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Reading roundup 2011

I started 2011 on a mission: read ten million words of fiction. I got to wondering what it would be like just to blast my brain with words, words, words, for a whole year. So I bought a lot of books and went to work. In the end, I didn’t make it, which is just as well because the stack you see here pretty well pushes the limits of what I can read and still get enough sleep to be a functional human being. And besides, if I had reached ten million, I’d never have been able to stack them all up. But still, I did pretty well. The stack you see is 70 books, and about 5.1 million words.

So what did I learn?

I have little patience for bad books

I finished them once I started, but reading that much, you want it to be an enjoyable experience. So when certain titles which shall remain nameless kept poking me in the eyes with awful writing, cliché plots, or horrible point-of-view abuses, it’s not fun. It starts to feel like work. Somehow, I doubt that’s the experience most writers want to give their readers. And while I won’t name the specific titles, I can say that the most disappointing books in the stack were all middle grade titles. Now, I grant you I am many standard deviations away from the mean age of a middle-grade reader, but I like to write for middle grade audiences, I have a budding middle-grader in my household, and I take to heart Maxim Gorky’s quote:

You must write for children in the same way you do for adults, only better.

Those titles didn’t do that.

I’m pretty picky about perfection

Not only did I do word count estimates of all those titles, I also rated them for my own amusement. And out of the 70, only three titles got a perfect 4-star rating from me. Two of them are classics, which I readily admit I judge differently than modern titles: Kurt Vonnegut’s stellar Cat’s Cradle, which is just sublime in its juxtaposition of deeply philosophical ideas against absurdist skewering of, well, everything. And antoine de Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince, which I simply adore because it is sweet and beautiful and utterly distilled down to its barest, simplest possible essence. If you want to study spare writing, that’s your textbook. Also, the scene with the fox kills me every time.

The only modern book to score a 4, well, that’s as good a segue into a top-ten list as any:

My top reads of 2011

10: Ramona the Pest, by Beverly Cleary. By number of titles written in my stack, Beverly Cleary is this year’s clear winning author. I read the entire Ramona Quimby series and the entire Henry Huggins series to my kids for bedtime stories over the summer. If, like me, you like to write for middle-grade audiences you could do a whole lot worse than to blast your brain with a whole bunch of Beverly Cleary. I was particularly struck by the elegance and truth with which she captures the feeling of being a little kid. Really, several of Cleary’s titles were approximately as good as Ramona the Pest, but I pick this one for my top-ten list because of its utterly immaculate plotting. Everything in that book is there for two reasons. First, it all supports the scenes in which you find it, but second, it sets up lovely twists, surprises, and hilarious situations for later. It’s brilliantly done, and I’ll admit I’ve recommended that book to more than one of my clients as homework, just to study the plotting.

9: Walk Two Moons, by Sharon Creech. This is the Newberry Medalist winner from 1994, and I can’t really argue with the committee’s selection. It’s a lovely, quiet story, very intimate and personal to its protagonist. That’s a story oeuvre I particularly enjoy, and this title nailed it. But I was also totally impressed with Creech’s facile use of a parallel storyline structure, past and present, to explore the book’s overall theme of loss and healing. Great read.

8: The Curse of the Blue Tattoo, by L.A. Meyer. This is book 2 in the Bloody Jack adventures series. I absolutely adored book one of this series so much I went right out and bought the next five of them, and they’re so good I’m rationing them out to make them last. If you don’t know Bloody Jack, start with the first book—it’s amazing, and has such an incredible character hook on page 1 that I’ve used it as an example in lectures I’ve given on hooking the reader. Anyway, even though Blue Tattoo spends a lot of time setting things up that will clearly be used in later books, and even though it spends not a page on the high seas as book 1 does, it still presents a great storyline, good mystery and danger, and is a very credible sequel. If I ever dare write a sequel to any of my novels, I can only hope to measure up as well.

7: Factotum, by D.M. Cornish. I talk up D.M. Cornish’s Monster Blood Tattoo series every chance I get, because they’re amazing books. Factotum is the third and presumably final in the series, which begins with Foundling. This is straight-up high fantasy, and it is arguably the equal of Tolkien. Them’s fightin’ words, I know, and I do not say them lightly. What’s amazing about this whole series—besides the characters, and the story, and the writing—the thing that makes me talk the series up, is the world-building. Cornish has a savant-like imagination. I don’t know how he fits the world of the Half-Continent and an understanding of the real world into his head at the same time. Tolkien was a great world-builder, but I promise you, you’ve never seen world-building done like D.M. Cornish. The contrast between the two comes in the use of invented language. Tolkien invented whole languages and alphabets for his fictional cultures, but they remain foreign languages; Cornish has taken the business of coining words to a whole new level, and does so in a way that at once adds marvelous texture and color to his world, while also being immediately understandable to the reader. You don’t need a separate glossary to understand D.M. Cornish’s invented language, although one is provided. I certainly hope Cornish writes more Half-Continent stories, and I feel comfortable suggesting that any modern writer of fantasy literature needs to put Cornish on their must-read list.

6: The Winter of Frankie Machine, by Don Winslow. This is a crime novel set in the underworld of the Southern California mafia scene. What happens when a mob hitter tries to go straight? What happens when his past catches up to him? Frankie Machine’s the hitter, and his past is something else. What I loved about this book was, actually, Frankie himself. Rarely, if ever, have I seen a better example of how you get a reader to sympathize with a dark protagonist. Because let’s be clear, the guy’s no saint. And he doesn’t claim to be. Nevertheless, I defy you to read the book and not find yourself rooting for Frankie to win.

5: The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, by Catherynne M. Valente. I think if you took the whimsy and imaginative playfulness of The Phantom Tollbooth, mixed it with the dark undercurrent of Alice in Wonderland, and rendered the result as a modern fairy tale, you’d get something like this book. At any rate, that’s how I found it: an utterly charming modern fairy tale, with a malignant darkness hiding, only hinted at, underneath. Just the sort of thing for kids of all ages.

4: Shadowed Summer, by Saundra Mitchell. This is a southern gothic, paranormal teen novel. It’s quite short, and a very fast read, but it is oh so evocative of its setting. You almost feel like you’re there. The writing is lovey, and the story is brilliantly plotted with (at least to me) a great twist at the end. The perfect kind of twist that leaves the reader kicking themselves for not seeing it coming. Just wonderful stuff.

3: Chime, by Franny Billingsley. This is another teen paranormal, but this one bordering on fantasy, set in some nebulously-rural English village in the early 1900s. I loved the characters in this novel, but was especially impressed with Billingsley’s narrative voice. Or, should I say, her protagonist’s voice, as the book is written in first person. The story’s no small potatoes either. It builds to a high-stakes climax, piling layer upon layer of mystery as it goes. But oh, that voice. The book could have been twice as long and I’d have been glad to read every page of it.

2: The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, by Aimee Bender. I don’t know what’s up with me and the paranormals crowding the top of this list, because to be honest, I don’t actually read all that much paranormal. But, here in the number 2 slot, we find the most unusually-premised paranormal I can recall ever having read. I suspect all of us have, at some point or another, had that conversation with our friends: “what super power would you want to have?” Rose Edelstein’s super power is to taste the emotions of whoever made the food she eats. Super power, or super curse? That depends, and Aimee Bender does absolutely yeoman work in fully thinking through the ramifications of such an ability, while also wrapping them up in, as the Los Angeles Times calls it, an “ethereal and surprisingly weighty” story.

1: The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey, by Walter Mosley. This is the only book I read this year, outside of those two classics, to earn four stars from me. Mosley is a highly experienced writer, and it shows, although this is the first book of his I’ve ever read. I hardly know what to say about this novel, other than it’s astonishingly, shockingly, good. Brilliant, even. The writing? Smooth as glass. The voice? Impeccable and completely captivating. The plot? Quiet, but very high-stakes for its protagonist. And the love story woven through it? Like nothing you’ve ever seen. If you read nothing else on this list, read The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey. It’s a powerful piece of work, and I stand in awe.

So that’s what I did in 2011. What were your favorite reads of the year? Share them in the comments!

December 31, 2011 22:32 UTC

Tags: writing, reading

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Does your denouement murder your characters?

I have a confession to make. I’m a murderer. Only in the third degree—I didn’t mean to—but murder is murder.

You know what I remember most about writing my first manuscript? Writing the ending. I’d had such a wonderful time writing that whole manuscript. I loved those characters. When I wrote what I knew was the last scene, I became so choked up the lump in my throat literally hurt.

The story was done. They were done. But I wasn’t ready to let those characters go.

So what did I do? I wrote an epilogue. It’s a sweet epilogue. Kind of sappy. To this day I still like it. It gave me a chance to say the goodbye I wasn’t ready for in the last scene.

But it killed the characters. I didn’t understand that at the time, but it did.

I don’t mean I literally killed the characters off in the epilogue. They got their happily-ever-after. What I mean is that I killed them for the reader. Without meaning to, I murdered my beloved characters.

I did it in my second manuscript, too, before one of my critiquers told me to cut it. “You don’t need that,” he said. “It’s too much.” I rankled at that piece of feedback. I liked my epilogue. It was sweet, kind of sappy, and let me say goodbye. But the cool thing about writing is you can undo any mistake, even murder. I gritted my teeth, cut the epilogue, and brought my characters back to life.

So when I see my clients accidentally kill their characters at the end of the book, I understand. Sometimes I can tell that my client is looking for their own emotional closure on the book, just like I was. Sometimes, it’s equally evident that my clients feel like they have to wrap up all the threads to give readers perfect closure on everything.

I’ve been there. I understand that drive. But I’ve now written enough manuscripts of my own and analyzed enough from my clients that I can finally articulate what that critiquer meant when he said my epilogue was too much. He meant I was killing the characters.

Not for me. Not in the story. But for him.

The purpose of a denouement

To explain what that means, I need to establish a little groundwork about a novel’s ending—or if you’re writing an epic series, about the end of the last book in the series. Your story builds to a gripping peak. You write a climax that resolves the story’s major issues one way or another. And then there’s the denouement at the end.

Ask people what’s supposed to go between the climax and the final page, and they’ll say things like “that’s where you wrap up any loose threads,” or “that’s where you bring the reader back down from the emotional high of the climax, so they don’t leave the book feeling unsettled.”

True, but trivial. That’s tactics, not strategy.

The strategic purpose of a denouement is to reorient the characters towards the next phase of their lives.

You might indeed do that by wrapping up loose ends. You might do it by giving a flash-forward scene that shows a less tumultuous time in the characters’ lives. It is in how you implement those various strategies that you will either accidentally murder your characters, or will allow them to live. The difference lies in whether you keep your denouement focused on reorienting the characters, or whether you stray too far outside those bounds.

That’s what my critiquer was trying to tell me. “Your epilogue goes way beyond reorienting the characters towards the next phase of their lives.”

The important bit

Reorienting, that’s the important bit. The reason for this has nothing to do with you. It has nothing to do with the characters, either. It has everything to do with the reader.

As readers of fiction or watchers of movies, usually we want to leave the story with the feeling that, after the climax, the characters are facing a new, better future. We want to have the belief that they’re going to be ok. We want that same sense of an unbounded but positive future for those characters, that we ourselves have when we conquer major obstacles in our lives: the feeling that “now, anything is possible!”

You graduate high school or college, bursting with the feeling of accomplishment, and confident that you’re going to kick-ass in the rest of your life. You ask the person of your dreams to marry you, they say yes, you endure the ordeal of wedding planning and in-laws, and you head off into your honeymoon feeling like life is just going to be awesome from here on out.

It doesn’t always happen, but that’s how it feels, and that’s the feeling readers just love to leave a book with. Here’s the thing. Simply by seeing the characters turn away from the now-completed problems that led up to the climax, and turn towards something else, we know that they are now facing a new, better future.

We don’t need to be told just what that new, better future is.

Committing murder

That’s how you go too far in a book’s denouement. You do the good work of reorienting the characters, but then you also specify where and how far they go along their new paths.

When you do that, you murder them in the reader’s mind.

Ok, perhaps that’s melodramatic. I guess it’s not so much that you murder them, per se, as it is that you prevent them from living on for us.

This is a tricky point, so bear with me.

As the writer, the characters live for you because you are imagining their feelings and choices and actions and responses and so forth during the events of the main plot. It is your imagination which brings them to life for us.

As readers, we don’t have that same full freedom; we’re not allowed to imagine our own choices and so forth, because those are part of the story. Different choices would lead to a different plot, so obviously the writer has to do that part. The writer must imagine the characters’ choices and present them to us through the narrative.

That difference means that on a very fundamental level, characters in a novel necessarily must feel less alive to the reader than they do to the writer.

This is true from page one up through “the end.” But once we get to “the end,” the situation changes.

When the plot is done, suddenly the doors of possibility are thrown wide open. The characters might now choose anything. They might do anything. How exciting! And having come to know them through the course of the story, we readers are finally in a position to imagine them into further life just like you imagined them into life while you were writing the story.

You had your turn. Now it’s our turn, but only if you allow us to imagine what the characters might do next. If you imagine it for us, we can’t. If you write it all down in a tidy little epilogue or final chapter—if you let us know that Mary Louise got her biology degree and went on to win the Nobel Prize in Medicine for her work on tissue regeneration, while Charlie eventually bounced back from the breakup, married another woman in Iowa, had two kids and a dog and settled down to a modest life as an auto mechanic—then we don’t get our turn.

If you imagine the rest for us, we cannot then imagine them into further life. Murderer!

Reorient the characters. Then stop.

Just don’t be so specific about your story’s Mary Louise and Charlie. Leave it more open-ended:

Mary Louise slipped the envelope from her purse and walked into the post office. She stood in line. Two people ahead of her, she saw the back of a familiar brown leather jacket.

Awkward, she thought, but not as awkward as saying nothing.


Charlie turned. “Oh. Hey. What’s up?”

Mary Louise motioned with the envelope. “Grad school application.” His usual Sunday-evening stubble looked out of place on a Wednesday morning. “How are you doing, Charlie?”

He shrugged. “Not great, really. But I’ll be ok. It’s cool.” She glanced down. After all those years together, how strange not to have anything left to say. He held up a form. “Change of address. I’m going to Iowa,” he said.

“Wow. Your dad’s?”

“Yeah. He’s talking about retiring. He keeps hinting for me to take over the shop, but you know him. He won’t just come right out and say it. I figure I’ll give it a try.”

Mary Louise smiled. “You should. I think you’ll like it. You always were good with your hands.”

Reorient. Point Mary Louise at grad school. Point Charlie at Iowa. Then stop, so the reader can imagine the rest. Give us our turn to bring the characters to life.

December 21, 2011 22:54 UTC

Tags: character, denouement, reorient

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Swimming to find your characters

What lies beneath

Leaving aside for a moment that icebergs probably don’t really glow like that on their undersides, the iceberg still makes a nice metaphor for the characters in your book. Or rather, for the process of coming to know who those characters are.

I’d argue that when we think about our novels ahead of time, our conceptions of the characters are much like the visible part of the iceberg. Pretty, but not nearly the whole picture.

The water hides everything else. You cannot see the rest of the iceberg until—and unless—you get into the water. You must swim down, under the cold water, to see the whole thing.

The water, in this metaphor, is the writing.

I will also argue that you cannot truly come to know who your characters are, in all their multi-dimensional glory, until you plunge in and get wet.

Two case studies

This has never been more evident to me than this past November, during National Novel Writing Month. But somehow, this year’s experience helped me understand the iceberg and the water in a new way, so I thought I’d share.

Now first, I’m a plotter, not a pantser. I spend a lot of time before writing figuring out how the story is going to develop, which in turn means figuring out a lot about my main protagonists and antagonists ahead of time. Even before setting out on page one of my novel, I can tell you how my protagonist feels about her general situation in life. I can tell you what she wants. What she’s mad about. I can tell you the same for her mother, her father, and the antagonist who’s going to hound my protagonist’s family for the whole book. For these people, the visible part of the iceberg is a bit bigger. It has to be, because characters drive stories; the plot and the personalities have to mesh just-so in order for the whole thing to work out.

But I don’t spend much time on the minor characters. Their icebergs barely poke up above the water. Before I write, I know their names and how they function in the plot. I have vague mental images of them, but that’s really all. For all my planning, they were barely even one-dimensional characters.

It was only when I jumped into the water this November that I discovered who they were. They became three-dimensional people as I swam around in their scenes. I want to share that process with you, because the thinking behind it isn’t specific to this story. It should work for any writer, and any character, in any scene.

And just to set the stage for you, this novel’s one-sentence pitch is “A frontier girl, the daughter of German immigrants, must help save her family’s homestead from the corrupt railroad barons who would drive them off their land.” It’s a middle-grade western, set in 1863, in the Nebraska Territory.

Mr. Harper

Here’s what I had about Mr. Harper before I started writing. Mr. Harper is a bachelor who lives a country mile down the road from my protagonist’s homestead. He’s good with horses. That’s it. It’s not much to go on, is it? But I figured, he’s a minor character anyway, what does it matter?

Come on. Every character matters.

The first time my 10 year old protagonist Maria meets Mr. Harper, she’s in a bit of a pickle. She has been out on the prairie, away from home, longer than she should. Now night is falling and she has to get home and she knows she’s already going to be in trouble for being out so late. As it happens, she came past Mr. Harper’s homestead on the way back to her own. I wasn’t exactly expecting Mr. Harper to appear at quite this point in the story, but that’s how the preceding scene evolved, so I went with it.

Suddenly, I had to know how Mr. Harper was going to react to Maria’s unexpected, evening arrival at his homestead. His reaction depends entirely on his own attitudes, wishes, and goals—in short, on what he wants—but I didn’t know what that was.

I know what Maria wants. She wants a ride home. And she probably wants a third-party, someone outside of the family, to be around when she gets home in order to temper the severity of her parents’ angry response.

But what does Mr. Harper want? Right there, in that at-the-keyboard moment of working this out, my vague notions of who Mr. Harper might be crashed headlong into my planning of how the story is going to unfold later, with modern-day readers’ mental image of what frontier life was like and how people acted back then, et cetera.

Mr. Harper might want anything. Maybe he’s a greedy rascal and only wants money. Maybe he’s a reclusive type who only wants solitude. There is a whole gamut of things Mr. Harper might want—goals he might have—which will drive his response to Maria’s arrival.

Except I have a story to write, and I need certain things out of him. And when he does those things, I need them to come across as believable expressions of the man I have previously shown him to be. Starting right here with this first time Maria meets him.

In particular, I need readers and Maria’s family to like him, because of things that happen later in the story. He ends up helping them with a lame horse, and when I raise the stakes later, it’s by also threatening his homestead. That won’t play strongly unless readers care about him, too.

All of which means I need him to be nice in this scene. To help her out. That makes sense: out on the prairie you never know when you might need a good neighbor’s help, so even in selfish terms, helping Maria now gives him a store of good will with neighbors who may help him later.

Filtering the spectrum of possible Mr. Harpers through the prism of what the story needs now and will need later, was enough for me to zero in on what kind of guy he is. Simply thinking through the scene from his point of view—even a barely sketched out point of view—was enough to figure out how he’d react.

From there, it was natural to imagine how he would talk to her in a way that was friendly and neighbor-like. In the course of writing that scene, I discovered a congenial southern drawl that seemed to come naturally to him. He became a genuinely friendly guy, the kind of guy who if he lived in 2011 instead of 1863, would just as soon hug you as shake your hand and you’d be ok with that.

Could I have planned this ahead of time? Maybe. But I liked doing it this way better. I think it has a more spontaneous, organic feeling to it than if I’d have tried to over-specify this minor character ahead of time. He was a lot more fun this way, and is actually kind of a scene-stealer.

Mr. LeClerc

Mr. LeClerc is a French-Canadian guy who runs the dry goods store in the nearby frontier town of Columbus. Again, not much to go on. Again, it was only when I jumped into the waters of his first scene that I could see who this character was supposed to be.

Maria meets Mr. LeClerc on the occasion of selling him some baskets she and her mother have made. She and her father are in town to attend to various business, and her father got it into his head that Maria needed to be the one to handle the selling of the baskets, even though she had never done business with anybody before in her life. I didn’t plan that part either, but it seemed like the kind of thing her father would do, so I went with it.

So Maria has to negotiate a price with this Mr. LeClerc, a stranger she has never met before, and the poor thing starts out by asking for a price that’s way, way too low. She has no experience with money. She has no idea what anything really costs, so she blows it. She asks for a nickel each—about $1.25 in today’s money—not nearly enough. When in doubt, make things worse, right?

Now, how does Mr. LeClerc react? Again, his goals are terribly relevant. What does any shopkeeper want? To build up a good business and do well for himself. So maybe he knows a great deal when he sees it, and buys the baskets for a song, never letting on how much she’s getting screwed on the deal.

Maybe, but not so fast. I have a story to write, and things that need to happen later. Next time she sees Mr. LeClerc, in fact, I need for her to trust him. And that’s not going to happen if she gets home and her mother yells at her for not getting a fair price for the baskets. She’ll know she got screwed. I’m left with needing a way for Mr. LeClerc to get her up to a fair price, even though on the surface, he would naturally love to buy a bunch of nicely made baskets for cheap.

Thinking it through from his broader point of view, considering more than just the opportunity of the moment, I realized that it’s not a contradictory situation at all. Mr. LeClerc is a frontier shopkeeper. His clientele is kind of limited. It’s a small town, and he can’t afford to be alienating his customers. This includes Maria’s father. So LeClerc knows that if he screws Maria on the deal, it will likely cost him business later.

From there, it was easy. Once I had thought through LeClerc’s goals within the context of that situation, a solution presented itself. I let him reveal that he wouldn’t feel right about taking advantage of her in that way: He said, “No! If I buy them for one nickel only, I cannot sleep at night!” From there, they worked out a fair price, and I got what I needed too: the plot moved where I wanted, Maria now has reason to trust him later (because he treated her fairly here), and as a bonus, I got some additional insight into what kind of man he is. He’s a basically honest guy, and kind enough to give Maria a way out of her mistake which didn’t humiliate her.

You must swim the waters

Those are just two examples, but I hope they give you the idea. When you’re stuck in a scene for knowing how someone will act, think about what it is they want to get out of the scene. What are their goals and desires? And think about what you need in order to for the story to go where you intend it to. Between the two of those factors, you will be able to figure out what kind of person will give you a reaction that works. That’s how you see the rest of the iceberg.

December 02, 2011 21:47 UTC

Tags: character, writing, NaNoWriMo, character motivation, personality

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