Category Archives: Book Reviews

Review of Write Your Novel from the Middle by James Scott Bell

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Review of Write Your Novel from the Middle by James Scott Bell

Write Your Novel From the Middle: A New Approach for Plotters, Pantsers and Everyone in Between by James Scott Bell is not a comprehensive guide for fiction writers; neither is it a book for beginners. For someone who has at least written a complete first draft, it would be helpful in focusing your rewrite. In your subsequent stories, Bell’s technique will save you much grief, because you’ll know what to do in the dreaded middle of the tale.

Book open to middle

Bell says there is a pivotal moment of truth at the midpoint of the story that pulls together the entire novel. Here the main character does one of two things:

  • In a character-driven story, the MC looks at himself and makes a decision about the person he’s becoming. Does he like himself? Does he have to change the way he operates? How is the struggle he’s involved in affecting him?
  • In plot-driven fiction, the MC evaluates her objective and realizes that going forward is going to cost her dearly; she will surely die, if not physically, then emotionally or professionally. And she makes the decision to go forward. (If not, end of story!)

I was relieved to discover my work-in-perpetual-progress does have this defining moment close to the midpoint, without me knowing Bell’s theory or planning for it. (Phew!) Bell’s research shows that it’s virtually universal in successful books and movies.

Interestingly, Bell discusses this most important information in Chapter 5 of 9. A coincidence?

After Chapter 9, he also includes five helpful writing tips.

Write Your Novel From the Middle is a quick read. I have it on my Kindle, but if you prefer hard copy, it won’t take up much space on your writing books shelf, where it would be a valuable addition. I rate it four stars out of five: what it does, it does well, but it won’t solve all your writing problems, nor does Bell claim it will.

Review of Where the Past Begins by Amy Tan

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Review of Where the Past Begins by Amy Tan

I’ve always felt a kinship with Amy Tan. She is the daughter of Chinese immigrants; I’m the daughter of German immigrants. She understands going to school and being different from the other kids, having parents who are different. She is the same age as me, and she married her husband around the same time I married mine. I feel like we’ve lived parallel lives.

Amy_Tan

Amy Tan would be annoyed I presume to know her. In Where the Past Begins, she says, “I am not the subject matter of mothers and daughters or Chinese culture or immigrant experience that most people cite as my domain.” Oops. That’s entirely what I think about her books. So apparently, I’m mistaken. I don’t get her at all. She goes on to explain, “I am a writer compelled by a subconscious neediness to know, which is different from a need to know. The latter can be satisfied with information. The former is a perpetual state of uncertainty and a tether to the past.” Tan writes to understand who she is in this world. She often explores old family stories in her work, copiously researching to learn what is historically accurate and how circumstances impacted the people who came before her.

Where the Past Begins grew out of Tan’s editor, Daniel Halpern’s, suggestion that she write a book about her process, based on “some of the thousands of e-mails I bombarded him with during the writing of The Valley of Amazement.” Tan didn’t like the concept, and I’m glad because the book is so much more; the one chapter that consists of some of the e-mails is not as interesting to me as it was to Mr. Halpern.

The rest of the book blends together the story of her life, her parents’ lives, and even her grandmother’s too-short life; it’s fascinating reading. Much of her writing process is described, especially concerning The Valley of Amazement. I am comforted somehow to learn that Tan suffers from the same insecurities that I and so many of my writer friends do—that the current project will never be finished, that it won’t be good enough…

There are photographs, too. Some of her grandmother, her parents, young Amy and her brothers, and pictures Tan has drawn. I love the pictures of Amy in the 1950s; they could have been me in my fluffy-skirted dresses. Her Christmas picture shows a tree decorated just like the ones from my childhood, with individual strands of tinsel meticulously hung from the branches; my family owned a TV just like the one standing in the corner of the Tan living room.

Where the Past Begins

Tan details some of the devastating pain in her life: the deaths of her older brother and her father from brain tumors within six months of each other when she was a teen; her mother’s battles with mental illness and Alzheimer’s disease.

There are surprises, as well: I didn’t know Tan has a Bachelor’s degree in English and a Masters and Ph.D. in linguistics.

Reading Where the Past Begins makes me want to reread her earlier (2003) memoir, The Opposite of Fate. I suspect some of the same facts appeared there, but I’d forgotten.

Where the Past Begins is well worth the investment of time and money, especially if you like Tan’s novels. As a lily-white American of European heritage, I found reading about Tan’s family history compelling and enlightening.

Review of Lust for Life by Irving Stone

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Van Gogh: Self-Portrait with Grey Felt Hat

This 1934 novel about the life of painter Vincent Van Gogh seems mistitled. Vincent’s bleak life was marked by recurring periods of depression and shame that he didn’t live up to others’ expectations.

An odd duck who never fit in, Vincent was a pastor’s kid. His family was Dutch, but he lived all over Europe—England, Belgium, Holland, and France. His earliest job was clerking at an art dealership of which his namesake Uncle Vincent was a partner.

Vincent was spectacularly unlucky in love; all of his relationships ended badly. At the end of his first unrequited romance, he left the art dealership to study for the ministry. He then served in a very poor mining community. He endeared himself to his congregation, nursing the ill, scrounging for food for the starving miners, providing for those with needs, to the point that he exhausted his own health. He tried to intercede with the mining company for better wages and working conditions but was unsuccessful. Feeling he wasn’t doing enough for the destitute folk, he suffered a crisis of faith from which he never recovered, and he was removed from his post.

Van Gogh: The Sower

It was then that he began drawing. He drew the miners as they walked to the mine. He went into miners’ huts and drew their families in their homes. For the rest of his life, hardworking people were his favorite subject. His early drawings were considered crude.

Van Gogh: Wheatfield with Crows

His younger brother, Theo, was a successful salesman at the art dealership, and was his most devoted advocate, offering critical advice and financial support all Vincent’s life as he struggled to develop his own style. Theo and Vincent’s extensive lifelong correspondence provided much of the background for Stone’s book.

Buoyed by Theo’s encouragement, Vincent immersed himself in learning his craft, expanding into watercolor and eventually oils. He accumulated cards of art student exercises and copied them. He also cultivated friendships with other artists, including Lautrec, Seurat, Rousseau, Cezanne, and Gauguin, and learned what he could from them. Vincent even tried to set up an artist colony where artists could live and work together. For a time, Gauguin lived with Van Gogh in Arles, but their friendly competition degenerated into conflict. Vincent eventually had a psychotic break and cut off his own ear with a razor.

Van Gogh: Sorrowing Old Man (‘At Eternity’s Gate’)

Van Gogh was diagnosed with epilepsy, but I think his symptoms (including visual hallucinations and hearing voices) were more consistent with Asperger’s, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. He was committed to the asylum at St. Remy, where in due course he started painting again.

Van Gogh’s lifetime body of work included 1,100 drawings and studies and 900 paintings. Though we consider him an artistic genius, only one painting sold during his lifetime.

I read Lust for Life because I saw it listed on multiple people’s lists of their favorite books, and also because I’m a huge Van Gogh fan. I doubt its old-fashioned narrative voice would attract an editor today. Nevertheless, I lost myself in Vincent’s world and feel I know him much better now. This is a great book for all lovers of art and beauty.

 

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Creative Juice #83

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Creative Juice #83

For your idea-sparking pleasure:

Review of Good Poems, selected by Garrison Keillor

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Review of Good Poems, selected by Garrison Keillor

I do not intend to defend or address Keillor’s alleged inappropriate behavior that recently cost him his jobs at Minnesota Public Radio and the Washington Post.

That said, one of my favorite poetry collections is Good Poems for Hard Times, which Keillor assembled, and which led me to acquire his earlier anthology, simply titled Good Poems. And good they are.

Sometimes you need to read a poem multiple times before you can appreciate it, and many of these good poems fall into that category. But others ring from the first read through, delighting me with their cadence, rhyme or humor.

Good Poems

One poem haunted and devastated me: John Updike’s “Dog’s Death,” and I didn’t know why it hit me so hard. We have a little old deaf and blind dachshund, but nothing in her life paralleled the words. That poem disturbed my mind for days almost like an earworm, until I finally unburied an old memory from thirty-five years ago.

When we bought our first house, we bought a beagle puppy from a pet store. He was the cutest little thing, but one day soon after when we took him on a walk, he sat down and walked no further. I thought he was being stubborn, but my husband suspected something was wrong and eventually took the pup to a vet. She diagnosed parvo virus, and tried to treat him, but he didn’t respond, and we had him euthanized. We had been paper training him, and he once dragged himself to the paper to have diarrhea.

In Updike’s poem, the dog sustained an unnoticed injury that ruptured her spleen, and died on the way to the vet. The last stanza is what twisted my heart:

Back home, we found that in the night her frame,
Drawing near to dissolution, had endured the shame
Of diarrhoea and had dragged across the floor
To a newspaper carelessly left there. Good dog.

Keillor expertly arranges the poems in this book. For example, these two poems, sharing the same name and obviously related, were printed on opposite sides of the same page:

This Is Just to Say
William Carlos Williams

I have eatenjoanna-kosinska-199279
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
saving
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

This Is Just to Say
Erica-Lynn Gambino
(for William Carlos Williams)

I have just
asked you to
get out of my
apartment

even though
you never
thought
I would

Forgive me
you were
driving
me insane

Which led me to wonder—did the poets know each other?

One nice feature which Good Poems shares with Good Poems for Hard Times is a section at the back of the book containing short biographies of each of the included poets. I immediately found the one for William Carlos Williams, 1883-1963, but I couldn’t find the one for Erica-Lynn Gambino. I was heartbroken. Should I write to Penguin Books and tell them there’s an omission? I tried closing the book and opening it again, but still no biography appeared for Gambino. It bothered me.

 

320px-GKpress

Photo by Prairie Home Productions

Until I finished the entire book and read through all the biographies (I’m a little obsessive-compulsive that way) and found Erica-Lynn Gambino Huberty, b. 1969. So no, the poets did not know each other personally. Mystery solved.

 

The poems are interestingly organized into nineteen categories: O Lord, A Day, Music, Scenes, Lovers, Day’s Work, Sons and Daughters, A Good Life, Beasts, Failure, Complaint, Trips, Snow, Yellow, Lives, Elders, The End, and The Resurrection. Some poems would have been appropriate to more than one category, and I found it amusing that they ended up where they did.

Yes, this is definitely a good bunch of poems, but be patient with them. Some I didn’t care for on first reading, but they became more meaningful after repeated visits. And probably some won’t be your cup of tea no matter what. But it’s still worth mining for the gems that resonate.

Guest Post: My Favorite Christmas Books by Linda Carlblom

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Guest Post: My Favorite Christmas Books by Linda Carlblom

A big thank you to Linda Carlblom for these Christmas reading recommendations. Linda is the author of Meet Shelby Culpepper and other books for tweens.

Doing Life Together

At Christmas, I sometimes like to read something that gets me in the Christmas spirit. I’ll share a few of the books that have helped me do that.

marys-journal-bookMary’s Journal, A Mother’s Story by Evelyn Bence gives life to Jesus’s mother, before she conceived him, during her pregnancy, and in the early years of Jesus’ life. It is imaginatively written, but done in such a way that it seems very believable. I gained fresh insight into that time period, its customs, and what might have been some of Mary’s thoughts and feelings as the mother of God’s Son.

shepherds-abidingShepherd’s Abiding by Jan Karon is the heartwarming story of Father Tim trying to restore an old nativity for his wife, Cynthia. It’s filled with the usual quirky characters from Mitford and written with Karon’s typical warmth and humor. If you’re a Mitford fan, you need to add this to your collection.

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Review of Growing Gills by Jessica Abel

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Review of Growing Gills by Jessica Abel

Jessica Abel is a prolific comic book author, a writer, a cartoonist, and the chair of the illustration program at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. I became aware of her through her excellent blog. When I discovered she wrote a book about creative focus, I knew I wanted to learn from her.

Abel conducts workshops in creative focus, so her approach is very hands-on. The book is very hands-on, too. Each chapter has homework that applies the skills she talks about in the text, practical activities that will help you implement a different way of preparing, thinking, and working. I confess I haven’t done the exercises—yet—but I see how readers don’t fully benefit from just reading the book (you’ll just forget and work the way you always have); if you want to increase your focus (and productivity), you have to change the way you operate. The exercises enable you to implement successful creative strategies.

Growing Gills

Growing Gills is subtitled How to Find Creative Focus When You’re Drowning in Your Daily Life. It’s not a quick read. Transforming your creative life takes time.

The 19 chapters cover topics such as identifying passions and obstacles, idea debt, open loops, self-compassion, prioritizing, and breaking down a project into manageable tasks.

The book is divided into four parts.

In Part 1, So, What’s Stopping You, Abel identifies and defines what prevents creatives from finishing projects.

Part 2, Build your Custom-Powered Exoskeleton, covers goal-setting and creating a system to schedule your tasks and track your progress.

Part 3, Aligning your Today with your Tomorrow, helps you build a creative routine with enough flexibility that you don’t ignore your other life responsibilities.

Part 4, Falling Down & Getting Up, tells how to get going again when you get stuck.

Growing Gills is well-written by an established artist and writer, who understands the challenges of a being a creative, and has helped others overcome hurdles to productivity. It is well worth your time to read it, but do the associated activities to actually grow your own gills.