Review: This Side of Paradise

As a writer, the very best thing about this book was the recognition that Fitzgerald didn’t write The Great Gatsby the first time out, or even other times out.

I say that as a novelist who puts Gatsby squarely in my top ten. I think it’s terrific in terms of how much it accomplishes in how very little space, the breadth of its themes with the precision of its story.

I once wrote an essay called “In the Ring with the Bard,” partly inspired by Hemingway’s quote that he did a few rounds with several great novelists, but you’d never get him in a ring with Tolstoy. Or Turgenev. Somebody Russian. His gist was that we, as writers, wrestle with the greats.

It’s a very Hemingway way to conceive of writing. I’m happy to say I’ve grown out of it.

Still, as a writer, I sit down often and think everything has to be great.

This Side of Paradise was a nice reminder that there are a lot of different ways to do “well.” That over a career considered great there would be highs and lows.

Even Shakespeare wrote a Titus Andronicus. Which is pretty good but no Hamlet.

This Side of Paradise shows Fitzgerald’s talent even as it doesn’t reach the heights he would later in his career. It, like many first novels, shows ambition and a promise of both talent and execution. There are glimmers not just of the themes that would be explored in Gatsby, but small signs of its quality, remarkable turns of phrase and developments.

Unfortunately, it’s otherwise quite boring. There were moments where I kept going just because it’s Fitzgerald.

I’m not sure if that’s partly because of its subject matter. It’s a novel about a sad young literary man, but I don’t think it’s the first of those (and it certainly wouldn’t be the last). It partly made me lament the loss of sad young literary men, because when reading about Amory’s Princeton experiences I was reminded of the movie The Social Network and its portrayal of Harvard party scenes, and it’s not so much that we still need sad young literary men (we don’t), but it’s kind of a shame that Zuckerberg is now the leader of an organization so powerful it has changed the geopolitical world and yet shows none of the growth or self-awareness of Amory Blaine. Pretentious as Amory might have at times become, it still seemed to me like he ultimately tried to take responsibility not just for himself and his destiny (whatever that is) but also his place in the world. He might not have achieved that place in the world, but his ultimate conquest of himself is arguably the more important.

The story is fairly unremarkable. Amory Blaine (a stand-in for Fitzgerald, apparently) . . . lives. From boyhood through to . . . ruin? There’s a lot of Princeton, and a lot of literary ambitions (Amory’s, not Fitzgerald’s), and a lot of drinking and carousing.

It sags in the middle, which is where I got the impression that a lot of things I suddenly realized toward the end had occurred. Amory comes from a well-to-do family, but by the end he’s lost it all? It seemed that way. Mostly broke. Down to his last $24, at which point he decides to leave Manhattan and walk back to Princeton (?).

Thing is, as much as it’s a little blurry, it’s more because it functions almost like a sketch of what Fitzgerald would be able to achieve, and even as much as some things aren’t clear, what IS clear is Fitzgerald’s talent at writing and storytelling.

Paradise was, apparently, cobbled together from a bunch of work Fitzgerald had already created. Verse, drama, lines of doggerel poetry, that sort of thing. That he was able to pull it together to even begin to resemble a novel, and that that novel actually does have form and tell a story, is, I think, an accomplishment in itself.

It’s well worth checking out even if solely to see Fitzgerald before he wrote like Fitzgerald, and the best part of all is it’s public domain! It looks like there’s a copy for $3 on Amazon for Kindle, and paperbacks aren’t much more expensive.


The Best Thing to Happen to Reading Since Kindle

This year, 2019, marks the first in something like two decades with new additions to the public domain.

For anyone who doesn’t know, “public domain” is what happens when art’s copyright expires. Right now, in the US, copyright applies to tangible art for 70 years after artists’ death.

Copyright law sometimes changes; that 70 years has been extended, for example, with the most recent change being the Sonny Bono Copyright Extension Act, which I think occurred in the 90s.

I have lots of thoughts about copyright. Copyright is, generally, what corporate publishers buy from authors so that they can profit from authors’ work. This is why, for example, readers still have to pay Scribner $13 for a digital copy of The Great Gatsby despite the fact that Fitzgerald himself died nearly 80 years ago.

But for now we should just celebrate what has now become public domain — work whose rights have expired, and so they can be not only read and shared freely but adapted upon and created from. If you’d like to write the sequel to Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, now you may!

Wikipedia has a great list of what just entered public domain. Not all of it will be freely available immediately — that will take some time, I’m sure, for reasons of digitization.

But it’s a great step in the right direction.

Seven Tips for Building Better Book Descriptions

I’ll confess up front this was originally supposed to be part of the previous post, but that was already getting long.

Thing was, I felt that before I offered any suggestions about how to write better book descriptions I had to demonstrate some facility doing so. And having improved in doing so.

So you want to write better book descriptions.

Begin with the Book

I sure hope you’ve finished it already.

Next Up: Brand

You’ve got a book. Which means you’ve got a genre, and more importantly, I hope, means you have a theme and a mood and a feel. Here’s where magic and immeasurable things come in: what does your book feel like? How do you want to make readers feel? What emotions and undercurrent course through your story to give it the climax and pay-off it earns? Follow that through the process and I’m convinced you can’t go wrong.

First Comes the Title

I’ve already mentioned how The Thompson Gunner became Tumble Turns became Borderline Famous. The other story I’ll mention is how Miya Kressin’s Asylum saga came to be. Originally that was published as “What Once Was,” “What May Be,” and “What Will Be.” Sitting down to do covers, I realized that repeated “What” was bothering me. So I dropped it. When I pitched the branded idea to Miya, she got it, and so became Once Was, May Be, and Will Be.

I think it’s because I was thinking about the magic of the book. It’s a beautiful story with visceral prose that has a cathartic and empowering climax. The best way to make it feel that way straight out of the gate was to let it stand and get out of its way. Highlighting its essence.

Coming up with great titles is a post of its own.

Tag, Your Book’s It

Where would you find your book, and what are some highlights of it? Where is it set, and what are some conflicts the characters grapple with? Do they grow? How, and if not, why not? What’s holding them back?

Think about where you would find your book in a bookstore (remember those?). What section you’re looking in, but this goes beyond genre. One of the defining themes of Perfect Skin, for example, is that its lead character, Jon Marshall, is a single father. It’s not just unique and a storytelling device; Jon’s relationship with his six-month-old daughter the Bean is the loving, beating heart of the book.

Define the Journey and Obstacles

They say it’s not the journey that matters so much as the destination. Whether that’s true or not, a story is not just a beginning, middle, and end but also about how a character navigates through those things and changes while doing so.

So what does that look like for your book? How does the plot progress that journey? And what are the obstacles encountered? They’re not just for making the journey more difficult or advancing the plot. How your character responds to and moves past obstacles says a lot about who they are, which in turn says a lot about the story you’re telling. So what are they and where do they bring the story?

Allude to But Avoid Spoilers

You DON’T want to give away major plot points. You DON’T want to reveal twists that are going to dig your hook deeper into your readers to ensure the HAVE TO keep turning pages.

But you do want to allude to them. For example, the description for The Prodigal Hour notes that “[Cassie] knows who told her: Chance.” It’s a time travel novel and works as an allusion that there’s something more going on than Chance realizes, because how could he tell her something he doesn’t know yet?

It’s about Emotions, Not Endings

Remember that branding question? How do you want your readers to feel?

This goes back to spoilers. You don’t want to give away the ending of your book, or even major plot points. What you DO want to do is two-fold: indicate what’s at stake and why it matters, because that’s where the emotions come from. You don’t want to tell your readers what obstacles your character needs to overcome and how they’ll do so; what your character is trying to achieve that those obstacles are in the way of, and why those achievements matter to your character.


I think if you focus on those seven things you’ll find yourself with the sort of description that not only captures the real essence of your book but makes readers want to dive in.

On Grabbing Readers by the Neck

There’s a common bit of advice that authors need to “grab readers by the throat” with the first paragraph.

I fear writers who take that long are already struggling to play catch up.

For me, as a reader and now as a publisher, more important to me than first paragraphs are titles and book descriptions. I like to think over the years I’ve gotten better at both.

I alluded to this in talking about Nick Earls’ The True Story of Butterfish, which you can buy here if you haven’t already. In the run-up to a proposed serialization of the book (that ultimately never occurred), I proposed an alternate title to Nick: “The Rockstar Next Door.”

One thing among myriad that I’ve enjoyed about working with Nick is that he’s open to suggestion. His novel, The Thompson Gunner, became first “Tumble Turns” and now Borderline Famous when Exciting Press published it. Being a fan of Nick’s work from the early days of Zigzag Street and Perfect SkinThe Thompson Gunner struck me as like those old Sesame Street segments where “one of these things doesn’t belong.” It’s not a bad title, by any means, but as I read the novel I felt like something else could fit better. For me, as a reader, The Thompson Gunner struck me more like a thriller. I expected a man in the dark in sunglasses and a long coat. There was a lighthouse involved, for some reason. It felt like there would be intrigue and more than a little violence.

The Thompson Gunner was not a novel that was easily accessible in the US, and so I didn’t get to read it until I started working with Nick. Imagine my surprise when it turned out the novel was about Meg Riddoch, a stand-up comedienne on a multi-leg tour who was navigating morning talk shows and a complicated past. That past was where the titular gunner came from, but still that title felt like a mis-match. I pitched several titles to Nick; I think “Borderline Famous” was in that first batch, as was, if I’m not mistaken “Alternative Country,” but “Tumble Turns” stuck out. They’re a specific swimming maneuver Meg works to perfect through the course of the book, and felt like a great metaphor.

The problem was that in subsequent conversations, “Tumble Turns” didn’t seem to stick. For some readers, it connoted laundry, which was definitely NOT what we would go for. And so Borderline Famous it became.

With Butterfish, I wasn’t sure “Butterfish” itself was sticky. I worried it might connote French cuisine, and besides that I was pitching Nick on a plan to serialize the novel over five weeks while it would be available for pre-order. “The Rockstar Next Door” was simpler, and Nick agreed.

But then I started in on the book description, and reversed course. Because all the great press about the novel was about The True Story of Butterfish, and I realized that, cooking aside, the “True Story” was compelling. Because was there a fake story?

To find out you’ll have to read the book.

That’s a long digression away from book descriptions. I’m particularly proud of the book description for The True Story of Butterfish.

But I’m also really proud of the one for Borderline Famous. The title may have changed, but that’s the description it was published with.

Another I’m proud of: the one for Miya Kressin’s fabulous No Expectations. It was a terrific, fun, sexy novel, and I knew I needed to capture that in the info.

And then there’s Darth the Unicorn Killer. You want book info? Here’s your book info.

It’s arguably impossible for me to read any of these objectively; not only did I write them, but I published them all. If I didn’t think book descriptions on Exciting Press titles worked, I’d revise them. Hell, I frequently DO revise them. Changing turns of phrase, even rethinking them.

It used to be that readers would browse books and pick one up based on a title. They might look at a cover, but after the title, most readers checked either the inner dust jacket (remember those?) or the back cover of the paperback (remember those?).

Nowadays there’s no such browsing. You get thumbnails and titles, and then a book description, all while that “Buy Now” button hovers so prominently as to be rarely seen at all until you need to click.

For me, as a reader, I look for a few things, but in no particular order. Web pages rarely seem to have particular order any more. Nowadays I like to see some recognition and maybe a quote or two, but the internet is such a huge place anymore I rarely expect to recognize the awarding entities or blurbing authors — which makes the actual quote that much more important.

But the description? I like Darth’s because it’s so Darth. It’s a little vulgar and a lot irreverent. I like Butterfish’s because it plays with nostalgia (the parenthetical “remember those”) and hints not only at domesticity but the complications thereof while still remaining fun and simple. I love the one for Borderline Famous because it’s just so Meg. I think you really get a sense not only of her character but her mindset and the world she both lives in and perceives.