Thursday, March 7, 2013

My Nomination for Best. Book. EVER

A couple weeks ago I had the finest reading experience of my life to date. The Sea of Tranquility by Katja Millay won't be to everyone's taste. But for this reader it was so close to perfect a knat could starve on the difference.

I'm not going to summarize the plot because, frankly, I suck at that. But, I will say that if you're a fan (or writer) of raw, contemporary YA, then The Sea of Tranquility is a Code Red Must Read. Buy it now. Then start reading it and try to stop. I dare you.

But I don't want to spend today expounding on TSoT (though, trust me, it's tempting). What I do want to do is get my analysis down on why I enjoyed it so thoroughly. Because I just read the book that achieves what I always wanted to achieve as a writer. So I'm going to pick it apart to see if I can replicate the result.

Below is my personal notes to myself about the reading experience. The Elements of Awesome I'm able to identify in the vain hope that one day I'll be That Good...

Element of Awesome #1 - Characters We Haven't Seen Before

This is pretty straight forward, but worth noting. As a reader, these characters are very, very real to me. Not just because I loved them, but because the writer achieved what I believe is the perfect balance between recognizable traits, and a unique blend with depth. I haven't seen Josh or Emilia before. Even Drew, who seems cookie cutter on first appearance, demonstrates actual depth (more on this later).

In other words, if I want to write a book like this, I can't just take these characters and make them my own. I need to find my own people, my own set of talents and fears and flaws for them. I can't rely on tropes, or just flip them over. I have to design real people.

Element of Awesome #2 - There Are Surprises

The character I mentioned above, Drew, is the primary example of this, but the book is full of them: People or plot points that you think you can anticipate. BUT YOU CAN'T (trust me on this).

Drew walks on to the page in typical Man-whore style -- and lives up to that trope the first few times we meet him. But by the end of the book I just want to squeeze him and sit on a couch with him and bask in the brilliance of who he is. And he isn't even the hero of the tale!

So if I want to write a book like this, not only do I have to keep my characters unique, I have to take people and story points in directions no one would anticipate after they'd read the first six chapters. And I do mean no one.

Element of Awesome #3 - Technical Brilliance

There's no way around it, Katja Millay has a turn of phrase, a wit and a vocabulary (on both ends of the mannerly scale) that provide a shiny vehicle for this story. And maybe this is what sets TSoT apart from other stories that have grabbed me by the shoulders and shaken me until I finished the last page: The writing is stellar. It's clever. It's funny. It's emotional. There's no telling. No explanations. No over-emphasis of important points, no faux ex machina. My OCD internal editor didn't even cough.

So, if I want to write a book that engages readers the way this one does, I've got work to do. No more short cuts. No more "hope for the best". No more giving up on a difficult paragraph. I have to get good. Real good.

Element of Awesome #4 - The Plot Vehicles Didn't Rev Their Engines

Let's face it, in every story there are elements of the plot that just can't occur unless some other circumstance is in place. In YA it's usually the marginalization or removal of adult authority figures.

Katja does that too, but in such a way that the removal of those figures drives the entire book. The motives and circumstances of this story aren't just convenient, they're critical. Literally, the story couldn't occur unless these unique circumstances were in place.

So if I want to write a book that feels this solid, I've can't just figure out the shortest route from A to B. I've got to identify The Imperative. What set of circumstances must be in place to force this story to happen?

No more leaning on traditional, expected vehicles. I've got to find the real life equivalent and use it to drive my characters from beginning to end.

And last, but not least: Element of Awesome #5 - Emotion

I'm not sure I can explain this, but I'm going to try.

At one point, about halfway through the book, when the characters were firmly ensconced in my heart, and I was wholly invested in their lives, a very quiet, very unobtrusive paragraph opened a new chapter.

Six or seven lines. Nothing dramatic.

And I wept. Literally.

It wasn't because the author had thrown down a literary gauntlet and pulled the tears from my eyes. It wasn't because a massive, emotional reveal had just occurred. It was because she'd used the pages before that moment to make the characters so real to me, that when one of them told me an anticipated event had occurred, I cried for how I knew the character must feel. My emotions were so completely engaged, I reacted to this character just as I would have a true, dear friend.

I was moved.

Frankly, I don't have a clue how to replicate this impact. It is the part of this book that blows my mind into the next solar system. But I have a feeling it has something to do with depicting your characters in such a way that they look, sound, and act like real people. Like people I could run into on the street any day of the week.

So that's it... those are the things I learned from reading this incredible book, then thinking about it for five days straight afterward.

Like I said, the story itself may not be your cup of tea. But if you're writing YA, I'd seriously consider it an important part of your study of the craft of fiction.

This book rules.

Katja Millay is my new hero(ine).

Your Turn: Have you read anything lately that achieved what you're aiming for in your book? What did you learn from it?


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  2. When I read Veronica Roth's Divergent/Insurgent, I learned about how a character's growth can parallel and unfolding of the world around them, leading to a solid series premise. That's what I'm aiming for in my series.

    1. Good call! A great goal. I enjoy those books too.

  3. I totally agree with all the wonderful things you say about Sea of Tranquility. It's an amazing book.

    I think I learn something in every book I read...

  4. Wow, you've definitely made me bump this book up on my TBR list! Someone else recommended it, and it sounds fantastic. As a writer, I love a book that has all those elements you mention. Those are definitely things I shoot for in my own writing too. The last book I read that had them all was THE GIRL WITH BORROWED WINGS by Rinsai Rossetti. So good!

  5. I completely agree with you about The Sea of Tranquility. This book blew my mind and made me reconsider everything I knew about writing. This and Daughter of Smoke and Bone may be my favorite YA books of all time! I think Colleen Hoover's Hopeless is also really good - with a bit more melodrama thrown in, but the emotion of that book in large part makes up for it.

  6. I knew you would love this book and your summary of awesomeness is - well awesome. I totally agree this book falls into that something very very special category - and something well worth aspiring to. Go Katja!

  7. Another great writer for distinctly real and unique characters is Audrey Niffeneggar. She's better know for the Time Traveler's Wife, but her other book Her Fearful Symmetry is even better.

    And as far as books that strike me with what I'm trying to do with my book: Frank Miller's Sin City series always strikes me -- it's grandiose and simple at the same time. His heroes are larger than life but too fun to let go, too broken to not love. The voice is strong and distinct, and over and over, he says so much with just a few simple lines. Can't get enough of it.