Relearning how to write a book

516HTXS03NLMaybe I’m revealing more than I mean to right now, but when I was a kid I really liked Mercedes Lackey. I mean really, really. I just went to her wikipedia bibliography page and counted up: I’ve read 41 of her books!

I’ve tried now, and then, to go back to them, but I don’t know how well they’ve held up for the adult Rahul. However, what I appreciated about them, even as a kid, was that these were fantasy novels that tapped into deep emotions. Many fantasy novels don’t do this. Many fantasy novels have deep, mythic stories and rely on the scope and power of the story to pull you through. For instance, Lord of the Rings. It’s full of awe and despair, but it’s not rooted in strong emotions. When the book starts, Frodo has no real stake in his journey. He’s just going off on an adventure because the story requires it.

Mercedes Lackey wasn’t like that. Every book would have some world-saving plot: a terrible email that needs must be fought off by some brave teenager. But the teenager also had regular teenage stuff–rejection and alienation–to deal with.

In my own novel-writing, I struggle to root my books in strong emotion. I can’t count the number of times (hundreds!) I’ve started to write a book and found that I didn’t really care about the main plot, because I didn’t feel invested in my own characters. At the same time, my works in progress can often feel too claustrophobic and small. They’re about people who want things which are so  simple–love or family or respect–that the book can feel boring, because, really, how much variation can you have in that story: either they’ll get what they want or they want, and if they don’t, then who cares?

But the other day as I was driving to a friend’s birthday party, I had an epiphany: books often have two plots!

Yes, there’s often a small-scale plot that’s directly rooted in the character’s needs. And then there’s a large-scale plot that provides the bigger stakes and the main antagonist.

This makes intuitive sense: after all, characters need something to do on page one. You can’t just have them sitting around and chatting it up. They need a goal to focus their attention. But you also can’t introduce the primary antagonizing force on page one (in most cases) because then the book would be too crowded.

I was so blinded by the obviousness of this realization that I was like, wait, how did I not know this before? And then I realized that I did know it. In fact, my own book is a great example of this. The book is driven forward by Reshma’s desire to get into Stanford (for which reasons she decides to write a novel about her life). But the primary antagonizing force only appears 15% of the way through the book, when she gets caught cheating. Then, for the rest of the book, she juggles both plots: she attempts to write the novel even as she also tries to fight off her school and regain the valedictorianship.

In my book, the first plot peaks at the midpoint, and thereafter the second plot is the primary one. But both of them are throughlines in the book, and both of them get resolved in the end.

And I can see a similar structure in many other stories. For instance, Star Wars is about defeating the Empire, but it’s also about Luke learning to be a Jedi. The Fault in Our Stars is a love story, but it’s also about dealing with cancer. Les Miserables is about running from Javert, but it’s also about trying to build a respectable life after spending twenty years in prison.

What’s funny to me is that I knew this! I not only see this structure in Enter Title Here, but in all the unpublished novels of mine that I actually like. This is something I’ve done, time and again, without realizing it. Which was fine, so long as writing was coming easy. But when it stopped happening on its own, I was at a loss. Suddenly I was like…why aren’t my stories working anymore? What’s missing?

Which brings me back to Mercedes Lackey. Her second published novel, Arrow’s Flight, features, as a major plot point, a young sorceress, Talia, who loses control of her abilities. In the first book, she appeared to have such a solid hold on her rather unusual abilities that her instructors skipped right over the basics and moved directly to teaching her how to do some pretty advanced stuff. But in the second book, this bites her in the ass: her natural control is degrading, and now she has no idea how maintain it.

It’s interesting that this is Lackey’s second novel. I have to believe that this plotline is, in some ways, about the experience of writing a second book. You write one book, more or less on instinct, and suddenly people think you know what you’re doing. But then your instincts vanish and you lose control and suddenly you need to relearn how to do the things that once came to you so naturally.


Books I read this year which I really did not enjoy as much as I would have wanted to

beach26I usually don’t really do negative reviews, but once a year I make an exception, so I can list some of the books that frustrated and annoyed me.

Three Musketeers by Alexander Dumas – I read this right after reading The Count of Monte Cristo, which might’ve been a mistake, since this is a very different sort of book. Where Monte Cristo has a very focused narrative and a strong throughline, Three Musketeers is just a set of loosely connected incidents that I, in most cases, found rather dull. Maybe this was just because none of the characters really charmed me; they all seemed insubstantial and foolish. I got 2/3rds of the way through the book before abandoning it.

The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoyevsky – I abandoned this one about 20% of the way through. I’ve read lots of books by Dostoyevsky, but nothing in the last three years. Maybe I’ve just outgrown him, or maybe this wasn’t his finest. I really just couldn’t get into it. None of it seemed at all alive.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel – Oh my god, this book was so boring. At the time, I pretended to myself that I enjoyed it because that was the only way to get through it, but in retrospect I find nothing in it that was redeeming. It’s a history about a fascinating figure and a fascinating time…but it doesn’t include any of the actual fascinating stuff about that time. Rather, all the good stuff takes place off-stage, and all that you see is a lot of waffling about and misdirection.

Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton – I had to read this for class, and I hated it, which is weird, because I love Edith Wharton. She is a fantastic writer: subtle and thrilling and full of interesting characters. But this novella had none of those things. It was a big lumbering Gothic horror story about doomed love. Which, in my opinion, doesn’t really play to Wharton’s strengths. I have no idea why they teach this. I suspect that it’s simply because the book is short and teachers are always looking for things that students can read in a week. However, that is not a sufficient explanation: Wharton is famed for her novella-length work, and I think that something like The Touchstone is much better and more representative look of her virtues.

Antifragile by Nicholas Nassim Taleb – I forget how far I got into this, but I couldn’t finish it. I loved The Black Swan. It was a brilliant and eye-opening book. But even in that book, Taleb’s posturing got on my nerves. In this one, the posturing has been dialed up to eleven. It’s absolutely unbearable, especially in a book that’s as light on content as this one.

Mercedes Lackey – I tried to reread several books by Mercedes Lackey and just couldn’t do it. The writing is terrible.

Growth Hacker Marketing by Ryan Halliday – Oh my god, this book has zero content. Do not buy it.

The Annales by Tacitus – Do you really care which general invaded which Germanic province in which year of Nero’s reign? No. Nobody does. What put the boringness of Tacitus into such stark relief was that immediately afterward I read Suetonius Lives of the Twelve Caesars, which covered exactly the same years, but was much more fun and personality-driven.

The First and Last Novels That Made Me Cry

So, I was recently recommended John Green’s The Fault In Our Stars, which is a YA novel about a sixteen year old girl with terminal cancer (its main schtick is that the girl herself is somewhat aware of cancer-novel tropes, which the novel sometimes subverts and sometimes gleefully obeys). Anyway, I was basically promised that the novel would make me cry. I was ready to cry. I was primed to cry. And although I loved the novel, I did not cry.

I was disappointed. I have cried while reading novels before, but it is not common, and I am always startled and happy when it does happen. So much of novelistic pleasure is, for me, somewhat abstract cerebral, that it feels really strange to be reminded that some part of my mind actually believes that this crazy written-down shit is happening to real people in some real place.

Anyways, I wish that I had, once upon a time, made a list of novels that made me cry. But, alas, I made no such list, and now I cannot remember whether Grapes of Wrath or The Jungle caused any moisture. What I can remember, though, is the first and last books that made me cry.

The first was, I think, near the end of Mercedes Lackey’s By The Sword, where the mercenary captain Kerowyn is coming to the rescue of the beleagured nation of Valdemar, but shit looks totally helpless, and everyone looks like they’re going to die, but people are waiting to die heroically…well, I teared up (I was about eleven). And I remember thinking, “Wow, this is the first time that a book has ever made me cry.” Man, I’ve reread that book so many times, and I still love it.

The last time I cried while reading a novel was about three months ago, on Christmas Day. It was somewhere during the closing chapters of Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks Of Being A Wallflower: a YA novel about a slightly disturbed high school freshman who makes friends with some totally awesome high school seniors who are like the coolest thing ever, jeez, my eyes are stinging just thinking about it.

Oh, I also just remembered that the first time I cried during a video game was during Phantasy Star IV (for the Sega Genesis), when Alys died. Man, that was so sad. It was such a good death, too. It wasn’t a girlfriend getting refrigerated; it was a powerful female mentor sacrificing her life (Obi-Wan style) to save her naive male mentee.

And the first time I cried during a movie was in Braveheart, when that motherfucking Robert the Bruce betrayed Mel Gibson and lost him the Battle of Falkirk.

Both of these prior two crying incidents were around when I was eleven. I know this because right after I cried while reading By The Sword, I remember stopping and thinking, “Hmm, I wonder what other stuff I’ve cried during. Oh yeah, there was that time during Braveheart….”

I think the lesson here is that the best media-related crying comes either: A) when you’re a kid; or B) while consuming media meant for kids. What times have you cried while consuming cultural product?