Tag Archives: On Writing

The Conundrum of Context

A question that one reviewer struggles with.

Here’s a question that I struggle with as a book reviewer, “Is it appropriate to make reference to other books when I review a new one?”   For the reasons I’ll explain here, my answer tends to be situational.

Let’s say that I’m reviewing the latest novel from author Joe Blow called A Kick in the Head.   If I think that this work from author Blow is the best thing he’s done – and it quite clearly calls for a highly positive review, I’m unlikely to reference any other works by Blow or other writers.   Why?   Because I’m explaining why I like or admire this release.   Many readers, and most especially Blow’s longtime followers, are happy to accept a positive review on its face.

But if Blow’s latest book blows (sorry, I couldn’t resist…), there’s a good chance that I’ll refer to either his earlier, better works, or to those of other authors writing in the same genre.   The reason for this is that I would expect to be challenged, either by a reader new to this author or by one of his loyal fans.   Generally, negative reviews require more information – more context, if you will – to set the stage for the reviewer’s not-so-pleasing conclusion.

What Blow’s fans are really asking of the negative reviewer is, “What makes you think you’re correct?”   Or, in plain English, “What’s your ammunition?”   So my first option – and often the best one – is to compare this new work to the author’s earlier ones.   Maybe the writer was clearly hungrier earlier, or fresher and this stance provides me with the basis to make the claim that his work is now sounding worn and tired.   Regardless of whether a fan of Blow’s buys my argument, I’m not too subtly making the point that I’ve also read all or most of his writings.   (It makes a difference to me personally if someone criticizing one of my favorite authors indicates that he/she has read all or most of his/her works.   I’ll give more weight to that criticism than to someone’s who notes that this is the first book they’ve read by an author I know and love.)

The next option is to compare Blow to his direct competition.   This can be preferable when time seems to have passed Blow by…  He may have been the best writer of his type back in the day (heck, he may even have created the genre in his youth) but this doesn’t give him a pass today.   There may be a dozen or so new and younger writers who have tailored Blow’s style into something that’s fresh and new on the runway.   But I’ll have to give some specific examples of how and where this is true, which is why I would likely include a comment like, “A Kick in the Head is not only not as engaging as Blow’s classic The Last Bus Home, it also seems dull compared to Judy Bling’s brilliant debut novel of 2010, Fighting Back.”   In instances where another author’s work is cited, I think it should be something current (written within the last year or two).But there is another instance in which a positive review should include a reference to other writings.   This applies to cases in which the reviewer – I or someone else, attempts to make the case that a work by a new writer approaches greatness.   If  I’m going to argue that new author Judy Bling’s first book is stunning, I think I need to provide context by making comparisons to some well-known or accepted best writers.   Does she set scenes as effortlessly as Anne Lamott, or write with a cool and icy focus like Audrey Niffenegger?

If one’s going to argue that a new writer approaches greatness, then I think one had better be willing to specifically compare that writer to other exemplary writers, past or present.   (Not everyone’s going to agree with the validity of the comparative selections, but that’s beside the point.   They don’t have to concur with the review either.)

Now let’s all hope that Joe Blow’s next book is better than A Kick in the Head!

Joseph Arellano

Pictured:   The Marriage Plot: A Novel by Jeffrey Eugenides, which will be released by Farrar, Straus and Giroux on October 11, 2011.

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The Author’s Perspective

Roy Peter Clark wrote the 2010 bestselling book, The Glamour of Grammar, and on September 21, 2011, his new book will be released.  The new book is entitled Help! for Writers: 210 Solutions to the Problems Every Writer Faces.   Mr. Clark joins us here for a guest post, answering a key question for us.

Joseph Arellano

JA:  Should you write the ending of your story first?  

RPC:  The paragon for this paradigm is J.K. Rowling, who has told the story many times that she began writing the seven-book Harry Potter series by writing the ending first.   Not the ending of the first book, mind you, but the ending of the seventh book!   She even teased her faithful readers with the news that the last word in the series would be “scar.”   She changed her mind.

It helped me to write to an ending for my 1999 newspaper serial novel “Ain’t Done Yet.”   The story, in 30 chapters, described a burned-out reporter hired to investigate a cult planning a terrorist attack for New Year’s Day 2000.   Max Timlin, the reporter, feared two things most of all:  lightning storms and high places.   So, of course, he would fight to the death with the villain on top of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge in a fierce storm.   Because I knew the big arc of the story, I could focus on the little arcs, those moments of surprise that reveal patterns, cliff hangers, and character.

I like the advice of a novelist (don’t remember his name) who said that writing fiction was like driving a car at night along a winding country road.   You don’t need to see all the way to your destination, as long as your headlights can illuminate a stretch of the road ahead.   In other words, if you can write your way to the end of a scene, you can build narrative momentum toward what’s coming next.

Interested in winning a copy of Help! for Writers: 210 Solutions to the Problems Every Writer Faces?   If so, just return to this site on Wednesday, September 21st to see how you can win one of five (5) copies that we’re giving away!

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God Bless the Editor

God Bless the Editor: The Power Behind the Scenes

The late writer Norman Mailer was known to be a tough guy, and he was also quite a writer having won both of literature’s highest prizes – the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award – for his account of the domestic protests against the war in Vietnam, The Armies of the Night.   He was once asked by an interviewer to divulge the “secrets” of writing, and Mailer immediately invoked his First Rule, “Always trust your editor.”

I’ve thought about this more and more as I come across works by newer and debut authors; whose works often show promise (“There’s no heavier burden than a great potential,” to quote the wise philosopher Linus) but lack a firm and unified voice.   All too often I see the debut novel that starts off like a house afire but then dwindles away from the halfway point until the ending.   Perhaps it’s because the writer’s energy and confidence faded out; more likely, some type of scheduling conflict meant that the editor involved did not have the time to devote to smoothing out the rough spots in the second half that was devoted to the first.

I think that the work of a literary editor can be fairly likened to the work of a recording engineer.   Bands make all kinds of sounds in the recording studio – some too loud, some too harsh, some too tame and quiet, some jarring, some pleasant – and it’s up to the recording engineer (for a brilliant account read Here, There, and Everywhere: My Life Recording the Music of the Beatles by Geoff Emerick) to mold the sounds into something uniform.   Even more than uniform, they must be pleasing to the ear.   The human ear loves mid-range sounds, so the very best sound engineers minimize the highs and lows to produce a product that sounds unnaturally “natural.”

Buy a very expensive car today and you’ll be offered an equally expensive add-on option, a top-of-the-line audio system (think an extra $5,000 to $7,000) that produces comforting mid-range sounds from any genre of material, rock to jazz to classical or country music.   This stereo reproduction system will have a built-in range limiter, a single-function computer program that mimics and sometimes even  improves the sounds produced by a top-flight recording engineer blessed with perfect hearing and “golden ears.”

Similarly, the writer’s editor must take out what’s jarring, what’s unexpected or simply not registered in the author’s best, pleasing voice…  It’s the editor who must decide, whether or not the author concurs, the answers to the questions:  “What is it about this author’s tone that is pleasing to the reader’s inner ear?   Which part of the writer’s voice is pleasingly mid-range?”

In order to complete his/her task, the skilled editor must edit and sometimes brutally cut out that which does not seem to fit.   And this is where Mailer’s advice is so important to the new writer, the prospective writer.   I will restate his advice this way, in my own words:  Don’t argue, don’t take it personally.   The very best, the most talented, of writers have found that they must trust their editors.

The skilled editor can take multiple, disparate voices and make them harmonize like the fine instruments in an orchestra.   As an example, take the short story collection about true love, Love Is a Four-Letter Word.   This compilation contained 23 stories written by just as many writers.   Yet in the hands of editor Michael Taeckens, the collection never seemed choppy or disjointed.   I found that it had a singular mid-range tone – not too loud, nor too soft – that made it seem quite enjoyable.   And it wasn’t just me.   One reader noted at Amazon that, “…this collection was pretty good…  not just in theme but in tone.”   Said another, “…the stories flowed quite seamlessly from one to the other.   We have Mr. Taeckens, the editor, to thank for that.”   Exactly!

When a highly skilled editor can take 23 voices and make them sound like one melodious voice, just think of what he/she can do to assist the previously fledgling, isolated writer in finding his or her natural voice.

One other key function is left up to the editor.   Carolyn Parkhurst wrote, “…the ending of a novel should feel inevitable.   You, the reader, shouldn’t be able to see what’s coming…  you should (feel) satisfied that there’s no other way it could have gone.”   If the draft ending of the book does not feel natural and inevitable, it’s up to the editor to tell the writer so.

In the end, it does come down to that one word: trust.   Mr. Mailer was so right.

Joseph Arellano

Note: Thank you to author (The Language of Trees: A Novel) and former professional editor Ilie Ruby, for serving as one of my editors on this piece. And thank you to Daniel D. Holt for serving as the second editor. 

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Over and Over

The Boomers in our audience will remember what things used to be like during the late 1950s and the early 60s.   A recording artist, like Chubby Checker, would have a hit with a song like The Twist; which meant that the follow-up 45 single had to sound as close to it as humanly possible (this usually meant a virtually identical tune with different words attached to it).   In Chubby’s case, the next song was Let’s Twist Again.   It is to the credit of the Beatles that they broke this pattern of releasing songs that were virtual clones of each other.

Sometimes as a reader and reviewer I see this same pattern applying itself when it comes to popular fiction.   Let’s say that our debut author Christy Crafty writes a novel called Becky from Bakersfield.   Against seemingly all odds this story of a woman who can see what is going to happen in people’s futures becomes a moderate success.   So what happens next?   You guessed it, Christy does not want to rock the boat so she releases a follow-up (and the titles and book covers will naturally be quite similar) called Florence from Fresno.   This will turn out to be almost the same tale except for the fact that this time around our female protagonist can see what happened in the past of the lives of the strangers she meets.   The third book may be Sally from Stockton, about a woman who knows when people will die as soon as she encounters them.

Now this may not be such a horrible strategy from a sales standpoint, except for the fact that book one is likely going to get great reviews, and each succeeding variation is going to be less charitably commented on.   Eventually, Christy herself is likely to see that she’s put herself into a rut.   And then even her most loyal readers will begin calling for something new and original from her.

Why are reviewers and readers going to be increasingly disappointed in this commercial product?   Because the freshness that accompanied the original novel from author Crafty is slowly leaked out like air from a damaged tire.   The once delightful story that gets reworked over and over again becomes dull and flat.

It is my own view – and it’s much easier for me to say since I do not write novels – that the moderately to highly successful new author should, after the release of the first well-sold and reviewed novel, quickly change styles before the release of the second book.   Why?   To prove to readers, critics and the world that he/she is a writer, one who can write novels of many forms, short stories, poetry (if the muse strikes), and perhaps articles on politics and sports.   Again, why?   Because this is the creative process – this is the essence of writing.   Writing the same story repeatedly is not creative and fails to display one’s talents.

It was the singer Natalie Merchant who noted that you simply cannot give the public what it thinks it wants, which is candy (musical or literary) all of the time.   If you do, the public gets tired of you after it comes down from the sugar high – the false creative rush.   Once they get tired of the same old thing, they not only stop buying it, they also join the critics in their anguished howls.

So what is the moral of the story?   That creativity has its costs.   Being creative, continually and over a career, takes courage.   It takes real courage to write what you need to write even if it is not what you wrote before…

Just look at the careers of this country’s most highly rewarded authors – the Capotes, the Mailers and others of their ilk – and you’ll see that they did not settle for rewriting one story time after time.   (Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s and In Cold Blood could not be less similar.)   They branched out; they changed even if simply for change’s sake.   They stayed alive, as the Beatles did with their music, ever evolving, ever-growing; each and every collection of songs by John, Paul, George and Ringo was the result of new periods and experiences in their lives.

To borrow the words of Bob Dylan, life should be about new mornings.   It’s not dark yet, unless you elect to go living in the past, the shades drawn tight.

Joseph Arellano

Pictured:  The Girl in the Green Raincoat: A Tess Monaghan Novel by Laura Lippman, which was released by William Morrow and Harper Audio on January 18, 2011.   This book (actually a 176 page novella) has absolutely no relationship to the matters discussed in this article – I simply like the intriguing cover image which makes me want to read it.   Look for a review of The Girl in the Green Raincoat to appear on this site in the near future.

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