Writing A Book Review, Are You?

Rudel

My World War II novel – or I should call it more accurately a fictional biography – is out in advance copies now, and I’ve asked quite a number of friends and acquaintances to read and review the book. All seem more than willing, but some half are wringing their hands over writing a review. So what’s in a review?

Reviews can be as long as a magazine article or as short as a book cover blurb, but reviewers will want to accomplish roughly the same things in them regardless of length. For my book, and for those I review here, I’d say the length should be from one long paragraph to three moderately long ones. In these, there are certain things to be accomplished:

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  1. The first sentence should “hook” the reader’s interest. Something intriguing that comes to mind about the book, or possibly something that sums up the book in an interesting way. Not just “I like this book…” but something that gets to the core of the book from some an unusual perspective. Let’s say the book is about traveling by train. You might begin with “I grew up in a small town, a town that wouldn’t have existed had a railroad not run there. I would listen to the train whistle at night, wondering what the train was carrying, who was aboard…”
  2. Don’t go off on a tangent with 1. above; instead segue as quickly as possible into your review of the book. This is most often written in present tense. The most common advice here is don’t write the book you wish the author had written; review the book before you, as it is. Be concise but sum up the story without giving away the key to the story. Something brief about the main characters, in the context of the story.
  3. Are you familiar with the author and his/her work? The author’s past history of books/stories published – basically the writer’s authority on the subject of this book.
  4. Finally, summarize the book from your perspective. Did you like it? Why?

This may sound daunting, but you’ll likely find that you have a handle on all of this from your reading. It’s just a question of putting it together. You can do it!

 

Visit my website here, where you’ll find more information on my books. There’s also a Facebook fan page if you can find it. On both you’ll find more on ideas and events that matter to me — and possibly to you.

There Ain’t No Writer’s Block

beautiful journalist looks typewriter

After all the hoo-ha about publishing, it’s a good idea to get back to writing, don’t you think? I hear many would-be writers say they have some great ideas but don’t know where to start when it comes to committing those ideas to the written page.  So here’s my opinion on that with a sample process and some random examples:

  1. Make a statement on a blank piece of paper that encapsulates you idea.
  2. On a new sheet of paper write a locale for the idea. If it has grandma’s fried chicken, iced tea, and maybe watermelon, you might want to place it in the Southeast U.S. Or maybe set the idea in Montana, with thoughts of the good ol’ Southeast. If boots come to mind, and maybe a steak, you can’t go wrong placing it in the rural Southwest U.S.
  3. Who is gathered around grandma’s dining table, or in her kitchen? Name them. What are they doing, besides putting on the feedbag? Who are they talking to? Is that pair of boots hurting the wearer’s feet? Does he/she want to take them off? Are the persons involved speaking their minds? Or do they harbor thoughts they don’t wish to speak aloud? Why?
  4. Now look back to that first sheet of paper. Are the locale and characters expanding on your great idea? There’s a better than even chance that they are. If they aren’t, what idea seems to emerge from the locale and characters  you’ve written about? Is that idea more enthralling than your original idea? If so, start fleshing out that story. If not, adapt the idea on the other piece of paper to fit your locale and characters.

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Most of the time this sort of exercise will get the writerly juices flowing. You see, I don’t have much patience with writer’s block. I hate to put it in these terms, but writer’s block is more often than not a case of timidity or laziness on the part of the writer. It’s your excuse for not writing. Sorry, but there’re just too many ways to jump start a story or novel to trifle with writer’s block

 

Visit my website here, where you’ll find more information on my books. There’s also a Facebook fan page if you can find it. On both you’ll find more on ideas and events that matter to me — and possibly to you.

Yes, It’s Me. But Who Am I?

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Yes, it’s me. But who am I?

This is a tandem question sure to amuse writers, whether they write fiction or nonfiction. And not a few savvy readers will offer up a smile at this as well. I met a woman once who performed body massage work called Rolfing. She was also a decent folk singer and songwriter. Her avocation(s)? Sports and physics. Discovering all this about her, on one occasion I asked her, “Which of these is the real you?” Without batting an eye, she replied, “Oh, I enjoy all my personalities.”

I could identify with that. I worked as a structural engineer for quite a few years, meanwhile studying the philosophy of and testing my own theories of complex geometries. I’ve played guitar since the 1970s, written poetry, fiction, and nonfiction, and edited the work of others in these three fields of creative writing. Not to mention an abiding interest in military history and politics.

Okay, I admit: this might sound like someone who should spend time on a shrink’s couch, or perhaps in the infamous rubber room. But the more I get to know people, the more I realize that when given the economic freedom to allow their minds to wander, virtually everyone has multiple-sided personalities. This, I think is why readers enjoy modern fiction, particularly, as well as biographies of and books of essays by popular personages. We’re all complex people, and we enjoy seeing the complexities in others.

When I first started writing fiction, I first wrote down lengthy, detailed descriptions of the characters who would people my stories. Soon I realized that bits and pieces of all of them were strands of my own personality. In fact, I began to see myself similarly to a piece of rope – you know, fibers twisted together into strands, and these strands twisted together into the rope itself. I saw my characters, then, as an un-twisting of the rope of my own personality only to discover characters hidden within.

Readers will pick up on a trait of a character here, another there, that belong to me, and remark something like this: “I get it, Bob! That Phil character in your book was really you.” This grates, I admit, because identifying Phil as me is only a (very) small part of the truth of either Phil or me.

Still, it’s simply astounding that people who read about Phil and understand that there is a connection, however tenuous, to me, recognize one of the personalities that are parts of my makeup.

Visit my website here. Then there’s my FB Fan Page here. On both you’ll find more on ideas and events that matter to me — and possibly to you.

Thunderous Silence Speaking Volumes

SamsPlace

I’ve had to let slide, for obvious reasons, promotional activities of my book from 2013, Sam’s Place: Stories. But as I begin to consider that again, I recognize that I’ve had reactions to the book ranging from “Good on ya!” to thunderous silence. Why the kudos? And why the silence?

I have a fairly good grasp on my readership, small and somewhat deranged as it is, so I’m not only able to put the actual comments in place, but also a good part of that overloud silence. And that comes down to reader’s views of the society we live in. I take on at least a portion of the postmodern ethos in my writing – the portion that comments on society by deconstructing the lives of at least some of my characters. For this to make sense I should give a bit of a depiction of these stories.

They take place in Striven, a small town in rural Alabama, stories built about Sam’s Place, a pool hall and bar frequented by characters on the outskirts of Striven society. These folks don’t show up at the Elk Lodge, don’t have particularly good relations with the local police (sound familiar?), rarely warm the pews of Striven’s churches, and are deeply flawed people – at least by the idealized and totally fictitious image we tend to create of personal and family life in these United States. Yet they’re attractive people; they have larger than life personalities. They dare to contradict. They dare to be outrageous. They persist in their living-large existences, despite being shunting aside by the city fathers, even despite violence against them (again, sound familiar?).

These people are necessary to life, in every city, town, and social setting. Some readers recognize this, some not, and I get a pat on the back, perhaps a warm word or two. But why the not? Because these fictional people establish limits on the goodness of us real folk, taken together as society. If this confuses, ask.

Okay, in plain language, why the silence of some who trifle with this book? I think it’s largely this: the mass of society presumes to live comfortably within these social limits, and when they see “good” characters inverted to represent everything wrong in society, and the “bad” characters setting things to rights, perhaps accidentally, they don’t like it; they see themselves at the outskirts of a society flipped on its postmodern head. Through these characters, “good” and “bad,” they begin to see in glaring detail the limits to our society, the limits we’ve created to our harum-scarum, always mutating, less-than-perfect society. And it’s the less-than-perfect aspects of what we’ve created within these United States that allow some – change that to many – to imagine otherwise. And nothing speaks to the ensuing upset more so than silence.

Visit my website here. Then there’s my FB Fan Page here. On both you’ll find more on ideas and events that matter to me – and possibly to you.

Writers and Problems

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image via awfullybigblogadventure.blogspot.com

 

A writer doesn't solve problems. He allows them to emerge. 
~ Friedrich Dürrenmatt ~

 

I really like this quote, about a sensibility you learn in writing classes, but I think it tells only half the story. Not ony must the problem emerge, but it must ensnare charcters, maybe change the world they live in to a degree.

 

It's all about the characters, you see.

 

Visit Bob's Web Site here.

Painting Character and Plot

We talk occasionally about the unity of story, how it's supposed to hang together and keep us interested. But my writing pal, Lyn, brought me a tough question recently: How do characterizations fit into that unity of story?

At first thought – they don't. Characters are discrete, individualistic, and don't seem to led themselves to any sort of unity. As such they seem to be the anti-unity of story. But as I thought about this, I realized this view of story characters isn't true. The below, which was part of my response, might seem a bit arcane to literature's casual readers, but I'm sure you writers will "get it."

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image via thescienceofstory.blogspot.com

Literary criticism takes the long view, on both questions you are wondering about. Aristotle is definitely the structural unity guy – we still structure our fiction (and CNF) according to his precepts, except that we play with linear time in ways Aristotle didn't anticipate. There's no point in talking about post structuralism and post modernism in this context, because they mostly try to incorporate the "undecidability" of plot and character, which tends to lead to fragmented views of both.
In a sense, we're breaking new ground here – we're working from the viewpoints (and needs) of writers, not theorists or critics. As close as anyone comes in writing about fiction from this point are the ideas of Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren that characterization must complement plot. I.e., if your plot is a simple one, you'd be mucking up the story with an overabundance of characters. But on the other hand if your story is complex, then you'll need multiple characters to "live out" those complexities. And the most succinct way of saying that is to ask the first of writer Charles Baxter's questions:
1) What do your characters want
The other three of his famous five as applied to characters are corollaries to that one:
2) What are they afraid of?
3) What's their stake in the story?
4) What are the consequences of their actions and participation in their scenes?
My opinion…based on these points:
1) it's one of texture – your characters as they pertain to developing plot (rising action, moment of epiphany, falling action) are up front. Other characters…have to be painted into the background, or simply referred to directly or obliquely.
The best way of looking at the seeming problem of unity as it involves characters and plot is to look at a story as a painting. The setting and some characters form a kind of backdrop on the painter's paper or canvas. Other characters are "up front" in that they are there to work out the story's main conflicts. And other charcters are painted "behind" these starred characters – to enliven the setting you've created, its mood and tone, and also to add nuance to the goings-on of your primary characters.
So there is a unity of character, but it's in the context of the whole: plot, setting, mood, and tone.