Friday, June 29, 2012

Mark Wahlberg Has Ted, but I Have Mr. Tudball

Me and Mr. Tudball today
Okay, so I saw the movie Ted today...and in honor of teddy bears everywhere, I decided to write a few words about mine.  (I promise this relates to writing.)

As you can see, Mr. Tudball is a little bit worse for wear.  I've had this bear as long as I can remember, which makes him nearly 35 years old.  I'm pretty sure I wasn't even the one to name him--how would a baby have come up with the name of the boss on the Carol Burnett show?  I don't even remember watching the Carol Burnett show.

What I do remember is taking him absolutely everywhere.  One time, my mom wanted to go to Kmart, and I wouldn't leave Mr. Tudball in the car.  I took him into the store, which resulted in us having to go all the way to the customer service counter in the back of the store so someone could wrap poor Mr. Tudball in this ugly yellow tape so the employees would know I hadn't stolen him.  I'm eternally grateful to my mom, who stood patiently and waited while all of this went on.  

As the years went by, Mr. Tudball sat in my room more than he accompanied me.  But he always held a place of honor among the other stuffed animals I acquired.  As you can see by his photo, at some point, I tried to use my Tinkerbell peel-off nail polish on him, as well as some crappy Tinkerbell lipstick.  (Do you guys remember Tinkerbell cosmetics?)  I sort of wish I hadn't done that, but then again, he's still alive to tell the tale, so no great harm was done.

1980:  Yep, me and Tudball were inseparable
Now, this adorable guy sits in my writing room and watches me while I work.  He sits very calmly, with one movable arm outstretched, and watches me write terrible sentences.  He watches me write awesome sentences.  He watches me delete and re-read and delete again.  He watches me get frustrated and cry and wonder why on earth I'm doing this.  Some days, he watches me slam the laptop shut in disgust at my inability to write something that an agent might actually want to read.  But no matter how my day goes, he's always there, waving at me.  It's weird, but it definitely makes me feel better about things.  No matter how badly I mess up, Mr. Tudball believes in me.
Circa 1981

In fact, one could make the argument that Mr. Tudball does the most important job of all--he reminds me that it doesn't matter how many agents reject my work.  He reminds that I'm writing for him.  My original audience.  Which is to say, people who like the same things I do.  If, some days, it seems like there aren't that many of us out there, it doesn't matter.  At the end of the day, Mr. Tudball still wants me to write something for him.  And I still want to write something for Mr. Tudball.

Some people might think it's a bit ridiculous for a 35-year-old person to use a teddy bear as a motivational tool.  (My husband springs to mind here.)  But anyone who's ever tried writing and then submitted that writing to an agent or a journal knows that some days, you'll take inspiration wherever you can find it.  Some days, I feel like Mr. Tudball is all I have...and all I'll ever have.  But other days, he has a few fellow fans in his corner who gather together to cheer me on.  On the days that are awesome and the days that are not, he's always there, in my writing room, wondering what I'll come up with next.
1982:  Still inseparable

Cheers to you, Mr. Tudball.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Book Review: The Preacher by Camilla Lackberg

Okay, so I finished this one last night.  If you read my previous post, you know I was worried about this one.  Here's how it shook down:

The verdict:  I can see why Lackberg sells books.  I just can't see why she gets the glowing reviews from people and institutions that should be a little more conscientious in pointing out some truly major flaws going on here.

What I liked:
The plot.  It kept me interested enough to finish the book, despite my major annoyance with the things I didn't like, listed below.  This says a lot for Lackberg's ability to dream up a scenario that sticks with you.

I figured out *why* the murders/kidnappings were happening about 100 or 150 pages into the book.  (I was actually a little disappointed when I got to the end and found out I was right...I was hoping Lackberg had something trickier up her sleeve.)  However, I didn't know who the exact murderer was, so there was plenty of suspense remaining as I finished the 400+ page book.

What I didn't like:
The writing.  It never got better.  The adverbs stuck around, there were awkward phrases, there were missing commas, and sentences that just didn't flow well.  I ground my teeth and pressed on, but it irritated me.  A lot.  Here's an example of a classic Lackberg sentence introducing a new character:  "Stig Thulin, normally sporting a toothy grin, now had a worried frown furrowing his noble brow."  Adjectives and adverbs aren't more effective when they appear in number.  They're just a sign of sloppy writing.

For those of us trying to get published, we read agent and publisher blogs, and their first words of advice are to proofread, proofread, proofread, and be sure that your writing mechanics are solid.  Then we see the kind of sloppy writing in this book, with #1 International Bestseller slapped across the top of the book.  What kind of message does that send?  Apparently good writing skills aren't that important...but being part of a trendy literary movement is.

The dialogue.  It's stilted, and sometimes it doesn't read any differently than the narration.  It reminds me of the gist of an Elmore Leonard saying:  If it sounds like writing, rewrite it.  This should count double for dialogue.  Here's an example of the clunky dialogue.  The police are questioning a character, Solveig, and the character responds angrily:  "Then his brother came along and began hovering about, and that was something completely different.  Those hands of his could be all over you at once.  He made me burn with lust just by looking at me."  Let's be honest.  Are those words ever spoken out loud?  Does anyone actually say "burn with lust"?     

The characters.  I didn't find any of them sympathetic, except for the father and parents of two of the missing girls (and these are ancillary characters at best). They're all kind of dim or mean or short-sighted.  That's not necessarily a kiss of death.  The book takes place in a very small town, with characters who don't have a lot of exposure to other people or viewpoints.  It's entirely possible this town is populated with some pretty dull crayons.  But it doesn't make for the most enjoyable of reads.  None of them were good enough to root for, and none of them were evil enough to where I could love to hate them.

The main character, Patrik, had his moments, but he seemed far too suggestible.  Near the end of the book, the police station receptionist tells him he hasn't been paying enough attention to his pregnant wife, and he instantly takes her advice to go home early and feels super-guilty from that moment on.  Is a guy perceptive enough to solve major crimes really this dim about his personal life?  I'm not sure I buy it.  

The other main character, Erica, was sidelined by being heavily pregnant throughout the book.  (She had a much more active role in the previous book, The Ice Princess.)  In this book, however, she came across as bitchy and cranky.  I have never been eight months pregnant during a hot summer, though, so maybe I'm being too hard on the character.  What I do know is that the character's misery often came by being too passive.

The quick-jump method of cutting between scenes.  The scenes here are short--sometimes only a page.  On one hand, it's good that Lackberg doesn't linger and let readers get bored.  On the other hand, in a book 419 pages long, it represents a crapload of setting and character switches for the reader to process.  It gets old.

The fact that neither the author nor publisher included a list of characters or family tree in the beginning of the book.  I was almost constantly confused as to who was who's son, cousin, aunt, grandfather, etc.  When I was still confused halfway through the book, I sort of gave up trying to actively understand and just let the names wash over me.  And this is coming from a history major and genealogy enthusiast--I'm used to keeping enormous family trees in my head.  Would it have killed the publishers to go back and add a one-page family tree in the beginning?  They did it for Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

The pointless flashbacks.  We're taken back to 1979 in a series of flashbacks from the victims' point of view.  We learn nothing useful.  There's no reason for these flashbacks to be here.  Their sole purpose seems to be to break up the action and perhaps to generate a sense of sympathy for the victims.  But come on...they're murder victims.  They already have my sympathy.  In an indirect way, perhaps they're meant to show how horrific these crimes really are.  But there are better ways to do this using the reactions of the detectives as they piece the crime together.  Another example of something sloppy that probably should have been edited out, or made more useful.

The fact that Lackberg hides facts from the reader to prolong the suspense.  This is a biggie.  A no-no.  One of the dirty tricks that writers can resort to, but shouldn't.

For example, a character named Stefan is beat up in the course of the book.  We are not told who does the beating up.  The attacker makes demands of Stefan and tells him to do certain things.  We are not told what they are or who makes the demands, although clearly Stefan knows.  ("But when he was turned round so that he stood eye to eye with the person who had attacked him, all the bits fell into place.")  Why are we even taken to this scene in the first place if we're not to be told any of the key facts that are revealed here?  If knowing who the attacker is would spoil everything, why even show us Stefan getting beaten up?  Why not just have us find out when the other characters do?  This only makes the reader mad.  Had we known who the assailant was, we would have had a major clue as to the murderer's identity.  

This happens frequently.  Characters are frequently getting phone calls that provide key information in the plot, but the reader is left out of the conversation.  For example, Patrik takes a call at the station:  "With trepidation he steeled himself to listen to what the lab had to say.  Maybe they would finally have the piece of the puzzle they were looking for.  But never in Patrik's wildest imagination could he have predicted what he heard next."  We don't find out what the lab said.  The characters know, but the reader doesn't.  This doesn't strike me as fair.  Yes, it prolongs the suspense, but a bit artificially.  Once again, we would have had a major clue as to the murderer's identity, but Lackberg withholds this information.

The result:
It's weird.  I'm kind of at a loss here.  I get why people read these books--obviously I plowed through on the strength of the plot alone.  But because of all these other irritations, I'm not planning on reading any more Lackberg.  On the back of the book, some of the words of praise from her blurbs use words like "haunting," "skillful," "masterful," "perfect," and "keen understanding."  I'm shaking my head and thinking, really?  The U.S. has far more talented writers than this, ones who deserve this type of praise.  But maybe Nordic noir as a genre is so hot that publishers and even reviewers can overlook things that aren't overlooked for the rest of us?

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Nordic Noir: Camilla Lackberg's The Preacher--I'm Worried, You Guys

Nordic noir, here we go!

In terms of ancestry and heritage, I'm half Swedish.  I don't speak Swedish, and I haven't yet been to Sweden, but I do know a bit about the culture and the darkness and the silence often portrayed as natural to Swedes.  Since "Nordic noir" is the latest trend in mystery/thrillers, I'm taking a sampling and sharing my thoughts here.

I'm beginning with Camilla Lackberg.  I started "The Preacher" two nights ago, and let me tell you, folks, I'm worried.   

Let's start with the good:
*The plot is intriguing.  I'm sucked in almost against my will.  I do want to find out what happens next.  I'm only 90 pages in, but so far, there's a current murder that ties in with two decades-old murders.  A sleepy small-town police department without much murder-solving experience is responsible for figuring out whodunit, so it's not like watching a crime show where the slick characters toss around lingo for the sake of looking like they know what they're doing.  These cops are regular people, and as such, easy to relate to in their befuddlement and horror at the crime.

*There's a creepy cast of characters, most of whom do seem capable of murder.  This makes for lots of suspects and lots of " it her?" moments.

*The details of Swedish life are interesting.  For example, to please a vacationing family with picky eaters, one of the main characters makes macaroni and Falun sausage au gratin.  I have no idea what Falun sausage is, so I looked it up.  I wondered if it's the same sausage my family makes and serves each Christmas.  These kinds of details might not interest someone without Swedish ancestry, but they're fun for me, so I'm chalking it up in the plus column.

Here's what's not so good:
*The writing itself.  It's really, really, really bad.  I don't know if this is a translation problem, or if Lackberg is this poor a stylist.  The paragraph-long bio tells us that she was working as an economist in Stockholm until a creative writing class changed the course of her life.  Okay, so this explains the poor style on her part, but what about editing?  What about revising?  Let me give you some examples:

An insistent ringing of her doorbell interrupted Erica as she was laboriously running the vacuum cleaner over the carpets.  Sweat was copiously pouring out of her, and she pushed back a couple of wet strands of hair from her face before she opened the door.  They must have driven like joyriders to arrive that fast.
I'm not a fan of the adverbs, which are EVERYWHERE in this book.  I'm not a fan of the passive voice, which is EVERYWHERE in this book.  It's grating, and I can't help but think that any American writer who submitted writing like this would be told to go back to her desk and revise and polish until the manuscript was in a bit better shape.  

*The quick jumps from scene to scene. Prepare to be confused.  The book progresses in quick scenes, no more than a few pages at a time.  Then there's a hunk of white space, and you're catapulted into another character's thoughts.  Which one?  Sometimes you don't know for a good paragraph.  And since there are lots of characters, it can sometimes be a struggle to re-orient yourself every few pages.  The book tests your determination and the author tests your goodwill with this strategy.

*Some of the characters are annoying.  Actually, lots of the characters are annoying.  One of the main characters, Erica, takes the cake.  She is whiny and passive.  Granted, she is pregnant and allowed to be a little grouchy.  And Swedes can be very passive.  But behind that passivity and silence, there is usually a deep strength of will and conviction in keeping silent to solve one's own problems in one's own time.  (Think Stieg Larsson's Vanger family in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.)  So far, I'm not seeing that in Erica.  Most of the characters are unsympathetic, which makes the rare sympathetic character stand out all the more.  A murdered girl's widowed father stands out as one of these.  It's not that he's angelic, it's just that he's not rude, whiny, passive aggressive, full of himself, or just generally dim.

*You need a cheat sheet to keep the characters straight.  There are the police officers and their families.  There are the dead women and their flashbacks and their surviving family members.  There are the suspects and their three generations to keep straight.  You have to either read very slowly, or break down and make a cheat sheet.  So far, I'm just reading slowly.

Okay, so that's my feeling based on the first 90 pages.  I'm going to slog through and see if the pluses or minuses win out in the end.  Will the interesting plot save the bad writing and sloppy style?  We'll find out.

In case you're interested in Lackberg or The Preacher, here's the Washington Post's review of this book.  What do you think?

Have you read Lackberg or any other Nordic noir authors?

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

New eBook: The Romanov Legacy

My third eBook, The Romanov Legacy, is now live at Amazon!

I might be biased, but can I just say that I love this book so much?  I  didn't ever want to let go of these characters and these settings.  In fact, I still don't.

If you're a fan of Dan Brown, you'll enjoy the globe-trotting suspense.

If you're a fan of Olen Steinhauer, Robert Ludlum, John le Carré, or Eric Van Lustbader, you'll enjoy the nifty Russian spies.

If you're a fan of female-driven suspense novels with more psychological goings-on than Girl, Interrupted, you'll enjoy meeting Natalie, the heroine.

If you're a history buff, you'll love the details about the Romanovs, their murder, the flight of Russian emigres through China, and the bit of speculative history I throw in at the end that might make England's Queen Mary turn over in her grave.

And if you've ever done something crazy because you love your family so much you'd die for them, you'll understand why the two sisters do some crazy things to protect each other.

Really, with all this going on, you're totally getting your .99 worth.

Here's what it's about:

A family murdered in the dead of night.  A treasure lost in the throes of revolution.  A ninety-year quest that Lenin, Stalin, and the entire Soviet war chest couldn't solve.  One woman holds the key to it all:  the missing fortune of Nicholas II, last tsar of Russia.

Natalie Brandon believes the stories--that the murdered tsar left behind a secret account intended to provide for his family in exile.  She believes them because the voice inside her head believes them.  Labeled a schizophrenic by her childhood doctors and psychiatrists, Natalie hears the voice of an angel named Belial.  Belial tells her things...things no one else could possibly know.  Natalie knows Belial is real.  She knows the tsar's account is real.  But no one believes her until a blond, blue-eyed Russian spy breaks into her apartment and kidnaps her, claiming she's the only one who can help him find it.

Together, Natalie and Constantine must find a pair of letters written by the tsar's daughters, in which the account's password is encoded.  But Russian Prime Minister Maxim Starinov also wants the letters and will do anything to get them.  The pair must outrun Starinov's lethal spetsnaz unit as they chase the letters from San Francisco to Moscow to London.  The hunt draws in Natalie's sister, Constantine's partner, and a loyal Russian family whose only mission is to preserve the tsar's legacy.

With nothing more than Belial's strange whisperings to guide them, Natalie and Constantine fight for their lives--and each other--in a race to protect the tsar's legacy from a greedy despot.

Available for Kindle via Amazon.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Using Present Tense

So, I started reading Philippa Gregory's latest, The Lady of the Rivers.  Something about the way it's written is bugging me a little.  It's in present tense.  Is it me, or is there very little point in writing a historical fiction novel in present tense?  We know these events took place in the past.  It feels a little disingenuous to think using present tense will make the past come alive.  Isn't that what good writing and research are for?

So I started wondering....what's the point of using present tense in fiction?  Is there one at all?  I'm not convinced there is.

The first book I read that used present tense was Anita Shreve's Fortune's Rocks.  This, too, was a historical.  It weirded me out at the time, but I realized the present tense did force me to slow down as I read.  Maybe this was the point.  Maybe it had nothing to do with it.  I remain unsure.

My mentor professor always discouraged the use of present tense as an MFA program affectation.  I tend to agree.  Here's the logic:  using present tense draws the reader in more deeply, creating a sense of increased intimacy and timeliness for the characters.  I'm gonna call bullshit on this one.  If you're a good writer, you can do all of this in past tense.  You do not need to warp the space/time continuum and pretend that each sentence is happening right now.  I don't think it increases intimacy.  I think it creates awkward phrasing and draws attention to itself needlessly.

Here's an example from the Gregory book:
The girl looks steadily at all of us and gives a nod of her head to each.  As she looks at me I feel a little tap-tap for my attention, as palpable as the brush of a fingertip on the nape of my neck, a whisper of magic. I wonder if standing behind her there are indeed two accompanying angels, as she claims, and it is their presence that I sense.
The prose feels clunky to me.  If I'm reading a 400+ page historical novel, chances are I'm okay with being told events happen in the past.  Chances are, I'm already interested in the personages featured in the novel.
Just for kicks, I'm going to rewrite it in past tense, below:
The girl looked steadily at all of us and gave a nod of her head to each.  As she looked at me I felt a little tap-tap for my attention, as palpable as the brush of a fingertip on the nape of my neck, a whisper of magic.  I wondered if standing behind her there were indeed two accompanying angels, as she claimed, and it was their presence that I sensed.
Overall, I'm giving the nod to the past tense.

Laura Miller, writing for, quotes several established writers (Bill Gass, Phillip Pullman, Phillip Hensher) as being against present tense storytelling because it hints at a sort of lack of nerve, lack of confidence, or possibly aping of a literary trend.  I agree.  Miller cites Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall as a present-tense novel that works, but fails to ask the question:  wouldn't it have worked just as well in past tense, too?  It's the characterization of Cromwell that's brilliant, and characterization happens in past tense as well as present tense.

I just don't think I can be convinced that present tense adds something that would be irrevocably lost if it were taken away.  Miller cites The Hunger Games as being acceptable, if not better, in present tense in order to increase suspense.  But it's written in first person.  Um, hello?  The person telling the story needs to be alive to keep telling the story, whether it's in past or present tense.  So this doesn't work for me, either.

None of the reasons for present tense hold weight.  But I'm curious what *you guys* think.

Have any of you written in present tense?  Why did you make the decision?  Did it help the story?   Convince me!  Astound me with your brilliance!

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Book Review: Dead Reckoning by Charlaine Harris

It's been about a year since I last read one of the Sookie Stackhouse mysteries.  If you don't watch TV or read books or see magazine ads or visit movie rental stores or overhear water cooler conversation or catch the offhand reference in Psych, you might not know that this series by Charlaine Harris inspired HBO's True Blood.  The character of Eric Northman, played by Alexander Skarsgärd, is one of the dark, brooding, haunted, man-candy vampires features in both the books and the show.
Image copyright Penguin

I was first introduced to the books by a friend in Arkansas, and I devoured them.  (The first eight or so, that is.)  Before I left the state, I had the chance to hear author Charlaine Harris speak.  She is personable, funny, and entertaining.  If you have the chance to see or hear her, take it.  If you're a writer, she will encourage you.  She makes no bones about the fact that writing is hard work that sometimes (often?) feels like drudgery.  It's about getting up in the morning and getting shit done.  (My words, not hers...but I think she would agree with the sentiment.)

So here is my take on the eleventh (good Lord, read that again: eleventh) Sookie Stackhouse novel.

Sookie is still Sookie.  She cleans house when other people mess it up, she misses her deceased grandmother, she gets mad when other people butt into her business, and she has a little trouble figuring out who and what is dearest to her heart.  But there's something missing in this version of the Sook.  She seems depressed and listless.  (I'm not the only reviewer to feel this way, it seems.) During a climactic fight scene, she carries stakes in her purse but only hands one to Eric and spends the rest of the fight scene trying to hide.  What happened to the ass-kicking Sookie of previous books?  It seems as if Sookie herself is tired of living in this world.  Does this represent fatigue on Charlaine Harris's part?  My guess is yes.

Plenty of other online reviewers (check Amazon, if you're curious) have pointed out some glaring timeline and plot-point errors.  I have to say, these didn't bother me nearly as much as they did other reviewers.  Maybe this is because having read the bulk of the books in 2008/9, I simply don't remember the finer points the way some other reviewers do.  Hence, my not being bothered by even the glaring inaccuracies.  I sort of gloss over them because they matter less to me than the overall trajectory of the main characters' relationships.  This is where I had the main problem with the book.

Eric turns into an asshole in this book.  I can only guess this is because, having kept him with Sookie for a number of books, Charlaine Harris is eager to break them up and finish the series with Sookie in bed with Bill (or, as some Amazon reviewers think, with Sam.  SAM??).

The problem is that Eric's strange tenderness with Sookie is a huge part of the series' charm.  Take a big, bloodthirsty, emotionless, vicious vampire...and teach him to love a feisty blonde barmaid.  Real love, where he puts her needs before his even if he doesn't understand them at all.  Awesome!  The moments I enjoyed most were the ways Eric made it up to Sookie when vampire business ruined various items of her clothing or home.  In one of the books, he instantly replaced a brand new coat she'd gotten that was ruined.  He also re-graveled her driveway at one point.  That is not a euphemism, people.

I have a gravel driveway.
Dude, if someone re-graveled it for me, I would be THEIRS FOR LIFE.

The point here is that Eric's character is a contrast in violence and tenderness.  In this book, that goes away almost entirely.  Eric's a dick.  He's secretive, passive, self-absorbed, and cruel to Sookie.  This seems to violate most of the goodwill (and character development) Harris has spend the last six or seven books generating.  At one point, Eric calls Sookie a hypocrite and bites her against her will.  This is not the Eric readers know and love.  If Harris wants to split up Eric and Sookie because this isn't how she wants to continue (or end) the series, that's fine.  But I'd rather see it done in character.  Have Sookie be the one to kick Eric to the curb because she realizes she's in love with someone else.  Have Eric make a request of her that she simply can't fulfill.  Anything but the way the relationship just kind of ended....through neglect.

There are some moments in the book I liked.  Mr. Cataliades makes a memorable appearance.  I might be starting to like Dermot.  But if the relationships aren't true, if the motives aren't believable, I can't be taken in by the charm of random elves or demons or fairies.