Tag Archives: fiction

The Girl on the Train

I finally got a chance to read The Girl in the Train, and Paula Hawkins did not disappoint.

The story follows the lives of three women: Rachel, Megan and Anna. We meet Rachel first, a divorced alcoholic who rides the train into London every day. Right off the bat, Rachel’s character is established as shaky, and we aren’t certain if she is struggling with mental health issues, or simply the affects of being an alcoholic– or both. But every day, Rachel observes the people in one certain house, imagining what their lives might be like. In her mind, they are perfectly happy and in love.

In reality, Megan, one half of Rachel’s couple, is struggling with her own mental health issues. Her husband is, in the least, borderline emotionally abusive, and Megan is haunted by her past. She is seeking help, trying to find what she needs to do to be whole, healed and happy.

Finally, Anna is the wife of Rachel’s ex husband, and lives just a few doors down from Megan. Paranoid about Rachel and protective of her family, Anna is on alert for any sign of Rachel in their neighborhood.

Their three stories cross when Megan goes missing and Rachel, convinced she can help but unsure of what she knows, tries any avenue that comes to mind.

Hawkins does an excellent job of showing how someone can have one part of the story, and make assumptions to fill in the blanks. The narratives are full of facts that manage to mislead you, leaving you guessing right up until the end. And yet everyone’a conclusions make sense as they’re reaching them, which makes it all that much more of an intriguing read.

The Girl on the Train keeps you on the edge of your seat, taking the pieces of narrative and trying to reconcile them to each other. And it’s not until you approach the end that you realize how many assumptions you’ve made yourself.

A new beginning (editing is going to take a while…)

The most important part of a story is the beginning. If the first sentence or paragraph doesn’t grad a reader’s attention, they will put it down and move on to the next book. For me, beginning is always one of the hardest parts. Whether it’s writing an essay, journalism article or a story, I can always feel the pressure to start well. Throughout college it served me pretty well to just write something and get the words flowing. If I wrote a good beginning, great. If not, usually by the time I finished whatever I was writing, the beginning was easier to write because I had the whole picture now.

With this story, it’s been more difficult. I’ve decided to work my way slowly through my story so that I can dedicate significant time an energy to problem areas. I probably should leave the beginning for the end, but I focused on it this week, and I feel like I’ve already made some improvements.

I’ve been challenging myself to think about the way other stories begin, both books I’m reading and even from my own writings. I’ve started a little journal, where I write how it begins, and then what kind of story that technique is good for. For example, some stories have one major event and the author weaves narrative strands around it, such as A Light Between Oceans, by M.L. Steadman. Though I’ve just started the book, I know how the writing is going to go. The story begins with the couple finding the baby (not a spoiler, you find out that much just from reading the back cover), and the rest of the book is telling the story. It’s jumped back in time and is telling the events leading up to finding the baby. And once we reach that point, it’ll shift gears and tell about life after the baby. Plenty of stories have this kind of plot set up, and the technique of giving the action scene, or a hint of it, then giving the background before dealing with the aftermath makes the story flow easily. But my book is not like that. Mason (I’ve finally named my character, hooray!) doesn’t encounter any one particularly pivotal moment that I can use as a teaser introduction.

Other beginning techniques include writing a prologue to set up a world or town, giving the history that explains what you need to know about where the character is. This, I think, is the one I use most often. I’m a fan of prologues. But, while I could do that for this story, the challenge with the prologue is that you need some kind of action to engage readers. You still need that pivotal event that sets the character up. And the history of my story is more broad than that. What I’ve decided to go with for the time being is a description of a scene that encompasses a major theme of the story; in this case, a description and encounter between Mason and his father that shows readers life in Vale is all about science, and a person’s value is inherently linked with how well they fit the expectations of society. As an example, I’ll show below the initial beginning I wrote for this story, and the new beginning I’ve been working on this week.

Dying didn’t seem nearly as dramatic as everyone made it out to be.

He had just turned 25, and the pressure he faced was unbelievable. He wasn’t just a late bloomer, his family had given up on him—no one believed he would prove to be an asset to society.

It was unbelievable either way—that other towns could exist, that Vale could be the only town. The town’s leaders were very strict, no one was allowed to explore beyond the town limits, curiosity and questions were no tolerated. Everyone clung to a religion of science. It was science that made them great, science was all that mattered. And science was his downfall.

Mason had never had an affinity for numbers, formulas, and the other complexities that went into the science, technology and engineering fields. He was much better at drawing—landscapes, people, animals, anything. But that wasn’t the kind of thing Vale valued. His drawings wouldn’t save or improve lives, they said, so by their very nature, they were worthless. Mason didn’t agree, but, dissent wasn’t valued either, so he did his best to swallow their context.

Life in Vale was all about society’s good…

Even I look at that and think I probably wouldn’t keep reading. The whole entire first chapter didn’t have any action or dialogue. Too much scene setting, explaining how the society functioned. It’s something I need to show, and maybe not all right off the bat. Here’s a bit of the new one in progress:

All his life, Mason knew science would be his downfall.

Every person in his hometown of Vale clung to a religion of science—it was science that made them great, science was all that mattered. Each child was raised from birth to believe scholastic achievement and worth were inherently connected.

But from a young age, Mason—and everyone else—knew he would never measure up to anything scientifically great. He was smart enough, but he couldn’t compete or compare with the waves of peers surrounding him that, in another place, would be hailed as geniuses and prodigies. Compared to them, Mason was worthless. And how he compared was all that mattered.

When he was about 13, he sketched his house and his sister Mel playing in the yard. He spent all day working on it, trying to get it just right.

“What have you been doing all day?” his father demanded when he returned from his day at work.

Mason proudly held up his drawing. “It’s our house, and Mel out front,” he said.

But instead of pride, excitement, or even interest, his father scoffed. “You’re well past the age of foolish past times, Mason. It’s time you put your mind to something worthwhile or you’ll never amount to anything.”

I’m not going to say it’s golden, but I think it’s far more likely to entice someone to commit to reading a few more chapters, so it’s a start. As always, the key to remember is show, not tell. After this bit that I’ve just shown, I fall back into the telling, telling how life in Vale works. I’ve still got a way to go on this, but, for the sake of anyone reading these blog posts, I’ll move on from the beginning this coming week so that you don’t have to read another post saying all this same stuff again.

Onward into the rest of the story!

Baby steps in editing

I have made good on my determination to begin editing.

Over the course of the last week, I read through my project from April (yes, the one that has no title, and wherein the main character still has no name…). I’ve made some notes of inconsistencies and some issues to address.

But the hardest part of editing, as I’ve come to experience, is that too often I can’t see the crappiness in my writing. As I read through it, noting stood out as bad. While I’m tempted to be excited by this, I know  it’s not quite true. Perhaps it has potential, but it’s not perfect, not yet.

So as I begin going through it again (good thing it’s short), the question I must keep in the forefront of my kind is, “is this engaging enough to read?” “Will this capture a reader’s attention and hold it?” And when I move in to allowing others to read and give feedback, I need to remember to be open to it. Sometimes, I tend to get protective. I’ve put a lot of time and effort into my work. But, my family and friends are going to care more about it than an editor who doesn’t even know my name, so the feedback I get before I even think about publishing is so incredibly valuable.

The other thing I need to be watchful for is logic. There are one or two spots already wheeler I wrote myself a little note, asking if the way I’ve set things up even makes sense. Why would a crucial character be in a crucial spot? If it’s just because I need him to be, that’s not good enough. And why would there be 100-year-old records for something that needs to be kept a secret? Does their existence make sense, or do I need to revisit that as well? This will be the place where my journalism schooling helps, looking critically to find if unanswered questions are hidden within my story.

So, I’ve done a preliminary reading–the first I’ve done in probably five years. My story isn’t awful, I don’t think. It needs work. It probably needs more to it. But I think it is something to be proud of, and I think it’s something that could go somewhere. And that hope is exactly the encouragement I need right now.

The final days

I’m less than 1,000 words away from winning NaNoWriMo this year (writing 50,000 words).

I have two days left, not counting today (and I don’t because I have to leave for work in an hour).

And I still have to wrap up this chapter and wrap up the whole story.

Where I am at almost feels like a climax of its own, but it’s actually the story winding down. Whether it will be a series or just one of the ambiguously cyclical stories that annoy some people and refresh others, I haven’t really decided. That will be something to consider later on, after I’ve finished the story and read through it again. At that point, I’ll be able to see if there is enough new ideas to pursue a series. Or, perhaps, I’ll be dissatisfied, and I’ll write another chapter or an epilogue or something. But all of that will be December’s problem. (Ok, probably a problem for some time later on in life, I never seem to get around to earnestly editing any of my projects.)

When I hit 40,000 words, I felt like I was running out of steam. As I looked at my outline for the last two chapters, I was wondering how on earth I was going to write them at 5,000 words each (even though just last week I was bragging about how they were such dense chapters). When it came down to it, I thought I was going to come up short.

But this gave me a great opportunity to add in some “extra” content that showed different strengths of different characters, and I think will really make the last chapter of the story make sense. I was able to add in a little bit of the snapshot of life kind of scenes that make the character real, show time passing, and give just a short break from the hustle and bustle of the main storyline.

So now here I am, just a little over 49,000 words, and I’ve still got the entire final chapter to write. If I’m honest, I’ll probably put that off until December (I’ve got a book calling my name, and I need to finish it so I can blog about it on Friday!).

But I’ve learned a lot about my writing process since I’ve tried out some new things this year, the biggest being that even if I plan and give myself structure, I still have creative license and freedom. While in general my story is the same as when I started out, several characters turned out to be very different than I had expected. And by letting myself plan as I go, I was able to adjust the key events in later chapters to reflect the new strengths and weaknesses that I discovered in my characters.

And finally, I was able to simply enjoy the writing instead of stressing over what is supposed to come next or how to pass time before moving on to the scene that is supposed to happen next month. So, I’ve committed myself now to being a semi-planner. I know where I’m going, but I can take side roads to get there.

Onward now to those final words.

Of Irish Blood

I know I’ve said it before, but one of the best parts of working at a bookstore is being exposed to all kinds of new authors and new genres.

I snagged a copy of “Of Irish Blood” by Mary Pat Kelly. It follows Honora “Nora” Kelly’s life, beginning as a young 23-year-old Irish-American living in Chicago. Nora makes some less than stellar choices and gets caught up with a bad man. The only way out is to relocate, so Nora finds herself in Paris, wrapped up with Irish loyalists who dream of a free Ireland.

Nora’s story begins in 1903 and the book ends in 1923, so it covers a pretty large time span. I wasn’t necessarily expecting that, but having read it, I think the book wouldn’t have worked as well any other way.

The character voice in this story is very well defined. Written in first person, it’s really easy to get the feel of who Nora is. She’s very chatty, always with a story to tell or linking her family history with someone else’s (though, the way the other characters behave, we’re led to believe that is an Irish trait). She’s a true blue extrovert, that’s for sure. (Interestingly enough, Nora seems like the type of person that I wouldn’t be able to be around for more than a few hours at a time, but in a book, I guess I can handle it.)

But the style makes it a fast read–you read in the way you imagine Nora talking, fast paced, breezing right along. It took me a while to read it only because I had other things demanding more of my time. Otherwise, I know it would have been a few days to finish.

Nora’s story has a little bit of everything–romance, danger, adventure, intrigue. And it certainly makes you curious about Irish history (at least for me, so I guess I know what I’ll be adding to my list of subjects to read up on).

This book is a standalone, but it also is referred to as a sequel. This type of writing style I’ve always been impressed by–a continuing story, but one that makes perfect sense on its own, without constant references or explanations from the other book.

So whether you’re interested in history, Ireland, or just a good adventure saga, “Of Irish Blood” is worth a read.

The home stretch

I knew there was something I was forgetting to do this morning.

I skipped Friday’s blog because my current read has taken me longer to get through, due to my writing, than usual. I forgot to write this blog post last night, like I always do. And then I forgot to write it this morning at work, because I had other thoughts bouncing around in my mind.

I’m in the home stretch of Nano, and the home stretch of drafting my novel. I just hit 35,000 words (seriously, like five minutes ago), and I’m feeling like it won’t be hard for me to keep going on to the end. I have about six chapters left, which, with any luck, will be enough material for 15,000 more words, and I think it will be, because some of them are pretty dense chapters, and I haven’t killed off anyone important yet.

My writing has definitely slowed down this last week. And I feel like that is pretty normal, a part of my process. I fly through in the beginning chapters, and the further in I get, the slower the writing becomes. When I;m staring at a word count goal, I find myself wondering if I have the content to reach it. I spend time staring at a blank screen trying to think of relevant filler, interesting things to give me some extra words. And though it’s not like any story I write now will be ready to go without significant editing, I always prefer to have too much than not enough, even if it’s too much garbage.

So, I’m slowing down. The 30,000s usually do that. And once I hit 40,000 (shooting for Wednesday sometime), the last 10,000 usually go pretty quickly.

I’m not sure how much from my writing class I’m putting into practice, but I’m trying. Trying to make my dialogue mean something. Trying not to have my people stand around nodding or smiling too much. I like to think they sound like different people and not robots. But, I suppose all of that we will see later on.

For now, it’s all about getting it down on paper.

NaNo week 2

I’m almost halfway through NaNoWriMo at this point, both in time and in word count (goal is 50k words, at least).

I’ve been writing almost everyday, and getting myself a little bit ahead so that when I have those days (Thursdays) when I just don’t have time to write, I’m not getting behind.

I don’t even remember what I wrote about last week, but I’m sure this post will be almost identical.

Having a basic chapter-by-chapter outline is really helping. Of course there are still days when I stare at blank pages wondering what to write, but usually it’s an issue of getting started. I don’t get stuck in the middle of things so much anymore, which is great. It also frees up brain power to start thinking about life scenes to sprinkle through the chapters, instead of trying to figure out how to move my story on from point A to point B.

And thus, my ability to write those life scenes, little snapshots of everyday life for my character, is improved. Not necessarily that my writing is wonderful, but that I can think of such scenes that don’t feel utterly out of place. They don’t feel like Anime filler episodes.

I’ve now got my story outlined all the way, and I’ve found that what I thought would happen in the beginning, the characters I thought would play prominent roles, have changed quite a bit. The prince, who was supposed to help Theda get revenge, has turned out to be rather cowardly. But he’s ended up marrying a strong, confident woman who will help Theda.

And at least one person who was supposed to be dead has escaped with his life and will be making an appearance very soon. And he will play a significant role that I didn’t even know needed filled.

So, I’ve almost found a sort of middle ground between planning and winging it. It’s been really great to start with a plan, to have a road map and a general idea of where I’m going. But as the creativity flows and I get a little more into my story, I still have the freedom and flexibility to adjust as new ideas pop into my head, and I can allow my characters to follow their individual natures, instead of trying to find some dramatic reason for them to become someone entirely new (and unbelievable).

So here’s to week three. If I can make it to 30k or 35k, I think I’ll be solidly set to finish, or at least hit the word goal for the month (I can always write an ending in December). According to the website, and my current average words per day, I’m set to hit 50k words on November 28, which would give me two whole days to actually finish my novel during the month of November, not just hit the minimum word count.