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What a class clown looks for in a novel
By David A. Schwinghammer   

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What I look for in a good read.

I’ve been a book worm since the third grade. After I grew up, my teacher told me I was the only boy in the class who didn’t want to be a farmer. I wanted to be a writer. When I graduated from high school I could not afford to go to college, so I joined the navy. But I was never on a ship; reading helped me make it through the down times. I read LORD OF THE FLIES, LOOK HOMEWARD ANGEL, and THE ADVENTURES OF AUGIE MARCH while in the service, still up there among my favorites. I now not only write novels but I also write reviews for Amazon, which gives me a chance to think about what I just read. Here’s what I look for in a good book:

1. I like to identify with the main character. Hey, it doesn’t have to be a guy. I identified with the fat girl in Wally Lamb’s SHE’S COME UNDONE. But I guess I like the smart aleck types, like Hawkeye in M.A.S.H. best. All of my heroes have a hint of Hawkeye in them. I also used to be a class clown so maybe that’s it.

2. It helps if there’s a different setting in the novel. I was raised on a farm so I’m always a sucker for a novel featuring rural areas. A recent one I read was BIG WHEAT by Richard A. Thompson. It won Minnesota’s best fiction award for the past year. Small towns also draw me in. Perhaps the best small town novel I’ve read is WINESBURG, OHIO, by Sherwood Anderson. It’s actually a loosely connected short story collective, but George Willard is in most of them. Anderson influenced Ernest Hemingway. TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD is another one I loved. I taught it sixteen times and never got sick of it. I just watched the movie again, which I also showed in class. Still loved it.

3. A sense of humor is practically a necessity with me. You wouldn’t think Ed McBain would be funny, but his 87th Street Precinct novels are a hoot.
Steve Carella is the lead detective and McCain keeps taking pot shots at stupid human tricks through Carella and the other detectives.

4. At a writers’ workshop I was asked if I had plans on turning my novel, SOLDIER’S GAP, into a series. That almost made me choke. It would bore me to tears. I can count on one hand the series writers I like: McBain, Stuart Kaminsky’s Porfiry Rostnikov, Sharyn McCrumb’s ballad series and John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee series. All of those embrace some of the qualifications above.

5. Some kind of underlying theme. John Irving’s CIDER HOUSE RULES comes to mind. Irving wasn’t afraid to take a definite pro-choice stand and he got away with it. I can’t remember anybody trying to censor that book, although it probably happened in Wasilla, Alaska. Lately I read a modernization of THE SCARLET LETTER set in Texas entitled WHEN SHE WOKE by Hillary Jordan. In the future women caught having an abortion would be injected with a gene-altering dye that would turn them red. Sounds like Texas, right?

6. Lots of characters. Writing teachers tell budding writers to limit the number of characters because readers can’t keep up with them. Nonsense. If they’re interesting the more the merrier. I don’t know that I like changing point of view every chapter. Those people sound like the same person anyway. Just use omniscient. LONESOME DOVE has lots of characters but Larry McMurtry doesn’t feel the need to give everybody a chapter. It’s also more fun for the writer. You get to feel like God.

7. Okay, I’ll admit it; I favor Minnesota writers, except for those who imitate others to sell books. I could name names here, but that would sound like sour grapes. Probably my favorite before he stopped writing adult novels is National Book Award winner Pete Hautman. He used to write humorous mysteries, featuring Joe Crow, a former cocaine addict. His titles are often a play on poker terms, such as THE MORTAL NUTS, which features the Minnesota state fair. Of course we also claim Sinclair Lewis, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Louise Erdrich.

8. Satire. TOM SAWYER was one of the first books I ever read. It must’ve been an abridged version because I read it in third grade. I still remember Tom showing up at his own funeral. Anyway that mix of sarcasm, humor and satire has always appealed to me. The only modern writer I can think of who comes close is William F. Buckley’s son, Christopher. See THANK YOU FOR SMOKING and LITTLE GREEN MEN.

9. Before I acquired a neck and back problem, I used to read quite a few door stoppers, five hundred page plus novels. Jean Auel before she ran out of gas; Ken Follett’s PILLARS OF THE EARTH etc., Dickens. By the time you finish you have a sense of accomplishment.

10. Weirdos. I loved LESS THAN ZERO BY Bret Easton Ellis about soulless teenagers hooked on drugs and sex and BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITY by Jay McInerney, interesting in a couple of ways. It’s about cocaine addiction for one thing, but it’s also written in 2nd person. If you’re a writer, try that sometime.

Dave Schwinghammer’s novel, SOLDIER’S GAP, is available a, new and used.  

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