Time to Write

Time Management Woes

As you may realize, this past winter I’ve become increasingly frustrated with my lack of order and productivity. This isn’t new; all my life I’ve refused to be a slave to schedules and To-Do lists — but this has left me with a case of chronic indecision. Bogged down with “Where to start?”

Also, I’ve been a hoarder. Part of my effort to make improvements I’ve already written about: decrease the paper clutter; finish small writing projects. But the bigger projects still await my attention — and zeal. Too many “Started, not finished” projects are like a stone holding your head under water.

This week a book title popped up in BookBub:
10 time management choices that can change your life.

I checked it out and decided to take a chance. I’ve have been working my way through it in the past few days and it’s been nailing me right and left. Addressing issues like why you never get done the big things because of wasting time, indecision, procrastination. Creative people who hop from one project to another. Never finishing — or starting— a project because you’re too much of a perfectionist. Examples of others who sound so much like me. Ouch!

From what I’ve read so far, I can heartily endorse the book. How much benefit I get from it depends on how many changes I’m willing to make in my day-to-day activities. One quote really hit home, citing my prime nemesis:

“Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things which matter least.” Goethe

Now I’m thinking specifically of my writing projects sitting on the back burner. The books I’ve written for NaNoWriMo, for example. I can see how lack of accountability and lack of a deadline have stalled me. You could say, “Filling my days with the things which matter least.”

I was once a part of a writing group that met once a week and was a real inspiration to keep working at my writing. I miss that. So I’d like to ask you readers for your suggestions. I’m looking for online writing partners or a group that will add some pressure, some deadlines.

Last night I googled and checked out online writing groups, hoping to find one where members exchange chapters for critiquing. Some beta readers or an editor who will reply in reasonable time and won’t cost this penniless writer a lot of dough. Not a given weekly writing assignment, but feed-back on my WIPs. (By e-mail; no Facebook, Yahoo groups or Skype.)

I’m hoping to find a few critique partners somewhat on my own wavelength. I’m happy to give feedback on others’ writing but don’t want to have to read ten zombi and/or horror chapters a week just to get feedback for my own mild tales. (Been there, done that once.)

Any suggestions? Anyone interested in reading and critiquing, sharing WIP projects? If so, please leave a comment, or email me at christinevanceg @ gmail.com

Books: Sweet, Thoughtful Valentine

I downloaded an e-book from the local lending library a couple of days ago and read it yesterday evening. Now I want to tell you about it because I thought it was a really neat novella and well worth reading.

The title: Sweet, Thoughtful Valentine
Book #13 in the Isabel Dalhousie series

© 2016 by Alexander McCall Smith
Publisher: Penguin Random House

This is a unique story about ethics.

Isabel Dalhousie, a young wife in Edinburgh, owner and editor of the Review of Applied Ethics meets a friend at an art previewing prior next week’s auction. As they visit and look around at the upcoming sale items, Roz draws Isabel’s attention to one picture. She shares a bit of vital information about its value — and extracts from Isabel the promise that she’ll not tell a soul. Since the auctioneer obviously doesn’t realize the painting’s true worth, Roz plans to get it for a song, resell it, and make a small fortune.

The story’s maybe a bit wordy in places as Isabel muses over the ethics of this and other sticky situations she encounters during the week. She tries to sort out what she should do, if anything, with the help — or dissuasion — of her husband. He calls her his “sweet, thoughtful valentine” and wishes she would stay out of other people’s problems.

The art drama intensifies when she meets another friend by chance one day. Ruth’s in a financial bind, having to sell her home, also her mother’s belongs, to pay for her mother’s stay in a nursing home where she’s getting really good care. Ruth has sent a few of her mother’s paintings to an upcoming art sale. They likely won’t bring much, but…

The awful truth dawns — and Isabel is really in the treacle.

The writer has done a great job of squeezing poor Isabel between a rock and a hard place, between one friend and another, between promise and conscience. Will she practice the ethics she preaches or mind her own business? I found the solution intriguing  and unexpected.

This author has also written the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency Series, the 44 Scotland Street Series and the Portuguese Irregular Verbs Series and others.

Other Side of Nowhere

Book Review

THE OTHER SIDE OF NOWHERE
by Max Allen

In this book wildlife biologist and photographer Max Allen takes readers on a naturalist’s journey into the prairie, sagebrush, and sandstone cliffs around the Yampa River, a 250-mile long tributary that squiggles its way westward across northwestern Colorado to join the Green River in Utah.

According to the writer, the Yampa “is one of the very few rivers in the area remaining un-dammed and free flowing. The river offers many recreation opportunities from rafting to fishing, and of course wildlife watching and photography.”

Mr. Allen includes with his photographs descriptions about some of the settings where he took them, plus camera details. As he writes in his notes, most of the animals he’s photographed are not unique to that area, but he’s gotten some great shots of them living their “everyday lives.” For my part he could have included more about his own involvement in that region, too.

I found the book very well edited and would recommend it as a coffee-table book, gift for a nature-lover, and a nice addition to a reference library.

In the fall of 2015 I received a free copy from The Story Cartel in exchange for my honest review, then purchased my own copy. This Review is reblogged from Christine’s Reflections post, Dec 3, 2015.

Max Allen has since put out another photographic journey, also for sale on Amazon:
The Itinerant Photographer: Photographs from Five Years of Wandering with Wildlife and the Stories behind Them

Latest in the Inspector Graham Series

Yesterday I received an e-newsletter from author Alison Golden, announcing the release of the latest in her Inspector Graham series:
The Case of the Missing Letter.

In her e-newsletter Alison shares her challenge of balancing writing and cancer treatment:

We first started work on this book nearly two years ago. I had planned to publish it in September of last year. But then, as you may know, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. There were times when I wondered if I would ever publish it.

When the worst of my chemo was over, I…began working on it very slowly, just a chapter a day. There are 34 chapters so just refreshing my memory took over a month. Gradually, as my strength returned, my speed picked up, and when my treatment was over, I made finishing it a priority.

This is because The Case of the Missing Letter is my love letter to you. Many of you have not only been patiently waiting for my next book, but your support was intrinsic to my recovery. I have dedicated this book to you.

Background to this series:
After the death of his young daughter, which lead to the breakup of his marriage, Inspector Graham gave up his London post in favour of a more peaceful setting, the Isle of Jersey. But soon after he arrives a murder takes place at the hotel where he’s lodging. He gets his new force on board in a search for the perpetrator. In the last book, The Case of the Broken Doll, Inspector Graham undertakes to solve a very cold case where a teen girl disappeared on her way to school ten years before.

One thing I really like about these books is the teamwork and camaraderie of the police department as they hunt for clues. There are no stereotype arrogant or obnoxious cops. DI Graham himself does some “in-your-face” demanding answers, but then he is the investigating officer and has the right to question suspects. I haven’t found much contrived melodrama in these stories, which is always a plus on my score-sheet.

Here’s the series to date:

#1 The Case of the Screaming Beauty (Prequel)
#2 The Case of the Hidden Flame
#3 The Case of the Fallen Hero
#4 The Case of the Broken Doll
#5 The Case of the Missing Letter

The Case of the Missing Letter is being offered at a special Launch price until midnight Feb 12th. I’m looking forward to getting a copy and reading it.

Alison Golden has written a milder cozy series involving the Reverend Annabelle Dixon, an Anglican priest in a small English village, also the more suspenseful Diana Hunter series.
Amazon Author Page
Alison’s website

Fill-in-the-blanks Novels

My mother-in-law once told me that she’d like to try her hand at some pottery. Ceramics were quite popular at the time and she had thought of trying that, but she decided, “Ceramics is too much like a cake mix: add water; beat; pour into pan. The decoration is the only difference. I want to actually design something.”

Not long ago I got a list of several new books; among them was a blurb for a new cozy mystery. I read it and thought, “This sounds just like the write-up for dozens of other books I’ve seen.” I have to think of Mom’s comment about ceramics. The decorations change: names and professions vary; relationship to the detective and to the victim varies. Otherwise the blurbs are interchangeable.

Ditto with most romance stories written these days. (Another topic for another time.)

Just fill in the blanks and go:

Main character __________ (choose name, Nikki/Mikki/Kelli, etc)
a successful ___________ (profession, lawyer/ chef/baker/wedding planner, etc.)
discovers/hears about her ________ (client/ boss/ ex/ competitor/ neighbor)
_______ buried/floating/scrunched, in/at/on/into a ________.
Now she must team up with __________ lawyer/ male friend/ boss/ ex
_______ (name — Jake being the most popular by far),
to solve the mystery of who killed ______ (victim’s name)
before Detective ______  (name) a drop-dead gorgeous hunk/ grouchy bumbling misogynist arrests ___________ her/her BFF/her ex/her new boyfriend for the crime.

Our MC knows the detective’s set his sights on an innocent party, but someone has done it. So she must become an amateur sleuth (if she isn’t already) and find the guilty one before her efforts make her the criminal’s next target.

Like Mom with her preference for pottery over ceramics, I’m one who doesn’t care much for plots all coming from the same mold. I like originality.

I like stories with believable characters living their lives, where the crime (or romance) isn’t the be-all and end-all, the only focus of the main character. Where she has some life apart from interrogating suspects and ogling the hunky cop or irritating the grouchy one.

Another thing I applaud is a story with team work, rather than a one-woman show. And I dislike an amateur sleuth belligerently demanding answers from suspects — because it’s not believable. In real life people are going to clam up or blow up when pushed like that. Having suspects tell all under pressure may save a serious investigation, but it’s cheap melodrama; a writer sacrifices credibility.

That said, I plan to review some books I’ve read where the main characters lead interesting lives, that happen to include a mystery, a romance, or both. I’d like to lift out  some writers who, I feel, know their craft and avoid the stereotypes.

The Heart Mender

First posted Dec 7, 2014:

I just read a terrific book and would like to tell you about it, in case you’re searching for a great read. It’s called The Heart Mender, written by Andy Andrews, a NY Times Best-Selling Author.

What happens when an old cape myrtle tree dies on the Alabama coast? Well, the owner of the property, writer Andy Andrews, chops it down because the tree is next to his house and its wood contains highly flammable oils. Then when he chops it down, his wife urges him to dig it up. And when his shovel hits something metallic — a gallon-size can — nestled among the tree roots…

Who could have buried it there? And how long ago? He opens it up and finds a couple of pictures, some ID.

One of the greatest joys a writer can have is to uncover something amazing, something perturbing, something that points to a story. Something he just can’t leave alone; he has to find out the facts. In the case of this particular writer, he digs and digs until he uncovers the whole amazing account.

What happens when a bitter young widow whose husband was killed in a Luftwaffe bombing raid in England stumbles onto a wounded German submarine officer on the beach in Alabama? She punches him in the face. Doesn’t matter if he’s been shot and is now half-dead. She punches him again and again, until she’s exhausted.

And thus begins a fascinating tale of healing, forgiveness and second chances.  (Triple-ply tissue alert.)

Are Readers Being OD’d On Angst?

Have you ever read a book that felt like one long spiel of navel-gazing with a bit of plot thrown in?

I have. And I find it irritating. I’d like to read a story.

Readers are human; we all have feelings. We like it when our story characters seem human, too — even display some faults. When characters show their feelings and inner conflicts we can identify with them and sympathize with their trials. We cheer when they find their answer. In my opinion that’s what a story is all about.

Writers need to give their readers credit: we do “get” how the protagonist feels and we understand that attractions, fears and insecurities are going to be ongoing. But light touches now and then are reminder enough. The writer doesn’t have to tell us again and again and again how insecure, worried or resistant to some change the character feels.

Navel-Gazing: Contrived Conflict

Stories do need conflict, but is really effective in the long run to generate “internal conflict” by rehashing the character’s fears, self-doubt, and suspicions every few pages? Wouldn’t the novel be better if those efforts rather went into plot? Into writing in some actual conflict with life circumstances?

I read one novel where the main characters had joined a wagon train headed for a new life in California. They were going through unfamiliar territory, supposedly anticipating the new life they’d be living. But instead of the trials of their journey, scenic description, or speculation on their future home, the writer served readers a steady diet of the female MC examining her feelings for, and trying to generate resistance to, the male MC. And vise versa.

They spend so much time scolding themselves about their feelings, by Chapter 4 you’re thinking, “Get a life, people! There’s a whole world happening around you.”

I rarely read romance books or chick lit and this is mainly why. But I find this style of writing common in other genres nowadays, too, especially cosy mysteries. In one novel the protagonist finds a dead teen in someone’s empty house and, according to the writer, her thoughts are:
Why on earth did I have to find this body?
What will people think of me when they know I’ve found this body?
What will my family think of me when they hear I’ve found this body?
What will people think of my family when they learn I’ve found this body?

That a person died is pretty low in her thinking. Her fears prove overwhelming, so she jumps in her car and leaves the poor guy lying there. As the story unfolds all her angst gets played out with the mystery as a background. In all fairness, the writer did a good job of spinning out the plot, but the protagonist comes across as so self-centered.

Put More STORY in the Story

I know we live in a world that’s focused on navel-gazing. We’re encouraged to analyze our feelings and reactions. This is naturally going to spill over into the books we read. However, if writers were to delete the monotonous rehashes, I’m afraid some books might lose a third of their word counts — unless they filled the pages with actual happenings. And that takes work.

Maybe my problem is that I’ve been reading the old masters. There’s a lot more going on in Pride and Prejudice than how Liz feels about her feelings toward Darcy and how Darcy feels about his feelings for Liz. Jane Austin’s characters had lives to live, places to go and things to do. Her stories were woven around action as well as romance.

Without a lot of navel-gazing Charles Dickens’ characters managed to rouse people’s sympathies to the point of effecting positive changes in society’s attitudes.

For mystery writers like Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers, “Who did it?” was the focus of their stories. Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple and Lord Peter Wimsey rarely wrestled with self-doubt or anguished over what others thought of them. Yet they were very human — and often very humorous as a bonus.

The popularity of these writers has endured; you can still find their works in any library and most bookstores. That tells us something.