Literary Corner Cafe

Saturday, July 19, 2008

On Writing a Book Review

If you’ve written a book, you understandably hope the reviews written about it will be positive. You also hope the reviews will be well written and most, but not all, professional reviews will be. However, many amateur reviews, such as those found on sites that sell books will be poor to mediocre. I suppose many of the authors of poorly written reviews don’t really care – they probably just want to express an opinion, and they did and that’s fine. Others however, probably want to write better reviews, but simply don’t know how to do so.

I’ve found that many reviewers confuse a book review with a book report, and they really aren’t the same thing at all. A book report is usually written by a student under eighteen and focuses on giving us an account of what happens in a novel – the major plot, characters, and the main idea of the work.

Book reviews are usually longer than book reports and usually aren’t an academic assignment. Rather than concentrating on “What the book’s about,” a book review usually only gives us a “sneak peak” at the plot. The bulk of the review, or at least half of it, concentrates on the strengths and weaknesses the book, the reviewer’s overall impression of the work, and perhaps details on purchasing the book.

If you really want to write a professional like book review, there are things you need to do before you read, as you read, and when you’re ready to write.

Before You Read

Before you even begin to read the book you want to review, you need to consider some of the elements you want to include in your review:

Author – Who is the author of this book? What else has he or she written?” Has the author won any awards? What is the author’s typical style of writing, and does this book adhere to that style, or is it a departure for the author?

Genre – Is the book you’re reviewing a mystery, romance, memoir, a volume of poetry, etc.? What is the book’s intended audience?

Title – Many reviewers ignore the title of a book, but it’s a good idea to tell readers how the title fits in with the work you’re reviewing. How is it applied in the work? Does it adequately encapsulate the message of the text? Is it interesting or uninteresting?

Arrangement – Is the book arranged in sections? Chapters? Some other way? Is there an introduction? If so, is it enlightening? Does it contain spoilers about the book’s plot?

Book Jacket, etc. – Book jackets often contain blurbs that function as mini-reviews. In addition, many people are very interested in a book’s cover art. Does the book contain any photos, maps, or graphs? Do the binding, page cut, and typescript contribute to or detract from the work as a whole?

As You Read

As you read, think about how you’ll structure the first part, or summary portion of your review. You’ll probably need to take at least a few notes on the following:

Characters – Who are the main characters in the book? How do they affect the story? Are they sympathetic and easy to empathize with or not?

Themes/Motifs/Style – Do any themes and motifs stand out? If so, how do they contribute to the work as a whole? Are they effective? How would you describe this author’s writing style? What kind of reader do you think would enjoy this book?

Conflict – Conflict is the essence of fiction. How is this book’s main conflict set up? Is it effective?

Key Ideas – What is this book’s main idea? How does the author present it in a way that’s unique and will appeal to other readers?

When You’re Ready to Write

After you’ve finished reading and you’re ready to write your book review, begin with a short summary of the work, but don’t give away too much or you’ll spoil it for the reader. A lot of reviewers lead the reader up to the rising action and no further. The final portion of the review needs to concern itself with the reviewer’s opinion of the work and why he or she felt the way he did. When you’re ready to write your review, remember that following:

Remember your audience – Remember, your audience has probably not read the book. Don’t ruin it for them by giving away key elements.

Deal only with major issues/characters – Obviously, you can’t cover every character and plot point in the book, so deal only with the main ones. What did you agree with? Disagree with? Why?

Organize – The purpose of a book review is to critically evaluate, not to summarize. Keep your summary brief and leave plenty of room for your evaluation. Often the ratio of summary to critique is half and half, but it’s better to give your critique more time and effort than your summary.

Evaluate – You can’t evaluate the entire book, so it’s best not to even try. Choose a few points you consider important and concentrate on those. What worked well for you? What didn’t? How does this book compare to others written by the same author? Did you find the characters and theme well developed? Was the writing subtle and restrained or was it too melodramatic and possibly overwritten?

Publication Information – Many book reviews include the publisher, the price of the book, the year published, and the ISBN.
Like all other forms of writing, a book review needs proofreading and possibly revision. If you can write consistently good reviews, and do so on a regular basis, you’ll definitely develop a following of loyal readers of your own.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

What Is Poetry?

I used to belong to a literature forum and one of the burning questions there was always, "What is poetry?" The consensus among the forum members was that poetry was determined by beautiful language, but I can't agree with that. If language were the determing factor in what makes poetry poetry, then Edna O'Brien's lush, gorgeous prose would be poetry, and it's not. It's lush, gorgeous, poetic-like prose, but it's not poetry.

First, I think it's important to realize that poetry is the most compressed and unified form of literature, and the lyric poem is probably subject to more rules and constraints than any othe form of writing.

I don't agree that beautiful language makes a poem because a poem, even a great poem, can be constructed from plain, everyday language, e.g., "The Purple Cow" by Gelett Burgess:

"I never saw a purple cow;/I never hope to see one;/But I can tell you anyhow;/I'd rather see than be one."

This is a poem, yet it uses no lyrically beautiful language. It's very conversational. And, like I've already mentioned, Irish novelist's Edna O'Brien's prose is poetically beautiful, but it's still not poetry.

The answer as to what distinguishes poetry from any other form of writing is - patterns. Patterns of sound. The patterns of sound are what distinguist poetry from other forms of literature, what gives the language its music. Free verse has rhythm and patterning, too, they just aren't as obvious or as regular as those found in more formal, lyrical poetry, but the repetitions of consonant and vowel sounds give free verse enough of a pattern to transform it into poetry.

Free verse isn't a twentieth century invention. Anglo-Saxon poetry used repeted consonants and stresses, and phrasing patterns. Japanese and Greek poetry used syllabic patterns, all of which can be found in contemporary free verse.

Many people who write poetry but don't read poetry tend to write "rhyming verse," instead. It rhymes, but the lack of unity usually precludes it from being real poetry. I think these people need to study Federico Garcia Lorca's concept of "duende," - the emotional patterning that turns rhythm and sound into real poetry.

To sum up, I think, and this is only my opinion, it's the intertwining of sound patterns - of consonants, vowels, and rhythm, that makes poetry, poetry. Life is made up of patterns, and poetry, more than any other form of writing, delves straight to the center of life.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Which Book Would You Choose?

If you had to memorize a book, a la Fahrenheit 451, which book would it be?

I think I'd have to choose something short. LOL Maybe The Picture of Dorian Gray or Death in Venice, and both, I think are exquisite.

If I were choosing something for posterity and length was no problem, I'd definitely go with Anna Karenina, because I think it's a perfect, flawless book.

Which book would you choose?

Monday, July 14, 2008

An Unaccustomed Joy - Jhumpa Lahiri

When Jhumpa Lahiri's Pulitzer Prize winning volume of short stories, The Interpreter of Maladies was published, I didn't read it. For one thing, I'd just read Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy and Rohinton Mistry's Family Matters, and while I absolutely loved both books, I was suffering from a surfeit of Indian fiction, at least at that time. But more than that, I gave The Interpreter of Maladies a pass because of all the hype. I've been let down by hype in the past. More than once. Surely the book couldn't be that good, I told myself. Surely Lahiri's prose wasn't that sparkling and fresh.

When Unaccustomed Earth, Lahiri's third book of longer short stories was released, I'd "sort of" decided to give it a pass as well. I have plenty to read and didn't really need anything new. However, I was shopping the other day and there was the book, lying on a table right in front of me. I couldn't resist. But please keep in mind, I approached the book with a mind to dislike it.

Suffice to say, I was astounded at the beauty and grace in Lahiri's stories. No, the plots aren't much to speak of. Nothing earth shattering really happens. These are just normal people leading normal lives. Yes, they're Bengali-Americans, but so what? What's really important is that they could be Irish or Russian or German or English. Lahiri writes about the universality of the human experience, not about experiences that are unique to Bengalis or Bengali-Americans. I've never been to India, and I know few people of Indian descent, but I related totally to the characters in Unaccustomed Earth. I felt their pain, their loneliness, their striving for happiness. Lahiri, I learned, writes about the human heart, and the human heart, I think, is the same the world over. It doesn't matter if one's Bengali, South African, Dutch, or Chinese.

Lahiri's prose is spare and unadorned, but I was so impressed by its tremendous emotional depth and understanding, as well as Lahiri's unwavering eye for detail. All her characters came to life for me, even the minor ones.

Personally, I can't understand criticism of Lahiri because she writes about Bengali-Americans. Doesn't Alice Munro write about Canadians? Doesn't William Trevor write about the Irish? Did Chekhov write about Russians and Eudora Welty about people of the American South? No, I wouldn't be able to read Lahiri every day. But neither would I be able to read Alice Munro or Chekhov every day. That takes nothing away from their writing or their mastery.

Though I liked some of the stories better than others, I think this was just a matter of personal preference. I didn't find the stories uneven. I didn't think one was weaker than the others or one significantly stronger, another testament to Lahiri's power as a writer.

If I have any criticism of Lahiri at all, it's that she doesn't include more humor in her stories. Oh, I don't mean she should write comic stories. Far from it. But life, someone (author Mark Spencer) reminded me the other day, is both comic and tragic, and to exclude one in favor of the other is to diminish truth. I'd like to see a little, not a lot, just a little, understated humor in Lahiri's stories.

If you're new to Lahiri's writing, Unaccustomed Earth isn't a bad place to start. These are rich, deeply emotional stories, the stories of an emotionally mature writer, but they're also very, very restrained and understated. As for me, I'll be moving on to Lahiri's first novel, The Namesake, and this time, I won't approach it with anything but admiration and respect.

4/5

Note: After letting Lahiri's stories "digest" for a time, I had to revise my review of her book and downgrade my LCC score. In the long run, I was greatly underwhelmed.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Grammar Curmudgeon - Lie and Lay

When I edit manuscripts, I find a lot of writers become confused over the use of the verbs lay and lie.

The biggest difference between the two verbs is that lay is a transitive verb, while lie is an intransitive verb. And you know the difference between a transitive and intransitive verb, right?

A transitive verb is one that takes a direct object, i.e., there is something that receives the action of the verb.

Example: Please lay the book on the table.

The verb lie is an intransitive verb, i.e., it cannot take a direct object. You cannot “lie” a book, or anything else, down.

The reason people have such a problem with lay and lie is due to the fact that the past tense of the verb “lie” is “lay,” which, of course, is the present tense of the verb “lay.”

Every verb has three principle parts – the infinitive, the simple past tense, and the past participle.

Below are the principle parts of the verbs lie and lay:

Verb

lie

Infinitive

lie

Past Tense

lay

Past Participle

lain

Verb

lay

Infinitive

lay

Past Tense

laid

Past Participle

laid

It’s correct to say, “I lay in bed all day,” but it’s incorrect to say, “I will lay in bed until my headache goes away.”

So, you need to lie down today, yesterday you lay down, in the past you have lain down.

Today, you lay the book on the table, yesterday you laid the book on the table, and in the past, you have laid the book on the table.

Now, I do hope I have laid out the differences between lie and lay clearly enough so the proper uses of both verbs lie in the back of your mind, so they’ll be available to you when you need them.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Book Review - The Weary Motel by Mark Spencer

The Weary Motel doesn't have a breakneck plot. It doesn't have lots of suspense. It's not a mystery; it's not a thriller; it's not a romance. It doesn't have a "gimmick" like some books, and it's not topical like others. It doesn't introduce us to any "brave new world." In other words, The Weary Motel is definitely not the kind of book that's going to land on anyone's bestseller list anytime soon, though it's certainly better written than most.

The Weary Motel takes place in the fictional town of Peebles, population 3,811, in southern Ohio, just southwest of Steubenville (very near the town where Clark Gable was born), near the West Virginia panhandle. It's coal-mining country, one of the least exotic places on earth. Most of the people are extremely poor, and many lives revolve around the sheer battle just to "stay" alive.

As would be expected, the people that inhabit this book aren't glamorous or wealthy or involved in any exotic pursuit; they're just trying to make the best of what they've got, and along the way, maybe eke out a little happiness as well. As the novel opens, Jo Rene, a single woman approaching middle age, is setting out on a mission...a mission to spy on her live-in postman boyfriend, Buck, whom she believes, for no good reason, is lying to her and sleeping with someone on his route.

With the second paragraph, Spencer establishes the tone of his novel, and we can see this is going to be a novel that's both grim and grimly funny. Not satire. It's not biting enough for that. Not even black comedy; it's too whimsical. But, it is going to be filled with insight and raw honesty.

Spencer is an extremely talented author, and while all of his writing skills are strong, it doesn't take many pages to realize that characterization is definitely his forte. All the characters Spencer creates are "genuine"; they really "come alive" on the page and they burrow into the reader's heart and stay there. Spencer's able to do what so many other, far lesser but better known authors have never mastered, i.e., translate his insight into human nature into the written word.

Spencer's characters may seem a bit quirky and offbeat at first glance, but as the book progresses, the reader comes to identify with them more and more, for what human among us isn't a bit quirky and offbeat, himself, at least at times? Spencer simply reaches deep inside his characters and turns them inside out for the reader to get to know. It's the loving humanity that this author bestows on each and every one of his characters that sets The Weary Motel apart and lifts it above the ordinary.

The Weary Motel features an ensemble cast, rather than focusing on one central protagonist. This book tells the story of Dill, Jo Rene's brother, and the heartache he feels over the early death of his young wife, Carol; it tells the story of Jo Rene and her struggle to survive in a family she loves and one we know that, if given a choice, she'd no doubt choose again, though she might want to kick herself for doing so; it tells the story of Dawnell, Dill's teenaged daughter and her desire to break free of the suffocating atmosphere of Peebles despite the fact that she's going to have ties to this little town forever.

The supporting characters in The Weary Motel are as beautifully drawn and engaging as the major ones, although several of them aren't very likable, but then, they shouldn't be. There's Buck, the man Jo Rene should be woman enough to toss out, but doesn't, because love, more often than not, gets in the way of common sense and causes us to do stupid things instead of smart ones; there's Lori, Dill's unhappily married love interest; there's Tonya, the girl who dreams of running away to Florida, but settles for Buck and roses and chocolates, instead, at least for the time being. There's Dill and Jo Rene's mother and grandmother, two feisty women who are both surprising and yet, wholly believable.

Like the characters in Spencer's previous book, Love and Reruns in Adams County, the characters in The Weary Motel do the "wrong" thing more often than they do the "right," but they are, above all else, supremely human and extraordinarily memorable. Spencer really lets us see into the hearts of these people and I found myself chuckling on almost every page and thinking, yes, that's exactly the way I felt; that's exactly the way life is.

One of the most memorable and endearing scenes occurs when Jo Rene receives a chain letter. Like most of us, her first instinct is to chuck it into the nearest trash can, but also, like most of us, Jo Rene doesn't want to tempt fate, so she deals with the letter, instead, and in a very comical and human manner.

While the characters take center stage in The Weary Motel, one really can't review this book without mentioning Spencer's fresh and funny dialogue. His narrative voice is strong and it's unique. He carefully walks the line between the comic and the grim without so much as a single misstep. In addition, his dialogue has subtext, something I think many authors today simply dismiss as being unnecessary. I have yet to read another book that can even come close to being as poignant, as truly funny and as bittersweet as is The Weary Motel. The subject matter is sometimes dark and grim and serious, but Spencer never forgets that even in the grimmest moments there can often be found a comic side to life, and to his enormous credit, he focuses on both.

The Weary Motel is a fresh, funny and touching novel and one I would definitely recommend to anyone. It's really too bad it's not more widely read. It's not too bad for Spencer; he's got the talent and the skill to create a lot more books. The people missing out are the people who fail to read this book. I'm glad I'm not one.

5/5

Recommended: Yes.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

The Truth and Nothing But the Truth About the Writer/Editor Relationship

A lot of people ask me about the writer/editor relationship. Usually they’re concerned about an editor requesting too many changes and revisions, “taking charge,” changing the author’s original vision in ways he or she didn’t want or expect.

Many people ask me if a new writer has to make the changes suggested by his/her editor. The answer is almost always, yes, you do. However, if your editor is a good editor, and is intent on helping you be the best writer you can be, then you should want to make the changes he or she suggests.

Writers, all writers, not just new ones, are simply too close to their work to spot some of its weaknesses and deficiencies. But editors aren’t. Editors are trained to do just that – spot the weaknesses and deficiencies and help the author eliminate them from his work. Now, once you gain experience as a writer, you should be able to spot these weaknesses yourself. One of your goals, in becoming the best writer you possibly can be, is to become an excellent editor of your own work. This, like writing, itself, takes practice, and it could be years before you’ll be able to successfully edit and revise your own fiction.

And just because an editor suggests changes, maybe even many changes, doesn’t mean your manuscript is a bad manuscript. If it were, it would have never made it onto the editor’s desk. An editor’s job is to take a good manuscript, even an excellent manuscript, and make it a better one. Make it the best one it could possibly be. The difference between merely adequate writing and writing that truly excels is in the little details. Sometimes writers are so intent on telling their story they forget the stylistic devices that can enhance their work and lift it into the realm of art. This is the editor’s job. Well, at least part of it.

New writers sometimes get frustrated because they don’t realize that editors are trying to please, not writers, but the same people the writer is trying to please – readers. However, in editing any piece of fiction, whether novel or short story, any good editor in going to go to great lengths to ensure the integrity of the author’s work is not compromised any more than it has to be to meet the publisher’s requirements.

In general, the more time the writer puts into his manuscript, the less editing it will require. This, of course, brings us back to the fact that every writer must become good – no great – at self-editing. And this, of course, only comes with practice, practice, practice.

Editors don’t perform the same job for every writer. A new writer might require more substantive editing than a more experienced one. Substantive editing deals primarily with structure and order. You may have written a good story, and your writing, itself, may be clear, but your organization could be off. Substantive editing helps you with this.

With mid-level authors, editors are more concerned with stylistic editing. Stylistic editing concerns itself with clarity, flow, length of sentences, and specific word selection. What may be clear to you might not be clear to your editor – or to your potential readers. It’s your editor’s job to make sure it is.

Editors will help you with minor copyediting, but for goodness sake, don’t be a sloppy writer. Don’t expect your editor to fix every little mistake for you. Learn to write grammatically correct manuscripts and you’ll be the favorite of every editor in the publishing world.

If your manuscript is going to succeed, it’s absolutely crucial that you and your editor establish a good working relationship. No, you don’t have to become “best friends” and you really don’t have to like each other, but you do have to respect each other.

Just as editors must respect the integrity of the author’s work, authors must respect an editor’s role in the production of a book or story that’s going to be as good as it can be. To this end, the writer is going to have accept the fact that the editor is going to be involved as early as possible and is a person possessing a meaningful role in the creation of an artistic work, not just a “fixer of mistakes.”

Still, and this might seem contradictory, though it’s really not, the very best editors are the editors who let writers write and then learn from their own mistakes. No matter what, both editor and writer need to be a team, a team that’s committed to making a manuscript one readers will want to read over and over again and recommend to all of their friends and family.

Every writer should remember that there are things an editor owes an author and things an editor gives an author, as a courtesy.

I think it goes without saying that no editor owes a writer a response to an unsolicited query, though most will give you one, and a polite one, if you’ve enclosed a SASE. However, when sending in unsolicited material, please be patient. Editors are some of the busiest people in the world. We take work home with us every night and we almost always work on weekends as well. I’ve edited manuscripts at three in the morning while I’m soaking in a hot tub. Editors’ days are filled with more than just editing. We have meetings, budget work, correspondence with publishers, agents, and writers, personnel problems, etc. It shouldn’t come as any surprise that unsolicited material gets a “low” priority on our list of “things to do,” but it does get done. We do care.

If an editor (or agent or publisher) solicits material from you, then by all means, that person very much owes you a response and I, personally, don’t know any editor who would fail to give one. Just give the editor/agent/publisher a decent amount of time in which to respond. Not an unlimited amount of time, but a decent amount.

Now, to be truthful, though most editors are very courteous people, there are a few bad apples in every barrel and the editing one is no exception. While there are certain things an editor owes you, sadly, courtesy isn’t one of them. You can’t force the rare rude editor to be courteous to you. It just isn’t going to happen. But, while courtesy can’t be forced out of someone, sometimes it can be bred. If you’re courteous to your editor, even though he or she is not, initially courteous to you, perhaps the tide can turn. You never know. And don’t forget, while most writers are very courteous people as well, there does exist the rare rude writer.

In any writer/editor relationship, problems, whether major or minor, inevitably crop up. Some of these problems will be problems you, as the writer, can do something about, and some of them will be totally out of your control.

When problems with your editor crop up, you should first inquire politely about them. You have every right to do so, but it’s best not to try to fix blame, not at this time. You might have to work with the same editor on a different project, even at a different house, since editors tend to move around quite a bit. You don’t want to foster bad blood, especially not in the small world of publishing.

Only go over an editor’s head as a last resort. As a senior editor, I have several junior editors working under me. I always encourage them to solve their own problems, if at all possible. It’s good for their relationship with the writer, and quite honestly, I don’t have time to solve the problems of every junior editor working under me. I have my own problems to deal with.

And, don’t be upset if your manuscript is assigned to a junior, rather than a senior editor. Junior editors almost always have more time than senior editors and can spend more time with you and your work. You might get more feedback.

One of the best ways to foster a good writer/editor relationship is by being professional. Most editors are very professional people and professional people love to work with – other professionals. Learn as much as you can about the editing process and the business of publishing before your manuscript is even accepted for publication. It’s not that difficult.

Never, never, never try to manipulate an editor. Believe me, we’ve seen it all. A friend of mine had a client who would single space every manuscript, using very small margins. Now, this writer knew basic manuscript formatting, however she didn’t like anyone changing anything she wrote, so she simply gave her editor no room on which to do so. Things like this always do more harm than good, and the person harmed is always the writer.

Some things in the writer/editor relationship are simply a matter of good sense. Don’t send your editor the only copy of your manuscript in existence. Editors are human, and we sometimes do lose things. Not on purpose, and we feel terrible when we do, but it does happen.

Every editor has his or her own way of editing. Not just stylistically, but manually, too. I know editors who love to edit at the computer, and we have special software just for that purpose. If you ever work with me, however, I can tell you that I’m an old-fashioned girl. I still edit with a red pen on a hard copy. Take it or leave it.

Writing is a difficult, brain-busting job. So is editing. But if writers and editors respect each other and each does his or her job with the utmost professionalism, the writer/editor relationship can be one of the most rewarding in the business.