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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Innocents Abroad by Mark Twain

Innocents Abroad by Mark Twain is an outstanding traveler’s tale which I reference in my Seattle writing classes, online writing classes and travel writing classes.

If you love to travel like I do, you’ve probably found the last six months a challenging time. After canceling my Travel Writing class in Spain and an assignment to ski in Austria, I have hunkered down at home to write, teach, shelter with my family and occasionally venture out to a local cafe. Such is the situation in the world today.

During this time, I’ve found great pleasure in reading travel books, something I’ve done in the past as research. Now it’s become a pleasure in its own right as well as preparation for when I can hit the road again.

I’ve been traveling vicariously with Mark Twain (The Innocents Abroad) Beryl Markham (West with the Night), V.S. Naipaul (Among the Believers), Charles Nichol (The Fruit Palace) and Bill Bryson (A Walk in the Woods). These are some of the titles I reference in my Seattle writing classes, online writing classes and especially in my travel writing classes. Here’s more on the books below.

The Innocents Abroad, or The New Pilgrims’ Progress is a travel book by Mark Twain published in 1869 which humorously chronicles what Twain called his “Great Pleasure Excursion” on board the chartered vessel Quaker City through Europe and the Holy Land with a group of American travelers in 1867. It was the best-selling of Twain’s works during his lifetime, as well as one of the best-selling travel books of all time.

West with the Night is a 1942 memoir by Beryl Markham, chronicling her experiences growing up in Kenya in the early 1900s, leading to careers as a racehorse trainer and bush pilot there. It is considered a classic of outdoor literature and was included in the U.S.A.’s Armed Services Editions shortly after its publication.

Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey is a book by the Nobel laureate V. S. Naipaul. Published in 1981, the book chronicles a six-month journey across Asian after the Iranian Revolution. V.S. Naipaul explores the culture and the explosive situation in countries where Islamic fundamentalism was taking root. His travels start with Iran, on to Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia, with a short stop in Pakistan and Iran. Like the best travel books is prescient, indicating what was about to unfold in the region.

The Fruit Palace is a classic travel story by Charles Nicholl, chronicling his quest for ‘The Great Cocaine Story’. The book is set in the eighties in Columbia and describes not only the cocaine trade, but the wonder of everyday life in the country. The Fruit Palace is a little whitewashed café that legally dispenses tropical fruit juices as well as a meeting place for black marketers. It’s here that the story begins.

A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail is a 1998 travel book by writer Bill Bryson, describing his attempt to walk the Appalachian Trail with his friend Stephen Katz, a less than competent outdoorsman whose foibles contribute mightily to this entertaining book. It’s a hilarious account of their adventures and misadventures, with Bryson’s trademark humor coming to the fore.

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Seabiscuit serves as an outstanding example of narrative in writing classes from The Writer’s Workshop.

In these tumultuous times, it seems hard to imagine how things can return to normal. How can we get through Covid, police brutality, protests, riots, high unemployment and general malaise? One of the best ways to find hope in dark times lies in reading about other challenging periods in our past. Some of the most remarkable achievements took place during similarly perilous moments.

Here are four outstanding books that illuminate how our country negotiated difficult circumstances and emerged stronger from them. In addition, these books serve as great examples of narrative writing, the subject of my writing classes at The Writer’s Workshop. These books provide useful perspective, dazzling form and wonderfully satisfying summer reading:

Seabiscuit by Laura Hillenbrand – The story of Seabiscuit, an American thoroughbred racehorse who became the top money-winning racehorse in the 1940s. High-strung, talented and rebellious, the horse languished until a washed up cowboy and horse whisperer, Tom Smith, became his trainer, won his trust and turned him into a champion, serving as a beacon of hope during the Great Depression.

The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson – This New York Times bestseller tells the story of the architect who planned the construction of the great Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 and the serial killer who used the fair as a lure. Erik Larson recounts the tale of the architect and the killer in a spellbinding narrative style, demonstrating how to use scene and characterization to bring a story to life

The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown – This nonfiction classic celebrates the 1936 U.S. men’s Olympic eight-oar rowing team—nine working class young men who surprised the elite rowing teams from the East Coast, Oxford and Cambridge, and finally the Nazis as they rowed for gold in front of Adolf Hitler. Set against in the Great Depression, these young men reminded the country of what can be done when everyone quite literally pulls together.

The Autobiography of Frederick Douglas by Frederick Douglass – This outstanding 1845 memoir and treatise on abolition was written by Douglass, a former slave and renowned orator about his time in Lynn, Massachusetts. It’s the most famous example of the slave narrative, a literary form used by many former slaves and which has served as a great inspiration for contemporary black writers such as my former professor and mentor, Charles Johnson. The book is a gripping read, with a strong narrative voice and style that fueled the abolitionist movement in the early 19th century in the U.S.

Not only do these books offer hope in tough times, they serve as great examples of narrative writing and useful models for your own work. If you’d like help in learning how to tell YOUR story, please consider signing up for one of my Seattle writing classes or online writing classes through The Writer’s Workshop. Let me know if I can help you tell your story!

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Molly Woolbright speaks about book promotion for The Writer’s Workshop Seattle writing classes.

Book Promotion During a Pandemic

 

Promoting a book is challenging enough in normal times. Doing this during a pandemic makes it even more problematic. Nevertheless, it can be done successfully, according to Molly Woolbright, the publicist at Sasquatch Books, who visited my spring Seattle writing class, The Nature of Narrative.

“I will broadly describe how a publicist at a traditional publisher approaches a book’s campaign and hopefully demystify the process,” she said.

Woolbright emphasized that the digital aspect of marketing has taken on new importance in a time of social distancing. In the past, book tours and talks made up a significant part of the marketing plan. With those options limited or nonexistent, other strategies need to be developed, including talks and meetings via Zoom and other web conferences.

She detailed a number of effective ways of getting the word out about your book. I’ll include the highlights of her talk to my Seattle writing class, The Nature of Narrative, below:

Overview of Book Publicity

An in-house publicist at a traditional publisher works on a variety of books at a time, striving to secure a mix of trade reviews and regional and national media for each. From the general public’s perspective, a book campaign is typically about 3 months long; from an author and publisher’s perspective, the work begins at least 6 months before a book is published.

Long-Lead Media

About 6-8 months out from publication

Advance reader copies (otherwise known as ARCs or galleys) sent to media outlets that work far in advance, including: Print magazines, Trade journals (Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, Booklist, etc.), Podcasts.

Short-Lead Media

About 1-2 months out from publication

Finished copies sent to media outlets that work on a shorter timeframe, including: Newspapers, radio, TV, blogs.

Local/Regional Media

Often overlooked in favor of bigger or more prestigious national media outlets, your local newspaper, magazines, blogs, radio, and TV stations are a great starting point to build buzz (while still striving for national hits). The Amazon algorithm is fed by any and all publicity, and local media is more likely to take notice.

Optimizing Your Author Platform for Media

Book promotion, regardless of genre, is often more about the author than the book—it’s about you and the expertise you can provide or discussions you can spark. Whether you’re working with an in-house publicist or you’ve hired a freelancer, one of the most helpful steps you can take to assist her efforts in securing media is to boost your online presence.

 

Website

From a publicity perspective, a website is the most useful asset you can have as an author. Whereas social media is ephemeral, a website offers a consistent representation of you and your work. Think of it like a toolbox where journalists/reviewers/editors can go to find more info.

For more on book promotion and writing technique, please consider signing up for my next Seattle writing class, online writing class or travel writing class through www.thewritersworkshop.net.