Sunday, May 29, 2011

Reading "The Resurrection" (Part One of Four)

When I finished my first (unpublished) novel, I solicited feedback from a small group of test readers.

One of these brave souls later confessed that she suffered some anxiety after agreeing to serve as a reviewer. She wondered: what if it's no good?

Since we knew each other, she struggled with the fear that if she honestly didn't care for my work, and honestly told me so, it would damage our relationship. And this potential conflict had her worried.

After immersing herself in that sprawling epic she was able to report, with some relief, that she loved it...had, in fact, stayed up well past her bedtime to keep reading. And though she offered suggestions for improvement, her overall impression was very positive.

I felt a bit like that reviewer, when my copy of The Resurrection by Mike Duran arrived recently. I had enjoyed Mike's website  for some time, with its deep thoughtfulness and probing insight. If his fiction was anything like his ability to challenge and engage blog readers, I anticipated a great experience.

But what if it was no good?

As readers of his blog know, one of Mike's "causes" is the promotion of honest, forthright review of fiction from the Christian worldview. Breaking the code of silence that suggests any "Christian" book should be exempt from careful literary criticism, simply because:  a) the author meant well, and b) to openly critique someone's work is considered discouraging...and Christians are instructed to be edifying.

Mike applies this refreshing philosophy to his own writing, and publicly invites feedback. So I always figured that I'd pass along my two cents, when I got a chance to read his debut novel. But a part of me pondered the question: what do I say if his blogging skills far outweigh his writing?

I needn't have worried.

The Resurrection was a delight. Today, in part one, I'll give you five reasons why. Next time, I'll add two more. Then in a couple additional posts, I'll weigh in with my editorial suggestions, large & small.


1) Telling details:  The Resurrection is full of vivid descriptors. Concrete images that bring a scene to life without being overly intrusive. For example, on p239 a young girl is coloring at the kitchen table. She reaches for a crayon from the box...but it's not just any box. It's a cigar box.

I smiled when I read that, for my brother and I had just such a box for our crayons when we were young. That telling detail had huge impact on my ability to imagine the scene and be there. Will that particular detail have great meaning for everyone? No.  Some won't even remember cigar boxes. But a lesser writer would have been content with: she grabbed a crayon from the box... and missed an opportunity to connect with some readers in a small but significant way.

One small image at a time, a novel full of thoughtful descriptors adds up to a very believable world.

2) The Evocative Cover: The guys & gals at Strang/Charisma House did a stellar job with the cover. The ethereal green of the front, and the sunset red of the back set off a haunting image of skeletal tree limbs and blackbirds, setting just the right tone.

3) Beautiful Prose: With few exceptions, Mike's prose is like reading through butter...smooth and effortless, with pleasing rhythms and excellent word choices. Only rarely did the writing itself interrupt the "fictional dream." From the first few pages, I knew I could relax, tell the critic in my head to take a rest, and enjoy the journey without being constantly pulled out of the story by craft issues.

4) Delicious Turns of Phrase: I like a writer who writes.

One who understands that it's more than just blandly recording what happened. It's how you say it.

Not everyone feels the same way...and I get that. Some prefer a plain, unadorned, "invisible" style.

Not me. I want to be mesmerized and enthralled by the writer's mastery of the language. Surprise me. Make me smile with a clever phrase. Show me that words matter to you. It's not necessary to "overwrite"...but be a craftsman who cares about his/her tools and keeps them polished to a sheen. 

Too many times I've read decently good stories that still fell flat because there was no life, no spark to the prose. If I want bland, I'll read the manual for my DVD player.

In other words, creativity counts for more than just the premise and plot--it should drive down deep, to the sentence level.

Mike delivers that in spades, and for me it was a large part of the joy of reading The Resurrection.

For one example, take the description of the Police Department building. In the hands of a lesser scribe, it might have looked like this:

The Police Department was housed in an ugly, limestone-block building.

Get's the job done, yes, but it's about as exciting as a kiss from your Aunt Maude.

Mike takes the time...and more importantly the turn that prosaic moment into something special:

Well over seventy years old, the Stonetree Police Department headquarters remained untainted by the city's downtown renovation.

Untainted by renovation...Did you catch the beauty and humor of that? It's unexpected and fresh. We think of being "untainted" as a good thing. Here, the customary usage is turned on its head, and we picture this old, no-frills pile of stone stubbornly refusing to be improved.

A second quick example, from p148:  ...Clark twisted like a spiritual invertebrate.

A unique word picture, to illustrate the indecision and uncertainty of the character's inner struggle. Again, with a touch of humor.

I love a writer who makes me smile...not with corny jokes, but with clever wordplay, oh-so subtly infused in the text. Blink and you'll miss it...that's part of the fun.

5) Using Action to "Show" States of Mind:  If you're reading this, there's a better than 50/50 chance you're a part of the writing community. A participant in the Grand Tradition both as a reader and a creator of fiction.

So stop me if you've heard this one before:  Show, don't Tell.

Early in The Resurrection, Mike provides a textbook example of how to use an action sequence to demonstrate a characters' frame of mind. And by allowing the reader to draw his/her own inferences, a minor aside becomes a powerful foreshadowing.

On p18, after delivering a lackluster sermon, Ian Clark exits the church, onto the flagstone walkway leading back to his residence. How may times has he walked this path in the past year? Hundreds of times, if not a thousand. And he *must* know that the shaded stones are mossy...and that it's been a damp, foggy morning.

But that knowledge isn't registering, because he is preoccupied with doubt and internal struggle.

So, he hits the walkway in full stride, his feet slide out from under him, and he flails the air to regain his balance and prevent a bad fall.

Ever been there?  Angry about something, or agitated, or focused on your own thoughts...and you're not paying attention?  That's when you lock your keys in the car, or forget to turn off the stove, or bump your head on that low rafter that you *always* know to avoid. And it just makes your mood worse.

By watching Clark embarrass himself in this manner, the reader feels on a visceral level how distracted and unfocused the Good Reverend truly is. And (symbolically) we sense that Clark will be struggling to maintain his balance through the entire narrative.

Next time, 2 additional reasons I thoroughly enjoyed The Resurrection.

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