EYE OF THE STORM: All the Things Kate Messner Did Right

I just finished reading Kate Messner’s Eye of the Storm. Great read. It’s a fast-paced adventure story, a well-done dystopian, and an excellent exploration of real choices that real kids have to make. I was going to put it down for a while Sunday morning and get some of my own writing done, but I couldn’t. So, yes, I blame Kate for my not digging into a picture-book revision this weekend, but, hey–she got me thinking, once again, about possible revisions for my middle-grade novel, so…it’s all good.

Anyway, I’m not going to go into much talk about the story itself. You can check out the blurb here, at Kate’s website. What I want to talk about is Kate’s writing craft, which impressed me so much on every page. As I read, I just kept thinking, Wow, a different writer would have done this, or another writer would have backed off from this…So today I’m blogging about all the things I think other writers would have done with this story, things that would have made it weaker, more cliché, less tense and less engaging. Basically, I’m going to tell you everything I think Kate did REALLY, REALLY right–but in reverse.

Side note: I want to make clear that I am totally including myself in that category of writers who wouldn’t quite have managed what Kate pulls off so beautifully. That middle-grade novel I mentioned has been sitting on a shelf for quite some time, basically stagnating from one big flaw. One BIG flaw. I know what it is, I know what’s missing, but I haven’t yet figured out how to revise to get rid of that flaw. I’m not saying I’ve got it down, but reading Eye of the Storm definitely showed me how someone else (yes, Kate) addressed and solved the issue in her book. And while I know she did that for her own story, not mine, I’m seriously grateful.

Anyway, for a Monday morning, here’s me thinking about what other writers would have done…

  • Other writers would have forgotten the little, concrete details about how life is different in Jaden’s world, where the weather has gotten so extreme that people’s lives are basically ruled by the threat of massive tornadoes. Not Kate. There’s a beautiful moment when Jaden gets a new bike, and she has a great memory about the one friend who insisted on riding her own bicycle long after everyone else gave theirs up–even though the only safe way to do it was by staying on your own street, riding a few yards one way, then turning around and heading back. Tiny circles. Beautiful.
  • Other writers would have chucked friendship and intelligence for tension and conflict. Now, we all know I’m a big fan of tension and conflict, but…when characters act like idiots just to achieve that conflict, nope. I don’t want to give any spoilers, but another writer would have made Jaden’s friend Risha jealous of Jaden’s successfully budding romance with Alex. Kate didn’t. Another writer would have put the stepmom and the mother in conflict, just because, well…stepmoms are always bad, right? Nope. Kate didn’t. She let the characters stay intelligent and stay supportive. And it all felt real.
  • Other writers would have stopped the crisis a lot sooner, made the bad stuff take up one page or two in the middle of one scene, and then be quickly resolved so that the world could turn happily again. Sometimes, I think, we get a bit caught up in turning our heroes into superheroes, who just need to get to the right moment, snap their fingers, and make everything right again. Kate didn’t. The crisis escalates and gets worse and gets her heroes in deeper. It doesn’t feel contrived, it doesn’t feel too long, and–believe me–it’s why that picture-book revision didn’t get started.
  • Other writers would have taken more responsibility off the hero’s shoulders. Not Kate. As things get bad, Jaden makes things worse. REALLY WORSE. She already feels like the big problem of the story is, in part her fault, and in the crisis scenes, she makes that belief come true. Which pretty much means that there is only one person who can fix it–yep. Jaden.
  • Other writers would have forgotten the dog. Sorry, you don’t get an explanation of this one, because I’m not giving things away, but I’ll just tell you that Kate knows exactly how to make a problem really matter, at the emotional level. The level at which a character has to take action.
  • Other writers would have drawn out the decision-making, the time spent on getting the character to take that action. You know–more waffling, more dithering, more back and forth of should-I, shouldn’t-I. Not Kate. She gives just the right amount of time to Jaden’s indecision–the amount that is reasonable and realistic, given what’s at stake for Jaden when she does decide. And then, yeah, she hits Jaden with the absolute perfect thing to push her over the line, to make her say “Yes,” and move forward. Exquisite.
  • Other writers* would have made the conflict a lot farther away from home. Again, I’m getting close to a spoiler here, but let’s just say that the bad guys in this story aren’t separated from Jaden by geographical or emotional distance. What the bad guys do doesn’t just matter on an objective, save-the-world level, or even just on a here’s-a-puzzle-to-solve level. The bad guys’ actions hit Jaden hard, personally, which pretty much adds all the conflict I could ask for and keeps that story-tension running high, high, HIGH.
  • Other writers would have let people off the hook at the end, to get that happier ending. Kate gives everyone what they’ve got coming. There’s a very real satisfaction to the consequences of the story, not a feeling of revenge or just desserts, but of having it all make sense. And be believable. Kate understands that her readers understand–she gives them credit for the same intelligence she weaves into her characters, and it all works.

*This is my biggie. This is the thing I’ve been struggling with on my MG, and this is the thing that just jumped out at me from EYE OF THE STORM to shout, “Hey, look how Kate did it!”

There you have it. Go out, pick up a copy if EYE OF THE STORM. And let Kate show you what she’s shown me. And, for a little more from Kate, check out her summer blog series on online lessons: TEACHERS WRITE!

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6 thoughts on “EYE OF THE STORM: All the Things Kate Messner Did Right

  1. LorettajoKapinos says:

    I was fortunate to take Kate’s workshop at this year’s New England SCBWI regional conference. I have pages of notes. And now I know which book I’m reading next. Thanks!

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    • beckylevine says:

      I bet that was a great workshop! The NE SCBWI conference always sounds so wonderful! I’m sure you’ll enjoy the book.

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  2. Wow! Thanks so much for the kind words, Becky – I’m so glad EYE OF THE STORM got your wheels turning for your own project, too. That happens to me constantly when I’m studying how another author has used craft to solve a plot or character problem, and it thrills me to no end to know that my book was a bit of a mentor text for someone else, too.

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    • beckylevine says:

      It really did get me thinking, Kate. Now I just have to get past that first off-the-top-of-my-head idea (which–what a coincidence–totally mirrors what you did, plot-wise, in your book!!) and find the revision plan that’s really right for my story. Thanks, again. 🙂

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