Thursday, October 25, 2012

Two new YA novels

I've always loved reading YA novels (and writing them!) but over the past couple of years, I have to admit that the number I've been reading has gone down. Mainly this is due to the overwhelming domination of vampires/werewolves/angels/demons/zombies in YA fiction. When is too much going to really mean too much? Are there really readers out there for all this stuff? Even dystopian is starting to get "old". Oh dear. So I was looking forward to reading something contemporary, and Going Underground is it.

It's by Susan Vaught, whose books I had not come across before, but who seems to have a range of both contemporary and fantasy fiction out there. Del is seventeen, and struggling with his life that is full of restrictions and rules. Why? Because he did something bad when he was fourteen and is paying for it, big time. He only has one friend left, and his part-time job is digging graves in the local cemetery. His pet is a parrot called Fred who attached herself to him, despite his attempts to avoid her.

I have to say Fred is the star of the book! It's almost that she outshines Del, except luckily Del has depth as a character and we do care about what happens to him (essential!). One of the devices Vaught uses is to hold off telling us what Del did that was so bad, but she gives enough clues that you can guess and then not feel tricked when the big reveal comes. I also like that the romance element is not mushy - Livia has her own problems and comes across as real and believable.

Spoiler alert! Del's problem is that he was caught sexting - while we might think that's wrong and he was stupid (he realises this himself), what comes out of it, which is Del's conviction as a sex offender, is a very current issue for teens, and has come up here in Australia as well. Its long-reaching consequences are really well portrayed in this novel, and gave me a lot to think about.

Given what I said earlier about the vast over-supply of paranormal/fantasy type books around these days (and how I shy away from them in the bookstore), I was intrigued enough by the promotional material for Throne of Glass to ask for a review copy. It did take me about 40 pages to get into the story, but a good part of that was my "shyness", plus I think if you haven't read fantasy for a while, it takes a few chapters to fully get into the world of the story.

Sarah J. Maas is a new writer who started this book (and posted large chunks of it apparently) on before it got picked up for publication. The main character, Celaena, is an eighteen-year-old master assassin who is plucked from the salt mines prison to compete for the prince in a contest to become the King's Champion. She is a very tough young woman, and I found her abilities as a fighter very credible in this world, given her background and her deep determination and courage. Maas has done a great job of all of the characters, even the minor ones.

I liked the world, although it felt a bit "seen it before" - I think though that this is inevitable in fantasy. It must be so hard to try and write something original in every aspect. There is a romantic triangle with plenty of unresolved tension, and the fight scenes are very good. I kept reading all the way through, which is a positive sign for me! Also there are lots of symbols throughout - I happened to be grading my students' essays on symbolism in literature at the same time, and it struck me that quite a lot of Throne of Glass has echoes of Edgar Allan Poe. I'd certainly read Book 2 of this, just for the main character alone.
By the way, I like the Australian cover much more than the US one!
(Thanks to Bloomsbury for the review copies.)

Sunday, October 14, 2012

How Do You Read a Collection?

Today I was reading a review of Cate Kennedy's new short story collection, Like a House on Fire. The reviewer commented that although the individual stories were good (some terrific), overall the collection seemed too much of the same - the same pace, the same preoccupations, the same way of dealing with the subject matter. I got the impression that the reviewer had sat down, as you do when you have a deadline (publication date), and read the whole book in one or two sessions of reading. Maybe this is not the way to read a collection.

We don't complain of a novel that it's all about the same thing. We expect it. But what do we expect from a collection? A theme? A connection? Some writers, like Tim Winton, have written hybrids, where the stories interconnect in ways that feel like a novel. How do we read collections? I know with poetry I like to keep a book by my bed. I might only read three or four poems at once, sometimes only one if it's one I want to think about. Short stories are the same. I feel like if I read too many at once, I'm pigging out, and I lose the effect of each one.

Somehow my brain wants to connect them like a novel, and if I can't, I connect them through the writer. Are these all her, hidden behind the words? Does he have an obsession? A certain voice? A writer's tic? And that's when I stop reading, because that's me, pushing things onto the collection that don't belong. Things that might end up ruining my pleasure in stories or poems that should stand alone. The writer has polished each one separately, like a piece of jewellery, and here I am, wanting to pile them all on together until I look like I'm covered in bling. (Yes, I'm feeling a bit metaphorical today!)

The thing is, any collection is going to have stories or poems that shine for you, for personal reasons or because you just enjoy that style or tone or perspective. For me, Kennedy's story of the woman whose husband is disabled by a tractor accident resonated deeply, but the one about the woman forced back to work with her little boy in childcare didn't because I didn't relate to her much. But that's me, you see. That's what I bring to each story, as I do for poems. A bit like a CSI crime scene theory - we take something away with us, and we leave something behind. It'll be the same for you.

But the resonance, the bell ringing deep in our minds and reactions ... well, it becomes duller and duller when you sit and read the whole lot in one go. I like the idea that ebooks are allowing us to buy and read just one good short story. It means that story gets its full quota of attention. Maybe the next thing will be ebooks of a dozen poems. That'd be nice. I'd like it to be like music - let me put together my own "best of" collection to savour when I'm in the mood. Anyone out there in publisher land listening?

Thursday, October 04, 2012

What kind of critique works for you?

Over on my other blog at, I did a series of posts a while ago about how to critique different kinds of writing - picture books, fiction, poetry etc. It seems that the picture book critique post is really popular! It got me wondering though - when writers ask for a critique, what do they hope for?

I'm pretty tough with my critiques. Tough but fair, I hope. But more importantly, I try to give the work some distance and thinking time, and come up with some suggestions or examples of where the work might go. Not "Write it this way" or "This is what you should do" but "Have you thought about setting it somewhere different? Or trying a different POV? Or cutting the first three pages?"

I've been in one writing group for more than 20 years. Sometimes we acknowledge that we are good friends, and that we are sometimes too used to each other's work. It's a challenge to get beyond that. Any critique group is going to have a range of opinions and different levels of experience. But paid critiques are a whole different thing.

I've been teaching writing for a very long time, and workshopping and commenting on student writing all along. If I have learned one thing, it is this - not everyone can or wants to hear feedback. Not wanting to is normal. We all feel like that. Writers who have books accepted for publication often express shock at their editor's letter. The finely detailed feedback can sink you into depression for days! But it's all designed to make your book better, so it pays to listen.

But what about "can"? We assume that if a writer puts their work out there for comment (in a group, a class or even a paid critique) that they will take it all on board and use it. Not so. Sometimes it all seems too hard. Easier to move onto another book or story, especially if you've done five drafts already. Sometimes a writer puts their work out way too early. Honestly, raw first draft writing shouldn't be critiqued. Especially if you haven't finished the whole thing. Some critical feedback on your first chapter can be enough to derail the entire novel. And your confidence.

My feeling is that being able to hear feedback and make good use of it requires a few things:

* Being able to put aside your ego
* Being willing to do major revision if it's needed
* Knowing enough about the craft to put the comments to good use
* Knowing enough about the craft to understand the comments!
* Being willing to let go of what isn't working
* Being open to radical shifts if it will energise the story and give it a big lift
* Being willing to shut and and just listen instead of defending or arguing

What works for you in a good critique?

Monday, October 01, 2012

Unlikeable Main Characters

OK, I'm warning you up front that this post contains spoilers for the novel Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn!

I had heard a lot of good things about this book - thrilling, suspenseful, intriguing. Yes, I thought it was a crime novel, since the author had won awards for her other books, and the summaries for them on her website sound like crime. Gone Girl has had excellent reviews. I reserved a copy at my library (being very cautious about book buying these days) and waited. Well, it is a crime novel, I think. I'm not 100% sure because I'm only halfway through it. And struggling. A lot.

I was going to write this post around Page 40, and then I thought - Don't be silly. Give it a decent go first. But now I am up to Page (let me check) 174, and I keep thinking I should just put it down and give up. It's making me grumpy (goodness knows, I don't need encouragement that way at the moment!). Why? I hate both main characters. The story is told through two points of view: Amy (the wife who goes missing) and Nick (the husband left behind who starts to look suspicious). Amy is whiny and immature, Nick is self-obsessed and immature. They are both the kinds of people in their 30s that you (OK, I) just want to slap and say - Grow up!

Yes, I can see that the author is setting me up to think that Nick really has had something to do with Amy's disappearance. And that Amy may well have orchestrated her disappearance to pay Nick back for being a useless, irritating husband, and therein the mystery lies. Except I don't care about either of them. At all. I find myself wishing she was in Greenland or Kathmandu, just so she leaves the story. As for Nick, when he announces on Page 135, "Now is the part where I have to tell you I have a mistress and you stop liking me" - well, gee, Nick, I never did like you, so now I just loathe you!

I know that unlikeable narrators/main characters (Amy and Nick both narrate their own chapters - hers is a diary just so we don't assume she is still alive) are OK if you do them well, but I can't help being a reader who finds these characters distasteful and annoying. I have read books where the character is unlikeable, through their life choices and their attitude (think Andrew Vacchs's character, Burke, or Garry Disher's character, Wyatt). But those characters have something in them that the reader responds to. Burke is on a mission that we can empathise with. Wyatt is so intriguing that we want to know more.

Unfortunately, I just don't like characters who are dishonest. Plenty of readers disagree with me. A reviewer on Amazon said "It's one of those books you will feel the need to discuss immediately after finishing because the ending doesn't just come; it punches you in the gut." I don't think I'll make it that far. Or I'll skip to the end just to see the outcome, with nothing invested. Flynn herself says her characters are "narcissistic, selfish, and cruel." How true. And so I care almost nothing about what happens. It's the risk an author takes when they have unlikeable main characters.

I wanted to like this book. It's probably just me. Have you read it?