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!

 

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The Long and Short of Story

Doris Betts, my mentor, told me one day that you’re either innately a short story writer or a novelist. She didn’t mean one couldn’t be the other; she simply meant that one’s nature leaned toward either the short story or the novel.

I’ve quoted Lawrence Block below on the rigors of novel writing. I don’t necessarily agree to his analogies here, but he has given you the perspective of a novelist.

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“Short-story writing, as I saw it, was estimable. One required skill and cleverness to carry it off. But to have written a novel was to have achieved something of substance. You could swing a short story on a cute idea backed up by a modicum of verbal agility. You could, when the creative juices were flowing, knock it off start-to-finish on a slow afternoon.

A novel, on the other hand, took real work. You had to spend months on the thing, fighting it out in the trenches, line by line and page by page and chapter by chapter. It had to have plot and characters of sufficient depth and complexity to support a structure of sixty or a hundred thousand words. It wasn’t an anecdote, or a finger exercise, or a trip to the moon on gossamer wings. It was a book.

The short-story writer, as I saw it, was a sprinter; he deserved praise to the extent that his stories were meritorious. But the novelist was a long-distant runner, and you don’t have to come in first in a marathon in order to deserve the plaudits of the crowd. It is enough merely to have finished on one’s feet.”

~ Lawrence Block, Writing a Novel, 1979 ~

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Beware of the Hiccups

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It’s been my experience – from my own writing and workshopping and editing others – that most problems – call them hiccups – for writers working on novels come in three places:

  • the beginning
  • the middle
  • the end

I don’t really have tongue in cheek as I write this, and, no, I don’t mean writers have problems with the whole thing. But let’s take a brief look at this:

  • The beginning: you’ll invariably get a comment from an editor that, despite starting knee deep in the action or characterizations, you should’ve started later. There’s a balance point to this, though. If you start too far in, everything you write will seem anticlimactic. But starting somewhere within the story, at a place of conflict, will give the reader an idea of what lies before him/her in resolving conflict or completing characterization. Prologues are somewhat frowned on now, but if they seem necessary, make sure they don’t give away the farm.
  • The middle: I can’t count the times, particularly in literary novels, that once I’ve settled into reading the book, say 100 or so pages in, the novel seems to be marking time. I call this the Kansas of the novel – – nothing but rolling terrain and miles of nothing but corn. This is where many readers lose interest. Minor conflicts/character revelations, etc. are the perfect meat to keep readers turning pages here.
  • The ending: Short story writers will tell you to reach the conclusion and then get outta Dodge. This is good advice for novels, too, but the ending can be drawn out a bit. Remember literary modernity would have you leaving the ending a bit up in the air, so don’t keep on keeping on.

 

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Putting Character Before Story

 

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The Interestings, by Meg Wolitzer

 

Given my stance on this particular strain of postmodern American literature, I shouldn’t like this book, but I do. It’s character-heavy; These imagined people meet as children in Camp Spirit-In-The-Woods, and in a certain camp teepee, decide they’re darned special, special enough, in fact, to call themselves the Interestings. But who are these children-soon-to-be-adults in Meg Wolitzer’s world?

There’s brother and sister Ash and Goodman Wolf, Julie Jacobson, Ethan Figman, Kathy Kiplinger, and Jonah Bay. Kathy soon becomes a casualty of this group and exiled to peripheral status, as is Goodman and, to a certain extent, Jonah. These three, to be sure, have direct influences on the others, but the book solidifies around Ash, who marries Ethan, and Julie, who marries a man named Dennis. The two couples are poles apart – Ash and Ethan are rich, seemingly without care, Julie and Dennis struggling constantly. But both couples and their children  persist in remaining close.

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Wolitzer’s characters are perfectly crafted and textured within the context of this novel, and you get to know them as intimately as you would your own family. Sound familiar?

It should – this is the way of modern serialized television shows – there isn’t an overarching story; instead, the characters are in the forefront, struggling though vignette after vignette with one another and occasionally with their peripheral friends.

What always seems to be missing in such novels is that very overarching story.

But what, you  ask, is so darn important about story to allow it equal status with such grand characterization? It the case of Wolitzer’s novel, the testing of characters is limited to a small range of human experience. They’re not exposed to the foreign and perhaps unorthodox plot situations that take characters out of their cozy, friend-populated worlds, re-work these created people, and change their lives forever. The Interestings, though, perhaps emotionally tattered, seem to remain none the wiser for their spent years. Maybe that’s the way of modern life, but such portrayals makes for literature that leaves the reader in want.

 

My rating: 17 of 20 stars

 

 

Visit my website here, where you’ll have an opportunity to download an audio eversion of my latest, Sam’s Place, as well as select book review podcasts. 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.

Really Murdering The Capitol

Capitol Murder, by Philip Margolin

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image via goodreads.com

I sometimes read this sort of pulp; it has many readers, and I often find myself wondering what I’ve missed.  Once again, I find I haven’t missed all that much. In such books, the characters are an inch deep, the prose is often more than clunky, and the stories are filled with gratuitous sex and violence. Capitol Murder is no exception. Here, there’s a terroristic plot to kill lots of U.S. citizens, with more-than-mild corruption and intrigue within Federal government organizations. About story specifics I won’t say more.

All this leads me to wonder what draws people to read such books:

  • First, I think, there’s the sex and violence. We Americans, who deny ourselves a lot of sexual impulses, seem inordinately drawn to vicarious, cathartic violence. 
  • Then there’re the gut-level actions and reactions of the characters, these appealing to the baser instincts of readers. We seem compelled, when confronted with unfairness and trouble, to seek out our inner animal and to enjoy those instinctive reactions on the page, rather than cheering for higher-minded responses. 
  • But the primary draw here is the twists and turns of plot. Readers enjoy trying to outthink the writer as he or she unearths plots, murders, terroristic acts, and the like. And Margolin does provide this, along with a fairly accurate depiction of Washington D.C., both political and architectural.

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image via oregonlive.com

What’s bad about such books is that they do a good job of inflaming gut-level passions against various governmental organs while paradoxically inflating the U.S.’s moral base against other nations, against supposed enemy groups, and even against various religions. In other words, they’re doing FOX News’ work for them. 

This is hardly literature, working as it does against the elevation of the human spirit. It really does, you see: these books take intelligence, the human capability that brought on the Enlightenment, and employ it in the cause of our baser natures. Still, the level of intelligence at work in such writing is remarkable. I can only bemoan that it isn't put to more constructive use.

 

My rating: 12 of 20 stars

 

 

And So To Begin…

I'm wondering….

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image via depositphotos.com

 

You writers out there, how do you go about structuring your stories? Do you have a plan, or do you just wing it? And do you plot it out? Do you have your characters dance on plot's puppet strings?

All these are valid ways to write, some maybe more efficient than others. But whatever sets your hair on fire, you know, sets your hair on fire. 

As for myself, I've always fleshed out my characters first. I devise a central character, and then a core of three or maybe more about him/her.      I ask:

What do they want? How do they get what they want? Do they really want what they say they want? 

Then I create an event to set them all in motion, and I'm off and running. Things change along the way, of course, although it's usually the tone of the story, the mood, and sometimes the peripheral plot twists. 

I'd be interested in hearing from you writers, how you go about imagining story.

 

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.