Thursday, April 8, 2010

7 Novels that Made Me Want to be a Better Writer

Master of the Edge-of-your-Seat
You have to admire a concept this brilliant: a boy who finds a shoebox at his door which contains the suicide tapes his crush recorded before she took her own life…Just wow. At first I was afraid that the execution wouldn’t live up to the hype and concept, but I literally could not put this book down. I almost cancelled dinner plans in order to finish it—the story leading up to Hannah Baker’s suicide is just that compelling.

Masters of Many Worlds
MYST: THE BOOK OF ATRUS by Rand & Robyn Miller with David Wingrove
It’s hard to get people to take you seriously as a reader when you tell them that your favorite book of all time is based on a computer game. No, you didn’t misread that. Favorite book of all time. When books about “parallel worlds” are discussed, it’s impossible not to draw comparisons to Madeline L’Engle’s A WRINKLE IN TIME and Phillip Pullman’s THE GOLDEN COMPASS (both of which are wonderful), but I’ve yet to find a story—fantasy or otherwise—that so fully captivated my attention as Atrus’s journey from his desert dwelling down into the subterranean world and desolate streets of the fallen D’ni civilization. Superb.

Master of Perception
Oh, Marcelo. Karsten loves Marcelo even though Marcelo speaks in the third person sometimes. Stork crafts a beautifully written novel about a boy who has trouble relating to the world around him, while writing him in such a way that he is instantly relatable to the reader.

Master of Timelessness

Verklempt. That’s the only word that could accurately describe my state of mind after I closed REMEMBERING THE GOOD TIMES. Some books you don’t just remember reading; you remember exactly where you were when you finished it. This is one of those books. To put it in perspective: it’s a 10-minute walk from the writing center where I tutor (and where I read the last page of this) to the subway, and I was glassy-eyed for the entire walk. I had to actively remind myself that it was a flagrant violation of man code for me to tear up about a book. I failed.

Master of Emotion

MY HEARTBEAT by Garrett Freymann-Weyr
I’ve read a fair number of books that have run the gamut of LGBQT topics, but I don’t think teen sexuality and confusion have ever been so realistically portrayed. Freymann-Weyr manages to expertly juggle the labyrinthine feelings of three different characters. Don’t be fooled—this book may be the color of pastel green Easter egg, but it has one of the most gripping final pages I’ve ever read.

Master of Setting
I guess New England should be so grateful to have such a large concentration of writers living in such close proximity. But what this also means? So, so, so many books set in or around Boston. Unfortunately, many of these books really waste this rich and vibrant city. Sure, they’ll do a little bit of name dropping to help their case—he drove over the Zakim Bridge; she took a stroll through the Boston Common. One man, however, writes Boston with such gritty realism that I can practically smell the food coming out of South Street Diner. I haven’t had a chance to read the other books in this series yet, but since Gone Baby Gone is one of my favorite movies, I plan to this summer. I tip my hat to you Dennis Lehane.

Master of Fantasy
SABRIEL by Garth Nix
As far as I’m concerned, Garth Nix is the master of young-adult high fantasy. Rather than re-treading on old conventions, Nix’s Abhorsen trilogy (Sabriel, Lirael, Abhorsen) invents its own. Beautiful writing, three-dimensional characters, and an original world that has something new to contribute to the genre. I’ve never been so enthralled with necromancy, and you can practically feel the bandolier of bells strapped to your chest as you read…

Monday, April 5, 2010

8 Months in Hell, or: How I Revise

Every time I’ve sat down with the intention to write a blog over this past month, I’ve immediately reprimanded myself for not revising instead. I type out a first sentence to a potential post, but then I hear the devil on my shoulder nagging me, “But you know Chapter 4 could use some trimming today...” I quickly look to my left shoulder for help, but the angel just points to the little bastard on the right and says, “Don’t look at me, listen to that guy.”

So I decided that it was only fair to share an overview of the grueling, turbulent, but always rewarding revision process to which I’ve subjected WILDEFIRE over the past few months.

PHASE 1: Assassinating Similes Does Not = Assimilation
My first drafts love to binge on strange similes… like a sugar-high toddler at a cake convention. But you can only have so many “As if…” clauses in your book before you’ve written a sequel to Clueless, and so I sadly pare them down to just the ones I simply cannot live without.

Okay, and maybe a few more.

PHASE 2: Seek and Destroy
When you’re writing a novel of 90,000 words, it’s inevitable: you are going to repeat yourself. Accept it. Sometimes it’s a single word (I’ve discovered after the umpteenth revision that I really like the words dart, roar, and plunge. Oy. Thank god for the thesaurus.) And because we all like to think that we’re masters of suspense, I tend to notice a lot of “sequencing” words when the action gets heavy. I’ve trained myself well to only sparingly use the word “suddenly,” but the initial draft of WILDEFIRE overdosed on “finally.” I managed to cut these by 70% (yes, I calculated this) which means that 7 times out of 10, the word is completely unnecessary.

Thank heavens for Microsoft Word’s “Find” function.

PHASE 3: The Broken Record
But sometimes it’s not as simple as reaching for the thesaurus or hitting Control+F—sometimes we over-rely on sentence structures. Granted there are only so many ways you can contort a sentence and have it sound natural. Sure, the sentence might on first read sound great… until you realize that sentence structure X has appeared three times in as many pages. THIS IS WHY SECOND READERS ARE IMPORTANT. I’m too myopic to see a lot of these in my own writing, but I’m fortunate to have a writer friend whose specialty is ferreting these out of my manuscript.

PHASE 4: Sweet Emotion
This has been the trickiest of all of them. When I first started writing WILDEFIRE, I didn’t want this to be a fantasy story first, and a human story second—you know the type, where the world becomes, as a character, more important than the other players in the book. In essence, I wanted WILDEFIRE to read like a contemporary realistic YA novel that just happened to include fantastical elements.

However, I categorically refused to write this in first-person, and absolutely not in present tense. That isn’t meant as a slight on those who write from that POV; many have mastered this perspective, and the success of the first-person voice in the young-adult arena is irrefutable. But I am something of a purist and believe that it’s valuable for a writer to conquer the third-person voice before he goes indulging his character’s every thought and whim for 90,000 words. Let’s face it—I’m 25-years-old. Not only have I yet to “conquer” any of the mountains of writing, but I don’t even consider myself at base camp yet.

My greatest challenge in the final round of revisions was to strike a balance between distance and intimacy, to utilize my limited third-person POV while still gleaning enough of Ashline’s thoughts to develop a friendship between her and reader. Because if you get to the last page of this book and you don’t feel compassion for Ashline (hey, that kind of rhymed), then I haven’t done my job as a writer.

AND it will be awfully difficult to write the sequel.