Taking Issue: A Lesser Writer?

The following quote is from today’s issue of Shelf Awareness, a daily e-digest regarding all things book:

The People of Forever Are Not Afraid: A Novel by Shani Boianjiu (Hogarth, $24, 9780307955951). “An utterly explosive debut, this novel in stories follows three young women who serve in the Israeli army, and it is not for the faint of heart. Boianjiu is not interested in preaching politics or rehashing battle scenes as a lesser writer might; she sticks to her characters, tracing their often uncertain progress toward adulthood. There are no pat endings here. The army, compulsory to Israeli citizens, is not, after all, some summer camp. No matter how you feel about the conflicts that Boianjiu describes, you will be riveted by her fresh perspective on them.” –Danielle DuBois Diamond, Brazos Bookstore, Houston, Tex.

What struck me, aside from the intriguing summary of the book, was the reviewer’s statement about “a lesser writer”.

It happens all the time: Given the same set of words in the same language, people often say — and mean — very different things. What the reviewer intended by “a lesser writer” might not be what I interpreted when I read it. However, I cannot read the reviewer’s intentions, only my reception of those words.

Here’s what they say to me: If one writes battle scenes or promotes an agenda, one is not a good writer.

I am all for leaving agendas at home and telling good stories instead. That’s not what we get, however, because we writers are human, and what we think, feel, believe bleeds into our work. That’s true of everyone, not just writers. Our actions speak what our mouths may not.

One writer might present his agenda in clumsy, heavy-handed verbiage, while another might be more subtle about it, but the “preaching politics” happens all the time, and much as I might disagree with much of those views, I have to give credit to good writing where I find it. Sometimes, that writing belongs to someone whose politics are entangled in a story I find intriguing. A lesser writer with opposing views will not keep me interested in his story, but a good writer may.

As for the other charge — that of writing battle scenes — I must vehemently disagree. Hand-to-hand combat, a sprawling battle , every kind of fight, is a challenge to write well. The author must keep the reader’s interest, must keep the scenes real, and yet not let the action become too play-by-play so that the reader’s eyes glaze over and his mind numbs. Excellent writing is required.

So, I am left to interpret the reviewer’s words as her personal preference. She simply does not wish to read about battles and politics. A preference, however, is not a fact. Therefore, her “lesser writers” may in fact have great skill, and tell fascinating stories. They should continue to do so.

Secrets, a review

I hadn’t planned on reading a romance novel this past weekend — I was feeling more of a science fiction vibe — but there are several historicals and modern romances in the stack of stuff I’ve promised to read and review, and Secrets has an interesting premise, so I dove right in.

And am I glad I did. Before this book, I’d never read anything by Kristen Heitzmann, but I certainly will in the future.

Excerpted from the book’s page on the Bethany House website:

The old villa needed what Rese Barrett could do as well as any man on the crew. Trained by the best, she had honed her skills with a passion for quality, an eye for detail, and no room for compromise. Renovation was her joy–taking something old and making it new without changing the heart if it. But this time the inn she restored was hers, and this time she worked alone….

Chef, musician, and spellbinder, Lance talked his way into her plans before she’d even made them and had Rese telling secrets she’d never before revealed.  He spoke of faith as if he could touch it, but how much more was left unsaid?

My daddy is a carpenter, and my brother and I worked for him at various times in our childhood and young adult years, doing anything from cleaning up nails and sawdust on new construction sites to painting the walls of historic homes, so I appreciated the renovation and woodworking aspects of this story. I could well identify with this passage from chapter two:

The whine grew to a pained wail that set her teeth on edge in a way it never had before. It passed with a breathy whiff of new maple, mingling brazenly with musty damp and age. Rese breathed the scent that had filled her lungs more comfortably than the purest air. She let go the trigger on the miter saw and examined the fresh cut on the section of molding, then approved it with her fingertips.

Maple, oak, and cherry had been her companions as long as she could remember. The plane had molded her palm; the chisel had developed her eye and fingers. She knew her way around any power tool on the market, had shot nails, routered trim, sanded and carved and finished every wood worth using. She’d also laid pipe and run wires, though it didn’t compare to working the wood. Nothing did.

Heitzmann, Kristen (2004-09-01). Secrets (The Michelli Family Series Book #1) (pp. 17-18). Baker Book Group. Kindle Edition.

It was even more interesting that the female lead is the carpenter, and the male lead is the cook, a nice juxtaposition of roles that fits well with the characters’ personalities. I enjoyed a few giggles at his frustration over her lack of reaction to his excellent cooking. There’s also a spritely elderly neighbor, Evvy, who gains amusement by watching the young folks next door work out their differences and solve the mysteries of their pasts even as they bring two old structures back to life.

They were no longer in sight, but she stood at the window drawing the inch of fresh air in with small, pathetic breaths. She still imagined herself a robust, mite-sized dynamo, in spite of the cane, the aches, the time it took to do any small thing. Young at heart was a cliché, and Lord knew, her heart was as old as the rest of her. Youth, however, was a matter of perspective.

It might truly be wasted on the young, as the saying went, who had too little experience to see clearly. Take the angst-ridden pair next door. Without perspective, it was easy to squabble over little things. All that energy, and so little temperance. Evvy chuckled. That was what made them so much fun.

Heitzmann, Kristen (2004-09-01). Secrets (The Michelli Family Series Book #1) (p. 52). Baker Book Group. Kindle Edition.

I enjoyed this many-layered novel peopled by interesting, believable characters. Lance’s and Evvy’s faith is strong, and they share it with the other characters, but not in a heavy-handed or preachy way. Nearly all the characters change and grow, even the minor ones I didn’t necessarily like. Heitzmann tackles tough topics — abuse, mental illness, organized crime, family relationships, forgiveness, trust, love, faith — but does so without the shallow melodrama I’ve come to expect from novels in this genre.

Another thing I appreciate is her grasp of the subjects she includes in the story. She either researched or had first-hand knowledge of carpentry, construction crews, mental health matters, Italian cooking, and more. I enjoy stories that are enriched by the author’s knowledge of setting, careers, skills, time period; deft handling of those elements helps me trust the author.

One thing I’d change if I could: the proofing. I’m an editor, so one thing that affects my enjoyment of a novel is the smoothness of the text. There were some unclarified pronouns (which “he” or “she” did the author intend?) in a couple places, and sometimes the actions of one character were paired with the dialogue of another, which made for hiccups in reading, pulling me out of the story while I detangled who was talking or what was happening. Some of the errors could have been formatting glitches in the e-book. Those instances are few, however, merely cosmetic flaws in an otherwise well-told tale.

Secrets was published in 2004, and is the first in The Michelli Family Series, followed by Unforgotten (2005),  and Echoes (2007). Read more about the author and her work at her website.

What’s My Motivation?

When I was a young writer — and I do mean young, as in elementary school and junior high — I had a difficult time understanding the advice from teachers and other writers that my stories needed more conflict in order to be interesting, and that my characters needed logical reasons for doing and saying what they did. They had to be real, not just dolls I arranged as I wished.

The difficult advice did soak in — finally. It took my reading a particular novel filled with serviceable but not artful writing, with an interesting premise that soon became flat, and peopled by characters the author pushed and prodded into roles that were awkward and not in keeping with who they were. There was a romance thread, for instance, that was painful to read, it was so forced and emotionally void.

I remember expressing my annoyance to my mother, who had read the book, too. We debated whether or not to read any more in the series, in hopes that the writer improved her craft between one book and the next, but decided we had better things to do and better books to read.

Decades later, I’m still learning how to write real emotion and believable characters. In addition to reading excellent work and striving to write it, I’ve learned much from editing the work of others. Sometimes, more than hearing or reading advice, we need to see it.

The aforementioned novel was in the forefront of my thoughts recently when I completed the second round of edits on a manuscript under contract for publication. The author can put together sentences and paragraphs, but her work suffers from the same ailments as that long-ago novel: illogical actions, skin-deep emotions, and redundant dialogue. I sent it back again with more notes, more challenges, hoping to pull excellence from a writer who has yet to break free of preconceived notions and let her characters act naturally, rather than pressing them into a tired, shallow mold.

A few years ago, I might have been kinder, gentler, in the editing. I didn’t feel I had the right or the knowledge to critique someone else’s art, especially that of an elder. Then one of those elders reminded me that we writers tend to elevate what we do to some level of squishy mysticism when it is, in reality, a craft. It must be practiced, honed, improved.

Not only did that statement help me to see my own work in a more pragmatic light, it helped me toughen mentally, and learn how to be straight-up with clients. My motivation changed from protecting myself to challenging fellow writers, from being merely a cheerleader to becoming a coach.

So, what’s my motivation?

As an editor, it’s helping fellow writers.

As a reader, it’s education or entertainment (and it’s great when they come in the same volume).

As a writer, it’s to — I hope — create stories that I can share with others. (It helps if I like to read my stories, too!)

If I motivate my characters, and allow them to act in keeping with their personalities, jobs, challenges, dreams, goals, abilities, obsessions, friendships, enmities, et cetera, my stories will come alive, and will be less likely to disappoint my readers.

Grammar Links and Other Writing Resources

Below are ten links to sites geared toward helping writers write well, and one site dedicated to helping writers publish, promote, and sell their work.

1) Grammar Girl: part of the Quick and Dirty Tips website that covers a host of topics.

2) The Grammar Curmudgeon: still-active website of the late Grumpy Grammarian; contains a wealth of information.

3) Merriam-Webster Online: free dictionary and thesaurus; an expanded subscription service is also available.

4) WhiteSmoke blog: WhiteSmoke is a software for folks who are learning English and need to write in that language, but there are some basic reminders for us native speakers.

5) Professor Malcolm Gibson’s Wonderful World of Editing: cartoons and humor and good advice.

6) Grammar-Quizzes.com: just what its name suggests; for teachers or independent learners.

7) The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation: search the site or order the book. Excellent resource.

8) Every Writer’s Resource: links to articles, interviews, contests, magazines, etc.

9) Writer’s Resources: e-books, articles, software, and more.

10) BookBaby: one-stop shop for writers interested in self-publishing; includes free instructional e-books for download.

I’m always on the lookout for excellent resources, and am happy to share with others the ones I find. If you have any tips or materials that have helped you improve your writing craft, pass ’em on!