Tag Archives: reading as a writer

Review: FITZPATRICK by Richard Carr

Self-isolation has turned me into a burrower into my personal library for books to read. I bought Fitzpatrick by Richard Carr in 2018, along with his chapbook Our Blue Earth. I read the chapbook right away and put the poetry collection away for another day. Well, another day arrived last week! I’m glad I let some time pass so that I could read Richard’s poetry again with an uncluttered mind. And this collection proved to be an interesting diversion away from the pandemic.

Fitzpatrick is an artist. He paints. Carr approaches him from 4 different angles: the bartender in his favorite bar, his best drinking buddy, his wife, and his work. It was like going from standing far away to standing nose-to-nose with the man. And while the blurbs on the back cover describe this collection’s aim as “the search being the mystery and nature of art,” I read these poems as being biographical, a search for the artist, and how is an artist defined. In that regard, the bartender is the impersonal public who recognizes the human being but doesn’t really know the artist; the drinking buddy is closer, a guy who shares Fitzpatrick’s sense of the world up to a point; his wife is closer still, but even she does not really know that part of him that imagines and sees his paintings in his mind before he puts them on canvas; and then there’s the work itself, a series of poems describing paintings by an “I.” I wondered about that “I,” as if it were really Fitzpatrick speaking about the work he never talks about with anyone else.

I actually thought the best description of Fitzpatrick came in the 7th poem of the “His Wife” section: He was a pyramid, and in some tiny, deep chamber/a pharaoh folded himself for sleep. The wife recognizes his protective and defensive exterior, its silence, its stone hardness, but also that deep down inside himself he is the king of his life, with all the problems, frustrations, and excesses that means. What is not said explicitly is that pyramids contain lots of corridors and rooms, and could be an analogy for the mind, and the pharaohs inside are entombed.

Carr’s choice of words to paint images is one of his strengths, and its in fine form in this collection. For example, he describes the drinking buddy as “a smudge trying to catch a cab.” That drinking buddy in the next poem describes Fitzpatrick as “a dark snowbank splashed by trucks.” In the previous stanza, Carr writes “He tensed when someone opened the door/and let in a snake of wind.” In poem No. 12 of the drinking buddy section, Carr writes the drinking buddy saying, “His wife staged the opera of his public life.” And with every poem in the drinking buddy section, I felt I was learning just as much about the drinking buddy as Fitzpatrick. This was true for the other two sections about people as well.

Richard Carr

These are unsentimental poems in this collection, Carr “groping in the darkness of his own creation” for not a revelation about the mystery of art, but for what it means to be an artist as seen by people in the artist’s life. The work becomes a reflection of how the artist — or Carr — sees his art, and perhaps sees himself through his art. In the poem “Self-portrait,” he says “I am a harlequin.” A clown, an entertainer, a fool? I know that feeling. In the final poem, “Evening Lights of a Great City,” he states, “I can’t paint what I mean.” This is the frustration of all artists — taking the meaning in the mind/imagination and putting it out in the world so that it is seen and understood, but once it enters the world, it’s not the same. Composers are astonished the first time they hear their music performed because it’s never really like what they’ve heard in their imaginations, and the system of notating music cannot capture completely the sound and meaning.

I thought this was a lovely collection and I enjoyed reading it quite a lot. I especially liked the change of direction that this collection has taken compared with previous collections of Carr’s poetry that I’ve read. Being a writer, I could relate to these poems, the striving to reveal, the frustration, and sometimes the success. I think this collection was an unqualified success, and I’d recommend it to readers who love poetry.

Book Review vs. Book Critique

The November 2019 issue of The Writer has an interesting article about “How to be a good Critique Partner.” I’ve been asked often enough to critique someone’s manuscript, both as a member of writing groups and individually, and one of the things that will always be at the top of my mind before I start is this: Focus only on the work. The second thing is: Stay positive, even when pointing out a negative by being constructive in criticism. I’ve heard horror stories about critiquing sessions that attacked the writer personally or shredded the writing. That kind of experience can be extremely traumatic. That kind of critique actually reveals more about the person critiquing rather than the writer or the writing and is far from helpful.

Anica Mrose Rissi, the author of The Writer’s article on critiquing has some good points I’d like to share here:

  • “Be discerning about what you sign on to read” — From my personal experience, I know I’m not the person to critique (or edit) a military story, horror story, or western. I don’t like those kinds of stories and so I haven’t read many of them. A good critique comes from someone who loves the genre of the book, has read a lot in that genre, and enjoys it.
  • “Ask questions first” — talk with the writer about the work and what stage it’s in. Find out what the writer’s expectations are, and what the writer wants to know about the book you’d critique for her.
  • “React with your head, heart, and pen (or comment button)” — what every writer wants to know about their work is this: what’s it like to read it when you haven’t written it? Be kind. Be generous with feedback.
  • “Don’t hold back on the compliments” — Noting what the writer has done well is just as important as what the problems might be with the writing.
  • “Be kind but straightforward” — or in another word, be professional. Be honest in your assessment. Say what you mean and move on. And be respectful of the work.
  • “Remember, it’s not your work” — I’ve found it helpful to remind myself of this when I start to think about how I’d change what I’m reading. That’s not my job. My job is to ask questions about what I don’t think works, point out problems, and help the writer see what I see. Then trust the writer to do what will be right for her characters and story and leave it.

Lately, I’ve been writing more book reviews than doing critiques. What’s the difference, you might ask? Well, there are some very big differences, starting with the fact that book reviews are done for finished and published books, and critiques are done on manuscripts that could go through several more drafts before they’re ready to publish. The approach for each is different: for a critique, I’m thinking about the writing and how to help the writer see its potential as well as its problems, while for a book review I’m trying to answer the question: would I recommend this book and why? Every time I finish a book and sit down to write a review, I’m thinking about the book’s strengths and weaknesses, what’s unusual about it, what I really disliked as well as loved about it. What was the experience of reading this book like? It’s rare that I find nothing to recommend about a book, actually (and I feel much the same about classical music), but there are two aspects that can make or break a book for me, i.e. the characters and the use of language, or just how easy is this writing to read?

Characters: I don’t have to adore all the characters. In fact, I expect not to like the antagonist, although I do hope to find him or her interesting in some way. I think of George Warleggan in the Poldark series, for example. I cannot stand this character but at the same time he fascinates me — I want to know why he does what he does, and I want to know how he’ll end up. He is not an evil person, just a selfish narcissist who has felt hurt and slighted in the past by the Poldark family. But what he does often turns out to be evil in its results. Characters need to be real to me, as if I could invite them for coffee and a chat some afternoon, with plausible motivations, thoughts, behavior, and reactions to the world of the story.

Language: Word choice, syntax, paragraph construction, and dialogue all affect the ease of reading and establish a writer’s “voice.” Right now, I’m reading a novel by Jennifer Lash entitled Blood Ties. Lash’s language is dense which makes for slow reading. In fact, her writing style reminds me a lot of Virginia Woolf. I continue to read because her word choice, her English usage, is so rich and colorful. It’s a literary novel. Such writing in a thriller would probably hurt the pace and suspense of the story that belong in a thriller. How a writer uses language can challenge a reader or make it a smooth, easy ride.

Book reviews are not the same as book critiques, even though both are about reading a book with a critical eye.  Both can be valuable to a writer for improving the writing of future books. And doing either one can also be helpful in being a better writer.

To Sex Scene or Not to Sex Scene

Sex scenes can be truly difficult to write and write well so that they move the story forward or reveal character or both. The question I usually ask myself — how does this scene reveal character or move the story forward? — before I decide to include a sex scene or not doesn’t really apply, I’ve discovered, if you’re writing bodice-ripper style romance novels. Then the question becomes more about how well to write the scene — how much of the physical action to include vs. the emotional action — and if an explicit sex scene is consistent with your characters’ beliefs and behavior. I’d also question whether or not the sex is gratuitous, because after all, sex does sell.

This reminds me of an experience I had years ago with a movie called Die Hard starring Bruce Willis and Alan Rickman. The first time I saw this movie was on TV. It had been edited for length and content, but I didn’t think about the parts that I were missing. The version I saw on TV was highly entertaining — suspenseful, twisty, and really fun. Then I decided to buy my own copy of the movie for my movie library. I purchased what was available at the time, looking forward to seeing this fun movie again. When I viewed it, I discovered all the parts that had been edited out for the TV broadcast — primarily explicit violence — and was startled by how little the edited parts added to the story or character development. In other words, I would not have missed those edited parts if they hadn’t been included.

Sex scenes are similar. Sometimes sexual tension or the suggestion of sex going on behind the scenes is far more effective because they don’t stop the action or forward momentum of the story. And they’re not nearly as boring. I’ve now read two historical romance novels in which the authors chose to stop the forward momentum of the story and character development to have the romantic leads have sex with each other for 100+ pages in various ways, in various places, and with a varying degree of explicitness — and nothing else. The story just stops. And after about 15 pages of this, it gets really boring. At least for me.

The most recent novel I read, Outlander by Diana Gabaldon, included explicit sexual violence, including rape, against the main female character. This historical bodice ripper takes place in 1743 in the Scottish Highlands where the men are depicted to be far from sophisticated or considerate — as far as they are concerned, a wife is their property and they can do whatever they want to her and she cannot complain about it. Loving a woman essentially means fucking her whenever and however they want. At least, that was the message I understood from this particular historical novel. It really disappointed me. I got to the point where I thought that really, Gabaldon was a good writer and it was a shame she was wasting her skill on these scenes that went nowhere. But sex sells.

While Jamie and Claire were characters with a lot of potential, I thought all but a few of the sex scenes could have been cut in favor of focusing on the development of their emotional and intellectual intimacy, how they get to know each other as people rather than only as two bodies. The last 100 pages of the book gives them a wonderful opportunity to deepen the emotional connection and trust between them, and to perhaps broaden Jamie’s realizations that there’s far more to Claire than he thought. There are glimmers of this possibly happening, but I did not see it coming to the fore and going to another level for their relationship.

I know that there’s a market/audience for this type of bodice ripper romance and perhaps Gabaldon and other writers in that genre feel a responsibility to give their readers what they apparently enjoy. Maybe that’s fine, as long as it’s well written.  I know now more than ever that I am not a member of that audience. To me, all those sex scenes could have been cut and not hurt the story or character development at all, just as the gratuitous violence in Die Hard could be cut and not have the movie story suffer at all. To me as a reader, stopping the story for page after page of sex scenes isn’t titillating but boring.

This reading experience has certainly shone a new light on the issue of writing sex scenes. It’s no longer a matter of how to write them well, but whether to include them at all. The question still remains: how does the scene move the story forward or reveal character or both? And I’d add the question: how does the scene (or scenes) affect the pacing of the story’s momentum?

Dear Stephen King

My “Office”

As I’ve been working on the first revision of Perceval’s Shadow, I’ve been feeling inadequate, terrified, and drowning in a writing ocean in which I’d chosen to swim (why did I? I hate swimming). Thinking I could use encouragement and support, I decided to read Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. This book had resided in my bookcase for years. I don’t read self-help books, and books on writing remind me of self-help books. But I’d read a favorable review years ago, and writer friends had spoken highly of it, so I’d bought the book and then left it in my bookcase where I could eye it and wonder what Stephen King could possibly have to say about writing.

Now I know. I finished reading it this morning, pleased that I felt so reassured in my own creative process as a result. Stephen King recommends Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style and that alone convinced me that he knows far more than I’d expected about writing. It’s my Bible too. He also confesses to the same terror and feelings of inadequacy at times when facing what he’d written, and at the same time exulting in the joy he feels when he’s writing. I can relate. I am the happiest when I’m writing fiction.

I admit, I’m surprised by this book. But hadn’t you read any of his books? Yes. I read ‘Salem’s Lot the summer it came out in paperback. My brother had bought it and consumed it in one afternoon. We were living at our summer house on a lake as we did every summer, so visits to the city library happened once a week when my mother drove into town to buy groceries. I’d exhausted my pile of library books and was looking for something to read until the next library run when I found ‘Salem’s Lot on the sofa in front of the fireplace. So, I read it. I hated it. Hated it. I’m not a fan of vampires despite admiring Bram Stoker’s classic work. Because of that experience, I’ve stayed away from Stephen King’s books ever since.

It wasn’t snobbishness, either. I admired King’s chutzpah and his support of writing and writers. I loved that he chose to live in Maine. I just didn’t think his books were for me. I do not enjoy reading horror stories. Then I saw the movie The Shawshank Redemption and loved it. A friend mentioned that Stephen King had written the book on which it was based. No! Really? You mean Stephen King writes other kinds of books besides horror? But I still stayed away. It wasn’t until a friend recommended Mr. Mercedes that I decided to give King another try. I loved that book and have since also read Finders Keepers. And then I was quite surprised to learn that he’d written Hearts in Atlantis. Hmmmm.  I probably still won’t be reading his horror books, though.

In On Writing, King starts with a large autobiographical section to show the reader where he comes from as a writer. There were surprises: his alcoholism and drug addiction, for example, as well as some pithy description of his job in a laundry. And like me, he began writing early in his life. Like me, he feels happiest writing, as hard as the job can be at times. But unlike me, he enjoyed publication success early. In the second section, King explores writing and how to do it. This was the section that most reassured me because most of what he suggests and/or recommends are things that I already do and have done for years. I was surprised that he only does maybe 3 drafts of a piece, though. Really? Not sure I believe that. In the final, much shorter, section, King describes being hit by a van while out for a walk and the aftermath. I cried through most of this section. I know what it’s like to face major health issues, to be in a hospital, to have a long recuperation, to deal with massive physical pain. I am happy, however, that King returned to writing, specifically On Writing. It has energized me and made my imagination ecstatic.

Dear Stephen King, thank you.

Is Anyone Out There?

Photo: NASA

One of my lifelong interests is stars, planets, galaxies, and everything about them. Today, I saw an article about seeing the light from galaxies that were formed over 3 billion years ago. They are so far away from us, it has taken 3 billion years for their light to reach us. Distance in the universe often confounds my imagination. I was thinking, in response to that article, that the blinking lights in the night sky that have always fascinated me are not necessarily single stars but probably entire galaxies. Those tiny blinking lights. Does sentient life in those tiny blinking lights ever look to their sky and see us?

As a writer, I often feel like a tiny blinking light in a massively gigantic universe, and I’ve struggled to find how to be inviting as a writer and encourage readers to read my stories. After all, as a tiny blinking light I am most likely an entire galaxy of planets, stars, black holes, and stardust. And I’m really not 3 billion years away, I’m right here. My stories are right here, too. But how would I ever know if anyone came to visit?

Is anyone out there?

Hope Clark, in her Funds for Writers newsletter several weeks ago, wrote about her perception that nobody is reading anymore. She has that perception because she’s not receiving the responses that she used to receive — at her blog, via email, with book reviews. If people are reading, she’s concluded, they’ve stopped “talking” about it.

Photo: Marina Shemesh

She has a point, but I’m not certain that I agree completely. It’s only been in the last 10 years or so that I’ve considered responding to an author about a book of theirs I’d read. Before that, I read and read, and it never occurred to me to try to reach out to an author to let him or her know how much I enjoyed their work. Now that I’m an author myself, I know how it feels to read a person’s review of my work, or to have a reader comment here, or to send me an email. It’s wonderful to know that my work has been read. Like most writers, I don’t like writing and sending my stories into the black hole at the center of our galaxy and never knowing what happened. Up until 10 years ago, though, I would have said isn’t that to be expected?

Now, we have so many ways to connect with people whether or not they are strangers.  One of the things that I learned over 10 years ago — and it made me want to find a cave somewhere in which to write — was that writers must be accessible in some way to publicize their writing. Traditional publishers expect writers to market their work as well. So writers need websites and/or blogs. They need author pages at all the places online where books are sold, and they need to be an active presence on GoodReads, Facebook, Twitter, and any other social media they can find time to join and be a presence on. It exhausts me just thinking about it.

One of the things I decided to do, though, to be a presence as a writer is to write reviews of books I’ve been reading. I read voraciously — new and old books, fiction, nonfiction, good and bad. I post my reviews at GoodReads, and then if the book is relatively new, I try to also post the review where others will see it and can immediately buy it, like Amazon and B&N. What a difference it would make if all readers took a half hour (or less) after reading a book and reviewed it online? It’s not a big deal, either, and doesn’t have to be a Pulitzer Prize-winning review. Just what you thought of the book and why, and if you’d recommend it or not.

Writers will know then that their work hasn’t disappeared down a black hole, and they are not alone, a tiny blinking light far away in a black sky.