Tag Archives: author

Ringwald’s “novel in stories” better than expected

Molly Ringwald’s “novel in stories,” When It Happens to You, is better than I expected.  The short stories are connected by common characters and themes of domestic life and inter-personal relationships.  Infidelity, regret, broken trust are all accounted for, as well as hopefulness and love.  The characters are interesting, as are their lives.  Ringwald definitely has something going.  Still, you won’t be fooled into thinking you’re reading Lorrie Moore, who mines much the same territory to much bigger impact.  Ringwald’s work reads a bit too much like the overly polished prose of an MFA student.

Example:  In one of the most affecting situations, newly single mother Marina struggles with her six-year-old son, Oliver, who believes he is a little girl, Olivia.  In an effort to save Oliver from societal disapproval, she throws away all his girlish toys and clothes and buys him only boy stuff.   But it’s like she’s killed the soul of her son, and one day, she makes up her mind to accept him just as he is, and to love him, just as he is.  So she buys him a dress and tells the shopgirl it’s for her daughter.  Great premise, right?  But here’s one long paragraph about the dress she decides to buy.

On a Saturday morning in August, she left Oliver home with the neighbor girl, a sweet-natured teenager whom Marina had known since she was a girl, and took the opportunity to run errands.  She was waiting at the coffeehouse counter after having placed her order when her eye happened upon a dress in the shop window next door.  It was a children’s clothing store named Bees and Buttercups. A broad gilded sign hung above the entrance featuring a pump bumblebee grasping a flower in his anthropomorphic hand.  With the school year beginning, all of the clothes on display were imbued with the hopefulness of the new and unknown.  The dress was light cotton, with petal sleeves, a pin-tucked bodice, and a silk ribbon tied at the waist.  A pair of red leather Mary-Janes were set on the vintage suitcase display next to the dress, delicately crossed at the toes as though in an expression of girlish flirtation.

With a story of such promise, why Ringwald chose to fill the pages with so many words of description, I have no idea.  The word “anthropomorphic” alone tells you that a red pencil is needed.  Her storytelling instincts are strong, her characters are flawed but affecting, and her stories are overly talky and descriptive… resulting in a diminishment of their potential impact.

If Ringwald keeps writing, and doesn’t let being a published author go to her head, I have a lot of hope for her.  I had pretty much expected that When It Happens to You would be terrible.  It wasn’t.

Way to go, Jim Klise!

Author James Klise

It’s been almost two months since I last posted, and I would feel guilty if I haven’t done my best to give up negativity.  Why drag myself down when I’m doing the best I can?

At any rate, I’m breaking my blogging fast with something fun and exciting – at this year’s Printers Row Lit Fest, I reconnected with author James Klise.  Jim used to work where I do, and back then, he was an emerging writer.  Now he’s a librarian at a charter high school, has seen numerous short stories published, and his YA novel, Love Drugged, has received multiple awards.  Way to go!

Love Drugged takes a teen’s  journey to self-acceptance and gives it a frightening twist.  Fifteen year old Jamie Bates wants so much to fit in in high school, he’s not only willing to pretend to be straight, he’s willing to take an experimental drug with scary side effects in the hopes he will actually become straight.  It’s like pray away the gay, only with pharmaceuticals.   Particularly chilling:  the bad guy in the story is Jamie’s girlfriend’s father.  Of course, Jamie comes to the realization that being yourself is the only way to be happy.

Although written for teens, adults – particularly parents – will enjoy Love Drugged as well.   Jamie is an engaging protagonist, the story is well-plotted and the characters are very fresh and real.  I was especially struck by Jamies’s “escalating need for privacy” and his relationship with his parents.  Somehow, Jamie believed that keeping his family in the dark was critical.  As seen through Jamie’s eyes, they’re sincerely comical, professionally unsuccessful, living with the grandparents and making a living through gift-wrapping and packages (sending and receiving).  Busy and self-absorbed, they seem oblivious to the fact that Jamie is doling out little bits of info while keeping the far vaster truths hidden away.

Satisfyingly, when it all starts to come apart and Jamie turns to his folks for help, they turn out to be both capable and clued-in.  I recall that when I was a teenager, I was sure that my parents could not understand me or my concerns; as a parent, I saw my sons felt the same way about me!   Seeing that dynamic in the novel was interesting.

Jim’s second novel will be coming out in 2013- I’m looking forward to reading it.


Book clubbing with Larry Block

So let’s start out right away with saying I’m a giant Lawrence Block fan.  I even said so in the blog post titled Lawrence Block, I’m your super-fan.  I’ve read pretty much everything he’s written, including several “how-to” writing books.

I’m “friends” with the author on Facebook, in that I-wouldn’t-recognize-you-if you-slapped-me-but-you-buy-my-books-way that makes me feel like I have an occasional brush with greatness and probably doesn’t do anything for Mr. Block at all.

Anyway, Larry was kind enough to post on FB that he was going to be speaking to a mystery readers book club at the Salamagundi Club in New York City on the one night that Broadway-vacationer me did not have show tickets.  It was a free event and located convenient to the 14th Street/Union Square subway stop.  Sold.

It was an interesting event.  There were about 30 pleasant, well-read people there, including me, and I believe I was by far the youngest.  The group had selected Block’s The Burglar in the Library (the 8th Bernie Rhodenbarr book) for reading, and questions centered on the book itself, the characters, the writing process, movies of books, and then of course, the publishing world, the Internet and e-books.  I was taking notes on my iPad at the time, and actually owned three books that were available in hard copy for sale at the event – right there, bought from Amazon, and living an electronic life of bits and bytes.  People weren’t eyeing me nervously, but there certainly was a clear lack of interest in this topic.

So here are some things I learned tonight about Lawrence Block:

He wears hearing aids and is gracious about asking you to speak up.  The books he writes are so witty and physical, and Matthew Scudder in particular is so vital, although aging, that it was a bit of a shock to realize that Larry Block is older than my dad.  So I guess my little crush has been inappropriate all along.  Please don’t tell me how old Calvin Trillin is.  I don’t want to know.

There have been three movies based on Larry’s books.  When forced to name one, he points out Burglar, which starred Whoopi Goldberg as Bernice Rhodenbarr, and is not surprisingly, not stellar. You can read more about other Lawrence Block books in development here.  His website mentions A Walk Among the Tombstones in a 2003 development deal, but as recently as 2011, it was on the docket from a production company that included Danny DeVito.  I’d buy a ticket.

He doesn’t show a book in progress to anyone until it’s done, having realized that he only wants to get others’ opinions in order to reinforce his own thought that he should abandon a particular project.  So, no advice, no abandonment.

Writing short stories are as close as you can get to instant gratification, he says.  Novels take longer.  But whatever he’s writing is his favorite, when it’s going well.

He told a funny story about Robert B. Parker (Spenser series) – when asked whether he gets the plot or the characters first, Parker said, “Neither.  The contract comes first.”  Ha!

I asked him what he is working on now – the answer, “Between books right now, but the next one out is Hit Me.”  Hit Me features Keller, Block’s hit man protagonist, in February 2013.

Hello, David Ellis.

NLU’s Writer’s Week came to its conclusion with a half-day workshop on Saturday, July 16th featuring mystery/legal thriller writer David Ellis. He’s reading this right now, I know, because he subscribes to Google Alerts. Quick aside to David – great workshop! Thanks for sharing.

I first made David Ellis’ acquaintance over lunch at the mystery confab Love is Murder – he was earlier in his career, but I believe his debut novel (Line of Vision) had already won the MWA Edgar.  He was a great conversationalist then, and he certainly still knows how to tell a great story.

Since Line of Vision, Ellis has written several stand-alones:  Life SentenceJury of OneIn the Company of Liars, and Eye of the Beholder.  The most recent book is The Hidden Man, the first in his series about attorney and grieving family man Jason Kolarich, soon to be followed by Breach of Trust, the second Kolarich novel.

Here’s some advice on writing a mystery, courtesy of David Ellis:

  1. You can learn to write by writing.  Read really good stuff and you’ll be inspired to write really good stuff.
  2. It’s true you should write what you know.  And if you don’t know it, you better learn it before you write about it.
  3. Humor is tricky but can be rewarding.
  4. Go with what feels right.  The first agent who called him with an offer for Line of Vision had low expectations.  He just couldn’t bring himself to sign the contract… and a good thing, too.  The next agent had big dreams… and sold the book to Penguin/Putnam.`
  5. One key decision:  Point of view.  First person?  Third person?  Second person?  (Tricky, but it can be done!)  The choice you make sets the stage for everything else.  It’s a big decision to have more than one POV in a book.
  6. Character development makes a more satisfying story.  One dimensional characters just march through the plot.
  7. Trust the reader’s imagination.  You don’t have to write every detail – just that one evocative touch that makes the scene come alive.  And that detail can be visual, or it can be a sound, a smell…
  8. Know your protagonist very well.  Ideally, the bad guy, too.  And all major characters.   Write out their backstory, their likes, their dislikes, their physical features, their strengths, their weaknesses.  This’ll keep you on track as you write the book.
  9. Can you write a book about a protagonist that the reader doesn’t like?  Yes, but you might not sell too many books.
  10. At the end of your novel, you want the reader to be surprised but not irritated at the ending.  Strive for what M. Night Shyamalan pulled off with The Sixth Sense.  He didn’t cheat – all the clues that Bruce Willis is dead were right there in the film – but there was an alternative explanation.  The audience bought the misdirection.  Need more examples?  Unbreakable.  The Usual Suspects.
  11. Make the stakes personal and raise the stakes as the book goes on.
  12. Grab the reader.  The first chapter should be the best chapter, first paragraph should be the best paragraph, first line should be the best line.  No backstory.  No lengthy descriptions.

In addition to his own work, Ellis has joined the ranks of James Patterson co-authors.  I was a little disappointed to hear this – I’m not a James Patterson fan and his factory approach to publishing may churn out a consistent product, but it’s not one I buy (or even read for free).   On the other hand, after hearing David Ellis describe what he has learned from Patterson, I can see what the opportunity would be appealing.  And nothing ventured, nothing gained!  

BTW, I did hit the library on Sunday the 17th, and hit the jackpot since all the David Ellis books published to date were right there on the shelf.  I’ve already finished the Jason Kolarich debut The Hidden Man – a great read!  I’m now going back to the start and re-reading Line of Vision.  You, of course, should get to the bookstore and buy retail.