Blogger looks at Artificial Intelligence

Today’s blog post is a little longer than usual. If you have no interest in artificial intelligence, please scroll down to the sub-heading “Since my last blog post” to find out what I’ve been doing and to find several links to websites and video clips you might enjoy.

Social Media and me

If you don’t count blogging as social media, I haven’t blogged about social media since June 9, 2017 (6 Things Learned about Google+) and I must say that I haven’t missed it at all. I just don’t “get” some of it.

LinkedIn

I received an email from LinkedIn on Friday. It explained major changes in their newsfeed algorithm. Granted, they lost me at the word “algorithm” because I pretty much glaze over at any reference to math, but I kept reading. It didn’t take me long to learn that if I don’t mix up my posts on LinkedIn with video, images, and text, I’ll just be whistling in the wind. Sounds like I need to just close my account since I don’t do videos.

Google’s RankBrain

Even though I’m no authority on the topic of social media, occasionally I try to point you toward people who can help you better understand and utilize it. There is a blog about blogging by Janice Wald that I follow. I read her blog several times every week and have found it to be informative. Always. Her February 25, 2018 blog post, “RankBrain: This is Why You’re Doing SEO Absolutely Wrong” (https://www.mostlyblogging.com/how-does-rankbrain-work/) is a prime example of how helpful Ms. Wald’s blog posts are.

I had never heard of Google’s evolving algorithm called RankBrain. The name reminded me of humorist and inspirational speaker Jeanne Robertson’s nickname for her husband, Jerry. She affectionately calls him “Left Brain” in many of her routines. (More on that later.)

Ms. Wald’s blog post explains Google’s RankBrain as follows:

“It’s an artificial intelligence that tries to understand exactly what the Google user wants to find by analyzing important factors.” – Janice Wald

The changes RankBrain brings include a lessening of the importance of using long-tail keywords. I must admit that my brain glazed over when I read in Ms. Wald’s blog post, “Use only one (medium tail) keyword and then add LSI Keywords (Latent Semantic Indexing Keywords),” but I kept reading and so should you if you’re trying to be found on Google.

Since Janice Wald is much more computer savvy than I am, I refer you to her blog post if this is something you want to understand as things constantly change. Of course, now I’m more nervous than ever about choosing titles for my blog posts and making my posts interesting enough that people will not only find them on Google but will also click on them and read them before bouncing around to other search results.

The other side of the Artificial Intelligence coin

I’ve gotten some great tips from Janice Wald’s blog over the years, but the post by guest blogger, Nidhriti Bhowmik, on her August 12, 2017 blog (http://www.mostlyblogging.com/chatbot/) keeps ringing in my ears. Her February 25, 2018 blog referenced above brought guest blogger Nidhriti Bhowmik’s post to mind.

Mr. Bhowmik’s post prompted me to draft a blog post about my reaction last August, but I hesitated to post it because of its negative tone. I reread it a few days ago. Since it still struck a nerve in me, I decided to edit the post I’d drafted and include some it in today’s post.

I don’t doubt that Mr. Bhowmik is gifted when it comes to computers. It goes without saying that he knows much more about computers than I do. I just don’t think what he proposed in his August 12, 2017 blog post is the way I want to communicate with people. Maybe this works in other businesses, but I’m trying to establish myself as a writer.

A can of worms

Using artificial intelligence to discern what search engine users are looking for makes sense to me, but using it to communicate instead of speaking for myself is a whole different can of worms. I suppose it’s similar to the old-fashioned form letter, yet it’s different. A person actually wrote those form letters, but computer-generated tweets and other forms of communication just aren’t my style.

Mr. Bhowmik’s guest blog post was about a new “hack” designed to make my life simpler. As a middle-aged woman just trying to learn the art and craft of writing so I can write a novel, I could use some things that would simplify my life, but I guess I’m too old-fashioned to latch onto the one explained in Mr. Bhowmik’s post.

Mr. Bhowmik’s topic was something called chatbots. He is an “AI Evangelist.” Artificial Intelligence Evangelist.

I’d never heard of chatbots, but that’s not surprising to me or anyone who knows me. I read the post and it just made me sad. In a nutshell, it seems that a blogger can sign up to have a computer generate all their tweets, Instagram whatevers, etc. 24/7.

The clincher for me was the following sentence:

“To put it simply, a chatbot is an amazing piece of computer software designed to simulate conversations with a human user, usually via text.” ~ Nidhriti Bhowmik

Keywords there are “simulate conversations with a human user.”

I’ve already gotten caught in the web of something like that. I tried a free trial of a product I won’t name. Since it was free, I couldn’t seem to get rid of it for months. It sent messages to people who followed me on Twitter to thank them for following me AND encouraged them to sign up for the product I won’t name. I prefer to personally thank the people who follow me on Twitter. Let’s face it, there aren’t that many of them.

And this sentence from Mr. Bhowmik’s blog post:

“They bring everything about you in one place, package our content in an appealing format and interact with the world as you, 24/7 on all channels.” ~ Nidhriti Bhowmik

I don’t want a computer program interacting with the world as me around the clock.

Last, but not least:

“And the best part? Chatbots can start smooth flowing conversations, ask your readers what they are looking for and respond with high-value content relevant to their pain points.” ~ Nidhriti Bhowmik

It is possible that a computer program can generate higher-value content than I, but that’s just not the way I want to communicate. I don’t want you to feel valued because a computer program simulates conversation with you. I want you to feel valued because you are valued. And if you have “pain points,” I’m probably not the person you need to be dealing with anyway.

Have we completely lost our ability to talk to each other?

I enjoyed watching “The Jetsons” on TV when I was a child in the 1960s. The technology they used was science fiction then and it was fun to imagine living in such a universe. But you know what? Even the Jetsons talked to each other.

Since my last blog post

Sonni signed up to receive my sometime-in-the-future newsletters. Sonni has been generous with what she’s learned from experience since my early days as a blogger. Thank you, Sonni, for your continued support of my writing journey. In addition to daily advocating for reforms to the prison system in the USA, Sonni is a gifted writer, pianist, and composer. You can find her blog at http://mynameisjamie.net. Her improvisational music on the piano is amazing to someone (me) who took piano lessons and still can’t play well. You can find Sonni Quick’s music on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCv6dycDAXCytFYvf–Njxrw.

I’ve finished reading several novels since last Monday’s blog post. I enjoy reading fiction and seeing how published authors write. When I’m reading, it’s not just for fun. I’m looking at writing style, voice, point-of-view, plot, sub-plots, and always watching for a clever turn of a phrase.

That said, I admit I’ve spent more time reading than writing since my blog post last Monday. I continue to work on my character profiles. With the theme of my historical novel manuscript, The Spanish Coin, established, I’ve changed the first scene in the book. That shifts everything I’d already written in the outline. This is all part of the process, and I love it. I wrote 1,200 words one evening as I brainstormed my new hook. After using the same hook for The Spanish Coin for more years than I want to admit, it’s refreshing to start the story with a different incident.

I hit a milestone last week on my blog. I now have 1,401 followers, which I can’t quite get my mind around.

Until my next blog post

I hope you have a good book to read that wasn’t written by a computer. I’m reading The Atomic City Girls, by Janet Beard.

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The Atomic City Girls, by Janet Beard

If you’re a writer, I hope you have quality writing time using your own intelligence instead of the artificial kind.

Please take a minute to fill out the form below if you haven’t already, if you would like to be on my mailing list for my sometime-in-the-future newsletters. By the way, that is completely separate from signing up to follow my blog. Please do both, if you haven’t already. Thank you!

Getting back to Jeanne Robertson, if you don’t know who she is, please scroll up to the second paragraph under the “Googles’s RankBrain” subheading. If you haven’t been exposed to her North Carolina humor, you need to do yourself a favor and watch some of her video clips on YouTube, such as this one, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-YFRUSTiFUs. You’re in for a treat!

Thank you for spending a few minutes with me today.

Janet

Reading and Writing in February 2018

In my January 8, 2018 blog post (2018 Reading, Writing, & Living Plans) I expressed a need to be accountable to my blog readers. In order to do that, I said I’d set monthly writing goals. I gave you an embarrassing writing progress report in my February 5, 2018 blog post (Reading and Writing in January 2018). February was productive, but not in word count.

My goal was to write 6,000 words in the rewrite of my novel in February. That just didn’t happen, but I nearly finished the character profiles and settled on the location and the theme. That might not sound like much, but it wasn’t easy. More on that later.

Writing Goal for March:  Finish writing the scenic plot outline

My reading in February

Although I read six books in February, my “want to read” list had a net gain of ­­16. Like I wrote on February 5, this trend is unsustainable. With so many good books being written, though, I don’t know how to reduce my list. In my younger adult days I didn’t make time to read fiction, so I have a lot of catching up to do.

The Salt House, by Lisa Duffy

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The Salt House, by Lisa Duffy

This was Ms. Duffy’s debut novel. It was published in 2017 and was recommended by my friend, Karen. Set in Maine, The Salt House follows each member of a grieving family the summer after the toddler in the family died unexpectedly. Each chapter is written from the point-of-view of a different family member. The father, the mother, and the two surviving daughters each handle their grief in their own way in this well-written novel. Grief can pull a family apart or pull them closer together. It can even erupt in violence.

The Woman in the Window, by A.J. Finn

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The Woman in the Window, by A.J. Finn

This debut novel by A.J. Finn hit the bestseller lists and hasn’t slowed down in popularity. This psychological thriller will keep you guessing. It will even make you doubt what you think you see, think you hear, and think you know. In the process, it is a study in agoraphobia.

The Hope Chest, by Viola Shipman

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The Hope Chest, by Viola Shipman

This is a novel about a woman with ALS and the items in her hope chest – items collected as far back as early childhood. Ill now with a terminal illness, she looks at each item and remembers what each one means and why she kept it. This was the book read by the Rocky River Readers Club in February.

Incidentally, The Hope Chest was written by Wade Rouse who adopted the pen name “Viola Shipman” to honor the memory of his grandmother.

Fighting to Win:  Samurai Techniques For Your Work and Life, by David J. Rogers           

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Fighting to Win: Samurai Techniques For Your Work and Life, by David J. Rogers

This book was instrumental in getting me back to work on my novel. I wrote an entire blog post about it on February 19, 2018 (Using Samurai Techniques in Writing), so I won’t repeat my thoughts on the book here. Please read that earlier blog post, though, and see if it sounds like this book could help you.

In the Midst of Winter, by Isabel Allende

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In the Midst of Winter, by Isabel Allende

I gave In the Midst of Winter, by Isabel Allende, five stars in my review on Goodreads.com. In the Midst of Winter weaves together the lives of strangers. Each of the protagonists have unfortunate backgrounds. They discover common ground and form a bond while getting deeper and deeper in covering up a murder.

Ms. Allende did a brilliant job gradually bringing in backstory that included revolution in Chile, human trafficking in the USA, the horrors many Latinos face as they desperately try to cross into the USA, and life in the shadows for people who have come to the USA illegally.

Many others on Goodreads.com have given this novel three stars, saying they were disappointed with it. Maybe it’s the history buff in me that prompted me to give it five stars.

In his November 21, 2017 review in The Washington Post, (https://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/books/its-a-snowy-day-in-brooklyn-and-theres-love-in-the-air–and-a-body-in-the-trunk/2017/11/21/bb8643d0-cda2-11e7-81bc-c55a220c8cbe_story.html?utm_term=.3b398baedf24) Ron Charles wrote the following:

“The emotional range of Isabel Allende’s new novel is stretched so wide that it’s a miracle the book’s spine doesn’t break. We’re used to dark comedies, the ironic mingling of humor and despair, but In the Midst of Winter is a light tragedy, an off-kilter mix of sweetness and bleakness held together only by Allende’s dulcet voice.”

In the Midst of Winter was translated from Spanish to English by Nick Caistor and Amanda Hopkinson.

The Taster, by V.S. Alexander

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The Taster, by V.S. Alexander

I read V.S. Alexander’s debut novel, The Magdalen Girls last March and got my name on the wait list at the public library for his second book, The Taster, as soon as it appeared “on order” on the electronic card catalog. (See my April 1, 2017 blog post, The Authors I Read in March, if you want to read my thoughts on The Magdalen Girls.)

As with Alexander’s first novel, I had to keep reminding myself that The Taster was a work of fiction. Alexander writes so convincingly that I felt as if I were reading an eyewitness account.

The Taster is the story of a young woman in need of a job and living in Hitler’s Germany. The job she got was not a job she wanted. She was selected to be a food and drink taster for Adolph Hitler. Hitler was mortified of being poisoned, so all his food and drink had to be tasted in advance by a replaceable woman. If a taster died, she could be replaced. Hitler, of course, did not see himself as replaceable.

Since my last blog post

I have received helpful feedback from friends in Australia, Scotland, and Belgium after they read my February 26, 2018 post, Hook in Charles Frazier’s Nightwoods. Thank you, Chris, Iain, and Beth!

Chris Andrews immediately recognized my blunder in summing up the theme of my work-in-progress, The Spanish Coin, in one word. Thank you Chris, for pulling me out of the ditch and putting me back on track!

Thank you, Ann, for signing up for my planned future newsletters.

Until my next blog post

I hope you have a good book to read. I’m reading The Great Alone, by Kristin Hannah and Four Short Stories: In Need of Assistance, Saving the Unicorn, Faerie Blues, and Trophy Hunting, by Chris Andrews. This is a collection of four sci-fi short stories by my Australian writer friend. For those of us in the USA, Chris’s e-book is available on Amazon.com.

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Four Short Stories: In Need of Assistance, Saving the Unicorn, Faerie Blues, and Trophy Hunting — by Chris Andrews
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The Great Alone, by Kristin Hannah

If you are a writer, I hope you have productive writing time.

If you have not yet signed up for my planned future author newsletters, please take a minute to fill out the form below. I promise my newsletters will be few and far between and your email address will not be used by anyone but me. Thanks!

Janet

Hook in Charles Frazier’s Nightwoods

Writers are advised to start a novel with a hook – something that will grab the reader by the throat and compel them to keep reading. The first sentence doesn’t necessarily serve as the hook, but when that happens the reader is usually in for a great ride.

I recently read Nightwoods, by Charles Frazier. For me at least, his first sentence got my full attention and I couldn’t wait to see what was going to happen in this story.

“Luce’s new stranger children were small and beautiful and violent.” – The first sentence in Nightwoods, by Charles Frazier.

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Nightwoods, by Charles Frazier

I’d be hard pressed to think of the opening line of another novel that piqued my interest or struck me quite like that one. In 10 words – just five more than the title of this blog post – Mr. Frazier introduced the book’s main character; told us that there are new children in her life who are strangers to her; and not only are those new stranger children small and beautiful, but they are also violent.

Do I have your attention? Okay, okay. Here’s the second sentence in Nightwoods:  “She learned early that it wasn’t smart to leave them unattended in the yard with the chickens.” Now you know that the misbehavior of those children will surely be a recurring theme in this book.

It turns out that Luce has “inherited” the son and daughter of her deceased sister, and they are wild.

Since my last blog post

I have made good progress with my work in progress, The Spanish Coin. Rather than being measured in number of words written, last week’s progress was made as I worked on character profiles and my book’s thematic statement. I realized that I had not tried to put the novel’s theme into words. Maybe I didn’t even know what the theme was?

I had to come to grips with the theme of my novel in order to be sure I had chosen the right protagonist, or main character. Discerning that the theme of The Spanish Coin is slavery was a milepost and surprise for me. I thought I was writing a murder mystery set in the Carolinas in the 1760s – and I am; however, the theme of the book has turned out to be slavery.

Five people have signed up for my newsletter since my February 19 blog post. This was given a boost, no doubt, by the fact that David J. Rogers reblogged my post on his site, https://davidjrogersftw.com.  As far as I know, this was the first time a post of mine has been reblogged. Thanks, David. Thank you, Philip, Gary, Katherine, Paul, Michelle, and Kay for signing up for my newsletters.

Until my next blog post

Speaking of my newsletters – which have neither been scheduled nor written – if you wish to be added to my mailing list, please fill out the form at the end of this blog post. With your encouragement, I believe The Spanish Coin will indeed be rewritten and published, giving me some news to put in a newsletter.

I will continue to put meat and bones on the characters in The Spanish Coin and perhaps get back into the outline. All the while, in the back of my mind I’ll continue to mull over my book’s hook.

I hope you have a good book to read. I’m reading The Taster, by V.S. Alexander.

If you’re a writer, I hope you have quality writing time.

Janet

 

 

Using Samurai Techniques in Writing

Based on the title alone, I doubt that I would have considered reading Fighting to Win:  Samurai Techniques For Your Work and Life, by David J. Rogers. After all, what could I possibly learn from Samurai Techniques that I could apply to my life at my age?

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Fighting to Win: Samurai Techniques For Your Work and Life, by David J. Rogers

I follow David J. Rogers’s blog and he follows mine. Visiting his website,  https://davidjrogersftw.com, I discovered his books and decided to give this one a try.

It turned out that the timing was perfect. My writing had floundered for nearly a year since I came to the conclusion last April that I needed to make such massive changes in the manuscript of my historical novel work-in-progress, The Spanish Coin, that it amounted to a complete rewrite. This was devastating. I had written 120,000 words and edited it down to 96,000. I knew my characters better than I knew some of my close relatives. I was overwhelmed by the prospect of starting over, and I wrote almost nothing but my blog for the next 10 months.

I’ve always been a world-class procrastinator, so I put my novel on the back burner along with a number of other projects including some areas of housekeeping. Then, I read Fighting to Win: Samurai Techniques For Your Life and Work. I started putting into practice some of those techniques long before I finished reading the book. For one thing, I had to get my spirit in the right place. I had to move from, “I probably can’t do this” to “I can do this!”

Examples (and I’m simplifying and paraphrasing) of Samurai principles and techniques that I’ve come away with after reading David’s book include the following: keep one’s body, mind, emotions, and spirit under control; never let your fears get the best of you; don’t personalize problems or opponents (i.e., it’s a problem, not your problem); don’t whine; when you have a task to do, concentrate on it; do the most difficult or most feared task first and get it over with; always strive for self-improvement; and never hesitate or procrastinate.

The book prompted me to evaluate what is holding me back externally (such as having a chronic illness) and internally (such as fear of failure). A fiction writer does or doesn’t make her living, as the case may be, by asking, “What if?” in order to make her protagonist’s life as difficult as possible; however, she can be paralyzed in her personal life if she dwells too much on the “what-ifs” of life. (I need to make a sign that reminds me of that every day.)

After identifying my “inner dragons,” I was prompted to list the things in my life that I’ve been avoiding instead of doing. It turned out to be a longer list than I anticipated, but I’ve begun to put some Samurai techniques and principles into practice. By attacking the items on my list in an orderly fashion I’ve already made some incremental progress toward getting some things off the list. Ironically, this is pretty much the way my mother approached life and her tasks. She never knew she was using Samurai techniques! Her philosophy of life was, “You do what you have to do and you don’t complain about it.”

The most rewarding aspect of reading David’s book is that I got my focus back on my novel! Writing is hard work, but I have regained the joy of writing this month thanks in great part to reading this book. By focusing on my book idea again and determining a logical order in which to “attack” the work of writing a novel, I have made a good start and I no longer feel overwhelmed by the entirety of the task.

David’s book gives the history of the Samurai in bits and pieces, and I found that aspect very interesting. About all I knew about the Samurai was what I picked up in 1980 by watching the TV miniseries “Shōgun” starring Richard Chamberlain. Since I’m a history buff, I enjoyed the historical aspect of the book, too. It includes many intriguing examples.

If I can overcome my fear of failure, as well as my fear of success (yes, you heard me right!) and my fear of having to pitch my book to literary agents, I just might get my novel written and published, get some quilts finished, lose some weight, and get the clutter in my house under control.

David J. Rogers is going to be surprised when he reads this blog post. I hope I have described portions of his book accurately. In fewer than 1,000 words, I have merely touched on a few of the highlights and lessons in his book.

Since my last blog post

I have joyfully worked on my novel, done some reading, and attended five basketball games in a weekend tournament in Charlotte that one of my great-nieces played in, after which I crashed twice for hours due to Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. It’s been a great week! The crocuses and daffodils are blooming, promising that spring is on the way.

Until my next blog post

I hope you have a good book to read. I’m into several books to varying degrees. The one I’m most enjoying is In the Midst of Winter, by Isabel Allende.

If you’re a writer, I hope you have productive writing time.

If you’d like to be on my mailing list for future news about my writing, please fill out the form below. I thank those of you who have already done so.

Janet

Reading and Writing in January 2018

January is over, so it’s time for me to “fess up” about how I spent the month. Perhaps a better way to say that is “what I accomplished.” In my January 8, 2018 blog post (2018 Reading, Writing, & Living Plans) I felt I needed to be accountable to my blog readers. In order to do that, I said I’d set monthly writing goals. For January, I set a modest goal of adding 2,000 to the scenic plot outline for my historical novel, The Spanish Coin.

My writing

For starters, I failed miserably on reaching my 2,000-word goal. What I did, though, was brainstorm about story location. I continue to wrestle with what direction to take in re-writing my historical novel manuscript. The working title remains The Spanish Coin.

Historical novel progress

In January I settled on a location for the story. At least, I hope I will not change from this latest locale. I did some 1700s research on the place and worked on the story’s timeline. Location plays an important role in historical fiction. The era for the novel is the 1760’s, which is a decade earlier than my original plan.

Spanish Coin location reveal

Curious about the story’s setting?  The Camden District of South Carolina. Choosing a location for the story has freed me to proceed with the outline.

Goal for February

I tend to write detailed outlines, so I’ll go out on a limb and set a goal of 6,000 words for February.

My reading

I got my concentration back and had fun reading in January. I read what I wanted to read instead of tying myself down to any particular reading challenge.

That said, I picked up the rules for the 2018 reading challenges for the public libraries in Harrisburg and Mint Hill (I couldn’t help myself!), but I don’t plan to let them dictate what I read. With 500+ books on my “want to read” list, though, I might meet those two challenges without really trying. Incidentally, even though I read seven books in January, my “want to read” list had a net gain of 39. I realize this is not sustainable. I would have to be a speed reader and live to be a centenarian to finish my ever-growing list.

52 Small Changes: One Year to a Happier, Healthier You, by Brett Blumenthal

The book title says it all. I took note of the suggested change for each week. This week seems like a good week to start, since I didn’t begin in January. This week’s small change:  Drink enough water to stay hydrated. I’m told I should drink approximately 80 ounces of water every day. Since I normally drink less than half that amount, this constitutes more than a “small” change for me.

The Rooster Bar, by John Grisham

This latest John Grisham novel took a little different tack from his earlier books in that The Rooster Bar is about a group of law school dropouts practicing law without licenses. I found it to be more humorous than other Grisham novels I’ve read, but it was still full of suspense.

Perennial Seller: The Art of Making and Marketing Work that Lasts, by Ryan Holiday

I blogged about this book on January 22, 2018, so I direct you to that blog post if you missed it: (Works That Last.)

The Last Castle: The Epic Story of Love, Loss, and American Royalty in the Nation’s Largest Home, by Denise Kiernan

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The Last Castle, by Denise Kiernan

I’ve been reading so many novels the last couple of years that I’d forgotten how long nonfiction book titles tend to be. Or maybe it’s just the three I read in January.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book about the Vanderbilt family and the Biltmore Estate. Living in North Carolina, I have toured the Biltmore House four times. The first time was on a sixth grade field trip. Motion sickness on the bus as it wound around the endless curves on old US-74 east of Asheville is my main memory from that day, but I digress.

My other visits to the Biltmore Estate have been very enjoyable. Reading this book made me want to plan another trip to Asheville and tour the mansion again. It is a delightful book.

Before We Were Yours, by Lisa Wingate

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Before We Were Yours, by Lisa Wingate

This novel was inspired by the shocking history of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society during the first half of the 20th century. It is a gripping story and is expertly written. It is not a happy read, but I highly recommend this book.

The King of Lies, by John Hart

This was the January book choice of the Rocky River Readers Book Club. The novel is set in Salisbury, North Carolina, so I was familiar with some of the streets and buildings referenced in the book. It’s fun sometimes to read a book set in a location you have visited.

I though Mr. Hart could have omitted some of the “woe is me” theme in the first third of the book. The narrator’s whining about the wealthy people in this small town got old after a while. If you’ll hang in there, though, you’ll probably get so involved in trying to identify the killer that you’ll get to the point you can’t put the book down. You’ll think several times that you’ve figured out the villain’s identity but, chances are, you haven’t.

Nightwoods, by Charles Frazier

This novel has been on my “to read” list for several years, so I felt a sense of accomplishment when I finally read it. It is set in the mountains in western North Carolina.

Nightwoods is a tale about a woman who unexpectedly “inherits” her deceased sister’s twin boy and girl. The children give their aunt/new mother a challenge every day – and then her late sister’s widowed husband/killer comes to try to get the large sum of money he thinks the children took with them. The children are wild and uncommunicative. Add to that the fact that the aunt has no idea why her ne’er do well ex-brother-in-law has suddenly shown an interest in his children and has come to hunt them down.

What about December?

I just remembered that I never did blog about the books I read in December. They were a mixed bag of novels:  The Quantum Spy, by David Ignatius; Hardcore Twenty-Four, by Janet Evanovich; and The Secret, Book and Scone Society, by Ellery Adams.

David Ignatius’s political thrillers never disappoint me. The Quantum Spy was no exception.

The last two Stephanie Plum novels by Janet Evanovich disappointed me. I used to eagerly await her annual next installment of these funny novels, but “Twenty-Three” and “Twenty-Four” were too predictable.

The Ellery Adams novel is an entertaining read about four women who want to form a friendship, but each one is required to reveal a secret about herself before they can truly trust one another.

Until my next blog post

I hope you have a good book to read. I’m reading Fighting to Win: Samurai Techniques for Your Work and Life, by my fellow-blogger David J. Rogers; The Salt House, by Lisa Duffy, which was recommended by my friend Karen; Beartown, by Frekrik Backman, which is the February pick for The Apostrophe S Coffee Chat online book community; and The Woman in the Window, by A.J. Finn. That’s about one book too many for me to read at the same time, but they are different enough that I’m not getting the story lines confused.

If you’re a writer, I hope you have productive writing time.

If you subscribed to my mailing list last week, you renewed my faith in mankind. Thank you, Vicki, Colby, Katrina, and Glen!

In case you haven’t signed up for my mailing list, you have another opportunity to do so using the fill-in form below. I appreciate it!

Janet

Works That Last

You’ve heard the saying, “A job worth doing is worth doing well.” That’s one of those old sayings that will always ring true. I was reminded of that saying a couple of weeks ago as I read Perennial Seller:  The Art of Making and Marketing Work That Lasts, by Ryan Holiday.

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Perennial Seller: The Art of Making and Marketing Work that Lasts, by Ryan Holiday

As a writer, the book spoke to me, but it can be applied to any walk of life. By “work that lasts,” Mr. Holiday refers to a creative work or product that isn’t a “flash in the pan.” It is a work that might not be an overnight sensation, but it steadily draws an audience or buyers. It is a book that you want to read again. You recommend it to friends. It does not depend on hype or fancy advertising, but rather builds a fan base via word of mouth.

Part 1 – The Creative Process

Mr. Holiday quotes his mentor, Robert Greene, as saying, “ʻIt starts by wanting to create a classic.’” Mr. Holiday maintains that this doesn’t happen by accident. It happens when you study the classics in your field, and it demands that you know your purpose in creating the book, the painting, or a gadget that will someday make people wonder how they lived without it.

While creating your work, Mr. Holiday says you must ask yourself, “What am I willing to sacrifice in order to do it?”

He also writes about identifying your audience, and the importance of aiming at that target audience instead of the masses. For instance, in my case, I need to be able to say, “I am writing The Spanish Coin for these people. I can’t wait until I have finished writing the novel (or even the outline) before knowing for whom I am writing. I would love to think that everyone will want to read my book, but if I write it with that in mind, Mr. Holiday says I will have written it for no one.

“Who is this for?” is just one of the questions you must ask yourself during the creative process. Another question you must answer is, “How will it improve the lives of the people who buy it?”

Mr. Holiday takes it another step as he offers a list of four more questions that go deeper. They are along the lines of, “What sacred cows am I slaying?” The writers of classics don’t play it safe!

Part 2

The second part of Perennial Seller:  The Art of Making and Marketing Work That Lasts addresses “Positioning:  From Polishing to Perfecting to Packaging.” This cannot be left to chance. If not positioned for success by making it the best you can make it and packaging it in the best possible light, your hard work of creating will be for naught.

For a writer, this means that the editing of your book will take a long time. Your manuscript means a lot to you. You have to make sure it will also mean a lot to others – for years to come. You want it to stand out.

Mr. Holiday talks about the importance of a writer finding a good editor and being able to take constructive criticism. He writes, “Only you know how to fix it – but you’ll only find out what’s wrong if you open yourself up to collaboration and input.”

I should make a sign that features that quote and put it by the computer where I do my writing. Along with that, I need a sign with the following quote from Mr. Holiday’s book:  “Nobody creates flawless first drafts. And nobody creates better second drafts without the intervention of someone else. Nobody.”

The book goes on to address the writer or inventor being able to succinctly fill in the blanks in the following sentence:  “This is a ______ that does _______. This helps people ______.” You must know into which genre your book falls. If you aren’t clear in your own mind how to fill in these blanks about your manuscript, you need to “adjust either the audience or the product until there’s a perfect match. The intended audience is the final blank” in the above two-sentence exercise.

Until you determine who your book is for and what it will do for them, you are aiming at a target you can’t see. Chances are, you won’t hit the target.

Once you identify your target audience, you need to find them and quantify them. I found Mr. Holiday’s personal example for this a bit off-putting. He wrote, “Who is buying the first one thousand copies of this thing?” It’s daunting to think of 1,000 people who will want to buy my novel, but I read on and it got worse.

Mr. Holiday wrote, “For books the superagent and publishing entrepreneur Shawn Coyne (Robert McKee, Jon Krakauer, Michael Connelly) likes to use ten thousand readers as his benchmark. That’s what it takes, in his experience, for a book to successfully break through and for the ideas in it to take hold.”

With those numbers in the back of my mind, I will continue to work on the scenic plot outline for the rewriting of my manuscript titled The Spanish Coin. Another important point Mr. Holiday makes is that the book you write is not only competing with every other book that’s ever been written but with every book that will be written in the future. It’s enough to make me want to throw away my keyboard and concentrate on reading, sleeping, eating, and sewing.

Today’s blog post has hit just a few highlights of Perennial Seller:  The Art of Making and Marketing Work That Lasts, by Ryan Holiday. If you aspire to be a writer, artist, or an inventor, I recommend you read this book. (Disclaimer:  I have not been compensated in any way for endorsing this book. I read it and got a lot out of it. Come to think of it, word of mouth is important!)

There’s a Part 3?

In this blog post I didn’t even get to Part 3 of the book. Part 3 is about marketing, where he says people do actually judge a book by its cover and the writer must put as much energy into marketing or they do in creating the book. Most writers would rather spend their time writing and leave the marketing to salespeople, but that’s not the way it works. Even bestselling authors have to make personal appearances and pitch their latest books.

And Part 4?

I didn’t get to write about Part 4 of Perennial Seller:  The Art of Making and Marketing Work That Lasts, by Ryan Holiday in today’s blog. It’s about “Platform: From Fans to Friends and a Full-Fledged Career.”

Ryan Holiday packs a lot into a relatively small (231-page) book — far too much for me to cover in a blog post.

Until my next blog post

I hope you have a good book to read. I’m finishing The King of Lies, by John Hart, for tonight’s meeting of the Rocky River Readers Book Club. If you’re in the Harrisburg/Concord area, you are welcome to join us for our discussion tonight at 7pm at Rocky River Presbyterian Church at 7940 Rocky River Road, Concord, North Carolina  28025.

If you’re a writer, I hope you have quality writing time.

I’m told that I need to start building a mailing list. If my blog disappears, I want to be able to communicate with you. I promise not to burden you with a bunch of e-mail. In the event I have an announcement to make or I start writing a newsletter, I want to be able to send it to you. Please fill out the contact form found below. At least, I hope it appears below. (You know I’m not computer savvy!)

Janet

2018 Reading, Writing, & Living Plans

Last year I made up my own reading challenge for the year. On January 1, 2018, I reported to you how I’d done. I fell a little short of my goals, but overall I was pleased. I enjoyed many books last year and found lots of new authors to follow.

My 2018 Approach

I’m taking a different approach in 2018. A couple of months ago I made a list of books I wanted to read. Finding nearly 500 books on the list was more than a little daunting. (I’m not kidding!) Rather than setting goals for reading certain books by genre or category in 2018, I plan to just work on that ever-growing list of books I want to read. No doubt, the list will grow more than enough throughout 2018 to counteract the number of books I read during the year. How fortunate I am that I can read and I have free access to most of the books I’d like to read through local public library systems!

The other change I made for 2018 is to include a monthly writing goal. I recently read that a task will fill up the time allotted for its completion. There’s a lot of truth in that for procrastinators like myself. I will never finish writing my southern historical novel if I don’t give myself some measurable goals and deadlines. I’m excited to see how the year and my manuscript go!

January Goals

I hope to add an additional 2,000 words to my scenic plot outline for my historical novel with the working title, The Spanish Coin. That’s a conservative goal for the remainder of January. On a good writing day, I can turn out 4,000 words. I haven’t had a good writing day in quite a while, so I’m starting out small this year.

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Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

I hope to read three books.

If I’m accountable to my blog readers for my reading and writing in my first blog post each month, that should be enough incentive for me to get a lot of reading and writing done in 2018. However, I also want to sew, quilt, and play the dulcimer – three hobbies I neglected in 2017. Watch for my February 5, 2018 blog post to see how I did.

I got my dulcimer out of its case last Thursday and felt like I was starting all over learning how to play it. I definitely need to practice at least several times a week or I’ll lose everything I ever knew about playing it.

Until my next blog post

I hope you have a good book to read. I’m reading The King of Lies, by John Hart. It’s the January pick for Rocky River Readers Book Club.

If you’re a writer, I hope you have productive writing time.

Janet

Seasonal Affective Disorder in November

I tried reading several novels in November that just didn’t grab my attention. I will not name them here. It’s disappointing to sit down to read a book and just not get “into it” even after 10 or 20 pages.

Still Life, by Louise Penny

The only book I read in November was Still Life, by Louise Penny. It was the book read by the Rocky River Readers Book Club last month. I really tried to like it, but I just couldn’t stay interested in it. Don’t blame the author or the book. Louise Penny is a popular author. I believe it wasn’t the right time for me to try to read her first book.

One of the items in the Reader’s Bill of Rights (my blog post two weeks ago:  Reader’s Bill of Rights) is the right to skip pages. I did too much of that while reading Still Life, so when I got to the last page I still didn’t know “who dunnit.” I enjoyed the book club discussion of the book last Monday night and found out how much I’d missed by not giving it my full attention.

After reading four to six books every month in 2017, suddenly in November I lost my motivation to read. I wanted to read. At first, I thought I was distracted by my desire to get back to work on my historical novel manuscript. It just didn’t work out very well.

Seasonal Affective Disorder

As I wrote today’s blog post, I concluded that the culprit in my recent inability to concentrate enough to read is Seasonal Affective Disorder. In case you aren’t familiar with this disorder, there is reliable information about it at the Mayo Clinic’s website:  https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/seasonal-affective-disorder/symptoms-causes/syc-20364651. I think I’ve had it all my life but just got a diagnosis several years ago.

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Photo by Cameron Stow on Unsplash

What I’m reading

As November came to a close, I was halfway through The Quantum Spy, by David Ignatius. I’m eager to find out who the “mole” is, but Seasonal Affective Disorder is restricting my reading time and messing with my ability to concentrate.

I’ve checked out A Gentleman in Moscow twice. This time, I hope to finish reading it. Last Christmas in Paris, by Hazel Gaynor and Heather Webb. It is the December book choice for an online book club I joined earlier this fall. It’s a book reminiscent of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Annie Barrows.

I also continue to listen to The Rooster Bar, by John Grisham, but you know I’m not a fan of books on CD. I’m on the waitlist for the electronic copy of it at the public library. One way or the other, I will finish it.

The Spanish Coin

I’ve worked on my scenic plot outline for the rewrite of The Spanish Coin several days in the last week in an effort to get it off “the back burner.” The outline kept calling my name in November and I was excited to get back to it. I hadn’t worked on it in several months, so I had to reacquaint myself with the new plot line.

My blog is about my journey as a writer, and that includes my reading. That journey was bumpy in November. Better days lie ahead as my Seasonal Affective Disorder symptoms abate in the coming months. Too bad I can’t live in the northern hemisphere from April until mid-September and then live in the southern hemisphere for the remainder of the year!

Until my next blog post

I hope you have a good book to read. I’ll try to finish the books I’ve started.

If you’re a writer, I hope you have quality writing time.

Janet

“More in common than we think”

For today’s blog post I’m highlighting two sentences from Same Kind of Different As Me, by Ron Hall and Denver Moore with Lynn Vincent. You may recall that I read this nonfiction book in September and commented about it in my October 2, 2017 blog post, Some Great September Reads.

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Same Kind of Different as Me, by Ron Hall and Denver Moore, with Lynn Vincent

“ʻEver man should have the courage to stand up and face the enemy,’ I said, “ʻcause ever person that looks like a enemy on the outside ain’t necessarily one on the inside. We all has more in common than we think.’” – Homeless man Denver Moore speaking in Same Kind of Different As Me, by Ron Hall and Denver Moore with Lynn Vincent.

Lessons to learn

We can all probably learn many lessons from Same Kind of Different As Me. I think the theme of the book is that under the pigment shade of our skin, we are all the same. When we judge others based on their outward appearance, we often rob ourselves of an opportunity for making a new friend, or at the very least, an opportunity to have cordial interaction with a stranger.

I’m not naïve enough to advocate that we just approach strangers willy-nilly and befriend them. There are people out there who are up to no good; however, that is not a good excuse for being afraid of everyone who does not look like we do.

Polarization in America

In our current polarized population in the United States, it seems we’re becoming more a nation of “they” and “us” than the “melting pot” I grew up learning about in history classes. We tend to fear the unknown. As long as our fellow citizens whose skin is a different shade from our own are seen as people to be feared or as an enemy, we will continue to be a divided people and none of us will be able to reach our potential. Our nation certainly won’t reach its potential until we learn how to get along with one another.

This applies to people of another racial or ethnic background, but it also applies to people who espouse political stances different from our own. I’m old enough to remember when Democrats and Republicans could agree to agreeably disagree. Now it seems that neither side has any desire to try to reach common ground on any issue.

Discovering the fun of compromise

As a political science major in college, one of the courses that still stands out in my memory is the one called The Legislative Process. Going into the course, I wasn’t very excited. I had never been a political person. I was studying political science to prepare myself for a career in city management (or so I thought.) Much to my surprise, The Legislative Process turned out to be an invigorating course.

Class members were arbitrarily divided into two groups. Each group was assigned a piece of legislation they had to fight to get passed. Of course, the two proposed laws were polar opposites of each other. The two groups had to work together and create a compromise bill.

I recall that one day when the bell rang and we were supposed to leave the classroom so another class could come in, the professor struggled to get us to stop debating and leave. Although we knew we could pick up where we left off at our next class meeting two days later, we were so wrapped up in the process – and HAVING SO MUCH FUN – that we didn’t want to stop. I have forgotten many of the intricacies of that political science course, but I accidentally learned that compromise can be fun.

The “takeaway”

Let’s stop being afraid of one another and start letting ourselves find the fun and joy that come from interacting with one another and finding common ground. And when we cannot readily find common ground, let’s remember how – or learn how – to compromise.

Find a place for compromise in your own life and work to get compromise back into the vocabulary and mindset of our local, state, national, and world leaders.

When I sat down to write about those two sentences from Same Kind of Different As Me, I thought I knew where I was going. I anticipated writing a short, maybe 300-word blog post. Like life and the legislative process, though, writing has many surprises. One of them is that this blog post is approaching 1,000 words.

Until my next blog post

I hope you have a good book to read. David Ignatius’s new thriller, The Quantum Spy is in transit to me at the public library. I have enjoyed his other novels, so I’m looking forward to reading this one.

After being overwhelmed this year with books I wanted to read, I plan to cut back somewhat on my reading for a while and spend more time on my writing. It is said that one has to read a lot in order to be a good writer.

I’ve learned a lot from the many good books I’ve read in 2017, and now I look forward to putting some of that new knowledge into practice by getting back to work on my historical novel manuscript with the working title, The Spanish Coin.

It’s been fun to work on my manuscript’s outline the last few days. There’s another surprise! I never thought I would use the words “outline” and “fun” in the same sentence. Outlining a work of fiction is hard work but, when I’m in the proper frame of mind, it can also be fun.

If you are a writer, I hope you have found the perfect balance between reading and writing. I hope you have productive writing time.

Janet

Some Good New Books

I’ve read some very good books this year, and it’s been a pleasure to share my thoughts about them on my blog. Today’s blog post highlights the five novels I read in October. Four of them (Love and Other Consolation Prizes, by Jamie Ford; The Deep Dark Descending, by Allen Eskens; The Last Ballad, by Wiley Cash; and The Stolen Marriage, by Diane Chamberlain) were published in October. The other book, News of the World, by Paulette Jiles, was published in October of 2016.

 Love and Other Consolation Prizes, by Jamie Ford

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Love and Other Consolation Prizes, by Jamie Ford

I eagerly awaited the release of Jamie Ford’s latest novel, Love and Other Consolation Prizes, and it did not disappoint. After hearing Mr. Ford speak at the Bookmarks Festival of Books and Authors in Winston-Salem, North Carolina in September, I really looked forward to reading this book. My September 18, 2017 blog post, Bookmarks Festival of Books and Authors, was about that festival and the seven authors I got to hear speak.

Historical fiction is near and dear to my heart, so it’s no wonder that I enjoyed reading Love and Other Consolation Prizes. Mr. Ford took a reference to an actual shocking event at the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition held in Seattle, Washington and created a powerful story about the young boy named Ernest who was raffled off at the Exposition. Yes. You read that correctly. Something different was raffled off each day of the fair, and one day it was an orphaned child!

The Chinese slave trade around the turn of the 20th century and the thriving red light district of Seattle in the early 1900s provided the perfect backdrop for this book. Mr. Ford gives us chapters set in 1909-1911 and chapters set in 1962 around the World’s Fair in Seattle so we can follow the amazing fictional life of Ernest – a mixed race boy from China.

 The Deep Dark Descending, by Allen Eskens

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The Deep Dark Descending, by Allen Eskens

I became a fan of Allen Eskens’s writing when I read his first novel, The Things We Bury. I’ve now read all four of his novels. Here are the links to my blog posts that talked about his first three novels:  The Life We Bury, by Allen Eskens; What I read in January; My writer’s notebook; and What I Read in April  ­.

The Deep Dark Descending is a dark story of just how deeply a person can descend when his anger, bitterness, and desire for revenge become an obsession.

In this novel, Minneapolis homicide detective Max Rupert sets out to find and punish the person or persons who murdered his wife. The case had been ruled an accident, but Rupert could not accept that.

The Deep Dark Descending takes the reader to the frigid Minnesota-Canada border and a frozen lake. Put this novel on your winter reading list.

The Last Ballad, by Wiley Cash

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The Last Ballad, by Wiley Cash

The Last Ballad is author Wiley Cash’s newly-released novel. It is set in Gaston County, North Carolina and is based on the life of textile millworker Ella May Wiggins. Ms.Wiggins was murdered in Gastonia, North Carolina in 1929 during a riot that resulted from efforts to organize the millworkers into a union. Labor unions have never been popular in the state, and that was definitely the case in the textile industry in the early 20th century.

Although I grew up an hour from Gastonia, I had never heard about this incident. In fact, Wiley Cash is a native of Gastonia and he only recently learned of it.

The Last Ballad takes the reader into a world of poverty inhabited by both black and white millworkers in the 1920s. Ms. Wiggins was a white single mother who lived in an otherwise black neighborhood. She was instrumental in trying to get her black neighbors and co-workers the right to strike for better wages. The white workers didn’t have the right to strike either, but until Ms. Wiggins pushed the point, the possibility of black workers going on strike was unimaginable in that time and place.

This is a story of a woman’s courage as she fought for better working and living conditions for her children and her neighbors.

The Stolen Marriage, by Diane Chamberlain

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Diane Chamberlain Author Event The Stolen Marriage, by Diane Chamberlain

After having met Diane Chamberlain at the On the Same Page Book Festival in West Jefferson, North Carolina last year (Diane Chamberlain Author Event )and enjoying two of her other novels (Pretending to Dance A Novel’s First Line and The Secret Sister Books I’ve been reading), I got on the waitlist for The Stolen Marriage as soon as it was “on order” at the public library. The novel’s October 3, 2017 release date finally arrived!

I love it when I can read an expertly-written novel and learn something at the same time. Like Wiley Cash’s The Last Ballad, Diane Chamberlain’s The Stolen Marriage delivered in a big way. I regret that I cannot read The Stolen Marriage again for the first time. It was that good!

The Stolen Marriage was inspired by the true story of the citizens of Hickory, North Carolina building – and getting up and running – a hospital for polio patients in just 54 hours in 1944. Being a native of North Carolina, born in 1953, this is another piece of history that I didn’t know. It was an amazing feat in this small town in Catawba County, and it was covered by Life magazine. In historical literature, it is referred to as “The Miracle in Hickory.”

The fictional story Ms. Chamberlain created around this event is one of trust, love, and betrayal. There are numerous plot twists in this novel. It will keep you up at night turning pages.

 News of the World, by Paulette Jiles

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News of the World, by Paulette Jiles

The premise and title of News of the World, by Paulette Jiles, intrigued me when I read a blurb about it, so I borrowed it from the public library.

This is a tale of a fictional character known as Captain Kidd who traveled around Texas in the 1800s getting paid to have public readings of articles from various newspapers. Many people were illiterate and newspapers were rare in the region.

Captain Kidd agrees to return Johanna, a young white girl, to her family in southwest Texas. Years earlier, Johanna had been kidnapped by the Kiowa tribe of Native Americans. Being raised by the Native Americans, Johanna had no recollection of the habits and mores of her white family.

Johanna and Captain Kidd had a shaky and unpredictable relationship as Kidd tried his best to fulfill his promise to return Johanna to her family. Their journey across Texas is filled with misunderstandings, attacks by outsiders, challenging traveling conditions, and additional attempts to kidnap Johanna. The two of them gradually learn how to communicate and co-exist.

News of the World is the second novel I’ve read recently that did not use quotation marks in dialogue. I guess I’m just old-fashioned, but I don’t like this practice. When I have to stop and think or reread something in a novel to figure out what’s narration and what’s dialogue or who’s talking, it pulls me out of the story and reminds me I’m reading. I’m sure dropping all the quotation marks saved the publisher some money, but I hope this doesn’t become common practice.

Until my next blog post

I hope you have a good book to read. I seem to have trouble “getting into” a book at the moment. I’m more in the mood to write than to read, so I’m taking advantage of that. The last several days I’ve worked on the timeline and outline for my historical novel I’m calling The Spanish Coin. I’ll keep you posted.

If you are a writer, I hope you have quality writing time.

Janet