Monthly Archives: May 2016

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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