A Not-So-Nice Hero in Marie Lu’s THE YOUNG ELITES

As the latest draft of my WIP sits with its editor, it’s also sitting in the back of my brain, sort of simmering. So I seem to be seeing different types of heroes everywhere I read, even when I’m not (consciously) looking for them. I’ve heard people talk about unsympathetic characters/narrators, but I don’t know that I’ve ever run across a hero I really didn’t like, certainly not one I kept reading about.

Until I started Marie Lu’s The Young Elitesthe first book in the trilogy of the same name. (Books 2 and 3 are The Rose Society and The Midnight Star, respectively.) Adelina Amouteru is the main character of all three books. At first, because I am a worrier, I wondered if I was right that she was unsympathetic, or–as I was feeling–actually very unlikable. I wondered if that was Marie Lu’s intent. But the further I read, the more convinced I was that–yes–Lu did this on purpose. (Also, I googled around a bit and found interviews like this one, where it is clear that Lu saw herself as developing and writing a villain–a villain who, in my opinion, is also the hero.) Adelina is definitely the hero of the series. She is active, makes things happen, changes the world around her, and–ultimately–does go through a pretty huge learning arc.

As I realized what Lu was doing, I found myself asking one question over and over as I turned the pages: Why am I still reading? Not in a bad way–Adelina’s story is very well written. It’s action-packed, dramatic, and it does a pretty great job painting the wide range of dynamics between the various characters. But I asked, because–honestly–I really didn’t like Adelina. She is–for much of Book 1, all of Book 2, and a big part of Book 3–self-centered, paranoid, and cruel. But I didn’t want to put down her story and stop reading. I was rooting for her.

I think Lu did several things to get me (okay, us) there.

  • She lets us see Adelina for a series of scenes before she discovers her abilities as a Young Elite. In those scenes, we see glimpses of Adelina’s focus on herself and her anger at those who neglect or abuse her. But we see her primarily as vulnerable and powerless, necessarily fearful and self-protective.
  • Lu gives Adelina some very big, very real reasons for focusing so much on herself, for feeling angry and vengeful. Because Adelina has been “marked” by the blood fever and has no (apparent) useful powers, she is in turn ignored and abused by her father, harrassed and tormented by her society. Lu draws these scenes with strength, starting the first book by getting the reader on her hero’s side.
  • Lu creates a downside for Adelina’s abilities. Adelina’s power is to create illusions, and the strength of that power is fed by anger, fear, and conflict. As she progresses through the story, these powers start to take a toll (trying to avoid spoilers here, bear with me!). Her illusions begin to spiral out of her control, showing her the image of her dead father following her around. They feed her paranoia–she is accompanied by increasingly frequent whispers in her mind, telling her that her friends want to abandon her, or to take her strength for themselves, or simply to kill her. By writing Adeline’s story in first person and giving us direct access to the whispers, we see the forces still acting against Adelina, even as her own actions get more violent, more abusive, and more unlikeable with every page.

As I got deeper into the story, toward the end of Book 2, I started–also–getting curious about whether and how Lu was going to bring Adelina out of her villain state. I kind of thought she had to, because, well, hero’s change. And I was pretty convinced, even in the midst of Adelina being really horrible, that she was the story’s hero. And Lu did it. Not too many spoilers here, but Lu takes Adelina deep into the isolation that cruelty and paranoia build around her, then creates a very strong reason for her to force herself out of that isolation and for the friends she has pushed away to invite her back into their company. And then Lu continues to place them all in situations where support, connection, and even some kind of renewed respect and caring start to be rebuilt, in all of the characters. (I did feel a few times that Adelina pushed away the whispering voices a bit too easily in this stage, considering how quickly she gave into them earlier in the story, but this was just a tiny question as I read, and it didn’t take me out of the story or out of accepting Adelina’s growth at the end.)

So back to that question of why I kept reading. I could say it was because I was being analytic and I wanted to figure out all the things I’ve just talked about. But that wasn’t it. I kept reading, because–while Adelina does get really unlikable, especially deep in the middle of the story–she never becomes unsympathetic. By giving us a believable foundation for all the nastiness Adelina commits, by showing that some of her fear and paranoia is based in reality and reason, by continuing the fine thread of her intentions along with her actions…Lu kept me sympathizing with Adelina from beginning to end.

And that is one way to build a hero.

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Moving On: New Plan, New Path

So for the past few months, I’ve been working to get a draft of the WIP done, for the possibility that I would get accepted into a SCBWI mentorship program. Best laid plans and all that, lots of reasons, that plan didn’t work out.

But I still have my finished draft!

My goal for this next pass has been to work with someone over time to strengthen a few building blocks of my story. The biggest challenges, in all my writing, but especially in my novels are

  • To come up with ideas for strong actions for my hero to take
  • To build a character-driven plot, where the things my  hero does are truly based in the person they are
  • To make my scenes part of a plot arc that grows in tension to the crisis/climax.

I don’t know why these are my sticking points, but they are, so I’ve got to deal with them. The rest of the WIP is still quite the mess, with about a gazillion unanswered questions, undeveloped side threads, and characters who kind of drop in and out of their own subplots at random. But those are all revision areas I feel like I can deal with. I have dealt with them on other projects. But these building blocks…

So I’m hiring an editor. I’ve done this before, to get some help on my first picture book, and the woman I worked with them also does middle-grade and is awesome sauce. She also just did a couple of more picture book edits for me, and her feedback was wonderful and brain-spark inciting. Anyway, she was open to my need for her to work on an earlier draft (let’s not go into how many drafts you can have and still call them “early,” okay?), to focus on a few specifics, and–hopefully, for her sake–to put aside the pain and heartburn of ignoring all the other elements that are still beyond rough.

So the manuscript is out there, if not to the place I originally expected it to be. I have the two picture book critiques to be revising from, as I try to bring two more books up to the as-ready-as-possible stage. And I’m keeping a notebook of Things That Occur To Me about the MG WIP, that I will want to tweak, strengthen, improve when I get that critique back and begin the work of re-stacking the blocks. Maybe even re-carving them.

I love revision, so in many ways, I’m really looking forward to the next step. But I know I’m also in this for the learning process, for understanding more than I do now about those elements I struggle with. I have this sense that now is the time to stop spinning in a circle, to climb out of the skill level I’ve been at for years. If not now, then when, right? So, yes, my end goal is still agent/aquisition/publication, but I’m trying hard not to focus on that goal for a bit (because it tends to play mind games with me.) Instead, my focus will stay on skill-building, strengthening myself as a writer, learning how to weave more power into the scenes I write.

“She made herself stronger by fighting with the wind.”
-Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden

 

 

Stella Montgomery, Wormwood Mire’s Brave Hero

So I just finished reading Judith Rossell’s Wormwood Mire for the second time in a few weeks. Wormwood Mire is the sequel to Rossell’s Withering-by-Sea, and there is apparently a third book–Wakestone Hall–coming soon, maybe at the end of the year. (Yay!) I really enjoyed Withering-by-Sea, but I absolutely loved Wormwood Mire. It is quiet and lovely and sweet and very much the page-turner (in a non-stressful way!). I love quiet books, but I often wonder how the author manages to keep the pages turning and still keep the book quiet. Plus, I’ve been struggling with a more character-driven plot in my current WIP.

So I decided to re-read Stella’s second book and take notes about what plot actions happen, who does them, why they do them, and how those actions move the plot forward. Now, I didn’t remember Stella being super active, but I thought I’d find out differently when I took a closer look.

Nope.

Stella does things. She explores the strange house she’s found herself living in. She asks questions about the mystery surrounding her mother and her (perhaps) twin sister, neither of whom she can actually remember. She climbs a tall tree, and she ventures near the lake she has been warned to stay away from. She discovers a secret room and enters it. All in a world of gossipy whispers that speak of monsters and witches’ familiars.

But, other than finding the secret room, she does pretty much none of these adventurous things by herself. And she doesn’t instigate them either. Almost all the impetus for exploring and putting herself in dangerous situations comes from her energetic, inquisitive, and absolutely wonderful cousin Strideforth. Strideforth is a scientist and an engineer, and he doesn’t believe in spooky things. The house is filled with heating pipes, some of which are hot to the touch and some of which are cold, and Strideforth’s actions are driven by his curiosity–his absolute need to know–about where the heat is going. The house is freezing cold, except in the kitchen, and that is a problem Strideforth is determined to solve. So he explores and he questions and he draws Stella and his sister, Hortense, along with him.

So why is Stella a hero?

  • Stella is brave. We learn this about her in the first book, and we see it again in this sequel. Stella is a timid girl. She has reason to be–she has led an at-once very sheltered and very neglected/abusted life with her three horrible aunts. (No, you’re not wrong, you do sense a hint of Roald Dahlness!) And, yet, whenever a moment comes–and many of them do–where she has the choice of going forward or going backward, Stella goes forward. She has to take some deep breaths, she has to get encouragement from the sister she is imagining, and she has to push away the frightening story from the nasty going-away book of morals that her aunts gave her when she left. But she goes forward. Every time.
  • Stella is curious. Like Strideforth, she wants to know and  understand, but she is much more open than he is to the unexplained and magical. Things that she agrees, as Strideforth says, not possible, and yet…she sees them happen and accepts them as facts. Stella also reads whenever she can–even the horrible gift from her aunts, but more importantly the travel diary of her ancestor that she discovers in the secret room.
  • Stella’s actions move the story forward. Exploring with Strideforth and Hortense, Stella comes across pieces of her past that bring back memories–frightening and scary memories. She doesn’t push the memories away; instead, she actively stops (ha! Is that the secret to a quiet page-turner?) whatever she is doing and lets the memory come.  Each memory brings with it another piece of the mystery, and Stella is the one who puts those pieces together, along with the information she gleans from the travel diary.  Stella is the one to solve the puzzles of the book–that of the whispered about monster as well as the truth about her mother and sister.

Stella is Mary Lennox without the temper, without the force of action and power that temper gives Mary. She is Matilda without the magic. She is quiet, polite, well-behaved, and withdrawing. Opportunities for decisions and actions present themselves to her, and she has to push herself to take them. But she does take them, with us rooting for her every time.

And I’m pretty sure that is what makes her a hero.

 

 

 

Deadlines

I have a love/hate relationship with deadlines.

If you make me wait to finish something until just before a deadline, then I hate them. Sometimes this plays out at my day job, when I need some final information from someone else before I can submit a grant proposal. I accept that others are busy and that this is my reality, but it Drives. Me. Crazy. Me, a control freak? Whatever do you mean?

If you let me plan and organize and beat my deadline by a couple of days, or a week, then I am happy. And, in that case, I love deadlines. Because they make me get things done, let me check a task off a to-do list, give me a feeling of completion and satisfaction. While I was doing the at-home-mom, working-on-my-own-fiction thing, I essentially had no deadlines. Oh, sure, yes, you have 18 years to get your kid Ready to Move Out, but guess how quickly you realize that is very much out of your control? And you want to publish a book SOMEDAY, but someday is not a deadline.

August 31, 2017 is a deadline.

That’s the date when I find out if I get into the writing program I applied for. It’s a mentorship program, and they decide based on your first 20 pages and a couple of other items. If they reach out on August 31 and tell you that you’re accepted, then on September 1st, you send the whole manuscript.

I’d been working on this book for a while, had a couple of complete drafts, and was in the middle of another, and I pretty much knew the bare bones path to the end. But I had been waffling around that middle, spending way too much time on deciding whether my hero was going to do X or Y and whether I was going to bring in this side plot rf that one or neither, things like that.

With the deadline, I stopped waffling. I spent approximately two minutes thinking about any decision, then I made a choice. Doubts, fears, nasty little voices–I pushed them aside. Questions about what should happen in the next scene got answered by what taking one more look at what happened in the last one, and moving on. Sometimes that meant picking up the next scene five minutes after the last, sometimes it meant skipping forward some days. When the You-Call-that-Pacing? demon raised its head, and, oh, it did, I pushed it back down. I basically played Whack-a-Worry and kept writing.

And I met the deadline. I met it the way I like best, three weeks early.

Is the book good? Oh, h*ll, I have no idea. Is it better than the last versions? In terms of telling a story from beginning to end, coherently and in a comprehensible sequence? Yes. In terms of depth and writing and impact. Probably not. Are there holes and missing layers and characters who showed up too little or not at all? Definitely. Is my hero active enough and driving himself forward with a character-driven plot.  Not yet.

Did I get more work done and make more progress in the past few months than I had in the past two years?

I did.

And that’s the power of a deadline. That is the love part of my love/hate relationship. And the reminder is the first gift (hopefully not the last) that this writing program has given to me.

My 100 Best Novels. With a Few Memoirs. Plus Other Things.

Okay, Nathan Bransford said this was hard, and I believe him. But it was also fun. It has made me very clear that there are some books I want to go back and reread and some books I should be putting on my never-read-and-whyever-not? list.

Nathan had his caveats, and I’m going to have mine. They are:

  1. The books will be ones I’ve actually read, all the way through. There are probably many books out there that I have never picked up that would totally qualify.
  2. Some of these books I literally haven’t read in decades and are on the list because of the impact they had on me when I did read them. If I reread them today, they might not make the list. Others are recent reads that are foremost in my memory–in 10 years, they might not be here. Some are books that I know I won’t choose to read again, because they were brilliantly written, but I don’t want to repeat the experience of being in the world they portray.
  3. As I look at the list developing, I realize that it is a very white, heterosexual list. I am working on this, trying to read more widely and more diversely. But these are still books I fell in love with or was at least blown away by, so–for now–they make up my “best.”
  4. They are in alphabetical order, obviously, not order of favoritude.
  5. I’m not going to argue about this list. I welcome all comments and discussion, but I won’t be defending anything I’ve put here. That’s why it’s my list. You should definitely make your own and, if you want, leave a link in the comments!
  6. Because some of my favorite books are memoirs, I’ve included some of those. And I cheated a couple of other times, to get in some other books that are short stories or, in one case, long essays. Because these books are The Best.

Here we go.

NOVELS

  1. 84 Charing Cross Road
  2. All Creatures Great and Small
  3. Anne of Green Gables
  4. The Ark
  5. Artemis Fowl
  6. The Beekeeper’s Apprentice
  7. Between, Georgia
  8. The BFG
  9. Bitterblue
  10. Ms. Bixby’s Last Day
  11. Breakup
  12. The Brothers Karamazov
  13. Bluecrowne
  14. The Bluest Eye
  15. Busman’s Holiday
  16. Caddie Woodlawn
  17. Captains Courageous
  18. Charlotte’s Web
  19. Cheaper by the Dozen
  20. Cloud and Wallfish
  21. The Color of Water
  22. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court
  23. The Flame Trees of Thika
  24. Flygirl
  25. Frindle
  26. A Good Man is Hard to Find
  27. Great Expectations
  28. Half Magic
  29. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
  30. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
  31. High Hearts
  32. The Haunting of Hill House
  33. The Hobbit
  34. Holes
  35. A House with Four Rooms
  36. I’ll Give You the Sun
  37. Inkheart
  38. Island of the Aunts
  39. Jo’s Boys *
  40. The Jungle
  41. The Left-Handed Fate
  42. Life of Pi
  43. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
  44. Lionboy
  45. Little Men *
  46. Living with Jackie Chan
  47. The Long Winter
  48. The Magician’s Elephant
  49. Matilda
  50. The Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler
  51. The Metamorphosis **
  52. The Mouse and the Motorcycle
  53. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
  54. My Antonia
  55. My Father’s Dragon
  56. My Most Excellent Year
  57. Not a Genuine Black Man
  58. Okay for Now
  59. The Only Ones
  60. The Boy Most Likely To
  61. Persuasion
  62. The Penderwicks
  63. The Penderwicks in Spring
  64. Perverse and Foolish
  65. The Phantom Tollbooth
  66. The Picture of Dorian Gray
  67. Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle
  68. Pippi Longstocking
  69. Pride and Prejudice
  70. The Princess Bride
  71. And Quiet Flows the Don
  72. Reflecting the Sky
  73. A Ring of Endless Light
  74. A Room of One’s Own 
  75. The Scarlet Pimpernel
  76. The Secret Garden
  77. The Shepherd’s Crown **
  78. Speak
  79. Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing
  80. Tea with the Black Dragon
  81. The True Meaning of Smekday
  82. The Tunnel of Hugsy Goode
  83. The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax
  84. Travels with Charley
  85. Villette
  86. War and Peace
  87. The Water is Wide
  88. The Watsons Go to Birmingham
  89. We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea
  90. The Wee Free Men **
  91. When We Rise
  92. Wintergirls
  93. Winnie the Pooh
  94. Travels with Charley
  95. The Water is Wide
  96. The Wolf Wilder
  97. The World According to Garp
  98. A Wrinkle in Time
  99. Wuthering Heights
  100. Zooman Sam

* Little Men and Jo’s Boys reach “best” status when you read them both, in order.
*** Make sure you read all the Tiffany Aching books after The Wee Free Men BEFORE you read The Shepherd’s Crown (the last in the series).

 

Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park Doesn’t Have Cell Service

I spent the weekend in a gorgeous place in the middle of the desert, learning about abandoned mines and the Nevada State Fossil–the Ichthyosaur. We had originally picked Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park as a place to basically get away from home, do some Vanagon camping, and not deal with Life Stuff for a few days.

It may have worked a little better than I expected.

I knew our cell service might be a little spotty on the trip, but I will tell you that Nevada has way better service in what I call their “boonies” than California does in ours. Maybe because there’s more of it? I can’t get connected basically anywhere in the Sierras, but get me across the state line, and…boom! I can do google searches and play with social media as much as I want. And I had kind of figured that in the State Park, there would be rangers, so there would be service. Nope. From Friday night to Sunday late afternoon when we left–not a sign of the Internet or anything from or about the outside world. So, seriously. Zero. Life. Stuff.

It was a little weird. I didn’t actually miss it; there’s a lot about the world these days that I don’t mind tuning out from. But I did notice how often my brain would, just in any moment of silence, drop into that groove that had me almost reflexively reaching for my phone. A gap of ideas as I was working on a chapter, a question of trivia that my husband and I didn’t know the answer to, a picture I wanted to share on Facebook. It was, honestly, a lesson in the mindfulness part of well…mindfulness–Wow! Look how often I’m doing that.

And can I tell you how fast I was writing? I know–we all know–how distracting the internet can be when we’re supposed to be putting words on a page. I get that, but I also tell myself some version of the “I can  handle it, and I can quit anytime” storyline. But both Saturday and Sunday mornings, while my husband was out on his bike, I draft or revised an entire short chapter in about an hour and a half. Seriously. We woke up really, because the Vanagon has no curtains, and the sun comes right in the windows. I don’t move really quickly, but by 7:30 or so, my husband had hit the road (not literally, thank goodness–been there, done that!), and I was writing. By 9:00, I had the chapter done. And I hadn’t noticed the time passing, not at all. I would think, okay, that’s a chapter–it must be 11:00 or even noon. Nope. Not even close. I wasn’t looking up, I wasn’t looking around, I wasn’t looking beyond the pinyon pines at the edge of our campsite.

!pinyons.jpg

The other thing that happened was that I ran out of books. I know, right? Catastrophe. Partly, it was because we were both doing a lot of laying around and reading, and partly it was because we ended up with a minor charging problem, and I couldn’t get to my kindle for a few hours. Know what I did? I sat in my beach chair under the shade cover, head back against one of the pillars, and–for an hour or two–either stared out at those trees and thought, or closed my eyes and dozed. I didn’t even have my phone with me.

I know. No big revelations here. There’s enough talk on the very Internet we should spend less time on, about how we should spend less time on the Internet. And they’re right. But maybe, after this trip, I know just a little more deeply that they’re right.

So…what am I doing about it? No promises about how long this will last, but for now and maybe for a little past now, I’m going to disconnect a little more. This is going to be a challenge–in part, just because I’m trying to take apart a habit. Also, though, as toxic as all the crap in DC is, I believe it’s important for me to stay in touch with it, to know when it’s my turn to dial my Senators, to call out the idiots and say, “We see you.” But my new mantra is going to be, “Right now, I’m doing X,” meaning, I’m doing one thing, and being on my phone simultaneously, in whatever form, is doing two things. I’m going to put it away more frequently, turn it off, delay checking in with whatever my brain thinks I should be checking in with.

And I’m going to see–when I’m not in the desert, when I’m not on a weekend, when I’ve gone longer than two days–how it feels.