As a newspaper editor, Craig Lancaster has had plenty of close-up views of the grittier side of life, and those views show through in Quantum Physics and the Art of Departure, his new book of short stories. He addresses themes like death, homelessness, domestic violence, divorce, self-mutilation, cheating spouses, crime, suicide, and demotion at work, and he pulls no punches. The stories aren’t all depressing, although some of them definitely are, but they are all thought-provoking.
The theme of the book is followed only loosely. This isn’t one of today’s short story collections where each story shares setting and/or characters with all of the others. This led to some publishing challenges for Lancaster, as publishers really want the tightly-tied “novel in short stories” format.
It’s hard to say much about the stories themselves without giving away the endings. For some authors, spoilers would ruin the book entirely. For Lancaster, it would detract from the ending’s effect, but I would read the stories even if I knew the endings, because his writing is good enough to hold my interest. He builds characters with depth, complex characters that make you want to find out what happens after the end of the story.
The first story in the book, Somebody Has to Lose, was a great choice for an opener. Paul Wainwright, the coach of a high-school girls’ basketball team, has an incoming freshman named Mendy who just might be able to break the team’s ten-year championship drought. Shades of Blind Your Ponies? No, Lancaster takes his story in a whole different direction, as Coach Wainwright has to deal with hard choices about what’s best for the girls on his team (as opposed to what the town wants him to do), and what’s best for his family. This is the longest story in the book, and it showcases Lancaster’s skill as a writer. He drew me in to the plot and the characters. When I finished the story, I just had to keep going and read the next one. As I said, excellent choice for an opener.
Some of the stories were downright depressing (e.g., She’s Gone and Sad Tomato: A Love Story). Some were uplifting (Comfort and Joy ends the book perfectly). Some just made me sit back and say, “wow” (Star of the North). It would be fun to see some of these stories stretched into novels (Alyssa Alights, for example). And if there are any disgruntled old-school journalists reading this, step away from your computer, grab a copy of the book, and read The Paper Weight. Oh, my goodness!
The book is set mostly in Montana, although most of the stories could easily be transplanted elsewhere. There is little in Quantum Physics and the Art of Departure that readers in other locales wouldn’t get.
I read this book while on vacation, and I had some trepidation about it. It seemed a rather heavy read for vacation time. Luckily, that wasn’t the case. While it is a literary work that deals with serious themes, there isn’t an ounce of pretentiousness between the covers. It’s absorbing, attention-grabbing, and well-written. Comfort and Joy is downright amazing. I enjoyed the book, and I think others will enjoy it, too.
We don’t have the schedule set up yet, but Lancaster will be coming to Red Lodge Books for a signing and a talk, most likely after the Christmas holidays. Quantum Physics and the Art of Departure officially releases on December 6, but you can order it on the Red Lodge Books website right now.
NOTE: This review is based on an advance copy, and there may be changes before its scheduled release on December 6, 2011.
I’ve finally finished reading the book that I won at the SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators) conference in Los Angeles a couple of months ago. Well, technically I didn’t win the book; I won a gift certificate to the SCBWI store for having one of the funniest tweets at the conference, but that’s another story.
After looking through the rich selection, I settled on Writing with Pictures: How to Write and Illustrate Children’s Books, by Uri Shulevitz. As my editors and illustrators will tell you, I’m not much of an illustrator, although I learned to draw veiltail guppies pretty well back when I was breeding them for pocket money in high school. They’re my “go-to” critter when little kids want a picture. But I digress.
Since the first word in the title is “writing” and the subtitle begins with “how to write,” I figured the book would be slanted toward authors rather than illustrators. As I stood there holding the book, an announcement came over the PA saying that the next session was preparing to start and the store was closing. I was running out of time to pick a book, so I grabbed this one.
First impressions after a quick scan of the book:
- Mr. Shulevitz is a talented and versatile illustrator.
- I should have looked more closely at the title and realized that “writing with pictures” can be interpreted to mean “writing with pictures instead of words.”
- The book was published in 1985, but the majority of the illustration is in a style that would have been more fitting quite a few decades earlier than that.
- Most of the book is black and white, and the color section is hopelessly outdated in a world of InDesign and Quark.
I waffled back and forth on whether to actually read the book and decided to go for it. It’s good to branch out. Although I figured it wouldn’t do much for my writing skills, I’ve worked with a lot of illustrators over the years and the book might help me to understand them better. All in all, I think that was a good decision.
Writing with Pictures spends very little time addressing the writer’s craft. It doesn’t tell you how to fit your words to your target age group, how to structure a story, how to write dialog for kids, or any of the other things that make us good children’s writers. It does, however, talk a lot about layout.
As I’ve mentioned here before, I don’t work like many children’s authors do. When I write books like my Who Pooped in the Park? series, I visualize pages and plan the text to fit them. Mr. Shulevitz’ book addresses page layout well. He talks about it from an artistic point of view, but also looks at how the layout of the pages affects the flow of the story. Part Two (“Planning the Book”) is an excellent guide to the structure of an illustrated children’s book, and I think any children’s author would benefit from reading it. I had to slog through many parts of the book, but that one definitely held my attention.
My first impression was right as far as parts of the book being out-of-date. The final section had a good basic description of the printing process, but then went into great detail on color separations. Artists and designers today don’t have to think “30% yellow”; just pick a color from the palette, tweak until you’re happy with it, and use it. As long as you’re designing in the correct color space (make sure it’s CMYK, not RGB!), the software will take care of everything automatically.
Please don’t take this to mean that I think Uri Shulevitz is out of date. Heavens, no! He’s still winning Caldecott awards, and that puts him way ahead of me. But the techniques for manual illustration, layout, color separations, and so forth have changed. Younger illustrators who grew up in the digital age don’t work the same way.
I won’t even try to judge the usefulness of this book to an illustrator. That’s outside my field. If you write children’s books, however, I’d recommend reading it — even if all you read is Part Two.
I’m a little behind the times here. The 13th book of Robert Jordan’s epic (yes, “epic”) Wheel of Time saga is hitting paperback next week, and I’m just getting around to reading the first book. I liked it. It’s a good book. I had issues with a few of the names. A legendary king named “Artur Paendrag Tanreall”? Really? If that’s not enough of a nod to the Arthur Pendragon legend, there’s a prince named Galdedrid and a queen named Morgase, too. And the main protagonist in Eye of the World is named Rand al’Thor. Yep. Thor. God of Thunder. I’ll mention why that’s interesting, but only after saying…
SPOILER ALERT * SPOILER ALERT * SPOILER ALERT
Jordan’s world has no ogres and trolls, but he does have ogiers and trollocs. But what struck me most about the book were the innumerable parallels to the Lord of the Rings. Let me lay out the plotline here for you:
As our story begins, we meet a few country bumpkins (Rand, Mat, and Perrin / Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin) from a small town so far from the main action that current events are basically rumor and legend to them. The main point-of-view character (Rand / Frodo) received an important gift (heron sword / ring of power) from a father figure (Tam / Bilbo). During preparations for a party (Bel Tine / Bilbo’s birthday), an entertainer (Thom / Gandalf) who will figure largely in the plot later provides some entertainment (juggling / fireworks) before larger events in the world set the country boys off on their journey.
The plot is made up of a group of nine travelers who spend much of the story separated: the country boys, a powerful magician (Moiraine / Gandalf), a swordsman (Warder / Ranger) with amazing tracking skills (Lan / Aragorn), and a few others to round out the number (Nynaeve, Egwene, Thom, and Loial / Gimli, Boromir, and Legolas). They have many mishaps on their journey. At one point, their way aboveground is blocked and they’re forced to go through a dark, dangerous underground place (The Ways / The Mines of Moria) that was once beautiful and light. They meet a very dangerous foe (the Black Wind / the balrog) from whom they must flee. They destroy one of the entrances so that no-one else may use it. There is a body of water with a huge tentacled monster in it near the destroyed entrance.
Throughout the saga, our friends are followed by minions of the Dark One (trollocs / orcs) — a race created by corrupting humans. There may be evil men, but there are no good trollocs / orcs. Those minions are led by significantly more powerful creatures, shadowed in darkness (Myrddraal / Nazgul). They are also shadowed by a pitiful creature in rags (Padan Fain / Gollum) who follows them all the way through the dark place (The Ways / Moria), and is eventually captured, where he provides useful information. The forces of darkness are aided in their tracking by artifacts (the ruby-hilted dagger / the One Ring) the party is carrying, and by ravens acting as spies. When a great evil monster (Myrddraal / balrog) threatens the protagonist, another member of the party (Gandalf / Thom) tells the others to run while he takes sacrifices himself to kill the monster. It is later revealed that he didn’t actually die.
At one point in the mission, part of the group encounters an old creature (Loial / Treebeard) from an ancient race (ogier / ent) that tends — and talks to — trees and takes a very long time to make decisions. Part of the group also encounters a human (Elyas / Beorn) with an affinity for a particular wild animal (wolves / bears) who helps them out [yeah, I’m cheating here, since Beorn is from The Hobbit, not Lord of the Rings]. The country boys receive quite a surprise partway through when they find out that the swordsman (Lan / Aragorn) is actually a king.
The forces of evil (trollocs led by Myrrddraal / orcs led by Nazgul) are massing for an attack against a city (Fal Dara / Gondor) that has stood secure against them for centuries. The Dark One (Shai’tan the Dark One / Sauron the Dark Lord) has overwhelming numbers, and is getting into the dreams of the country boy (Rand / Frodo). The Dark One, incidentally, has been defeated before and is returning to wreak his vengeance and take over everything, but this time he appears far more powerful. His flying creatures (Draghkar / mounted Nazgul) threaten our heroes.
After passing through terrain ruined by the power of the Dark One (the Blight / the Dead Marshes), the protagonist (Rand / Frodo) destroys an immensely powerful artifact (the Eye of the World / the One Ring). He goes into the lair of the main antagonist (Shai’tan / Sauron) to destroy him. This, by the way, is where I got the biggest chuckle from the protagonist’s name, for Rand al’THOR wades into battle using his newfound powers of lightning and thunder to rend the ground asunder and destroy the armies of darkness.
Obviously, The Eye of the World is not just a Lord of the Rings takeoff, but the parallels were just too stark to ignore.
Where do you start a review of a book about feedback for people who write books? My initial temptation was to start by pointing out page 67, where the author refers to someone who was not “phased” by criticism (that should read “fazed”), but the book has moved beyond that phase of its development. Writers crave feedback from the very first words they string together in the creation of a book. Is my first chapter riveting? Does the first page set the reader’s expectations appropriately? Does the first paragraph grab the reader’s attention?
Once the book is out, however, the focus changes. A book review isn’t for the author, no matter how much we love reading the good ones. Book reviews are for potential readers and for booksellers. A book review answers the question, “should I read this book.”
In that spirit, let me back up and look at Toxic Feedback: Helping Writers Survive and Thrive, by Joni B. Cole. It is, first and foremost, a book for writers. In fact, it strikes deep into the heart of the writer. As I said above, we all crave feedback. We all need feedback. But most of us dread feedback.
I am writing this from my hotel room at the SCBWI annual conference. Just before the big social event Saturday night, I was chatting with a young writer and asked her how the conference was going for her. “Just got my ass handed to me on a platter at a one-on-one manuscript review session,” she replied. She held her hands out in front of her, as if holding a plate. “Here you go. Here’s your ass.” This kind of feedback can be a crushing blow to a new author. Heck, it can be a crushing blow to an award-winning, best-selling, top-of-his-game writer. And this is what Joni is talking about in Toxic Feedback.
Of necessity, the book is somewhat schizophrenic. It simultaneously addresses the writer receiving the feedback and the person (often another writer) who is giving it. Joni doesn’t take a kittens and rainbows approach. She doesn’t say that you should tell someone how wonderful their manuscript is while ignoring the gaping plot holes, dimensionless characters, and atrocious grammar. She does, however, guide feedback providers through the process of matching feedback to the developmental stage of the manuscript.
If your writer buddy has just completed a marathon session at the keyboard, leaving keys smoking (and slightly damp from sweat) creating a brand-new chapter for her book, this is not the time to point out that she has a subject-verb agreement problem on page 24. She’ll figure that out in a future session. Now is the time to say, “Wow! You wrote 3,000 words in three hours? Once you clean up the description of downtown London (that’s the Tower Bridge, dear, not the London Bridge), this is going to be fantastic.” Later, when the final draft is complete and you’re giving it a last perusal before she submits it for publication, that’s when you should point out the missing comma on page 12 and the misspelled word on page 39.
We must have negative feedback. In his keynote speech at the SCBWI conference, Gary Paulsen referred to the endless cycle of Hollywood movie production fakery: You’re wonderful. Oh, no, YOU are wonderful! I’ll never be as wonderful as you. This does nothing to advance our craft. But “you suck” doesn’t help, either. Feedback can be negative without crossing over into the category Joni calls toxic. There’s a massive difference between, “If you developed Sue’s character as much as you developed Uncle Dave’s, it would help to understand why she ran away” and “Your character development for Sue is horrible.”
We need positive feedback, too. If you point out only what stinks about a manuscript without telling the author what’s great, he may despair and toss it away. No matter what you’re critiquing, the creator needs to know what’s working; what to do more of. Joni spends a lot of time in the book talking about how to receive feedback, how to process feedback, how to squeeze the most value out of it. She also spends a lot of time talking about how to give feedback. It makes me want to hand copies of her book to anyone who is going to review one of my own manuscripts.
And we need specific feedback. It struck home for me when Joni talked about knowing why something does or doesn’t work. If you don’t know exactly what you did right, it’s hard to do it again. And if you don’t know precisely how you screwed up an article, you’re likely to screw up the next one. Specificity is very important in feedback, as is recognizing whether feedback is reflective of a problem in the manuscript or simply a personal bias in the person providing the feedback.
I’m not a big “writer’s circle” kind of guy — if I spent all my time in writing groups I wouldn’t have any time to write — so the end of the book dragged for me. It is also a very woman-oriented book. Guys don’t obsess about what kind of muffins to take to a writer’s group. But the message she put forth at the beginning of Toxic Feedback was clear, and was reinforced throughout the book. I’ve been writing for a long time, and I definitely learned something from Joni.
Whether you are soliciting feedback on your own work, or reviewing a manuscript for someone else, Joni’s book will help to pull everything into perspective. For writers, it will help you to recognize useless, toxic feedback and not let it faze you.
Postscript: Why did I call this a “feedback loop” in the title? Because I wrote a post on this blog back in May about some feedback I received on a Who Pooped in the Park? book. Shortly after that, I noticed I had a new follower on Twitter, and read an interview with Joni on her “My Literary Quest” blog and added a comment on the blog post. Joni Cole saw my comment and sent me an email. We ended up chatting, and she sent me a copy of her book, which I’m now reviewing. Authors do have to be careful to remember our audiences and not just spend all of our time writing for (and to) each other. But interaction with other authors is one of the things that keeps us going.
Why am I writing a review of a book that came out over eight years ago? Because it went out of print — which made me unhappy because it is one of my favorite pieces of nature writing — and it’s coming back now. I spoke to Gary Ferguson this morning, and he said it looks like Hawks Rest: A Season in the Remote Heart of Yellowstone will be coming back out this fall. When I have details, I’ll share them here.
Luckily, I am a cyber-packrat as well as being one in real life, so I still have a copy of the book review I wrote for the Carbon County News shortly before the book came out. So here, direct from April of 2003, is my review of Hawks Rest:
The wait is over for Gary Ferguson fans. His latest book, Hawks Rest: A Season in the Remote Heart of Yellowstone, is here, with another dose of the evocative nature writing we’ve come to expect of him.
Last June, Ferguson strode through the front door of his Red Lodge home and took the first step of his 140-mile hike to the most remote spot in the lower 48 states. This book describes both the trek to Hawks Rest, which is just south of the Yellowstone Park boundary, and his stay in the remote wilderness. How far can you get from a road in the continental United States? A paltry 28 miles — an easy day’s ride on horseback or a long day’s hike.
The trip was ostensibly about a lot of things. Writing Hawks Rest for National Geographic. Fixing up a Forest Service cabin. Counting various species of wildlife. Fixing fences. The book, however, reveals as much about its author as it does about the wilderness he visited. Clearly, the trip was also about a catharsis for Ferguson, perhaps a return to his days as a Forest Service ranger. This would be an opportunity for him to step away from the craziness of the human world and retreat to the seclusion and renewal of Mother Nature.
Seclusion, however, is one thing he found little of. Between rangers, trail crews, hikers, riders, outfitters, hunters, a camp for troubled juveniles, and backwoodsmen of all shapes and sizes, he encountered over 600 visitors in his months in the backcountry. Nature, he found in abundance, and he describes it with typical Fergusonian flair. His prose ranges from flowery descriptions of the grandeur of the area surrounding the Hawks Rest area to more factual recitations of the goings-on, but never settles into a dreary “this morning I arose at 6:48 and had a bowl of granola” journal format.
The combination of his wonderfully descriptive writing style and an encyclopedic knowledge of flora, fauna and the geological features of the area draw vivid mental images of the greater Yellowstone ecosystem. One piece of advice consistently given to novice writers by grizzled veterans is to write what you know. There’s no question that’s what Ferguson is doing. He knows and loves his subject matter, and it shines through in the writing. Having achieved grizzled veteran status himself with over a dozen books under his belt and his work appearing in over 100 magazines, he continues to educate, enlighten and enchant readers with his tales of the relationship between man and nature.
If you know Gary Ferguson, you won’t be surprised to hear that he pulls no punches when describing the things that offend and annoy him. His writing has matured as he has matured, and his feelings are expressed more clearly than in his earlier works like The Yellowstone Wolves. The groups most targeted by his blunt criticism are those using political clout to exploit wilderness areas for their own financial gain. Take this excerpt as an example:
“…I’m constantly amazed at the degree to which outfitters are wrapped in a victim mentality. Emerging from this profession, at least in the Thorofare, is a mean-spirited paranoia, a constant griping about wolves and city people and anti-hunting groups destroying a way of life; in short, it’s one of the most self-indulgent whinefests ever to unfurl in the land of the Great Divide.”
A far greater part of the book, though, is dedicated to the plants and animals of the Yellowstone ecosystem; especially the elk which dominate the area and the wolves that obviously hold a special place in Ferguson’s heart. He speaks of his critter encounters with fondness, and evokes both fascination and chuckles. I still can’t get the image out of my mind of his surprise meeting with a large grizzly bear where, in his words, Ferguson was “watching him with my pack turned slightly so that should he suddenly look up, my skinny ass will look bigger than it really is.”
Unlike most of his previous books, Hawks Rest is going straight to paperback instead of going through an initial hardback release. The publisher, National Geographic, is sending him on a publicity tour to promote the book, and he’s starting here in his hometown of Red Lodge.