Monday, November 26, 2012

Plot Pet Peeves

I've recently read several books with glaring plot issues. As an author and editor, it drives me nuts. But even as a reader, I hate it when writers get lazy and create flawed stories. These are very basic issues and should never happen. Unfortunately they do, and far too often, particularly today when so many writers self-publish their own books without the services of a good content editor.

So, if you care about good quality writing, please bear with me while I rant.

This is especially abhorrent in mysteries, but can occur in other genres as well.

The book ends without resolution to issues raised during the story leaving the reader to ask, "But, what happened after (insert subplot)?" "Whatever happened to (fill in the blank)?" Often a character simply disappears halfway through the story, never to reappear. I don't expect all relationships to be completely tied up in neat bows. As in real life, some will continue to be difficult in the future. Some will irrevocably be rent asunder. And sometimes it's okay not to know what the people will do going forward. But to drop them in the middle of the story is annoying, especially if the reader has developed an interested in them. This applies even to minor plot points.

Which brings me to the next one…

These are like the cast of thousands in the old historical dramas whose only purpose is to hold the spears and establish the size of the crowd. They don't contribute anything to the plot.

A rule of thumb is: If you name a character, be sure they serve a purpose and move the story along. If they don't, leave them out!

If the author shows the reader a gun, it had better be used before the end of the book! If the author hints at the presence of a stalker, that person had better appear somewhere in the story or be explained in another way.

Mysteries depend on multiple suspects with motive and opportunity. Sometimes they're 'red herrings,' but even those must be explained by the end of the book. Just finding the perpetrator is not enough. There must be some explanation for the other characters' actions.

This is when the sleuth (professional or amateur) explains how they discovered the villain with clues that were never included earlier in the story. This is a blatant cheat and a particular personal gripe.

Part of the fun of reading mysteries is trying to figure out who-done-it along with the protagonist. You can only do this if you have all the evidence.

This is when a character suddenly has information, the source of which is never explained. As a reader, you agree to take a journey with the author. It is jarring when a character suddenly knows something without any explanation of how they learned it.

For our first mystery, we created a huge spreadsheet on which we charted the timeline of the story (some of which was in five-minute increments). Then we listed the characters and color-coded where each was at the time. In that way, we knew who had specific knowledge of events and who was not in the area.

People read historical novels because they enjoy the time period. Many are steeped in the era. One mistake, and the author may lose that reader. I read one book where the characters used current terms in dialogue supposedly from the 1800s. Not good!

In another, items and concepts that did not appear until the twentieth century were used in a novel set in the nineteenth. Also, unacceptable.

We are currently writing an historical novel set in a nearby town in between 1820 and 1890. Because San Juan Capistrano is a mission city, much has been written about it. However, many of the available books, articles, etc. differ in the specifics of dates and events. We are fortunate that the official historian for San Juan has agreed to read the draft and check for inaccuracies. She has also recommended what she considers the best resources.

The one thing the author gets wrong may be the only thing the reader will remember.

Authors should write one book at a time!  Period. Each should be complete in itself. Even if the intention is to create a series, each book MUST stand alone. If the author wants to let the reader know there will be additional books, a sample chapter can be added at the end of the current book to entice the reader. But to leave the reader wanting resolution to the story because the author wants them to read the next book is cheating. It's a technique I refuse to buy into. When I run across one of these, I refuse to read the author again.

There are probably other issues that turn off and alienate readers. What are your pet peeves?

Monday, November 19, 2012

Give Thanks

Thanksgiving Day is the one time in the year set aside to remember all the blessings in our lives. But why limit it to one day? I'm grateful every day, and my list of blessings is a long one.

I have an amazing family—the one into which I was born, the one into which I married, and the one I've created over the years.

I am especially thankful this year that my mother's sister, Aunt Evelyn, is still with us after a stroke last year. She is one of my favorite playmates and has always been my role model. I learned to love travel, musical theater, entertaining, and discovering new places and people from her.

I am also grateful for the cousins I'd lost for most of my life and reconnected with last year. They are even more precious since all our parents are now gone.

My husband came with a large and loving family of his own. His grandparents set the example, and his parents' generation continued it. There never were any strangers or in-laws. Everyone has always been included and loved. His parents were truly my parents, and I adore his brother as much as if he had been mine from birth. My sister-in-love is the sister I'd have chosen if I could have, and I am so proud of my niece and nephew and their families.

I am very grateful that my brother and I have finally grown into a closer relationship after being a bit distant most of our lives.

Family is not just an accident of birth. We have acquired quite a number of children both here and around the world. Our Japanese and Spanish kids are a special joy in our lives.

And I am especially grateful for Larry and Kim—my greatest joys. They have made my life worthwhile.

I have over one-thousand names on my email list. And they are ALL friends! I have managed to stay in touch with many of the people who grew up in my neighborhood, those I went to high school with, some from every job I've ever held, as well as many writers and others in the publishing industry. I've learned so much from them and cherish them all.

My church family has been my support and safety net for many years. They remind me where my center is, where my faith is focused, where my priorities are.

The people in my writing group have been a real treasure. We'd never have been published if it hadn't been for them. We've lost the lady who hosted our group for many, many years. But we have been so blessed to have had her in our lives for so long.

We've lost many family members and friends over the past couple of years, and each loss serves to remind us of the love we shared.

We have a home we never could have imagined owning when we were first married. And we live in one of the most beautiful places on the California coast. Whenever we go down to the beach, I am reminded that we are privileged to live here.

We also have the greatest neighbors on the planet. We know nearly everyone, and we all watch out for each other.

Because we have been so blessed, we love sharing our home with guests. Spending time with old and new friends is a great gift to us.

Even though we are retired from our full-time jobs, we continue to write books we enjoy. I am still editing and doing book reviews. We also enjoy traveling, often to do research for our books. We attend conferences and meet new people and learn new things.

So this year, as we celebrate the day dedicated to counting our blessings, we will consider just how truly blessed our lives are and give thanks.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Halloween Then and Now

Halloween is over for another year, and I’m glad. I must confess it’s no longer my favorite holiday, even though my book Ghost Writer features a ghost. But as a kid, I loved it.

At the time I grew up, the celebration was much different than today. For one thing, our parents made our costumes because no store-bought ones were available. And I think many of them were better. They were certainly more creative.

I was twenty-six months old when my grandfather died four days before Halloween. No one had thought about a costume, so I was wrapped in a sheet to visit a couple of the neighbors.

The next year, my mother outdid herself with one of the cutest costumes ever: Little Bo Peep. Mom (who didn’t sew) made a pink and blue confection of a skirt. I wore my own blouse, and my mother trimmed one of my bonnets to match the skirt. She wrapped one of my great-grandfather’s canes in pink and blue crepe paper and added a big bow. I carried my stuffed lamb and thought I was the image of the character in one of my favorite nursery rhymes.

This costume was eventually worn by several of my cousins and always elicited positive comments.

In following years, I was a princess (my favorite), a graduate, and several other cute and equally creative characters.

I was raised in a neighborhood that was more like an extended family. Nearly every house contained kids our age. Most had more than one. We lived in a post-World War II housing tract, and the whole place was safe. We could go from block to block, and the families knew each other.

Trick-or-treating was great. No parental supervision was required. We went out in large groups.

This was the era of popcorn balls and homemade candy apples. Some families gave purchased candy, but our treats were most often packaged by the family.

Our favorite house was a couple of blocks away. All year, the parents put their pennies in a large fishbowl they kept inside their front door. (Pennies were used much more frequently at that time, and they were worth a lot more.)

On Halloween, they’d allow each child to keep as many pennies as they could hold in one hand. You put the other hand behind your back, then opened your fingers wide and clutched as many as you could grasp.

The tricky part was the transfer to your Halloween bag, often a pillowcase.

The kids with larger hands could hold onto more. Long discussions of strategy preceded each holiday outing. Some argued for turning your hand up before removing it from the bowl to balance as many pennies as possible. This strategy was not always successful, however as if you caught the rim of the bowl, you were likely to lose your treasure. Others believed in the tight grip method. Still others claimed a looser grasp would capture more loot.

Whatever our individual outcome, we all felt richer at the end of the evening. Of course, this might not be as appealing today. Pennies aren’t worth as much, and most of us don’t want to be bothered with them. Some merchants don’t even accept them.

Trick-or-treat was only one of the Halloween celebrations, though.

The elementary school held a carnival, usually the Saturday before Halloween. Everyone, including many of the adults, came in costume. Prizes were given for the best ones.

Each group at the school (PTA, Boys Scouts, Girl Scouts, etc.) sponsored a game or other activity. Some required skill. Others, blind luck.

Our Girl Scout troop always had the game where you rolled baseballs up an incline, trying to get them into holes drilled in a large piece of plywood. The number that went into the holes determined your prize.

Then there was the fishing booth. You were given a pole with a clothes pin on the end. The line was thrown over a curtain (a painted sheet), and an adult on the other side attached a prize at random. (Sometimes, the person in back was told the age and/or gender of the kid so that we’d receive an appropriate prize. Of course, we were oblivious to this conspiracy.)

All the kids had to try to win a goldfish. They were kept in small bowls with even smaller openings. We threw Ping-Pong balls and tried to get one into a bowl. Most of us were successful and took our new pets home in plastic bags. Of course, the fish tended to die quickly, but a few survived their trip home to live for a long time thereafter. One of ours, Goldie, stayed on our coffee table for many years.

Everyone’s favorite booth was the dunk tank. Most often, the ‘victim’ was one of the older boys or even one who had moved on to high school. They loved coming back and enjoyed being dunked.

The mechanism was connected to a long pole. Baseballs were pitched at a padded target at the end. If they connected with enough force, the seat fell away, and the ‘victim’ ended up in a large vat of cold water.

Each year, we had a ‘mystery guest.’ This person was always in disguise. Part of the fun was trying to figure out who it was. Sometimes it was a popular dad, others a teacher. I remember best the year that the principal was on the ‘hot seat.’ One of the high school kids finally dunked him.

All the proceeds from this event went either to the individual groups or the PTA.

Most of us went home with some sweet treat we’d bought at the bake sale.

Life was simpler, and I truly think we had more fun.

This year we only had eight kids at our door. And only one of them was from our neighborhood. How sad for all of us, and how much we've lost.