Mixed media can challenge your writing

Karalee’s Post #74

I’ve had the pleasure of going to a couple of live performances in the last month. One was a theater production called Helen Lawrence at the Stanley Theater in Vancouver. The second was Pixar in Concert by the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra.

Both used mixed medias.

For me, one was more successful than the other. When I considered why the reason came down to the level of concentration required to understand what was happening. I go to live performances to be entertained and expect to concentrate and pay attention, but I don’t want to have to think (or concentrate) so hard I get a headache.

8556714237 Chad Cooper Flickr


Of course this made me aware of how much information and how complex my characters and setting can be before overwhelming or confusing readers to the point of disinterest or giving up.



Helen Lawrence (screenwriter Chris Haddock) was, quote, “an intoxicating mixed media spectacle set in the Vancouver of 1948.”

This theater performance had actors on stage with a black and white “old” movie of exactly what was being performed on stage being projected through the actors onto the screen behind. For me it was very difficult to decide what to focus on. My attention kept going between the screen and the actors to the point that I lost the jist of the plot.

I became confused and frankly, not entertained. My husband tends to get seasick and next to me he was feeling nauseous.  For both of us, this experiment with mixed media didn’t work.

On the other hand, Pixar in Concert had the Vancouver Symphony playing on stage while at the same time (silent) excerpts from the animated movies lit up a huge screen behind. At first my attention was pulled between the concert players and the running movie, but because the two complimented each other I was able to take in both, or concentrate on either one or the other, and still understand what was happening.

I was entertained.

This mixed media took more concentration than just listening to a symphony performance, but not so much I became confused or had to concentrate so hard I gave up.

This is a great lesson for my writing. There is nothing wrong with pushing my writing beyond my comfort zone and trying out complicated plots and characters, or adding multiple subplots, or pushing conventional morals and attitudes. I can go ahead and challenge the conventions.

But at the end of the first draft, I know to have a good look and make sure the story hasn’t become too complicated to make sense without having to concentrate to the point of giving up.

No matter what, a story needs to be entertaining.

Happy writing!

The don’t-look-away ingredient


Silk’s Post #81 — Two of the 5/5/5 have now written about the controversial film 12 Years a Slave. I said my piece on March 11 in Artful reality and the cutting of dull bits, and Helga chimed in on Friday with Quiet vampires

I found it “glacially slow, as though to force the audience to stop and examine the reality before their eyes thoroughly, in solemn contemplation … a story that featured a litany of unspeakable cruelties shown in clinical detail.” I had great expectations for 12 Years a Slave and was disappointed to find myself struggling through it. For me, it was a failed movie. But I felt compelled to watch it.

Helga was overwhelmed by the relentless violence, and she summoned up plenty of film critics who agree. “Armond White called it ‘torture porn’, accusing director McQueen of turning slavery into a ‘horror show’, and of confusing history with brutality, violence and misery.”

And yet, this was the 2014 Academy Award winner for Best Picture. So somebody liked it. (Or, as Ellen DeGeneres slyly hinted, perhaps they were afraid not to praise it for fear of being labelled racist).

So what is the real power of this film? What is at the heart of it – its purpose and intent? Is it art? Payback? A long-awaited but brutal history lesson? Catharsis? After thinking about it a lot since I saw the film, my memory freshened by Helga’s post, I believe its raison d’être is to create a disturbance, to stimulate controversy.

And the uncomfortable method it uses (some might call it outright audience manipulation) is to compel us to watch, to glue our eyeballs to the luscious, humid scenes where inhumanity moves languidly and remorselessly, stretching out the pain. We are hooked by our own morbid fascination in a kind of temporary addiction, an almost trance-like state exacerbated by the painfully slow pace of the movie. We don’t look away. (Or most of us didn’t).

At the end of the film, I felt like the frog in the pot of cold water, who didn’t jump out when the heat rose by slow degrees. I felt cooked.

But this capacity of human beings to be sucked into a story and become temporarily addicted to it – sometimes against their will, or their better judgement, or their tastes – is a real and powerful phenomenon. To hold us in thrall – isn’t that the effect great literature has on people?

But wait, so do slasher movies. So does porn. So do vampire novels. So does pulp fiction. So do endless breaking news bulletins about the latest weather event, reality drama, mass shooting, video game, plane crash, celebrity downfall. Not for everyone, of course: we all pick our own potions and poisons. But who has never found themselves in the wee hours of the morning, glued to a movie they can’t switch off, or a book they can’t put down – even though the alarm clock is set to go off in just 5 more hours … 4 … 3 … 2 …?

What is the essence of this extraordinary temporary addiction? This obsessive engagement that won’t let us look away? It can’t be subject matter, or style, or genre, or sentiment, or intelligence, or action, or even quality that clinches the deal. The range of material that can have this effect on people runs the full spectrum, from the sublime to the ridiculous.

It’s what 12 Years a Slave, and Harry Potter, and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and Flight 370, and Holocaust movies, and Casablanca, and The Story of O, and The Voice, and Star Wars, and Alice in Wonderland, and Hitchcock films, and Apocalypse Now all have weirdly in common. Maybe that sounds crazy. But I don’t mind starting a controversy.

Because I believe if, as writers, we can capture enough of that don’t-look-away essence in our books, we stand a real chance of success. If we miss it, we’re on the slush pile.

What is this elusive “it” that draws people in and won’t let them go? Is “it” just a collection of disparate hooks and lures that are different in each work and for each segmented audience? I don’t think so. I believe there really is a common “it” that addicts readers and audiences like crack cocaine.

So what is “it”? I still (stubbornly) think it has to do with story. But you tell me. What’s the essence of that don’t-look-away secret ingredient we all seek to bake into our novels?

Quiet vampires

Helga’s Post # 77 — Friday is usually movie night at our house. I know, I know, this is a blog about writing, not movies, but please bear with me. While much of this post is about a film, there is a link to writing and books.

When you are reading a book, how much violence do you tolerate, or are repulsed by? What’s your turning point when you say enough is enough because the book no longer gives you enjoyment, or worse, it might even make you sick?

Conversely, are you in the camp that needs violence in their reading to enthrall, mesmerize, spellbind and tantalize you as you turn the pages of a novel? Does brutality and graphic violence spark your imagination?

These questions came to me after watching 12 Years a Slave, the movie that captivated this year’s Oscar crowd. The film tells the true story of Solomon Northup, a cultured and well respected African American northerner, who is kidnapped and then sold into slavery by his abductors and ends up spending 12 years on one or more southern plantations.1

As Oscar MC Ellen DeGeneres quipped, here were two possibilities for the evening: “That 12 Years a Slave wins the best picture Oscar. And possibility two: you’re all racists.”

Wait a minute here, Ellen. That’s a bunch of crap. Does it mean anyone is a racist who does not enjoy watching a movie of a succession of scenes containing the most graphic brutal violence and sadism? Does it that mean if Schindler’s List wouldn’t have won an Oscar for best picture and best director, that everybody was a fascist and Nazi?

Admittedly, I feel confused by this controversial and complex topic, because to be fair, there are other forces at work in this film; like the mesmerizing photography, the setting of the south, the great acting, all contributing factors to make the film work on those levels. 12 Years has all of that in addition to beautifully nuanced and sensitive portraits of black people, interpreted by a brilliant cast.

But it has something even more powerful than all these elements combined. It overwhelms its viewers for nearly two hours with relentless violence. In 12 Years, there are vicious beatings of every sort: murder, lynchings, rape, dehumanizing nudity, and that five-minute, lump-in-your-throat scene where Ejiofor’s Solomon Northup is strung up by his neck just inches off the ground. Film critic Armond White called it ‘torture porn’ and accused director McQueen of turning slavery into a “horror show”, and of confusing history with brutality, violence and misery.

This is how some critics have expressed similar sentiments:

– The problem with this amazing and unforgettable film is that it is comprised of unendurable and unrelenting human suffering. Because there is no relief for our hero-slave from beginning to almost the very end, it lacks a certain credibility. After the unrelieved cruelty that comes in a horrific procession from one scene to the next, we wonder, why was every single white human in this film corrupt, vicious, and cruel beyond imagination? So, Oscars will be awarded and rightly so, but I am warning my friends to think twice before enduring a movie that’s so hard to watch.

– Beyond the intriguing premise (a man is kidnapped into slavery) this movie goes nowhere. Brutal, repetitive, and pointless. What is the subtext? What is the message? Slavery was bad? No character development, no plot development. Just one graphic depiction of cruelty after another.

– So many stereotypes, excessive brutality and sadism without sufficient redeeming purpose. It’s a significant story historically but uncreative, humdrum approach to the subject. Acting of main character is excellent but even then it doesn’t feel true. It feels like a movie made for some “noble” purpose. I prefer Django Unchained because at least it doesn’t try to pretend to be something it isn’t.

– The movie message is slavery is bad. For two hours it hammers that message with a sledge hammer till the head aches from all of the excess noise in form of superb but ultimately useless star appearance, needless violence and sexual abuse is unbearable.
It all has been done before and better. A complete misuse of excellent cast.

So, lots of shared sentiment. There’s no denying that it’s an important film about an important and long-neglected subject. But actually watching it wasn’t my idea of a good time for a Friday night. My husband didn’t even watch it to the end and left during the flogging scene of Patsy.

And I am stuck with this question: Do we really need to see this grisly brutality in order to realize that slavery is bad? Or, more disturbingly, has 12 Years a Slave achieved its level of success and popularity because of its searing scenes of violence? Is it possible that so many consumers who watch films and buy books are demanding and enjoying such hyped-up description of brutality and violence?

I have asked myself similar questions whenever I come across some particularly graphic scenes on film or in books. I realize this may sound peculiar to lots of people, because violence is so firmly entrenched in popular culture. For me, it holds no joy. Conflict yes, intrigue yes, the more the better. But explicit, gory human suffering and sadistic violence?

Not so much, I’m afraid. I am not saying violence is always evil. As American singer-songwriter and poet Jim Morrison put it so well, ‘what’s evil is the infatuation with violence’. That’s what he must have meant when he said:

‘Film spectators are quiet vampires’.

One Simple Rule to Improve Your Writing

Joe’s Post #93

This won’t be a long post cuz it only has one simple thing, one rule.

readingWriters read.

Oh, they should write as well, but let’s say that’s a given.

But to be a better writer, we have to read. So, this week, I did a lot of blog reading. It’s amazing how many people out there are going through the same struggles, overcoming the same obstacles, fighting the same demons we 5/5/5 are.

It’s the great thing about the internet. It can connect us to a community of like-minded people, or people who share common experiences. As writers, this can be agents, editors, publishers, other writers, other bloggers and…AND… readers.

So let me pass along a few of the ones I’ve read. I have to confess, some were not about writing. If you like these, or our posts, please reblog. It’s how we all can get read by a wider audience.

I’ve reblogged 2, and here is one that I couldn’t reblog… Nathan Bransford

I wonder if any of my fellow writers have bloggers they’d love to share.

And I wonder what books my fellow writers are reading at the moment? Are you reading what you’re writing?


Pages Written on New Novel: 0

Outline % Completed: 80%. I’m really hoping the huge amount of time I’ve spent finetuning it will pay off by making the story a LOT faster to write. However, I love, LOVE, the way the story is going.

Sunday Plan: Get the outline critiqued.

Blogs Written This Week: Lots and lots.

Queries Out this Week: 0 (only so much time)

Rejections for the Last Week: 0 (has to be bad news. I may need to move the 5 out there to 5 rejections)

Queries Still Out There: 5

Hope Meter: 70/100.  Holding steady. Next week, the novel is started.

Wanted: 1 guest blogger.






The Alphabitter

Ok, so less about writing and more about words

Ben's Bitter Blog

This is how you learn about the alphabet.  This is Annoying Albert, I think.  Next was Bitter Ben. This is how you learn about the alphabet. This is Annoying Albert, I think. Next was Bitter Ben.

They say everything you ever learned, you learned in Kindergarten.  While all my bitter learning took place well before kindergarten, there are other fundamental bitter things that came after.  I did learn about the ABC’s in kindergarten by way of the Letter People, which I guess isn’t the way that people learn these days.  That is a shame, because back then letters had personality and some were actually a little bitter. Nowadays, they are just boring letters and they form stupid words like “smile”, “positivity” and “selfie”.  Sure they may show in up in cereal every once in a while in the form of a marshmallow, but words are way overrated especially when people are using them to talk to me.

It’s time for a hardware upgrade on the old fashioned 26…

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From the seasoned one…

I’ve been reading a lot of other blogs and this one is worth checking out.

SMertz - Writing Tips

What makes a good hero in fiction?

This is a hard question to answer actually.  If you ask someone what is a hero, most will answer, someone who puts the good of others before himself/herself and is willing to risk himself/herself to help others.  However, when you’re reading a novel, what do you want to see in your heroes?

Everyone has their “white list” of attributes:

  • Brave
  • Good fighter
  • Strong
  • Smart
  • Handsome/beautiful

However, these attributes alone makes a “perfect” person in essence, someone who is utterly boring when it comes to good fiction.  Most people would agree, when reading fiction, an interesting hero is someone who has faults and rises above them to accomplish what is needed to save the day.

Heroes rarely wear white hats and flaunt their accomplishments for the world to see as the Lone Ranger did.  Today’s heroes are usually the everyday kind of person that…

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Masked emotions

Karalee’s Post #73

Last week I visited the Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver with my family. Exhibits from cultures around the world filled every room and it struck me that most cultures had ceremonial masks as part of their celebrations.

It also struck me that a multitude of emotions were expressed through this medium. Everyday life is research for a writer and I started snapping pictures as references for describing emotions in my writing.

I’ve included a few pictures and hope you have fun deciding what emotion is being depicted in each. You may want to take a few moments to reflect on what different facial expressions lead you to draw your conclusions.

Who knows, something in one of them may inspire you!
















































Happy writing!



Interview with the Vampire


Paula’s Post #70 – Interview with the Vampire

Well, not really a vampire. Actually, just my cousin Vlad (not his real name, DUH). And since my-cousin-in-the-book-biz is incognito for this interview, I thought, ‘Vampires’.

I mean wouldn’t you?

And ‘Interview with the Vampire’ is maybe just a wee catchier than Interview with my Cousin.  

Anyway, this week, my cousin “Vlad”, who incidentally knows a thing or two about the world of publishing, (as you’ll see from his comments, below) very kindly agreed to be interviewed for this weeks 5writers blog post:


Vampires, Vlad, – what do you think? I mean we always hear a catchy title can sell books. And a title with vampires in it sounds pretty catchy.  Why, I’ll wager we’ll even increase blog traffic, just by using ‘vampire’ in the title of this post and repeating it several times, just for the SEO optimization. I think Google likes the word ‘vampire’.

Vampire. Vampire. Vampire.

So, with apologies to Anne Rice, today I’m bringing you ‘Interview with the Vampire’ – aka my cousin Vlad. Who, come to think of it, actually is quite pale in an almost Canadian kind of way and,- also come to think of it,-  does seem to lead something of a nocturnal lifestyle.

Hmm… maybe we better check, just to make sure.

Q#1 – PAULA: Are you a vampire, Vlad?

Of course. Pass the blood vial, will you?

Q#2 – PAULA: Hmm. You’re kidding, right. But you did actually live in New Orleans at one time, didn’t you Vlad?

Yes. And I’ve lived in several other cities where vampires live. Does that make you happy?

Actually, the city that just drips with vampires is Portland…

Q#3 – PAULA: Are you making fun of Portland? You know Portland is my hometown, don’t you? Oh never mind. Anyway, just to clarify for our readers, Vlad, this past Friday evening was one of those rare occasions when we actually got to sit down and visit for a while and talk.

For reasons that are long, involved, complicated and, for the most part, totally irrelevant, we decided to meet at the ‘Beer Hunter’ bar at the corner of Washington and Hwy 111 on the border between Indian Wells and La Quinta. 

Not only a notorious vampire hang out, but also a bar where you can:

a) Simultaneously watch four giant screen TVs playing, respectively: golf, tennis, baseball and hockey;

b) Order beer tasting flights with yes, no less than ten individual ‘tasters’ of beer for the princely sum of $11.

Sometimes, you’ve just gotta love America.

But I digress. I’m supposed to be interviewing Vlad

VLAD: just for the sake of accuracy, let us note that the “tasters” of beer are 3 oz – so literally “a taste.” 3 oz of blood would merely be a “lip wipe of the tongue.” I’m sure there’s a word for that in German, but it escapes me at the moment…

Q4 – PAULA: Hmm. I see. Well, back to the interview. So Vlad, Why don’t we get to see each other more often? 

VLAD: Well, it doesn’t help that you’re usually in bed by 9. I’m barely up by then. And I do travel quite a bit – necessarily. You don’t want to over farm a particular field if you know what I mean. And not to be unduly critical, but the blood around here is all….aged.

Q5 – PAULA: Is that a another dig? Palm Springs isn’t just for retired folk you know. And besides, with wine ‘aged’ is a good thing. Isn’t it the same with – oh, never mind, I’m afraid to ask. Maybe you could just share what is it that you do that keeps you on the road so much? (See, I’m feeding Vlad lines here).

VLAD: Fresh….prospects. I do sell books as a cover – so I am, a travelling salesman. Such a jaunty title, ja? And with the recent merger, I am now even more…in demand. I work for the largest English language publisher, somewhat ironically, owned by Germans. We are working incredibly hard on trying to find a logo that works with both Penguins and a Haus. It’s a little like trying to get Vampires and Werewolves to agree on something… but Penguinhaus or Randompenguinvolk don’t seem to work to well. Perhaps…Igloo Books?

Q#6 – PAULA: Wow, Randompenguinvolk, – that’s a mouthful! I bet you publish a lot of vampire titles? (I ask, never missing the chance to up the SEO on the blog by repeating the word ‘vampire’ yet again).

VLAD: I’m not sure I follow. Vampires have never been gluttons. We like to, how do you say? “cut a fine figure.”   (chuckles) And yes, there are a number of vampire books on our list – but then you could substitute almost any word for vampire and it would be true…

Q#7 – PAULA: You mean there are a lot of books on your lists, period? Your group employs – what? About 10,000 people globally across 5 continents? In other words, you are a very, very big, big f’ing deal in ‘bookworld’ aren’t you?

VLAD: I am but a small cog in a very large machine. Ze company is, yes, a pretty large entity, selling about 40% of the American market, but I am but a travelling salespersonvolk.

Q#8 – PAULA: My 5writers colleagues are going to wet their pants thinking you can get them out of the slush pile. Maybe I better check on that. Any chance you can pull a few strings and… you know…?

VLAD: It is much better to know an Agent, or an editor, than a salesperson. I have tried over the years to help a select few, but have met with very modest success, and most of that with non-fiction. You have to understand; there are ~4000 books published every day (in the US) or about 1.5 million a year. If you haven’t been published, you just need to try a little harder. Someone WILL publish you. And of course, it’s even easier now, via Amazon, to self-publish. No, do not sneer, cousin P – let us remember that some of the great tomes of the last few years were discovered by publishers in the Amazon 99 cent bins…like 50 Shades of Chartreuse, for example. Or Grey? Whatever.

Q#9 PAULA: How big are you?

VLAD: About 190 lbs – how big are YOU?

Q#10 PAULA: NO! I meant how big is the company you work for?

VLAD: Oh, it is quite large, and quite worldwide. But the US market is still by far the largest, followed closely by…not Canada.

Q#11 – PAULA: Hmm. I think that is another ‘dig’. I’m getting the idea vampires like ‘digs’. But getting back to that slush pile…You see my buddy Helga has written this fabulous La Carre-esque cold war novel set in post-war Vienna. And ever versatile Joe not only has this cool PI novel set in the high California desert, he also has penned the first volume of his planned YA Fantasy trilogy.  What do you think, Vlad? Maybe you can help out a couple of my 5writers colleagues? How can we give their manuscripts a leg up on the ‘ole slush pile? (Or is that a mixed metaphor)?

VLAD: mmmmm. How do I break this to you and your lovely rosy companions? So full of LIFE, ja? Even poor John Le Carre himself does not sell so well anymore…and why write about the old Cold War, when the new one is freezing before your eyes? Isn’t Tehran the new Berlin? Did you know that 20% of Americans think Ukraine is in S. America?

Ze problem with a cool PI novel set in the desert is obvious, but here is another thing to consider – yes, most detective novels strive for an original regionality. But it helps to pick a region with a lot of potential readers/buyers. This is why so many books are set in NY. Or places people want to go…Venice for example. Do you know how many murder mysteries have been set in Venice? It is a great way for writers to “write-off” a trip to Venice. And then, of course, the editor may find it necessary to visit the writer in Venice. Most editors in NY (and 99.9999% are in NY) do not find the “high CA desert” so fascinating. Well. Maybe the “high” part. Not so much the desert. Or CA. It’s a long trip.

Q#12 – PAULA: Hmm…. I see your point. Pick somewhere nice for the setting. Super nice. First, the writer gets to go there.  If their lucky, the writers agents and editors get to go there… and finally, either physically or at least metaphorically, the reader gets to go there. I get it, a  nice locale sells.

But what about the YA Fantasy trilogies? First Hunger Games, now Divergent. No road trips to those worlds, but they’re selling like hotcakes. Sounds like a no brainer to me?


VLAD: Um, ja. They haff always been big, you forget perhaps, Tolkien? C.S. Lewis? Or Asimov’s Foundation books? As long as there are disillusioned and devious youthmunchkins, I think these books can succeed. But there are many many of these written, and only a few rise to the top. Like cream. Unlike sediment in wine or …pass ze vial, please cousin.

Q#13 – PAULA: Maybe you are really just on the hunt for more vampire novels?

VLAD: I think you can just put a period after ‘hunt’, ja? There are already many more vampire novels than vampires. Perhaps we need a new endangered genre, ja? Where are all the panda novels?

Q#14 – PAULA: But seriously Vlad, you know a lot about books and the authors that write them. Can you share with my 5writer colleagues and our faithful readers what’s hot this year?

VLAD: This is always much easier at ze end of the year, when I can say, ja, this was HOT! But I do seem to see a trend of handicapped, adopted, otherwise marginalized “Kleenex” books succeeding. Jojo Moyes made a small splash with “Me Before You” and I haff just read a ms of Five Days Left which is in a similar vein. You know, very sad people, stuck in a struggle for LIFE, and then you know, a sad, but uplifting ending, and you know, very, very good for Kleenex salespersonvolk. This is not a favorite type of book for vampire. The trend of writing a novel about the spouse of a famous person seems to be slowly withering…you know, Paris Wife, Freud’s Mistress, Ahab’s Wife, etc. I will not be surprised to see novels about children of famous people, My Dad Einstein, or things like this. But do I recommend writing them? Nyet.

Q#15 – PAULA: So, not to pluck at any 5writers wounds, but I’m interested in your opinion about how frequently you need to pop out a book to be a successful published author of series commercial fiction?

VLAD: If it is truly a series, and if you ARE successful, then from a publisher view, the faster the better (to some extent). But the key is “successful.” If you are a writer of a ‘sort of okay selling’ series, then once a year is plenty. There is an interesting phenomena where books with shorter sentences and paragraphs and chapters seem to do somewhat better (esp in genre fiction) than more erudite, complicated, and intertwined textual messages. This may have to do with time demands of our age, or texting, or just because you can read it faster.

I should make note for ze budding writers, that the genres with the highest frequency reader, the voracious and insatiable beasts that require the most filling of the trough, i.e. romance, and mystery and thriller, these are exactly the books moving most to “e-book” format. So if you’re writing a “read it once and you’re done” kind of book, you must realize that MOST of your readers will now download, read, and delete your work. 70% of romance is now sold as e-book, just as an example. However, a History of the Sudan, in three volumes? Not so much.


Q#16 – PAULA: In other words, something like one novel every 5 months or so?  Will that about do it?

Speed can be good, but reliability is much more important. If you tell a publisher, “I can write a book a year” they will schedule you like that, and if you don’t deliver on time, it messes a LOT of things up. How would you feel, if I, your salespersonvolk, said, “oh, sorry, I had “salesmansblock” last three months, and couldn’t get around to selling your book, but I’m feeling really optimistic now, and should be able to sell it in the next few months”?

The question is, are you a professional writer, or an amateur? A professional meets deadlines, maintains his/her social media, helps get the word out, presses the flesh, signs books, answers fanmail, etc etc. They do not whine about “writersblockenspiel.” Sad but true. Writers are published as much for WHO THEY ARE as for WHAT THEY WRITE. You have to have BOTH now. Better to be a beekeeper in AR who writes about bees, blogs about bees, sells bee honey, than a retired accountant in a trailer in 1000 Palms writing about a detective on the UP in MI. Capice?

Q#17- PAULA: So, if you were an unpublished writer of hmm…. advancing middle age. One who procrastinates and is easily distracted, would you be inclined to:

a)    make submissions through the conventional process (send out queries to agents, wait. Send out more queries. Wait. Send out more queries. Give up and write another book and try, try, try, again and again to get represented with the aim of selling your book to a traditional publishing houses?

Yes. Write an extraordinary book. That is actually quite important. Not a “good” book. Not an “ok” book. Not a book that “needs a little work.” A book that makes someone stay up until 3 to finish it, and then wants to tell everyone “you’ve GOT to read this!” These are books publishers look for…and pay for.


b)    take a good long, hard look at self- publishing?

VLAD: Yes. You can write a not-so-good book and throw it up on Amazon. Someone will probably read it if it is 99 cents or less. Then they will tell you, “this is not such a great book.” You will think, “what a schmuck.” Someone else will read, and say “the other reviewer was being kind. This book sucks!” And you will think, “what a poor deluded soul.” Then maybe, if you are very, very, lucky, someone ( your Mom?) will say, “these other two reviewers have missed the depth and wonder of this extraordinary piece of writing, I can’t wait to read what they write next!” And you will think “GENIUS!” But there is value in feedback and just getting your work out in front of readers. I am a little surprised that more people are not using Amazon to write serial novels (like magazines used to publish). If you sold two chapters for 25 cents, then the number of people willing to buy chapters 3 – 4, would pretty much tell you if you’re on track…and if no one buys, start a new novel…


Q#18 PAULA: Oh wait. maybe that question could get you into trouble? 

VLAD: Everything gets me in trouble.

Q#19 – PAULA: Don’t answer if you’re going to get into trouble. We don’t want to get you into trouble.

VLAD: My middle name is Trouble. Vlad Trouble Van HelsingkvolkpersonVYes, I sell books that I love, and books that I hate, and books I wonder why in hell they were ever published. I am sorry to say, I don’t believe there are very many “great books” that never get published. As far as I am concerned there are too many books published.

Q#20: PAULA: Well, that’s about it Vlad. Unless you have any other advice for my 5writer colleagues?

– VLAD: 3D printers (with apologies to The Graduate)

– PAULA: I mean I know you aren’t an agent or editor, but you do sell the books that make the authors $$$$. Even a lot of vampire books. 

VLAD: Yes, I sell books that I love, and books that I hate, and books I wonder why in hell they were ever published. I am sorry to say, I don’t believe there are very many “great books” that never get published. As far as I am concerned there are too many books published.

PAULA: I know you know a lot about the biz. So this is your big chance to spew. What are your top, tips for getting a shot at getting published?

It’s really very easy.

Write an extraordinary book

Send to the right agent.

Let the agent sell to the right editor/publishing house

Let the editor “sell” the book “in-house” to create enthusiasm. Have all the sales reps read and love it.

Let the salespeople’s enthusiasm get booksellers to read and love your book.

Let the publicity and marketing people get reviewers, TV shows, Bloggers, etc to read and love your book

Let all those people get consumers to read and love your book.

Nothing to it.


PAULA: Thanks Vlad.

VLAD: You’re Very Velcome.







Street scenes and road warriors


Silk’s Post #80 — Helga’s right. California is a an incomparable people-watching place. A writer’s observational playground. Especially SoCal, where you’ll find just about every sort of person under the hot, fertile sun.

And most of them will be in cars. On the road.

cal-car-2Because California, especially SoCal and the Valley towns, really loves its cars. And its roads. From two-lane county roads, to neon-lit main drags, to 6-, 8-, why not make it 10-lane highways. Whole communities have been engineered and built to accommodate this car passion.

There are fresh, new towns with malls of every description, but no Main Street. Never fear, you’ll probably find at least one mall dressed up to look like an idealized, Disney version of a tidy, perfect Main Street, with lovely landscaping and ever-blooming flowers. They call them towns, but they’re actually developments – or “planned communities” in real estate parlance. California invented them, in part, to make its cars happy. (Which makes its people happy.)

Some California towns actually do have an organic Main Street (as opposed to a strip-mall-lined Main Drag), which often has been rehabbed to recall a historic past (anywhere from the pioneer days to the 1950s), or just as often is on its second or third wave of tenants and on the waiting list for such a rehab. Rehabbed streets will likely be lined with BMWs, un-rehabbed ones with low-riders.

Do I sound cynical about California? In reality, there are many Californias, and I actually have a soft spot in my heart for the Golden State. It was the first place David and I moved to after we got married back in pre-history (the 1960s), when we lived not far from The Haight in San Francisco.

cal-car-3My husband is a fourth-generation Californian whose forebears arrived there by covered wagon (literally). He has cars deep in his DNA, which is inevitable for a red-blooded California boy who grew up in the 50s and 60s. He built and raced hot rods in his teens. So did both his brothers. So I “get” the car passion. I’ve even spent the odd late night watching Barrett-Jackson auctions. By the way, we still have his street rod in the garage – a 1931 Ford pick-up with a 409 under the hood. (It’s sleeping. David’s on to boats now.)

But back to the road. The essential environment of any road is defined by speed, number of lanes, number of lights and what it passes through. The super-highway is the dominant form of California road, as opposed to, say, the urban avenue or the small town 50s-style main street. Californians made an art form of cruising the drag in the mid-20th century, and now in the green-thinking 21st century it’s virtually impossible to put the brakes on the car culture.

Urban streets, for instance, are nothing but a frustration to cars, their drivers often grim-faced, heads swivelling as they seek that rarest of commodities: an on-street parking space. However, city streets are rich in people-watching opportunities, as pedestrians stroll, saunter, skip, march or hustle along their own miniature roads called sidewalks.

cal-car-4Highways, on the other hand, are built exclusively for cars. Occasionally, you may see a sidewalk or even a crosswalk along a highway, but these are just safety measures to reduce the potential carnage when cars travelling at high speed share the road with people who are not wrapped in automotive armour. Here, sidewalks are not necessarily indicators that pedestrians are actually welcome to share the road with cars. Ever try actually walking along a main highway, other than when you were hitching a ride? Then you know what I mean. It’s an alien environment that wasn’t built for travel on two legs, like a railroad track.

Why does any of this matter to a writer? Because, when you think about it, the best people-watching is often observing people in transit. Unless you happen to be a Peeping Tom. From her frequent trips between California and BC, Paula has extolled the joys of people-watching in airports.  Joe recently enjoyed the full, triple-shot California people experience in his Traveling with Kids odyssey. And then there was Helga’s colourful people-watching experience that, arguably, could only happen in California.

I loved Helga’s observations about the wildly contrasting drivers who pulled up to a light on either side of her during her Highway 111 adventure. The doobie-smoking furry freak brothers in their beater car to the right … the bejewelled, ancient Gloria Swanson wannabe in her Bentley to the left. Yes, that’s the California I know and love (and mock, of course, that’s the fun of it).

This somewhat jarring encounter is what got me thinking about people-watching in cars: street scenes and road warriors. Here’s the thing: you would likely never see these characters anywhere near each other in their own neighbourhoods. It’s very possible that the only thing they will ever share in their lives is the highway, where they’re protected from each other by their vehicles. When Lady Bentley alights from her car, it will be in one world, and when the ganja gang piles out of their car it will be in a completely different world. It’s only on the road that they’re united, courtesy of the modern worship of mobility and the internal combustion engine.

How people get around their home turf tells you a lot about what life is like there. Slow paced or high speed? Intimate or distant? A cohesive society, or a disparate one?

People encountered in traffic may come from entirely different tribes, with different rules and different lifestyles. On “their” streets, they’ll be among “their” people. Can you imagine Lady Bentley wandering into a funky head shop, or the ganja gang invading an A-list country club? That’s the stuff of drama, or comedy, depending on the outcome.

I always find one of the most entertaining thing about people-watching is spotting incongruity, diversity, people out of place or doing unexpected things. What are they doing there? Why are they doing that? Many a tale has sprung from such disruptions and abnormalities.

But then, in California – at least on the highway – even the bizarrely incongruous is, well, pretty normal.


Note to readers: Apologies for my absence the past couple of weeks. Like all the other 5writers, I’ve been travelling – and on this trip the preparations, the just-made-it flight schedule, and a visit with dear friends that deserved 100% of my attention intervened. I had this post almost ready to go a week ago. Almost. But it’s better for an extra edit.

PS – All photos in this post by me. 


Bursting on the scene

Helga’s Post # 76:  I haven’t made a great deal of progress on the writing front for a shameful period of time, and that’s putting it generously. There are good and solid reasons of course, but fear not, I won’t indulge you.

This lack of progress did however prompt me to take a departure from ‘writing about writing’, to ‘writing about reading’. I thought it might be interesting to look at what’s trending in the book world these days, and by extension, what kinds of books are snatching the coveted prizes. While this is about literary fiction rather than commercial, it still gives us a glimpse of what kind of stories people love to read at this point in time.

One of the most coveted prizes is the Pulitzer, which has awarded writers yearly since 1917. For this year, the word is just out: The 2014 Pulitzer goes to….

You probably heard it too: The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt. _74243621_donna-tartt-composite

What an amazing story. Not just the novel, but also its 51-year old author. Goldfinch is Donna’s third novel (writers take note: it took her 11 years to complete it), following her critically acclaimed The Little Friend, which was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2003. She began writing her first book, The Secret History, at age 19 while studying at Bennington College. A pretty impressive list of achievements.

I always love to read summaries or blurbs of books that win prizes. They tell so much more than contemporary reading trends and what kinds of books ultimately sell. These blurbs also tend to shed light on issues that occupy us within our society, issues we writers would do well to be aware of when choosing a topic for our next novel.

Let’s start with Donna Tartt’s novel and then take a look at the other two finalists.

The book received lavish praise from the moment it was published. One example, from Booklist had this to say: “Drenched in sensory detail, infused with Theo’s churning thoughts and feelings, sparked by nimble dialogue, and propelled by escalating cosmic angst and thriller action, Tartt’s trenchant, defiant, engrossing, and rocketing novel conducts a grand inquiry into the mystery and sorrow of survival, beauty and obsession, and the promise of art.”

So what’s all the fuss about? Here is how the story starts:

A thirteen-year-old boy in New York City, Theo Decker, survives a terrorist bombing attack in an art museum that takes the life of his mother (and dozens of other art-loving citizens). His father was not there, having deserted the family some time prior to these events. Theo adored his energetic, beautiful mother – as did many other people in Manhattan – and thinks of his father as an alcoholic, occasionally abusive, and as a thief.Theo accepts a ring and an enigmatic message given to him by a man, elderly Welty Blackwell, who dies in the rubble of the explosion. Theo is willing to unravel the puzzle, because (before the bomb went off) he had found himself fascinated by a red-headed girl, Pippa, also at the Museum that day and who was somehow related to the old man, and on her account, he will grant the dying man’s last request. Believing that the old man, Welty, is pointing at a painting (The Goldfinch) on the wall, Theo takes that also in his panicked escape. The taking of these items – one handed over freely, a family heirloom, the other a literally “priceless” painting by Carel Fabritius – was done by Theo in a state of terror, concussion, and shock, with no ability to reason how these minor-seeming actions would influence the rest of his life.

And that’s just the beginning. The sprawling epic, weighing in at 755 pages, starts as a coming of age story. It then follows protagonist Theo years later to Las Vegas, New York City’s Lower East Side, and Amsterdam. It’s definitely on my reading list.

Let’s look at the two other Pulitzer nominees, The Son by Philip Meyer and The Woman Who Lost Her Soul by Bob Shacochis. PhilippMeyer

“The Son,” by Philipp Meyer (Ecco), is a sweeping multi-generational novel that illuminates the violence and enterprise of the American West by tracing a Texas family’s passage from lethal frontier perils to immense oil-boom wealth.

In the first few pages, a 100-year-old man called Eli McCullough describes the Texas he knew, before its glories were trampled: “the land and all the animals who lived upon it were fat and slick. Grass up to the chest, the soil deep and black in the bottoms and even the steepest hillsides overrun with wildflowers … the country was rich with life the way it is rotten with people today.” Eli had come to Texas as the child of pioneer settlers, but was abducted by Comanche warriors, with whom he lived for some years before returning to the white world to build a cattle and oil empire by the usual methods of armed landgrab and state-sanctioned illegality favoured by empire-builders everywhere. The rise and fall of that empire, and the moral and psychological costs its maintenance imposes on five subsequent generations of McCulloughs, is the subject of The Son, a work of extraordinary narrative power and contrasts, in which destruction seems inevitable and enjoyment of victory’s fleeting pleasures bittersweet at best. (Excerpted from a review by The Guardian)

The second finalist, “The Woman Who Lost Her Soul,” by Bob Shacochis, is a novel spanning 50 years and three continents that explores the murky world of American foreign policy before 9/11, using provocative themes to raise difficult moral questions.BobShacochis_AF

The earliest part opens on the wasted landscape of Croatia during the German occupation of World War II. Eight-year-old Stjepan Kovacevic sees his father beheaded by one of Tito’s Muslim partisans. Before the blood even stops flowing, the boy and his mother flee toward the sea, determined to reach the United States, “the only place strong enough to defeat the enemies of Christ our savior.” In Shacochis’s electrified narrative, this is a frightening odyssey through a society with nothing “left to believe in except the horror of existence.” Military order has collapsed; soldiers devolved into thugs bribe and shoot and rape, knowing they don’t have long to live anyway. For little Stjepan, this ordeal is an indelible introduction “to his destiny, the spiritual map that guides each person finally to the door of the cage that contains his soul.”

When we see Stjepan Kovacevic again, he’s been transfigured into an elegant, though shadowy, undersecretary named Steven Chambers. The little boy’s inchoate desire for vengeance against the enemies of Christ now finds expression in the spycraft of the most powerful nation on Earth. Wielding almost magical military technology, bottomless black-box funding and special ops men trained to godlike prowess, Chambers and his “Friends of Golf” (FOG) pursue “the self-dramatizing schemes of overheated minds, unrestrained in power and influence and felonious inspiration.” Their crusade against the infidels rages away entirely beyond the purview of Capitol Hill and those silly politicians who imagine they’re in control. (Excerpted from a Washington Post review).

So here we have it: Three epic books that follow their protagonists over many years, starting when they were children or teens. All have elements of violence, some quite explicit and gory, and all are grounded in historical events. Will this become the new trend for bestselling novels?

I don’t know which of the three books to pick up first. They all sound enticing. The chronology doesn’t really matter. What’s important is to pick them up.