Saturday, May 24, 2014

What Subpar Novels Teach About Writing

A review copy of a writers debut novel arrives in my mailbox. The cover has a pleasing aesthetic with a balance of primary colors and an exotic beauty and a promising title. Its premise sounds intriguing: a young man feels guilt over having bypassed two tragic events, 9/11 and the Asian tsunami, by convenient circumstances. A blurb from a well respected author calls the novel "smart and insightful."  The opening line, though somewhat wordy, indicates upcoming events will be different from the rest.

Twenty pages in, mired in back-story and confusing plot, I stop reading. Instead of moving forward, the story stalls, restarts, and stalls again like an engine missing a spark plug. Ive seen this device in other novels, and sometimes it works, but not in this case. I skim the rest and gladly set this one aside.

I'm reluctant to write bad reviews because I know how hard it is to write a novel. This one obviously has enough merit that a publisher is willing to spend time and money on mailing out advance copies. In the Q&A at the back of the book the author discusses how the story transpired. The novelist cares about this work and took care to construct it, but I won't be writing a review of this book.

The problem with the novel is not in the writing, per se. The author constructs pleasing sentences and descriptions.  A lovely poem from one of my favorite Polish poets acts as an epigraph, so the author pays attention to literature.

Ultimately, though, the book's structure falls apart. Allegedly the tale surrounds the young man I will call George, who has a guilty conscience. I quickly grow confused by shifting viewpoints and gratuitous back-story. I'm the back-story queen, and tend to rely on it too heavily in my own drafts. Later, in subsequent drafts, all that stuff only I need to know, or the reader can figure out for himself unravels in action or dialogue. This process often takes multiple revisions.

The dependence on back-story in this novel makes me wonder: just whose story is it? Is George our protagonist? If so, why are alternating viewpoints, written in third person by numerous characters, used throughout as a structure? If George is in fact our hero, alternating points of view in first person about George can work. But in this case the novelist appears to be giving several characters stories equal time where a.lot of attention was given to a grandmother character. (Granted, I didnt read it; I only skimmed it.) Is it ultimately granny's story? Perhaps George is not the protagonist. Maybe hes the antagonist.

Why am I reading this? If I need to work this hard trying to figure out why I should be reading something, I dont finish it.

This unnamed-novel-with-the-lovely- cover fails on several levels:

Rooting Qualities- Who am I rooting for? Why?

Structure- Where is this tale going?

Show Dont Tell- back-story explains too much.
Let the reader figure it out. The reader will form a deeper connection
if you dont tell him/her how and what to think.

I wish this author good luck and book sales. Now that he/she has written and published a novel perhaps his/her next novel will demonstrate improved story telling skills.  

Happy Writing.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Family Can Be a Blessing

The Blessings, by Elise Juska, begins with eighteen year-old Abby, away at college in Maine, and missing her large family back in Philadelphia. Yet when she visits for the holidays, amid the clatter and chatter of her large Irish Catholic clan, The Blessings, Abby realizes she has already become a separate entity from them.

At the novel’s outset, the Blessings are a Norman Rockwell family portrait, but when one, then another family member dies, cracks on the surface become more prominent.

In this realistic contemporary novel, each chapter is told through a different family member’s point of view. The tale reveals a twenty year look inside the machinations of family and key individual members of the Blessing clan. Juska deftly makes each voice discernible from another, and provides a full bodied portrait of this family. The structure and tone are reminiscent of You Know When the Men Are Gone by Siobhan Fallon, and Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge.

While there are no original discoveries here, the story serves to remind us of our heritage, and how in different phases of our lives connections to family strengthens and wavers, yet we cannot totally separate ourselves from our birthright.

In the author interview at the end of the book, Juska says she would like to develop some of her character’s stories further. I hope she does. I’d like to find out what transpires next within the next twenty years of the Blessing family.

The Blessings is available May 6, 2014 from Grand Central Publishing.

Happy Reading.