Book Review: “Rodin’s Lover,” by Heather Webb

Heather Webb’s second novel, “Rodin’s Lover,” is historical fiction, but it defies easy categorization. Rodin’s Lover tells the stirring story of the art-fueled, stormy romance between French sculptor Auguste Rodin (1840-1917) and his student, muse, and lover, Camille Claudel.  This story is much more than a romance. Told from Camille’s point-of-view, Rodin’s Lover chronicles both Camille’s struggles with her inner demons and her efforts to gain acceptance as a woman in a male-dominated field and society.

They met in 1883, but Camille’s story began much earlier. Webb takes the reader through Camille’s childhood in Villeneuve, where she showed an early interest in sculpture. Her mother disapproved of her interest in sculpture, but her father supported it. Eventually, her father arranged for Camille to move to Paris with her ultra-rigid mother, brother, and sister in 1881. She pursued studies in sculpture under Afred Boucher, who introduced Camille to Rodin.

Webb skilfully brings to life the sights and sounds of Paris in the late 1800s, from the gaslit streets and cafes to the ateliers where sculptors did their work, often using nude models.  What also comes through is Camille’s passion and devotion to her art, which borders on obsession. 

Similarly, Rodin was obsessed with Camille and pursued her relentlessly. While Camille resisted him at first, they began an affair that lasted for years, but he refused to leave Rose Beuret, his longtime companion whom he married late in life.

After the affair between Rodin and Camille ended in 1892, they remained in contact. Eventually, Camille descended into madness and was committed to a psychiatric hospital in 1913. She spent 30 yearrs in confinement and died in 1943. Much of the book is devoted to the affair with Rodin and Camille’s struggle to attain recognition for her art.

Much of this gripping story takes place within the intense, perceptive mind of Camille and this is where Webb’s well-paced narrative shines. Webb’s tension-filled scenes dramatically show the tumltuous relationship between Camille and her mentor.

Rodin’s Lover is a fitting follow-up to Webb’ excellent debut, Becoming Josephine.    

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Reverse Engineering a Character

I came across the term “reverse engineering” when reading a story about the development of the “Breaking Bad” spinoff, “Better Call Saul.” The term was used to describe the process of taking the Saul Goodman character in “Breaking Bad,” and developing a back story to trace how he became a sleazy lawyer for drug kingpins, assorted con artists, and scammers. In the first episode we learn Saul’s real name is Jimmy McGill. In the opening episode, Jimmy is scraping out a meager living by taking public defender cases. He drives a rickety little car, and lives in his tiny office in the back of a nail salon.

The process of taking a fully evolved character and constructing a narrative to explain how he reached his status in a story is a fascinating challenge. I was intrigued with the idea of “reverse engineering.” If a writer is fortunate, a fully formed character will present himself, but for most of us, the process of constructing a multi-dimensional character takes a lot of work.

So how does a writer “reverse engineer” a character? First, let’s look at the definition of reverse engineering. According to a definition posted in Wikipedia, reverse engineering is “the process of extracting knowledge or design information from anything man-made and reproducing it or reproducing anything based on the extracted information.”

So what do viewers know about Saul Goodman by the end of “Breaking Bad?” He was corrupt. He attracted a clientele that was not exactly comprised of model citizens. His clients were on the fringes of society. They operated in a dark nether world. He helped criminals launder their money. He could even help a criminal to disappear if the heat got too close. He had a mordant sense of humor. He knew what he was doing was wrong, but it didn’t seem to bother him, at least on the outside.

Given that description, if I was designing this character, my first question would be this: Was Saul/Jimmy always corrupt? Did something happen early in his life or his career that led him to take that path? What was it? Did someone put the fear of God in him? Did he start with small sins and then work his way to larger misdeeds? Who in his life influenced him the most? In what ways? What was his upbringing like? Were his parents bad people? Was there alcoholism in his family? Cheating? What was his relationship with his family? Siblings? What was the turning point for him?

One can see how just be asking a few simple questions, story possibilities have emerged. The process of developing this prequel is not unlike creating a back story for a character in fiction. When writers come up with a character, they don’t write their story from childhood (unless it’s a Young Adult novel). The character is introduced to the reader “in medias res,” in the middle of the narrative. The character at the beginning of a novel will soon face a problem and the reader knows the character will face mounting challenges to reach her goal. The reader doesn’t know the character’s full history, but the writer should.

Here are some questions to address when reverse engineering a character (this will sound a lot like a character sketch) :

–What drives or motivates the character? Is it an emotional need? Where did this motivation come from?

–What was the character’s family life like? What were the character’s socio-economic circumstances growing up? How did the character’s upbringing shape who the character became in the story?

–What is a key turning point in the character’s life? What does it reveal about the character? How can the writer show this key turning point?

–What actions or events have led the character to her current status?

–What crises has the character faced? What key decisions has the character made in response to these crises?

–What or who does the character fear? How can the writer show the character in a situation where she must face that fear?

–What is the character’s key relationship? How did it develop? What is the source of conflict in this relationship?

–Who are the character’s adversaries? How did they become adversaries? Can the writer create a scene that shows that?

Take your main character in your work in progress and answer these questions in relation to that character. Think about scenes you can develop to show the answers. Re-read a favorite book and pay attention to how the author “engineered” the main character.

What do you think of the idea of reverse engineering in fiction writing?

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Book Review: An Abundance of Katherines, by John Green

Before he wrote his mega-selling novel, The Fault In Our Stars, young adult author John Green penned this 2008 gem that featured Colin Singleton, a child prodigy whose distinction was that he had been dumped 19 times by women named Katherine.

It was a difficult proposition for the reader to buy, but Green pulled it off. Katherine 19 dumped Colin at the end of his senior year in high school. Heartbroken and adrift, Colin embarked on a road trip with his best friend, Hassan.

A major theme in the book was the desire of young people to matter–to someone else and to the world. Colin had a desperate desire to matter; he wanted his life to have significance. Green would later return to this notion in TFIOS through the character, Augustus Waters, whose greatest fear is oblivion.

Obsessed with figuring out why he can’t make a relationship work with the various Katherines, Colin turned to math to try to derive the answer. He developed the Theorem of Underlying Katherine Predictability and plotted graphs in a notebook showing the peaks and valleys of the relationship between the Dumper and the Dumpee. What the reader knew and what Colin eventually figured out was that math and science cannot explain why people are attracted to one another and why some relationships last while others do not.

While this might seem like an obvious lesson for the reader, the journey Green takes us on is so much fun and Colin is such an engaging character that it is worth the ride. At least for me. Along the way, Colin and Hassan discover the purported gravesite of Archduke Ferdinand, whose assassination triggered World War I, in, of all places, a town called Gutshot, Tennessee. That’s also where the due meet the irrepressible Lindsey Lee Wells and Hollis, her mysterious mother, the industrial mogul who employs the entire town.

What sustained this book was the verbal interplay between Colin and Hassan and Colin’s odd assortment of talents, which include an affinity for anagrams, learning multiple languages and his knowledge of odd historical facts. He is a lovable oddball and his coming of age tale provides valuable lessons about the nature of relationships.

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The House Where Margaret Mitchell Wrote “Gone With the Wind”

Sometimes, people make the most amazing discoveries walking down the street. On a recent work-related visit to Atlanta, I was walking down Peachtree Street with a couple of colleagues when I spotted a thee-story Tudor Revival building with a plaque in front of it. It turns out this was the house where Margaret Mitchell wrote the classic, Gone With the Wind.

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The house was built in 1899 by Cornelius Sheehan as a single family home. It was converted into an apartment building in 1919. Margaret Mitchell and her husband, John Marsh moved into Apartment No. 1 in 1925, according to the Margaret Mitchell House website. The apartment was restored to its original features, including the leaded glass window Mitchell looked out when she wrote the classic novel.

The building was used for apartments until 1978, when it was abandoned. A group of preservationists banded together to save and restore the house. To keep it from being destroyed, Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young designated the house as a city landmark in 1989.

However, in 1994 the building was severely damaged by fire and Daimler-Benz, the German auto maker, supported its purchase and restoration. There was another fire in 1996, just days before the completion of the restoration. The house opened to the public in 1997 and has become one of Atlanta’s treasured landmarks.

Unfortunately, time did not permit me to tour the building. I learned later from perusing the website that the Pulitzer Prize she earned and the success of the book and movie gave Mitchell the financial resources to support a number of philanthropic causes in Atlanta. Mitchell also founded an annual literary contest in the Atlanta federal penitentiary and (at a time when segregation was rampant) she worked on projects with the city’s African American community, including scholarship contributions to Morehouse College.

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My Favorite Fiction-Writing Blogs

Bloggers must spend time not only writing posts, but they must also read other fiction-writing blogs, Long before I created this blog in 2011, I followed other writing blogs sites. My introduction to fiction writing blog sites came when Writer’s Digest published its best 101 blog sites. I faithfully clicked on each and every site. I found most sites useful, but some have become “go to” sites for me.

Here are a few of my favorites:

Writer Unboxed. Started as a collaboration between budding novelists Therese Walsh and Kathleen Bolton, Writer Unboxed features a diverse number of writers who cover craft of fiction, inspiration, publishing, social media, and a host of other topics. It is by far my favorite blog site, in part because it is a warm and welcoming community of writers. Writer Unboxed held its first “Un-Conference” in November of 2014 and its Facebook group boasts 5,000 writers.

Rachelle Gardner. Literary agent Rachelle Gardner consistently offers solid, common-sense advice on publishing, working with agents, writing, and editing topics. Her site features a handy archive that allows readers to find posts by subject matter.

The Creative Penn. A leading expeert in self-publishing and marketing, Joanna Penn offers tremendous entrepreneurial advice to writers of all experience levels. She also makes available resources such as podcasts and her Author 2.0 Blueprint. She writes thrillers under the name JF Penn.

Nail Your Novel. Roz Morris is an author, editor, presenter, and writing coach. Author of a dozen novels as a ghost writer, Morris published two novels under her own name, My Memories of a Future Life, and Lifeform Three. She also wrote the excellent craft of fiction book, Nail Your Novel. Her blog features helpful tips on a variety of craft of fiction topics.

Helping Authors Become Writers. KM Weiland writes historical and speculative fiction. She is also the author of bestselling craft books, Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. I personally recommend her craft of fiction books. Her blog offers useful advice on a variety of writing topics.

Porter Anderson. One of the foremost professional critics covering the publishing world, Porter Anderson blogs at several sites. His insights on books and publishing are worth reading on a regular basis. His work with The FutureBook in London focuses on developing an international community around publishing in the digital age. He blogs at Thought Catalog and on http://www.thebookseller.com as well as on Writer Unboxed.

JaneFriedman. The former publisher of Writer’s Digest, professor and author, Jane Friedman is as knowledgeable a source as you will find on writing and publishing. Check out her blog and also her archive of posts on marketing, publishing, e-books, digital media, writing advice and much more.

Nathan Bransford. Former literary agent and author Nathan Bransford offers excellent, clear-eyed advice on writing, publishing, agents, marketing, and more. Check out his Publishing Essential links on his blog page, as well as Popular Posts.

The Book Designer. Joel Friedlander’s blog focuses on “practical advice to help build better books.” Friedlander’s experience in book design, advertising, and graphic design position him well to offer sound guidance to writers. This is a “must read” site for authors. Check out his Start Here links on his blog.

This is by no means a comprehensive list. There are other excellent blogs that I have not mentioned here, but if you follow these sites, you won’t be disappointed.

What are your favorite blog sites?

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Books Read in 2014

2014 was a light year for me. I usually strive to read at least 25 books a year. During the past year, I read only 15. That was due in large part to the time I spent finishing my work-in-progress, A Prayer for Maura. I am happy to report I am nearly done with the edits on Maura, and I will announce the book launch soon. If anyone wants an Advance Review Copy (ARC) please email me at cblake55@comcast.net.

Back to books. Here are the books I read in 2014:

The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt.

We Are Water, Wally Lamb

On the Wild Coast, PJ Lee

Dune Messiah, Frank Herbert

This is how you lose her, Junot Diaz

The Moon Sisters, Therese Walsh

Lifeform Three, Roz Morris

The Cuckoo’s Calling, Robert Galbraith (JK Rowling)

The Casual Vacancy, JK Rowling

Bad Monkey, Carl Hiaasen

11/22/63, Stephen King

Lifeboat Series (books four and five), Jamie Beckett

The Devil’s Star, Jo Nesbit

The Emotion Thesaurus, Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi

Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg

So here’s a New Year’s resolution: I promise to read more books in 2015.

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Pacing: The Overlooked Skill in Writing

Pacing is like that secret ingredient in the beef stew–you can’t identify it, but you know when it is missing. I came across a couple of recent blog posts that discussed in detail some pacing problems and solutions.

In a December 12 post on the blog, Adventures in YA Publishing, Jake Kerr defined pacing and then delved into some common problems writers encounter. “Pacing means how quickly the reader perceives things as happening in a story. This is different from rhythm, which is more about how the reader perceives something as ‘sounding’ as they read it. Pacing is more often discussed at the narrative level–the pace of a chapter and a novel as a whole.”

Among the pacing problems Kerr identifies is starting a book too slowly. This problem, Kerr wrote, occurs because the writer introduces the narrative tension too late. The obvious solution is to introduce the conflict earlier. Perhaps there is a scene already written where the conflict is introduced. Look for that first sign of conflict and think about starting with that scene.

Another pacing problem centers on slow sections of the book. “This section of the book is soooo slow,’ was how Kerr put it. He challenged writers to ask themselves: is this creating tension and extending it? “Extending tension doesn’t generally work. What’s a better solution? Delaying tension, which leads to: ‘This book is paced too fast.”

I see this all the time. If a little fast pacing is good, then continuous fast pacing must be better, right? Well, not really. As Kerr put it, “This is really what pacing is all about: taking all the pieces of a novel and putting them into a narrative that builds tension, releases it, and builds it again, with every piece either adding to the tension or releasing it.”

Kerr makes an important point here. The reader needs a breather from a fast pace, just like a runner who exerts himself needs to slow down and regulate his breathing. A reader needs time and space to process major events in a story, I’ve found it helps to follow a rapid-paced chapter with a major reveal with a slower chapter that provides some reflection and time for the reader to grasp the import of what has happened.

Kerr found another problem is confusing pace with plot. He urged writers to chart out what needs to be shown and what can be told, and craft scenes in such a way that keeps the story moving forward.

“Finally, pacing does not mean that every novel should be a roller coaster ride,” he wrote. “A successful novel can be a slow build of rising tension with incremental forward movement. It can also start with an explosive scene and then unfold as the after effects are revealed. Where the tension in the narrative exists really doesn’t matter: Pacing is all about shepherding the reader along in a way where they enjoy the ride.”

In a blog post on Writers Helping Writers, Becca Puglisi shared some useful” tips on common pacing issues:

Current story vs. Backstory: “To keep the pace moving, only share what’s necessary for the reader to know at that moment. Dole out the history in small pieces within the context of the current story, and avoid narrative stretches that interrupt what’s going on.”

Action vs. Exposition/Internal Dialogue: When the story gets too passive, put the characters in motion. “Characters should be in motion–smacking gum or doodling or fidgeting–while talking. Give them something to do during their thoughtful moments…”

Conflict vs. Downtime: “Readers need time to catch their breath, to recover from highly emotional or stressful scenes. A good pace is one that ebbs and flows–high action, a bit of recovery, then back to activity again.”

Keep Upping the Stakes: “To keep the reader engaged, each of the major conflict points needs to be bigger, more dramatic and with stakes that are more desperate.”

Condense the timeline: “When possible, keep your timeline tight. If it gets too spread out, the story will inevitably drag.”

I thank Kerr and Puglisi for these tips on pacing. Writers must always be mindful of pacing. It is the secret ingredient to a tasty novel.

What are your most common pacing problems and how do you overcome them?

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