This Week’s Reviews From Scattered Thoughts

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Just coming off a wonderful and exhausting week of company and lunch with my fellow Metro M/M Romance Group.  A friend on her way back to the Azores stopped midway to stay with me last week.  It was a terrific visit and we got all caught up on things going on in our lives.  Then on Saturday, my M/M Romance Metro DC Group met at my house for drink, food and book talk.  It was great.  So Sunday?  That was the day I collapsed.  And cleaned.  And did some catchup writing. Now I am about a day behind but not feeling very guilty about it.  Everyone needs at least one day off and yesterday was mine.

So here is how the week is now shaking out.  Not an awesome week, there is one or two redeeming books.  I am saving one stupendously awful book for next week when I will have some great ones to balance it out.  And of course, I have to have one book rant included for the week as well.  This one involves book titles and the willy nilly manner in which some words are capitalized and others are not, depending upon editor, publisher and author.  Makes me crazy and now you are going to hear about it.

Monday, July 29, 2013:                 This Week’s Reviews

Tuesday, July 30, 2013:                 Fire and Light by Berengaria Brown

Wed., July 31, 2013:                        Grime and Punishment by Z.A. Maxfield

Thursday, Aug. 1, 2013:               The Boy Who Came In From the Cold by B. G. Thomas

Friday, Aug. 2, 2013:                     Welcome, Brother by Erica Pike

Saturday, Aug. 3, 2013:                Book Titles and Capital letters are Making me Crazy!

Anthologies, Love Them or Leave Them?

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I seem to be running into more and more anthologies these days.  Name a publisher and I can show you a long list of anthologies they have published in just this year alone.  I am not sure what is driving this trend.  Are authors writing more short stories? Do publishers find it easier to publish short stories in an anthology rather than  release them on their own?  Torquere Press has their Torquere Sips.  Dreamspinner Press has Nap-sized Dreams but  is now only accepting stories under 15,000 words for use in their anthologies alone.  For the most part, I look to find short stories in anthologies these days.

What is an anthology? An anthology is a collection of short stories by various authors that is usually grouped together by a common theme.  I have seen anthologies where the stories all occurred in the same city, that was the common thread.  Or different stories about a group of friends, each having their own tale in the anthology. Think Hearts From The Ashes from Samhain Press, a favorite of mine, for an anthology along these lines.  And the number of authors found in each anthology can be anywhere from three to thirty!  An anthology is quite the diverse creature.

So why all the mixed feelings with regard to anthologies?  For some readers, its because they prefer a much longer story.  They want a novel.  These are readers who revel in the long view, jump with joy over complex characterizations and equally complicated story lines.  And for the most part, those can only be found in the novel or novella form.  Think banquet versus amuse-bouche (a one bite appetizer).  Some readers get frustrated with anthologies or short stories because they feel they just get engaged with the characters and plot only to have them end abruptly.  I understand that but often feel that is due to the quality of the short story being read.  A well done short story should leave a reader satisfied in every way, an increasingly rare occasion these days (see Scattered Thoughts Looks A Short Story Writing).

I think we need to look at anthologies a bit differently than we do with novels or novellas. And perhaps with a different expectation as well.  We all have our preset notions when it comes to novels we like.  And when we finish a novel, after having invested a certain amount of time and emotion, if it does not meet those expectations, than we are disappointed and frustrated with book and author alike. But an anthology can represent, should we choose to look at it this way, a chance to look at a compilation as something quite different. And rightly so, because there is a different expectation in the amount of time invested because of the shorter length as well as large quantity of stories involved.

Perhaps an anthology becomes a daunting proposal when you think of reading multiple stories one right after the other.  I get that as some of these collections are quite huge.    I used to just plow through the collection, one right after the other, only to find the stories running together towards the middle, a method that never seemed to do the authors or their tales justice.  Now I try to read them in short bursts and that has made it easier for me when not only reading but reviewing the anthology.  These are short stories, not a run on novel and they should be read as such.  I think we forget that at times because they have been grouped together in one volume.  But that fact doesn’t change the actuality that these are short stories, separate from each other except for an artificial grouping made by a publisher.

For me, an anthology is often a smorgasbord or even a Tapas Bar. A series of small plates or appetizers, instead of a formal banquet of a novel.   There will often be something familiar,  maybe a well-known or well-loved author or two.  And there will be surprises, new writers or authors never heard of before.  Or just maybe there will be a story from an author whose literary works you don’t normally connect with for whatever reason but here you find a story from them that just blows you away, giving you a new perspective on this author you normally pass on.  All those reasons and more make the anthology a format to be looked at with anticipation and with affection.  Think your goody bag at the end of the evening on Halloween. How did you approach it? Did you dump it all out at once or pick through the candies left inside the bag?  For me, the anthology is the Halloween goody bag.  There will be some apples, or a banana, along with Twix, or Mounds Bar to go with the Reese’s Pieces and Hershey Kisses at the end of the night.  You can read it all at once or pick through it, reading it a little at a time. Like some, love some, pass on others.

I have come to love anthologies for the jewels I have found inside, authors and stories alike.  Inside anthologies I have discovered the joys of a sloth shifter (Charlie Cochrane for Lashings of Sauce) or the grief of love lost and found again (Two Tickets To Paradise). Give them a try, they will undoubtedly surprise you.  And let me know, anthologies, do you love them or leave them?

Here are some of the anthologies I have reviewed:

Animal Magnetism

Closet Capers Anthology

Lashings of Sauce

Making Contact

Private Dicks Anthology

Two Tickets To Paradise

Fever Anthology

Unconventional At Best

Mired in the Miasma and the Week Ahead in Reviews

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Miasma, such a wonderfully descriptive word.  Miasma: from the dictionary, literary the miasma from the stagnant swamp made us choke and gag: stink, reek, stench,fetor, smell, fume, odor, whiff; gas, cloud, smog, vapor.

Yep, that is exactly what it feels like in the Metropolitan DC area these days.  Most people forget that Washington, DC was built on a swamp and the regions around it are riddled with water.  There is a reason Foggy Bottom is called Foggy Bottom.  We have water everywhere.  The Potomac, the Patuxent, the Severn and a ton of other rivers and streams, the Chesapeake Bay and of course the Atlantic Ocean.  It’s delightful, it’s outstanding, except when our humidity is around 99% and stays there, making our area feel downright tropical and swampy.  The air is thick, stagnant, some call it soupy.  It is so heavy  it almost takes on a form of its own.  The skin feels clammy, your clothes stick to the skin as though they were glued, perspiration rolls down the face to disappear into your collar and sandals are the only footwear you can bear on your feet. And when someone mentions that they didn’t have air-conditioning in the “olden days” so we should all come outside and enjoy sitting on the porch…well,  you just want to swat them.

Back to miasma.  I grew up in a Southern family where the word miasma could be frequently heard in conversation, especially by my grandmothers.  It went something like this:

“Oh the miasma is so bad for you, stay away from the window.”

“Heah, keep those windows closed so the miasma doesn’t come inside.”

Or when my Mamaw smelled something bad, well, then of course, it was the “miasma”.

I love that word but it seems to have fallen out of favor.  I mean, scientifically, we know that swamps are a wonderful thing, necessary for the environment as delicate habitats and nature’s filtering system.  A swamp is not a purveyor of disease and that illness did not waft in on the moisture laden air (hey, we are not talking mosquitos today). So with knowledge in hand, the word miasma started to disappear.  But I want to bring it back.  Miasma a term rich in eloquence, laden with romantic images, mired in the gothic and teaming with meaning.  If I am to be drenched in sweat, with hair and skin soaked with moisture, miserable and lethargic, then I want to put a layer of something magical, otherworldy and significant on it.  I want miasma!  I will have my miasma.

And besides what other explanation is there for Congress?  Its miasma. Stay away from the windows.

We are all over the place in book reviews for the coming week. Plus I am still focused on the subject of short  stories so expect another Scattered Thoughts blog on the subject on Saturday.  This is how the week looks to play out:

Monday, July 15:                Tattoo You by Willa Okati

Tuesday, July 16:                Forever Promised (Promises #4) by Amy Lane

Wed., July 17:                      Worlds Collide (Sanctuary #7) by R.J. Scott

Thursday, July 18:              Waiting for Ty by Samantha Ann King

Friday, July 19:                    Side Line by Ben Ryder

Saturday, July 20:               Anthologies? Love Them Or Hate Them?

And to help fight the miasma, a Red Sangria recipe to cool you down:

Ingredients
1 bottle (750 ml) dry red wine
1/4 cup brandy
1/4 cup orange liqueur
2 tablespoons sugar
2 sliced oranges
1 sliced green apple
1 1/2 cups seltzer

FNM050111_143
Directions
Mix the wine, liqueur and sugar in a pitcher, stirring to dissolve the sugar, then add the fruit.

Refrigerate at least 1 hour and up to 1 day.

Add the seltzer just before serving.

In Search of the Illusive Great Short Story-Scattered Thoughts Looks At Short Story Writing

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“A short story is a love affair, a novel is a marriage. A short story is a photograph; a novel is a film.”
―Lorrie Moore
“A good [short story] would take me out of myself and then stuff me back in, outsized, now, and uneasy with the fit.”

― David Sedaris

“A short story must have a single mood and every sentence must build towards it.”

― Edgar Allan Poe

Wonderful quotes but they don’t get to the heart of the matter which is what is a short story, what makes a short story great and how to write one.  I have been reading a number of short stories lately, either in anthologies or published as stand alone pieces of fiction, and in the majority of the stories I have read, I am seeing the same issues over and over again.  Rarely is the story I read a complete one.  They have the feel of the beginning of a story, or the middle of a story or sometimes just a chapter in a story, but not a complete story.  And in those stories that have a beginning, a middle and an end, it is the ending that is always rushed.  It is as though the author looked at the current word count and quickly scrambled to complete it within the allotted number without rounding out the story.

So with so many short stories being published, I thought Scattered Thoughts should look at what is a short story and what makes a short story great?  First, what constitutes a short story? A short story is defined as a story with a range is usually between 3000 to 5000 words with 10,000 being the maximum.  Although this can vary depending upon different writing guilds.  The Science Fiction Writers of American uses these categories for their Nebula awards:

  • Short fiction: under 7,500 words
  • Novelette: 7,500-17,500 words
  • Novella: 17,500-40,000 words
  • Novel: 40,000 words and up

But for the purposes of this article, let’s go with the 10,000 words, just to be on the generous side. I say that because the smaller the word count, the harder it is for the author to write a good short story, let alone a great one. Writing a short story is not the easy task that some think it is.  William Faulkner calls it “the most demanding form after poetry”.  Absolutely true, especially when you consider the elements that make up a good story. For me those elements are unforgettable characters, a strong beginning, solid story framework, consistency, and a strong (read not rushed) ending. That is what I look for when reading (and reviewing) stories.  And for me those components remain no matter the length or the genre.

But let’s look at the most common five elements that go into every fictional story: character, setting, conflict, plot and theme. A short story takes those same elements and narrows it down proportionately. On the whole, short stories tend to be less dense in plot, usually focusing on one event or experience. The short story typically has a single plot, a single setting, a small number of characters, and covers a short period of time.  This does not mean that you write a story and then cut it off prematurely in order to get the word count right.  And that is the story that comes across my Kindle time and again.

What should an author remember when writing a short story?  What is your goals in writing it? Have you achieved those goals at the end? Where is your emphasis, on characters and plot? Or on length? Remember what type and length of story you are telling. If you start out writing a short story but the characters and plot pull you further than you expected, then sit back and reorganize your thoughts.  Maybe the framework you set out is that of a novella or novel.  If so, rewrite your goals and continue on with your longer version.  But don’t try to fit it into the constraints of a short story or a word count objective received from a publisher if that is not the story you are writing.

I know sometimes it is hard to condense all your ideas for plots and characters once you get started.  There are “voices” that clamor for your attention, each demanding their story to be told.  Or at least that is what some authors tell me. But remember, your goal is the short story. It has a finite framework, a compact (but not necessarily simplified) plot that contains all the same elements of a larger piece of fiction.  Remember that every word counts. Make sure each word moves your story toward the character’s goal.  Because you are working towards one goal… that of a great short story, an illusive animal indeed.

What makes a short story great?  A short story takes all those elements listed above, and executes them beautifully, giving us memorable characters and a story that makes you think and feel far past the ending.  A great short story can rock you on your feet, take your breath away or make you laugh.  It doesn’t leave you frustrated that the ending was rushed or that something was left out, whether it was a more layered characterization or incomplete world building.  The great short story feels complete because it is complete.  Sounds so simple, yet so hard to achieve.

As William Faulkner said:

“I’m a failed poet. Maybe every novelist wants to write poetry first, finds he can’t and then tries the short story which is the most demanding form after poetry. And failing at that, only then does he take up novel writing.”

Writing is an  art form.  It will pull the guts out of you, it will take your blood, your heart and soul, and then ask for more to be spilled out across the page as you write.  It is frustrating, it is exhilarating and sometimes stupefying.  It’s hard work.  And the short story form is all that and much, much more compressed into a small gem.  But only if it is done correctly.  Only if you know what a short story demands of you and you respect that.  Otherwise all you will be left with is a truncated novel that satisfies no one, including yourself.

I am currently making a list of the best M/M Short Stories I have read.  Let me know if you have any you think should be on the list. In the meantime, here is a link to a list of The 50 Best Short Stories (not m/m) and 100 Great Short Stories.  In the meantime,  Scattered Thoughts is still on the hunt for that illusive animal, the great short story.

Whose Side Are You On Anyway? Thoughts on The General and the Horse-Lord by Sarah Black

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As you all know I loved The General and the Horse-Lord by Sarah Black but I realized that some readers would take issue with the fact that Gabriel Sanchez was married with children while he still continued to see the General on the down low as it were.  I could hear the questions forming in little balloons over my head.  How do you have an honorable man who, at least in one part of his life, act less than honorably?  What about his family?  Well, one of the reasons I loved this story is that, like real life, the relationships between John and Gabriel (and Martha) were messy and complicated.  Gabriel wanted a family during a time when being outwardly gay would have made that an impossibility. So Gabriel got married, something that tore John up.  But Gabriel intended to be a good and faithful husband to Martha. He cared, even loved her, then the reality of what he did to them all by marrying her set in with shattering consequences.

For the last week, The Washington Post printed letters from the children of two gay men from the same era, each married a woman and had a family. For one man, it drove him to despair and bitterness with a family that functioned not at all (“My Father’s Gay Marriage, The Washington Post, 4/5/2013).  For the other, the father came out after years in a loving marriage but unable to deny his true sexuality any longer (“My Loving Gay Dad”, The Washington Post, 4/10/2013).  In total contrast, his wife accepted him and his sexuality, so did his children.  What a difference between those two marriages.  Gabriel and Martha’s falls somewhere in between.  I know that many gay men married, hoping that the marriage would change their sexuality or help them deny who they really were.  Some still do.  And others, like Gabriel, realize that who they love and who they are should not be buried in a closet or be seen as a burden to be carried alone.  Think of former New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevey, now happily living with his partner, and others now coming out of the closet ,then think about the era they grew up in.  Such different times than the one we live in today.

Another element of Sarah Black’s story that I appreciated is that Martha Sanchez is not a one-dimensional “bitch”, a characterization I have seen in other books and not just the m/m genre.  She is a real woman, whose marriage has fallen apart and her life completely in turmoil.  She hurts and reacts to that pain by wanting Gabriel to hurt as much as she does, so realistically is Martha portrayed that you do feel for her.  It is inferred that their marriage was in trouble for some time (something she mentioned to her son). As it is when most marriages fail, it takes two people to contribute to that collapse. This part of the story felt painful because in real life, it hurts and the people involved react because of the way they are feeling now and their expectations upon entering the marriage.

So when I read that Sarah Black wrote a post called “Whose Side Are You On Anyway” about Martha Sanchez, I knew I wanted to repost it here, and have done so with her approval.  I know that for some people, they never want to see cheating in their stories (oh the blogs I have read about that) and for others, it is not a problem as long as it works within the story.  I think here it absolutely works within the story.   Let me know what you think.

 Whose Side Are You On Anyway by Sarah Black

I nearly stopped writing The General and the Horse-Lord about halfway through. The problem? Martha. She was sitting in the car with the general, and she was telling him what she had done to try and ruin his life. And I was like, you go, girl! You want a baseball bat? I’ll tell you where Gabriel has his pickup truck parked.

I was totally on her side. I thought she was being a little too restrained in her revenge, because, I mean, these guys had cheated on her! They had been cheating since before she was married! She deserved some revenge.

But wait a minute, the guys, they’re the heroes, right? How can the ex-wife possible become a Valkyrie in the middle of the story? So I stopped to think about it all.

When you’re writing the rough draft, you do it intuitively, what I call ‘doing it like Kerouac.’ Just let the words flow like a river. Then when you start to revise, you think about things like motivation, behavior. Why does he do that? What am I really trying to say? Once you can be clear about what your point is, you can revise to hone the point.

So I’m trying to think, why was I so totally on Martha’s side? Well, I’m a woman, of course. There is no woman in the world who wouldn’t look at this situation and hand Martha a baseball bat. The fact that she is very self-contained and proud meant she did it a different way.

But John and Gabriel, they had been in love for years before Martha ever entered the picture. They would have made a life together, and it wasn’t Martha who kept them apart. In a different world, they would have made different choices. When basic human rights are kept from people, they’re not the only ones harmed. The harm flows down over all the people they love, the people they know, even just the people who stand as witnesses.

We’re all harmed when human rights are denied. In this story, John and Gabriel were not the only people hurt. They tried in their own ways to contain the pain, but it flows down, over Martha, over the kids, over Kim, who watched this growing up. I decided all I could do is write the story and not take anyone’s side. Martha, I totally feel it. I am going to find you a wonderful guy to fall in love with, I promise you, somebody who deserves a woman as smart and strong as you are. Just be patient.

(And in response to a question from a reader about the marriage between Martha and Gabriel):

I guess what I didn’t write clearly enough was that we don’t really know what happened in Gabriel and Martha’s marriage. The POV character was John and he always stayed away from it. And two people don’t divorce after twenty years of marriage and two kids and it’s all just one issue or one person to blame- to my mind, writing this story, they were two people who tried to make a marriage and failed, and the fact that Gabriel was in love with John during that time, and seeing him, was not the reason the marriage failed. It was the reason Gabriel stopped trying, but if they had been happily married, they wouldn’t have been fighting for a year before the divorce, as Juan told Kim. We don’t know what happened to their marriage, because neither one of them was the POV character. We only know what John sees.

The point of honor I can’t back away from is I feel like I want my characters to tell the truth. I’m 52. I’ve seen a lot of marriages fail. And it is never easy and it’s never just one person’s fault. And I wrote this story with what I saw as characters being truthful, even knowing I would get hammered for it. These characters, Martha and the kids, they are still Gabriel’s family. It’s not like they’re going to dissapear and the guys can dance off into the sunset. Consequences of our actions roll on down like water, and Gabriel will be dealing with the fallout for the rest of his life. His fictional life, I mean!

I know we would all like our heros to have guilt free loves that are HEA, free of too much angst and turmoil.  Those stories are lovely to read and make everyone feel good.  But there is plenty of room for love stories where the path to HEA or even HFN is gritty, complicated and oh so human.  People get hurt, lives get shattered and to takes time for all involved to heal and move on if possible.  I love those too, perhaps even more so because they are realistic and well, grown up.

The General and the Horse-Lord by Sarah Black fits into my second category here and I appreciate it because of the realistic choices the men make throughout their lives.  Not ones we would have necessarily wanted them to make, but ones that they felt were the ones they (and others) felt like they had to make at that time.  The choices made by the men in the story and in the Letters to the Editor at The Washington Post are ones that are made less frequently now as more states legalize gay marriage and gay adoptions.  Society’s views are changing, albeit more slowly than we would wish.  Still Stonewall wasn’t that long ago, something we tend to forget in our disapproval over gays/lesbians cheating outside their straight marriages. The change in human and civil rights has occurred in a short amount of time and stories like these bring that back front and center as well as put a human face to a very real state of mind from the past.

The General and the Horse-Lord by Sarah Black – read my review here.

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