Reviews…and how to write them

I just finished writing reviews for two books I recently read. I don’t bother writing reviews for best-sellers or established authors, but I do for friends and acquaintances if I’ve read and enjoyed their stories. I hope they help.

I know writers, myself among them, who have asked, begged, and bribed friends and relations to write a review. Some say they will and never do. Some do, God love them. And some say, “I don’t know how.”

My response is, “Just write one sentence: I liked the book. Or hated it. Whatever.”

I know it’s hard if the only thing you’ve written lately without relying on emoticons is a thank-you to Grandma on a pretty note-card because she doesn’t have a computer and still uses a land-line phone. I concentrate on what it is about the book that makes me keep reading. What do you enjoy most in a book? It might be the plot, or it might be the characters. Maybe it’s the quirky humor. There has to be something noteworthy about the book or you wouldn’t have read it in the first place. So start with, “I enjoyed this book because…” and fill in the blanks.

Do people read reviews? I do. I realize not everyone is going to  like every book written, but I try to find a middle ground between gushing praise (written by the author’s mother, perhaps?) and crushing criticism (which may well have been penned by an envious fellow writer). I read a few five- and four-star reviews and then one or two one-stars before making up my mind to purchase the book.

Okay, in a stab at honesty, to download the free or 99-cent book.

Do reviews help the author? I think they do help people make up their minds to click the “Buy” button, but no one is going to read them unless they’re at least curious enough about the book that they’ve visited the site, be it Amazon or another distributor, the publisher, or the author’s web page. How do they find out about the book in the first place? Ah, that’s a subject for another blog. And when I find out the answer, I’ll let you know.

Meanwhile, if you’ve complimented a writer you know and she asks, boldly or hesitantly, that you repeat your kind words in a review, please do it. It isn’t all that difficult, honest. Just say what you said aloud to them.

And if you don’t know the writer personally, but liked their work enough to recommend it to a friend, you might do the same. Writers love it if you buy their book, but they love it even more when you tell them–and the world– how much you enjoyed it.

 

 

Start ’em early

One of the goals of our local writers’ club is to promote literacy.  I guess we’ve said this so loud and so often, it wasn’t a surprise when someone actually took us up on it.

A summer camp for kids needed someone to lead a class on story writing. Guess who they called?

So Kaye and I set out last Monday morning for the camp, which was held indoors. Given the 90+ temperatures we’ve had lately, I considered ‘camping’ in an air-conditioned room a perk.

How did it go? We had a blast. We had two groups of kids, the first from 4-8 years old and the second from 8 to about 14. Talk about enthusiasm! Once they grasped the idea of creating a story from scratch, the kids were falling over themselves to contribute their ideas.

They  knew the basics of story writing: Beginning, middle, end. They knew there had to be a problem and a solution. They knew a story was better when it contained details to set the scene. So our job was made easier because we just had to build on what they already had learned. We tried to steer them away from retelling Hansel and Gretel or The Parent Trap and get them to thinking on their own.

The first group’s story was imaginative even if it didn’t make a lot of sense. It didn’t have to follow a perfect story arc, it just had to entertain. And that it did.

The second group of older kids had a rocky start as the tweens and teens argued about the plot and where it was going. I had some doubts, but I needn’t have worried. They settled down and began backing up each other’s ideas, cooperating beautifully. Their story was heartfelt and had a satisfying conclusion.

I took my notes home and wrote down the stories they envisioned. I’ll print them out, a copy for each camper and a few extra, and take them back to camp next week.

I think the kids had a good time. I know Kaye and I did.

Who knew giving back could be so much fun?

 

 

 

 

The sins of my youth

When I was young, a hundred years ago, I thought I needed three things: a gorgeous tan, blonde hair, and adoring boyfriends.

I got the blonde hair from a bottle, and the tan from hours of lying in the sun in my teeny-weeny bikini. No, it wasn’t polka-dot.  And sometimes the sun tan turned into a sunburn, with accompanying blisters. The boyfriends came and went, not all adoring but faithful enough for brief periods of time.

Image result for sunburn meme

Then I married and had children. No time for tanning, no time to redo the roots of my hair. I let it grow back into its mousy brown.

As I got older, I began avoiding the sun. In the past few years I do my yard work protected by sunscreen, a floppy hat, and long pants. I get my various moles and other blemishes checked periodically by a dermatologist. I became especially vigilant after my younger brother died of a melanoma he’d had 20 years previously. They thought they got it all, but during those years it had metastasized, unknown to him and his loved ones.

So just before I went on my annual trip to Pennsylvania to visit my sister (my excuse for no blog last week) I got a call from my dermatologist. She’d removed a suspicious mole during my last appointment and sent it for a biopsy. The results were melanoma in situ.

It wasn’t that big of a shock. I knew the risks. I knew that in spite of the care I’d been taking, my foolishness 50 years ago had more than  likely set me up for something like this.

Of course, we didn’t know back then of the danger. Baby oil and iodine? Slap it on for a deeper, browner tan. Hours spent on the beach or on a towel in the back yard. A sunburn was a small price to pay. Sure, it hurt, but the blisters eventually went down. And then we did it all over again.

I went back Tuesday to have more tissue removed to make sure that all of the cancer was gone. It wasn’t fun. The area was numbed and then I lay on my stomach, my arms slowly falling asleep, trying not to twitch as she cut and cut … and cut. The the stitches. I didn’t ask how many, but it took a long time. The wound is covered with steri-strips, so I can’t see the damage. Yet.

And I’m waiting for word of the second biopsy. She was cheerfully confident it would come back clear, but I’ve heard that song before. I had to go for a third surgery when I had breast cancer because the margins weren’t clear the second time. Hopefully, that won’t happen again.

My back is sore and it hurts to stretch or move suddenly, but I tell myself that’s a small price to pay if the threat is truly gone.

Now I must be ever more vigilant because what happened once can happen again. I told my three sons they also must take care. We now have a family history of melanoma. I’m sorry to pass that on to my children and grandchildren. Fortunately, the grandchildren’s parents have been more cautious than I was, and slathered on sunscreen whenever the kids went outside.

I’m writing this as a warning. If you have children or grandchildren, please, please, make sure they are protected. They, like me, won’t think ahead. They think they will always be young and anyway, who cares what happens then they are “old.”

They will care. And it’s up to us to protect them now.

 

Writers retreat and beach memories

Home again!

I’m home after a week away. It was a fantastic week: sunrise over the ocean, the sky tinted pink and baby blue with whitecaps rolling against the shore.  Coffee, drifting to our self-appointed stations, everyone working on her project from a published writer meeting deadline to a novice working on her first draft. Ice cream breaks, walking along the beach, feet crunching over  broken shells or seeking balance on softly shifting sand, claiming the reward of sweet, cold strawberry or salty caramel. Silent afternoons, then laughter as eight women work together to prepare an evening meal.

It was a fantastic week in the company of women who got me, who understood what it is to create a story from nothing but our imaginations, what it means to select the right word, to bring a character to life.

They say writing is a lonely life. It is. It is the nature of the profession. Oh, we have critique partners, beta readers, editors, and hopefully, publishers, who help us along the way.  But the essential work is done inside our heads.

That’s why writer’s retreats, such as the one I just completed, are important. We remember we are not alone on our journey, that others are traveling the road with us. Some are a little ahead, and they look back and hold out a hand to help us along. And we do the same for those behind us.

I confess I was a little reluctant to go.  Live with strangers for a week? How did this work?

But I’m glad I did.  Within 24 hours, the doubts had fled. The strangers became friends. When the week was over we hugged goodbye with real emotion and pledged to meet again next year.

Did I accomplish the goal I had set? Yes, I did. I finished my edits. Others finished their drafts or met their deadlines. We all did what we came for, but for me, it was more than that.

It was realizing I was in good company. That I was not alone. That I was a part of a sisterhood of writers.

Of course I was glad to get home and accept the welcome meows of Spooky, Jack and Frenchie. There was mail, telephone messages, and the inevitable dirt to be swept up because my cats love to dig in the houseplants. Bags had to be unpacked, laundry done. Every vacation — even working vacations —  end.

But the memories remain.

 

 

 

Feeding the birds

I have a whiteboard calendar on my refrigerator to remind me of appointments coming up during the week. Sometimes it is empty and sometimes there are two or three things listed for the same day.calendar

Three chores stay there permanently: Wednesday, volunteer at the animal shelter; Thursday, water the plants; and Friday, clean the hummingbird feeders.

It’s not that I would forget these things, but this way I keep on schedule.

My list of chores, written or unwritten, has grown during the past year. Little by little, I took over some of the heavier duties as Jim’s strength failed. So it wasn’t too much of a change to keep on after he passed. One thing I do now that he did up until he was hospitalized is feed the birds. This was more of a joy for him than a chore. He loved watching them and never let the feeders get empty.

So I added this to my list, and every time I lift the heavy feeders down, drag out the 25-pound bag of bird seed and fill them, then stand on my tiptoes to replace them, I think of him. I wonder if he is watching and giving his little nod of approval.

I’m happy to say the squirrels have disappeared and the birds have had free access to the suet feeders. And, I haven’t had to refill them every other day due to the little thieves making off with the suet, cage and all. I have had to search the yard for the cage more than once. Which isn’t as bad as my sister has it, what with raccoons stealing her bird feeders, never to be seen again. The feeders, I mean. The raccoons keep coming back.

But where the squirrels have gone, I haven’t a clue. Maybe because the they ate every one of my crop of figs, they are too ashamed to show their greedy faces. But I’d keep feeding the birds even if the squirrels did keep stealing the suet cages and tipping the feeders, spilling the seeds on the ground.

I feel Jim’s presence when I feed the birds, and when I sit on the deck and watch them in the evening. If I keep my head still, I can imagine him on my right, watching their fluttering and listening to their songs. I can hear him laugh as the hummingbirds wage war, zooming over our heads.

I don’t need to write anything on  my whiteboard to remind myself to feed the birds. It’s too much a part of me.

Of us.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Just the facts, Ma’am

I am trying to not get involved in politics. It’s pretty tough.

Today, at  birthday luncheon, someone mentioned the Republican Convention. Now, these are all gray-haired old ladies. Does the fact that we were celebrating one of our member’s  94th birthday tell you our approximate age? (Okay, I’ve never made a secret of the fact that I wasn’t born yesterday.)

Immediately, someone said…well, never mind. Then someone disagreed. Then a third person suggested we not talk about politics during what was a celebration.

Silence reigned. Then someone said…

You know how it goes. Everyone has a opinion and no one is willing to listen to anyone else.

I’ve been keeping my head down and writing. But it’s hard not to pay attention to what is going on. In fact, we should all be paying attention.

One thing you learn fairly quickly if you are a writer is to check the facts. This is especially important when you write historical fiction, but it’s true in any genre. Get a fact wrong and some alert reader will be sure to fire off an e-mail pointing out your error.

Yet facts seem to go flying off the page this electoral season. Yes, there are fact checkers who try to keep us all on the straight and narrow, but it seems to me the only people reading the results are the few whose minds are not so closed that any fact that disagrees with their mindset rolls off them like butter off a hot biscuit.

At least in my crowd we are trying to be civil and not throw a punch (not that any of us could without seriously injuring ourselves). A sniff and an eye-roll suffice.

My hope is that once the election is over, we can step back and accept victory or defeat gracefully and join together to address the real problems that face this nation–inequality, poverty, health care, a crumbling infrastructure, and the price of e-books.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Getting my money’s worth

Like Christmas, after a period of frenzied preparation the day of our writers’ club’s annual conference has come and gone. Some of us counted success in the number of attendees, others in the  comments of those who came away with renewed purpose and a clearer goal.

I sat in on Robert Macomber’s workshop on “Planning Your Writing Career.”  I, like many others, went into writing with high hopes and little knowledge of the real work behind the books I love to read. Among those books are Macomber’s “Honor” series, richly detailed and meticulously researched novels about a fictional officer in the U.S. Navy from the Civil War through the early 2oth century. Here’s what he had to say:

  • Think of yourself as a professional writer, even if you are not yet published. Attitude is everything. Be positive minded and professional at all times.
  • Understand your story and understand your genre. Tell your story in a different way. Pick a niche that hasn’t been done.
  • Know your audience.
  • Learn, learn, learn. Know the rules and when to break them. Be an expert in your subject. Learn your competition: read their books. Talk to libraries, booksellers, editors to learn what readers want. Learn about the business of writing.
  • Bring your family on board. Have one area of the home that is your oasis and find a minimum of three hours a day when they know you are not to be disturbed. They need to know this is your second job. (Your first job earns the money so you can do the second.)
  • Decide before you start on point of view, past or present tense, and your title. A title should be concise, vivid, evocative, and memorable. Plan a storyboard or visual road map. (And here’s a kicker) write your synopsis first to keep your story on track. Decide the size of your chapters up front. Chapter titles and sub-titles intrigue the reader and help pacing.
  • Set a daily goal of draft words or finished words. Read your work aloud. The reader “hears” the words he reads inside his brain.
  • Consider the visual aspect of your words on the page, i.e., white space.
  • Set reasonable dates for interim goals to be met. Have your family celebrate these goals with you.
  •  Invite people to help you with research and be sure to name them in your acknowledgements.
  • Your first three pages are the most important in engaging the reader. The end of your story should leave the reader with a feeling of accomplishment and wondering what comes next.
  • Everybody needs one to three critical reader and an editor. Critical readers are friends who are widely read, who know grammar, can give you advice, and keep their mouth shut.
  • Your readers should learn something, be entertained, and not feel they have wasted their money.

Some of these things I knew before. Some I knew but hadn’t put into practice. And some are things I had never thought of, so of Macomber’s workshop I can say I learned something, was entertained (Macomber is as engaging a speaker as he is a writer), and I certainly didn’t feel I wasted my money. His workshop alone was worth the registration fee.

Next week I’ll share what I learned in the other workshops I attended.

You are welcome.

 

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