Category: Novel

Beth Wiseman’s PLAIN PROPOSAL and Stout Stakes

The course of true love never did run smooth, even in an Old Order Amish community.  Miriam has been in love with Saul Fisher since they were children.  Now they are on the cusp of adulthood, the time when young men and women must decide which paths in life they will take.  Miriam expects she and Saul will marry and remain in the community.  Saul, on the other hand, has a job offer from a Pittsburgh restaurant and can’t wait to leave, though it means abandoning his brothers.

Beth Wiseman very much does her job in Plain Proposal, part of her Daughters of the Promise series.  Yes, the book is a romance novel, and not even the kind that features “naughty.”  Yes, this is a Christian novel, and one of Ms. Wiseman’s explicit desires is to buffet the reader’s belief in Christianity.  If you don’t avail yourself of these kinds of novels on occasion, you’re really missing out.  Writers such as Ms. Wiseman are great because they make promises to the reader and then fulfill them.  What else do you want from a storyteller?  (Please consider purchasing the book through Ms. Wiseman’s web site, from your local indie store, from Kobo, from Barnes and Noble, or from Amazon.)

Okay, so because this is an Amish/romance/Christian/inspirational novel, we can be pretty sure that the book is not going to feature a worldwide alien invasion or a Silence of the Lambs situation.  Still, Ms. Wiseman must find a way to fulfill her responsibility to the reader.  She must give us a story in which the events matter very deeply to the characters.  There must be something important at stake.

Now look what Ms. Wiseman does in Chapter One.  We learn that the book is structured in such a way that there are alternating sections from the viewpoints of different characters.  It’s immediately clear that Miriam and Saul fancy each other.  Boooooooring.  That’s not enough to make a good book, and Ms. Wiseman knows it.  After we hear about the impending arrival of Miriam’s pretty Englisch cousin (potential love rival?!?!?), the author ends the chapter from Saul’s perspective thus:

But as she looked up at him with a smile that threatened to melt his resolve, he knew that he was going to do the unthinkable–date her for the summer.  Then leave her in August.  God, forgive me.

Oh, snap!  You don’t need to be Amish to know that this is a SERIOUS situation.  (And it’s a serious situation, regardless of your religion or way of life.)  We don’t know Miriam or Saul very well because we’re only in Chapter One, but Ms. Wiseman sets up some very big stakes:

Miriam and Saul are both in their rumschpringe, the “running around” time in which a young person decides whether he or she wishes to be baptized into the Amish way of life permanently.  Both have been running around for a while…time is running out before they must make a decision.

Miriam wants to live in the community and to marry Saul.

Saul wants to leave the community but also wants to have a sweet, romantic summer with Miriam. 

These two goals are contradictory!  If one of them gets what he or she wants, the other will be heartbroken!

I loved the end of Chapter One because of how succinctly and powerfully Ms. Wiseman established the stakes.  I was reminded of a very different work of art: The Terminator.  After Kyle Reese and the T-800 shoot up the Tech Noir nightclub around Sarah Connor, Kyle makes the stakes of the story very, very clear: “Come with me if you want to live.”

Miriam’s cousin Shelby is also a young woman, but she’s not Amish.  Her parents are splitting up, and Shelby has made some poor decisions.  (Unfortunately, this is an Amish/romance/inspirational-type novel, so the reader does not get any of the dirty details.  I suppose Ms. Wiseman leaves it to your imagination.)  As another of the book’s main characters, SHELBY NEEDS A REASON TO BE IN THE RABER HOME.  SHE NEEDS TO HAVE SOME STAKE IN THE NOVEL.  So the author is careful to give her one at the end of Chapter Two.  Shelby writes in her diary:

…Maybe I’m being punished.  I don’t know.  I just know that I feel bad all the time.  I want to be loved, but my heart is so empty and my faith in life, in God, is gone.  I don’t have anything to live for.

So what is Shelby’s arc through the rest of the book?  Of course.  She’s going to find a reason to live.  (It’s not a spoiler alert to reveal that God is a part of the reason.)

Ms. Wiseman’s book is a fun and quick read because she made the characters’ goals so clear, even though she puts poor Miriam and Saul through a lot of changes of minds and hearts.  Even though the story and characters evolve (particularly Miriam’s mother, Rebecca!), the reader always has a firm grasp of what the characters want and why it matters to them. 

Boris Fishman’s DON’T LET MY BABY DO RODEO: The Author Responds to My GWS QuickCraft!

Friends, my GWS QuickCraft posts are a way for me to bring attention to more works and more authors.  (Sadly, more people are likely to see these bits of writing craft advice than the regular essays I write, but that’s the way things are now…)

In a recent post, I wrote about Boris Fishman‘s most recent novel, a critically praised book called Don’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo.  (Purchase the book from your local indie store, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, or Amazon.)

Here’s what I posted on Facebook and Twitter:

I was curious about the reasoning behind one of the choices Mr. Fishman made on his crucial first page.  Well, Mr. Fishman responded to me and explained why he chose the word he did.  Even better, he was happy to share his thought process with all of us.  (Check out his Facebook author page.)

So why did Mr. Fishman plop that prefix on “humid” instead of choosing one of the words that would easily do the job?

“Arid” would not work there, I think — when the humidity briefly lets up in New Jersey, it’s drier, but I wouldn’t say “arid,” a word that calls up the desert. “Dry” works a little better, but it also doesn’t quite capture the feeling, I think. I think the most salient aspect of the experience is the sense of reprieve from an onslaught. It’s conditioned by the onslaught. So you’re not dry so much as briefly non-humid. At least that was my mind process, I think.

What an interesting explanation!  Remember: we can make any choice we like, so long as the choice achieves the desired effect.

 

Jessica Kapp’s BODY PARTS and the Audience/Reader Awareness Conundrum

How’s this for an appealing story?  It’s about a young woman whose body will be a vessel that will save untold numbers of lives.  Unfortunately, a powerful company wants to take her out if they can’t control her, so they assign someone to do the former.  Fortunately, a dark and handsome man is ready, able, and willing to protect the young woman, no matter the cost.

What story am I talking about?

The Terminator, of course.

Why do I bring up James Cameron’s 1984 classic?  Because Body Parts operates in a manner that is similar and dissimilar in interesting ways.  (And if you haven’t seen The Terminator or Terminator 2: Judgment Day, do yourself a favor and go see them now, whether or not you like action movies.  They are marvelous examples of storytelling.)

Body Parts, a novel by Jessica Kapp, tells the story of Tabitha, a young woman who begins the novel as the ward of a seemingly perfect orphanage.  Everyone in the Center is extremely healthy and well cared-for.  Tabitha herself, with her long, red hair, is perfect…aside from a slight issue that affects her heart.  The Act One 15 Minutes In Turning Point of the novel occurs when Ms. Preen takes Tabitha for a ride to meet her new foster parents.  Yay!  Everything is fantastic!  Until Ms. Preen gives her a knockout drug.  When Tabitha wakes up, she discovers that there never was a foster family.  The Center, you see, carves up these incredibly healthy young people to get their…body parts.  (I liked the book a lot!  Purchase it from your local indie store!  Or Kobo.  Or Barnes & Noble.  Or Amazon.)

Don’t worry; divulging that much of the plot doesn’t ruin anything.  After all, here’s some of the description from the book jacket:

Raised in an elite foster center off the California coast, sixteen-year-old Tabitha has been protected from the outside world. Her trainers at the center have told her she’ll need to be in top physical condition to be matched with a loving family. So she swims laps and shaves seconds off her mile time, dreaming of the day when she’ll meet her adoptive parents.

But when Tabitha’s told she’s been paired, instead of being taken to her new home, she wakes up immobile on a hospital bed. Moments before she’s sliced open, a group of renegade teenagers rescues her, and she learns the real reason she’s been kept in shape: PharmPerfect, a local pharmaceutical giant, is using her foster program as a replacement factory for their pill-addicted clients’ failing organs.

So, unless a friend blindfolded you and put the book in your hands and forced you to start at the first page, you knew the basic thrust of the first several chapters of the story.  You knew the big reveal that changes Tabitha’s life forever.

Same thing with The Terminator or Terminator 2.  Unfortunately, the surprises from the films are no longer surprises.  Everyone is fully aware that Arnold Schwarzenegger is the bad-guy Terminator who wants to terminate the nice waitress woman named Sarah Connor.  Everyone knows he’s a cyborg.  In 1984, you may have been lucky enough to see the film without knowing a single detail other than the title.  Every twist and turn would be a revelation!  In Terminator 2, James Cameron took great pains to conceal the fact that Arnold was the good guy.  Alas, in Body Parts and in The Terminator, the audience knows much more about the protagonist’s life than she does for quite some time.  (Think about it; Body Parts is “that book about the teens who are sold for parts, but one of them escapes, etc.”  The Terminator is “that movie about that woman who will give birth to the guy who will save humanity, so robot Arnold Schwarzenegger wants to kill her, etc.”)

I thought it would be interesting to discuss these two works in conjunction with each other because they approach their conceits so differently.  In The Terminator, you’ll recall, Arnold uses the phone book to track down all of the Sarah Connors in L.A.  The important one, of course, has a fortunate middle name that makes her last on the list.  Sarah sees this creepy-looking dude scoping her, so she ducks into Tech-Noir, a cheekily named disco.  Shootout.  Then it turns out that the creepy, sweaty guy was actually protecting her.  Now, Sarah is no fool.  She (and the audience) need some exposition.  What the heck is going on?  Kyle Reese hotwires a car and tells her about the Future War, that her son will one day be the savior of all mankind.

Then more car chases and action interspersed with some romantic scenes and powerfully drawn characters.

Chapter 5 of Body Parts is the equivalent to the above exposition-in-the-car scene.  Tabitha has woken from her pharmaceutical slumber and meets Gavin and the other members of the team dedicated to liberating young people from the grip of the Center.  Gavin lays it all out in some healthy paragraphs set in the group’s “headquarters” and Tabitha accepts her new reality.  “Parts,” she says.  “I was being raised for parts.”

As I read the novel, I was wondering why Tabitha believed so easily and quickly.  Now, to some extent, I am perfectly happy to just go with it.  It’s a book.  Sarah Connor believes Kyle Reese’s insane time travel/all-powerful computers narrative because she just had a giant Austrian man shooting at her.  Ms. Kapp does something smart that forces Tabitha to deliberate more.  After Gavin’s explanation, Tabitha (on her own) meets Mary, a much younger girl who was rescued–but not before the bad guys took her cornea and kidney.  Writers must give the audience a reason to believe, just as much as characters must convince each other what is really happening to them.

The narrative of Body Parts is far looser than those of the Terminator films, which is both good and bad.  On one hand, those movies are awesome.  On the other hand, Body Parts doesn’t want to be a non-stop, pulse-pounding action story…and that’s okay.  Instead, Ms. Kapp has other freedom and responsibilities.  The looser story just means that she’s not as high on the scale with respect to plot.  That’s perfectly fine, so long as she kicks up some other elements of her book.  Here’s another way to think of it.  This is a chart I made for Lee Martin’s wonderful Late One Night.  That book is not at all a plot-heavy Tom Clancy book.  Instead, Mr. Martin focused more time and attention on character and style than plot.  It’s okay to go easy on some elements of our work so long as we compensate in another way.  

lee martin late one night chartBody Parts is an entertaining near-future science fiction novel that will entertain its YA audience, but will also appeal to those who are not very Y.  Tabitha is a compelling character, and Ms. Kapp ensures there is a lot going on around her.  Tabitha experiences her first love triangle!  Her first…love feelings!  Her first escape from people who want to cut her up and sell her organs!  Ms. Kapp juggles her plot and its subplots in a felicitous manner and wraps things up in a way that I’ll just say that I wasn’t expecting.

Selene Castrovilla’s LUNA RISING and Equipping Your Characters with Confidants

When the great Rod Serling sat down to write a second pilot script for a TV program he was calling The Twilight Zone, he heaped a big problem onto his shoulders.  The episode, you’ll recall, finds a man meandering through a small town.  He’s utterly alone.  Not a person in sight.  There are hints of habitation–a burning cigar, a ringing telephone–but no people.  The man finds clues for twenty-plus minutes, but for all but a few minutes of the episode, he has no idea where he is or what is happening.  (Don’t worry, I won’t ruin the story for you.)

Serling really complicated matters for himself.  So much drama comes from two or more characters interacting.  “Where is Everybody” is a one-man show.  The restraints we place on ourselves, of course, force us to write our way around them.

In Luna RisingSelene Castrovilla‘s titular protagonist isn’t exactly a loner.  She has friends (including the enjoyably drawn Sunny), family, and a succession of boyfriends to keep her company.  Still, Luna begins the (third person) book very much in her own head.  Her husband has freshly come out of the closet.  This complicates her life, along with that of her two sons.   Luna is only thirty-eight.  She’s still a woman and still has the requisite needs.  Unfortunately, finding love in her situation is not the easiest thing to do.

The main love interest in the book is an older man named Trip.  Will they end up together?  Will they go their separate ways?  Read for yourself, but remember: the course of true love never did run smooth.

So Luna feels a little lonely.  That’s understandable.  While she has a support system, she understandably doesn’t know how she is going to handle the changes that are shaping her new life.  One of the ways to chart a character’s thoughts and to release exposition is the use of a confidant.  There’s so much more you can do with a character and a scene if the character is not alone.  Here’s an example: the gravedigger scene from Hamlet:

How different would the scene be if there were no “I knew him, Horatio?”  There would be no reason for Hamlet to talk to himself.  (I know…not that it stops Hamlet from doing so at other times…)  And seeing as how Hamlet is dead at the end of the play, there would be no one to share the sad story of the ill-fated prince of Denmark.

Ms. Castrovilla gives a slightly lonely character a confidant: an imaginary friend named Jiminy.  (Yes, after Pinocchio’s buddy.)  Here’s how Jiminy is introduced in the first chapter of Luna Rising, before the narrative takes a trip to the past:

trip1

Jiminy is a useful character/device in the book because it allows Ms. Castrovilla to do the same work as can be done in a scene with an additional character.  Luna certainly can’t tell Trip what she is thinking or how she feels–what a boring romance story that would be–but she can think what she is thinking and have an internal dialogue with Jiminy, who appears in the book a great deal.

Ms. Castrovilla did something very interesting with the characterization.  Let’s look at how she introduces Luna’s ex-husband:

luna2

So she goes from straight third-person prose into a kind of profile divided by sections.  Isn’t this an interesting choice?  Ordinarily, exposition and characterization are released in straight narration or in dialogue; the author did something a little different here.  It reminds me of the bare-bones exposition of the G.I. Joe profile cards that were on the back of the action figure packages.

As we all know, the value of a choice is determined by the effect it has on the work.  On one hand, it could be considered inconvenient to drop such a big exposition bomb so close to the beginning of the book.  Maybe Ms. Castrovilla really doesn’t need to tell us that the ex dislikes tomato seeds.  Maybe she could release the necessary information in other, more felicitous ways.  On the other hand, this is a fun romancey-type book.  We’re reading this for enjoyment and to have fun.  The bolded profile structure gives us a mental image of Nick very quickly.  Ms. Castrovilla suggests other scenes (what it was like when Luna discovered Nick’s activities on the gay site!) and is clear about what Nick looks like.  Looks are very important in romancey-type novels.  Just the way it is.

So if we put all of this information on a scale, I think that the author made the right choice.  She offers similar lists for the other characters in the book when appropriate, and they have the same effect.

Ms. Castrovilla imbues the book with a great deal of pathos and deals with it in much more comprehensive terms than you might find in straight-up romance novels.  (The “heat meter” is also lower.)  These choices make Luna Rising a novel that has a bigger emotional impact.  Instead of chronicling how one finds passion, Ms. Castrovilla illuminates how people negotiate the minefield of love.  I suppose it’s easy for two incredibly hot people to fall into bed for a night.  This book is much more about how we build deeper feelings and appreciation for the people in our lives, from neglectful parents to our kids and especially the man or woman we love, even if their snoring makes us want to smother them in their sleep sometimes.

Marianna Baer’s THE INCONCEIVABLE LIFE OF QUINN and Pencil Detonators

By July 1944, it was obvious to a growing number of Germans and Nazi higher-ups that Deutschland had all but lost World War II.  Further, it was clear that Hitler’s obstinance was having a negative effect on whatever post-war future that Germany would have.  As a result, many Nazi officials plotted to take out their Fuhrer and some even took steps toward achieving that goal.

On July 20, 1944, the Third Reich only had nine more months to live. Claus von Stauffenberg didn’t know that. The German army officer joined a meeting at the Wolf’s Lair (Wolfsschanze), one of the control centers Hitler maintained outside of Berlin.  Von Stauffenberg placed his briefcase under the long table Hitler was pounding as he dictated strategy on the eastern front.  After a few minutes, Von Stauffenberg excused himself and beat feet from the Wolf’s Lair.  Soon after that, the meeting room exploded.  Four people were killed.  Hitler was largely untouched.

Why do I bring up an interesting event from recent world history?  Because it relates to writing craft and Marianna Baer‘s Amulet Books YA novel The Inconceivable Life of Quinn.  Von Stauffenberg planned to detonate the bombs he left beside Hitler with a pencil detonator.  The device is a relatively simple one.  It’s a spring-loaded cylinder.  On one end is a percussion cap that makes the explosives go boom.  On the other end is a vial of liquid chemicals that, when burst, will begin to eat away the spring mechanism.  When the wire fails…kaboom.  Here’s a diagram:

Photograph by Rama, Wikimedia Commons, Cc-by-sa-2.0-fr
Photograph by Rama, Wikimedia Commons, Cc-by-sa-2.0-fr

Marianna Baer has a pencil detonator in her novel.  Quinn, the protagonist, finds out that she is a couple months pregnant.  Can you hear the acid eating away that wire?  Babies generally take nine months of oven time to cook.  Two months have already passed.  When a baby is in a mommy’s tummy, it gets bigger every single day and (unless there’s a problem) nothing can stop it.  You can’t close your eyes and pretend a baby isn’t coming any more than you can stand on tracks and expect the train to disappear.  Pregnancy is a great pencil detonator because it causes disarray and change by its very nature.

Ms. Baer makes smart use of Quinn’s pregnancy by allowing the drama surrounding the baby to increase as time goes on.  The author did, however, have a little bit of a problem: everyone on Earth has either given birth or been born.  There are currently more than 7.5 billion people on the planet; being pregnant is not unique in the grand scheme of things, but it is very special to the child’s parents.  So.  That’s the big struggle: you must make the mundane special in your work.  As Gunnery Sergeant Hartman taught his recruits to repeat of their rifles: “This is my rifle.  There are many like it, but this one is mine.”  Everyone has been bullied.  What makes the bullying in your story different.  Everyone has fought with friends.  What makes this fight different?

Fortunately, The Inconceivable Life of Quinn has a hook that makes the pregnancy worth reading about.  Quinn is not only the daughter of a politician during an election year, she is a virgin and has no idea how she has come to be in the family way.  In this way, there are two questions that keep us reading:

  1. How’d the baby happen if there was no sex?  Who’s the father?
  2. What’s going to happen with the election?  How crazy will the media get about the daughter of a NYC politician getting knocked up just before an election?  (Shades of Bristol Palin and Levi Johnston!)

The great Lee K. Abbott loves to drop the following truth when it comes to writing: recite-1a4r72o (1)

On page 34 of the hardcover, Ms. Baer gives us a very sweet description of the first time Quinn hears the baby’s heartbeat.  Her mother asks, “There it is.  Can you hear that?”  Then the narrator says:

A muffled, rhythmic sound.  A distant drumming.  Fast and strong.

A heartbeat.

A heartbeat that wasn’t Quinn’s own.

So this moment is nice and nicely written, but there’s a problem: there’s math involved.  I’m the reader…I’m not supposed to have to do any work.  Why should it be my job to go to the Wikipedia entry for “pregnancy” to figure out when the fetal heart starts beating?  Should I be expected to get out a pen and paper and open the calendar on my phone?

Thank goodness, Ms. Baer saves me from this only five pages later.  On page 39, she tells us that Quinn has been given a two-week window during which it was possible for her to become pregnant.  (I think the author also says how many weeks the baby has been gestating, but I can’t find it in the text.)  Don’t make your reader do math and don’t make them scratch their head and try to figure out, in this case, the baby is due and when it was conceived.

The Inconceivable Life of Quinn keeps the reader turning pages (or swiping the screen) by taking Quinn’s pregnancy and relationships in a number of unexpected directions. Ms. Baer populates her story (told from third-person vignettes from each character) with relatable characters who speak and act the way they should, even if those actions are not always pleasant. Quinn’s father should doubt her and ask several times about the father of the child. Some of Quinn’s classmates must be unpleasant to her.

The most interesting choice the author makes might be the way that she does so much to add unexpected elements to the pregnancy narrative. (I don’t want to reveal too much about those.) In this way, Quinn’s pregnancy, like so many others, is not simply an accident or a happenstance of biology, hormones, and impulse. The story of of Quinn’s “inconceivable” pregnancy becomes an emotional journey for the reader as much as it is for the prospective mother.

Chelsea Sedoti’s THE HUNDRED LIES OF LIZZIE LOVETT and Main Characters Who Never Appear in the Story

When I was in eleventh grade, Miss Rowe introduced me to Tennessee Williams and his play The Glass Menagerie.  I related to the characters in a number of ways, but most strongly when the playwright described a certain section of the Wingfield apartment:

Nearest the audience is the living room, which also serves as a sleeping room for Laura, the sofa unfolding to make her bed.  Just beyond, separated from the living room by a wide arch or second proscenium with transparent faded portieres (or second curtain), is the dining room.  In an old-fashioned whatnot in the living room are seen scores of transparent glass animals.  A blown-up photograph of the father hands on the wall of the living room, to the left of the archway.  It is the face of a very handsome young man in a doughboy’s First World War cap.  He is gallantly smiling, ineluctably smiling, as if to say, “I will be smiling forever.”

That photograph of Tom and Laura’s father is a constant and tangible reminder of why the characters are in their situation.  That man is part of why Laura is shy and reserved, why Tom is angry and wants to leave, why Amanda is in denial.  Wingfield père never makes an appearance on the stage…but he is always there, from curtain up to curtain down.

The same kind of dynamic appears in Chelsea Sedoti‘s The Hundred Lies of Lizzie Lovett, a YA novel that is a little bit of suspense, a little bit of romance, a little bit of character study.  The protagonist is Hawthorn, a high schooler who always looked up to Lizzie Lovett.  The latter graduated a few years ago; she was the most beautiful, most graceful girl in school.  Hawthorn just knew that Lizzie is the kind of person who has an easy life because they’re perfect.

Then Lizzie goes missing.  Hawthorn wants to know why, wants to know where Lizzie went.  So she investigates Lizzie’s life.  She takes Lizzie’s old job and quickly develops a crush on Enzo, Lizzie’s boyfriend.  I got a Raffaele Sollecito vibe from Enzo, who is a dark and passionate painter; he’s also a suspect in Lizzie’s disappearance in the eyes of some.

Ms. Sedoti sends Hawthorn on an interesting personal adventure as she and Enzo cope with their loss.  I don’t want to give away too much plot (like I said, it’s partly a suspense novel), but the author does a good job of creating a meaningful arc for Hawthorn and giving her interesting things to do.

Speaking of which, Ms. Sedoti gave herself a big problem in choosing her narrative, but also gave herself great opportunity.  Stories about disappearances and murderers and the like are very interesting!  Just think of any episode of Dateline NBC.  These are what I call “shiny” stories because they attract a lot of attention very easily, just like shiny things you see when walking down the street.  Ms. Sedoti created an interesting narrative out of a story that is decidedly far less “shiny.”  Hawthorn didn’t know Lizzie well.  She wasn’t involved in the disappearance.  Lizzie remains missing for quite some time.  This is not exactly the kind of story that will be made into a pure horror movie.

So Ms. Sedoti reflected Lizzie and her life through the lens that Hawthorn represented.  All of the characterization for Lizzie came from a girl who wasn’t very close to her.  One on hand, this kind of information is objective; on the other hand, it’s filtered through the perspective of a teenager.  (And one who admired her.)  Ms. Sedoti also made sure there were a few subplots to suggest the passage of time and to keep things rolling.  There’s a homecoming dance!  There’s a terrible bully!  There’s an annoying but devoted brother!  Most of all, there’s a romance that unspools very slowly and methodically.

My favorite thing about Ms. Sedoti’s conceit is the way that Lizzie hovers over the narrative in the same way that the Wingfield patriarch dominated Tennessee Williams’ narrative.  The book opens:

The first thing that happened was Lizzie Lovett disappeared, and everyone was all, “How can someone like Lizzie be missing?” and I was like, “Who cares?”

So as the novel starts, Lizzie is already out of the narrative picture and can’t appear.  (You know, unless and until she’s found or returns, yada yada.)  Absent Lizzie is a mirror that reflects upon the characters.  To Hawthorn, she represents the flawless princess lucky girl she wants to be when she grows up.  Eventually, she reflects upon Enzo as an artist and a human being.  Those who aren’t optimistic about Lizzie making a return are exposed as pessimists or realists.

In a way, Lizzie is not so much a character as a symbol.  Have you ever met Abraham Lincoln?  Didn’t think so.  Like Lizzie, writing about him means projecting your own ideas onto him.  These kinds of characters are (often) symbols.  Hawthorn is a compelling teenage girl.  She has romantic desires and fights with her brother and seeks wisdom from the hippie caravan near her house.  She’s a living, breathing person!  (In prose form.)  Lizzie, on the other hand, is a kind of ghost who drives and reveals the characters.  

Of course, Lizzie also reveals information about us, based upon how we perceive her and how we think about the search for her.  Ms. Sedoti gives us plenty to think about, but in that good way.  Hawthorn experiences a number of twists and turns.  She grows up in some ways and not in others.  The Hundred Lies of Lizzie Lovett (like The Glass Menagerie) is a work about how we cope with absence and how we grow up in the face of grief and longing and will be enjoyed by those who are young adults in addition to those who merely remember being young adults.

Colonel Sanders/Catherine Kovach’s TENDER WINGS OF DESIRE and Why We Love Reading and Writing in the First Place

The news stories seemed too good to be true: Colonel Sanders had written a romance novel(la), just in time for Mother’s Day.  Tender Wings of Desire was offered as a free download on Amazon.  A lot of the discussion has centered around the obvious: the book is obviously part of a KFC® marketing campaign.  KFC® wants to make money, so they came up with the idea to get attention and spread goodwill by hiring a writer to produce a novel that they could make go viral.

While I have my compunctions about marketing and corporations and the like, I immediately thought this was a great campaign and a very fun and honest way for KFC® to build excitement around their brand.  Ad industry people have written about Tender Wings of Desire from their perspective, and I am writing about it from the Great Writers Steal perspective: what can we learn from the book?

Quite a lot, actually!

I absolutely love that Wieden + Kennedy Portland used an honest-to-goodness book as a freebie giveaway.  A book!  Literature!  Not some branded Frisbee or stress ball that will be thrown away the next day!  The ad agency is treating a book as though it’s an everyday object that people need.  (Which it is.)  As reading rates decline, anything that we can do to get people to smile and chuckle about a book is a blessing.  We need to get our books into the hands of readers any way we can.

Best of all, the book is good!  It’s fun!  What else do you want?  Yes, it is a romance novel; the genre carries an unfair stigma in some places.  The identity of the real author is no secret.  Catherine Kovach seems to have been on the scene for the past several years, and points out the unfair attitude some have toward romance authors:

Yes, every writer has different goals, and that’s fine.  But don’t we all want to produce work we love and to have an audience for that work?  Romance writers (and those who trade in any genre) make their readers happy.  Lots of romance writers outsell fancy-pants literary writers who win all the awards.  Ms. Kovach has succeeded on all counts and is building her audience.

Let’s look at the most important thing: the book itself.  Ms. Kovach followed the conventions of the romance novel without satirizing them.  What do we have?

  • A free-spirited, beautiful young woman resisting social conventions
  • A “more beautiful” sister who loves the social conventions
  • An arranged marriage with a handsome royal
  • A fancy ball where the women wear pretty dresses
  • A midnight horse ride to escape
  • A new life of the protagonist’s own choosing, when…
  • A handsome stranger takes the protagonist’s breath away.

I got a real Austen vibe from the plot and the prose is solid and fun.  Every reader enjoys (or should enjoy) a change of pace every so often.  I’m not in the prime demographic for romance novels, but what does it matter?  I contain multitudes.  So do you.  Tender Wings of Desire is a part of a balanced reading diet.

Perhaps it’s just my own perception, but a “balanced diet” seems far more “acceptable” when we’re talking about other kinds of media.  Joyce Carol Oates enjoys the fancy-pantsiest possible literature out there.  She also loves and has written extensively about boxing, a sport where two musclebound people try to punch each other unconscious.  (The sweet science, of course, has its own poetic beauty.)  If you look at some of your “literary” friends on social media, they’ll talk about the latest Pulitzer winner and then tweet about The Bachelor.  I’d love it if the much of the barrier between “literary” and “entertaining” would fall away.  Ms. Kovach fulfills her responsibilities as a writer: she made promises to the reader and kept them.  Two promises apply to all books: the writer must give the reader a reason to pick up the book and must entertain him or her.

Now let’s get specific about Ms. Kovach’s prose.  Narratively, the book is solid.  The handsome Harlan appears virtually halfway through the book.  Had Ms. Kovach been making a goof, she would have brought Colonel Sanders in earlier, seeing as how his presence is the “joke.”  (She also avoids gratuitous references to delicious KFC® Original Recipe® chicken or their scrumptious gravy®.  Or that butter substance® you can put on their flaky biscuits®.  I’m hungry now.)   Ms. Kovach plays it straight, knowing that a good, entertaining novella will do more good for the reader (and her boss) than a throwaway read.

Here’s that critical moment.  Are you ready to see the instant in which Madeline’s life changed forever?

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Ms. Kovach does the smart and expected thing; Chapter Five ends on a cliffhanger.  The reader doesn’t see the romantic lead, but Madeline does.  We get the reaction–Madeline is speechless–and are tempted to turn the page.  (Well, to swipe the location or whatever.)

Ms. Kovach also plays with the reader’s current knowledge and expectations in a smart way.  She doesn’t need to describe everything about Colonel Sanders’ accent.  We’ve all heard it.  We’ve all heard Norm Macdonald and others do the accent.  Instead, she remains committed to the honest nature of the book and simply writes, “a soft version of an American accent.”  The reader’s mind does the rest.  No overkill.

No, I don’t expect that Tender Wings of Desire will start a trend in which companies give writers money to produce branded books that are written with a surprising amount of dignity.  (And a surprising lack of obvious mentions of KFC®‘s several delicious $5 Fill Up® options.)  But here’s hoping that other ad agencies and corporate bigwigs will take note that you can get attention and make money by making literature a small part of your branding.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to resist going to my local KFC® restaurant (where the employees are all exceedingly polite, by the way) to get a 3pc. Chicken Big Box Meal® so my day will end with a HEA, just like Tender Wings of Desire.  (“HEA” is romance writer jargon for “Happily Ever After.”)

Freshman-Suggested Alternate Reading Group Guide Questions for Tom Perrotta’s JOE COLLEGE

I often assign my students to read Tom Perrotta’s fantastic Joe College.  (And if they don’t read the book, I ask them to at least follow the advice I gave people about how to discuss a book they didn’t read.) Continue Reading

Go Read Okla Elliott’s Stuff, Please. (A Remembrance)

The unthinkable has happened.  Okla Elliott has shuffled off this mortal coil.  It is also fair to jettison the euphemism and to point out that he died, but the truth is that he accomplished so much and touched so many in his years that he could only have died in the biological sense.

Okla was one of the most brilliant people I have ever met, though one of the most giving.  He devoted so much of his limited time on this planet helping other writers in large ways and small.  In the few days since his passing, I have been comforted by reading so many anecdotes from writers he took under his wing at a conference or who received hours of counsel about their manuscript.

I started Great Writers Steal on December 2, 2012 out of the same kind of desire to serve the writing community.  Even though he was deservedly a zillion times more successful than I am, he was always happy to help out with my endeavors.  This, combined with my love of his work, means that there’s a lot of Okla in GWS.

Here he is on my podcast to talk about his epic novel The Doors You Mark Are Your Own (co-written with Raul Clement):

I featured him in a QuickCraft:

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I built upon an argument Okla put forth in an essay about the big MFA debate:

I reviewed his novel for Serving House Journal.  He deigned to publish some of my thoughts on As It Ought to Be.  You get the point.  I am pleased to know that he had affection for me and I certainly returned that affection.

I am very grateful to have known Okla during his all-too-short time on this all-too-often cold and unfeeling planet.  Please do yourself a favor and check out his work.

Here‘s a list he compiled of his online publications.  (Wow…this is sad.  It occurs to me that I need to archive the page, as Okla is no longer around to re-up his web hosting.)

Here is his Amazon page.  Here is his Barnes & Noble page.  Here is his Kobo page.  (We need more than one bookstore on Earth, friends.)

When I was looking for a real writer’s story to reprint in and thereby add value to my collection of essays about the 2012 Best American Short Stories, Okla instantly volunteered one of his own.  I’ve changed the price of the book to free; please download and read his story.  (You can ignore the bits I wrote.)  Download from Amazon here.  Download from Kobo here.  Download from Barnes & Noble here.

You don’t even need to act on my recommendation.  Okla was the best and he earned laurels from the best:

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It is somehow unthinkable that life will go on in the face of our loss, but such is the nature of human existence.  I was and remain distraught at the news, but Okla (who was as alive as ever mere days ago), would not want us to mourn to excess.  He might ask us to remember his kindness, to remember his work, but most of all to remember that those who remain deserve to be treated with human dignity.

This is the first Okla-less sunset.  There will be so many more.  Let’s keep him in our hearts and minds and forge a world that more closely resembles the one he was trying to build.IMAG0410

 

 

Christi Barth’s GIVING IT ALL and the Voice of the Romance Narrator

Logan and Brooke had crushes on each other during high school, but never told each other how they felt.  A decade later, they have an improbable meeting in the Caribbean and engage in a steamy love affair that may just turn into something more…

Giving it All is Book 3 of 4 in Christi Barth‘s “Naked Men” series.  (Purchase at Amazon or Barnes and Noble or through your local indie store.)  The “Naked Men” are occasionally naked in literal terms, but the title refers to the blog set up by the male protagonists.  The Naked Men are friends and help each other through their problems.  Will Logan and Brooke share a HEA (Happily Ever After)?  Time will tell, but there will be a lot of hot lovemaking before we find out.

I don’t know how many of my readers or friends have picked up a romance novel recently, but I maintain that we are all missing out if we don’t work them into our balanced reading diet.  They’re fun!  And why are they fun?  Because the author is focused on making sure that the reader is having a good time.  He or she makes some very clear promises and (one hopes) fulfills them.  As I pointed out in my GWS essay about Wendy S. Marcus’s The Doctor She Always Dreamed Of, the narrator in a romance novel can add greatly to the fun.  Ms. Barth uses her narrator to great effect in Giving it All.

No matter what you write, the narrator’s persona must fit the purpose of the work.  Or as Hamlet said, “suit the action to the word, the word to the action.”  Take a look at the opening of the beautiful but dark and sad Thomas Keneally novel Schindler’s List:

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Keneally’s narrator makes it very clear that this will not be a laff-a-minute joy ride.  Look at the chauffeur’s joke–“icy as a widow’s heart.”  That’s sad.  The widow (and the teller of the joke, I suppose) don’t express full empathy and humanity.  We are told this is a story about evil.  We read “the beast” and “fatal human malice.”

The narrator of Schindler’s List establishes the tone of the book and sweeps the reader along with him or her.  Giving it All is a very, very different book (obviously) and deserves a different narrator.  And what a fun voice it is!

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Ms. Barth’s narrator fits the plot and the characters, doesn’t it?  If you’re willing to read a romance novel, you are probably having a good time with this narrator.  (If reading about people seeing each other across the room and feeling sexual attraction is a problem for you–Brooke gets her chance–then you probably aren’t going to pick up a romance novel.)  The narrator of the book doesn’t stand at a distance; he or she is right beside the reader, acting in the same manner as a person with whom you are sharing guy talk or girl talk.  The tone is so much fun and invites you to pretend that a buddy just jabbed you in the ribs and said, “Hey, bro.  Isn’t that that cheerleader you had a huge crush on in high school?  Shoot.  She’s looking good.  You should say hi.”

Which is a good way to introduce another reason that Ms. Barth’s book is successful: Giving it All appeals to a universal desire.  Didn’t we all have at least one big crush in high school?  No matter how happy you are in life, no matter how many years have passed, doesn’t the memory of the proverbial Little Red-Haired Girl or Boy have a place in your heart?  Young crush love is very pure.  Sure, Brooke and Logan wanted to have sex with each other when they were in high school.  But because they were teenagers, their hearts unscarred by life, there was a purity to their feelings.  Readers enjoy living vicariously through literary characters…particularly the ones in romance novels.  Ms. Barth taps into these common desires, gaining easy access to the reader’s heart.

Giving it All is a satisfying read, not only in the context of the romance genre.  Ms. Barth includes plenty of “heat,” as romance people say, but also makes the reader care about Brooke and Logan and their individual problems.  Perhaps most impressive (and pleasing), the men in the book feel like men.  They speak like men and think like men.  Sometimes we love to say cruel things to our friends.  Sometimes we are 100% focused on our redhead friend lying beside us.  Sometimes we just want to provide for everyone we love.

The book, like the relationship between the protagonists, is not merely a white-hot sexual bacchanalia.  It’s also the chronicle of two people falling in love…after a white-hot sexual bacchanalia.