Tuesday, 31 January 2017

A Review of The Tobacconist by Robert Seethaler

I must mention that the delightful front cover of this book is what first attracted me. The white-washed buildings and terracotta rooftops of a hillside town reminded me of a wonderful visit to atmospheric Prague.

Robert Seethaler’s, The Tobacconist, is a coming of age story about seventeen year old Franz Huchel. It’s 1937 in pre-war Austria and Franz leaves his mother on the calm shores of the Attersee for an apprenticeship with a Viennese tobacconist. People are wearing swastikas on their clothing and there are Nazis on the Ringstrasse. However, Franz soon settles into a monotonous routine with the one-legged tobacconist, Otto Trsnyek. Before long, he falls in love with a Bohemian showgirl called Anezka, whose erratic behaviour leaves him excited, exhausted and eventually, heartbroken. Who better to befriend than an ageing professor who’s a regular customer to the shop - Sigmund Freud. As fanciful as this sounds, Robert Seethaler creates an engaging and credible friendship between the two and as a reader, I quickly accepted this incongruous camaraderie. Suffering from homesickness and heartache and in exchange for a couple of good cigars, Franz receives regular, informal therapy sessions from the father of psychoanalysis, even as the Anschluss* is declared and war looms.

If I were to highlight something that didn’t ring true, it would be that Franz appears to be strangely unaware of what’s happening to the Jews under Nazi rule, or at least oddly detached from it. He is made to read newspapers every day from cover to cover as part of his apprenticeship, so I imagine he would be up to date with all wartime developments.

Otto is arrested and killed by the Gestapo and then Freud and his family leave Vienna and escape the country. Franz is alone and for a while runs the tobacconist by himself. Eventually he perpetrates an act of rebellion against the state, which seems more personal than political. He seems motivated by a sense of injustice at the circumstances of one particular event rather than by disgust at the brutal system that caused it. In my opinion, if you’re looking for an enjoyable book or deeper understanding of the early years of the 20th century, The Tobacconist is a great read.

* The joining of Austria with Nazi Germany.

Sunday, 29 January 2017

The Story Arc.

Every story must have an arc. It rises to a high point and then slopes back down again. This is a must. A story arc has several headings, all of which must be included.

1. Exposition (Setting the scene.)
This is the every day life in which the story is set. Introduce your main character/s. Where are they? What do they want to achieve? What is stopping them from getting what they want?

2. Conflict (The hook that grabs your readers’ attention.)
Something beyond the control of the protagonist (hero/heroine) is the hook that grabs your readers’ attention. Something must make your story arc rise.

The beginning of your novel matters; every page matters, but you only have so long to interest an agent or reader in the first few pages. It doesn’t matter if, later on, the book is filled with gorgeous prose and heart-stopping suspense. Someone browsing in a bookstore or using the ‘look inside’ feature online, is looking for something to make them take your book to the till. If the beginning isn’t strong enough, if it doesn’t grab your reader’s attention, down the book goes, back on the shelf. (Not that it would have made the shelf, because your agent wouldn’t have allowed it to go out to publishing without a gripping beginning.) It pays to think carefully about the beginning, and spend an outsized amount working on it. The beginning doesn’t have to contain fireworks in order to captivate. But it does have to captivate. It might not be clear what the beginning ought to be until the book is nearly finished, so don’t worry about it right away. Get it written, then go back to figure out where it should begin. An agent will read a few paragraphs, and if they’re not ‘hooked,’ they’ll set your manuscript aside and move on to the next submission.

3. Rising Action (The story grows more exciting, frightening or dangerous for your main character.)
The conflict results in a quest – a long, hard search for something. It can be a person, love, an object or peace of mind. It can be anything you choose. Your protagonist must be given a challenge or conflict that they must overcome, and in doing so, they will become a stronger person. They must resolve whatever problem is put in front of them. If Harry Potter asked one of his teachers to wave a magic wand and sort out all his problems, J. K. Rowling would still be living in a bedsit wondering how to pay her next bill! It was a great success because Harry had to fight every inch of the way through exciting adventures. Give your protagonist an adventure.

4. Surprise or Climax
Your main character needs to make a crucial decision - a critical choice. The choice(s) made by your protagonist need to result in the climax. This is the highest peak of drama in your story and when your book should be ‘unputdownable.’ This is often when we find out exactly who a character is, as real personalities are revealed at moments of high stress. This must be a decision made by your protagonist. Whatever path your hero/heroine chooses it cannot be something that happens by chance. This should bring us to the top of the arc because it makes up most of the middle part of the story. Surprise, or the climax of the story doesn’t mean pleasant events. It means placing the biggest obstacle, complication, conflict or trouble in front of your character, and only they can get themselves out of trouble.
To complicate matters, surprises shouldn’t be too random or too predictable. They need to be unexpected, but believable. Readers like to be surprised and think, ‘I should have seen that coming!’

5. Falling Action.
The reversal should be the outcome of the choice that your protagonist made and it should change the status of your characters – especially your protagonist. Your story’s reversal should be probable. Nothing should happen without a reason.
Changes can’t happen without your main character making them happen.
Your story should unfold leaving your readers feeling satisfied and not short-changed.
Remember that your readers must be on your protagonist’s side, so your main character must be likable.

6. Resolution.
The resolution is a return to calm and satisfaction. Your protagonist should be changed in some way through her own actions; wiser, braver, happier or more confident having achieved something. Your reader puts down your book feeling pleased and a little sad that the story has ended.