Tag Archives: writing

On Crafting a Bona Fide Book Review

Way back last October, I was contacted by the co-editor of Literary Mama, a prestigious e-zine comprised of articles, columns, interviews, and the like by real writers.  I was being invited to write a review of George Estreich’s The Shape of the Eye.  The invitation came as quite a shock – how did they land on little ol’ me?  As it turned out, the assignment had originally been offered to Jennifer Graf-Groneberg, author of Roadmap to Holland and a regular contributor at Literary Mama; Jennifer was unable to accept the invitation, however, and she personally recommended me for the job.

To say I was flattered would be a gross understatement.  I was elated!  Jennifer is one of my heroes – not only because she wrote a book that meant so much to me in the early weeks and months after Finn was born and diagnosed with Down syndrome, but also because she’s just a really neat person.  And I know this, because, despite being a successful, published, big-shot writer, she’s very approachable and down to earth.  I contacted her via email when I finished Roadmap to Holland just to tell her how much her memoir meant to me, and she was very responsive, and we continued to communicate from time to time thereafter – she even let Kevin interview her for an assignment he had at school.

Anyway, so she recommended me to write a review of The Shape of the Eye.  This was perfect luck, because I had already read the book and loved it – and I had already written a heartfelt review of it on my book blog, as well as did an interview with George Estreich in an effort to promote his book (it boggles my mind how some of the fluff that’s out there can hit it so much bigger than real gems like this; I have no doubt, though, that it all boils down to promotion, and not quality or talent).  The editor from Literary Mama wanted much more than what I had written in my book blog review, however; this was going to require me to stretch my writing muscles in ways I had never stretched them before.

I write lots of book reviews on my blog.  It’s really kind of a hobby: I love to read, and I love to write; I love to record my thoughts about the books I read, and I like to hear what other people think.  The stuff I write on my book blog fulfills those needs and wants of mine, and I do it for me on my own terms, not really expecting my reviews to have much influence anywhere.

Writing a book review for Literary Mama, however, is something to be taken seriously.  Literary Mama caters specifically to the reader and the writer, and a book review on LM has potential pull in the literary community.  Additionally, all contributions to LM reflect LM’s standards.  This would be the very first time I would write something that would go through an editing process.

I was told back in October that LM wanted the review for their Father’s Day issue in June, and they wanted a first draft by some time in May.  Back then, it seemed ages in the future – I had all the time in the world.  But, as often happens, before I knew it, it was already April, I had to start thinking about writing an in-depth review of this book.

The first thing I needed to do was re-read The Shape of the Eye.  I loved it just as much the second time around as I did the first.  This time, though, I went through it with a yellow marker, highlighting passages that were quotable, that illustrated certain important points, or that could be used as jumping-off points for discussion of certain issues.  This required reading with a much closer eye to detail than when I read it the first time purely for my own benefit.

When I finished re-reading it, I had a book full of highlighted passages and pages marked with Post-it notes.  I felt very intimidated about actually sitting down to write the review.  Where would I even start?  This couldn’t be just an opinion piece like I am used to writing.  This had to have substance and harmony, meat and balance.  In the end, I just sat down one afternoon and started typing, thumbing through tabbed and highlighted portions of the book, and I didn’t stop until I had written a complete first draft.  It was about three and a half pages long, single-spaced – a much more substantial review than I had ever written before.  I was actually pretty happy with it.

I had Michael read it, as well as a couple of friends whose writing I admire, and they all suggested a few minor alterations.  Then I submitted it to the editor of LM.  And I waited.

And waited.

A week or so went by and I didn’t hear anything, so I started thinking, “Wow, I guess I nailed it on my first try!”

And then I heard back from the editor.  She sent me the first draft back, marked up with various comments.  All in all, she seemed to be pleased with my first draft, but wanted more.  More!?  Ack.  Now I really felt intimidated.  She wanted more of my story with Finn, and how it tied into my feelings about the book.  Why was this book so special to me as opposed to other memoirs I had read about raising a child with Down syndrome?  She wanted more depth and detail about various other points I had made, as well.

Over the next two or three weeks, so the process of evolution went.  She would ask for this or that change (usually it was a case of wanting more), and I would sit down with my trusty laptop and dig a little deeper, and then send her the latest revisions.  Finally, a week ago, I got a note back from her saying that it had been submitted to the senior editors, and they were pleased with it but wanted a weightier conclusion.  I almost cried.  I was in the midst of suffering from the flu, hugely pregnant and thinking I could blow at any moment, and I already felt that I had dug as deep as I possibly could in writing this review.  I put on my big girl pants, though, and sat down at my computer once more.

A few days later I got one more note from the editor saying that the senior editors had approved it, it would publish over the weekend, and all they needed was a short bio for me.

A bio, huh?  This also wasn’t going to be a piece of cake exactly.  I went through some of the other bios of contributors over at LM and they’re all pretty impressive.  Those contributors seem to all be actual writers – writers with credentials!  Not some SAHM with a laptop and big dreams like me.  I finally came up with a bio that I hoped would be okay, and submitted it.

So here’s the final product, with all the edits and cuts: Down Syndrome, Family, and Belonging: A Review of The Shape of the Eye

I’m very pleased with it, and I hope it helps get the word out about this wonderful book.  It was quite a learning process for me, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to contribute to a prestigious publication like Literary Mama.  I hope to contribute again!

Finnian’s Journey, My Journey, and Keeping It Real

This is the year I’m going to write my book.  I’ve talked about it for ages – both inside my own head, and hesitantly to a few trusted people (people I’ve trusted not to laugh at me).  Why am I hesitant?  Sigh.  Well, I guess it boils down to self-esteem.  I know I can write, and I know I have a story worth sharing.  But can I actually put together a publish-worthy book?  That’s the big question.  And sometimes – oftentimes! – it’s easier to avoid trying so as to avoid failing.  And yet, in not trying, potential success is also lost.

A friend of mine (who seems to believe in my writing abilities) turned me on to Kristen Lamb, a sort of writing guru who, through her blog, mentors wannabe writers.  I’ve been reading some of her stuff of late, and this post really kind of lit a fire under my butt: Aspiring is For Pansies – Tough Love & Being a Writer.   What it boils down to is this: nobody is going to take you seriously as a writer if you don’t take yourself seriously as a writer (and even then, people still might not take you seriously, but get over it).  When I’ve referred to my writing aspirations, I’ve always referred to them as that – aspirations.  I’ve never felt confident calling myself A Writer, for lots of reasons – among them: I never even went to college, so who the Hell do I think I am?; I’ve never been paid for any of my writing (although I have had different essays and such accepted for publishing on different websites); writing isn’t something I commit to do on a full- or even part-time basis – it’s more a hobby; and the list goes on.  And yet, writing is as much a part of me as, well, reading.  Or ice cream.  Or cleaning house.  It’s something I need to do.  And it mostly takes the form of blog writing, but that counts, doesn’t it?

Anyway, getting back to my original point: after reading that post on Kristen’s blog, I resolved to make 2012 the year I finally get my book down in manuscript form.  The book I’m talking about is Finnian’s Journey (I don’t know that that will be the final title, but my blog by the same name is the basis for it).  And really, practically speaking, it should be a fairly straightforward project.  I don’t plan in starting from scratch; all along what I’ve envisioned is converting my actual blog into book form.  I’m not even saying my story is especially unique – after all, lots of people have children with Down syndrome, and lots of people have written books about it.  What I think (hope) is unique about what I have in mind is that our story is told as it happened, day by day, week by week, month by month, in a journal format.  I think this gives it a different – and possibly more authentic? – spin than a memoir told after the fact, when events and emotions are being recalled rather than recorded as they happened.

So I’ve been trying to carve out a little time here and there for the last few weeks to work on this, which requires that I go through my blog line by line from the very beginning, and decide what to keep, what to throw out, and what to expand upon.  It’s proving to be quite an emotional process, reliving it all.  And I’m discovering some things.

I really struggled with my son having Down syndrome.  I mean, I know, in a sort of abstract-remembering way that I struggled with it for some unrealizable period of time, but reading what amounted to my diary through those early weeks and months, it pains me to realize how hard a time I really had coming to terms with it.  How desperately I wanted nothing so much as for Finn to not have Down syndrome.  How I chased a diagnosis of mosaic Down syndrome, because I thought that somehow wouldn’t be as bad.  How I hoped and hoped and hoped that, although I was being told he had Down syndrome, he wouldn’t actually manifest Down syndrome.

When did I make peace with it?  I haven’t gotten to that part yet, and I don’t have any concrete memories of waking up one day and saying, “Okay, I’m fine with this.  My son has Down syndrome, and it’s okay.”  Clearly it was a process that lasted a while.  And I think what happened was that gradually over time, so gradually as to be imperceptible, I grew from grief to peace.  Somehow, I did make the leap – perhaps by minute degrees – from being not okay with it to being okay with it – really, really okay with it.  And when I say today that I would not change anything about Finn, including his wonky chromosomal makeup, I speak the utter truth.  Do I wish I could shelter him from the pain and frustration he will undoubtedly encounter over his life as he faces prejudice and ignorance?  Yes; I think it’s a parent’s lot to wish to be able to shelter all of their kids from cruelty – differently-abled or not.  Do I wish he didn’t have a life a struggles ahead of him?  No.  Struggles are part of anyone’s life, and I know that we – Michael and I and his brothers and sisters – will be here to help him through whatever struggles he may face.

Another thing I’m realizing with painful clarity is that being an advocate was not automatic for me.  My earliest accounts of Finn’s life, for instance, are peppered with “Down syndrome babies” and “Ds kids” – I knew nothing about People-First Language.  There is an itch to clean this up as I go along, to change the terminology I used then to the appropriate terminology I use today.  But that wouldn’t be honest, would it?  And the whole point is to keep this real, to show the road I traveled, with all its warts and foibles.

It’s also helping me to see that ignorance is first nature – we only know what we know.  Which means it bears keeping a little forgiveness in our hearts for those who haven’t traveled a similar path, who just don’t know.

31 for 21: On Reading and Writing

Yesterday morning I woke up to an email from the co-editor of Literary Mama, an e-zine devoted to writers writing about maternal matters.  What was shocking was that they came to me, instead of the other way around.  In her email, the editor explained to me that she had been contacted by George Estreich, author of The Shape of the Eye, asking if Literary Mama would be willing to review his book.  She went on to explain that Jennifer Graf-Groneberg, author of Roadmap to Holland and a sometime contributor to Literary Mama, had recommended me – me! – to write the review.

I am, in truth, still trying to wrap my head around this.  Why me?  (Not that I’m looking a gift horse in the mouth – I’m thrilled!  Just analytical by nature.)  It’s true that I read Roadmap to Holland in the early weeks following Finn’s birth, and it felt like a balm to me.  It put into eloquent words so much of what I was feeling at the time – so much so that I made my book club read it and hosted the discussion.  Jennifer Graf-Groneberg and I actually were in touch via email for a time after I read her book; if a book makes a particularly strong impression on me, I will often Google the author, find their contact information and drop them a note telling them how their book impacted me.  She was very warm and approachable, and I appreciated it.  Still, it’s been ages – a couple of years probably – since I’ve had any contact with her, so it’s just very, very surprising to me that she would even remember me, let alone that she would think me up to the task of writing a bona fide book review for a publication like Literary Mama.

It’s no secret to anyone who follows me on Facebook or my blog that I have dreams of writing – really writing.  This feels like quite an opportunity.  It’s not for pay, but I think there is definitely some prestige that can be gained from this opportunity, and perhaps it will lead to more opportunities.

So, although I’ve already reviewed The Shape of the Eye on my own little book blog, I will be writing an expanded review of it for Literary Mama’s Father’s Day issue next June.  It’s a way off, but I hope you’ll look for it!