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Reviews for Writers

November Reviews for Writers© by Carolyn Howard-Johnson

Carolyn reviews

The Playful Way to Serious Writing

By Roberta Allen

Houghton Mifflin Co, Boston and New York, 2002

ISBN: 061819729

Nonfiction-Writers' (And Teachers') Self-Help 

This is Not For Writers Only

How-To Book for Writers

That's Fun, Easy and Visual

I have reviewed a lot of how-to books for writers; this one truly fills a niche.  I've read how-tos that could help in one's personal life (like "Word Works") and how-tos like Syd Field's that give great advice for screenwriters and also might help novelists.  I've also contributed to an e-book called "Musings" that ruminates on life, love and the written word. This, however, is the first I've seen that is quite this flexible.

As a former teacher, I can see "The Playful Way to Serious Writing" by Roberta Allen as a tool for elementary teachers, art teachers, photography teachers, English and creative writing teachers.  Allen is a photographer and artist as well as a writer and this book is the most visual, the most graphically appealing and the most practical exercise book yet.

That it is also fun is definitely a plus.  I shall probably use my copy when speaking to genealogy groups about how to turn their heritage into readable stories.  I plan to take a couple of the exercises in the book to my critique group (boy, will they be surprised!) and I plan to use a couple of Allen's graphically delightful pages when I tutor my Korean students.  They weren't meant for that but think of the ESL possibilities in phrases like "a goatee" and "a potbelly."  Immigrants often have the English basics. It is the colloquial phrases that throw them.

If you happen to run across this book on the shelf of your bookstore, grab a copy and open it.  Leaf through the pages. It will get all of your creative juices flowing.

  

October Reviews for Writers© by Carolyn Howard-Johnson

Carolyn reviews Five Quarters of the Orange

The Mostluscious Relase of the Year

By Joanne Harris

Perennial, an Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2002

ISBN: 0060958022

 

Taken with the color, scent, taste and delicious sounding French names of food, Joanne Harris uses them as her inspiration for the tastiest of novels.  Having said that, I worry that readers might be mislead by the title of Five Quarters of the Orange, all the hoop-la over the food in this novel and in the author's previous book called "Chocolat" (many art film aficionados may remember it from its adaptation to the screen.)  It is, after all, NOT a recipe book.

This IS a fine period piece set in France during the German occupation.  It is about history.  It is about man's inhumanity to man.  It is about pleasurable innocence and its bitter loss.  It is about how people sometimes let who they think they are rule their lives and their hearts.

This may easily be one the most satisfying and unsettling releases of the year.  Yes, truly bitter- sweet.  Pungent.  Like an orange.   And any other number of foods that Harris lingers over in Five Quarters of the Orange.     

 

September Reviews for Writers© by Carolyn Howard-Johnson

Carolyn reviews The Quintessential Motivation Manual for Writers

ISBN: 1931229171

Invisible Cities Press

"Word Work: Surviving and Thriving as a Writer," may at first appear to be a manual that helps with nitty-gritty writing elements like plot or dialogue.  It is at once more magical and more practical than that.

A writer cannot use or hone skills until she can put her bottom in a chair before a keyboard and make her fingers move.  This book is complete, well written, and filled with a fellow writer's experience and compassion. The author, Bruce Holland Rogers, is a winner of the Pushcart Prize, a Bram Stoker Award and two Nebula Awards.  He weaves his spell so effectively the book could probably could include a money-back guarantee and never expend a single coin. 

Actually, every chapter is a little charm of its own. After each, I felt motivated to both reach for more in my career and life and to accept my own imperfections more readily.   When Rogers waves his wand of philosophical and psychological wisdom, a writer's frailties are diminished, her strengths magnified.

Though a writer is certain to find this book a precious talisman for the pursuit of the written word, it should also discourage her from attempting another book of the same sort.  It has already been done and--try as she might (even using all the skills learned in "Word Work")--she will not find it possible to improve on this one.    

 

July Reviews for Writers© by Carolyn Howard-Johnson

This month, Carolyn reviews

One Author's Dilemma 

Inspires Others to Take Heart

It is reported (variably) that "Quest" has sold between 8,000 and 10,000 copies. Many authors would be ecstatic with sales figures that look like that but everything is relative.

Author and researcher Sylvia Ann Hewlett's publicity predicament has illustrated to the world of books what we authors suspected all along:  Huge amounts of publicity surrounding a release don't necessarily translate into massive sales figures. That may be true even when the publicity is the stuff of which dreams are made-in Surround Sound and Technicolor.

Hewlett is the author of a new book that warns young career women that they have been mislead by petri dish miracles reported in the press.  They have come to believe that they can put conception after career and be reasonably sure they can have still have both. 

Hewlett attempts to exorcise that notion in a book called "Creating a Life: Professional Women and the Quest for Children." Okay.  The title is not scintillating and those in the know are wondering if that is what has influenced book sales. 

It is reported (variably) that "Quest" has sold between 8,000 and 10,000 copies. Many authors would be ecstatic with sales figures that look like that but everything is relative.  Talk Miramax paid a six-figure advance for this title (such as it is) and projected sales in the 30,000 range for hardcover alone.  Considering expectations for the book, the figures do appear dismal.

Therefore, everyone is searching for reasons, especially with the kind of publicity this book has received.  Names like "Time" (the cover, no less) and the "New York" magazine, "60 Minutes," "The Today Show," "Good Morning America," and "NBC Nightly News" have lined up behind this book, for heaven's sake. Even Oprah's magic book-sale-wand has not been effective.

Answers to this dilemma might help publishers and authors in the future. Is its cover ho-hum?  Is it that the media has not focused on positive corrections that might be made in the marketplace to help women accommodate the needs of their career and their biological clocks? My 37 year-old-daughter who has just returned to college to embark on a career in anthropology suggests that women don't want to hear the dreadful news.  She says, "I just flat out don't want to hear this bad news in the middle of something rewarding, exciting and new! Why would I slap down the price of a book to get depressed?"

All this searching for answers may reap results, may help publicists and publishers and authors determine cause and effect so that this syndrome can be avoided in the future-or not. 

From my personal experience with "This is the Place," I figure that all this hullabaloo is futile.  The media that chose to feature my novel may not have been as stellar, the publisher not as dazzling, the expectations not as astounding.  But when I spend a half hour being interviewed by a host syndicated on more than 300 radio stations and do not see the figures on Amazon rise even an iota the next day, I get this inkling that it is not all that unusual for a book to languish in spite of the tumult that surrounds it.

When my novel wins an award and I do not see evidence of my title on the LA Times bestseller list, I have to assume that sales are not necessarily affected by such news.

Of course, my book is a novel and Hewlett's is nonfiction.  That alone could account for a discrepancy between what results in sales and what doesn't.  This kind of convoluted reasoning allows me to sit back on my laurels and say, "That's the way the ball bounces."

Even Hewlett says, "I don't know what to make of this absence of huge sales." One can see her shaking her head in disbelief. If someone with her research skills can't figure it out, can anyone?  It may be the economy, stupid.  Or retailing.  Or the book biz. It's surely something completely out of the author's control. 

All we can do is keep publicizing our books because if we don't, we'll never know if we gave them the best possible chance at success.  It's just that if we don't see direct or immediate results, we don't have to feel too bad.  Thanks to Sylvia Ann Hewlett.

 

June Reviews for Writers© by Carolyn Howard-Johnson

This month, Carolyn reviews

Climb Your Stairway to Heaven

David Leonhardt

 

At first glance, I figured that Climb Your Stairway to Heaven does not seem like a book that writers (specifically) would need on their bookshelves. 

Then I started thinking about writers' block and gloomy days in the spring when a writer sits all alone in her office watching the rain and wishing for a chat around a water cooler. I started thinking about "promotion shock" and how we all have to adjust to it.  I started thinking&ldots;well, you get the idea.

That's when I realized that "Stairway" is, in fact, a good how-to book for writers.

You won't nod off when you're reading this one.  David Leonhardt, the author, can write!  This man knows what he is talking about.  And this guy is wholly, totally and completely an upper of the unmedicated kind. 

The fact that Leonhardt is a speaker shines through on every page.  His book includes pop quizzes, exercises, fables, quotes and what he calls "cave-style cartoons."

If you're a woman, you will want to pay special attention to the section called "Shine Like a Diamond."  It's full of anecdotes that will inspire you.

This book is also full of wisdom.  Trust me, when you NEED an upper, you'll need this on the nightstand by your bed, right next to your journal.

 

Carolyn Howard-Johnson is the author of This is the Place, a coming-of-age novel about a young journalist who finds her own path to heaven. She uses her writing skills to find out more about her family's scripts.

Find out more at http://ww.tlt.com/authors/carolynhowardjohnson.htm

She is also a columnist for the Pasadena Star-News and writes movie reviews for the Glendale New-Press.

 

April Reviews for Writers© by Carolyn Howard-Johnson

This month, Carolyn reviews

However, don't be misled that this is just an ordinary run-of-the-mill review, for nothing could be further from the truth.  Carolyn has taken, if you'll pardon the pun, a novel approach to her brand new review column - one that will benefit each and every one of us as writers.

She will be reviewing books from the standpoint of how we, as aspiring authors, can benefit from the style and composition of best-sellers such as John Grisham.

Grisham's style may not be to everyone's taste, but there are always lessons to be learned from others involved in the craft of creative writing.  As I was once told on another subject entirely, take what you need and jetison the rest, but never dismiss it completely, for you never know what you may be missing.

  

Carolyn Howard-Johnson's
Reviews for Writers©

John Grisham's The Testament

In The Testament John Grisham writes, "Nate took a large spoonful of stew&ldots;then began the story&ldots;(he) went from chapter to chapter." 

That is how Grisham tells a story and why I, as a writer, chose to read it.  I wanted to study exactly how he tells his story, chapter by chapter.   One of my writing teachers from UCLA, Michael Levine, once said, "Grisham is a master at setting up scenes."  I am a master at taking good advice so I decided to check out his technique. 

We all struggle with first chapters.  Grisham's is masterful.  He uses first person which was a bit of a surprise for a novel in which courtrooms and legal finagling are cornerstones.  But what a way to get up close and personal, to draw a reader in. 

In this chapter Grisham sets up an ideal legal situation, a ploy that sets the tone for the entire book.  He also does something very daring.  He kills off the person from whose viewpoint the story is being told.  Yes, the first person narrator dies at the end of the first chapter leaving the reader wondering what the hell happened and how he is supposed to get from first chapter to last with his aging, recalcitrant first person storyteller dead and gone.  Grisham is willing to do all of this in order to get the reader in a stranglehold and never let him go but he risks creating exactly the opposite effect.

In the second chapter Grisham jumps to the more usual third person and never returns.  This all works because, though Troy Phelan, the original narrator, has committed suicide, the entire book will still revolves around the machinations that he has set in motion and we still get the third person we have come to expect with this kind of story for the rest of the book.  Grisham took a risk when there was a benefit to doing so.  

Another thing that Grisham does well is scene and chapter endings.  He tailors these like a structured suit, carefully closing the seams so they're airtight and have no loose threads.  When cursory is needed the last sentence can close with three words. There may be no conjunctions, sometimes no verbs.  He closes and the reader knows it in no uncertain terms. 

Sometimes, however, Grisham finishes his chapters in quite the opposite way.  Clauses ramble a bit as if to carry the reader forward into the next chapter, the next scene.  It is quite the opposite of the "quick close" but is also very effective.  The trick is coming up with the right stitch or seam in the right place.  Authors may want to study these for ideas and guidance. 

A writer will also want to pay attention to Grisham's space breaks within chapters.  He moves from scene to scene, viewpoint to viewpoint, masterfully using this device.

I also liked that when Grisham used symbols they were unobtrusive. Nate, the alcoholic protagonist who has seen way too much water flow under the bridge is out on the adventure of his lifetime and observes, behind his boat, "a view of the wake and the muddy brown water bubbling behind him."  Don't even suggest that this is accidental.  It is intended for sure, but seeps into the reader's subconscious instead of smacking him between the eyes. 

Don't misunderstand. Grisham makes errors.  We are jarred when old Troy commits suicide and we've lost our first person narrator.  Call it an error but it works.  In other places there are little dips and dings that don't make excuses for themselves.  In one place the author has shown--through masterful dialogue--that a character has made a polite but vacant gesture.  Nothing more is needed but he can't resist explaining to the reader what has happened (see page 112 in the hardback). 

Grisham's work is not intended to be terrifically literary.  He is short on symbol, metaphor, and philosophy.  Some would argue that this is all to the good and it is certainly one of the reasons his scenes move along quickly. 

Unlike some of my favorite authors (like John Updike) Grisham's vocabulary is very familiar.  It would be unlikely for a reader to find one word (I did; it was "scintilla") that he or she isn't absolutely sure about it.  I personally think there is nothing wrong with stretching the reader a bit and I don't think it necessarily slows down any but the most exacting of readers.  Grisham, I think, chooses not to do this in the interest of perfect scene structure and a fast-moving story.

He also occasionally plays a little loose with his character's perspective.  (See P. 258 of the hardback.)  This is disconcerting in a novel that doesn't ask or expect thoughtful reading. 

There was one place where motivation suffered a bit in favor of moving the plot along.  (See if you can spot it on about page 316 of the hardback.)

I also find Grisham's work short on detail.  It is not because he can't do it.  In one place he notes that, "blood filled in the mortar cracks and ran in perfect right angles down a gentle slope."  Can't get more vivid than that.  I think he chooses not to use his gift for seeing detail in order to keep his chapters and scenes moving along.  One is sacrificed for the other.  Which you choose, as a writer, depends on what you are trying to do.

It's pretty much the same when making a choice as a reader.  What do you want more?  A fast moving story or something to chew on for years to come?  Choices.  Choices.  It's all about choices. 

Carolyn Howard-Johnson is a columnist for the Pasadena Star News and Home Décor Buyer.  Her first novel, "This Is The Place" will be released by AmErica House in June of 2001.  "Fabulous&ldots;" says Valerie Susan Hayward, Senior Editor Harlequin/Silhouette. 

Learn more at www.tlt.com/authors/carolynhowardjohnson.htm or for a FREE copy of the first chapter send an e-mail to: Carolynhowardjohnson@sendfree.com


May Reviews for Writers© by Carolyn Howard-Johnson

This month, Carolyn reviews
Soulsaver by James Stevens-Arce
Published by Harcourt, Inc. ISBN: 0-15-100472-2

Carolyn Howard-Johnson's
Reviews for Writers©

The Study of First Person, Present Tense Used Effectively

A novel that uses first person, present tense is not easy to find, probably because there are not many convincing reasons to use it.  In Soulsaver,  James Stevens-Arce does it well.

This book is an interesting and fast-paced satire.   The protagonist, Juan Bautista Lorca, is a callow youth blinded by the society in which he lives.  That Stevens-Arce chooses to tell his story from this little twerp's viewpoint is daring for the reader doesn't take immediately to him.  Stevens-Arce carefully mitigates that problem in several ways.

First, he doesn't get inside his head much until the character begins to change, and to grow.  We can never be certain but I believe this was a conscious decision because poor Juan doesn't have a deep thought stored anywhere in there, anyway.  It is a perfect approach to this kind of character building.

One of the difficulties of using this method is that the reader gets less insight into the character than we have become accustomed to.  Any we do get comes from the dialogue and/or what is happening around Juan.  There is an advantage here, as well.  The action moves forward very quickly and we find ourselves immersed in the time (The Year of Our Lord 2099) and the place (San Juan, the capitol city of our 52nd state).  And, surprising, this is enough.  The author has carefully balanced what the reader is likely to miss with what she gets.

As Juan develops and finds his own depth, we find that Steven-Arce is a writer with a first-class instinct for words as well.   For those of us who long to see, hear, and feel when we read, this novel is not a disappointment. We must wait, but we get wonderful similes like, "&ldots;the sun&ldots;looks like a communion wafer pasted against the sky," and  "&ldots;the Swiss cheese of pigeon holes cut into the ancient wall&ldots;"  Stevens-Arce has crafted a book where there is only straightforward, uncluttered writing until the reader is hooked.  Only then do we find passages that are pure poetry.  By that time we find ourselves literally gobbling it up.

Stevens-Arce has one more trick to keep the reader hanging in there while this shallow youth ogles breasts, bounces to the music blasting into his headphones and relishes his own benign happiness with himself and the god-awful world he doesn't see around himself.  He uses present tense.  I hate present tense.  Yet I hardly noticed.  It propels the novel forward when it needs momentum.  After it has done its job the reader becomes so used to it, it is no longer a factor.

If I were still teaching English, this book would become one of my texts.  It's not often that one finds first person, present tense put to such carefully crafted use.  It's also not often that one finds a book that lauds the often-maligned ability of thinking for oneself.  Next to Holden Caulfield, Juan Bautista Lorca may be the best literary example for youth in recent times.

Carolyn Howard-Johnson is a columnist for the Pasadena Star News and Home Décor Buyer.  Her first novel, "This Is The Place" will be released by AmErica House in June of 2001.  "Fabulous&ldots;" says Valerie Susan Hayward, Senior Editor Harlequin/Silhouette.

Learn more at www.tlt.com/authors/carolynhowardjohnson.htm or for a FREE copy of the first chapter send an e-mail to: Carolynhowardjohnson@sendfree.com


 

June Reviews for Writers© by Carolyn Howard-Johnson

This month, Carolyn reviews

The Ultimate Visual Dictionary

Published by DK Publishing Inc., New York

Carolyn Howard-Johnson's
Reviews for Writers©

Even with the best of references old habits are hard to break.  

So, I can't promise that the Ultimate Visual Dictionary published by DK Publishing, Inc., New York, will cure you of yelling to anyone within hearing distance, "Do you remember what those little petals that sit on the top of a strawberry are called?" but I can tell you that when no one in the house comes running to your aid, you will be really glad to have this reference sitting right on your desk.

Libraries are nice.  Heavens, the NET is even nice.  But nothing can surpass a good, well-worn reference that you come to know intimately, know its strengths and its weaknesses.

The pictures are colorful, clear and not so cute they're annoying; it is divided into sensible categories like "The Universe," "Prehistoric Earth," and "The Human Body."  There is a concise index and an appendix of useful data like mathematical symbols and the ever-confounding metric conversions.

Now, sometimes you will need the name for something like the hole in the face of a guitar.  You are praying there is a term that alliterates with the adjective you have already chosen to describe it.  You rush to the wonderful book (after getting blank stares from anyone you ask about it first, of course), find the section for "music," and are disappointed to find that it is called a "sound hole."  It's not a poetic term.  It doesn't have any potential for a lyrical metaphor.  Still, that's not the fault of the book, is it?  At least you'll know that you are on your own for coming up with a term that is kinder to the ear or that, if you settle for "sound hole," there is nothing more accurate available.

Check out the page for "Books."  You'll find wonderful terms about your own craft that you've forgotten or never knew--like "mull," "buckram corner piece," and "tail."

The Ultimate Visual Dictionary" is $16.95.  It was edited by Jo Evans and Julee Binder with a team of amazing researchers and artists.

 

Carolyn Howard-Johnson is a freelance writer.  She is a columnist for the Pasadena Star News, a contributing editor for Home Décor Buyer and does occasional movie reviews for the Glendale News-Press.  Her first novel, "This Is The Place," is set in Utah in the 1950s and is about  love, prejudice, and redemption.  Published by AmErica House, Baltimore, it is being released in July.  Its ISBN is: 1-58851-352-1

Learn more at www.tlt.com/authors/carolynhowardjohnson.htm or for a FREE copy of the first chapter send an e-mail to: Carolynhowardjohnson@sendfree.com


July Reviews for Writers© by Carolyn Howard-Johnson

This month, Carolyn reviews

A Painted House by John Grisham

Published by Doubleday

 

Carolyn Howard-Johnson's
Reviews for Writers©

In a review for the LA Times, Michael Harris notes that A Painted House might be “the kind of novel John Grisham intended to write all along, before he broke through with his first legal thriller.” At the very least, it was the kind he wanted to write even if he wasn’t conscious of it.           

Because I reviewed Grisham’s The Testament in this column a few issues ago, I was intrigued about what writers could learn from Grisham’s sharp right turn from legal thriller to literary.  The answer is, lots.        

Grisham loses none of his skill as a setter-of-scenes, crafter of form.  What I feel he gained is that, in getting closer to his Arkansas roots he grounds this novel in a way he never has before.  The story moves more slowly.  Some in our turn-the-knob society will not like this.  I think, however, that it makes room for him to paint a poignant picture of childhood in a decade that was, indeed, slower.  This is a novel firmly set in place and time, beautifully described, hauntingly remembered.             

As writers,we can study this "House"  for scene structure or to see how a novelist gets his protagonist placed correctly for a believable first person point of view.  But it also contrasts a novel that is a “real good read” and a novel of substance. 

This story will stay with you long after you turn the last page.  That is because it is heart sharing with heart, mind sharing with mind, the laying open of self with the sure knowledge that those who count will see the soul within. 

Carolyn Howard-Johnson is a freelance writer.  She is a columnist for the Pasadena Star News, a contributing editor for Home Décor Buyer and does occasional movie reviews for the Glendale News-Press.  Her first novel, "This Is The Place," is set in Utah in the 1950s and is about  love, prejudice, and redemption.  Published by AmErica House, Baltimore, it is being released in July.  Its ISBN is: 1-58851-352-1

Learn more at www.tlt.com/authors/carolynhowardjohnson.htm or for a FREE copy of the first chapter send an e-mail to: Carolynhowardjohnson@sendfree.com


August Reviews for Writers© by Carolyn Howard-Johnson

This month, Carolyn reviews

the Describer's dictionary by David Grambs

Published by W. W. Norton & Company

Roget's Thesaurus and I never much got along.  When I am sure there is a better word for something than the one in my head, it never agrees.  When I can't think of the word I want or one even close, it isn't any help at all.  So I didn't hold out much hope for  the Describer's dictionary, when my fellow author, JayCe Crawford recommended it. 

The reason I like this reference so much is that if I don't find exactly what I'm looking for, I may very well find something I like better.  Further, this is the kind of reference you can actually read.  Open this book to any chapter (segment) on, say, "hair."  You'll find several quotes about "hair" that are entertaining and may stir your own creative juices before you even get to the part that that lists adjectives for all kinds of-- ahem-- tresses, locks, strands, shocks, hanks, coils, tendrils, curls, ringlets or swirls.  

My favorite was this:

"The skinny girl with fiery, chopped-off red hair swaggered inside, and stopped dead still, her hands cocked on her hips.  Her face was flat, and rather impertinent&ldots;"

Truman Capote, Other voices, Other Rooms

As you can see, this offering gives an author an idea of how the best might have handled the same problem she faces.  Many are mightily amusing. 

So, if you don't just keep reading instead of handling the problem at hand, you might eventually find adjectives for some 96 possible "hair situations" and one of them will likely be exactly what you need. 

Then there are usually several descriptive words under each possibility.  So for "oiled hair" you will find, "greased, slicked, slick, pomaded , brilliantined, plastered, pasted."  You can choose one, let one speak to you so you can come up with a simile or metaphor, or move on down the list to see if there's something more to your liking.

When I get into a writing snit, it's often this book to my rescue.

Carolyn Howard-Johnson's
Reviews for Writers©

Carolyn Howard-Johnson is a freelance writer.  She is a columnist for the Pasadena Star News, a contributing editor for Home Décor Buyer and does occasional movie reviews for the Glendale News-Press.  Her first novel, "This Is The Place," is set in Utah in the 1950s and is about  love, prejudice, and redemption.  Published by AmErica House, Baltimore, it is being released in July.  Its ISBN is: 1-58851-352-1

Learn more at www.tlt.com/authors/carolynhowardjohnson.htm or for a FREE copy of the first chapter send an e-mail to: Carolynhowardjohnson@sendfree.com




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