Friday, March 29, 2019

BOOK BRIEF: Want to Write a Book? Here's How!

Write Your Book in a Flash: The Paint-by-Numbers System to Write the Book of Your Dreams—Fast by Dan Janal (TCK Publishing, 2018)

The most established writers I have met say the best way to finish a book is simply to get started writing it. Commonsense, right? Therein lies the difference between those who aimlessly fantasize about completing a book and those who make an honest effort at doing so, those who make endless excuses about why they can’t move forward and those who face the task with dogged determination, those who duck the due diligence that comes with struggling through the detail and those who work relentlessly at it.

Would-be writers clearly outnumber their successful counterparts. Dan Janal suggests a prime reason is not unrealistic expectations or linguistic laziness, but self-defeating attitudes. To counter negative approaches to authorship, Janal includes an unusual element in his 10-step book-writing process: overcome limiting beliefs. He wisely realizes that novices need encouragement to follow through on their publishing goals, to ignore their naysaying critics, and to get over their worst selves. Janal writes productively and he wants you to. Write Your Book in a Flash is a systematic, readable book full of practical tips and encouragement for aspiring authors.

Janal lays down numerous tips in each chapter. He starts with what he calls five levels of book authority, from easy to complex, proving immediately that new writers probably already have the seeds of their first book. He drills deeply into each of his 10 steps with templates that make short work of positioning statements, audience analysis, pitch letters, and review requests—all crucial parts of rendering a publishable book. His DESCRIBERS mnemonic provides clear guidance for adding flesh and blood to a skeletal book outline.

Plenty of books promise to make their readers better writers. Janal assumes we already are—if only we got moving. Write Your Book in a Flash offers worthwhile tools to do so in the current publishing world.

Friday, March 22, 2019

BOOK BRIEF: Why, What, Where, When, and How to Read

Read to Succeed: The Power of Books to Transform Your Life and to Put You on the Path to Success by Stan Skrabut (Red Scorpion Press, 2018)

Count me in with anyone who says, "The ultimate goal of reading is to improve the world around you," as does Stan Skrabut in Read to Succeed. The author lives up to this conviction by detailing why and what we should read, as well as where to get the reading we needand even how to read. In applying such a focused approach to reading, we engage in a continuum of learning, sharing, teaching, and by extension realizing personal and professional success by any definition.

Skrabut achieves this formidable mission in an easily readable 256-page book by introducing how reading has influenced his life, as a child reading for adventure, as a member of the Air Force for military study, as an instructional designed and webmaster for expertise, and at other times for the sheer delight of the experience. 

But Read to Succeed is far from a bibliophile's autobiography. It examines the reading proclivities and objectives of world leaders from Washington to Obama, military commanders such as Patton, Mattis, and McChrystal, industry titans like Edison, Gates, Cuban, and Zuckerberg, and entertainers including Oprah Winfrey and Dolly Parton. What made them attain and maintain success? Undoubtedly, reading, Skrabut asserts. 

From this groundwork, the book unfolds into a veritable how-to for establishing a useful library, mining the internet for helpful resources, and, most importantly, creating a purposeful reading world. Read to Succeed is a practical working person's version of two classics: Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren's philosophical How to Read a Book and Harold Bloom's scholarly How to Read and Why

In insisting that reading can change the world, Skrabut very well might change yours.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Splendid Sentences, Part 15: Dana Gioia on the State of Poetry

I remember wondering whether poetry can matter anymore when I came across Dana Gioia's "Can Poetry Matter?" (The Atlantic, May 1991). The essay gave me a lot to think about, and it gained him considerable recognition. It places poetry in a purgatorial state within American culture and calls for concrete actions that arts program administrators, teachers, and poets can take to rescue poetry from the analysis paralysis of academics.

Before recommending those practical steps, Gioia writes this sentence: 
The most serious question for the future of American culture is whether the arts will continue to exist in isolation and decline into subsidized academic specialties or whether some possibility of rapprochement with the educated public remains. 
What makes this 37-word sentence so interesting is the imbalance of its two propositions:

  • The first proposition is 15 words, and the second is 10.
  • The first is structured in subject-verb order (arts + will continue), and the second suspends the subject (possibility) and verb (remains) between two prepositional phrases.
  • The first begins with a field (the arts), and second begins with a supposition (some possibility).
  • The first ends with a noun (specialties), and the second ends with a verb (remains).
I often urge writing students to seek balance, or parallelism, in their writing, but here Gioia aims for opposing, clashing models, so he uses an asymmetrical arrangement to achieve his desired effect.

Read previous installments of  "Splendid Sentences" in WORDS ON THE LINE:

Friday, March 08, 2019

Splendid Sentences, Part 14: Lewis Thomas on Social Animals

Physician and writer Lewis Thomas won numerous literary awards in his lifetime for his insights connecting humanity to the scientific world, most likely for sentences like this 37-word one, which appears in his essay "Social Talk":
Social animals tend to keep at a particular thing, generally something huge for their size; they work at it ceaselessly under genetic instructions and genetic composition, using it to house the species and protect it, assuring permanence. 
Note four interesting decisions Thomas makes in this sentence:

  1. The use of a semicolon. A period would do here, but Thomas wants to urge readers on as he extends his point about instinctual perseverance. 
  2. The repetition of genetic. Since the social animal is his theme, he wants to emphasize that we have little choice in our disposition toward building, shaping, reinforcing, discarding, and rebuilding. 
  3. The reverse order of instructions and composition.  Chronologically speaking, we would think that we are composed before we are instructed, but this point has little value to Thomas, who chooses a hierarchical arrangement of those ideas. Indeed, he is thinking of instructions not as the receipt of a list of commands but as a set of reflexive behaviors.
  4. The suspension to the last two words of the critical point. By the time we get to the first comma, we have the complete thought, a sentence unto itself. Then Thomas holds out on us for 26 words the arguably two most important qualifying words in the sentence, assuring permanence. In doing so, he creates two reading pleasures: rhetorical positioning, by explaining what he means by keeping at a particular thing, and dramatic suspense by concluding the means with the end. 

You can read "Social Talk" and many other exceptional essays by Thomas in his 1974 book, The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher.

Friday, March 01, 2019

Splendid Sentences, Part 13: Robert Hass on Rainer Maria Rilke

A common question I get from writing students is how to open a piece of writing that will grab the reader's attention. One of two dozen ways that comes to mind is to express a doubt, a way to admit to one's indifference, inexperience, ignorance, innocence, or intolerance. Laying down this notion early in a treatise will make an honest, self-reflective audience continue reading, as they sense an imminent transformation. In his exposition "Looking for Rilke," in  Twentieth Century Pleasures: Prose on Poetry. poet and essayist Robert Hass employs this technique when he writes about Rainer Maria Rilke:

He was born a year after Robert Frost, in 1875, a little too soon to be a young modernist, and the dissimilarity between his work and Frost's is so great that the fact does not help anchor for me a sense of his life.
Hass devotes the next 41 pages of the essay to discovering more deep insightsfor himself and usinto the artistic genius of this lyrical poet from Prague. 

In using such a technique, I would caution writers to profess a lack of knowledge about a topic that someone in their position would not be expected to know. An IT engineer is not admitting to much if he professes an ignorance of art history, but we would be inclined to read his proposal if he wrote that he doubts the reliability of a widely used analytics formula. Similarly, few of us would assume that an American medical doctor would be expert on Venezuelan politics, but we would be all ears and eyes if she wonders whether a commonly accepted therapy is highly overrated.

Read previous installments of "Splendid Sentences" on Words on the Line: