Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro.

Review of Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro for The Writer's Workshop.

Review of Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro for The Writer’s Workshop.

Review by Kate Jackson for The Writer’s Workshop

“Do you believe in the human heart?…….Do you think there is such a thing?  Something that makes each of us special and individual?”  These profound questions are posed to Klara, an AF (artificial friend) who was chosen to be Josie’s companion, by Josie’s father.  It is ironic that a human expects the product of technology to tell him what it means to be human.  The reader will discover why these questions are important and decide if or how these questions are answered.

As with other Ishiguro’s books, the reader enters on a gradual journey of discovery where complex relationships among the characters inhabiting his world are revealed.  Ishiguro effectively uses first person narration to build his story.  Klara, the narrator, always refers to humans in the third person and through keen observation, she learns more about humans than they may know about themselves.  She is a constant presence in Josie’s household but, almost like the butler in Remains of the Day, is not really a part of it.  She does form strong relationships with Josie and her childhood friend, Rick.  Klara also has an almost personal relationship with the Sun, the center of our solar system and center of her “life”.

As with some of Ishiguro’s other books, the main character has a mission to complete.  In Klara’s case, it is her quest to save Josie from the effects of her mysterious “illness.”  It is never clear what this is, but we know that it is somehow related to her being “lifted,” which we may conclude is a type of genetic engineering.  The father, the mother and a friend all provide differing perspectives on this topic but there is no resolution.  Is Ishiguro making a social commentary on entitlement or is he sounding a warning bell of what may be coming?

This thought-provoking novel is another demonstration of Ishiguro’s skill at captivating the reader’s imagination.  He is a master of detail and direct dialogue so that what may seem fanciful becomes real.  For example, as Klara watches a street scene where a man and a woman embrace and says, “and the Sun, noticing, was pouring his nourishment on them.”  We care about Klara as much as any human character in great literature. We ponder what it means to create an altered human or to fully embrace artificial intelligence.  In the end, Ishiguro leads the reader to an enigmatic ending, ripe for discussion about human nature, the power of love, and the limits of technology.

Oak Flat Book Review by Kate Jackson for The Writer’s Workshop.

Oak Flat:  A Fight for Sacred Land in the American West

By Lauren Redniss

Reviewed by Kate Jackson

This is a stunning visual nonfiction book written by an award-winning author with the eye of an artist and the voice of a journalist.   From the opening pages with their vivid illustrations interspersed with text to the final black pages with white print, the reader is introduced to a clash of cultural values of immediate relevance.

Oak Flat is part of the Tonto National Forest, about 65 miles east of Phoenix, Arizona.  It is a popular hiking, birding, and camping area 15 miles from the San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation and near the town of Superior.  The land also sits above a large copper deposit worth billions of dollars and coveted by Resolution Mining Company, LLC.  Apaches consider Oak Flat to be sacred ground where they gather medicinal plants and acorns and continue to pray and perform ceremonies passed down by generations.  The proposed mine would eventually create a large crater to replace the land and make the site unrecognizable.  Residents of the town see jobs and increased economic activity from the mining operation.

The book provides rich visual representations of Oak Flat while weaving a narrative based on interviews with members of an Apache family, the Nosies, and descendants of early settlers of Superior, the Gorhams.  Wendsler Nosie served on the San Carlos Tribal Council and was tribal chairman before forming the Apache Stronghold, an alliance of Apaches and others determined to stop the copper mine.  The Sunrise dance which reenacts the Apaches creation myth at Oak Flat, is seen through the eyes of his granddaughter, Naelyn Pike.  The Gorhams represent the perspective of workers in the mines and community members who have experienced the boom and bust of previous mining operations.

The fate of Oak Flat has not been resolved as the Forest Service recently rescinded the environmental impact assessment necessary for the mining project to proceed.   Pressures for increased copper production will continue to mount as the movement towards “clean” energy solutions to reduce carbon emissions are advanced.  Large amounts of copper are necessary for solar panels, wind turbines, electric vehicles, and battery storage.  Where do sacred spaces fit into the equation of costs and benefits?

The Writer’s Workshop Book Review regularly publishes reviews of fictional and nonfiction narratives from traditional publishing houses. If you would like to write a review or have your own book reviewed, please let me know. Email me at nick@thewritersworkshop.net.

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Beth Jusino spoke to The Writer’s Workshop about how to build and author platform.

Building an Author Marketing Plan That Attracts Readers, Sells Books, and Won’t Make You Miserable

It’s no one’s favorite part of publishing, but establishing some kind of public-facing presence (marketing) is essential for writers today. So let’s talk about how to do it well. In the course of my spring writing class, Beth Jusino shared what she’s learned, as both an author and a consultant, about specific, practical, and inexpensive ways writers can take advantage of their own strengths and interests to gather a community, even before their first book comes out. (Surprise: it doesn’t HAVE to be social media.) Author and publishing consultant Beth Jusino spoke to The Writer’s Workshop spring writing class about how to make this happen.

What do we really mean when we talk about author marketing?

Marketing is NOT a bad word. Marketing is a collection of things you do over time to build positive name recognition. No time is too soon to start. Marketing is a long-term process. There is no formula. It starts as soon as you think about publishing. What can I commit to doing regularly over time?

What do you hate doing?

You can take this off the list.

What do you love doing?

Focus on this.

What is an author platform?

Platform is long-term engagement with target audience that establishes name recognition and trust. How are you engaged in your community? Who is your audience? Who are the first 100 stranger who bill buy your book?

Do you know influencers who can bring their followers? Do you know published authors who can blurb your book? Media person, editors?

How will people find you?

Here are four common ways start building platform 1) publish short stories or articles. 2) Blogging. 3) Contests for writers? 4) Social media (know your audience and know where they are). Facebook is different from Twitter.

For more on building an author platform, please subscribe to my email newsletter or contact me about taking a writing class!

Queen's Gambit Book Review for The Writer's Workshop.

Queen’s Gambit Book Review for The Writer’s Workshop.

 

Reviewed by Kate Jackson

The Queen’s Gambit is an opening move in chess used by the player of the white pieces. The objective of the move is to temporarily sacrifice a pawn to gain control of the center of the board.  The book by Walter Tevis of the same name chronicles the journey of a young chess prodigy as she becomes the center of the fictional world of competitive chess in the 1960’s.  The title is emblematic of the personal sacrifice required by the intensity of competitive chess at the highest level.

Loneliness, genius, and obsession are at the core of this portrait of Beth Harmon who loses her mother at the age of eight and is taken to the Methuen Home for orphans.  There she discovers an affinity for the tranquilizers supplied daily by the school and a love for the game of chess.  She learns chess by watching and by playing against the school janitor, Mr. Shaibel, who recognizes her talent and introduces her to competitive chess. Her only friend and mentor at the home is Jolene, an older black girl who assumes a pivotal role later in Beth’s life.  Their dialogues provide a window into issues about race and privilege relevant then and now.

At the age of 13, Beth is adopted by a couple who soon separate. She is mothered by Mrs. Wheatley, a lonely woman with her own addiction, in this case, to alcohol.  At school, Beth is an outsider with little connection to her peers.  Her gift for playing chess offers another life as she begins to win at state and regional tournaments.  Her mother realizes the potential for money and travel offered by these competitions and revels in the celebrity status Beth achieves due both to her age and gender in a game dominated by males.

Beth’s story illuminates the utter discipline and commitment it takes to become a chess champion. She lives in virtual bubble dominated by studying, thinking about, and constantly playing chess. Devotees of chess will appreciate the discussion of classic moves and strategies taken from actual games.

If you watched the Netflix miniseries based on the book, you may wonder why you would want to read the book.  Yes, the story is basically the same with some significant changes in the film adaptation.  But the written version skillfully develops the inner voice of the main character and suggests that the gift of genius comes at a heavy price.

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Review of Apeirogon by Colum McCann in The Writer’s Workshop Book Review.

By Kate Jackson

 

Two fathers, two daughters, Israeli and Palestinian, woven together by two tragedies: this is the substance of Colum McCann’s latest novel.  Published in February 2020, the characters and events are based on actual people and events.  The word, apeirogon, means “a shape with a countably infinite number of sides.”

The novel begins with Rami, an Israeli man on a motorbike, entering Palestinian territory.  His yellow license plate signals his nationality to the border guards.  The reader is immediately brought into the divided world where Palestinians and Israelis live separated by walls, barbed wire, barricades and checkpoints.  Only the many species of birds, occasional characters in the book, have freedom of movement.

Soon we are introduced to Bassam.  He has a distinctive limp as a result of childhood polio.  He has a broken heart as a result of the untimely death of his ten-year-old daughter, Abir.  She was near her school when she was shot in the back of her head with a rubber bullet.

Midway into the novel, Rami and Bassam meet. They join a Parents Circle.  By then, we know their respective stories and the anguish both experienced when their children were taken from them.  Rami’s fourteen-year-old daughter, Smadar, died in an explosion set off by Palestinian suicide bombers near a café ten years before Abir died at the hands of an Israeli soldier.

Both fathers have ample reason for bitterness and enmity but over the course of the narrative, form a strong bond of friendship and support.  Together and separately, they travel outside their borders to tell their daughters’ stories and confront the futility of violence while demonstrating a way towards healing deep wounds.

As the title suggests, this is a multifaceted tale.  It explores the depth of human pain and loss that transcends nationality and time.  It reveals the results of policies set by the rulers over the ruled who have no political voice.  It is a story of ancient cultures so close in proximity and history and so far apart in attitude.  It is the story of two men who found voices to spread messages of peace and hope born out of tragedy.

The book is written with 1,001 sections, some only a sentence or two long and others with many paragraphs.  The narrative travels back and forth in time, place and character.  It seems repetitious at times.  But it is a powerful and unconventional story of and for our times.

The Writer’s Workshop Book Review is published by The Writer’s Workshop. Let us know what you think and if you’d like to contribute a review. We review books of narrative fiction and nonfiction. Please be in touch!

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The End of October reviewed by Nicholas O'Connell of The Writer's Workshop.

The End of October reviewed by Nicholas O’Connell of The Writer’s Workshop.

 

Video interview with Pulitzer Prize winner Lawrence Wright

Lawrence-Wright-Author-Photo-Credit-to-Kenny-Braun.j

Lawrence-Wright-Author-Photo-Credit-to-Kenny-Braun.

By Nicholas O’Connell

Talk about prescient. Lawrence Wright’s new novel, The End of October, appeared in April, 2020, right as COVID-19 exploded across the U.S. and world. A medical thriller, the novel tells the story of a fictional pandemic caused by a mysterious new virus, Kongoli, which spreads like wildfire, threating to bring the world to its knees. Written by the Pulitzer Prize-winner and best-selling author, Lawrence Wright, it tells the tale through the eyes of Dr. Henry Parsons, a microbiologist and epidemiologist, who travels to an internment camp in Indonesia where 47 people have died from acute hemorrhagic fever.

Like few others, Parsons understands the magnitude of the potential pandemic. Working on behalf of the World Health Organization, he wracks his brain to figure out how to combat the virus. By choosing a main character like Parsons, Wright is able to explain virology in all its complexity. Like his previous book, The Looming Tower, the novel displays amazingly skilled reporting, yielding surprising observations: “For Henry, the most surprising feature of viruses was that they were a guiding force behind evolution. If the infected organism survived, it sometimes retained a portion of the viral material in its own genome. The legacy of ancient infections might be found in as much as 8 percent of the human genome, including the genes that controlled memory formation, the immune system, and cognitive development. We wouldn’t be who we are without them.”

As readers follow Henry’s attempts to stop the virus, we learn fascinating lessons about viruses, including Kongoli, and COVID-19 the current scourge.

Despite Parson’s best efforts, he fails to prevent an infected Indonesian man, Bambang Idris, from joining the annual Muslim Hajj to Mecca. Wright describes the man’s journey in rich, colorful, and terrifying detail, as the Bambang unwittingly infects millions of others. The novel throws into relief the varieties of global cultures, from Muslim Saudi Arabia to contemporary United States, and how the virus infects all of them.

As the pandemic rages, Parsons seeks to return to his family in the United States. He hitches a ride on a nuclear submarine to head back to the U.S. Predictably, the pandemic erupts in the close quarters of the vessel. Using his wits and expertise, he discovers an important breakthrough about the virus.

By the time he returns home, American civilization is collapsing. The novel paints a credibly dystopian picture of the destruction such a virus might cause. Though characters like the Parsons’ wife Jill are insufficiently sketched and some of the dialogue is stilted, overall, the novel is a riveting page turner that warns what our future might look like if we don’t get COVID-19 under control.

Nicholas O’Connell is the founder of The Writer’s Workshop, a creative writing program that teaches writing classes.

Author Lawrence Wright interviewed by Nicholas O’Connell of The Writer’s Workshop about his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Looming Tower, (2006) about the events leading up to 9/11, the novel, The End of October, (2020) about a fictional plague, and recently, “The Pandemic Year,” a nonfiction piece in The New Yorker about COVID-19 which he’s turning into a book of the same name.

J.K. Rowling uses dramatic scene in her Harry Potter books, a technique we teach in writing classes at The Writer's Workshop.

J.K. Rowling uses dramatic scene in her Harry Potter books, a technique we teach in writing classes at The Writer’s Workshop.

SUMMARY SCENE OPENINGS – WRITING PROCEDURE

COPYRIGHT THE WRITER’S WORKSHOP

Scenic writing is the basis for some of the most moving, satisfying, sophisticated works of literature, something I teach in all my writing classes. It is especially effective in bringing readers into the story because it helps them create a world, a world that you the writer have inhabited and can share with the reader through words. Scenes present a visual, sensual world the reader can inhabit, a kind of imaginary garden with real toads, whether that’s the world of the astronaut program of Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, the vast landscapes of the Southwest in the work of Terry Tempest Williams, or the hard-bitten, humorous Irish Catholic childhood of memoirist Frank McCourt.

 

1) SETTING THE SCENE

  1. a) OPENING SENTENCE: Find a sentence that creates suspense and foreshadows what will happen. This makes clear to the reader that information in summary lead is important and needs to be read.
  2. b) SETTING DETAILS: Provide details that suggest what will happen in scene. These should be chosen for their inherent interest, color and humor and also for what they illustrate about main point of story. The best scenic details do double duty, both painting a picture and creating suspense.
  3. c) NUT GRAPH: After sketching in the scene and introducing the people, the writer makes a transition to the action. This transition is crucial, often spelling out the main point or alerting the reader that something important will happen in the scene.

This transition usually leads to a nut graph, a paragraph that suggests or explains the larger point or goal of the scene and furnishes its larger context. It’s called a nut graph because it puts all of these things together in a nutshell. Who? What? When? Where? And most importantly, why? As in, why should the reader care? What will the scene accomplish?

 

2) DESCRIBE ACTION

  1. a) BEGINNING – Show how it gets started. Describe the important events that precede the scene.
  2. b) MIDDLE – Describe how it builds, highlight the conflict.
  3. c) END – Describe how it gets resolved; answer all the necessary questions. Don’t leave the reader guessing. The writer Anton Chekhov said that if a gun appears in the first act of a play it must be discharged by the end of the play.

3) CONCLUSION

  1. a) UNPACK THE SCENE – Explain what happened in the scene and why it’s significant. What point does it illustrate? Too much symbolism and obscurity will result in confusing and frustrating the reader. how to compose dramatic scenes.
  2. I teach writers how to compose dramatic scenes in all my writing classes for The Writer’s Workshop, including Seattle writing classes, online classes and travel writing classes. Take a look at my website for more: www.thewritersworkshop.net!

THE PERFECT PITCH: STORY IDEAS  IN WRITING CLASSES

 

Narrative writers organize their books and shorter pieces in terms of a story or chronology, probably the oldest and most compelling way of relating information. In Aspects of the Novel, E.M. Forster speculates that the earliest storytelling took place around a campfire after tired bands of Neanderthal hunters had killed a woolly mammoth. Natural selection favored hunters who told a well-crafted, suspenseful story; those who rambled endlessly or droned on about their personal exploits were hit over the head with a club.

Good story ideas for narrative writing meet the following criteria:

E.M. Forster

E.M. Forster, story ideas for writing classes.

1) BASED ON SCENE – Organized around one or more scenes. Unlike a feature story, these pieces should be composed almost entirely of scenes. There can be passages of narrative summary that provide background information, but these should be incorporated into or around the scene.

2) EMPHASIZE CHARACTER – Elucidation of character lies at heart of these stories. They can convey information, but this should be done through the personalities central to the story.

3) ENCOURAGE CURIOSITY – Writers should appeal to readers’ curiosity, pulling them along with suspenseful storytelling, not letting them go until the end.

4) CONFLICT AND RESOLUTION FORMAT – The story has to be organized around a conflict, whether an external one like climbing a mountain, or an internal one of overcoming stuttering. Most of the best stories have a conflict that embraces both the internal and the external. Example: John has to overcome his fear to climb the mountain. Melissa meets a supportive speech therapist who helps her speak normally.

5) TIMELY – Any trend or event that’s coming up can serve as a timely tie to the story. A timely angle puts your story idea to the top of the editor’s pile.

6) PERSONALLY INTERESTING – Writers usually do their best work on subjects that matter to them. Try to find topics that you are passionate about, as Gerard emphasizes in Creative Nonfiction.

7) PUBLISHABLE – Not every idea that appeals to the writer will gain favor with editors, however. Find ideas that interest you and the editor.

For more on story ideas, please consider signing up for my writing classes.

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Flannery O'Connor and The Habit of Art in Seattle writing classes.

Flannery O’Connor and The Writing Life in Seattle writing classes.

In her essay collection, Mystery and Manners, Flannery O’Connor talks about writing as a habit of art. I discuss this approach in The Writer’s Workshop talk on The Writing Life, on Wednesday, Oct. 2 at 7 p.m. in room 221 at the Good Shepherd Center in Seattle’s Wallingford neighborhood. This approach emphasizes that writing is a craft and a daily discipline as well as an art. It relies as much on regular practice as inspiration. While inspiration plays a large part in any literary breakthrough, the habit of art gives concrete expression to inspiration, making the story or book possible. Here are some of thoughts on how to develop your own habit of art.

WRITING AS A PROCESS – Thinking of writing as a process allows you to complete a story in a series of steps, avoiding the paralysis of perfectionism. Instead, write a draft (a “shitty first draft” in Anne Lamott’s memorable phrase), organize and polish it. By breaking things down into a series of steps you increase the odds of creating something special.

SET A SCHEDULE – Set up a time to write, ideally five days a week for an hour or so a day. If possible, write for more than that. It takes practice to hone and perfect your craft. This comes by repetition. I usually write about three hours a day, five days a week, sometimes more, sometimes a little less. I schedule the time and try to stick to it.

SHORT ASSIGNMENTS – As the Chinese say, the thousand mile journey begins with the first step. Give yourself short assignments every day – a page, a lead, a character sketch. Then perhaps complete a story or novel chapter every week or so. Making steady progress increases your confidence and the fluency of your writing.

I’ll be offering a free class, The Writing Life, on Wednesday, Sept. 16 at 6 p.m. via Zoom video conference. You’ll have a chance to learn how to get started with your story and hear about our writing classes. Please RSVP.

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