Amateur Writing Tells

TELLS, you might call them. They’re the sometimes subtle – sometimes not so subtle – stylistic, grammatical, and format errors that cry out “Amateur!” to readers.

I want to focus here on authors who actually can write, and have a decent grasp of grammar and spelling, but nonetheless indulge in certain foibles that label them as “amateurs” in the eyes of discriminating readers (especially agents and editors).  In today’s hyper-competitive writing market, they’re the kind of subtle issues that separate decent but amateurish writing from professional, polished writing.  Sometimes it can be just a word-choice here, a comma splice there.  Those little issues make the difference between acceptance and rejection by an agent or publisher.

Some of these amateurish tells are insidious because you may read many sentences, perhaps even pages, without spotting any obvious examples.  In these cases, the impression of amateurishness results from an aggregation of small errors/stylistic issues.

Here are a few of my favorite “amateur tells” for otherwise reasonably skilled writers.

1)  Overwriting

You’ve spent years developing your writing skills and vocabulary, and you’re damn well going to let your readers know that!  If you can describe something well in two sentences, imagine how impressive that description will be with twenty sentences!  There’s an almost giddy quality to this kind of writing – like a teenager falling into a swoon over their first puppy love.  Here the writer has a crush on the sound of their own words.

2)  Constant Editorializing

A variant of overwriting.  Here the main character is mentally chattering about almost everything in the scene.  It’s like that friend who has to comment or explain every few seconds what’s going in the movie you’re watching. After a while, you want to strangle the character just as you would your friend.

3)  Starting the Story without Actually Starting the Story

Sounds paradoxical, but this is what happens when you begin a story with a scene that goes nowhere – a static conversation or description that doesn’t move the story forward. A story in the hands of an accomplished writer moves forward from the first sentence..

The opening scene being utterly quotidian is one of my favorite amateur tells. One (real-life) example: a couple of old friends sharing coffee on a living couch while chattering “wittily” about various mundane things in order to provide “as you know” facts and fill in settings in advance of the actual story.  If you begin your novel with a couple of friends chatting over coffee, please show us the common courtesy of having a character deliver a bombshell (or an actual bomb!), or perhaps arrange for a violent home invasion (I will be rooting for the invaders to take out the coffee-drinkers).  Maybe even poison the coffee.

4)  Failing to Keep Your Eye on the Writing Ball

This is something I see over and over again, especially in self-published works.  It’s a lot like (3), except it appears at various, seemingly random, points throughout the novel.  You’re reading about a hard-boiled detective pursuing a serial killer, and then suddenly it’s as if the writer calls a timeout.  Let’s just step away for a few pages or maybe a chapter and discuss the weather, indulge in some pet-grooming, or maybe describe a minor character doing the laundry.

5)  Telling Instead of Showing

Telling us what to think about people and their actions rather than showing those actions and letting us decide for ourselves. “I hate the way you’re looking at me,” he lied cleverly.

6)  General Cluelessness

This is fairly subjective, but I suspect most of us know it when we see it. The story idea and execution strike us as lame or just plain silly.  Sharks that talk and walk around playing pool, teaching us something about humanity.  An elephant who speaks in a terrible Indian accent.  A man who enjoys torturing people and having sex with dead bodies who pines for acceptance.  Perhaps any of these could be made to work with sufficient brilliance (what couldn’t?), but absent incomparable brilliance they’re going to suck beyond measure.

I’m not talking about books where the premise seemed questionable or the characters and events struck me as non-credible; what I’m talking about is a more pervasive sense of the writer really not having a clue. They may believe they’re: being witty when they’re in fact (in your eyes) being silly; trenchant when they seem shallow; eloquent when their prose is florid; dramatic when they come across as melodramatic, etc.  It’s the kind of writing that happens when you live in a cabin cut off from everyone long enough to begin talking to yourself.

7)  Frequent Typos and Poor Formatting (Mostly Relevant to Self-Publications)

This doesn’t necessarily relate to the author’s writing ability, but perhaps more often than not poor formatting signals an inattention to detail that is necessary for skilled writing.  Numerous typos and irregular formatting in self-published books does – sadly – cry “amateur,” at least as regards the self-publishing aspect.

How does one cross over from being a skilled amateur writer to being a bona fide professional?

The key factor, clearly, is improved awareness. This is a subject for another post, but in a nutshell, the solution lies in listening to the criticism of others, studying the writing of established, respected authors, and approaching one’s craft with an eye toward improvement.

Talk to writers you respect and ask for their honest opinion from a quick overview of your novel (not a review or in-depth analysis; most writers are reluctant to serve as your unpaid editor).  It doesn’t take long to spot the above amateurish motifs.  Join a writers group and ask them to be brutally honest.

Why would you suspect you haven’t “crossed over”?  For starters, you’re consistently rejected by agents (most of us don’t deal directly with editors).  That’s by no means a sure sign, but it is suggestive.  Are you getting favorable reviews from dispassionate, intelligent reviewers (family and friends don’t count)?  If not, another indication you may not have crossed the line.  Are you quick to dismiss those who unfavorably critique your book?  Do you have any interest in listening to such critiques?  Do your writing group members look the other way and hum or make vacuous comments when you ask for an honest review?

If you find yourself getting defensive about your writing, if you believe that criticism is largely worthless, and if you stick your fingers in your ears and sing “la, la, la,” when you see bad or middling reviews, those are signs you’re probably still stuck in Amateurville.

Blessed be the critics, for they shall help you grow.

Three Factors Which Harm Writers

 

I believe these are the three factors that are most damaging to writers (drum roll):

1) ISOLATION

Professor Uri Treisman of the University of California, Berkeley, conducted a fascinating investigation into the study habits of Blacks and Asians.  He was attempting to explain the large discrepancy in success completing calculus courses.  What he discovered was, after allowing for all the other variables, that the most important factor appeared to be how cooperative the Asians were in their study habits – regularly gathering in groups that critiqued other members’ efforts and collaboratively strove to solve difficult problems – while the blacks studied largely in isolation.

 To the extent that you write in isolation, you lack critical feedback about your work.  That’s true whether you’re a bestselling author or a relative unknown.  That’s a very bad thing, because we as writers can be nearly blind about our own work.  We need input from outside sources – and we need to listen to those sources – to be the best we can be.

2) DEFENSIVENESS 

It is the enemy in pretty much every aspect of life, in my view.  Defensiveness kills our ability to be honest about and improve ourselves.  It may be the greatest challenge for all of us to open ourselves to the possibility that we can make mistakes or aren’t as accomplished at something as we believe we are (or should be).

Defensiveness is one of the prime reasons we isolate ourselves.  Working alone, we need not be troubled by criticism or suggestions that we’re on the wrong track.  Barricaded within our illusions about ourselves, we are free to believe whatever we wish about our work.  Judging from many self-published novels I’ve sampled, many choose this form of freedom.

3)  INATTENTIVENESS 

How is it possible not to notice that the plural of most nouns does not involve an apostrophe, when every periodical, newspaper, newsletter, magazine, short story, and book does not use apostrophes to designate plural?  And yet, countless writers somehow missed this near-infinitely repeated memo.  My only explanation is that these writers simply, perhaps willfully, haven’t been paying attention.

Pay attention to what other (skilled) writers are doing – pay very close attention – and that problem is solved.

So there you have it: the three things you must overcome en route to becoming the next bestselling author. J

Two Events That Would Change SF As We Know It

Advances in technology can change culture, but how much do cell phones, computers, electric cars, or other gizmos of the twentieth and twenty-first century fundamentally change our stories? Are classic epistolary stories of romance such as Fanny Hill so different from Sleepless in Seattle? Has modern rocket technology rendered Jules Verne’s From Earth to the Moon obsolete? Does it matter in any important story-telling way whether people travel by horse or by car or commercial jet?

I think our archetypal, classic story lines are remarkably immune to scientific knowledge or even place and time. Still, in theory, certain changes in our knowledge or attitude, could antiquate certain stories or even whole categories of stores. For example, if it were scientifically determined that love was a form of pathology, a la Delirium, that would likely have a chilling effect on romance literature. Perhaps, in light of that knowledge, romance might become a branch of psychological horror fiction.

One event that I believe would fundamentally change the landscape of science fiction would be the discovery of alien civilizations.

It would be hard to overstate the impact of detailed knowledge of advanced extraterrestrial civilizations (and their technology) on speculative fiction. Every aspect of science fiction would be influenced, from alien characters to the kinds of technology used in space travel and day-to-day life. We would no longer be free to populate our universes with all manner of alien beings and cultures, any more than we are now free, when writing Earth-based contemporary fiction, to write about tentacled beings with giant horns.

Yes, people could still write fiction with this new cast of characters and technologies, but unless the writers wrote speculative fiction based on that new cultural-technological foundation, their novels would no longer be traditional science fiction (which always involves a speculative element).

Further knowledge derived from human-alien contact could also powerfully affect religious or spiritual themes (for instance, alien civilizations have proven that life after death does or does not occur, or that no supreme being exists) or SF military fiction (if advanced ET civilizations show us that such conflicts rarely if ever occur). Perhaps these civilizations would demonstrate that some of our most important self-concepts were false (for example, free will), or that some of our assumptions about future human technological advances are fundamentally flawed, such as the commonly held idea that someday we will create machine life.

Which brings me to the second discovery/event that would alter the science fiction irrevocably: the discovery that genuine A.I. sentience is impossible.

That genuine sentient machine intelligence is inevitable is treated an article of faith among science fiction writers (as well as most of the scientists who study artificial intelligence). Consider all the popular SF fiction that would be rendered obsolete by the discovery that this belief is false. From Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein to Ian Banks, Dan Simmons, and Daniel Suarez (I’m reading his Influx as we speak) – among countless others – the SF landscape is littered by A.I.s, usually with clearly human personalities or motivations, seeking preeminence, love, survival, or enlightened service to humanity.

Imagine all the science fiction literature based on sentient A.I’s vanishing into the mist. Now imagine all the SF literature based on speculations about alien beings – ideas about their culture, technology, philosophy, and basic physical form – being washed away by actual knowledge about other alien civilizations.

Fortunately, we writers would still be left with quotidian story lines. Or would we?

Predicting the Next Big Writing Thing

The consensus among bloggers and established authors seems to be that no one can predict what the next big thing will be.  An equally strong consensus holds that we should nonetheless attempt to write not just for ourselves but also for our readers.  Another faction counsels us to write what’s important to us, and not to bend to the slathering zombie-reader masses.

Judging from the millions of authors (particularly self-published authors) still scrambling to spin out stories involving vampires, werewolves, fairies, witches, demons, or young women having to make terrible and fateful choices in a Brave New World, I believe it’s safe to say the second consensus – that we should aim to please our readers – currently rules.

Yet the vast majority of authors attempting to write for the masses has no hope of ever remotely matching Amanda Hocking, Stephenie Meyer, or Hugh Howey’s success – or even, to be blunt, achieving any form of significant material success at all laboring in these over-planted fields.  The same applies to emulating any successful author, which some have described as about as probable as winning the lottery.

For that reason, I would counsel writers to stop writing mainly to cash in on a massive and likely tired franchise – unless that is what they truly want to write.

My own conclusion is that your first priority should be to write “where your soul lives.”  That is your best chance of achieving both personal satisfaction and of creating your best work – with this caveat: write what inspires you the most and is popular (assuming material gain interests you).

Seeing what is popular definitely influences what I select to write from my “story files.”  Note that I say “select,” because I’m choosing from things I already want to write about.  Seeing GONE GIRL’S success (and enjoying the novel) influenced my decision to write DEAD COUPLE WALKING.  I’d already been working on the idea for some time, but seeing that something like it had won such notoriety inspired me to write it sooner than later (though it didn’t turn out very much like Gillian Flynn’s brilliant and bizarre novel).

Interview with Author Catherine Wells

Earth is all that lasts coverCatherine Wells is the author of seven novels and assorted short stories. Her works included “Mother Grimm” from Roc Books, a division of Dutton Signet, which was a finalist for the 1997 Philip K. Dick Award; and the Coconino trilogy from Del Rey Books, a division of Random House. Her short stories have appeared in “Analog,” “Asimov’s Magazine of Science Fiction,” and anthologies such as “Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse” (Nightshade Books 2008) and “Redshift: Extreme Visions of Speculative Fiction” (Penguin-Putnam 2001). Her latest novel, “The Aztec Eagle” was a finalist for an EPIC Award in science fiction.

Ms. Wells holds a Master of Library Science degree from the University of Arizona and is employed as a medical librarian in Tucson, Arizona. She is married with two grown children and enjoys singing, hiking, and theatre.

I recently had the opportunity to sit down – virtually – with author Catherine and pry into her writer’s mind a bit.

Lawrence:  What inspired your ideas for the Coconino Trilogy?  How much do these novels reflect your personal philosophy?

Catherine Wells:  When I first moved to Arizona, I spent many weekends exploring my new home state.  One of our family expeditions was to Montezuma’s Castle National Monument north of Phoenix.  I was captivated by the cliff dwellings and the insights offered into the life of the vanished Sinagua people.  It was so different from the plains Indian cultures I knew something about, and the spectacle of those houses hanging on that cliff–breathtaking!  It immediately caught my imagination, the idea of people scrambling up and down ladders, grinding corn in the shade, squeezing a living from a reluctant land.  I wasn’t sure I could accurately depict life in those ancient times, so I chose instead to set a story in the distant future, a future where civilization had come full circle and was rebuilding itself along the same lines.

Do my novels reflect my personal philosophy?  In a very broad sense–yes, I’m big on recycling and green energy–but please, don’t assume my central characters are mouthpieces for my beliefs.  They are different people from different cultures, and some of them have a bit of growing up to do yet.  In fact, you will find that Coconino’s philosophy undergoes some serious modification during the course of the trilogy.

Lawrence:  Why did you decide not to have Coconino and Phoenix follow a more traditional romantic relationship arc (allowing them to physically “consummate” their relationship)?

Catherine Wells:  My usual response to that question is, “My mother reads these books.”  But in truth, it has more to do with having grown up in a small town–a village not much bigger than Coconino’s–and knowing that real people don’t necessarily hop into bed just because they want to.  Besides, the tension of wanting and waiting holds so much drama.  An agent once complained of one of my manuscripts (yet to be published) that the hero didn’t even kiss the girl until three quarter of the way through the book.  Well, duh!  As with Coconino and Phoenix, those characters were dealing with social pressures and personal baggage that got in the way of an intimate relationship.  They had to become friends before they could become lovers.

In “The Earth Is All That Lasts,” the promise of consummation is what allows Coconino to embark on his last, most dangerous action, even knowing the unlikelihood of survival.  And their unfulfilled desire sets the characters up for what follows in “Children of the Earth” and, ultimately, “The Earth Saver.”

Lawrence:   What is your opinion of the “digital publishing revolution”?

Catherine Wells:  Digital publishing continues to revolutionize the industry with the same force as the printing press did centuries ago.  Its benefit to the masses cannot be overstated–but gosh darn, we mourn the passing of print books, as once people mourned the loss of illuminated manuscripts.  The feel, the texture, the smell…  Likewise its impact on quality and quantity, on accessibility and cost, on the flow of monetary compensation, is huge. Anyone, and I mean anyone, can publish a book if they’re willing to front the money for the process (with no guarantee of recouping your investment), and it can go right up there in amazon next to professionally published books by noted experts.

For readers, this means we have to develop some useful filters for finding well-written, thoughtful material. Certain “publishers” raise red flags with us as purveyors of self-published books, meaning unedited manuscripts by authors of unknown talent.  But in the plethora of small presses that now abound, how do we know which offer quality books and which are questionable?  You can look at the publisher’s process:  Do they screen manuscripts?  Do they employ editors?  You can read the author bios:  Any professional credits? Prestigious writers’ workshops?  Subject expertise?  You can also check the publisher’s catalog:  Who else do they publish?  How varied are their offerings?  In the case of Phoenix Pick (ARC Manor Press), which publishes my Coconino triology, you’ll find I’m in some outstanding company because these are all books previously brought out by major publishers.  In other cases, you really can’t tell till you download a sample of the book and start reading.  And really, who wants to do that much research before plunking down $5.99?

For authors, the revolution means the number of gateways between you and publication have diminished.  The advantage to this is that good authors whose works had good critical recognition but were not commercially successful–like yours truly–can bypass agents, editors, and publishers to reach their audience directly.  And you don’t have to present a sales promotion plan to get there. The disadvantage is that in bypassing these gateways, we can miss certain critical steps in refining our work:  the feedback of an impartial editor, the emotional distance from our work that only time can create.  And you can charge ahead without a sales promotion plan.

As for the flow of money, it can bypass several collateral industries:  agents, printers, print distributors, parcel delivery firms, and the drivers who go around stocking those book displays in grocery stores and airports.  It can return a larger percentage of the purchase price to the author, but without the infrastructure of a major publisher, the number of copies sold is going to be much, much smaller.

Lawrence:  What advice would you give beginning authors as regards conventional versus self-publishing?

Catherine Wells:  Try conventional first.  Really, there is nothing like the experience of working with a professional editor to grow your skills.  Even working with an agent can provide useful feedback, although you must remember that many agents are simply looking to make your book conform to what is currently on the market–that’s how they make money.  And the major publishers have a distribution and marketing infrastructure that you can’t touch.  I don’t mean they’ll promote your book for you–you still have to do that.  But they give you street cred, they can get you reviews, and placement in a brick-and-mortar store–maybe even in those grocery store racks.  If they believe your book could really take off, they may buy reviews or preferred placement on shelves.

If you decide to go the self-published route, however, for heaven’s sake, do it right.  Hire an editor.  Pay a professional cover artist.  Go over that manuscript, and over that manuscript, and then go over the converted files before they get uploaded.  Research self-publishing services, check their costs and their reputation.  Set yourself a budget:  How much are you willing to spend to see your book available?  Would you pay extra for print-on-demand?  How much of the technical process are you will/able to do yourself?  And ask yourself seriously, do I care if this makes money for me, or do I just want to share my work with the world?

Lawrence: What are you working on now?

Catherine Wells:  I’ve been writing short stories lately.  “Into the Desolation” appeared in the Janaury 2014 issue of Intergallactic Medicine Show.  A couple others are being shopped around; I hate to say much about them until they’ve sold.  I’m also working on a sequel to “The Crystal Desert,” which is currently out of print.  I’m hoping to rectify that shortly.  I’m rather in love with the main character, a young urchin from Mexico who comes of age as a flying ace in an off-world rebellion. I have a whole series planned around him.  In the meantime, I’m excited that most of my backlist is now available from Phoenix Pick; you can see a list here. And “Stones of Destiny” will soon be available again under the original title, “Macbeatha.”  Watch for updates on my web page at http://www.catherine-wells.net.

Lawrence:  Thanks, Catherine, for addressing my most pressing concerns.  I’m looking forward to finishing your Coconino trilogy and checking out more of your works.

Your Characters As Allies

Characters can be either your best friends or your worst enemies.

I concluded that a few months back while writing a novel, MY FAVORITE LIFE.  My main character, a compulsive womanizer, was running amok in his pursuit of romance – dragging the story like National Lampoon Vacation’s dog down an increasingly rough and windy road.

My character had gone rogue.  He was fighting rather than aiding my desired story line.  Something had to give.  After long and painful consideration, I decided to kill the character.  Yes, I hold a near-religious conviction that we should keep our hands off our characters and let them do their own thing; but the singular exception, it seems, is a character whose “own thing” opposes the very universe I’ve created for them.

There are many well-known qualities to a good character, but one I’ve never heard mentioned is being a caretaker or ally of one’s plot line.  Or if your plot line sucks, a good character might just lead you out of the valley of darkness.  In either case, I think, good characters can help you tell a better story – if you listen to them.

How?  Because his or her personal integrity resists silly or distracting detours.  You may want to write a scene, but your character – much like the actor who refuses to say a stupid line – will balk if it doesn’t suit them.  Or, in the case of a bad character, will drag you screaming into a scene that may eviscerate your story.

When I changed my protagonist philanderer into a straight-shooting dude with values, all the crazy detours and off-point scenes came to an abrupt end.  The story flowed, at least to my eyes.  A 785-page monstrosity shed its layers of rancid fat and became a relatively lean 360-page machine.

Trust your characters to show you the way.  Even when they are trashing your story line.

 

Achieving An Objective Perspective About Our Own Writings

What do most of us see when we read our own writing? Can we make clear comparisons to the writings of others?

I remember when I was in my twenties I couldn’t see much difference between my science fiction stories (which were regularly being rejected by publishers and agents) and science fiction stories being penned by SF luminaries such as Heinlein, Clarke, and Silverberg.

Yet when I look at those same stories today, the difference between the luminaries’ writings and my own of that era seems greater than the difference between night and day. Are we doomed to wait for years or even decades to achieve this kind of impartial perspective?

First, why couldn’t I see the clear differences in quality back then? The obvious explanation is that in my youth I simply lacked the analytical acumen to see things clearly. Perhaps that was part of it, but I think it likely that there was a more important element missing in my vision: Honesty.

It’s hard to hear – and nearly impossible to conceive – that your writing babies aren’t especially cute or bright or interesting, and that your handcrafted world is lackluster. Imagine your response if some relationship critic told you that your friends are dull or that your love affairs are uninteresting? Or worse, that you yourself are dull and uninteresting?

Because we are so emotionally tied to our creations, it’s difficult – perhaps even next to impossible – to be completely honest in appraising them. So when we read writing that actually features truly beautiful “babies” with fascinating lives, I think we tend to gloss over their superiority to our own creations. We tend to look at those other possibly more brilliant worlds with half-closed eyes while viewing our own through rose-colored glasses.

I believe the solution to achieving a more impartial and accurate perspective is to remove those glasses.

Some authors and bloggers recommend that we set our manuscript aside and wait several months to attain a better perspective, and while that may help (though I’m skeptical about such a long-winded process; we’re not immortal, after all), it still doesn’t address the fundamental issue of seeing our writing honestly.

Toward that end, I would suggest a rather shorter but more effective (albeit painful) method: find a book that you greatly admire that is in your same genre, and compare several of its pages to several of yours in meticulous detail. Note examples of the writing that stands out in your beloved book, and see how they compare to favorite passages from your book. How do your best phrases and sections stack up against those in the book you admire?

Next compare a synopsis of your novel, including the high points and overall story flow, to those elements in one of your favorite novels. How does that comparison look?

You may find these suggestions to be neither pleasant nor easy, but I’m guessing you may find them edifying.

Love, Virtually *** 1/2

Not only did Leo and Emmi’s email exchanges strike me as utterly realistic, they almost seemed archetypal, as though the author had tapped into some primal blueprint of virtual communication (perhaps my impression was aided by the eerie resemblance of Emmi, both in appearance and verbal expression, to a former love).

This seems unlikely on the surface, since Leo and Emmi are better-educated and more articulate than most, but I think the pattern of coquetry and confabulation, along with the inevitable miscommunications, are very typical of this kind of interaction. For a certain category of individuals, which I would describe as reasonably intelligent and educated and comfortable with words while not necessarily being overly cerebral, this dialogue may seem hauntingly familiar. I know it was for me.

But Daniel Glattauer, in what I regard as an almost heroic fidelity to his minimalist vision, tells his story entirely through emails in an updated digital version of epistolary novels. Yet even Glattauer’s couple cannot escape the imperative which lurks within every virtual romantic exchange: eventually, for the online affair to have meaning, the couple must meet in the flesh.

A virtual romantic relationship is a lot like raising a child. Together, the couple creates a cute relationship “baby” which they raise and nurture, but as their child grows it will need at some point to take its first steps outside the virtual womb.

Of course, those first steps into the outside world are almost always scary, and couples often resist exposing their pretty baby to such potentially harsh elements. I know of couples who postponed their first in-flesh meetings for months and even years (sometimes, even after years, they never meet). Emmi and Leo are also extremely protective of their non-corporeal relationship, and never do meet in person in the novel (readers will need to read Every Seventh Wave for that epic event).

While some may consider the novel “unfinished” or “incomplete,” it is a very faithful mirror of actual online relationships, and I loved it for that.

Promotional Effectiveness in Self-Publishing and Conventional Publishing: A Tale of Two Books

I’ve been reading two novels. One novel – CALIFORNIA: A NOVEL, by Edan Lapucki – was published conventionally by Little, Brown and Company to considerable critical hurrahs; the other novel, THE TRANSITION WITNESS, was self-published and is being promoted by its author, Teresa Tsalaky.

As I write this, CALIFORNIA has a 515 sales rank on Amazon, and ranks high in three subcategories. THE TRANSITION WITNESS has a 49,331 Amazon ranking and also places high in three subcategories. CALIFORNIA is listed at $7.99 for its Kindle edition, whereas WITNESS is being offered at $.99.

Lapucki has one other title (IF YOU’RE NOT YET LIKE ME, a novella). Her About the Author bio on Amazon reads:

Edan Lepucki is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a staff writer for The Millions. Her short fiction has been published inn McSweeney’s and Narrative magazine, among other publications, and she is the founder and director of Writing Workshops Los Angeles. This is her first novel. {Technically true, but rather misleading, in my view, since IF YOU’RE NOT YET LIKE ME could arguably be classified as a novel.}

Teresa Tsalaky has a background as a journalist.

CALIFORNIA has been favorably reviewed by at least two major newspapers – the Huffington Post and the Los Angeles Times – and has about a dozen rave reviews from various authors in Amazon’s Editorial Reviews section.

Now this is where it gets interesting: CALIFORNIA is rather poorly reviewed by actual Amazon customers, while WITNESS, lacking editorial reviews, is well-reviewed by Amazon customers.
My main question here is about a couple of apparent disconnects regarding Lepucki’s CALIFORNIA: 1) Why does CALIFORNIA have middling Amazon customer reviews but fantastic reviews from a couple of newspapers and several writers?; 2) Why does a novel from a virtual unknown with a limited “platform” have such a buzz (sufficient to place it near the top of Goodread’s “Movers and Shakers”)?

CALIFORNIA is selling roughly 150 books a day; TRANSITION WITNESS closer to one. That’s a fairly large difference between two authors of similar journalistic backgrounds. So what’s making the difference?

Regardless of the actual merits of these two novels, that difference is clearly due to promotional effectiveness. I don’t know the details, of course, but I believe it’s reasonable to assume that Little, Brown and Company contacted some authors and newspapers on Lepucki’s behalf, thus managing to generate considerable advance buzz for her novel. This buzz in turn generated a high visibility placement in Goodreads and Amazon, and even a mention by Stephen Colbert.

Few of us, I suspect, would question that this kind of publicity would generate a massive increase in book sales for any writer, even if their book was rather mediocre. What do you think would happen if Tsalaky’s novel received such promotional largesse?

From what I’ve read – forty or so pages into CALIFORNIA, and eighty or so into TRANSITION – I’m not seeing any difference in quality that’s remotely proportional to the difference in sales or promotional buzz.

CALIFORNIA doesn’t contain any “hot button” or even “high concept” ideas that I can see. It’s well-written enough, I suppose, and the characters are fairly well-done; the premise is decent. Perhaps CALIFORNIA is more polished than WITNESS, but I don’t see much of an edge, if any, in terms of basic style. WITNESS is fairly well-written as well, I think, and certainly does have a much more imaginative and thought-provoking premise than does CALIFORNIA. Perhaps WITNESS is less commercial than CALIFORNIA, but that remains to be seen.

J.A. Konrath claims that luck plays an important role – indispensable, actually – in literary success. In this case, it appears that Edan Lepucki is on a roll, whereas Teres Tsalaky’s luck seems rather moderate at best.

May the odds be with them both.

Skeptic by Holden Scott ** 1/2

When I first started reading THE SKEPTIC by Holden Scott, I was impressed. “Wow, this is a guy whose writing style reminds me of me at my best.” Granted, that may not be high accolades for others, but it’s not often that I read something that makes me feel humble. And I did feel a little humble as I read through his first couple of chapters.

In the first chapter, Scott has a brilliant grad student, Teri Pace, reflecting excitedly on a new discover she’d made serendipitously in a lab managed – in a highly desultory fashion – by the main character, a medical doctor named Mike Ballantine.

We don’t know what this breakthrough discovery is until page 140. That’s a lot of pages for the reader to cool his or her heels waiting for the purportedly mind-blowing “reveal.”
To keep us busy while we wait, Scott offers us an increasingly labyrinthine plot involving the assassination of the Massachusetts governor (best friend of the main character), some intrigue involving a Chinese plot and a dastardly Chinese super-agent, and a sexy and uber-competent Taiwanese CIA agent – all connected in some way with the discovery in the lab.

Since that discovery is named in the book jacket, I don’t feel a spoiler alert is needed when I say that her momentous discovery involves the existence of ghosts. It seems that under certain circumstances we can literally inhale memories of the deceased – particularly when the demise involves violent physical “discorporation,” which scatters parts of the dead person’s identity into the air, ripe, as it were, for sniffing.

I think that idea is clever, but as the story progresses it seems undecided about what exactly the story is. Is it, essentially, a spy thriller? A thought-experiment about life after death? A character study into the nature of evil? Now it seems at least theoretically possible to combine all these elements, but in this novel the combination reminds me of a high school chemistry class where we added three insoluble substances in a test tube. These substances formed three distinct layers that while being in surface contact, basically did not mix at all. Scott’s novel reminds me a lot of that test tube experiment.

The story rolls along more and more ponderously as it accumulates increasing mass in a kind of plot line snowball effect, until I felt as if the story were dragging half the state of Massachusetts along with it toward the end.

But some coincidence, I lost interest in the characters and story long before then, but forced myself to keep turning pages in the hope the author might shed some of this dead plot weight and redeem his story. Alas, that never happened.

Here’s my breakdown:
Cleverness of main story idea: ****
Characters: ****
Story Execution: **
Writing Style: ****

For me, despite the author’s high marks in many areas, his poor story execution – after all, the most important element of a novel – sunk this book.