September 28, 2011

When Voice Trumps All - The Night Circus

Though it didn't sweep me away completely, THE NIGHT CIRCUS is a fabulous example of how an author's way with words can keep you intrigued even when you feel the pacing lags.

Morgenstern's writing is especially strong when it comes to imagery. At times, it's almost like reading a director's notes. Just one example: 

"After the performance has concluded, the man in the grey suit navigates the crush of patrons in the lobby with ease. He slips through a curtained door leading to the backstage dressing rooms unnoticed. Stagehands and dressers never so much as glance at him. He raps on the door at the end of the hall with the silver tip of his cane."

Morgenstern also does a fabulous job of earning your empathy for characters, like Celia, the magician's daughter: 

"Her father brings her everywhere while she is small, parading her like a well-loved small dog in expensive gowns, for his colleagues and acquaintances to fawn over in pubs after performances. When he decides she is too tall to be an adorable accessory, he begins abandoning her in dressing rooms or hotels."

Really, you can turn to just about any page in this book and the voice comes through so strong it nearly takes your breath away. A richly imagined circus, fleshed-out characters, scenes that touch all your senses, everything is imbued with Morgenstern's unique perspective.

Look no further if you want to know what agents mean when they're looking for "voice".

Have you read it yet?

September 20, 2011

Lips Touch Three Times

This was my introduction to Laini Taylor and I'm hungering for more!

LIPS TOUCH is three stories loosely connected by the theme of once-in-a-lifetime kisses. Each section begins with a graphic overview of the tale (illustrations by Taylor's husband, Jim Di Bartolo) and then you get the text. Clever idea and it works well.

My favorite was "Goblin Fruit".  Right away we're drawn into the life of a sixteen-year-old Kizzy, who bemoans her oddball family:

"They had no TV but knew hundreds of songs—all of them in a language that Kizzy's teachers had never even heard of —and they sat on rickety chairs in the yard and sang them together, their voices as plaintive as wolves', howling at the moon." [Actually, this sound like fun to me!]

As for Kizzy herself: "She daydreamed about having slim ankles like Jenny Glass instead of peasant ankles like the fetlocks of a draft horse. About smooth hair instead of coarse hair, sleek hips instead of belly dancer's hips.  About a tinkling laugh, and a butterfly tattoo, and a boy who would tuck his hand into her back jeans pocket while they walked, and press her up against a fence to suck her lower lip like a globe of fruit."

Yeah, I'm hooked. She had me at hair and hips.

Kizzy's yearnings are like crack to goblins and next thing you know one of them shows up at her high school, transformed into a gorgeous boy intent on stealing her soul. Great setup, great tension, great climax.

"Spicy Little Curses Such as These" tells the story of Anamique, a girl in India who lives as a mute because her voice kills, literally, a curse placed on her by a malicious demon. A horrible dilemma made unbearable when a handsome soldier appears. I love the atmosphere Taylor creates, her sly take on the myth of Orpheus, and the wicked twist that leaves the demon a victim of his own curse.

The last story, "Hatchling", didn't enthrall me as much as the others, though Taylor's voice is so strong I had to keep reading to find out the truth about a girl whose left eye turns blue the morning she hears wolves in London.

If you haven't read this and you like your fantasy filled with wit and insight, give it a try!

September 13, 2011

Curse You, Roget!

Just returned from a fabulous weekend in San Francisco. Saw the Picasso exhibit at the DeYoung and gleefully cheered on my homeboys as they beat the L.A. Dodgers, 8-1, on Sunday. Go Giants!

Now I'm back to working on another set of revisions for my MG fantasy, based on feedback from a couple of agents who asked for pages, kindly noted some strengths, but ultimately passed for somewhat similar reasons. *sigh* Wondering if this story will end up stashed away in the file cabinet. A practice book, if you will.

I reach for my battered copy of Roget's Thesaurus, seeking an alternative to "sat". It's not listed, but I notice "Satan". Hmmm. My old Catholic nemesis. Intrigued, I find synonyms for the devil (978. a maleficent spirit). A new one attracts my attention: Asmodeus. Loki (Norse myth).

So Jim Carrey was actually possessed by the devil in the movie, “The Mask”? And all this time I thought it was just a mischievous spirit. Interesting how they reworked the mythology. I open up a new tab, go to my Netflix account, and add the film to my queue so I can watch it again. Maybe I missed something the first time around. 

Wait, I'm supposed to be writing! How did I end up searching for a movie?

Anything like this ever happen to you?

September 6, 2011

Why I Love The Hunger Games

During my blogcation, I re-read the first book in Suzanne Collins' mega-selling trilogy and was impressed anew, especially since I approached it via the principles in WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL by Donald Maass. (If you do not have this book, buy it now!).

Collins covers all the basics Maass discusses and does it so well you can't help but applaud her virtuosity. Even a rough overview shows Collins has a stellar grasp of what makes a novel work. Let's look at how she does it.

North America has been replaced by the nation of Panem, which keeps its twelve districts in line by forcing them to send children to participate in a fight to the death on live TV. A big idea that's absolutely chilling—talk about gut emotional appeal!

When Katniss Everdeen volunteers to fight in her younger sister's place, she's putting family above personal safety. That's something any reader can relate to. And the personal stakes increase when the actual Games begin. But there are public stakes, as well. If Katniss wins, her district will be feted for an entire year, a huge honor where poverty is the norm.

Kat's decision to protect her sister immediately endears her to us. We want her to succeed, even as we know she can only do so by killing. Oh, the dilemma! The love triangle? Not as compelling (though I can see its appeal to younger readers), but Collins provides enough depth to Peeta and Gale to help us understand Kat's indecision. Minor characters are fleshed out with personality details that give each even the unlikeable ones substance and individuality.

Collins has four of the five basic elements:
1.  a sympathetic protagonist, one known in detail (see above);
2.  a complex conflict (physical, intellectual and emotional issues, all wonderfully intertwined);
3.  complications (internal and external twists deepen the story);
4.  a climax (Kat and Peeta defy expectations);
What's missing?
5.  a resolution (yes, Kat returns home in triumph, but the story doesn't really end).

Where to start? Loyalty to family, staying true to yourself while engaged in a seemingly hopeless battle, trusting your instincts, etc. Questions about humanity, ruthless governments, and moral integrity abound. This isn't a read-it-and-forget-it story.

Broken down, it looks pretty straightforward. But it takes a writer of Collins' caliber to put all the pieces together in a way that keeps us glued to the story.

So what are we to take away from all this? If your story is coming back with comments concerning a lack of connection, pacing issues, or flat conflict, take a look at how one author met those challenges.

And get Maass' book! Your novel deserves his insights.