Yep, clutter extends to stuff that takes up no real space

So I was reading this roundup article that tells about how people are having problems being DIGITAL hoarders. I suppose this should come as no surprise. I’ve long been overwhelmed by the sheer number of emails, documents, photos and other things I have to keep track of and organize in the virtual world, so it stands to reason that there are people who simply keep all their virtual things.

What’s sad is that it’s tough enough to keep entropy at bay in the concrete world. It takes daily effort to go through my house and constantly sort and throw items that creep into all my hiding places and on top of counters, desks, and shelves. I seem to have almost no help in this battle, though, since my children tend to be squirrels, and my husband would much rather keep pretty much everything, just in case. I’ve mostly broken him of the habit of picking things up at garage sales and (when we lived in the South and people just put old things on the side of the road to get rid of) bringing junk home that other people were THROWING AWAY. But he doesn’t on his own take the initiative to regularly go through things and organize and toss. I’m practically the lone ranger as I fight the onslaught of clutter.

The great news as computers have taken root in our lives is that we’ve “gone green” in many ways, replacing paper documents with e-versions. Sure, we don’t have file cabinets quite as full anymore, but our Yahoo or Gmail inboxes are overflowing. Junk mail that arrives in my mailbox gets thrown right into my recycling can, and then when I go online, I have to do the same thing with its electronic siblings. And as wonderful as it has been to visually document our families’ lives and travels, photos now proliferate in the pictures folder, a cascading wave of so-so shots of wacky faces and blinked eyes washing over the desktop. In this regard, it also doesn’t help that I have a 16-year-old with her own camera who takes it EVERYWHERE she goes and is constantly snapping shots.

So not only do I spend lots of time and energy daily sorting through the pile of paperwork that seems to multiply like rabbits on my literal desktop, I also sit down at that same cluttered desk and face a screen that shows me inboxes and folders full of unnecessary items that ARE SIMPLY 1’s AND 0’s. Even though they are not “real,” not taking up any real estate in my real life, they still manage to plague me as they multiply in my virtual world. There is something fairly satisfying about cleaning out my house, room by room, or one counter or drawer at a time, but the satisfaction isn’t quite as concrete and lovely when I am simply reducing the number on my inbox from 300 down to 230. Nope. But I have to regularly go through everything I own that only takes up space by megabytes and put it in a tiny little icon that says “recycle bin.”

What has this world come to when I have to clean something that, in a way, doesn’t really exist?

Yep, still wary about self-published books

I hate to say this, but as much as I hate the traditional publishing “system” as a writer, I’m mostly grateful for it as a reader. This past month I spent most of my time reading books that were either self-published or had originally been self-published and now had been picked up by a publisher, or the author had started out as a self-published writer.

First, I decided to try out Amanda Hocking. She received a great deal of attention for the many sales she made in self-publishing of her Trylle Trilogy series. The millions she made got the notice of some publishers, and she got picked up by a traditional company. I ended up getting a review copy of the first book in her new Watersong series, Wake, which is her first to be published entirely traditionally. It’s in e-book format as well as hardcover. Everything about it is polished and professional, from the cover to the marketing to the actual writing. I found the story to be compelling and pretty well written. I don’t think it’s going to be my favorite of any YA series out there, but it holds its own among its competitors.

After reading that, I thought it might be time to investigate the older Trylle series, starting with Switched. Now that Hocking has been picked up, the books she’s already self-published have gotten the professional treatment, with nice cover images and some editing. Having not read them before they were edited, I can’t say how much editing they got. Did they just get some good proofreading, or did the stories themselves get some good polishing and reworking to make them better? I don’t know. I suspect they didn’t get as thorough editing as the Watersong books, however, because I did feel they could have used some more changes. I can also say that I didn’t think that the Trylle books were “all that.” Again, they hold their own OK compared to other books in the full YA romance and “paranormal” market, but they’re not standouts, in my opinion. The love story was pretty well done, but I couldn’t get on board with the “triangle;” one character just didn’t get fleshed out well enough for me to be completely behind him. And that was really important. I also just couldn’t get into the premise of the story enough for me to really like it; the idea of these “beautiful trolls” having little communities and “kingdoms” hidden among humans was fine, sure, but I just didn’t care what happened to them. Hocking kind of resolved that for me by the end of the series, but a reader shouldn’t have to wait till the middle of the third book to “get into” the premise. That was a major strike against the books, I thought.

So I am glad that Hocking got picked up by a major publisher, because she has talent enough to produce books that will sell well in the YA market, and she definitely benefits from good editing.

Next, I started a self-published book called Broken Shell Island, which a blogger had highly recommended. Looking at her list of other favorite books, I found similarities in our tastes and thought I should try out this book. I have to say that this is a fairly good story, but I just didn’t love it. It’s deliberately quirky, with a splash of Alice in Wonderland, almost, but the whole mix just didn’t do it for me. Others may like it. I think it would do better with a larger audience if it had the benefit of a good editor, as well.

Since I had blogged about clean romances, an author contacted me and asked if I’d like to read one of hers. Normally, I tell self-published authors I simply don’t have time to read their books; I have such a huge list of to-reads anyway, and limited time for reading/ reviewing, that it’s just safer for me to stick with traditionally published stories. (More on this later.) Plus, I want to make sure that Rated Reads reviews books that are getting a lot of attention, so that my site’s visitors know if the popular books they’re hearing about are clean or not. If I had a hundred reviewers contributing to RR, maybe I could alter that policy, but for now it still works. But I made an exception and read her book, Forgotten Honeymoon. It was cute enough, I suppose, but I did feel that I could have used that reading time for something I would really have loved. Again, it’s nice to know that someone’s out there writing “clean romances,” but they have to be really great and well-written in addition to simply “clean.”

Last, I read Love Unscripted, which is another book and writer who have been picked up by a traditional publisher after finding some success in the self-publishing arena. As I wrote on Goodreads, I decided to read this when I saw on one of my publishing-news updates that it had gotten picked up by a publisher. I figured that meant it should be a cut above the usual self-published stuff. For the first half or third of the book, I felt convinced that was true. It was fun to read and actually pretty well written. But as the book wore on, I had more complaints. I am hoping that since it’s now getting the treatment from a good editor, it may end up correcting some of the problems that I saw.

First, it was entirely too long; it could easily have been edited down without losing anything at all; in fact, taking out some stuff would have made me happier. It just dragged. I felt that some of the plot points were stretching my credibility and patience, and they could easily have been left out or changed significantly. Second, and related to the first point, as some other Goodreads reviewers noted, Reber does too much “telling” rather than “showing” in her writing. She hammered us over the head in telling us how the characters must be feeling. We get it. We’re smart enough to follow where you’re going. Third, a few things toward the end were so obvious that I just wanted to smack the character and the writer. I won’t “spoil” the story, but, really, this character is pretty smart. She didn’t see the really, really, REALLY obvious things that were going on around her from a mile away? Everyone else knew, and she didn’t. Urgh.

And on the topic of “clean” content or not, I was unhappy with the number of uses of the f-word. There were at least 25 to 30, which was simply far too many. The sexual details throughout the book were actually at a satisfactory level except for the first time the main characters have sex, and that scene is long and detailed. I REALLY didn’t want to know exactly what he was doing to her. Ick.

I think, though, that this author has potential and can create some characters we can root for and a love story that draws us in. This just needs a little bit of good editing. I hope that when it gets that and is published “traditionally,” this book will do well.

So, to sum up: In this month of spending my reading time with books that have been self-published somewhere along the line, I can still say with all confidence that I’d rather read something traditionally published. It’s still true that the publishing route allows books to get vetted for quality and then edited to make them even better. I just want to read books that are going to knock my socks off, and so far I haven’t read anything self-published that has done that.

And if that means that since I have yet to get picked up by a traditional publisher for the projects I’ve spent months of my life (and blood, sweat, and tears) on, I’ve not produced writing that’s good enough for others to read and love, so be it. It hurts my pride, but I’ll keep trying.

‘Authenticity’ and vulgarity in books

Those of you who have paid some attention to my biographical information (if not, take a look at “about”) will know that I run a book review website, Rated Reads. There are quite literally thousands of blogs out there that review books. What there are not nearly so many of are websites that try to provide information about the content of those books reviewed. I have been a book reviewer for probably 15 years now, and I’d say I have done it as “professionally” as is possible; I’ve written for newspaper book pages for all that time, I was the book page editor for one newspaper for a couple of years, and I’ve been a member of the National Book Critics Circle for probably 10 years. So I’d like to feel that I know a little something about book reviewing.

Since it has been well known among my acquaintances what I do in the reading sphere, many people have asked my advice on books, from all kinds of angles. What I concluded some years back was that there was a hole in available information out there about book content. I am a Christian and have been raised in particular being taught that it is wise to avoid using vulgar language or watching movies or TV shows with vulgar content, so it follows that I would want to avoid books with vulgar content as well. And those friends of mine who came from a similar background would often ask me what kinds of books I’d enjoyed that were also mostly “clean” when it came to content.

But there are no ratings systems available for books. There are many reasons for this, but the hole in available information remains nonetheless. I just thought I could do my part to fill in that gap, just a little bit. So I started Rated Reads four years ago. I’ve noticed now more blogs devoted to a similar objective: to just provide some information about book content to readers who care about sexual scenes, violence and offensive language. Some out there in the world today may criticize the movie or TV ratings systems or think they’re silly, but I think most people understand and agree that they have value in providing information that allows viewers and parents of under-18 viewers to make better decisions regarding what they watch. So I would think that logically most people would agree that having information available in a similar fashion for books would be desirable and welcome.

The naysayers have generally left Rated Reads alone. There have been a few occasions, however, when an individual who doesn’t share my values or the values of those who use the site or simply doesn’t appreciate that anyone in the world might have different values than he or she has makes disparaging comments about what I and my reviewers are trying to do. In those few cases, I have gently reminded those commenters that the site exists to provide information for those who would like to limit offensive content in what they read. They can disagree, but some people value what Rated Reads is trying to do.

As a reader, I find it laughable that some writers and readers continue to insist that, in order for their work to be “authentic,” it must contain graphic material. I think that there are a few occasions that this is actually true, but it isn’t true for nearly the number of occasions it becomes a sticking point. Writing about and for teenagers tends to get the most attention here, for some reason.

Let me just say this: I was a teen once. Yes, it was 25 years ago, and yes, it was perhaps a slightly nicer time in which not quite every scary or bad or dangerous or vulgar behavior was out in the open, and media reflected that. (An example: I distinctly remember the big fuss over George Michael’s song “I Want Your Sex.” Some radio stations simply would not play that, so there was a version called “I Want Your Love.”) Today, I am of the opinion that pretty much everything is now out in the open, rather than hidden behind doors, spoken of only in whispers. But I heard bad language when I was growing up; I heard sexual references. So I remember what it was like to be a teen and to hear and see things.

I can also say this: I have two teens. My oldest is almost 16, and she talks to me about everything. She is bombarded by vulgar language and talk about all kinds of dangerous and sad behavior. And even though, technically, students aren’t supposed to be allowed to use vulgar language at school or in the classroom, teachers have mostly given up on trying to reprimand or give any consequences. So my very tender, gentle and sweet child constantly hears peers using “f-” this and “f-” that and sexual language and all kinds of things that she simply doesn’t want to hear. (She doesn’t have a lot of choice in what she hears in class or in passing, but I will make clear that she does have a choice what she hears from friends. She has chosen friends who are like-minded in that they don’t use bad language, and if she does have friends or classmates with whom she interacts regularly who are inclined to use bad language, she has politely asked them to refrain from using it, and they have always graciously tried to honor her wishes because they like and respect her.)

So when it comes to media, including movies and books, yes, I can wholeheartedly agree that “reality” is not pretty in many respects. But just because some teens, or even many teens, are involved in dangerous behaviors or use vulgar language doesn’t mean that ALL do. My daughter has plenty of friends who don’t have sex and who don’t use rough language. This isn’t she or I being unrealistic or seeing through rose-colored glasses; it is a fact. There are plenty of great teens out there who aren’t having sex or using rough language.

Just as we can choose friends who are like-minded, we can choose media that reflects our values as well. My daughter doesn’t want to hear offensive things at school, so she certainly doesn’t want to come home and deliberately choose to read a book that has offensive material, if there are other options. I want her to have a place that she can feel comfortable, where she ISN’T surrounded by vulgarity. That is our home. And our home’s media options reflect that place of comfort and security. I don’t bring offensive media into our home. It is a sanctuary, as much as is possible, from the world of so-called “reality.” And our home life is just as “real” as what’s going on outside it — actually, more so.

So I appreciate the authors who can craft great works of literature without bringing in some of that “reality.” I’ve read many wonderful books with fully-formed characters who interact in a true-t0-life fashion with each other, with stories that are clever, that are witty, that are wise, that transport me, that make me think, that help me experience places and things I wouldn’t get to otherwise. And those books have felt absolutely real. They’ve been authentic; they have struck a chord in my heart and soul. I love those books and I give thanks to the authors who don’t feel the need to insert offensive material to make them more “authentic.” Generally speaking, I have found that the books that have used lots of strong language and detailed sexual scenes could have gotten their messages across equally well without that stuff. And all too often, those “markers of reality” have been poor substitutes for good writing. I don’t want to read a mediocre work, period, let alone by an author who thinks that inserting lots of nasty “reality” will instantly make it real. Why waste my time with that stuff when there’s just SO much good literature out there, so much I can’t possibly ever read it all?

I know well enough what’s out there, what kind of depravity and vulgarity and sadness exists. I am not so isolated or insulated that I’m completely ignorant. But I don’t have to wallow in filth just because I know it exists. Life is difficult enough for everyone that there’s no reason to choose to bring things into our lives that are filthy or degrading. We all have struggles, we all have challenges to work through. And good literature does reflect that fact. But it also can reflect that we as human beings can triumph over the bad, that we have the strength and the light in us to choose good and to be good despite the difficulties we encounter. And I’m going to choose to read books that don’t bring unnecessary vulgarity into my mind. I’m also choosing to run a website that provides necessary information so others who want to make informed choices can do so.

Readers who don’t agree with me can go ahead making their own choices. That’s fine. But respect that not everyone wants to consciously bring filth into their lives. And authors, if you write books with lots of bad language and sexually explicit material, you must appreciate that not everyone will want to read it (and parents have the right to monitor what their younger children or teens read). Most likely, you’ll have a broader audience if you could limit the offensive material you write into your book. The concept holds true just as it does for R-rated movies versus G- or PG-rated movies. More people do go to see those movies with more “family-friendly” content. They don’t have to be “cheesy” or trite or “unrealistic” just because their ratings aren’t “strong.” There have been some excellent “clean” movies, just as there are some excellent, authentic “clean” books. Consider making your writing the best it can be without using offensive material as a crutch to make it “true to life.” I, and many other readers, will thank you for it. Profusely.

House of order

I have decided that I could probably become a professional organizer if I so chose. But I don’t choose that, so I am strictly staying in the amateur leagues. I go on tears of ultra-organization in my house periodically. Over the course of a couple of months in the fall, I must have gotten rid of 15 medium-sized boxes’ worth of stuff. Well, probably more. And that’s after I’d already gone through and gotten rid of a bunch more stuff in the spring. And that was after going through and getting rid of stuff after we first moved in to this house 3 1/2 years ago, and that was after getting rid of a ton of junk before we made the cross-country move here. I keep asking myself how it’s possible that I have all this junk if I keep getting rid of it. Does it sneak back in to the house like the ants we keep killing off? Or like our female cat, who keeps insisting on going back out? It’s a mystery.

I must admit that I impose order on everyone in my house, my husband and daughters all. I have brought in some boxes from the garage and plunked them down in the office and/or bedroom and instructed my husband that he must go through them and sort and organize them within a short amount of time. He grudgingly obliges. I tell my girls it’s time to sort through their rooms and piles of accumulated stuff every six months or so. When they give me drawings or other doodads, I duly admire and ooh and ahh and then remind them that I will recycle most of them but keep a select few in their special folder. Otherwise, we’d be swimming in pencil and crayon artwork, drowning, really.

I’ve been reminding my husband and daughters, “_____ doesn’t belong there. Please put it where it lives.” Everything must have a place to live that makes sense for its use and for our need for it, and I insist on it going back to its domicile as quickly as possible after our temporary need for it has ended.

When I get better organized, I always must show off my new setups. For instance, I did this last week with most of the electronics cords and little gadgets that had become tangled up in the small canvas bin they had previously occupied:

As always, I was pleased as punch with the result and made sure my husband had seen it, and that my 15-year-old, who’s old enough to really appreciate these things, had seen it as well. “Doesn’t it look great?” I asked like a child with a freshly-drawn piece of art for the fridge. “It looks so neat and tidy now, doesn’t it? So much better than before, right?”

I cleared out a drawer in my office credenza that previously was a holding bin for stuff I didn’t know what to do with and used the divider that came with that drawer and another drawer, which I didn’t really need to divide. I had thought about using a store-bought utensil divider or something similar, but this worked just fine in the end without a trip to the store. Yay, me!

I also thought I’d add in here my fancy-schmancy way of planning meals. Well, about a third of the time. I decided to print up a list of dinners I make on a regular basis. I put several line spaces between each and made each dinner item in big print. Then I laminated them, cut them into little rectangles, and put magnets on the back. I put them into zip baggies (I decided it would be easier season-wise to separate soups into a different baggie) and placed them in a drawer in my kitchen. I had a small whiteboard that’s magnetic, so I (try to) plan a week’s meals at a time by just going through my baggies and sticking meal magnets onto my white board. Then I can get an idea at a quick glance of what I plan to make for the week, what to shop for, etc. I think it’s pretty clever. Here’s what it looks like:

My husband likes to stop by garage sales when he passes them on a Saturday errand. When he brings things into the house, I have a hard time not snapping at him. “What?? I just gave away a bunch of stuff to the band rummage sale, and you’re bringing in more junk?” I moan. A couple of weeks ago, he managed to get a few things that were fairly useful, but he also got a board game we will likely never use; I just got rid of about five or six we never used. Argh.

Don’t mess up my neat house. Darn. Too late.