Archive | March 2012

Hungry for Xanadu

A.D. 1275 vs. Dystopian Future

While avoiding Hunger Games (the film) madness, I grabbed Dori Jones Yang’s Daughter of Xanadu for a Friday night read, and found myself comparing the two epics, separated by maybe 3000 generations, with their resourceful young women archers.

The stories both win high praises because of their layered complexities, and for me, the awakening to social and philosophical questions is a compelling piece of growing maturity (at whatever chronological age it happens). Beginning with clear loyalties and a singular understanding of one’s role, paradox creeps into a person’s consciousness and like water freezing on stone, can crack open the bedrock values we grew up with.

Intriguingly, Emmajin, despite her Golden Family of the Yuan dynasty (Ghengis and Kublai Khan) lineage, surprises us with the same ultimate lessons that Katniss discovers as a colonial revolutionary. Coupled with the evocative particularities of largely unfamiliar worlds, the evolving plot lines are what draw so many readers to both books. (Daughter of Xanadu only came out last year; nominated for ALA’s 2012 Best Books for Young Adults) The reward, the excitement of how both stories end, is the successful use of the characters’ creative facilities to see beyond what appeared to be their no-win dilemmas to a third option, improbable, but just slightly possible.

And now for the differences. This is where I look harder at some aspect that I didn’t like in order to improve my own craft efforts—not because I want to pretend I’m already a better writer than the authors I’m considering. I wouldn’t dissuade anyone from picking up Xanadu, so just remember this is about the art of story, not the story itself.

For example, this paragraph:

“During the long daily rides, I tried to remember Latin words. I reviewed each of the places in Xanadu where we had talked. Without considering the consequences, I tried to think of ways to talk to him, to overcome the barrier between us. If he had pursued me, I would have rebuffed him. By holding himself aloof, he challenged me to win back his esteem.”

I have to say YUK. The book is loaded with this kind of thing, and back in the day when editors could invest more time in working with writers, I imagine it would all have been cut. In my own writing, I see some of this in my first drafts—it helps me see what I’m imagining the characters to be thinking so I can track their emerging personalities. But if I want those personalities to unveil themselves for readers, I need to allow a reader to experience a character in telling moments, like we might startlingly get to know someone in real life. I don’t like to be told all this stuff; and I certainly don’t like to be told all this same stuff over and over.

What I loved from a gut level with Collins’ trilogy was that she trusted us to understand her story in the same way Katniss was, in those heart-stopping moments of sudden lucid insight. This is the Respect the Reader mantra I really hope to master by the time my final draft is ready. It requires a bolder certainty than some writers ever manage, and a courage that stirs excitement in my tapping fingers. Dare I cut this small explanatory phrase? Do it—the story will challenge readers, and we all love to unravel a puzzle.

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Bunheads

Although I typically cringe at fiction that runs so parallel to an author’s biography, only the ending of this little novel frustrated me with that “decided to become a writer instead” bit of similarity. The beginning and middle of the story held my interest, despite my lack of ballet knowledge, with the sheer intensity of desire the characters shared. Sophie Flack captured that well–no doubt explicitly because she was writing what she knows.

Motivation is slim enough–hinging on the dancer’s drosophila-like lifespan, so get your 5 minutes of fame while you can. After struggling to depict strong motivations for the two primary competitors in my story about world-class equestrians, I’m rewarded to find how plausible these girls’ dedication seems with nothing more substantial than that. And the story doesn’t require much in the way of subplotting either. To stay focused on this intense goal or not to stay so focused, that is the question–and really the only question (other than a slight foray into a love triangle, and the complications of competing against your only friends). Yet the book swirls with dances and dressing rooms, Pilates and Chinese take-out, filling a reader’s head with the experience of a strange and heady world.

Trouble, Gary Schmidt

ok people, this is from memory. It’s been at least a year since I read Trouble, but the structure was so well-built I continue to pull it back into my mind. Maybe because I’m comparing it to another book club selection that I decided was ultimately unsatisfying.

Trouble:

  1. brings together three plotlines in a perfectly plausible, and yet surprising, way;
  2. introduces two comic characters to relieve the pressure of the storyline’s primary suspense (but who also figure strongly into plotline);
  3. reveals its mystery slowly;
  4. allows the viewpoint character’s own narrowed perspective to hide the culprit until the end.

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin

  1. brings three plotlines together but awkwardly
  2. nothing much will bring a smile to one’s face while reading this
  3. reveals its primary mystery early, but tries to keep suspense by using other violent mysteries that don’t get satisfactorily resolved (motive, means?);
  4. one viewpoint character holds secrets that are implausibly withheld.

Admittedly, Trouble too has a weak spot, covered up conveniently by the viewpoint character being smacked over the head and needing to be transported to a hospital. And its coincidences are a tad remote, but I had no trouble suspending disbelief to follow the characters along in their quest.