Category: Writing style


This gorgeous image is by mariobraune and I found it on flickr. click the photo for more of this artist's work.

I’m going to start this post by saying that I don’t always believe that the best type of writing is writing that you don’t notice.  THE BOOK THIEF was definitely one of those books where the writing was noticeable and it added to the story.  In fact, I think when the book is more psychological and less action-y, a more florid writing style really fleshes out the book.  However, with action the opposite is true.

GONE has psychological elements.  As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, there is a character with an eating disorder.  There is a character who resents taking care of her autistic little brother.  In a situation where children grow up too soon, there has to be a psychological impact.

However, I believe, at its heart, GONE is an action story.

The majority of this book is action or tension-filled scenes.  Exposition is at a minimum.  Characterization is achieved largely through action.  Want to know what kind of person Sam is?  Look at how he reacts in a stressful situation.  What to know how he relates to people? Pay attention to how he talks to his friends.

GONE is written in the third person, which by its very nature keeps the reader out of the character’s heads.  I’m not a person who’s overly attached to reading a particular point of view, as long as it works.  I think, in this case, third person works.  It’s removed.  It allows for point of view shifts.  And it doesn’t lend itself to long passages of introspection.

The author keeps the action rolling.  There are chase scenes and emergency situations the characters have to respond to quickly.  Often, sentences are short or even fragmented.  There isn’t much in the way of flowery language.

Which makes my analysis of the writing for this story a pretty easy job.  The writing gets out of the way of the story.  At the end of most books I’m left thinking about a phrase or two that stuck with me.  Some even pulled me out of the writing briefly.  Not so with GONE.  This book is pure storytelling.

I’m sorry I don’t have more for you with the writing style.  I can say that I was so engrossed in the story, I was paying less attention to the writing than I usually would.  If you’re not trying to compose literary fiction, that’s a pretty high complement.

If you pick up GONE (which I really did enjoy) let me know how you like it.  Tell me if I’ve missed anything in the analysis.  I love to get other people’s points of view.

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I mentioned in my last post that the writing style in TOMORROW, WHEN THE WAR BEGAN by John Marsden, was one of the more charming things about the book.  Despite all of my complaining about the over-detailed story-telling and pacing issues and the lack of tension, this book has voice.  I feel like there’s a tough, young Australian person telling this story.

Consider the opening paragraph of the book:

It’s only half an hour since someone–Robyn I think–said that we should write everything down, and it’s only twenty-nine minutes since I got chosen, and for those twenty-nine minutes I’ve had everyone crowded around me gazing at the blank page and yelling ideas and advice.  Rack off guys!  I’ll never get this done.  I haven’t got a clue where to start and I can’t concentrate with all this noise.

To me, this definitely sounds young.  The run-on sentences read like a rush of excited energy.  If it wasn’t for the Australian slang glossary, I wouldn’t know what “rack off” means (Go away) but I would guess that it’s something like “leave me alone” based on the context clues.  Since I don’t know what it means without a glossary, it definitely sounds foreign.  Even without the story summary on the back of the book, I would have guessed that it was set in Australia or New Zealand.  That’s one pretty darn good voice!

Admittedly, I thought that the voice was that of a male character.  That’s something I would like to explore.

I once read on an agent wish-list that she was looking for strong female protagonists and that doesn’t mean girls that act like boys.  I was left wondering…what does that mean?  What if the strong female protagonist isn’t boy-crazy or tends to be mechanical or isn’t particularly in touch with her feelings?  Certainly, we all know real life girls and women like this.  Yet, in this book where the main character, Ellie, is aggressive, somewhat emotionally shut off, and great with heavy machinery, I came to the wrong gender conclusion.

I wanted to look at some of the reasons that I thought that the point of view character in this book was male.  The first descriptive clue you get about the point of view character is on page three.  That’s where you learn that she must be female.  By that time, she’s already been aggressive towards her peers (with the “rack off” comment), mentioned that someone male named Chris might be upset that she was chosen to write the group’s history instead of him, and made a couple of blatantly defiant statements.  To me, this set her up as male.

As the book goes on, even though I know Ellie is the girl leader with two male love interests, I’m thrown by her admiring attitude towards the beautiful Fi.  She’s the only person in the group capable of driving heavy machinery.  She makes a bomb and uses it against the invading enemy.  Why can’t a girl do these things without gender ambiguity?

So I leave you with this question, is the problem Kate-the-reader or John-Marsden-the-author? Am I gender biased or is Mr. Marsden having trouble representing the internal thoughts from a female perspective?  How do you create a strong female character or a sensitive male character without blurring the gender lines?  If you’ve read the TOMORROW series, or you just have an opinion to share, let me know what you think

I’ll see you on Friday with some writing thoughts.  Until then.

That gorgeous (and in this context, terrifying) photo was taken by tathamoddie and I found it on Flickr.

One thing that I really enjoyed about THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER by Stephen Chbosky is that was an easy read with some very philosophical thoughts.  At first, I questioned Charlie’s voice.  He’s only supposed to be fifteen years old and sometimes he comes off as so much younger.  For example, consider this exchange between Charlie and his gay friend Patrick after Charlie has eaten his first marijuana brownie at a party and caught Patrick kissing the high school quarterback.

Patrick then took me out of the room and closed the door.  He put his hands on both of my shoulders and looked me straight in the eye.

“Brad doesn’t want people to know.”

“Why?”

“Because he’s scared.”

“Why?”

“Because he is…wait…are you stoned?”

“They said I was downstairs.  Sam is making me a milkshake.”

Patrick tried to keep from laughing.

“Listen, Charlie.  Brad doesn’t want people to know.  I need you promise you won’t tell anyone.  This will be our little secret.  Okay?”

“Okay.”

When I read this, my mental image of Charlie became that of a ten or eleven year old.  The way Patrick speaks to him, calling the incident our little secret, making the sentences very simple, is the way one might speak to a confused child.  Charlie’s perceived youth and inexperience is further reinforced by the way that Sam tries to help Charlie through being stoned by getting him ice cream.

The age gap between Patrick and Charlie seems so vast.  But it isn’t really.  Charlie is fifteen and turns sixteen during the school year.  Patrick is a senior, making him seventeen or eighteen.  Two to three years difference and yet Patrick and most of his friends treat Sam like their babysitting a very precocious child.

At the same time, the whole book is told from Charlie’s point of view.  We know what he’s thinking and we know that he’s very capable of understanding things.  He seems to have a particular interest in the motivations of the people around him.  Consider this scene where Charlie is watching his grandfather as the family views a VCR tape of his older brother playing college football:

My grandfather was crying.

The kind of crying that is quiet and a secret.  The kind of crying that only I noticed.  I thought about him going into my mom’s room when she was little and hitting my mom and holding up her report card and saying her bad grades would never happen again.  And I think now that maybe he meant my older brother.  Or my sister.  Or me.  That he would make sure he was the last one to work in a mill.

I don’t know if that’s good or bad.  I don’t know if it’s better to have your kids happy and not go to college.  I don’t know if it’s better to be close with your daughter or make sure she has a better life than you do.  I just don’t know.  I was quiet and I watched him.

So the writing style is very simple, right?  No crazy vocabulary.  No complex sentences.  In fact just about every other sentence is a fragment.  Simple words.  Short, clipped thoughts.  Huge, deep idea.

We could have a whole philosophical discussion on those two paragraphs alone!  And these sorts of conundrums and questions are peppered through the whole book.  These are some astute observations from someone who is at a time of life when so many thoughts are turned inward.  In fact, despite the way people treat him, Charlie seems to have the maturity of someone much older than sixteen.

This representation of Charlie’s interactions juxtaposed against his thoughts does something very interesting: without ever telling you that Charlie is a brilliant, innocent, unique teenager, you get that strong impression.  He brings out the protective nature of the people around him.  He gives everyone the benefit of the doubt.  He empathizes.  Rather than putting Charlie in gifted classes and having adults talk about how smart he is, the reader experiences the reality of Charlie’s intelligence through the way he thinks about his friends and family.  This book was one of the most poignant examples of showing instead of telling that I’ve read in a long time.  And for this, I applaud Mr. Chbosky.

I hope you enjoyed this deconstruction.  If you read THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER, I hope you’ll let me know how you enjoyed it and if you got any insights that I didn’t think of.  Until Wednesday!

That great image is by Filomena Scalise and I got it from freedigitalphotos.net.

A few years ago, when I decided I needed a crash course in professional writing, I started reading as many writing theory books as I could get my hands on.  There was one piece of advice that tended to get on my nerves: when you’re writing, every word is a choice.  To me, it sounded just a tad melodramatic.  I mean, really.  How many different ways can you say “It was foggy.”?

But then, I started reading more critically and realized how wrong I was.  The difference between a mundane sentence, a chilling sentence, or even a funny sentence can be the matter of a word or two.  Fog covered the city sounds pretty bland whereas Fog smothered the city is more ominous and Fog choked the city could, in the proper context, be chilling.

In THE HAUNTING OF ALAIZABEL CRAY (HAC) by Chris Wooding, precise word choices set the tone and build the suspense in the story.  The author continually reminds the reader of how risky it is to live in London.  Even when nothing particularly violent is happening, Mr. Wooding doesn’t let up on the tension.  Consider this sentence from chapter 11:

There was no fog tonight; the torrential downpour had torn it to tatters and it had retreated to the hollows, lurking in the thin shreds around the cold graveyards and derelict wasteground.

I had to re-read that sentence to figure out if it was describing the weather or a vicious animal attack.  By giving us a description of the weather that echoes the horror and violence of London, we are primed and ready for the attack that is going to happen in just a few pages.

Mr. Wooding also uses words in his descriptions that are reminiscent of blood and bleeding.  It really adds to the icky, ominous tone of the book.  When the author describes a character imagining a sunset, it is written:

…she’d stood and watched the last of the day bleed out of the sky….

When he describes the poorest district in London, he writes:

The city of London has a secret heart.  It is a clotted thing of crumbling stone….

When he describes one of the many disgusting monsters he writes:

…a clot of darkness that bled along the walls and path of the sewer….

I could keep going.  The bloody reminders are everywhere.  At every opportunity, Mr. Wooding makes a descriptive choice to have everything–the weather, the buildings, even the darkness–shadow the violence and gore in the city.  And it works.  The tone of this book is dark, dark, dark.

I’d also like to touch on a point that I’ve mentioned more than once: Mr. wooding dedicates a huge amount of his writing space to description.  And, while I stand by my assessment in earlier posts that it really slows the pace, it’s also another choice that I believe contributes to the tone of the story.  The story is set in alternate-history, Victorian-era London.  Writers of this time include Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde, and the Bronte sisters.  These are not sparse writers.  Charles Dickens spends more than a page at the beginning of A TALE OF TWO CITIES telling the reader that the story takes place in a time like any other time.  So, in terms of the style of the day, Mr. Wooding’s book is actually pretty reserved.

So, that’s THE HAUNTING OF ALAIZABEL CRAY by Chris Wooding.  This was my first steampunk and I hope I find more in the same genre that are just as enjoyable.  I’ll see you on Friday.

The scaaaary artwork is by Shain Erin (seriously, this artist makes constructs really messed-up dolls that are icky and awesome.  LOVE it.) and I found it on flickr.

I enjoy different brands of writing style for different reasons.  When I’m reading an adventure story, like SHIPBREAKER, I want the prose to be easy to read.  Descriptive elements are fine but don’t give me too much to ponder.  You’ll lose the adventure-style pacing.  At the same time, I’m a writer so I love words.  I read Jane Austen aloud because I love the way she sounds.  Her books are social satire so stopping to think about phrasing and meaning doesn’t take away from the story-telling at all.

In THE BOOK THIEF by Markus Zusak, the writing style is almost literary.  I knew this was a holocaust story and I knew that it was categorized as young adult so I was a little bit surprised.  But as I read on, I think I understood what Mr. Zusak was doing.  Again, this is about the point of view character.  Death.  By filling the prose with figures of speech, Mr. Zusak manages to maintain a surreal, water-color feel around the book.  Even though the setting is based on historical Germany, even though there’s nothing supernatural about the story, there’s still a dreamlike quality, thanks to the writing style.  Consider this bit of storytelling from Death’s point of view:

The last time I saw her was red.  The sky was like soup, boiling and stirring.  In some places, it was burned.  There were black crumbs, and pepper, streaked across the redness.

Earlier kids had been playing hopscotch there, on the street that looked like oil-stained pages.  When I arrived, I could still hear the echoes.  The feet tapping the road.  The children-voices laughing, and the smiles like salt, but decaying fast.

What an image!  A red soup sky!  What does it mean?  I have no idea but I have a strong mental picture of something I’ve never seen. And since I’ve already confessed that my mind’s eye needs glasses, giving me a great visual is quite an accomplishment.  And smiles like salt.  Not sweet.  Easily dissolving.  So few words but with a ton of meaning.

At the end of my edition of THE BOOK THIEF, there’s “A conversation with Markus Zusak”.  In it, he states that he likes the idea that every page of a book can have a gem on it.  If he doesn’t manage to do just that, he comes pretty close.  Some of my favorites?

  • …the minutes soaked by.
  • Frau Diller was a sharp-edged woman….
  • If they killed him tonight, at least he would die alive.
  • His eyes were the color of agony….

As you can see, Mr. Zusak uses words in a way that almost makes literal sense.  You can imagine the “color of agony” even if agony isn’t a color.  You can sense how minutes might “soak by” even if they aren’t liquid.  We’ve all known someone who was “sharp-edged”.  They are surprising turns of phrase, but they work nonetheless.

I also think that Death’s voice is a preview of the adult Liesel.  Her story covers her life from age nine to fourteen.  During this time she learns how to read and write.  It would be hard to have a literary style from Liesel’s point of view because she is still building her vocabulary.  However, about halfway through the book, the Jewish boy living in her basement asks about the weather.  Liesel answers:

The sky is blue today, Max, and there is a big, long cloud, and it’s stretched out, like a rope.  At the end of it, the sun is like a yellow hole….

There’s a literary bent in the way Liesel thinks that’s very similar to Death’s.  And lest you think that Markus Zusak only has one voice, the dialog is a whole other animal.  It’s earthy (to be kind).  There’s much swearing and name-calling in German.  Kids sound like kids.  Adults sound like adults.  It’s only through the Death narration that we get this delicious literary quality that I enjoyed so much.

So, that’s THE BOOK THIEF by Markus Zusak.  I enjoyed this book.  There’s so much to discuss I could probably write another week worth of posts about it.  But I won’t; I’ll move on to something else and leave you to enjoy this gem on your own.

I hope everyone has had a great Monday and I’ll see you Wednesday.

The gorgeous photo is by szlea and I found it on flickr.

One of the more ambitious things about INDIGARA by Tanith Lee is the way she tells the story.  There are three separate voices: Jet, the main character; her robotic dog, Otis; and an omniscient stage director.  So, being the anal-retentive scientist-type, I calculated out approximately how much of the book she spends in each point of view:

  • Jet’s Point of View: 65%
  • Omniscient Stage Director: 25%
  • Otis, the robotic dog: 10%

The amount of space given to Jet’s point of view isn’t surprising.  After all, it is a young adult book.  One of the hallmarks of young adult is a teen protagonist.  If you have multiple points of view, you’re supposed to indicate to the reader which is the most important by giving them the majority of the real estate in the book.  And Tanith Lee does just that.

Jet has an interesting enough voice to carry the story.  She sounds bored, sarcastic, and moody.  My inner fourteen-year-old totally relates.  One way that she makes the teenaged voice work is the liberal use of run-on sentences.  Take this example:

Like I remember her crying years ago when she was only thirteen and I was only nine, and I crept out of bed and went to her bed and climbed in and put my arms around her, and then we both sobbed and I said, Turquoise, what’s wrong?  And she said, I failed my exam.  I loved her, and I said she was so wonderful it wouldn’t count if she failed all her exams because in the end she would be a great movie star.

I skimmed all of the sections from Jet’s point of view.  While Ms. Lee does vary the sentence length with fragments and quick, short statements, long blocks of writing are run-on sentences like this one.  And it worked to make the protagonist sound young.

I expected Otis to get the second largest percentage of the book.  His narration was memorable.  He was the quintessential huffy, overworked nanny.  But obviously, he got the smallest percentage of the book.  I think that the author had to make the decision to tell the story this way.  Although Otis is a character who deserves more ‘screen time’ (so to speak), he’s also constantly at Jet’s side.  His point of view isn’t so different from her point of view.

To offset the mere 10% we spend in Otis’s point of view, Ms. Lee gives him the first and last narration in the book.  With this one strategic decision, she cements his importance without giving him much space.  I thought it was brilliant.

On the other hand, the omniscient stage direction is a useful tool.  First, it gives the reader a chance to look in on the real world when Jet goes into Indigara.  Second, stage direction in a screenplay can be used to describe the setting.  Ms. Lee uses that for that purpose in this book which is pretty sneaky, from a writer’s perspective.  Third, the voice is so flat and matter-of-fact, when Jet’s doppelganger in the real world wreaks havoc; it’s that much more entertaining.  Finally, when the point of view changes, there’s a header that announces it.  The omniscient stage direction has a variety of amusing headers including The Surprise:Extra Scene, Diamind City:Montage, and Outtake.  Honestly, if you skip over the headers, you miss a lot of humor. It helps keep the tone of the book light.

So, that’s INDIGARA by Tanith Lee.  This book may not be for everyone but I enjoyed it.  And it was a nice break from the deep and depressing that I seem to keep falling in love with.  I’ll see everyone on Friday!

The cover art image is used with the permission of the artist, Daniel Dos Santos.  Visit his site for more of his fantastic artwork.

The popsicles held out, the heat is about to break, and on top of it all, I smell a weekend!

One of the very interesting things about TH1RTEEN R3ASONS WHY by Jay Asher was the writing.  We have two separate stories going on here: the story of Hannah’s surrender to hopelessness and despair and the story of Clay staying up all night to hear the final confessions of a dead girl.  Hannah’s words are written in italics while Clay is in the standard font.  For the first couple of chapters, this was a little confusing and had a fragmented feel.  But, as I got used to it, it started to sound almost like a conversation between Clay and Hannah.

This duel narration is the heart of this book.  I don’t know that I’ve ever read a book where there are two simultaneous points of view.  Not point of view shifts or point of view violations but two first person narratives going on at the same time, one on top of the other.  I can’t imagine the schizophrenia it takes as a writer to do this.  You have two completely distinct voices: a quirky, angry girl in despair and a sweet boy grieving her death.  Imagine that!  Most of us struggle to create just one authentic voice!

In the follow-up teaching exercise at the end of my copy of the book, Mr. Asher describes his writing technique.  He said that he wrote the whole story through from Hannah’s perspective and considered leaving the book at that.  However, he decided that he needed Clay’s perspective to tell the story honestly.  And I agree with his decision.  Clay’s perspective adds tension (Why the heck is Clay on the list???) and it adds sympathy (Clearly, here’s at least one person who cared for Hannah.  Surely other people must have, too).  It shows some of the aftermath of suicide, something that certainly does away with the danger of making it seem attractive.  It was also incredibly ambitious and leaves me very humbled (and more than a little jealous).

Here’s another interesting thing:  Hannah and Clay never really interact in this book, but you feel like they do.  There are moments where Clay thinks something and Hannah says the same thing on the tape.  Hannah makes an observation of a mutual acquaintance and Clay agrees in his head.  It’s odd, but it’s almost like Clay is the ghost and Hannah is the living person.  Hannah tells her story and Clay is unable to do anything but listen.  He can’t change anything and he can’t talk to Hannah.

In this whole book, the pseudo-interaction between Hannah and Clay is what caused my most intense emotional response.  The reader can see what might have been between these two.  They almost finish each other’s sentences.  You really do wish that things could have been different. This relationship has the same bittersweet feel of any unrequited romance but it’s even more haunting because you know Hannah is dead.

So, this is TH1RTEEN R3ASONS WHY by Jay Asher.  If you’re hesitant about the subject matter, I understand that.  I think the suicide is handled well and without melodrama but it just can’t be a comfortable subject.  Nor should it.  If you’re thinking of writing something with a journal-style feel or multiple points of view, I would consider giving it a look as a great example of how to achieve this.

I’ll see you on Monday!

This morning, before I started thumbing through my copy of HUNGER GAMES by Suzanne Collins looking for bits and pieces of her writing style that I liked, I did a little mental exercise.  I tried to picture Katniss and here’s what I got: small girl with a long braid.  I did the same for Peeta:  stocky guy with blue eyes.  Rue?  A tiny thing with big eyes.

I’m betting that when I go back and look, there actually is more description of the characters than just a couple of key elements.  But here’s what I noticed: the descriptions that I remembered were attached to actions.  Katniss has a long braid but I might not have remembered it so well if part of it hadn’t been burnt off during the Hunger Games.  Nor would I have remembered her stature it hadn’t played such a pivotal role in her ability to climb trees.  The same is true for Peeta.  He’s stocky, which is a wrestler’s build, which is his one physical strength.  His eyes are the only things that give him away when he camouflages himself.  And Rue?  Prey animal all the way.  Big eyes.  Quick, light, and small.  It’s exactly how I would expect her to look.

So, here’s a writer’s lesson for me.  Description sticks with a reader more when it’s connected to action.  The length of my protagonist’s hair doesn’t matter until it gets tangled in a wire fence as she’s trying to flee.  Her weight doesn’t matter until it’s collapsing the bridge she’s trying to get across.  Not only is description relevant when you tie it to the action of the story, but it’s also memorable.

I continued the mental exercise to try to remember one place in the book where I particularly love a turn of phrase.  In THE GRAVEYARD BOOK and SHIP BREAKER and, especially SPEAK this was so easy.  I could remember all sorts of spots in the book where I loved the phrasing or description.  I knew I would be haunting THE GRAVEYARD BOOK to figure out how Mr. Gaiman made The Man Jack so menacing or SPEAK to figure out how Melissa manages to sound so mature and so young all at the same time.  No so for THE HUNGER GAMES.  It’s not phraseology and description that sends me back to the book to keep re-reading.  It’s various scenes.  I reread to relive Katniss’s private training session and the scene where she meets Rue inside the games and the brutal feast chapter.  I don’t care how Ms. Collins laid the scene out; I just want to experience it again and again.

So here’s the point: this is one of the first books I’ve read where I didn’t even notice the writing.

Wow!  I mean, wow.  Don’t get me wrong; I love the English language.  Reading Dickens aloud is a singular experience.  When I read MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA, part of what made that book so amazing was the Asian flavor to the writing style.  But, with THE HUNGER GAMES, the narration is so simple, without being dull, that all you’re left with is memorable scene after memorable scene.  It’s just pure story-telling, almost like you’re hearing this told out by a campfire.

And, again, it’s a good lesson for me as a writer.  I need to make sure that I don’t give in to the urge to show off my knowledge of the language.  My writing should never get in the way of my story.   Everything in a book needs to contribute to its tone.  In this case, we have a simple story told by a practical girl in very plain words.  It all adds up to this sparse survivalist feel.  I’ll tell you what–it really worked for me.  I’m having a heck of a time not just running out and buying the sequel, CATCHING FIRE (No, Kate.  Not until it’s out in paperback.  Bad Kate!)

So, that’s THE HUNGER GAMES.  For my next book, I’m planning on taking a look at THIRTEEN REASONS WHY.  This is a complicated book and I’m looking forward to picking it apart!

Writing is in the details

When I’m writing a first draft, I’m just trying to get the thoughts out there on paper.  General descriptions, key scenes, roughed out conversations.  Stuff like that.  But in the second and third draft (and fourth and fifth….) I start working on things like tone and themes.  That’s where word selection starts to be a very big deal for me.  If you’re writing a horror story and you have a character wearing a ring with a red gem, it matters to the tone as to whether you describe it as “red as rose” or “red as fresh blood” or even “red as a hot ember”.  Each description brings with a different tone.

In SHIP BREAKER by Paolo Bacigalupi, it really stuck out to me how carefully the author must choose each of his words.  When he’s describing Nailer’s crew, most of which are people of color, he describes them in as “black as oil and hard as iron” or “the shade of brown rice” or “tropic skin”.

From this I get much more than a description of characters; I get a feel for the setting and lifestyle.  We’ve already seen the value of oil and iron in the SHIP BREAKER world by the time it’s used in description.  This gives us a sense of how important Pima, Nailer’s best friend and the character given this description, will be.  What’s more, she’s described in terms of the ships they disassemble: iron and oil.  It sets even more tone around this character; she large and strong and powerful, yet somehow wrecked by the age she lives in.

The description of another character as brown rice gives us a hint at the bland diet in this time and place.  And it isn’t two pages later that we get confirmation that the diet for the people on the beach is spare at best and hardly tasty.  The description of a character with tropic skin gives us a sense of the climate where they work.  That is further reinforced by a character who is described as “permanently sunburned and peeling”. The more often you convey the tone of a book, and the number of different and interesting ways you can come at it really does dictate how solid this world will be in the reader’s mind.

Compare this with how the wealth ship-wreck victim, Nita, is described: “smooth and soft, polished and precise”.  Nita is the other main character that’s Nailer’s age and she is also described in terms of a ship.  However, in this case, she’s described like the fine, modern clipper ship that she was traveling on.  In fact, Mr. Bacigalupi draws a direct comparison between Pima, scarred and strong, and Nita, soft and refined.

In my opinion, this book might be just a little too heavy on the description.  There are advantages and drawbacks to writing like this.  The advantage is that the setting and characters are as real as real can be to me.  I feel like I know them.  In my mind’s eye I can see the beach with the broken ships and the white clippers flying by almost too far out to see.  Like I said a post or two back, I’ve never experienced such a visceral setting.  However, again, it slows the pace.

What I will say is this: if you’re a writer who likes to flex your descriptive muscles, you should give this book a look.  Mr. Bacigalupi is a master at including solid paragraphs of description (sometimes longer blocks, too) without losing too much of my interest.  And that’s because each description adds to the tone and feel of the book as a whole.

Talk to me

So, the reason SPEAK by Laurie Halse Anderson is called SPEAK is because the main character, Melinda Sordino, hardly talks to anyone.  She bites her lips until they’re bloody and clams up when she’s asked a question.  However, as the reader it’s easy to forget this because the story is told from the first person point of view.  Melinda’s narration–her constant internal dialog–is the story’s voice.

This is a perfect example of the point of view being the only point of view that would work to tell this story.  Even in a close third person narrative, there would be no way to get to know how witty and lonely and normal Melinda is.  There is absolutely no way to get acquainted with this main character unless you’re planted directly inside her head.  The success of this story hangs on the reader liking Melinda.

And you do.

Her voice is very conversational.  She sees the humor in the mundane and puts it in a way that is both familiar and fresh.  When her ex-best friend Rachel changes her name to Rachelle because she’s hanging with the foreign exchange students, Melinda’s observations of her changed behavior makes Rachelle sound like a bad caricature of a French film noir coffeehouse artist.  Melinda beautifully spells out the universal contradiction that is the badly behaved yet somehow still revered All American Cheerleader.  And her observations of her parent’s failed attempts to produce an edible Thanksgiving dinner is the stuff of comic genius.  Seriously.

Yet, at the same time, what’s happening to Melinda at school–her ostracization, the bullying, and her impending breakdown–is very serious.  Ms. Anderson manages to handle these topics lightly.  It makes the stress and depression Melinda experiences poignant rather than preachy.  This book is devoid of the teenaged angst that I think some teen-centric entertainment substitute for authentic adolescent emotion.  It’s refreshing and makes for a compelling read, even for an adult reader.

I have one final observation: Melinda speaks with an authentic teen voice without the use of hardly any slang.  This is a good reminder for me as a writer that teens can and do have vocabulary.  They don’t have to be all “totally” and “like” and “freaking”.  Melinda Sordino is a thoughtful person and her lack of frivolous syntax supports that.

So, that’s SPEAK by Laurie Halse Anderson.  I completely understand why this book is an award-winner.  It manages to be quiet without being boring.  The teen is authentic and her story is inspiring.  If you’re like me, once you start this book, you won’t put it down.