Friday, May 31, 2013

Two quick book reviews

Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton (published 1990)

Crichton's classic suspense thriller begins by appealing to the wow-factor of experiencing dinosaurs live on the page, but unlike the movie adaptation, which had to do some serious research to properly animate so many of the extinct creatures, the real story of the book is not about dinosaurs at all. It is about generic out-of control monsters, and people being chased by them.  As such it's still a really well done plot--the last two-thirds of the book hold the reader in constant suspense. As a weaver of a tale, Crichton is a master here. His writing style, on the other hand, ranges from comfortably smooth and readable to just plain bland, which, I predict will allow this book to gradually fade from center stage.

The Silmarillion by J.R.R. Tolkien

I loved Lord of the Rings--in fact it's one of my favorite books (OK, it's a trilogy, but you know what I mean). I’ve already published a review here, all in verse.  But I found Silmarillion to be a dreary, pedantic read. Far too much narrative, dragging on and on, rarely interrupted by dialogue. A few of the key parts of the story held my interest, but through too much of it I felt I was just plodding through.

Tolkien didn’t publish this stuff himself because it was unfinished, so he’s not to blame.  (It was published by his son in 1977.)  Blame his rampant popularity—fans want anything and everything he ever jotted down on paper.  I absolutely understand, but I guess those fans are a little more obsessive than I.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Review of 'Dune' by Frank Hebert

When I review an old and hugely popular book (this one is from 1965) that already has a bazillion reviews done on it, I try to accomplish two things in my reviews:

1.  Start with a catchy first line to grab the reader.

2.  Say something nobody else has said before, while avoiding repeating what you'll read in other reviews.

So, with that as preamble, Here it is:

Dune is a brilliant story told by an incompetent fool.

Frank Herbert seems a deliberate pretender at his own trade. Because of his infatuation with pretense, he comes across to me as a stranger to the real substance of the world he spent so much time and energy building. He navigates it crudely, filling it with characters that are all variations on the same theme: brooding, self-possessed, cynical, valuing perception over reality.

My greatest complaint is that Herbert is constantly sabotaging his story’s narrative drive with pointless pseudo-introspective dialogue. He is fatally enamored with such dialogue. The worst of it—the most banal—he obviously recognizes, because he props it up with the cheapest of ploys: he has another character gush with praise over the insipid line.

Time after time he takes the brute force route through the tangle of possibilities that the intricate story line full of characters at cross purposes with one another presents to him—missing opportunity after opportunity for sophisticated story telling. Just one example: The Guild navigators couldn’t navigate their way out of a paper bag without their drug? All inter-space travel would collapse without said drug? Puh-leez!

Over and over he assembles a room full of way-too-many characters, swabs it with political tension and innuendo, and with laughably shallow pseudo-philosophy, and then has them stand/sit in static rapture of their own self-involvement and prattle on for 20 or more pages that neither advance the plot nor even produce any consequences to it. He is obviously enamored with politics—the art of appearing to be more than you are while saying less than you know. In the end, that’s what the entire book comes across to me as: an exercise in creating appearances without substance.

To his credit, Herbert is superbly talented at turning a phrase. The phrasing is rich, often poetic and always well crafted; and his characteristic writing style is a pleasure to read. Usually that scores big points with me. But not here. ‘Dune’ is touted as one of the most outstanding examples of its genre. I pointedly disagree.

rating: 7/10

Thursday, May 23, 2013

How to get your book published

Shepherding a book to publication is like coaxing an orchid into bloom.  This is a purple Dendrobium orchid, 27 year old plant, blooming today in my living room at the North Carolina beach.  Bought in Hawaii, this is one of the easiest orchids to care for.  It loves to be severely pot bound and wants to be watered only once a month.  Its long-lasting blosoms are among the most common used in leis.

It is a quantum event.  Suddenly, with the stroke of pen on contract, you become a published author.

For me, it seemed to happen overnight.  It was as if I went to bed a clueless wannabe and woke up an expert on getting published.  I pinch myself.  Am I still asleep?  Is this a dream?

Well, it wasn't a dream.  Nor was it an overnight success story.  The reality is far more complicated than some sort of mystical caterpillar-to-butterfly metamorphosis.  It was a long process, like a nurturing a plant until it flowers, or watching a sunrise crescendo to its apex out of the gloom of night.

Sunrise, North Topsail Beach, NC, May  21, 2013

It was a process that took patience, persistence, plenty of hard work, and commitment.  And, in fact, there's nothing magical about that moment when you can declare yourself a royalty-earning, no-fee paying, genuine published author.  Successful marketing of your product takes just as much determination and energy as the research, writing, revising, editing and pitching of your manuscript.

Hundreds if not thousands of blogs, essays and books have been written on the subject of getting published.  What I offer in this post is one person's experience.  As the epigraph to this blog says: I offer a few small crumbs to mark the path that led me to this significant way-marker in my writing journey.

In my experience there are two broad classes of authors.  First there are people who decide they want to be writers and then start looking for opportunities and homing in on preferred story lines or subject matter.  And then there are those who have something they want to write about.  These folk didn't necessarily intend to become writers, but if they are serious about getting their message out to the public, then they quickly realize that they're going to have to hone the writer's craft.  I fall in the latter category.

Which ever group you fit into, the first steps in becoming a published author are to practice and learn.  A formal education is the most reliable path to success.  Go to college and earn an English degree with a focus on writing; then follow that with an MFA - master of fine arts.  If your circumstances don't allow for formal education, then there's always the School of Hard Knocks.  Find a local writer's group or an online group.  Join a critique group and exchange drafts.  Learning to criticize the work of others will help you identify the weaknesses in your own craft.

Then write, write, write.  Revise, revise, revise, and write some more.  There's a wise saying among writers that goes: "The first million words are practice."  In my case, I continue to go through draft after draft of the book series 'Eden's Womb'.  Because I consider it my 'life work' - my magnum opus - I didn't want to give up on the plot or the ideas.  I have rewritten it entirely from scratch half a dozen times and revised more times than I care to remember.  I've had three different professional editors provide their (sometimes conflicting) developmental edits.  I learned different lessons from each.

For most other people the process of practicing and perfecting their skills involves a series of writing projects, each improving on the last.  You have to be pretty pig-headed to keep working on the same manuscript for decades.  'Stubborn' is not far from 'stupid' in the dictionary.  I wouldn't recommend my approach to others.

Look for feedback from people you respect.  Enter your writing in contests, send drafts out to unbiased reviewers, to editors, to agents - anyone willing to consider a paragraph of your writing and offer some response. Go online to writer-reader feedback sites like WattPad and Amazon Kindle Write On.  It is important to take the feedback you receive as constructive criticism.  Take it seriously even if you don't believe in it.  Use the criticism to experiment with different ways of presenting your ideas.  It's fine to believe in yourself and your skill; but I find that the most progress comes when I'm willing to explore ways to make what's already good better.  Remember that nothing created by a mere mortal is perfect.  There's always room for improvement.

The publishing industry is in a rapid state of flux.  Your choices for publication have never been greater.  Sometimes it seems that getting your work accepted by a 'traditional' big-house publisher or by many of the new no-fee small presses is harder than ever.  But it would be wrong to blame the system for your failures.  If your work hasn't been accepted for publication, assume that it's not good enough, because on the face of it, that's what the feedback suggests.  Keep trying for publication of course, but also keep questioning your work.  Ask yourself: "How can I make it better, more attractive to the intended audience, more worthy of an editor's or agent's attention?"

Last of all, when seeking a publisher I do not recommend the 'shotgun' approach.  You will hear the advice that "if you throw enough sh*t at a wall some of it will stick."  But do you really want to settle for sh*t?  Is just any old wall acceptable as a destination?  My advice is to be selective.  Research the publishers before sending them a query/submission.  Find out what they want and how it fits your work.  Submit only to those that you honestly believe in and those that feel like a good fit.  Then send a personalized query/submission with a cover letter that explains why that particular publisher is right for your particular manuscript.  Cookie-cutter form letters are like junk mail.  Who reads that?

I feel strongly about the personalized approach because it worked for me.  Quality outshines quantity.  Throughout my life I've found success by choosing carefully and reaching out only after thoughtful consideration.  I know I'm a rare exception, but when I graduated from high school I applied to only one university because that was the one that had the program I really wanted to be a part of.  Later I applied to only one graduate school.  Then out of school I applied for only one job, got it, and held on to it until I retired.  Now it has happened again.  I found a royalty paying no-fee publisher on the first try.  Yep - one submission, one letter, and I got published.  So what?  A book in print that's only read by a few close friends and family members, even by a few walk-in readers at a book signing, doesn't do much for your pocket book.  Publication is the first small step in a journey of a thousand miles.  Marketing is next, and the very best way of marketing your writing is to write more good stuff and keep getting it out there in front of the public.  Maybe it's about throwing sh*t at the wall after all.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Appalachian Trail monogram art - Part 7 of 7

Reflector sign near Taconic State Parkway underpass, NY (near RPH shelter)

... and the winner is:
In this last installment sampling the variety of shapes, sizes and colors of the Appalachian Trail's monogram, I'm posting my choice for number one favorite:  It's the stained glass panel hanging on the inside of the front door of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy's Mid-Atlantic Regional Office at Boiling Springs, PA:

And here are the rest of the chosen examples:
Large logo, note water bottle, done by me, Doe Knob, Great Smoky Mountain National Park.
Detail on bronze plaque, Thistle Hill Shelter, VT
Tie-dye t-shirt on sale at Bluff Mountain Outfitters, Hot Springs, NC.
Unique wood trail marker, 1 mile S of PA 183
Detail of Virginia's AT license plate seen at trailhead parking lot, PA 183.
Very old chain saw mark on log end, near summit of Bluff Mountain, NC/TN
Ballpoint pen work, cover of Windsor Furnace Shelter trail register, PA
Privy door, Kay Wood Shelter, MA
Felt marker, on Yellow Springs Village (ghost town) trail register cover, PA

Monday, May 6, 2013

Appalachian Trail monogram art - Part 6 of 7

Detail from the half-way marker between Toms Run Shelters and Pine Grove Furnace State Park, PA

Another selection from the amazing variety of expressions of the Appalachian Trail's iconic symbol.

Old chain-saw marking on log at switchback S of Seven Lakes Road, NY
Completely natural logo made of roots exposed by the trampling of many feet, near Erwin, TN
Trail marker, Sunrise Mountain, NJ
Hatchet work on rotting standing tree, Black Rock, PA
Detail of painted hand-routed sign by Waterville Bridge, Swatara Gap, PA
Paint on plywood, Dupuis Hill near Woodstock, VT
Front screen door of caretaker's cabin, Route 501 Shelter, PA
Detail on granite pillar mile marker near Lyme-Dorchester Rd., NH
Detail of sign on inside door of Privy, Leroy Smith Shelter, PA
Old membership sticker from when ATC was still the AT 'Conference', on car seen in Boiling Springs, PA

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Appalachian Trail monogram art - Part 5 of 7

Official AT Ridgerunner patch.  This one happens to belong to Georgia  Ridgerunner Rhea Patrick.

Here's another installment from my photo collection of AT logos/monograms inspired by the Sarah Jones poster.  This installment features a couple of official versions of the logo and one whimsical and ephemeral natural logo that takes a little imagination to see.  Enjoy.

Hatchet job on birch, S of NJ County 519, High Point State Park
Made with wood molding on Register Box.  Scott Farm AT work center, Cumberland Valley, PA
Chain saw work on mossy log end S of Newfound Gap, Smoky Mtn. Park NC/TN
Seasonal art, Bears Den Hostel, Northern VA
Second Floor railing, Ed Garvey Shelter, MD
Huge official ATC logo on work van, Scott Farm work center, PA
Self-made trail art, Standing Indian Mountain, NC
Granite sidewalk paver, one of about 30 through downtown Hot Springs, NC
Trail marker Stake at NJ 94 crossing near Pochuck Swamp and Wawayanda Mtn.
Sun playing tricks with stubs of sticks on fallen spruce, S of Newfound Gap, NC/TN