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On Writing

Filtering by Tag: novels

Why I don't write negative book reviews

Stephen H. Provost

I have a simple policy when it comes to reviewing books: If I like them, I give 'em props. If I don't, I keep my mouth (or my keyboard) shut.

There are a couple of reasons for this. First off, reactions to books are largely subjective. Some books are more popular than others, and that can speak to quality, but it also can speak to successful marketing, name recognition and other factors. A few highly praised works have bored me to tears, and some obscure volumes have been, to use my wife's term, "unputdownable."

(This is a great word, even if you won't find it in the dictionary, because it has two meanings: The book's so engaging you can't stop reading it, and it's so enjoyable, you can't find anything to criticize.)

Secondly, I like to support other artists. I know how hard it is to sell a book, and I also know how tough it can be to deal with numbing criticism from strangers who seem to take almost perverse glee in dismantling a work you've spent months or years creating. You put a big part of yourself into it, and it's hard not to take it personally if someone reams you over it. Having been on the receiving end of slow sales and (only occasionally, thank goodness) critical reviews, I know what it's like to feel that sting, so I strive to follow the Golden Rule and spare other authors any scathing rebukes from my pen.

From my close observation of writers... they fall into two groups: 1) those who bleed copiously and visibly at any bad review, and 2) those who bleed copiously and secretly at any bad review.
— Isaac Asimov

The Grammar Hammer

What about more objective issues? What if the book contains a ton of misspelled words, switches tenses in the middle of a chapter or treats subject-verb agreement like it's a temporary truce at best?

As an editor, these things drive me nuts, but what's even more galling is a review that consists largely or solely of grammatical critiques. Such reviews come off as holier-than-thou, and they tell me nothing about the plot or the characters. Reviewers: I want to know what you think of the story. I won't give you a gold star for digging up the most errors in some fanciful literary scavenger hunt. 

So, I won't blast an author by name in a public forum for using "it's" as a possessive or "comprise" instead of "compose," even though I may grind my teeth and roll my eyes when it happens. Those things aren't as important to me as the story, and no author can catch every mistake. (In fact, we tend to read right over our own typos, seeing what we think we've written rather than what's actually on the page. That's why we need editors. And it's why I'm more likely to hold an editor accountable for a slew of errors than I am to blame the writer.)  

If I have a criticism of a book that I believe is worth sharing with the author, I do so in private, not in a review. I may poke fun at grammatical mistakes on line, but I don't attribute them to particular writers. I like to say, as a professional editor, that I'm not getting paid to do that, but the reality is, I don't find shaming writers to be either fun or noble. I'd much rather encourage them.

Ask yourself: of all the jobs available to literate people, what monster chooses the job of “telling people how bad different books are”? What twisted fetishist chooses such a life?
— Steve Hely, How I Became a Famous Novelist

What makes a good review

So, how do I go about writing a constructive review? Here are a few things I try to include:

  • What's special about the story? What makes it stand out from the crowd?
  • You'll enjoy this book if you've enjoyed ... (fill in the blank with one or more similar titles you've enjoyed.)
  • Who was your favorite character, and why?
  • What did you like about the writer's style? Did the description stand out; if so, how? Was the dialogue crisp and realistic? Was there a twist you didn't expect?
  • If the book was "unputdownable," say so!

If I do include any critical info, I build it on a positive foundation. For example, "I enjoyed this character so much, I would have liked to see more of her. I hope the author considers telling readers more about her in a sequel."

And, of course, no spoilers.

But wait, you may say, "If you never leaves a negative review, how will potential readers know if the book isn't for them?"

That's easy. The descriptions you give might be positive, but if you mention elements of the book that appeal to some readers, these same ingredients might not interest others. If you describe the story as fast-paced, readers who don't like to feel rushed through a story line might pass. If you highlight a passionate relationship between the two main characters, that might flag those who aren't into romance to steer clear. If you label it "dark and brooding," that might not appeal to readers in search of an uplifting tale. And so on.

Believe it or not, eliminating readers who wouldn't be interested in a particular book benefits the author, too. It means that those who do read the work as the result of a review are more likely to enjoy it ... and leave a review of their own.

A bad review is even less important than whether it is raining in Patagonia.
— Iris Murdoch

A lousy review isn't the end of the world, which should come as good news to authors and bad news to self-important critics who think of themselves as king-makers and book-breakers. S. Kelley Harrell calls online review sites "the slushpile of feedback," and Iris Murdoch said, "A bad review is even less important than whether it is raining in Patagonia."

If you're an author with a leaky roof who happens to live in Patagonia, that might be a concern, but otherwise ...

A positive review probably won't make you a bestselling author, either. Still, I love getting them; most authors do. If you don't have time to leave a review, but you like a book, just rate it. That's great, too. It shows that you've read the book and (hopefully) that it kept you interested enough to reach the end. 

Speaking of the end, I've gotten there myself. At least for today.

Thanks for reading, and happy reviewing!

Why time travel doesn't work

Stephen H. Provost

Time travel. Whether you’re reading H.G. Wells or watching Capt. James T. Kirk “slingshot around the sun” in the U.S.S. Enterprise, and it’s always a lot of fun. “What ifs” make for great stories, and time travel opens up a vast trove of possibilities.

Still, it’s just fiction. We can’t actually do it, and here’s why.

I’m no physicist, but I know the difference between an object and a unit of measurement. The first is tangible in a very real way; the second is merely a convention. It’s a human construction, entirely artificial and fully dependent on the thing it’s designed to measure.

We create such constructs all the time. They help us make sense of the world.

The words you’re reading right now represent real things. The word “box” represents a real object, but the word is not that object – and apart from the object it refers to, it would be utterly meaningless. We could have just as easily called that object a Heffalump or a Bandersnatch. Whatever we decide to call it, as long as we all agree that the word in question represents a cube-shaped object with a hollow interior, we’ll understand one another just fine … which is the purpose of communication.

The same is true for numbers. Numbers don’t exist in and of themselves; they measure things that exist. We can use Roman numerals, Arabic numerals (our own system). We can use a base-10 system, a base-5 system or whatever. Our choice. The things we’re numbering remain the same regardless of the labels we place on them, and we can’t count anything unless we have something to count.

Say we’re measuring something in space. We can use inches or centimeters or whatever, but the actual thing we’re measuring – its physical length – doesn’t change, no matter what units we devise to quantify it.

So, how does this apply to time?

Like distance, it’s something we measure, using years, centuries, hours, minutes, etc. We can base our system on a sundial or modify it for daylight savings. We can monkey around with the calendar to create a year of 12 or 13 months if we so choose. For centuries, the Western world used the Julian Calendar, devised by Julius Caesar; these days, we use a calendar promoted by Pope Gregory XIII. But whether we use one or the other has absolutely zero effect on the way Earth rotates on its axis or orbits the sun.

In the same way we talk about “distance” and “volume” to measure length or storage capacity, we use the concept of time to measure a specific aspect of our universe: change.

Without change, there would be no time, because there would be no way to tell the difference between one moment and the next. In fact, there wouldn’t be any moments, per se. The concept of time merely gives us a way to understand and document change; without change, “time” is meaningless, just as the word “box” is meaningless without the thing it describes.

You might argue that it’s still possible to travel forward in time by entering a condition of stasis. This is at least theoretically possible – although the idea of “freezing” and “unfreezing” the human body is problematic in a practical sense and has not been achieved outside of science fiction. But think about it: We’re traveling forward in time anyway, so none of this would really change the nature of the way things work: You’d merely be altering a single physical element – the body – by prolonging its viability. Other than that, change would continue in the very same manner it otherwise would have.

(One could even argue that prolonging average human life span to more than 70 years from just over 30 at the start of the 20th century constitutes a form of forward time travel.)

To “go backward in time,” by contrast, would require far more than simply placing one small element of the universe into stasis. It would mean restoring the entire universe, down to the smallest subatomic particle, to the precise state in which it existed in 1776, 1492, 10 million years BC or whenever you wanted to go. To describe such a task as Herculean would be the biggest understatement of all time (pun intended).

So while it might be great fun to talk about slingshotting your way around the sun and finding yourself back in, say, medieval England or Biblical Judea, it ain’t gonna happen, folks. That’s why they call it science fiction.

It’s also why people like authors and poets, screenwriters, musicians and visual artists are so important. They can take us on journeys beyond the limits of this universe, into the only alternate universe any of us has ever really visited: our imagination.

The trip there and back again is no less a journey of discovery than any other adventure you can …

… imagine.

This is a writer's most precious commodity

Stephen H. Provost

A writer’s voice is like his or her soul.

No offense to ghostwriters. I don’t mean to suggest you’re selling your soul by trying to sound like someone else. Everyone’s got to make a living, right?

Maybe that’s the problem, though. Writing is such a difficult way to make a living, that sometimes, it might seem like the best way to do so is to sound like someone else. I’m not just talking about ghostwriters. I’m talking about authors across the spectrum who can't help but feel the pressure to write the "next" Twilight or Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter.

I have three words of advice: Resist that pressure.

Because ...

  1. Someone’s already done it better than you possibly could, even if you were the best writer in the known universe, because the person who did it first was the original.
  2. Apart from that, another "someone else" out there can probably do it better than you can, too. No offense, but in a world of 7 billion people, there are probably just a few writers who are more gifted than you are.
  3. Most fans of established authors aren’t looking for the “next J.K. Rowling.” They’re looking for the next book from J.K. Rowling.
  4. Trying to emulate another author too closely isn't much more creative than filling in the blanks on a Mad Libs game (remember those?). We all try to emulate successful and talented authors; at a certain point, however, a line is crossed between inspiration and mimicry that's like comparing a bus stop to a bus. To put a finer point on it: Even if it feels like you're spinning your wheels, that's far better than not having any.
  5. And, most importantly, if you’re writing like someone else, you’re not writing like yourself. Which is not only a big loss for your readers (because no one else can write like you can), it’s can also be personally demoralizing. Is there anything that puts a bigger damper on the creative instinct than the feeling that you can only find success by imitating someone else? Maybe there is, but I can’t think of one.

Your voice is your most precious commodity as a writer. You may feel like, as an author, you're on a leaky lifeboat in the middle of a storm-tossed sea (and what author hasn't felt that way at one point or another?) In such moments, the last thing you should throw overboard is your voice. That's your life-preserver.

Day jobs

The good news is that, contrary to what many readers believe, the vast majority of authors don’t make their living writing books. They’re journalists, science teachers, medical doctors, public relations professionals, website designers … you name it. Even many of those who have won awards use writing to supplement their incomes rather than to pay the rent.

This may not sound like good news, especially to the large number of authors who would love to quit their day jobs and make a living from their writing. But consider this: If you have a day job, it gives you the same kind of freedom authors like Rowling and King and Patterson have the freedom to write whatever the hell you want.

If you’re a mid-range writer on a contract who’s struggling to make ends meet, you might have a lot of people telling you that you need to write specific things that sound like a specific someone else.

How much fun is that?

“I could never be a novelist because then I would have to stop being a ‘write-for-TV-sometimes-ist’ or whatever the things are that I want to work on,” bestselling author, scriptwriter, etc. Neil Gaiman said in a 2014 interview. “I have the freedom to write whatever I want, for example children’s books.”

Gaiman is, in fact, a novelist, and he’s written some very good fiction. His point is, he isn’t just a novelist. He’s other things, too, and he can afford to be those things because he's "made it."

What those of us with day jobs often fail to realize is that we can do the same thing. We may not be free to write as much as someone at the top of the pyramid, like Gaiman, but we do have the same kind of freedom. So instead of trying to “make it” by writing like someone else — and becoming entrenched in a less-than-creative process of grinding out the next not-quite-so-great fill-in-the-blank title, why not exercise that freedom?

Original spin

I have a day job, and I don't make enough to live off writing books. Would I like to? Sure. But I’m luckier than most because my day job involves writing (I’m a newspaper editor/reporter) and exposes me to plenty of fodder for my off-the-clock writing.

That’s allowed me to, like Gaiman, explore a diverse array of topics and genres. I've written (as Stifyn Emrys) books that are philosophical and inspirational, and (under my own name), I've tackled speculative fiction and historical nonfiction.

As long as I don’t get caught up in worrying about “making it,” the process is a lot of fun. Plus, I get to keep my own voice.

My foremost criterion in writing each of the books I’ve written for Linden Publishing — Fresno Growing Up, Memortality and Highway 99 — has been originality. People had written about Fresno’s pioneer years before, but they hadn’t focused primarily on the Baby Boom generation. There are tons of books out there about Route 66, but Highway 99, which was similarly important out here on the West Coast, had received little such attention. As to Memortality, I have yet to run across another story that pairs the concept of a person’s eidetic (photographic) memory with a supernatural ability to raise the dead.

What fun is it to cover the same old ground, anyway?

Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but I’ve never been interested in flattering anyone. I’ll stick to plain ol' sincerity and hope someone else likes what I’m putting out there. If so, I’ll be ecstatic. If not, I’ll still have had a ton of fun along the way.

Photo by Ray Dumas.

Photo by Ray Dumas.

Value your voice

A good editor will:

  1. Fix errors in spelling, grammar and usage.
  2. Point out inconsistencies and content gaps.
  3. Suggest ways to tighten and punch up your writing.
  4. Give you ideas about where to take a story.
  5. Suggest changes in style where they may slow down or confuse the reader.

But a good editor will never simply change your voice without consulting with you. Changing your voice without asking or just because it sounds better to the editor’s ear is not OK. (Your ear matters as much as or more than the editor’s — suggestions are fine; wholesale changes without consultation most definitely are not.)

If you come across an editor who wants to significantly change your voice, my advice is to run like hell, don't look back and keep on writing.

5 Reasons Not to Write Fiction in the Present Tense

Stephen H. Provost

I picked up a friend’s novel the other day, opened it and started reading. It’s well written, and the characters are interesting. They’re the sort of people I can relate to, which made me want to read further.

But that’s not the first thing I noticed about the book. The first thing I noticed was the fact that it was written in present tense.

Apparently, this is a thing – especially for young adult novels. I’m not sure why, but I’ve heard it’s trendy in this genre. Presumably, the idea is to convey a sense of immediacy: This is happening now, and you’re along for the ride, not merely hearing someone tell you about it after the fact.

That’s the upside, but there are enough downsides to more than offset it, in my book – well, not in my book: I’ve never written one in present tense. And here are five reasons I wouldn’t:

  1. It’s not conversational. Strike up a discussion with someone. Anyone. I’ll bet you he or she doesn’t talk in present tense. When people tell stories, they’re usually telling you about something that happened to them in the past; making it sound as though it’s happening in the present can be confusing and downright irritating. It’s kind of like Kanye West referring to himself in third-person. Most people don’t talk like that. It sounds weird at best, pretentious at worst.
  2. You’re not a tour guide. Or a golf announcer. There aren’t many people who speak in the present tense when describing something. Sometimes, it can work, but that “sometimes” is rarely in print. You’re reading a novel, not taking a tour of Hearst Castle or watching The Master’s. Even that can be galling. How often do we have to listen to an announcer state the obvious: “He lines it up and approaches the ball …”? I can see that for myself, Einstein. Be quiet and let the action speak for itself. Which brings me to No. 3.
  3. It makes you more aware of the narrator. You’ve no doubt heard (probably since middle school) that good writers “show and don’t tell.” The present tense does the opposite by emphasizing style over substance. Writers who use it are relying on a technique to bolster the story, rather than getting out of the way and letting the story speak for itself. It’s crutch. The more you’re aware of the narrator, the less you’re able to connect with the story. Unless deftly done, the present tense is a distraction that keeps the reader from becoming immersed in the tale. Think about how often you see actors turn to address the audience directly from the stage. George Burns used to do it on the old Burns and Allen TV show, but there’s a reason it’s the exception, not the rule: It reminds the audience (or the reader) that this is “just” a story. If the story’s good, the reader should forget it’s a story. It should become an alternate reality. An intrusive narrator can keep that from happening.
  4. It’s tiring. While it may seem like fun at first to feel like you’re in the middle of the action, this can get exhausting. Part of the magic of reading is being able to go at your own pace, and – at least for me – being caught up in a present-tense narrative can be exhausting, especially if it’s heavy on the action. I can wind up wanting a break after a few pages, which is exactly the effect I don’t want to have as a writer: I want my readers to become so engrossed in the story they don’t want to put it down.
  5. It’s difficult to maintain. Because it’s natural to tell stories in the past tense, you have to pay close attention as a present-tense author to keep from reverting back into what’s more comfortable. You have to continually be on your guard to make sure you’re still writing in the present tense, and you have to have a damn good editor to catch the lapses you miss. Why spend all that energy on maintaining the present tense when you could be devoting it to telling the story? The best answer I can come up with is that you shouldn’t.

I’m not saying writers banish use the present tense to stylistic purgatory, any more than we should avoid first-person narratives altogether. I just think we should be selective about using such devices to be sure they don’t detract from the story. (I wrote my first novel, Identity Break, in the first-person format, and I'm pleased with the way it turned out; but if I had it to do over again, I’d probably opt for the third-person POV, because I could have told the same story more seamlessly.)

I’ll likely keep reading my friend’s present-tense book, because it has a lot going for it. The author is a strong enough writer to pull it off. But to me, that’s like being a golfer who’s good enough to win despite a two-stroke penalty, or a boxer can deck his opponent with one hand tied behind his back. I’d rather forgo the penalty and have both my hands free. 

Active and reactive writing: A journey from journalism to fiction

Stephen H. Provost

With the year drawing to a close, I decided to look back on the blogs I’ve posted in the past 12 months and noticed a theme: A lot of them involve politics.

It wasn’t my intention, when I started blogging, to spend so much time on political matters. An earlier blog I authored (no longer available online, sorry) was meant to do just that, but I wanted to move away from politics with this one.

I haven’t been entirely successful.

I could take the excuse that this election year has been so crazy it would have been hard not to write about it, and I suppose that’s true. In my defense, I’m not the only one who’s done it: A lot of very accomplished author friends have devoted considerable space to the news of the day in articles, blogs and social media posts.

Excuses aside, however, it raised the question of why.

Restating the obvious

First off, it occurred to me that outrage can be one of a writer’s greatest motivations. It’s also one of the easiest things to write about because it’s so obvious. If you’re irate about something, it’s often because the answer is so obvious (at least to you) that it might as well be screaming at you from a couple of inches in front of your nose … so you want to scream it at other people.

Obvious things are easy to write about, and we writers aren’t immune to the temptation of taking the easy way out. In some ways, we might be more susceptible to it than most: Writing – especially creative writing – can be laborious, so it can feel damned good to see the words just pouring out from your fingertips onto the screen in front of you.

Add to that the feel-good nature of a nice long rant – or a short, Twitter-pated one – and you’ve got a recipe for a lot of political posts, especially in a year such as this one.

There’s a second issue at play, however, that’s related to the first but is more fundamental. It involves the distinction between active (or creative) and reactive writing.

I’ve spent most of my career doing the latter, because it’s what a reporter or columnist does: He or she reacts to the news. This transitioned nicely for me into historical nonfiction (my books Fresno Growing Up, Highway 99), because writing about history is another sort of reactive writing.  This is fairly easy, because the ingredients for a story are right in front of you. All you have to do is put it on the page.

That’s not to diminish the importance of telling the story well. In some ways, nonfiction is a bigger challenge: You can easily fall into the trap of parading events before the reader in a predictable chronology (“and then, and then, and then”) that will put a reader to sleep. This is how you get dry textbooks and newspaper articles full of jargon, wherein police “respond to the scene” and victims “sustain multiple contusions, lacerations and blunt-force trauma to the head.” Are you still awake? Me, neither.

Next stop: Novel Land

That’s a challenge to a writer’s skill set, but not to his or her creativity, which is what comes into play with active writing.

A couple of years ago, I set about writing my first novel, Identity Break, and I remember being very excited about it. I had what I thought (and still think) was a great concept, and all I had to do was put it down on paper. I was still reacting to my own idea, but there was more work involved because I had to keep drawing on my own creativity to fill in the blanks. The novel, which I self-published, got some good reviews but didn’t create enough buzz to really take off, and what I had planned as a trilogy wound up truncated into a single book and a prequel novella called Artifice.

Fast forward a couple of years, and I decided to give novel-writing another go. Memortality started out as a “fun breather from non-fiction” after I’d finished Highway 99. Once again, I had a great concept – even better than Identity Break, and a lot more complex. It was that complexity, though, that exposed me to the real challenge of writing fiction: keeping the creative juices flowing while ensuring iy all made sense.

I told myself I never finished the sequel to Identity Break because I didn’t want to spend time on a project that wasn’t taking hold with readers, and that’s mostly true. But I also wasn’t as comfortable about active (fiction) writing as I was with (reactive) non-fiction, so it was easier to tap that well again for my next big project, which turned out to be Fresno Growing Up. Don’t get me wrong: I’m glad I did. It has turned out to be far and away my most successful book to date.

That led me to the idea for Highway 99, and after I’d finished writing that, I plowed ahead with a similar work on U.S. Highway 101, thinking I’d found my niche. That was before I asked my publisher: “How would you prefer me to spend my time, working on 101 or putting together a sequel to Memortality?” I expected him to say the former, because Linden had always focused heavily on California history books and Memortality was its first fiction release. When he suggested I focus on the sequel, it threw me right back out of my comfort zone.

Yes, this is work

I finished writing that sequel last week, and I’m very pleased with the result (sorry, no title yet – I have one, but I’m keeping it under wraps for now). But it may be the most difficult book I’ve ever written. The more I wrote, the more I had to delve into my own creative space; the longer I had to rely on active, rather than reactive writing. In the end, I think the struggle paid off with a story that’s pretty damned inventive, if I do say so myself, and one I hope readers will find engaging.

But it was work. I’m used to having everything just flow, the way it has since I started writing in high school. Most of that writing, I now realize, was reactive. As a journalist, that’s what I’ve done for 30-plus years, so I’ve all but tamed that beast. Active writing is a different animal – one you don’t want to tame. You want to let it run loose and see where it takes you. I’ll need every one of the skills I learned as a journalist to keep up with it, but I’ll also need that little extra something known as inspiration.

It’s easy to react to the events of the day, especially if you’ve worked yourself up into a lather about them, so I don’t blame myself or my fellow writers for focusing so much on politics. I will admit, though, that seeing the same posts on the same subjects from the same people on social media day after day can get tedious, especially when I know the people making those posts are gifted, creative writers.

None of this is to say they should never write about politics again – or that I never will myself. My father was a political science professor, and I’m supposedly a distant relative of Alexander Hamilton, so it’s a family tradition. Nor am I going to stop writing about history: It’s just too damned much fun (go ahead, call me weird). What I will say is I have a lot of respect for writers to delve into their creative reservoirs and have the guts to engage in active writing, and I can understand why George R.R. Martin might take a while to produce the next “Song of Ice and Fire” novel.

This stuff ain’t easy, but that’s part of what makes it so rewarding.

Note: I'll be speaking periodically about a related topic, "Making History With Your Writing: The Past as Every Author's Inspiration," at various presentations. Check the Events page for details.