Sunday, April 28, 2013

Warming Up

Long silence, sorry. Life happening. Life is work (some really fascinating books coming up this summer); cooking (I have a great new kitchen and the Mark Bittman How to Cook Everything cookbooks and apps, and I'm loving using both); teaching (in the last two weeks of my Writer's Digest Plot Master Class); and running (the Brooklyn Half-Marathon is in three weeks, and I have to run ten miles later today). Also Mad Men, because I trust Matt Weiner to take us somewhere good.

The Narrative Breakdown podcast is back! James has posted two episodes in the last two weeks, including one on "First Person POV in Film," with our friend Jack Tomas, and "Crafting Subjectivity within Objective Point of View" -- or, more accurately, how to convey a character's thoughts when you're writing third-person -- with me.

Some tidbits I've written in the Master Class discussions, to make up for the lack of content here:

In terms of manuscript reading, when I'm hearing a pitch or something, I think of something "new" as:
1) an unfamiliar/unusual setting or character -- often meaning an international or historical setting, as with WORDS IN THE DUST in the lesson, or a delightful YA historical I published this last spring, THE FIRE HORSE GIRL.  Most parts of the United States do not get to count as new.
2) an unusual combination of elements -- like ninja chick lit, or a dystopian verse novel (not that I have actually seen one of these, but it would certainly be new) (and kind of awesome if done right, now that I'm thinking about it).
3) An inversion of the usual:  An eight-year-old boy who hates dogs, for instance (rather than wanting one as does most of his fictional ilk), or a teenage girl who becomes a superheroine by staying at home (like Sansa Stark made awesome). 

I think the key things that make a book "quiet" are the stakes, the pace, and the tone of the voice. When the stakes are low -- when what might happen obviously isn't going to be life-changing in any direction; for instance, will a certain character make it home in time for dinner -- then it's easy for a reader not to feel invested in the action, since who cares? When the novel dwells more on tiny moments than big gestures -- when the camera is set on an ultra-zoom on the action, let's say, so every glance or twitch seems to have importance to the author -- that can be lovely if we're invested in the characters and the stakes (a la Jane Austen novels)  . . . or it can be deadly slow and quiet, because everything takes forever to narrate, and none of the action is very dramatic, or out of the ordinary way.
And the tone . . . well, there's a difference between a narrator who says "And then it went SPLAT! all over the dirt!" and the one who says "It fell to the ground,"  or the one who takes the time to craft a lovely simile about the moon and include it in the story vs. the one who says "The blood looked black in the moonlight." Which is not to say one is better than the other, because one isn't, and I really like some quieter books -- Sara Zarr and Cath Crowley's novels come to mind. But I do think that if you're writing a quieter novel in today's marketplace, you have to have a really strong voice and really great characters to whom the reader deeply connects to make up for that lack of action.

I think quiet stories achieve success when the world and characters they portray are SO REAL and SO RICH and textured and believable that readers can't help but become involved in them, because they tell the truth about the world we live in -- even if the world in the book is not our particular world. These stories do the small particulars so well they become large and universal. 

Dream sequences can serve a useful function in a novel if the dramatized dream helps the protagonist realize something that is buried deep in his/her unconscious, and that realization plays a role in the plot. BUT, far too often, they are excuses for writers to have lots of beautiful symbols and foreshadowing floating around for a bit that then takes forever to pay off in the actual action, AND they stop that action dead in its tracks for however many pages while the writer gets his or her symbolic ya-yas out. AND some writers use them as the primary way for the main character to receive information, which just feels cheap, as the main character isn't earning that information in any way -- it's a gift to the character from the writer, which really means a gift to the writer from his/herself. I like symbolism (or more accurately, image systems) a lot, and I think it can really enrich a book, but very often dream sequences just feel self-indulgent to me. If you have a lot of them, be sure every one is truly essential to the story, and keep them short. 


  1. Wow, Cheryl, this is fantastic! Thanks for posting this info and especially mentioning "The Narrative Breakdown." I didn't know it existed!

    I just subscribed on iTunes, and am thoroughly excited about this! How generous of you both :) Thank you!

  2. Thanks for a terrific post. Nice to see you back here. Now, I have some symbolic ya-yas to cut. (sigh)

  3. cheryl, i'd be curious to know more writers that you like that are "quiet" both in and out of the YA genre. some of my favorites are alice munro & howard norman. i think james agee's Death in the Family or (oddly) Cormac McCarthy's The Road are the QUIETEST!