Book Review: Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, by John Vorhaus

This is not your father’s coming of age story, the kind where the wide-eyed protagonist experiences a series of firsts–first kiss, first time getting high, first time having sex. Sure, all of those things happen to young Gene Steen, but John Vorhaus aims to go deeper into the psyche of this 15-year-old boy.

Set in Milwaukee in the summer of  1969 (“at the corner of nowhere and nowhen”) the story takes off when Gene’s hot, hippy cousin Lucy shows up at his house one day in June. Lucy has a story. Her mom (Gene’s mother’s sister) has moved to France. Her father has died in Ohio and she needs a place to stay before going off to college in the fall. But, things are not as they seem on the surface and Gene and his two buddies discover her story is a sham. Her real name is Carmen and she is secretive about her backstory.

Gene could easily blow the whistle on Carmen, but he is in love. And Carmen is on the run. And she takes Gene on a wild, dangerous road trip. But I don’t want to reveal more details about the story, because this is really about a teen-ager’s quest for the truth, for the meaning of life.

Like any teen-ager, Gene has lots of questions–about religion, about the Vietnam war, about life. And he seeks the answers from Carmen. Early on he calls her a hippy, but she sets him straight. “I’m not a hippy, Gene. I’m a practical person. In this time and this place, it’s an easy motif for me, it works. But at the end of the day I’m not anything but me.”

Still Gene struggles. He cannot accept his parents’ boring middle class life, the war, organized religion. Lying in bed one night, he visualizes those Burma Shave billboards on the side of the road. 

“You Are Here and Not Here

In Your Little Car.

Wherever You Are 

Is Wherever You Are.”

He doesn’t know it at the time, but it is an epiphany of sorts. Later, on the run with Carmen, he witnesses a beautiful sunset and it all comes together for him. “The pieces of the puzzle of my life all filled me all at once. I overflowed. I had the purest moment of beauty and bliss that I’ve ever had in my life and, really, for the first time felt connected to the isness…”

Gene gave that felling a name, “the bottom ache, a thing you felt so deep you know that if you don’t express it you’ll just explode.” At that moment Gene took responsibility for his life. “I accept everything.”

Vorhaus has crafted two compelling characters in Gene and Carmen. The pacing is excellent, as the setup builds suspense and the story gallops along towards a chaotic and ultimately satisfying conclusion. Looking back as an older man, Gene reflects: “I got through what I got through by being present in the moment, by accepting the now, so that’s what I’ve got to do or get to do from now on.”

I thoroughly enjoyed this story and look forward to reading more of Vorhaus’s work.

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How Long Should You Make Your Chapters?

I’ve always struggled with the issue of how long I should make my chapters. One might assume writers could glean tips from reading best selling authors, but that is not the case. James Patterson is famous for his short chapters, and yet Jonathan Franzen and Michael Chabon write long chapters encapsulating several scenes.

When I started writing fiction, I made the mistake of turning every scene into a chapter. The result was a book with up to 50 chapters. I eventually broke myself of that habit, but I still tend to have too many chapters. So what do the experts say on this subject?

In a 2015 Writer’s Digest post, Brian Klems wrote, “There are no hard-and-fast rules on how long or short a chapter needs to be…Chapters should be just long enough to serve a purpose and, once that purpose is served, cut off so a new chapter (or mini-story) can begin.”

Klems likened chapters to acts in a TV show. When Act 1 is done, there is a commercial break. “Look for your chapters to have those similar elements. When you find those ‘commercial breaks,’ end your chapter and start a new one. In other words, let your content dictate your chapter length, not the other way around,” he wrote.

Randy Ingermanson, creator of “the Snowflake method” of fiction writing, weighed in with a 2010 post in response to a question from a writer. “I shoot for an average of 2,500 words per scene, so if I were writing your book, I’d probably have two scenes for most chapters. I’m not writing your book so you get to decide.” He added that there is no industry standard.

On the blog All Write-Fiction Advice in 2012, author AJ Humpage wrote, “New writers tend to assume that a chapter must be a certain set length in order to maintain the average novel length of around 80,000-95,000 words, but in truth chapters can be as long or as short as you need them to be. There is no formula.”

I found other blog posts on this topic, but they pretty much said the same thing. There is no standard. It all comes down to common sense.

I bring up this topic because I am again grappling with this issue in my work-in-progress. I have written five drafts and I am at an unwieldy 44 chapters. I’d like to cut that number in half. I’m in the throes of a major reboot of the story and I view this as an opportunity to tackle the ‘number of chapters’ beast. I will keep you posted on my progress.

What do you think? What is your ideal chapter length?

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Book Review: “Good Faith,” by Jane Smiley

SPOILER ALERT: There are spoilers in this review.

Presidential candidates invoke the name of Ronald Reagan often in this political season. Pols look back with reverence on Reagan and associate themselves with his formidable political skills. Jane Smiley’s 2003 novel, “Good Faith,” focuses on the dark side of the Reagan years.

Set in a rural rust-belt community somewhere in eastern Pennsylvania, “Good Faith” is the classic con man tale. Joe Stafford, the protagonist and lifelong resident of the town, is a popular, respected real estate broker. A divorced man in his 40s, Stafford sells houses built by his mentor, Gordon Baldwin, a wily contractor and businessman with a wide portfolio. Baldwin is a self-made man who espouses old school values. 

As Stafford adjusts to single life in his 40s, his only source of stress is to figure out new ways to keep secret his affair with Baldwin’s married daughter, Felicity (I love the names Smile gives to her characters)  in this small town where everyone knows everyone else’s business.

Financially, Stafford and Baldwin are doing just fine, but they know they are small-town cronies. So, when they have a chance to get filthy rich, they can’t resist. The MacGuffin in this story is an offer Baldwin receives to buy the 580-acre Salt Key Farm for a sprawling multi-use development. That’s when wild dreams of obscene wealth fill the heads of Stafford and Baldwin. Enter Marcus Burns, a former IRS agent who moves to town and befriends both Stafford and Baldwin. Burns has found a way to make Baldwin’s $275,000 tax debt to the IRS go away and he convinces the two men to allow him to manage the Salt Key Farm development.

Burns tips his business partners off that things are about to change in the 1980s. “And believe you me, the way things are going in Washington, there is going to be more fun, more more more fun than anyone has ever had since God knows when, because the tax code is transforming before your very eyes, and everyone is perfectly happy to see it happen.” Burns convinces Stafford he will make millions.

“Money these days is like water. It can’t stop looking for places to go, Burns tells Stafford.

Burns is a charmer. He knows what button to push to ingratiate himself with the townspeople. He is an amiable Irishman who has survived a bad childhood and has worked tirelessly to make himself a success. If he sounds like Reagan it’s no accident.

Of course, like many real estate schemes of the 1980s, this one doesn’t end well. Burns swindles a huge loan out of a high flying Savings & Loan to finance the project, borrows Stafford’s nest egg and skips. town. And he whisks away Felicity to boot. While this is clearly a morality tale, it is also a well-paced, richly detailed story wtih a strong ensemble cast. Despite its dark subject, it is told with Smiley’s classic dry wit.

Beyond the political lesson, Smiley also leaves broader lessons about human nature, temptation and greed. As Stafford reflects on his experience he recalls, “Looking back, I would have to say that’s when the Eighties began as far as I was concerned — when modest housing in our rust-belt state got decked out with Italian marble.”

 

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Book Review: “The Engagements,” by J. Courtney Sullivan

“A Diamond is Forever” was one of the most enduring advertising slogans of the 20th Century. The female copywriter who penned that phrase in 1947 is at the center of  J. Courtney Sullivan’s third novel, “The Engagements.” 

Advertisers market the diamond as a symbol of commitment and status for couples seeking to marry. Sullivan explores the many dimensions of commitment and status in a sprawling, multi-generational work that spans nearly 100 years.

Sullivan looks at marriage through four separate couples whose sagas span the decades from the 1930s to 2012. Frances Gerety, the copywriter, is the glue that holds the story together. Gerety came up with the famous line in the middle of the night after a boozy dinner with a female colleague. She wasn’t sure it worked, but her bosses at N.W. Ayer & Son advertising agency decided to use it for their client, diamond behemoth De Beers. 

After she introduces Gerety, Sullivan shifts to Evelyn and Gerald Pearsall, who are living in comfortable retirement in 1972 when their son announces he is leaving his wife and two daughters for another woman. We meet Delphine, a 40-year-old French woman who leaves her loveless marriage with her business partner, Henri, in 2012 to run off to New York City with a much younger American violinist. In 1987, James McKeen and his wife, Sheila, are struggling to make ends meet and provide for their children, while their house is falling apart. And, early in the second decade of the 21st Century, Kate, a “conscientious marriage objector,” and her partner, Dan, are raising a young daughter in the Hudson Valley, but have no intention of marrying.

Sullivan weaves the four stories together, always returning to Gerety, whose story I found compelling. A female in the male dominated advertising industry, Gerety is denied the promotions and perks a man with her achievements would have received. Yet, she soldiers on and gives the reader a sober-eyed account of the struggles of high-achieving women in the middle of the last century.

The other character I like is Kate, who fights for her principles and rails against consumerism. Kate makes her views on marriage clear: “Marriage is a construct. It’s been sold as a way to keep women safe or make their lives better, but for the most part it’s been used to keep them down. In Afghanistan today, a woman might be encouraged to marry her rapist.”

Despite Kate’s views on the institution of marriage, she finds herself helping her gay cousin, Jeff, plan an elaborate wedding to his partner, Toby.  

What the reader ultimately come to learn through Sillivan’s story is that the seduction of the diamond, with its allure and promise of years of happiness, masks what marriage (or any long-term relationship) is all about. Relationships require commitment, love, and hard work and happiness is not assured. 

Having enjoyed Sullivan’s first two novels, “Commencement,” and “Maine,” I believe “The Engagements” shows Sullivan’s growth as a writer and her willingness to tackle more ambitious themes and more complicated stories. 

 

 

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Making a Living as a Fiction Writer: Is It the Right Goal?

This blog is usually devoted to essays on the craft of fiction. Rarely do I discuss trends in publishing. I am struck, though, by the number of incredibly talented writing colleagues who can’t eke out a living through their fiction writing. Recent studies bear out the challenges writers face in earning a decent income through publishing, whether traditional or self-publishing.

The Guardian newspaper reported that almost one-third of published authors make less than $500 a year from their writing. Citing a survey by Digital Book World, they reported that traditionally published authors make an annual median income of between $3,000 to $4,999. Hybrid authors, those who publish both independently and traditionally, earned the highest at an average of between $7,500 to $9,999 a year. In other words, even the successful ones make less than $10,000 a year earlier, which are poverty wages. 

It’s a harsh market for writers. Most writers are resigned to the need to have a full-time paying job with benefits to support their writing. When I began writing fiction nearly twenty years ago, I had no illusions. I knew the odds were stacked against me. A number of writers who were better than me struggled to get published and, in the years that ensued, many turned to self-publishing.

The economic realities are daunting. My advice to writers is to forget the notion of measuring success by achieving traditional publication. Sure, that’s an easy thing for me to say, but it’s not likely to make writers feel better. I suggest a different measurement for writers: improvement and development as a writer. That’s a more difficult metric to measure, but it can be done. Here are a few suggestions:

–Find a strong online writing community and actively participate. Make connections with writers at your level or above your level. Volunteer to be a beta reader for other writers and seek out beta readers for your work.

–Join a local writer’s group in which you can bring in your work to be critiqued by others. These groups exist in almost every region of the U.S. 

–Once you get established as a member of a writer’s group, cultivate three to five trusted members of the group and meet separately with that group. The main purpose of these smaller groups is to test out your work when it may not be ready for prime time and to brainstorm about challenges you face in your work in progress.

–Measure your progress by the feedback you receive. A clean page with few edits is real progress. Praise from exacting critics is like gold.

I found the perfect online writing community for me in Writer Unboxed. I have made deep connections with the wonderful people in this group. Just as important to me is the West Hartford Fiction Writer’s Group, which meets monthly at the local library. This group numbers about 25 and we typically get 10-12 at our monthly meetings. Group members are insightful, intelligent and honest critics. A writer’s work must be polished to pass muster with this group. My “safe haven” is an offshoot of this group that meets twice a month at the local Panera Bread. Here, I can bring in work that is not ready for the larger group and bounce ideas off three to five trusted colleagues.

I find fulfillment as a writer not though the pursuit of traditional publication, but through validation of my development by the members of these three writing communities. Most people can’t make a living as a writer, but that’s not why most serious writers do it. There’s nothing wrong with setting a different goal: to be the best writer you can be. 

 

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Book Review: “Go Set a Watchman,” by Harper Lee

I had started writing this review before Harper Lee died on Feb. 19 at the age of 89. It’s impossible to review Harper Lee’s second novel, Go Set a Watchman, except within the context of comparisons to her classic, To Kill a Mockingbird. And it is impossible for Go Set a Watchman to live up to the standard of that colossal work.

That it doesn’t come close to matching its predecessor is a given. There’s a decent story arc in Go Set a Watchman. The writing is clunky at times and lengthy forays into backstory slow down the pacing. The themes of racism and loss of innocence are explored here, but not in nearly as powerful a way as in To Kill a Mockingbird.

The editor who reviewed this manuscript and advised Lee to set the story years earlier and tell it from the point of view of Jean Louise “Scout” Finch as a child made a wise call. In Go Set a Watchman, Jean Louise returns to Maycomb, Alabama, from New York City, where she lives, as a 26-year-old adult. It is set in the mid-1950s, shortly after the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown vs. Board of Education decision outlawing segregated schools as separate and unequal.

In Go Set a Watchman, Atticus Finch is elderly, afflicted with arthritis and, most disturbing, is a racist. He attends meetings of a city council bent on keeping the NAACP lawyers from meddling in the affairs of Southern communities. I found this heartbreaking as, like many people, I always revered Atticus Finch as one of the most courageous characters in fiction.

When Jean Louise discovers that Atticus and her lover, Henry Clinton, are attending a council meeting, she sneaks into the balcony, the same vantage point from which she and Jem, her brother, witnessed the trial of Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockingbird. Jean Louise is incensed at the vitriolic racism she hears at the meeting from a speaker brought in to address the group. Later in the story, she confronts her father. His response is appalling: “Honey, you do not seem to understand that the Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people. You should know it, you’ve seen it all your life.”

Jean Louise responds by saying she doesn’t recognize her father in these views. “You deny them hope…You are telling them that Jesus loves them, but not that much.”

Atticus’s brother advises his niece to have understanding and empathy toward her community, which needs people like her to serve as their conscience as they struggle to preserve their way of life as the nation is evolving. Jean Louise is left with the conclusion that her family and her neighbors are flawed,  imperfect people and she can either use moral persuasion to change them or leave them behind. This is the real message of this story and the moral dilemma we all face. It’s the flip side of the message of To Kill a Mockingbird. In this novel and her earlier work, Lee paints Atticus as someone who represents both our best selves and our demons.

To me, Go Set a Watchman is an important historical document that serves as a lengthy set of character sketches , but I would prefer to remember Atticus Finch as the towering figure in To Kill a Mockingbird.

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Book Review: “The Arsonist,” by Sue Miller

Sue Miller has a special ability to portray the psychological dimensions of domestic relationships, while maintaining an acute sensitivity to her characters’ inner cores. These qualities are on display in her latest novel, The Arsonist.

The Arsonist explores issues of class divide and resentment, personal identity, and the quest for fulfillment. Set in the late 1990s, the story centers on three point-of-view characters: Francesca “Frankie” Rowley, her mother, Sylvia, and Bud Jacobs, a former Wasington bureau reporter who leaves the big time to run a small community newspaper.

Burned out after 15 years of relief work in Africa, Frankie has returned to her parents’ summer home in Pomeroy, New Hampshire, to relax and sort out her future. Fighting jet lag she takes a walk in the middle of the night and witnesses a car driving at a fast rate of speed and she smells smoke. An arsonist has burned down the home of one of the summer residents, the first of a dozen such fires that rip the small town apart.

All of the homes destroyed by the fires are owned by summer residents, fueling speculation the arsonist is a year-round resident. Miller effectively shows the deep divide between the working class residents, who are fully invested in the town, and the tony summer people who invade the community three months a year.

The fires are not the only problem on Sylvia’s mind. She and her husband, Alfie, have retired and moved from the Connecticut suburbs to her family summer home in Pomeroy, but she is far from content. Alfie, a retired college professor, has always been the apple of the children’s eyes, while Sylvia has done all the work of raising the family. Her resentment of him has simmered for years. Now, Alfie suffers from dementia and, as Sylvia struggles to help him, she faces the realization that she does not love him.

Frankie faces a different dilemma. She questions if the work she did in Africa has really made a difference. She also comes to grips with the realization that a series of affairs with aid workers (the most recent a married man) have left her feeling empty. Into her life comes Bud, the local newspaper publisher who yearns desperately for acceptance in this small town community. They meet at a Fourth of July tea and an affair slowly develops. Miller resists the trope of a quick, torrid affair and instead lets this relationship develop with the awkwardness and uncertainty that two middle-aged people would feel in such a situation.

The story threads come to a head as Sylvia is forced to deal with finding long-term care for Alfie, Frankie must make a decision about her future–and whether it will include Bud–and law enforcement has pinned the arson fires on a barely employed and uneducated handyman. Bud has serious doubts as to whether they have arrested the right man. Sylvia springs into action to help Alfie, with Frankie’s help, and Frankie must decide whether to pursue her career as she weighs what she has sacrificed by not allowing herself to commit to a long term relationship .

As always, Miller delivers the goods with a rich and satisfying story about class, community and identity.

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