What Makes A Book Compelling? by Christine Duncan

I am reading a book that I just can’t finish. I like it well enough when I actually sit down to read it. But I have no real reason to stop my real life and read the darn thing. And believe me, my life is not all that interesting.

So I started thinking about my own individual checklist of why I read.

1. I have to like the characters. All of them.
I’ve read too darn many books where I liked the hero/heroine just fine but I could not take one more second of his/her quirky (or worse yet, stupid) companion.

2. I have to be on the edge of my seat with the plot. Surprisingly, that doesn’t always take big chase scenes or fights. I just rented Batman Vs. Superman from Redbox and had to keep stopping the darn thing to figure out what was going on (Wait! Is that Lex Luthor? Really? Why does he have hair?) There were plenty of amazing fight scenes but I didn’t really care as I had to keep stopping the darn thing too many times as I am not that big on comic book history. (Whoa that really was Wonder Woman.) But as long as there is something I am still worrying about, I can’t wait to get back to the book (movie, TV show)

3. I have to believe in the setting. This seems to be harder than I thought. I’ve put down a bunch of books because they had lilacs blooming in July in Colorado or they were set in some McMansion where all the people had more money than Clinton. I can believe in ghosts, aliens and God himself. I have trouble with everyone in the darn thing having all the money they need. It just doesn’t happen in my world.

4. This one is really weird but remember this is my personal checklist. I have to speak the language. If there are a bunch of slang, whether it’s my generation or the millenials. ( I just got back from Vacay and it was just Amazing!), I get tired of it fast. I want a book to be more timeless than that.

Surprisingly enough, this last one doesn’t count if I’m reading Harry Potter or watching Dr. Who.

Now? Really?

So you have time to write. The door is shut, the house empty, the phone switched off. There are no chores to do. The house is clean, the shopping done, the laundry basket empty. You have nothing to do but write.

And this is the moment your head completely empties. You sit there, pen in hand or hands on computer keyboard or finger on the record button and you cannot think of a single thing. Even The Cat Sat On The Mat has gone out of your head. (Although, worryingly, you keep on repeating All Work and No Play Makes Jack A Dull Boy).

It happens to all of us. All the time. The minute you’re ready to write, your inspiration runs dry.

The joy is, it comes back. When you’re at your day job. When you’re trying to feed the kids. When you’re on the bus. When you’re anywhere, doing anything that can’t be interrupted. Your brain only wants to write when you can’t.

I think there’s some reason for this. Something to do with having to busy your mind to get your subconscious working. This is why so many writers procrastinate, and talk and write about procrastination, and whether it’s a good thing or not. But I do know it’s very irritating.

People have been known to tell me that being a writer must be a wonderful, calming, peaceful profession. It is, in fact, deeply irritating at times. But only we writers know that.

The House at Baker Street by Michelle Birkby

Social Media by Christine Duncan

I realize that I am using social media more for my writing. Take Facebook, for example. I belong to a bunch of Facebook writing groups. My publisher has one, but I also belong to Science Fiction, Fantasy and other genres, learning to promote (which I recommend by the way). I belong to one for Colorado writers, and one for mystery writers and one for marketing and well you get the idea.
In none of these groups do I actually promote. I lurk a lot so I can’t say I’m networking. I hang out to get ideas. I get great ideas. But I never have the time to implement much because I have a day job, and I babysit my grandbabies a couple of days a week, and I hang out on these groups. So I wonder, if it’s worth it.
But then I realize, anything that helps me understand that we writers all in the boat, that we’re trying new ways to write, and to promote and to fit it all in is worth it. Not because I’m using every idea I see out there. Not because I’m networking with the other writers. But because it helps me hang in there and keep going. So YAH for Social Media.

That Magic Word

‘Civilisation runs on words. Civilisation IS words’

Terry Pratchett, The Truth.

Christopher Fowler wrote an article this week about how he likes books to be clever. He quoted Stephen King as saying you should never use a word you find in a thesaurus.

Now, Stephen King is a wonderful and thoughtful writer, but, like Christopher Fowler, I have to disagree with him on this. I love using a thesaurus. I love finding a new word in a book. I love coming across a word I have to look up.

How else would I expand my vocabulary? How else would I learn such joyous words as ‘refulgent’ or ‘antidisestablishmentarianism’ except in a book?

You see, I love words. I love the precise use of them. I love the sound of them. I love to whisper a new word to myself, rolling it round in my mouth like a fine wine, discovering it’s sound and feel. I love discovering their definition and their history and their use. I love waiting for the perfect moment to use them myself. I love the way the right word can break the silence, build a relationship, create a country, destroy an empire.

Like anything that I love, I want more. I want more words. I want to open a book and find a word used in a way I never thought of before. (Dickens is particularly good at this. His phrase ‘misanthropic ice’ in Christmas Carol still gives me a thrill). I want new words. I want that delicious moment of ‘I don’t know that word. I have to find out what it means’

So please, don’t throw away your thesaurus just yet. Give me the difficult words. Give me the unusual words. Give me what I crave. Give me a new word.

The House at Baker Street by Michelle Birkby

Add or Subtract

I often see people on Facebook and Twitter commentating that they are editing, and it’s usually along the lines of ‘cut a thousand words today’.

This always puzzles me a little. My editing usually involves adding words, it is not often taking them away. That’s because my first draft is very bare, my second and third a bit longer, but I always forget to add things. A description, perhaps. A vital plot point. A scene to illustrate someone’s character.

I rarely take words out, unless I am taking out a plot strand, or a repetition. But I suppose that’s an example of the different way we all write. Some pour everything onto the page, then have to pare it down. Some build a skeleton and have to add to it bit by bit.

The House at Baker Street by Michelle Birkby

Write a House by Christine Duncan

Let’s be honest. Most of us are never going to earn our living with our writing. What the average writer earns is a topic you’ll see a bunch of entries for in google but the figures seem to vary from a thousand to five thousand per book (if that.) Yes, best sellers do better, but most of us aren’t earning a living with our words.
That may be why I am so fascinated with Write a House. They are looking for writers who want to live permanently in Detroit. The innovative program seeks to revitalize the city, while enriching it culturally, and not so incidentally, helping writers and the unemployed citizens of Detroit too. They award to one deserving writer,  a house, which they have bought and remodeled through a vocational program that helps the unemployed. Talk about creative! This program is win win win for all involved. They’re presenting their latest award next month (september)
You can read more about it at Publishers Weekly.

The Second Book

The proofs of the second book are done and approved, and now it’s going to the printers. Now I’m getting nervous.

Musicians talk about the difficult second albums, and it’s the same with books. The House at Baker Street has been fairly successful, and has had really good reviews. But, now I’m worried, will people like the second book? Will what they liked in the first book be there in the second book? Will I hit the same chord?

And it’s not even enough, I feel, for the second book to be as good as the first. I think it has to be better. I think they have to keep improving as I write more and more.

The problem is, I can’t assess my own work. I can’t dispassionately sit down and judge my work. I have no real idea if it’s good or not.

The first one has done so well, I’m so nervous the second one won’t do as well. I just hope the magic of the first one is there in the second.

The House at Baker Street by Michelle Birkby