Beta Readers

I’ve just completed another draft of my fourth novel, The Will of Sonia Sanz, . This draft was extra special because it incorporated revisions suggested in the feedback provided by five beta readers. I always look forward to this feedback, but at the same time, it can be disappointing to hear negative comments. This time was no different. While three readers enjoyed the book, two readers told me the story needed more excitement. I was puzzled. After all, this is a story that includes two unexpected and sudden deaths, a gold digging scoundrel, a wild spendthrift, a gas lighter, and a mysterious intruder. What more could I do to build suspense? After further discussion with these readers, I realized the problem wasn’t what was not in the novel; it was what was in it. I had overloaded the story with too many repetitive passages and unnecessary dialogue that negatively affected the flow of the plot. I began to rewrite and revise, eventually deleting twenty pages. The book now reads faster with a stronger emphasis on plot and action.

As a writer, I’m fortunate to have family and friends who are not afraid to tell me the truth when it comes to my writing. They are truthful but at the same time kind. It’s not only what is said but how it’s said. “The book needs more punch to it,” is easier to hear than “It’s just too boring. Make it more exciting,” for example.

Good beta readers are essential to a successful writing process.


What to Read During a Pandemic?

I wish I knew the answer to that question. I’ve been sheltering in place for nine weeks. I’ve had plenty of time on my hands to read, but I’ve found it a challenge to concentrate. When we started to stay home, I was in the midst of reading The Devil’s Highway by Luis Alberto Urrea. It’s an outstanding nonfiction book about the tragic deaths of many in a group of immigrants who crossed the border from Mexico to the U.S. in the early 2000s. I read the first half quickly but struggled with the second half despite my interest in the topic. I couldn’t concentrate. My mind wandered, and I’d have to get up and do something, anything—cook a meal, clean the oven, do laundry, whatever kept me from sitting and dwelling on the pandemic.

Now, nine weeks later, I’ve relaxed a bit, and I’m finding it easier to sit and read for at least a half hour at a time, if not longer. It could be that I’m less anxious about the pandemic, or perhaps I’ve accommodated to the new normal. Or, could it be because I’m reading novels that don’t require a lot of deep thinking? It’s easier to bury my mind in that type of book. The past three weeks I’ve read a thriller, a YA novel, and a chick lit romance. The YA novel, The Summer of Jordi Perez , was especially easy to read because it’s a feel-good story. Hmmm…I think I just answered my question.

What I Read: 2019

I read 46 books last year. Here’s a breakdown:

44 Fiction

4 Young Adult Fiction

1 Juvenile Fiction

14 by male authors

12 mysteries/thrillers, 3 science-fiction, 1 western, 2 romances, 1 horror

7 by Asian Americans, 6 by Latino Americans, 2 by African Americans, 1 by Native Americans

I like to review my writing habits annually to see if I might have adopted any new trends. Not last year. The main difference last year is that I read twice as many mysteries/thrillers than I did the previous year. I enjoyed some very good ones,  like Witch Elm by Tana French. I read only three science fiction novels, two less than the previous year. I plan to read more science fiction in the future. It’s a genre I’ve ignored in the past, but it’s the genre of ideas, one I’ve come to appreciate more.

Best of the Year

There are only 12 days remaining in 2019. I’ll probably read at least one more book before 2020 arrives, but so far this year I’ve read 45. Following is a list of my five favorites ranked from best to least of the best:

1.  The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo. I love this coming-of-age young adult novel about a teen girl struggling to become her own person despite challenging obstacles. Beautifully written in verse form.

2.  The Library Book by Susan Orlean. Of course, I’m biased. I worked at the Los Angeles Public Library in the early years of my librarian career. With its detailed descriptions of library procedures, policies, and buildings, a reader might find some of this book tedious. But I enjoyed it, especially the many historical details.

3.  On the Come Up by Angie Thomas.  An ultimately optimistic coming-of-age story of a Black teen who dreams of becoming a famous rap artist so she can save her family from economic distress.

4.  Pachinko by Min Jin Lee. This was an especially interesting and eye-opening novel for me. There are many historical details of the lives of Korean refugees living in Japan during and after World War II. Their sense of alienation from the mainstream Japanese culture is heartbreaking.

5.  There There by Tommy Orange. I felt a personal connection to this story of Native American cultural identity,  and how Natives can feel lost in their own country.

In Character

Every year I like to list the interesting characters that I have met through my readings in fiction. I’m a little surprised, after reviewing my list of readings of this year, that not too many characters stand out in my memory. These made the short list:

Xiomara Batista in The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo. Xiomara is memorable because she is a deep-thinking teen who is up against a lot, especially a strict mother who doesn’t get her. Yet, Xiomara triumphs.

Eleanor Oliphant in Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman. She is not a totally believable character but Eleanor is a thoroughly unique one. She struggles, with the help of a wonderful support team, with mental issues.

Queenie in Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams. Queenie is a damaged, self-destructive, young woman who makes things worse for herself by engaging in abusive relationships. Though I found her behavior and actions frustrating, I couldn’t help rooting for her to stand up for herself.

Arthur Less in Less by Andrew Sean Greer. This guy has everything–good looks, a successful writing career, good connections–but is depressed because he is turning 50 and isn’t in a satisfying relationship. I didn’t find Arthur Less likable nor did I care much about his personal problems. He’s too shallow and self-involved. But, he’s witty and self-deprecating… he’s memorable.

Book Club Books

This is the longest period of time I’ve gone without blogging. Life has been very busy lately, and I’ve had little time even to write the draft of my next novel. So far, I have written 180 pages. Still a ways to go. Anyway, last time I blogged, I said I would recommend books that I think would make good subjects for book club discussions. Here is the list:

There There by Tommy Orange. A heartbreaking look at Native American society and the long-term effects of oppression and loss.

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee. A historical novel about Koreans exiled in Japan after World War II.The reality of living as if a stranger in one’s own land is explored.

A Place for Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza. Like Pachinko, this book explores the theme of living as if a stranger in one’s own land (this time, in the United States).

Less by Andrew Sean Greer. The hero travels the world to put off facing the fact he is an aging (50) gay man who is losing his appeal (or so he believes). Funny and self-deprecating.

Eleanor Oliphant is Comfortably Fine by Gail Honeyman. A highly unusual young woman deals with the challenges of everyday life.

The Politics of Book Club Discussions

I recently hosted our monthly book club meeting where we discussed the young adult novel I’d suggested, I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter, by Erika Sanchez. I’ve read the book twice and found it funny, entertaining, and relevant, in terms of dealing with serious teen issues. Plus, I was able to relate to the Mexican American cultural aspects that it depicts. During our discussion, I got the impression the others weren’t crazy about the book, and they especially disliked the main character.

In the three years that I’ve been an active member of this group, I have sometimes been surprised at the reactions the others have had to the books that we’ve read. A couple of times, I have disliked the books we’ve read, while the others have enjoyed them. We usually do have a consensus one way or the other though. But if I’m outnumbered, I try to defend my position as diplomatically as possible. I would never come right out and say I disliked a book. That could cause hurt feelings. I have also made a point of reading each book cover-to-cover, even those that I disliked. I think it’s only fair to do that, unless you find you simply can’t get through a book you particularly loathe. I haven’t hated any book that much.

Though I hosted the book club at one of the library’s I managed years ago, that was part of my job, not my personal life. Being in the group that I’m in now has been an enjoyable social experience for me. It’s interesting to see the types of books the women choose to read and, of course, to participate in the discussion we share. On the downside, I’ve now read several books I didn’t want to read, and a couple I truly didn’t like. On the plus side, I have loved some books I otherwise might never have read.

Next month, I will blog about titles I think would make good choices for book club discussions.

How I Read a Book

Every time I pick up a book to read, I go through a particular routine. First, I must read the book jacket, including the blurbs on the back, the summary of the plot, and the author’s bio. If there is a photo of the author, I like to check that out, too. Of course, I also examine the cover’s artwork and how it might depict or represent the book I’m about to read. Then, if there is an introduction or a foreword, I will be sure to read it.  After following this routine, I’m ready to start reading the book.

Why do I practice this routine before reading any book? I really don’t know for sure, I can only speculate. Maybe it’s because I want to savor what I am, I hope, about to enjoy. Or maybe it’s simply a habit I can’t break.

Lately, I’ve encountered a problem with plot summaries on book jackets: spoilers! Why would the publisher allow that? I’ve come to dislike movie previews for that very reason; the preview often gives away too much of the plot. Likewise with book jacket plot summaries. Also, the foreword to a  book I recently read contained a spoiler! What’s going on here? I think this is shoddy, sloppy marketing. I love books. I love reading. I don’t appreciate it when my enjoyment of a story is partly ruined by poor marketing techniques.

The Importance of Reading to Your Children

I woke up at 2 a.m. this morning with an upset stomach. Something I ate last night didn’t agree with me. I spent a few hours in discomfort and then stayed in bed into the late morning to get some much-needed rest.

For some reason, this brief illness called to mind the many times I was sick when I was a child. I wasn’t a healthy kid. I suffered from asthma. If I caught a cold, it would often lead to breathing problems and then days of recovery and missed classes. These are not good childhood memories. However, there was a little upside to these sick days. You see, on the days when I wasn’t so sick that I couldn’t concentrate, Mom would read to me, usually from a book of fairy tales. Mom really wasn’t much of a reader herself, but she understood the importance of reading to her children. We had no color television,computers, tablets, or other technological goodies  that today’s kids enjoy. By reading, Mom kept me entertained and quiet. If my little brother happened to be sick at the same time, we’d sit together and listen to her read. Mom didn’t have much education–she had to quit school after the seventh grade–so she sometimes mispronounced the words she read. (For years, I thought Rapunzel was pronounced Rapoonzula.)

When I learned to read, I gobbled up as many books as I could get my hands on, one after the other. It’s no surprise I chose to become a librarian, and now I’m a writer. My siblings all went to college and became working professionals. One of my brothers has written books and articles in his field of work.

Mom influenced her children to understand the value of reading for forwarding one’s position in life, but also as a source of enjoyment. Thank you, Mom.

What’s in a Name?

Book titles are important. I have often selected a novel to read, attracted by its title alone. Most recently, I came across the novel My Sister the Serial Killer, which caught my interest and made me laugh. Of course I read the book, but it didn’t live up to my expectations. Yes, it was funny, like the title, but not as funny as I’d hoped. Still, I did read the book.

Some other novels I’ve read because of their titles include:

The Other Wife (Michael Robotham)–I couldn’t resist a story of bigamy.

I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter (Erika Sanchez)–exactly what it says it is.

Insomnia (Stephen King)–what can I say, I’m an insomniac.

It’s Not About the Accent (Caridad Ferrer)–what I expected, a story about Latina culture, is what I got.

When I started writing novels, my primary concern, of course, was developing a good plot. I didn’t begin to think about the title of my first novel until I was halfway done with the first draft. I initially chose the title, Tranquila, which sums up the state of confident happiness that the protagonist is trying to reach. One of my beta readers advised me to change the title, because it might be bypassed by English-language readers who could assume it’s a book in Spanish. I finally settled on the title, My Doormat Days, because it’s the coming-of-age story of a mousy young woman seeking to become more self-confident. It’s also a title that hints at the humor in the book. My most recent novel is titled White Mexican, about a young Mexican American woman struggling with her racial identity.

Each time I mention the titles of these novels in conversation, the reaction is positive. The titles draw attention and interest, which every author hopes will encourage people to read the book.