October 7

Outrage is Everywhere

I think we can all agree that the world can be a little nuts at times. Or maybe very nuts most of the time. Depends on your perspective.

As a fiction writer, I find it interesting to watch as people get outraged about things and cause a commotion, hoping that they can ‘take down’ whatever it is that’s offending their sensibilities. Just look at the fuss that was made over the Harry Potter books, the Captain Underpants books, and so many classic novels like To Kill a Mockingbird and Catcher in the Rye.

The reason I bring this up is because last week was Banned Books Week here in the US. It’s sponsored by the American Library Association, along with dozens of other literary and literacy organizations. I feel awful that it slipped by me this year without me noticing. In my defense, I’ve been distracted by a lot of other things going on in the world at the moment.

I’ve written about censorship in the past, and even recorded a podcast episode about it, but Banned Books Week always reminds me that there are people in this country, and maybe in other parts of the world, who feel that just because something offends them then everyone should be offended.

It doesn’t work that way.

In fact, I make a point of reading books that get banned. It’s my small act of rebellion against censorship and to support the author. If you’re interested in learning which books are the most targeted, check out this list:

http://www.ala.org/advocacy/bbooks/frequentlychallengedbooks/top10

It breaks them down by year, which is sort of fascinating to see how the tastes of the censors change annually. Books that are near the top of the list one year are absent on later lists. Weird, isn’t it? I think it just goes to show that some people look to be outraged by something. It’s not about the actual quality or content of the books, it’s just chasing whatever hits their radar at the time.

Oh, well. Some people just can’t be reached. But you and I can still support authors, buy books, write reviews and provide ratings, and even tell our friends about them. In my opinion, the more outrage there is over a work of fiction, the more likely I am to buy a copy.

RB

September 30

Making it Happen

I’ve been working on my next short story collection and feeling good about it. Since being in lockdown and working remote, the lack of commuting and convenience of being at home has allowed me an extra hour or so every morning to write. And yes, I’ve been taking advantage of it.

I should probably be working on my novel, but sometimes I can’t help myself. I love to write short stories. It’s in my blood, my DNA. Plus, I have so many ideas I doubt I’ll ever catch up with them all.

So far, I’ve completed – from initial to final draft – seven shorts in the course of four months. Not too bad! I have four more in various states of composure. At this rate I may be able to have my next collection published before the end of the year. At least, that’s my goal.

And the stories will be mostly science fiction, with a couple of horror pieces thrown in for good measure. The plots revolve around possession, insidious artificial intelligence, environmental catastrophe, and unnamable things that go bump in the night. And that’s not me tripping over a dog when I try to get a drink of water at one in the morning.

The other thing that’s a bit different from my previous collections is that these stories, or most of them, are much longer than I usually write. I’m talking twelve to fifteen thousand words. It feels good to write longer stories, like I’ve been building up to them with sprints and now I’m running (or writing) several mini marathons. I think it’ll end up helping me when I return to my novel draft. Writing longer form stories is new to me and I think it’s wise for me to build up to it.

I’m excited about these stories. I think it’s some of my best writing and I’m looking forward to sharing them. I’ll be sure to post updates as I get closer to the publication date.

RB

August 5

Book Recommendations – Indie and Small Press

I’ve been working my way through my constantly evolving to-be-read pile and thought I should pass along some recommendations for the books I’ve enjoyed. I try to keep things interesting by switching between traditionally published books (big publishing houses) and the indie and small-press runs. Not only does it give me more variety, but it also spreads the love – and the money – a little further. However, my recommendations will focus on books from indie and small presses.

My tastes are all over the place when it comes to genres and subject matter, so I’ve included either a blurb from the book or a personal comment to give you an idea of what the book is about. Of course, just because I like a book – or don’t like one – doesn’t mean you’ll have the same experience. Regardless, if you’re looking for something new to read, check out a few of these titles (listed in no particular order).

The Moon Hunters by Anya Pavelle. A post-apocalyptic adventure novel that takes place after a world-wide pandemic. The narrative follows a young woman who is trying to escape a closed community where ideologies and politics clash. A fun, exciting, and though-provoking read.

Where Demons Dance by Emma Briedis. Historic fiction that was inspired by an actual event. This story follows several different characters in the Mormon community who are trying to solve mysteries in their own lives and which end up over-lapping into a satisfying conclusion. There’s mystery, intrigue, and drama all set in the late 1800s.

Tiny Righteous Acts by Parker Bauman. This was such a fun read. Basically, an immigration lawyer in New Orleans decides to mete out justice on those who have done her clients wrong. It’s funny, heartwarming, dramatic, and left me wanting more. I’m looking forward to reading the sequel and any spin offs.

A Quiet Rebellion: Guilt by MH Thaung. A fantastic story that blends fantasy with a bit of horror and political intrigue. While the story is well-written, I really liked the characters. They were all broken in some way, which made them very real to me. The story itself is also excellent. I read a fair-share of fantasy, but this was an original storyline, and the world-building is spot on. This novel is the first in a trilogy and I’m currently reading the second book.

Lost Inside My Mind by Dawn Olmo. This is the first poetry collection I’ve read in a long time, and it was a nice reintroduction to the art form. Ms. Olmo writes personal poetry, the topics center on herself and her life experiences, as well as her family. While this may seem to limit the relatability of the verse, it actually makes it much more intriguing. Love, loss, humor, and pain are explored honestly and passionately.

I hope you take the time to check out these titles for yourself and pick up a few copies. There’s a lot of fantastic work being done by writers who often fly under the mainstream radar. As I discover more, I’ll share them here.

RB

August 3

Review – The Martian

Okay, okay, I know I’m late to the party with this one. The book came out in 2011 and the movie in 2015. But I have a good excuse. I have way too many books in to “to be read” pile.

And a quick note here before I discuss the book – I watched the movie, first. It’s not necessarily a controversial opinion, but I always prefer the book version of a story to the movie. Books are more descriptive, more immersive. Movie versions are often good (Harry Potter, The Shining, etc), but they still don’t give the same experience as words on a page…and having it play out in my imagination is far more fun than sitting in a theater.

At this point, I assume almost everyone has seen the movie or read the novel, or is at least familiar with the story. Basically, a group of astronauts are on Mars, there’s a sandstorm, they flee to the escape module, but one of them is hit by debris, considered dead, and left behind. Unfortunately, he’s only injured and is now stuck on the planet by himself with limited food and water and no way to get back to or contact the Earth.

Since the story is already out there, I want to instead focus on the writing, the narrative, and the way the story is structured. Basically, looking at it as a writer instead of a reader.

Andy Weir, the author, definitely did his homework with this. It’s science fiction with real science, which I adore. I mean, I love speculative and futuristic sci-fi where the writers come up with all sorts of amazing ideas for technology in the future or in alien civilizations. But when it’s real science, it makes the story more grounded for me. But Weir doesn’t overwhelm the reader with science and math. It wasn’t like reading A Brief History of Time (boy, was THAT a challenging read!). I’d describe it as conversational science and math. Like having Bill Nye or Neil deGrasse Tyson explaining it to me.

The other thing I really loved about this book was the narrative. Weir has the protagonist, Watney, tell the story as journal entries, beginning immediately after he regains consciousness and realizes his situation. The majority of the book is written this way. It has a conversational tone, uncensored. Watney is telling his story as if writing a letter to a friend. He’s self-deprecating, cusses like…well, like an astronaut, and admits his mistakes and failings. It made his character all the more real. I could feel his frustration, his fear, and his longing.

The story switches back to NASA and follows a handful of characters there in a conventional, third-person POV. I think it was a good choice by Weir. It breaks up the narrative, changes the pacing and makes it more interesting for the reader. At least, it did for me.

The other interesting thing he did was, at several points in the second half of the book, switch to a third narrative voice. It was the omnipotent narrator describing something happening to Watney that neither he could tell us or the characters back on Earth could see or explain. These passages were brief and, again, I think were a good decision by Weir.

Of course, I’m always impressed when an author goes out of their way to research their topic. Luckily, Weir is already a nerd. He’s a programmer by trade, but has a love of physics and science. The background was already there and he used his knowledge to keep everything in the story grounded in reality. As I mentioned above, the science and math are real. Yes, it is possible to create hydrogen using chemistry and ingenuity. It’s also possible to grow potatoes in a hostile environment with just a handful of useful bacteria and a shitload of botany experience. And, well, a shitload of shit.

This was probably one of the most enjoyable reads I’ve had. The story is incredibly fast paced, easy to read, and simply a fun adventure. Plus, astronauts. I’m a huge fan of the space programs, all of them, but especially NASA. Astronauts have always been heroes of mine, and I’ll admit that I teared up a few times when reference was made to their bravery and ingenuity. There’s one part where two NASA administrators are talking about a potential way to rescue Watney, but it’s extremely dangerous to the other astronauts. When one of them asks what the rescuers would think about the danger, the other admin replies, “Well, their astronauts”, insinuating that they don’t care. It’s all about the mission. To hell with the danger.

Yeah, this book could double as a NASA recruiting tool. Sign me up!

If you’ve only seen the movie, please, pick up a copy of the book. It’s so much better than the movie (not that the movie wasn’t great). I promise, you’ll enjoy the ride.

RB

July 20

Review – Go Set a Watchman

If you grew up in the U.S. back in the 1970s and 1980s, you probably read To Kill a Mockingbird in school. Harper Lee’s coming-of-age story was mandatory reading when I was in eighth grade, but the book left an impression on me and I re-read it when I was a sophomore in high school.

Go Set a Watchman was originally touted as a sequel to Mockingbird. Later, it was revealed that Watchman was actually the original story that Lee wrote and submitted to her publisher. From what I read, the publisher liked the story, but thought it would be more interesting to focus on the younger version of the protagonist, so Lee went back and rewrote the entire novel. That’s how we ended up with Mockingbird.

However, Watchman still works as a sequel. The basic premise is that the protagonist, Jean Louise (Scout), returns home to Maycomb, Alabama for her annual visit. What she ends up discovering, however, is that her small-town world isn’t what she grew up thinking it was, nor are the people she grew up with. The book follows as she learns these hard truths and tries to come to terms with them.

The first half of the book is mostly set up. For those who haven’t read Mockingbird, this is fine because it introduces the characters and the dynamics of the cast. For someone like me who read and fondly remembers the first book, it was somewhat tedious, but later I was glad that Lee went through the trouble. What I remembered was young Scout’s views on things and how she interacted with her friends and family. Seeing things from her adult point of view was helpful, especially in light of the changes she has to deal with.

The second half of the book…well, I’ll admit I had a hard time getting through it. This isn’t because of the writing or the story, but because of what Jean Louise has to go through, the hard truths she discovers. The story in Watchman takes place not long after Brown vs Board of Education is decided (desegregating public schools), and seeing as how the story takes place in rural Alabama, you can imagine how well things are going.

Jean Louise was always strong-willed and saw everyone as equals. She wasn’t one to judge a person on skin color, which already made her an oddity in her small town. After spending several years living in New York, her views are even more at odds with her friends and family back home.

And sadly, the race issues covered in this book are still timely. It’s unfortunate to see how some things have changed, but so many other things, like ignorance and prejudice, haven’t changed a bit.

But the story isn’t just about race, it’s also about growing up and learning that our parents aren’t who we think they are. Many people grow up thinking their parents know what they’re doing, have all the answers, know what to do in every situation. But at some point, we have this epiphany and realize that they are just as clueless as we are. We learn they are human.

Is Go Set a Watchman as good as To Kill a Mockingbird? No, I don’t think so. Is it a worthwhile sequel? Absolutely. I think it’s an important conclusion to Jean Louise’s journey to adulthood. Having read a story about her as a child, I think it was a nice bookend, seeing her finally grow up and learn what it takes to be a good person, well, it resonated with me.

However, I feel I must warn you that the language in the second half of the novel can be tough to read. I don’t think it’s any worse than what you might read in Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn, but it can still be jarring.

I recommend Go Set a Watchman. It may not be the best novel you’ll read, but I think it’s an important one, especially if you’ve read To Kill a Mockingbird.

RB

July 8

Review – Where Demons Dance

One of the great things about being a part of the #WritingCommunity on Twitter is discovering new authors. It’s one thing to wander through a bookstore and browse titles, but during a pandemic, wandering through Twitter posts and perusing titles is the next best thing.

My latest discovery is the novel Where Demons Dance by Emma Briedis. I picked up a copy on Amazon after interacting with Ms. Briedis online and finding her to be warm and insightful when it comes to the topic of writing. As usual, I didn’t read anything about the book before I dove in…no synopsis, no reviews. I’ve mentioned this in previous reviews, but I find going into a story blind makes the journey far more enjoyable than if I’d read reviews and formed preconceptions.

Interestingly enough, Where Demons Dance is outside my usual reading area, meaning, it’s historical fiction. I don’t think I’ve read anything in this genre prior to this book, so it was a fascinating experience.

The story takes place in the late 1800s and focuses on the Mormon community of Utah. It begins with a murder and then follows several separate storylines and characters who are all caught up in the repercussions of this violent act. The main characters are Penelope and Ava, two women who follow the rules be aren’t exactly happy with their situations. I wouldn’t say they are feminists, especially considering the time period and the culture they’re living in, but they are independent in thought and, in my mind, cut from the same cloth.

When Penelope discovers her husband has been murdered, she sets out to find the reason behind it and the people who did it. Her storyline runs somewhat parallel to Ava’s. The latter is a young woman being raised in a Mormon household with her brother, but she questions the validity of her situation.

I don’t want to allude to too much here. It would be too easy to drop spoilers. However, I can tell you that the storylines of all the characters dovetail nicely into a satisfying conclusion. The characters are all well-conceived. They feel like they’re real people dealing with mysteries and unanswered questions. I also felt that Ms. Briedis did a fantastic job of weaving the different paths together and the way she handled the perceived mental illness of one of the characters.

In fact, this is one of those wonderful stories that swept me away. What I mean is, reading this story didn’t feel like reading, it felt like I was an extra watching from the sidelines. Ms. Briedis has such a delicate touch with the narrative, never pulling me out of the story with a fumbled sentence or awkward plot point.

Overall, this is a fantastic novel that uses an actual historic event as a catalyst. In fact, please be sure to read the Afterword. Ms. Briedis provides some additional insight into where the story came from, as well as all the hard work she did to research for historical accuracy.

I highly recommend Where Demons Dance. Be sure to add it to your reading list.

RB

June 24

Traditional Vs. Non-Traditional

When I was a younger man (which wasn’t THAT long ago, thank you very much), it was harder for a writer to get published than it is today. Commercial print magazines and traditional publishing houses ruled the writing world. Your average fiction writer had to comb through the newsstands to find magazines that might be interested in their work, type cover letters, buy envelopes (oversized so your manuscript wasn’t folded) and postage, then sit and wait. And it was very likely you’d never hear back from the editor.

Getting a book published wasn’t any easier. You couldn’t simply email a manuscript to an agent. You had to got through the same thing as magazine submissions – try and find an agent and mail him your best pitch, along with the first chapter of your magnum opus. Then there was the waiting. And more than likely you wouldn’t even receive the courtesy of a ‘thanks, but no thanks,” letter.

Of course, there was always vanity publishing. These were small publishing houses that you could pay to print your book. It wasn’t cheap and they generally made you pay for a specific number of volumes up front to make it worth their time and effort. Quality of the final product was also a problem.

As the internet began to snake its tendrils across the world, non-traditional publishing began to make an appearance. People posted on message boards, then came ‘zines. Anyone remember them? These were little twenty to thirty-page booklets, usually colored printer paper folded in half and stapled on the seam. They were low-budget labors of love with cheap websites and erratic printing schedules that published short fiction, poetry, and illustrations.

Fast-forward a decade or so and we arrive at online book publishing. The writer can now cut out the middle-man, avoid the hassle of contracts and negotiations, and publish what they want, when they want. Quality is going to vary far more than with traditional publishing, but it does provide for a wider variety of stories, styles, and voices. Writers who stories would never have seen the light of day twenty years ago can now reach an audience. Personally, I think the pros outweigh the cons.

For what it’s worth, I’ve done both. I’ve been published in commercial magazines and wrote a non-fiction book (written under contract) for a smaller publishing house. I’ve also been published in ‘zines (anyone remember them?), on fiction websites, and I’ve self-published a collection of my short stories.

Recently, I was thinking about the debate between traditional vs. independent publishing. For many writers, the traditional route is the only legitimate way to go. They like traveling the long road, working with editors, agents, marketing people, and jumping through all the hoops. Even publishing on a smaller scale – commercial magazines – there’s the wait for a response.

In my experience, that’s one of the most frustrating aspects of traditional publishing…waiting for someone to get back to you. In fact, looking back over my submission tracker (a Numbers spreadsheet), I can see that almost half the stories I’ve submitted over the years have disappeared like an errant sock in the clothes dryer. I never heard back, the stories apparently sucked into some publishing black hole.

Still, I can see the appeal that come with traditional publishing. I mean, that’s how most of our idols were published. That’s what many of us were brought up with, hearing about Stephen King or J.K. Rowling getting those sweet, sweet book deals and raking in millions. Who wouldn’t want that, right?

But it’s like acting. Not too long ago I read an article that showed how the average career of a professional actor is two years. That’s it. That’s the average. So for every Meryl Streep or Morgan Freeman, you’ve got hundreds of Carls who got two or three speaking roles in a some low-budget B movies and now works at Rent-a-Center. Not that I’m picking on the Carls. They tried. That’s worth something.

For most writers, we’re never going to get the attention of an agent and end up with a contract at Penguin or RandomHouse. And it’s not for a lack of talent or effort. That’s just how it goes. It’s a chaotic, random universe. Some of us find the sweet spot on occasion, the rest of us continue to do our best in relative obscurity.

So non-traditional publishing offers an opportunity for the rest of us to get our shot at having someone we aren’t related to read our work. There’s still a chance our story or collection of poems may sit and languish on a cyber-bookshelf, but we at least got a chance to show it to the world. That’s what really matters. Besides, just because someone gets published by one of the big publishing houses doesn’t mean their book is going to sell. You’ve seen the stacks of remainder books in the bookstores, the ones marked down from $19.99 to ninety-nine cents. Nothing is guaranteed.

In my humble opinion, I don’t see much of a difference between traditional and non-traditional publishing. In both cases, writers are being published and stories are going out into the world. That’s the point, isn’t it? To see our names in print, to share our imaginations, to maybe entertain someone for a little while. That’s all I care about. If I make a little money or maybe sign a couple of copies, that’s icing on the cake.

And one last thing: I think that people sometimes put too much emphasis on getting published. They believe they aren’t a “real writer” unless they have a book on a shelf or a story printed in a magazine. That’s just wrong. If you’re putting words on the page, either handwritten or typed, you’re a writer. It’s that simple. Publishing will happen for you eventually. Just continue to write.

RB