Monthly Archives: May 2011

Many Genres, One Craft

Today at Dark Central Station, I’ve invited Heidi Ruby Miller to stop by and share some advice and tidbits from Many Genres, One Craft, a collection of craft essays she co-edited with Michael A. Arnzen.

Heidi and Michael are both on the faculty of the Writing Popular Fiction MFA program at Seton Hill University, one of the very few low-residency graduate programs that specializes in popular fiction. All of the book’s contributors are affiliated with the Seton Hill program, as faculty, visiting writers, or published alumni.

The book offers tons of writing advice and thoughts on every conceivable genre, as well as tips for the professional writer. To get a sampling of what’s in the book, check out Heidi’s guest post at DCS.

Writing groups

Today my local writing group, which meets once a month, will get together to discuss the opening of Deadtown #4. When I start a new novel, I usually don’t start at the very beginning. I look at my outline and begin where I can. In other words, I look for a scene that’s close to the beginning that feels ready to be written. I find a scene I can write and dive in there. Later, when I know the shape of the whole story, I go back and write Chapter 1, along with whatever scenes I need to knit up that chapter with what I’ve already written. So usually I can’t share my work until after I’ve completed the first draft and gotten a little ways into the second.

This time, though, I started with Chapter 1. I had an idea for an opening scene and decided to try it. I’m going for a quick introduction to Vicky’s world with both humor and action, to plunge readers right into the story. I’m looking forward to finding out to what extent it works and what I need to fix. I’m also a little nervous, because I never show anyone my work this early.

Everyone in my writers’ group is a published author. One of the things I appreciate most about the group is that we write in a variety of genres. We’ve got essayists, poets, mystery writers, and writers of literary and historical fiction. (That makes it sound like a huge group. It’s not; most of us write in multiple genres.) And then there’s me—your friendly neighborhood urban fantasy author with a broad background in English. This is a great mix for getting good feedback. I’ve found it really helpful to hear the questions and comments of smart people who don’t normally read fantasy. Such questions make me realize what I’m taking for granted in my readers or when I’m leaning too heavily on the conventions of my genre. And if I’m entertaining non-UF readers, if I’m convincing them to suspend disbelief and enter Vicky’s world, I know I’m doing something right.

Similarly, it’s really helpful to read and give feedback on work that’s outside my usual genre. It stretches my boundaries and helps me consider issues in my own work that I might overlook otherwise. Plus it’s great to read works-in-progress by experienced authors.

So I’m looking forward to this afternoon’s meeting. I’ll get a sense of whether my potential opening of Deadtown #4 is on the right track. I’ll also get a chance to socialize, catch up with friends, and talk writing.

Everyone’s a critic (and that’s not such a bad thing!)

Yesterday I came across this article reporting on a discussion among four author/critics about the state of reviewing and where they think book reviews are heading. Although I’m sure that the discussion covered more than the article could report, one theme emerged:

Professional reviewers are not happy with Amazon. Not one bit.

Morris Dickstein, professor and literary critic, said this:

“The professional reviewer, who has a literary identity, who had to meet some editor’s exacting standard, has effectively been replaced by the Amazon reviewer, the paying customer, at times ingenious, assiduous, and highly motivated, more often banal, obtuse, and blankly opinionated.”

And this:

“[L]iterary reviewing . . . demands taste, training, sensibility, some knowledge of the past, and a rare feeling for both language and argument. Raw opinion, no matter how deeply felt, is no substitute for argument and evidence. The democratization of reviewing is synonymous with the decay of reviewing.”

Dickstein is a distinguished scholar and critic. But where does it say that he and other professional critics get to own the conversation about books? When I taught English, my goal was to get my students excited about reading and writing. Talking about books was a good thing.  It was exciting to hear students talking about books outside the classroom. Writing down your thoughts about books was a good thing, too. The whole point, as far as I was concerned, was to get students to pick up books, read them, and think about them. And then keep doing that: Lather, rinse, repeat.  Conversations about books are an extension of what teachers do in the classroom. They show those that teachers are having an effect.

To the critics taking part in the discussion, the fact that those conversations are written down, indexed, and saved seems to be part of the problem. To be fair, book reviewing as a profession has been on the decline for some time, as major newspapers (also declining) have scaled back on book reviews or even canceled their review sections. Readers don’t need to go out of their way to find one of a handful of professional reviews of a book when they can find scores of reviews on Amazon, B&N, Goodreads, Library Thing, book blogs, and other review sites. But again, this strikes me as a good thing. I’ve read some fascinating discussions of books on these sites. No, they don’t adhere to the standards of argument that pertain to writing a paper for credit, but I don’t see this as a problem. If someone makes an unsupported point, another reader often steps in to question it and give a different point of view. This is what we used to do in my classroom when we talked about books.

Author Cynthia Ozick, who won the National Book Critics Circle award for her criticism, was “disheartened” by the tastes of Amazon reviewers:

“First, a book, whether nonfiction or fiction, must supply ‘uplift.’ Who wants to spend hours on a downer? And even more demandingly, the characters in a novel must be likable. Uplift and pleasantness: is this an acceptable definition of what we mean by literature? If so, then King Lear and Hamlet aren’t literature, Sister Carrie isn’t literature, Middlemarch isn’t literature, nearly everything by Chekhov isn’t literature, and on and on and on.”

That’s true. And I’d hate to lose the great works of literature from the past. But is “literature” the only kind of book worth reading? It’s always been true, I think, that most stories don’t survive their own age. From campfire stories that were never written down to political satire that’s lost its sting with time to sentimental novels popular a century ago, most stories get lost as the world moves on. We don’t decide what’s “literary” from our own time; it’s the job of the next era to decide what we’ve accomplished that’s worth saving. Anyway, not all stories aspire to be literature. Stories that offer excitement or uplift or pure enjoyment offer real value to the people who read them now.

The reviewers these critics complain about are out of school. They get to choose their own books, to define their own criteria. They don’t have to read at all—there are plenty of other distractions to keep people busy. Complaining that Amazon reviews are leading to the “decay of reviewing” is merely shouting into the wind (as Lear did on that stormy heath).

Besides, people have always talked about books. They did it in book clubs, over coffee, in casual conversations. The only difference is that now those conversations are saved and made available for others to read or participate in. Conversations last longer; they get broader. More voices chime in. To me, this is exciting.

I think there’s room both for traditional, academic literary criticism and for everyday conversations about books. For myself, I like to read a professional review after I’ve read the book, so I can follow the analysis better. If I’m looking for something new to read, though, I’ll read book blogs and reviews on Amazon and sites like Goodreads. One is more like listening to a lecture (I’m a recovering academic, so I enjoy that); the other is more like getting a recommendation from a friend. Both are valuable.

Peace, Love, and Murder on sale for 99 cents

Before I tried my hand at urban fantasy, I wrote a contemporary mystery set in a fictional upstate New York college town (one that’s kinda sorta like the real upstate New York college town where I live). Peace, Love, and Murder was published by Five Star, which produces hard-cover editions for libraries, but its $27 price tag kept the book from getting a wider readership.

Recently, I made Peace, Love, and Murder available as an ebook. I originally set the price at $2.99, but it’s currently on sale for just 99 cents. I’m not looking to get rich. But PLM was a lot of fun to write, and I think it’s a fun read. I’d love for more readers to find it. You can read the first chapter here.

Thanks to the sale price, PLM was featured yesterday on, a great resource for finding bargain-priced ebooks. Check out the site if you’re looking for good reads at a low price. The site lists all kinds of books—every genre, traditionally published, and self-published—and is a great way to find books you might otherwise overlook.

The 99 cent sale price is good wherever you can purchase PLM, including Amazon, B&N, and Smashwords.

Around the web

Just a short post today, since you can find me going on at length on various topics elsewhere on the web. 🙂

There’s an interview with me at Ebysswriter’s blog where we discuss writing, finding an agent, and the eternal questions: Chocolate or vanilla? Wine or margaritas?

At DCS, I blog about reviewing copyedits. (Can you guess what I’m working on right now?)

And at Fresh Fiction, there’s a new review of Hellforged, which pays me a great compliment by calling my Deadtown series “one of the most imaginative urban fantasy series out there.”

Happy Tuesday!

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