Pledge Allegiance is out!

It took longer than I expected to get this book out. No good reason, except I kept editing and re-editing it. It’s a book that matters to me. One that takes some risks. Good things.

Pledge Allegiance is based on a true incident. Years ago, when I was an editor in Texas — much like the protagonist in the Texas series — a young football player refused to play for the varsity team because it carried the confederate flag.

His momma taught him that he shouldn’t fight for any flag but the American flag. Like his father had. His father died in Vietnam, fighting for that flag. So he stood up and forced a compromise. And yes, the KKK marched to support the flag.

He’s one of my heroes. I don’t remember his name and I don’t know what happened to him after that. But Texans take their football seriously and what he did took courage. This book is dedicated to young people like him and to the mothers who teach them right from wrong.

Of course, this book is fiction. What happens to Clay Peabody is made up. The situation escalates. People die. People learn some hard leasons. Katy Williams, the protagonist, carries a heavy burden of guilt.

In case people think this is just old news, it wouldn’t happen today, think again. The confederate flag still flies over the capital in South Carolina. When Tea Party supporters cheered the closing of the government a year ago, they waived confederate flags. Racism isn’t dead.

There are some who will tell you that the confederate flag isn’t about race. It’s about rebellion, and fighting spirit and regional pride. And maybe it is about those things too. But don’t be fooled — it’s about race. I never saw a black person with a confederate flag on his bumper. It’s about white people who think there was a past time when life was idyllic, and that blacks knew their place. Well that past time is a fantasy, and it only existed for a very priviledged few. And they weren’t black, or brown, or yellow. They weren’t women. Hell, they weren’t even most of the whites who were kept poor and ignorant right along with the blacks and others, so that a few, rich, white men could have the benefits of privilege and power.

Huh. Sounds like now doesn’t it?

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Sheikinah Legacy by Gary Lindbergh

In Amazon reviews you will see the phrase “I just didn’t like the main character” or “I just couldn’t relate to her” or him. In the last book I read — well mostly read — I realized what caused those feelings: the author didn’t like her. If the author doesn’t like a character, there is no way he/she can make the character likeable or even believable. And to varying degrees, all characters, even the bad guys, have to be believable. We need to understand what motivates them. To do that, the author must know the characters well. And if you build characters like that, you’ll end up liking them — even the bad guys.,

In this case, it is even made worse, because the author doesn’t like his protagonist. She’s an international television reporter. And now that I think of it practically his only female character. The author frequently refers to her feelings of guilt at having failed as a mother because she’s never home. Yet for this story, she and her son are on a search for her mother who disappeared years ago. They seem to be relating just fine. Her son has Aspergers, and she seems to know how to cope with that as They flee through India. She’s cold with her husband, is having an affair with her camera man whom she doesn’t treat very well, and then feels guilty about his death. She does stupid stuff. One of the men who is hiding her, brings her clean clothes. They’re way too big, and she’s horrified that this hot young man might think they’d fit. So she leaves the safe house and goes to the Indian street market to find something better. And has to be rescued. Please.

It was at that point I skipped to the end to see how it all came out and called it done.

This was a protagonist I should have been able to identify with. I should have liked her. But I couldn’t because the author wouldn’t let me.

Characters don’t have to be perfect people for us to like them. I just saw the movie Captain Phillips. The director makes us understand the Somali pirates and we come to sympathize with their plight, to pity them, and even to find at least two of the likeable. Or to take a classic — take Hannibal Lector, in Silence of the Lamb. Part of the horror for me is the like-ability of this mass murder. We don’t want to. The author doesn’t wimp out and make him have a soft side or a troubled childhood. But the author creates a character that likes himself, and that the author likes.

In the Sheikinah Legacy, the author despises his own protagonist. Hard to know if he doesn’t like reporters, women reporters, working women or women — but he should have chosen a protagonist that he could believe in — and therefore make us believe in.

This is Gary Lindbergh’s first book. He’s got a sequel out, which I won’t be buying, but perhaps he’ll come to appreciate the character he’s created. I could have liked her. I feel like it was a missed opportunity to have made a friend.

Jack Reacher, child prodigy?

This short story has 16 year old Jack Reacher as a busy boy in the summer of 1977. During roughly 12 hours? he meets an FBI agent, has the mob after him, hooks up with a Sarah Lawrence student, and puts the word out on the Son of Sam. During the 1977 blackout of New York City.

Many of the reviews are contemptuous. This is the 40 year old Reacher in a 16 year old body, they proclaim. Well yes, that’s the point. (And if he was 16 in 1977 he’s in his 50s, not 40s.) Reacher has always been Reacher. He was Reacher at 6, at 16, and at 40. Experience adds on but doesn’t change him.

Believable? No the short isn’t believable. Nor are the novels. This is a tongue in cheek Indiana Jones piece. Read it for what it is.

As for me? I was in NYC that night — a college student in a coffee house in Washington Square, living at NYU. I could have been one of those college girls, all long limbed and straight hair. And I remember that night, sitting on the steps watching the stars come out over the city.

Lee Childs gets the ambience of that summer right. But I’m one up on Reacher — I got to see the Yankees play.

Write Tight isn’t always Right

I’ve read two very different books lately that have made me think about spare writing.

As a reporter I was was taught specific nouns, strong active verbs, few adjectives, no adverbs. Subject, verb order. The Dallas Morning News had a rule that you couldn’t start a sentence with a prepositional phrase. Never in the lead, rarely anywhere else.

Leads were supposed to be no longer than 23 words — the Portland Oregonian’s writing coach used to routinely count leads in the paper and urge writers to simplify. One month, the leads averaged 42 words, resulting in a scathing memo.

Write tight.

Fiction was the land of descriptive writing. There you could use your adjectives and adverbs. There you could use a — gasp — semicolon. Correctly, one hopes. Sentences could be long; paragraphs could have more than two sentences.

I tend to write fiction like a reporter. I feel like I am getting away with something when I have descriptions that go on for a whole paragraph, and without attribution. So far readers say they like the style.

But you can go overboard.

Cynthia Eden writes some excellent paranormal romances. I’m particularly fond of Cry Wolf. It was the first I read of hers, and I liked it enough that I sought out and read most of the rest. I hope she someday expands on the somewhat haphazard world she’s created and moves into a more urban fantasy series that dovetails with her existing books. She’s also written some romances, and those I’m less fond of simply because I find “contemporary romances” predictable. After all, I snuck out my Mom’s Harlequins over 40 years ago. So it says something that I’d read one of her contemporaries at all.

I didn’t like it. Yes, it was somewhat predictable, but I expected that. But the style seemed overwrought. And I realized that the writing especially at the end of the chapters was so spare, it had the reverse effect that reporters intend.

Short paragraphs. One sentence, maybe two.

Even shorter sentences.

Just a word or two.

Jon Land is an old pro. His series featuring Caitlin Strong starts with Strong Enough to Die, a completely different genre than Eden’s. His writing varies the pace with descriptive passages, dialog and action. It is his dialog that echoes the spare but overwrought pace that I found annoying in Eden’s book:

“I’m skeptical that someone of your background can understand victims of violence, Miss Strong.”

“Because I practiced it.”

“Quite well, apparently.”

“Torture is a different kind of violence, more like rape. The strong dominating the weak.”

“Do you know a lot about rape, Miss Strong?”

“I know a lot about the strong and the weak, Miss Navarro.”

(I don’t like my kindle app — it won’t let me copy a passage. Have to flip between the book and my note pad. So it’s not completely accurate.)

Communication scholarship estimates that 70 percent of oral communication is non-verbal. How we say things is as important as what we say. This passage reads as if it were two gunslingers in a spaghetti Western. Terse. Deadpan. Instead it is between two women in a job interview. We aren’t given attribution tags, emotion, body language. Nor do we have any of the ums, pauses, sentence fragments that characterize human conversation — especially female conversation.

Just words.

So even “write tight” can be too much of a good thing. Never thought I’d say this, but sometimes you need to edit and put words in.

The Darwin Elevator

The Darwin Elevator by Jason M. Hough.

First, I really liked the book. I read about it on Chuck Wenig’s blog, bought it on Aug. 1 devoured it by Aug. 3. All 496 pages of it. Even for me that takes a bit of time, but it was worth it. I also appreciate that it is part of a trilogy with the second book out in a month, and the third a month after that. That’s a strategy I wish more trilogies would try.

Hough brings two strengths to the book: world building and his action sequences. Darwin, Australia, has become the last bastion of mankind. A plaque has turned most humans into feral subhumans. But those who could make it to Darwin and huddle around the sky elevator the aliens left don’t succumb. Those, and the humans who live in habitats at the top of the elevator. The wealthy and the scientific community live in comfort and safety, the masses in fear and squalor below. Bt they depend upon each other: food goes down, air and water and specialty items go up.

The protagonist is an immune — a rare human who does not catch the plaque. He and his crew of other immunes fly out to the potential sites to scavenge what might keep humanity afloat a bit longer. The scavenge scenes and the battles with the subhumans are excellent. I feel as if I were one of the team.

The book has some weaknesses — don’t we all. And for a first book, it’s a pretty smooth read.
A smaller weakness is his characterization. The characters are a bit cardboard-like,
and we’ve seen them them before — the scheming businessman, the brutal dictator that rules the masses, the large man who rarely leaves his hideout as the fence. That doesn’t make them bad characters — they fit into the world the author built. His females are even less fleshed out — the asexual sidekick with the smart mouth, the princess in the tower is a scientist who holds the key who of course is beautiful but wants to be recognized for her brain. Likeable, but without much depth. That may come as the writer develops.

But the biggest problem is the pacing of the narrative arc. The book is likened to Josh Whedon’s well-loved, but short-lived TV show. It is a fair comparison. If the book was a TV series, the episodic, world building that the book does so well would be all that we’d ask of it. But with a book we ask where are we going with this? — the overall narrative arc. The Darwin Elevator reads like the author realized he was 400 ages in, and that he need to wrap it up. As a result, some key events toward the happen off-stage. Hard to believe, but the book needed another 50 pages so that the author could detail the action sequences that wrap up the story in the way that he did the other, earlier world-building scenes.

Still, I will eagerly wait for the next installment. This is a good story. And I like the title. There is the physical meaning — the elevator is in Darwin. The religious fanatics believe the elevator to be Jacob’s Ladder, a religious metaphor. And the book questions why the builders were changing humans — some kind of evolution, and Darwin becomes a reference to Charles Darwin. Nice.

Writing Lessons

As a writer, I wonder if there are pacing guidelines that help you plot the key points of the narrative arc. In Everybody Lies, I worried that the plane/auto race would happen too fast leaving the reader wondering what just happened. It was good for me, because I went back and re- visualized it adding more detail, ratcheting up the tension. And then I went back and did it again, until I felt like it was weighty enough to be the final anchor to the narrative arc.

I’ll probably reread some of the action scenes. I think that’s a weak point in my own writing, and this book does them very well. I was envious.

Everybody Lies

One of my closest friends has been in Europe doing a workshop at the Art Factory (which is a really cool idea). In preparation for the trip, she finally bought an e-reader, and a copy of Everybody Lies. Karen Spears Zacharias is a wonderful writer, leaning more toward memoir — After the Flag is Folded — and Christian commentary — Where is Your Jesus Now? Her most recent book is Silence of the Mockingbirds about child abuse. Her first novel Mother Rain will be out this fall. I admire them all.

So you can imagine I was holding my breath about her reaction. Would it be critical? Even worse, kind? Or the worst of all, deafening silent. But here’s what she said:

So I’ve been reading Everyone Lies and here’s the thing — you know I have zero interest in Alaska so the fact that I’m still reading says a TON about your writing. You have done a terrific job of pacing and description. Your characters are real, and I’m a tough judge about that. There are some format issues with the e-reader but the thing I keep thinking as I read it is Damn that Lois. She can do everything well. You make writing look effortless and that’s always the sign of a good writer. You did good girl.

And in my head is this little refrain: she likes my book, she likes it. She thinks I did good. She likes my book.

Of course, I’m that way about all my reviewers. As a journalist the feedback is immediate. Even as a professor, the feedback from students comes every three months. But fiction novels are different. Takes a long time to produce, and then you put it out there and wait. Wait for sales, for reviews, for anything. That’s hard on a person.

Reviews are the life blood of this new era in publishing — digital word of mouth. That’s why my new email signature says: Read books. Write reviews. Buy more books.

That’s the plan.

Sins of Omission is out

Sins of Omission is live at Amazon and Smashwords. It was the first real novel I completed. I’d written lots of stuff from as early as I could toddle. Short stories, fragments of stories, even novellas. But they were written to entertain me and I didn’t need them polished, or even revised.

In the late 80s I was part of a writer’s group. The challenge went up: can you write a chapter a week? The next week I showed up with chapter one of this book (titled shades of gray at that point. As you can guess, I didn’t stick with that title.). Everyone took it home to read and critique. Week two we did the critique of chapter one and I gave them chapter 2. And so on. I was writing for an audience, and as a journalist, I felt comfortable writing now that I had an audience. I finished the first draft in 17 weeks.
But I was stymied by the bureaucracy of the publishing industry, and it went into the proverbial bottom drawer to be joined by other novels.

Fast forward to now. Sins of Omission would have required more revision than I could contemplate to make contemporary. As I reread this series of novels I realized that raving them set in the 1980s gave them something to be said that couldn’t if I modernized them. So I’ve left them as historical novels. Watch for Pledge Allegiance coming soon.