Watchman Disappointment–by Michael Hope

Hello Reading Friend,
Today on my blog, guest writer Michael Hope has created a great commentary; not just about the new book by Harper Lee, but one on the state of traditional publishing as well.  It is a MUST READ for anyone in the industry, and interesting for readers who have put their trust in publishing houses to produce the best of American literature for years.  Mike is a lawyer and aspiring novelist from Littleton, Colorado, and a member of Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers.

Is A Group Memoir For You?

Memories are the stuff of great stories, warm feelings, and learning opportunities. And when those memories are collected into book form, the reading is a real treat. Yes, David Niven’s Moon’s A Balloon comes to mind, as does Len Goodman’s Better Late than Never. Have you read any good memoirs? There are thousands out there, and I find they emotionally draw you in, no matter how well or poorly they are written.

photo of Al and Frieda Braun

Al and Frieda, mom and dad, as seen through the eyes of their eldest three children.

I couldn’t resist, therefore, a wonderful memoir where I was mentioned in it. Over the past few days, I’ve enjoyed reading Growing up in the 1950s by three of my eldest siblings. It is a private publication, so you won’t find it on bookshelves at your local Barnes and Noble, but I was able to purchase a copy by ordering from my sister and picking up this “photo album” at a local Costco. Talk about total joy. I loved reading about life in my home before I was hardly a twinkle in anyone’s eye.

One of my sisters, Linda Gidley, was kind enough to share a few minutes with me talking about the work.

“This project helped us get together and talk about Mom and Dad,” said Linda.  While the siblings had often done so in the past, I think enough time had elapsed (my parents died in the early 1970s) that they could take on this big project with kinder eyes. Another observation Linda made, “We met regularly and it was definitely a positive experience.”

Photo of Growing up in the 1950s

A project to share with future generations of Brauns.

The reason this was important to me, is that these women, now approaching retirement years with a vigor you don’t expect, live hundreds of miles from each other, have an entire spectrum of political viewpoints, and childhood memories that many people cannot or will not face.  Our parents were alcoholics and unprepared to do more than delegate the raising of siblings to these three strong women–while they were hardly more than babies themselves. The responsibility was apparently both the girls’ joy and tremendous burden.  In writing the memoir they had to face a lot of memories I’d rather forget, but they worked through them and wrote a story each of them can easily share with grandchildren.

As my mom had nine children, describing the birth of one of those children was a fitting start to the book.  “I liked that start too,” said Linda. “It showed a healthy memory of some of the trauma we lived through.”

In writing a memoir with multiple authors the big phrase, said Linda, is “gentle compromise.    You can’t just say, ‘well okay. You insist on this, so we’ll go with it.’ You need to be able to say, ‘okay, let’s put it that way.’ Of course, if there’s some memory that’s hard to believe, you need to either prove it or leave it out.”

One sister claimed to go to school right across from a nuclear missile site and the other two authors rolled their eyes over what surely must be an inaccurate memory.  Then Linda looked up the situation on Google, and sure enough, the silo was mentioned.  That story stayed in the memoir.

These three women are very special people in their own right.  I remember them being labeled (behind their backs) as “the big three.”  Detroit may have been referring to the car industry, but the rest of us knew where the real power rested in our family.  We were at once drawn to their charisma and power of being older and wiser, and scared to death of the retributions for infraction of rules they passed down from our parents.

For the memoir, they worked together and with a more gentle spirit towards the world they wrote about.  Again, their maturity shone. If I had written this book, I think a certain lack of discretion may have made my effort less kind.  But there you have it.  Their wisdom shines again.

Perhaps there are memories you can capture–with the help and hard work of family or friends.  I’m hoping the next set of three siblings in my family might take on the task of writing about life in the 1960s. Could be cool.

What will you write today?  Best to you in all of your creative efforts.  And thank you to three wonderful women for a great trip down memory lane.+

Giving Critique to Others

Today I will be interviewing author and book critic, Sandra Dallas, for a post on Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers blog. The interview will be published on Friday. Ms. Dallas has several books in print and impressive awards won. She used to be a bureau chief for Business Week. Her book reviews often appear in the Denver Post. The focus for our interview will be about writing book reviews. This also made me think about how I review work, and so I thought I’d share my process with you.

Critique notes on my latest chapter

Group polishing efforts by my critique friends

NOT READY FOR PRIME TIME

You may wonder why I don’t tend to write reviews for Goodreads or Amazon etc. To me, these public forums are where you can build a reputation for critiquing. Unfortunately, because I’d like to be honest when I review work, I wouldn’t give a lot of my friends the five stars they want and need.  I would reserve such high praise for books like To Kill a Mockingbird, or Jaws, or Gone With the Wind. I gave a friend three stars once, and I think I really hurt her feelings.  As my mom used to tell me, “If you can’t say something nice, then don’t say anything at all.” So, I don’t tend to review books publicly.

Privately, I can be more open with my writing friends. Here’s how it works:

WHY IS CRITIQUE IMPORTANT

When I started writing, seriously writing, I was in my twenties, and majoring in journalism or Mass Comm in college.  I wrote for each of the university newspapers where I attended and typed out assignments with a wonderful electric typewriter one of my family members gave me for a high school graduation present.  Those were the days!  But while everything I wrote was published (the papers were desperate to fill their columns), little editing was done, and no rewrites were required. Kind of like blog posting today.  This isn’t the way to improve writing.

When I joined Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers, more than ten years ago, I was certain that everyone would be impressed with my writing and encourage me to go straight to the publisher with the next Great American Novel . . . WRONG!

I think I cried (well, at least sniffled) on my first reviews, and several times since. But with the tears came greater and greater knowledge of how writing works. Lesson: don’t write in a vacuum. Feedback is so important if you want to get publishable work done.  My friends (and yes, I consider my critique group full of friends) taught me grammar, punctuation, story structure, character building and so much more, all through the gentle prodding and questions about my work. I would not be publishable without them.  Here are some other lessons about reviewing others’ work they taught me:

SAY SOMETHING NICE

Oh yes, there are terrible submissions out there, but there are no reasons or excuses for being rude to a writer.  So, when I review another’s work, I start by looking for something good to say. Even if you can only say that the page was well laid out, find the good.  It’s easier than you think (unless the dog just barfed on your carpet, you’ve had a fight with one of your loved ones, and dinner got burnt.  On those kind of days you may want to keep your karma home).

JUDGE THE WORK, NOT THE PERSON

This one is trickier. The way to avoid hurting the author more than you have to, is to avoid the words “you should.” Instead of saying “You need to work on your attributions,” I try to phrase the criticism more like, “Josie seems like a good character. What if when she talks, you were to put a period at the end of her words, and then write a sentence about what Josie is doing while she talks?” It may take a little longer, but the feelings saved are well worthwhile.

CHALLENGES

This is the word I write on the reviews I do. “Challenges” to me indicates that the author may have some opportunity to polish work without actually saying “there’s a problem.” A challenge is an invitation, a problem is a condemnation. At least this is so for me.

And I try to avoid writing out more than three or four challenges.  In football, when a better team crushes their opponent, it’s called “piling on” and the team that does that is not necessarily thought well of.  Same is true in writing.  You can find fault just about everywhere you want to find it, but are you doing anyone any good, by pointing out every flaw?

CLOSE ON A POSITIVE NOTE

Writers tend to have fragile souls. We pour out our emotions with bravery onto the page. Very therapeutic at times.  But when others see your work and comment on it, it’s like standing naked in front of a crowd. No need to embarrass a writer by only pointing out the flaws in their stories and emotions.  End on a note about them as a writer.  Things like, “I see a lot of talent in you,” or “your work shows great promise,” are seldom anything close to a lie, and helps your author walk away saving a little self-dignity.

What about you?  What’s your favorite tip on reviewing others’ works?

PS – ON VACATION

I’ll be taking a little break next week for a short summer vacation, and will return Wednesday, July 9th.  Thank you for hanging in with me all these Wednesdays, and I’ll talk with you again soon.