A Love Letter to my Novel

Last night, I couldn’t sleep. I was thinking about a million things (how should I refinish the vintage end table I just bought? Do I have to go back to work? So stressed . . .) But one of the things going through my mind was the problems I’m having with Nicky.

Nicky is the protagonist of my young adult novel. I’ve been writing this for about three years now, and while sometimes I think I’m getting closer to finishing – sometimes it also seems that the end is further away than it was three years ago. I’ve been struggling with the plot (there isn’t one), the secondary characters (they’re not doing enough) and a ‘middle’ that has zero forward momentum. It’s become a nightmare, a quagmire of doubt.

But once – once I loved this novel.

So while I was awake anyway, I started reading Author in Progress, a collection of essays by authors on how to get past some of the major issues we all face as writers. And then this little scrap of advice leaped out at me:

Write a love letter to your story and characters. Capture the feeling so you can use it later for fuel. You’ll need it!

I’ve been thinking about that all day. A love letter to your novel. 

So here goes:

Dear Nicky and the novel you’ve helped create: 

I remember the first time I ‘saw’ you. It was late October, 2014. I was on a walk, on a crisp, sunny fall day. I was taking that Young Adult Fiction class from Oxford and that week, our tutor had asked us what we would never want to write about, and I’d answered “History and racism – because I spend all day teaching history, and racism is so emotionally draining for me. I need the escape of magical realism and urban fantasy, so that’s what I want to do.” 

And then you arrived. That houndstooth driving cap and the matching coat that just about dragged the ground, with your pants legs rolled up and held in place by suspenders that had holes stabbed in them – I knew those weren’t your clothes! That spattering of freckles across your nose and those green eyes – but I barely noticed they were green. What I saw was the challenge. The certainty. The dare. And I heard you, loud and clear “Hey you. Lady! Yeah. You. Write my story.” 

Five minutes later, I knew enough to run home and get started. I knew what drove you – love of family, a need to take care of them and to make your dad proud, and an intense fear of losing it all and being sent to the poor farm, of being separated from your twin siblings and of having your mother locked away. I knew you’d do whatever it took to keep up the facade that everything was all right – even something illegal. I knew you’d take it as a challenge. 

And paired with what I knew of the 1920s and race relations and Prohibition . . . 

This novel has challenged me in ways I never thought possible. The research has been intense, and if I’m honest, it’s not done yet. That could be part of the reason why I’m not able to see the way out of the woods yet. But I know the bigger problem is this:  I want to protect you. I want to keep you safe, because I know the beginning and the ending of your story and I hate it. You’re too damn smart, and at the same time, not smart enough. You can’t turn away, and  you can’t keep your mouth shut, and I adore that about you. You are the me I wish I was. 

But you’ve got your own problems and relationships to deal with, and I’m not trusting you to navigate them on your terms. And this novel can only be written on your terms. I know that. I knew it from the moment you came to me. I have to let go. I have to trust you. I have to let you be yourself. Whatever comes – I have to let it happen. 

As for Hargrove – I know I’m not being fair to him either. Not letting him do what he should be doing. Simon, too, and Bobby. Simon’s conflicted. He doesn’t tell me about that, but he is. Letting you go running all over, risking your life week after week – he knows, Nicky. He knows, more than you, what the dangers are. He lived through Tulsa. To you, it’s just a story. To him, it’s the thing that wakes him up in a cold sweat night after night, his throat raw from screaming. How can he do this? He asks himself that night after night. How can he let the son of his best friend risk his life for money? He’s gotten you into this. He asked you to run for him. He helped you build Abby. He makes the whiskey and the deals. If he quit that, you’d have no choice but to quit, too. Pastor John asks you once, how much money is enough. Simon asks himself that, too. 

But for both of you, it’s not just about the money. It’s about the freedom. Independence. Simon’s his own man; no white man can tell him what to do in his own house, or with his own business. And you, Nicky – all you’ve ever wanted was to be able to save your family, to be seen as the adult you think you are. Running gives you that. And there’s nowhere on earth you’re happier than when you’re behind the wheel, outrunning whoever thinks they can catch you this time. 

I do love this novel. I know it has issues, but the issues are mine. I need to give you all – ALL – more freedom. I need to have more trust that you all – ALL! – know what you’re doing. I have to get back to why I started this to begin with – which was simply to tell the story. Your story. Crashing a Klan rally. I haven’t written that yet, because you already crashed one Klan lecture and frankly, I’m not sure how many you can get away with. But this seems important to you, so all right. We’ll do it. I have to tell this story on your terms, not mine. 

Even if it breaks my heart. 

 

Here’s a link to Barnes and Noble’s site for Author in Progress:  http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/author-in-progress-therese-walsh/1123233497?ean=9781440346712

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What if the Movie is Better Than the Book? Egads!

If you’re a reader (and if you’re reading this, you probably are), then you know the feeling when your favorite book is made into a movie.

First, the excitement. They finally recognize the genius of My Favorite Author! I wonder who they’ll get to play the MC? Oh, it better not be So and So, because I will just die if it is. And that one scene, they have to get that right, or . . .

And then the doubts come marching in. OMG. This is one of my favorite books. What if they screw it up? What if they cut my favorite scene? What if the actor they get to play the MC doesn’t have the right color eyes!? (YES, this matters!) And if they change even ONE WORD of the dialogue, I will SCREAM!!!

And by the time it’s ready to be released . . . well, you’re 100% convinced that this movie will suck and it’ll get everything wrong and there is no way in hell you’re going to go see it. Ever.

Well – maybe. There’s really two groups:  those of us who believe the movie must remain as faithful as possible to the book, and those who don’t mind if there are changes, so long as those changes are good. The problem is, who determines which changes are “good?” I still despise Alfonso Cuaron for what he did to Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Seriously, how hard is it just to make a Patronus that looks like a freaking stag? For crying out loud, you’re doing all this digitally! Just get it right, damn it!

But what happens when you don’t read the book first? Instead, you watch the movie? And fall in love with the movie?

I did this with Practical Magic. It’s one of my favorite movies ever. I love the characters, the dialogue, the actors. That’s why, when I found a copy of Alice Hoffman’s book last week, I decided I’d read it, to see how it compared.

I’m on page 65 and ready to give up.

It’s not just that the book and the movie diverge so radically from each other; it’s because those changes are what make the movie so great. (Oh, I see the villagers with the pitchforks and stones coming to get me now!) But as I run away, let me explain why:

Sally is a much stronger character in the movie. The movie is told from her POV, which draws us into the story immediately and makes us sympathize with her. Gillian, likewise, is a strong woman – a bit too eager to fall in love, but we see how strongly she loves her sister, and that makes her a likeable character. The aunts are fantastic, and the little girls are wonderful. Sally’s #1 goal – to be normal – is jeopardized when Gillian calls for help in getting away from her crazy boyfriend. Because Sally is take-charge and loves her sister, she chooses to help, and things spiral downward from there.

I think what I like most about the movie, though – aside from the characters – is that the supernatural elements are so very, very present throughout. This is a true paranormal movie. You can’t have Ghostbusters without the ghosts, and you can’t have Practical Magic without the magic. All the problems stem from the magic – unlike the book, where all the problems seem to stem from who knows what. If there’s any magic to be found in the book, I have yet to discover it. Maybe it’s past page 65? If so, that’s a long time to wait.

I also can’t stand how the book is written. It’s almost omniscient. We get varying POVs on the same page – a HUGE no-no for any writer. And it’s all telling, not showing. You know how fairy tales are told? “Hansel and Gretel were greedy children, and one day they decided to go for a walk in the woods because they’d heard all about this magical house made of candy. But they didn’t know a witch lived there!” Blah blah blah. This book is written exactly the same way. I though maybe the first 30 pages of this were just exposition, world building, background. But no. Here we are, page 65, and we’re still enduring it.

Here’s a good example of what I mean. These paragraphs are from pages 63 and 64:

Sally sits down. She’s a little woozy hearing all this information about her sister’s life, and the concrete stoop is cool and makes her feel better. Gillian always has the ability to draw her in, even when she tries to fight against the pull. Gillian sits down beside her, knee to knee. Her skin is even cooler than the concrete.

Gillian eyes the house, unimpressed. She truly hates being on the East Coast. All this humidity and greenery. She’d do almost anything to avoid the past. Most probably, she’ll find herself dreaming about the aunts tonight. That old house on Magnolia Street, with its woodwork and cats, will come back to her, and she’ll start to get fidgety, maybe even panicky to get the hell away, which is how she ended up in the Southwest in the first place . . .

It’s crazy how many rules of fiction writing this novel actually breaks – and how many the movie gets right. Because of the way the book is written, I’m removed from the characters. I’m watching them from the outside, and I don’t care about them. I’m not sucked into the story, the way I am with the movie.

That’s why, even though everyone tells me I need to read The Help by Kathryn Stockett, I just can’t bring myself to do it. I adore that movie. I adore the characters. I adore the dialogue. I adore the gritty reality of it. I adore Minnie and her pie. 🙂 I adore Celia and Johnny. Will I hate the book? Maybe. Maybe not. But why risk it? The movie is so perfect.

Usually, the book is better than the movie, no doubt about it.

But sometimes – every now and then – the movie is actually better than the book.

Crazy, huh? 🙂 Especially for a writer.

Why I Hate Goodreads.com

I was talking with a friend yesterday about the importance of getting to know something before you hate on it. Obviously there are things you can hate without knowing them, like a serial killer. Or an animal abuser. Or a child pornographer. I think we can all agree that we don’t need to sit down to tea with people like this in order to dislike them. (Though as writers, we may find something in that teatime conversation that makes them into a well-rounded antagonist – again, something most of us probably don’t want to do.)

But I hate Goodreads.com.

There. I said it. I realize this is like saying “I don’t think Bradley Cooper is good-looking.” I realize that for a reader and an aspiring author, this is probably a Kiss of Death. So be it.

I’ve tried to get into it. I’ve tried to give it a chance. And to be fair, I did find my new favorite YA series, “Shades of London” by Maureen Johnson, there two weeks ago.

But there are so many things to hate about it. The layout. The font. (News flash:  the rest of the world uses sans-serif fonts for a reason.) The God-awful number of typos on the site (for a site about READING, the number of typos I can find on just one page of Goodreads’ own policies – not reviews, but content that they post, is ludicrous. Get. A. Proofreader. I cannot take a site seriously if it has that many typos.).

But most of it comes down to the PEOPLE on the site – the reviewers.

As far as I can tell, most of the people who leave reviews on Goodreads fall into the following categories:

  • People who spent most of middle school being shoved into lockers or trash cans. Or both.
  • People who turn to Goodreads to torment people because if they didn’t, they’d be well on their way to becoming serial killers.
  • People who SERIOUSLY need to go get lives. Who need to go volunteer in a soup kitchen or a humane society and see what life is really like outside four bedroom walls and the covers of a book.
  • People who are so pathetic that the only way they can feel good about themselves is to bring others down.

Goodreads’ own policies encourage this behavior. In their Review Guidelines, they come right out and say “Goodreads has some of the best book reviews anywhere. Our members are passionate, knowledgeable readers, and their contributions to the site are what make it such a vibrant and fun place.”

Another quote from their Review Guidelines: “Don’t be afraid to say what you think about the book! We welcome your passion, as it helps the millions of other readers on Goodreads learn what a book is really about, and decide whether or not they want to read it. We believe that Goodreads members should see the best, most relevant, thought provoking reviews (positive and negative) when they visit a book page. Our job is to show members those reviews, and not show reviews that we deem to not be appropriate or a high enough level of quality.”

In other words, we here at Goodreads are too lazy to figure out what’s trash and what isn’t, and intend to rely on the community to police themselves. Members *can* flag posts they feel are inappropriate and/or break the rules. But I’m willing to bet that none of these are ever removed.

News flash, reviewers:  A pathetic attempt to make yourself feel better by trashing someone else’s work – or worse, trashing someone else – is just that:  pathetic. It shows that you have zero maturity, zero self-control, and frankly, zero self-confidence. Your attempts to be clever are not clever in the slightest.

Those of us who truly love books and writing are out doing what we love to do, not wasting countless hours trying to convince everyone else that We Are Right and You Are Wrong by writing long, involved, and nasty reviews of books we may OR MAY NOT have read. We hold rational discussions. We recognize – because we’re writers, too – that the book you so zealously and callously demolish in your review is someone’s baby. As such, it deserves respect. That person got off their ass and wrote something, and finished it, and it was good enough to get published (unless it was self-published). That’s more than YOU have ever done, I’m sure of it.

(For clarification, here are links to Goodreads’ guidelines, as well as another page explaining in more detail what is and what might not be allowed. I still find these to be as fuzzy as a Persian cat wearing a mink stole.)

https://www.goodreads.com/review/guidelines

https://www.goodreads.com/topic/show/1499741-important-note-regarding-reviews