Category Archives: Musings on Reading

State of the Zoo-nion Address 2015

Image from cafepress.com

Image from cafepress.com

Greetings, my fellow Simians.
Perhaps I’ve been binge-watching too much Homeland lately, but today, I am compelled to once again brief you on my current state of affairs as your faithful Primate President, as well as a Reader, Writer, and Editor.

First, I’d like to make a motion that we conduct our US zoological elections more like they do in the UK, with primary–I mean, primate–election campaigning limited to four months instead of an absurd two years. It’s enough that they’ve entrusted our species with the great responsibility of protecting their limited freedoms within our limited abilities (we’re all in cages, after all, so there’s only so much we can do, am I right?). But from the lion’s den to the penguin sanctuary, animals zoo-wide are crying (or roaring, or squawking, or squeaking, or spitting–looking at you, lamas) for us to waste less time throwing our feces and bribing each other with bananas and spend more on addressing the primate–I mean, primary–issues we all face. For instance, zoo opening hours have been extended to far too late, and really? Stringing up the zoo with fairy lights in winter means we can’t get the holidays off now, either? Humans have become too handsy with our habitats as well, reaching between our bars, fingerprinting our plexiglass, and throwing too much inedible waste our way. We must also battle against the discrimination still plaguing our gift shops and wall murals, in which the same animals are represented over and over again. We monkeys have had more than our fair share of the limelight, and the tigers, elephants, giraffes, and flamingos have grown increasingly vocal in their frustration, too, with the paparazzi attention such exposure continually wreaks upon them. But we must acknowledge the joys, too, in what we have taken for granted, so I want the more obscure species among us to exalt in that recognition as well someday. The crowned lemurs, the Inca terns, the Sichuan takins–they, oh yes, they will have their day to shine. Maybe even literally, if they can get onto one of those glow-stick thingies the shops are selling now, you know, with the LED lights and thingamabobs sticking out and spinning around for no other purpose than looking really cool in the dark and getting kids to stop crying. All this and more lies before us as achievable realities, not mere cow-pie-in-the-sky fancies.

In other current events, as of this week I have the honor of beta-reading the English translation of author Ellen Dunne‘s manuscript. Ellen was one of my very first blog buddies when The Fallen Monkey was instituted in 2010, and it’s been amazing to follow each others’ writing journeys, celebrating successes and persevering through challenges. She has since published two novels (both in German but hopefully translated soon!) and the English-language short story “Cigarette Break,” which I’ve read and highly recommend. In the pipeline are two more novel-length manuscripts (also translated), one of which I’ve got loaded on my Kindle, ready to go! I also recently read an ARC of Shani Struther’s The Return (book three in The Runaway Series, though it works well as a standalone), which was released today and also comes with my recommendations.

As for my own schtuff, I am not as prolific as the talented and creative Ellen and Shani, but I’m of course thrilled to have a debut novel and novelette see the light of day in the past year. And after much (much, much) revision and querying, Manuscript #1 is finally finding acceptance out there. So in the coming weeks, I’ll be weighing my options. Meanwhile, I’m querying a novelette-length urban fantasy, too, and am writing my next novel-length romance of sorts.

On the editing front, I’ve reached a blessed standstill. After a year of reviewing roughly fifty manuscripts in an acquisitions capacity, I’m now back to concentrating on developmental editing—but at a pace that I can better balance with my writing and other life obligations. Last year was very intense for both personal and professional reasons, so 2015 finds me in a state closer to equilibrium. Here’s to a brighter year for you, too. 🙂

*waves and steps down from behind the exhibit information plaque serving as podium*

 


The Curious Case of the Missing Editor

OMG, the Monkey screeches again! (for those of you who are still left to hear it)

Though I’ve obviously been MIA, my title isn’t in reference to me. As an editor, I’m always at the ready—always on the job, in fact, even if it isn’t my own, apparently. You see, I mentioned before how I’ve been more in Reader than Writer mode lately, and I’ve got to say I’m gobsmacked by some of the poorly edited work I’ve read lately. And I’m talking traditionally published stuff by best-selling authors. Even the best indie authors know not to dare self-publish without consulting the expertise of an editor. At least they should know if they take their writing seriously and want others to as well. Repeat after me:

Everyone needs an editor.

Everyone needs an editor.

Everyone needs an editor.

We can be ever so proud of our book babies and earnestly believe in our talent, but it’s downright diva to think that any of us could possibly be above the need to have someone else edit our work (and neglectful of editors to let anyone slip through the cracks). I don’t just mean proofreading to clean up the spelling/grammatical bits; I mean deep copyediting, where, yes, you might have to let go of that sentimental scene or hack out some delightful description, no matter how poetic the prose. Anyone who wants to evolve from rookie status should understand the value of a fresh pair of eyes. None of us are perfect in any way, shape, or form.

Hats off to indie author Tahlia Newland, for instance, who in the last few months has published an imaginative suite of stories through Catapult Press. Having myself offered some input on a couple of her projects, I was just one of several beta readers Tahlia makes a point to share her pre-published work with before then employing the services of a professional editor. I’ve been following her blog for a while and, consequently, her journey to bring her short stories and soon-to-be-released Lethal Inheritance novel to readers, and her revision process has been nothing less than comprehensive, involving a team of critical eyes. She also runs the Awesome Indies website, which upholds a standard of quality for the independently published.

Some traditionally published authors, on the other hand…

Well, of the last several novels I’ve read, one that I enjoyed while reading but was quick to criticize in hindsight was The Tiger’s Wife, by Téa Obreht. Now, this is a bestseller that has had readers falling over themselves in absolute love with it, and I just have to say, “Eh.” NO QUESTION, Obreht is a debut author that will be a literary force to reckon with going forward. She has a spectacular if not intimidating command of the English language (which is not her first language and surpasses many of those for whom it is!), a maturity transcending her years, and her capacity to describe is absorbing. I’ll delve more into that last observation in a future post about 1st-person POV, but for now I just want to say that, while a tremendous and captivating storyteller, Obreht should have trimmed down a substantial amount of that description, along with secondary characters and story lines. A classic rookie case of wanting to keep in every great idea that crosses the mind, she was just too ambitious with all the folk stories of sorts that she chose to interweave—we’re introduced to an exhausting list of characters who are described in exhausting detail, only for them to fall off the planet with no lingering consequence. The tangle of tales, I felt, ultimately rendered none of them as effective as they could have been (standing alone as part of an anthology, maybe?) and, in the end, left the primary story thread underdeveloped. And her editor should have known this.

To be honest, I think a lot of the readers who gave The Tiger’s Wife rave reviews did so because they didn’t get it and attributed that fact to some profound, intellectual meaning that was surely just going over their heads. That their comprehension simply and understandably fell short in the face of genius. And, hey, you can bet I originally gave benefit of the doubt that my own questioning was a product of me being dumb as rocks. But I don’t think we readers should be so quick to sell ourselves short. When I find myself discussing this book with a group of women on the same page, and all of us educated, well-read, and discerning yet equally baffled as to whether there’s indeed some grand overarching purpose unifying the excess, methinks it actually all boils down to, nah, it was just really crappy editing.

But by far the most abysmal absence of editing I’ve recently encountered was in Julian Fellowes’s Past Imperfect. Now, Fellowes is another brilliant storyteller. He’s brought us the Oscar-winning Gosford Park and hugely popular Downton Abbey. But after just finishing the aforementioned novel (as well as reading his book Snobs a few years ago), I’ve come to the conclusion that screenplays are clearly his forte. Why? Because there’s no doubt he knows his subject matter (rich people). No doubt that he conceives compelling stories, engaging dialogue, and settings that are a feast for the eyes. But he can’t write narration. Or, rather, he has a clumsy handling of it. He’s very good at description and development, but in Past Imperfect, he seems to have invented an entirely new narrative POV: 1st person omniscient

That’s right, his 1st-person narrator can read the minds of every other character in the novel:

A pink cloud of nostalgia hovered over him for a moment. “The library was one of the prettiest rooms I’ve ever seen, never mind lived in. But no.” He shook his head to loosen these disturbing, self-indulgent images. “I’m finished with all that.”

*

“What happened to her?”

“She died.”

“Oh.” She sighed, saddened by the inexorable process of life.

The narrator can also see what other people do while on the phone with him:

“And Terry.”

He was puzzled for a second, and then he nodded and smiled. “You’re right. I’d remembered it as being before we left.”

Unless this was a video-conference (which I assure you it wasn’t), seriously, WTF. Or should I say, WTE, as in “Where’s The Editor?”

Because he/she certainly wasn’t there to correct the error in “reaping what you sew.”

And certainly didn’t caution Fellowes against too much telling or constantly interrupting the flow of dialogue with needless narration:

“Are you on good terms these days?”

The question seemed to take him by surprise and return him to the present. My words had told him something beyond their content. “Why did you want to see me?” he asked.

*

“Which ‘some’?”

“Sorry?” The phrase sounded foreign. I couldn’t understand him.

*

He shrugged. “It was obvious she was talking about Damian.” He must have caught and mistaken my response to this news, and hurried to undo any possible hurt. “She was always very fond of you, but…” How was he to phrase it?

I helped him out. “She wasn’t interested in me.”

We both knew she wasn’t, so why should he argue? “Not like that,” he said, accepting my own verdict.

*thump*
*slam*
*swish-swish*
*bam-bam-bam*

Oh, sorry, that was just the sound of me tripping over narration, brushing myself off, then proceeding to deliberately bang my head against the wall. Back to what I was saying…

The long and short of it is, Writers: Each of you needs an editor. And Editors: Even if your authors are already best-selling superstars, don’t cut corners in polishing their work. Just as every writer should take pride in their writing, editors should take pride in their editing, whatever the constraints we face.

I like to think I do, and yet I still don’t claim to master the art on my own—for the work that I do for a small publisher, I have three other editors on my team for any given manuscript, and it’s always a learning process for me. I’m pleased to say, though, that two more guinea pigs I’ve developmentally edited on this publisher’s behalf are out in the world as of September, making five published novels in total, with three more on the way this winter. I also just finished editing a short-story prequel to one of those books, and a freelance manuscript that I’d proofread for the sake of querying has already found itself an agent. SO proud of my authors, and may we all continue to write, edit, and prosper.

See my related post: “Editing Out the Editor

Also, stay tuned for some reflection on use of 1st-person narration


Pathetic Much?

Books to be returned...

(Photo credit: hashmil)

Go figure my last post on “productivity” should date back to over a month ago. Hm. Sure, we writers don’t have to write every day, but maybe we bloggers should post more frequently than every six weeks. Sorry, folks. Thanks for sticking with me if you’re still out there. 🙂

As per usual, I’m full of excuses, excuses. Back-to-back writing and editing projects have proven more of a workload than I’d anticipated, and my personal writing projects have suffered for it. And summer is not proving helpful so far as hosting and traveling has predictably kicked into high gear. One unanticipated trip I recently took was home to Chicago—a force larger than myself compelled me to go, I think, as I couldn’t stop dreaming night after night about going there and hugging my family. Waking up was never so tragic. So thank you, frequent flyer miles.

The price I paid for that, though, was the hectic situation that was returning just before taking in another visitor, a former student of mine whom I’d taught as a freshman in high school and will now be a sophomore in college. But it was so special to have that time together and introduce her to the literary and historical wonders of London, and we experienced a phenomenal performance of Les Miserables last night. As she departs for Chicago today, I leave for Paris tomorrow for a week-long working holiday—or “worliday,” as one journalist so obnoxiously put it, considering that, to me, the concept of “working holiday” is obnoxious in itself. Yet, alas, often necessary. At the very least, my husband and I will finally have an easy enough getaway for just the two of us (perhaps sipping a little absinthe in a few old Hemingway haunts) while still keeping on top of real life.

And THEN we return to the Olympics. Tickets to volleyball, basketball, and track & field, two of which my in-laws are coming in town to view as well. After a week hosting them in London, we’ll travel with them a week in Istanbul. Another worliday, I expect. Then two weeks after that this selfish bastard finally caters to someone other than herself by volunteering a few days in southern England for Honeypot, a children’s charity that provides respite breaks for child carers—i.e., gives some semblance of childhood to those who’ve had to grow up too fast. I’m also initiating the process for a potential return to the classroom this fall as an English teacher, short or long-term TBD. Well, all of it TBD, really. Just exploring options.

Amidst all of this, I can’t determine when. To. Write. It’s awful, I know, and maybe I should have my “writer” membership card revoked. But you know what I’ve been escaping to in the meantime, whenever I can catch a break? Books. I’ve been reading again and reading often and reinforcing if not rediscovering my love of it. It helps me as a writer, sure, as reading does for us all, but it’s also become a source of great comfort in view of that challenging writing and publication process. As long as reading books still gives me joy, I won’t despair if I myself never publish one. As long as I can appreciate the talent of other writers, I won’t lament if my own talent never develops to their calibre. It doesn’t mean I’ll stop trying—oh, HELL no! I love writing, and I still have characters and situations swarming around in my head that need a place on the page. I’m set to begin querying again on manuscript #1 and hope I can get manuscript #2 ready for it, too, by autumn. My writing life goes on, that’s for sure; I’m simply saying it won’t die an agonizing death if doesn’t go beyond my computer.

On a side note, the small publisher I edit for has just seen one of its titles make the New York Times Best Seller list and another climb to an #11 Amazon rank in its category on Kindle (#23 for the print book), which is exciting and promising for the joy I reap from editing as well!

“So long as books are open, minds can never be closed,” Ronald Reagan once said, and so long as my mind is open and life full, there will always be ideas for what to write next.


The Bookish Baboon

Cover of "The Book Thief"

While I feature the books I’m currently reading in the right margin of this blog, I don’t often comment on them. But as I have book club tonight, I’m in the spirit to do so.

First off, I was never one to join a book club before. My to-read list has always been infinite, and to have someone else choose what I read and dictate the time I read it within always seemed too constrictive. Why I joined this one, however, was a no-brainer: it’s a group of my friends who I’d want to hang out with anyway and who share my love of wine and low-key attitude. There’s no sense of penalty if you haven’t read more than 5 pages of the book, there’s no set list of questions we must answer, and the time-frame has been pretty wide open—so far, a couple months, which leaves me enough time to read something else of my own choosing in between.

Tonight is only our second meeting, and the book is The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak. I am lazy, so allow me to just copy the notes I already jotted in my book journal:

Liked it. Took a while to get into it (one-third of the way through), largely because of language and structure/style—its very unique descriptive and figurative language is striking, but perhaps would prefer such in a short story vs. novel-length. Unexpected similes for sake of originality sometimes barred actual envisioning (e.g., “Her wrinkles were like slander.”), which opposes the aim of that literary device. A lot of characters introduced right away, too, so took time to feel acquainted with main ones, but ultimately did connect and sympathize. Interesting perspective of non-Jewish German suffering, and I did appreciate the dehumanizing effect achieved by repeatedly describing people as inanimate objects and inanimate objects as living beings (anthropomorphism)—e.g., “There were shocked pyjamas and torn faces.”

Overall, I give it 4 out of 5 stars. In the end, I was moved.

Our first book choice, on the other hand, was sheer disaster. It came highly recommended as a bestseller, and I have zero idea why. Here’s what I had to say in my little journal about Victoria Hislop’s The Island:

Boo! Premise was interesting (history of the leper colony on Greek island of Spinalonga), but story was poorly written and developed. Over-described, redundant, simplistic, 2D characterization, ridiculous head-hopping (three times in one paragraph at one point!), and spent too much time away from present-day story-line to give a crap about its main character. Secondary plot surrounding sister in the past story thread was absurd (her affair was drawn out too long to believe in its continued passion, and the way it comes to an end is very unoriginal melodrama). Climax was too abrupt with little resolution of interest. Nothing of literary merit to discuss.

Overall, I gave it 2 out of 5 stars per Goodread’s rubric (“It was okay”). I’m tempted to change that to a 1 because I hate it more with every recollection, if not for the fact that I did find the history interesting. A shame it couldn’t have been conveyed more powerfully.

And to round this out as a literary trifecta, the book I just completed out of non-book-club-related pleasure was The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern. I just dropped 5 out of 5 stars on that baby despite understandable limitations as cited by other readers. One Goodreads reviewer says, “The Night Circus will be a 5-star book for a certain reader. This reader likes a lot of descriptions, doesn’t mind a very slow story and has a soft spot for circuses. I am not that reader.” Fair enough. It all the more reinforces how there’s a reader out there for every book (plenty of folks just loooved The Island, after all), so those of us who write and aspire to have readers of our books one day need to keep the faith.

Because—with the exception of the “soft spot for circuses,” as they generally creep me out—I am that reader described above. I hated the amount of description in The Island because it was redundant; I loved the amount of description in The Night Circus because, for me, it was immersive. Yes, plot was rather thin, I expected there to be more action-oriented warring of the magician’s magic, and even at the end I didn’t grasp the point of the whole magic competition and why its stakes had to be so high. But this book in itself had a magical quality that made it an exception for me; the whimsical, decadent, candlelit, and velvety descriptions are abundant but so lovely. More so than a story, the book was an experience, a stroll through the black and white tents of a circus echoing the surreal artistry of Cirque du Soleil. For that reason alone, it’s a 5 for me, and I’m seriously contemplating reading it again from the start as I already miss the warmth, illumination, and caramel scent to be had inside those tent flaps.


The Story of Moi

In my last post, I referred to a pop-up book I had created at the beginning of a graduate school course.  At the time I was pulling a 180 in my career path—after a few years in Finance, various signs pointed me in the direction of teaching, so I quit my consulting job outright to become a full-time student again and earn my masters in Secondary Education to teach English.  The actual book I made for the project is an ocean away in storage, so I can’t include photos here of my lame attempt at the craft, but I did scrounge up the brief reflection I’d written for it and thought I’d share it here since my mind is on it, and I’m still grateful for the perspective it reinforced within me:

As a child, I adored Munro Leaf’s The Story of Ferdinand for Robert Lawson’s lovely ink sketchings of Ferdinand, the bull who did not like to romp and fight, but, rather, sit under his favorite cork tree and smell the flowers.  As an adult discontent in my former Finance career, I randomly recalled this book a couple years ago and consequently became aware of how much the corporate bull-fight in which I was participating ran contrary to my nature.  My resultant epiphany prompted by this simple picture book centered on the realization that books have always been my way of smelling the flowers whenever the world seems artificial and harried.

The literature I read has the capacity to provide emotional, spiritual, and intellectual stimulation (denoted in my project as a heart, cross, and brain, respectively), as well as contributes countless other aesthetics that enrich my daily life such that I am better able to find the extraordinary in the ordinary.  Among the flowers blooming within [my project’s] pages are:  keys to understanding new knowledge or ideas, keys that open doors to other ways of thinking or to various corridors within my soul; airplanes that transport me to imaginative, enchanting lands and experiences when the everyday becomes mundane or challenging; the music of poetic, figurative expression as issues of life are harmonized (or made dissonant) in the sounds and rhythms of words; telescopes that foster awareness as I am enabled to see distant worlds and plights beyond my own backyard; and mirrors that force me to confront who I am and muse in self-reflection.

The multi-faceted impact that reading continues to have upon me is perhaps as infinite as the varieties of flora, rendering a library a virtual garden.  Just as Ferdinand left the bustle of Madrid to reside once again beneath his tree, so I left my job to pursue a teaching career that would let me read as much as I always wished I could (and then some!) and try to inspire the same passion in others.  Thus, The Story of Ferdinand has become that of my own.

And since then, I’d devote the last day of each school year with a read-aloud of this book (yes, to an audience of teenagers), leaving my students with the message to not go against their grain in life—“Find your way of smelling the flowers, and be very happy.


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