Tag Archives: reading as a writer

BOOK REVIEW: “Our Blue Earth” by Richard Carr

In December of 2014, I wrote my last review of Richard Carr’s poetry. Earlier this year, I learned that not one but two new collections of poetry by Richard Carr had been published. Both were available at Amazon where I purchased them. The first, Our Blue Earth, I’ll review today. The second, Fitzpatrick, I’ll review at a later date.

The first thing that startled me about Our Blue Earth was the cover: a large black crow regarding me as if daring me not to read the book and what might happen if I didn’t. Crows also appear often in the poems, sometimes as part of the scenery but most often as what I took to be an ominous descriptor of something — a dream, a voice, a place as in “crow territory.”

That night in my old bed/in the old house I dream/of this: A crow/standing on the top of a telephone pole/throws back his head. There is no sound.

The “blue earth” of the title has a double meaning of sorts. The first meaning of the town of Blue Earth in southern Minnesota, or the county of Blue Earth in Minnesota. It is a county of prairie and farms, and farms and farming figure prominently in this collection; and where Richard Carr grew up. But “blue earth” could also be our planet, known as “blue” earth (or blue marble) thanks to NASA photos.

The poems inside focus on Blue Earth, Minnesota, but I read them as being also about planet earth, about humanity in a larger sense. I don’t know if Carr intended that. As a writer, I know that readers bring so much more to a piece of writing collectively than what the author or poet brings alone.

Carr in his dedication calls the poems in this collection “persona” poems. What does that mean? I think it means that the pronoun “I” that he uses in the majority of the poems does not refer to Carr himself, but to a separate narrator “I,” giving distance to what “I” experiences in the poems. I was startled by Carr’s use also of “we” and especially “you” in the poem “Asked to Recall” — the only poem in the collection that pronoun appears as the subject. Carr also steps way back in a couple poems, writing about “the boy.” While these poems are not personal in the sense that they are about Carr, he must draw on his experience growing up on a farm in Blue Earth, his family, and his departure and returns. One way of examining a life is by creating a persona to inhabit that life which is what I think Carr is doing in these poems. As a result, he also pulls the reader  deeper into the poems, giving the “I” to the reader, or addressing the reader as “you” or including the reader in the “we.”

These poems inhabit an unsentimental place where memory can be dark, gritty, and sour. Nature exists and just is rather than being either benevolent or evil. Life goes on no matter what happens. Carr’s images startle, haunt, and provoke — “a wizened politburo of crows,” “a feather of mist passes on the water,” or “night hauls its groggy paunch across the plains.” My favorite poem in this collection is a lovely sonnet, “Serpent Wind.” Carr manages to take something as common as wind and make it into something truly creepy:

A steady west wind slithers in the screen,/pulls through the open window, flex and glide,/a careful snake, a voiceless hiss, unseen/except the sleepy curtains move aside.

Sorrow lives in Blue Earth, as does confusion, resentment, disbelief, and acceptance. I would call this collection probably as close as Carr may come to writing personal poems, i.e. poems about himself and his experience and acknowledging them as such. But if you’d like to explore a different world from your own and feel like it is in fact yours, I highly recommend Richard Carr’s Our Blue Earth.


Being a Fearless Writer

One of my vivid memories from working with an editor on Perceval’s Secret: She told me that I was a fearless writer. Why? Because I had followed my main character where he was going instead of stopping him and making him do something safe and acceptable. The choice Evan makes toward the end shocked me when I wrote it in a white heat. It was as if he controlled me rather than the other way around. It took me a week to recover.  But when I read over what I’d written, I realized that as shocking as it was, it was still inevitable given Evan’s thought processes and background. I made sure that the set-up was there, i.e. the reader could follow Evan’s thoughts throughout the book and right up to the moment he makes that shocking decision.

Stephen King just reminded me of this experience of mine working with the editor on my novel. I had not thought of King as a fearless writer, actually.  Up until this past week, I’d read only one of his novels, Salem’s Lot, which hadn’t impressed me much, but then I’m not big into vampires and horror stories. I do love mysteries, thrillers, police procedurals, and serial killer stories. It’s very satisfying to me when the perp is caught and right prevails in these kinds of stories. The King novel I’m reading right now falls into the serial killer/thriller/mystery genre and it’s titled Mr. Mercedes.  It’s the first book in a trilogy with the retired police detective Bill Hodges as the main character.

In Mr. Mercedes, however, King reveals just how fearless a writer he is. He not only takes the reader inside the serial killer’s mind and life, he also takes the reader inside the minds and lives of his victims. This makes their victimhood all the more devastating, also ratcheting up the reader’s emotions to be absolutely behind Bill Hodges as he tries to figure out who the killer is and catch him. It’s one thing to set up victims as King does, and quite another to set up the reader to fall in love with a character who looks safe but turns out to not be safe at all. When I read that section of the novel, I was shocked.  I also admired what King had done. He’d been fearless.

Being a fearless writer can be very, very difficult. After all, we want our work to be read and loved.  We want readers to love our characters, hate our villains. But readers can smell a cop-out a mile away. Writers who are fearful about following their characters’ leads will wrest control of the story away from them and create more “acceptable” action, dialogue, and motivations. That is, being cautious about what they write, not only in subject matter but also in the types of characters in their stories. No extremes. No graphic violence. No questionable ethics or motivations. This caution may reflect the writer’s sensibility, core beliefs, and desire to please. But readers understand that darkness lives in the hearts of all humans, and it’s far more interesting to show characters wrestling with that darkness than ignoring it.

Let your characters tell their stories, be who they are, and behave the way they will. They need you to write and share their stories, exactly as they are, not the way you might think the reading public wants it, or the way you’re most comfortable writing it. Being a writer is not comfortable.


Obstacles and Creating Suspense in Fiction, or “The Doomsday Book” by Connie Willis

book-cover-doomsday-bookWhat would it be like to travel back in time in Oxford, England to the Middle Ages? A young historian finds out in The Doomsday Book by Connie Willis. The “present” is December 2054. The young historian, Kivrin Engle, is to be sent back to December 1320, a time deemed relatively safe by the powers that be in the history department at Oxford. Two sections of that department are involved in this project: Medieval and Twentieth Century, the latter because they’ve had more experience doing time travel, and have more experienced techs to operate the “net,” the mechanism for the time travel.  What could possibly go wrong?

When I began reading this novel, I knew absolutely nothing about it. I was reading it on the recommendation of several friends. The time travel aspect really intrigued me. And then, the medical detective story surprised and delighted me.  What truly fascinated me, especially as a writer, was how Willis used obstacles to build and maintain suspense throughout her story.

Structure first: It is a 3-act dramatic narrative structure with two distinct threads contributing to it. The first chapter is the set-up or first act. The second act lasts until about the last chapter overall, but there are also climaxes for each of the medical stories.  So, there is the overall time-traveling story that alternates between 2054 and the Middle Ages, and two sub-stories regarding medical issues, one a virus, the other a bacterium. There is Kivrin the protagonist, and then there is Mr. Dunworthy, the point of view character and protagonist in 2054.  What do they each want? Once Kivrin arrives in the Middle Ages, her primary goal is to find “the drop,” i.e. the place where she arrived. The first obstacle in her way is falling ill when she shouldn’t have fallen ill.  Once Kivrin has left 2054, Mr. Dunworthy becomes aware that there was some kind of problem with the drop. He spends the rest of the book trying to find out what went wrong, why, and how to rescue Kivrin.


Manor in the Middle Ages

The obstacles: In the Middle Ages, Kivrin starts out being so ill she’s delirious and hallucinating. She speaks modern English which the people who find and care for her don’t understand. She must overcome their suspicions about her and gain their trust. She must fix her inner translator so she can begin by speaking Middle English. She’s cared for by a noble family and a parish priest. They believe her to be from France, of a noble family because of her clothing, and that she had been attacked and robbed on the road. Once she begins to recover, her translator kicks in, and she learns about her rescue. She realizes that she must find the location of the drop so she’ll be able to return to 2054. She believes the nobleman’s prive knows the location because he found her and brought her to the village and their manor house. She spends most of the rest of the book trying to either find him or talk with him. The customs of the Middle Ages, especially those governing the behavior of men and women, and the way people communicated, stand in her way. The matriarch of the manor stands in her way. And then the children stand in her way. And then she discovers that something had gone wrong with the drop, and a dangerous bacterium threatens to stand in her way. Each of the obstacles arises organically from the time, the people, or the customs. Kivrin’s focus on finding the drop keeps the pressure on and increases the suspense.


The obstacles: In 2054, the first obstacle to Mr. Dunworthy is that the tech who did the drop falls deathly ill with a mysterious virus. That virus needs to be identified, and then the source of it identified, in order for the doctors to be able to treat it effectively.  Arising out of this obstacle, Medieval’s head, Mr. Gilchrist, refuses to let Dunworthy back into their time travel laboratory because Gilchrist is afraid the virus came through the net from the Middle Ages. Because of the highly contagious nature of the virus, the Oxford area is quarantined by the government which restricts the movement of supplies and people into Oxford. As a result, the quarantine becomes a major obstacle to Dunworthy — the phones don’t work well, travelers are detained and must be housed and fed, techs outside of Oxford for the Christmas holiday refuse to return, and the sick tech is too sick to tell Dunworthy what the problem was with the drop. Poor Dunworthy. Wracked with guilt about Kivrin, pushed and pulled this way and that by the people in and around the University, all he wants is to get into the lab, solve the problem and get Kivrin back.

By writing in close to each protagonist’s point of view and mind, the reader witnesses the chaos of emotion within them as well as their thoughts. This also contributes to the suspense. There were times I began to feel some irritation at Willis for having Dunworthy or Kivrin keep repeating themselves about their goals, but that just enhanced the pressure of the obstacles thwarting them. When Dunworthy falls ill, all looks lost.

What a wonderful example of a novel for creating and maintaining suspense! And what a riveting story. I loved the characters, I loved the humor that Willis injected into the very serious situations, and I loved the emotional release that the ending provided. A masterwork of fiction that I highly recommend to anyone interested in reading speculative fiction, time travel stories, historical fiction, or medical detection stories.  Bravo, Connie Willis.

How do you find your next read?

Books everywhereGood question. A co-worker saw me reading during my lunch break last week and asked what the book was. He was looking for something to read. Then I saw this Roz Morris post at Nail Your Novel, and I’m thinking this is something in the air this week.

Yes, book marketers want to know! Book authors want to know also! What catches your attention and interest? The cover? The author? How do you find interesting and fulfilling reads?

To be honest, I don’t think about searching out books as much as they pop into my life. I read a review in The New York Times or I find a book because I’ve read something about an author. I sometimes will print out the review (or cut it out of a magazine or newspaper) and put it on my to-do pile. Or I’ll immediately go to my library’s website and put the book on my to-read list. I haven’t been buying many books lately because I don’t have the money to spend, sadly. One of my favorite things is to peruse a real bookstore or add books to my wish list at Amazon. I can easily spend way too much money doing that.

A while ago, I signed up for BookBub and have been receiving the bargain e-mails from it. I don’t always look through the e-mails, but when I have, I’ve been surprised to find titles that look interesting to me. If they are free, I will go to Amazon or B&N and download a copy. If not, I’ll sometimes go to my library’s website and put the title on my to-read list.

Photo: Marina Shemesh

Photo: Marina Shemesh

Meeting authors is another way I become aware of a title. I meet authors through my two blogs and through GoodReads. I’ve also been approached through LinkedIn which I found kind of amusing. But I’ve read books by people I’ve met in these ways. Sometimes the books are good, sometimes not. I had one bad experience with an author who had asked me to read and review his book. I agreed if he’d read and review mine. I fulfilled my side of the bargain. He never fulfilled his.  Now, I’m very wary of such requests.

I don’t read much nonfiction, but when I do, it’s usually about a subject that has grabbed me or a biography. I’ve also bought and read memoirs in order to get an idea of writing memoir. The last nonfiction book I read was about a film editor who’d edited a lot of films I’d seen written by a literary author whose books I’ve enjoyed quite a lot.

Friends often suggest titles or give me books to read. A friend sent me a novel several years ago that had been written by an author who’d grown up near where I grew up. After reading that book, I wanted to read all that author’s books. I’m a member of a science fiction group — we are passionate about science fiction of all kinds and regularly talk about books, films, TV shows, and exchange ideas about the different aspects of the genre. I get a LOT of book ideas from them.

My interests dictate what catches my eye. Recently, I’ve gotten interested in Gothic fiction, i.e. not Gothic horror but Gothic romantic suspense or Gothic romantic thriller. This interest developed as a result of reading an article in The Writer about transforming a screenplay into a novel. That article got me thinking about a screenplay I’d written about 10 years ago that I really like.  Then I re-read The Moon-Spinners by Mary Stewart, and suddenly it occurred to me that maybe the screenplay could be transformed into a Gothic thriller novel like Stewart’s novel.

So how do you find your next read? Check this out:

Designed by Christopher Bohnet, xt4, inc.

Designed by Christopher Bohnet, xt4, inc.




Writing Sex

book-cover-keytorebeccaDuring the last week, I’ve been reading a thriller written in the early 1980’s by Ken Follett entitled The Key to Rebecca.  I’d read his The Eye of the Needle when it first was published and loved it. Follett had written an explicit sex scene in that book, as I recall, so the sex scenes in Rebecca haven’t been a surprise to me. On GoodReads, however, I read several comments complaining about the sex scenes in Rebecca being too explicit, even pornographic.

As a writer, I appreciate that it’s difficult to write sex scenes, and I’ve written before at this blog about writing love scenes and writing sex scenesRebecca provides a good example of how to write successful sex scenes that reveal character and move the story forward. Follett does a masterful job of this.

First, in Rebecca, Follett reveals motivation for each character with stunning (and refreshing) clarity. We learn early what Alex Wolff wants that will drive his behavior. He is a user. He uses people to achieve his goals. Part of this strategy is to ferret out their weaknesses, assess their strengths, and then figure out how to gain power and control over them to achieve his goals. Sex is a part of his arsenal. He recognizes that he does not see sex as an expression of love or affection. It is about gaining physical pleasure for himself as well as power over his partner. He calls it “lust.”

Cairo, Egypt (photo: public domain)

Cairo, Egypt (photo: public domain)

Major Vandam’s motivation focuses on insuring that the British defeat the Germans in Egypt. He works in military intelligence in Cairo but possesses a much higher level of integrity and morality than Wolff. Sex doesn’t really enter into his personal actions to achieve his goal because 1) he’s focused on his job and taking care of his son, 2) he’s a recent widower and 3) he doesn’t see sex as a tool of control and power. He is a lover not a user. However, his job requires him to recruit people who may end up in the thrall of the lustful Wolff, and he’s not above encouraging his operatives to use sexual attraction to gain Wolff’s interest and lure him out.

And finally, there’s Elene Fontana, who’s real name is Abigail Asnani. She wants to go home. What “home” means for her, however, remains a mystery to the reader for a while, as well as a mystery to Elene, for what she thinks she wants may not be what she really wants. She has been traumatized in her childhood, and has spent the last few years working as a kept woman for a series of wealthy businessmen. She has used her body and her beauty to survive in Cairo, but deep down she’s not happy about it. Her ambivalence toward sex will provide interesting developments as the story progresses and she meets Vandam.

Understanding the characters gives the sex scenes during the story meaning. Seeing how they respond in that intimate, vulnerable situation reveals character. Some of the sex scenes function as a way to move the story forward as when Wolff recruits his “friend” Sonja, with her own sexual goals, to seduce his target. Reading a sex scene essentially devoid of emotion can be disturbing unless the reader can put it into the context of the characters’ motivations.

ken_follettOnce or twice I thought, as I read, that a sex scene could have used a bit more editing to increase suspense in the layering of motivations and action. But otherwise, I thought Follett succeeded in the way he made sex an important element of the story. The next time you read a novel that includes sex scenes, ask yourself about the characters’ motivations, how the sexual behavior reveals character or moves the story forward. Sex, after all, is a part of human life and can be a powerful tool in a writer’s toolbox for creating riveting stories and human characters.