Driven by Character

Yes, I love character-driven fiction. I can almost–almost, but not quite–accept a poorly written novel if its characters are interesting. Occasionally, I like to blog about interesting characters I’ve come across recently in the fiction I’ve read. Here are a few I’ve met this past year:

Eileen in Eileen by Otessa Moshfegh. I downright hated this depressing tale narrated by the sociopathic Eileen. I only finished it because Eileen kept promising a BIG REVEAL, which instead was a big letdown. I should have known not to trust her. Eileen is self-centered and loathsome. But she is unforgettable.

Malka Treynovsky in The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street by Susan Jane Gilman. Malka starts life as a naïve, hopeful immigrant child who gradually becomes an embittered, successful entrepreneur.

Dix Steele in In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes. This guy is one evil dude. The author takes the reader into the mind of a serial killer. Humphrey Bogart played him in the movie, but was not as evil a character.

Selina in Brown Girl, Brownstones by Paule Marshall is another young immigrant, but from childhood she is feisty, rebellious, and sometimes cruel to family and friends. She’s a well-drawn character, but one I couldn’t bring myself to like, because of her cruelty.

Ralph Roberts in Insomnia by Stephen King. Ralph is a senior widower who finds new meaning to life when faced with a supernatural foe. King has always had a knack for creating strong characters. Ralph is real in every way.

The dad in Haters by Alisa Valdes. I can’t remember his name. He’s not the protagonist, but he’s a fun-loving, sweet father to his self-absorbed teenage daughter. It’s a refreshing portrayal of a loving parent.

Antoinette Conway in Trespasser by Tana French. It’s interesting that the most compelling characters are often the most unlikable. Antoinette carries a chip (that is more like a boulder) on her shoulder. But she’s fiercely independent and smart. Tana French mysteries always have detailed, real characters, and Antoinette is one of her best.





Read or Listen?

This month our book club is reading J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy. I didn’t realize how popular this book is until I searched for it on the websites of my local libraries. There were hundreds of requests at one library but only fifteen at the other, and that’s where I placed a hold. As weeks went by, I grew concerned that the book wouldn’t arrive in time for our book club meeting. So, at the suggestion of a friend, I downloaded the audio edition through a lending service offered at one of the libraries. It’s hard to believe, but this is only the second time I’ve listened to a book. As someone who has been intimately connected to libraries for almost my entire life, it’s amazing that before 2017 I’d never listened to an audiobook!

I don’t know why I avoided audiobooks for so long, especially after colleagues and friends had touted the advantages of listening to a book while mired in L.A. traffic, or spoke of the excellent work of a particular narrator. Maybe I felt that I wouldn’t actually be reading the book and appreciating the written word firsthand. Though I avoided audiobooks for a long time, I am now a convert. I’m not a fast reader. Sometimes I’ll get stuck on a paragraph; my mind will wander (I’ll be thinking about such banal topics as what I’ll cook for dinner or the horribly rude driver I encountered in traffic the day before), and I won’t absorb what I’m reading. I might have to read the paragraph a few times before the words sink in. That doesn’t happen to me with an audiobook. You see, I’m a very good listener and always have been. I listen more than I talk. I can listen to an audiobook and not miss a word, even if I’m also giving myself a manicure or cooking lunch. I finish the book faster than I could if I were reading it. This doesn’t mean, though, that I’ll abandon the physical book for the audio version. A book can be read on a plane or in bed without the need to plug in earbuds. For me, a book is a friend I’ll never give up.

A Vacation from Reading? No!

My husband, John, and I recently returned from a thoroughly enjoyable vacation on a European cruise ship. I’ve blogged before about the fact that I try to take a book with me every time I travel because you never know when you’ll be stuck waiting for a plane, a train, or whatever. Books always help me pass the time. Plus, reading is a part of my life that I hate to leave behind, even if I am on vacation. But this time I did leave it behind. I considered taking my iPad with me so I could read an e-book, but I worried about risking the loss of a valuable item during the bustle of travel. For the same reason, I wouldn’t take a library book with me. In the airport, I scanned the shops for a good book or magazine to purchase for the flight, but nothing appealed to me. Oh, well, I decided, I’d spend time with John and watch whatever video entertainment the airline had to offer. That worked fine for the flight to our destination and throughout the cruise, too.

On the return flight, it was a different story. Unfortunately, John and I were not seated together on the plane. And, again, I found no interesting reading material to purchase. Oh, well, I decided, I would rely on the video entertainment to keep me amused. Big mistake. The video player at my seat didn’t work! Oh, how I missed my books!

Though I was able to have a perfectly wonderful time on the cruise without a  book to read, flying without good reading material is something I will never do again.

Book Club Suggestions

Yesterday, I attended my monthly book club meeting. We had a very good discussion about the Book of Joy by the Dalai Lama and the Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Our club doesn’t always have such deep discussions, because, frankly, some of the books we read are not that deep. Though we tend to avoid political issues, on occasion we have ventured into more serious topics, such as death and racial discrimination. It’s certainly possible to have a lively back-and-forth after reading a popular novel, but for me it’s not as intriguing as when the discussion turns to weightier subjects, as it did yesterday. Here is a list of books I’ve recently read that I believe would encourage a serious book club exchange:

The Book of Joy by the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. It’s a self-help book on a grand scale. Our discussion touched on religion, the role of education in influencing personal behaviors, and particular challenges we have faced within our own families.

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, a novel that is currently getting a lot of attention for its timely views on racial issues in the African-American community, from the perspective of a teenage girl.

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. If a book club is not afraid to delve into a classic that is relevant to today’s U.S. political climate, it will certainly inspire opinion and conversation.

A Deep Dark Secret, by Kimberla Lawson Roby, who is a prolific author of novels that deal with real issues in society (for example domestic violence, infidelity, mental illness, etc.). A Deep Dark Secret is a novella about child abuse. At times, I found it difficult reading, but it gave me a lot to think about.

In a Lonely Place by Dorothy Hughes. Published in the late 1940s, this is an interesting look at the role of American women during that mid-century world, and one man’s horrific misogyny. It would be interesting to pair the book with a viewing of the film of the same name, starring Humphrey Bogart. There is much to compare and contrast.

The Editing Process

When I started writing novels, I was advised to hire a professional editor to review my books and polish them to perfection. At first, I hesitated because editing services can be expensive. I’ve since come to realize how an editor can improve the quality of my writing and my stories. For those of us who self-publish, it’s important to understand the types of editors that can help us fine-tune our work:

Content Editor: Reviews the story for consistency, accuracy, themes, plot, and characters.

Copy Editor/Line Editor: Often, these two will overlap. Copy editors proofread for clarity and accuracy. Line editors concentrate on each sentence to make sure that the grammar, punctuation, spelling, and word usage are correct. They will often reconstruct sentences to improve the flow of the writing.

The selection and hiring of editors has been a learning experience for me. I sought editors at writing clubs I joined. I also sought them through online editing services. But I wish that I had been aware beforehand of how the editor/writer relationship functions and what to look for before you hire an editor. These are guidelines I will follow if and when I hire another editor:

  1. Speak on the phone or meet in person (if possible). Like any important relationship, you need to have a good rapport. I think it’s important to like and respect the person you are hiring to edit your work.
  2. Ask questions. Don’t hire an editor who doesn’t want to answer your questions or talks down to you when they do answer. You are a prospective client not a wannabe student.
  3. As a Latina author, it wasn’t necessary for me to work with an editor from my own culture, but certainly it can be an advantage. They could have a better understanding of the material you’re writing and could provide more insight.  On the other hand, a non-Latina editor could bring a different cultural perspective to the work that might be valuable. Of course it depends on what you’re writing. I think this is a personal choice.
  4. What writing style manual does the editor use?
  5. How does their editing process work? (One of my editors asked for a paper copy of my novel. She made her comments on that paper copy. Nothing was done online.)
  6. Will they allow you to sample their editing style first? I hired one editor on a trial basis first. She understood I wanted to sample her work. She didn’t mind because I was paying for the sample.
  7. Check their previously edited works, if you can, or any books they might have authored. Editors have different styles (for example, some use the Oxford comma, some don’t).

As you work with an editor, it’s important not to take criticism personally. Keep in mind that the editor is improving your work. I see criticism as an opportunity to learn from my mistakes and become a better writer. That’s why it’s important to feel you have a good rapport from the start. You don’t want to work with an editor who has a superiority complex and treats you disrespectfully. It should be a respectful working relationship on both sides. My editors have helped me become a better writer.

Historical Novels

This month our book club read A Piece of the World by Christina Baker Kline, in which the subject of Andrew Wyeth’s famous painting “Christina’s World” is fictionalized. The story is interesting, but I also enjoyed its depiction of both an early 1900s’ American city and farm. I’ve always enjoyed historical novels but find that I’m not reading as many as I used to. Maybe it’s because I don’t have as much patience to absorb the details (descriptions of clothing, houses, décor, day-to-day chores, etc.) that come with these books. As social media makes current events and people more accessible, I find myself easily distracted from the book I’m reading unless it has a compelling plot. But here are some historical novels I’ve recently read that kept me glued to the page:

In a Lonely Place by Dorothy Hughes. Though it really isn’t a historical novel, it was for me. It was published in 1947 and depicts the forties’ era. I loved the Los Angeles setting and the descriptions of the local streets, fashions, restaurants, and nightclubs.

The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street by Susan Jane Gilman. A very entertaining rags-to-riches immigrant story that begins in the early 1900s.

City of Palaces by Michael Nava. The first in a planned four-volume set. It focuses on pre-revolutionary Mexico City politics and families.

This is not a long list, but like I said, I no longer read many historical novels.

It is difficult to find quiet time to read without distractions. My favorite time is early morning as I drink my coffee. The house is quiet. Ironically, though, my second favorite time to read is during the TV commercial breaks of the shows I like to watch (obviously, commercials don’t interest me) or while my husband watches a movie or program that I don’t want to see. TV is very often less entertaining than books.

March/April Reads

I read an average of three to four books a month, usually fiction. I enjoy most of the books I read, but there is the occasional dud. The dud this month was Eileen by Otessa Moshfegh, a novel that has been getting some buzz. But I found it dull, slow and disappointing. The protagonist is downright strange and completely unappealing. The promised surprise ending is a letdown. My favorite read this month was American Chica by Marie Arana. This is a well-written autobiography of a woman who experienced an unusual upbringing in her native Peru and then in the USA, her mother’s homeland. I especially liked Arana’s descriptions of feeling like an outcast in New Jersey.

Our book club selection this month was Salt to the Sea, a YA title by Ruta Sepetys. It was just an okay read for me. The story, based on a real-life event, is too simplified to reflect the drama of the historical tragedy.

Presently I’m halfway through Zadie Smith’s Swing Time. I found the opening pages intriguing, but now I’m slogging slowly through pages filled with descriptions and little dialogue. Smith is a good writer, but the plot is not enough to pull me in. I’ll finish it, though, because I’ve appreciated some of the cultural references to dance, Fred Astaire, and Jeni Legon, an African-American dancer whom I had never heard of before. I hope that eventually the plot builds to a satisfying conclusion..