The Intrigues of Jennie Lee: A Novel

by Alex Rosenberg
Top Hat Books
book review by Joe Kilgore

“She needed to lament, to weep, to howl. It felt to her that, somehow, she had killed her lover, her partner, the person she cared for most in the world.”

Exceptional storytelling is ever-present in this continuously involving tale of historical fiction. Filled with famous characters such as Lady Astor, Winston Churchill, Lloyd George, Walter Reuther, and more, the novel sweeps readers into a world of hidden agendas, secret betrayals, public posturing, and private assignations that made up British politics in the late 1920s and early 1930s.

This is first and foremost the story of Jennie Lee, a young woman in Parliament dedicated to helping poverty-stricken and long-suffering constituents. To do so, she has to match wits with powerful politicians and master manipulators more concerned with staying in charge than changing things for the better. Lee is a heroine who feels like today’s woman in yesterday’s times. She defies convention in both her public and private life, refusing to let society or suitors dictate how she conducts herself. When revelations and loyalties challenge her strength and resolve, she repudiates the idea of doing what’s convenient for doing what’s right. But she is mightily tested when she’s pulled into schemes that threaten to overwhelm her.

Rosenberg is an excellent writer who captures the tenor of the times. He fills his tale with particularly interesting political duels that equal the internal battles going on within his protagonist. His prose is potent, and his dialogue never feels too contemporary for the period. Some may take exception to the actual changing of certain events. But just as film director Quentin Tarantino sometimes sacrifices historical accuracy for dramatic impact, Rosenberg employs vividly exciting action when opting for fiction over fact. That’s one of the things that makes novels such as this one a treat to read.

RECOMMENDED by the US Review

White Seed: The Untold Story of The Lost Colony of Roanoke

by Paul Clayton
Amazon.com Services
book review by Gabriella Tutino

“He was playing his part in all of this, pretending that they could make a go of it in this God-forsaken place.”

Maggie Hagger is just one of many passengers leaving England and making her way to Chesapeake, Virginia, in 1587 as one of the future citizens of Sir Walter Raleigh’s colonies. Raleigh’s Virginia promises the start of a new life to Maggie and others—like the newly appointed Governor John White, as well as Captain Stafford and his soldiers—but first, they must survive the journey to the Americas. Yet Maggie and the other colonists soon learn that settling down in Chesapeake will be much harder, as tensions between the Native American tribes there and prior English settlers still exist. Labeled as one of America’s oldest mysteries, the failed colony of Roanoke is at the heart of this novel, which explores the possibilities of what went wrong and what happened to the inhabitants.

Readers do not need to be history buffs to enjoy Clayton’s tale; it is well-researched and presents many of the political and economic issues at hand without being overbearing on context. On a surface level, the journey to the Americas is a chance for colonists to establish a new life overseas. Beyond that, a successful establishment of the colonies would grant more power to Sir Walter Raleigh and England, who were in direct competition with Spanish explorers, as well. The Spanish believed that gold from the New World would be the key to riches and success, while England’s goal was to establish outposts for trading goods. The author emphasizes this point, particularly when Fernandes—the sailor and navigator hired to help bring the English to Chesapeake—dumps the colonists in Roanoke to continue his search for “prizes.”

Clayton captures early colonial and early Native American life well. The novel is full of rich detail about many of the tasks of building or maintaining a society, and there is a sense of excitement as the colonists get settled and get their bearings, even though the future is uncertain. The author sets up the novel in a clever way that has the reader rooting for both the members of the Roanoke colony as well as the Croatoans. The relationships between the colonists and the Native American tribes on the land is a delicate one, and the author does a great job at showcasing the many different attitudes that exist between the three groups of inhabitants there: the Croatoans, the Secotan, and the colonists. Tension exists between all three due to acts of violence, fear, and power. But there is also love, as well as alliances, as exhibited by the blossoming relationship between Maggie and Manteo, the Croatoan interpreter.

This is a story about ambition, power, and survival, and the slow and steady decline of morale and trust in each other is fascinating and horrifying as it plays out page by page. Hope and survival are at odds with each other as the colonists make attempts to carry on civilly, but many of their efforts are futile once the soldiers’ mutiny is complete. The end of the novel is especially haunting, as the author hints at what may have transpired to cause Roanoke to disappear.

Start Finishing: How to Go from Idea to Done

by Charlie Gilkey
Sounds True
book review by Yousra Medhkour

“You have to lose yourself in the project only to find you’re a different person on the other side, for as we create, we’re creating ourselves.”

When striving toward achievement with any sort of project or goal, most are all too familiar with getting sidetracked or lost along the way. Whether it be dwindling motivation, a lack of time to focus on the things that matter to you because of family and work obligations, or procrastination, Gilkey provides a detailed plan of getting the gears into motion and finishing the projects you’ve started—more specifically what he calls your “best work.” This concept of best work is a powerful one because it highlights that the projects you want to do are the ones that will fill you with meaning and purpose in life. Your best work isn’t just a task to check off on a list once complete, but a means for you to thrive.

To explain what best work is and the habits you need to break or make for it, Gilkey divides his book into three parts that include a total of ten chapters. The importance of the book’s structure is that it allows the reader to dive into any section of their choosing, depending on what they want to learn. In other words, if a person skips a few chapters or starts in the second or third part, one is still bound to gain knowledge that will help a person better strive towards finishing their best work.

One of the aspects of this book that makes it engaging and helpful is that it’s not just a list of steps to follow. Rather than providing lists to follow robotically, Gilkey shares practical advice that takes into account that the reader is human. He says, “Doing your best work will thus require you to constantly be on the verge of failing,” because if it wasn’t your best work, you wouldn’t be putting your capabilities to the test. It wouldn’t be easy. There will be downfalls, and you will—more often than not—be your worst enemy or obstacle that gets in the way of accomplishing your best work.

In fact, Part One of this book is not just a guide to getting around external barriers but also a motivational discussion that focuses on the internal—how to convince yourself that you are capable of more than you often give yourself credit for. Following the whys of our woes and how to get past the obstacle of ourselves, Part Two is where Gilkey begins to layout methods to getting your best work out into the world. Though he provides an influx of advice, what strings it all together is his detailed look at both goal-making and organization. Without these two factors, reaching the finish line is extremely difficult. He describes how simple things such as adding verbs to your to-do list, splitting a task into smaller chunks to make it less daunting, and more can make an incredible difference. Gilkey even explains how environment, sound, and smell can have an astonishing impact on getting work done. All of these factors sizzle down to organization, whether through schedules (as discussed in Part Three), your surroundings, the people you choose to be your supporters, etc. Essentially, Gilkey accomplishes showing rather than telling as he uses his experience, both as a leader in the Army and through his research and interaction with clients.

Moreover, even the aesthetic of the book’s layout portrays more than its face value. Every page is crisp and neatly designed, largely thanks to the plethora of white space both around and between pages. It makes the book look inviting rather than intimidating, emphasizes the sense of organization that Gilkey says is key to success in any project, and makes it easier to read because of the lack of visual distractions that some other books might have. Gilkey’s conversational writing style also makes it easy to read as it carries his points across without a stutter.

The 2020 Eric Hoffer Book Award Grand Prize Winner

RECOMMENDED by the US Review

The Book Killers: Weak Point of View

The Book Killers: White Room

In this ongoing series, Christopher Klim, author and senior editor of the US Review of Books, takes a look at common errors that undermine books.

White room syndrome happens when a writer fails to give sufficient information about the setting. For the reader, this can be disorienting if not completely boring. Perhaps there are times when the writer desires this effect, but it isn’t the norm. Setting is the writer’s friend, and it should be exploited at every opportunity. A good writer employs the most interesting aspects of location to strengthen the drama. A great writer paints the entire landscape with a single sentence.

In theory, a story spans a particular time period. Booksellers like to classify stories as historical, contemporary, and futuristic. This is nothing more than past, present, and future respectively, and each changes the parameters of setting. Let’s take a closer look at each category.

The Past

The past is recorded in the annals of history. The writer connects with this information through personal experience, experts, and documentation. While expert sources are good, our own memory of the past is unreliable and must be verified. We often don’t remember things exactly as they were, even once familiar details. We also romanticize the past. Hanging clothes on the line, piece by piece, on a warm spring afternoon sounds sweet, but it was never as nice as shoving them in the dryer.

Another aspect of the past involves historical events. Consider history in two ways: as a backdrop or as an immediate surrounding. In the opening to The World According to Garp, World War II is a backdrop. It fills the air with tension, although the specifics of war never enter the picture. In the film, Pearl Harbor the surprise attack takes over the story and frankly crowds the personal stories. If a story gets close to a major historical event, it will dominate the narrative.

The Present

A story in current times includes the tangible past and future. The writer is not redesigning the world but employing it for dramatic effect. Regardless, intriguing locations exist in present times: a peek inside surgery, life on an oil drilling platform, or the machinations of a textile factory in China. Most people haven’t viewed these locations up close, but each writer has witnessed unique settings and might make use of them.

The Future

Fifty years ago, we were projected to be commuting to the space wheel in the sky, with a four-day workweek and loads of playtime for interesting new social games. It appears that the experts guessed wrong. By all accounts, the coming years will be dirtier, noisier, and more crowded, if not busier. This is what made the movie Blade Runner so special, besides the twisted ending. The future is open to interpretation, but whatever world is designed for a story, it must be a logical extension of its own history. In Dune, the author included a lexicon inn the back pages, and, to his many readers, it’s a road map for a real world.

Where is the story location?

Story scenes occur in one or more locations. These are physical locations on the planet or in the imaginary world of the writer, although placement is not the only consideration of setting location. A story focus varies from a wide to a tight view. One writer may traverse the global landscape in pursuit of a story, while another remains in the same room for the duration. In either case, writers seek the extraordinary details, and much like character details, even the most mundane parts can achieve intrigue and brilliance.

What is life like in the story?

This is a broad question, involving many aspects of life at a particular location and moment in time. A writer considers food, clothing, transportation, education, occupation, religion, and language, and the list of possibilities is much larger. Any social behavior or lifestyle element may be useful to the story. The Pennsylvania Amish live differently than people fifty miles away in downtown Philadelphia. While each is somewhat aware of the other, individuals remain bound to the customs and circumstances of geography and culture.

Tips for Applying Setting:

  • Using setting details is a lot like using character details. Apply them in proportion to their importance to and impact on the story. Every word that appears in the text garners attention. If the writer embellishes a particular aspect, the reader will assume it’s important.
  • Seek interesting details, over the common or mundane. In a present day setting, everyone has a good idea how a steaming coffee mug looks, smells, and feels. On the other hand, the same cup of coffee assumes a new dimension in another time period. In 1776, coffee might take thirty minutes to prepare, while in 2220, coffee might enter your hydration tube at the mere thought of it.
  • Employ characters to interpret the setting in their thoughts and words, rather than straightforward narrative passages. The story will perform double duty, fleshing out the characters and surroundings at the same time.
  • If the story must include pure descriptions in the narrative, try embedding inside passages of dialogue. The landscape will be built without the reader hearing your construction noises in the background.
  • When incorporating setting into a scene, try to include all of the senses. Most of us absorb life with our eyes, followed by our ears and nose, but remember to include touch and taste. These senses become more poignant in a well-crafted story.
  • Setting can facilitate entrances and exits to scenes. The natural machinations of a particular place can provide opportunities to nail down the point and exit the scene.
  • Certain settings can amplify the tension—a bad storm, a lousy neighborhood, a creaking floor.

The list of possible devices and uses is endless. Setting helps, but it’s not a cure-all. However, if the setting isn’t sufficient, the reader will be lost in white room syndrome without a sense of time and place.

Next in The Books Killers series: Wooden Characters

Previously in The Book Killers series: Wandering Plots

Born Crazy

by Bonnie Sanford Collins Bostrom
The Canelo Project
book review by Kate Robinson

“The journey requires of us the ability to leap into darkness, play tag with time and break our own hearts.”

Bostrom’s childhood in the 1940s on a remote ranch in northeastern New Mexico gives her a unique grasp of the rhythms of the natural world, and the simple life oriented toward family and community that shaped her requires a great deal of stamina, resolve, and patience. Bostrom reveals much about the matriarchs of both sides of her family as well as paying homage to the patriarchs, offering a window into the ongoing manifestation of the divine feminine that arises in all cultures. The title seems to nod not only to the oddities and imperfections of Bostrom’s life but to the crazy wisdom that is inherent in the very act of living. She humorously points out in one essay that sperm are both male and female, a simple but revelatory fact not acknowledged in what many see as the patriarchal slant of American culture.

The down-to-earth prose keeps the settings and relationships of the author’s life real and accessible, and the tightly woven entries are just the right length, imbued with the right level of artful thoughtfulness to keep readers interested in turning pages. The essays alone would not be enough to convey the messages that Bostrom sought to share, and these are greatly enhanced and even eclipsed by her finely-tuned, evocative poems and her colorful, cosmically influenced artwork. Bostrom is a poet, philosopher, and visionary artist at heart. It is the verse and visuals of this book that illumine the universal quest for enlightenment. The sublime truth of her mind’s true nature arose through the mundane but fascinating discipline of ranch life and the many hills and valleys of adulthood.

Bostrom recognizes the historical relevance of her childhood, coming of age, and journeys through stages of her adult life commencing in the colorful beatnik era of the late fifties and the psychedelic and conflicted sixties. She allows us to examine her relationships and welcomes our companionship on her spiritual journey. She invites us to freely explore the spiritual path that we all create in one form or another because we are consciousness embedded in material, finite bodies. Bostrom reminds us with nature-based imagery in word and pigment that the spiritual element of life inspires artistic and creative inquiry, even in the simplest or most tormented of lives. This creativity is like a lotus rising from the mud of impermanent physicality to the beauty of the infinite:

How down to the bone our fantasies lie
Like ancient lichen on rotting wood
The green dreams grow.

When we rode our rockets to the moon
Were we actually looking for heaven?
That place, myth tells us,
Where we reunite with family, friends
And winged beings that need no rockets to fly.

This could be just another creatively crafted but ordinary memoir, except that the volume reads like the intimate journal of a true artisan drinking deeply from the well of universal human desire for spiritual equanimity and transformation: “We write for others so they can share what is really a very personal missive to ourselves . . . hunger, pain, grief and suffering bind us. Beauty, joy, compassion and love are even stronger bonds.” Bostrom’s exquisite sharing of her life and thoughts is a gift to be savored.

RECOMMENDED by the US Review

The Book Killers: Weak Point of View

The Book Killers: Wandering Plots

In this ongoing series, Christopher Klim, author and senior editor of the US Review of Books, takes a look at common errors that undermine books.

Perhaps the worst killers of books, albeit fiction or nonfiction, are narratives that lead nowhere fast or, even, those that meander over long periods of time. It’s a primary violation of the contract with the reader: a book that says nothing or accomplishes little. For a period leading up to the 1990s, the bookstore shelves were brimming with beautiful prose seeming to serve either the author or a higher sense of literature. They gained prizes and put us to sleep faster than a late night PBS documentary. They helped to kick the industry in the gut and, in the end, to transform mainstream publishing into what it is today, for better or worse.

While beautiful prose can be stunning in tight space—for example that which is found in better poetry—a book requires readers to stay focused for the long haul in a world with an increasingly shorter attention span. Sooner or later, the much-maligned concept of plotting will enter the writer’s thoughts, and if every book is a journey, plotting is having clues about the trip.

A story journey begins when a character asks: What do I want? Born out of internal or external pressures, it is the genesis of hope and desire. It is the bridge from that first ancient question: Who am I? Crossing that bridge poses the second ancient question: Why am I here? Strong characters take a stab at these questions. There is beauty and drama in the success and failure of answering them. In a strong plot, the story questions are presented as early as possible. Readers align with the desire of the main character and prepare for the trials and tribulations of satisfying it. When it is obscured by fuzzy plot direction or too much background information, the story is regarded as going nowhere or wandering. Those are apt descriptions.

What is drama? To paraphrase Alfred Hitchcock, drama is life without the boring bits. He understood drama. Did you ever see a boring Hitchcock movie? He sketched storyboards—sequential depictions of characters in action. He left nothing to chance, maintaining an eye on the dramatic core of each scene. Some accuse Hitchcock of being calculating and manipulative. Yes indeed, and we thank him for it.

So in the spirit of Hitchcock, who by the way was a guidepost for a young Steven Spielberg, let’s employ the Scene and Sequel technique. It’s a method that can be applied to any book to make its plot stronger.

The Scene

A scene is the basic unit of a story. It is one step in the journey. It can expand over multiple chapters, or more than one scene can exist within a chapter, but a scene is easily removed from the entire story line and analyzed for its merits. When analyzing a scene, look for its dramatic core.

What is the objective? The main character in the scene is trying to accomplish something. This is a sub-goal of the character’s greater story desire. Answering this question gives the scene focus, not to mention an agenda.

What is the problem? A known complication hinders the objective. This may be a personal flaw or problem developed in the story line, but the character cannot reach his objective, unless the character acts upon the problem.

Where is the conflict? A person or thing threatens resolution of the objective. While solving the problem, the character encounters dramatic opposition from another source, thereby threatening a positive outcome.

What is the outcome? At the climax of the scene, the character’s objective is answered in some fashion. The answer progresses the story line and changes the character’s mental, emotional, or physical state.

The Sequel

A sequel appears after a scene. It is an opportunity for the character to digest the previous action. There are three major aspects of a sequel.

Cognition: what does the character think about the previous scene? This is the character’s perception of the recent events.

Emotion: how does the character feel about the previous events? This is the emotional response.

Decision: what will the character do next? The character brings sense and reasoning together to make a decision.

The scene and sequel method is a tool. When a writer approaches a scene, he or she considers who is in the scene, what they are trying to accomplish, where the scene takes place, where it fits on the story line, where lies the dramatic core, and how everything will end up. The scene sketching method above assists the understanding process. Employ it when stuck in a scene that lacks drama. Its pointed questions will expose a scene’s particular weaknesses. Refocusing a scene/sequel or eliminating it entirely—don’t be afraid to cut when necessary—will strengthen the overall plot. It might just save a plot from dying.

Next in The Book Killers series: White Room

Previously in The Book Killers series: Dead Dialogue

The Book Killers: Dead Dialogue

In this ongoing series, Christopher Klim, author and senior editor of the US Review of Books, takes a look at common errors that undermine books.

There are many ways to deliver dead dialogue upon arrival. Flabby, unfocused, and unnatural conversation between characters will kill a book in the best places. Certain readers gloss over narratives, but bear down on the stretches of dialogue. It’s like bugging a nearby conversation, hoping to hear special information uncovered, but poor dialogue disappoints every time, and shakes believability in the characters. Let’s take a look at ways to strengthen dialogue.

Let Them Speak for Themselves

Forced or unnatural conversations betray both the character and writer. When a writer stuffs words and information into the mouths of those in the scene, he creates a bad drama on stage for the purposes of transporting the story. Before the characters can even talk, the writer must understand who they are. When well-drawn characters enter a scene, they begin speaking for themselves. Their cadence and word choice will be a product of their histories and what they desire. They’ll reveal secrets in the subtext. As Robert Stone once said, “All dialogue is a conversation with the soul.”

Keep It Real, But…

While strong characters have a unique manner of speech, too much of it offers speed bumps in the exchange. It forces the reader to constantly interpret to discover the inner meaning of their words. Consider sprinkling dialect and inflection indicators throughout the conversation, instead of marking every instance. Readers will begin hearing the unique voice, without the authorial stage direction. The same goes for dialogue modifiers—those fantastic adverbs that describe their tone. Well-written dialogue wrought through great characters and circumstance will imply the tone without having to describe it.

Tighten Up

In real life, not all conversation has a purpose. We sit over drinks or on the phone and pass the time, revealing nuggets of life along the way. Perhaps, all we gather is a sense of how the other person is feeling at the moment. In a written work, idle conversation is death for the narrative flow, when it should form some of the most interesting stretches.  Great authors effectively enter conversation during its key moments and exit when nothing important is said or when the central message has been delivered. Even within those moments, they trim out the fat, employing color only for impact and to illuminate circumstance and character.

Hear the Voices

Now, we’re dropping back before the first bit of dialogue is written, before the first character exists. Prior to drawing great characters and letting them speak, writers must become a student of voice—both specifically and in general. Everyone speaks differently and at different moments. They reveal the truth on different levels. Eavesdrop on people talking. Be quiet and listen. Learn to hear not only how people speak, but the subtext that emerges within the conversation. For example, liars or those hiding information will say much in the unsaid. Fearful or grieving people will skirt that which affects them most.

To a skilled writer, dialogue arrives fluidly. She knows how and what the characters must say. Others have an inexplicable natural talent for delivering stunning conversation on the page. Many biographers select key moments to insert a phrase or passage that brings the figure to life. This occurs also in fiction, although generally on a wider palette where exact quotations are not required. In all narrative forms, dialogue is one of the writer’s greatest tools, which cannot be overexploited, but can be poorly employed.

Next in The Book Killers series: Wandering Plots

Previously in The Book Killers series: Weak Point of View

 

 

HomoAmerican – The Secret Society

by Michael Dane
Amazon.com Services

book review by Dylan Ward

“This Secret Society, of which I am a member, is no more visible to me than I am to them.”

With the rise of noteworthy novels and biographies from LGBTQ writers such as Paul Lisicky, Noelle Stevenson, Brandon Taylor, and Ocean Vuong, Dane joins the ranks with his hefty, detailed memoir. The reader is invited into Dane’s private, life-long search for identity. With intimate detail, the author reveals a well-traveled, storied life where somewhere along the way he “stopped being a real character,” only recognizing himself in reflections. He examines the painful moments of childhood and his chaotic passage into adulthood. We follow him as he roams among outcasts, immersing himself into an invisible society that is known only to a few. Dane probes the duplexity of visibility and invisibility, like a dancer on stage in front of audiences and an object of desire, yet continuously feeling lonely and invisible. For Dane, he moves through a world of night. He wanders in shadows and “darkness, of passion and pleasure.”

Reflecting upon his upbringing, Dane considers the complex relationships throughout his life, beginning with his parents. At just six years old, he begins to understand that he is different. Growing up in the “spare, gray, cold house” in San Francisco, he fears his father’s “simmering madness” and the unruly gangs that terrorize the streets and his school. His mother’s presence offers little comfort as she too is trapped, unable to fully protect Dane with five children and “a crazy husband.” From this, the author develops conceptions of being “invisible,” of which the only solution is “isolation or amputation of the soul.” His parents’ divorce fractures his family life. He barely escapes his father’s abuse before turning to rebellion and embracing a burgeoning sexuality in junior high. At sixteen in the 1970s, he and America are on the cusp of change. Dane begins to seek out that secret society, which becomes the overarching theme of his narrative. It is dance that opens doors for him, and ballet serves as an outlet, a protective “safe haven” that provides a “magical structure.”

This newfound passion eventually leads him to the ballet schools of New York City. He is twenty but pretends to be younger. He is also vulnerable and unsure of himself, alone in a city of glamour and cruelty. That vulnerability, coupled with physical beauty and innocence, attracts the attention of both men and women in ways good and bad. He meets the half Puerto Rican, half Italian Gerard whose “sense of magic about him” brings new clarity to Dane. Their relationship is complicated as Gerard gives Dane the comfort he seeks while also enticing him into a world of anonymous sex. As Dane explores his needs and wants, he eventually gives in to the “compulsion and desire” while “trapped between mirrors in this world.”

There is a raw, lyric power to Dane’s prose that is seductive and renders the reader unto a “language of the heart.” This is most evident at the start of his memoir, and it returns again with his time in Tehran, dancing for the Shah of Iran in a “mysterious and wild terrain” amid the “snowcapped mountains in the distance.” There, he learns carnal truths and acknowledges masculinity, femininity, and the blurred lines of identity in between.

Dane writes largely about identity while he explores other themes with these pages, too, such as discrimination, sexuality, and freedom. Through Dane, we are witness to significant historical events that shape our political and social landscape. He carefully braids these details into the narrative that forms his coming-of-age tale. There is much to appreciate in Dane’s book as he reflects upon a diverse life. Readers might even find themselves considering their own identities in the myriad ways the author tries to make sense of his. The author’s story is a mix of harrowing moments, happy moments, and sad moments. Dane comes to terms with all that happens to make him the person he is today. His memoir is an unforgettable, absorbing read.

The Book Killers: Weak Point of View

The Book Killers: Weak Point of View

In this ongoing series, Christopher Klim, author and senior editor of the US Review of Books, takes a look at common errors that undermine books.

Much regarding point of view (POV) is the artist’s decision. A good choice can add salient new insight to a familiar subject, as seen for example in Picasso’s cubism or Patti Smith’s Instagram account. In both, they don’t necessarily discuss themselves, but over the course of time, we learn about the artist and more importantly their subject matter. In literature, the POV is the person or thing guiding the narrative, and the subject is the consequence of their focus.

POV comes in a variety of shades and colors. Simply put, the story narrative will appear in either first person (I, we), second person (you), or third person (he, she, they). Everything else is a hybrid of these three basic modes. POV might vary within a given work, but each POV requires the reader to suspend disbelief differently in order to engage with the narrative. First person asks the reader to get inside the skin of the narrator, second person asks the reader to be the narrator, and third person provides distance from the narrator.

Second person is the trickiest, requiring the reader to relate to the narrator at least in a general sense. In contrast, most readers could wear the skin of a serial killer in first person, since the reader understands that he/she is secretly slipping inside the abhorrent mind of the narrator, but a second person narrative asks the reader to be the serial killer, which is hopefully a no-go area for most readers. Finally, third person can be described—and perhaps over-described by literature and writing teachers—as providing a variety of distances from the subject, ranging from a nearby viewer, who reveals what he/she sees, hears, or induces, to an omnipresent seer, who can relate everything from the minds of the players to that which has happened off-screen and any point on the timeline.

In all POVs, the narrator is further moderated by reliability. As with real people, the narrator is effected by his/her own past and thought patterns, and therefore interprets events through this lens. The narrator might also be self-deluded for a variety of reasons (i.e. fear, conceit, mental illness, etc.). When intervieweing people at a crime scene, investigators will hear vastly different accounts of the same event. A narrator who runs askew of the facts is referred to as an “unreliable narrator.” Everything from the events, and especially the reasons for them, cannot be trusted from an unreliable narrator, and the reader may only learn this over time. Lolita‘s self-deluded child predator, Humbert Humbert, is a prime example of the unreliable narrator. Nabokov, helped by the fact that Lolita is no angel, manages dark irony through Humbolt’s ultimately pathetic voice.

Regardless of your choice of POV, two factors emerge to support the work: authenticity and saliency.

Authenticity is not necessarily reliability. Authentic narrators involve accuracy in the character’s portrayal. An obsessed narrator, as Lolita‘s Humbert, or a mentally ill narrator, as in Everything Burns’s pyromaniac Oscar Van Hise, form gripping reads. Neither of these narrators are reliable, but they are true to their deluded selves and draw razor sharp accuracy of events. Both characters form the archetype of a villain, which can be useful narration for the story. Therefore, their characters are authentic, holding the reader in place and heightening the drama. Deriving authenticity in the narrator is not only essential, but it requires deep understanding of the character. An unreliable narrator can be a wonderful way to commute the story, but an inauthentic character portrayal will ground the story to a halt.

On the other hand, saliency in the POV character involves that which stands head and shoulders above all else. This speaks directly to the choice of POV character. The modern world presents a great deal of navel gazing characters, and therefore the popular voice in literature today is predominantly a deep first person narrative, whether it be reliable or not. Here we follow the slipstream of consciousness—that ebb and flow of self-awareness—but is first person the best choice for the story? Sometimes it’s more effective to take a step away within a third person narration, allowing a wider view of events while avoiding unnecessary and uninteresting intimate details. In first person, the author tends to have to account for every moment in time, often moving forward by only breaking from the scene. Meanwhile, third person allows for the easy passage of time, skipping around the timeline, events, and details as needed.

Which choice of POV character is the best? This selection is not always clear. Changing the POV provides a different level of experience, maturity, and perspective. What is the story trying to accomplish? What is the story’s theme, tone, or genre? How much does the narrator need to know or get involved? Each of these questions must be answered before the narrator takes control. A story crashes when a POV character suddenly narrates out of character. She may know things she couldn’t. He may appear at a moment where he shouldn’t. He or she may do or feel as they would not. Forced POV is as obvious as an awkward metaphor.

There are many ways to select a weak POV. Most recently, there’s been a preponderance of a child’s POV dominating adult novels. While this might work for the short form, often a better choice exists with an adult POV character. Even if events surrounding a child are dramatic, a child’s ability to interpret events is limited. Remember, readers must not only be compelled to engage the narrative, but the reader needs to be convinced to stay with it.

Study those who have gone before. The choice of Lolita as the predominant character in Lolita would have stifled the narrative and eliminated the irony. The story would have been different, pathetic even. Never revealing Oscar Van Hise’s motivations for arson would have reduced both the depth and urgency of Everything Burn‘s drama. Van Hise’s reclusive, secretive nature would have been impossible to capture, and he’d be a two-dimensional antagonist, found so popularly in television crime dramas. In each, the POV character was vital to what the author was trying to accomplish beyond the events of the story alone. The reader is left feeling and thinking in a particular way. The POV characters took them to those heights, or lows, in an authentic and natural way.

In the end, art is a dialogue between the artist and viewer. Otherwise the work derives little lasting meaning. In all art dialogues, the secrets of the artist are laid bare, but we are not typically focused on them. To paraphrase seminal playwright Arthur Miller: Our best work occurs where we are most naked. As the viewer of the work, we delve into the core of the narrative as dictated by the POV and subconsciously digest the author’s insights and bits of the author as well. In the best of art, wrought through a transporting POV, we leave with new insights of our own.

Next in The Book Killers series: Dead Dialogue

Previously in The Book Killers series: Unfocused Openings

The Book Killers: Weak Point of View

The Book Killers: Unfocused Openings

In this ongoing series, Christopher Klim, author and senior editor of the US Review of Books, takes a look at common errors that undermine books.

Whether you are a commercial mystery writer or a high-art literary prose specialist, very few people will stay with a book if the opening chapter does not deliver a clear message. With the growing availability of media venues, the competition for people’s attention has never been greater. Even with books, the most successful entertainment or information offerings seize our attention from the outset. Here are some factors to consider when planning, drafting, and revising your opening:

Engagement

As emerging writers, we are told to create action or drama at the opening of our stories. Nonfiction writers, especially biographers, often foreshadow a significant event in their subject’s life, while fiction writers do the same by cherry-picking a critical point on the timeline, but this is not always practical. In general, reader engagement arises by presenting an aspect of the story that generates keen interest. For example, it could be humor or tension that is exemplary of the entire book. The biggest mistake is presenting large amounts of backstory or introductory information at the start. Another version of this misstep is beginning too soon on the timeline. Both of these approaches throw water on the spark of the story. This set up information can be folded into the story at a later time or even removed altogether. In modern times, think about eliminating chapters that begin with the words Foreword, Introduction, Prologue, and Preface—or even Epilogue for that matter because they sap energy from the book. Many readers receive these appendages like homework and skip them to get to the meat of the book.

Mission

A book should have a clearly defined purpose, otherwise it’s just a long and wandering diatribe. A nonfiction book has a thesis, while a work of fiction has a story question. Don’t let any fine writing teacher talk you out of this essential element of a book. All art from poetry to painting has a point. When it’s focused—because its creator knows precisely what it is—the reader or viewer becomes involved with the piece. The writer who says “I write to discover what the story’s about” should be pushed down a flight of stairs. This statement is disingenuous and impractical. While writers discover aspects of and hone down a story during its development, there comes a time when the writer makes a firm commitment to the mission of the book and then goes about amplifying it. A smart writer makes it clear in the opening pages and sometimes even the title.

Presentation

Book openings are like a first date. The writer features what he does well and goes to it often during the course of his relationship with the reader. If the opening is phony, disorganized, or confusing, the reader will never get to the next chapter, and a match made in heaven has been squandered. Quickly establish as many of the following items as possible: the predominant point of view used, the main character(s), the typical setting, and the sequencing. While these aspects help authenticate the story, the latter involves the structure of the book. If the book darts back and forth through time, events, and/or characters, it’s critical to present a pattern from the start. As a result, your story organization will become a silent rhythm in the reader’s mind.

Tone

The tone of the story involves everything from word choice, to sentence structure, to the overall attitude of the narrative and characters. Most stories form a conundrum that ranges from solving a mystery to battling the internal complexities of the human spirit. This can be presented on a scale from terrifying to hilarious. Even if the story tone shifts for dramatic effect, the main tone should be delivered at the start. If the story is a romance, then it’s the longing of the heart. If it’s an intense mystery, then it’s a mangled corpse. If it’s an enduring quest, then the journey’s gauntlet must be cast down.

Epilogue

It’s a self-indulgent or inexperienced writer who does not recognize the trend to immediately engage the reader. In fact, it isn’t a trend, but a well-established precept of successful writing. If you are currently writing to figure out what the story is about or where the story begins, then stop! Park your pen and take a moment to do some sketching and outlining before you draft another word. Ask your characters why they’ve entered the room and what they want from the story. If they can’t tell you, then they either need to leave or you need to get to know them better before pushing them along their story line. Once you know their stories and what they want, find the first worst moment on their timeline and begin the story right there.

Next in The Book Killers series: Weak Point of View

Previously in The Book Killers series: Stilted Writing