyone had their agendas, some good and some bad, but even then I could understand why the characters did what they did. Basically, I understood their motivations even if I didn’t agree with them. That’s good characterization.

If I had to point to something I felt didn’t work, or could have been better, was the initial ending (there’s a nice wrap-up after the main story finishes). Not that the ending was bad or needed to be different. I just felt like it was rushed, that the final couple of chapters could have been stretched out a little bit more, a little more tension, a little more risk, and maybe a little more loss.

But hey, this is a fantasy story, fiction, so it can be whatever the author thinks is appropriate. I was still happy with how things turned out. It was a worthwhile read, a great story to immerse myself in, and as mentioned above, I continued to think about it long after the last page. If nothing else, that’s the sign of a story well-told.

RB

April 21

Does Word Count Matter?

I’m always surprised when I hear writers discussing word counts. There’s nothing wrong with the occasional humble brag. I’m guilty of that, especially when I pound out 2,000 words in a couple of hours. It’s akin to running a marathon, and if runners can brag, then so can writers. Luckily, I’ve never pulled a hamstring working on my MacBook.

But what I’m bothered by is when writers put an emphasis on word count. For example, when they seem to focus on how many words are in a story rather than the content.

Jumble of words

It’s weird, particularly in fiction. I understand that word counts matter when it comes to categorizing a story. Flash fiction is generally under 1,000 words. Short stories cap out around 8,000 words. Novellas run anywhere from 20,000 to 50,000 words. Novels pick up after that.

Maybe it’s a badge of honor to some writers. Like a competition. “How many words did you write today?” “Oh, about 1,000.” “Only 1,000? Man, you’re a light-weight!”

I don’t think I’ve ever asked another writer how many words they wrote that day. Or on any day. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever asked a writer what their final draft totaled up to be. Why should the number of words matter?

The only thing that should matter to a writer is whether or not they told the best story they could, that they poured their heart and blood into it, and that they were honest (telling the story the way it should be told without forcing it into a specific direction).

I can understand paying attention to word count when writing. If a writer is working on a novel, then they want to shoot for 50,000 or more words. But, and I’ve mentioned this before on this blog and in my podcast, it still shouldn’t matter. A story is going to be as long or as short as it needs to be. If I start off thinking I’m going to write a short story and it ends up at 10,000 words, I’m not going to be disappointed as long as I stayed true to the story and didn’t fill it with a lot of stuffing just to make it longer.

Same thing goes the opposite direction. If I plan to write a novel, but the story ends up in the novella category, I’m not going to worry about it as long as I’ve told a good story.Stack of books.

The story itself should determine the length. If you can tell it in 2,000 words, wonderful. If it takes 20,000 words, go for it. We shouldn’t try to pad a story or slice and dice it just to force it into a category. Let the story decide.

When it comes down to it, the only time word count matters is when you’re ready to sell your story.

RB

April 6

Review – Accusing Mr. Darcy

So here’s a fun fact for you – I’ve never listened to an audiobook. Ever. Weird, right? But I can’t make that claim any longer, not after enjoying Kelly Miller’s Accusing Mr. Darcy.

Accusing Mr. Darcy Cover.

I’ll also admit that I’m a fan of classic literature. I still have copies of the Norton Anthology of British Literature and Norton Anthology of American Literature from when I was in college. They are worn and tattered and littered with little slips of paper that act as bookmarks for some of my favorite pieces. Sure, some of it is incredibly dated, but the poetic, romantic language has always held an attraction for me.

And that’s one of the things I enjoyed about this novel. Ms. Miller does a wonderful job of capturing the rhythm and poetry of Jane Austen, while still retaining her own voice. In my opinion, that’s not easy to do. From a writer’s perspective, I think it would be difficult to walk that fine line, to continue in the vein of the original while still being unique. I’m curious as to how long it took Miller to write this, and how many rewrites were involved.

For those who aren’t familiar with Jane Austen, she was a romantic author who penned several classic novels. Arguably the most famous is Pride and Prejudice (1813), a comedy/drama of manners set in Great Britain. It’s one of the “Great Novels” I read many years ago.

Which brings me to the next thing I liked about Accusing Mr. Darcy. Instead of rehashing the themes of the original novel, Miller takes the story in a different direction and turns it into a murder mystery. It was fun to see familiar characters in a different situation, something more grave and compelling than just a story about romance. Higher stakes and a bit more tension.

And for what it’s worth, I didn’t listen to the novel alone. I actually listened to it with my partner while we were laying in bed in the evenings. We usually read at night, she with her Kindle and me with a physical book (occasionally my Kindle, but I prefer paper). My partner has also had more experience with audiobooks. There have been many mornings where she had one playing while getting ready for work. Listening together was an interesting experience for both of us and it allowed us to discuss the story together. I highly recommend the experience

It also helped that the narrator for this story, Stevie Zimmerman, was a perfect choice. Not only was her accent a perfect accompaniment, but she also handled voicing the character in a respectful manner. What I mean is, she didn’t necessarily try to create voices and act the parts, she simply rose or lowered her voice. I feel that helped to keep me involved in the story and didn’t break my immersion.

Classic, romantic-era literature may not be your ideal genre of fiction, but I think you might find Accusing Mr. Darcy to be your exception. It’s well-written, well-plotted, and a fun excursion from modern fiction. Definitely one you’ll think about after the final page.

RB

March 19

My History of Rejection

Rejection has always been a mainstay of the writing life (and in many cases, my personal life). Well, at least it used to be. Nowadays, with the ability to self-publish, the only thing writers have to worry about is selling their stories on the multitude of online platforms.

But it wasn’t always this way. When I started submitting my stories to magazines in the mid-1990s, rejection was the name of the game. The internet was still in its infancy, so the only real options were to submit stories to magazines: formatted, printed, and stuffed into a flat envelope (no folding!) with a cover letter and the right amount of postage. There was a lot of money put down up front in the hopes of possibly getting an acceptance. And there was also the hurdle that many magazines wouldn’t even look at your story if you admitted it had also been submitted to other publications. No simultaneous submissions.

Oh, and if you wanted a response – either a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ – you had to also include a self-addressed stamped envelope. Ah, the good olde days.

I think I was an aberration. I wasn’t afraid of receiving rejections for my stories. The way I looked at it, I knew the odds were against me. There were thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, of writers out there submitting stories. That’s a lot of competition and, realistically, I knew half of them were going to be submitting better stories. It was all about timing, hitting the right market at the right time. Vegas odds, baby.

So the first thing I ever submitted was a poem to The New Yorker, arguably one of the best magazines for amazing writing. I knew I was going to be rejected. I had no experience, no publishing history, and was completely unknown. The way I saw it, if I was going to start down this path, why not get rejected from one of my favorite magazines?

Spoiler alert: I was rejected.

New Yorker Rejection
My first rejection!

Once I got that out of the way, the rest of the rejections (and yes, there were many) didn’t sting. In fact, I collected them. For many years I had a cork board on the wall next to my PC. It had a little card over it that read, “The Wall of Rejection”, and each rejection I received was lovingly thumbtacked to it. Well, until it wouldn’t hold any more. Then they were moved to a file folder.

I was tidying up in my home office last week and stumbled upon that old rejection folder. It wasn’t quite as thick as I remembered it, but there were still a surprising number. As I thumbed through them I was reminded of how varied they were. Of course, there were the straight-up form letters, there were ones with lists of rejection reasons with a checkbox next to each, and then there were my favorites, the personal notes. The simple fact that an editor took the time to read one of my stories – really read it, not scan it – then sit down and write a note explaining why they turned it down, what they liked about it, and what I could do to improve it, meant the world to me and inspired me to keep writing. They still do, even all these years later.

I thought you might find it interesting to see a few of the personal responses in my esteemed collection.

Vampire Dan Rejection
Vampire Dan’s Story Emporium

Pulp Magazine Rejection
Pulp Magazine

Short Stories Magazine Rejection
Short Stories Magazine

Outer Darkness Rejection
Outer Darkness

Now that self-publishing dominates the writing industry, and magazine publishing is fading into a tiny, niche market, I wonder if rejection letters will become a thing of the past. In a way, I hope not. To me, they are a badge of honor for writers. It shows that we tried.

And for what it’s worth, my writing career has lasted longer than most of these publications.

RB

 

February 25

My 2021 Reading List

I’m off to a late start on my 2021 reading due to unforeseen circumstances, but I’m ready to crack some spines and enjoy being swept away into deep space, magical realms, and exposed to new ideas. After the last year or so, I’m in desperate need for a little escape from reality.

I actually have two “to-read” stacks. One is physical books. I keep a stack on the bookshelf next to my side of the bed, and the other exists on my Kindle. One of my simple joys is laying in bed at night and reading for an hour or so. I find it’s great fodder for my dreams, although I don’t necessarily dream about the stories I’m reading. I think that reading before falling asleep stimulates my imagination, stirs up the dust and cobwebs in my mental archives and allows me to have vivid, and occasionally crazy, dreams. My unconscious imagination wanders down all sorts of twisting and turning paths, and oftentimes I wake up with ideas for stories of my own.

And that’s what I need right now – inspiration. I’m a firm believer that creativity is like a muscle in that it needs exercise, to be worked regularly, pushed so that it grows stronger. I had to go for a good two months without working it, and now I’m feeling the pain as I try to get it back in shape. But I’m not giving up. Baby steps, right?

Here are the physical books I have lined up (so far) to read this year:

Stack of books.
Some of my 2021 reads.

The virtual stack on my Kindle includes A Quiet Rebellion: Posterity, The Garden of Stone Houses, and Accusing Mr. Darcy. These are books written by authors in the Twitter #WritingCommunity.

I have a fairly big mountain to conquer this year, especially when getting a late start, but I’m looking forward to the adventure. And I’ll be sure to review them all here on my blog and hopefully inspire you, dear reader, to pick up copies of these books, as well.

RB

December 9

Review – The Name of the Rose

Back in the late 1980s, I saw a film titled, The Name of the Rose, and thought it was fantastic. It starred Sean Connery and Christian Slater, and told the story of murder, intrigue, and forbidden books in a medieval monastery. Connery’s character, William of Baskerville, was a sort of a Sherlock Holmes in that he paid attention to little details to discover clues. Slater played his apprentice, Adso, who also narrates the story as an old man looking back on an exciting part of his young life. Sadly, the film didn’t do well at the box office, but it’s always been one of my favorites. The movie, like so many, was based on a novel by the same name and written by first-time novelist Umberto Eco, an Italian medievalist and philosopher.

Now obviously, I was interested in reading the novel, but I hesitated. This was in part due to the fact that the book was daunting. Over five-hundred pages and filled with philosophy, theology, social and political commentary, and peppered with all sorts of references to other sources – books, art, historical events, biblical prophecy – and was apparently a difficult read. In fact, someone who had attempted to read it warned me that in order to truly understand the novel, a reader needed to be well-versed in medieval architecture, monastic life, philosophy, and fluent in Greek, Italian, and Latin. I decided to pass.

But earlier this year I finally found the courage to pick up a copy of the novel and read it. Of course, I had two choices – a physical copy or an e-book. I went with the physical copy, hardbound, because I knew that if I made it through this beast, I wanted to have a trophy for my bookcase. And yes, if I chose the e-version I would have all the translations at my fingertips. But I felt that was cheating. I wanted the full experience as Eco intended.

Was it a difficult read? Yes and no. The story itself is wonderful. William and Adso arrive at the monestary to prepare for an important theological debate between religious orders. But they arrive just as a murder is discovered, and from there the story turns into a murder mystery that rivals anything Sir Arthur Conan Doyle ever wrote. William’s character is definitely inspired by Sherlock Holmes, seeing the minute details of different situations and amazing the other monks with his discoveries.

The mystery – and additional murders – all seem to center on the monastery library, a collection said to rival and possibly surpass the great Library of Alexandria. Books from all over the known world, in all known languages, and many of them forbidden and kept hidden from all but the Abbot and head librarian. William and Adso are told at the very beginning that they are not permitted to enter the library, but they both know that’s where they will find the answers they seek.

The narrative, however, can run into dry spots. Eco was an incredibly intelligent man and the writing shows this. There are pages and pages of theological discussions about the nature of Christ, his poverty, the place of the Church in a changing society. While interesting, it can be a bit of a slog to get through. And no, it’s not necessarily pertinent to the story itself, but it does help to give perspective and background to the many characters. Additionally, with careful reading you can find little clues as to their motivations and possibly the part they may – or may not have – played in the murders.

There is also quite a bit of untranslated Greek and Latin. I did okay with the Latin. Well, I was able to discern small bits. I grew up Catholic, attended mass on a regular basis, and my great-aunt was a nun, so when the Latin was religious text, I was able to make some sense out of it. The Greek was, well, Greek to me and I ended up going online to translate it. There are also a lot of references to ancient texts and religious dogma that I wasn’t familiar with, so I kept my pad nearby for a quick Google search every few pages. I’ll admit, it definitely slowed my reading speed to a crawl, but that was okay. The book – the story – was immersive and having to do this research made the experience interactive. It’s like I was participating in the story to some degree.

I’m glad I finally found the courage to read this novel, and now that I’ve finished it, I plan to re-read it in the near future. The next time, however, I plan to do some research ahead of time to find out what tidbits I missed on my first pass. As I mentioned above, Eco peppered the novel with all sorts of meta-references, so I want to make sure I catch them all. It’s sort of like watching a well-written movie. You watch it the first time for entertainment, but then you go back and rewatch it to catch all the little things you may have missed the first time. To me, that’s good art because it warrants additional viewing, or reading.

If you enjoy murder mysteries, medieval history, philosophy, theology, and a story that blends fact with fiction, then you’ll probably enjoy this novel. But be warned, it’s an undertaking and you may want to go with the e-version to make it easier on yourself. It might also help to watch the movie, first. It’s a fairly faithful adaptation. Plus, Sean Connery is perfect in the role.

RB