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The Afficionado's BookShelf of Keepers

May 2000


Jacqueline Lichtenberg

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The review below will be of particular interest to writing students in the WorldCrafters Guild. 

See Renee Austin's comments on this review. 

REVIEW for http://www.simegen.com/reviews/romance/   by Jacqueline Lichtenberg

If Only by Renee Austin Awe-Struck E-books Ennoble Line A Contemporary Romance Revised ARC (so I don't have an ISBN) it doesn't say when they plan to publish

The Advance copy I read needed massive copyediting. But anyhow it was a can't-put-it-down read that I inhaled at one sitting.

This may shape up to be a real keeper of a novel by the time you can buy it from Awe-Struck. And I think we've found an author here well worth following -- in fact, an author worth STUDYING to learn this craft.

In this preliminary version though, there were confusions of character-identity, scenes repeated in two versions, paragraphs in the middle of sentences, and discontinuities of text. There's also a major story-logic flaw that lends one of the main characters an inconsistency. And there's a stray "action" scene that has been inserted way off the story-logic arc. There are issues opened and not resolved.

As a writer and teacher of writing for the WorldCrafters Guild ( http://www.simegen.com/school/  ) I recognize the condition of this manuscript.

I do not know the author personally, nor have I discussed this novel with the editor.

I will make some guesses here based solely on reading this manuscript. It is probably a first or near-first sale. It was probably workshopped through several commentators in a critique circle who made various suggestions the author tried valliantly to follow. The author herself has probably revised this manuscript so often and in so many different orders, that she herself no longer remembers what version she's working on. (I've been there; done that.)

It probably has been revised to the purchasing editor's requirements on top of that. The revision scars are massive -- but not irremediable, and actually all of them are trivial things to fix for someone well versed in the craft of writing.

Now, consider, with all this roughness showing, the novel was STILL a gripping, memorable -- dream-about-it-all-night-afterwards -- book. (a very short book -- too short -- I wanted more!) That says something about the quality this writer will develop when she's added more skills to her toolbox -- especially rewrite skills.

The scars I particulary remember:

Confusion of Characters: the female lead character is in a wheel chair, her legs unable to hold her standing, nevermind walking. In a number of places she walks. Her sister has no debility, but has a similar name. The plot has one sister pretending to be the other. It's all very well done, except in several places it seems that during rewrite, the one sister was confused with the other. It is possible that the wheel-chair was added at the suggestion of some critique circle, and the author had not assimilated this idea.

I don't know that to be true, but this is the sort of rewrite scar that occurs during that kind of revising.

Scenes Repeated in Two Versions: first the main character goes to buy dogfood by herself -- 50 lbs for 3 tiny dogs. Less than a day later, she goes with the male-lead character and buys another 50 lbs of dog food for the same 3 tiny dogs. This kind of rewrite scar happens when the author doesn't know how to implement revision-suggestions for switching the sequences of scenes. (it's just a technical craft tool, one more simple thing to learn)

Story Logic Flaw creating an inconsistency of character: The male lead character is an Air Force Captain who has been in an internet-romance with the female lead character. She has sent him a photo of her sister because she's ashamed of being scarred and in a wheelchair. He arrives at her house without notice, she panics, and has her sister impersonate her so she's not caught in the lie.

The Captain twigs to this switch almost immediately -- within hours. During the sections from his point of view we learn that he's figured it out, that he's really put off by the deceptivity, and that he's still deeply in love with this woman and doesn't care she's in a wheelchair. She's beautiful to him.

At the end of the book where the deception comes out, he blows his stack as if he's just discovered the deception, and flies off down the road, steaming -- saying he's gone from here! There's no foundation or preparation for this reaction -- nor for his attitude when he calms down afteward.

This is the kind of rewrite scar that happens when commentators suggest re-arranging the sequence of story events to build suspense -- and the author doesn't understand the craft-tools of suspense-building well enough to understand why and how the re-arranging of the scenes would create an improvement.

Stray Action Scene: This scene is thematically and logically disconnected from the plot, raises questions that are not later resolved, and basically just intrudes on the smooth, enjoyable read. It seems as if someone suggested to the author a way to fix a major problem with the worldbuilding behind this novel.

Yes, "worldbuilding" as practiced in the sf/f field is absolutely necessary in the contemporary novel which is set either in a faraway land or in a millieu different from that of the reader's everyday life. In this case we are in a typical mid-west small town, but we're inside the lives of two internet users. The female lead character says she's a programmer but doesn't THINK like a programmer, doesn't reason and problem solve in the style of a programmer, so I don't believe that claim. She is also presented as a web-page designer who makes good money at that -- and I could believe that claim.

The Air Force Captain does have the thinking style and problem-solving style of a "jock" -- so I could believe him, too.

The Worldbuilding problem that I suspect existed in the first draft of this "fantasy" -- and though it is set in contemporary USA, it is still a wish-fulfillment-fantasy -- was that the world as we know it is peppered with stories about internet-acquaintances who lure people into relationships and then use that to rob, cheat, steal, or even rape the victim.

In order to prevent her main characters from seeming too stupid to be believable, the author had to account for their knowledge of the prevalence of these victimizers. It seems to me that various methods were suggested by different commentators, and all their solutions were employed simultaneously -- which introduces this type of easily fixed flaw.

A news item about an internet Stalker working in this town's area surfaces early in the novel, giving the female lead character cause to question the "true identity" of this Captain. She asks herself the serious questions any normal adult would ask -- the problem is that she is presented as a computer programmer (or at least web-designer) and she does not use that problem-solving methodology to seek and prove an ANSWER to those questions -- she does absolutely nothing to resolve the quandry except look into his wallet and learn nothing of value. (she sees photos of children, but never determines if they are his children -- though he later says he has a heart for refugee children, he doesn't explain the wallet photos.)

A stalker in commando garb lurks around her house, then later attacks her. No explanation. Later, real Air Force MP's arrive to arrest the male lead not for being the stalker, but for a breach of National Security (their procedures are not correct; their evidence is not correct-- this is worldbuilding that needs work) -- and the MP's give up and go away when they are laughed off but given no evidence. We never find out if one of them was the commando-lurker, but somehow I don't think so because the MP's would not have physically attacked anyone and the lurker did. Also there's a stray line of dialog that doesn't make sense if the lurker was an MP.

This MP invasion is the action scene that intrudes. The entire thread of "is this Air Force Captain actually the internet stalker?" throughout the novel is thematically extraneous. And at the end, the female lead still has no reason to suppose he in fact is not that stalker. There's no evidence except the sections of the novel told from his point of view.

This stalker issue does not belong thematically in this novel. The novel is about finding true love by getting to know the "real person" without reference to their physical appearance.

Thematically, the web page designer profession is PERFECT for discussing this issue. Web page design is about appearance and functionality, not content -- content is a separate matter.

The Air Force Captain is a Pilot -- thematically this isn't the best choice, but his job is to FLY -- which is about function not content. He doesn't decide where his plane goes or what it does when it gets there. His job is to fly -- which is analogous to web page designing.

To dispense with the (presumably critique-circle raised) problem of the main characters being naive if they don't ascertain each others' identities (the news stories didn't indicate that the internet stalker wasn't female - and during the novel, the Captain finds out about the news story about the internet stalker and should be suspicious) -- the author should have gone to her main theme of "don't judge a book by its cover" and created a plot-thread from that theme to discuss in show-don't-tell the problem of the "real identity" of people you meet over the web.

Such a plot-thread should not have been an internet stalker in the news. The Question should have been uppermost in both the main characters minds from the first scene of the book. "Is what you see actually what you get?" (WYSIWYG -- would have made a good title)

The plot thread would be a series of tests each character levels at the other.

The groundwork for that is already laid in the shopping-trip scene where she gives him the keys to her truck. That's a test - is he a thief? But she doesn't do it deliberately as a test.

Each of them could have gone through the novel creating temptations to trap an unscrupulous thief - tests of character, and proof of background identity.

This would require no MP's, no "National Security Issue," and no gunshots. Eliminating the commando-garbed lurker and the MP's would solve a plethora of worldbuilding problems and leave room for some inventive action that would show-don't-tell how the web-page-builder type of mind goes about solving real-world emotional problems.

It would also leave room for the male lead character to address the problem of her being wheel-chair bound by participating in her rehab therapy, taking an interest in her medical prognosis, giving her a new attitude toward it, and a new determination to recover better than medical science could ever account for. Not one word or thought about this issue is presented anywhere in the book, though the wheel-chair is a major element in the female lead's emotional life. This lack is part of what leads me to suspect the wheel-chair was added as a response to a critique-circle comment the author didn't know what to do with. Now look at that long list of annoying flaws. The sheer power of the art underlying this novel is measured by the fact that all those flaws didn't detract much from the readability of this book. We're looking at a major writing talent here. She's got a lot to learn, but it's all mechanical craft that's so easily learned.

I wish we could supply our writing students with this novel in both it's ARC form that I've dissected here, and in its finished and published form -- maybe even a third form, another rewrite done to smooth over anything that got missed. The FIRST draft would make an instructive addition to this set. (this novel is good enough to read 4 times)

Sets of drafts such as this can be found in the WorldCrafters Guild section -- http://www.simegen.com/writers/  -- where professional writers can post ms's in development for students to study. We are planning to open a section of the writing school that will be a crique-circle but with the addition of tutorials in how to apply the information gleaned from critiques, and how to supply critiques that a working author can use to improve the novel without creating these rewrite scars.

Live Long and Prosper, Jacqueline Lichtenberg jl@simegen.com 

See Renee Austin's comments on this review.

Send books for review in this column to: Jacqueline Lichtenberg,  Or Snail: POB 290, Monsey, NY 10977-2524



Until I get the direct links installed here, you can find these titles by using copy/paste (in MSIE use right mouse button to get the copy/paste menue to work inside text boxes) to insert them in the search slot below -- then click Book Search and you will find the page where you can discover more about that book, or even order it if you want to.   To find books by Jacqueline Lichtenberg, such as the new Biblical Tarot series, search "Jacqueline Lichtenberg" below. 

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Reviewed by Jacqueline Lichtenberg


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