Thursday, January 21, 2010

What the Sam Heck is Going On???


Last night, I sat down to read the latest novel in a mystery series I admire. I was excited. The release had been several months overdue. So I curled up in bed with my copy filled with lofty expectations, ready to be swept away and entertained once again.

I was promptly disappointed.

The first several pages limped through a longish stretch of brackish backstory about a secondary character, told (and I repeat TOLD) from the point of view of the detective. It wasn’t even compelling backstory. A few pages in, the story finally began to move forward.

Which, in my opinion, is where the narrative should have started in the first place.

It wasn’t the first time I’d been disappointed in a book lately. I asked myself: what’s with all the mediocre writing coming from well-established talents lately?

WB Stephen sent me an email on this just yesterday. He’d ordered a recent book written by a former-lawyer-turned-blockbuster-author. Stephen was appalled—and rightly so—because the first paragraph of said book used the verb WAS exclusively, something like a half-dozen times in almost as many sentences. And boy, do I agree. We’re talking about a principle from Writing 101 here. Good writing relies on vigorous verbs, not wimpy, uninspired forms of “to be.”

Which reminded me of a conversation I recently had with another friend. She’s an avid reader and library staffer annoyed with the wave of lousy books coming from her favorite A-listers. Most of her comments were proofreading related—misspelled words, missed punctuation, etc…. But even small mistakes stand out as glaring errors in published books.

Clearly, something’s going on here, something that makes good writers look inept. But I’m not sure the problem lies solely with the writers. Rather, I think this harkens back to recent slashes in editorial staff at the publishing houses. Our favorite writers don’t suddenly suck. They still write great stories. It’s just that I don’t think there are enough editors left to properly edit them.

Personally, I’m going to take this as an opportunity. This is my chance to see such writers’ work somewhat au naturel, rather like seeing celebrities without makeup. This new age of stories comes to us in a different pristine state—a state with many of the flaws still intact. In the past, when I read those beautiful books, I felt intimidated by writing that jumped off the page, effortless. Now I see I can adopt a different mindset. In some ways, these adolescent books are just as pimply and gauche as mine are. Which means there’s hope that success isn’t as far off as I feared.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The Slow Simmer


I’ve been in simmer mode lately. Lots of input and things to think about. Also, some good, creative output. This week, I finished draft one of The Blue Hills, my NaNoWriMo project for 2009. During November, I managed to complete my 50K words, making me an official winner, but my story arc wasn’t quite complete. As of Monday, the arc was closed and I wrote those magical words, THE END.

Ahhhh, the feeling is so bittersweet.

Now that Blue Hills ripens on my hard drive, my attention turns to other matters. While I was tied up in drafting, a few issues came my way. In no particular order, they include:

1) I’ve noticed a trend amongst authors to publish excerpts of their novels or even self-publish their novels as Kindle books, in an effort to land a contract and net readers. This intrigues me, since it seems to fly in the face of conventional wisdom that any kind of publishing, even on a writer’s personal blog, constitutes publication. Now, since the folks I know who are doing this are smart women who do their homework, I can only assume that some powerful force in the industry wobbles in a state of flux. And it’s very likely I’ve been too nose-to-the-grindstone to notice it. If you know something I don’t about this, please post it in the comments. I’d love to learn something new today.

2) Not for the first time, I find myself wondering just how important networking is. As many of you know, I was fortunate enough to build some terrific writing friendships via writing forums. I’m a big fan of forums. I think they’re great places to meet talented, emerging writers and also perfect places to toughen your editing pencil and your tender writerly hide. But in the past months, I’ve found the only way to move forward on my novel is to put my head down and ignore other distractions, which means jettisoning a lot of the more social aspects of writing.

Clearly, there’s a benefit to networking. By giving, you receive so much in return. I know lots of generous folks who spend a TON of time critiquing others’ work, surfing blogs, reading others’ published stories, tweeting, facebooking, and otherwise investing themselves in building relationships, all of which builds good writing juju and an encouraging support network full of warm fuzzies. But I’ve also seen writers take the networking too far and implode by hyperactively hyping their own work. Pretty obviously, there needs to be a balance.My main concern, as always, lies in the cost to benefit ratio. I still haven’t figured out the right formula. Critiquing, etc… all takes time, time that isn’t spent writing. And you can’t succeed as a writer if you don’t write. I’ll bastardize Descartes here: I’m a writer; therefore, I write.

There are others, but I’ll stop right there. Now that the flurry of drafting is finally complete, I find I’m enjoying the slow, winter simmer. It’s fun thinking about something besides what new miseries Monica will heap on Carrie. But I won’t be on simmer for long. Jamieson’s Folly beckons. I began mapping scene intentions for my next two chapters yesterday. I learned how to up the ante while working on Hills. I can’t wait to torture Nick, my Folly protag, with all I’ve learned.

And, as you would expect, I’m thinking about all this at the stove. It’s ridiculously cold here, which means soup and lots of it. I made a big batch of minestrone this week. I’ll share the recipe for your enjoyment. Don’t be put off by the long list of ingredients and the amount of chopping. It’s worth every minute spent at the cutting board.


2 lbs. cabbage, preferably savoy or napa
3 Tbsp. olive oil
1 lb. lean Italian sausage, crumbled (bulk or “links” with casing removed)
1 very large yellow onion (1 – lb.), chopped
3 – 14 oz. cans diced tomatoes, undrained
2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. cracked or ground black pepper
2 tsp. sugar
1 Tbsp. crumbled dried basil (or 2 – 3 Tbsp. minced fresh basil)
1 lb. carrots, peeled and sliced
8 lg. ribs of celery, sliced
2 ½ quarts chicken broth
½ cup Arborio rice or ¾ cup small pasta shapes (orzo is nice)
1 – 20 oz. can cannelini beans (great northern), rinsed and drained
1 – 20 oz. can kidney beans, rinsed and drained

Freshly grated parmesan or romano cheese for serving

Discard any bruised outer leaves from cabbage. Wash cabbage and blot dry with paper toweling. Quarter cabbage and remove center core. Shred each quarter on the large holes of a grater of in a food processor fitted with a shredding disc. Set aside.

In an 8 Рqt. stock pot, heat olive oil over medium hear until haze forms. Add crumbled sausage, reduce heat to medium-low and saut̩ just until sausage loses its pinkness, about 3 minutes. Add onion and saut̩ until soft, but not browned, about 5 minutes. Add tomatoes, salt, pepper, sugar and basil. Cook sauce uncovered, stirring frequently, for 15 minutes.

Add cabbage and cook, stirring frequently, until limp, about 5 minutes. Add carrots and celery. Continue to cook, stirring frequently, for an additional 5 minutes. Pour in chicken broth and bring to a boil over high heat. As soon as soup reaches a boil, reduce heat to low. Cover pot and simmer, stirring frequently, until all vegetables are cooked, about 35 - 45 minutes.

Stir in rice or pasta, cover pot and cook undisturbed over low heat for 10 minutes. Stir in both cans of beans; cook covered for an additional five minutes. Remove pot from heat and let soup rest at least 2 hours before serving so all flavors meld together.

If sausage is not lean, skim off any fat that has accumulated on the surface. When ready to serve, reheat over low heat. Ladle into individual serving bowls and serve with freshly grated parmesan or romano cheese.

Soup is better the next (and subsequent) day(s). Soup freezes very well—just be sure not to overcook pasta or it will dissolve when frozen. Makes 7 quarts.