Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Cover of Snow, by Jenny Milchman: A Review

When her seemingly happy husband commits suicide, Nora Hamilton suspects something fishy. Her quest to belatedly find the truth leads to mysteries both within her marriage, and within the small town where her husband grew up but she is an outsider.

Having read many five-star reviews and just as many one-star reviews of this novel, I agree with both, so I'm offering three stars. There are some exciting elements and the book is appropriately chilling. The main plot is very intriguing and I kept turning pages. On the other hand, there are some amateurish elements consistent with a first effort by a debut novelist. Below (in the spoiler section) are a few specific examples.

I have met Jenny Milchman and found her to be a lovely person. The fact that this novel took so long to publish is a testament to her passion for her work and her determination to succeed as a novelist. I think this book will provide a solid stepping-stone for Jenny's career. Because I agreed so wholeheartedly with many of the comments that have been made (both positive and negative), it is my hope that Jenny will take those critiques to heart and use what she learns from them in her next work. I think she has the potential to become a fabulous mystery/thriller author and I look forward to her next effort.


Here are a few of things about the book that I would have done differently:

1) The "I'll tell you tomorrow!" As soon as I read that part, I knew Jean was going to die. That scene came across as a poorly veiled attempt to raise the stakes, but unrealistic. Given Nora's drive to understand her husband's suicide, I don't think she would have been satisfied to leave key info at that point.

2) Nora's failure to answer the mysterious phone call that keeps coming in. Same reason. I didn't find it credible that she would ignore the phone call for any reason. It would have been better if she tried to call but couldn't get through, or the line got cut off, etc.

3) The romantic tension with Ned struck me as...frankly, tasteless. Her husband just died! It damaged Nora's likeability and her credibility as a grieving widow.

4) Nora's tendency to become distracted with ideas and thoughts about home restoration. I understand that the goal was to give her some back-story and depth, but the execution of these pieces made her come across a bit ADD. Again, it damaged her credibility as a grieving widow and a woman driven to understand her husband's suicide.

5) I would have liked to know Brendan a bit better. Instead of integrating the third-person segments, many of which struck me as a bit unnecessary, I would have liked to see (for example) some flashbacks to Brendan and Nora's marriage when he was still alive. I would have liked to have seen it with my own eyes. We keep hearing directly from Nora how happy she and Brendan were, but with all evidence to the contrary it's difficult to believe her. I think her proclamation of happiness would be more credible if we could have witnessed their relationship first-hand. Perhaps the incorporation of some flashbacks could have killed two birds with one stone by showing their happiness on a "normal" day when she's restoring houses (see point #4.) Then, the evidence to the contrary would have been that much more impactful and the reader would have shared her confusion about the events unfolding around her.

Overall, a solid first effort. I would recommend this novel to those who like a good "why-dunnit" and I would suggest that mystery/thriller fans keep an eye on this author.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The First-Person Novel, Part I: Avoiding Narcissism in the Protagonist

When I was writing The Vesuvius Isotope, I learned the hard way that thrillers in first person are damn hard to write. A first-person novel confines the reader to the POV of the protagonist, so the reader never gets to witness the thoughts and behind-the-scenes actions of other characters. You don't get to see the bad guy building the bomb, so you don't know until it explodes that there actually was one. And chances are, you don't know who planted it or why.

This limitation in what the reader sees can have a couple of significant effects on the story. Here we discuss just one of the major issues that can arise in the first-person story: The protagonist can easily come across as narcissistic.

Repetition of the words "I" and "me" and excessive use of inner monologue are both pitfalls that can make the protagonist come across as self-centered and inwardly focused. To avoid this, I find it useful to sometimes deviate from the active voice.

We learn in writing school that active voice is better than passive voice. Instead of, "a bird was singing," we're supposed to say "Jane Doe heard a bird singing." I like to break this rule in the first-person story, in order to eliminate that excessive repetition of "I" and "me." When the protagonist is observing a scene before him/her, sometimes a little exposition is just what the doctor ordered. We can start with the observation of the protagonist, but then we can move away from direct observation  to describe the scene more generally. Here's an example:
The taxi raced down a main street, weaving in and out of traffic that had no apparent legal regulation. There were very few road signs, and the traffic signals seemed only to flash yellow. I could not identify a correct side of the road or a speed limit. The sidewalk was open terrain for motor vehicles as well as for pedestrians. I quickly realized that renting a car was not going to be an option.
The streets doubled as supermarket aisles. Like islands in the center of a fast-moving river stood rows of vendors’ tents peddling food, jewelry, handbags, and countless other goods, while the heavy automobile traffic swirled around them. Hurried pedestrians zigzagged back and forth across the traffic like ants, jumping from sidewalk to vendor’s tent and then biblically parting on cue to accommodate a racing Smart car. Or a bus. Or a moped containing four passengers.
The first-person perspective introduces the scene, but it then becomes more expositive. To give the reader a break from the protagonist's personal plight, the words "I" and "me" are left out of the second paragraph entirely.

Authors: do you write in first-person or third-person? Why do you choose the perspective(s) you choose? Do you have tricks for keeping your first-person protagonists from becoming tiring and coming across as narcissistic?

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Extremely Basic HTML for People Allergic to Code

Doha 12 by Lance Charnes

Guest post by Lance Charnes

Be afraid. I’m going to talk to you about the Hypertext Markup Language, which you’ve probably seen referred to in a zillion places as HTML, the language that underpins web pages. Everything you’re seeing on this page (and any other one on the web) is built from HTML or one of its spawn.

Here’s the good news: as an author, you don’t need to be able to build websites in HTML. Let Wordpress or Blogger take care of all that plumbing.

Here’s the bad news: as an author, you still need to know some basics about it.

Why? First, a number of blogging platforms (such as this one) and social media sites (such as Goodreads) let you use a stripped-down subset of HTML to make your posts more attractive and useful. Second, those e-books piling up on your Nook or Kindle are essentially very long web pages; if you’re producing e-books, you’re going to need to do some basic HTML twiddling in order to fix problems.

HTML is, as its name suggests, a markup language. This means that you add it to your plain text to get text effects (bold, italics), alignment or page placement (paragraphing, block quotes), and add web-friendly extras (hyperlinks, images).

Most HTML tags have a start and end; the text they affect comes in between. HTML tags are enclosed in angle brackets (< and >); the end tag has a slash ( / ). For example:

<z>This is in zebra stripes</z> (okay, not really, but that’s what tags look like)

You can add several tags to a single piece of text. You do this by enclosing each pair of tags with another pair of tags. For example:

<yellow><z>This text is in yellow zebra stripes</z></yellow>

It’s best to keep the start and end tags in reverse order. Doing something like this:

<yellow><z>This text is in yellow zebra stripes</yellow></z>

will (at best) not work, or (at worst) do something unexpected and freaky, depending on how sensitive your browser or display platform is.

Following are the most common text-effect tags. This list is from Goodreads; different sites use different subsets, so you’ll want to preview your post to make sure it comes out the way you want. (Note: the spaces between the angle brackets and the tags are there so Blogger won’t interpret them as tags. Leave out the spaces when you use them for real.)

  • bold text: < b >text< /b >
  • italic text: < i >text< /i >
  • underline text: < u >text< /u >
  • strikeout text: < s >text< /s >

Alignment tags tend to work best on blocks of text, that is, paragraphs or paragraph-like chunks. The most common ones include:

  • paragraph: < p >text< /p >
  • blockquote: < blockquote >text< /blockquote >
  • preformatted text: < pre >text< /pre > (most useful for verse and other things that need line breaks in specific places)

Note the “paragraph” tag. Most blogging platforms are well-behaved enough to not need this. However, some applications (such as the Ingram catalog – ask me how I know) require this if your text isn’t to collapse into a single ginormous, unreadable paragraph.

Web links and embedded images work like this:

  • link: < a href="full URL to link to" >my link text< /a >
  • image: < img src="web address for the image" width="n" height="n" alt="description"/ > (width and height are the number of pixels (n) the image should occupy; alt is a description of the image. All three are optional, but recommended.)

Yes, you can set a picture to be a link; just put the < img > command where you see “my link text” in the < a > tag example. Also, notice that the < img > tag doesn’t have an end tag; everything is contained within the angle brackets.

Some message boards and forums (like KBoards) use a different-but-similar scheme for their posts. Instead of angle brackets, they use square brackets ( [ ] ). Their post editors usually have all the controls you need to do what you need to.

This is most of what you need in order to use the mini-HTML that shows up in Blogger, Wordpress, and other like-minded sites. There’s a lot more going on in your e-books, and that’s fodder for other posts if you’re interested.

Lance Charnes is the author of international thrillers Doha 12 and South. For more about Lance and his novels, read an interview with Lance here. Doha 12 and Lance's contact/order info are also available on our "Find a Book" page, here.