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Why A Virtual Book Tour Is A MUST For Authors

A virtual book tour can be used as a powerful tool to promote authors and their works. Book tours are not a new concept. Authors have always used these as a tool to expose their work to the public. But the days of physical book tours are quickly becoming passé now. It is very rare for authors to go out and about promoting their work in public from city to city. Authors rarely do signings in order to encourage shoppers to buy their works in brick-and-mortar bookstores. And it is actually even harder to find a publisher that is actually willing to go through that hard work and invest in this old style of promotion. These days, book tours have gone virtual.

So, what exactly is a virtual book tour, you may ask? Well, it is a book tour that can be done in the comfort of an author’s home. An author can now hop from one blog to another, promoting his or her book without the need to leave his or her own personal sanctuary at home. This means that an author can make more than 30 stops in a month without any other added overhead costs that are usually related to traditional book tours.

A virtual book tour may include any of the following activities:

  1. Writing blog posts as guests to blogs that are related to the book’s genre
  2. Getting a blogger to review the book
  3. Getting featured in a related blog
  4. An email interview by a blogger
  5. A podcast, Internet radio, or actual radio interview

There are a lot of famous authors that have increased their exposure through social media.

So, if you are planning to market your book with a virtual book tour, here are a few things to remember:

Always Ask

There are a lot of blogs online. If you find one that is related to the genre of the book you are writing, then it would be a good idea to ask around if your book can be featured in it. Be sure to carefully write an introduction about your book and the possible benefits of featuring your book in their blog. If a blogger says no, don’t take it personally and just move on to a next prospective blog.

Some bloggers may ask for a remuneration to feature your work. Often, this may just include a free copy of the book but more well-known websites may ask for a certain fee, depending on the type of feature you want them to do.

Make Varied Content

It is important to make sure that the content you put up in blogs vary in order to keep your audience engaged. For example, some authors tend to leave some hints about their main character’s possible demise in the book in order to make readers look forward to the book launch.

Be Organized

It is very important to be organized. Always keep track of the bloggers that you have asked to participate in the tour and their schedule. If they don’t respond to your request, then just scratch them off the list. If they do respond, however, make sure to record their information like name, email, the name of the blog, and the blog’s URL. Not everyone will be willing to help you out with your endeavor. But it is important that you personally thank those who are willing to lend out a hand. A simple thank-you note can do a lot of help in building your relationship with anyone, even in a virtual world.


Make sure to proofread all your requests and communicate well with your contacts. Always be prepared to inform your target market about your book tour. In fact, it is a good idea to keep your schedule open and let people know where you are. You can easily do this by updating your social media accounts and providing your followers with a link of your current virtual location.

If you are still hesitant about virtual book tours, here are a few of its benefits:

More Exposure

With a traditional book tour, you are limited to the number of people in an area. For example, one day in Boston during a traditional book tour will only enable you to interact with the people that are gathered in your book tour location. But a virtual book tour can actually enable you to interact with everyone that has access to the Internet.


A virtual book tour can also help you create more lasting and quality backlinks to your website. This means that you can keep getting regular traffic (from the blogs you had on your tour) back to your website.


Getting a virtual book tour can help you generate a lot of reviews and feedback about your book.

Comfort and Convenience

Most importantly, you can enjoy all of these benefits without leaving the comforts of your home!

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Annotative Essay on the book: ‘All Quiet on the Western Front,’ by E.M. Remarque

all quiet on the western front annotative essay

all quiet on the western front book cover

When soldiers are sent to the trenches of war, amongst the necessity for their rifles, daily food rations and combat boots, there is also a necessity for them to have left their loved ones behind. No families are allowed on the front lines, for just as a man would never masturbate in front of his dear mother; neither would he commit an act of war.  Those things which happen during battle are for warriors’ eyes only.  But what E.M. Remarque does in his work of fiction, All Quiet on the Western Front, is to bring war to the eyes of those who have never seen it; and it is through his detailed depiction of the inner landscape of a soldier’s soul, that he gives vision to the families, and creates a truly unique work of literary fiction.

[pullquote]”A good book forces a man to convalesce into himself and write in the margins his deepest thoughts; spurred on by a word or phrase.”[/pullquote]We are carried through the book by E.M. Remarque’s main character, Paul, whose internal thoughts, emotions and musings, teach us more about war than every General and Politician, combined. No television personality or Pulitzer Prize winning journalist could convey what a soldier, who was there, can with a mere look of the eye, or a single spoken sentence, “The war has ruined us for everything.”  It is in this way that the author shows his hand; for within the first ten pages, I knew that the author had to be a combat veteran himself—after a Google search I discovered that I was right.  A reader can always intuitively feel when an author has ‘been there,’ and ‘done that,’ and not merely been to the library and done the appropriate research.  It’s why writers throughout the ages have continued to give the sage advice “stick with what you know.”  Anything else is unacceptable, phony.  And this is where the author’s true talents lay.

As a reader I felt more as though I were reading a man’s private journal than reading a work of fiction, for in the same way that fiction can feel more real than non-fiction, the author found a way to have his story told fully and personally. This is excellently done on E. M. Remarque’s part, because when an author writes a good book, it truly should act as a journal for the author’s character, and become a journal for the reader.  A good book forces a man to convalesce into himself and write in the margins his deepest thoughts; spurred on by a word or phrase.  A typical work of fiction or non-fiction hardly drives a reader to write in the margins, or to stop and pause as he ponders over a thought which has, seemingly, randomly popped into his head.  The author’s greatest achievement isn’t his descriptions of the actual landscape of war, nor his political descriptions and breakdowns of the madness of war, although both are well done, his real style is in his ability to bare a man’s/character’s soul and have the reader feel as though they are reading non-fiction rather than fiction.

“We have become wild beasts. We do not fight, we defend ourselves against annihilation.  It is not against men that we fling our bombs, what do we know of men in this moment when Death is hunting us down—now, for the first time in three days we can see his face, now for the first time in three days we can oppose him; we feel a mad anger.  No longer do we lie helpless, waiting on the scaffold, we can destroy and kill, to save ourselves, to save ourselves and to be revenged.”

It is through detailed musings like this which we learn more about the author, the characters, and the story itself, then we could through the scenery of the trees, scenes of actual battles, or dialogue. As stated before, the author excels in all three aspects, but what truly makes his work unique is the inner, not the outer.  Although, in order for the author to truly make his internal musings as powerful as he does, he sets things up by first building up the scenery of the war, “The wire entanglements are torn to pieces.  Yet they offer some obstacle.  We see the storm-troops coming…” deepens it with the scenes of action, “We make for the rear, pull wire cradles into the trench and leave bombs behind us with the strings pulled…”, and only then does he delve into the inner character workings and musing. “We have become wild beasts.  We do not fight, we defend ourselves against annihilation…”

“E. M. Remarque shows us that what drives his story is the inner parts of a man.”

What is absent from the author’s story is any plot or typical character development. There is no arch.  No one, or nothing, is keeping Paul from his true love or his goal; nor is Paul fighting for any altruistic reason, he neither seems to be fighting against any real enemy or even himself, and he fights for no reason.  Paul is merely a man struggling to exist as a soldier in a war.  The author fills in the blanks and the storyline with, instead of a typical hero/love plot, reflections from a young soldier as he struggles through war and ultimately ends up with nothing and no one.  There is no growth.  No middle.  No climax.  No end.  No conclusion.  But the story misses nothing, and through the author’s technique of internal character exploration, the story is carried on even though we have no definitive storyline to carry us through.  War calls for no further subtext than a soldier trying to stay alive, and keep his sanity.  There is no different war story to be told.  This is what the author gives us.

A book made of such mental vivisection that if it were any more real, readers would have to be treated for PTSD.

“And this I know: all these things that now, while we are still in the war, sink down in us like a stone, after the war shall waken again, and then shall begin the disentanglement of life and death.”

“The days, the weeks, the years out here shall come back again, and our dead comrades shall then stand up again and march with us, our heads shall be clear, we shall have a purpose, and so we shall march, our dead comrades beside us, the years at the front behind us: –against whom, against whom?”

What I’ve learned from this book is that character and internal landscape is king, and combined with good scenery, good action, and good dialogue, a classic can be born. E. M. Remarque shows us that what drives his story is the inner parts of a man, but in order for that to work the scenery must be setup, then the scene itself, and then the inner musings.

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Picture: Flickr/ Gwydion M. Williams

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Annotative Essay on the book: ‘In Cold Blood,’ by Truman Capote

Truman Capote In Cold Blood Annotative Essay

in cold blood annotative essay book cover

First published in 1966, In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote was a new type of book.  A hybrid of literature invented by Capote known as a non-fiction novel; the book is based on a series of crimes and, told in an omniscient third person point of view.  It was one of the first of its kind, if not, debatably, the first, and it cemented Capote’s mark on the world of literature.  Many things can be said of this book, and many things, too, can be taken away.

Truman Capote’s writing style is excellent and he has a tremendous knack for scenery, as can be seen at the very beginning of the book:

“Capote researched, investigated, and studied, hundreds of articles, police reports, books, and people; a task that took him the better half of a decade.”

“The Village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call “out there.”  Some seventy miles east of the Colorado border, the country side, with its hard blue skies and desert-clear air, has an atmosphere that is rather more Far West than Middle West.  The local accent is barbed with a prairie twang, a ranch-hand nasalness, and the men, many of them, wear narrow frontier trousers, Stetsons, and high-heeled boots with pointed toes.  The land is flat, and the views are awesomely extensive; horses, herds of cattle, a white cluster of grain elevators rising as gracefully as Greek temples are visible long before a traveler reaches them.”

Capote’s character descriptions are short, yet powerful and memorable:

“Dick stripped to his briefs was not quite the same as Dick fully clothed. In the latter state, he seemed a flimsy dingy-blond youth of medium height, fleshless and perhaps sunken-chested; disrobing revealed that he was nothing of the sort, but, rather, an athlete constructed on a welterweight scale.”

And he also has a tremendous grasp of plots and what makes a story flow—the book itself took near a few days to read, and kept me captivated throughout, even though I was already aware of the arc and end of the story. All three of these aspects of writing, scenery, character, and plot, Capote proved he was adept at and had a strong understanding of; and it was interesting to see him tackle a new literary technique; however, although a lot could be learned from his skills as a writers, and his new literary technique—something which I recently experimented with it—what really struck me about this book was the staggering amount of research that went into its undertaking.  Capote researched, investigated, and studied, hundreds of articles, police reports, books, and people; a task that took him the better half of a decade.

“Most writers don’t have the single-minded-ness, or often the opportunity, to give such devotion to a single cause.”

Not detail was too little for Capote and he did whatever it would take to gather all the information on the subject that he could.  In example: Capote knew that he had an abrasive manner that could turn people off, and he knew that he would need access to a lot of people to write this book; in response to this, he convinced his good friend, and fellow author, Harper Lee to accompany him on his research.  Harper Lee was reported to have a much, more kind, gentler, attitude and since she was more well-known, and liked, than Capote, people were more receptive to her.  Harper Lee helped Capote get access to all the people in the town, police officers, and even the two convicts themselves, Dick and Perry.  Had Harper not accompanied him Capote would—admittedly—probably not have been able to get acquainted with all these people; so to accomplish this, Capote had to put his own ego aside and ask a friend for help, and then together they set out on a meticulous journey of gathering information and writing the story.

When undertaking a writing task, the typical fiction writing requires a scant amount of research—though, often a lot can be necessary, in regards to the whole of the book, research isn’t the main aspect; in fiction it’s typically creativity and the actual writing which consume the most time—and the typical non-fiction writing requires copious amounts of research—depending on the type of non-fiction, of course; historical non-fiction requires a bit more than memoir non-fiction—but Capote’s undertaking required both, because he sought not just to tell the factual information of the murders that took place in Kansas, but he sought to do it in a fictitious creative way that combined both approaches, hence the new genre of the non-fiction novel. This I believe is one of the reasons why the process took so long; and for a writer, it can seem rather daunting to know that to create a masterpiece it can take so long for a single piece.  Like Michelangelo who created the Sistine Chapel over several years, doing only that.  Most writers don’t have the single-minded-ness, or often the opportunity, to give such devotion to a single cause. But Capote was already a famous author at the time—though nothing near the heights he would reach after In cold Blood—and he had the opportunity and means to be able to spend all his time on one single task.  This single-minded-ness is what I believe made the difference between In Cold Blood being just another remaindered book versus a book that would still be read decades later.  This is where I learned from Capote.

“Capote didn’t know that the book was going to take as long to research and write as it did, but he was willing to give the book and the process as long as it would take to create the work which he sought.”

In my current writing, when I had decided to give third person non-fiction omniscience a try, I had decided to interview my girlfriend, Emily, and several others who were involved. And although during first and second drafts I had interviewed them, for the switch to third person, I decided to take it deeper.  I asked, as I hadn’t done before, not just for their memories of the actual events, but also of their emotions and thoughts leading up to, during, and after.  These in-depth interviews allowed me to take my own writing deeper and although non-fiction I was able to give it that omniscient third person point of view approach.  Now, granted, my interviews were of only a few, and my research paled in comparison to Capote’s, it did take quite a bit of time, did add another layer to my work, and did take longer to write.  And although, I am remiss to even consider the possibility of putting as much work, and as many years, into my current project as Capote had, just the thought of knowing that it’s necessary to go that extra mile, works as an inspiration to make sure that I, too, have every I dotted and t crossed.  And going the extra mile doesn’t just meat doing more research than typical; often it means actually, physically, GOING the extra mile.  When Capote set out to write In cold Blood, he wasn’t content with mere library research.  Calling people on the phone for interviews wasn’t enough for him.  He couldn’t simply research Holcomb, Kansas, in a book.  No, he went down there.  He lived there.  He didn’t just call up someone to interview them; he went down there, shook their hand and looked them in the eye.  He didn’t settle for a lackluster description of the prairies and farms of Kansas, he went down to the farms, petted the cows, and walked the plains.  Going the extra mile makes all the difference in writing.  Knowing this, and how much great writing craves attention to detail, should stop a lot of would-be-writers.  But that’s not always the case.

Many people believe that writing is easy. That it should come naturally.  That it should flow.  However, no great writer, from Truman Capote to V.S. Naipaul will ever make the statement that writing is easy.  Writing is a great undertaking. And although I hope no single book ever takes my so long, consistently, single-mindedly, to write as In Cold Blood did Capote—even though my current one has been in the work for several years now—I believe that having the willingness to take on such an endeavor, and having the strength of will to see something through, is what makes all the difference in great writing.  Capote didn’t know that the book was going to take as long to research and write as it did, but he was willing to give the book and the process as long as it would take to create the work which he sought.  And that is what made all the difference.

Determination and perseverance. Such things are not typically talked about when discussing the strengths of a good writer and of good writing.  But they should be, it would scare away more of the would-be-writers.  Some things simply take time and a level of determination that most aren’t willing to give.  Had Capote not been as determined to write such a detailed, informed story, then the writing and story itself, probably, wouldn’t have come across as strong or as powerfully memorable.  Good writing takes time, it takes determination, and it takes a lot of hard work.  This is what Capote shows in his magnum opus In Cold Blood.  The testament to literature isn’t just the fine writing itself it’s the level of researching and diligence that went into the non-fiction novel.  A great writer can never be determined and lazy the two are not synonymous with great writing.  Capote proves that great writing, and being a great writer, takes an uncommon level of determination.

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Picture: Flickr/ Thomas Hawk

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Annotative Essay on the book: ‘A House for Mr. Biswas,’ by V.S. Naipaul

A house for mr biswas vs naipaul

v.s. naipual annotative essay book cover

            Life can pass by without every really hitting someone; moments flow into moments, and without awareness things can go unnoticed. What V.S. Naipaul has done with his novel, A House for Mr. Biswas, is show the reader the moments of a character’s life and the awareness, or lack of, which encapsulated the entirety of the character. His story is not one of romance, love, crime, drama, mystery, war, or anything else. It is simply the story of a man and the moments of his life and the accumulation of those moments. What this accomplishes, though, is that it gives the reader a deep connection, not to the story, but to the character of the story. And it is the characters that really make a story come alive. Without characters there are no stories, merely events. This is a useful, and powerful technique, and one which not many writers can accomplish.

“Nothing in real life is as linear as it often appears in fiction, especially story driven fiction, rather than character driven fiction.”

The general storyline of A House for Mr. Biswas is not very impressive. As the title alludes to, it truly is a book about a man named Mr. Biswas who merely wants a house. There is, of course, a lot more to the story, but not in the typical sense. There is not great mystery waiting to be solved. There is no discourse on love or politics. There is no single action that moves the book forward. Mr. Biswas is all there is, and that’s enough. Because Mr. Biswas is a character that V.S. Naipaul has brought to life; he feels real, he looks real, he sounds real, and his thoughts seem real. This realness is what truly connects the reader to the characters. Even though Mr. Biswas is not a likeable character, the realness of him is what makes him unique, and is what helps drive the reader forward. For instance, in a scenario where Mr. Biswas attempted to ask his aunt Tara for money; V.S. Naipaul tells us the story of Mr. Biswas wanting to ask his aunt for money, but this one scene goes on for pages and pages, and intertwined within the scene, we have Mr. Biswas’ changing thoughts and emotions about whether or not to ask his aunt for money.

  • “He hurried to the back verandah, hoping to see Tara first and to catch her alone.”
  • “She greeted him so warmly that he at once felt ashamed of his mission.”
  • “His resolve to speak directly came to nothing, for when he asked how she was she replied at length and, instead of asking for money, he had to give sympathy.”
  • “Mr. Biswas felt more and more reluctant to tell Tara what he had come for.”
  • “And Mr Biswas realized that the time to ask had gone for good.”
  • “But he was glad he hadn’t asked her for money.”
  • “…Mr. Biswas no longer thought of the afternoon’s mission, but of the night ahead.”

At the beginning we see that Mr. Biswas is already ashamed of having to ask his aunt for money, hence wanting to catch her alone. Then we see his thoughts as he realized he can’t ask for money from someone who’s not doing well. And things progress from there until he realizes that the time to ask for money has passed, and then eventually he becomes glad that he hadn’t asked for money. As people, real people, and not characters, what V.S. Naipaul presents here seems to be an actual realistic changing of thoughts and feelings that hits real people. Nothing in real life is as linear as it often appears in fiction, especially story driven fiction, rather than character driven fiction. Instead of being concerned with entertainment or carrying the story forward, it seems as though V.S. Naipaul’s only concern is with conveying a realistic character/story. This aspect of conveying realistic characters is his real power and where the most is to be learned.

“The way a character flicks their cigarettes, or sucks on their teeth, or is afraid of water, or even the simple way that they smile; it all becomes important in a character driven novel and it’s what truly connects the reader with the character and makes them interested in reading more.”

The above example of the changing thoughts of the main character Mr. Biswas is not unique to that one section and situation. The entire novel is filled with the changing thoughts and feelings and emotions of Mr. Biswas and they are weaved in throughout longer stories, in little parts, so that they add in an extra effect that gets a reader thinking. For myself, as a reader, I know that my thoughts would have been very similar to Mr. Biswas’ in the same situation. If I were about to ask someone for money but the person had just finished telling me how bad things were for them, then in that moment I wouldn’t have asked for money, most real people wouldn’t have either. But if a different writer were writing the story, they might have asked themselves “what would make this scene better? More entertaining? Etc.?” and they might have changed the situation to something else; not because it was realistic, but because it would have moved the story in a certain direction or made it more entertaining. It seems as though V.S. Naipaul chose realistic expressions, thoughts and actions, rather than ones which may have been more entertaining or sensationalistic. He could’ve had Mr. Biswas killing people, or stealing, or a million other things that could’ve made the story more interesting, but instead he took a character, Mr. Biswas, wrote this character up, and took him for a realistic walk through the pages. This is what made his novel memorable. He didn’t introduce us to a character he introduced us to a real person.

In writing, authors often struggle to let their characters come alive. Often, the idea of an entertaining story takes precedent over any realistic character element, and although that can often be a good thing; it can also be a good thing, every now and again, to come across a novel with the mere intent of presenting a good, well-rounded, realistic character. Many writers say that they write dozens of pages about a character’s background before they even place them into their novel—and even then often only a few sentences or pages from the character descriptions actually make it into the novel. What is important to them though, and ultimately the story, is that the characters are thought about and properly birthed. The writer takes them through their years as an infant, child, teenager, young adult, adult, elderly adult, etc. And even though the story may only be based on the character’s adult life, everything becomes important in the writing. The way a character flicks their cigarettes, or sucks on their teeth, or is afraid of water, or even the simple way that they smile; it all becomes important in a character driven novel and it’s what truly connects the reader with the character and makes them interested in reading more. In a Stephen King novel, readers don’t care about the characters as much as they do about the plot and the story and what’s happening, or is going to happen. But in novels like A House for Mr. Biswas, what happens to Mr. Biswas isn’t as important as Mr. Biswas himself. And in character driven novels this, ultimately, becomes their strength. A reader isn’t concerned with what is actually happen, but more concerned with what is happening to whom.

What writers can learn from a work such as A House for Mr. Biswas, is how to connect readers with a character. The character may not have to be likeable, but as long as they are realistic in the sense that their actions and thoughts match with who they appear as on the page, then a reader will become connected with this realistic character and will continue reading forward to find out what happens to them and how they will react in different situations, even if those situations aren’t life or death or sensationalistic.

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Picture: Flickr/Nicholas Laughlin

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Annotative Essay on the book: ‘Cures for Hunger,’ by Deni Bechard

deni bechard cures for hungerLiterary Pacing

deni buchard annotative essay cures for hungerAn Annotative Essay on: Cures for Hunger, by Deni Bechard

Pacing is when athletes spread out their strength and power over a period of time rather than in short bursts; longer distance runners use the technique, as well as swimmers and bicyclists. Pacing helps an athlete save themselves for the entirety of a competition/sport rather than just the beginning or end. Through pacing they’re able to spend hours giving the amorous 110% rather than just minutes or seconds—like in sprinting, etc. (Usain Bolt has no need to pace himself since he’s only running for nine seconds at a time.) But what about writers?  Writers too need to pace themselves when telling a story; and the memoir Cures for Hunger by Deni Y. Bechard is a great example of literary pacing.

“We watch and read because we’re interested in the outcome, and it’s the pacing that keeps us going as we follow along the journey…”

Just as a runner can burst ahead at the beginning of a race, foreshadowing a future win, so too can a writer burst ahead at the beginning of a novel/memoir and foreshadow what’s to come. Bechard started his memoir with a prologue in which we learn that his father has died alone and in a cabin, that his father has had trouble with the law, and that the two were estranged. Then Bechard took a jump backward and began talking about his childhood, and so started the pacing; Bechard started off ahead, letting us know what the outcome was going to be, and then it was time to just sit back and watch the other 26.2 miles of the marathon.

Through the memoir, we are shown a chronological order of events that have taken place in Bechard’s life, and that of his father, Edwin. Bechard doesn’t give us too much at once, just a consistent stride throughout. Foot after foot until the race is over. That’s how it is for running, swimming and bicycling; and that’s how it is for writing, too. A writer needs to set the tone/pace that they’re going to use through their book, essay, and memoir, and it needs to be a pace that they’re comfortable with, that they can maintain, and that will ultimately, in a sense, lead them to victory! This is what interests us as readers and spectators. We become curious whether or not the person who takes the lead is actually going to win: What if an underdog comes from behind? What if the person trips? What if they win in a way that wasn’t expected? What if no one took the lead and we’re only watching to find out who eventually wins? We watch and read because we’re interested in the outcome, and it’s the pacing that keeps us going as we follow along the journey, cheering, hooting, and hollering, crying in victory and defeat, along with the winners and losers, and the characters and narrators.

“When someone’s running a long-distance marathon, the last thing in the world he wants to do is start sprinting right out of the gate at a speed that is unmaintainable.”

Bechard tells the story on his terms, letting us know right from the beginning that he’s going to be taking us through his childhood year by year. When he introduces characters he neither introduces them obtrusively nor too circumspectly. His choice of what/when to describe certain scenery/emotions is dependable in the sense that he gives us the cues so we know what to expect—the way a runner might, for instance, always tilt his head down when running up hill. He never changes his pace and gives us too much or too little at a time, it is the same consistency through the book, little by little we find more and more and step closer and closer to the end. It is a good technique; however, not all authors use this technique. Sometimes for better or worse. Some authors will jump around with their prose. One minute they’re ten years old and then next they’re thirty. One minute we’re introduced to a dozen family members and the next we’re engrossed in ten pages of internal dialogue. In the military this is called 30, 60, 90; it’s an exercise to increase your endurance. It’s where you start walking for thirty seconds, jog for sixty seconds and then sprint for ninety seconds; and then you repeat this again, and again, and again. It’s an exercise, but this, too, can be parlayed into literary terms. Bechard takes on a very clear and steady pace throughout his story. He doesn’t have any huge time jumps—I.E. he doesn’t go from ages thirteen to thirty in a matter of pages—and we are with him every step of the way. Other authors take a more 30, 60, 90 approach, where they will start off slow, work their way up, start sprinting ahead with the story and introduce a handful of new characters, slow down again and focus on just one character or plotline, and then work their way back up. They are simply different techniques that work well in different situations and with different people.

“As a reader, I knew from the strong start, how it was going to end…”

Pacing, though, I believe, is important for any writer, and by discovering this idea of literary-stride, through reading Cures for Hunger, I realized that I needed to look at my own work and see what type of pacing that I was using; or whether I was evening using pacing in the first place? Was I just blindly running down the road taking stops whenever tired, or was I pacing myself with something that’s comfortable, something the reader could follow along with and would be interested in, something I could maintain and enjoy? When someone’s running a long-distance marathon, the last thing in the world he wants to do is start sprinting right out of the gate at a speed that is unmaintainable. He’ll become tired, winded, and unable to complete the race. In writing, one of the worst things a piece can do is start off strong and then let the reader down the more it drags on, getting slower and slower until finally the book is put down, unfinished. But, then again, there is a need to start off strong. Not too many runners, if any, can go from a last place start to a first place win. In writing we need to start off our pieces strong, but not too strong if unable to deliver that intensity throughout. The start needs to set the pace for the rest of the book: how it will be told, what it will be about, and how things will unfold. We need to see strength right from the beginning, but it cannot be overused or unmaintainable.

Now, granted, the literary pacing/athletic pacing analogy might be a little far-stretched but, in a general sense, it works. As I read Cures for Hunger, the strong start of the prologue is what initially hooked my interest. The foreshadowing of things to come interested me in seeing how things were going to unfold and come about. Then, as the story carried on further and he took us through the years, slowly giving us pieces of the puzzle, we learned more and more, until finally the end of the book. As a reader, I knew from the strong start, how it was going to end, but the pacing of the story, and having things unfold, is what kept me interested, even though I already knew the ending. There are different ways of doing this, and I’m tepid in the idea of using it in my own current work, but it was interesting to have in mind while reading Bechard’s work. Without the prologue, I don’t believe I would have been as interested, initially, in the book. If I didn’t know what the story was going to be about, and I just started reading about someone’s childhood, then I wouldn’t have been interested. But the prologue let me know that it wasn’t just a normal childhood I’d be reading about, it was a childhood of abandonment, of adventure, of estrangement, and that ended with the death of Bechard’s father. Prologue foreshadowing is only one technique, and even though I’m not sure whether I’ll be using it on my current work, the idea of it, and of pacing, in general, I will surely keep with me throughout all future work.

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Book Notes

Book Review: Jesus and the Disinherited, by Howard Thurman

Howard Thurman Jesus and the Disinherited

To introduce the subject of this book and the need for it, Thurman observes, “Many and varied are the interpretations dealing with the teachings and the life of Jesus of Nazareth. But few of these interpretations deal with what the teachings and the life of Jesus have to say to those who stand, at a moment in human history, with their back against the wall. To those who need profound succor and strength to enable them to live in the present with dignity and creativity, Christianity often has been sterile and of little avail.”

Thurman (1899-1981) sets the stage for the universality of his argument by quoting a basic and unavoidable tenet.

“To some God and Jesus may appeal in a way other than to us: some may come to faith in God and to love, without a conscious attachment to Jesus. Both Nature and good men besides Jesus may lead us to God. They who seek God with all their hearts must, however, some day on their way meet Jesus.” -Heinrich Weinel and Alban G. Widgery, Jesus in the Nineteenth Century and After

Both an academic and an ordained minister, friend of Martin Luther King, Sr., Thurman worked out these issues with other leading men and women of his era.

“His [Jesus’s] message focused on the urgency of a radical change in the inner attitude of the people. He recognized fully that out of the heart are the issues of life and that no external force, however great and overwhelming, can at long last destroy a people if it does not first win the victory of the spirit against them.”

“The masses of men live with their backs constantly against the wall. They are the poor, the disinherited, the dispossessed.”

To the existence of these injustices, Thurman offers Jesus as the answer to salvation first, which takes care of one’s eternal life, and only afterwards may the question of earthly injustice be addressed.

“This is the position of the disinherited in every age. What must be the attitude toward the rulers, the controllers of political, social, and economic life? This is the question of the Negro in American life.”

This was also Jesus’s status, as a Jew, a minority living in a dominated by the Romans. His people kept under the thumb of a ruling majority, Jesus lived under racism and segregation as a way of life.

“He [Jesus] recognized with authentic realism that anyone who permits another to determine the quality of his inner life gives into the hands of the other the keys to his destiny. If a man knows precisely what he can do to you or what epithet he can hurl against you in order to make you lose your temper, your equilibrium, then he can always keep you under subjection. It is a man’s reaction to things that determines their ability to exercise power over him.”

“And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which us able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” -Matthew 10:28

Making the conscious choice to put people in their proper place, rejecting fear of those who can’t hurt your eternal condition, allows an unbiased appraisal of others, especially your antagonists. This perspective protects the bearer from inaccurate or exaggerated estimations of another person’s significance or influence.

Become aware of your status in God’s kingdom, and the status of all his other children, whether they know him or not. Within this framework, you can begin to see life with, what Thurman calls, an “almighty clarity.”

Howard Thurman’s short, 112 page treatise asks of each man, “How did he relate himself to the central issues of his time?” This book is Thurman’s answer for himself.  The central issue in Thurman’s day to day life was the inequality and segregation of black and white people in post-World War 2 America. In a religion buttressed by the equality of all men under God, the great Christian nation had failed to find that equality. Thurman insightfully, if at times pedantically, presents Jesus as the model, in both practice and theory, for oppressed people of all times and places.

Picture: Flickr/TCDavis


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Annotative Essay on the book: ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude,’ by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

One hundred years of solitude book essay

one hundred years of solitude essay

The term ‘hook-line-and-sinker’ is the eponymous of the way a human reacts to something of interest. Simply put, if a person really likes something they are, “hook-line-and-sinker.” The term comes from fishing, and it relates to the way that if a fish eats a fisherman’s hook (sharp part holding the bait that locks them) the line (fishing string) and the sinker (weight that keeps the line from rising above the water) then the fish is surely caught. Whereas if a fish were to only take the hook, or just the hook and the line, then there is a chance that they might be caught, or might not be caught. The key, though, is all three, “hook,” “line,” and “sinker.” Miss one and you might as well miss all three.

“An author’s job should be to make things, in a sense, as simple for the reader as possible.”

The reason I bring this up and start my essay with this old colloquialism is because although One Hundred Years of Solitude had me hooked from the very beginning, though very well written, it failed to capture me hook-line-and-sinker. And even though the term is based on fishing, the same is held true for writing. A writer doesn’t merely aim to hook his reader; he wants to get them line-and-sinker as well. This, I believe, is where One Hundred Years of Solitude falls short, and it is from this which I learned the most from the novel.

Here are the ways in which I believed One Hundred Years of Solitude lacked a certain amount of joie de vivre.

For starters, from the very beginning I found myself wondering whose story it was that was being told. The novel first introduces us to the character Aureliano Buendia, but then he disappears and we are left with his father Jose Arcadio Buendia. Jose Arcadio then becomes the main focus of the text but only until we are then focused back on Aureliano and then another person and then another. The story moves from Aureliano Buendia to Arcadio Buendia back to Aureliano to Jose Arcadio, then Arcadio, then Aureliano Jose. On and on down the line, etc. The characters were made specific in their descriptions but as a reader because of the similar names I was confused, during some of the busier scenes, and was left wondering who was who, and again, whose story it was. I understood that the author may have been trying to get across a picture of lineage with the usage of repeating familial names but surely there could have been a less confusing manner. An author’s job should be to make things, in a sense, as simple for the reader as possible. Make things too hard and a reader will simply put the book down. Notwithstanding, an author should still challenge his readers; however, the challenge shouldn’t be in remembering a dozen similar sounding names, the challenge should be in finding different levels of depth within the text. By starting the book of with Aureliano and then ignoring him for dozens of pages only to bring him back later and then to toss him aside and then bring another character in with a similar name it only left me feeling jaded.

“What good is a well written sentence if it doesn’t drive the reader to read the next and the next and the next?”

The author initially had me hooked with the story of Aureliano Buendia and instantly I became curious as to the circumstance of his future possible execution, but the story and character of Aureliano Buendia became such a tease, and a story that seemed so far away, that even though I had been hooked, I stopped following the line. Right after I was hooked by the story of Aureliano, things jumped to someone and something entirely different and although there were glimpses of Aureliano and the future execution that would befall him, there was too much distance between the sinker and the hook. I was lost, confused, and most of all, and worst of all, bored. I stopped caring. In a book that encompasses seven generations, I was bored by the first generation and had to force myself through the remaining six. I believe this is specifically because the initial thing that had hooked me at the beginning was not strong enough to carry me through, and there were no further hooks that would have carried me through the entire novel.

The novel was perfectly written with not a single comma out of place; however, well written sentences are meaningless if they have no ends. What good is a well written sentence if it doesn’t drive the reader to read the next and the next and the next?  What One Hundred Years of Solitude lacked was that special something that would keep me reading through the night, or would keep me thinking about it even as I fell asleep waiting to read more the next day. It is a book that I put down, and as all readers and writers know, once a book is put down, it often is never picked up again. As salesmen say, “Make the sale while they’re still in the room, because there’s a good chance that if they walk out that door they’re never coming back.” And even if the person is/does come back, each time you need to treat them as though they’re never coming back. You need to sell them every step of the way, with every word, sentence and paragraph. This is what I believe One Hundred Years of Solitude lacked.

“The sinker is what really gets the fish.”

What I believe was good about reading this book was that, although it was very well written, and although I wasn’t much of a fan, reading the novel taught me that in my own experience as a reader, things need to hook you right away and keep you hooked (a la hook-line-and-sinker). There have been plenty of books throughout the years that I have started reading only to have stopped because I became bored, and there are just as many books that I started reading and liked, but stopped reading and never picked up again because I found something else more interesting. And there are also books where I’ve showed up late to work, skipped class, or missed meals, simply because I was so enamored with the writing and story that I simply couldn’t put it down (Ex: All Quiet on the Western Front). This is where my lesson was learned.

The sinker is what really gets the fish. That’s how you know you’ve got them for sure. And for One Hundred Years of Solitude I was hooked and followed the line but never reached the sinker. I never got to that point. But through an in-depth analysis and meditation on my own writing I have seen how I have used this correctly and incorrectly in the past and how to better use it in the future. The key I believe it to hook the reader at the very beginning, preferably with the first sentence, paragraph or page, and then have them follow the line until they reach the sinker which has to be something big. Once you have them hooked the key is to not have too much distance between the hook and the sinker. If there’s too much distance a fish can figure out what’s going on and break free and a reader can become bored and move on. But the hook and sinker must be on the same line. For One Hundred Years of Solitude the hook went to a different line, I followed that line which only led to another hook, I followed that new line which only led to another hook, on and on down until the book was done and I realized that I had never been hooked-line-and-sinkered, and had only continued reading because it was a requirement for school. In my own writing I now realize that to keep a reader reading it is not enough to merely hook them and have them follow a line but I also need to have something big in the story that will keep the reader reading even if it means missing work or school. Now, how to do that, is the real question, and I will now look for it in the books that have done it to me in the past and that will do it to me in the future.

For more annotative essays and other book related stuff click here.

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Best Of, Blogishness, Blogishness, Book Notes, MFA Notes, Politics / News, Self Improvement / Healthy Living

The Craft of Writing: Reliable Narrator, in an Unreliable World

typewriter: craft essay reliable narrator in an unreliable worldReliable Narrator

In an

Unreliable World

“Some first lines are so powerful that you absolutely have to keep on reading.” –Noah Lukeman

If a writer cannot hook their reader within the first sentence, paragraph, and ultimately the first chapter, then all is lost. Like a car salesman who knows that he has to make the sale before the customer leaves; “They’ll never come back, make the sale now!” is often the motto.  The same goes for writing.  Once a book is placed down, there’s always a chance that it may never be picked back up.  A writer’s best bet is to make sure that the book is never placed down.  The best way to do that is to introduce a reader to a foreign, often unreliable world—which is somewhat implicit in memoir—and give them a reliable, trustworthy, narrator.

“How does the reader know that they’re going to be taken through a foreign world by a guide they can trust?”

In this annotative essay, the first chapters of great works will be discussed—particularly non-fiction—and how it is that the authors convince us that we’re being introduced to an unreliable/foreign world with a reliable, trustworthy, narrator. The books to be focused on: A Three Dog Life by Abigail Thomas, Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage by Elizabeth Gilbert, Angela’s Ashes, by Frank McCourt, and Notes from the Underground by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

As stated, the beginning of a book has the biggest, most important, job.  It sets the tone.  The intensity.  The plot.  The characters.  It introduces us to the world within the pages.  If the world seems too bland, too predictable, too passé, then all is lost.  No person begins reading with the intent to be bored, no person reads to learn something they already know; instead, we read to escape, to be entertained, to become informed.  We can’t escape to the same world in which we live, we can’t be entertained from tired words, and we can’t be informed from which we already know.  A book must introduce a reader to a foreign world, an unpredictable world, a world in which they can see a possibility for entertainment, mystery, escapism, and information. It’s often said that “truth is stranger than fiction,” and in non-fiction authors often have the difficult task of taking extraordinary, unbelievably true stories, and making them believable.  From the man who was hiking and had to cut off his own arm, to the pastor who claims his child went to heaven, to the man who claims he slept with thousands of women.  Books implicitly introduce the reader to a foreign world and once we enter this world, we need to know that we will have a trustworthy narrator to guide us through.  Because if we don’t trust the narrator then we don’t trust the world they’ve created.

“This doesn’t mean that the narrator is boring, simply instead that we can trust them.”

How does the reader know that they’re going to be taken through a foreign world by a guide they can trust? Imagine going to a museum and there’s two tour guides that you can choose.  Tour guide number one is a nineteen year old, high school dropout, named Frank.  Frank’s a slacker who always wears his t-shirt too big and pants too low, he only gives tours so that he has enough money to buy drugs.  Tour guide number two is a sixty-five year old, retiree, named Blake.  Blake has a Ph.D. in art history, and only works as a tour guide because he’s loves art and needs something to do while he’s retired.

If you were going to have a tour of an art museum, and if you had a choice, which tour guide would you prefer? The answer is easy… Blake, of course.

We chose Blake because we trust him.   We trust the bow-tie that adorns the collar of his nicely ironed shirt, we trust the Ph.D. that follows the word “Blake,” on his nametag.  We trust the kind hearted voice of a man who’s poured over books of art, who’s seen the Mona Lisa in the Louvre, and who’s gazed up at the Sistine Chapel.  We trust Blake because when he doesn’t know something he tells us he doesn’t know.  He isn’t here to be your friend or get you to like him or go out on a date with him he’s only here to tell you everything he knows about art.  Everything about Blake, from the way he looks, to the way he talks, is what we would expect.  He’s congruent with himself.

“Dostoyevsky’s narrator may be a horrible, miserable person, but he’s a horrible, miserable person that we instantly trust as our narrator.”

Frank, on the other hand, we don’t trust. He seems unreliable.  He calls it the Sixteen Chapel instead of the Sistine Chapel, and he knows more about Kim Kardashian then Pablo Picasso.  Frank is covered in tattoos but tries to hide them with long sleeves.  Frank contradicts himself.  At one point he tells you that he’s been working at the museum for six months, and at another point he says three months.  He leaves out information about paintings during the tour; he pretends to know more than he does, he misleads you purposely, sometimes for his own amusement, sometimes just to get an easy laugh.  Frank gives tours in a certain way because sometimes he’s trying to impress some pretty ladies that are in the group and sometimes he’s just trying to get a bigger tip. Frank’s intentions as a tour guide are never altruistic, he’s never reliable or congruent, and frankly, Frank is a tour guide that we simply cannot trust.

The key to presenting a reliable narrator in an unreliable world is to make sure that they are more like Blake then Frank. This doesn’t mean that the narrator is boring, simply instead that we can trust them.  If we look at the beginning of Notes from the Underground by Fyodor Dostoyevsky:

“I’m a sick man . . . a mean man. There’s nothing attractive about me.  I think there’s something wrong with my liver. But, actually, I don’t understand a damn thing about my sickness; I’m not even too sure what it is that’s ailing me. I’m not under treatment and never have been, although I have great respect for medicine and doctors. Moreover, I’m morbidly superstitious—enough, at least, to respect medicine.  With my education I shouldn’t be superstitious, but I am just the same. No, I’d say I refuse medical help simply out of contrariness.  I don’t expect you to understand that, but it’s so.  Of course, I can’t explain whom I’m trying to fool this way.  I’m fully aware that I can’t spite the doctors by refusing their help.  I know very well that I’m harming myself and no one else. But still, it’s out of spite that I refuse to ask for the doctors’ help. So my liver hurts? Good, let it hurt even more!”

“We need to know that the narrator is a real person, not an amalgamation of different people or ideas, not some idealized version of a person, but a real, flesh and blood, faults and all, person.”

We see that what Dostoyevsky does is set up a strong intense tone of the narrator.  He creates a character that has such a unique intensity that the reader is drawn forward to read more.  And what’s more, he keeps up the intensity throughout the whole first chapter, and ultimately the whole book.  Like Blake, he admits when he doesn’t know something, “I don’t understand a damn thing about my sickness,” he admits his mistakes, “I shouldn’t be superstitious, but I am just the same,” his vulnerabilities, “I’m a sick man . . . a mean man,” Dostoyevsky’s narrator may be a horrible, miserable person, but he’s a horrible, miserable person that we instantly trust as our narrator.  Everything that we read and hear in that first paragraph is congruent with the portrait that the narrator is painting.  We can see him.  Similar to how Blake’s bow-tie matches his shirt, pants, and personality, so too does everything that we see of the narrator match up with the picture being painted.  But the most important part is that we can actually see the narrator.  It’s easier to trust a narrator that we can see.

In just the first paragraph of Notes from the Underground we get the sense of a man who is hurting, pleading, who is on bended knees baring his soul.  This is another way to let a reader know that they’re dealing with a reliable narrator: vulnerability.  By being upfront and admitting the faults within ourselves and our story—“I don’t understand a damn thing about my sickness; I’m not even too sure what it is that’s ailing me.”—the reader knows beforehand what they’re getting themselves into, and with whom; they know that the narrator’s not trying to pull one over on them, that they can be trusted.  It is the man adorned in armor who needs it the most.  But a man who takes his armor offer is a man unafraid, and it is the man who doesn’t hide that we trust.  So even though the narrator that we’re being introduced to seems to be a horrible, miserable, loser of a narrator, he is also a trustworthy narrator, he is a narrator that we feel safe with, in the sense that we can see that he’s hiding nothing.  He is vulnerable and we keep reading because we trust that vulnerability.

“We trust this vulnerability because she’s opening herself up, showing us her wounds, she’s not trying to hide, protect, or paint a perfect picture of herself, and it is vulnerability like this which makes a story great and a narrator reliable.”

Another way in which a narrator can set up a tone of reliability is with relatability. If a narrator is too far out-there, then they’ll be seen as unreliable and untrustworthy.  If a character is set up as smart and intelligent but keeps doing dumb things, things that we know no real, normal person would do, then the narrator loses our trust.  We need to know that the narrator is a real person, not an amalgamation of different people or ideas, not some idealized version of a person, but a real, flesh and blood, faults and all, person.

Dostoyevsky follows all these steps perfectly in Notes from the Underground.  The first thing that he does is he sets up the main character, the narrator.  He sets up the narrator so well and so succinctly that with each word, though, idea, and phrasing, the character becomes more and more alive, more relatable.  Within a few sentences we’re no longer reading a book, we’re now hearing a story from the person sitting next to us.  The words suddenly have eyes, and a nose, and a mouth, and fingers, and a beard, and a bald head.  Next he shows us that not only is this narrator a real person who’s sitting next to us, but also that this narrator isn’t like our typical neighbor, co-worker, family member, or stranger on the bus.  This narrator is sick.  He’s depressive.  He’s paranoid.  He’s a man so stubborn, so defiant, that he refuses medical care out of spite.  Spite for crying out loud!  He neglects his own health for vengeance against and unknown, unnamed enemy.  He’s “out-there” but not so far out-there that we would write him off as an untrustworthy, unrelatable, narrator.  He may be telling us that that he’s crazy but we trust him when he tells us that he’s crazy.  His actions are all congruent with who he is as a narrator.  Then combined with the vulnerability we have a narrator who we can see, relate to, feel for, and who we trust to be our tour guide through the pages.  We have our Blake!

Vulnerability, congruence, relatability, a narrator that we can actually see; these are the four things which most convince a reader that they’re dealing with a reliable narrator, and which ultimately keep them reading.  And now that these four traits have been identified in Dostoyevsky’s work, we will look at several other successful, and not so successful, attempts at creating a reliable, relatable, vulnerable, and congruent narrator in non-fiction.

The memoir A Three Dog Life, by Abigail Thomas, begins:

“This is the one thing that stays the same: my husband got hurt. Everything else changes.  A grandson needs me and then he doesn’t.  My children are close then one drifts away.  I smoke and don’t smoke; I knit ponchos, then hats, shawls, hats again, stop knitting, start up again.  The clock ticks, the seasons shift, the night sky rearranges itself, but my husband remains constant, his injuries are permanent.  He grounds me.  Rich is where I shine.  I can count on myself with him.”

“But its objective moments like this, where we may not actually believe that the narrator had the worst of the worst of upbringings, we may not believe that an Irish Catholic upbringing is the worst, but we do believe that the narrator believes it’s the worst.”

Immediately we’re shown a woman “my husband,” older “a grandmother,” who is stuck in a changing, “This is the one thing that stays the same…” never-changing, rut. The one place where she’s grounded, that lets her count on herself, is the one place that also gives her the most misery: her husband Rich.  She invites us into her world, shows us the tedium of everyday life, and she, ultimately, spends the entire first chapter showing us how vulnerable she is: “I got stuck with the past and future.  That’s my half of this bad hand.  I know what happened and I never got used to that.”  We trust this vulnerability because she’s opening herself up, showing us her wounds, she’s not trying to hide, protect, or paint a perfect picture of herself, and it is vulnerability like this which makes a story great and a narrator reliable.  She is taking the armor off, and like a man at a strip-club, it’s the removing of the clothing which is the most alluring.  She’s showing us her tattoos not hiding them under her sleeves.

The narrator of A Three Dog Life is immediately consistent with the picture being painted.  She’s congruent.  From the image of an older women, to the talk of her knitting, to the fact that she has only a twenty-seven inch TV.  Most kids nowadays have iPads that are twenty-seven inches.  But not her.  She’s older.  A writer.  A reader.  She lives in a “cozy house,” with “pretty furniture,” where “Time passes here.”   She sits quietly with her husband, plays with her dogs, talks to her grandchildren.  She immediately becomes a person that we can see and relate to.  We recall images of older women we’ve met or seen on TV.  Wives, mothers, grandmothers, friends, co-workers, the narrator shows us a glimpse of her life and it’s something that we can immediately relate to; a woman who is simply living her life as best she can in the face of tragedy.  These all help us to see the picture of a woman, and when the picture matches up with the words and actions, combined with vulnerability, congruence, and relatability, then we have a reliable narrator, one that we believe we can trust.  This narration is kept up throughout the book and on every page we see a narrator who is giving herself to us, who we can see, relate to, trust, and care about.  This is why Stephen King called A Three Dog Life, “The best memoir I have ever read.”  This means another Blake!

Let’s look at one more good example—Angela’s Ashes, by Frank McCourt—before moving onto an example where the author doesn’t set up a reliable narrator. Angela’s Ashes begins:

“My father and mother should have stayed in New York where they met and married and where I was born. Instead, they returned to Ireland when I was four, my brother, Malachy, three, the twins, Oliver and Eugene barley one, and my sister, Margaret, dead and gone.

When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood; the happy childhood is hardly worth your while.  Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.

People everywhere brag and whimper about the woes of their early years, but nothing can compare with the Irish version: the poverty; the shiftless loquacious alcoholic father; the pious defeated mother moaning by the fire; pompous priests; bullying schoolmasters; the English and the terrible things they did to us for eight hundred long years.”

In the first few pages, McCourt sets up a narrator that we can see. Irish and Catholic we can see those rosy white cheeks and blue eyes.  We can see the tough-as-nails kid with a hard upbringing and a just as hard look at life.  We can see this rough narrator and rough lens which he views the world.  What is set up is a narrator who thinks that he had it the worst; that his upbringing wasn’t just the worst of the worst, it was the worst of the worst of the worst.  We know that this is a narrator who is going to tell us about how bad things were for him, and he does.  But its objective moments like this, where we may not actually believe that the narrator had the worst of the worst of upbringings, we may not believe that an Irish Catholic upbringing is the worst, but we do believe that the narrator believes it’s the worst.  And that’s all that really matters.  Memoir isn’t about perfection, it’s about point-of-view.  We’re reading about a person, their thoughts, feelings, action, and in-actions in life.  We need to see them and know their thoughts, no matter how faulty we may see them as.  We’re not looking to see our reflection but theirs.

“It is hard to trust a narrator that we cannot see. And even harder still when said narrator has covered themselves in armor.”

Like everyone’s infamous Uncle Larry who always says he’s going to stop drinking.  He might mean it every month when he says it, but we all know the truth.  We know that every month he says he’ll quit, then will quit for a few hours, a day at the most, and then is right back at it.  We don’t have to believe everything Uncle Larry says, or the narrator, but we do have to believe that we can trust the narrator.  And just as we trust Uncle Larry to keep at it, so too do we trust the narrator of Angela’s Ashes to keep up with the voice that is set up.  Frank McCourt gives us a reliable narrator.

Throughout the whole first chapter the narrator of Angela’s Ashes is shown as a man with a hard upbringing.  From the stories of his father being hunted by the Irish Republican Army (“a price on his head,”) to the stories of poverty (“dad loses his job,”), alcoholism, and death (“he died of the drink,”).  He shows us that he meant what he said.  That he had a tough upbringing.  He didn’t tell us that he had a tough childhood and then begin telling us about how rich his parents were and how much he loved them and them him. We see a narrator as a person who saw things not for better or worse but simply for what they were.  This is another clear-cut example of a narrator allowing themselves to be vulnerable on the page and stay congruent with the voice and image that they’re presenting.

Most people have dealt with troubles in their life and if we see a narrator who has dealt with similar troubles, whether directly mirroring ours, or in a deep enough sense compared to ours, we will make the connection and relate with the narrator.  If this is combined with vulnerability, congruence and a portrait, then we will once again experience the feeling of having a reliable narrator.

To look at something that isn’t the best of examples of the above mentioned techniques we will look at Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage a memoir by Elizabeth Gilbert. Committed starts off:

“Late one afternoon in the summer of 2006, I found myself in a small village in northern Vietnam, sitting around a sooty kitchen fire with a number of local women whose language I did not speak, trying to ask them questions about marriage.

For several months already, I had been traveling across Southeast Asia with a man who was soon to become my husband.  I suppose the conventional term for such an individual would be “fiancé,” but neither one of us was very comfortable with that word, so we weren’t using it.  In fact, neither one of us was very comfortable with this whole idea of matrimony at all.  Marriage was not something we had ever planned with each other, nor was it something either of us wanted.  Yet providence had interfered with our plans, which was why we were now wandering haphazardly across Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Indonesia, all the while making urgent—even desperate—efforts to return to America and wed.”

Although well-written, Committed, lacks several of the tenants which I believe make a reliable narrator, and ultimately, a good story.

For starters, though, we will look at what works well within the story: congruency.  Gilbert comes across as a confused, though congruent narrator.  She is in love with a man, wants to be with him, but doesn’t want to marry him—these feelings fluctuate, but we are shown a narrator who fluctuates, so we can trust those feelings.  We can (at first) picture a young woman, in-love, who is going back and forth on her decision.  But even this congruency eventually works against the reliability of the narrator.

Does she, though, paint a picture of the narrator?  No.  She does not.  What we see is the image of a generic, rich woman (middle-aged?) who is a writer.  We don’t see her wrinkles.  The burn marks on her skin, the cigarette between her lips and drink in her hand.  We see nothing.  A generic woman who has a slight problem.  It is hard to trust a narrator that we cannot see.  And even harder still when said narrator has covered themselves in armor.

“A reliable narrator is someone who puts themselves into the pages. They strip off all armor and make themselves vulnerable.”

The problem with the narrator is that ultimately, throughout the book, we don’t trust the narrator.  Which means that even though the “voice,” may be congruent with the image that’s being present, we don’t trust that voice, so the image doesn’t matter.  There is no vulnerability in the pages.  She is wealthy, in love, and simply has to decide whether or not to marry a man who she claimed “…loved each other unreservedly,” and which she had already made a life-long pact, “We had even sworn lifelong fidelity to each other already…”  She gives us nothing.  Her most famous memoir, Eat Pray Love, was a more personal book, something that showed her vulnerabilities.  But those vulnerabilities are lacking in Committed.  We don’t see a real person with a real problem—a woman getting over an awful divorce, like in Eat Pray Love.  Now, her only problem is that she is wealthy, in a loving, committed, relationship with a rich, good-looking, tall, dark, and handsome Brazilian, someone whom she loves and has pledged her life to.  And yet, her big problem is that she’s hesitant on getting married again.  And these feelings teeter back and forth.  She wants to get married.  She doesn’t.  Maybe she can find another way around this.  Get married.  Don’t.  Etc.  This is a situation that isn’t that relatable.  There’s no vulnerability, so there’s nothing really for us to relate to and this is where she loses us.

Vulnerability and relatability is in the details.  Like Thomas talking about her 27in TV in Three Dog Life.  It just seems so pathetic.  So lonely.  So perfect.  Or like McCourt in Angela’s Ashes.  The hard childhood.  The alcoholism.  The deaths.  The Irish Catholic guilt.  He doesn’t skirt the issues.  He doesn’t skirt the facts.  He gives it to the reader.  Gilbert does not.  She gives a vague problem, doesn’t let us see her, and then gives no real details to the story, or about herself.  Gilbert is the Frank of narrators.  She hides her tattoos and doesn’t let us see her.  We have no choice but to not trust her and cast her off.

As the New York Post wrote about the book:

“Ironically, Gilbert’s heart does not seem to have been in this book

The book is more filler than anything, just pages and pages of rambling encounters with poor Asian people who talk to her about marriage and teach her things, then some Wiki’d historical facts, then some paeans to her worldliness and personal growth — all the while continuing to evade any real personal disclosures.”

A reliable narrator is someone who puts themselves into the pages.  They strip off all armor and make themselves vulnerable.   “This is me, blemishes and all.”  No one wants to read a book that is layered in chain-mail.  We see nothing, only manufactured goods, we don’t see the flesh and bones and blood, which is what we want.  To create a reliable, memorable, trust-worthy narrator, someone who we want guiding us through the foreign world of a book, we need someone who is vulnerable, relatable, congruent, and who we can see.  Someone who we may not like, but who we can trust.

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Annotative Essay on the book: ‘Let The Great World Spin,’ By Colum McCann

let the great world spin book

let the great world spin book essay

 McCann grabs you… at first. Starting with a tale of a man on a tightrope, he leads the reader through an interweaving story of human nature and internal and external connectedness. This beginning, and complex weaving of storylines, has shown me certain opportunities, and weaknesses in my own writing, and many ways in which I can improve. However, like all my readings, I’ve learned that every author has weaknesses, which can teach as much as his strengths.

“I see the characters. I feel them. I care for them. I want to know what happens to them.”

One thing that came up for me about the story’s, beginning, middle, and end, was that nothing about the story or plot actually captured me. A man is tightrope walking, so what? A priest is trying to find himself, so what? A mother misses her son, so what? Each theme is somewhat interesting, and each plotline somewhat intriguing, but enough so that it would keep me reading? No. Not for me. What did keep me reading, though, was the writing itself—and what was written between the lines. Although the pages weren’t dripping with philosophy and thinking points about life, there were enough moments scattered throughout which made me stop and think about life and death, and the meaning of everything. And that’s all a writer can ask for; to make his reader stop and think. In the military we say “Mission first, but soldiers always.” In writing this is best parlayed as, “Entertainment first, but thinking always.” McCann’s philosophical readings gave the book a deep ethereal feel, but his real strength is in his descriptions.

A man walking a tightrope across two buildings doesn’t interest me, at all, really. Even if the man’s life is at stake and there’s a chance he could die. Who cares? But… if I had a friend who was tightrope walking across two buildings and his life was at stake, then I would care. And that is McCann’s true strength. Through his physical and emotional descriptions he connects you to his characters. Someone, an event, that typically would not, and should not, interest me, suddenly compels me forward, to read more and more. This happens because of connectedness. I see the characters. I feel them. I care for them. I want to know what happens to them. This is why I continued reading. I didn’t care about some stupid story about someone walking across a tightrope or some stupid woman who lost her son; but it wasn’t just a man walking across a tightrope or some mother missing her son; it was my friend walking across a tightrope, my mother missing her son.

Combined with somewhat intriguing plotlines and inviting, inventive writing of emotional and physical descriptions, and the occasional thinking points, collectively, Let the Great World Spin, comes together to form a truly enjoyable book. Now, on to the lessons learned.

“The power isn’t in the story itself; because the story isn’t unique or original; the power of the story lies in the way it’s told and the way it’s written.”

McCann started his book with a man tightrope walking across two buildings. It wasn’t the best, most intriguing idea, but the writing was so descriptive that I was drawn forward to see more and find out what happens. Then, when I got to the next section, and scant a word was mentioned about the tightrope walker, I was mystified. At first, there appeared to be no connection, and I thought that perhaps the book was merely a collection of short non-conjoining stories. It wasn’t until deep in section three that the tightrope walker was mentioned again, and that I would begin to see how the story would take shape. And seeing how the author was going to connect the pieces, I became even more intrigued; not by the story itself, but by how everything was going to unfold.

In most books I read, and in my own writing, things are written in a linear format of a, b, c and d. There’s the occasional flashback and future whispers, but mostly things are written from point A to point B. But McCann has written his own indirect alphabet. Slowly things began to reveal themselves. And although, once I was done reading the book, I appreciated the uniqueness of it and loved how it was written, had the writing not been so descriptive and inventive and inviting, even a tiny bit less, I would not have finished the book; nor would I have gotten to the point where I would have realize that the stories were connected. What this went to show me is that there is no certain way in which stories need to be told or information to be given. There are other ways and other points of view. Had McCann written his book in the typical linear format then surely it wouldn’t be as highly praised or widely read.

The power isn’t in the story itself; because the story isn’t unique or original; the power of the story lies in the way it’s told and the way it’s written. As mentioned early, the book wasn’t mainly driven by its plotlines, and what really kept it going was the writing. Descriptions went on and on, sometimes too long, but still they somehow managed to capture my eye. Typically, I would find such writing as blowhard and overly verbose; however, McCann’s writing had a different nature to it, once in which I wish I could capture. His words and ideas flowed; because he combines the internal descriptions with the external ones. This can best been seen in an example from the beginning of book two.

“He surfs the thin metal platform as the train jags south out of Grand Central. At times he gets dizzy just anticipating the next corner. That speed. That wild noise in his ears. The truth is, it frightens him. The steel thrumming through him. It’s like he has the whole train in his sneakers. Control and oblivion. Sometimes it feels like he’s the one driving. Too far left and the train might smash into the corner and there’ll be a million mangled bodies along the rail. Too far right and the cars will skid sideways and it’ll be a good-bye, nice knowing you, see you in the headlines…”

One simple paragraph, yet it so powerfully captures the moment. This is the power of the writing and the book. McCann’s ability to combine the description of a speeding train with the internal feelings of one of its passengers; this allows us to see the train and the person, but more importantly to feel them both. In my writing I feel as though I would typically do one or the other; describe the physical aspects of the train, describe the physical aspects of the person, describe the feeling of the train, describe the feeling of the person, etc. But like the whole story itself, McCann combines them, he interweaves the physical aspects of the train and the person, the feelings of the train, and the feelings of the person, just as he weaves each individual story with the stories of the whole. He does this per paragraph. This is what I’d like to do in my own writing.

Like my stories, my own descriptions tend to be linear. The house is red. The man is fat. The house feels haunted. The man feels ashamed. Et cetera. How do I combine the descriptions and feelings of both? This is not a rhetorical question, either; please answer in your response with how I can better do this. Examples would be helpful, too.

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Annotative Essay on the book: ‘Netherland,’ by Joseph O’Neill

Why We Read

netherland joseph o'neill annotative essay

An Annotative Essay on: Netherland, by Joseph O’Neill

            Different books are read for different reasons. Textbooks are read so that we can be informed in what matters most to us: math, biology, philosophy, etc. Suspense and thriller books so that we can be entertained by what interests us: vampires, the mafia, war, etc. Romance novels so that we can be enthralled in what eludes us: love, passion, desire, etc. And the classics so that we can be left pondering why certain things matter, interest, and elude us.

“Yet something eluded the book itself which kept it from entering such a category.”

What about a book, though, which fits into none of the previously outlined categories? Or what about a book that fits into all of them? Or half of them? This is where Netherland lays. Although I thoroughly enjoyed the book by Joseph O’Neill, when trying to classify it I ran into trouble. Well written and a page-turner, though not as entertaining as a Dean Koontz or Stephen King novel, nor as thought provoking as a classic like Catcher in the Rye; where then, does that leave a book, and all others like Netherland? It is classics which contain ‘All of the above.’ Netherland, I believe, had the makings of a classic. It had suspense, mystery, it informed me in subtle ways about life and philosophy, it enthralled me, though briefly, in passion and desire and things which elude the typical life. All things which make a classic. Yet something eluded the book itself which kept it from entering such a category. Thus, I believe Netherland joins the throws of bastard children. It fits nowhere. And this is where it gave the most instruction.

Even though I believe Netherland to be a good, though, unremarkable book, there was a lot to be learned. Both from the parts I enjoyed and disliked. The first issue, and eventual learning, I dislodged from Netherland was the art or dis-art of description. There were many descriptions which made me stop and appreciate the care and revisions in which the author must have gone through to create such a finely tuned well-crafted sentence; while simultaneously, there were several descriptions that I simply skipped over because they were simply, or un-simply, too much.

“As I repeatedly went forth with him and began to understand the ignorance and contradictions and language difficulties with which he contended, and the doubtful sources of his information and the seemingly bottomless history and darkness out of which the dishes of New York emerge, the deeper grew my suspicion that his work finally consisted of minting or perpetuating and in any event circulating misconceptions about his subject and in this way adding to the endless perplexity of the world.”

The above is merely an example of an eighty word sentence that the author used to get across a simple idea. It is one of many such examples. My issue with such writing is that if there’s a forty-five word sentence about how angry a person is, but by word eight I realize that the author is simply describing a basic state of anger; I say to myself “I get it,” and simply skip ahead. Why would I need to read the other thirty-seven words?

“I can only imagine if O’Neill had managed to write the entire book in such an unassuming yet powerful way.”

I’m reminded, as well, of a one hundred and seventy-nine word sentence that appeared in Netherland. Now, I have to believe that there had to be an easier, more flowing way, to say what O’Neill felt he needed to say than in a one hundred and seventy-nine word sentence. I find myself asking: why? Why did this writer deem it necessary to write in such a garrulous way?   Was it simply to show off his aptitude for verbosity? And the thing is, the sentence in question, is unnecessary. Though very well written, it perhaps could be used stand alone or in a shorter piece. But in a novel length work, when working through a story and trying to get to the meat of the matter, and trying to be entertained, and trying to learn, and trying to be enthralled, such long-windedness comes across as literary arrogance and, perhaps even, laziness. I’m reminded of the Einstein quote, “If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t understand it yourself.” If Einstein insists on conveying quantum physics as simple as possible, then why is it that authors insist on convey emotions as complex as possible? Can anger, hatred, love or happiness truly be more complicated than the cosmos?

I’m also reminded of Faulkner who self-admittedly wrote some of his work, in such a way, only for the sake of making it as confusing as possible. I have to, again, ask myself why? What is the point of such an endeavor? I understand the aspect of forcing a reader to figure out something on their own. And I support such a thing when done right, and when necessary. But those moments need to come intermittently and only work best, or seem to have a purpose, when it involves something meaningful and worthwhile. This certainly wasn’t the case for Faulkner and it often wasn’t the case for O’Neill. The additional problem that arose regarding this in Netherland was that O’Neill often got it right when writing his descriptions, which made it so much more frustrating when he got it wrong. A few of his descriptions which I believe were perfectly written and which I pictured perfectly in my mind (both happen to be only fifty-one words):

“He believed in owning the impetus of a situation, in keeping the other guy off balance, in proceeding by way of sidesteps. If he saw an opportunity to act with suddenness or take you by surprise or push you into the dark, he’d take it, almost as a matter of principle.”

“Our lecturer, a destroyed-looking man in his sixties, appeared apologetically before us, and I am certain that a compassionate understanding tacitly arose among the students that we should do everything to assist this individual, an agreeable and no doubt clever man whose life had plainly come to some kind of ruin.”

“If a powerful work can be created using 50,000 words, then I find myself wondering why it sometimes takes people 150,000 or more.”

I can only imagine if O’Neill had managed to write the entire book in such an unassuming yet powerful way. Surely, then it would have made it into my category of classics. But alas, O’Neill had left me skipping sentences and entire paragraphs because even though I enjoyed the style and language they were written in, I found them unnecessary. This led me to my first lesson from the novel and into an inquiry of my own writing.

One of the things I’ve constantly struggled with, and something I believe all writers struggle with, is the appropriate dimensions of a description. How much is too much and how much is too little? The word count for some of my favorite books ranges between 35,000 to 65,000 words—and you can bet that in those books I didn’t skip over a single paragraph, sentence or word. In books such as those, which in the scheme of things have such miniscule word counts, there has to be a severe economy of words—but done in a way without losing anything. If a powerful work can be created using 50,000 words, then I find myself wondering why it sometimes takes people 150,000 or more. This is what I struggle to do in my own writing. Often, when editing my pieces I struggle with the descriptions. I will write a nice basic two sentence long description, erase that, and then write a beautiful three paragraph description, replace that with an abrupt ten word description, delete the description all together, and then in the end, try to find something in the middle. I never feel happy with what I’m left with, and that’s my struggle: trying to find out how to say something as simple, yet eloquently as possible. I can’t say how specifically, or precisely what, Netherland has taught me regarding this; however, since the book provided, in my mind, perfect examples of both extremes, it has made me more aware of it and left me pondering over ways to find the happy medium.

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