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.

The Authority of Book Awards

Most authors, either through their own efforts or those of a PR firm, seek validation and publicity for their books. Recognition by a reputable book award can do both. While many award contests are open to small and independent press authors, the landscape is full of both charlatans and champions. As the Chairman of the Eric Hoffer Book Award for the last decade, I’ve helped develop a set a criteria that has maintained consistency and integrity. This criteria should apply to any book award you are considering. In the spirit of transparency, I’ll apply each of the following questions to the Eric Hoffer Book Award as well.

How many registrants are accepted each year? The number of annual entrants should be available upon request both during and after registration. The overall number relates to public interest in the award. If only a few hundred or less register annually, then the book award is probably not worthy of your consideration. Each year, over one thousand entries register for the Hoffer Award. Our coordinator provides detailed registration information during the year and especially after the final results are tabulated in the spring.

What are the registration fees? This helps determine if the book award exists to help the authors or enrich the host of the award. The Hoffer Award registration fee is kept intentionally low. Some awards charge for every entry combination, which results in hundreds of dollars to fully register a book. For the Hoffer Award, a single category registration exposes your book to all higher level awards. The staff is composed of volunteers, although a small honorarium is given to the category judges. Clearly no one is getting rich for their hours worth of service. The bulk of our budget goes to shipping books around the country for evaluation.

What is the award focus? Many awards focus on certain genres or are known for one genre more than another. A little research should reveal this information. The Hoffer Award was designed to be all-inclusive across eighteen unique categories. Our registration committee ensures that each book reaches the correct judging committee.

What awards are given? Beyond cash prizes, recognition by a reputable award is much more valuable to the success of your book. Some awards honor only a grand prize and a handful of finalists, which means only a small percentage of worthy offerings are being recognized. The Hoffer Award offers a grand cash prize; winners, runners-up, and honorable mentions in eighteen categories; press type distinctions; the First Horizon Award, Montaigne Medal, da Vinci Eye, and Medal Provocateur; and a group of category finalists. From thousands of registrants come over one hundred prizewinners and dozens of finalists. Each author is able to capitalize on these honors in various ways.

Who are the judges? Without clearly stating who the judges are, your book will likely be evaluated by unqualified in-house staff (i.e. inexperienced general readers). The Hoffer Award has over one hundred experienced category readers, who typically include librarians, literary agents, and category professionals. Judges are carefully vetted via resume/CV, references, and an interview with one of our coordinators. Judges are annually graded and rejoined/released based on their individual performance. It is not unusual for a returning judge to receive notes on improvement for the coming award year. To keep judges fresh, they are rotated into different qualified categories whenever possible.

What is the publicity campaign? Try to determine if the award uses traditional or modern campaigns, if any campaign at all. Merely posting results on their website is not a publicity campaign. The Hoffer Award uses a combination of promotional activities via press releases, media coverage, and the Internet. Our partnership with the US Review of Books has been highly beneficial to authors. (More on that later.) We also get honorees and entrants involved via social media to help promote each other. In the future, we are planning more innovative ways of cross-promotion via entrant participation. Some entrants have done very well with only an award nomination.

What is the award reach? The ways in which the award results are viewed and processed aids the success of honorees. The Eric Hoffer Award results are published within the US Review of Books, which is read by over 15,000 subscribers and tens of thousands of monthly visitors and followers. (The US Review reports a significant spike in traffic in the months surrounding the award announcements.) As the Chairman, I have firsthand experience of literary agents and publishers who scout our book award results for new authors and books. In our history, we have twice been asked to suppress the honors for an independent author because a new publisher has purchased the book (in part based on its Hoffer Award honors) and requires time to prepare the new publicity campaign.

How are the books judged? Any book award should offer a window into their evaluation process, otherwise it is a black box and open to doubt. To preserve integrity, the Hoffer Award does not divulge its judges’ names, but it does discuss its process with entrants and in writer’s forums across the country. Our scoring process is a proprietary seven-point system that encompasses the entirety of the book from content through production. Judges must complete scoring sheets and commentary according to schedule. No judge handles more than twenty books during an award year, and no judge works in more than one category. When the initial double-blind scoring is complete, books are promoted for higher level panels that are composed of mutually exclusive judges, although they may contact the initial judges for consultation.

Are they claiming publishing rights? Some book awards claim publishing rights for the book being entered. (Many literary magazines hang by a thread and claim one-time publishing rights of a story for an issue or anthology. That is reasonable, because there is little and often no money to be made.) However, claiming the publishing rights of any entire book or any portion without a significant payment in return is just another way to publish an author’s work for free. If the book award in question loves the book enough to give it honors, it should respect the author enough to offer a proper publishing contract. Each time we field this question from registrants for the Hoffer Award, we advise that the author avoid any operation that claims rights.

If the book award you are entering cannot answer the above questions satisfactorily or avoids answering these questions altogether, consider avoiding that organization. Every one of the Eric Hoffer Award’s correspondences explains our basic mode of operation within our e-mail signature, whether you ask the question or not. Any award you enter should be that transparent and work hard to promote your book.

Christopher Klim is the author of several books including and the novel, Idiot!, and the short collection, True Surrealism. He is currently working on a novel trilogy about the space program past, present, and future.

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

Tokyo Traffic by Michael Pronko

Tokyo Traffic

by Michael Pronko
Raked Gravel Press

book review by Joel Samberg

“Hiroshi’s forensic accounting skill was helpful with most homicides, since money could be found at the root of most cases.”

This third volume in Pronko’s series about Detective Hiroshi is packed with all the atmosphere and disparate personalities readers have come to expect from his Tokyo-based stories. Pronko takes us through not just the Tokyo of movies and textbooks but one teeming with more underbellies and connections to global corruption than we might otherwise expect. This time our intrepid detective—an amiable accountant—is in pursuit of the criminals who may be responsible for a grisly murder at a porn studio. The key is likely held by a girl from Thailand who was working at the studio when the crime was committed. But now she’s missing, and Detective Hiroshi, who has a personal life as intriguing as his professional one, has his work cut out for him. Combining old-fashioned gumshoeing with modern-day social conventions, Pronko’s lengthy tale is as much a Tokyo detective’s diary as it is a gritty underworld whodunit.

Take a classic fictional detective out of a big American city in 1940—say a Philip Marlowe or a Dick Tracy—and transplant him to Tokyo in 2020 to solve a gruesome homicide. Therein lies the appeal of this crime thriller. Instead of taking us to a smoky Chicago nightclub to find a clue-laden cocktail napkin smeared with lipstick, the author might take us instead to a Tokyo internet cafe to read GPS coordinates left on a mobile device. The book, at a whopping 400 pages, requires patience and a good grasp at remembering names and places. However, it is intriguing for a host of reasons: one, the timeless, just-the-facts-ma’am crime-solving methodology of the detective; two, the appealing ways in which the author includes the daily minutiae of Hiroshi’s life; and three, the story’s revealing coverage of a true scourge of international crime—human trafficking.

RECOMMENDED by the US Review

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

 

 

The Knock: A Collection of Childhood Memories

by Carolyn Watkins
Mindstir Media

book review by Kate Robinson

“I quickly learned that military kids must be flexible.”

As an inspirational memoir and a tribute to military families, this picture book for middle-graders stands out with its down-to-earth reflections by the author and tender watercolor illustrations by Lindsey Erickson that evocatively enhance the nature of the text. Watkins’ honesty about her real-life experiences fosters readers’ ability to have fruitful parent-child discussions about these emotional matters of separation and possible loss. The author stresses that her family could have shared their feelings more: “Perhaps Mom and I could have talked more about our feelings. I have now learned that sharing feelings makes it much easier to cope with them.” Likely this is why her book includes notes for parents and educators in the end matter with questions, points to consider to bolster these necessary conversations, whether at home or in the classroom. This guidance could help children feel safe to express their feelings and work through any emotional difficulties caused by missing the absent military parent or by fearing for their life.

Children with working parents everywhere face significant challenges in modern life, but arguably none more so than children in military families, who face impermanence far more often and far more keenly than children in families whose parents and caretakers engage in other professions: “When I grew up in the 1960s, my family’s life was filled with departures and transfers and moves… Our dad was in the U.S. Army and was often away for long periods of time,” the author states. The many poignant images of Watkins’ family life and her strong storytelling voice amply illustrate the courage, persistence, and moral compass needed by homebound parents and relatives to maintain a stable household for kids when a parent is deployed to a faraway destination for extended duty, or when a family makes frequent moves to various military assignments.

The experiences and research of others lend additional weight to the ideas expressed in Watkin’s book. For example, poet and memoirist Dr. Nancy Owen Nelson, whose father was a career military man, describes her early years as “one of constant change and uncertainty,” and has explored in verse and prose how difficult patterns in adult life can be attributed to the constant movement of military families. And in a paper titled “Psychiatric Effects of Military Deployment on Children and Families,” authors James and Countryman (2012) cite “recent findings with deployed service members with children have shown problems with sleeping, higher stress levels and anxiety, declining grades, an increase in maladaptive child behaviors, and increased rates of child maltreatment.”

Watkins’ experience thankfully shows how supportive and strong her mother appears during her father’s deployment to Vietnam and during his long recovery after the family receives the dreaded knock on the door. Fortunately, in the Watkins family’s case, “the knock” was not a death announcement but notification of serious injury. While this was still a worrying and profound time, it was also a relief to family members because this meant their husband and father would eventually come home. Watkins’ narrative also effectively conveys how a supportive family network is forged when her maternal grandmother arrives to help out and how her presence solidifies the children’s security during her son-in-law’s deployment.

RECOMMENDED by the US Review