Books, Dream, Opinion, Writing

A Dream in the Dust

Today, while I edited, my husband was watching a documentary on the North American ecological disaster of the 1930s known as the Dust Bowl. I mostly blocked it out, but the mention of a woman writer caught my attention.

A Dust Bowl storm approaches Stratford, Texas ...
A Dust Bowl storm approaches Stratford, Texas in 1935. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Her name was Sanora Babb. In 1938 she worked for the Farm Security Administration in California and kept meticulous notes on her conversations with Dust Bowl migrants. She wrote a novel, Whose Names Are Unknown, based on those notes. And Random House was planning to publish it. But her FSA supervisor, Tom Collins, had shared her notes with another writer who then wrote and published his novel first. We’re talking about John Steinbeck and The Grapes of Wrath (dedicated to Tom Collins). Random House shelved Babb’s novel and it wasn’t published until 2004, a year before she died.

I’m sure there’s more to this story. I haven’t read Babb’s book, or even heard of it before today, so possibly Steinbeck did her notes far more justice than she did. Maybe he didn’t know she had written, or was writing, a novel based on them. But still. She had a dream. She worked hard to fulfill it. Its realization was in her sights. And then … someone else got the glory. That makes me sad.


Movies, Opinion

Call me a Pollyanna if you must

In the past month, when I took breaks from writing I watched movies. I’m going to tell you about three of them.Two were set in Ireland, one in Australia.  Two, I’ll recommend, the other I won’t, even though it was well made. I’ll explain why, though you may not agree.

My first recommendation is Ondine, described as a romantic drama. It’s the story of Syracuse, called Circus, an Irish fisherman who discovers a mysterious woman in his fishing net and hides her away. It stars Colin Farrell who’s not hard to look at—especially with long hair. Circus is a recovering alcoholic, trying to be a good father to his daughter whose kidneys are failing. His daughter believes the woman is a selkie, a mythological character.

The selkie reference, as well as the misty, dreamlike quality of this movie, reminded me of another, The Secret of Roan Inish, which I wanted to rewatch, but my copy has disappeared.

The second move, also Irish, is The Eclipse, described as a supernatural drama. It’s the story of Michael Farr, a grieving, middle-aged widower, struggling to get on with his life as a single father. It stars Ciarán Hinds, not as “pretty” as Farrell, but handsome nonetheless. Michael teaches shop in the seaside town of Cobh, and volunteers at the local annual literary festival. There he’s assigned to assist and chauffeur a woman who writes about ghosts. Since he’s recently begun to suspect his house is haunted, he seeks her opinion.

Both these movies were quiet, drenched in atmosphere, and interesting character studies. If you like that sort, click on the links above and watch the trailers. If you’ve seen either of them, let me know what you thought.

Now, the third movie, which I decline to name. It’s based on the true story of a group of Australian men convicted as serial killers, and told from the viewpoint of the youngest of the group. Most often, serial killers act alone, so this case was unfortunately unusual.  It was well done, gruesomely, realistically, disturbingly so. I was both repulsed and mesmerized as I watched it. At one point, I had to mute the TV and yet, I didn’t stop the dvd player.

When the movie was over, I felt sick and violated. I felt as if I’d lived among those people and participated in their crimes. I felt guilty. It took me days to shake that off. The movie was well written, directed, and acted, yet it seemed an indecency to watch. I wish I never had, and I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to forget it. For that reason I can’t recommend you watch it.

All of these movies drew me into the lives of the characters. Those are the sort of movies—and books—that I love, and that’s why I need to be careful whose life I’m drawn into. Maybe it’s my age. I’m well aware that life is messy, complicated, sometimes midnight black because I’ve lived through six decades of it. I’d rather be assured of the decency in humanity than of the depravity. I believe in hope. So give me at least a glimmer of light in those last frames or pages and I’ll remember you fondly.

Author, Book Reviews, Marketing, Opinion, Promotion, Publish

Do you believe all’s fair in love and publishing?

If you’re an author, you’ve probably been reading about the NY Times “book reviewers for hire” article by David Streitfeld. If not, it’s the first link listed below this post. In that article he talks about a man named Todd Jason Rutherford, who ran a lucrative business selling enthusiastically positive, but fake, book reviews. He ran ads on Craigslist to hire reviewers, who soon realized they could write more reviews—and make more money—by not actually reading the books, but just skimming the text or Googling  to learn enough about the book to fake it.

Streitfeld also reveals that John Locke, the author who became the first self-published writer to sell a million Kindle ebooks through Amazon, bought 300 of those reviews. In addition, Locke requested that those reviewers purchase their copy from Amazon, so the reviews would have the “Verified Amazon Purchase” tag to add credibility.

That’s three hundred five-star reviews! Think about that. How much do you think 300 glowing 5-star reviews would increase sales? I have some great reviews and ratings, and though a few of the early ones were from family members and friends, the rest are not—and I didn’t pay a cent for any of them.

Yes, I know publishing is a business. Locke and others like him are undoubtedly smart businessmen. But as much as I’d like to make money, I’m conflicted and can’t look at my writing strictly as a profit-making product. I can’t subscribe to the all’s fair in love and publishing mindset. I’m proud of my writing. I think it’s worth reading. I want the opinions of readers to be genuine. I don’t want someone buying one of my books based on misleading reviews. I don’t want to deceive readers to make a dollar.

In reading about this issue, I realized this is another black mark against self-published books. Those of us who’ve chosen that path have already faced prejudice, mostly from other publishers and authors who consider self-published work synonymous with poor quality. Now, if readers think they can’t trust reviews of our books, we’re even more disadvantaged.

I also learned certain groups of self-publishers (and small presses?) trade positive reviews of books they haven’t read, as in, I’ll give your book 5-stars, if you give mine the same. Some time ago, I got caught up in the “marketing ploy” of trading clicks on descriptive tags on Amazon. Though tags only help readers searching for books, not influence their buying, it felt dishonest, and I took my book off the list the next day. I know we self-publishers are at a great disadvantage in getting our books noticed, but I would rather mine get noticed honestly and for the right reasons.

If you’d care to read more about this issue, follow the links below, but I have two questions for you. Do you read reviews or, at least, consider the rating before buying a book? And do you think it’s unethical for authors/publishers to pay people to write positive book reviews?

Fun Fridays, Opinion

I can answer that

I’m not sure if this post qualifies as brave or foolish. It’s the weekend, the first in this holiday season, so I thought I’d go with something light-hearted. I used to occasionally write a Fun Friday post, so I think this qualifies—or at least, it will be fun for me. I hope it’s not boring for you.

Anyway, here goes. Ask me anything—well, anything within reason. It’s best if you ask me something within my realm of knowledge. If you ask, say, a physics question, my answer will likely be a link to someone who actually has a clue. If you ask a question about me, I’m fairly certain I can answer that on my own.

Whether your question is silly or serious, I’ll answer as honestly as I think prudent. Oh, heck, this is me we’re talking about, so prudence will probably not enter into it. I’m sitting in the hot seat, the spotlight is on me, I’m waiting …

Advice, Fiction, Novel, Opinion, Reader, Short story, Writing

It has to end somehow

If you’re a writer, I’m asking you to forget all the writing rules you know, and think like a reader for a few minutes. How do you like stories and novels to end? I realize your answer will probably depend on the genre of the read, so feel free to give me multiple responses.

I know if the book is one of a series the ending will wrap up parts of the story, but leave something open-ended. I expect there are other factors, besides genre, that influence types of endings.

When I write, it’s almost impossible for me to end on a truly negative note. As a reader, I don’t need a happily-ever-after ending, but a miserable-ever-after ending is likely to leave me wishing I hadn’t bothered to read the book or story. Also, in my writing, I have a tendency to want to wrap things up—most things. And I suppose I have those same preferences I when I read. I’ll be frustrated if I’m left asking, “but what about …” too many times.

That’s not to say I don’t like to wonder what might have happened a day, or months, or years after The End. Sometimes, as with the ending of my novel The Brevity of Roses, one might assume things will go smoothly, but one could be wrong. I don’t mind entertaining the possibilities of future story after the last page, but I expect the author to have finished the story they’ve just told me.

I’m told literary journals love ambiguous endings. What exactly does that mean? I don’t mind a twist or a bit of surprise at the end to make me think back through the story for clues I missed, but you leave me cold if you leave me screaming, “What the heck?!”

I’m reasonably intuitive. I like nuance. I don’t need everything spelled out for me, in fact that annoys me. But an author needs to respect my trust.  I’ve read stories that kept me guessing, a bit confused even, but I read along expecting it would all fall into place by the end. When it didn’t, that author made me one angry reader.

Of course, I’m asking about endings because I’m struggling with writing one. That’s why I’m asking you AS A READER, how do you like your endings served?