Faith Prescott is sixteen years old and in love…with musical theater. Even though her parents and siblings are hard-charging people who have degrees in “real” pursuits, Faith wants to major in theater. Life gets even more complicated when Faith starts to have feelings for Noah, a powerful performer who, it turns out, is nineteen. No, the course of true love never did run smooth, and it certainly doesn’t for Faith (soon to use her middle name of Madeleine) and Noah.
I don’t want to ruin any of Serena Chase‘s plot twists, but I’m sure you can guess most of the beats in the story of Intermission. Girl falls in love with older boy, girl and boy star in The Sound of Music together, girl tries to be just friends with older boy, girl’s mom is not happy about older boy…you get the drift. Faith/Madeleine, like Liesl Von Trapp, is at that wonderful age where society and your parents treat you like a child, but you have the body, hormones and desires of an adult. Continue Reading
Perfectedbegins with a delightfully disturbing scene that demonstrates the reader is in the hands of a capable storyteller who has a rip-roaring yarn to share. Take a look at the first few paragraphs:
The conceit of the book is that the protagonist, later named Ella, is a cloned 16-year-old girl who has been sold as a pet after recent legislation has made such things legal. Though cloned and genetically manipulated, Ella is, of course, a human being with hopes and desires that she discovers and explores through the course of the novel. (I don’t want to reveal more of the plot than I have to; it’s a fun ride that is surprising in spite of the appropriate parallels that Ms. Birch draws.)
Kate Jarvik Birch plays with very powerful themes and evokes such a cool tone–disturbing but fun–that the reader simply must read on to figure out what happens next. Perfected is in the same wonderful vein as the 2011 film Sleeping Beauty.
This film, obviously, is not for the young ones! In the first few minutes, the film plops you into a creepy, strange situation and hooks you. Can you ask for more from a story?
Perfected is also spiritually related to the 1990 Luc Besson film Nikita, in which a young woman is sent to a finishing school for spies instead of prison. Nikita must, of course, understand her new life and how her own desires relate to her obligations. (The film was remade in the United States as Point of No Return, starring the always excellent Bridget Fonda.)
All three of these works are excellent because the storytellers immediately immerse the reader (or viewer) in the protagonist’s very strange world. None of us will ever be cloned human pets trained in an awful finishing school, but just about everyone is protective of young women. We get over the shock of the disturbing nature of the story because our empathy meters are turned to eleven as the prospective buyers investigate Ella’s skills and beauty.
Further, Perfected (and the two films I mentioned) release exposition about the world in a fun manner that answers our questions before we ask them. Ms. Birch must let you know all about Ella’s world: that she essentially has the legal rights of a dog, that she was not taught to speak to children, that she was not taught to read or swim, but she can’t tell you everything all at once. She must unpeel the onion one layer at a time. (And the book just might make you cry; there’s no shame in that.) Essentially, Ms. Birch asks herself the question that all writers must confront: what does the reader need to know, and when must he or she know it? (Unfortunately, there is no one right answer to the question. But that would be nice, wouldn’t it?)
Another reason the book is so great is that Ms. Birch clearly loves her protagonist, but subjects her to constant indignity. This is a variation on the writing truism that you must “murder your darlings.” In order for there to be a story, Ella must suffer. She must be treated poorly and subjected to the kind of oppression that no one deserves. The great thing about this idea is that Ella regains these necessities little by little. This is the basic structure of a story. Every good story, anyway.
Ella’s new owner is a congressman, and one of the people who pushed through the legislation that made the “pet” program legal. The man is also…not the best guy ever. No one should be surprised that the congressman has more and different interest in his new sixteen-year-old human girl than people have in their rescue Chihuahua. Perhaps it’s a tangential point, but I found it fascinating that Ms. Birch, it seemed to me, held back in this area. Don’t get me wrong; the congressman is a creep and a weirdo and a creepy weirdo. But I wasn’t sure if…how can I say this…he would have the restraint he had.
Any quibbles I have with the book are trifles. Ms. Birch is brave enough to put her heroine into danger and to let her work her way out and so many interesting things happen to Ella that you can read the book in a single sitting. (Which I did.)
Friends, every writer has his or her own story and their own unique path to success. As a guy who has been writing seriously for a couple decades and who has immersed himself in the writing world for as long, it’s been a pleasure to learn my craft from writers and work in every genre. I may certainly be incorrect, but I have seen a widening schism between “literary” writers and those who work in genre and other non-“literary” arenas. (What does “literary” mean? Who knows?) We miss out a great deal if we don’t at least dip our toes in the other parts of the storytelling ecosystem. If nothing else, we are missing out because these genres often outsell “literary” work and genre fans are often wonderfully passionate.
I tend not to discriminate; my goal is to be able to enjoy as many stories as I can. That certainly includes the romance genre. I had the pleasure of seeing Wendy S. Marcus give a talk at Oswego State in which she talked about her work and her journey. Ms. Marcus came to writing later in life than I did, but has published far more books than I have and knows a great deal that they don’t (but should) teach in MFA programs. In brief, Ms. Marcus wasn’t a big reader until she picked up a Harlequin romance on a whim and became hooked. After a while, she made that same move every writer has made: she figured she could do better than some of the books she read. So she started putting words down on the page. Once she had built up a support system of critique partners and started sending out her work, she began publishing for Harlequin, Loveswept (Random House) and eventually on her own. Continue Reading
Welcome to another Great Writers Steal First Page Inquisition, a feature in which I take a deep look at the first page of a novel and isolate what the author did to kick off their book in a successful manner.
Today, I’m analyzing the opening of Jeanne Ryan‘s Nerve, a best-selling YA novel that was released by Lionsgate in July of 2016. Why not buy the book from your local indie?
Now let’s say that you are an agent or an editor and you know nothing about Ms. Ryan or her novel and that her work has popped up in your slush pile. Her work, like yours, must grab the reader immediately and must waste no time in establishing the setting, characters and tone. And it must also seem fun. And it must seem meaningful in some way. And it must seem commercial enough that lots of readers will want to buy it. And the summary and first page must convince the reader that the rest of the book is worth reading. (That’s right…the summary and first page are very important.) Continue Reading
The book is a first-person narrative told by Laura, a wife and mother whose malaise and vague sense of need carry her across the world, first to Istanbul and then to the Anatolia region of Turkey where she befriends and works for a woman who runs a boarding house. Laura thinks of her daughter Anastasia (and sometimes her husband Julian) while she figures out her life with the Cappadocian mountains in the background.
Ms. Fox’s book is a swift and fulfilling read. I’m sad to say I’ve never been to Turkey, but the descriptions of the people and places are lush and beautiful and it’s somehow easier to picture the parts that happen in Turkey than those set in Seattle. Laura’s immersion in Turkish culture is deep and genuine, though she is forced to wonder to what extent a person can escape the circumstances of his or her birth.
Laura is an interesting and well-drawn character, but I’ll admit that I disapprove of many of her thoughts and actions. Though married to Julian, she is still preoccupied with Daniel, her One Who Got Away. Laura loves her eight-year-old daughter, but still feels perfectly justified in taking off for Turkey for several months. What do we learn? A complicated and flawed character is an interesting character. Laura is not a real person, so she is not causing any real and tangible harm to others. It therefore makes no sense for the reader to pass judgment on her or to devote excessive thought to the dubious nature of her actions. I sometimes fall into this trap and I know many others do, as well. Ms. Fox made up a character and made up a story and when we conflate fiction with reality, we miss out on “story,” which is the most important facet of humanity.
Another example: As you should all know, I’m a big fan of Tom Perrotta’s work, including his book Little Children. In the background of this tale of suburban lust is Ronnie McGorvey, a convicted child molester who is not exactly the most popular guy in the child-packed neighborhood. We have the option to fold our arms and cluck our tongues at an unpleasant human being such as McGorvey or we can consider them on the basis of their humanity. Believe me, the latter is much more powerful. (And the more distasteful the character, the harder job you have!)
We know Ms. Fox for her slightly experimental short stories, but she is equally playful with the structure of her novel while remaining accessible. Don’t worry, I won’t give any spoilers, but it doesn’t take much to assume that Laura will eventually leave Turkey and return to her family. Let’s take a look at how many pages Ms. Fox devotes to each section of the narrative:
Section 1: 1 – 41 (40 pages), Laura in the United States.
Section 2: 42 – 212 (170 pages), Laura in Turkey.
Section 3: 213 – 249 (36 pages), Laura back in the United States.
Let’s break that down by percentages. (I know…more math. Don’t worry. We’ll live.)
Section 1: 16%
Section 2: 69%
Section 3: 15%
See how nicely the narrative resolves itself? There’s a symmetry to the story that just feels good in the mind of the reader. Beginning, middle, and end. Alvin, Simon, Theodore. First act, second act, third act. In fact, the 15/70/15 split of this book’s narrative adheres quite well to Freytag’s Pyramid and the three-act structure that screenwriters (and novelists) are usually advised to follow. See how the “exposition” and “denouement” sections are about 15/70/15?
Why does this matter? Why did Ms. Fox employ this felicitous structure, even if it was by accident? Because it just works. For whatever reason, humans absorb story according to this formula: we take in the protagonist’s status quo, enjoy watching as they face increasingly serious challenges and then feel relief as the protagonist begins life in the “new normal” they have created. Do you need to follow a strict “formula” as though you’re trying to make a pharmaceutical drug or a batch of Coca-Cola? Of course not. But good storytellers, including Ms. Fox, tell stories in ways that readers will understand and play within the confines of that formula.
The Pull of It is a worthy debut and deserves one of my favorite kinds of praise: it’s not just for those who are part of the literary community. Ms. Fox plays with form and language and does the work of the “literary,” but does not ignore her duty to the reader who simply wants to be swept away to a far-off land, where everything is the same, only different. The music made by the language that floats through the air, the mountains painted familiar and strange hue, the coffee that not only wakes you up, but can offer hints toward the future before you.
Wendy J. Fox was raised in rural Washington state, and lived in Turkey in the early 2000s. She holds an MFA from The Inland Northwest Center for Writers and is a frequent contributor to literary magazines and blogs. Her debut collection The Seven Stages of Anger and Other Stories won Press 53’s 2014 competition for short fiction. She currently resides in Denver, where she is at work on a second novel.
Friends, I don’t know if you share this experience, but I have noticed that literary writers increasingly use the phrase “of it.” As in, “It was oppressive, the weight of it.” Or, “She thought of the camp, the dirt of it bringing her back to her youth.”
There are infinite ways to make magic with words, of course, and rules are made to be broken, but I’ve always been reluctant to use such phrases. “Of it.” What is “it?” Words such as “it” and “things” and “that” can be imprecise.
First, let me say here that titles are notoriously hard for me, and The Pull of It was no different. This book was at first called The Crescent, from the crescent on the Turkish flag (parts of the novel are set in Turkey), and then it was called Deals, because in the opening chapter, the protagonist, Laura, makes a “deal” with her husband. Yes, I know. Both of those titles stink.
It seems there is an increasing shift in colloquial English, where we use unspecific words like it or thing. I listen to a great deal of public radio, and I’ve started to hear folks use “sort of” as the go-to verbal filler. In writing, it plays out a little different. Think of social media comments when people enjoy an article or image, as in “This is all the things” or, if something is emotional, “This hit me in the feels.” Why not post, “This is why I became a writer,” or “This made me so sad I had to call my mom,”? Some of these choices are stylistic, and some are related to the fact that language is always shifting.
When I went to contract with Underground Voices, the editor rightly wanted a different title than Deals, and we went through several iterations, and iterations that were certainly more specific than it.
Pull pretty quickly became non-negotiable—the word appears many times, in many contexts, and the concept of pulling (pulling towards, pulling away, pulling back) is extremely central thematically in the novel.
Variations on just pull alone seemed too basic and non-descriptive, and trying to pin it down one item down felt too narrow.
We settled on it to open the door to the book—to find out what it actually is, and also to acknowledge that through the course of the novel, it changes.
Still, the title of a literary novel is not the same as composing a social media post, but the hope is that the title gets at a sense of expansiveness. And, of course, I hope it hits readers in the feels.
WENDY J. FOX was raised in rural Washington state, and lived in Turkey in the early 2000s. She holds an MFA from The Inland Northwest Center for Writers and is a frequent contributor to literary magazines and blogs. Her debut collection The Seven Stages of Anger and Other Stories won Press 53’s 2014 competition for short fiction. She currently resides in Denver, where she is at work on a second novel.
Friends, the Internet moves at the speed of light. (Well, the speed of electrons.) The Internet also offers us access to a dizzying range of the expressions of human creativity. If a work is online, it can be found in seconds with a quick search. This is great for lovers of the written word…not so much for those who apparently choose to appropriate the work of others as their own.
It has just been brought to my attention that a writer by the name of B. Mitchell Cator seems to have published the work of others in a number of literary journals under his own byline. Unfortunately, I have never attended law school, so I shall leave accusations to others. Here’s an example of the similarities that some folks have spotted. Continue Reading