Blocks of Wood

Very nice post by writer Steve York on who exactly owns what when it comes to books.  While I’m not in 100% agreement with how much better off students might be with paper-less textbooks (I don’t they will be, at least not with the current generation of readers, and maybe not ever . . . hang out with multiple tomes of fat textbooks as long as I did and, yeah, they’re a pain, but current readers just can’t replicate your ability to move to the right paragraph, highlight where you need, or even get the bloody tables right–see this post by Booksquare, which is spot-on), I do agree that textbooks are hugely overpriced and frequently outdated by the time they hit shelves. This is particularly true of science textbooks where, in some fields, there are revisions and major shifts in understanding every other month.  There’s also a good article about the problems with ebook pricing right now and how Amazon might actually be undermining itself–and us–here

Currently reading: Vacations from Hell  (Libba Bray, Cassandra Clare, Claudia Gray, Maureen Johnson, Sarah Mylnowski) and Dolphin Mysteries  by Toni Frohoff, Kathleen Dudzinksi, and Marc Bekoff.

Currently listening to: Wicked Prey  by John Sandford (Sandford’s long been one of my favorite writers and Richard Ferrone is an audiobook god.)

No, I’m not a Luddite

A great article by Nicholson Baker for The New Yorker and not just his observations on using the Kindle, either.  Pay attention to what happened when he went up to Maine.  He walked into a REAL bookstore with a knowledgeable owner, who offered advice on what he might enjoy reading and he walked out with a BOOK (two, actually).

THAT is something the Kindle–and Amazon–can not provide, the kind of personal attention from someone who enjoys, is savvy about and actually reads books.  Amazon does try.  You know, when you look at a particular book, the computer algorithm churns out another book you might enjoy reading based on your choice.  There have been a very few occasions when that’s been helpful.  Mostly, though, it’s not and there’s no way to have a nice give-and-take with a person over what he or she enjoyed about the book either.  (We’ve all experienced Amazon’s other regrettable tendency–to assume that just because you looked up a book on, say, mountaineering, you will be forever interested in other books around that topic.  You’re subjected to a blitzkreig of related books on everything from Mount Everest to carabiners to hiking in the Adirondacks to how to tie a proper knot.   Of course, you can understand it; Amazon wants you to buy more, buy quickly, buy efficiently, buy because you believe you want something because they’ve helped create the desire that, somehow, you need this.  Baker talks about this up-front.)

But this isn’t a tirade against consumerism.  Heavens, I want people to buy books!  Books are good for you!  I think it was David McCullough who said, in the superb lecture, “The Course of Human Events” (available on Audible and worth a listen)–and I paraphrase– Read.  Read books and read often. More properly, he said in an interview:

“I think the problem with education in our country is us. We’re not doing anywhere near enough as parents or grandparents to talk about history with our children, to talk about the books we’ve loved about historical subjects or figures. And taking our children or grandchildren to historic sights… we can’t leave that for the schools because they don’t do it much anymore. Reinstate the dinner table conversation. Reinstate dinner as part of family life. I grew up that way. It’s another era, I know, but there’s nothing wrong with the idea that you’d talk about history or current events and politics at the dinner table. Every night. Go with your children to Fort Necessity or Monticello or someplace like that. They never forget it. It changes their life.”

The real loss for us readers is the decline of the independent bookseller and I’m not talking just about having only a few purveyors of our work.  I’m talking about the experience of being in a physical store with real books.  I have a very smart writer-friend who believes that bookstores will still be around in the future and that they will adapt because until every single human being can afford a Kindle, books will remain a durable, important technology.  But the display of and interaction with physical books, with a person who actually knows what’s inside or can guide you in a meaningful way to something you might actually want to read, is imperiled.

Because pay attention to what else Baker discovered: Amazon doesn’t have a bunch of books available for the Kindle.  (I know . . . shocker, there.)  Now, of course, their title list will grow; Sony has the same problem.  But YOU would never know that books are missing if you had only grown up with a Kindle.  Or a Sony.  Or whatever.  Shouldn’t you have a choice–and a full range of choices?  Why should Amazon be allowed to steer you to what it deems is worthwhile reading?  By definition, if a Kindle edition isn’t offered, it’s because Amazon has decided it ain’t cost-effective yet, or there hasn’t been enough demand.  (Sure, sure, you can suggest making it available, but I want to see that actually work a couple hundred times before I believe it’s taken seriously.  In a real bookstore?  If a book isn’t there, the owner orders it.  Or tries to track it down for you.)

I’m not a Luddite, not at all.  I have graduated from composing novels and stories long-hand and then transcribing them with a typewriter to composing on the computer.  I love gadgets.  I covet my daughter’s iPod Touch.  I wish I could find a reason to need an iPhone.  But I love books, too, and ain’t no Kindle–or Sony or Plastic Logic or whatever–going to substitute for that.

Of course, Baker ends with a recommendation for the iPod Touch or iPhone with a Kindle app . . . but that’s another story for another day.

A Petition Worth a Few Seconds of Your Time

Ban the Gas Chamber for Animals

From Care2Action Alerts:

Michigan House Bill 4263, the Humane Euthanasia of Shelter Animals Act, would ensure that when the state’s unwanted, sick or unadoptable shelter animals have to be euthanized, the procedure will only be done by injection of sodium pentobarbital.

The American Humane Association considers euthanasia by injection to be the only acceptable and humane means of euthanasia for animals in animal shelters.

B&N’s Big Yawn

Actually, more about ereaders: A very nice point-by-point rebuttal of why the B&N announcement ain’t much on Booksquare.

Like I said, I’ve written ebooks, and I’m certainly not slamming them.  I think I’m more disgusted by the marketplace. For the record, I have a Sony eReader and received it years ago in its first iteration, the “old” PRS-500.  I was thrilled.  But, to put it bluntly, the Sony ebookstore isn’t such great shakes; the prices are pretty high (and, many times, higher than a mass-market paperback); customer service is lousy; the interface works only fitfully if you’ve got Norton (a known issue that the Sony tech people have known about for YEARS and still haven’t fixed).  Do I mind that I have to connect to my computer to download books?  Heck, no.  I connect for a bunch of stuff: my Palm, my iPod, my Alphasmart.  Ain’t no biggie.  Do I care that things aren’t available at the touch of a button–i.e., “whispernet?”  Uh . . . no.  Cuts down on impulse buys, you ask me.  (Which, btw, is what Amazon is counting on when they make such instant gratification available.)  Being at the computer means I also have to pause and think, Is this book available in my library?  For free?  Well, for having paid taxes . . .

Amazon hates people like me, same way Audible does.

So here’s the deal.  I like my eReader, I really do.  A few weeks ago, I broke down and traded in my old 500 for an upgraded 505 (in Sangria Red and with an engraving . . . okay, I’m a sucker for a nice color).  Is it substantially better?  Yes: faster page turns, better battery life, more storage.  Do I read TONS on it? Nope.  I have established a habit, for better or worse, of reading certain authors on my reader.  Don’t ask me why because I don’t know.  Just . . . habit.  I started OUT reading them on my Sony and now I’m comfortable reading them on my Sony (not ONLY, but for the most part).  But will I preferentially read on my Sony?  No.  I still prefer the feel of a real book, environmentally unsound as that may be.

I won’t wax lyrical about the virtues of a book.  If you’re a bibliophile like me, you already know and if you’re not, then I can’t convince you.  But I care enough about books that I’ve learned how to bind my own (very tedious work but the result is well worth it) and I want to learn more about binding in different materials and, maybe, restoration.  There’s just something about a book.  For the record, my daughters LOVE books.  Hate the eReaders.  Won’t even consider them.

Which brings up a very interesting point.  My kids grew up on a steady diet of books.  They are bored if they don’t have a new one to read.  They’ve read some so many times I’ve bought new copies.  Books are proven technologies; they wear and travel well; they are satisfying, low-cost experiences (frequently less than a movie and last longer and you just have to bring your own popcorn).  They are beautiful works of art.

A reader is a brick.  A very nice brick, but it’s a brick.  It has no character.  There is no way I will look fondly at my brick or even remember a book I read on it FIRST by its cover because it doesn’t really have one.  Yet the fact that I WILL read certain authors on my reader because I read them on a reader first is really, really interesting.  This suggests that reading behavior can be trained (duh) and that just as I read certain authors in hardcover right away, I will wait, patiently, for the library copy to become available or the paperback of others because I’ve done it before.  Simple familiarity.

I don’t think this does the writers of those books I read first on a reader a great service.  If anything, it means that I don’t go to the library to seek out their older stuff, or necessarily spend a lot of time on the computer looking for newer work.  Like many friends, I sometimes buy an ebook for the express purpose of deciding if I like it well enough to buy the hardcover/paperback.  And, of course, I can’t lend my books out to anyone, which completely sucks because all writers know that word of mouth and passing around a physical object is quite, quite persuasive.

Shrinks say that you remember 30% of what you hear, 30% of what you see, and about 66% of what you see and hear. (This is why it’s better to give a lecture with Powerpoint or slides; trust me on this.)  I’d like to add another category.  I suspect that you remember more of what you read if you both see and TOUCH the actual medium.  Not the bloody reader.  The real, honest-to-G-d book.  I know this is true, because I can tell you where my books are in my library not because they’re all alphabetical but because I remember the look, feel and shape.  The color.  I can tell you what shelf and which book is shelved next to it.  I can’t do that with my reader even though I pretty much know which books are on my reader (I think).  But I can’t tell you WHERE they are–in what order.

Something to think about.

Anyway . . . this started out being about B&N, sort of.  For the record, I agree with the Booksquare post: a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing.  Right now, the ereader market is getting confusing and crowded, and I don’t want them to make me have to work so hard to get a bloody book.  In a bookstore, I know the format right away.  Buying an ebook, I feel sometimes like I got to be a computer genius and I’m much more likely to pass that up and spend my time curled up with, you guessed it, a good book.

Currently reading: Tales of the Madmen Underground by John Barnes

Currently listening to: Feed by M.T. Anderson

Lightbulb Moments

Just going to show that no time is wasted . . . I’m driving, fretting that I’m not writing instead, and then I hear a story on NPR.  The story is a follow-up to an article I read the week before–that one on gray whales–and as I’m listening,  something goes ding in my brain.  I see how I can use this in my WIP and when I start thinking about it some more, I also realize how this broadens the narrative, makes it “bigger” and multifaceted.  I spend the rest of the drive in this contented haze, almost like the writer’s high you can get when the work is going well and you’ve slipped into that alternative universe you’ve created.  In Misery, King called it “diving into the hole in the paper,” and that’s pretty close to what it feels like.  Really, it’s a kind of daydreaming . . .

So the trip wasn’t wasted; that moment reinvigorated my story; and I learned something besides.  A fellow writer says that she’s got a magpipe brain.  She gathers bits and pieces of disparate, shiny stuff, never knowing when or if any of it will be useful.  In a way, writers write about all those disparate pieces, the glittery stuff they’ve accumulated along the way.  Annie Dillard once wrote that a writer writes about four walls.  (If you haven’t read An American Childhood, find it, read it.  Bring Kleenex.)  Well, yes, this is true.  But what a lot of shiny stuff we bring into that room.

Currently reading: Tales of the Madman Underground by John Barnes.

An article worth the time: “More Reasons to Worry about eBooks than I Thought,” by Sam Jordison.  I don’t know how I feel about ebooks–and I’ve written several . . .

Girls Gone Wilde

Oh, that this was a show I could actually watch.  Very funny video of a spoof PBS show, ‘Llectuals.

Tag line: PBS falls on hard times.

Memorable Quotes: “Are we gonna do this? Or are you too busy with your argument ad hominem?”

“I’m going to be a cryptozoologist, Dad! And you won’t thwart me…”

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Currently reading: Me, the Missing and the Dead by Jenny Valentine

The Daily Grind

And I’m not talking about coffee . . .

This week, I began work on my newest YA in earnest.  Unfortunately, I missed a day so today, I’m on the job, working to make my goals for the week.  Kind of like a piece-worker who hasn’t stitched enough shirts.

People are always surprised when I call what I do a job.  Most people think of artistes as fairly unstructured characters, waiting for the muse to tap them on the shoulder.   There are lots of apocryphal stories about people like Thomas Mann only crafting a paragraph a day.  (A practical impossibility if you take into account how much he wrote.  The guy wouldn’t have made it a third of the way through The Magic Mountain before he died.)

Writing is work.  You want to write?  Well, then, it’s a job.  Every working writer knows and has done this, whether now, in the heydey of pulp fiction, or back when Dickens prowled the darkest streets in London. (Because, hello, he was a reporter before he made it with Sketches by Boz.  Dickens knew about work and making deadlines.)  Before I started writing full-time, I was working another full-time job.  Now this is my full-time job.  There are good and bad aspects to it, just like any job.  I go through some days not interacting with another soul except, maybe, my cat.  Other days, I force myself to get out and about just so I don’t grow up to be one of those people who wanders around talking to themselves . . .

An interesting question at Shore Leave was whether or not writers should give up a job that takes them away from writing.  Some people thought you could, others thought you shouldn’t because then you lose touch with the world around you.  I can understand that.  I also know it’s physically impossible for me to keep my writing to the level I want it if I DO other work.  Been there, done that, bought the t-shirt.  Not that I don’t daydream about going back to some kind of practice.  I entertain that about once a month.  Then I lie down and wait for it to go away–or my husband reminds me that I was ALWAYS complaining about not having enough time to write.  That, too, is a bogus complaint.  There’s time to write.  There’s as much time to write as there is to brush my teeth, and I never tell myself I don’t have time for that.  The point is, if I did go back to work outside the house, I could write–but my goals would have to reflect my changed circumstances.  So, instead of three or four or six hours, I might have two.  Some days, one.  You adjust.  But you don’t ever NOT write.

What’s in a day’s work?  Well, I know writers who work until they get a certain number of words.  I go for pages, about 12, and I frequently make more.  Sometimes less, depending on the stage the work-in-progress (WIP) is in.  Beginnings are always hard, and I’m lucky to crank out 8 pages that first day.  Then, I cut myself a break and try not to fret, although I’m always fretting, trying both to keep my internal critic at bay (i.e., this book STINKS!) and my butt glued to the chair until the work is done.  Sometimes I’m done in a couple of hours.  Sometimes not.  If that means I’m here all day and into the night, so be it.  Takes something called “discipline,” which I’ve always had.  Believe me, you don’t make it through medical school without it.

Kris Rusch has written, along with other articles, an excellent piece on discipline and she is one of the most disciplined writers I know.  Worth a look, believe me.

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What I’m reading: Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac by Gabrielle Zevin

An article worth the time: “Watching Whales Watching Us” by Charles Siebert (and a nice interview with a Siebert bibliography on Lisa Brown‘s blog).  Also, take time to listen to Terri Gross’s interview with Siebert and wildlife biologist Dr. Toni Frohoff.

13 Best

Roger Sutton has a fine comment on an editorial by Nicholas Kristof in this past Sunday’s New York Times.  I agree that any list of the BEST BOOKS OF ALL TIME is pointless.  Tastes change.  I know that the books I loved when I was younger I have to work at enjoying now. (Although–I admit it–I still can’t read Charlotte’s Web without choking up.  I think Cornell University had a big retrospective on E.B. White’s work once upon a time and displayed about 21 pages of White’s attempts to get the first sentence of that book the way he wanted it.  Or maybe it was Wind in the Willows . . . I don’t remember.)

I do disagree with one reader’s comment, which made a duel-edged argument: one, adults don’t read kids’ books and so don’t really have a clue about what “good” books for kids are and, two, that many adults are clueless when it comes to “good” adult fiction–which then explains why “crappy” blockbuster fiction thrives.

Well, okay, I agree that until I got serious about YA fiction, I had no clue about what GREAT BOOKS were being written.  But I wasn’t clueless.  For my own kids, we started off with stuff I remembered reading–Watership Down, Charlotte’s Web, A Wrinkle in Time . . . stuff like that.  Since books were/are always available–I’ve never stinted when it comes to books–I let the kids go wild whenever we visited a bookstore. (And this is yet another reason why BOOKSTORES MUST SURVIVE!!!  Where else will kids get a chance to explore books?  Pointing and clicking . . . it’s just not the same.)  We came out with armfuls and, in time, I let my kids guide me.  Some of the stuff they’ve read is terrific; some of it is . . . meh.  Doesn’t float my boat.  Are they all “good?”  Well, I dunno . . . if the kids are reading . . . and reading . . . and reading . . . who am I to judge?  Why should I?

Same thing with adult fiction.  Sure, there are fluffy beach reads.  There are low-effort blockbusters.  There are the wash, rinse, repeat books–you know exactly what you’re getting and the chocolate bar will taste just as good as the last bar you ate.

And SO WHAT?  Are these books “good?”  Well, let’s think about that.  Books are, by and large, meant to be entertaining.  If you’ve had a good time and feel you got your money’s worth . . . the book’s good.  Period.  If there’s a message in a book somewhere and you get it, so much the better.  But I’ll be honest.  A book that screams, Look at what WONDERFUL sentences I’ve got and demands that you really work at understanding . . . Well, is that entertaining?  Am I enjoying myself? Will I close that book and think, Wow, that was a thumping good read? Honey, I already went to college.  Been there, done that, wrote that paper, bought the t-shirt.

So . . . maybe not.  What is “good” is, duh,  a matter of taste.  I’ve struggled through books that are supposed to be good for me; I’ve read others that I thought were brilliant and others thought a bore.  What one editor accepts another hates.  And if people are, hello, reading . . . who cares?  Why so serious?  Why must people only read GREAT LITERATURE (whatever the heck that is)?  This reminds me of wandering through an art museum and being told that the Picasso I’m staring at is a GREAT PAINTING.  Uh, well, to me . . . it’s just a bunch of lines that don’t do very much, thanks.  But if you want to talk about that Caravaggio over there . . .

I don’t know from GREAT.  I only know what I enjoy.  The rest will sort itself out and, honestly, it’s not worth getting into a snit about.


So I open up my email this morning to fantastic news.  A very gritty mystery I wrote last year, that was inspired both by my past life as a shrink and some fascinating talks I heard on infanticide at last year’s AAPL meeting, was accepted as the lead-off story for Crimewave, #11.  If you don’t know this British magazine, find a copy.  The publication schedule’s a little erratic, but the magazine’s sported some of the best names and an international cast, including Kristine Kathryn RuschJoe Hill, Scott Nicholson, and Anthony Mann.  I’m thrilled to join their ranks! Don’t know exactly when the story’s coming out, but stay tuned!

Young Adult/Thrillers/F&SF/Romantic Suspense