This week we have a great treat–a guest blog by Melissa Mia Hall. Thanks, Melissa, for weighing in! Her post starts here:
I’ve been reading since I was six –years old. My degree is in Communications Journalism from the University of Texas at Arlington.
Word: I’ve been a bookseller, print and online journalist, advertising copywriter, writing teacher, copyeditor, proofreader, fiction and non-fiction author, editor, photographer, artist and file clerk. Words matter in each job. Yes, even in my art because I often integrate words into the art.
When Susan asked me to do a guest blog, she wanted me to discuss book criticism or what I look for in a good book. I’ve been reviewing books and writing articles about the book industry for a long time. I began reviewing books for the Fort Worth Press as a greenhorn kid for Leonard Sanders, now deceased (He wrote Fort Worth and other novels for Doubleday) and moved on to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram under the expert tutelage of Larry Swindell during the glory days of book coverage. Larry was a long-term Treasurer for the National Book Critics Circle. I joined that organization back when I joined a lot of organizations—now I don’t belong to any formal organization. I’ve been reviewing books for Publishers Weekly for over ten years. Check out www.publishersweekly.com and visit the archives that contain my latest Q&A, “Inspired by Robert Ludlum” featuring Taylor Stevens, a Texas author (The Informationist). The PW archives contain many of my interviews and Q&As.
Now the landscape has changed drastically. Newspapers are dying or shrinking, cutting staff and magazines are scrambling about, trying to stay afloat. Authors seeking book coverage know today they can’t just sit and wait for their publishers to send out arcs and pay for ad coverage. What budget do they have? Small presses have small budgets. Yes? But I’m not going to address that question in this short blog post. Let’s focus on good reads and what makes a book memorable.
After reading many, many books over the years, I know the books that I still recall with clarity are the the books that gave me something I haven’t forgotten, a memorable character. It would be pointless to try and conjure up the best ten books I’ve ever read. For the purpose of this post I’m going to mention five books that featured characters I remember vividly and because I remember them, the author succeeded in getting across the point of his or her story. There are many wonderful books by contemporary authors but let’s focus on books you may be familiar with. I know Guy de Maupassant might not ring a bell yet—this book is so memorable another film version is underway starring Robert Pattinson of the Twilight series. I’ve also been an indie filmmaker in my salad days and a good barometer of a book’s success can be found in adaptations that continue long after the book’s original publication. All of these books have been adapted into films and all but one has been adapted repeatedly. Why?
1. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte.
2. Dracula by Bram Stoker
3. Bel Ami by Guy de Maupassant
4. Out from Africa by Isak Dinesen
5. Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
The characters are brilliantly brought to life by each author via dialogue, atmospheric depiction of period details and believable action that’s skillfully integrated into the plot.
Jane is the young, rather plain governess longing to be loved by a brooding older man hiding a disturbed wife in the very estate Jane moves into.
Abraham van Helsing and Dracula come to life via unconventional narration but Stoker’s talent lies in his ability to convince us that those Transylvania legends might have a true basis in reality.
Bel Ami is the foolish young man longing for a life of wealth and love that is always slipping away from his grasp. We know this young man. He’s always hovering at the edge of celebrity and despair because he can never know true love.
Karen Blixen or Isak Dinesen is the star of Out of Africa, a memoir stirringly brought to life in the film version starring Meryl Streep and Robert Redford. You might not have read the book that it was based on but Dinesen’s passionate memoir is a testament to Karen’s gift in defining herself.
And Alice—she’s burned into our brain. She’s the little wide-eyed girl who goes down the rabbit hole and later in her next adventure (that I loved even more) through the looking glass of our brain in vivid and oh so poetic precision.
Each author succeeded in breathing life into a character, all fictional but all probably inspired by a real life character or a jumble of characters the author observed carefully.
So great books must have characters that draw me into the story? Yes. If a writer doesn’t have a character that’s fully realized, they don’t have a story.
As a critic, free-lance editor and teacher, I find the biggest problem for new writers (and some veterans) is failing to develop the main character. If I don’t care about the main character; I don’t care how good the plot is, I won’t remember the book.
Copyright @ 2011 by Melissa Mia Hall