Monday, December 15, 2014

Book Review: Eighty Days

TLDR: Well-written and clearly well-researched. I lost some interest toward the end though (the details get a little tedious) and skimmed the last 150 pages. All in all, a great story about an interesting page in our history.

I do not usually read historical nonfiction. It's not that I don't enjoy it, it's that I rarely think to read it. When Eighty Days was placed in my hands by a friend, I shrugged and said, "Ok, I'll get to it eventually." When I finally did, I was enthralled.

The book tells the story about two women racing around the world in the late 19th century. Their aim is to circumvent the globe in less time than the fictitious Phileas Fogg (from Jules Verne's book Around the World in Eight Days). The book is part travel tale, part history lesson, and part biography. The heroines of the story, in my opinion, are just as interesting as their history-making trips.

Nellie Bly is a muckraking reporter, ever drawn to sensationalism and novelty; Elizabeth Bisland is her counterpart--quiet and prim, coerced into racing against Nellie Bly by her boss at The Cosmopolitan. Although the two women seem vastly different, they both exhibit courage and "pluck" (as people said at the time) as they traversed through seldom-traveled lands, fell ill, and dealt with delays, storms, and obnoxious men. All without cell phones or the internet.

This book is a great reminder that travel in the 19th century was incredibly risky and often unpleasant. The lower class especially experienced the difficulty of travel in the cramped, sweltering, and often germ-ridden belly of the ship. It was not uncommon for people to occasionally die or fall extremely ill during sea voyages at the time. And those were just the passengers. The people with the highest mortality rate on a ship were the workers in the engine room who shoveled coal for grueling, 4-hour shifts in 140 degree (F) heat. To me, this was one of the most interesting parts of Eighty Days--the glimpse into the inner workings of the enormous steam ships that traversed the seas at the time.

Read this book for the adventure, interesting historical details, and superb writing, but skim the end. Although the story is interesting, the last 150 pages or so (right before both women finish their journeys) drag on a bit and get tedious. Do NOT, however, skip the Epilogue. It is a fascinating look at the lives of Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland after their fame dies down (much quicker than you might guess) and they struggle to forge new lives for themselves. It's a tragic ending that is also a commentary about the public's whims and short memories.

A four-star book.


Sunday, December 7, 2014

DON'T Publish Your NaNo Piece (yet)!

You've written your 50,000 words, you've re-read your manuscript a couple times, you're all set to start querying agents, right? Or, if your aim is to self-publish, you're ready to showcase your work to the world, right?

Wrong.

You might think you have the most creative, exquisitely-written work of historical fiction known to man sitting on your laptop, but trust me, you don't. No one gets it right the first time around, especially after a rushed month of work.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, Hemingway once wrote, "The first draft of anything is shit." Well, it's mostly true.

My advice? Give yourself a little distance from your NaNo piece. Put it in a drawer or hand it off to a friend (who will give you honest feedback), then come back to it when you're less attached to those words and sentence Steven King dubbed "your darlings." At this point, you can rework major plot points, reassess your characters, examine the plot flow and readability. Then you're all set to publish, right?

Still no, sorry.

Even if you're satisfied with your work at this point, it helps to have as many eyes on your manuscript as possible. This is where your writing community comes into play. Don't have a writing community? Join one. I'm part of four writing groups that I found through MeetUp, a website I recommend to everyone who is looking for a like-minded community (it offers everything from hiking groups to knitting clubs to Dr. Who fan meet-ups). Find a writing critique group (preferably one that specializes in your genre) and begin workshopping your writing.

You'll find that a roomful of fresh perspectives is incredibly helpful for your writing. Any critique group worth their salt will point out plot holes or incongruities that you overlooked and let you know if they're confused by certain sections of your story. DO NOT ignore their comments. Chances are, if one or two people have a problem with a character/setting/major plot point, other readers will too. And don't get defensive when you hear others criticize or critique your work. They're only trying to help you, after all, and expect you to be just as blunt and honest with them.

So, you rewrote your NaNo piece, you workshopped it to death, you re-wrote certain parts. At this point, you're probably wondering, "Can I just publish the bloody thing already?"

My answer: Only if you've done everything in your power to make your manuscript the very best it can be. I've been known to sit on manuscripts for an awfully long time before "going public" with them. I want to make sure all my plot points line up, my characters are well-developed and believable, and my story has good forward motion (without any superfluous scenes or details). But, that's my style. Maybe you're really good at rewriting your story and getting it right (according to your standards) the first time. Excellent. You know your writing and your own personal standards better than anyone else.

Good luck to you and your 50,000 magnificent words. They're in their infancy right now and only you can give them the right nourishment to grow and blossom into something spectacular. Be patient and diligent and eventually you'll know the time is right to show off your creation to the world.



Sunday, November 30, 2014

What Are Your Nonliterary Influences?

Kate Bitters, Bitter blog
Today's blog is inspired by a short piece from the New York Times Book Review section. A couple of authors were asked "What are your nonliterary influences?" My favorite reply came from James Parker. He declared that comedians were some of his greatest motivators:

"...I'm thinking not of individuals, but of a generic comedian-figure: the stand-up comic. Spotlit, framed by vacancy, existentially alone. By what right does he or she hold this space? By no right at all, unless it be the right of sheer presence. Which is more or less how I feel every time I start a piece of journalism: Better get out there and, you know, own it somehow. Flatten the inner heckler with a spinning back-kick of an adverb. Perhaps one day I'll be able to begin a review or an essay casually, in media res, like Edmund Wilson--as if the reader has just walked into the salon where I've been droning superbly for the last two hours. But not yet. I should add that I could never be a stand-up comic, because I can't think on my feet. I literally have no access to language unless I'm sitting down."

Beautifully put.

In this blog, I've written about some of my nonliterary influences, including musician Regina Spektor, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, and painfully ordinary, everyday surroundings.

Beyond all that, I'm an observer. I watch and listen; I take-in people's features and listen to the texture of their voice. I notice others' moods and wonder about their stories. This kind of curiosity and ultra-sensitivity to my surroundings has spurred several ideas for books and short stories.

That, and dreams. Extraordinary ideas sometimes pop out of my subconscious.

How about you? What are some of your nonliterary influences?

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Find Frank (and the 200 pages I scrapped)

TLDR: In sum, editing first (and second) drafts of a manuscript is all about making tough choices and sometimes you have to scrap hundreds of pages (like I did) and start over. In the words of Steven King, "Sometimes you have to kill your darlings." Here's how I did it:

Find Frank, Kate Bitters


I started writing Find Frank in July, 2013 and declared that month my NaNoWriMo (JulNoWriMo?). I had a great idea, tons of motivation, and gobs of free time. I started cranking out about five pages each day and ended up with well over 100 pages and about 55,000 words. I was thoroughly pleased with myself.

Then, I set my writing aside.

I had finished my second novel that spring (Ten Thousand Lines) and decided I wanted to return to the manuscript and start editing. So I edited...and edited...and completely neglected Find Frank.

Then, I started talking to people about my project and revealed the plot to a few close friends during a New Year's Eve party (the plot, by the way, was loosely about Waldo (as in, the main dude from Where's Waldo) as a paranoid schizophrenic who is being used by an organization called The White Wizard and sent on bizarre missions while tripping on mind-altering drugs...not a complicated premise at all). My friends liked the idea, but had tons of questions and, without meaning to, they began poking holes in the plot.

THESE are the kinds of friends a writer needs. I can get unadulterated praise from my mother.

After the party, I couldn't stop thinking about the advice my friends gave me. Maybe they were right; maybe my plot was so convoluted it would be difficult to iron-out on paper. Additionally, I didn't want to get in any hot water with Martin Handford (the creator of Where's Waldo) and I also didn't want to sully Waldo's name for the millions of children who adore him (although, that was definitely a secondary concern compared to getting sued by Mr. Handford's people).

So, I started re-thinking my idea. The re-thinking process looked something like this:

Novel Planning, Kate Bitters

I'm not sure what I would do without my gigantic pad of paper. It helps me visualize my ideas, to really scrutinize them and see if they gel. I scribbled all over the ginormous paper, connecting subplots, drawing arrows between characters, writing frazzled notes about setting, character features, and plot.

When I emerged from my planning session (which took nearly a full day, on and off), I ended up with a much better idea than the original one.

So, I began writing.

And writing.

And writing.

...And ended up with 80 pages of material I thought I liked.  In the meantime, I continued editing Ten Thousand Lines and began (unsuccessfully) shopping it around to agents. One agent said she liked the idea, but wanted me to cut my word count from 146,000 to under 120,000. So, I did. It took over a month of work and, in the meantime, Find Frank was left behind once more.

When I finally popped my head out of the mires of editing I decided to re-read Find Frank. I didn't much care for it.

Let me rephrase: I liked the overarching plot, but the writing structure left something to be desired. I almost ignored my feelings of misgiving and plowed ahead with writing the rest of it, but I'm so glad I didn't. Instead, I took what I had, restructured it, filled in some plot holes, and started over.
Find Frank, Kate Bitters

Currently, I'm 60,000 words into the story again and I'm loving it. I've re-read the entire thing recently and felt much more comfortable with the structure and plot flow. The book is far from complete (I still have about 25,000 words left to write, and then I'm going to edit/workshop/revise the shit out of it).

The main take-away? Editing is not for the faint of heart.

It takes tons of chutzpah to sift through your words (your lovingly selected, carefully planned metaphors and dialogue) and slash them to bits. But you have to do it and, believe me, your story will evolve and grow stronger each time you do.

Good luck out there.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Editing and need some extra help? I do that. Please contact me through my website.
And high-fives to you for taking that first scary step!
-Kate

Sunday, November 16, 2014

How Neil Gaiman Came To Read My Spectacularly Awful Story

Neil Gaiman, The Bad Gaiman Challenge

It all happened last week. Neil Gaiman stepped onto the stage of the Fitzgerald Theater amidst raucous applause and began bantering with the host of Wits, John Moe. He  read some fairly funny scripted dialogue (in which he was a realtor selling a magical home to a young couple), then did an interview (mostly about The Ocean at the End of the Lane), and finally moved into the main event (well...for me, anyway)...

John Moe began, "Hundreds of you submitted truly horrible, wretched Neil Gaiman stories...couldn't read more than a few at a time before I had to get up and walk around the room a little bit."

Neil Gaiman responded, "You should be ashamed of yourselves." Then, he began reading the five horrible little stories that "won" the Bad Gaiman Challenge.

The first story was mine.

Maybe "won" isn't the right word. After all, the contest was all about impersonating Neil Gaiman's writing style...and doing it really badly. It involved coming up with the absolute worst piece of short literature bunk that one could spew into existence. Somehow, I managed to pen a short story so terrible that it drifted to the pile of god-awful, putrid, ill-conceived submissions and was chosen by the staff at Wits to be read by Neil Gaiman.

I should not be as proud of this accomplishment as I am.

What does it prove, after all? I guess it shows my prowess at copying a writer's style and reworking it into an exaggerated, truly awful form. This is surely a skill that I will use on the daily from here on out...right?
Kate Bitters, Neil Gaiman, Bad Gaiman Challenge

Anyway, even if this writing contest was the strangest thing I have ever entered, I was still tickled at being chosen. Tickled, that is, until one of the staff members at Wits copied a word in my story incorrectly and made Mr. Gaiman stumble as he read, "...had ticked in his waistcoat...possibly tucked? It says ticked here." Wherein John Moe rejoined, "It's bad on many levels."

Oh dear. My bad story was made worse by some incompetent intern [Edit: The Senior Producer of Wits contacted me and told me she made the typing error. Sorry, intern, for the unfounded blame!] who was unable to copy and paste my words onto Mr. Gaiman's note cards. (And yes, I did go back and check that I had actually written "tucked" and not "ticked").

So, my 15 seconds of fame quickly fizzled and everyone else moved on with their lives as I obsessed over the mistaken word that Neil Gaiman, THE Neil Gaiman, read from my story. If I ever meet Mr. Gaiman I will most likely ask him if he remembers the Bad Gaiman Challenge and the story he read about a tiny poker game and lactating she-boars and a town called Mug-Wumpton...

...and he will most likely say no.

I wouldn't blame him. Such hideous prose should be scratched out of anyone's memory (let alone someone who is paid to write good prose). In any case, my story is immortalized in a Wits podcast, which you can find here at minute 23:15:

http://www.witsradio.org/episodes/gaiman-diamond/

[Edit: There's also a video! Enjoy: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-cK-8jnub5Q]

For those of you who would like to see the written version of this ugly, little tale, here it is:

The world’s tiniest poker game took place on the head of a pin. All the usual suspects were invited: Marv the unicorn, Cornelius the animate skeleton, Wasp the pig, and Henrietta the imp. I stumbled upon the game when I was travelling to my grandmother’s house in Mug-Wumpton—jabbed my foot right into the pin and caused Wasp the pig to spill the extra aces he kept tucked in his waistcoat. It probably wouldn’t have happened if the sky over Mug-Wumpton wasn’t a sickly purple that day. But the sky rats were out and the she-boars were lactating, so the sky changed and the pin was stepped on and poor Wasp the pig was never invited to another poker game again.
Kate Bitters, Bad Gaiman Challenge, Wits

Yes, a truly awful little story, but I will never forget the sound of Neil Gaiman's voice as he read it and John Moe's response afterwards: "Yeah, that's bad."

[To check out my not-quite-so-terrible prose, please visit www.KateBitters.com]

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Do You "Social Media" Instead of Writing?

First of all, please excuse my use of "social media" as a verb. It really shouldn't be, but I'm afraid that's what it's turning into: an action. As in, "I'm just going to social media for a while before I write another page of my novel." Oh dear. I expect Mignon Fogarty to barge in and rap my knuckles with a ruler at any moment.
Kate Bitters, The Bitter Blog
Photo courtesy of evermooremilestones.com

Grammar aside, let's move on to the meat of the issue. Tell me if this scenario seems familiar to you:

You have some free time; you want to continue work on that novel you started a couple months ago. You sit down at your computer with the best of intentions, fingers ready to fly across the keyboard when a thought flickers through your mind, "I should check my Facebook page. I haven't posted an update in a while."

So, you visit your page, post an update, and see that someone Liked (ugh, another fake verb!) your page. "Who is this person?" you wonder and proceed to click on their name and visit their page. Then, your phone sounds.

Someone just added you on Instagram. "Cool!" you think. "I wonder what kind of pictures they post." So, you jump from Facebook to Instagram, browsing through pictures for half an hour when CHIRP! someone favorited (yet another made up verb!) a tweet from yesterday. "Hmm," you think, "should I start following that person? Will they follow me back?" Then, you remember that you haven't logged into Just Unfollow for a while to see who's stopped following your account.

And the day marches on, inundated with LinkedIn updates, a new Goodreads newsletter, Tumblr updates, RSS feed alerts, a new Blogger follower, a comment on last week's Vine video, a slurry of Google Alerts, and on and on and on.
Kate Bitters, The Bitter Blog
Photo courtesy: FireWalkerApps

By the time you sift through all your social media, post updates (even if you're super efficient and use a tool like Hootsuite), comment on others' posts, add back followers, update your profile, thumb through your Google Alerts for interesting fodder for this weeks' blog post, etc., you've used up so much of your day that your writing is completely neglected. Another day claimed by the ocean of updates and virtual connections.

And your novel has been set aside yet again.

It's easy to fall into the social media snare. Authors today (indie or not) need to have some kind of social media presence. It's simply expected of us now. What makes things difficult is that there is SO MUCH FREAKING NOISE out there it is hard to get noticed by anyone unless you're constantly making a fuss.

But why even bother to make a fuss when you don't have the material to back up your social media marketing? Why spend hours strategically following blogs on Tumblr when you could be working away on your next novel or poetry series or short story collection? You shouldn't. Your focus should be on your material above all else. If you don't have the chops, don't pick up the trumpet and start playing.

Sure, you can build up an army of Twitter followers by posting dazzling photographs and videos, but what does that army mean? Nothing, if you have nothing substantial to offer them.

I'm not saying that you shouldn't invest some time in building up your social media base before you are published, but I am saying that you should get your priorities straight. Above all, you're a writer. You write compelling, thoughtful, edge-of-your-seat material that you're proud of and want to show to the world. Isn't that worth marketing?

Kate Bitters, The Bitter Blog
Photo by HappyWriter
This week, I challenge you to make an honest effort to write. Close your browser, put your phone on silent, set aside an hour or two that is dedicated solely to writing, and WRITE. It doesn't matter if you're penning Pulitzer Prize-worthy material, the point is you're writing. Writing is a craft (just like playing the violin or woodworking or playing soccer) and you need to practice your craft every day in order to stay up to snuff.

And after you've written a little, go ahead, tell your millions of followers about it.

Good luck and happy writing.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Book Review: Sweetness #9


At the end of Stephan Eirik Clark's debut novel, Sweetness #9, I felt like eating some organic, small-batch sauerkraut. Clark's book cleverly and thoughtfully dissects the ethics of food testing and the pressures of the capitalist free market in the form of a sharp (and often laugh-out-loud funny) narrative told by flavor scientist, David Leveraux.
The Bitter Blog, Book Review, Kate Bitters
Kate's rating: 4 out 5 stars

Leveraux spent the early part of his career studying the effects of a new sweetener (Sweetness #9) on a batch of lab rats. He began to notice troubling traits in the rodents--apathy, aggressiveness, obesity, depression--but was encouraged to keep his mouth shut and his head down and just do his damn work. After all, the rats didn't have cancer, did they?

The Bitter Blog, Kate Bitters, Book ReviewDavid half-heartedly attempts to blow the whistle on the testing facility, but instead retreats into a troubled silence. He ends up leaving his job and moving on with his life, but is haunted by his decision to keep quiet about the effects of Sweetness #9. Eventually, the bright pink granules become the number one sweetener on the market and David begins to wonder if Sweetness #9 is contributing to America's explosion of obesity, anxiety, and depression. 

David's own family seems to mirror America's troubles. His wife, Betty, struggles with her weight as she gulps down diet sodas and tries a myriad of new fitness programs; his son, Ernest, has a love affair with packaged food and red food coloring (adding it to everything he consumes, including his orange juice, which he calls a "bloody sunrise"); and his daughter, Priscilla, decides to rebel against her family's food regimen and embraces veganism and all-natural, organic foods. Amidst David's struggle to keep harmony in his family, Sweetness #9 once again creeps back into his life.

By the end of Clark's novel, you'll find yourself checking the labels of every packaged food item at the grocery store and wondering about the multi-syllabic ingredients listed there. Toeing the line between deadly serious and sarcastic, Sweetness #9 will have you laughing, cringing, and wondering how David Leveraux will untangle his messy life.

The answer? Something to do with small-batch, organic sauerkraut.

I give this book 4 stars out of 5. A thought-provoking, funny read that moved a bit too slowly in the middle and wrapped up a bit too hastily at the end. I look forward to Clark's next novel and hope that he continues to write in the same inventive, bizarrely-humorous tone.

The Bitter Blog, Kate Bitters