HOW TO WRITE LIKE TOLSTOY: A journey into the minds of our greatest writers
Written by Richard Cohen and Reviewed by B. Lynn Goodwin
Writer's Don't Fit Molds
Beginnings may grab, invite, or beguile. They draw us in through varying methods depending on the author and the genre. Beginnings only work though if they are about characters we either love or love to hate. High stakes matter. Important issues matter. Characters must be authentic, unless an author makes an artistic choice to create 2-dimensional characters in order to make a point.
Characters drive a story, except when the plot does. Dialogue, irony, rhythm, and revision all play a role. Cohen has even included a chapter on writing about sex in this remarkable book filled with tips and wisdom. In each chapter he offers facts and encourages writers to make wise choices since the experts often disagree about what is right and what is wrong. It’s often a matter of what brings out the best in each writer.
Writers don’t fit into molds. Ideally they approach their subject with confidence. They are open to revision. They are as interested in rhythm and language as they are in plot and characterization. Writing is not about talent, but talent helps. Unique vision probably helps more. So does practice.
Though many of Cohen’s ideas are familiar and some have already been thoroughly explored, he shares them through his unique lens and sheds new light on a familiar subject. Part of the reason he does this so effectively is that he is a prolific reader with a lifetime of savoring and digesting literature behind him as well as a background teaching writing.
Richard Cohen is the former publishing director of Hutchinson and Hodder & Stoughton and the founder of Richard Cohen Books. He has edited works that have gone on to win the Pulitzer, Booker, and Whitbread/Costa prizes. He has written for The New York Times and several leading London newspapers. If you’re looking for writing advice, read this book.
THE OTHER WIDOW
Written by Susan Crawford and Reviewed by B. Lynn Goodwin
Publisher: William Morrow (April 26, 2016)
It Isn't Safe
A car accident leaves the driver, Joe, dead. His girlfriend, Dorrie, bolts from the passenger’s seat in Susan Crawford’s The Other Widow. Karen, Joe’s wife, is nearby, stewing about his mysterious e-mails, when she hears a siren and spots a dark sedan that looks a little like her husband’s Audi.
Mysteries are complex for the characters inside them and we appreciate the complexity more fully when a mystery is told through several principal players’ points of view. A skilled author like Susan Crawford knows just what to let each character discover, chapter by chapter, and withholds enough clues to keep readers guessing. Not only were we guessing throughout The Other Widow, but we were also drawn into the mixed feelings of loss, grief and relief that Karen experienced, and the dread and fear that Dorrie went through.
Just before his death, Joe tells Dorrie, “It isn’t safe.” She’s left to figure out what isn’t safe and how she can protect herself against an unseen but ever present enemy in Susan Crawford’s thriller, The Other Widow.
A third woman, Maggie Brennan, is an Iraq war veteran, using her police background as an insurance investigator until she decides whether she can return to the force despite her PTSD. Her questions take us deeper into the mystery as she builds a relationship with both the wife and the girl friend. She’s a fascinating character who would play her part well in a sequel.
The emotional journeys of the characters carry the book, which is supported with a whodunit plot. We care about all three women. We understand them, are intrigued by them, and want them to succeed. We are so deeply in the character’s heads that we cannot see the whole picture at once. Some readers may be surprised by the simple explanations behind the statement that it isn’t safe.
Mystery fans, fans of women’s fiction, and writers studying plot, character, and point of view should be among the readers, but there will be many more, because the stakes are high and easy to relate to. Susan Crawford, who graduated from the University of Miami with a BA in English and a minor in psychology, is also the author of The Pocket Wife. Learn more about her at http://www.susancrawfordnovelist.com and pick up her book online or at your favorite Indie bookstore.
WOMEN WRITING ON FAMILY: Tips on Writing, Teaching and Publishing
Editors: Carol Smallwood and Suzan Holland
Reviewer: Audrey Robinson-Nkongola, Western Kentucky University
The Key Publishing House, Inc., 2012
Excerpted from a review originally published in Ascent Aspirations in the June 2014 on-line issue.
Share Your Story
Jenn Brisendine’s essay, “Don’t Forget the Story: Implementing Fiction Techniques in Creative Non-Fiction” advises writers of creative nonfiction to “show, don’t tell the story.” Brisendine demonstrates numerous techniques and counsels against providing readers with too much “necessary, but uninteresting exposition” (140). In addition, she suggests that writers use action words rather than said. She illustrates this point in the following example. Instead of writing “Peyton said, ‘I’m leaving’ while slamming the door”, Brisendine suggests writing “‘I’m leaving’, Peyton let the door slam behind her” (140).
In dysfunctional families, parents or spouses may tell the victim not to speak about what happens in the home—to remain silent. Consequently, the abused child or spouse may not feel free to tell her story of violence or sexual abuse. Anna Saini in her essay, “Using Writing as a Means of Surviving and Transgressing Family Violence and Trauma”, encourages victims of domestic abuse to break the silence and use their experiences as fodder for their stories. Saini states that writing about abuse can assist in the healing process. Writing about it becomes “a way of creating something beautiful from what is, outside of the artistic world, a perversion” (119).
The text teaches encourages women to find her unique voice. Ingeborg Gubler Casey assists the woman writer to do just that in an essay aptly named, “Finding My Voice.” The first lines of the essay would encourage any writer who thought she could not write as a result of past experiences. Casey confesses that she “struggled in college writing classes. My stories earned mediocre grades, so I concluded that I had no talent as a writer” (296). She found one person who believed in her, which propelled her to continue to share her story. She concludes by saying “I believe in the power of sharing. It is healing for both the teller and the listener, writer and reader…Sharing my story has been gratifying and deeply satisfying” (298).
Whether the writer is dealing with possible legal issues, her lack of confidence, or implementing dialogue in a text, she can choose from any essay and applied it to her current needs. While Women Writing on Family is focused on women writers with families, any woman can read this book to become a writer or a better one.
Audrey Robinson-Nkongola is Assistant Professor/Campus Librarian at Western Kentucky University-Glasgow. She holds a Masters of Arts degree in American and English Literature from Indiana State University as well as Masters of Science in Library Information Sciences from Drexel University.
NIGHT, NIGHT, SLEEP TIGHT
Written by Hallie Ephron and Reviewed by B. Lynn Goodwin
ISBN #: 978-0-06-211763-2
Just the Right Hints
What happens when a family hides the truth about an accident that leaves the daughter physically disabled and the son emotionally disabled? Curiosity bubbles in the minds of everyone who does not know the whole truth. It rises up and overwhelms not only those involved, but a whole neighborhood in Hallie Ephron’s Night, Night, Sleep Tight.
Deirdre, a dutiful daughter, returns to an older Hollywood neighborhood to help her script-writer father pack up the family home that he is about to sell. When she shows up, she cannot get into the house. After her brother finally opens the door, she finds her father floating face down in the swimming pool.
Deirdre is the responsible daughter. Henry is the son still living in Dad’s house. Arthur, their dad, has written a memoir that includes the night his actress-neighbor, Bunny’s, live-in thug of a boyfriend was stabbed. Memories from that night are blurred. The most tangible memory is Deidre’s withered leg. It never healed after she was hurled from a car on Mulholland Drive. She lives with the mystery of what happened that night and the kind of metal crutch that wraps around her arm.
When the family lawyer comes to the house after they report their father’s death, Deirdre learns that her father named her his literary executor. His office is filled with scripts, notes, some pictures of young starlet hopefuls, and Arthur’s memoir. Before she can read it, the office is set on fire. Who set it? What is the secret that someone wants to keep from Deirdre? And how do the neighbors fit into the story?
Hallie Ephron’s mystery is well written. The first chapters of Night, night, sleep tight foreshadow secrets to be revealed and use details to move the action forward. Ephron knows how to pace her story and drops just the right hints to keep us turning pages. What makes the book fascinating is her skilled writing—not a word wasted—and the flawed characters that we learn to love. She comes by her talents honestly. Her parents were screenwriters, and a Hollywood murder when she was still a girl was the original inspiration for this book.
This will appeal to Hollywood aficionados, psychological thriller buffs, and anyone who can’t resist a psychological thriller or a page-turner. If you like mystery, you’re going to love this book.
THE BONE TREE
Written by Greg Iles and Reviewed by B. Lynn Goodwin
ISBN # 978-0062311115
Mayor Penn Cage and his fiancé, newspaper editor Caitlin Masters become increasingly more curious as they deal with the aftermath of Brody Royal’s attempt to murder them. Royal was the leader of a vicious sect of the KKK, but Cage learns about a new, fearsome leader of the group, Forrest Knox. Cage goes after Knox as he searches for his father, while Caitlin uncovers more dark truths around the murders of civil rights workers and seeks a probable burial ground called “the bone tree.”
There’s a lot at stake in this action-driven account of horrendous deaths that implicates the Knox family and the Mafia in JFK’s murder in Dallas. There is suspense on every page and the book makes completely unexpected turns. It also delves realistically into Southern culture and racial injustice.
In an interview by Lenny Picker, author Greg Iles said, “The threads that make up this novel were weaving themselves together long before I wrote my first book in 1993.” Greg Iles’ father had a great deal in common with the fictitious Dr. Cage, his narrator’s father. Iles said, “I’d like to stress that Dr. Tom Cage’s sins are not my father’s, but my dad and Tom share many of the same virtues… great integrity and rectitude. That said, he was also human and had his secret sins, as we all do.”
Learn more, including what is next for Greg Iles at http://www.gregiles.com/.