Monday, April 28, 2014

In the Past or Present?

Present tense. It's in many YA books today. Some people have very strong feelings against it, some don’t. Me? I love it. BUT. Yes, there’s a but. :) I only love it if it has been done well, and if it’s necessary to the story. Otherwise, I can't stand it, and this is why.

When we writers sit down to write a first draft, we are discovering the story. Even if it’s been planned out with outlines and whatnot, there is still plenty of discovery happening through the characters, dialog, setting, etc. That adds an element of immediacy, of being in the moment. But the problem is that it’s not coming from the characters; it’s coming from us.

In that first draft, we writers are in a state of complete discovery. We may know some basic facts about the story and the characters, but really we are living from moment to moment, recording the story as we go. In subsequent drafts, though, we are no longer in that moment. We are reflecting back on it, analyzing, perfecting, adding in the details we may have missed the first time around, and trying to show that moment to the reader in the best way possible.

The same is true for our characters. To have a completely effective story told in present tense, the characters must be in the moment, not the author. That means that there should be no reflection or analyzing of what is currently happening. They need to figure things out as they go.

Some good examples of present tense are The Adoration of Jenna Fox, Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac, and The Spectacular Now. In Jenna Fox and Teenage Amnesiac, the main characters have no memory of who they are. They’ve been told some basic facts about themselves, but they are in full discovery mode, trying figure things out. A perfect situation for present tense.

In Jenna Fox, Jenna stays in this self-discovery mode for the entire story because it’s not possible for her to reflect on who she was before her accident. It’s a very powerful story. The reader gets completely sucked into all of her moments and can’t wait for her to discover more, because that means we will discover more. This book is one of the most effective uses of present tense I’ve ever seen.

In Teenage Amnesiac, Naomi is suffering from amnesia due to a nasty bump on the head. So, in the beginning, we are discovering right along with her. It’s just as effective as Jenna Fox, and just as compelling...until Naomi regains her memory, and suddenly knows who she was before she bumped her head. At this moment, Naomi begins to reflect, comparing her old self to her new self. It’s also the moment that the present tense feels awkward. The reader is stuck in discovery mode, i.e. present tense, but Naomi is no longer discovering. She’s reflecting and analyzing.

The Spectacular Now is a different sort of book. Sutter is a party boy alcoholic. He completely lives in the moment, looking for the next fun thing. When that’s over, he’s off looking for the next one, and the next, and so on. His whole life is built upon not reflecting, because that would mean facing the possibility that he has a problem with his drinking. Hence, the title, The Spectacular Now. As Sutter shares his story with us, he presents it as-is, no frills, no I-guess-I-did-that-because rationalizations or reflections. He is completely in the moment, and this book is also one of the most effective uses of present tense I’ve ever seen.

So if you’re writing a story in present tense and you’re not sure if it’s effective, then take a look at both you and your character. Which one is in discovery mode? Which one is completely in the moment? If it’s you, then you might want to rethink using present tense. If it’s your character, then you’re probably on the right track.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Independent Study by Joelle Charbonneau

In The Testing, sixteen-year-old Cia Vale was chosen by the United Commonwealth government as one of the best and brightest graduates of all the colonies . . . a promising leader in the effort to revitalize postwar civilization. In Independent Study, Cia is a freshman at the University in Tosu City with her hometown sweetheart, Tomas—and though the government has tried to erase her memory of the brutal horrors of The Testing, Cia remembers. Her attempts to expose the ugly truth behind the government’s murderous programs put her—and her loved ones—in a world of danger. But the future of the Commonwealth depends on her.

The basic premise behind this series is compelling, and the writing is quick and vivid. It's easy to pick these books up and not set them down until the end because they are full of non-stop action. Cia is interesting, too. It's refreshing to read about a super smart girl, especially in math and science, who is also brave and can look at things from a 'big picture' perspective.

With the first book, I had issues believing in the basic world-building. Unfortunately, I had the same issue with this book. There are still too many holes in why someone would want a society to function this way. The kind of people who would graduate from a program like this would be more of a threat to the leaders, simply because it rewards selfishness and greed, *and* the only people accepted are super smart. So they will come up with creative ways to get themselves more power, which threatens those currently in power. Therefore, I still couldn't buy into the world.

That said, I thought this book was better than the first...until I got to the end. Cia is too smart to do something so stupid. Because of that, I figured out the plot twist well before it was revealed, which really bummed me out. I was hoping to be surprised. Endings are important to me, so this one impacted my enjoyment of the rest of the story quite a bit.

I'll probably read the last book just to see how it ends, but I'll wait until I can check it out from the library.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Revision Read Aloud

A couple weeks ago, I posted about how a good verbal narrator can influence the listener’s enjoyment of a story. But today I want to talk about using the act of reading aloud as a revision tool.

When you’re revising your story, especially if you’re on draft ten or so, you know what’s on the page so well that you can miss little details here and there. In a MG I recently revised, I altered the story such that the main character no longer had a mom. Instead, he had a close aunt. I went through the whole manuscript to remove all references to the mom, but missed a few. I never did catch them—my agent did. :) And, even as I was staring at the sentence with the mom reference, it still didn’t register completely. I’d read that sentence so many times that my brain had stopped noticing it. Even when it was pointed out to me directly. :)

So, after I’d gone through another round of revisions, I decided to read my story aloud, just to make sure everything sounded like I wanted it to sound. Aaaand, I caught another revision remnant (not the mom, something else) that was left over from an earlier draft.

When you read something aloud, your brain seems to go to a different place than when you’re reading silently. My brain does funny things when I read aloud. As a kid, whenever I was called on in class to read, I couldn’t ever read and comprehend at the same time because I was too nervous. No one wants to be that kid that mispronounces a word and says something ridiculous in front of everyone. :) So the only thing I focused on was pronouncing each word. But when I read my novel aloud without an audience, I found myself listening to the sound of my voice. The awkward sentences were suddenly obvious. A missing word, or an additional word, presented itself. Repeated words popped up, arms waving and screaming ‘here I am again!’ It’s really astounding.

All this said, there are times when it’s not useful to read aloud. For example, when you have a first draft. :) In this part of the revision process, you’re still looking at big picture issues. Does the plot build tension? Is it resolved with a satisfying conclusion? Are my characters likeable and believable? Do they grow? Does the story flow well, or does it have moments when interesting things don’t happen?

When you’re investigating these kinds of questions, reading your work aloud isn’t going to help you much. But if you’ve got a solid draft and you’re ready to polish the language, then reading aloud is incredibly useful.

Thursday, April 03, 2014

Dualed by Elsie Chapman

In the city of Kersh, everyone must eliminate their genetic Alternate twin, raised by another family, before their twentieth birthday. West Grayer, 15, has trained as a fighter, and has one month to hunt and kill her Alt. A tragic misstep shakes her confidence. Guilty, grieving, she feels unworthy, runs from her Alt and from love - both can destroy her.

I found the premise of this book intriguing, though was a little worried about where the story was going to go. I ended up listening to the audiobook (something I do while I’m folding laundry or washing dishes—it makes the chore so much better), but I really didn't like the narrator. By the end, her voice was grating on my nerves and that got in the way of the story quite a bit. Multiple times, I wished I was reading it instead of listening.

Anyway, attempting to leave the narrator out of it, the story was okay. My initial worries turned out to be valid… West ends up becoming a killer for hire because it’s the only way she’ll get real training for dealing with her own Alt. I had some issues with that. It’s one thing to be forced into an impossible situation where it’s kill or be killed, and another entirely to kill for money. You've got to have a certain kind of cold heart in order to kill for hire, and that interfered with my enjoyment of the rest if the story.

Then, West becomes ‘active,’ and has to kill her Alt. But she doesn’t. She runs from every opportunity, and continues with the killing for hire. I wasn’t okay with this, either. I'm guessing that the author was trying to allude to scary aspects of oneself, how it's easier to face other people's faults than your own, but the killing overshadowed all of that. I give props to the author for tackling such a difficult and strong theme, and I wish it had come across stronger.

So, overall, it was okay. Definitely read the book instead of listening to the audiobook.