A New Spin on an Old Trope Leads to a Bumpy Ride

In 2008, Random House published Lauren McLaughlin’s YA speculative sex comedy Cycler. On one level, it’s the story about Jill, an only child, and her quest (with the help of her friend Ramie) to get the New Boy at school to ask her to prom. Jill, however, has an unusual secret that complicates Plan Prom–four days out of the month, she morphs into Jack, a boy.

As a title, Cycler is much snappier than Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde go to Prom, which is basically what the story tries to be. Because the main character’s parents lock their only child in during Jack’s days and teach Jill to block any memory of Jackness, Jack has grown angry and rebellious. While Jill plans prom, Jack plans jailbreak. Hijinks ensue.

I think in 2008, the dichotomy here was fresh and interesting, but the plot and the writing don’t serve the premise well. The book adds a twist when the New Boy, Tommy, tells Jill he is bisexual, which could lead to some interesting tension among Tommy, Jill and Jack, but doesn’t. (The potentially more interesting thing about Tommy, at least for the Jill aspect, is that he is anti-prom.)

I alluded to Jekyll and Hyde–Jack has been suppressed and mistreated, so be has become oppositional-defiant. This means his actions begin to drive the plot, reducing Jill to a passive agency-free female voice, acted upon by elements around her. Jack is also a stereotype of a gross teenage boy. He refuses to bathe. He throws around locker room slang which, even though he has Jill’s memories, he has probably never heard, and his sensibilities seem to be gleamed from Beavis and Butthead. When he and Ramie have sex for the first time, he crows about it over and over, to himself (actually to the reader–“Did I tell you we had sex? We had sex!”) I mean, I’m glad for him, but this behavior is cliché “boy behavior,” not well executed.

(For instance, if Jack had run through the streets of town remembering what it felt like to have sex, or smelled like, whatever, I would have believed it. “Boys brag about sex,” while it may be true, is a cliché.)

In trying to create a person who is biologically gender fluid, McLaughlin sends each aspect of the Jill/Jack character to the farthest extremes of the continuum of “girlness” and “guyness.” It seems like the choices the parents made pushed this split, but the story never addresses or it resolves it.

Maybe, at least at the beginning of this premise, that has to happen? I don’t know. I could accept that Jill/Jack would go “to separate corners” in the beginning before they work out a détente (in this story, I should be clear, Jack and Jill are separate personalities). I’d like to see a more, pun intended, fluid relationship evolve though, as well as a few other things (like a confrontation with the parents) and none of that happens.

Oh, but wait! It might happen, in the sequel, Recycler! That’s right. Cycler ends abruptly, with Jack crashing the prom (inexplicably held on June 23, after school is out? Supposedly?), then relinquishing the ascendancy, Tommy and Ramie learning the truth about Jill, and the three of them sitting on the shore of a lake wondering what to do next.

It’s possible, even likely, that McLaughlin’s original manuscript comprised both stories and some enterprising agent or editor suggested splitting it. The story of Cycler wasn’t well served by that choice. The book didn’t do well. Because I am generally a critical reader, I was surprised to find nearly all of my issues with this book echoed on Goodreads.

Amid all my disappointment, a rich premise remains. Someday, somebody will write this well. And it won’t be Jekyll and Hyde Go to Prom.

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Aging: Walking Through a Diminishing Landscape

What happens when you get older is things go away.

People go away, and we all knew that. People who pass away leave a hole in your personal landscape. Maybe it’s a pinprick– the person was a friend of someone you know, and a lacuna is created in their conversations, but it doesn’t impact the view of your horizon. Sometimes they are a celebrity or a prominent person in society, and this creates a larger hole, one you notice. And sometimes it’s a core person in your life, and the gap is the size of a house, or a mountain.

This isn’t a column about death. We know this about death, and better writers, poets and bards than me have addressed it. Things go away too though… and people leave in other ways than dying.

In my thirties and forties, people I knew started to retire and move away, changing my landscape. Most were work friends or neighbors. My doctor retired, creating a spate of activity so that I didn’t miss him directly at first.

In my mid-fifties, I retired, and put the entire work landscape in my rearview. That was not a sad choice, but it changed my landscape.

My mechanic retired.

That was a hard one, since he had taken care of my cars for three decades. He was local, very local, and had fire department connections with Spouse, part of the community, not just a service person. A row of hills vanished from my landscape.

Restaurants changed hands, and changed menus. Bookshops closed and familiar buildings disappeared from my mental landscape.

Last month I drove into Santa Rosa to a locally owned shoe store, to find it had become part of a sports store chain. The owners, who were in their seventies, wanted to retire and none of their children wanted the business, so they sold and moved to somewhere in the south, where they can live well on their proceeds and retirement plan. Poof! A hole on the horizon.

In October the coffee guy next to Pacific Market is retiring. Steve has earned it! He’s hawked coffee there since 1994, first from a actual wheeled cart, then from the booth the store let him build. I’m happy for him. (I’m happy that after about ten years I’m finally remembering to call Fiesta Market by its name, Pacific Market.) I’m happy, but I’ve been getting coffee from him since 1994. It’s not like I’m not spoiled for choice in this town. It’s just… a hole.

Is this what getting old is? Walking into a landscape that grows sparser and sparser? I can’t really say that. My landscape is filled with new things, new connections, achievements I never thought I would really have. And yet… maybe this is just a boomer whining about change, but as a person who navigates by landmarks, I find the walk out of the populous, hilly valley of my past into a stark plain more than slightly unsettling.

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More Thoughts on Royalties

(These may just be the same thoughts I’ve had about royalties.)

I’ve said here and elsewhere before that if I can afford to buy us burritos from my quarterly royalties, I consider the quarter a success. Spouse and I are having burritos tonight, so the 2nd quarter of 2021 is successful.

I have a high degree of trust in my indie publisher, Falstaff Books. This isn’t only because they are nice people. In part, it’s because they seem like honest people, who set reasonable expectations at the beginning of the process of the Copper Road trilogy. For instance, I knew that most hardcopy sales would come from convention sales, so 2020 was no surprise and the first two quarters of 2021 weren’t big surprises either.

I also trust them because they have a royalty statement that I can read and understand. They break out sales and royalties by work. They list convention sales, hardcopy sales, ebook sales and the number of pages read on Kindle Unlimited, which is why I assume 5 people read Aluminum Leaves on KU, while one person only read 14 pages of Copper Road before stopping.

(Note: I have zero way of knowing if that person read that far, decided they liked it, and bought/ordered a hardcopy or a regular Kindle sale. Frankly though, KU is a better deal, so I doubt that’s what happened.)

Once they’ve broken out the sales, the statement shows the proceeds, and the percentage due me as the author, with a column that is totaled at the bottom. Very transparent.

Here’s the downside to trusting my publisher; I pretty much have to, because there are zero backup systems in place where I can realistically check my sales. My books aren’t in bookstores unless they are consigned by me, so Bookscan doesn’t help. Amazon shows where your book is, in rank order, in given Kindle categories. Up until very recently, that was all I had. Since then I discovered a Kindle sales calculator. I’ve been trying it out, but it’s early in the month, and it defaults to a One Day setting, so again, not that useful. And since Amazon compares each book to every other book, including new ones that come into the system, I don’t understand the formula that calculator uses.

I hope I can get more information when Comeuppance Served Cold comes out, because it will have a national distribution, which should (or… might?) show up on Bookscan.

This does not mean I am powerless as an author. In every contract I’ve signed I’ve had the ability to order (and pay for) an audit if I question the royalties or sales figures. I don’t know how I would know though. I mean, if your book is on the New York Times Best Seller List for thirteen weeks and your royalties are only enough to buy burritos, you might want to start looking for auditors, but otherwise…? It’s a mystery.

I keep learning though. I’ll look around for a more flexible Kindle sales calculator. I’ll scroll through Writer Twitter to see what they have to say about ways to determine if your book is selling. And I’ll keep posting what I learn, because why not?

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Bits and Pieces

On August 17, Comeuppance Served Cold went into the production phase. I expect to have copyedits to review by September 8, so I know what I’ll be doing for a while!

Saturday, August 28, I participated in a live Zoom class on Writing Magic, offered by Cat Rambo. Here’s a link to the classes and other events she offers. There were six of us (I think), and the session lasted two hours and was the perfect balance of lecture and writing practice. Some of the material was a good reminder–some made me think about magic in fiction from a different perspective. I got a lot out of both exercises. And the group was a delight.

This is the second workshop I’ve taken (the first one was not live, and it was about linguistics and worldbuilding). They’ve both been great experiences for me and I recommend them to you.

Book recommendations: Three to recommend, each completely different.

The House in the Cerulean Sea by T.J. Klune. This is probably sold as a middle-grade book. It does skew young. I loved every word. A suspenseful, vivid, sweet and funny fantasy about families, belonging, doing what’s right and figuring out what that is. Terry Connelly gave me the nudge to read this, and I’m so glad she did.

The Glass Hotel, by Emily St. John Mandel. Like Cerulean Sea, it features a building by the ocean. There the similarities end. Mandel explores the financial crash of 2008 through the device of a Bernie Madoff-like conman and the woman who pretends to be his wife for the final three years of his reign. The story follows that woman, named Vincent, her brother Paul, and various characters who came into contact with the conman–many of them at the exclusive, secluded hotel on a British Columbia island, the titular glass hotel. The characters are deep, conflicted, expertly drawn, the prose is precise, dreamy and immersing, the story ranges from a small B.C. town to New York, to the high seas.

I bought the YA thriller Ace of Spades because of its stunning cover, and I am so glad I did. Faridah Abike-Iyimide’s debut novel belongs to a subgenre a friend has heard called “dark academia.” I would have said “evil high school.” You get the idea. Devon and Chiamaka are overachieving students at the exclusive Nivius Academy. Chi is the daughter of wealthy parents, while Devon is a scholarship student who occasionally delivers drugs for the dealers in his neighborhood in order to help his hard-working mother make ends meet. Aside from being classmates, the two only have one other thing in common: They are the only Black students in the school. As senior year opens, they are both targeted by an anonymous harasser who sends texts and images, starting with embarrassing and quickly growing worse. Chi tumbles from being the Queen of the Halls to a social pariah, and for Devon, his dream of attending Julliard is on a crash-and-burn trajectory. It soon becomes obvious that that harasser, who is now invading their privacy and worse, has access to too much information to merely be a student. Devon and Chi struggle to decide who to trust.

The degree of paranoia engendered by the middle of the book veers into horror, and I mean that in the best way. Can they trust anything? Anyone? The ending is dramatic and satisfying. Abike-Iyide has literalized a system of discrimination and hierarchy that most of us would prefer remain unspoken and given us two characters to root for, as one after another, the things they thought were support systems are ripped away.

If you are white and don’t want to hear about systematic injustice, or you feel like you shouldn’t be held responsible for the racist system under which the USA operates, you may resent this book or find it implausible. It can also be hard for us to accept that a gripping, vivid story may not be for us, and there may not be a central place for a white character. I went into this book knowing that it was not aimed at me in any way. I recommend that approach.

I finished it up impressed with Aibke-Iyimide’s talent and sheer hard work. I’ll be sure to pick up whatever she publishes next.

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The Way We Live Now #19: Covid Test

This is not the swab you are looking for.

A couple of Sundays ago I got a call from a friend. She left a voicemail, didn’t say what it was about, didn’t leave a text. We spent about 20 minutes playing voicemail tag before she reached me, to tell me her brother was in the hospital with Covid.

She wasn’t just telling me because I’d want to know. Fifteen days earlier, Spouse and I had gone to their house for dinner. Another friend was down visiting them, and they invited yet another person we hadn’t seen in years. Everyone was fully vaccinated.

Fifteen days was one day outside of the recommended window for testing, and I’d had no symptoms. In that time period, in Mendocino, I’d had dinner with Donna and Mark, and invited them up to my suite for a cocktail party, maskless, because we were all fully vaccinated. And, once I got home, I’d had lunch at the Cape Fear Cafe in Duncan’s Mills. My server was masked the whole time, but I wasn’t.

What if I were a carrier, and I’d infected them with the Delta variant?

I checked the CVS website to find that the local branch didn’t do tests. I called Rite Aid. The Stony Point store did tests; Sebastopol did not. I emailed my doctor, and got on the Sonoma County Emergency site. After a few minutes, I located a test site in Coddingtown, run by Curative, which had appointments left for Monday, the next day.

To sign up, I answered a bunch of the usual screening questions, including a few that I hadn’t answered before because I’d never been tested: was the test needed for travel? Did I work in the healthcare field? The rest were familiar; any symptoms, any exposure within the last 14 days, etc.

Curative then emailed me a link that took me to page to actually sign up, where I had to repeat some demographic data (name, age, phone number, email) and add my health insurance info even though there is no cost for the test. I got my appointment and the location: Coddingtown Center, the Target parking lot, the mall kiosk. You don’t get an appointment, you get a slot, and mine was 11:00-11:30 am.

I got there early, in case I had trouble finding the kiosk and because I almost always arrive early when I’m anxious. I parked in the target parking lot, which basically takes up about half of the space of Coddingtown’s southern parking lot.

And, immediately, I couldn’t find the kiosk.

I looked for an umbrella, or a tent. There wasn’t one. I walked up and down the rows, and couldn’t see anything that resembled a kiosk, so I approached to the sidewalk, walked west to the corner and east to the edge of Macy’s. No kiosk in sight.

It occurred to me that “mall kiosk” might, in fact, mean exactly that: a kiosk in the mall. So I trudged through Target and out into the concourse, which was surprisingly empty of kiosks of any sort (or customers, while we’re on the subject). I pulled out my phone entered the address into my GPS, thinking it might be in front of one of the small offices at the south end of the parking lot.

My GPS helpfully informed me that I Had Reached My Destination.

Last resort: I called the Curative number given in my confirming email, and went through the menu. I was told there 12 calls ahead of me. A little desperate, I hurried back through Target, which probably took me about two minutes. Just as I approached the exit doors, a young man answered my call.

“My records show it’s in the Target parking lot,” he said, when I explained my problem.

“So, it’s outside?”


“Is there a landmarky thing, like a sign? An umbrella?” Yes, I really did say “landmarky thing.”

“There should be signs, ma’am.”

By now I was outside, on the sidewalk again, scanning, scanning, scanning the parking lot. “Okay. I see a dark blue umbrella with some white writing on it. Could that be you?”

He hesitated. “Well, blue and white are our logo colors.”

“I see people milling around.” Yes, I really did say “milling around.” “Is that it?”

Relief flooded his voice as he blurted, “People! Yes, yes, that’s it. It must be it.”

And it was. Well, kinda. The umbrella, which was smaller than the small cafe umbrellas I’ve seen at places, was several yards away from the actual site. And I might have called the pop-up structure, which held two technicians, a booth, not a kiosk. And the A-frame sign was small, not visible over parked cars unless you were pretty close. To be fair, it was in the Target parking lot, at the extreme south end. I should have been able to see it from the corner of Macy’s except I think there were cars in the way.

Once the Raiders of the Lost Kiosk part of the program was over, everything moved quickly. There were five people in line ahead of me (I reached the line shortly before 11:00), and in about six minutes I was up. The technician had me hold my confirmation number and my ID up against the plastic shielding, had me use the hand sanitizer in a little hatch lust below the shielding, and then pushed the test kit through the hatch. It all came in a press and seal bag, marked with an ID number matched to my confirmation number. “Take out the swab,” she said–the swab looked about six inches long–“Only the white part needs to go into your nose. When you’re ready, swab one nostril for fifteen seconds. I’ll time it. Then swab the other nostril for fifteen seconds, and I’ll time that.” She looked at me. I looked at her. She said, “When you’re ready you can take off your mask…”

This is the shallow nasal swab, as you’ve figured out. I put the swab into the test tube provided in the bag, sealed the bag and dropped it through the slot in the top of the locked box. And that was that.

They cut off appointments at 1:30, so the tests went back to the lab around 2:00 pm. I’d been advised several times that results would arrive no longer than 48 hours after the swabs were delivered.

It was actually only 30 1/2 hours before I was notified that I tested negative–not that I was checking my phone every waking half hour or anything.

In those hours, I worried that I’d infected friends. I checked my temperature three times a day. (No fever.) I frantically sniffed everything; nectarines, a banana, coffee beans (no loss of sense of smell). What if I were asymptomatic though? If I tested positive, how many days was I supposed to isolate? Most advice talks about isolating so many from “the start of symptoms.”

A lot of worry for nothing. The big point here; once you find the kiosk, the tests are painless and quick, and Curative’s techs were thoroughly trained and helpful. And yes, their directions could be better (a fact I pointed out in the follow up survey).

And they will text you about fifteen minutes after you finish up to tell you your Check-in is Complete, so don’t freak out when that happens. (Can you tell I freaked out? You can, can’t you?)

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3 Rules for an Ann Cleeves Mystery

(Warning, spoilers.)
Ann Cleeves is a British mystery writer, who has won the Duncan Lawrie Dagger Award, and has two of her detective series, the Vera Stanhope books and the Shetland series, adapted for BBC television. Her books are extremely popular. I was finishing up one of the Shetland books, Blue Lightning, earlier this week, and I was reminded that there are three rules for a Cleeves mystery.

  • Rule 1: There will be no likeable characters introduced.
  • Rule 2: If Rule 1 is broken and you like a character, that character will be murdered sometime in the next two or three chapters.
  • Rule 3: If both Rule 1 and Rule 2 are broken, the likeable character will lose the thing of value they’ve been seeking or protecting over the course of the entire novel.

Rule 3 means that they may survive but their relationship will be destroyed; they will lose custody of a beloved child who will go live in the south somewhere; they will lose their home, their promotion, their political cause or the funding for their research. These rules prove out with great consistency across both series.

As I read along in Blue Lightning I thought, “Wow, that Jane, I really like her.” Oh, no! I tried to take it back, but too late. You know what happens.

I really wondered why I bothered to keep reading. The book was the opposite of escapism in many ways. Everything in the “real” world is terrible. Everything on the remote island is terrible too. If people aren’t terrible, they’re dead. Why was I bothering? No, seriously, why was I? I finally teased it out. I continue to read Ann Cleeves now and then because she does an extraordinary job of evoking a sense of place. In the Shetland series, whether it’s interiors or exteriors, there is a palpable sense of the spaces around us.

The “locked room” or interior in Blue Lightning, at least for the first death, is a decommissioned light house converted to a field center for bird study. The space is more than the tower of a lighthouse. It’s got a couple of flats, two dormitories, a large kitchen and dining area, a common room and a space converted into the “bird room” where the scientific work is done. Without drawing us a floor plan or stopping to describe the place in a long passage, Cleeves let me see and feel the building, mostly through character-based details. I imagine the long, fully stocked kitchen from the actions of the center’s cook, especially when she is serving from the “hatch” into the dining room. When a character glances through the open door into the bird room, I get a sense of how it and the common room attach without being “walked through it.”

Rarely does Cleeves have a character look around a room and describe it to themselves, and when they do, it serves more than one purpose. A person who lives at the field center takes a moment to describe her room to herself in detail, from the windows to the fact that the sheets on her bed (which we can’t see) are ironed. She thinks about this because the room is a haven, a sanctuary, and she loves it. See Rule 3.

The nature of the Shetland Islands, and especially their weather, play a large role in any of the Shetland series, and this one is no different. A driving storm that lasts for two days adds to the challenges and atmosphere of the place, particularly after the first murder. The weather is acknowledged for what it truly is, an elemental force to be respected and reckoned with, not mastered or controlled. Transportation stops. Businesses pause, and people hunker down.

For the Shetland series, Cleeves created a character who is a painter, and who brings the eye of a visual artist to new places. Cleeves gets a lot of mileage out of this, without it being obvious, because this multi-book character always sees things, particularly landscapes, as paintings. The artist actually creates some of the paintings, adding a bit of realism and blurring the expository function a bit.

Whenever I pick up one of these, I know I probably won’t like very many people and the ones I do like–those who survive–will be standing amid the splintered ruins of their lives at the end. Still, I reach for one now and then, because I want the taste of snow, the play of dawn light on the rugged hills, the smell and feel of a snug croft with a peat fire in the stove. Cleeves will almost always draw me back for that.

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I got to the botanical garden during peak dahlia season.

The banks of lush blooms, looking like time-frozen fireworks, have benches interspersed so you can sit and rest your feet after you’ve walked down from the terrace, through the first grove and into the dahlia garden.

These aren’t dahlias, but they are in the dahlia garden and they are lovely so I’ve included them.

My second-favorite part of the garden is the old homestead and the vegetable garden, which is also filled with flowers. I always take a picture of this sign. The vegetable garden provides fresh vegetables to the Mendocino County Food Bank.

That’s 7592 (I think) pounds of fresh produce.
I don’t know what these are but when I refer to them as fairy bells, people seem to know what I’m talking about.

Even when it’s full of people, and it was pretty full that Wednesday, the garden exudes peace and tranquility.

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MCWC 2021 Finished Up

Another conference is in the books.

Like last year’s, this conference was online. Like last year’s this worked pretty well for me. It worked better for me in one respect; I participated online from a room at the Alegria Inn in Mendocino, so I could re-create the peripherals of the conference (walking on the headlands, going to the botanical gardens, visiting with friends) as much as possible.

Writing friend Donna Banta and her husband came up too, and that added to the sense of in-personness.

I attended the Speculative Fiction workshop. Alaya Dawn Johnson led the workshop. She was warm, positive, with a good eye for what could be stronger. She also dedicated time to some exercises, which required some conscious analysis of passages to see how things were done. People may have mixed reactions to the exercises since they truly did limit the amount of time we spent workshopping. Me? I loved them and was glad she prioritized them.

I was in awe of our group and the caliber of storytelling. The group members were not only good writers (and in some cases excellent writers) they were thoughtful, knowledgeable, deep and careful readers with workshops comments that were both generous and insightful. It’s really unusual to get the whole package in a group, but this one had it.

Here follows a brief list of peripheral achievements:

I hosted my first cocktail party. This was done with the help of the amazing travel bar kit, of course. And yes, by “hosting” I mean mixing three drinks and eating snacks that were mostly provided by Mark and Donna, my in-person guests. But still, I check the box. A win.

Writing friends Margaret Speaker-Yuan and Monya Baker joined us via Zoom, and for them it was very much BYOB.

The spread. The plates and flatware, almonds, smoked salmon and fancy crackers are from me. Donna provided the rest. (Oh, I brought the table cloth.)

I walked every day, and climbed stairs or hills every day. I was very good about getting out–of course I wanted to, so it’s not a virtue or self-discipline thing. I still check the box. It helped that every day but one we had beautiful weather, even if it was a bit windy.

I made it to the botanical garden and got to see the dahlias. That was something I missed terribly last year.

I did an okay job of conserving water. I brought my own drinking water, and took short, military-style showers. The problem, while not a new one, is very real and more acute this year. I wanted, at least, not to add to the strain.

I fell short in a couple of areas. I planned to go to the garden twice, the second time on Sunday after I had breakfast with the Fortiers. I knew that Art in the Garden was happening, but somehow I didn’t know just how big that event was. They had three overflow parking lots and two of them were full. As I drove to the mostly empty third one, I eyed the sheer numbers of people walking back to the gardens. Yes, it was outside. Yes, many wore masks. I still decided it wasn’t a great idea.

I missed dinner with Barbara Lee, but we’ll figure out a way to do it some other time.

I did not buy out the inventory of Gallery Bookshop. I counted as I was putting things in the car this afternoon. So far, I’ve only bought three books. I mean, am I even trying? Fortunately, I have time to improve this one! It’s early yet.

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Cover Reveal

Tor.com has posted the cover for Comeuppance Served Cold!

Helen Crawford-White, who created the cover for G. Willow Wilson’s The Bird King among many other wonderful covers, is the artist. I suppose I could be happier, but I don’t really see how.

The book is also available for preorder at Powell’s Books, Barnes and Noble and of course Amazon. Because Tordotcom Books is an imprint of MacMillian, they have national and some continental distribution, so your local independent bookstore might also be able to pre-order it.

Anyway, what do you think?

So many story elements captured in the cover.

A commenter on Twitter said that it was one “font-change away from a chick lit” cover, and she wasn’t being insulting. That works for me actually. And “cozy mystery” cover works for me too, because in looking over the manuscript earlier this week I was reminded that there is actually a corpse on Page One.

Anyway, to use a 1920’s term, I’m over the moon.

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Open Mike: What to Read, What to Read?

Stacey and Clinton coached folks on what to wear–who coaches us on what to read?

This month I did two author reads, and I have one scheduled for early next month. As Comeuppance Served Cold draws closer to publication, I plan (or at least hope) to do more personal author readings. This leads to the inevitable question… what do you read?

Some of the big questions are answered by the event itself and the venue. If your reading time is 20 minutes you’ll read something different than if you have 2 minutes. If it’s a promotional event for your work, and a solo author event, you are probably going to read from the work you’re promoting. (One very well-known exception in the SF field is John Scalzi, and I’ll discuss that more below.)

Sometimes the host has some explicit requirement. Story Hour, for instance, wants a complete piece. This no doubt perfectly fits their brand. They also don’t want their authors going over 20 minutes, because their experience, especially online, is that audiences tend to start zoning out after that long. Online, you are competing with the refrigerator, the cat, the kids, or what’s happening outside the window… you don’t want to help your audience drift away.

Reactions to Avoid

For Story Hour I read two discrete, fairly short pieces, and that seemed to work well.

(John Scalzi often reads very little from the work he is promoting. He says that people have read reviews and highlights and probably already read the book by the time he’s touring. He wants his live audiences to hear something not everyone else has. Sometimes he reads from a WIP, sometimes from blog posts or articles. John Scalzi is a several-million seller with a backlist and a track record, and this technique works for him. Our mileage may vary.)

Earlier this week I had an opportunity to participate in FOGCon’s Authors Read event. I like how FOGCon has set these events up. They blend invited authors, who each read for 20 minutes with a brief Q&A after, with several Open Mike readers. We signed up for our 5-minute Open Mike slot. This program works extremely well, for me anyway, particularly as an audience member.

This week I paid attention to what the Open Mike people chose to read.

Among the Open Mike readers, one reader won a private award from me for Best Use of Time. She read a short piece of flash fiction, I’m guessing no more than 500 words, which left her time to share four short science fiction poems. She shared genres, she let us see a range of her work, and she didn’t run over. I award the chef’s kiss of 5-minute readings.

We heard the beginning of a retelling of a fairy tale. There was no way the story was going to be finished in five minutes–the author read to a suspenseful stopping place. It worked well, satisfying me but making me want to hear/read the whole thing.

One reader read a transitional passage. While the prose was good, and the transition gave the first-person narrator a chance to fill in some backstory (this is book four or five of a series) I thought it was a risky choice. Much of the passage was simple a description of the landscape the characters drove through. So, risky, yes, but a good choice if you want to showcase your prose.

Another read a set-piece from deeper into her book. Because it was a set-piece and addressed the key premise of her story–ghosts, and who can/cannot see them–this section worked well. What I took away from her reading is that a piece from the middle of a book can work perfectly… if it’s the right piece.

And this gets me into the deeper level of “what do I read?” questions.

I had five minutes. I wanted to read from Comeuppance. This was actually the book’s “reading” debut. I wanted to intrigue. I wanted people to want more.

The book has at least one set piece that I think is funny, with great dialogue, and you don’t have to know what’s going on to appreciate what’s happening. It was too long to read completely, it is dialogue-heavy, and there’s no magic in it. The opening chapter is dialogue-heavy too, but there is at least a discussion of magic. (More about dialogue in a minute.) And, it’s the beginning of the book, right after a shorter prologue, so it better be intriguing! That’s what I chose.

Do you choose narrative, action or dialogue to read? My work relies heavily on dialogue, so I’m going to have trouble avoiding it.

If you choose dialogue, do you use voices? I’m trying to use voices, which I’m sure is very entertaining… if not in the way I’d wish. I tried to deepen the register for the male voice in the section I read, which got me a scratchy throat at the end, but I don’t know how much else.

Of course the ideal is a blend. Some of your deep, or snappy, dialogue, some lyrical phrases (or tough-as-mails prose) and some activity from the characters.

Beginning, or middle of the book? Do people have to know too much to understand a section from the middle? I have another great section from Comeuppance that is practically a standalone–but it gives away a crucial detail, so I don’t read it.

More than one section? I’ve seen plenty of writers do this at authors events, and I yearn for the day when this is my problem to have. I’m leaning toward, “Yes, why not? A couple of different sections,” to give a bit more flavor.

When you’re in the audience, what keeps your attention? What readings have you liked best? Is there an author who surprised you, or entertained in an unexpected way? I’d love to hear about them.

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