Friday, March 31, 2017

Review for BLUFFING

BLUFFING, the collection of odes to river and rock by Dick Stahl, is one of those books that beg to be read more than once so every drop of nuance can to be discovered and savored.

Stahl and his wife, Helen, dedicated 10 years to personally climb, photograph, and poetize the 24 publicly accessible bluffs of the upper Mississippi River. The result is a gorgeous volume that pleases the eye and the heart with flowing style and content.

Many of the poems reminded me of my own visits to some of the same parks. I have the urge to go back and experience those vistas of water winding its way around islands and sandbars all over again. Now I have Stahl to enhance the fabric of my memories with his photos and words.  

“What generosity for the old settler to share his bluff with friends and say everything without saying a single word …”     (Old Settler of the Bluff)

Or appreciate how he captured the mood of powerful and restless waters.

“The hungry river writes its own story in lush islands, made and unmade, as the swirling sands underneath surface with a line of text that suggests everything and nothing at a glance.”     (River Writer)

That’s how I remember the Des Moines River below Ottumwa, Iowa. Remembered but never articulated.

After reading this book, my viewpoint has changed. I have a better appreciation for such old treasures as Pike’s Peak, Effigy Mounds, the Palisades, and Gramercy Park. I look forward to taking time to search out Pulpit Rock at Bellevue State Park. There’s adventure to be found there outside the tranquil butterfly gardens.

And who is Harriet Goodhue Hosmer? Did she really win a footrace to the top?

I’ll have to believe in Stahl’s version of the story.

Surely, he’s not bluffing.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Reviewing Reviews (part 2)

One longer and more comprehensive review of Clouds Over Bishop Hill brought up a series of questions worth discussing: 

“…there are no headlines in the newspapers and no radio or television reporters swarming the village.”

In my time, most Bishop Hill events were covered by a single reporter with a camera. Sometimes a reporter brought a camera person along, but that was rare. The best coverage usually involves Swedish royalty. Remember: Bishop Hill is the epicenter of a corn-field triangle formed by the Quad Cities, Peoria, and Galesburg.  Most of the papers in that triangle are weeklies and understaffed. However, it’s a good point for me to remember.

“…the tourists are absent.”

On most days the tourists come late and leave early. Late May and early June are times when the schools are still in session, therefore it’s not yet peak season for visitors. Again, it raises another point for my next book.

“None of the male characters … are developed.”

At one point I had four POVs and two were males. The guys suffered when I switched to focusing on Shelley’s first person POV. It’s one of the flaws of only using one POV.

“Shelley calls him [Roy Landers] Uncle Roy, but he’s her adoptive father and separated from his wife, Christina. …Her family history is unbelievably complicated.”

Yes, it is complicated. There was a huge age difference between Roy and his sister Nora, Shelley’s birth mother. I needed Nora to be out of the way with a little mystery. If Shelley felt like an orphan, that was good. I was always impressed with the stories I’d heard about the Colonists taking in orphans and wanted to use that fact in some way.

“Shelley seems cold and calculating.”

The steps I use when I’m building my scenes: I begin with the dialog. I create the physical setting. I set people in motion within the setting. I add bits of business for color and interest. My last step is adding appropriate emotions. Emotions are something I struggle with. Remember that Shelley at age twenty-two is a New Adult whose personality is not fully formed and set. She has no prior experience with serious crime, and then I’ve asked her to witness Herb’s death and become an amateur detective—that’s a tough character arc for anyone. Also, it is a mystery with a puzzle to solve.

“A character description would have been helpful.”

Yes. Others have mentioned this point. I plan on addressing the issue at my upcoming Read Local event at the Bettendorf library on April 12, 7 p.m.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Reviewing Reviews

During a break between panel discussions at Murder & Mayhem Chicago I picked up a flyer that used three really high-powered quotes to help promote a book. It had a level of sophistication far above what I could ever do—or afford. But I liked the format and it got me thinking of my reviews. I had to go back and reread them.

My review count so far: Amazon-nine, and Goodreads-three. There are a couple of others: one from an author’s blog, and one from the Swedish American Genealogist. So far, so good, but no where near the magic number of fifty. Fifty is the threshold for the powers that be with Amazon to take notice. (Actually, it’s more likely one of Amazon’s algorithms.)

Anyway, I believe studying reviewers’ comments can be enlightening and fruitful. They are likely to use words and phrases I never would have thought of. They might hit upon a point that I totally missed. Or have a very different interpretation. It’s all good. They are the readers, the audience, and I must take note of their reactions.

For the purpose of creating a flyer I searched for short useful passages that were interesting and brought up pertinent points of plot, character, and theme. Quotes that showed enthusiasm. I was lucky enough to find four. Three came from noted local authors. They would become my celebrity endorsements.

So, I was set to start on my own version of a promotional flyer. I wanted a basic two-column layout and knew I wouldn’t be getting fancy. My job would be to make blocks of text look, well, not too boring.

Then the difficulties began. I had to use a program that I was totally rusty on. One that hadn’t always cooperated with me in the past.

Long story short, after hours of trail and error, I had something that was pretty decent. It would be something I could adapt for different occasions. Which was very much what I needed. Because first up is a reading at the Bettendorf Public Library on April 12th and the panic is setting in.

Here's my original inspiration:

Friday, March 10, 2017

Going Beyond Regionalism

My novel is populated with composite creations. I’ve mentioned before that I used bits and pieces of the many people I’ve known throughout my life, plus a few total strangers, to create characters. I did this to ensure that I wouldn’t annoy my friends and neighbors.
By using the setting of Bishop Hill, Illinois, my book probably merits a regional stamp. I’m fine with that. Fine with portraying the class, style, and wit of a unique section of America. Not every story has to happen in a large city or some other well-used location.

Should readers even care about location?

No, not really. After all, storytelling uses themes that cut across the boundaries of geography, class, and culture.

For instance, Shelley, my protagonist, is a new adult who is given a heroine’s quest. She has to find something. The quest forces her to grow and mature. By the end of the book she is faced with a difficult decision: will she or won’t she? The important thing is her choice. Location doesn’t matter.

My theme of preservation also isn’t limited to one area or region. People everywhere struggle to protect buildings, artifacts, habitats, and, on the most personal level—families.

Forgiveness, as a theme, is a kindness that I believe bears revisiting.

So is finding a way back home after yearning to breakaway.

Universal themes such as these unite our stories by finding common ground. The spice and flavor of the storytelling comes from the different vantage points on an infinite spectrum of possibilities.

My place on the spectrum is a quirky little place called Bishop Hill.

Should readers care about location?

Yes! Expand the imagination and gain a broader reading experience whenever possible. Take the path less traveled and see where it leads.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Of Contests & Trust Issues

What I’ve learned so far from entering my book in a few contests:

1. You have to be brave and put yourself out there.
2. It will cost money. (Getting some money back for winning would be nice. There are some free ones, but not enough.)
3. You have to let go of your work.

That last item has been the biggest hurtle for me—and a totally unexpected one as well.

I’ve known artists, visual artists and crafters, who had kitchens and bedrooms full of amazingly complex artwork that rarely saw the light of day. Selling their work, getting it out into the world, was like cutting off a limb. It was a shame and I didn’t think I’d be like that. I made an effort NOT to be like that back when I was making my jewelry. I sold my wares at craft shows before moving to Bishop Hill and opening a shop.

That was before I transitioned to the written word.

Writing’s easier to share in some respects. I’ve read pieces out loud for workshops, critique groups, and at the occasional open mic night. I thought I was doing OK.

The issue of copyrights comes up often in discussions and at workshops. The topic always makes writers nervous. I think some of the unease comes from that age-old issue of losing control of your baby, the work it’s taken you so long to create and dress for success. Again, I thought I was doing OK.

Then I had the misfortune of being exposed to writers who thought their work had been stolen, pirated, and they were quite upset and vocal. And I didn’t blame them. I saw what the copycats displayed online.

Also, I’ve listened to computer types explain how easy it is to lift files and change files and have things disappear. It all left more of a mark than I had realized. It made me too leery to trust the people who were really there to help me: reviewers and contest organizers.

I recently had to face the issue of trust head on when I was asked to submit a PDF file for a contest application. I waffled and wavered. I didn’t want to commit.

The difference this time—I asked for advice from my publisher and from a professional writer I respected, C. Hope Clark of Funds for They gave me the same sound advice: no one really steals books, and trust in the copyright.

Here’s Clark’s response to my nervous inquiry:

A PDF? That's unusual. I would think they'd want a mobi or epub before a pdf. But you have to trust people with contests. Nobody steals books, and your publisher should've already copyrighted it. It's published, so there should not be an issue. I just sent the published book without ARC or any other mention on it. Your publisher ought to easily convert the file. 

C. Hope Clark

My thanks go to her and the others who helped me grow a little more on this issue.