Kid Lit, My Friend, Kid Lit

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How do you read?

What?

What I mean is – and I mean this indirectly – what do you intend to get out of what you read?

That’s a pretty general question, Bob.

All right, I’m still not being clear enough. Do you read to get the gist of the story? Do you read to understand the characters and their conflicts? Do you read contextually, i.e., do you read to understand the story and characters in light of their historical and social settings?

Yeah, all that.

Okay, that makes you an exceptional reader. So let me ask you this: How quickly do you read?

You mean do I buy a book, run home and start reading?

You know I don’t mean that. How long do you dwell on each page?

I don’t know…Jeez, Bob, you going to put a stopwatch on me, or what?

No. What I’m getting at is: Do you enjoy the act of reading? Do you savor the writer’s word choices? Do you ponder his/her choice of metaphors? Can you slip into the writer’s written voice like a new bathrobe? Do you look for and celebrate the irony there? The subtlest humor and satiric bits and pieces?

Yeah, sometimes. Sometimes the book bores the shit out of me, and so I scan it. Can’t wait to get through with it, you know?

I do indeed. I try to allude to all these things when I write a review; I try to lead the ones who read my reviews into reading the book, and I try to tell them what they can expect from reading it.

I get where you’re coming from, Bob. You’re going to try something new in your reviews, aren’t you? And you depend on your formula to get you through the weeds.

(Notice how, suddenly, the questioner becomes the questioned?)

I get that, Bob. You’re as regular as an alarm clock when it comes to putting that formula into practice. So what’s up?

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Kid lit, my friend. Kid lit.

Books for tykes, you mean.

Yes.

So why is that a challenge?

Vocabulary, for one thing. An eight-year old’s vocabulary is roughly half an adult’s. And then there’s the degree of complexity a child’s mind can handle.

So, Bob, you think a kid’s mind isn’t as well developed as an adult’s?

Well, it’s been proven. That’s why they go to school. To improve their ability to think and communicate what they think.

It’s not to learn a trade? To get a good paying job?

Now you’re getting into politics, and we both know where that ends up. Certain people scratch around in the dust long enough and greedily enough, and they end up with money. Piles of it. They become addicted to money. Can’t get enough of it. So they tweak society into training mindless automatons to do their bidding. Give them just enough mental training to have them function as human machines.

Like that old song? “A mind that’s weak and a back that’s strong?”

Exactly. You become dangerous if your mind becomes over-educated.

Is that what you want, Bob, over-educated people who cause trouble?

In a way. But what I’d say is I want people who can think for themselves – and for society as a whole. To move us all forward.

Really, Bob? Really? And how do you propose to do that?

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Get them reading. Challenge their minds that way.

And how do you get your so-called automatons to read?

Kid lit, my friend. Kid lit. Get the kids reading, and they’ll never stop.

 

End of scene. See you next week.

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How Much Editing Is Enough?

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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?

OR

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?

OR

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.

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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.

 

Visit my website here. 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.

Writing The Big Review

 

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There are tons of source material for writing book reviews, from those by pros in glossy magazines to the smallest, most humble blog. In my last post I offered one way to write the review in short form, i.e., a review you might write for a book on Amazon. And I promised to give you one way a more complete review might be written. My method here is something of a mixture of reviews I’ve seen on the best blogs and those by the pros. So here goes.

  • The preamble – begin with a “hook,” or some curious or interesting connection between your impression of the book and some generality regarding the subject at hand, an outside thing or event. For instance: “Baseball is being sped up; it’s not the same game it was forty years ago. But in this biography of Yogi Berra we see a player who could bridge…”
  • The synopsis – the better reviews provide a segue here to transition to a paragraph or so which synopsizes the book’s high – and possibly low – points. Yes, even this is subjective, at least to a degree, but that’s what’s valuable here: the parts of the book that seem most important to a potential reader.
  • Style – this can be incorporated in the synopsis, but I like to have a few separate statements on the the writer’s voice, his/her style of writing, and how that worked with the story being told.
  • Summary – here, I like to include any generalized impression I haven’t provided in one of the above subsets. This can include a flat statement of whether or not you enjoyed the book, what you gained from it, whether or not you would recommend it to other readers, and why.

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Books, as is all art forms, are meant to both inform and entertain. The above format will generally do a decent job of depicting how well the writer did on both counts. But the primary purpose of reviews is for the author and his/her growth as a writer: to identify things done well, weaknesses the book might contain, and (possibly) how those weaknesses might be rectified. So be honest regarding your impressions of the book. Don’t be cruel, just honest – as you see it.

What Makes The Master Writer?

 

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Thumbing through the latest New Yorker issue (March 28, 2016) turned up a pleasant surprise: a short story, “My Purple Scented Novel,” by Ian McEwan, probably today’s most highly regarded English novelist. Predictably for me, the story proved as satisfying as cold watermelon on a hot North Carolina summer day.

Then I began to wonder: What attracts me (and scores of other readers) to McEwan’s work? His stories  and novels hinge to perhaps an excessive degree on narrative and his voice, while distinct, is not an elegant one. When dialogue does appear, it’s no great shakes, either. And his storylines seem all too familiar from one to another, almost formulaic on the surface. And almost all of his work over the last decade has to do with social issues of one sort or another.

In other words, the sort of writing some 25 year-old MFA instructor-editor would reject with the usual, “This work doesn’t meet our needs at this time, but we thank you for submitting” sort of trash.

Every writer, I think, who can be seen as a master has his/her own approach to story, characterization, style, voice, etc. With McEwan I believe it’s his characterizations. He’s able to place characters into social settings with such apparent ease. In his case, his offhand narrative style prevents polemics, his characters simply acting out bits of life in the author’s chosen social context. Too, he’s a master of the story twist that underscores these given social contexts. In this particular story a mundane friendship between two writers hinges on plagiarization as the two – one successful, the other struggling – find their successes reversed.

Every writer needs to know his/her skill with the many aspects of literary writing, but in the end, as always, it comes down to the gifts of storyline and characterization.

 

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.

Short Stuff Makes It More Difficult

The River Swimmer, by Jim Harrison

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The novella as a literary form has been around for a long while; it remains as popular in Great Britain and Europe as it has been in the first half of the U.S.’s twentieth century. For readers, the popularity stems from its abbreviated length, its compact style that some writers and editors compare with the longer short stories. The difficulty for writers is two-fold, I think: you’re tempted to let the piece be static in structure, or you find yourself leaving great gaps in characterization or story line, gaps that would be filled in if the piece were of, say, sixty thousand words or more, i.e., of novel length.So one must write a tightly controlled story, not littered with too-many subplots and long, drawn out characterizations.

And for the publisher in this day, the book of dual novellas seems the only feasible mode of publication, as many publishers resist putting money into a short book that they can only sell for minimal price.

Thus we have two novellas from Harrison here, The first and least satisfying being The Land of Unlikeness. In it, an aging and still-struggling artist named Clive returns home to Ypsilanti, Michigan, and finds renewed fascination in reliving his younger years there, including high school romances. Harrison seems to want us to understand that creative fame is more or less accidental, but that one can still find fulfillment there once ego and pursuit of fame are abandoned. The writing here is uneven, dropping in erudite commentaries on painting and artistic styling, while giving us a story that could have been accomplished at short story length.

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In The River Swimmer, however, Harrison’s talent begins to shine through. He dabbles with Magical Realism as he coaxes the central character, Thad, through a nasty conflict with a girl’s father, then various self-actualizing exercises that he would just as well not put himself though. Through all this, the young man finds his only contentment in swimming the midwest’s rivers or, as Harrison writes in the final page, “ If there was a body of swimmable water nearby he would enter it. It was his nature.”

Harrison’s style and voice in these two novellas is offhand, leaving the reader to wonder whether Harrison would just as soon not have written the pieces, or whether he’s doing extra duty in erasing himself  from his readers’ minds.

 

My rating: 15 of 20 stars

 
Visit my website here, and my FB Fan Page here for more on ideas and events that matter to me – and possibly to you. I’ll soon be adding podcasts of selected book reviews to my website, as well as an opportunity to buy mp3 files of my reading of Sam’s Place – Stories, so look for those.

A Magnificent Sprawl

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, by David Wroblewski

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Quite often it’s the flawed novels that stick to your ribs, not those approaching literary perfection, and this book is a great, magnificently flawed novel that I’ll find hard to forget.

The story is one of the Sawtelle family, principally son Edgar, who was born without an ability to speak. The family train and sell dogs, and part of the story’s charm is the practiced interplay between Edgar and his student-dogs. But father Gar dies suddenly under what later prove to be suspicious circumstances, and Edgar and mother Trudy carry on the family business – until Uncle Claude slithers in to complicate life for Edgar. Edgar runs away and stays away for months, during which time Claude beds Trudy. Edgar finally does return, intent on proving Claude culpable in Gar’s death, and that sets in motion Wroblewski’s tense  but overwrought end to the story.

If this all too brief synopsis seems vaguely familiar, it should be. Hint: think Shakespeare. It that doesn’t do it for you, think Denmark.

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But what do I see as flawed about this ultra-inventive novel? First, one has to read to mid-book before it becomes clear that the author is taking the story somewhere. And then there’s the too-long stay in the woods and on the road. Such storyline doldrums lead me to believe that Wroblewski has turned writer’s block on its head by writing until a story begins to emerge.

If I seem unfair to the author, let me list the book’s assets. Wroblewski’s prose style nears perfection, and I put his writerly voice up there with Cormac McCarthy, his ability to evoke mood alongside Steinbeck and Guterson. In various sections, he paces with the greats, and his ability to build tension is breathtaking. Wroblewski has magnificent literary chops in this novel, but such abilities can be a burden as well as an asset. If he can tame his storytelling tools, he’ll be among the greats.

 

My rating: 16 of 20 stars

 

 

Visit my website here, and my FB Fan Page here for more on ideas and events that matter to me – and possibly to you. I’ll soon be adding podcasts of selected book reviews to my website, as well as an opportunity to buy mp3 files of my reading of Sam’s Place – Stories, so look for those.

 

The Artist and the Work

GF Readers, I’m finally back, my eight-day absence caused by a total knee replacement, and I’m more or less in the pink once more. Thanks for hanging in there with me and GF.

 

The Writer’s Chronicle, December 2013

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Writers, how much have you thought about your personal relationship to your creative work, completed or not?

Well, you say, I have ideas, I develop them, edit them, and either publish them or stick ‘em in a drawer for a rainy day.

That’s not quite the answer I’m looking for. How do you relate to the voice of what you write? Is it the same as your everyday talking voice? Did your article or story end up exactly as you planned it, or did it take on a new mood or slant on the subject matter once it was in progress?

Hopefully these questions will stick with you long enough to get to the news stand and buy this issue of Writer’s Chronicle. Julie Wittes Schlack talks about this sort of connection, between mindfulness and the memoir. Sometimes you get caught up in creative whirlpools within when approaching your subject matter, says poet Stephen Dunn, and you either swim for shore or you fight it out, perhaps become that whirlpool, leaving some of your best work in your wake. And then there’s the near-perpetual concern about connecting activism and art, says Natasha Saje. But, she says, what writer pays attention to activism when they’re deep into character, voice and mood? (I’m paraphrasing here.)

These considerations concerning connecting self to creative output may be a bit out of reach for writers struggling to develop a style and voice within a particular genre, but not to worry: as you refine your writing’s technical aspects, the ways in which self and output differ and connect will slowly emerge.

 

 

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.