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Thursday, April 21, 2011

Critical Thinking

My last two posts have been about this year’s Mountain of Authors conference put on by the Pike’s Peak Library District. Last year, during the author showcase, M.J. Brett caught my interest. (Her full name is Margaret Brettschneider, but she was told her whole name wouldn’t fit on a book cover. I bet she just didn’t want to have to sign it.)

The first book she mentioned was Mutti’s War. It’s the story of her mother-in-law who lived in Prussia during World War II. When the Russians surrounded, she managed to smuggle her three young sons to freedom.

This year I picked up Shadows on an Iron Curtain. It's based on her experiences as a Department of Defense teacher for the kids of military members stationed in Germany. But instead of Ramstein, she was assigned to “the Border”—the long fence that separated the West German people from the land-hungry Russians. Not the famous wall in Berlin. The fragile string of razor wire, where Russian guards mined their side and shot any East German who tried to escape.

It’s obvious from her writing both that she had extensive experience in her subject and a great affection for the people she knew. The single helicopter pilots and engineers relied on the teachers for support, femininity, and…dancing partners. The women admired the men who might not come back from any of the several alerts the Russians pressed them into.

The details really shine through. This isn’t someone who went to Google Maps and turned on Street View. The playground was cobblestone. Furnaces weren’t turned on for most of the year—even if it snowed. Bourbon balls are not malt balls but they will get children drunk. The details in individual personalities ring true, also. How does a pilot act when every mission is top secret? Or when his mission is to recover the bodies of soldiers who have been floating in a river for three days?

She is a fantastic storyteller, also. She really knew where she was going and how to get there. Characters weave in and out expertly. The timeframe reminded me of The Bourne Identity novel, but I liked the characters better. And she eschewed the easy fixes to keep it real.

M.J. Brett was the one who last year said if you’re young, wait for Random House. If you’re old, go ahead and self-publish. This book is killing me, because it is really, really good. But if she’d been able to get a publisher, it would have been great. She couldn’t get attention, so she self-published. I don’t know if she used an editor or had a critique group, but, man! This is what’s wrong with the publishing industry. She really needed someone to come along next to her—someone not so emotionally wrapped up in the subject matter. There are details she obviously felt were precious that fall clunky. Others need more organic transitions. A lot of telling that could have been reworked so easily. And the quote marks get a little crazy. Then there’s the one place where “Carl” suddenly becomes “David.”

This book may be the poster-child for the self-publishing dilemma. What do you do when you have a book that needs to get out there—that deserves to get out there—but no one will help? M.J. knows how to tell a story—and she knows how to sell. The book is in its second printing. We have benefited from her work and her success and her wonderful, flawed book. We have more options, now, for self-publishers. The trail is blazed. We now know about editors.

Please. By all that is holy. If you decide to self-publish. Use a good editor.
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