Playing What-If: a review of ‘The Heartless City’

As writers, we all play the ‘what-if’ game. What if . . . someone used standing stones to go back in time in Scotland? What if . . . there were vampires/werewolves/werecats/werewhatevers? What if . . . the world’s greatest art thief got caught and started working for the FBI instead? What if . . .

About a month ago, I walked into my local coffee house and saw a sign on the wall announcing a local author who would be doing a book signing soon. That’s cool – but we’ve frankly got a lot of local authors, most of them self-published. What stopped me in my tracks was the cover:ย  cover1000-1-678x1024

Yeah. Remind you of anything? Maybe this?

9781416975861

The Infernal Devices trilogy is my favorite Young Adult series ever (so much better than Mortal Instruments – more depth, more character development, more conflict!). So I had to go.

Andrea Berthot lives right here in my home town, and she was gracious and lovely. When I admitted the reason I was curious about the book was due to the cover, she laughed and said she loved it for that reason, too – when they asked her what she wanted for the cover, the only thing she could think of was a boy and the London skyline.

And she plays the ‘what if’ game. For her first novel, The Heartless City, it was a historical and fictional question:ย  what if Dr. Jekyll was real, and what if his experiments didn’t end where Robert Louis Stevenson said they did?

The Heartless City is the first book of Berthot’s Gold and Gaslight Chronicles series. It’s a re-imagining of the Jekyll and Hyde tale. It starts in 1903, thirteen years after Dr. Jekyll’s experiments went horribly wrong, resulting in the creation of more Hyde-like monsters – and a total quarantine of London. No one out. No one in. The Lord Mayor has taken over as a quasi-king; Parliament has moved to York; food is rationed and no one has news of the outside world.

In this world lives Elliot Morrissey, the son of the Lord Mayor’s personal doctor, and his best friend Cam (the Lord Mayor’s son). Elliot, due to a misbegotten experiment of his own, is an empath – he can feel every emotion of every person around him. Handy, when there are monsters to avoid. Not so handy, when people desperately need to hide certain things.

After going to a ‘dance hall’ for Cam’s birthday, they meet Iris, who is also not what she seems to be. Together, the three will have to figure out if there is any way to cure the Hydes – and who has a vested interest in not curing them.

As a writer, it’s difficult to review books – I always want to offer constructive criticism, as if I’m nothing more than a beta reader and there’s still time to change things! I think it’s more difficult for writers, in fact, than people who are only readers. Those who don’t write really don’t understand the amount of work that goes into writing a novel. The hours you spend on research, putting fingers to keyboard, editing with red pen in hand – those are hours you’ve chosen to subtract from other areas of your life.

So writers have a bit of empathy for fellow writers that often stays our hand when we might otherwise be harsh. Because we can read a scene and even if it doesn’t sound quite right to us, we know that the author probably spent hours and hours and hours in rewrites on it. We also know that agents and editors have to have their say and (I know this is heresy, but . . .) those changes may not always be for the best.

There was a lot to like inย The Heartless City – the friendship between Elliot and Cam, the way Berthot handles the overwhelming emotions Elliot feels, and his real conflicts about what to do about it. Philomena sparkles on the page as the comedy relief/bad-ass girl rebelling against her heritage and station in life. Iris – well, truth be told, I’m still unsure what I think of her; sometimes she didn’t feel ‘real’ to me. It’s Cam and Philomena that most resonate on the page – Cam’s desperation to know more of the outside world – to be freed of the hell that London has become – is palpable and I sympathize with it completely. (Truth be told, I found Cam more interesting than Elliot, and I hope that the third book will focus on him.)

The story flows smoothly, though I admit I did lay it down for several days after about chapter 4 – it felt a bit slow to begin – and the Hydes seem to get lost after a time. The main antagonist is believable – a bit two-dimensional, but we all know people like this (cough-Trump!-cough), so that didn’t bother me too much, either. Honestly, part of me prefers a villain I can just hate. ๐Ÿ™‚

One of the things I disliked about the book was something that I dislike in a lot of YA – or even a lot of adult books, for that matter – which is what I call “Twilight Romance Syndrome” (TRS, for short). This is when the two main characters fall in luuv instantly, without knowing the slightest bit of information about the other – basically the idea that “he/she is hot, he/she is fascinating/brooding/unavailable, so I MUST fall in love with them NOW!” Thus it was with Elliot and Iris, who were declaring love after only knowing each other for a few days.

I’ve posted about this particular pet peeve of mine before, and I’m sure I’ll do so again. Authors, please, do us all a favor:ย  your characters can fall in love all they want, but for heaven’s sake, let them do it gradually! Make it real. Make it believable.

For some reason, I actually found Cam’s romance with . . . um, someone, must not give too many spoilers! . . . more believable, maybe because I saw it coming a mile away. Or maybe because it was hinted that this romance had developed over the last several weeks or months – again, gradually.

Rant over. Back to the review:

One other thing I think Berthot could have worked on more was her use of language, particularly dialect and accent. Anyone who’s read a lot of Victorian literature knows it’s a very specific style of speaking (and the upper and lower classes had their own ‘dialects,’ even), and since London had been under quarantine since 1890, I would expect much more Victorian-esque speaking. But except for a bit of Cam’s good-natured jests, there wasn’t much of that here. The characters don’t even sound particularly British. If you watch any good British shows like Downton Abbey or Doc Martin, you get a feel for how true Brits speak – the rhythms, the sentence structure, the words. There just wasn’t any of that here, and that’s something true Anglophiles need. (A good example of someone who does this well is Naomi Novik, whose Temeraire series is set during the Napoleonic Wars.)

But overall, as a debut novel – especially one in the alternate history/paranormal realm – it’s a good first effort. Solid characters, solid plot, solid writing. And in the age-old game of ‘what if,’ it excels.

 

The second book in the series, The Hypnotic City, which follows Philomena’s adventures in New York City, is available.

A link to the Curiosity Quills Press’s homepage for the Gold and Gaslight Chronicles:ย  https://curiosityquills.com/series/gold-gaslight-chronicles/

 

 

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Rethinking the Story Arc in Novels

Writers need to take inspiration wherever they find it. It might not be pretty, or conventional, but if it’s there and you don’t use it – then the moment will pass you by and you’ll probably come to regret it.

Such was the case this summer with my young adult novel.

I’ve been struggling with it for some time. I know the ending; I knew the ending from the first line, in fact, since it’s bookended. I knew the beginning and I had dozens of scenes drafted out, ready to go. What I kept stumbling over was that traditional story arc – rising action on top of rising action, your MC’s journey, his setbacks, his struggles to get to the next level – you get the gist.

Some might say that I didn’t know the story well enough, if that was my problem and there’s no doubt a grain of truth there. I knew my MC. I didn’t know his nemesis very well; his motives were murkier, more difficult to sort out. All I’ve ever gotten from this guy is stone-cold killer, and in that case, why not just take out my MC on page 80 and have done with it? What was holding him back?

But what puzzled me more was all those scenes I had. I thought I knew what order they went in, and yet, when I tried to fit them together into a coherent novel, they refused to fit snugly into place. Stupid puzzle pieces. Don’t they KNOW they’re supposed to go together? ๐Ÿ™‚

So this spring, I thought – maybe this isn’t one novel. Maybe it’s really two novels.

And oddly enough, when I thought about it that way and started putting together what I thought was Book 1 – puzzles pieces began to slide into place.Scenes got deleted. Scenes got moved up. New scenes were written. It was smoother and flowed and it wasn’t quite perfect but it was better – and yet.

There wasn’t a story arc.

There was no forward momentum.

I pondered. I walked. I paced. I ate a lot of chocolate cake. I demanded toย  know why my characters weren’t doing what I wanted them to do.

And Nicky, my MC, gave me a look from under his tweed driving cap and said “‘Cause you know it’s only one novel and don’t you go thinking you’re gonna change that ending, either, lady. You ain’t.”

So. I had a nice beginning and nowhere to go with it. In frustration, I jotted down every scene on a separate notecard and tacked them to the wall, where I could rearrange them at will. I’ve done that before, with a good deal of success. But not this time. Yes, I knew I could create a story arc, but the very idea felt artificial. It felt wrong. It almost felt like a violation of my characters. And Nicky was absolutely refusing to go along with it, anyway.

I refused to let it go. I had to figure out how this novel went together. I was trying to write, trying to force scenes into place, but it felt like I was stitching together a Frankenstein-esque monster – a mishmash of parts that didn’t quite fit. I spent days wrestling with it.

Then, finally – THANK YOU, UNIVERSE! – inspiration hit.

Maybe I was thinking about it wrong. Maybe instead of trying to make it fit into a story arc model *(which, I’ll admit, is a difficult concept for me to visualize even with flow charts and, well, visuals), I needed to think about a different model. One I know well.

Television series. Television seasons.

Oh, I know. I’m a traitor. Shoot me now. But wait.

It actually worked.

Really. It did. I thought about the first season in a television series – how there’s usually an overarching theme or goal or quest, how you’re getting to know the characters, how by the end of that season, that overarching goal should be reached. It often leaves you on a cliffhanger as well – and if it’s not picked up for Season 2, you write many bad letters to, let’s say, CBS – but not everything is focused 100% on that goal in every episode. It might be mentioned in some episodes, with no visible progress made. And some episodes are devoted to that goal completely.

Take, for example, Season 1 of Supernatural. From episode 1, you know Sam and Dean have some relationship problems, they need to find their dad, and they’re on a quest to hunt the demon that killed their mother and Sam’s girlfriend. That’s not the only thing they do during that season, of course – there are a lot of monsters to hunt out there. ๐Ÿ™‚ But. By the end of Season 1, they’ve found their dead, shot the demon they were hunting, and begun to act as a team. We’ll ignore the cliffhanger.

Or Season 1 of my favorite cancelled show ever, Moonlight. From Episode 1, we know that Mick is a vampire living in L.A., he’s in love with a mortal named Beth, and all he wants is to be human again. Oh, and he’s a PI. During the season, he’s forced to reveal his true nature to Beth, and by the end of the season, they are sort of together – though Beth has doubts about how they can fit into each others’ worlds – and Mick is on the trail of something that might make him human again. (And then the bastards at CBS cancelled it.)

For some reason, this makes more sense to me than the traditional story arc idea. I know it’s basically the same thing, but the idea of ‘episodes’ instead of ‘chapters’ somehow made it easier to slot scenes into place. I went to my local coffee shop and three hours later not only had the entire timeline drafted into 20 ‘episodes’ but also had rearranged the entire manuscript, complete with notes about what needed to be added or changed when I got to that point. It wasn’t set in stone – I gave myself permission and room to rearrange as needed – but I had the basics.

Not to say it’s been perfect – I’m still fiddling with it, and just rearranged a pretty major scene yesterday – but the framework is there and I can live with that.

And from there, I can move forward – something I haven’t been able to do for months.

 

‘The Quiet Man’ and Secondary Characters Revisited

I’ve been struggling with my young adult novel, and whenever I find myself floundering, I turn to writing books to kick-start the brain, and look at things from a different perspective. This time, I picked up The Breakout Novelist:ย  How to Craft Novels That Stand Out and Sell by Donald Maass.

One thing I was struggling with was my secondary characters. I don’t know why exactly, but in my previous novels, my secondary characters have been great – they come onstage, they fulfill their roles, and sometimes they even take over scenes. They have voices, backgrounds, traits, goals and dreams. They both further and hinder my protagonists. Which is precisely what a good secondary character should do. But in my YA novel – not so much!

Maass emphasizes that your secondary characters need a purpose. Are they there to be sidekicks to your MC, like Ron and Hermione were for Harry Potter? Are they there to be your MC’s antagonists (like Draco Malfoy)? How do they further the plot, and what role do they play in that (Sirius Black, Dumbledore, Mad-Eye Moody)? If your secondary characters don’t do anything other than be a talking head (unless you’re talking about Bob the Skull from Harry Dresden), then there’s room for improvement.

the quiet manAs I mulled this over (and continue to mull this over), I was delighted to find one of my favorite movies on TV yesterday – John Ford’s The Quiet Man. Starring John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara, it’s about an American boxer who goes back home to Ireland after a tragic incident in the ring, and falls in love with the sister of the town bully. I love this movie – it’s so well-written, so wry and funny. It’s got great tension and conflict. But what struck me as I watched it yesterday is how much the secondary characters play a role!

Sean Thornton (John Wayne) arrives in Ireland to find Michaleen O’Flynn waiting for him at the train station. He’ll be Sean’s sidekick, giving him sage advice, acting as his mediator, and educating him on the social conduct of Ireland (“‘Tis a bold, shameful man you are, Sean Thornton! And who taught you to be playing patty-fingers in the holy water?”) ๐Ÿ™‚

Then there’s Will Danahur, the brother of Mary Kate, Sean’s love interest. A typical selfish bully, Danahur has one weakness:ย  he’s in love with the Widow Tillane. When Sean outbids Danahur on a cottage (owned by the Widow Tillane), he swears vengeance, and when Sean asks for Mary Kate’s hand in marriage, he denies the request.

Enter two more secondary characters, the Reverend Playfair and Father Lonergan. Together with Michaleen, they plot to get Danahur to change his mind by insinuating that if he got Mary Kate out of the house, the Widow Tillane might be willing to marry him. (“Two women in the house. And one of them a redhead.”) That’s not Sean’s doing! He knows nothing of it. These three take it upon themselves to change the fates of all involved. And it works – sort of. Danahur relents, only to screw things up at the wedding and then refuse to give Mary Kate her dowry. Without that, she can’t consider herself truly married.

Notice how little Sean does here? He’s the title character, but it’s this lovely cast that does the major work! Why? Because Sean’s afraid to fight. He killed a man in the ring – he didn’t mean to, but he refuses to risk it again. It’s not until he finally realizes his marriage – and his reputation – are in jeopardy that he stands up to Danahur and they have their major sprawling donnybrook (“Marquis of Queensbury Rules!”). Mary Kate, secure in the knowledge that her husband really does love her, simply saunters off, calling over her shoulder that she’ll “have the supper on when you get home.”

pointing+hand+vintage+image+graphicsfairy2THIS IS HOW YOUR SECONDARY CHARACTERS SHOULD BEHAVE. They need to give your protagonist something to react to. If it feels like your story is growing stagnant, don’t look to plot – look to your secondary characters.

 

  • What are they doing?
  • Do they all play a role?
  • If not – cut the ones that aren’t pulling their weight.
  • Is there a way to combine two of them? If so, do it.
  • Can you give them more conflict?
  • Is there a place where one of them might work against the protagonist? Maybe they’re corrupted by the antagonist, or threatened by them, or simply have different beliefs? Highlight that.
  • Is there a place where they can provide aid or information the protagonist needs?
  • And although they won’t have a story arc to match that of your MC – your secondary characters, particularly the most important ones, probably will change over the course of the novel. Make sure we see that. Make sure it’s believable and necessary. How does that change work for or against your protagonist?
  • And . . . remember. At least some of your secondary characters are support for your MC. As you think about how to make his life more difficult, how much support can you remove, and how? Some may die. Some may change their minds, abandon the MC.
  • What about the ones that are against your MC – how can you make them stronger, more of a force that works against your MC? They have story arcs, too!
  • How do they react to your MC’s actions? Just like in real life, there’s going to be backlash for something said or done. How can this add to the tension in your novel?

I know it’s emphasized over and over again that your MC drives the novel. But the secondary characters are the foundation on which your MC’s story is built. By ensuring they’re as strong and vibrant as you can, you’ll ensure that your MC’s journey is just as compelling.

Link to Barnes & Nobel, where you can buy Donald Maass’ book:ย  http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/writing-the-breakout-novel-donald-maass/1102359686?ean=9781582971827

Everything you needed to know about microfilm . . .

But were afraid to ask!

If you’re writing anything historical – fiction or nonfiction – research is in your future. It can be daunting if you don’t know what you’re doing, or what you’re truly in for.

I’m a regular at my local library, where all the Arkansas City Traveler issues are on microfilm. Ever use microfilm? It’s a bugger. When I was in grad school, I had to do several research papers using microfilmed sources, and it was exhausting. It hasn’t gotten easier!

Microfilm can be fantastic in several ways. For instance:

  • If you have allergies, there’s no worries about dry, dusty, moldy papers.
  • And, one of the greatest things:ย  if you need a newspaper from another town or state, you can usually get them via interlibrary loan. I’ve done that a few times, and it’s fantastic. As with anything, there’s a time limit on how long you can keep them; don’t order too many at a time. You’ll need to get the card catologue number from the library, but then you should be able to take that to your library and in a week or so, have what you need.
  • Conversely, if you know exactly what articles you need and when they were printed, you can probably pay the library to print them for you, and send them.

Actually using the microfilm is fairly simple, and most librarians will be happy to give you the five-minute tutorial. All the machines I’ve worked with were made in the 1960s. You could run over them with a semi and not hurt them, so don’t worry about that. There’s a button to turn it on; you feed the film through the rollers, and voila! Done. There are small wheels you turn to enlarge, sharpen, and rotate the film.

When you find an article you want, you can print it (they have printers attached). But here’s something REALLY, REALLY important:ย  make sure it’s set to print black ON white, not white on black. The default is almost always white on black, which is impossible to read. Other than that . . . It’s simple. Almost too simple. ๐Ÿ˜‰

But there’s things to keep in mind:

  • Every library has their own rules about who can use the microfilm. You might have to get a card, or sign you life away in blood. (Kidding. Mostly.)
  • You can’t remove the microfilm from the library (though unless you have a machine at home, who’d want to?).
  • It’s bloody hard work. I’d honestly rather work with real newspapers, despite the fact I’d die of an allergy attack if I did. If you get motion sickness AT ALL, take Dramamine or whatever before you start.
  • Why?ย  Glad you asked. Because looking at those bloody screens for more than an hour will make you want to poke your eyes out with a stick, that’s why. If you have eye problems, or get eyestrain easily, this might be really difficult for you. Plan on short excursions, and know what you want to accomplish beforehand.

For me, microfilm is deadly. It tends to trigger migraines if I work on it too long. I can be on it for an hour at most. In order to see the articles you’re looking for, you’ll have to enlarge the film – which means you’ll be moving the film up and down and sideways in order to see the entire page. It’s possible to fit an entire page on a screen (sort of), but then the print is so tiny, you can’t read it. If this is a problem for you, plan accordingly.

Alternatively, you can hire people to do the research for you, if you’re not a control freak like I am. Or if you know precisely what you’re looking for. Professional researchers, who often charge $25/hour or more. Retired folk who want something to do. Hungry college kids who’d like to eat protein this week. Libraries may be able to put you in touch; so can local historical societies.

But, I’ll warn you:ย  this does take some of the fun out of it. Youย  never know what you’re going to find. When I was researching my historical nonfiction, for example, I kept a file folder on hand just to keep the interesting tidbits that had nothing to do with the research I needed. Serial killers, axe murderers, disappeared children, lynchings . . . small things I want to go back and look at, when I can. And for my YA novel, I keep finding cool things that don’t necessarily have to do with the stories I need (mostly Klan activity in the area), but are just additional bits of color to toss in, like cherry tomatoes in a salad. ๐Ÿ™‚

So yes. If you’re doing historical research of any kind, there’s just no getting around it:ย  you’ll be using microfilm sometime. And microfilm can be your friend in so many ways.

But it can also be your doom.

Don’t say you weren’t warned. ๐Ÿ™‚

 

Here’s a few other blog posts related to this one:

https://kswriterteacher.wordpress.com/2014/12/14/when-a-historians-dream-comes-true/

https://kswriterteacher.wordpress.com/2014/12/21/historical-fiction-playing-in-the-sandbox/

https://kswriterteacher.wordpress.com/2014/03/12/down-the-rabbit-hole/

‘Get a Wiggle On’ in your research

You’re reading a novel. You adore the characters, you LOVE the setting, and you know the topic – it’s about one of your favorite time periods or hobbies or whatever. The author has done their job. Everything flows. Everything’s right.

Until it isn’t.

Until you reach that one sentence where your eyes stumble to a stop. You pause, confused. Because surely the author didn’t get that wrong, did they? You re-read the sentence, certain it’ll be different this time.

But it’s not.

The author has screwed up.

It might seem difficult to believe, that in today’s world of Google and online libraries and Wikipedia and multiple editors, that we could still screw up. Historical novels are especially hard to get right, unless you’ve done your research and have an expert or two in your stable, ready to set you straight if you start to go wrong.

I’m working on these issues right now with my young adult novel. It’s set in 1924, and the dialect isn’t difficult to get right – but the language is! So are a myriad of other things that I don’t know much about, and I’m having to research them.

The 1920s had a language all their own. Most of us are familiar with speakeasies, bootleggers, and flappers. But what about all the other things people said? People who grew up in the 80s can recognize each other within five minutes by the things we say. The 20s must have been the same way. ๐Ÿ™‚ What trips me up, though, are the little sayings I keep having to look up.

For example:ย  there’s a scene where my main character, Nicky, needs to get out of town in order to make a run (of liquor, to a speFord17touring1 -- Abbyakeasy) on time. Originally, I had it written as:

I rolled out of Silverdale – the train was waiting at the station as I went by, and from the way she was puffing I knew I’d have to book it to get to the crossing ‘fore it did.

I probably left that sentence like that for a year before it occurred to me to wonder if ‘book it’ was even a term used in the 1920s. As it turns out, it wasn’t! But a quick internet search gave me a proper 1920s phrase instead, and the sentence became:

I rolled out of Silverdale – the train was waiting at the station as I went by, and from the way she was puffing I knew I’d have to get a wiggle on to get to the crossing ‘fore it did.

There were a lot of terms I could have used there instead, to be honest – but I liked this one.

Then there was the term ‘hot rod.’ That gave me fits! Because it was perfect for the line I had to write when the local sheriff comes to give Nicky the shakedown. But I couldn’t get around the fact that the term ‘hot rod’ didn’t come into widespread use until sometime in the 1930s. So I had to default to ‘roadster.’

On top of that, I have to get the car stuff right, because Nicky’s a car guy. He loves his runner more than life, I think. ๐Ÿ™‚ So I had to do a lot of research on that, especially since I love cars, but I can’t tell you anything about the mechanical workings of them. I knew I had a kid with a 1916 Model T and a 1917 Cadillac V-8 and how would he marry them together to form a complete car? I’ve got notes scribbled all over about car dimensions, Cadillac ignition systems, and my Holy of Holies, a 1917 car manual that covers almost every car ever made in that year, including diagrams of all the engines (courtesy a trip to my favorite local antiques store, of all things!). And then there’s the greatest writing trick of all:ย  vagueness.ย 

Another favorite trick for this novel is newspaper articles. Since Nicky needs to know what’s going on in his world, he reads the local paper constantly. LOVE the fact that my library has them on microfilm! So easy to work them into the narrative – in fact, there’s one very key scene in which Nicky infiltrates an actual event covered in one article. It’s probably my favorite scene in the book, and the speakers’ words are 90% verbatim from the article. (Yes, it will be cited properly if it’s ever published, thank you.)

Here’s a sad fact:ย  most of your research will never make it into your book. Diana Gabaldon has a great story about this in her Outlandish Companion – when she was researching Dragonfly in Amber, she ran across some information on how the ladies of the aristocracy used the bathroom at lavish soirees, in those enormous hoop skirts. So how did they do it? Let’s leave it at this:ย  if you have ever wanted a genuine antique carpet, hold that thought. Forever. ๐Ÿ™‚ย 

So don’t let writing history scare you – there’s loads of resources out there. But don’t get complacent, either.

Here’s some links to 1920s – or Jazz Age – language, if you’re interested. ๐Ÿ™‚

http://thoughtcatalog.com/nico-lang/2013/09/59-quick-slang-phrases-from-the-1920s-we-should-start-using-again/

http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2012/10/how-sound-bees-knees-dictionary-1920s-slang/322320/

http://home.earthlink.net/~dlarkins/slang-pg.htm

And, because she’s my hero, an interview with Diana Gabaldon about (in part) her research process:ย  http://americanlibrariesmagazine.org/2015/01/08/an-interview-with-diana-gabaldon/

Challenged – and Challenging – Books

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about whether fiction is a safe place, and my own experiences with The Picture of Dorian Gray. I determined that fiction – even if age-appropriate – is not only a dangerous place, but that it should be a dangerous place. That it should force you beyond your comfort zone, and push you to think about things you’d rather never consider, and in the process, make you grow. Make you stronger. Make you more diverse and broad-minded and hopefully, more educated.

One way in which religions and governments have always tried to control the populace is by controlling what they read. From the Catholic Church’s Index of Forbidden Books to the current push by individual school districts to ban certain books from school libraries, books have always been regarded as dangerous.

As well they should be.

Although the Index was abolished in 1966, it remains an indelible part of history. My students are flabbergasted to learn that great scientists such as Copernicus and Galileo had their works listed, that philosophers such as Descartes and Locke and Hume are on the list, that books such as Gibbons’ The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and Flaubert’s Madame Bovary were on the list.

Yet it’s no different than the efforts to ban certain books in schools across America today. Some, like Fifty Shades of Grey, I totally get – in fact, one librarian in Florida refused to put it in her library not due to the content, but because it was poorly written. ๐Ÿ™‚ But that begs the question:ย  is it ever up to us to decide what someone else reads?

As a writer, I say no. As a teacher, I say no.

Fiction may not be a safe place – but it’s far safer for students to become exposed to issues like racism, drug/alcohol abuse, suicide, death, parental abuse, etc. than anywhere else. We want to ban books because they discuss such topics – but kids go through this every day. Not only that, but they’re online. They watch TV. They see this stuff anyway. The difference is, they see it in real life, with no tools to handle it or process it.

Fiction gives them those tools. By allowing them to read about fictional characters who are going through difficult situations, it allows them to see how this character handles it – and the results of their choices. It gives them a way to discuss what they would have done instead, or options the character may have had. They have a chance to identify with someone, perhaps someone who’s going through a very similar thing. Not only that, but these characters sometimes give kids a role model, someone to look up to. How many teenage girls went to archery ranges after The Hunger Games became popular? Maybe more importantly, how many of them realized that girls could hold their own against boys? Maybe even gave them the confidence to defend themselves if the need arose?

This is one reason why To Kill a Mockingbird is still a classic today. (We’ll forget that other, second book for a moment.) Through Scout’s eyes, we’re able to understand Jim Crow South. We’re able to see racism from her vantage point. We’re able to see the hatred and fear of the town, and the incredible courage Atticus Finch shows. Atticus (until that second book, anyway) gave us a father figure to look up to. Published in 1960, just six years after Brown v. Board of Education, just five years after the murder of Emmett Till, it showed the world the South that Harper Lee knew. It drove home the fact that the South she knew was still very much alive. And I like to think it gave whites the courage to stand up for what they knew was right, to start joining the fight for civil rights.

Was it challenged? Of course. By both blacks and whites, generally on grounds of racial content, racial slurs, profanity, and sexual content. It’s been challenged – and banned – since it was published.

But that’s the point. It challenged us.ย 

All good books should challenge us. That’s what good literature – whether adult or young adult – should do. The Hunger Games and Divergent challenge us to consider a future with a totalitarian government in which all civil rights are eradicated. Thirteen Reasons Why, although many people have pointed out that the reason for the suicide may not be believable, is still disturbing to a lot of adults – I taught this book in a Young Adult Fiction class designed for teachers, and I was surprised that this was the book that most disturbed them, that they didn’t think they could actually use in a classroom. The Book Thief forces us to consider the evils of Nazi Germany – but also, to recognize that not everyone bought into Hitler’s vision, and that many were just trying to survive.

So, yes. Some books are dangerous. Some make us question our beliefs. Some make us question our upbringing. Some make us question our society.

And that’s exactly what they’re supposed to do.

 

Some links you might find interesting:

http://www.ala.org/bbooks/frequentlychallengedbooks/classics – the American Library Association’s ‘Banned Classic Book’ List

http://www.ala.org/bbooks/top-100-bannedchallenged-books-2000-2009 – the most challenged books from 2000 – 2009.

http://legacy.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/indexlibrorum.asp – the Index of Forbidden Books, from Fordham University

 

 

When Less is More

It’s something we all hear from time to time – less is more.

But when it comes to writing, what does that mean, exactly?

Yesterday, as I was working on my young adult novel, I was reminded yet again of this adage, and how it affects my writing – generally for the better.

Most writing books will have something to say on this topic. Stephen King will tell you that adverbs are the work of the devil. A lot of writers will tell you that dialogue tags are the first thing that need to go in a manuscript (which has some merit; after all, if your dialogue and action don’t tell who’s talking, then you’ve got some work to do). Description? Of course you need it, but do you need ten pages of description? Probably not. That’s why it’s so important to work details like that into the narrative.

(I read the first page of a manuscript once where it was nothing – nothing! – but a description of this spaceship. I was so bored and confused by the end of the first paragraph that I told him to start with a character and the character’s problem, and work these details in later.)

So yesterday. I was working on my manuscript and I had several places where there were ‘problem sentences’ – sentences that didn’t quite make sense in the context to the scene, that needed rewritten.

Or did they?

Take for instance this one (problem sentence is in bold):

Bart hauled me to my feet and tucked his gun away. “Scrappy little thing, aren’t you?”

“I don’t take nothing off nobody,” I said.

He laughed. “I can see that.”

“Bart.” Sally’s voice came down the hall. “Bring the kid in here.”

And then he dragged me down the hall and into that room.ย 

Next to that line, I scribbled Why? She needs to ask why Bart has Nicky in the basement. And then I realized that just down the page a bit, she does ask. And so – voila! Less is more.

pointing+hand+vintage+image+graphicsfairy2

Cut the problem line, and it reads just fine.

I can’t tell you how many times that trick has saved a scene for me. Here’s another example:

He stared at me, and for the first time since I’d known him, I saw fear, real fear, in his eyes. “You met Collins? He was there?”

“He liked Abby real well.” I bit the inside of my cheek, trying real hard to hang on to my temper. “Told me it’s a sin to take another man’s runner.”

“He’d know.” Simon picked up another apple, but he didn’t take a bite. “He say anything else?”

This is an example of a time when I had one thing planned for this scene, but by the time the entire thing was written and done, this line didn’t make sense anymore. Through several drafts, I kept coming back to it, wondering if I should – or could – make it work, if there was a way to revise it. And then, finally, I just cut it. And guess what? It works fine.

Of course, it’s not just about a line here or there (though if you’re trying to cut your word count, that does help). It’s also about entire scenes. For example, in this novel, my MC, Nicky, is a rumrunner in 1924. I had a pivotal scene drafted in which he needs to leave at a certain time to make a delivery to a hotel, but Bart delays him – and the next day, they find out that revenuers were patrolling that road at the time Nicky would have been there. But the hotel they were delivering to didn’t exist in 1924. So that kept bothering me. I’m a stickler for historical accuracy. In fact, at one point in the manuscript I wrote The Gueda Springs Hotel is a problem for them AND me! ๐Ÿ™‚

But. I had this other thing in the back of my mind – a local Klan parade that I just hadn’t worked into the narrative yet, though I knew it was important. Finally, yesterday, the two clicked (I literally saw the light going on in my head!) and both problems got solved. Rather that mess with the hotel, I changed the scene so that Bart keeps him from getting caught up in the Klan parade (because in the 1920s, the Klan hated bootleggers more than they hated just about anyone). That made me very happy.

Sometimes, sadly, you do have to ‘murder your darlings.’ Entire scenes get cut. Characters get the axe. Ideas don’t work. But sometimes, it works out for the best. And sometimes, rather than fuss with one line that doesn’t make a lot of sense . . . you can just cut it.

Less really can be more. ๐Ÿ™‚