Sunday, July 25, 2010

Mr. Peanut: A Book Review

By Ginny Padgett

I must say Adam Ross’s Mr. Peanut goes against all the advice from experts we aspiring writers hear for crafting a first-time novel, and I am hopping mad. I want to know who Ross had to sleep with to get this trash to market and reviewed by the New York Times.

Here’s the list of some of the transgressions I noticed:

• Two stories told side-by-side and then too conveniently dovetailed by an unbelievable turn of events. (The implausible storyline includes Dr. Sam Shepherd, whose wife was murdered, a real case from 1954. He was convicted for the crime, went to jail for ten years and was then released, all the while maintaining his innocence. In Mr. Peanut, when released from prison, Shepherd becomes a police detective and is assigned to investigate the suicide, or possible murder, of the wife of David Pepin, one of Ross’s main characters. The Shepherd and Pepin murder stories are juxtaposed for our enlightenment or entertainment.)
• Rambling descriptions of Hawaiian terrain, climbing a mountain, convoluted feelings, etc., go on for pages and halt the forward progress of both stories.
• A flashback at the end of the novel that sheds no insight into characters or events is so lengthy it becomes a mini-chapter…just hanging there.
• The Mobius strip, a mathematical object of optical illusion, is mentioned ad nauseam as an element in works of art; is the basis of one of David Pepin’s video games he is developing for a flourishing market; and is the name of the private detective hired by Mr. Pepin. I enjoy symbolism, but this use struck me as overkill. In addition, Mr. Peanut, the Planter’s Nuts icon, and the actual nut also carry significant weight as symbols throughout both stories. I felt like I was being hit over the head with the hammer of Mr. Ross’s less than subtle images.

On top of all these annoyances, this is the most misogynistic piece of ‘literature’ I have ever read. If one is to suspend belief to buy into this story, the reality is all men fantasize, dream, plot, and sometimes carry out the murder of their wives.

The New York Times reviewer wrote this about Mr. Peanut, “…story that reads like a postmodern mash-up of Tolstoy’s Kreutzer Sonata, Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and one of James M. Cain’s noirish mysteries.

How can this “…dark, dazzling and deeply flawed novel that announces the debut of an enormously talented writer” get published? Maybe I could understand it better if this were the fourth or fifth book from an established author.

Mr. Peanut seems to prove my theory that all you need to become a successfully published, well regarded, best-selling author is a good publicist. I regret I wasted my time reading this collection of words. I hope Adam Ross will renew his prescription for ADD medication before he attempts another book.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Boot Camp

By Suzanne Gwinner

In April, I attended a weekend boot camp. A writers' boot camp. A children’s writers’ boot camp to be exact. When I got the invitation in the mail, it sounded perfect for someone like me – a writer struggling with revisions on my first children’s book. It meant giving up an entire weekend, the weekend of our annual neighborhood soiree, but that would be a small price to pay in exchange for a dose of inspiration. On the designated Friday evening, I tossed my suitcase in the car and headed up I-77 to Charlotte. I know from experience that workshops don’t always meet expectations, but I had high hopes for this one.

Early Saturday morning I entered the conference room and established my territory. With coffee, bagel, notebook, and workshop materials spread before me, I perused the agenda. In two days we would cover:

• Generating story ideas
• Developing unique believable characters
• Creating internal and external conflict
• Developing plot
• Making a plot point outline
• Writing dialogue
• Exploring point of view
• Writing description and setting
• Opening sentences and paragraphs
• Revising
• Formatting manuscripts
• Writing query letters
• Writing a synopsis
• Marketing

Time was built in for group discussions, class exercises, and questions were invited.

“Whew!” I thought to myself, “This is going to be intense.”

It was. Our knowledgeable speakers, Laura Backus and Linda Arms White (Children’s Book Insider, packed each hour with valuable material. The well-planned writing exercises were professionally evaluated. Laura and Linda, while warm and sincere, exhibited some drill sergeant-like qualities. The no-nonsense tone of the workshop meant we stuck to the schedule, we accomplished all of the goals, and we had time for questions. We analyzed the handful of books we had been assigned to read prior to coming to camp. Their organization and preparation allowed for a workshop packed with quality learning.

At 5:00 P.M. on Sunday afternoon, I drove back to Columbia with that fabulous fried brain feeling. This workshop had met all of my expectations and more. Ideas for revisions were already dancing in my head. As I drove, a simple thought occurred to me. Good writing is good writing, no matter the audience. The agenda from boot camp could have been the agenda for any number of adult writing workshops I have attended. We all strive for a moving story, characters that connect, clever dialogue, a setting that grabs. In some ways, a children’s author has a more difficult job as he/she must convey all this using fewer words and, often, a less sophisticated vocabulary.

Anxious to get a reaction from my writing companions at workshop, I read the new rendition of my book. My cohorts insist they don’t know anything about children’s literature, but they do. They know plot, character, setting, dialogue. Many of them have children and grandchildren whose reading habits they have helped to develop. In my opinion they’re experts. I cherish their comments.

“Children’s Authors’ Bootcamp” was the spark I needed to finish my revisions. Have you been to a workshop lately? An outsider’s view, a fresh idea, a different perspective might just be the answer if your muse has gone on vacation.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Curse of Concrete/Sequential

By Alex Raley

My twelve-year-old grandson just finished a workshop in creative writing as a part of the University of South Carolina's Carolina Master Scholar program. After the first day, I asked him whether the workshop was what he expected. His response was negative. A bit surprised, I asked him what he expected. He said, "Boooring!" I said, "It isn't boring?" "No, it is so fun. We wrote about twenty short poems and prose pieces." I ignored the "so fun" nonsense and pondered writing "so much" in a group setting. His group kept that pace for five days. Of course, they met from 8:30 to 3:30 with a lunch break.

Groups are inspiring to me. I get excited on hearing the work of members of our writing group. Even reading books on writing is helpful and goads me to get to writing more. Attending workshops on writing provides me with lots of fodder for thought, but rarely do I produce something in the workshop that excites me. I suppose my mind just doesn't work that way.

For most of my life I have thought through scenarios in my mind before beginning to write. That may have come from the many essays I had to write throughout my school career--essays that had to have well-defined theses and a sequenced development of those theses that would bring you to logical conclusions. Do you suppose we are wired before birth to be concrete/sequential or random access? If so, lucky is the writer of fiction who is wired as random access. Fiction is about life and life is not concrete/sequential.

Recognizing my bent to think concrete/sequentially and paying homage to that bent for its contributions to me throughout my school years, especially graduate school, I set about remaking myself. One of the things I did was to use every opportunity to jot down bits and pieces of scenes and experiences without tying them to other thoughts that might try to drive them to a logical end. I also approached reading differently. I chose books that did not feed my bent to the logical. Even mysteries, which must be built with a good measure of logic, lead you down many unexpected paths before finally confronting you with what you logically should have expected.

Writing poetry also has helped me. Poetry is built on unexpected interesting images drawn into the vortex your writing. The idea of poetry enhancing fiction is for a later blog.

Can you still expect to see me in writing workshops? Count on it. I love the camaraderie of and conversation with other writers. Now that's where random access resides.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Giving Women What They Want

By Laura P. Valtorta

Stieg Larsson, (1954 – 2004) the Swedish author of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (in Sweden originally titled Men who Hate Women), The Girl who Played with Fire, and The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, wrote books that are wildly successful because they give women what they want: a strong female character who defies every despicable stereotype. The character, Lisbeth Salander, lives the way she wants in a society that tries its best to suppress her. More than 27 million copies of Larsson’s novels have been sold in 40 countries.

There is no doubt in my mind that Larsson’s longtime companion, Eva Gabrielsson, helped invent the characters in these novels, especially Lisbeth Salander. Full credit must be given, however, to Larsson for being strong enough to write such a fantastic female character, who steals the show from Blomquist, the character who may be Larsson’s alter ego.

But to say that Blomquist is Larsson’s alter ego is unfair. Every character is part of the author’s psyche. Lisbeth is Larsson.

Lisbeth Salander exists in a world of misogynists, a world that is constantly trying to beat her down. She thrives, nevertheless, because she displays so little emotion. For a five-foot-tall woman she is exceedingly strong, physically, and knows how to use weapons and fight. She always protects herself and successfully fights off the larger men who try to kill her. She has sex when she wants, with whom she wants, and then she walks away unscathed. (Except for Blomquist, who is the love of her life, but whom she ignores when he goes off with another woman.) She excels at math and science and makes her living as a computer hacker. She depends on no one.

There are no children in Lisbeth Salander’s world. No husband. She makes her own money – lots of it – and spends it as she wants – on a luxury apartment and lots of travel. Nothing ties her down. When the time comes, she drives off on her motorbike, leaving the expensive apartment, and its IKEA furnishings behind.

This is the dream world, the ideal world that Stieg Larsson has given us. It is a wonderful gift.