When I learned about the conceit of Nicola Yoon‘s Everything, Everything, I was engaged as a reader, of course, but the book attracted my interest as a writer. The novel is a YA book about a young woman who has spent her entire life in a clean room because she is sick. Madeline has severe combined immunodeficiency and cannot enter the real world or have contact with people who have not been decontaminated, or else she’ll die. She’s a bubble girl, essentially. Continue Reading
Writers are asked many general questions about their craft.
…”What is your overarching philosophy regarding the inherent power of fiction?”…”What IS–character–to you?”…”What is the position of place in your work?”…
These are great and important questions, but I’m really curious about the little things. In the “Hey, Why’d You Do That” series, I ask accomplished writers about some of the very small choices they made during the process of composition.
Jim Pransky is an interesting man who has the kind of career to which many of us aspire. He’s been a baseball scout for many years and is currently with the Colorado Rockies. When he isn’t identifying talent and evaluating young men for their suitability to make it in The Show, he likes to write books about our great National Pastime. In addition to writing biographies of overlooked players that deserve attention, Mr. Pransky writes novels that use baseball as their setting. Continue Reading
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.)
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
Trisha was a mother even before she had any kids. She had no choice, really. She had to grow up fast so she could protect her brother from their abusive mother and the procession of perverted boyfriends that went through their too-small home.
Rock Taylor was the Big Man on Campus, destined to accomplish big things in college football. He sees Trisha in the schoolyard one morning and it’s love at first sight…for him, at least.
The course of true love never does run smooth, of course, and Trisha has too many problems at home to even think about spending that valuable time and attention with Rock. Even though her heart rate increases every time Rock is around… Continue Reading
Cody and Meg were best friends before Meg went off to college at a private school in Tacoma, Washington. A little over a year later, Meg commits suicide by drinking industrial-strength cleaner. As you might expect, Cody wants to know what happened and why her friend chose to end her own life. Through the course of I Was Here, Cody undertakes a journey to come to grips with her friend’s choice and (obviously) reaches catharsis and a greater understanding of herself.
Gayle Forman is one of the superstars of YA, and for good reason. Her books confront big themes and are packed with big drama and give the reader big feels. Her book If I Stay was made into a major motion picture:
I Was Here is a well-written book, but it’s not a light, laff-a-minute novel. This is a good thing! We should all have well-balanced reading diets. The book is also a good example of contemporary YA, which is why it came to mind after a recent writers’ group meeting I attended.
A bright young man who has little experience as a writer, but is plugging away at a first novel (good for him!) described what he was writing. The young man had an interesting conceit and characters in mind, but, as he acknowledged, he was not sure about what would happen to them. All of that is just fine. If you are a beginning writer, the most important thing to do is put pen to paper. Over and over again.
During the meeting, we all talked about the three-act dramatic structure that is so popular in screenwriting. Why is this structure popular? Because it works. Works that adhere to this paradigm have a beginning, middle and end and stuff happens in a logical and compelling fashion. What else do you want from a story? If you don’t know about the three-act structure, I advise you to immerse yourself in the works of Syd Field.
I animatedly helped the bright young man who was burning to write a YA novel think about how the vast majority of great novels and films adhere to the three-act structure. I hope to see him again and give him my marked-up copy of I Was Here, but why don’t I break down the three-act structure of the book for the benefit of all GWS readers?
There are any number of ways to describe the three-act structure and I don’t want to steal someone else’s method, so I’ll sketch out my own. The point is that each story has three acts. The first establishes the world and pushes the protagonist on their journey. The second chronicles the protagonist’s journey as they make progress on their mission. The third ratchets the tension as the mission succeeds or fails. In the middle of each act is what I am calling a “plot rocket:” a turning point that changes the protagonist’s situation and keeps the plot moving.
Have you seen Terminator 2: Judgment Day? If not, you are missing out. If nothing else, enjoy James Cameron’s rock-solid writing and direction. Here’s how the story breaks down:
Want another one? You’ve probably seen Stand By Me, the film based upon Stephen King’s beautiful novella “The Body.” (Which could easily be considered a YA book.)
What about I Was Here? Well, here you go:
What’s the overall point? Ms. Forman employs the three-act structure to keep the story plugging along. Yes, Cody is very sad. She could linger for years in that sadness over the course of 2,000 pages. But that would not make for a very interesting book. No, Ms. Forman makes sure that things keep happening, things that are both driven by Cody’s actions and things that happen to her.
Not only should things HAPPEN in a story, but the ultimate point is that the protagonist’s situation should change. Their emotions should change. I don’t know if there’s such a thing as static drama. The three-act structure diagram reveals Cody’s emotional journey. Through the course of the book, she experiences shock, grief, anger…all of the emotions! (Particularly when she opens up to Ben a little bit.)
The young man who inspired this essay found the idea of breaking a story in this manner a little counterintuitive; that’s okay. Just about everything about writing involves practice. Next time you watch a movie or read a book, why not try to break it down into its three-act structure? Next time you are dreaming about your next story, think about where the plot point you have in mind may fit into the structure.
Here’s another way to think of it. If you are thinking, “I want to have a big fight between the the person on Earth who represents evil and one who represents good.” Okay, great. Guess what: that’s probably going to be the turning point in the middle of Act Three. Why? The idea as I expressed it is pretty heavy. It feels like a climax. If you have Luke Skywalker fight Darth Vader at the beginning of Act Two…you have a lot of movie left.
Let’s say you had a crazy idea about a person in prison who plays opera over the PA system for the other inmates to enjoy. Okay, great. But you need story before and after that. A guy playing opera over a PA system is not a punchy climax, really. You’ve seen The Shawshank Redemption; I just described the turning point of Act Two, according to Syd Field.
Here. I’ll even give you a blank version of the chart I made. Can you train yourself to break down the stories you enjoy by their crucial turning points? Ms. Forman can, and look what it did for her!
I don’t particularly believe in supernatural serendipity, though you are welcome to do so. I do, however, think that there are happy coincidences that can add joy to our lives if we are open enough to notice them. Buoyed by some good news a week or so ago, this pessimist drifted about town with no direction in mind. As you might expect, I ended up at the bookstore, as that is my natural habitat.
There was a reading/Q&A going on, so I quietly and politely went on about my browsing because I felt bad about not knowing about it in advance. I did, however, notice that the author was fun and a naturally engaging performer. As you could have guessed, my guilt over crashing the event (in a way) compelled me to pick up a copy of the author’s book and to join the throng of those having it signed. (As a terribly insecure writer, I have nightmares about holding a reading to which no one comes, even though I have never had a solo reading.)
Long story short, the author is awesome and her book is even better. A.S. King is a big-time whose books are of interest to readers of all ages, but are specifically targeted at the Young Adult audience. Reality Boy is her 2013 novel about a young man named Gerald Faust (note the name…) whose parents signed the family up for one of those nanny reality shows when he was five. Blind to the abuse inflicted upon the family by his vile older sister, Tasha, little Gerald expresses himself in one of the only ways a little kid understands: he poops everywhere. Unfortunately, he will forever be known to the world at large as “The Crapper.”
So Gerald is angry. At his mother, at Tasha, at high school classmate jerks who treat him as though he’s still the five-year-old who left a turd in his mother’s shoe for the cameras to find. You know the overall arc of the rest: Gerald comes to terms with his anger, opens up to the right people, sees that he can make a new life for himself.
I’ve referred before to the near-infinite enthusiasm the Young Adult audience has for great works in the category; here’s a book trailer made by a fan:
And here’s a review from a cool young woman who should be able to convince you to buy the book if you haven’t already done so:
Onto the education. Ms. King is a very good writer and the book is very solid in terms of craft. One of the things I admire most about Reality Boy is that it is, as Ms. King describes her work, “gender neutral.” Now, does it make sense to say that all women will like a certain book? Of course not. However, some works, some kinds of subject matter, some tones are going to appeal more to one gender than the other. This is not necessarily a bad thing and people should read books from all genres and about all kinds of people. A.S. King turns the trick of making sure that Reality Boy has a little something for everyone. You have an angry young man whose anger is justified and who needs some love and understanding. You have an insecure young woman who feels she will never be able to escape the categorization thrust upon her by others. You have a dysfunctional family. Reality TV. Lots of emotions and lots of jokes. This is a book that cuts across all demographics, as is the case with all great literature.
I’m forever banging on about the need to #MakeMoreReaders. The statistics show that fewer men and boys are reading literature; Reality Boy is a satisfying book that doesn’t feel like homework. What else do you want in a book, really? More importantly: what is the proper balance in your work between “literary” and “entertaining?” What are our obligations to our audience? To my mind, Ms. King is the best of both worlds: her book satisfies the mind and heart.
In Reality Boy, Ms. King plays with the narrative a great deal. In addition to the good, old-fashioned first-person narration–(I did this, I did that…)–the narrative includes:
Flashbacks to episodes of the nanny reality show in question
Extended sections (that are not too extended) in which the protagonist essentially goes to his “happy place.”
A letter from Gerald to the nanny
Short chapters split by section headings that perfectly balance dialogue and action with the vast amount of introspection Gerlad must do
One reason Reality Boy succeeds so spectacularly is that Ms. King uses the kind of narration that satisfies the story’s needs. Some flashbacks can drag down a story. Please don’t tell John Irving, but I always skip over “The Pension Grillparzer” when I re-read The World According to Garp. It’s a thick stack of pages right in the middle of the narrative that only relates to the larger narrative in smarty-pants ways that are literary and beautiful, but pump the brakes on the story a bit. (Your mileage may vary.) When Ms. King sends Gerald to his happy place, the page or two add to the narrative. Same thing when the author describes another episode of the reality show.
Ms. King is certainly a great writer and a proud literary citizen; if you haven’t checked out any of her work, do consider ordering signed copies from her home indie bookstore, Aaron’s Books in Lititz, Pennsylvania. (That’s another way an author can be a good literary citizen!) And if you’re a YA fan who is surrounded by non-readers or grown-up readers who think they don’t like YA, put this book into their hands.
But don’t take my word for it…
See how much fun Ms. King is during this brief interview with Ariel Bissett, a wonderfully animated writer and reader?
Aggie Winchester dresses like a Goth and engages in modest rebellion with her best friend Sylvia. As the novel opens, in fact, she and Sylvia are about to skip school to get their eyebrows pierced. Aggie’s mother is the principal of her high school, which only complicates things further. The book has two inciting incidents, really: Sylvia reveals that she is pregnant and Aggie’s mother discloses that she has breast cancer.
Through the course of Lara Zielin‘s novel, young Aggie does quite a lot. She copes with her mother’s illness, her ex-boyfriend’s emotional manipulation, the heartbreak of bass fishing, the duplicity of the mainstream media and more. This coming-of-age story ends, of course, with Aggie coming of age and engaging in the identity formation that is one of the purposes of adolescence.
Ms. Zielin is obviously very much interested in her characters, but the book seems to be to be heavier on plot than a lot of books I have read recently. There’s a lot going on:
Aggie’s tattered relationship with Neil
Aggie’s strained relationship with Sylvia
Sylvia’s pregnancy and her desire to have Ryan acknowledge it
The health scare Aggie’s mother is enduring
The prom king and queen election and its many…irregularities
The bass fishing tournament
The general population of St. Davis High already dislikes Aggie to some extent…then has reason to dislike her further
There are a lot of balls in the air in this novel! I find this interesting because I think we’re in a time when plot is slightly less in vogue in many quarters in favor of characterization and other implements in our writers’ toolbox. Here’s what is crucial about Ms. Zielin’s decision to go full speed ahead with plot: the plot is contrived in such a way that it emerges from and reflects upon her characters.
Think about it. Sylvia slept with Ryan and wasn’t vigilant about protection, which resulted in her pregnancy, which exacerbated her need to bring Ryan closer, which made her feel it necessary to do what she did with respect to the prom elections. The pregnancy also served to push Aggie away, which added to her stress levels and also inspired Aggie to do certain things. (I don’t want to give away the whole book!) Ms. Zielin’s characters are both citizens in and creators of the world they inhabit, as should be the case for most of our characters.
How do we know who we truly are? As you have surely heard before, character is who we are in the dark. The way we think and behave when we’re not being watched. Most people, of course, contrive their actions to mollify others, particularly young people like Aggie Winchester and her friends. Aggie’s journey, comprised of the many, many obstacles she faces, results in Aggie exposing more of her actions and thoughts to the light, dismissing what others might think of her.
Ms. Zielin does something with the narrative that I think is interesting. Each chapter is time-stamped like so:
I find the technique interesting because I puzzled over the same issue as Ms. Zielin did when I wrote the YA book I recently completed. How do you depict the passage of time in a way that is simultaneously natural and obvious? A lot happens to and for Aggie between March 9 and May 2…how do you keep the focus on the events themselves and not what the calendar says? Sylvia is pregnant, which adds additional pressure to keep the calendar pages straight; that baby is a-coming out nine months after it was conceived and there are several well-documented and inviolable developmental steps in between. (You can’t have a mother showing when the baby is two months along.) The dates and times, I guess, are great for some readers, but I don’t think I needed them.
The times and dates do, however, function as a grounding device in the same manner as the ones used in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Each episode of that show begins with title cards like these:
In this way, Ms. Zielin reminds the reader that her story is taking place in a world that the reader can recognize, even if the precise date and time don’t matter. Even though Aggie and her mother and Sylvia are going through an exceptional series of events, the kind of confluence of events to which few of us can relate, the chapter title timestamps are subliminal reminders that this world really isn’t that different from our own. Even if the reader skips over them, he or she doesn’t get lost in the narrative and they take precious little page space, so…why not?
Just before the release of the book Ms. Zieling offered us an important lesson in how we deal with the manner in which our work is received. The person who reviewed The Implosion of Aggie Winchester for Kirkus didn’t particularly care for it. That’s okay, I suppose. We know what they say about critics. Writers (and agents and editors) are human, of course, and our hearts can’t talk our minds out of completely dismissing a negative review. Ms. Zielin, who seems like a fun and kind person, allowed her friend to turn the review into a heavy metal song. The lesson seems to be that writers have no way to avoid rejection and negativity, so we must do what we can to take it in stride.