Category Archives: Books

Why Bad Books Matter (to Writers, anyway.)

. . . So, to tell you about bad books, I have to go back a little bit in history; I have to tell you a little about nursing school. Nursing school, you see, is as close to hell as you can get as a nominally free citizen– the hours are brutal, the respect is nil, the wages are zero, and you see many sights that Cannot Be Unseen. Really freaky stuff that messes with your head, too, dead people and surgical screw-ups and the vacant gazes of people who have decided they want to die and you’re just an inconvenient pause in their plans. Not to mention frequently running into patients who like to flick HIV-laden blood in your face and expose their shriveled manhoods to you and other indignities. It’s not fun.

I went through nursing school, the first semester, while heavily pregnant with my 4th child (not counting the stepson.) The second semester, I was a weepy postpartum mess trying to pump breastmilk in hostile conditions while maintaining a 4.0 GPA and raising a family. Yeah, not good. My baby turned sickly from being in daycare all day, which led to hospitalizations and drama, and I spent my second year in nursing school going to school all week and then working all weekend as a “nurse tech,” which is basically a technical term for “the bitch of every real nurse on the floor.” I also developed plantar fasciitis, which is about as much fun as having someone do a crucifixion on your feet every night before work.

During my preceptorship, I had to assist in delivering a dead baby girl. That messed me up, badly. I barely had the ability to finish my final project and walk the stage (although my grades were, annoyingly to everyone else, still at the top of the class, if not the actual top. I didn’t bother to check.) After I graduated, I was elated. I immediately got a job, a job with a staggering amount of personal responsibility that I had also heard had a high turnover rate (I should have been suspicious right then) but it was a real job! With a real wage! And, wonder of wonders, I didn’t have to go to school anymore! I could READ again!

So, being the more-than-slightly overly-ambitious woman that I have always been, I decided that what I needed to do was to read the Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels list.  I sunk a large amount of money into a stack of the books on the list (from Amazon, of course) and dove in. I started with “Henderson the Rain King”, which was a somewhat odd choice, but the cover looked really neat with the big lion on it and, hey, Saul Bellow. Real literature with a capital L, people.

And it was wonderful– Henderson the Rain King is a really great book, especially when you’re in your mid-30s and wondering if life has a point and, if so, WTF is it?

The job didn’t last long– my husband transferred to Florida and I gratefully handed in my resignation before management could find a way to pin me with some legal responsibility for the next screwup. And, given that all my stress was suddenly gone, the baby we’d been trying to conceive for the previous year decided that, yes, he’d immediately be conceived after all, so I never went back to work as a nurse.

But I kept trying to read, with the stated goal that I’d read all those darn books by the time I was 40. By the time I hit 39, with several major health problems along the road, my newest toddler with a rare disease, and yet another baby on the way, I decided that finishing wasn’t really the point. I wasn’t going to fail any huge existential crisis by not finishing by 40, after all.

And I’ve kept plugging along at it. At this point, today at the ripe age of 43, I have seven titles left out of 100– James Joyce’s “Finnegan’s Wake” and “Ulysses,” “The Big Money” by John Dos Passos, “The Ambassadors” by Henry James, “Catch-22” by Joseph Heller, “The Studs Lonigan Trilogy” by James T. Farrell, and the ominously 12-volume “A Dance to the Music of Time” by Anthony Powell.

I’m basically down to the books that I am having to force myself through by sheer will. I have developed a fondness for Henry James, so he gets a pass, and I haven’t delved deep enough into the Dance to the Music of Time to even really get a feel for whether or not it’s a monstrosity or a delight, but the others . . . ohhhh. I loathe them. I hate them with a rare passion which could fill volumes.

And, yet, these are books which have been acknowledged, by thousands of people, to be true classics of Western Literature. How dare I, a humble little fantasy author, dare to say that they’re bad books? How, if they are bad books, do they get so much acclaim?

And there’s the secret right there, my dear readers: tastes vary. Some of these books on this list were written a long time ago, for very different audiences. Some of them have completely lost their cultural context– quick, tell me the relevance of all the people John Dos Passos includes in his character sketches, given that they’re a bunch of union rabble-rousers and Communists from the 1919-1940 period! Tell me how much “Tobacco Road” has ever mattered, considering what a schlocky piece of prejudicial crap it is, other than to give Yankees another reason to look down on Southerners. And please, find me a reason to respect VS Naipaul besides the fact that he comes from an underrepresented culture so we’re forced to swallow his bilge wholesale.

Some of the books, most of the books, on this list are amazing books. They’ve changed my heart, touched my soul, given me hope and strength, and allowed me to better navigate the tides of my life. And some of them have been crap, and I’ve read them wondering why I force myself through this. I’m not getting a grade– no one is giving me some kind of medal for reading these books. I’m not getting extra credit. So why, besides some kind of completionist obsession, would I force myself through something like “Catch-22” when it’s like listening to a long boring joke told by some tottery old uncle with no sense of humor?

As far as I can figure out, fumbling through these books on my own, the bad books have something to teach me as well. They may teach me something about a part of our history that I’m not too familiar with– Under the Volcano, Zulieka Dobson, and Angle of Repose all fit in that category. They may teach me about how to write truly repellent characters– for this one, all you have to read, really, is The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. They may teach me different writing techniques, they may teach me nothing that I can even discern at first, but just getting through them requires me, as a writer, to do the most difficult thing that any writer has to do:

I have to put myself into someone else’s head.

That’s never easy– so many of our characters are just us, different aspects of us, writ large and split into different people. My daughter, who is reading my novel “Dragon Venom” right now, sometimes comes up to me and points out a passage that sounds like some aspect of my personality, digs out a joke that sounds like something I would have made, or accuses me wholesale of excavating one aspect of my psyche and turning it into a character entire. Well, of course, I am the person I know best. Of course I mine myself for material. But I also have to examine other people, learn about them, predict what they would do, and make extrapolations from there. And that’s where these books that I loathe come in handy.

Because they are decidedly NOT me. I’d never have gotten myself into the mess that the protagonist let himself in for in The Magus. As much as I love DH Lawrence, I would have killed off every character in “The Rainbow” rather than have it end as it did. The House of Mirth made me hate weakness in myself as much as it made me hate the protagonist for her weak decadent fate. Some of the characters make so little sense to me (hello, JP Donleavy), that I can’t even begin to figure out what they’re thinking. And I don’t want to– they’re jerks.

But that’s been the only good part about all these bad books. Many people disagree that they’re bad in the first place– to say, publicly, that you hate James Joyce because he was playing the system doesn’t make you especially well-loved by people who admire him for masterfully playing the system. That’s an insolvable problem, there. I will always see him as a man obsessed by his own literary fame, and they will see him as a genius who struggled to make his vision clear to the world. We’ll just have to agree to disagree.

And I will, for these next two months, agree to force myself through it, no matter how bitter the taste. Maybe I will learn something. Maybe– the man had talent, that’s for sure, I just disagree about the uses he put it to. I’m halfway through “Catch 22” and “The Ambassadors”, just a long boring bath or two from finishing Studs Lonigan and The Big Money. The Dance to the Music of Time 12 book series? Seriously? I am having the hardest time with that one. So far, Book 1 has been a “British boys away at boarding school” thing and it’s giving me no particular thrills. I am hoping that it gets interesting quickly, because that’s the only stumbling block on my road to completion of this now-decades-long reading challenge that I saddled myself with.

I am hoping to learn something that I will need on this next novel-writing journey. Because my goal, dear readers, is not to just crank out another novel in a boring trilogy and pad out my word count. My goal, my eternal goal, is to get better with each book– I want you to care about my characters. I want you to cringe when they die, rejoice when they win, suffer with them when they’re in troubles and tribulations. I want them to be as real people as they can be, given that they’re characters in a book. I want the action to flow naturally and logically from the plot. I don’t want to shrink from making the big decisions– I want the bravery and the love to do the right thing, to write the book the right way, and to give you a book at the end of it which will make you happy to have read it.

And that is why bad books matter– they show you, better than anything else, what you don’t feel is true, what you don’t feel is right, and how not to do things.

Wish me luck in applying these lessons!

 

 

 

 


New Book Release!

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Available now on Kindle and Kindle Unlimited! “Momma Sang: Finding my Mother in her own words” is a collection of my mother’s short stories and articles which she wrote in her late 20’s. My mother, Theresa Melody Carter, passed away in 1990 from complications of leukemia, the same disease that took her own mother’s life thirty years before. These stories were written for her college literary magazine and newspaper, and they open the door on the mysteries of a mother that I lost much too soon. I’ve written a brief introduction for each of the 11 stories, but the real lyrical beauty is in my mother’s own words. Her descriptions of life in rural Arizona in the 1960s are like a glimpse into a lost world, a world of rattlesnakes and wild horses, faithful hound dogs and devastating losses. It’s a world where Waylon Jennings was just an unknown disc jockey in a nowhere Arizona town, and a red-headed Okie gal chopped cotton, tended bar, and sang songs to her children. Interspersed between these tales are her humorous takes on life as a housewife and citizen in Arizona in the 1980s.

15% of the proceeds from this book will be donated to research to cure rare diseases.


Dragon Venom On Sale Today!

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Just for today, my ebook, Dragon Venom, is on sale for 99 cents on Kindle! Get your copy today, the price goes up to 2.99 tomorrow!


Winter is never coming, not really

So, yeah, Season 7 of Game of Thrones is on, I have paid for an HBO Go subscription, and it’s Thursday and I haven’t even bothered to watch Episode 2.

It didn’t help that GRRM was all being coy again, well we MIGHT have a Song of Ice and Fire book in 2018 and it MIGHT be The Winds of Winter, but it will probably be just another damned compilation of stories about kings and dragons whom we don’t give the first crap about.

Give it up, George. If you don’t want to finish the damned books, don’t finish them. But stop playing games about it. Just admit it– I’m having too much fun living my life, the series has become a huge pain in the ass, and I don’t enjoy sitting down to write it anymore. Fine. Hand it off to Brandon Sanderson, tell him what you originally wanted to happen, and he’ll pound out a few hundred thousand words like the very good methodical worker he is. And it will all be over.

And GRRM can do whatever the hell he likes without ever having to field a question about “WHEN” ever again.

Seriously. He doesn’t sound like a man who is writing from passion, he sounds like a harried man writing with a deadline he can never, ever, ever meet, and hearing the discontent growing around him. All the while, the television series spirals into the basic equivalent of such a bad fanfic that anyone with any genuine love for the characters in the novels has long since given up on even thinking of them as the same people.

Go to Bali, George. Hand the stupid series over to Sanderson or one of those guys you actually trained and just let it go. You’ll be infinitely happier, and as long as they hit the basic touchpoints, you’ll have done what you hoped to accomplish.

And we can stop pretending that this ridiculous television version has any basis in human behavior, plot, or common sense.

 


Game of Thrones Season 7, Episode 1

Here there be spoilers. You’ve been warned.

Well, well, well, we’re off to a . . . stunningly slow start. Sure, the Arya-gorefest was, uhh, disturbing, but it wasn’t exactly edge-of-your-seat television. Then we went to the Citadel for . . . manual labor. Lots of it. Hey, I know CGI is expensive, but couldn’t you have given us a glimpse of a direwolf or, really, ANYTHING except the endless parade of turds in bowls that we were treated to during this season opener? And, seriously, how delicate of a stomach could Sam possibly have? If you’re emptying that many chamberpots, you’re going to have to man up at some point. Or, at least you’d think so . . ..

(Shoutout for Jim Broadbent! Yay!! All the love, Jim.)

My daughter and I were discussing the lack of “pornification” that has gradually been evolving. It’s a good thing, mostly, no more gratuitous shots of naked women that make no sense other than titillation. However, we have finally discovered the secret of how all those brothel workers kept such immaculately shaved lady parts and man-scaped genital regions– the Ancient Valyrian Steel Razor. Washed in wine in between uses, this remarkable weapon has been combating pubic hair since the time of Bran the Builder. I’m sure we’ll see it in use again, they can’t have an entire season without naked people.

This episode, however, was filled with clothing that was Making Martial Statements. People mean BUSINESS, people. Chain linked leather dresses, enough wolf fur to animate an entire pack of direwolves, and very Serious Heels on Daenerys. Honestly, they looked way too sensible, like something Hilary Clinton would wear. But maybe that’s the statement they wanted to make– she’s seriously walking across that sand. (And, yeah, she’s short and needs the boost.)

The winner of the episode, for me, was Euron the not-so-Crow-Eyed. The shirt was awesome, the reckless panache with which he wore it, the cutting remarks about Jaime and his presumed uselessness, it was all win. Sure, he’s not quite the psychotic magician of the novels, but he holds promise. The fleet, which he must have used magic to create, since the Iron Islands famously don’t have much in the way of forests, was impressive, too. I am really enjoying Euron. Right now, he’s the only character that seems to have any sense of humor.

In the North, well, Jon was slow out of the gate, but he did The Right Thing, as he so famously tries to do all the time, and it worked out well so far. I’m sure it will come back to bite him in the ass later. Ghost was still a complete no-show, which breaks my heart, since Ghost pretty much IS Jon’s heart. Budgetary reasons, my left foot. Anyway, Sansa was remarkably . . . dumb. I mean, she overplayed her hand in the clumsiest and most ridiculous way possible. I guess she really did only learn her political lessons from Cersei (and we know how well Cersei plays the game, hah. Subtle is not her gift.) The lovely young Lady of Bear Island made Sansa look like an idiot as she effortlessly supported Jon’s idea of arming girls, stripped the objection from the guy who was objecting, and did it all while looking in-control, intelligent, and truly the essence of a Northern girl. Sansa needs to take notes.

The rest of the episode was pretty snoozy. The Hound saw a vision in the flames, which again we couldn’t see because “oh, no budget for it”, Ed Sheeran sang a song around a campfire but the other guys in the party of soldiers got all the good lines, all the people around Daenerys had to stand around looking uncomfortable and saying nothing while examining a curiously-rotted castle that was occupied as of just a few months ago.

Me, I am not very hopeful yet. There’s way too much IMPORTANCE stamped on every line, and way too few lines that are just people interacting. You can see where the characters are being stampeded, and it’s frustrating me to see how things are falling into patterns that I had hoped would be avoided. I mean, at this point, are we really holding out any hope that Jon and Daenerys WON’T have sex? I don’t want them to, I think they’re a match made in hell, but it sure looks like the pathways are converging with that outcome in mind.

Ah well. Time for me to get busy writing my own Book 2, where I can promise that no cousins will have sex under any circumstances.

In the meantime, yeah, if you want to read another book about dragons, except one where it’s a lot more like the Night’s Watch meets dragons and less like the Dorne disaster, buy my book, now available on Kindle, Dragon Venom.

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Release date: July 17th, 2017!

Okay, I’ve moved the pre-order date for my novel, Dragon Venom, up by nearly two weeks. You can pre-order it now and it will deliver to your Kindle or Kindle app on Monday, July 17th!

That means you can get your Game of Thrones fix on Sunday and then read my book the next day, in case you want your dragons to be more like scientifically plausible complex creatures with personalities instead of, say, ravening beasts. I mean, my dragons can still kill with ease, sure, if bloody dragon warfare is your thing. There’s plenty of that in my book, too. But no naked bald chicks, sorry.

So, order your copy today, or read it in its entirety on Kindle Unlimited!


No Rest for the Writer

Well, now that “Dragon Venom” is finally up on Amazon, it’s time for me to get to work on the other projects I have planned. Yes, Book 2 of the A Poison in the Blood series, “Blood of the Queen,” is in that list somewhere, but there are two smaller projects that I intend to finish before the summer is over. One of those is the memoir that I’m editing, and one of them is a YA novel that finally, finally, finally found its inspiration and framing device. It took it long enough– I’ve been carrying around that title and those images for years.

The good thing about the YA project is that it’s only going to be about a 50,000 word novel, so it’s do-able inside a month. I write a minimum of 2000 words a day when I’m working, even if it feels like it’s being ground out over broken glass and salt, so it should go by pretty quickly. And the memoir is easy– the hardest part will be transcribing all the letters and things. Even with word-recognition software, mistakes creep in, and you have to go back over it word by word and comma by comma to make sure that it’s suddenly not discussing small radish croutons or something weird.

It occurs to me that this is exactly what George RR Martin has been maligned for doing– working on other things besides his fantasy series. But, hey, unless HBO comes calling, I don’t think a one month delay in the production of “Blood of the Queen” will harm anyone.

Speaking of GRRM, I am trying to gird up my loins to hate-watch Season 7 of Game of Thrones. I’m not exactly looking forward to it– I am convinced, at this point, that they’re going to force Jon Snow and Daenerys to hook up. Which is a huge huge ick factor for me– not only is it the stereotypical fantasy ending that GRRM swore he was trying to subvert all those decades ago when he began the series, I just personally wish that Dany would take a flying leap off that dragon and impale herself on a tree. It would be very Vlad Tepes, right? Also satisfying for us confirmed Dany haters. 🙂

 


Dragon Venom now available for Pre-Order!

Despite every possible thing conspiring against me this summer, I have finally gotten my first novel up on the Kindle website for pre-order!

DragonHeadd

Dragon Venom is a fantasy novel, filled with seafaring battles, steamy dragon-haunted jungles, and warrior monks fighting for their faith and for their lives. It’s the story of Raban, a young craftsman monk, who is forced to become something more on a quest to reclaim the lost treasures of a vanished empire. Under the leadership of their Knight Vigilant, Alarin, Raban and the rest of his order will test the bonds of brotherhood, faith, and humanity in their search for Paisadal, and their dangerous hunt for the forbidden lore of dragons.

Pre-order it now on Amazon!


Release Date

What with everything going on this May, (two birthdays, prom, two graduations, etc!), I have decided to release my novel in June. So the official release date for my e-book Dragon Venom will be June 29, 2017.

That’s the feast day of my patron saint, incidentally, which is why I picked it. But it also gives me some time to do the umpteen million things that I have to do between now and then and still have time to get the book completely ready for your reading pleasure. So, wish me luck, I will be very very busy for the next several weeks and I will need every bit of energy that I can muster to get everything done.

I’m excited!


Progress and The Idiot

The thing about chronic illness is that it plays merry hell with your writing production.

I was reminded of this powerfully this month, not only because I have spent the past six weeks suffering through this stupid cancer treatment and a very bad arthritis flare simultaneously, but also because I finally finished reading Dostoyevsky’s novel “The Idiot.”

In my own life, my arthritis flares start with fatigue so all-encompassing that I could easily sleep 20 hours a day if I wasn’t forced out of bed to deal with reality. And when I am out dealing with life, I am functioning about as well as a zombie might. Once the fatigue passes, the pain begins, and typing is just one of the many things that becomes nearly impossible.

Dostoyevsky wrote “The Idiot” during a turbulent period in his life, and it’s possible to watch his own illness come and go in the quality of the plotting and writing. Some sections of the novel crackle with energy and the plot hums along without any hesitation. And then there are the sections where there’s hesitancy, redundancy, and a slight bewilderment in the plotting. Those periods are followed by chapters that suddenly introduce a narrator, who digresses about authorial intent and writing techniques. All in all, “The Idiot” is an at-times bizarre mess of a novel.

But it’s a grand mess, a touching long rumination about the nature of goodness, the difficulties of living in the real world with real sinful humanity all around you, and it also functions as a venue to explore the worries and fears of a man who was afflicted with epilepsy (as was the titular character.) It took me months to read through it, mostly because it required concentration and a lot of patience. The more confused chapters are difficult to get through, and whether or not Dostoyevsky purposefully wrote them that was as a reflection of his character’s mood or if it was an unconscious reflection of his own mental state, they’re very hard to get through. Once the characters leave Petersburg for Pavlovsk, the narrative meanders and doubles back according to whimsy.

I have started working again, although of course I am more than a month behind on my goals and stated ambitions. And I can only say that sometimes Reality steps in and makes its own goals the primary ones. Getting through each day, trying to get the very basic things of life done, it leaves no time for art or craft. If you can’t even remotely figure out how you’re going to cook dinner or make it to the dentist without falling apart, it’s a pretty good bet that you’re not going to be working at any sort of artistic high point.

So, I will continue to work. And I will update when I am done. It shouldn’t be too long, however. My birthday is soon and I want to be out with the old and in with the new, so to speak. Getting these old projects off my to-do list would clear the decks for more new things.