Friday, May 27, 2016

Review of Come Rain or Come by Shine Jan Karon

Mitford fans...rejoice!
Dooley and Lace are tying the knot...#13 has arrived.

Come Rain or Shine
Jan Karon
September 2015
GP Putnam's Sons
Come Rain or Come Shine (Mitford Years, #11)

About the Book:
Over the course of twelve Mitford novels, fans have kept a special place in their hearts for Dooley Kavanagh, first seen in At Home in Mitford as a barefoot, freckle-faced boy in filthy overalls.

Now, Father Tim Kavanagh's adopted son has graduated from vet school and opened his own animal clinic. Since money will be tight for a while, maybe he and Lace Harper, his once and future soul mate, should keep their wedding simple.

So the plan is to eliminate the cost of catering and do potluck. Ought to be fun. An old friend offers to bring his well-known country band. Gratis. And once mucked out, the barn works as a perfect venue for seating family and friends. Piece of cake, right?

In Come Rain or Come Shine, Jan Karon delivers the wedding that millions of Mitford fans have waited for. It's a June day in the mountains, with more than a few creatures great and small, and you're invited--because you're family.

By the way, it's a pretty casual affair, so come as you are and remember to bring a tissue or two. After all, what's a good wedding without a good cry?

Buy on Amazon

Commentary on marketing:
I received a request to review this book, and wow, was I ever flattered. A Jan Karon book! The request came in March to post for May. I hadn't checked up on the book or when it actually released. It's typical for larger book publishers to offer a hundred or more free advanced reader copies to get a goodly number of reviewers posting and ramping up the numbers as soon as a new book releases. I assumed the book was releasing in May. It wasn't. Moreover, when I went to check on things at Amazon and Goodreads, I saw that the hardcover had released in September of last year. Not only that, it had 1411 reviews already. What in the world? Her other books in the series had less than 1,000. Still "only" 855 reviews on Goodreads. Why would the publicist keep offering free books with that many reviews and great sales rankings already? Not sure. But I dutifully posted, and as I glance through other reviewers, see many familiar names in the CBA communities. My guess is that GP Putnam's Sons got hold of another list of Christian Book reviewers, especially those who didn't review Karon's other books, and were willing to send out any e-copies. All this continues to beg the question of free books in exchange for publicity. At this point in the game of publishing for such monster authors as Karon, its really how the big publishers are spending those advertising dollars--either on potential dip of sales vs. outright paid ads. When the electronic version costs as much as a paperback, then the pricing issue comes into play as well. How much are individuals willing to spend on purchasing ebooks? On the other hand, making libraries pay for to lend probably makes up a lot of those costs. Maintaining momentum and reputation with tried and true authors by attempting to find new fans to buy up their back list is still a useful tool.

My Review:
For Mitford fans, Come Rain or Come Shine is one of those family conversations where you can come in the middle of and know who’s talking about what. The cousins and the neighbors are an open book, and all the advice is free and full of good intent regarding matters of love and the wedding. For that’s what this story is about—Dooley and Lace’s long-awaited marriage.

There are a few lovely little twists and surprises, some grief, a lot of joy, some wondering and bewilderment, a lot of pride. This, number thirteen in the series, would not be the best introduction to those new to Karon’s writing style. Folksy and familiar, the reader has always to feel as though stepping into the middle of someone’s thought, or to pick up a thread of conversation, or listen to the inkling of a great plan only to pick it up later, and to learn of an expected event, such as Dooley’s graduation from veterinarian school, but then come in after it’s done and feel slightly miffed that you missed the ceremony. Readers never quite know exactly where they are, but it’s the people of Mitford gathered not exactly in town but nearby, and you’re safe. You feel as though you’ve stepped into a 1930 scenario set in modern contemporary times and the breeze of a slight time warp as you adjust your shawls for a rock on the porch swing.

Full of layers of imagery and decision-making, revelations, hiding or being in the open, angst, finding the right dress, creating the right atmosphere, Come Rain or Come Shine is a lovely story of being oneself.

It’s good, it’s poignant, it’s humbling, and it’s home.

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Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Five Quick Steps Toward More Mature Writing

Whenever I see a new client's manuscript, I can tell almost instantly how mature the writing is just by flipping through a few pages. How? Because there are things that newbies do almost universally. But the good news is, of all the possible writing faux pas, these are the quickest and easiest to fix.
Here's the caveat: These steps are primarily cosmetic. If an author hasn't studied the craft, applying these quick remedies won't help that much. But even newbies who have studied make these simple little "errors." Taking steps to correct them is the fastest way to make your work appear more mature--even if you're writing for kids.
Kill the adverbs: You've seen this said before. It didn't originate with me. Be merciless. There are better ways to describe and stronger verbs to use. Using adverbs is quick and easy--and lazy. Don't cheat your readers. Kill the adverbs.
Go easy on the specialty punctuation: Exclamation points, dashes, and ellipses fall into this category, as do semicolons and colons. Overuse of the first two are sure newbie-signs, as are improper use of the last two.
In fiction, dashes are used to indicate a character's dialogue line being interrupted, for a parenthetical in the middle of a sentence, or to emphasize a point. Ellipses are used to indicate a character's thought or voice trailing off and also sometimes for emphasis. The more these two tools are used, the less effective and more distracting they become. Go through your manuscript and see if it's riddled with dots and dashes. Are they all necessary?
Colons and semicolons are so rare in fiction as to be almost nonexistent. Every time I've seen colons in narrative, I've felt like the author has stepped in to explain something and left the character suspended. I'm not one to say that they shouldn't be in fiction; I'm not one to eliminate anything in the writer's toolbox. But I can't think of a good example in which they could be used effectively, or that something else wouldn't be better.
As for semicolons, they often do have a place in narrative, but not in dialogue. Semicolons are too formal for dialogue and are best replaced with other punctuation. A few years ago I wrote "The Lofty Semicolon," a post that explains the proper use of the mark, so I won't rehash it here. But like all specialty punctuation, semicolons shouldn't be used often. And to define often: a few times in an entire novel is fine, a few times a page is too often.
Reserve the use of italics: When I see a character's thoughts written out in italics, I know the writer isn't comfortable yet with writing in a deep point of view. When you're writing in first person or deep third person, everything you're presenting is to appear to come from inside the character--under his skin, in his mind, through his emotions. Everything. So you shouldn't have to say "he thought," because all thoughts are his. Same applies to using italics to represent his thoughts. Put them in past tense like the rest of the narrative, and don't use italics.
There are exceptions, of course, like when your character is praying or when you want to present your character's thoughts in present tense instead of past for purposes of emphasis. That's fine. But the more often you use italics--just like the more often you use ellipses and dashes--the more likely you are to dilute their effectiveness.
Use pronouns: Frequently calling your characters by name can be distracting and can put a distance in the POV. After you've established the characters in a scene, it's fine to switch from using their proper names to using their appropriate pronouns. I remember reading somewhere that mentioning the characters by name once or twice a page in narrative is enough. That's a good rule of thumb. You may have to do it a tad more often in dialogue to avoid confusion, but even then, you don't have to use proper names every single time (you shouldn't have to tag every single line of dialogue, either, but that's another post).
Avoid the name in quotes: How often do you call the person you're conversing with by name as you speak to her?
"Mary, you won't believe who I saw today."
"Who did you see, Bob?"
"I saw my old boss, Mary. He didn't even speak to me."
"Oh, Bob, I bet he's still sorry he laid you off."
Does that seem natural?
Yes, there are times when you call the person you're talking to by name--when you're trying to get his attention, when you're being snarky, or when you're angry or upset. When you're an angry parent, you toss in the middle name, too.
But in normal discourse, it's not necessary to continuously--or even "frequently"--call the person you're talking to by name. Dialogue is supposed to seem like normal, natural discourse. Be careful how often you use proper names in between the quotes.
These are the kinds of things you can fix yourself before sending your work off to a critique partner or editor. They're just little things, but they go a long way toward presenting professionally written work.
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Monday, May 23, 2016

Constructing Your Book

For the past year, we've lived next to a massive construction project. A housing development will arise eventually, but in the meantime it appears to me that several men are having a lot of fun with their grown-up toys moving dirt from here to there, digging gargantuan holes and then hauling in dirt by the hundreds of truckloads to fill them back in again. To my untrained eye, it appears to be nothing but chaos--grown-up chaos, but chaos nonetheless.

This is the world's largest Tonka truck operated
by the  world's biggest (and oldest) boy. He
regularly plays in the yard next to our house and
loves to toss dirt and rocks around with the express
intent of distributing dust evenly throughout
each room and atop every piece of furniture
in our house. (Just kidding. That's not a Tonka;
it's a Komatsu. But the part about the boy is true.

From my bedroom window, I can watch the comings and goings of the daily (and very noisy) activity, but it remains a mystery. Why on earth are they filling that hole when they spent eight hours yesterday digging it? Do they remember hauling those tons of dirt in a few days ago? If so, why are they hauling the same dirt out of the area today? How can what I see before me possibly end up being anything that remotely resembles a community of homes? Without the master plan in front of me, I have no idea what the end result will be.

And so it goes with our books and the process though which we write them. Whether we use a loose outline, a precise synopsis for each scene or chapter or act, or write by the seat of our pants, we must take it one step at a time to get to our eventual end. Our individual master plans may seem confusing to others (or even to us), but taking it to the end eventually clears up any confusion.

I always hesitate to discuss my book with anyone before I've finished a first draft. By then I know what happens to my characters and can discuss it intelligently. Before that, though, my ramblings sound as confusing to my listeners as the digging, hauling, dumping, grading, rock-grinding, and dynamiting in our backyard look to me. I might not have the best master plan (I'm a pantser), but at least I know why I spent eight hours yesterday writing that chapter and conversely, why I spent eight seconds today deleting it. Trying to explain my plot to someone else when I, the author, have no idea what that plot will ultimately be is an exercise in futility. My "grand idea" sounds ridiculous to anyone who doesn't have a clearer idea of how it will all work out.  It doesn't do my credibility as a fairly intelligent writer any favors either. I sound muddled and unsure of myself and my work, and of course, at that point I am. So why let a potential reader in on my confusion? That's why I choose to wait until I can make sense before talking about my work. Just seems prudent.

Just yesterday, though, I noticed a pattern in what the trucks and their drivers have been doing, and it all started to make sense. Yes, it's still in its first draft stage, and I suppose changes will be made here and there before the finished project lies before me. Someone has a master plan. As steps are taken, one by one by one, the grand design emerges.

And so it will be with our books. As we move our characters within their plots and settings, guide them through the stumbling blocks we engineer, dig holes, dump a character or two into them, then haul them back out and fill in those holes to tie up loose ends, our story emerges.

Too bad Tonka (or Komatsu) doesn't make computers. Those men are having way too much fun to be working.

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Friday, May 20, 2016

Review of "Rumors and Promises," by Kathleen Rouser

                Sophia Bidershem, a teen-aged heiress in late nineteenth century Detroit, was taken advantage of by a predatory older man and bore a daughter outside of marriage. To avoid a forced marriage, she runs away with the Daughter, Caira, always fearing her predator might find them. Taking the name Sophie Biddle and pretending that the now-two-year-old Caira is her sister, she arrives destitute in Stone Creek, Michigan, to take a job in a boarding house and start a new life.

Her pleasant personality, competence, and obvious love for Caira quickly win her friends, but she feels guilty for lying about her status, and she lives in fear of being found by the girl’s ruthless father.
                The young minister Ian McCormick provides Sophie charitable help and is instantly attracted to her. But Ian has hidden secrets of his own, secrets that leave him as guilt-ridden as Sophie. He tries unsuccessfully to assuage his guilt feelings through good works. Sophie’s presence and their growing attraction to each other only complicate his situation. 

Kathleen Rouser threads this story skillfully from that point, surrounding her protagonists with a colorful group of well-drawn secondary characters, introducing new conflicts, and building to a thrilling climax and satisfying denouement, all the while weaving in the spiritual dimensions of her characters. The result is an always-interesting, well-written romance that will keep readers turning the pages.


Review by Donn Taylor, author of Murder Mezzo Forte, Lightning on a Quiet Night, etc.
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Wednesday, May 18, 2016


Last weekend I attended the Oklahoma Writers Federation, Inc (OWFI) conference. Our keynote speaker, Steven James, spoke on the Untouched Moment. Steve has his masters degree in storytelling. He had us laughing until our faces hurt, but he also left us with a message every writer needs to hear. 

In this age of writing we have incredible opportunities for publishing. But that means, so do hundreds of thousands of others. Our writerly voices calling, "Hey, notice me. I wrote a book!" is like shouting in the wind during a tornado. We work hard at marketing. We dream of being on the list. We hope for royalty checks. And in this pursuit we let moments pass us by, untouched. 
 His presentation validated my writing. For years I've practiced awareness and recapturing wonder. But lately, I've been so busy and caught up in the business of writing, my well dried up. It was good to hear Steve's message. So, once again, I am taking time each day to reflect, to observe moments around me, to notice life away from my computer. My well is filling up. 

As writers we have a powerful voice.  Mark Twain once penned, A drop of ink may make a million think. Page Lambert once said, "We cannot change the past. But we can give health to the future." That is why I write, to give health to the future. However, in order to do that, I need to renew my mind, keep it fresh, notice the special moments, and not worry so much over the business of writing. 
If my words give health to the future, if someone's life is impacted and changed for the best, if I have given hope or encouragement, then I've accomplished something much better than making it on a list, or winning an award, or even having received a royalty check larger than the price of a hamburger. 
Notice the moments. Conversations around the table, the sun shining on the trees as a storm approaches behind them, a child's first time in the ocean, a squirrel peeking over a fence. Let God talk to you about these moments. He has given me parables and life lessons through such things. I've submitted moments to Chicken Soup for the Soul and been published sixteen times. I'm not so proud of the number of times I've been published by them as I am at the prospect of helping others through my experiences.

As I wrote earlier, there are incredible opportunities for writers. I also know how desperate people are for hope, encouragement, and guidance. If we write the moments, if we write to give health to the future with our fiction and nonfiction, then we've done something eternal. 
I'm good with that!

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Monday, May 16, 2016

Context in Christian Fiction

Donn Taylor

            The chief objective of commercial fiction must be to entertain. If we writers fail in that, it will make no difference how much “message” or “theme” we put into our fiction because we will have few if any readers. That said, fiction also presents the writer with the opportunity to portray his interpretation, his vision, of how some part of reality actually works. Even the most blatant “escape” fiction deals to some degree with the conflict between good and evil. So each fictional universe necessarily possesses an ethical dimension. Even absurdist fiction—built on the idea that the universe is illogical—asserts the writer’s belief that that “truth” is important.
            So if we want to do more than entertain, to invite our readers to share our vision of the world, we need to think carefully about the breadth and depth of the worldview we present. For that worldview is the context in which our story is told. Our characters struggle within the context of their own “here and now,” dealing with problems appropriate to that age. But can we as Christian writers also portray that age in the context of biblical time?
            I believe we can.
            If we reach into biblical history, we see God continually calling His people out of the popular cultures of their times. This is true with Noah and with Abraham. It continues with His calling the Israelites out of Egypt to be different from the other cultures, to be the carriers of His message to the world. It continues with the ministry of Jesus and the New Covenant, followed by the spread of Christianity among the gentiles.
            The pattern does not stop there. It goes on with the history of Christendom. The world of Christ’s time was characterized by savagery—crucifixions and the slaughters in the Roman arena. Christians were called out of that culture but (as the Israelites had adopted many of the pagan practices of the Canaanites), the early church adopted many of the Roman cruelties. So the history of Christendom consists of God’s calling of the church out of that culture. Christians’ response was gradual, for only in the late seventeenth century did they stop killing each other over theological differences. Only in the nineteenth century did they decide that the ancient practice of slavery was evil, and in the early twentieth that Imperialism was wrong.
            In contrast, the world outside Christendom has remained, and still remains, in about the same state of savagery it possessed in the time of Christ.
            But our present state of civilization is not a destination. We Christians are still being called out of the popular culture of our own age. And we, like the Israelites before us, too often conform to that popular culture rather than to our divine calling.
            My point for fiction writing is this: The more we can portray our characters’ present-day struggles in the context of this overall history, the more we will equip our readers to see their own struggles in those terms. We are not alone in our own age. We all are tiny but active agents in God’s plan to remake humanity more in the image of Christ.
            If we writers teach ourselves to think in these terms, we will add a greater dimension of depth to our fiction—to the benefit of our readers. 

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