Sunday Round-Up

by Sarah on January 22, 2012 · 3 comments

 

The past couple of weeks have been blah. I guess I’ve reached the uncomfortable phase of pregnancy. I totally bypassed the energy burst I was expecting to experience in the second trimester, or perhaps I had it but didn’t notice because I was so preoccupied with finishing my book. I’m now in the third trimester with all that that implies: backache, insomnia, sore ribs, and a sense time is dragging. On the one hand, I have so much to do before the baby comes, particularly on the writing front. On the other, I just want this kid out.

Writing:

I’m pleased with my pre-writing progress, but not so thrilled with the few thousand words I’ve written for my new WIP. Admittedly, I am a perfectionist, and rarely impressed by my first effort at any given scene.

Author Blog:

I spent more time than I care to admit updating my author website and tinkering with its appearance. I’ve started a blog on it which will focus on writing-related topics. The first two posts are up and are concerned with the dreaded (for me) First Draftitis. They are First Drafts: The Curse of the Blinking Cursor and First Drafts: The Pre-Writing Stage. I hope to publish the third post on Wednesday.

Reading:

I’m currently listening to the unabridged audiobook of Rhys Bowen’s Her Royal Spyness. It’s the first in a series. It’s an amusing cozy mystery and the narrator, Katherine Kellgren, does an excellent job. Unfortunately for me, the rest of the audiobooks in the series are geographically restricted. Why on earth do publishers do that? As my enjoyment of the book has at least as much to do with the excellent narration as with the story, that’s several lost sales.

TV:

Sherlock. What can I say, except this series rocks. I resisted watching the first series when it aired in 2010. As a fan of the books, I couldn’t imagine a modern version being anything other than a monumental mess. My husband persuaded me to watch the first three episodes with him over the Christmas holidays as he was keen to see the second series when it started on New Year’s Day. We were hooked from the first episode. We both agreed that Sherlock alone made our digital TV subscription worth it for the month of January. While I’m sorry we have to wait another year for series 3, I’d rather they made fewer episodes and maintained the high quality rather than churning them out and dumbing them down like Downton Abbey.

Have you written, read, or watched anything interesting lately? Have you seen Sherlock?

Ken Bruen’s Jack Taylor Mysteries

by Sarah on January 13, 2012 · 3 comments

As I mentioned in my last post, my reading progress has been sloooow of late. Lack of time and insomnia have led me to the joys of radio plays and a select few audiobooks. I say a “select few” because I’m an impatient soul. I’m not prepared to listen to a story for 20+ hours when I’d read it in a quarter of that time, but I’m also not a fan of abridged audiobooks. If I want to read or listen to a book, I want the real deal.

I’d been hearing good things about Ken Bruen’s Jack Taylor mysteries for years. Keishon is a fan, as are a couple of other friends. One suggested I try the audiobook versions as they’re particularly well done. She was right. As Ken Bruen’s style is sparse, and his books relatively short (no more than a couple hundred pages each), they lend themselves well to audio. The narrator of the first eight books is an Irish actor called Gerry O’Brien. He does an excellent job. Each character has their own voice, and his accents are spot on.

The protagonist, Jack Taylor, is a fifty-something-year-old ex cop with a serious alcohol problem. A cliché, you might say, but Jack is anything but. His sense of humour make the books highly amusing reads, even when the subject matter is harrowing. Jack’s less than illustrious career as a Guard (Irish policeman) ended when he punched a TD (member of parliament) who he pulled over for speeding. Ken Bruen doesn’t directly name the political party the guy belongs to, but a choice couple of sentences makes it pretty clear it’s the one I particularly despise. Having been sorely tempted to punch a TD of that party myself, I warmed to Jack instantly. (The fucker blocked my car by double parking his limo, then refused to move, thus forcing me to stay in my parking space for nearly twenty minutes with a screaming baby. Why? To buy a pack of cigarettes, then shake hands with “his constituents”. Blech.)

In the first book of the series, The Guards, Jack is a half-hearted private investigator. PIs don’t really exist in Ireland, at least not in the sense of the American private eyes. Basically, Jack makes a bit of extra money by looking into cases the Guards don’t want to pursue, or have shelved as cold cases. As a former Guard, Jack still has contacts within the force, and – on the rare occasions he’s sober – excellent intuition.

As the series progresses, we see Jack struggle with drug and alcohol addictions, go in and out of rehab, have confrontations with his former friend, Superintendent Clancy, and his nemesis, Father Malachy. Oh, and solve a few interesting cases along the way. Ken Bruen focuses on topical issues such as corruption within the police force, abuse scandals within the Irish Catholic Church, and the treatment of the travelling community. In the books set during the so-called Celtic Tiger, he’s also scathing of the New Ireland and the crass consumerism the period of economic prosperity brought with it. Bruen’s views pretty much mirror mine on that whole topic.

A quick detour from the Jack Taylor mysteries: The Celtic Tiger was a period of unprecedented economic growth in Ireland between 1995 and 2007. Before that time, there were very few wealthy people, and – even after the Republic was recognised in 1922 – few of the Old Money types were Catholic. When I was at school, topics such as unemployment and emigration were popular exam paper fodder. They represented a very real problem, and the Irish government was constantly scrambling to come up with solutions to stop the Brain Drain (i.e.: educated and skilled workers leaving the country to look for work abroad).

As of the mid-Nineties, the economy started to take off. Suddenly, Ireland was overrun by the newly wealthy, and a whole lot more who were wealthier than they had previously been, and interpreted this as a cue to spend, spend, spend. In the past, these people would have been described as having “Notions”, of thinking they were better than they were. In Ireland, this used to be A Very Bad Thing. To put it bluntly: people who are not used to having money and access to seemingly limitless credit rarely handle it well; the Celtic Tiger produced an entire generation with this mindset.

I still lived in Ireland at the start of the Celtic Tiger, but I was an undergrad and didn’t benefit greatly from it. I do remember people telling me I was mad to leave Ireland when I did because finding a good job was so easy at the time I graduated university. (With its long history of emigration, the idea of someone leaving Ireland willingly as opposed to having to do so was an alien concept.) I didn’t care. I wanted to experience living in another country, and using another language, and I’ve never regretted leaving.

Within a couple of years of my moving to Germany (I left Ireland in 2000, lived in Germany until 2006, then moved to Switzerland), I noticed huge differences in Ireland every time I went back for a visit. Fancy shops and cafés replaced the unpretentious ones I remembered from my student days. Everyone – and I do mean everyone – was clad in designer gear and name-dropping brands. All the crappy jobs were performed by non-nationals, who were mostly treated with derision by the Irish. This was particularly ironic as previous generations had complained bitterly about their treatment as foreign workers living in Britain.

Luxury apartments and houses sprang up everywhere. (I use the term “luxury” with heavy sarcasm; the label was applied to every crappy building project in Dublin, however dodgy the contractors. Many of these are now quite literally falling down around their owners’ ears, or abandoned to become ghost estates after foreclosures.)

My former college mates boasted about how much money they were earning, and found the amount of debt they were in vastly entertaining. It was something they were particularly competitive about. If they earned €100,000 per annum, they spent at least €150,000. Prior to this – and excepting mortgages – getting a bank loan was something people did if they were truly desperate. Only the poor, or the very foolish, bought on credit. Now, students were getting massive loans to travel for a year rather than taking the old-fashioned work-your-way-around-the-world route. People got loans to install shit like hot-tubs in their homes. You know, the essentials in life. Banks gave out 110% mortgages. I mean, seriously, WTF? Suddenly, weekend shopping jaunts to New York became de rigueur. When I was a kid, only the mega rich did stuff like that. The arrogance was appalling. It got to the point I was ashamed to know these people, and I’ve lost contact with all but a select few.

Now I’m no economist. I claim no brilliant foresight when it comes to making economic predictions, or predictions of any kind. I certainly couldn’t foresee the dramatic implosion of the Irish economy in 2008. However, it was clear to me that the debt issue was going to come back to bite people in the ass at some point. It had to. Unless you’re heir to a massive fortune, you can’t keep spending more than you earn and not have it become a major problem down the road. Logical, no? I was not the only person who thought like this, although most were of an older generation, and remembered the hard times only too well. My generation, unfortunately, can best be described as obnoxiously obtuse. Even now, they blame the government and corrupt banking practices for their financial woes. While both of these insitutions have a share in the blame, I don’t have a sense from the younger Irish that they realise the role they played in their own financial destruction.

I’m under no illusions about my own character, by the way. It’s easy to see things more clearly from the outside. If I’d stayed in Ireland, would I have been sucked into the bling culture? I’d love to say “No way!” with conviction, but I’m guessing my principles, and good money instincts, would have been eroded within a couple of years and I, too, would have joined the ranks of the nouveau riche with neither money nor fashion sense. Perish the thought!

But back to Ken Bruen: The Jack Taylor mysteries are bleak, and they grow more so as the series progresses. While not heavy on gratuitous violence, personal suffering is intense. The mysteries in the first couple of books are almost peripheral to the character of Jack Taylor. This balances out in later books. The soberer Jack becomes, the more capable he is of investigating more complicated crimes. The secondary characters are well fleshed out, although frequently doomed. The moral of the story: don’t get too attached to anyone in a Jack Taylor mystery.

The increasingly harrowing storylines are made palatable by the use of humour. Jack’s drinking problem is a permanent presence, even in times of sobriety; his all-weather coat, pilfered from his police uniform, is his constant companion, and the letters from the Guards demanding its speedy return follow him wherever he moves. Each chapter is prefaced with a quote from Jack’s small personal library of crime writers and poets. The Galway setting is lovingly described (Galway is a lovely university town), but at the same time, Bruen is unstinting in his criticisms of the Irish, as well as his praise for the aspects of Irish culture and character that he holds in high regard.

For anyone interested in trying the Jack Taylor mysteries, I’m including a list of the books in the series, as well as the blurb for Book One, The Guards.

Jack Taylor Mysteries

1. The Guards (2001)

2. The Killing of the Tinkers (2002)

3. The Magdalen Martyrs (2003)

4. The Dramatist (2004)

5. Priest (2006)

6. Cross (2007)

7. Sanctuary (2008)

8. The Devil (2010)

9. Headstone (2011)

Blurb for The Guards:

Jack Taylor is a disgraced ex-cop in Galway. Mourning the death of his father, he is slowly drinking to oblivion. He has an ability to “find things” and is asked to investigate a teenage suicide. This leads him into a dangerous confrontation with a powerful businessman. A darker conspiracy slowly unfolds. Aided by a punk girl, he fumbles towards a lethal solution. The narrative is fueled by black humour, stark violence and moments of radiance.

The Guards remain as a chorus in the background, never altogether past, infringing on Jack Taylor at the least expected moment. The intimate, bustling city of Galway, crashing into prosperity, illuminates the story at every turn.

Have you read any of Ken Bruen’s books? If so, what did you think?

New Beginnings

by Sarah on January 8, 2012 · 8 comments

I might be one of about five people in the world who love January. The New Year always brings hope, and the chance to start afresh. It’s also an opportunity to set goals for the coming months. As I love making lists, this appeals to me. The timing is also fortuitous: Yesterday, I submitted ‘Luck of the Irish’ to the editor and agents who requested it, so it’s time to get cracking on a new story.

2011 was my year to focus on writing craft. I participated in several workshops during the first half of the year, as well as reading books on craft. Attending the RWA conference in New York City was a fantastic experience, both personally and professionally. Concentrating on writing theory, and applying the tools I acquired to my WIP, did mean it took me longer to complete ‘Luck of the Irish’ than I’d hoped, but I feel I learned a lot. ‘Luck of the Irish’ might not be perfect, but I know it’s much stronger than its predecessor.

I was fortunate enough to participate in the Romance Divas’ Mentor Program between March and June. My mentor was extremely helpful, and gave me some invaluable advice. She suggested I focus on improving one craft element per story. For ‘Luck of the Irish’, I chose plot structure with a particular concentration on constructing strong scenes. For my next story, I want to work on my use of dialogue and nonverbal communication.

I’m keeping my 2012 goals focused on writing. I want to complete one novella and one novel of by the end of the year. The novella idea might turn into a longer book, but I want to start off with a bare-bones story of around 30K. The novella/potential novel will be a historical romance set in Ireland in the early Twentieth Century. A hard sell, perhaps, but I figure I have nothing to lose by trying. It’s not like I’m a contracted author with deadlines. Besides which, it’s the sort of story I’d love to read, and I think readers can tell when an author feels passionate about the tale they’re telling.

I hope to have the novella/first draft of novel done by the end of March, then take a couple of months off (I’m expecting another baby), and begin writing again in June. I’ll probably start back with Inkygirl’s 250 or 500 Words a Day Challenge to draft another contemporary romance. A page or two a day should be manageable, even with a newborn.

2011 was the year of slow reading. I read 47 novels last year, down from 152 last year. Only 19 were romance, and the vast majority of those were published by Harlequin. I read 5 romances published by the so-called Big Six New York publishers. One reason I read so few books is down to a lack of time. 2011 was crazy busy, and I invested most of my spare time on my writing, or writing-related reading. Another reason is my lack of satisfaction with the variety of settings and tropes on offer from the traditional publishers. Either I’m bang out of luck in that what’s popular at the moment doesn’t appeal to me, or publishers are playing it safe and not publishing the sort of envelope-pushing romances I miss from the Nineties and early 2000s. For more on this topic, Sandy at All About Romance has a great blog post entitled Romance Rant (Volume XXXVI).

How was 2011 for you reading wise? Did you discover any great new-to-you authors? If you write, did you achieve your goals? 

Procrastination Station

by Sarah on November 7, 2011 · 5 comments

Today is Day Seven of NaNoWriMo and my self-prescribed NaNoEdMo. In other words, this blog post is an oh-so-subtle attempt at creative avoidance. What I’m supposed to be doing is wrestling a particularly stubborn scene into submission, but try as I might, it still sounds stiff. Gah! It’s probably best to leave it and move on to another.

With the exception of today’s frustration, I’m at the fun stage of my WIP. To paraphrase a line from Debra Dixon’s excellent GMC: Goal, Motivation and Conflict, I fall under the category of writers who dislike writing, but love having written. First drafts are a slog. Second drafts are frustrating, but with moments of intense satisfaction. Third (and subsequent) drafts are where it’s at for me. I love seeing my story take shape, and I get a buzz from marking off chapters as polished on my progress spreadsheet. There are still a few minor plotholes and a couple of redundant subplots floating around my WIP, but they can be fixed relatively quickly when I do my final polish.

I keep meaning to do a blog post about the books on the craft of writing I find the most useful. I haven’t finished compiling it, but here are three I refer to regularly.

The one I quoted above, Debra Dixon’s GMC: Goal, Motivation and Conflict, was worth every cent of the ridiculous price I paid for it. It can only be ordered directly from the publisher, Gryphon Books for Writers. The book costs $19.95 plus postage (which is where it got pricey for me). Despite being the most expensive craft book I own, GMC is the most useful. The concepts it lays forth are simple: every story and every character needs to have a strong goal or desire (something they’re striving to attain), plausible motivation for wanting to attain that goal, and sufficient sustainable conflict to prevent the characters from achieving their goals by the end of Chapter One. Basically, if you took the majority of the writing craft books on the market and distilled their advice into one, you’d have GMC.

James Scott Bell’s Plot and Structure. He doesn’t introduce any ground-breaking information in this book, but like GMC, he presents his ideas in a more instantly accessible language than do other books on the same topic. Dwight Swain’s Techniques of the Selling Writer, for example, is well worth reading if you have the time, but he often takes pages to make a point which could be summarized in a single sentence. Robert McKee’s Story is even more long-winded.

For revisions, I particularly recommend Elizabeth Lyon’s Manuscript Makeover. She introduces so-called “inside-out” and “outside-in” revision techniques which suit different writers. A brief intro at the start of each chapter indicates who might benefit from these various techniques. Further chapters focus on revising plot, structure, and characterization. Each section ends with a handy checklist which I now use as a reference when I start my revisions.

Having spent far too much time typing words which are of absolutely no benefit to my WIP, I shall return to my revisions cave. :)

If anyone has read any of the books I mentioned above, I’d love to know what you thought of them. Which are your favourite craft books?

Agatha Raisin & NaNoEdMo

by Sarah on October 30, 2011 · 4 comments

I’m in a reading slump. It might be the weather. Maybe it’s because I’m busy revising my book. Or perhaps it’s simply due to my mad anticipation of two books which will be released next Tuesday: Meljean Brook’s Heart of Steel (the second novel in her steampunk series), and Joanna Bourne’s Black Hawk (crap title but I love Adrian).

In lieu of my usual bedtime reading fix, I’ve been listening to the BBC Radio adaptations of M.C. Beaton’s Agatha Raisin mysteries. I read the first one, The Quiche of Death, several years ago, but I didn’t find it all that wonderful. A friend recommended the radio plays solely on the basis of Penelope Keith’s performance. She was right. Keith is excellent as Agatha, and more than makes up for the weak plots.

For anyone unfamiliar with the series, Agatha Raisin is a middle-aged PR executive who takes early retirement and leaves London to settle down in a small village in the Cotswolds. She’s rude, abrasive, and a militant smoker. She soon sets the locals’ backs up by cheating in competitions, but finds an unlikely ally in the local police constable, especially after her amateur sleuthing helps him solve a murder. Agatha loves to pester her handsome neighbour, James Lacey, a retired military gentleman who wants to be left in peace to write his book on military history.

I hadn’t intended to sign up for this year’s NaNoWriMo as I won’t have time to write 50K of a new book in November. My revisions for my WIP have reached the frustrating stage of being nearly done, but not nearly enough to say I’ll be finished within days rather than weeks. So I decided to use NaNoWriMo as my own personal NaNoEdMo and keep track of my editing progress. For anyone participating, here’s a link to my user profile if you want to be my NaNo buddy.

Has anyone read the Agatha Raisin books past The Quiche of Death? Are they worth getting? Are you doing NaNoWriMo this year?

Like many viewers, I loved the first series (season if you’re in the US) of ‘Downton Abbey’. The Edwardian period has always interested me, and the First World War even more so. I was thrilled when the a second series was confirmed, although I did watch the opening episode with a certain amount of trepidation. My expectations were high. Would it be as good as the previous series? While the first episode was thoroughly engaging and set several interesting storylines in motion, the rest of the series hasn’t been as strong. Still watchable, but not the tight, unpretentious programme I remember fondly. I know a lot of people outside Europe won’t have the opportunity to see the episodes until 2012, so here’s a spoiler-free list of what’s working and not working (for me) five episodes in.

The Pros:

Mary and Edith’s character development. Mary has come a long way from the bored, spoiled brat she was in 1912. Her interaction with a new female character is wonderful. Edith, too, finds a sense of purpose in this series, and this tones down her bitchiness and rivalry with Mary.

The War. The trenches feature in every episode, but only briefly. The majority of the action is still firmly centered on ‘Downton Abbey’ and its inhabitants. The men who’ve gone to war (e.g.: Matthew Crawley) have most of their scenes at Downton while on leave/work for war office/injured. By making Downton Abbey a convalescent home for wounded officers, the war is brought to Downton.

The Dowager Duchess of Grantham. Maggie Smith gets the BEST lines. My favourite was during a conversation with Edith when Edith wants to volunteer her services as a driver for the war effort: “Edith, you are a lady, not Toad of Toad Hall”. Priceless.

Thomas and O’Brien continue their scheming, only now one of them has considerably more power over the servants than they did in the last series.

The new female character I mentioned above. Not sure if she’s in the promo trailer, so I won’t say who she is. As a person, she’s not particularly interesting, but the effect she has on almost all the main characters above stairs is significant. She also generates some great lines from the Dowager Duchess.

The Cons:

‘Downton Abbey’ is getting a bit soapy. Whether or not you view this as a negative, it’s a criticism many viewers have of the current series.

The Earl. He needs to stop moaning about being too old to go to war. It was already becoming tedious by the end of the first episode.

The new maid. Gwen, the maid Sybil helped find a job as a secretary, isn’t in this series. Her replacement is a surly girl named Ethel. My take: if the writers want to build a character up to their inevitable downfall, they have to give them at least some redeeming features to make viewers care. Hell, even O’Brien and Thomas show their vulnerable sides on occasion.

The Bates-Anna-Person from Bates’s Past storyline. Can Bates really be that stupid? Yes, apparently he can. His determination to fall on his own sword is getting old. It’s unfortunate as the actor playing the person from his past is fantastic, but so far underused.

My Verdict: I’d give the first series 9.5 out of 10. Based on the first five episodes of the second, it’s more like a 7 out of 10. I’m still watching and liking it, but it’s not quite living up to the high standard it set for itself.

♦♦♦♦♦

My reading progress has been super slow of late. I’m in a phase where I stop reading a book if it’s not instantly engaging. In other words, the few books I finished are ones I enjoyed.

Among them are three mysteries by British crime fiction author, Elly Griffiths. Her protagonist, Ruth Galloway, is a forensic archaelogist. I ended up reading all three Ruth Galloway books over a single weekend. Ruth is an excellent lead character because…I like her. Main characters in mystery series tend to be either downtrodden (depressed, alcoholics, and so on), or super heroes. Ruth is neither. Here’s the cover blurb for the first book in the series, The Crossing Places:

When she’s not digging up bones or other ancient objects, quirky, tart-tongued archaeologist Ruth Galloway lives happily alone in a remote area called Saltmarsh near Norfolk, land that was sacred to its Iron Age inhabitants – not quite earth, not quite sea. 

When a child’s bones are found on a desolate beach nearby, Detective Chief Inspector Harry Nelson calls Galloway for help. Nelson thinks he has found the remains of Lucy Downey, a little girl who went missing ten years ago. Since her disappearance he has been receiving bizarre letters about her, letters with references to ritual and sacrifice.

The bones actually turn out to be two thousand years old, but Ruth is soon drawn into the Lucy Downey case and into the mind of the letter writer, who seems to have both archaeological knowledge and eerie psychic powers. Then another child goes missing and the hunt is on to find her. As the letter writer moves closer and the windswept Norfolk landscape exerts its power, Ruth finds herself in completely new territory – and in serious danger.

♦♦♦♦♦

I’m up to my neck in revisions for my WIP. I want to submit it by the end of November. One of my characters is not responding well to my editing efforts. I need to do some serious word wrestling over the weekend. Fingers crossed!

Are you, or will you be, watching ‘Downton Abbey’? Have you read any good books lately? I’m in the mood for a good mystery.

Amazon Bestseller Lists and the $0.99 Books

21 September 2011

My usual way to get a handle on what’s popular in bookland is through word of mouth, blogs, and a select few review sites. Occasionally, I check the Amazon bestseller lists to see what the masses are reading. While these lists weren’t always helpful, I did discover the odd book I was interested enough to [...]

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Radio Plays

7 September 2011

My hiatus lasted a little longer than I’d intended. Real life intervened. Plus I hit a major reading slump this summer, so I had very little book-related material to blog about. While my reading (and blogging) ground to a screeching halt, my newly-discovered affection for radio plays flourished. In addition to the excellent BBC radio [...]

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