Literary Corner Cafe

Monday, January 31, 2011

Book Review - Memoirs - Bird Cloud by Annie Proulx

American author Annie Proulx is best known for her 1993 novel, The Shipping News, which won both the Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award, and her 1997 short story, “Brokeback Mountain,” about forbidden cowboy love, which was made into a critically acclaimed movie. Her latest book, a work of non-fiction titled Bird Cloud is subtitled A Memoir, though once the reader really gets into it, he or she wonders if “memoir” is the right word to use.

Most readers associate a memoir with deep personal revelations about the author. In Bird Cloud, Proulx, always rather secretive and reclusive, doesn’t reveal much about herself and her family. When she writes of books, they are the books of others, not her own. Her three marriages, all of which ended in divorce, and her four children (three sons and one daughter) are mentioned only in passing. In fact, Bird Cloud, named for the house Proulx had built from 2004 to 2007 on 640 acres of rough land along Wyoming’s North Platte River, is about almost everything but Annie Proulx.

The book encompasses archaeology, topography, meteorology, genealogy, ethnography, botany, zoology, and perhaps most of all, the history of Wyoming, itself. There’s bound to be something in it for everyone, just as there are bound to be parts of it that some readers won’t be interested in at all.

Proulx does give us bits and pieces of personal information. The beginning of the book deals with her French Canadian father, who, in his quest to better himself, moved around frequently. By the time Proulx was fifteen, she has lived in twenty different houses, including a log cabin and what had once been a gas station. “We Franco-Americans are a ‘rootless people,’” Proulx writes, “who really have no national identity, who really belong nowhere in the United States.” “Bird Cloud,” it seems, was meant to encompass everything Proulx had loved about some of her former homes as well as excluding everything she disliked.

Proulx also tantalizes us with the revelation of finding, with her cousin, a stack of old letters written between her mother and her aunt, both of whom suffered from a rare, progressive lung disease.

Two sick sisters. The sense of the hopelessly brave front, the running jokes, the closest sisterly bond, a hatred for stupid and condescending doctors — of all the things two people suffering the same illness can say to each other that no one else could understand — overwhelmed us. I can now barely open the box that holds those letters because all the disappointed dreams of these two hungry-for-love women fly in my face.

The reader desperately wants to know more. Sadly, Proulx denies us that knowledge.

Most of the book revolves around Proulx’s efforts to build “Bird Cloud,” efforts that trigger discourses on the history of Wyoming, the native flora and fauna, the topography of the land, etc., the loveliest of which is a paean to the eagles and other birds that nest in the trees and cliffs immediately surrounding her home.

At the time of the building “Bird Cloud,” Proulx was no stranger to Wyoming. She lived in Centennial in 1995, in a house that, she says, was all wrong for her. The kitchen was too small, the windows were not situated properly, in winter the driveway became a forbidding sheet of ice that didn’t melt until late in the spring. Proulx, however, was still in love with Wyoming.

One day, driving west from Laramie she saw that “the sky was filled with stretched-out laminar wave clouds” and over one piece of property in particular she “saw to the west…one cloud in the shape of an immense bird, the head and beak, the breast looming over the Rockies. I took it as a sign that I would get the property and thought ‘Bird Cloud’ should be the new name.”

Of course, Proulx does get the property, and she hires eminent Colorado architect Harry Teague to design her a home she thought would be the last home she ever lived in or wanted to live in. But, as many people know, houses that look good on paper are often notoriously difficult to translate into “the real thing,” and so it was with “Bird Cloud.” Proulx describes – in detail – all the expected obstacles as well as the unexpected ones, e.g., the laying of the concrete foundation, which had to be delayed due to the presence of a gaping hole in the Rawlins penitentiary; the kitchen floor, a lovely terracotta, which, for some reason, took on the color of raw liver; the window frames that snapped during the night with such ferocity that Proulx thought she was being burgled. And, since this is Wyoming, of course, there was the snow. And more snow. And more snow.

The building or renovating of a house can be interesting, as anyone who’s read Peter Mayle or Frances Mayes knows. However, while Proulx is no doubt a superior writer to both Mayle and Mayes, she doesn’t possess their whimsy, especially Mayle’s, when describing the building of “Bird Cloud.” When it comes to the building of “Bird Cloud,” the book suffers from “information overload.” The following paragraph is the norm, not a diversion:

Although the cold snap let go and the weather warmed up, the roof engineer and the truss company were still not in agreement. Dave was trying to track down sources and prices for Alaskan yellow cedar to use in the upstairs floors, stair treads, trim, doors. The truss company was still waiting for the roof engineer “to send detail on Section 3 where hip line hits trusses.

I’m not even sure I know what a “truss” is, and since I’m not going into the construction business, I don’t really care. While things like this can be amusing when handled by someone like the above-mentioned Peter Mayle, it becomes difficult to sympathize with Proulx’s troubles in getting her Japanese soaking tub installed, her tatami-mat exercise area built, or her Mexican talavera sink and handcrafted deer antler drawer pulls installed “just so.”

And then there’s the frustration of not really letting the reader get to know the people who are building this spectacular home for Proulx. Rather than referring to them by name, Proulx has the maddening habit of concocting strange nicknames for almost all of them: Uphill Bob, Mr. Busybody, the James Gang, Mr. Floorfix, Catfish, Mr. Solar, etc. The result is that they seem more like cartoon characters than real people.

The drifting from subject to subject didn’t bother me in the slightest in this book, however, there were some subjects that I really didn’t find too interesting. Although I certainly care about the injustices done to the Native Americans, I’m not too keen on learning their history, and Proulx gives us a heavy dose of it in Bird Cloud. If you’re familiar with Proulx’s work, outside of The Shipping News, you’ll know that she is fascinated with the “Old West” and outraged at the injustices done to the Native Americans by the invading Europeans. At one point she writes:

Running through everything these people [Indians] thought or knew, like the vast root systems of grasses that extend deep beneath the surface…were spiritual filaments that guided behavior and nourished rich mythologies. We today can barely comprehend the interconnectedness of their observations of the natural world, their ideas and lives.

I wonder if Proulx, whose writing I generally admire, realizes that the statement above is false. Of course we can comprehend the “interconnectedness of their observations of the natural world, their ideas and lives” and many of us do. One person who certainly does is Louise Erdrich, whose books are filled with a deep understanding of the Native American and Native American lore.

I realize there will be many readers out there who will love the parts of Bird Cloud that deal with Native American history, just as there will be readers who dislike Proulx’s long odes to nature, the parts of the book I found most fascinating. To me, these were lyrical and beautiful and poetic. I don’t know how anyone “in love” with language could fail to appreciate the passages like the following:

The river at sunset became mottled green and peach in patterns that recalled the marbled end pages of old books. Quickly the evening dusk filled with darting swallows, their dark bodies gradually absorbed by the intensifying gloom. The great horned owl called from the island and everything fell silent except the murmuring river and a more distant owl. In this place there was so much to know.

Proulx has always been near-to-unmatched when describing the natural world, and this lyricism is abundant in Bird Cloud. One doesn’t soon forget her descriptions of spring days when “the air was stitched with hundreds and hundreds of swallows.” However, to her credit, Proulx also gives us a vibrant picture of the not-so-pretty side of life in Wyoming:

Winds of seventy miles an hour are not uncommon in winter and blasts over a hundred miles an hour occur a few times each season, the source of the old joke that Wyoming snow does not melt, it just wears out.

The sagebrush seems nearly black and beaten low by the ceaseless wind. Why would anyone live here, I think. I live here.

Other passages, though, make you wonder if the writer of such poetic lyricism has been replaced with another writer, one much less skilled:

I like a colorful, handily cluttered kitchen and Bird Cloud’s cabinets and drawers in red, violet, aquamarine, burnt orange, cobalt, lime, brick, John Deere green and skipjack blue inspires stir-fries, osso buco, grilled prawns, Argentinean salads of butterhead lettuce, tomato, sweet onion, roast lamb with Greek cucumber and dill sauce, frittatas, rhubarb sauce with glasses of dry Riesling for the cook. You bet.

It staggers the imagination.

When winter descends, Proulx’s idyll becomes a prison. The mercury falls to at least fifteen below zero; the road, which the real estate agent assured Proulx was plowed, is not, and it becomes totally impassible. The “hero sun came our for a quarter hour, then fell as thought wounded.” It’s the snow that finally drives Proulx out:

So ended the first and only full year I was to spend at Bird Cloud. I returned in March and for several more years came in early spring and stayed until the road-choking snow drove me out, but I had to face the fact that no matter how much I loved the place, it was not, and never could be, the final home of which I had dreamed.

Wyoming has always been notoriously difficult on its inhabitants. It takes a strong and resilient person to live in a climate that’s so harsh for six months every year, and even the tough Proulx is no match for Wyoming in the winter.

There’s no denying the fact that Annie Proulx is, and has been, one of America’s foremost writers. But Bird Cloud, though a strange and beautiful book, is also an uneven one. It’s difficult to describe, difficult to review, and, though it often soars, it’s also sometimes difficult to read.

Despite the fact that Proulx couldn’t live at "Bird Cloud," the book, as a whole, still seems to celebrate the theme of finding one’s true home, one’s place in life. For even though Wyoming’s harsh winters drove Proulx to seek refuge in New Mexico, Wyoming in the summer did seem to be the place where she belonged. It is with nostalgia and regret that we read Proulx’s characteristically unsentimental pronouncement on the entire – and very costly – adventure. “Years later,” she writes, “I still wonder if I should have cut my losses.”


Recommended: It was very difficult to rate this book due to its unevenness. Parts of it are definitely five-star, while others, such as the passage in which Proulx describes her multi-colored kitchen, are only deserving of a two. Still, fans of Proulx and Wyoming might like the book. Others will probably find it frustrating, especially if you’re not into Native American history, home construction or wildlife.

Note: A quick search on the Internet will reveal that “Bird Cloud” is now for sale for an asking price of $3.7 million. If you’ve got that kind of cash, and you have a hankering for Wyoming, you can experience firsthand all the highs and lows that Proulx writes about in this book. Let us know about your experiences if you buy the ranch, and good luck in getting that road plowed.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Book Review - Thrillers and Bestsellers - The Girl Who Played With Fire by Stieg Larsson

The Girl Who Played With Fire is Stieg Larsson’s second installment in his bestselling “Millennium Trilogy.” In The Girl Who Played With Fire, Lisbeth Salander, the character we met in the first book of the trilogy, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, plays a far more central role. She’s the focus of attention even more than liberal journalist, Mikael Blomkvist. However, in this book, she’s not so much the hunter as the hunted. In fact, in The Girl Who Played With Fire, Lisbeth Salander is the chief suspect in a trio of murders.

The three people murdered – Nils Erik Bjurman, Dag Svensson, and Mia Johansson – all have connections to both Salander and Blomkvist – and the Swedish/Eastern European sex trafficking trade. It’s Salander’s fingerprints, however, that are found on a weapon near the crime scene. It seems that all of Sweden believes her guilty – all except Blomkvist, of course, and even he has his doubts, but only at first.

The Lisbeth Salander we meet in The Girl Who Played With Fire is a different Lisbeth Salander than we met in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. She’s still brilliant, and she’s still Goth; she’s still punk, and she can still hack with the best of them. However, after appropriating a fortune and traveling the world, Lisbeth has grown out her spiky hair, has had a few of her tattoos and piercings removed, dresses better on occasion, and is becoming even better acquainted with higher mathematics. Salander, though is still lonely, still a loner, and still emotionally damaged. Adding to that damage is the fact that before going away, she let herself care about Blomkvist, and now he doesn’t seem to care about her. Or so she thinks. And she’s really beating herself up about that.

Eventually, though, you know Blomkvist and Salander are going to join forces or at least be chasing the same goal. (They don’t have many scenes together.) While the budding romance and sexual tension that existed between the two in the first book is non-existent in this one, both characters are still just as engaging and appealing.
Blomkvist is pretty much the same as he was in the first book: a fairly ordinary man, who’s extraordinarily honest, and whose life has become terribly complicated. As a journalist out to expose far right-wing Swedish politics, he’s “obstinate and almost pathologically focused on the job in hand. He took hold of a story and worked his way forward to the point where it approached perfection, and then he tied up all the loose ends…. When he was at his best he was brilliant, and when he was not at his best he was always far better than average.”

While The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo revolves around Blomkvist’s search for Harriet Vanger’s “killer,” The Girl Who Played With Fire centers around Lisbeth Salander’s own family. We learn more about her origins, however, while we learn more about her, we really don’t get to know her any better than we did in the first book. She’s still very mysterious and Larsson still keeps her at arm’s length.

The plot of The Girl Who Played With Fire is more suspenseful and more intricate than the plot of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, though it’s not perfect. It’s marred by some unbelievable and clichéd characterization (of the secondary characters) and by the excessive use of coincidence, though people who loved the first book definitely won’t let that stop them from loving the second, and they won’t be disappointed. The greatest improvement about the second book over the first, in my opinion, is the fact that the second is really a thriller. It’s not bracketed by two hundred boring pages – beginning and end – describing Bloomkvist’s problems – in detail – with “Millennium.”

The ending of The Girl Who Played With Fire was too melodramatic and over-the-top for me, but some readers are going to love it. I do have to say, the wonderful characterization of Blomkvist and Salander helped greatly to offset any other problems the book might have. Outlandish as the premise is, in the end, the book works because readers really do care about Blomkvist and Salander and can believe in them.

I don’t know why, but translations of Nordic crime novels always seem a bit flat. This holds true for The Girl Who Played With Fire as well. The prose isn’t the worst I’ve encountered by far, but it’s rather clunky and it’s riddled with needless clichés, e.g., “nutty as a fruitcake,” “eyes that burned like fire,” etc. And just as in the first book, the Swedish names are going to be a bit puzzling to most Americans. The ones I couldn’t readily pronounce, I just skipped over, though I had an easier time with some since I speak/read/write German and Swedish and German share much in common. Fans of the trilogy will do the same.

Though The Girl Who Played With Fire is a better book than The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, if you’re new to the series, don’t start with this one. It’s only a trilogy, and each book continues the story begun in the previous book. Start with the first book and read the three in order. In fact, to fully enjoy each book, that’s exactly what you have to do.

Larsson was a man who possessed innate, first-rate storytelling skills. Had he
lived, he would have developed into a first-rate novelist as well, one who thoroughly mastered his craft. It’s a pity the world lost him at such a young age, but at least we have the three books that make up the “Millennium Trilogy.” That’s a lot better than nothing.


Recommended: Definitely to fans of the series. This book is better than the first, and there’s less social commentary. Readers who like Lisbeth Salander will by happy to find she’s the focus of the book.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Book Review - Caribou Island by David Vann

Alaska felt like the end of the world, a place of exile. Those who couldn't fit anywhere else came here, and if they couldn't cling to anything here, they just fell off the edge. These tiny towns in a great expanse, enclaves of despair.

The sentence above, uttered by one of its characters, could summarize David Vann’s elegantly bleak debut novel, Caribou Island. (His previously published work, Legend of a Suicide, was a critically acclaimed collection of short stories.)

From the moment we meet Irene, the book’s protagonist, and her husband of thirty years, Gary, we know they’re heading for disaster. We just don’t know what that disaster will entail or precisely what event will trigger it. We just know it’s looming over the entire book, from the very first page.

Gary and Irene are a middle-aged couple who live in the tiny town of Soldotna on the sparsely populated Kenai Peninsula in southern Alaska. In good weather, it can be a place of idyllic beauty – lakes, inlets, and islands, ringed by mountains and towering pines. In bad weather, and the Kenai Peninsula seems to suffer from more than its share of bad weather, it’s a forbidding place, claustrophobic and stormy, and hemmed in with low lying fogs and dark, brooding clouds.

We meet Gary, a failed academic, who turned to boat building and fishing and Irene, a former preschool teacher, when they are newly retired (early retirement) and empty nesters. They do have two grown children, Rhoda and Mark, neither of whom is faring very well in life. Mark, a fisherman, seems to be something of a drifter as well, while Rhoda, a veterinary assistant, dreams of marrying her live-in lover, Jim, a wealthier-than-most dentist, who dreams of nothing more than bedding as many women as he can before he married Rhoda (and probably after as well; this is not a man to take marriage vows seriously). Rhoda loves and worries about her parents. Mark may love them, but he certainly doesn’t worry about them. With no one else in the house but them, and so much time on their hands, Gary and Irene have to face the fact that there is, and has been, trouble in their marriage or find a new means to look the other way. They choose to find a new means to look the other way.

With no plans, no specifications, no tools to speak of, and with an early winter setting in, Gary rashly decides to build the cabin he’s always dreamed of on Caribou Island, a small, uninhabited island in the middle of Skilak Lake. He and Irene, he thinks, can do all the building themselves, never mind that a cabin on Caribou Island has never been Irene’s dream at all. While Gary considers the building of the cabin a search for authenticity, Irene sees it as “an expression of despair...a sign that Gary hadn’t found a way to fit into his real life.” “Real life,” however, at least for Gary, is changing, but dream or no dream, Skilak Lake is no Walden Pond, and Gary is no Henry David Thoreau. Clearly, Gary is still trying to flee whatever made him flee his dissertation in medieval studies in Berkeley and settle in Alaska. He romanticizes the building of the cabin:

Holding nails in his teeth, more in his pocket. Taste of galvanized steel. Arms and shoulders ropy now, fit, corded from work, enough time out here. Muscles a way to remember and return, hard work the only solace.

The fact that living in a small (16’x12’), unheated cabin on Caribou Island has never been Irene’s dream at all doesn’t seem to bother Gary. He now thinks of his own marriage as “a thing ill-conceived from the start, something that had made both their lives smaller” and all marriage as “the early death of self and possibility.” Alaska, to Gary, represents a “warrior society” in which he can cross “the whale road into fjords in a new land.” In his own mind, he’s a modern day Viking, charting new territory, and Irene, at least in Gary’s dreams, is nowhere to be found.

Despite the increasing inclemency of the weather, which is so prominent in this brutal novel that it has the force of an actual character, Gary forges ahead. What should have been a labor of love for two early retirees has become, instead, one man’s dark obsession. And though Irene thinks of the cabin as Gary’s “idiot project,” she continues to help him build it. The alternative, she thinks, would be worse, and would surely result in the end of her marriage, something she doesn’t think she can tolerate after so many years together.

Strong feelings held inside have a way of making themselves known, however. As Irene’s emotional state deteriorates, and as she recovers from a virus she picked up helping Gary haul tree limbs in the freezing rain, she begins experiencing terribly disabling headaches that puzzle her, her children, who think she’s just become a crotchety woman who can’t be pleased, and her doctor. In a strange twist, only Gary seems to recognize these headaches for what they are: an expression of Irene’s inner turmoil. She’s come to hate her life, and like Gary, she now believes her marriage was a mistake. The deeper cause of Irene’s disquiet, we know, lies in a terribly traumatic childhood experience.

As the temperature plummets and the horrible winter closes in, Gary and Irene, who is now taking animal tranquilizers in an effort to blunt her pain, press on with the harebrained idea of the cabin, even as their marriage continues to unravel a bit more each day. We know something’s going to happen, and we know that something isn’t going to be good, but we just aren’t sure what that something is going to be.

Dread mounts in every sentence; the climax tips the book into horror. I applaud Vann for having the courage not to back away from the brutality that seems inevitable in this story. Most authors today seem to feel the need to placate their readers with a heavy dose of saccharine. David Vann doesn’t.

Frankly, I didn’t care for the inclusion of Rhoda and Jim in this book; when the story focused on them, I was always anxious to get back to Gary and Irene. Still, I think Caribou Island would have been too brutal for many readers if Vann hadn’t “gotten away” from Gary and Irene and the building of the cabin for short periods. And Rhoda’s story is far from being a happy one. Like her mother, she’s definitely not a woman who’s pleased with herself and her life. Here are Rhoda’s thoughts about herself as she waits in a small diner:

The cheap carpet had fleur-de-lis patterns, mock royalty. The divider wall trimmed with a strip of light brown plastic where it met carpet, the heads of nails showing. She hated cheap, and depressing, and cold, and lonely. That's all she was. Just someone who hated these things, and was running from them.

I’m also not a fan of the short, clipped prose Vann writes, though it is beautiful prose. I have to admit that I’m a fan of long, winding, convoluted sentences that fold back on themselves, time and time again. I adore Henry James and William Faulkner. I do, however, have to say that the truncated sentences in Caribou Island are written to “fit” the subject matter perfectly. We really feel the brutality of the weather, the characters’ emotional distress. But why? Why? Why? Why do authors feel the need to dispense with quotation marks? When will they realize that proper punctuation really doesn’t get in the way? This, however, is a small quibble, and Vann does say his favorite book is Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. (McCarthy likes to forego the punctuation marks as well, though I can’t remember if he did that in Blood Meridian.)

I’ve always loved multiple narrators, but I feel Caribou Island may have a few too many. While I was reading the book, I felt I didn’t need to hear from Carl (the non-resident boyfriend of Monique, a woman Jim is desperately trying to bed), and I was anxious to get back to Gary and Irene, though I liked Carl quite a bit. Again, though, I applaud Vann for having the courage to not only give us multiple narrators, but to defy the “rule” of switching point-of-view right in the middle of a scene. And, in retrospect, I have to admit that Carl presented a refreshing change from the irritable, selfish and depressed Alaskan residents.

I also applaud Vann for not giving us a romantic “picture postcard” view of Alaska. Yes, I know the scenery can be lush and beautiful, but I also know winter comes early to the forty-ninth state, and it comes hard. I’m tired of TV “specials” that portray Alaska only as an unspoiled paradise, filled with sparkling clean rivers and pristine glaciers. Alaskan towns are small and often shabby. It can be very difficult to find what you need, let alone find what you want. The people can be rough-and-tumble and very suspicious of strangers rather than kind. It’s difficult to travel from one place to another, even if you own your own private plane. The long, dark winters, in which the heavy clouds close in are claustrophobic in their intensity, and it takes a physically and emotionally strong person to survive, to not be destroyed by the terrifying loneliness of it all. To his credit, Vann, who was born in Alaska, gives us both sides of the state, the good and the bad, though with an early winter setting in, he focuses on the brutal, and it’s the brutal and the claustrophobic that suit his book perfectly.

Despite my little quibbles, I thought Caribou Island was a magnificent book, one that stands head-and-shoulders above most debut novels. It’s graceful and poetic while still retaining every ounce of its inherent brutality and horror.

Some professional reviewers have criticized the ending of Caribou Island as being “too much.” I don’t agree, and I don’t consider this a spoiler. We know nothing good can come out of the situation in which Gary and Irene find themselves. For Vann to have backed away from a brutal ending would have, in my opinion, been compromising his literary integrity. I thought the ending was perfect. No, it wasn’t happy or heartwarming, but not everything in life is. It was, however, perfectly set up by its author, and nothing about it felt forced. As one professional reviewer said, it’s an ending “as haunting and realized as any in recent fiction.”

I hated to set this book aside to do other things. I wanted to read the entire thing, from beginning to end, with nary a break. Really. It was that compelling and that savagely beautiful.


Recommended: Most definitely, to those who like highly literary fiction and to those who can stand a bleak and brutal ending. If you need a happy ending, then this book no doubt isn’t for you.

Note: David Vann is an Alaska native. He was born on Adak Island and spent his childhood in Ketchikan before going to Stanford on a Wallace Stegner fellowship. His first book, the short story collection, Legend of a Suicide, failed to attract so much as an agent for more than a dozen years. Then, in 2007, the manuscript won a Grace Paley Prize and found a small publisher. Vann’s name was then compared to Hemingway and Richard Russo, and not without justification, though neither author ever wrote an ending as brutal as the one in this book.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Writing Tips - Writing a Novel Synopsis

First, what exactly is a novel synopsis? Some authors make the mistake of likening it to an outline, a mistake that could cost them the sale of their manuscript.

Before beginning to write your novel’s synopsis, think about what constitutes the essence of fiction – conflict. Anyone who reads your synopsis is going to want to know how its characters and events are propelled forward by conflict. A good synopsis will include both the beginning and end of your novel (never play coy with your reader in a synopsis, let him or her know how the whole thing plays out), and all your major set pieces. In addition, it will be written in the same style as your book and will grab the reader’s attention on the very first page. In fact, if it doesn’t grab the reader’s attention on the very first page, he or she might not get to page two.

Far too many new writers underestimate the importance of their synopsis and leave out important events, characters, or plot twists. Make sure you highlight the conflict, the dramatic interaction among your characters, and show your readers why each character acts the way he does.

There’s really no nuts-and-bolts, this-is-how-you-do-it formula for writing a good novel synopsis. A lot of the way you write will be determined by the particular novel you’re written. The guideline below, however, should help you refine and condense your synopsis and also help you make sure you’ve left nothing out.

1. The heading is usually typed in the upper left hand corner of the first page and should include the title of your novel, its genre, the manuscript’s estimated total word count, and of course, your name and contact information.

2. Write in the present tense and employ the third person point-of-view. This rule holds even if your novel is written in the first person.

3. Never play coy with your reader. A synopsis reader needs to know every plot twist, including the ending. He or she needs to know who lives, who dies, and who did what to whom. Playing coy can get you nothing by rejected. And fast.

4. Begin with a hook, just as you (hopefully) did when writing your novel. This hook should revolve around your main character and the main conflict of the novel. Introduce your reader to the book’s protagonist by giving us his or her name, age, marital status, etc. Make sure to tell us what, precisely, draws your main character into the book’s conflict.

5. The first time you mention a character (but only the first time), highlight him or her by capitalizing his or her name. Don’t, however, interrupt your narrative flow by giving us a detailed character sketch. Instead, try to weave your character introductions into the flow of your story.

6. Condense, condense, condense. A lot of people will tell you to condense every twenty-five pages of your novel down to one page of synopsis. This, however, is too much for most agents and other readers. Many of them prefer a two- or three-page synopsis no matter how long your novel is. Find out what your readers' preferences are, then stick to them.

7. Stick to the essentials. Your goal, when writing a novel synopsis, besides selling your manuscript, of course, is to give your reader a good overview of your novel. Synopsis writing is an art unto itself. It’s hard to distill a three hundred or four hundred page book down to two or three pages, but it can be done and you’re going to have to learn to do it. One good trick is to “cut the fat,” i.e., get rid of those adjective and adverbs. Most writers don’t use dialogue in a synopsis, but a special line here or there can enhance a well-written synopsis rather than detract from it.

8. Reproduce the mood and style of your novel. If your novel is dark and moody, your synopsis should be dark and moody. If you’ve written a comic novel, that lighthearted comedy should shine through in your novel as well. A synopsis reader wants to get a good sense of your style of writing as well as the overall story you’ve told.

9. Take care not to interrupt your narrative flow. Don’t include any commentary, rhetorical questions, or phrases commonly found in non-fiction book proposals. Avoid the temptation to “review” your book in your synopsis. Doing so will only alienate your reader. Let your work speak for itself.

After you’ve written and rewritten and polished your synopsis like the diamond it must be, proofread it carefully. Make sure there are no grammar, spelling, or punctuation errors. When you’re ready to print, use white bond paper only with black type (no dot matrix, if dot matrix can even still be found). Print only on one side, justify the left margin only, and use one-inch margins all around. Some editors and agents will want a double-spaced synopsis, while a few will prefer single spacing. Make sure you know what your reader prefers then adhere to those guidelines.

Resist the urge to use copyright symbols. You don’t need them anyway. Your work is protected as soon as you print it out. Most readers are honorable people who would never dream of stealing your story even if they wanted to. Copyright symbols are often considered an insult to the reader and the mark of an amateur.

Make sure you include a Number 10 business sized envelope (a SASE) for your reader’s reply. If you don’t, chances are your manuscript won’t even be read. Some people recommend including a larger sized SASE for the return of your synopsis. I don’t, however. Instead, I recommend sending a fresh synopsis to each reader.

What I'm:

Reading: Caribou Island by David Vann

Watching: Iron Chef America and Law and Order

Eating: Tuna Salad Sandwiches from Panera

Drinking: Panera's Green Tea

Listening To: Joshua Bell

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Book Review - Mysteries - The Sherlockian by Graham Moore

On September 3, 1893, Arthur Conan Doyle wrote in his journal, “Killed Holmes.” He meant his own creation, the fictional detective, Sherlock Holmes, of course. Conan Doyle had become sick of Holmes. He was sick of receiving mail addressed to Holmes; he was sick of people asking him to sign books as Holmes rather than as himself; he was sick of his own mother saying she was the “mother of Sherlock Holmes” rather than the mother of Arthur Conan Doyle. So, Conan Doyle, in a story called “The Final Problem,” sent Sherlock Holmes tumbling over Switzerland’s Reichenbach Falls, locked in combat with his archnemesis, Professor James Moriarty.

Graham Moore’s debut novel, The Sherlockian, opens with Conan Doyle gazing into the chasm below Reichenbach Falls and saying, “To put it frankly, I hate him. And for my own sanity, I will soon see him dead.”

After this Prologue, the book then moves into its two narrative threads, the first of which is set in the present day, the second in 1900. The two story threads, the one in the present day, and the one in which Conan Doyle is the protagonist are told in alternating chapters, in separate but related stories that often parallel each other.

The first story line revolves around twenty-nine-year-old Harold White, a Princeton graduate, a speed reader, a literary researcher in Hollywood’s film industry, and a Holmes fan, who is achieving his life’s dream of being inducted into the Baker Street Irregulars, a society that actually exists. Founded in New York and London in 1934, with meetings held every January for one week, membership in the BSI is by nomination only, and it notoriously difficult to obtain. It represents the pinnacle of success for the devotees of Holmes. Harold is described as having thick eyebrows, astigmatism, a slight belly, and “sweaty, shivering hands.” He is fond of wearing cheap suits and of course, the Holmesian deerstalker. Suffice to say, he’s not particularly likable.

Before White, who has just arrived at the Algonquin Hotel in New York City, has had time to pop open a bottle of champagne to celebrate his induction into the BSI, Alex Cale, “the” leading Holmes scholar, and the man who claims to have discovered Holmes’ lost diary is brutally murdered, found dead in his hotel room, strangled with his own shoelace. The word, “Elementary” is scrawled on the wall in Cale’s own blood, and of course, the diary is nowhere to be found. White, who is a fan of Conan Doyle as well as Sherlock Holmes, believes he’s learned enough from the great detective and his creator to solve Cale’s murder on his own, and he’s hired by Conan Doyle’s great-grandson to do so. (The murder of the fictional Alex Cale is based on a real life murder that took place in 2004, in which Holmes scholar, Richard Lancelyn Green was killed after announcing that he had found Conan Doyle’s lost diary. It remains unsolved.) Rather than have a “Watson” at his side, White has an “Irene Adler” in the form of a reporter named Sarah Lindsay.

Meantime, back in the 19th century, Conan Doyle has also become involved in the investigation of a crime. Though it’s been seven years since the author “killed” Holmes in Switzerland, and the public furor over the detective’s “death” has subsided, one presumably disgruntled fan has sent Holmes’ creator a letter bomb, with an envelope bearing the single word, “Elementary.” Although the bomb destroys Holmes’ study, no one is harmed. When Conan Doyle decides that Scotland Yard is incompetent to handle the investigation in the way it should be handled, (actually, they take very little interest in it), he takes it upon himself to investigate, with the assistance of his good friend and fellow author, Bram Stoker, who functions admirably as Conan Doyle’s “Watson.” After all, Conan Doyle created the great Sherlock Holmes, did he not? And, having done that, he ought to be able to solve this crime, or so the great author reasons. Conan Doyle records everything that happens in his personal diary, and it’s this diary that ties the two story threads together. In fact, prior to the BSI meeting, an email had been received from Cale, in which Cale wrote: “The mystery is solved. I have found the diary. Please make all necessary arrangements that I might present it, and the secrets within, at this year’s conference.”

So, the game’s afoot, and it’s afoot in both 1900 and 2010, as two men, both untrained to solve crimes, take it upon themselves to do so.

I thought I would find the use of alternating chapters to tell the two stories tiresome and clumsy, and at times I did, but only at times. Most of the time, Moore manages to move back and forth between 1900 and 2010 with skill and grace, though there were times when I wanted the chapters set in 2010 to be over so we could get back to 1900 since I felt the characters in that mystery much more compelling and likable.

The modern day story is hampered by White, himself, that story line’s protagonist. Although I feel sure Moore meant his present day character to come off as eccentric, he’s more than a little annoying. He’s a total geek; he’s socially awkward; and he’s obsessive about things he really doesn’t need to be obsessive about. And then there’s Sarah Lindsay, Moore’s Irene Adler. I really didn’t like her either, and I didn’t feel she was a very well developed character. I felt she existed in the story more for the sake of the book “having a girl” than for any organic reason. Sarah and White simply have no chemistry together, and I don’t just mean in the romance department. There is an odd disconnect between the two that makes their collaboration on solving the 2010 crime very implausible.

And while the present day story is hampered by its protagonists, the mystery set in 1900 is hampered by an unconvincing and somewhat forced plot. Moore did do a wonderful job in creating a deliciously Victorian atmosphere, though, something that I think goes a long way toward making this story thread the more compelling of the two. He also did a good job of weaving fact with fiction, though the scene in which Conan Doyle dons a dress to attend a suffragist meeting, while hilarious, isn’t at all believable. I’m not sure that matters, though. The Sherlockian is a work of fiction, and it’s never held itself out to be more.

In the end, the two story threads, the one in 1900 and the one in 2010, merge quite nicely. In fact, the ending feels as though it couldn’t have been written any other way, and the final chapter is probably the best in the entire book.

The Sherlockian will appeal most to the fans of Sherlock Holmes (in my teens, I read the entire “canon”). The fictional Harold White, like the real life Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, believed that life’s mysteries are riddled with red herrings, but that in the end, all is “elementary” and can be successfully solved with deductive reasoning.

Graham Moore, who is a twenty-eight-year-old Columbia graduate, with a degree in religious history, has loved mysteries since he was seven, and he and his mother would read Agatha Christie to each other. His debut novel is, for the most part, a well written and an entertaining one. His career is off to a good start, and there will surely be many more good mysteries from this young man who seems to know how a mystery is supposed to work.


Recommended: This is light reading, and a book that will appeal mostly to fans of Sherlock Holmes. While both mysteries sag at times, and the book’s not perfect, Moore does a terrific job of tying things together at the end.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Today in Literary History - Edgar Allan Poe is Born in Boston, Massachusetts

On January 19, 1809, novelist, short story writer, literary critic, and poet, Edgar Allan Poe was born in Boston, Massachusetts, the second child of actress Elizabeth Arnold Hopkins Poe and actor David Poe, Jr. Poe had an elder brother, William Henry Leonard Poe and a younger sister, Rosalie Poe. It is thought that Edgar may have been named after a character in William Shakespeare’s King Lear, a play in which both his father and mother were performing in 1809.

In 1810, Poe’s father abandoned his family, and his mother died a year later from consumption. Poe was then taken into the home of John Allan, a successful Scottish merchant in Richmond, Virginia. The Allans never formally adopted Poe, but they did serve as his foster family, and it was they who gave him the name “Allan.”

In 1812, the Allans had Poe baptized in the Episcopal Church. John Allan was an inconsistent foster father, who alternately spoiled, then aggressively disciplined young Edgar. John Allan, his wife, Frances Valentine Allan, who consistently indulged the young Edgar, sailed to Britain with their foster son in 1815, where Poe attended grammar school in Irvine, Scotland for a short period before rejoining the Allans in London in 1816. He studied at a boarding school in Chelsea until the summer of 1817 and subsequently entered the Reverend John Bransby’s Manor House School at Stoke Newington, a suburb four miles north of London.

In 1820, Poe moved back to Richmond with the Allan family. Prior to attending the University of Virginia in February 1826 to study languages, Poe may have become engaged to Sarah Elmira Royster, however he lost touch with her while at the university, and became estranged from his foster father due to his (Poe’s) gambling debts. Although Poe had been given many opportunities to work in the businesses of his foster father, he preferred reading poetry and novels, something the industrious and hard-working John Allan did not approve of. At any rate, Poe left the university after only one semester, and feeling unwelcome in Richmond, especially after learning that Royster had married Alexander Shelton, he traveled to Boston in April 1827, working at odd jobs as a clerk and newspaper writer in order to survive. His own publishing career began humbly, with a collection of poems, Tamerlane and Other Poems (1827) published anonymously, with credit given only to “a Bostonian.”

Poe then switched his literary focus from poetry to prose. The next several years were spent working for literary journals and periodicals and establishing a reputation for his own brand of literary criticism. His work caused him to move around the cities of the east coast, including Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York City.

In 1834, Poe attempted to play the prodigal son at the deathbed of John Allan, who had become extremely wealthy. By that time, however, he’d run up so many debts and broken so many promises to the Allans that he was quickly shown the door.

It was in Baltimore in 1835 that Poe married his thirteen-year-old cousin, Virginia Eliza Clemm.

In January 1845, Poe, who was again writing poetry, published “The Raven” to instant success. His happiness, however, was short lived as his wife died of tuberculosis, and in the direst of poverty, just two short years later, at the age of twenty-four.

Poe began planning his own literary journal, titled The Penn (later renamed The Stylus), though he died before it could be produced.

Poe roamed the eastern seaboard of the US until his death in Baltimore on October 7, 1849 at the age of forty. The cause of his death has never been definitely established and has been attributed to alcohol, brain congestion, cholera, drugs, heart disease, rabies, suicide, and tuberculosis, among other things.

Although Edgar Allan Poe definitely had a “dark side” there can be no doubt that he contributed much to American literature. He is considered a part of the American Romantic Movement in literature and is best known for his tales of mystery and the macabre. His best-known works are in the Gothic style, and his overriding theme is death. He was one of the earliest American practitioners of the short story and is considered the inventor of the detective fiction genre, with his creation of C. Auguste Dupin. He was the first well-known American writer to try to earn a living through writing alone, something that resulted in a financially difficult life and career.

Poe and his work have had great influence in the United States and around the world as well as in specialized fields, such as cosmology and cryptography. He has always been especially respected in France, no doubt due to the translations of his work by the well-known French poet, Charles Baudelaire. Scorned by many in his own lifetime, but venerated by many today, there can be no doubt of Poe’s literary genius despite the darker forces that often controlled his life.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Book Review - The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell

People who know me know that while I respect David Mitchell’s considerable talents, I’m not wild about his writing. Yes, he’s a very good writer, and yes, he’s a wizard with novelistic architecture, but for me, a woman thoroughly “in love” with 19th century literature and contemporary literature that harkens back to the 19th century, there’s something lacking in Mitchell’s books. They seem to sacrifice theme and nuanced characterization and any connection to the universal to the architecture of the book. This will please the postmodernists, and Mitchell has a large following, but it makes Mitchell just not my “cup of tea.” The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, however, has been touted as a much more traditional book, and I do love anything involving Dutch history, so I was tempted to pick it up.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet begins in 1799, when the ginger-haired Reformed Calvinist, Jacob de Zoet, a pastor’s son from Domburg, arrives in Dejima, an artificial, walled island that lies offshore Nagasaki during Japan’s period of Sakoku. Sakoku, for those who don’t know, was the Japanese foreign relations policy that dictated a period (1633 – 1853) of isolationism. The Japanese, though, have made Dejima available as a trading post for the once formidable Dutch East India Company, and it’s at Dejima that ships unload their cargo of sugar and take aboard Japan’s prized commodity, copper. For a time, Dejima was Japan’s only point of contact with the Western world. Beyond Dejima’s land gate, there stretched a bridge to Tokugawa Shogun Japan. Only a few privileged individuals from either side were allowed to cross the bridge, the highest Dutch officials, for example. The bridge and gates are closely monitored by the Japanese, and any unauthorized interaction with the dreaded Europeans will subject a Japanese citizen to capital punishment.

Jacob de Zoet isn’t one of those privileged individuals permitted to cross the bridge from Dejima into mainland Japan. He’s a young, straight-arrow, junior clerk, sent off to Dejima by his Dutch fiancée’s father, who does not approve of the engagement, to stamp out corruption. This makes him rather unpopular even before he arrives, for corruption is flourishing among the Dutch on Dejima, and they intend for it to remain that way. For the most part, they don’t welcome anyone who upsets the status quo. Initially, Jacob is supposed to remain on Dejima for only one year, just long enough to make enough money to marry his fiancée back in Holland, and initially, that’s how Jacob hopes things will turn out. However, along the way, he finds himself penalized for his honestly and integrity, and his “one year” on Dejima turns out to be much longer. Like Blackthorne in James Clavell’s Shogun, Jacob’s destiny seems to lie on the fringes of a nation that proudly terms itself the “Land of a Thousand Autumns.”

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is divided into three parts, and the opening chapter put me off the book right away. It was very well written, and other readers might find it pulls them into the book, instead. It introduces the pivotal character of Orito Aibagawa, a particularly skilled midwife, with a beautiful – but burned – face. The Magistrate’s concubine is in labor and near dead from the trauma of childbirth, and it’s feared the child will be lost as well. Orito is summoned to try to save both mother and child. (Anything to do with childbirth sends me running in the opposite direction, but that’s subjective and not a reflection on Mitchell’s abilities as an author in any way. All books have opening scenes some are going to love, while others aren’t going to like so well.)

The introduction of Orito also introduces possibly the book’s finest and most developed, though minor, character, the crusty Dr. Marinus, Dejima’s resident physician. Dr. Marinus has been given leave to teach European medicine to a small group of Japanese students, one of whom just happens to be Orito. Despite his engagement to a Dutch woman, and despite the fact that no Japanese person can leave Japan and no foreigner can take up residence there, you can predict that Jacob is going to fall hopelessly in love with Orito – and he does. Dr. Marinus belittles Jacob as one of the “hundreds of...besotted white men,” and rightly tells Jacob that his love for Orito would be far better served if he simply left her alone. Jacob, however, also predictably, doesn’t listen.

The first part of the book, which introduces more than one hundred characters – Dutch traders, Malay and Ceylonese servants, a Yankee sea captain, a cardsharp cook, and various and assorted other drifters, is reminiscent of Joseph Conrad’s sea tales set in the Far East, and it seems like the book’s going to be a fairly straightforward historical narrative, a novel of political intrigue, a clash of cultures with the one place that managed to keep all other cultures at bay. And this, at least to me, was an interesting premise. However, Mitchell, for reasons unknown, doesn’t choose to explore that premise in great depth. Instead, it seems like he was more inclined to change horses in midstream.

When Orito is abducted on the orders of the sinister Abbot Enomoto and taken to the mountainous Shinto Shrine of Shiranui, a place of unspeakable horror, and whose dozen inmates are always marred by some sort of physical defect, the book takes on a decidedly different flavor – that of the Gothic and the supernatural and sometimes the silly. Orito’s translator, Uzaemon, who is also in love with her and ardently wishes to be her husband, begins plotting the rescue of this “damsel in distress.” Now, the historical novel we thought we were reading – and the Dutch – have been left far behind, and the point of view shifts to the Japanese characters. At times, the second part of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet even reads like a script straight out of a superheroes movie, with lines like, “Why do you mortal gnats suppose that your incredulity matters?”

Although this middle section seemed out-of-place to me, I understand why Mitchell wanted to include it. Several years ago, while still composing this story, he told a Japanese newspaper, “My intention is to write a bicultural novel, where Japanese perspectives are given an equal weight to Dutch/European perspectives.” In all fairness, I suppose they are, though I wish his biculturalism wouldn’t have consisted of a “bodice-ripping rescue-and-romance.” For me, it detracted from the book, and I wish Mitchell would have presented the Japanese point-of-view in a way more attuned to the historical novel with which he began.

The third part of The Thousand Autumn of Jacob de Zoet, during which the British arrive in Nagasaki harbor, needs to tie the first and second parts together, but Mitchell adds new voices to the story, making the final effect rather confused and confusing and chaotic.

Although Mitchell seemed to be writing a far more conventional/traditional novel with The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet than he has with his previous work, it also seems he had a hard time deciding just what he wanted this book to be. Was it a historical novel, replete with a morass of detail, as part one would suggest; was it a bodice ripping Gothic romance as part two seems to indicate; or was it a fable, complete with elements of magical realism? I don’t know, but I wish I did. Maybe Mitchell wanted to combine all three into one book, but if that’s the case, it’s my opinion that his structure and theme aren’t strong enough to sustain all of that.

Those of you who’ve read Mitchell’s other works know that he’s most famous for his manipulation of novelistic structure and architecture. I think in his preoccupation with a book’s architecture, Mitchell often gives characterization short shrift, and so it is in this book. The “bad guys” are all bad, while the “good guys” are all good. There are very few nuances and shades of gray in this novel, something I really missed. In fact, the characters seem to be more plot devices than fully fleshed out persons. And while Jacob, himself isn’t wholly likable (it isn’t necessary for him to be wholly likable), he’s too passive. He’s a character caught in the middle of things. He can’t stop the corruption in Dejima, and he shouldn’t actively pursue his love for Orito. What’s left?

The prose is okay, but in my opinion, just okay. Mitchell rarely writes in the third person, and his use of that point-of-view in this book can seem awkward at times, like he wasn’t really comfortable with it. I also wasn’t thrilled with his choice to use dialogue broken by speech tags. Oh, a little of it would have been fine, but a little of that kind of thing goes a long, long way, and Mitchell seemed to use these speech tags in just about every sentence. For example, “Who was that bizarre female,” van Cleef squeezes a lemon into a Venetian glass, “in Warehouse Doorn?” Too much of that kind of thing, and there is too much of that kind of thing is this book, gets to be very annoying very fast.

Mitchell often uses short chapters, presumably to propel his reader into the next chapter. This made the book read more like a mass market thriller to me than literary fiction. And while some of the paragraphs are terribly short, some are terribly long. The ones featuring the bawdy dialect of the sailors became difficult to read. And why, for goodness sake, does Mitchell feel the need to insert a sailor groaning and straining at his “morning constitutional” while explaining the poetic meaning of the book’s title? Sure, we know everyone has a “daily constitutional,” but there really are some things that are better left to the imagination than written down.

As mentioned above, I thought the relatively minor character of Dr. Marinus was the best drawn in the book, but even here, Mitchell either makes a mistake (not likely) or he’s setting up the crusty Marinus for his next book (he’s said he will feature Marinus in a book of his own set in the present day), for Dr. Marinus quotes both Kubla Khan and Shangri-La. The former wasn’t published until 1816, while the latter was published in 1933. This made me wonder if Dr. Marinus was going to turn out to be a time traveler or something similar, something that would not be unheard of for Mitchell.

My favorite part of the book was the single chapter, told from the point-of-view of a Malay slave named Moses, and also, interestingly, told in the first person. Moses seemed to be the only character in the book not afraid to explore the depths of life, to look life squarely in the face and see, not only the good, but the bad as well, and to contemplate on its possible meaning. He was the only character whose dialogue had any all-important subtext:

Master Fischer owns my body, then, but he does not own my mind. This I know, because of a test. When I shave Master Fischer, I imagine slitting open his throat. If he owned my mind, he would see this evil thought. But instead of punishing me, he just sits there with his eyes shut.

Moses, perhaps, embodies the theme of this book as he thinks about what it means to have everything – your days, your family, your skin, owned by someone else, until the only refuge you can find is in creating “a mind like an island...protected by a deep blue sea.”

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet isn’t vintage Mitchell, and his fans will no doubt love the book or be terribly disappointed in it. And though it’s not vintage Mitchell, it’s not traditional, either, and it won’t completely satisfy the more traditional readers out there. It’s certainly not Mitchell’s masterpiece – that I believe, is still Cloud Atlas – but it’s okay for those looking for a change of pace. Just don’t get your hopes up too high.


Recommended: Mitchell fans are going to love this book or feel disappointed in it, but those who don’t care for Mitchell probably won’t find the traditional novel in this book that they’ve been looking for. On the other hand, those who haven’t read Mitchell before might be inclined to give this book more leeway.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Writing Tips - On Collaboration

As a screenwriter, I’m used to collaborating when writing. It’s become pretty easy for me to do. As an editor, however, I know most novelists aren’t so used to collaboration and often go into it with the wrong expectations. If you and a friend, or even just an acquaintance, decide to collaborate on a book, it will no doubt be fun – until a thorny problem crops up that neither of you had anticipated, and make no mistake, during novel collaboration, thorny problems do crop up.

Besides my screenplay work, I’ve collaborated on a novel with another author. It was the most fun I’ve ever had writing, and luckily, we had no problems, but we were the exception, not the rule.

If you and a friend collaborate on a novel and neither of you is a “big name” author, be aware that your book will be much more difficult to sell than if you’d written it by yourself. If one of you is a “big name” author, the book will no doubt be easy to sell, and money will be made, but the big name author will probably end up getting all the credit and all the glory even if the money is shared equally. And if you are the big name author yourself, while your fans will probably buy and read the book, most of them probably won’t like it as well as if you’d written it on your own. They will be likely to complain that it “isn’t like your usual work.”

If you’re bound and determined to collaborate with someone on a book, even your very best friend, the most important thing you have to do – not should do, but have to do – in order for the collaboration to run smoothly is decide who is going to do what and then put it in writing. I know. That sounds unnecessary when you’re collaborating with a long time, trusted friend, but believe me, collaborations can get away from you quickly and end up in a terrible mess.

The first thing you need to do is ask yourself why you want to collaborate on a book, especially if the two of you will be writing a book you could have written alone. Do you think two will lighten the workload? That might be true for screenplays, but when it comes to novels, you couldn’t be more wrong. Collaborating on a book is always more difficult and more work than writing solo, but sometimes collaboration is necessary. Let’s say you have a terrific storyline that revolves around the art world of Renaissance Italy, but you know little about the details of the art world of Renaissance Italy. You could research it, of course, but you could also collaborate with someone who is an expert on the art of Renaissance Italy.

Maybe you and your friend have a fairly detailed outline written out for your project. If you don’t, you should. You might think this would head off any problems down the road, but it won’t. Not by a long shot. What happens if you and your friend have very different visions of the story’s protagonist? Whose vision will prevail? Whose vision will prevail when it comes to other characters? You need to be clear on this before you begin writing.

Another important thing to consider is who gets the final edit on the manuscript. If you’re planning on writing multiple books together, will the same person always get the final say-so, or will you devise a different set of rules for each book? If you’re writing with a friend, you might be thinking that the two of you will be in agreement about things when the time comes for the final edit, that you’ll be able to do it together. But you won’t. Believe this, even if you believe nothing else about this article: only one of you is going to have the final say. Decide who that one is going to be before you begin to write the first page of the first draft. When I collaborated, my partner had the final say on the novel, and I had the final say on the screenplay adaptation, and I did have to change some things to make the story more appealing to Hollywood. My writing partner understood this.

You also need to know how you’re going to divide the work. You can’t both “just write” and then combine the two. Collaboration works best if one writer does the first draft, another does a revision, and then the writer who has the final edit, well, does the final edit.

Figure out how you’re going to resolve differences before they crop up, and they will crop up. Don’t expect everything to go swimmingly. Collaboration is a process of give and take, mostly give.

And while it might seem minor, decide before you write whose name is going to go first on the cover. “Going first” is very important to some people, while it doesn’t matter much to others. For example, I don’t care if my name is first or second, or in the case of screenplays fifth or sixth, just as long as it’s on there. In screenwriting, the placement of the name isn’t so important, and it can change from screenplay to screenplay, usually depending on how much a person contributes to the overall story. However in novel collaboration, the writer’s name that’s listed first will generally be listed first for all books the two of you write together.

Now we’re coming to the really thorny parts of novel collaboration: the money. Do you both have agents? If so, whose agent are you going to use? How will this be handled with the other writer’s agent? If you don’t have an agent, which one of you is going to handle the business side of getting one? Who will be responsible for receiving the money when the book is sold? Please don’t think collaborating will make the two of you rich. While it’s not out of the realm of possibility, generally, books written by two people garner a smaller advance than those written by only one person.

I’ve seen novel collaboration ruin long-standing friendships, but this doesn’t have to happen. Not as long as you and your writing partner do some planning.

Novel collaboration can be fun and enjoyable, but only if you plan first and only if each collaborator is crystal clear on what his or her duties are and both of you stick to your plan. So, if you’re planning on collaborating, think about the above as well. No, you can’t see into the future, and you can’t predict what problems will crop up during the writing of the book, but you can devise a plan about what to do when something unforeseen happens. Keep your priorities straight, and above all, know that no book is worth losing a friend.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Today in Literary History - James Joyce Dies in Zuerich, Switzerland

On January 13, 1941, the great Irish novelist, James Joyce died in Zuerich, Switzerland at the age of fifty-eight from peritonitis brought on by a perforated ulcer. Joyce’s principle biographer, Richard Ellmann, wrote that Joyce had “reached his life’s nadir” at the time of his death. His daughter had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, his son’s marriage and career had fallen apart, his eyesight was particularly bad, and he was suffering due to the ongoing battles over his books, Ulysses and Finnegans Wake.

On January 11th, Joyce underwent surgery for the perforation, and at first, he seemed much improved. However, on the following day, he relapsed, and despite several transfusions, he soon fell into a coma. He awoke at 2:00 am on January 13th and asked a nurse to call his wife, Nora and his son, George, before losing consciousness yet again. He died a mere fifteen minutes later, before his family could arrive at his bedside to say their goodbyes.

Of all his difficulties, the one that seemed most troubling to Joyce was his daughter, Lucia’s mental illness. In an effort to find help for Lucia, Joyce had taken her from doctor to doctor and from clinic to clinic, and he refused to accept the grim prognosis for her recovery the doctors gave him. In the mid-1930s, Joyce had even consulted the renowned Swiss psychiatrist, Carl Jung, who had attempted to treat Lucia with no success. In fact, Jung diagnosed Lucia and her father as two people “heading to the bottom of a river,” though Lucia, Jung said, was falling, while Joyce was diving. Joyce’s personality style, said Jung, was “definitely schizophrenic,” though Jung felt Joyce had transformed and sublimated it through his genius for writing. “In any other time of the past,” Jung said, “Joyce’s work would never have reached the printer, but in our blessed twentieth century it is a message, though not yet understood.” And like his work or not, it is clear today that Joyce was definitely a genius and a man ahead of his time.

Two years before his death, in 1939, Joyce concluded his seventeen years of work on Finnegans Wake, which was written primarily in Paris. In the book, he was jocular and sometimes even lighthearted regarding Lucia’s illness, but in private, it tortured him. Even during the times when Lucia showed improvement, Joyce doubted that she would ever be able to live life “out in the world.” Everything besides his work on Finnegans Wake, he said, nearly killed him:

"Having written Ulysses about the day, I wanted to write this book about the night...Since 1922 my book has been a greater reality for me than reality. Everything gives way to it. Everything outside the book has been an insuperable difficulty: the least realities, such as shaving myself in the morning, for example."

James Joyce is buried in Fluntern Cemetery, very near the Zuerich Tiergarten (Zoo). Even though two senior Irish diplomats were in Switzerland at the time of Joyce’s death and funeral, neither attended services for the author, and the Irish government subsequently rejected Nora Joyce’s request to repatriate her husband’s remains. Nora, whom Joyce had married in London in 1931 after many years together, survived Joyce by ten years. She is now buried by his side in Zuerich as is their son, George, who died in 1976. Richard Ellmann wrote that when the arrangements for Joyce’s funeral were being made, a Catholic priest tried to convince Nora that there should be a funeral mass, to which Nora replied, “I couldn’t do that to him.” The renowned Swiss tenor, Max Meili sang Addio terra, addio cielo from Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo at the funeral service.

Away from literature, Ellmann writes, Joyce lived life in a manner that was “erratic and provisional,” but his books show him as “one of life’s celebrants, in bad circumstances cracking good jokes, foisting upon ennuis and miseries his comic vision.”

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Book Review - The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

I’ll be the first to admit, I don’t particularly enjoy reading non-fiction. Biographies of my favorite writers and artists, and in some cases, musicians, are fine (I’ll read almost anything about Emily Dickinson, for example, or the painters of Renaissance Italy), but I avoid most other non-fiction and stick to fiction. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, however, just sounded to tempting to pass up.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks tells the story of many things: cancer, racism, medical ethics, the effects of poverty on medical care, and most of all, the story behind the prolific “HeLa” cells and the real person who unknowingly donated them – Henrietta Lacks. The book’s author, science journalist, Rebecca Skloot, first heard of Henrietta Lacks when she was a sixteen-year-old student and a biology instructor mentioned Lacks’ name and skin color to her (Skloot) but nothing else. Skloot, however became curious about the person, Henrietta Lacks as well as “HeLa,” and she spent ten years researching and gathering material for her book, with much of that time being spent gaining the trust of Lacks’ family, who, for good reason, are skeptical of any Caucasian and anyone even close to the medical profession.

Henrietta Lacks, the great-great-granddaughter of slaves, began life in her grandfather’s cabin on a poverty-stricken tobacco farm in Clover, Virginia. She was, according to those who knew her, a lovely woman with “walnut eyes, straight white teeth, and full lips.” She was fun, and she was fun to be around. Her cousin, Emmett Lacks, describes her as the “sweetest girl you ever wanna meet, and prettier than anything,” and that’s exactly how she comes to life in the pages of Skloot’s book.

By early 1951, Lacks had moved from Virginia and was living in Baltimore, Maryland. She and her husband had five children and Mrs. Lacks was suffering from what she termed a painful “knot on my womb.” The only place a black person could obtain medical treatment in 1951 Baltimore was at Johns Hopkins. Mrs. Lacks checked into their charity ward and was promptly diagnosed with cervical cancer. She was given painful, scarring radium treatments, but before the first one was administered, the attending physician, without asking permission from Mrs. Lacks and without even informing her, cut two dime-sized pieces of tissue from Lacks’ cervix – one that was cancerous and one that was healthy. The doctor then gave the tissue samples to George Gey, a scientist who had been trying to establish a continuously reproducing, or immortal, human cell line for use in cancer research. Lab protocol dictated that that an abbreviation of the donor’s name be written on the tubes. Mrs. Lacks’ cells thus became known as “HeLa” for her first and last names.

Previously, no human cell line had survived outside a human body, but “HeLa” succeeded where all other human samples had failed. Mrs. Lacks’ cells not only survived, they prospered and multiplied with lightning speed. It was later discovered that they contain an enzyme that prevents them from automatically degenerating like most “normal” cells do. The “HeLa” cells, due to this enzyme, are thus capable of dividing and multiplying forever, rendering them “immortal.”

Gey gave some away to other researchers. Scientists grew Mrs. Lacks’ cells in mass quantities in order to test the Salk polio vaccine. They were used to promote advances in chemotherapy. They helped in the development of cloning, gene mapping, and in vitro fertilization. They helped researchers understand that normal human cells have forty-six chromosomes. They aided in the study of herpes, leukemia, Parkinson’s disease, and AIDS. The “HeLa” cells were even used to learn how nuclear bombs affect human beings, and they were sent up in the first space missions in order to see how human cells are affected in zero gravity. In short, “HeLa,” in great measure, launched virology as a viable medical field.

Mrs. Lacks’ cervical cancer was a particularly aggressive type, and she died from the disease at the age of thirty-one. Sadly, no obituaries of her appeared in any newspaper, and this woman who, albeit unwittingly, did so much to advance medical science was buried in an unmarked grave. (To be fair to the medical community, Mrs. Lacks’ cancer was so aggressive that it probably could not be cured today, let alone in 1951. Though it was obscene for blacks to be denied treatment at any place other than Johns Hopkins, Henrietta Lacks almost certainly did not die from a lack of medical care.)

Today, sixty years after Henrietta Lacks’ untimely death, her tissue has yielded approximately fifty million metric tons of “HeLa” cells. Stretched end-to-end, all of the “HeLa” cells, would today, circle the earth three times. A library of 60,000 studies exists that were performed with the “HeLa” cells and researchers add about 300 more each month. As Skloot says in her book, there are “trillions more of her cells growing in laboratories now than there ever were in her body.” In fact, today, Mrs. Lacks’ cells lead a life all their own. They’ve been used, not only in Gey’s research lab in Baltimore, but have been shipped to the Tuskegee Institute and to the “for-profit” Microbiological Associates, a part of the companies Invitrogen and BioWhittaker.

While medical and science students and researchers around the world instantly recognize the “HeLa” cells, very few people have ever heard of the woman who donated them, much less know anything about her. At her autopsy, a lab assistant glanced at her painted red toes and thought:

Oh jeez, she’s a real person...I started imagining her sitting in her bathroom painting those toenails, and it hit me for the first time that those cells we’d been working with all this time and sending all over the world, they came from a live woman. I’d never thought of it that way.

Mrs. Lacks’ own family, many of whom still live in East Baltimore, knew nothing of their mother’s famous cells and that people had grown wealthy from marketing them, until more than twenty years after her death when a Chinese-born doctor from Johns Hopkins showed up on their doorstep and demanded blood samples in order to better study and understand “HeLa.” Because this doctor spoke only limited and broken English and was unable to respond to Henrietta’s daughter Deborah’s questions, he handed her a textbook on medical genetics, instead. As a result, the Lacks’ feared they, too, had cancer and spent tension-filled weeks waiting on the results of a “cancer test” that never existed.

The Lacks’ weren’t being paranoid. They’d heard stories, some of them true, some not, about blacks being abducted in the dark of night and used for horrifying medical experiments. And then there was the infamous Tuskegee syphilis study in which poor, uneducated black men with syphilis were recruited for a study of the efficacy of certain drugs, then after the study, allowed to die horrifying and entirely preventable deaths because the doctors withheld life-saving penicillin from them.

Although one might think that Henrietta Lacks is the centerpiece of this book, she’s not. That role goes to her daughter, Deborah, a tough/sweet/vulnerable/generous woman, whose curiosity about her mother and her older sister, Elsie, who was born deaf, mute, and possibly retarded and lived out the fifteen years of her life at Crownsville State Hospital in Maryland (formerly the Hospital for the Negro Insane) finally drove Deborah to an emotional breakdown. And as we read, we can’t help but agree with Deborah, “Truth be told, I can’t get mad at science, because it help people live, and I’d be a mess without it. I’m a walking drugstore!…But I won’t lie, I would like some health insurance so I don’t got to pay all that money every month for drugs my mother cells probably helped make.” And the reader desperately wants Deborah, and all the Lacks’ to have that health insurance and more.

The most moving – and heartbreaking – scene in the book involves Deborah and a kind-hearted Johns Hopkins researcher named Christoph Lengauer, who managed to give Deborah and her family some closure regarding the loss of their mother.

Skloot includes a timeline at the beginning of each chapter, but even so, it’s sometimes difficult to keep track of what is happening when because Skloot skips backwards and forwards in time so much. She also has a tendency to end her chapters in Dan Brown like “cliffhangers,” I’m guessing, to propel the reader forward into the next. This feels a bit forced rather than graceful, and really, no cliffhangers are necessary. The story of Henrietta and Deborah and all the Lacks’ is compelling enough without cliffhangers.

Some reviewers have said this book reads more like a novel. I don’t agree. It’s lacking many devices of novelistic structure, but for me, that was fine. The book isn’t a novel and doesn’t present itself as one. The reader goes into it expecting non-fiction, and that’s what he or she gets.

Naturally, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks raises difficult questions concerning medical practices and bioethics and informed consent. I think most readers are going to feel outrage over what happened to Henrietta and the poverty in which her descendants now live. Though it’s difficult, readers should keep in mind the fact that Johns Hopkins, and probably most other research facilities that worked with the “HeLa” cells weren’t committing any crimes. As Skloot notes, the question of payment for profitable tissues is still an unresolved issue, and it’s still not necessary to obtain a patient’s consent to store cells and tissue taken from them in diagnostic procedures and then later use that tissue for research.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a fascinating book for people interested in scientific or medical research, but its real achievement lies in it’s humane – and deeply human – look at both Mrs. Lacks and her descendants. It’s a wake up call to the medical community to remember that while they may be working with highly advanced technology and science, there’s a human being – a suffering human being, with people who love him or her – at the bottom of it all.


Recommended: This is a “must read” for those interested in science and medicine. It’s also compelling for anyone who loves non-fiction or just wants a change of pace. I applaud the author for her courage in writing this book.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Today in Literary History - English Novelist and Poet Thomas Hardy Dies

On January 11, 1928, the great English novelist, short story writer, and poet, Thomas Hardy died in Dorchester, Dorset, England at the age of eighty-seven.

Thomas Hardy was born at Higher Bockhampton, a village in the parish of Stinsford to the east of Dorchester in the county of Dorset, England. His father, who was also named Thomas, worked as a stonemason and builder. His mother, Jemima, was a well-read woman, and it was she who educated her young son until he went off to school at Bockhamptom at the age of eight. Although Hardy showed much academic potential, and did especially well in Latin, his family lacked the financial means to send him to a university. When Hardy’s formal education ended at age sixteen, he was apprenticed to a local architect, John Hicks, where he trained in Dorchester.

In 1862, Hardy moved to London and enrolled at King’s College. Though he won prizes from the Royal Institute of British Architects and the Architectural Association, Hardy disliked London. He missed the countryside and he was all too aware of the class divisions that were still firmly in place and his own social inferiority. Five years later, concerned about his health, he returned to the Dorset countryside and decided to dedicate his life to writing.

In 1870, while restoring the parish church of St. Juliot in Cornwall, Hardy met Emma Lavinia Gifford, and the two promptly fell in love, marrying in 1874. Although Hardy and Emma would later become estranged, Emma’s death in 1912 had a profound effect on the writer, and he made a trip to Cornwall to revisit places that had been special to the two during their courtship. His work, Poems 1912-13 are his reflections on Emma’s passing.

In 1914, Hardy married Florence Emily Dugdale, his secretary. The new Mrs. Hardy was thirty-nine years younger than her husband, and though Thomas Hardy did seem to love Florence, he remained preoccupied with Emma’s death, a preoccupation he tried to overcome by writing poetry.

Thomas Hardy considered himself a poet, first and foremost, and a poet who wrote novels for financial gain only. His poetry, which was first published while he was in his fifties, has had a significant influence over modern English poetry, with the poets of the 1950s and 1960s citing Hardy as a major influencing figure. Hardy’s poetry displays elements of the Romantic and Enlightenment periods of literature, while his novels belong firmly to the Naturalism movement.

Today, many people are unaware that Thomas Hardy ever wrote poems, though his novels have become classics of English literature and are loved the world over. They center around tragic figures, who are at the mercy of the workings of fate and the social customs of the day.

Hardy’s first novel failed to find a publisher, and dismayed, Hardy destroyed most of the manuscript. Encouraged to “try again” by his friend, the Victorian poet and novelist, George Meredith, Hardy’s next two novels were published anonymously. In 1873, he published A Pair of Blue Eyes, a novel that draws on his courtship of Emma, under his own name. The term, “cliffhanger” is said to have originated with the serialized version of this novel in “Tinsley’s Magazine,” in which the character of Henry Knight is left literally hanging onto a cliff.

It was in Hardy’s next novel, Far From the Madding Crowd that he first introduced the fictional county of Wessex (based on Dorchester). Far From the Madding Crowd was successful enough for Hardy to give up architecture and devote himself entirely to writing, as he wished to do. Over the next twenty-five years, he wrote and published ten more novels, including The Return of the Native in 1878, The Mayor of Casterbridge in 1886, The Woodlanders in 1887, and Tess of the d’Ubervilles in 1891. Tess of the d’Ubervilles attracted some criticism due to its sympathetic portrayal of a “fallen woman,” but Hardy said its subtitle, A Pure Woman: Faithfully Presented, was intended to raise middle-class Victorian eyebrows.

It was Jude the Obscure, published in 1895 that met with strong, negative outcries from the public for its frank portrayal of sex and its apparent attack on the sanctity of marriage, and it was often referred to as “Jude the Obscene.” Booksellers sold the novel in brown paper bags, and it’s said the Bishop of Wakefield was so incensed he burnt his copy. Hardy seemed to take this criticism in stride, but in the 1912 postscript to the book, he referred to the bishop’s burning of Jude the Obscure by writing: “After these verdicts from the press its next misfortune was to be burnt by a bishop – probably in his despair at not being able to burn me.” Despite his outward good humor, the criticism of Jude the Obscure caused Hardy to decide never to write another novel, and from that time on, he devoted himself to his poetry.

In December 1927, Hardy became ill with pleurisy. He died at his cottage at Max Gate just after 9:00 pm on January 11, 1928. He dictated his final poem to his wife on his deathbed. His funeral was held on January 16th at London’s Westminster Abbey. Hardy’s burial became controversial because his family and friends wanted him to be interred at Stinsford, in the same grave as his first wife, Emma. His executor, Sir Sydney Carlyle Cockerell, however, insisted that he be interred in Westminster’s Poet’s Corner, instead. A compromise was reached when it was decided that his heart would be buried at Stinsford with Emma, while his ashes were interred in Poet’s Corner.

Hardy’s work has been admired by many writers who came after him, including D.H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf. The great contemporary Irish writer, William Trevor is an admirer of Thomas Hardy saying, “That’s where all my tragedy comes from.”

In 1910, Hardy was awarded the Order of Merit. His cottage at Bockhampton and Max Gate in Dorchester are now owned by the National Trust.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Today in Literary History - Robert Browning Writes the First Letter to Elizabeth Barrett

On January 10, 1845, the most legendary of all literary love stories was born when poet Robert Browning, inspired by Elizabeth Barrett’s 1844 edition of Poems, wrote the first of his famous love letters to the female poet. Although Browning began his letter as praise for the older (Barrett was six years older than the thirty-two-year-old Browning) and, at that time, more famous poet, there is no doubt that this was, indeed, a love letter as Browning concluded with the words, "I do, as I say, love these books with all my heart – and I love you too...."

In his letter, Robert Browning requested a face-to-face meeting with Elizabeth Barrett, which she granted in May of 1845. At the time, however, she had little hope for a true romance, much less a marriage. Barrett’s grandfather had become quite wealthy due to his large sugar cane plantations in the West Indies and the manufacture of rum. Barrett’s father used his inherited wealth as leverage over his eleven children, forbidding any of them to marry on pain of banishment from his life and disinheritance from his will. Some people believe that Barrett’s grandfather had passed along, not only his fortune, but also mixed blood, and that Barrett’s father feared having a "dark" grandchild so much that he would do almost anything to prevent it.

Even had Barrett’s father been overjoyed at the prospect of her budding romance, she had long ago written marriage out of her life’s possibilities. Tuberculosis, or a similar disease, had been a daily part of her life since the age of fourteen. As a result, Elizabeth Barrett spent most of her adult years housebound, often bedridden. She was an invalid, and she did not expect much in the way of personal relationships, and she certainly didn’t expect a romantic suitor like the vigorous and worldly Browning.

Robert Browning, however, was truly in love. Over the next twenty months, Browning and Barrett wrote five hundred and seventy-five letters to each other. Their courtship, which improved Barrett’s health so much that she termed it a "resurrection" was, for the most part, carried out in secrecy due to Barrett’s father’s objections to any romantic relationships on the part of his children. Nevertheless, Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett were married at St. Marylebone Parish Church, and in August 1846 the groom, imitating his hero, Percy Bysshe Shelley, whisked his bride off to Italy. Barrett’s nurse, Wilson, who had witnessed the marriage, accompanied the newlyweds to the South. The Brownings eventually settled in Florence, and Italy became their home for the rest of their lives.

True to his word, Barrett Browning’s father did disinherit her, as he did all of his children who married, but as Elizabeth had inherited some money independently of her father, she and Robert Browning were able to live comfortably for the rest of their lives. Both of the Brownings were well respected in Italy and were considered famous even then, long before their work had been given the great acclaim it enjoys today. In 1849, at the age of forty-three, Elizabeth Barrett Browning had grown so much stronger and healthier that she gave birth to a son, Robert Wiedemann Barrett Browning, fondly known as "Pen." Although Pen did marry, he had no legitimate children, and today, there are no direct descendants of the two famous poets.

At Robert Browning’s insistence, Barrett Browning published a second edition of her volume, Poems and included her love sonnets. The sonnets were popular with the public, and as a result, Barrett Browning’s popularity and critical regard were both greatly increased. In 1850, after the death of William Wordsworth, it was proposed that Elizabeth Barrett Browning be named Poet Laureate of Britain, however the position went to Tennyson.