How Fiction Works, by James Wood

I have sometimes heard this book pronounced the only craft book that a fiction writer needs. Indeed, it has much to teach the writer. But it is even more valuable to the reader who wants to understand a bit more of what goes on behind the curtain: why some stories are more compelling than others, why some sentences bore you or take your breath away, why some characters seem as real as the person sitting across from you.

Have you ever wondered how in the world black letters on paper can make us feel as though we’ve lived through an intense experience? What makes us believe some characters are real and others are not? How do writers make us see what the character sees, feel fear when she is in danger and grief at her loss? Why do some books work and others don’t, and what do we mean by a book “working”.

Wood is a critic whose work I’ve enjoyed for years. The breadth of his reading is apparent in the number of diverse examples he gives to illustrate his ideas, using books ranging from Robert McCloskey’s Make Way for Ducklings to Henry James’s What Maisie Knew.

He starts out talking about point of view:

So-called omniscience is almost impossible. As soon as someone tells a story about a character, narrative seems to want to bend itself around that character, wants to merge with that character, to take on his or her way of thinking a speaking. A novelist’s omniscience soon enough becomes a kind of secret sharing; this is called ‘free indirect style,’ a term novelists have lots of different nicknames for–‘close third person,’ or ‘going into character.’

You can also see from this excerpt is what a joy it is to read his prose. Lucid yet intriguing. And it illustrates something he brings up later in the book: how a detail or a single word can open a space that excites a reader’s curiosity and interest, a technique Stephen Greenblatt called “strategic opacity” in Will in the World, his 2004 study of Shakespeare that I learned a lot from. Look at that phrase: “narrative seems to want to bend itself around that character”. It is “bend” that is both surprising and so right; it is that image that draws us in.

Having long enjoyed James Wood’s reviews in the London Review of Books and the New York Times, I was thrilled to immerse myself in this book. And I’ve reread it several times, not to mention dipping into it when struggling with some writing task. The more I write and read fiction, the more value I find in this book.

He has chapters on creating characters and how to make their dialogue work. He talks about how to make these characters engage our sympathies and ways to move back and forth in time effectively. Most delightfully for me as a poet, he examines how the very sound of words and phrases can intensify meaning. And all with an extravagance of examples.

But this is less a craft book than it is an analysis of how to read fiction. Yes, it is useful for writers, but even more so for readers. If you want your book club’s discussions to go a little deeper than I liked/disliked the book, then give them this book. It will give you the language and ideas to explore what causes those reactions.

Are you in a book club? What book prompted your most interesting discussion?

How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, by Mohsin Hamid

Why not a novel written as a self-help book? In Hamid’s novel, the unnamed protagonist is presented as the prototype for achieving the title’s goal, suggesting that if the reader follows the same path, he too will achieve it. The Asian country where he lives is also unidentified.

The book is entirely in the second person (you), conflating you the reader with you the protagonist. It’s an interesting experiment. In some ways, this device works quite well. It reminds us that this in fact is exactly what good fiction does: it makes us feel as though we actually are the protagonist. Hamid does this with a nudge in the ribs, inviting us to laugh along. Also, we are intrigued by the tension of being both reader and protagonist, as well as the interplay of self-help language and the reality of the protagonist’s struggle. And tension is what keeps us reading, as we are reminded by Donald Maass, literary critic, author, and writing teacher extraordinaire.

In other ways, the device detracts from the story. One member of my book club, driven mad by what one reviewer calls the “extravagant use of the second person”, was unable to finish the book. For me, it had the effect of keeping me at a distance. I don’t know if it was the second person point of view (all those yous!), the lack of a name for the protagonist, the absence of much sense of the characters’ feelings, or my own analytical curiosity as to how this experiment would work, but I felt as though I were viewing the events of the novel from 20,000 feet. I could summon no emotion for any of the characters.

And because of that, I was bored. There seemed to be an empty space at the center of the novel, as another person in my book club said. An interesting experiment, often quite funny, but I didn’t find it compelling.

However, in yet another testament to the variety of tastes and reader experiences, many in my book club loved the book. They disagreed with me about the emotion, claiming to have felt the protagonist’s ambition, moral quandaries and griefs. One person was completely charmed by the protagonist’s romance with someone called only “the pretty girl”. Many found themselves laughing frequently, enjoying the little jokes, such as the chapter titles.

Other factors that kept me at a distance was the speed at which we zipped through the protagonist’s life and the banality of that life. To encompass a lifetime in a very small book means moving quickly, dipping in here and there to provide scenes and then pulling away again. And the arc of the protagonist’s life is mostly the boiled down stereotype of everyman in our capitalist world; it’s a story that’s been told a million times, with little to set it apart or make it new.

It’s as though Hamid is trying to see how far he can stretch the illusion of fiction, how much he can reveal its essential phoniness, without losing the reader. If he lost me and a couple of others, he certainly didn’t lose the majority of readers in my book club.

What book have you and your friends disagreed about?

I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place, by Howard Norman

I’ve long been a fan of Howard Norman’s novels, such as The Bird Artist and The Museum Guard. I also was intrigued by his memoir, In Fond Remembrance of Me, so I jumped at the chance to read this newest memoir by him. I was also lucky enough to hear him read from it at Artifact Coffee in Baltimore.

I really enjoy Norman’s voice. It is smart without being strident, perceptive without being pushy. He doesn’t shy away from his own failings, but tempers them with his appreciation of the people he encounters. I especially enjoy the way he conveys the magic of ordinary moments. Reading this memoir is like listening to my best friend tell me stories.

Most memoirs are a single narrative, but this one is a bit different. It is made up of five discreet pieces. What they have in common is not theme–he says in the Introduction that he is “loathe to suggest that life intrinsically has themes, because it does not.” Instead each occurs in a place that is meaningful to him.

The pieces are arranged chronologically, starting with one set during the summer of 1964 when the teen-aged Norman worked in a bookmobile, and ending with one set in 2003 when he and his family were summering in Vermont while tragedy struck their home back in Washington, D.C.

Because we are viewing experiences through the mind of one man, we do begin to see patterns and associations. For instance, birds are a constant, from the ducks, gulls and swans at Reeds Lake where the fifteen-year-old finds refuge to the Western Oystercatcher that helps Norman heal in the final piece of the book.

And one thing leads to another. Books on birds and animals of the Arctic from the bookmobile later steer him to collecting folktales from Inuit people in the Northwest Territories. A girlfriend in London takes him to Saskatchewan. Seeing a Confederate soldier outside a Vermont cafe somehow prepares us for the dangers Norman encounters when he misjudges other people. Such subtle techniques give the book continuity.

All five pieces evoke particular places and experiences that Norman struggles to make sense of and fit into the life he is making for himself. Many are hilarious, such as the Inuit rock band that specialises in John Lennon’s songs:

Peter had a voice that made Bob Dylan seem like Pavarotti, but what did it matter? With desperate, joyful abandon he shouted, “I got my Eskimo freak on!” –wildly gyrating in classic rock-star style, wailing.

Other experiences go deep into what it means to feel your family is being threatened. Detail by detail Norman builds up each world, each experience. When a Quagmiriut Inuit shaman comes to heal and put protection on Norman’s violated home, we learn that he is wearing “blue jeans, a white shirt, shoes and socks, and a light brown sports jacket” and has somehow smuggled in a caribou shoulder bone. Norman feeds him “scrambled eggs with lox, potatoes, and black coffee.” These details fit seamlessly into the story and give it depth.

Most of us, especially in our later years, feel the need to discover or construct the narrative of our lives. We feel the urge to make the pieces fit together, to have it all make sense. The danger is in either losing some of our experiences or altering them to make them match. We are used to stories with an overall narrative arc. Norman shows us a way to piece the past together without forcing it into an artificial pattern.

Have you read any of Howard Norman’s books? Which is your favorite?

Lost in Translation, by Ella Frances Sanders

The subtitle of this small book is An Illustrated Compendium of Untranslatable Words from Around the World. “Words, words, words,” as Hamlet said. They can clarify or obfuscate.

This delightful book, a most welcome gift, gathers words from many languages that have no equivalent in English. Each is defined and illustrated and given a sentence or two of description. Some are words already familiar to me, such as hiraeth, a Welsh word meaning nostalgia for home, a home you’ve lost forever or perhaps one that you have not yet found.

Most, though, are new to me and are deliciously apt. One that I will use often is mangata, a Swedish word meaning “the road-like reflection of the moon in the water.” Another is meraki, a Greek adjective describing that feeling of being in the zone, of giving yourself over completely to some activity.

There are dozens of languages represented, common and obscure: German, Yiddish, Portuguese, Farsi, Inuit, Urdu, Wagaman. I love exploring these words and thinking about the experiences they embody.

In writing poetry, of course, I am always searching for just the right word, one with the right sound and the precise connotations to convey as much as possible. Each day I choose a word to roll around in the back of my mind, testing out the image it calls forth, the particular music of its pronunciation. It may be a common word, such as “lane”, or something more complex such as “palimpsest”. My reflections on many of these words and haiku using them can be found on Twitter using the hashtag #poetswords.

So this book is a treasure trove for me. I will continue to meditate on these words, giving each its due. However, I believe, given my predilection for Lagavulin, that the word I will use most often is one from the Gaelic: Sgriob, a noun that “Refers to the peculiar itchiness that settles on the upper lip before taking a sip of whiskey.”

What new word have you learned recently that interests or delights you?

A Map of Glass, Jane Urquhart

Jane Urquhart is one of my favorite authors, as you can probably tell by how many of her books I’ve reviewed here. I first heard of her some years ago at the International Festival of Authors in Toronto. She was introduced by Timothy Findley, another of my favorite authors and one who is sorely missed. She in turn acknowledged him as one of her mentors. Before you say, oh those Canadians are so polite, let me just add that I have found this great generosity in every writing community into which I’ve stuck a toe.

Appropriately enough for this season of extraordinary cold and snowfall, this novel starts with an older man stumbling through the snow, a man whom we quickly understand seems to be suffering from a form of dementia. However, he is driven to find a place, an island, and has a map of shoreline in his mind even when the words to describe it have been lost.

The man is Andrew Woodman. His frozen body is found on the island at the mouth of the St. Lawrence River by Jerome McNaughton, an artist who has come at the tail end of winter to find inspiration in the grim landscape. While not sure of what he is after, Jerome is drawn to decay and change, winter ice breaking up, branches hanging on still to last season’s twigs and seed pods. “But it was not the quickening of nature that intrigued him, rather the idea of nature’s memory and the way this unstable broken river had build itself briefly into another shape, another form, before collapsing back into what was expected of it.”

When he returns to Toronto, Jerome is sought out by Sylvia Bradley, a housewife living 30 miles from the island, a woman who has been severely sheltered. Seeing the world through her eyes, we understand why her parents and then husband keep her so enclosed: as a child she was so overwhelmed by the world that she made it go away most of the time. She fixated on rituals and the small things of her enclosed world.

Sylvia has developed a friendship with Julia, a blind woman for whom she makes tactile maps of places out of fabric and other materials. However, the great change in Sylvia’s life came when she met Andrew, a casual encounter on a street in town, and through him learned about love and the joy and pain and attention that comes with it.

When I was a child, I believed in places rather than people. Trees and shorelines and paths through the woods seemed more reliable to me, more constant. I was shattered to learn that this was not true, that trees may be cut down, shorelines eroded, and beloved places sold out from under you to be transformed beyond recognition.

This is a book about a place, seen through the lens of people who lived there. It’s about what we can learn of people through their places. Through Andrew’s journals we learn more about the island and the peninsula by it where Sylvia and Andrew’s ancestors live. We learn how these people are changed by this place and the place changed by them. Jerome says, “‘. . . after reading Andrew’s journals, I think maybe landscape—place—makes people more knowable. Or it did in the past. It seems there’s not much of that left now. Everyone’s moving, and the landscape, well, the landscape is disappearing.'”

Within this absorbing story of Sylvia and Jerome and Andrew lies a profound meditation on love and memory and geography and change. I was deeply moved by this story and came to a new understanding and acceptance of losses that still haunt my dreams.

What places hold great significance for you?

The Spare Room, Helen Garner

This novel is a small masterpiece. It opens with Helen preparing her spare room for an expected visitor, her friend Nicola who is coming to Melbourne for a three-week course of treatment for her cancer. Sounds grim, but there are humorous notes even on the first page as we learn that Nicola will care about the feng shui aspects of the room. In fact, Nicola doesn't believe in traditional medicine but instead puts her faith in Chinese herbs and magnetism and just about any other alternative treatment she can find. She gaily assures Helen that her cancer will be completely cured by the end of the three weeks.

The more rational Helen tries to go along with her friend's whims, but is shocked by how debilitated Nicola is, how much worse her condition is than described. Much of the push-pull of the story involves Helen fluctuating between respecting her friend's independence and wanting to knock some sense into her.

In addition to Nicola's life, Helen's own sense of herself is at stake. She thinks of herself as a good friend, as someone who is good in an emergency—qualities that are put to the test by Nicola's worsening condition. I think of myself as a good friend to have but can't imagine there are many people I'd be willing to care for as Helen does: up most of the night repeatedly changing the sheets and Nicola's nightgown, biting her tongue as Nicola swears that the pain is just the toxins working their way out. In the meantime, Helen has set her own life aside, including her writing and her relationship with her grandchildren who live next door.

How much do we owe each other? What of ourselves should we give up for others? I have always been clear that, for me at least, there is no limit to what I would give up for my children. There was a limit, however, to what I was willing to give up for my elderly parents, to what I was willing to do for them. Mind you, it was pretty far out there: the boundary was that I would not quit my job and move in with them to be a full-time caregiver and companion. However, if their circumstances had been different, if they hadn't been well able to afford the alternatives which were in fact much more effective for their situations, I might have decided differently. I see many of my friends struggling to define these boundaries now.

And that's family. What about friends? I was comforted and delighted when a community came together to help a friend with early-onset Alzheimer's who had no family besides a distant sister.

There is little rumination in this book; events move too fast for that. Scene follows scene, laughter mixed with fear, annoyance mixed with affection. It's a remarkable story that will make you think about your own place in the world and your own loved ones.

How much of your life would you give up to help a friend?

Pascali’s Island, by Barry Unsworth

In the waning days of the Ottoman Empire, Basil Pascali has drawn a small salary from the Sultan for the last 20 years in return for sending reports of suspicious activities on the island where he lives. Nisi is a fictional Greek island occupied by the Turks. However, the Sultan's machinery of empire has grown so complex—byzantine, indeed—and his network of informers so vast, that Pascali's efforts go unacknowledged, perhaps even unread.

Except by us. The book is a series of reports to the Sultan in Pascali's inimitable voice. However formally he starts out, he quickly moves into an informal, gossipy tone, sharing details of his meals and fantasies. He even reveals that he has sometimes made up suspicious items to juice up his reports.

No need to do that now. A mysterious Englishman, Anthony Bowles, shows up wanting to do archeological research on the island and employing Pascali as a translator for his dealings with the local Pasha. Pascali also introduces Bowles to his friend Lydia, a bohemian artist who lives on the island, and the two quickly become close. Pascali tries to discover what Bowles is actually up to on the island, almost certainly something nefarious. At the same time, he must tread carefully so as not to offend the Pasha.

For me, this book was the rare instance of seeing a movie first, the 1988 film starring Ben Kingsley, Charles Dance, and Helen Mirren. I loved the film. How could I not with three of my favorite stars? I was fascinated by the decaying empire that had become too large and complex to survive. But the two things I loved most about the film were the depiction of Lydia's lifestyle and Pascali's loquacious but futile missives to the Sultan.

Unfortunately, Lydia's role in the book is much more circumscribed. However, Pascali's narration is given the limelight. The Sultan is so remote and so far above him, yet over 20 years of report-writing become so familiar, that Pascali alternates between prostrating himself to the Sultan and chatting with him. It's as though he's writing to god. In fact, he reminded me of a character in one of Jane Langton's books who writes letters to god and then balls up the paper and throws it up into the air. I think all writers must feel that way sometimes, that we are throwing our words out into the void, never knowing if anyone is paying attention.

I highly recommend both the book and the film. The book is a fantastic example of the use of voice—Pascali's voice alone could carry the book even without all the mysterious happenings and hidden agendas. With them, we have an exciting and thought-provoking read, one that makes me wonder once again how much we can know about the people around us, even those close to us.

What book have you read where the narrator's voice was irresistable?

Dark Southern Sun, by Shaun J. McLaughlin

This historical novel begins with two children coming upon the body of a man who has washed up on the beach. We're in Australia in 1845. The children debate whether the man is alive, the girl certain he is, the boy doubtful. A gull swoops and, deciding he is carrion, nips his hand. The hand twitches, settling the question.

It is Ryan, whom we first encountered in Cross Currents, which followed Ryan’s adventures in the Patriot War.

The children bring him water and fetch adults to help him. Gradually he heals and begins to learn the language of the Wathaurung, an indigenous people. The boy, Weeyn, is able to help, having learned some English. The people name Ryan Warrain, which means Belongs to the Sea.

So begins Ryan's adventures in Australia. He has escaped from the penal colony on Van Diemen's Land (later Tasmania and now part of Australia) and is eager to use his strength and his skills to carve out a life for himself. He tangles first with Walter Fraser, a white man who started the school where Weeyn learned English but who has a bad attitude toward the native people. Ryan also gets in trouble with Loklok, a warrior from a related tribe who is engaged to the girl who found Ryan, Alinga, and is jealous of her feelings for the white man. After a fight with Loklok, it seems better for Ryan to go. He hires on at a sheep ranch.

In the ten years that follow, Ryan not only survives but prospers. He starts several businesses, all successful, though he is dogged by the enemies he's made: Fraser and Loklok. McLaughlin emphasises the adventure inherent in starting businesses from scratch in a new land. As in the excellent television series Deadwood about the western U.S., we follow the baby steps of the settlers as they move from frontier to civilised society. Ryan becomes peripherally involved in an uprising by settlers objecting to British taxes. This is one of the few times he refers back to his life in Canada and his experience there of strategy and guerilla warfare.

The characters are well drawn. We see Ryan's shortcomings as well as his virtues. Even Loklok and Fraser have some internal conflicts. Loklok and Fraser are convincing, in part because they do have some good qualities, but also because we get hints as to how they became the men they are.

The story has lots of historical detail. I'm not expert enough to verify its accuracy, but certainly McLaughlin cites many sources. In the Note at the end he explains what elements of the story are fictional (all of the main characters) and what are nonfictional, describing the real people on whom some of the characters are based and the revolt against the British. McLaughlin also provides a glossary of Wadawurrung words used, though I didn't need to use it, finding the context sufficient.

The action is pretty non-stop, but I enjoyed especially the rare descriptions of the land.

Ryan can now appreciate the scenery he missed the day he washed ashore. A river ten paces wide at the mouth penetrates the land without rapids or obstacle as far as he can see from the beach. Behind the row of dunes, a narrow tableland abuts a wall of precipitous hills. Row upon row of gum trees cover the slopes. Ryan catches glimpses of nearby thick trunks through which parrots of green, red and blue dart with noisy squawks. In the distance, the conglomeration of treetops reminds Ryan of a green, woolen sweater draped across broad shoulders.

While this is a sequel to McLaughlin's novel about the Patriot Wars, it can be read as a standalone. Anyone who enjoys historical novels, stories of adventure, or Australia's early days will like this book.

Are you fascinated by Australia? Why?

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.

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?