Sunday, March 24, 2013

Sunday Book Review: Me Before You

It’s not often that a fiction writer falls in love with a novel. In fact, the more you write, the pickier you get. I debated whether or not to write a review about Jojo Moyes’ latest novel, Me Before You, because frankly, it’s easier to analyze something that is poorly written or breaks every publishing commandment, than praise a book so much you start sounding like a broken record. At running the risk of boring you, dear reader, I decided to talk about this book because as much as we learn from other writers’ mistakes (as well as our own), we can learn from those who excel in their craft.

Me Before You centers around Louisa Clark, a waitress who reluctantly accepts the position of care giver to quadriplegic after she loses her safe and cozy job at a café in her small English hometown. Her new employer, Will Traynor, is a 35-year-old former businessman/playboy/adventurer who’s turned bitter and hopeless after an accident left him paralyzed. Lou has few ambitions in life other than supporting her quaint family and hanging out at a local pub with her long-time boyfriend, Patrick, whereas Will comes to this stand still point after living a “big life,” as he calls it. After the initial clash between the two characters (Will’s mom is the one to hire Lou against her son’s wishes) Will grows used to Lou’s eccentric fashion sense and easy-going, optimistic nature. When Lou finds out Will has lost his will to live, she is determined to change his mind by showing him “fun” ways for him to enjoy life (often with questionable results). The big questions the novel asks are whether or not Lou will change Will’s attitude toward his situation, and whether a life without movement is worth living.

With humor but also moments of intense poignancy, Moyes captures the reader from page one. Her strengths as a novelist are many: not only has she built a plot that screams tension from the very beginning, but she also manages to create relatable and believable characters. Her style is easy and quick, but not flat. The dialogue is sharp and realistic. The first person narration helps us relate to Lou and the prologue serves the purpose of intriguing the reader. Perhaps the only questionable decision was to include four more point-of-view characters into the narrative, which in my opinion offered little else to the development of the story. Sure, Moyes gave us insight into the other characters’ thoughts, but to me, it came at the expense of slowing down the novel’s pace.

Moyes was also successful at making the reader aware of the limitations of life as a quadriplegic (particularly in Europe) where the streets are narrow and there are not a lot of handicap-friendly facilities. As witnesses of Will’s struggles, we realize the harsh realities and daily pain quadriplegics face. This is one of those “book club” novels that will send you directly to a Google search about the intricacies of this condition and certain organizations mentioned in the novel. Moreover, the story will stay with you long after you’ve finished it.

I highly recommend it.

The author, Jojo Moyes.

Have you read this novel? If so, what did you think of it?

Sunday, March 17, 2013


My family hates it when I get really into a book, because I stop talking to them. I stop cooking for them. The dog goes unwalked, the mail languishes in the postbox, I forget to groom. I want to lose myself completely in the world the writer has created until the very last pages: reality is not allowed to intrude. Reading such books is a little bit like falling in love … or addiction.

Luckily for my family, I don’t come across too many addictive books. Most thrillers don’t thrill me, because I seek character development and description, which they don’t tend to provide. Literary books, which I gravitate toward, aren’t typically page turners. But I have recently devoured two thrilling literary books: The Age of Miracles, a novel by Karen Thompson Walker, and Jesus Land, a memoir by Julia Scheeres.

I finished Jesus Land yesterday, and as I turned the last page I flopped back on the sofa and couldn’t move for a few minutes. I had to give myself a period of stillness, a comma, between the world she’d created (in which I’d been thoroughly immersed) and my own life, which seemed very distant. And as I stared at the ceiling, I thought, what was it about that book that pulled me in so deeply? I was hooked right away, so it was something beyond plot or character, both of which take time to develop.

Both Walker and Scheeres are ridiculously talented, but one knack they share is vividness of description. They paint word-pictures in the reader’s mind, and that ability is the quickest way for an author to yank a person from his own quotidian reality into your narrative world. As Stephen King puts it in On Writing, specificity is the nearest we can get to actual telepathy.

Look—here’s a table covered with a red cloth. On it is a cage the size of a small fish aquarium. In the cage is a white rabbit with a pink nose and pink-rimmed eyes. In its front paws is a carrot-stub upon which it is contentedly munching. On its back, clearly marked in blue ink, is the numeral 8.

Do we see the same thing? We’d have to get together and compare notes to be absolutely sure, but I think we do.  … We’re not even in the same year together, let alone the same room … except we are together. We’re close.

We’re having a meeting of the minds.

I sent you a table with a red cloth on it, a cage, a rabbit, and the number eight in blue ink. You got them all, especially that blue eight. We’ve engaged in an act of telepathy. No mythy-mountain shit; real telepathy.

To succeed, this kind of telepathy requires descriptions that are concrete and sensual. “A blue sky” is generic; “a hazy blue sky with a hawk circling at the zenith” is vivid. King warns, however, that specificity is best in short bursts: we don’t need an elaborate description of the rabbit cage’s materials, or the breed of rabbit, or the dimensions of the room. This kind of “prissy attention to detail” does exactly the opposite of good specificity: it pulls the reader out of the story. A novel I read recently that I felt made this mistake was The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. Author Rachel Joyce writes gorgeous descriptive passages, which I admired for their elegance, but which put me to sleep. When reading, I skimmed these paragraphs. When listening on audio, my mind wandered and I kept having to rewind.

My attention never faltered during Jesus Land or The Age of Miracles.

A swiftly slowing planet
From The Age of Miracles:

Christy Castaneda swanned past the library window — it was her birthday too, and not one but two balloons swayed from her delicate wrist, each one signed on the blank silver side in loopy, loving cursive. 

Eyewitnesses reported seeing a bearded man, dressed in robes, howling Scripture on the side of the road. According to their accounts, a station wagon approached from the west at approximately 8:25 p.m. Opinions varied about the speed of the vehicle at the time of impact, but all agreed about the way the man lunged into the path of the car, bent on suicide or miracle. At least six other cars had swerved successfully around him. Ours was the seventh.

Christy is not an important character, but having her full name gives the little anecdote a peculiar sense of truth. Ditto the exact time (8:25 p.m.) and direction of travel (west) in the car-accident scene, as well as the specific number of cars. Just as a liar makes his lie more believable by being precise, so a writer makes her fiction more believable. Such details can veer into the overdescription King warns against, except Walker limits herself to just a few key points, and the scene described is active enough to carry them.

Walker uses a few simple words to create a broad impression: Christy swans, her wrist is delicate, the writing is loopy cursive. These images triangulate to paint a picture that a lesser writer might take an entire paragraph to transmit. You only need a few pinpoints; if they are consistent (swan, delicate, cursive), the reader's imagination will fill in the rest.

The author and her brother David
From Jesus Land:

A group of girls, stuffed into cut-offs and tube tops, their eyes raccoonish with black eyeliner, were leaning against the shaded wall of the cement shack. They sucked on popsicles and cigarettes and jutted out their hips at the trucks and jacked-up Camaros that pulled in for gas.

Deb fries vegetables in beer batter for our supper. We eat wrapped in our towels in her tiny kitchen as the late-afternoon sun falls over the table, warming a handful of marigolds she’s stuck in a chipped-blue vase.

I get out of bed and open the bottom drawer of my desk. There, between the photographs of Lecka, polished seashell and a collection of plastic horses, I find the letter opener I got at a Christmas party gift swap a few years ago. The handle is engraved with Philippians 4:13: “I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me.” It’s metal with a pointed, knifelike tip, and it’s the closest thing I have to a weapon.

The first sentence is near-poetry in its use of internal rhyme, and crackles with staccato-like consonance: stuffed, cut-offs, shack, sucked, popsicle, jutted, truck, jacked. The stage props (cut-offs, tube tops, and Camaros) work together to tell us immediately we’re in the 1980s, without Scheeres having to spell it out. We also get an atmosphere of grimy sexuality.

In the brief description of dinner at Deb’s, we get loads of sensory information, but the action never stops: this is another key to good description. In Harold Fry, Joyce keeps stopping the action to tell us how beautiful the landscape is. But these scenes are static. Humans are animals, and animals react to movement; if you watch a dog or cat dozing, you’ll notice her snap to attention the instant something moves. Same thing with readers: they will get bored if too many words pass without movement. Scheeres couches her descriptions in people doing things; her writing remains dynamic.

The last paragraph, with the letter opener and the plastic horses, has haunted me since I read it. Scheeres does this a few times, juxtaposing an image of innocence, like the horse figurines, with an image of violence, like the letter opener. Instead of informing us that her innocence was stolen from her, Scheeres shows us with these symbolic (and highly specific) objects — and in doing so she makes us feel her fear and loss.

Notice the verbs used in these examples, too: things don’t just exist, they scoot, punch, stuff, suck, swan. I particularly love how “swan,” normally a noun, is used as a verb in the Walker example. You get a twofer with that one: both a sense of gliding, and a visual of the long-necked bird. British writers are particularly adept at turning nouns into descriptive verbs in this way: hooves thunder along a road, silk puddles at her feet, moonlight sieves through the hedgerows. Americans, more literal, have to work at this. When I write a first draft, my verbs are obvious and ordinary. In the rewrite, I take the time to search for more descriptive replacements. (Thank you, A good verb does the work of a dozen adjectives and adverbs.

Now, a challenge for my fellow writer-readers: if you’re reading a book now, or you have a favorite book you keep turning back to, flip it open and find a few descriptive phrases or passages. Think about what makes them work. Share one here if you like, or just write it down in your journal. When you turn back to your own work, see whether this increased attention to detail helps your creative process. I know it does mine.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

The Boba Fett Syndrome: Loving the Dispensable Character

Just what is it about Boba Fett that makes people
love him so much?
I kid you not, but I really did have the following conversation with my husband. We were spending the day doing a little shopping and picking out some much needed items such as t-shirts and, like always, my husband was looking for something cool, something that truly evoked who he was and what made him so geeky. And the choice was between a t-shirt emblazoned with a dastardly and devious Darth Vader or the more cool and collected Boba Fett.
"I'm getting this one," my husband said, holding up the pea-green Boba Fett t-shirt and displaying it as if he'd found a rare hidden treasure even though there were thirty more t-shirts on the shelf. 
"Why?" I for one had never cared for Boba Fett, let alone the whole Star Wars franchise. 
"Because it's cool!" 
I poked a finger at the shirt. "You do realize that he's nothing more than a dispensable character, who speaks no more than three lines during his whole time on screen, which amounts to about three minutes when you add all that screen time together?" 
"Yeah, but he's cool!" 
I stared at him like he was a deranged monkey. "He's not cool." 
"Yeah, he is." He got that preachy tone to his voice, as if he was ready to embark on a long-winded spiel as to why Boba Fett was cool and how could I not possibly see that. I cracked my neck and settled in for his lecture. 
"And what makes him so cool?" Yeah, I know, I shouldn't have baited him. I was just asking for it. 
And so it began. 
Boba Fett was a bounty hunter, had one of the coolest outfits in the whole of the six movies combined, and he had a mission. 
"But it was stupid how they killed him off," my husband grumbled. 
This always comes at the end of the Boba Fett lecture.
I walked away from that conversation somewhat enlightened, even though I didn't figure it out until later. Boba Fett is one of those characters who has an insane following of loyal fans. Even when MTV asked George Lucas back in 1997 what made Boba Fett popular, all he said was, "I don't know why. I'm mystified by it."

Does misery create audience
I half suspect this is why the Academy came up with Oscars for supporting roles (this is just my own speculation, though). Perhaps someone, one day, said, "Hey, you know there are all these minor characters that the audience loves but get no love from us, so why not throw them a bone?" Although he's not the main character who goes through a change, wouldn't City Slickers be a little lackluster without crusty Curly? Then there's the not overly large role of Anne Hathaway's Fantine in Les Misérables. She becomes a dispensable character, playing a short but important role in the fate of her daughter, Cosette. Or how about Dame Judy Dench's controversial Oscar win for Shakespeare in Love? Her 1999 award was awarded because of the whole eight minutes she spent on screen as Queen Elizabeth I. That's a whole five minutes more than Boba Fett's screen time.

But isn't that the way it goes with characters? We end up falling in love with the ones who die untimely deaths or rarely spend any time in the book or on the screen. I had to put my mind to the test and think about a character or two I may have fallen in love with, but in retrospect, only added a dash of something to the story. There are two recent ones that come to mind. (Bear with me, these two characters are nothing like Boba Fett or Queen Elizabeth.)

Ed from Tigers in Red Weather: Ed's narrative doesn't come until the very end of the book, but he is the most compelling character in this entire story. For the most part, the story is fairly lackluster and the plot suffers tremendously, but it's Ed's strange mind that pulls forth the most intriguing thread. If he'd been dealt with as a more important character, then I believe the story would've been stronger for it. And he's not the type of character who's likable. But he has so much potential. Like Boba Fett, you find yourself rooting for his evil and uncouth ways, but, alas, the writer fails to make good use of him. Perhaps that's why so many people flock to Boba Fett. They feel he had so much potential, but instead he died a stupid death before realizing what great things he could have done.

Jamie from The Kitchen House: Jamie is Belle's son and he's half white, half black in the slave system. He doesn't play a large part in the story, but again, it's that potential there that drew me to him. He would be the one to make it in a white world and just think of the choices he could make? Would they be positive ones or ones that would end up destroying him? Would he hide the truth about his bloodline? All I know, is that when I finished this novel, I wanted to follow Jamie into his future. But, from the feel of the novel, he's not important enough of a character to continue following.

And sometimes the explanation isn't how much potential a dispensable character can have. According to this MTV post, it could be something else, particularly when it comes to someone like Boba Fett:
❝It's more than just the armor . . . It's about the actions that he takes, why he takes them, and how that distinguishes him from more archetypal characters.❞
And it really is just that simple. He kicks ass, doesn't take names, and just wants to get paid for the job at the end of the day. Boba Fett is cool in his own way.

Yeah, he did die a stupid death.

If you want to read fans' opinions on the matter, here are some links for you to look at:

Do you have a Boba Fett character in your life? Who is it and why, to this day, can you not forget what makes he/she so great in the storyline?

Sunday, March 3, 2013

To Blog or Not To Blog, That is the Question

Writers blog for many reasons: some do it to express their ideas and thoughts, others want to belong to a guild and discuss a variety of subjects, but a big number seek to create a platform through their blogs. My main concern here is whether or not blogging is an effective self-promotion and marketing tool for unpublished writers.

A few years ago every checklist for the author-to-be included creating a platform via blogging, updating it regularly, finding a niche, etc. This advice included fiction writers. I remember the resolute words of an editor I met at a conference a few years ago. She said that a platform was essential for any writer.

“They tell you a fiction writer doesn’t need a platform, but they’re lying to you,” she said. She mentioned celebrities who write fiction and pointed out how quickly and easily it is for them to publish a book, no matter the quality of the writing or the genre. “It is about who’s in your Rolodex,” she repeated again and again. “It’s all about platform.”

Fast forward to last April. I attended another conference and had the opportunity to speak to a NY agent during lunch. I asked her the following question: what is a significant number of blog followers to make it worth mentioning to an agent or editor? Her answer left me cold. She told me not to even bother mentioning my blog unless I had a minimum of 30,000 followers. Kindly peek at the column in your right and you will see that it would take most of us an entire lifetime to achieve those kind of numbers (unless we post a video of us engaging in activities that involve naked body parts!)

Honestly, I’ve never seen a blog with such a large following.

Another agent who shall remain unnamed told me that a blog is NOT indispensable unless you are a YA writer (since teenagers are so in tune with the internet and technology) but no so much for authors of adult fiction. This makes sense to me, but I also see a lot of adults participating in blogs. 

And what do we make of the fact that most of our readers seem to be writers? Do we, writers, represent a following that could truly translate to readership? Or are we just trying to support each others’ efforts? Sure, most writers are also readers, but does that mean we will read anything other bloggers publish?

There is yet something else to consider: competition. According to Wikipedia, two years ago there were over 156 million blogs in existence. Whether we want to or not, our blogs compete for attention. That is why we break our heads trying to come up with interesting subjects, appealing photos and eye-catching titles. If getting an agent or getting published also requires standing above the rest, should we devote the same amount of time and effort we do with our novels to enhance our blogs?

My conclusion is that it all boils down to motivation. Figuring out what you want to get out of your blog is what determines whether or not you should have one. If your goal is to have an exchange of ideas with like-minded individuals and peers, to build your non-fiction resume with articles/interviews or perfect your writing skills, then blogging is the perfect venue for that. If your goal is only to build a platform, then you’d better come up with a very unique concept that will make your blog stand out and attract a substantial readership.  

So my question here today to all of you successful bloggers, published and unpublished, is this: can a blog create a significant platform for unpublished (fiction) writers? Has your blog helped you in your publishing endeavors? Why do you blog?

For both sides of the issue, check out these awesome articles: