All Those Book Reviews

Do you write reviews of books you’ve read?  I haven’t done many recently, though I suppose I should because I would expect readers to review mine once they’re published.  Reviews, especially on Amazon, affect how the book is displayed, and a large number of reviews can impact the book’s position in the ratings.  But, for me at least, therein lies a problem.

Everything in this world seems to be rated in terms of number of stars, usually zero to five.  Or, if you’re rating hotels and such, zero to four.  Books take the 0-5 star approach and everybody wants their book to garner as many five-star ratings as possible.  Granted, it would be nice.  But a large number of five-star ratings brings up an obvious question: does a book really rate that many top reviews?

Many of my writing friends have published books in many different genre.  They consistently ask for reviews, and I, just as consistently, refuse.  I’ve blogged on this before, and it bears repeating—I find it hard to review a book from a friend because I’m not going to give it five stars if I don’t think it really deserves it.  That would diminish the value of the book, and quite possibly my friendship with the author.  Suppose I read a book from someone I know, especially if I know that person well, and feel the book rates only zero or one or two stars.  What do I say?  Do I give it five stars just to keep the friendship, or do I insult the author and tell him/her that I thought the book was awful?  The conundrum bedevils me to this day.

It has been suggested that I could review books that I liked and would willingly give a five-star review, but not others.  That logic suffers from the fallacy that if I did that, then those authors whose books I didn’t review would know immediately that I didn’t like their book.  (“What?!  You didn’t like my book?  Well, take your one-star review and shove it.”)  So, for the time being, I’ve refrained from book reviews at all.

It has also been suggested that I should give every book I read an honest review and not be afraid to express my feelings about the book.  That’s so the author will know where he/she stands.  Most authors would really like to know.  Maybe so.  (I know I would.)  That suggestion is, I will admit, the only good argument against my current position.  But is it worth risking a valued friendship over a book?  I can’t answer that question right now.  (Perhaps I never will.)

My feeling is that a large number of five-star reviews can indicate one of two things: one, that the book is really great and the author did a wonderful job, or two, that the author has a lot of friends who gave the book a five-star review merely because they are friends.  But that second possibility only serves to diminish the value of a five-star review.  Five stars should be reserved for those books that really deserve it.  I mean, really.  It’s got to be damn good to get five stars.  I find it so unlikely that all those books that got five-star reviews actually deserved it, and, as a result, most five-star reviews are worthless.

I would like to see reviews go to 0-10 stars.  That would give a reviewer more room to maneuver, and it appeals to me, probably because of my scientific background.  A reviewer could give a book 9 stars to indicate that, while it was an excellent book, it just didn’t quite make it to the top.  It’s not likely to happen, though, because it would be too unwieldy for most people.  One-to-five stars is easy to use.

What do you think about five-star reviews?

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The Spoken Word

I’m going up to Santa Fe tomorrow (August 1, 2016) to read from my first science-fiction novel at Collected Works bookstore.  They have an open mike*, and anyone can read a five minute work.  I picked out a very short section of the novel, a sort of tiny story within the larger story.

I’ve always liked to read from my works, whether only a part of a larger work, or a complete story in itself.  There are two ways of reading out loud: to others, and alone.  I read everything I write out loud after I’m done with the first revisions.  I mostly do that alone, but I will read to others if the situation arises.  Granted, it’s hard to find someone who will listen to me read an entire novel, but a short story can sometimes be read within a five minute period at an open mike event.

Reading out loud helps find the areas that are clunky and out of sync with the rest of the story.  I want everything to read smoothly, and I can’t always find that in silent reading.  Silence is good for the preliminary stuff such as the initial draft and those dreaded first revisions, but eventually I have to begin reading out loud to find the hidden unwieldy and clumsy areas.  They’re in there; it just takes some doing to bring them out.  I’ve even heard from one person who has his/her iPad read it out loud.  That helps, too.  It’s like getting someone else to read your work to you.  Reading out loud does take more time because talking is slower than silent reading, but it’s worth the time and effort.

Probably the most important reason reading out loud works is that it forces you to read every word.  You can’t skip over a word or phrase as you can in silent reading.  “Oh,” you tell yourself, “I’ve been over this part so many times, I’m just going to skip it.”  Nope, that’s not allowed in out loud reading.

The second reason reading out loud works is that in its slowness the relationship between words and phrases and sentences is exaggerated, and their interaction is accentuated.  You see connections that weren’t there before, and things you thought were connected may not be, or look different.  I have made changes in sentence structure based on a verbal reading.

I strongly recommend every writer try it, if you aren’t already.

*I’d say “open mic,” but WordPress flags “mic.”  Oddly enough, it also flags “WordPress.”

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Casey At The Bat

Have you read the poem, “Casey at the Bat,” by Earnest Lawrence Thayer?  Or at least heard it recited?  Most people have, I imagine.  It’s one of the best known poems in American English, and can usually be found in any compilation of the best known or best loved poems of the American people.  It was written in 1888, and has been reprinted in books and even in comics, it’s been used in film and TV, either in whole or in part, and it’s even been put to music.  On the whole, it certainly isn’t great poetry, but I suspect its popularity comes from the fact that it tells a story in rhyme.  It’s up there with “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere,” and “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.”  All of those poems tell a story, a plain, ordinary story.  They don’t fool around with flowery language, they just come right out and tell the damn story.  I think people instinctively like stories, and sometimes I wonder if language can get in the way of the telling.

The story in “Casey at the Bat” is simple.  Casey, mighty Casey, is the power hitter on the baseball team for Mudville, and everyone at the game expects him to drive in the winning run in the last inning of the game.  The score was 4 to 2, with runners on second and third base (in the vernacular of the game, that puts them in “scoring position”).  Casey comes to bat and the fans look for a home run to win the game by a score of 5 to 4.  But Casey doesn’t deliver.  He lets two pitches go by, both called strikes, then swings and misses at the third.  The game is over, and in one of the most iconic lines in all of literature, the poem ends: “. . . there is no joy in Mudville—mighty Casey has struck out.”

That last line is so much of a surprise, almost a jolt.  Yet it makes the poem.  Had Casey hit a home run and won the game, the poem would have fizzled.  It is that last line that has put the poem so indelibly in the American consciousness.  It is, after all, about baseball, a uniquely American game.  The line isn’t odd or unusual, and it isn’t out of the realm of the ordinary or the commonplace.  After all, baseball players strike out all the time.  Yet here is a man, powerful, smart, not heavily conceited—he even quiets the crowd when the umpire calls “strike one!”  “That ain’t my style,” Casey says, and raises his hand.  He seems to know what he’s doing, and although he doesn’t point to center field like Babe Ruth did, we admire him and expect the best from him.  We look to him to do what he does best: tear “. . . the cover off the ball.”  But he doesn’t.  He fails.  Spectacularly.  Well, at least he tried, and we can accept that.

I find myself wondering about a couple of points in the poem.  Why was this game so important?  Nothing is said.  Was this a championship game, perhaps the last game of the season that would decide the pennant?  It certainly wasn’t about major league baseball, though Thayer might have used fictitious names to tell a story about the majors.  I also wonder why the score was so low.  If Casey was as spectacular as he is made out in the poem, why hadn’t he driven in more runs?  He may have driven in both the runs the Mudville nine had, but again, nothing is said.  Perhaps he didn’t play that day until he was put in as a pinch hitter in the ninth.  But the fans at the ballpark knew Casey would be coming to bat fifth in the inning, and that sounds like he was already in the lineup.  Nothing is said about the opposing pitcher, either.  In today’s recounting of a game such as this, the pitcher would be given accolades for striking out the heavy hitter, and his name would be prominently displayed in the newspapers.

In any event, those are minor questions.  Casey let us down and the poem achieved a level of popularity not given to many poems.  I still think it’s the story that matters.  The story trumps flowery writing, though that’s not to disparage Shakespeare or Milton.  Read the classics, but don’t lose sight of the story.

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Sex Scenes

Are sex scenes really necessary in novels?

That depends.  I just read a book that had a sex scene that took up one entire chapter, and I got to wondering if it was really necessary to the plot.  Did the story really need that chapter?  The scene was between two characters, a male and a female, who had already been introduced to the reader as lovers.  Before the sex scene, they’d never been shown having sex in any overt way, but because of their well-characterized relationship, the reader almost certainly got the idea they were lovers.  My conclusion for that book in particular was that, no, the sex scene wasn’t really necessary.  In fact, when I  began reading that chapter, I wondered almost immediately why it had been put in.  It seemed so out of place.  I assume it was there largely for the titillation factor.  Possibly to hold the reader’s interest in the crucial middle section of the book when the reader might falter in his/her desire to continue reading.  He/she might put the book down and have a ham sandwich.  But that brings up the real question I want to examine here: are sex scenes ever really required in a book?

There are a few reasons a sex scene might reasonably be present in a novel.  (I’m not talking about porn novels here.)  Sex scenes are always going to be suspect because of the titillation factor.  Many readers might look at them as simply erotic nonsense, unrelated to the plot of the book.  And why have a sex scene if you can just tell the reader that two characters are lovers, or show them being lovers in other ways?  But I think there are two situations where a real sex scene might be acceptable.  To wit:
1.  To introduce two characters as lovers when that fact was not evident from the context preceding the scene.  This might be difficult to pull off, though.  Again, why not just tell the reader the two are lovers?  In some cases, the old adage, “Show, don’t tell,” could come into play.  “Telling” the reader could be literarily unacceptable.  An intimate love scene might just be the best way to show the love between two characters.
2.  To demonstrate the conception of a child.  And even introduce that child as another character in the book.

I have to admit that in the three science fiction novels I’ve written, two had sex scenes.  In one, the second reason above was the prime motivation for including the sex scene.  The birth of the new character becomes a vitally important factor in the plot.  (You’ll have to read the book to find out exactly how.)  In the other, the sex scene wasn’t as graphic as it was in the first, but it did show the developing relationship between the two characters, who hadn’t had any sexual relations up to that point.

I may be treading on thin ice here with this post, because many people may consider sex scenes totally and completely unnecessary.  But sex scenes, like anything else in the book, can work if used sparingly and properly.  Everything in a novel, and this includes sex scenes, must do one of several things: advance the plot, show us something about the characters we didn’t previously know, or provide a little background in the form of backstory.  A sex scene, tastefully done, can be a part of that.  Everything else is fluff, and probably should be removed.

What do you think?  Are there other reasons sex scenes might be acceptable in a novel?

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Good Enough To Be Published

Over the past eighteen years, I’ve written three science fiction novels, each about 125,000 words.  That’s just the word count of each of the manuscripts as they exist today, and doesn’t take into account all the re-writing and revisions I’ve made over the years, especially to the first.  The total number of different words I’ve put into those books, and taken out and moved around and cut-up and redistributed and so forth, must total over five hundred thousand.

Currently, I’m finishing the third in the trilogy, but I’m still trying to sell the first.  Over the past sixteen years I’ve sent query letters to well over a hundred agents about that first book, but haven’t had a taker.  I’ve met with agents and editors at meetings, but no one has yet agreed to represent it.  In the meantime, I still work at writing on the trilogy, mostly on the third, but occasionally I go back and make changes and revisions to books one and two.  I also write short stories and blog posts.  Writing keeps me busy.

The most common question I get asked about all this is, have you considered self-publishing?  The answer is yes, I’ve considered it, but I have, at least for now, rejected it.  Those who have self-published a book say it’s a wonderful experience.  You get a book out there on Amazon and other places, without going to the trouble of having to find an agent and a publisher.*  Just do it, they say.  No, I say.

Why not?  My usual response is that I would prefer to write and leave the publishing details to those better prepared to deal with them.  Sure, I could go ahead and find an editor and a cover artist and a printer and all that, and put the book out there.  That could be done.  It wouldn’t go into many bookstores, though.  The most important question I ask myself about this process is: would the book be any good?  There’s a lot of self-published stuff out there that isn’t.  I’m sure an editor, especially an editor who looks at content, could give me his/her opinion about the whole matter, and manuscript reviewers (that is, beta readers) could give me feedback too, but the ultimate decider of whether a book is any good is the reading public, and I wouldn’t want them to read a half-ass book.  Or a three-quarter ass book.  Or even a seven-eighths ass book.  I want to put out only my best work.  I’d rather go through the regular old-fashioned process of getting an agent and publisher and let them decide if the book warrants publishing.  So far, that hasn’t happened, and leads me to wonder if my first book is really good enough to be published yet.  More revisions loom.  And if it’s not good enough to be published through the traditional route, it certainly isn’t good enough to be self-published.

*Sometimes I get the feeling that some people self-publish because they know their book(s) isn’t/aren’t good enough for the traditional method in the first place anyway.

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A Cancer Moonshot

Several months ago, President Obama announced what he termed a “moonshot” type of program to finally conquer cancer.  An admirable idea, and let me go on record as saying I’m all for it.  It’s being called a moonshot because we’re spending billions of dollars to achieve an easily visualized goal, like landing a man on the moon.  But cancer, being the type of disease it is, is not going to be easy to conquer.  Over the past fifty years or so, cancer has, in some of its forms, been conquered partially already.  A diagnosis of cancer used to be a death sentence; now it frequently isn’t.  Some forms are deadly in many instances, some forms have a death rate of only around 10 to 20%.  I’m certainly not an expert on cancer, but I understand much about the disease, and regardless of how much money we spend on trying to conquer cancer, I can say it won’t be easy, and it may not do what the cancer experts and politicians hope it will.

Cancer is a disease of individual cells.  Something goes wrong inside a cell and it changes.  Normally, most (but not all) cells don’t divide by mitosis much at all.  Only rarely do they divide, usually to repair an injury or to take the place of a dead cell.  Some exceptions are the blood-forming cells, which make the red and white cells of the blood.  But even those are closely regulated, and they don’t just go off on their own and divide rapidly like a cancer.  In other words, cells in a body, human or otherwise, don’t just divide unchecked.  The process of division is kept under very close control by processes known and unknown within each cell.  In cancer, a cell gets free of these normal processes, and it begins to grow wild, unchecked and unregulated.  Many things can stimulate a cell to go cancerous: sunlight, chemicals in the environment, chemicals in cigarette smoke—the list goes on and on.  Genetics can play a role.  Some genes make cells more susceptible to turning cancerous.  Some cancers are caused by viruses, which invade from outside.  So, there are a large number of different types of cancer, and the term “cancer” covers one helluva big area.  All in all, cancer is a very complex disease, and it isn’t any wonder it has taken so long to get a good handle on it.

But now we understand much better how cancer works, and a cancer “moonshot” at this stage may be a good idea.  But still, don’t get the idea that cancer will be conquered within the next few years, or even ten or twenty.  As I said above, I’m all for it.  But cancer has outsmarted us before.  It can, and probably will, do it again.

I’m not sure exactly how this “conquering” is supposed to work.  Are they going to eradicate cancer from the earth?  Unlikely.  Or just cure one form?  More likely.  Considering how cancer starts, in just one cell, curing is problematic.  A cure can only be done if all the cancer cells—and I mean all—are either killed or removed from the body of the person with the disease.  That’s hard to do, since one or a few cancer cells can stick around undetected.  Eradicating cancer totally from the earth, as though it were an infectious disease, may never work.  Cancer is spontaneous, arising from within a cell.  In any event, spending large sums of money can do a lot of good toward “conquering” cancer, or at least learning more about it, but don’t be surprised if it doesn’t.

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The Next Two Hundred Years

Several weeks ago I chanced to see a Facebook post about some predictions an artist had made in the early 20th Century of what life would be like a hundred years later, i.e., in the early 21st Century.  (I’m talking about the time around 1910, here.)  The predictions were interesting, but what came through for me was that the predictions seemed to be limited to devising objects and machines that would make life easier.  Household items that did the work for you, and so on.  Nowhere was there any prediction of major advances in health, communications, travel, and what have you.  No mention of television, organ transplantation, computers, even the telephone.   Those, of course, are much harder to predict.  It has always been difficult to predict new technology, and much easier to merely extrapolate from what we know into the future.  For example, computers, cell phones, electronic tablets and so forth have made communications much easier and more widespread than even twenty years ago.  But what is the future of the cell phone?  Will it just get faster and faster?  Or smaller and smaller?  So small it will fit on our fingernail?  Or will there be another revolution in the way we communicate, a revolution that will make a cell phone look like the telegraph looked in 1910?

Advances in most areas of technology and science are slow in coming and hard to predict.  When I started out in microbiology in the 1960’s, I couldn’t have foreseen the revolution in the handling of DNA that led to advances in cancer diagnosis and treatment, not to mention the treatment of many other diseases, or the ability to detect incomprehensibly tiny amounts of DNA on environmental surfaces that has transformed forensics and genealogy.  There was something on the horizon, to be sure, and we all knew that sometime, someone will break through and change the way we look at disease.  But it’s hard to look too far ahead.  All we can do is take research one small step at a time, and do the best we can.

So, what are your predictions for the next 100 or 200 years?  One thing that helps us in our attempt to look ahead is science fiction.  Back  in 1910, very little science fiction had been written, and it wasn’t anywhere nearly as popular as it is now.  To be sure, Jules Verne and H.G. Wells had published what we now term science fiction, but it had limited impact on the population.  Nowadays, we see sci-fi in so many places: television, movies, books, comics, etc.  We’re used to looking at spaceships that travel faster than light, or time machines that transport fictional characters to unknown and unlikely places.  Faster than light travel and time travel—if they ever come to exist—could be considered game changers in the same way jet aircraft changed the world for a 1910 person.  (The Wright Brothers had barely gotten off the ground in 1910.)  But now, let’s push the boundaries of life of an early twenty-first person.  What’s coming by 2110?  By 2210?  For a person born in 2010, what will they see in 2100?  They’ll be 90 years old, so that’s not unrealistic.  Can you get out of the rut of merely extending what is known now and make real substantial predictions?  I’m not sure I can.

Here’s a couple of my predictions, not necessarily game changers, though.  (I’m a life scientist, it should be noted.)  1. Surgery will be non-existent.  Cancer will be gone, and any necessary surgery (by 2000 standards) will be taken care of by non-invasive procedures.  Nanobots may be a part of this.  2.  Pollution will be gone.  That’s just a decision we have to make, not a technological advance.  Stopping climate change is a different matter.  Even if we made the decision world-wide right now, some climate change is inevitable, though it is possible someone, somewhere will find a way to halt climate change in its tracks.  3.  I don’t foresee Star Trek-style transporters, though I could be wrong.  Travel is travel.  You have to expend a certain amount of energy to move an object a given distance.  But what the hell, let’s go for it.  4.  Life span will be around 100 years, maybe even more.  I’m not expecting a fountain of youth, but advances in aging will be substantial.

That’s enough for now.  Got any other predictions?

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