Terra Nova: Nothing “Nova” About It

I’d seen the previews for Terra Nova on Fox months before it actually appeared.  Cleverly, their marketing people had positioned this as Jurassic Park meets Lost.

But for me, the actual show did not live up to the hype. The setup was kind of interesting, if not a little politically correct: a home planet we had ruined, 150 years in the future, by overpopulation and pollution, where signs on the street flashed with directions on how to breathe, where children were only allowed two to a family and had never seen clouds or the moon except in picture books.

Then, after some heavy-handed drama that went on too long, we follow our main characters, the Shannon family, as they enter Terra Nova. This is a new, old world originally found, or so goes the tale, through a crack in the space-time continuum. Terra Nova has dinosaurs, big, scary insects, and it’s run by the rather pompous, arrogant Nathaniel Taylor, played by Stephen Lang from Avatar. His character reminded me of a cross between J. Peterman from Seinfeld and “The Most Interesting Man in the World” from the Dos Equis beer commercials. Every time he appeared on screen I kept hearing, “Stay thirsty, my friends.”

In short, the dialogue was ponderous, the characters and situations clichéd, the plot predictable. One of the few moments that hinted at something freakish about Terra Nova, discovered by a band of teenagers who (surprise) took a road trip beyond the colony’s gates and got into trouble, was wasted by having several characters continually point it out. We get it. It’s weird. Stop telling me it’s weird. Have they ever heard of dramatic tension? Seeding a few clues here and there, and leaving it to the viewer to wonder, and keep tuning in?

Sorry. I’m tuning out. I’d rather watch Jurassic Park again.

Review: When the Killing’s Done by T.C. Boyle

Even when his subjects are arcane, for instance, historical novels about the life and work of Alfred Kinsey (The Inner Circle), or the women in Frank Lloyd Wright’s life (The Women), I can always find something to love in TC Boyle’s work. He is a master writer of accessible literary fiction: deep, thought-provoking stories that are readable, haunting, and often wryly humorous.

When the Killing’s Done, his latest novel, centers on the flora and fauna of the Channel Islands, a grouping of islands just off of Santa Barbara. Sound dull? Heck, no. Add in a colorful cast of environmentalists, hunters, scientists, protesters, government officials, and various others just along for the ride and this becomes a brilliantly told cautionary tale about how human interference, despite its best intentions, can seriously impact our ecosystems.

The human drama circles around Dave LaJoy, a local business owner and environmentalist, who is in desperate need of anger management, and Alma Boyd Takasue, a seemingly uptight biologist who works for the National Park Service. As we learn in the first chapter, Alma is the granddaughter of a woman who became shipwrecked on one of those islands.

Alma’s aim is to return the islands to their original state by “controlling” various species that have been introduced by man. This includes, at various times, a rampant overgrowth of rats, golden eagles, fennel, and wild boar. Dave’s goal is to thwart the scientists and stop the killing. But like the coyote in the Road Runner cartoons, he is frustrated at every turn. Eventually, his efforts end in disaster.

My only quibble—and a minor one—with this otherwise excellent work is that an intriguing scenario set up in the first chapter is not resolved. Is it important to know that Alma’s grandmother was shipwrecked on the islands, therefore setting up her fascination with them? Sure. But why leave me wondering about the backstory between her grandmother’s two male companions, who seemed to be locked in an epic struggle that was partially responsible for the wreck?

Or maybe he’s got a sequel in the works…

While this isn’t my favorite Boyle novel, it’s still very good. Read it for the beautiful language, the depth of detail, and his wry and quirky sense of humor.

The Keep: A Review

Because I loved A Visit from the Goon Squad, I went straight to my library to find Jennifer Egan’s earlier works. The Keep, published in 2006, is another example of how brilliant she is with flawed and sometimes unlikable characters. As I wrote in my review of Goon Squad, we can still love and root for unlikable characters if the author treats them with compassion and makes us empathize with them. This is a tricky tightrope. Jonathan Franzen, in my opinion, failed at that in Freedom. He built a universe of flawed characters, but his judgment of them was palpable. Not so with The Keep, where Egan’s compassion shines through.

The story begins when Danny, the “cool” kid whose adulthood has left him wanting, is reunited with his socially backward, nebbishy cousin, Howie, after twenty years. The last time Danny saw Howie was at a family picnic, where Danny and some other kids had abandoned Howie in a deep, frightening cave. Now cool, tanned, blond, and a millionaire, Howie has purchased a castle in Germany and invites Danny to help him renovate it.

To give away any more of the plot would spoil a tale with some well-done twists and turns. The Keep is a fascinatingly circular story, tantalizingly creepy, and plays out like a snake, winding around to bite its own tail. The point of view characters are definitely flawed, absolutely well drawn, and I had complete empathy for them.

This is another example of Egan’s gleeful rule breaking and terrific writing. For aspiring authors, it’s a great teaching tool, as is Goon Squad.

I’m looking forward to finding the rest of her work.

Fighting for Reviewer’s Eyeballs

I’ve read enough and talked to enough other authors to know that once you sign your publication contract, everything doesn’t magically become wonderful, or easy. True, there have been wonderful moments: finalizing the manuscript, seeing the art for my cover, and having two giant boxes of review copies deposited at my front door.

Now the hard work begins. First, to identify appropriate reviewers, and convince these very busy professionals that my novel is worth 234 pages of their time. You think you’re busy? Some of these people receive thousands of inquiries each month for reviews, and have backlogs of hundreds of books waiting for them, for when a free moment or two pops up. Add the usual challenges of life, the day jobs some of these people have in addition to the websites they maintain.

It makes me understand why some are so quick with the thumbs up or down. I just have to figure out how to cut through the pile, with a pitch that’s pitch perfect but not too over-the-top. Ideally, all of this should fit on one page. It almost makes me miss those frustrating, hair-pulling days of writing draft upon draft of the original synopsis.

Through trial and error, though, I’m discovering what gets reviewers’ eyeballs and what is just noise. Here’s what I’ve learned so far about writing reviewer pitches:

1. Proofread, proofread, proofread. Then get someone else to proofread. As Writing 101 as this sounds, it still applies. It’s often the first thing a busy reviewer will see about you. Typos in the address block? Missing words? Eye-rolling grammatical errors? It all counts, and it could count against you. You don’t want to give the reviewer the impression that your book could also be full of typos–how ponderous would that be to read? Especially critical are errors in contact information, because you are accustomed to seeing that information in all of your correspondence and thereby stop seeing it. I almost sent out six valuable review copies along with a set of letters that did not contain the correct area code. D’oh! But this turned out to be a good thing. It gave me an opportunity, while I was correcting the phone number, to fine-tune a pitch that seemed a little flabby.

2. Do your homework. Think like a busy reviewer. It’s Saturday morning, your parents are watching the kids, you’ve got a pot of coffee on, and you’re shuffling through a mountain of review packages that have been piling up in your office. You only have a minute or two to decide up or down on each one. Do you want to review that 400-page zombie western? Or a 250-page romance novel? Oops…you don’t do romance. And the author would have known that if she had checked the reviewer’s submission guidelines. Just like when you were selling your novel to agents and publishers for the first time, submission guidelines still rule.

3. Make it easy for them. Put everything they need for a quick decision up front: title of the book, genre, release date, publisher, number of pages. This way, he or she will know if this work is in their wheelhouse, and if they will have enough time to read it and write a review in a timely enough way to meet both of your needs. After that, include a well-crafted blurb about the book. This might be the same kind of copy you put in an ad or on the book jacket (assuming your book has a book jacket.) Don’t forget to include, probably at the end, a bit about you, where the book will be sold, and relevant web pages (like your publisher’s online catalog and the page on your website where they can read an excerpt.)

4. Manage your rejection. You thought all that rejection ended when you got an agent or publisher to say yes? Not so fast. Remember that bit about the really busy reviewers? Yes, they might reject you, too, and it probably has nothing to do with the quality of your book. It could merely be that they have too many books to review that month. Or, they just posted two apocalyptic zombie novels in a row on their website and including yours would turn them into a niche reviewer. Cry if you need to (I pass no judgment) but don’t let the rejection stop you. Somewhere out there are reviewers who will love you, or at the very least, agreed to read you.

Most importantly, know that the author/reviewer relationship is symbiotic. No, the reviewer doesn’t stand to make immediate buckage taking on your book (unless you choose a reviewer who charges for reviews, a practice I’ll tackle in a future blog.) Some do it for the sheer love of reading and support for authors. They also do it to get good web content to attract more visitors and therefore make some money from their websites. So if you adjust your thinking and work with your potential reviewers instead of against them, it could turn a worrisome task into an adventure. Continue reading