Sunday, January 25, 2015

Note To Writers - Beware Of Plot Phobia

In previous posts, I've mentioned how literary writing has as its focus writing as art. Whether or not it entertains or sells is a lower priority.
The pursuit of literary writing in the last half century or so has de-emphasized plot to the extent that some literary writers disparage plot and treat it like unwanted frivolity.
Common mainstream literary novels often seem to have realistic, sometimes bleak scenarios, i.e., similar to real life, and little in the way of story. Such novels are often categorized as character-based fiction.
Nothing wrong with that. And if you want to write those, great.
Beware, though, that novels with weak plots don’t generally sell well, regardless of how strong the characters are. The bestseller lists don’t feature many literary novels.
But there are some literary novels that do make it onto the lists. They generally have strong plots.
Turns out you can have it both ways.
Many, if not most, of the novels that are considered the greatest novels of all time are literary novels, and it's true that a fair number of them don’t have much in the way of a plot. And to this day, most of them still don't sell well in spite of their greatness.
But some of those great books have huge plots. In fact, many of the stories - books and plays - considered to be the greatest literary achievements ever have over-the-top, killer plots.
From Sophocles and Euripides, to Marlowe and Shakespeare (any one of Shakespeare’s tragedies has more plot than any six modern novels), to countless modern novelists, a big story is the central feature of their work. 
I Googled “Greatest novels of all time,” and “100 greatest novels,” and other similar search terms. There were tons of lists, but the same books appeared over and over. Of the lists proclaiming the greatest novels, I certainly did find some great character studies that are real yawners when it comes to plot. (Novels where one is tempted to ask, “Did anything happen in that book? Maybe, but I can’t remember.”) But there were others with serious plots.
Here’s a few that jump out:

Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird
Huxley’s Brave New World
Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath
Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind
Golding’s Lord of the Flies
Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice
Melville’s Moby Dick
Atwood's The Blind Assassin
Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five
Dickey’s Deliverance
Hammett's The Maltese Falcon
Tolkien's Lord of the Rings
Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange
Fowles’s The Magus
McCullers's The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land
London’s The Call of the Wild
Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451
Orwell’s 1984
Chandler’s The Big Sleep
le CarrĂ©’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold
Amis’s Lucky Jim
Dumas’s The Three Musketeers
Eco’s Name of the Rose
Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles
Morrison's Beloved

You get the idea. Don’t have plot phobia. And don’t let writers who look down on plot get to you. You can have great characters and a great plot.

Go for it.

P.S. Why aren't there more female authors on these lists? I don't know, but the usual suspects probably apply. For decades, even centuries, women weren't encouraged to write or rewarded for doing so the way men were. And perhaps there is some unconscious bias on the part of the people making the lists. But I'm confident that these perceptions are changing. Also, there are some female writers - Virginia Woolf, A. S. Byatt, Zora Neale Hurston, Willa Cather, Muriel Spark, Jean Rhys, Zadie Smith - that are on the "greatest novels" lists but not on my sample above because their books aren't noted for their racing plots, and of course you may disagree with me on that!

Sunday, January 18, 2015

A Book Publisher In Tahoe? Yeah, A Great One

In the community of Meyers on Tahoe's South Shore is Bona Fide Books, a fast-growing publisher of fiction, poetry, essays, nature writing, and nonfiction on subjects like farming. They've even started a series of comic books on Tahoe's history called, simply, Tahoe History Comix. 

Bona Fide Books is run by a creative force of nature named Kim Wyatt, a writer herself, who has transformed Tahoe's writing scene with her support and enthusiasm. In addition to publishing several volumes a year, she hosts a wide range of writing-related events at her company's offices in Meyers as well as at other venues such as the South Lake Tahoe Library. 

Bona Fide Books also has another imprint called Cherry Bomb Books, the first publication of which is a collection of essays on women's rights and reproductive health.

Bona Fide Books has a national reach. Each year, Bona Fide hosts the annual Melissa Lanitis Gregory Poetry Prize. The winner gets publication of a collection of his or her poetry, and Kim brings that writer to Tahoe for the book launch. 

Bona Fide Books reaches out and provides space to other community groups. For example, our local writer's group Tahoe Writers Works meets each month at Bona Fide's offices.
Tahoe Writers Works is a separate group that holds meetings at Bona Fide Books.
Unlike many publishers who operate in private behind locked doors, Bona Fide Books has an open-door policy. They're at 1069 Magua Street in Meyers, just four miles south of the "Y" intersection in South Lake Tahoe. Feel free to stop by and check them out. Their number is 530-573-1513 if you want to check their hours.

My wife and I have several of Bona Fide's titles. We've enjoyed them a lot. They also make great gifts. You can order Bona Fide Books titles here. And of course you can also get them at Amazon.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Wow, The Power Of Molly Greene's Blog!

Last November, a writer named Molly Greene wrote me. In addition to having written several novels, she said she wrote a blog about writing and, sometimes, about other working writers who are earning a living from their work. She wondered if she could do a blog about me.

Okay, let’s parse my feelings about people focusing on my work. I’m a writer. Anyone willing to engage in the questionable activity of spending ten or twenty years learning a strange craft like novel writing and who then spends another year per book to produce some titles either wants an audience for those books or is a candidate for serious medicinal intervention.

I’ve tried medicinal intervention - Sierra Nevada Pale Ale - which works great for a wide range of maladies. But it doesn’t mitigate a writer’s DNA-driven desire to find readers who enjoy what comes out of the writer’s twisted imagination.

So when Molly contacted me, I looked her up, read a range of her work, and was impressed. I could tell that she was a pro. Naturally, I was happy to have her feature me.

What I didn’t know about Molly was that she was a big deal.

Molly gave me some smart questions and some thoughts about what she was after. I wrote some stuff about my writing experience and she edited it to fit her concept.

Her blog came out last Monday. That morning, I got up, poured my first cup of coffee, and looked at the computer to see how her blog turned out.

I was amazed. Not just because she did a great job but also because people from across the country - and from other countries as well! - were posting comments, asking questions, wanting to know more about my books and how I produce them and promote them. A day later, another big blog, The Passive Voice, re-posted it, and then a couple of smaller blogs re-posted it.

Molly’s blog about my books has now had thousands of page views.

The power of a blog and how its reach spreads through cyberspace is impressive.

So thanks, Molly! My hat’s off to you!

If you’d like to read it, here’s the link:

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Why Is The Full Moon Higher In Winter Than In Summer?

Tonight, January 4th, the moon is full. Yea! 

At 8:53 p.m. on the West Coast, to be exact. (On calendars, it says the full moon is January 5th, but that's because the official date of the full moon is based on the time in Greenwich Mean Time, otherwise known as UTC - Coordinated Universal Time.) And when it is 8:53 p.m. on the West Coast, it is 4:53 a.m. the next day in London. Which explains why we often look up at the moon on the "calendar date" of the full moon and think, "I think it was fuller last night." Because, for us, the full moon was the night before.

In Tahoe, we often notice the full moon because:
1) Our nights have less light pollution, so the moon is brighter
2) We're at high altitude, so there is less atmosphere above us to dim the moon
3) The snow on the mountains is spectacular in the moonlight, begging us to notice

This is from a cool website called

If you notice full moons, you can't help wondering why the full moons of winter are way, way up high in the sky, making it so bright on the snow that you can easily read by moonlight. By comparison, summer full moons are low in the sky.

Ever notice how the full moon track is just like the sun's track, only the summer and winter tracks are reversed?

I wondered why that is, so I looked it up.

It turns out that it has to do with the fact that the Earth is tilted on its axis (which is what gives us our seasons among other cool stuff). And when the moon revolves around the Earth, it doesn't stay over the Earth's equator, it stays on the same plane as the Earth's orbit and the sun and most of the planets. 

That plane is called the ecliptic, and all the stuff that stays on the ecliptic plane got that way because when the solar system first began to coalesce, the material that eventually became the planets contracted into a spinning disc. The spin and plane of that disc has stayed the same ever since.

Here's an easy way to visualize why the full moons are higher in winter than summer. 

First, remember that when the Moon is full, it is on the opposite side of the Earth from the sun, so its entire surface that we see is illuminated.

Now think of a globe sitting on a really large table. The table represents the ecliptic, and most of the stuff in the solar system stays on that table. As you know, a globe accurately depicts the Earth at a tilt. The Earth, like the most of the solar system's inhabitants, also stays on the ecliptic plane as it orbits the sun. It just stays tilted as it moves around. 

When the Earth's North Pole is pointing toward the sun, it makes for the long days of summer for those of us in the northern hemisphere. But when the Earth rotates so that we are in the dark of night and we look up to see the full moon, it is on the opposite side of the Earth from the sun. So when the sun is high in the summer, that means that the moon is low.

In winter, the opposite is true. The Earth's North Pole points away from the sun, so the sun is low in the sky. The full moon, on the opposite side of the Earth from the sun, is now high in the sky.

So enjoy the glorious full moon tonight. Along with the full moon we had in December, tonight's full moon will be higher in the sky than any other until next December. And with the snow on the mountains, Tahoe's full moon is a real treat!