This Time, It’s All In The Technique



I’ve had the experience of watching a movie in a local theater, the person in the row in front of me busy whispering aloud, explaining what transpires on the screen to his or her companion. Yes, such prattle may add to your own understanding of this cinematic event, but it’s damned annoying. And so we’ll talk soon here of the narrator of Amor Towles’ latest, A Gentleman in Moscow.

To be fair at the outset, Towles takes a lot of risks in this novel, in subject matter, in its telling, and in the story’s structure. And as with most risks, some of his work and some don’t. His protagonist, Count (now Comrade) Alexander Rostov, is now a waiter in Moscow’s Metropol Hotel, an edifice to which he’s been confined by a Bolshevik tribunal for seeming not to have his politics right. The story thus reduces Tolstoy’s and Dostoyevsky’s Russia and its grand scape to a mere hotel, a device not unlike the trope of shipboard drama, from Moby Dick to Master and Commander.

Rostov, despite his demotion to waiter, seems affable in managing to live the life of one of Russia’s former uppercrust with few hints of typical Russian angst, within and without him. Until, that is, the child, Sofia, he’s been given responsibility to raise, grows to be a beautiful late teen and a talented pianist. Rostov’s concern here is Russia’s past and the way its previous artistic culture seems to be stunted by communism. He thus seeks to spring Sofia loose from such sociopolitical chains and seeks to place himself back in the good old days of a Russian aristocracy served by scores of quiescent serfs.

And to the writing: Towles’ strength here lies in his narrative passages, many of which display a literary elegance that’s to be admired. It’s at the periphery of these passages, however, where Towles segues into scene, that my earlier paragraph comes into play. He seems to feel uneasy about his dialogue (more on that in a moment) and seems compelled to have his narrator play the moviehouse busybody, explaining things that are likely obvious to the reader. Beyond annoying, it serves to diminish the effects of scenic activity and talk, and this is unsettling to say the least. His dialogue displays little in the way of advancing story or deepening his characters. Such storyline talk seems to this reader to be rather inane, uninformed, and not the witty bits of writing it was probably meant to be. Factor in his bratty narrator, and you get a plodding story with superficial characters.

In the end, I’m sad to say, it seems to this reader that Towles is more interested in creating an artsy piece of writing than in developing his story idea into something grand, something that could push this era’s haggard literary efforts into more memorable territory.


My rating: 15 of 20 stars

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Humanizing A Legend


The Kid, by Ron Hansen

Over the years Ron Hansen has been perhaps my favorite contemporary writer, and as far as I know, I’ve been a loyal reader, having read every published piece he’s written. Even met him years ago in Atlanta, had the opportunity to chat briefly with him that evening. The thing about being so familiar with another writer’s work: the other’s writing – both the good and the not-so-good – becomes glaringly obvious.

Hansen’s work has been largely historical fiction, from other legendary western heroes to Hitler to somewhat contemporary religious personalities. Most fiction these days virtually requires saturating the writing with historical data from the book’s era, and Hansen seems to have the best historical resources of any contemporary writer. The danger in using such amassed research material, though, is in overusing it, and Hansen seems increasingly liable in this regard. Another danger, and this is merely the other side of the coin in using research material to that extent, is in allowing the characterization and storyline to suffer because of it. This too seems to be an indulgence that Hansen owns, although reviews indicate he gets away with it.
In the case of The Kid, the author seems compelled to use every bit of minutiae at his command, particularly the brands of clothing, including and especially hats. The operative rule here is generally “Does this information help depict the story’s landscape? Does it help set the story’s mood and aid in allowing the characters to come alive?” In this novel, for perhaps its first half, the narrative flow bogs down from an excess of such detail, as if the reader must assay these story characteristics through a microscope instead of enjoying them in panorama.


But invariably, as in this novel, Hansen’s work planes out and the writing gains its necessary use of the author’s “camera” in negotiating close-ups and panoramas, in exposing Billy the Kid’s true character, and in pacing the story. And, as in other of his works, Hansen’s insight into the import of his subject’s place in history always seems unique, provocative and, more than likely, ultimately accurate. As I continually state, no piece of writing, especially fiction, is perfect, and while sticking with Hansen’s books sometimes takes patience, that patience is always rewarded.

My rating: 17 of 20 stars


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The novel is a living thing, an organism, if you will, mirroring the people and the societies it emerges from. Most reckon its original emergence with Daniel Defoe’s works, Moll Flanders and Robinson Crusoe in the early 1700s. What has made it increasingly popular is its take on the lives of common folk, their concerns and daily lives. As the novel has grown, it has drawn to it the deeper psychology of its characters as well as the subterranean reaches of these characters’ social orders, their geographies, their languages, their commonalities as well as their conflicts.

Kirk Kjeldsen’s latest novel, Land of Hidden Fires, touches many of these literary points in depicting the people and geography of Norway at the outer reaches of World War II. His story begins with a girl, Kari DahlstrØm, who grows curious about an American fighter aircraft that has flown over the family farm. She searches it out supposing the plane has crashed (it has), and nearby she encounters its pilot, Lance Mahurin. Kari has a yen for adventure and greener pastures and seizes on the pilot’s predicament to lead him to safety in nearby Sweden.


Along the way, Kjeldsen gives us a spectacularly written narrative of the Norway winter, reminiscent of a Jack London story or two. Their escape isn’t simple, however; they are being pursued by a cranky German officer, Conrad Moltke, and his patrol, within the harsh environs of the beautiful Norwegian countryside. Danger nips at both party’s heels, not only as a consequence of war, but because they have placed themselves in a forbidding clime, which becomes a metaphor for the war itself.

Kjeldsen’s ambitions here seem formidable. His story and characters display traits that are near-archetypical of humanity – the urge to survive by both cleverness and pure determination; yet Kari’s and Lance’s goal opposes that of Moltke and his patrol. To ice this idea, there is the chaos of language to contend with: German, Norwegian, and English. Kjeldsen gives us a taste of these in passing, but even these scant mentions add to the increasingly combustible story Kjeldsen fabricates about the social complexities of war.

The author holds a Master of Fine Arts degree from USC, and it’s clear that he’s learned how to organize war’s fog into a workable piece of fiction. It’s a rare writer who can emerge from the shadows of academia with a fully mature prosaic voice, and it’s also clear that Kjeldsen is on the way to developing such a voice, one that just may eventually echo within the same halls as Graham Greene, John LeCarré, and Robert Ludlum.

My rating 17 of 20 stars


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How Much Editing Is Enough?


You’ve had a request for your complete manuscript from an agent or editor. Suddenly your mouth goes dry. Your knees are shaky. Is your manuscript REALLY ready for prime time?


Let’s say you’re a DIY person, and you publish yourself through Amazon or Smashwords, or some other self publishing organ. Will your readers toss your book in disgust because it’s so amateurishly edited?


Maybe you’re hyper-anal or compulsive, and you don’t know when to stop the editing process. When, exactly, is enough enough?

To my mind there’s no “exactly” possible; it’s my contention that there’s never been a perfect novel or non-fiction book written. Still, don’t use that as an excuse to take a lazy approach to editing.

Some newbie writers don’t much care for the editing process; it’s not where the creative process is, they will tell you. And some high-dollar writers feel this way, too. But editing can be very creative, very enjoyable. Here are some hints at where good editing lies:

  • Spelling – you may not be a good speller, but at least some of your readers, or editors/agents will be. Use your dictionary. Plain and simple.
  • Punctuation – Too many commas, too few punctuation marks otherwise. It’s normal to insert commas wherever your thought process stops and starts, but will the reader need them, or will they get in the way? Make sure you punctuate so that your written intent is clear to the reader. You don’t want him or her to have to keep re-reading a passage to gain its meaning. Also, word processing software isn’t always of help with punctuation. If you leave a period out or fail to close quotes, for instance, your software may not catch it. And these things will be glaring to the reader.


Okay, those are the easy ones. Now here’s where editing can get really creative. The central thing to remember here is: Will your reader enjoy reading your book, essay, or short story? Remember, you’re writing for your reader, not you. So when you have a good draft – or you think you’ve edited enough, set the manuscript aside until you can look at it as a reader, not its author. Then consider these things:

  • Have you varied your sentence structure? Don’t keep  writing long, complicated sentences just because you’re confident that you can punctuate them properly. Or only write pages and pages of eight word sentences.
  • Are dialogue tags, i.e., the “he said” “she said” tags doing their job in making clear who is speaking? Don’t get overly creative with these. Sometimes you can make these perform multiple purposes, but strive to keep the reader’s attention on what’s between the quote marks (if you use them).
  • Are you sure of what you’re trying to say in your piece, whether book-length or flash fiction? If not, take a break and write down what the theme of your piece is meant to be. Summarize your manuscript in a single paragraph. Then you’ll more nearly know how the manuscript should be structured,whether or not it will work for the reader.
  • Is your voice consistent? Or after reading chapter 1 and chapter 12, do they seem to have been written by different people?
  • Does your narrative appeal to the senses? All of them? But if it’s an abstract, informational essay, for instance, you may not want to heavy up on the piece’s atmosphere.
  • Do your scenes “pop” with energy, emotion, intimacy? Are your characters vividly portrayed in ways in which the reader can know them and perhaps identify with them?
  • Does your writing alternate action and energy with a release of such tension?
  • Let’s say your manuscript is 300 pages in length.  You’ve worked hard on the first 30 pages, because you want to hook your reader. Read the piece’s middle three chapters. Are these three as enthralling as those first 30 pages? Quite often, even with seasoned writers, a long manuscript’s middle section drags, as if it’s there for nothing more than filler. I call such ho-hum middle sections the Kansas and Iowa of a manuscript, i.e., the energy of the work has stalled here. (Apologies to Midwesterners)

Okay. There are other things to consider, too, but these may be unique to your manuscript. If you have given the above considerations your best shot, your editing is probably sufficient. HOWEVER: any publisher, agent, or editor may want to change your manuscript, to lop out portions, or to heavy up on others. GIVE THESE CAREFUL CONSIDERATION. More than likely, their suggestions will improve your manuscript in some way. But if you feel very strongly about your manuscript segments or its totality, defend your point of view. The person requesting changes may very well back down in the face of a good argument.


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The last decade has been an eye opener for me regarding the broad expanse of subject matter in novels around the world, the novelists and their work in faraway lands, and the styles of writing.

American writing differs from that of most other nations, it seems to me, in that American novelists have given much popular fiction the feel of cinema. Not so elsewhere; outside these borders skillfully wrought narrative rules the day, while we here seem to like lots of dialogue.


Mischa Berlinski’s fine novel, Fieldwork, captures the narrative style as it gives us a story, leaning toward mystical realism, of life in a distant culture. Books have always been the avenues of travel, of trips into the minds of others, into the workings of other cultures.

So much we can learn of life sitting in an easy chair at day’s end and reading.


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Revolutionary and Reading Blind



The better writers across the world realize that they, through their writing, can be agents of change. Portuguese writer Jose Saramago was precisely this. But better not to overtly rail against the established order; better to cast parables, simple but profoundly incisive metaphors, as a way of allowing readers to see the world anew. It’s not the writer’s task to say “Do it this way,” you see, but they can manipulate the manner in which the reader sees the world. Thus the reader – not the writer – gains a vision of what might be and is able to act, to make that vision real.

Saramago, in Blindness, accomplishes such a goal by slowly making the people of his world go blind. How do they cope? In many perhaps trivial ways. But the effect of limiting the human condition in this way allows both his characters and his readers to see the dross of the world, to allow it to be swept away, and for the true essence of life to emerge phoenix-like.

The skillful writer can, as Saramago does here, also limit his writing style to its essence to underscore the text’s impact. Saramago’s writing is almost exclusively in narrative, even drastically limited in punctuation. To write in this way takes paramount skill and understanding of the use of words, and Saramago’s gifts in this regard will surely reach far beyond his years on earth.


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Using Italics For Character Thoughts – – A Good Idea?



This may seem ho-hum during a week of new year’s resolutions, bowl games, and the first nasty winter weather, but Nancy, a writer friend brought me a writer’s dilemma yesterday. We writers are beginning to see passages in books and stories in which a character’s inner thoughts are italicized. How, Nancy asked, do we decide when to use this device? Further, do we need to use it at all?

Okay, bottom line: there is no convention advising when to use this device. And there’s nothing requiring it at all. So if you choose not to make use of italics, it’s okay. Just make sure your reader can follow your intent in your writing.

If you’re confused at this point, let me give an example or two:

She returned to her tanning. His papa. Poor little fellow. She’d intended for some months to have a talk with the boy, name his real father, but she kept changing her mind. Of course, if she were to carry that out, Abraham would find out within the day and, in his current mental state, he’d probably kill her. I don’t care. I don’t care if I die. She hated the Free Mountain Tribe. She hated Freedomland. But it was Citadel that did this to me. Jakob did it. Citadel and Jakob, they’d written her off, and she hated that place and those people, too. The rumors from her former homeland had her deceased. Jakob knows better, he lied about everything, about me. He left me, even as I was carrying his child.

This is from a new novel I’m just now completing, and I’ve chosen to use italics in a narrative passage. Inner thoughts, sown within the narrator’s passage. Makes it more clear, doesn’t it? And it makes these thoughts stand out to the reader.




But let’s complicate things, as in the next passage:

Abraham had been a good provider, she had to admit that. So many of her woman friends in the tribe were gaunt, diseased, covered with skin eruptions, their hair falling out, their mates indolent, inept, or unlucky. Then, when these women were too sick to work, the men would banish them to the forest, where they’d starve and die, and the men would find younger, healthier women to replace the old. Women were expendable in Freedomland; that was the bottom line. And, oh, how Hagar wished to be eminently expendable, to be sent away from the tribe, to die in the woods. She didn’t care if some brown slave or a woman captured from Citadel took her place. Freedom. Death’s the only freedom here for a woman. Maybe, she considered, it wasn’t so bad in Citadel after all. She could come and go as she pleased, within reason, of course. And she’d never had to fear for her safety when she’d had her spats with Jakob. Not like the increasingly violent ones with Abraham.

Why didn’t I use italics on the first sentence? Because a tag, similar to a dialogue tag, ended the sentence: “…she had to admit that.”

And in a later sentence: “Maybe, she considered, it wasn’t so bad in Citadel after all.” I used the tag, “she considered,” there. This and the above example make these paraphrasing of the character’s inner thoughts part of the narrator’s voice.

This can also be used in scene, in which the character is speaking, and her thoughts are interrupted by something she’s thinking, as in this passage:


So she simply said, “I decided to live here. “ A pause. “At least for a while longer.”

Oh, Fate. I shouldn’t have said that. Now he’ll want to go away for sure, and he’ll tell Abraham I had urged it.


Again, there’s no established convention for this – and there’s nothing requiring italics in such cases at all. this is simply the way I choose to do it. But there’s one more thought on the subject:

Since italics highlight a character’s thoughts in both  narrative and scene, why not orchestrate your writing so that you use the italics to highlight the most emotionally charged thoughts of the character?


If anyone has further thoughts on this use of italics, let’s talk about it here.

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