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A Sense of Home

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Cabin with Children Playing by Thomas Birch via Wikimedia Commons

Lately I’ve been thinking quite a bit about how to create a sense of home for my main character in my current work-in-progress.  Before the inciting incident in most stories, the author establishes a “normal” that the character will soon be deviating from.  This sense of normality, often a feeling of home, establishes a foundation or a jumping off point for your story.

In Gone with the Wind, Scarlett preens in the spotlight as the belle of the ball before the Civil War turns her world upside down.  Understanding her place in the pecking order helps us as readers much more fully appreciate what she is trying to win back as her journey wears on.  We can relate to her more fully (even though we’re not selfish debutantes, not usually, anyway) because we know where she started.

In Libba Bray’s A Great and Terrible Beauty, Bray establishes Gemma’s comfortable life in India in order to really underline the differences between her life before the inciting incident and afterwards.  Mild first chapter spoiler ahead – when Gemma’s mother dies (our inciting incident), and she is sent to boarding school in England, the dreary, cold setting contrasts starkly against the vivid view of India that opened the story.  This illustrates for us as readers how much Gemma wants to escape, a theme that plays out throughout the novel.

How do we establish the scene, a sense of home (or at least the foundational “normal”), in our own writing?

  • Make it matter.  A few strong details that we can call back to mind later in the story will do more than long chapters of exposition (I still can’t believe Dickens had an entire chapter about fog in Bleak House.  I never could finish that one).
  • Maximize contrast between the before and the after.  The luxury of Scarlett’s life made the struggle afterwards even more evident.  The festive, colorful atmosphere in India made Gemma’s first few days in England even more dreary.
  • Establish empathy early on (e.g. have a “Save the Cat” moment).  Before the main character hits the inciting incident head-on, when the scene is being set, we as readers need to learn something about our main character that gives us a reason to care.  If we are not given a reason to care, we may not even continue reading.  For example, I turned off the movie Taken after less than 20 minutes because I didn’t care one whit what happened to Liam Neeson’s character; the audience was given no tangible reason to care about him before he got in trouble.

How else can you establish a foundation before your inciting incident?  How do you create a sense of home in your stories?

YA Retellings: an Epic Infographic

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For generations, storytellers, bards, and troubadours — ancient and modern — have been putting new spins on old tales.  One of the oldest collections of stories, the Bible itself, even mentions this in Ecclesiastes 1:9:

That which has been done is what will be,
That which is done is what will be done,
And there is nothing new under the sun.

Epic Reads recently put together a gorgeous infographic specifically focusing on these retellings in YA — 162 of them, in fact.  It could even be argued by some that a few of these original stories, like Romeo and Juliet, were based on earlier stories.  You’ll find the infographic below, and a complete list of the retellings can be found here.

I remember loving Robin McKinley’s Beauty as a kid and thoroughly enjoying Gail Carson Levine’s Ella Enchanted some years later when I stumbled across it as a camp counselor (that one makes great bedtime reading for a room full of kiddos).  Do you have any favorite YA retellings?  Or favorite retellings in general?

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YA Retellings Infographic via Epic Reads

P.S. While you’re here, don’t forget to check out The 10 Most Read Books of All Time.

The Invisibility of Good Writing

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The Storm by Pierre-Auguste Cot via Wikimedia Commons

I helped a coworker with a business letter recently, a coworker I consider to be a generally good writer.  This person, who is an articulate communicator in everyday life, still wrote a letter full of passive voice phrasing that overshadowed the main ideas.  As we worked together to polish the letter, the incident reminded me how frequently good writing is invisible.

Good writing helps ideas shine and does not draw attention to itself.  Rather than noticing the writing, the reader remembers the ideas.  If you’re not looking for good writing, you won’t notice it very frequently.  Bad writing, on the other hand, sticks out like a Raiders fan at a Cowboys game – you notice it immediately.  Messy syntax, awkward phrasing, repetition, and heavy use of the passive voice jump up and beg for the spotlight, stealing it away from the ideas meant to draw our attention.

Letting the ideas shine isn’t just about good grammar; it’s also about using syntax and diction in a way that works with your ideas.  Long sentences invite complex thoughts whereas short sentences draw your attention to one specific thing.  Let’s look at an example of each within a couple sentences of each other from the first chapter of Rudolfo Anaya’s Bless Me Ultima.  Young protagonist Antonio tells us:

My heart sank.  When I thought of leaving my mother and going to school, a warm, sick feeling came to my stomach.  To get rid of it, I ran to the pens we kept by the molino to feed the animals.

The first sentence draws your attention to the main idea – narrator Antonio is pretty upset.  The second and third sentences, both compound sentences, expand on this idea and its consequences.  Anaya helps us to focus on the ideas by using sentence structure and diction to his advantage.

Compound sentences generally emphasize the second thought.  For example, listen to the difference here:

  1. The storm raged outside, but Jenny still got to go home.
  2. Jenny still got to go home, but the storm raged outside.

Even though the ideas are the same, the first sentence ends on a much happier note (Jenny got to go home!) than the second sentence (the storm raged).  Every little bit makes a difference.  Imagine what you as a writer are hoping to emphasize, and tidy up your diction and syntax to draw attention to that idea.

What other little tweaks help your ideas shine?  How else can we revise our writing to focus attention on the story?

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The DNA of a Successful Book

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Although here in blogland, it seems like everyone is reading e-books, the general public still reads more print books than e-books.  According to this recent Pew Research Study, about 1 in 5 American adults read an e-book last year vs. about 7 in 10 reading any book last year.  However, the rise of e-books is giving us a fantastic new avenue for book-related data.  Reading a book on many e-readers lets publishers know which books people are completing and which books are just sitting on their virtual shelves.

Hiptype recently released a fantastic infographic, The DNA of a Successful Book, that dives into the publishing industry data.  What stood out most to me is that books with a female protagonist are 40% more likely to become a bestseller.  I wonder if that has to do with certain demographics reading more or if it is just a recent phenomenon.  I also noticed that younger groups are reading faster – but I wonder if that means they’re skimming or if they’ve actually learned to read more quickly from being around so much data from such a young age.  It also really took me aback that only 4% of sample chapters and bundled books are completed.  I wonder which bundled books were part of the data sample and what that implies for the broader picture.

What stands out to you?  What strikes you most about these little info bites?  Do you know of any books that match or contradict this data?

DNA of a Successful Book Infographic Reading Books Writing - Novel Conclusions Literary Blog

The DNA of a Successful Book via visual.ly

Make it Real: Building Diversity in Fiction

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Colourful Army by Maistora via Flickr

Traveling over the holidays has gotten me thinking a lot about diversity.  Everywhere you go, the people are different and diverse and represent different parts of the country in a wide variety of ways.  This is especially obvious traveling through airports.  At LAX, everyone was in a hurry, and I even spotted an older woman wearing serious fur and heels.  At 7am.  In Houston, passengers moseyed rather than striding along with urgency.  In Florida, a significant chunk of stout older ladies with big earrings, East Coast accents, and too-tight leopard print clothing edged everyone else out of their way.

A female YA author* recently wrote a tumblr post about character diversity and how most YA MCs (main characters) are usually pretty, straight white girls without any physical impairments.  First of all, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with writing about those girls (and I personally find it obnoxious when people say “cisgender” — just say straight, people, OMG.  It’s like saying Caucasian or African-American instead of white or black.  It’s snotty.).  However, I do think it’s important to include representations of more than one type when you’re writing.  In fact, as a white girl in Southern California, I find it a little twilight-zone-esque when there are only white people around.  Here in LA, I’m definitely in the minority, and I notice when there’s no diversity.  I was up in Yountville near Napa with family on Black Friday, and my mom said, “Isn’t it weird that there only seem to be white people here? I wonder why.”

When I was teaching, I didn’t have any white students at all, and I struggled to find good books with minority MCs.  Also, I refused to include books in my classroom that were pro one race over another.  People who exclude all races but their own are just as bad as the KKK (I’m looking at you, MEChA and Ta-Nehisi Coates).  Suffice it to say, we read a lot of Walter Dean Myers.

Despite the lack of minority characters in popular YA, I would posit that it’s our duty as modern writers to include them when possible and as modern readers to ask for them when possible.  Having different types of characters encourages young readers to open their minds, in addition to the fact that if every one of our characters were just copies of the same character over and over with different names (cough*Heinlein*cough), it would make our stories pretty flat.

There are many different types of diversity, not just skin color.  In Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, we find Nazis, Jews, Communists, and working class Germans all together in one book, creating conflict.  In the Harry Potter series, Rowling brings us “pure bloods” and “muggle-borns” to create an overarching conflict through the series.  Additionally, she brings in characters of different ethnicities (Dean Thomas, Parvati Patil, Cho Chang, etc.), and makes a point by having their ethnicities not matter a whit.  In the Hunger Games series, the characters represent a variety of ethnicities and backgrounds and use these backgrounds to work together against the Capitol, especially in Mockingjay.  You can also find minority MCs in House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer, Bless Me Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya, Romiette and Julio by Sharon Draper, Flight by Sherman Alexie, Monster by Walter Dean Myers, and Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George, among many others.

Which books have you read that represent diversity well?  Have you read any interesting blog posts/articles about character diversity?

*I can’t remember which author wrote this post, only that this post was linked on Cassandra Clare’s tumblr and may have been Holly Black, Sarah Rees Brennan, Maureen Johnson, or Ally Carter.  Or some other female YA author.  I spent 45 minutes digging through Cassandra Clare’s tumblr trying to find it.  If you know which tumblr post I’m talking about, please link it in the comments.

Character Tags in Fiction and Why They’re Fantastic

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Sean Bean as Ned Stark via Google Images

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In most memorable books you read, the characters hold distinct places in your memory.  Why is this?  Outside of the overarching plot, what makes characters stand out in our minds?  Character tags help with this immensely.  A character tag is a physical way of being that the character comes back to time and again.  Character tags could be:

  • A common phrase or verbal tic
  • A way of speaking
  • An accent or dialect
  • A physical mannerism
  • A way of carrying themselves
  • A scent
  • A recurring behavior
  • Etc.

For example, in Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, 6-year-old Charles Wallace speaks incredibly clearly and calmly and in complete sentences, much more so than the average person.  As a result, even when dialogue tags are scarce, we know when Charles Wallace is speaking.  This also works well because of the contrast it provides to the other main characters.  He works as a foil for his impulsive, belligerent sister Meg.  L’Engle weaves these characters masterfully in a way that helps us relate to both of them.

In Rachel Ward’s Numbers, teenage Spider presents a fantastic example.  Spider moves constantly, restless, and this comes up again and again.  Our narrator Jem describes him as

“He’s big, Spider, tall.  One of those people who stand too close to you, doesn’t know when to back off.  Suppose that’s why he gets into fights at school.  He’s in your face all the time, you can smell him.  Even if you twist and turn away, he’s still there – doesn’t read the signs at all, never takes the hint.”

This becomes a character tag rather than just a description because we see Spider doing these things over and over again.  These mannerisms embed themselves into the story.  You also definitely want to walk the thin line of not using the character tags too much, or you can fall into the accidental comedy category.

Character tags become especially important in ensemble series like Harry Potter or Game of Thrones.  In the Harry Potter series, even though Ernie MacMillan only pops up a couple times in each book, we know who he is because of the proud way he carries himself.  It’s his primary character tag.  In the Song of Ice and Fire series (Game of Thrones), keeping the crazy amount of characters straight is only possible because George RR Martin can throw down character tags like no one’s business.  Ned Stark (not to mention many of the other Northerners in the series) is always saying “Winter is coming” like a mantra.  If someone utters that phrase, we know we’re talking to Stark or one of his people.

What do these character tags do?

  • They make characters more memorable and distinguishable (making the story more interesting).
  • They tell us something about the character.
  • They make the character more real for the reader.
  • They help create tension between characters.

What are good character tags you’ve run across?  What do you think character tags do for a story?

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5 Things I Learned in My First Year of Blogging

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Birthday Candle by Ardfern via Wikimedia Commons

This week marks an entire year of blogging – October 23rd will be my one-year blog anniversary!  Happy Blog Birthday to Novel Conclusions!  In honor of this epically momentous occasion, I’ve decided to put together this gorgeous list of what I’ve learned about blogging.

  • I’m not alone.  There’s this whole community of writers and book bloggers and fan girls and people who just adore the English language.  Becoming a part of this super fun community encourages me to do more inside the writing arena (like participating in NaNoWriMo).  The book and writing community rocks!
  • Bonus:  Interacting with said community drives engagement on your blog.  Who woulda thought?  Catching up on what other writers and book enthusiasts are doing encourages people to drop by your blog and join the conversation.
  • Positive posts/notes/comments get the most love.  There was actually a report done about Facebook recently backing up this idea.  Outside of reports and etc., people in the blogosphere tend to be much friendlier than, say, commenters on a newspaper website or a gossip column – another reason the book and writing blogosphere is amazing.
  • It’s okay to occasionally break the cycle of your blog posts.  Your audience won’t immediately disappear.  I usually try to post about once a week.  Occasionally it will be more often, and sometimes when life is crazy, less often.  However, don’t wait too long between blog posts.  Two weeks is a little vacation.  Two months is more like starting over.
  • There’s a wealth of knowledge in the blogosphere about everything imaginable that’s related to books and writing.  Reading all the posts over at Nathan Bransford’s blog and Mary Kole’s blog would practically give you an MFA.  That’s not even mentioning other fantastic resources like Lynn Price at the Behler Blog or all the other agents and editors and authors with free, abundant, awesome writing and publishing tips. You can even interact with these people by commenting.  Craziness.

What have you all learned while blogging?  What have you done to streamline your blog?  What do you like (or dislike) that others do with their blogs?

P.S.  I also took this opportunity to discover that this blog’s sun sign is Libra, which apparently represents the element of air or intellect.  We can pretend that I planned that. 😉

P.P.S.  This shows a way cool map of indie bookstores in your area (and also confirmed my knowledge that LA is severely lacking in indie bookstores).

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