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A Good Day to Pie – Review

This’ll be a bit informal, which suits the book rather too well. I was going to try to summarise the book when I realised that although I finished reading it just last night, I have forgotten the main character’s name. That should be a good indicator of how impactful the book itself is.

Hanna Denton (thank you, Google) has moved back to her small hometown and taken over her grandmother’s pie shop, but before she can find her feet, her grandmother is accused of murdering a fellow  resident of the upscale retirement home, Heavenly Acres. Hanna herself is implicated, and must deal with her lingering attraction to the investigating detective (an old flame), while she attempts to find the real murderer.

This book is very much like a little sister. It has seen its older, more successful siblings, and although it tries in its own endearing manner to imitate them, it just can’t do it. Even the main character’s name, Hanna, looks like a hopeful, thumb-biting allusion to Hannah Swensen. There are other similarities, most notably that Hanna sans second h brings her baked wares everywhere, often using them as a gateway to information, gives them cutesy names, and there is much description devoted to them.

Unfortunately, although A Good Day to Pie appropriated a good deal from Hannah Swensen, it does not incorporate its emulated traits very well, and most of the original traits and content are flaws or flawed. None of the characters are developed beyond the surface, and the half-hearted love triangle does not go anywhere. In fact, “does not go anywhere” is a phrase that can be applied to nearly all of the subplots, from Hanna’s grandmother’s love interest to the mention of the murder victim’s will being contested.

Many of the dropped plot threads are introduced in a way that makes them sound as unnecessary as they proved to be. There are often references to a belief that the killer is of the serial variety and will strike again, but simple common sense underlines this as unlikely, and in my opinion, a stupid assumption. The victim was widely disliked, and she was killed by a combination of too much medication and a reaction between that increased medication and ingredients in the pie she ate. There is no reason to expect further victims.

The two most egregious flaws of this book are actually disturbing, albeit in different ways. Although a second character in the retirement home dies, his death is quickly brushed aside–and in spite of that, it is never made clear whether or not his death had anything to do with the first murder, or if he was murdered rather than a victim of simple old age. This is terrible, and something an editor really ought to have zeroed in on.

The other flaw, which bothers me a good deal more, is that when the killer is revealed in a rather tedious anticlimax, the reaction to the confession is unanimous, cheerful gratitude. “Thank you for killing that awful woman.” Maybe people in real life might feel that way to some extent, but I’m fairly certain they would be horrified by the idea that someone thought it was okay to kill someone for pettiness and violent dislike. The murdered woman was mean, a cheater, and also an advocate for positive change in the retirement home. She did not torture animals or physically attack people. And yet the characters in this book praise and outright reward her killer for the murder.

All in all, this book could have really used a more diligent editing job and a moral compass that points North instead of Nonexistent. The writing is passable but amateurish, the borrowed elements come across as stickers attached to a wooden box, and the conflict is about as gripping as the contents of a glass of water. There is a second book in the series, but I see no reason to seek it out.

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Beginning comparisons

Yesterday (or maybe the day before), I got started on the story I mentioned most recently. There was something clunky about it, and I got tired really fast, so I didn’t get too far with it. Then today I was reading Elizabeth Hoyt and listening to Paradise Lost (because I’m weird like that) and it made me want to write. I was mostly just amazed that I’d finally managed to find a romance novel that wasn’t off-putting in some way or another. I did have to laugh at the hero’s intelligent eyes and dangerous mouth, though. That’s just cartoony.

Anyway, I opened up what I had written and decided that it wasn’t right for whatever reason and so I moved it out of the document and started over. I still liked the first sentence and impetus for the beginning, so that’s the same. Unlike my other false starts, which have commonly changed genre completely.

Evna struggled with the urge to kick the pig. She stood on the narrow dirt path, gripping the handcart and wrinkling her nose. A mixed reaction to the pig ‘s inevitable smell and the delay it represented. Although she was slight for her eleven years, she felt it significant that this immense animal appeared to be five times her own girth.

This was the basic idea, but as I think anyone can see, I had too many run-on sentences and a muddled voice. I also rushed description on the viewpoint character, something that I am prone to do. So I tried again. I got a good deal more written (230 words as opposed to the above 60), so I’m only going to share a bit of it.

Evna struggled with an unladylike desire to kick a pig. In this situation, manners were the least of it. This particular pig would have likely broken her foot. Not even her sensible boots promised adequate protection.

She stood in the narrow dirt path, gripping her handcart and debating the wisest course of action. The sun had already risen to its zenith. Half the day gone, and now she was stuck staring down a great pink monster.

I think that Evna’s personality has stayed largely the same, but there’s much more going on now. It’s also less clunky (hopefully). I have an idea for what comes next, but I might just make a note of it and lie back down with my book again. I’ve been very fatigued today. But! I’m going to start myself on a goal of writing a minimum of 250 words a day from now on. I need to start small, I think.

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False Start

I’m well and truly throwing this out. I wrote it yesterday, about five minutes before we got to the hot springs. While we were there, Dither and I talked a lot about what I planned for the story, so I had a better idea of what I wanted to write and who all of the major characters will be. On the ride back, I took a second look and decided that the story needed to start from a different character’s point of view. This was relegated to chapter two.

But then I gave it another look and decided that it’s out of character, kind of bad, and that this story is not the one that I will finally put Rue in. She will find her place someday.

“I just think it’s a little far to go for chocolate.”

“It’s not just chocolate.” Summer sunlight baked the brick wall around Rue’s silhouette. She squinted at it, imagining singe marks appearing in the pocked mortar.

David crouched on the edge of the sidewalk. It was too hot to sit on the pavement. “It takes more than putting the word ‘gourmet’ in front of something to make it worth a four-hour drive.”

Her braid had come loose again. She tried to tuck the loose hairs back in, but it was like trying to repair a cake after little fingers had assaulted the iced flowers.

I do like that last line, still. I may use that one, at least.

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Progress for the now

I can’t title my blog posts anymore. It’s been a very long day… Not necessarily bad, just long. Some discouraging things happened, but they aren’t that big a deal. I called my rheumatologist and got voicemail and no return call. I’ll call again tomorrow. Hopefully I’ll be able to make the call without someone with very poor phone etiquette trying to talk to me at the same time. It was also beastly hot and I’m hurting a lot. Once again, the pain is waking me up at night.

However, I finished my first edit with Tracking Changes turned on, and I started going back through the document and accepting (or in some cases rejecting) those changes, as well as adding any more that I deem necessary. This part of the edit is the least intensive, since a lot of it is just catching things that didn’t really need to be changed, or further improving bits that I sliced up in the first edit.

It’s funny that I call it “the first edit” since I actually edit a good deal while writing. I used to save a lot of time by having my editing face on while writing, but I don’t do that quite so strongly now. I do re-read occasionally while writing, especially if a scene felt off or poor while I was writing it. It’s been a while since I’ve had to actually rewrite something wholesale–I think there was either an entire chapter or a significant part of one that I did three times from scratch while writing A Good Boy’s Guide to Breaking Things.

I had wanted the next time I mentioned Shifting Elements to be when I put it on Smashwords, but I haven’t done enough reading today to talk about anything else, it’s getting near the end of my day, and it was a bloody long one. I have to fix the cover as well. It’s not entirely greyscale, but it may look that way at first glance. And it won’t go up on the iBook store if its cover is greyscale. Whatever. Tinting stuff in PS7 is easy.

The game isn’t on hold so much as I’m focusing on this right now. I also don’t have a lot to do to finish up Chapter 1 (or whatever). Except for placing items in the “dungeon”, which I can’t do while we don’t yet have an item system in place (beyond plot/event items) and giving the shops inventory. And I’m not the one doing that.

I could go ahead and do more story stuff after finishing Chapter 1, and I should probably also start working on a title screen and chapter cards/eyecatches… The next map is done, and I have an event in place with its vague plan noted in the event log or whatever it’s called.

But it’d be really nice to have this book edited and up on Smashwords. Back to that now, ta.

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Jumbled thoughts that might include writing

Did not have a repeat of yesterday, but there were still some things that stuck in my craw. For one thing, it was hot today, and I have gotten overweight. (thank you, medication, you jerk) But I was able to read more Prydain, re-read some stuff for something that I have to get back to and finish, and I made it home alive. When there are trucks everywhere, that last is a blessing and a half.

Still blasted uncomfortable, but that’s just swelling and headaches. I am not sleeping much at all. I don’t think a single night has passed that I did not wake up in the dark and listen to my beehive thoughts for an hour. I’m too afraid to take a sleeping pill twice, but it’s the only thing that can make me fall asleep other than waiting until I’m so bored that I just stop. I wish I was being poetic or something, but honestly.

I’ve got my editing head on, and I’m not sure what to do with it. I mean, I do have something I’m supposed to critique, and I have plenty of critiques for it, but I don’t think I get the wording right. I don’t know how to be nice about this stuff.

Part or all of that is because of my philosophy. Being nice is stupid. Asking for someone to give you nice feedback is pointless. If it’s nice, it isn’t honest. Praise can be honest, but if one is being nice, then it usually isn’t. I also see it as devaluing the writer. Pandering does nothing for you.

The language could probably be softened, but again, why? Even antagonism is helpful, so long as it’s honest. If I tell someone that a work is just bad (thankfully not a problem in this case, but I digress) and that it needs to be scrapped, this is not being mean. It is saving time. This piece has been submitted for review, for editing. That means that any feedback renders it subject to revision, which is work. Which is time.

If the work is so flawed that it deserves no more of your time, why would you want to give it any more? I’ve tossed things. It’s not that bad. You just write something else.

This goes right in hand with my problem regarding shy writers. If you want to get published, you need to get used to the idea of strangers reading your work. You also need to get used to the idea of strangers reading your work and hating it. No matter how many revisions you share only with your most trusted sounding board or editor. I understand the fear of plagiarism and unethical copying, but I have also found that the people who I personally meet that worry about this stuff are not very good and therefore certainly in no danger of having an idea or work stolen.

This isn’t something I think invariably true in every case of people who have a tight WIP reading base. It’s just something I have witnessed to be frighteningly frequent.

Anyway, back to my problem of wanting to be blunt and fearing a need to tread delicately. It’s how I talk to myself. While editing, I will quite often blurt out, “That’s stupid,” followed by the tap-tap-tap of an urgent application of Backspace.

I’m far harsher on myself than anyone else. On anything. But people have such fragile egos. I’ve gotten backlash for criticising a movie someone liked. Heck, I’ve been publicly humiliated for daring to ever have a negative opinion and *gasp* willingness to voice it. I’m not even exaggerating.

I have gotten upset for getting criticism that amounted to my using a slang word that was easily identifiable in context. But you have to admit, that’s a petty criticism in comparison to, oh I don’t know… A major female character is portrayed as an excellent mother even though an equally prominent plot point is that she allowed the main character’s father to physically abuse him.

I guess that’s kind of complex, but ach. I have work to do.

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Rambling

I am in a mood to talk about writing, and so I am gonna. Instead of writing. (hey, I only need 1500 to finish the chapter, I’ll get there!) Hand pain is making things a bit rough though. My wrist looks like an orange. Or a baseball. Anyway.

As Fru Lilja might put it, my poison of choice is the novel. I don’t write shorter works and I have not read them much until lately. One I have read was kind of bugging me, and about a fourth of the way through, I realised what it was.

It took that long for anything to actually happen.

I have a passionate love for dialogue. Writing it, reading it (aloud, if it’s really good) and it is most definitely my favourite delivery system for a story’s humour. I love my deadpan snarkers and witty banter. The latter has often been the basis for and strongest display of romantic relations between some of my characters. My novels are character-driven and steeped in dialogue.

So if a writer gets me to wave my Monty Python polearm in the air while bellowing, “GET ON WITH IT!” then this is a clear sign that something is not right.

It has always been my understanding that a short story or flash fiction has to be concise. This puts it on an even tighter constraint than a chapter in a novel. Rambling is bad enough in a novel, but you can skip ahead a page or two if there is a conversation that is dragging on. But in a short story, you’ve only got so much space/time/whatever.

This is one of the reasons that I don’t write shorter works. When writing a chapter, I slog ahead with my word count goal in mind, and can sometimes drag a few things out because I am somewhat driven by the numbers. But I have these things I cannot escape. They are called awareness and also skill. I know that I can’t just ramble my way to the end of the chapter and then expect to pick it up from there.

Things have to actually happen.

In Chapter Six of my current novel, the viewpoint character visits her friends to say goodbye before leaving on what is effectively a business trip, is needled by her supervisor about the fact that she hides the existence of her friends from her co-workers, finds the flat she shares with said co-workers in disarray and one of them most mildly injured, kills a rabid household pest, finds some awkward fellow feeling with her most murderous colleague, teases the other for an unexpected amorous embarrassment, and ends quite cheerfully prepared to enter a different world.

In 3011 words.

And this is in a chapter without a whole lot of impetus towards an end. She spends the entire day out and about, arriving back at the flat a professed “fifteen minutes” before they need to depart. There are a lot of ways to continue indulging dialogue while not interrupting the flow of the action. It can be as simple as utilising beats to suggest or report movement towards a destination or goal.

As long as there is a sense of movement. Pacing is important. Had I stopped the action completely to let the viewpoint character focus completely on talking about the friends she is going to visit, puttering about and not moving, it would have dragged on and then I would have had an even longer sequence to write in order to get her to her friends’ homes on the intended circuit of visits. And I would have just buried the chapter in talking if I had not glossed over the visits with a couple of vague paragraphs.

Why would I do that? Telling instead of showing, my goodness. There are times to do that. Think how boring and confusing, even pointless it would be to introduce her friends as though they were recurring characters. I have my fun, and I let a lot of new elements get introduced to drive and change the story, but I still run a tight ship. I’m not going to waste my reader’s time having this girl chat with someone who will probably never show up again and also adds nothing to the story. These friends are important to the story only so far as they relate to this character. They do not need their own scenes in which to shine.

This is not a rant, and I’m not accusing anyone specific of doing this stuff. It’s just a problem with which people struggle. If you have 4000-6000 words in which to tell a story, especially if you begin with your characters in a desperate or time-sensitive situation, then a thousand words spent with them bickering uselessly is a very real detriment to the story.

It’s even worse when it’s clear that they are supposed to be funny or clever and fail to actually deliver on either. That’s a failing anyway, but it makes reading the dialogue even more of a chore.

I was going to try to write an example of failed humour/cleverness, but that’s really hard to do on purpose. Instead, I’m going to write the other example I had in my head, brought up by the irritation that comes when a character has stated that the situation is dire and speed is of the essence, and yet continues to bicker and set up the lines for the other character. It’s like the writing equivalent of visible pantylines.

“I can’t find him anywhere.”

“Should have listened to me and put the kid on a leash. Or better yet, a shock–”

“Shut up! It’s really dark, Edith. If he went into the forest…”

“He’s not that stupid, is he?  I mean, granted, he is your son but his da–”

“We have to find him. Come on.”

Arm is grabbed, they leave to go do stuff. The second character is trying continuously to be a smart-ass, but the situation is such that the first is having none of it. Thus, tension is created and there is no obvious sign of the writer indulging in back-pats because character #2 is ‘teh wit’.

So yeah. Things have to happen, and if dialogue is actually stopping the story, this gets increasingly problematic as the intended length of the work reaches the shorter end of the spectrum. How pathetic that I had to ramble myself over this subject. Ah well.

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How to build a character that works

First step: Don’t try so hard.

No, really. I mean it. For every character I tried to “pre-build” through character bios, interviews, and the like, I have found that such things are only so much procrastination. They can be fun, sure. I wouldn’t tell someone not to play with writing toys. But don’t rely on it like filling out fields is going to somehow lead to a printout of a fictional person. It doesn’t work like that.

I’m sure someone will argue with me. There are probably tonnes of people who have a sheaf of examples of characters that they feel were very strong and complex, all born from ages of filling out reams of tedious data. That’s a place where I have always separated from most (usually young) writers. I prefer to think more like Nabokov, who famously said that he had tight control over his characters. None of this hand-clapping fairy-loving nonsense that they are real people who take the reins and insistently “tell their own story”. “I am just a chronicler” is the surest way to get me to punch you in the face.

Of course, as much as I like to think like Nabokov, I also am not much for planning ahead too far. I get character surprises.

Okay, enough of the argumentativeness. We’ll take our next step from that grey blob that has so recently (and deeply) irritated me. That way I can totally tag this as a rant.

Second step: Don’t make Desmond.

But that’s putting it too simply and in a weird parlance. Desmond Miles is a character that does not work because he has no definable features. Archetypes may feel cliché, but they are a good place to start. If you can call your character by a tagline, you have already succeeded at this step. Desmond is not The anything, except maybe The Audience Proxy/Insert. Boring. Peppering up a character with a tagline and at least a few quirks is almost as good as having a motivation or fear in mind. Even the Sims got those eventually.

Heck, the Tomboy has enough inherent character to start with. And leads us to another step, as if I’m even planning further ahead than the next four words.

Step three: Expand the character. This part is probably where all of those bios and field-fillers come from. Building a character should be exactly that–but the thing is, you don’t have to do it before you start writing. You don’t have to think of anything for your character before you start. Observe.

Mina sat in front of the mirror, sucking on her burnt finger. Curls were far more trouble than they were worth. Behind her, her dog Wheezer gallumphed onto her bed, announcing his rights to his name loud enough to make her own chest ache in sympathy. She got up from her dresser to go and scratch him behind the ears. He sneezed on her jeans. Drool and dog snot mingled with the pink sparkles. All attempts to heave him off the bed merely met with playful wrestling.

That’d be enough to begin.I’ve already talked about weak characters before. A character who is defined simply by not being anything, rather than not being something specific (e.g., I’m no rat, I’m not brave) it’s best to have “not blank but blank”, and at least hobbies. Give me two bland characters and I’ll forgive the one who collects baseball cards over the one who just does nothing.