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The Reviewer's Corner - Look at Me Being All Literary
Background note: I'm a member of a structured review group, which puts me in the position of seeing a lot of self-published books. Group policy prevents us from posting reviews when books receive a rating of less than 3-stars (using the Amazon system). Since only about half the books coming my way receive a “3”, I think it useful to point out some trends I’ve noticed. Your mileage may vary—but at least there might be some notes here worthy of your attention.
In honor of the recent Holm-Rousey match that ended with the scrappy and intelligent challenger putting the "invincible" champion flat on her back, this post will feature boxing analogies. Specifically, the idea of one, solid, direct phrase having so much more impact than a multitude of featherweight taps of what is often considered "literary" language.
In case there's confusion about what I consider to be "literary" language I have permission to offer some examples from a young writer who was surprised to discover that I considered her prose to be "self-consciously literary".
For example: "The two
octillion ton body burned the sky in a blaze of snowy fire...."
This is the sun coming up - which, of course, happens every day. Note how much the "literary" mandate seems to demand. We get to use the word "octillion" (how many opportunities are you going to have to pull that out, after all?). And there's also the confusing suggestion that there's something hot and radiant about snow.
Another example: And
so he mumbled his understanding, not entirely listening to the dump of emotions
that was unambiguously his fault, according to his sister.
After reading this sentence several times, I only wish I understood what it says. The ultimate misfortune of "literary" language is that it's marvelously ineffective: just tap-tap-tapping. Punches that not only do not land, but make a reader skeptical and impatient when it seems that you can't even accurately summarize a simple exchange of emotion.
On the other hand, here are examples of solid, direct, pungent, effective passages that readers tend to remember, because they're so well expressed:
Ross MacDonald: The light-blue haze in the lower canyon was like a thin smoke from slowly burning money.
Since this sentence occurs on the very first page of a novel, you understand immediately that you're in the hands of a master storyteller. Not just mood, but attitude - and telling little details. Very early you understand that the narrator is contemptuous of the idle rich, but depends on them for his living.
Shakespeare/Marlowe: Whoever loved, who loved not at first sight?
The Elizabethans loved this echo effect: "who" doubling on "who" - "loved" doubling on "loved". And there's a Big Idea here, too: that all lovers love from the first glimpse, no matter what they think later on. Quite a concept to offer in just eight words.
Scott Fitzgerald: This isn’t just an epigram — life is much more successfully looked at from a single window, after all.
No one worked harder at sounding casual than Fitzgerald, and I've always envied this chatty, kind of throwaway style. It's only after you've read Gatsby several times that you realize that most of the people who Nick meets during the course of the narrative are people looking at the world in a very one-dimensional way - and almost none of them are happy.
So, to summarize: the best storytelling is pungent, economical, and powerful. Solid punches - straight from the shoulder - and the occasional kick in the head when the situation calls for it. Not a rain of featherweight jabs that mostly serve to prove to the reader that you know how to use a thesaurus.
Until next time....
I see that you have written 31 posts, and that I am going to have to read them all. And then reread them. Solid comments, beautifully written. Do you have a book up here? I'd like to look at that as well.
"Since only about half the books coming my way receive a “3”"
As many as that? I'm surprised. Or is that out of ten?
--edited by D'Estaing on 11/28/2015, 6:15 AM--
I know - that's been one of the pleasant surprises. Most of the titles seem to be the fruit of serious effort — even though I don't often detect the intervention of professional editors. “Self-consciously literary language” isn’t even that big a problem (although it was fun to post about).
Most of the work I see is earnest, coherent, and properly formatted. Self-published authors tend to falter in paring down the amount of words to creating a tight narrative (see my first post, “Help! I’m In Love with the Sound of My Own Voice!”), creating three-dimensional credible characters, and simple failures of invention (many self-published are just repeating other ideas from other writers).
I'd like to know more about the structured review group. How to find one. It seems to me the weakness of Bookcountry.com is getting someone to read and review your work. By the way, I got the pdf and hope to finish it this week.
I'm on the roster at something called the Kindle Book Review (https://www.thekindlebookreview.net/book-reviews/) which means I get something in my inbox about once a week for the type of material I’ve specified. I’m seeing a lot of hard work by a lot of ambitious people. But, to be blunt, I’m also seeing a lot that falls short of any commercial potential because of the various reasons I’m busy explaining in “The Reviewer’s Corner”.
I interact with about 8 of these sites. BOOKCOUNTRY is one of the few frequented mostly by adults — but the site seems to be working at cross purposes lately. I have the impression that it started out as a pure “workshop” for authors preparing their books for self-publication through Penguin.
Now, even though the site says specifically that it is not a “secret door” into the Penguin editorial offices, there are frequent suggestions that a popular book, here, can lead to a traditional book contract and some organized attention.
Which creates a mood something like a theatrical audition: we’re all coming in to read, competing for the same job, hoping to be chosen, and looking at our competitors with more a sense of dread than of welcome.
The net effect is that some manuscripts have rested here for years and never been touched. Which is unfortunate — because I’m sure that’s not the object of the site.