Mastering the Craft of Compelling Storytelling, by Ray Rhamey

This book is a great resource for both beginning and experienced writers. While there are many books on the craft of writing, what makes Rahmey’s book stand out is his focus on making your story grip readers and compel us to read on.

On his blog, Flogging the Quill, Rhamey regularly presents the first page of a work in progress that has been submitted to the blog. He invites readers to vote on whether they would continue reading (yes/no/maybe). Then he gives his own vote and his rationale. Not only does this provide valuable feedback to the author of the page, but all writers can learn a lot from reading and voting and perusing Rhamey's responses.

This new craft book is a boon to writers. It contains specific explanations and tips for writers, all delivered in an easygoing style that makes the medicine go down easily. Rhamey, whom I met at a recent writer's conference, includes copious examples and quotes from other writing gurus. He even inserts a few cartoons to keep things lively.

Underlying Rhamey's specific advice for creating an irresistible story is a principle he calls writing for effect.

In storytelling, you’re not writing to inform the reader—you deliver information, of course, but that's not the purpose—you're writing to affect the reader. To craft narrative that creates an effect in the reader's mind—the experience of the story.

Rhamey offers sections that range from the big picture, such as how to how to create complex characters, to the smallest, such as the section on wordcraft where he demonstrates how certain words can weaken the story. He describes techniques for storytelling, description and dialogue, providing multiple examples for illustration. I especially like his description of how to handle transitions and flashbacks. These are often stumbling blocks for even experienced writers.

Best of all, there are exercises at the end where you can test your chops against some of the first pages submitted to his blog and then see what he has to say about them.

For me, the most effective use of this book is during the revision stage. It's easy for me to get hung up on revising the first chapter over and over. To do this kind of critiquing, I have to switch from my creative brain to a more analytical mindset, which is better done after I've finished a first draft. However, others may find it useful to read while still planning their opus, especially the sections on crafting characters and choosing a point of view.

I recommend this book to writers who want to keep their readers turning page after page, compelled by the story to go on.

If you want to submit your first page to Rhamey’s blog, see the directions on his website. He also provides a first page checklist, excerpted from this book, and suggests that you evaluate your first page against it before submitting.

Writers: what craft book have you found most helpful?

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a digital copy of this book free from the author. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Passport to Peril, by Robert B. Parker

No, not that Robert B. Parker. This isn’t a Spenser novel. This Robert B. Parker—no relation—was a foreign correspondent who was on the ground in countries such as Germany, Hungary, Turkey and Spain for many of the early 20th century’s key events. He found time to write a number of suspenseful spy novels full of the insider knowledge acquired through his journalistic travels.

This 1951 thriller starts on the Orient Express between Vienna and Budapest. In order to get into Russian-occupied Hungary, John Stodder had bought a false passport in Vienna. He couldn’t travel under his own name; the Russians had refused him access because of uncomplimentary articles he’d written. He wasn’t after a story, at least not one for the paper. He wanted to find out what had happened to his brother during the war.

The only problem is that his passport belongs to a dead man, Marcel Blaye, who had been murdered only the previous day. He discovers this when Blaye’s beautiful and terrified assistant enters his compartment where she had been booked to travel with her employer. The man Blaye told her wanted to kill him lurked in the corridor outside.

The non-stop action begins, as Stodder realises that his passport won’t work at the border where they will be looking for Blaye’s murderer. The chase is on, as Stodder and Maria try to elude, not just the man in the corridor, but Russian soldiers and a mysterious Polish countess. They also have to decide what to do about Blaye’s mission and find the truth about Stodder’s brother.

What makes this story stand out are the details about places and politics. It’s an exciting story, with all kinds of twists and turns. Like an Alfred Hitchcock film, we have an ordinary man finding himself suddenly in extraordinary and dangerous circumstances. I never tire of the courage and resourcefulness the most ordinary person can display when neeeded.

Some fellow writers and I were discussing whether books could have too much suspense. Most of us agreed that the pacing had to vary, as it does here with moments of regrouping and recuperation. They don’t last long, but they help maintain the interest. We also liked some comic relief, here provided by the most unlikely pair of U.S. spies you can imagine. Plus there’s a nightclub where the dance floor rotates and booths drop to the basement and rise again at the touch of a button.

If you miss the spy novels of the 1950s, pick up this one, newly reissued by Hard Case Crime. It won’t disappoint. Then if you want, you can pick up a Spenser novel and leave the bitterly cold world of spies for the mysteries of Boston.

What spy novels have you enjoyed?

Best books I read in 2014

As a writer, I learn something from every book I read. These are the ten best books I read in 2014. Please check the links to the blog archive for a fuller discussion of each book.

1. The Empty Family, by Colm Tóibín

Tóibín has long been one of my favorite authors. This collection of short stories only confirms my appreciation of his work. There are silences at the heart of many of the stories in this collection. I think about what is not said, what core of emotional truth becomes the secret spring for a story. By the end I felt as though I’d lived an additional nine lives.

2. The Rings of Saturn, by W.G. Sebald

I’d been meaning to read this book for some time. It’s ostensibly a travel memoir, a record of a walking tour of Suffolk, on the east coast of England that Sebald took in August, 1992, yet he moves through history, literature, and philosophy. He infuses his stories of what has been lost or forgotten with plenty of drama. This is a book I will long treasure and return to.

3. Andrew Wyeth, Looking Out, Looking In

I loved this exhibit at the National Gallery, but I also loved the essays in this catalogue by Nancy K. Anderson and Charles Brock. I’ve longed been fascinated by thresholds and other liminal spaces, but had never really thought about windows before. These essays deepened my thinking and pushed it in new directions.

4. The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, by Rainer Maria Rilke

This novel by one of my favorite poets plunges the reader deep into the mind of a troubled young man, seducing us with poetic prose that draws us in ever deeper. Twenty-eight-year-old Malte leads a solitary life in Paris at the beginning of the 20th century. He walks the streets, dismayed by the poverty and despair of the people he sees. Death is all around him: a man dying near him in a cafe, a young girl dying in front of his eyes on a trolley. He says, “I have no roof over me, and it is raining into my eyes.”

5. The Stone Carvers, by Jane Urquhart

Urquhart is one of my favorite writers, and this is one of her best books. I find it hard to summarize because of its complexity, though it reads like a dream. It’s about people with big dreams: to build a huge stone church with a bell in remote pioneer settlement in Ontario, to build a huge monument to the Canadian dead at Vimy Ridge. It’s about people with small dreams: to marry and create a home, to find the next meal, to preserve the names of the dead.

6. World Within World, by Stephen Spender

This autobiography by the well-known British poet has been called “the best autobiography in English written in the twentieth century.” The appeal of this book lies in his openness. Spender gives us simultaneously the story of his emotional, intellectual, political and poetic journeys during the years 1928-1939. He brings out the inner and outer conflicts of his time, as he pursues his goals first of trying to discover his real self and then to find a right relation to the world.

7. Call the Midwife: A Memoir of Birth, Joy, and Hard Times, by Jennifer Worth

I’ve greatly enjoyed this series on PBS, but this book (the first of three) is even better than the show. In the early 1950s Worth, then Jennifer Lee, having trained as a nurse, was placed at an Anglican community of nuns to learn midwifery. Together with the nuns and two other young midwives-in-training, Worth serves the vibrant but shockingly poor Cockney East-Enders, as a midwife but also on occasion as a district nurse. Her stories of her fellow midwives and the characters she meets are funny and sad and enchanting.

8. A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, by Yiyun Li

Yiyun Li’s short stories bring to life a world of people far removed from the headlines and stereotypes. Some are set in China and some in the U.S., but most include or reference the tension of sons, daughters, or fiancés who have gone to the U.S. to study and may or may not return. All are told in the voice of a storyteller, one who gives us an entrée into the lives of ordinary people with astonishing stories to tell. I love the way Li uses subtle turns of phrase, as well as proverbs, aphorisms, and references to mythology to convey the flavor of Chinese dialogue.

9. The Weight of a Human Heart, by Ryan O’Neill

Nearly all of the stories in this collection have some kind of experimental format: one is a series of figures; another a list of rules for writing a short story; yet another an examination paper. Some, such as the one told by labeling the components of a short story, probably appeal most to other writers. However, they are clever and surprisingly effective.

10. Myth of the Welfare Queen, by David Zucchino

Zucchino is a journalist who in this extremely well written book sets out to explode the stereotype of the welfare queen by introducing us to two remarkable women. Although the story takes place 15 years after I went off of welfare, there is much that I recognise. The truly sad part of the book is that Zucchino's portrait of the two women is just before Clinton signed the welfare reform act in 1996 that effectively removed the safety net. So as hard as the lives are of those portrayed in this book, we know they are about to get a lot harder.

What were the best books you read last year?

The Last Place, by Laura Lippman

One of the advantages of a faltering memory is that I can reread mysteries feeling just as much suspense as the first time around. This 2002 book starts with Lippman’s sleuth, Tess Monaghan, pulling a caper with her preppy terrorist friend.

Whitney isn’t really a terrorist, but she’s pretty scary. Combining a sense of entitlement with a willingness to kick butt in a good cause, she may be my favorite character in the Tess novels. Here, she and Tess are out to, er, discourage a pedophile who made the mistake of preying on Whitney’s underage cousin. They get a bit carried away, ending up with Tess, who hid Whitney’s involvement, in court-ordered therapy.

Penitent and grateful, Whitney recommends Tess’s services to a group pushing domestic violence legislation. The task is to investigate five unsolved homicides that appear to be the result of domestic violence, in the hope of showing that stronger legislation is needed. Unfortunately, and much to Tess’s dismay, one member of the group is wealthy Luisa O’Neal, with whom Tess tangled in an earlier book. Interspersed with Tess’s investigation are brief chapters giving us the thoughts of someone who is following Tess and appears to be obsessed with her.

As always, Lippman superbly manages the threads of the five homicides, Luisa O’Neal, and the predator following Tess. There are enough subtle reminders to enable the reader to keep the different characters straight, even as we, along with Tess, are led into a more and more complex maze.

As so often with mysteries—and an aspect I love—this story shows how the present has been molded by the past. Each character bears the fingerprints of his or her experiences. Another aspect I love is the chance to inhabit other lives; for me here it is the lives of watermen and women on the small, disappearing islands in the Chesapeake Bay.

But what I appreciate most about Lippman’s books are the endings. So many otherwise excellent books trail off or stop abruptly, as though the author got tired of writing. There is no deus ex machina here, no dangling threads, only the conclusions that the story’s characters and events make inevitable.

In a series such as this, we have the comfort of familiar characters such as Tess and Whitney along with the chance to see more deeply into them with each installment. Watching Tess joust with her therapist in this book made me see another side to her. It’s been four years since the last Tess Monaghan book. A new one, Hush Hush, comes out next month. Much as I enjoy Lippman’s standalone novels, I’m eager to delve into Tess’s new adventures.

What’s your favorite book by Laura Lippman?