Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Sharp barbs in surprising places

My son graduated from high school on Saturday. How strange to drive 7 hours to attend.

Pain and joy, pain and joy, pain and joy.

The pain comes from strange and unanticipated places. The simple act of grocery shopping can bring it. For example, the other day I noticed that there are non-brand name versions of the single serving packs of vanilla yogurt topped with a cap full of candy.

The world has moved on.

I began buying the name-brand cups for him when they first came out. They were a wonderful discovery for my picky son, at a time when I had less than a handful of acceptable school lunch options.

I don't buy them anymore. And they are no longer new; off brands exist now when I won't save a few cents by choosing them.

Simple sights can send the sharpest barbs.

Monday, June 13, 2011

God like a radish

I'm back to reading Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin. I took a break from it for a lighter book or two. Needed a diversion from its dark brilliance.

But I'm back now, and quotes jump off page after page.

One section about Christmas gifts is a good illustration. The protagonist, and old lady retelling the story of her life, describes a plum pudding she received as being made of molasses and caulking compound. The same person also gave her a two-dimensional painted wooden cat with a halo and angel wings. The giver suggested that it would look nice hanging over the stove.

Here's the paragraph which follows this setup:
"Good position, I told her. Angel above, and a carnivorous angel too -- high time they came clean on that subject! Oven below, as in all the most reliable accounts. Then there's the rest of us in between, stuck in Middle Earth, on the level of the frying pan. Poor Myra was baffled, as she always is by theological discourse. She likes her God plain -- plain and raw, like a radish."

Sunday, June 12, 2011

On The God of the Hive

I just finished The God of the Hive, the 10th in Laurie R. King's Mary Russell series.

Laurie is one of those authors for whom I scan the "new titles" shelves at the library each visit. She is a satisfying writer on many levels, consistently delivering a solid plot, fast-paced story line, interesting characters, multiple locales, a bit of intrigue, a social issue of consequence, and a satisfying ending. I also love the way she pulls issues related to faith into each book, sometimes subtly, sometimes less so. (Click here to read Ms. King's comments about the title of the book, and why the concept of a god is included.)

Mary Russell speaks in first person through most of the chapters, while other chapters follow her husband Sherlock Holmes' activities and thoughts, or those of the villain. One chapter was presented from the perspective of a bird. (Not really sure why... the device didn't add much and was a little bit distracting.)

The chapters tend to be short with lots of action, cliff hangers, and witty one-line closings.

Very little attention is given to the development of the primary characters, which is a luxury afforded to the series novelist. Ms. King instead focuses her character development prowess on lesser characters, in this case the fey Robert Goodman and Holme's precocious 3-year old granddaughter Estelle. King has a knack for creating strong, interesting characters without trespassing into caricature. I'm trying to study how she accomplishes this tightrope walk for the novel I'm working on, given its cast of quirky individuals.

Looks like Ms. King has another Mary Russell book in the works, called Pirate King.

Can't wait!

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

On Character Development

I'm reading A Vintage Affair by Isabel Wolff; commercial fiction about a woman who owns a vintage clothing store in London. I was in the mood for something frothy, which this book promised, but as with many confections, it didn't quite satisfy.

The story contains several promising subplots. The protagonist struggles with guilt related to her best friend's death; she'd become engaged to a man with whom the friend was in love and the resulting heartache appears to have resulted in the woman's suicide. She later befriends an elderly woman who shared similar guilt from childhood, having told the son of an Italian gestapo member where her Jewish friend was hiding, thinking he would help.

Other details within the book are also promising: vintage clothing and the potential stories related to each piece; the unhealthy connection between a beau and his spoiled daughter; another beau's interest in classic, early films; the complexity of a father who goes off to have a child with another woman and the resulting trauma for the mother. All this seems like great fodder. The author had plenty to work with.

So given that the book presents challenging major themes and includes interesting details and relationship complexity, I've been trying to figure out how it ends up vapid.

I think the problem must be in the character development.

The protagonist feels guilt but that's all you really know about her other than her career choices. She appears to be "nice" in a vanilla pudding sort of way, befriending the old woman and being kind to her infant brother. But there is no real depth. She is smooth and bland, with nothing to like or dislike about her.

The other characters are similarly lacking in dimension, each presenting a single face throughout the book.

The most intriguing character is the secondary love interest. He's given very little airtime, which perhaps explains why he is intriguing. With him you are at least allowed to wonder and hope that there is more.

Two other characters who made brief appearances were also stronger than the lead players, perhaps again due to brevity.

So what am I to learn about character development from this book?

First the main character has to be complex and flawed. I've read this over and over again in articles about the craft, but this protagonist brought it home for me.

Second, there needs to be more going on within the heroine than just the primary conflict.

Third, secondary characters also need to be dimensional. I might be able to get away with one or two minor characters who are so colorful that demonstrating depth beneath the surface isn't necessary. They can be treated like artwork, or the squirt of lime that brightens the flavor of a cocktail. But for the major secondaries, even the colorful ones, dimension and complexity must be conveyed.

Fourth, saying less about a character may actually work toward their believability because the reader is drawn in by wondering what's behind the curtain. To make this work I'd probably need to build mystery.

I've not quite finished the book, but am very glad I selected it. Turns out it has been very instructive.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

On The Blind Assassin

Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin is both a good story, and a lesson in the craft.

It contains a story within a story within a story, which is interesting from the perspective of both reader and writer. And each story could stand on its own.

First, there is the old lady chronicling her life, showing us that each easily dismissed graying face holds an entire soap opera of affairs that she -could- tell, if she would tell.

Second is the life of the young girl/ woman, as she lives through World Wars and the Great Depression, marrying for money in an attempt to save the family fortunes.

Third is the tale of the brusque and sexy communist, hiding out and trysting with the heroine in stolen moments and dingy borrowed rooms.

Fourth is the science fiction love story the man tells her after lovemaking.

And I'm only halfway through the book. For all I know the story of the sister may emerge as its own tale as well.

One of the things that is instructive is the way the author shifts point of view. It shows that it isn't strictly necessary to choose one POV and stick to it. Not only that, she also shifts the way that she presents dialog. It's handled in the traditional way when the narrator speaks in the first person, telling the story of her life. Quotation marks break out the text in which people speak, as we have come to expect. But when the young woman and the man spend time together, their dialog is not separated by the standard punctuation, making it less real. Dreamlike.

The book shows me that you can drift away from standard approaches and standard handling and still be cohesive, still flow easily for the reader.

On the down side, I'm wondering if Ms. Atwood's name means that her editor pays slightly less attention than might otherwise be the case. The narrator has a tendency to ask rhetorical questions while following a line of thought, and then answer them. This ends up being a little bit distracting.

A minor issue, but it's encouraging to find small criticisms for good writers. Makes the goal seem more achievable.