Hello readers and welcome to the final installment of the (revamped) 2019 Reading List! At this point I am continuing through science fiction territory, previously spending a few months on an anthology dive (of which I had mixed thoughts). I decided to finish up the year with a book my editor Libby recommended for drawing comparisons to my manuscript: Omar El-Akkad’s 2017 novel American War.
Right off the bat I can see why she urged me to read this; the setting and plot are remarkably similar to my own manuscript. We both envision a future lacerated with civil war (his a more protracted conflict over the “right” to keep burning fossil fuels, mine over what I feel will be an even more valuable asset, drinking water), but his lasts over twenty years and involves various forms of warfare. Suffice it to say that I found enough here different from my own work to find some issues with the prose, but the story was so good I was compelled to finish it. El-Akkad makes a major choice deciding to show an entire civil conflict through the eyes of one family. Granted this group plays a very pivotal role throughout the war, but I felt there were some downsides to this decision. What is great is getting to see the incredible character devastation of Sarat Chestnutt, which also makes us think about what would happen if this type of warfare did come home. Not to give too much away but there is not much for Sarat to live for by the end of the novel and El-Akkad does a great job showing her life to us so we know why she takes the actions she does by the end of the novel. I also thought El-Akkad shines the most when he takes what he surely must have witnessed all across the globe in his “real” job as a journalist and portrays it in new fictional ways. I thought the best examples were his portrayal of the geo-political situation as it will become through the climate shift, but also how the “Blue” (aka the North) is not above using the same torture techniques used at places like GTMO on its own citizens.
Alas, while this was a phenomenal read and kept my interest throughout, some of the larger choices El-Akkad made caused me to want so much more. There is a larger struggle playing out on the world stage that influences the domestic conflict that we only get through a representative of the Bouazizi empire (an amalgamation of Middle Eastern nations that band together) as well as “historical document” sections among the chapters, but I wish we could have gotten more about it. The real problem I had with the choice of following the Chestnutt family at the exclusion of almost everything else was this: in a book about civil war, there is surprisingly little actual warfare. Again this is a choice the author made, but I found that most of the battles are alluded to and while the major character does assassinate a general on the other side, we see very little of the fallout from that during the war (demarcation of time becomes more of an issue later). But I must stress that the plot of this book is so interesting that I would recommend it for anyone seeking a great, speculative read. And I have learned that there is much to be gained by reading “comp” titles as I now know my manuscript is much different than contemporary novels with similar themes (including another I was even less thrilled by earlier this year).
Up next I will be back with a post looking back on this year’s Reading List and what to expect going forward. I am also going to keep plowing ahead in the science fiction vein and read an author I am ashamed to say I have not read: Ursula Le Guin and her masterful 1969 novel The Left Hand of Darkness. And stay tuned for more updates in the Writing Life series and some other things. Hope you all had as wonderful a year as you could, and I’ll see you in the next decade.
Hello readers and welcome to the third in a series on this here blog I’ve been struggling with for years: shorter pieces focusing on the writing life and its challenges, daily affairs, and all it entails. That was initially what this blog was going to be all about, but it sort of got hijacked by the reading list and my “how to write a book” project. The first essay is here and the second is here if you missed them. And without further ado, here is the third installment in the Writing Life.
Listening to editors. This is another general piece of advice I have written about before but also struggled with, and I thought it was a great subject to talk about as writers are only as good as their editors. I have come to understand this through the Reading List since many of the books I had issues with could have used stronger editing. So how do we writers make ourselves listen to those voices who tell us things about our writing we may not want to hear? I reached out to one of my editors Anne Nerison of Inkstand Editorial (you may remember her excellent input from my “How to Write a Book” series) about this very situation. Here was some of her response:
“While you as the writer know your story inside and out, there is something to be said for coming at a story from an outside perspective. This fresh set of eyes can help catch issues that you may not be able to see, simply from being too close to it..”
I thought this hits the nail pretty much on the head, and helps point to what we need to think about as we work on our drafts. For however many versions of it you may go over, you’re still just seeing it with your own eyes, and your own imaginative voice. It’s not until those same words get pored over by a professional who does this for a living can they truly measure up and be ensured to flow. And I have to stress: if you find a good editor, hang onto them and listen to them! A good editor will be up front with you about whether or not to take their advice, how much to listen, and other details that form the basis of the relationship. This insight from Anne was also worth thinking about:
“An editor's loyalty is to the manuscript in front of them, which means we want it to be a strong piece of writing. Our advice, then, is to aid in that goal.”
It’s important not to think of your editor as being in an opposition role; rather, they are here to help guide your book or story into a better shape. There will be plenty of other voices out there looking to tear down your work. Stick with those who give you feedback that actually improves your writing. I know it can be difficult when we have such singular visions about our work. But the more you learn to form a collaborative relationship with your editor, the easier it becomes to see your writing from another perspective. Because that is a lot of what listening is: having the empathy to open up and see things from another’s viewpoint, a not-to-easy task in today’s oversaturated world of infotainment.
So listen to others, but especially your editor. If they are doing their job, yours should be made that much easier.
John Abraham is an author and freelance journalist located in the Twin Cities, where he lives with his wife Mary and their two cats. This blog is his attempt to catalog all the events that culminate a local writer's life.