As I am debating and discussing final edits to Calm Undone with my (always helpful) editors, I find myself revisiting favorite characters and books. I truly believe that if you want to become a good writer, you will first have to become a good reader. When I struggle with things like pacing, character development, or how to get the right balance of telling a story without getting lost in minutiae, I pick up books I have strewn about my house that I think did all of that well. As I take a little break this evening from revising (and revising and revising again), I want to share my thoughts on two books (and the authors) that I remembering thinking, Yes, I want to create something like this.
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (Jesse Andrews, 2012). What I love about this book is the narrative voice. Andrews’ protagonist is Greg Gaines, a snarky, witty and self-conscious teenager who just wants to hide in mediocrity. Except when he doesn’t: he wants the attention of the popular girl; he wants the cool nonchalance of his best friend; he wants to move on from high school, but is so scared of being less than mediocre he won’t apply to any colleges. And above all, he wants neat, happy endings to the worse life dishes out, knowing full well it doesn’t happen. Which makes him your typical teenager. Andrews balances self-introspection and stream-of-consciousness story telling with enough dialog and straightforward exposition to keep the story moving forward. It is a space I struggle to occupy comfortably with my characters and plot.
The Outsiders (S.E. Hinton, 1967). I envy Hinton, I truly do. I’m still in awe of how she captures the internal voice of a teenage boy. I doubt I could ever write a female character as strongly as she wrote Pony Boy. What brings me back to this book over and over again, however, is the sense of yearning she creates in Pony Boy (Let’s face it – she does it with Johnny, and Soda Pop, and Cherry, and . . . well, she does it). Pony Boy constantly observes that he plays the role society gave him: Being a greaser. But all he wants is to know that if he wanted, he could be something else. It’s not that he thinks being a greaser is bad, it’s that if he wanted to NOT be a one, he could. Without being fake. Without betraying his brothers. Without someone telling him he can’t. Because he can – if someone just gave him the chance. That yearning to have a choice is a theme I want evident in Calm Undone, but it is hard to achieve. Well, not for Hinton, from what I can tell.