From time to time, publishers send me books to review. When they ask first, which I prefer, I always tell them that the review will be from a storytelling and writing craft point of view, although if I like a novel I'm glad to say so.
The most recent novel I received is The Monk's Son, by W. R. Wilkerson III. The cover is beautiful, the premise
Yet a blurb from the back of the book by Kirkus Reviews says things such as "the provocative descriptions anchor the tale firmly" (so far, they're turgid and overwritten) "serene prose, charged action" (in 30 pages, no action to amount to anything) "entertaining and emotionally raw" (but not in the first 3 chapters).
Update I was incorrect in citing Kirkus Reviews above. Actually, the review was from Kirkus Discoveries, a paid-review service from Kirkus Reviews. For $350, they provide "an honest, caveat-emptor evaluation, under the same impartial rubric as Kirkus Reviews." They will review self-published books, which are not accepted by Kirkus Reviews.
Is it appropriate to review a book that you haven't completely read? Well, FtQ focuses on storytelling, and my point of view is that it is an author's job to compel me to read more, to give me no excuse for putting the book down. If, in my naturally subjective view, a novel fails to do that, I figure it's fair to report on the experience.
A cautionary tale for self-publishers This review is also a caution for anyone considering self-publishing a novel, and that includes me. More on this later.
The Flogometer Test You're familiar with the Flogometer challenge: can your manuscript's first 16 lines make me turn the page? Let's give The Monk's Son
the test. As it turns out, the typeset first page is pretty much the
equivalent of the first 16 lines (calculated by word count) of a
manuscript, plus a few. Here 'tis:
Before dawn, before the kitchen staff rose, Brother Dominic was awake. He clambered out of bed and shuffled over the cold stone floor to a plain wooden cabinet. Taking a white porcelain pitcher from a bowl on top of the cabinet, he carefully poured water into the bowl. Drowsily he splashed cold water onto his face. It was not meant to be warm but merely part of his ritual of rousing himself first thing in the morning.
Dominic toweled his face dry and brushed his teeth. Then he replaced the pitcher on top of the cabinet. The water he would dispose of later.
He opened a drawer in another part of the cabinet and extracted a clean robe. Slowly and meticulously he dressed, putting on his underwear, then his socks, and finally the brown habit that had been like a second skin for virtually most of his adult life. It was belted by a white rope studded with knots
--twelve in all --signifying the Stations of the Cross. He lowered himself onto the pine kneeler at the foot of his bed and softly mumbled his prayers. Eyes closed in reverence, Dominic slid his rosary through practiced fingers. After more than two decades of repetition, the prayers had become more of a drone than a recitation. He made the sign of the cross neatly across his chest, then scooped up the wicker basket from the floor next to his bed and left the room.
Where do I begin? The action presented here raised no story questions whatsoever. It created no tension. Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?
Signs of writing craft problems abounded:
- the use of adverbs to tell what's happening instead of showing
--he carefully poured water; he drowsily splashed; he slowly and meticulously dressed; he softly mumbled (by definition, a mumble is soft); he neatly made the sign of the cross.
- overwriting: did we have to go through putting on his underwear, and then his socks? Why a "rope studded with knots
--twelve in all --signifying the Stations of the Cross" instead of "rope studded with twelve knots signifying the Stations of the Cross?" Why scoop up a basket "from the floor next to his bed?" Of course there was a floor next to his bed. Hopefully, under it as well.
Because I felt obligated
There was telling rather than showing: the abbot is "clearly taken aback" at a statement. But I never saw it.
Clichés: "the silence grew more deafening."
There were problems with continuity: at one point the monk carefully lifted the sleeping baby, who was wrapped in a blanket. In the next sentence, the baby holds out his arms to the monk. As the dear departed Miss Snark would say, WTF?
At one point, the abbot scratches "the top of his bald head." Later, he rearranges "the few thin strands of hair left on his head." Is he bald, or is he not?
And there was point-of-view head-hopping, and there was . . .
Wondering why there were so many craft and storytelling flaws, many more than I'm accustomed to seeing in published novels, I researched the publisher, Ciro's Books. Turns out it's a company formed by the author, Mr. Wilkerson. He has published 2 other books, both non-fiction.
And thus the cautionary part of this post, especially for me. You see, I'm seriously thinking about self-publishing my first novel. It just doesn't seem to fit a genre or category well enough for an agent to want to take it on. Will I be publishing a narrative filled with similar flaws? Will you?
Well, my manuscript has gone through at least a dozen beta readers, good ones, and through a critique group. In addition, even though I do editing, I'm paying a copyeditor to review the manuscript. Mr. Wilkerson could have used a good copyeditor to have at least avoided the continuity glitches I kept encountering.
As for The Monk's Son, I don't think I'm going to be able to finish it. For two full pages after the opening, probably a good 750 words, we follow the good monk as he leaves the abbey to search the meadows and woods for herbs. Finally he hears a baby cry near a creek, and there's a story question raised.
Then there's a little conflict when the monk's boss, the abbot, is enraged by the intrusion of the infant (not very Christian of him, in my view). But that's quickly resolved, and we launch into pages of learning to care for a baby. Finally, after 30 or so pages, German bombers fly overhead and attack a nearby city. But by then I was so disengaged by the adverbs and telling and staging and other craft problems that I simply have no urge to carry on.
I have great sympathy for Mr. Wilkerson. His writing is sound
enough, and there was an occasional descriptive passage that was quite
nice. I know how much he put into writing his novel
And I'm going to look at mine a lot harder before doing anything more with it.
For what it's worth,
Public floggings available. If I can post it here, send 1st chapter or prologue as an attachment (cutting and pasting and reformatting from an email is a time-consuming pain) and I'll critique the first couple of pages.
© 2007 Ray Rhamey