Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Stickers, Crap, and Angst: Things That Make Me Cry

So, I've been doing a lot of reading lately. It might have something to do with the fact that my novel and I are sitting deep in the bowels of writerly angst - you know, that place where you know your manuscript needs a little work but you think it's promising, and then you open it up to work on it and you realize that it's awful, and the characters are flat, and you repeat yourself a million times, and this will never, ever, ever be as good as those books with the shiny award stickers on them, and it's not commercial and plotty enough to sell, so you might as well quit now and let The Hubbles carry the bills while you get fat eating bonbons and binge-watching Castle reruns and a loop of that Van Damme commercial on YouTube…

Maybe that's just me.

ANYWAY, when I know my work is terrible and I don't know how to make it better, I read. I read all the books with those nice shiny stickers on them. Because I'm masochistic that way. Why be satisfied with the knowledge that I need to improve when I can rub my own nose in it? Also, it's an opportunity to learn. And I want to learn from the masters.

So since my current WiP is a YA, I read a bunch of really good YA. I read John Green's Looking for Alaska, where I paid attention to things like how to structure the first chapter to introduce statement of theme without being too obvious about it (or how to be obvious and still get away with it), and how to incorporate backstory without making it feel like backstory, and how to make characters feel real, and pacing. I read it out loud to The Hubbles and learned about poetic prose and the importance of rhythm so that the words flow from sentence to paragraph to page to chapter and back again. I could get a whole writing course worth of learning out of that book. I cried a lot over the course of reading it, usually when I thought of my own sorry work-in-progress, but also when the story called for it.

I read Nancy Farmer's The House of the Scorpion, where I noticed how important it is to get the small details right, that the reason I knew I was in the hands of a good storyteller from the very beginning was that the sights and the smells and the sound of the wind just felt right. And I thought about archetypes, and Cinderella stories and Ugly Duckling stories, and how if I hadn't just read Cheryl Klein's essay on archetypes and plot in her book Second Sight, I wouldn't have noticed the archetypes in this book, but they were still there, and maybe it was my identification with those archetypes, my emotional response to them based on my own social and cultural context, that makes those kinds of stories so powerful for me as a reader. And I also learned about pacing. Again. There's another writing course in that book. I cried at the end of that one, too.

And then I opened my own WiP and I cried myself to sleep, because, you know. CRAP.

And then I read Eric Walters' The Rule of Three, because a kid in my YA book club picked it. And I have to be honest here - I didn't want to finish it. The dialogue seemed stilted (to me). The plot was predictable (to me). The characters were boring and stereotypical and, if I can take a minute to be arrogant on my own blog, pretty slow (to me). There was an interesting character, Herb, who showed up after about 50 pages or so, but he wasn't enough to pull me through the novel. I knew the publisher was excited about the book (because I had read it in an article in Publishers' Weekly or some place like that), but I couldn't figure out why. I thought it probably had something to do with the plot. And I know this stuff is totally subjective. So I did what I always do when I am mystified by a book's buzz: I passed it to The Hubbles and asked him what he thought of it.

He read the whole thing in a couple of days. He agreed with me on the dialogue and the characters, but he thought the plot was really interesting, and he loved Herb, and he figured that for the average YA reader, it was enough. It didn't change his worldview, but it diverted him for a few hours and gave him a distraction from bills and was entertaining. I learned a big lesson there, too: that just because a book isn't the kind of book I want to be writing right now, that doesn't make it a book that isn't worthy of existence. That there are different books for different people at different times. And that having an interesting plot is really, really important, no matter who your audience is.

I can't say that it made me feel any better about the state of my novel, but at least it didn't make me cry.

And then I read Vikki VanSickle's Words That Start With B, which isn't a YA, it's a Middle Grade, but which was delightful and welcoming and honest and wonderful in a wrap-you-up-in-a-cozy-blanket sort of way, and which filled my brain with real characters and a well-paced story. It was like rediscovering Judy Blume. And holy moly - the craftsmanship that went into making that book. I'm still figuring it out. There's another writing course right there. I'm mystified at the lack of buzz for this book. Or maybe I just missed it; I only recently got around to starting the Harry Potter series, after all. If my friends had to describe me, the phrase "late to the party" would almost certainly come to mind.

That book didn't make me cry, either - I take that as a good sign, that I can read a truly excellent book now without dissolving into hot, silent tears of self-loathing (although I can still feel them as I type, swelling at the back of my throat). I've been jotting down ideas for my novel, elements I can add that will strengthen a character, plot points I can change to raise the stakes and make things more interesting, scenes I should take out or rewrite. I'm not quite ready to look at the 58,000+ words that I wrote back in November, but at least I'm no longer battling the urge to just print the whole thing and set fire to it in a garbage can in the backyard.

Which brings me to the reason for this post, apart from letting you know what books I think you should read, which is this: reading is important if you're a writer. You need to read to learn how to do it right, and you need to read to distract yourself from your own misery when you know you're doing it wrong. You need to read critically, as well as for your own enjoyment. You need to read widely, both within your genre and outside of it. But you don't have to read everything. It's okay - even preferable - to put a book down when it isn't speaking to you. Just make sure you know why you're putting it down, and why someone else might want to keep reading. Get other people's opinions if you have to. Don't let a book pass through your hands without learning something from it.

And when in doubt, look for the stickers.

Thanks for stopping by.

Note: With the exception of Cheryl Klein's Second Sight: an Editor's Talks on Writing Revising & Publishing Books for Children and Young Adults, which is only available on Amazon and is thusly hyperlinked, the aforementioned books are all hyperlinked to their IndieBound pages, should you wish to buy them. But in case you can't find a local independent bookstore using the IndieBound search engine, or are a heartless soulless pathetic excuse for an individual who hates independent bookstores with every fibre of your being, here are those books again, this time hyperlinked to their Amazon or Chapters Indigo pages:
Looking for Alaska, by John Green
The House of the Scorpion, by Nancy Farmer
The Rule of Three, by Eric Walters
Words that Start With B, by Vikki VanSickle