Posts Tagged Lambs of God

What Makes You Read On? Does your book exemplify that?

IMG_1012 In September I was assigned three other members from the Women’s Fiction Writers Association to see if we would gel as an online critique group. We’ve had some bumps, and although all three of the other women are excellent critiquers, I’m not sure yet if I’ll continue, mostly due to the heavy reading load.

For our first go-round we tried ten pages a week. This went fast and was easily handled. We all have manuscripts that are in final draft stage, so we are understandably impatient at the snail’s pace of ten pages each a month. This month we’re doing 50 pages each for a total of 150 pages.

I also belong to a local critique group (WURDZ), which meets every other week. Last week I had between 40 and 50 pages to read for that. In the last ten days I read over 100critique pages. I also work part time and have other things to do, including my blog post. Needless to say, I did not get much new writing done. I am not sure I can keep up the pace of possibly 200-250 pages a month.

Both groups include writers of very different genres/styles. One of the women in WURDZ stated she wrote “commercial” fiction. Two others write fantasy/literary fantasy. The online group consists of a historical fiction writer, another more commercial writer of women’s/romance/mystery-thrillers, and the last writes women’s fiction which may be literary.

Today one of the online group members posted some openings to bestsellers, all but one of which were a decade or more old. I had read, or started to read, two of the aforementioned bestsellers, The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins) and Good in Bed (Jennifer Weiner. Also included were Shutter Island (Dennis Lehane) and The Cold Dish (Craig Johnson). I found four books I really enjoyed, two of which were a few years older than the bestsellers. The other two were more current. My four books were A Patchwork Planet (Anne Tyler), Lambs of God (Marele Day), The Epicure’s Lament (Kate Christensen), and The Sense of an Ending (Julian Barnes). At least three of those authors are  major award winners.

The woman who posted analyzed why she felt each of the openings worked. Her question come down to “what is going on and why?” Those would appear to be good questions. All four of my openings raised the same questions, but more obliquely. Although of mild interest, the questions weren’t what primarily drove me to continue reading. I believe what all four of mine have in common is voice.

This shouldn’t have been a surprise to me since I’ve written other posts about voice and how it is of utmost importance, but I found it edifying. I’m often trying to write—especially beginnings—to satisfy the perceived demands of agents as expressed by my writing partners, writing conferences, and workshops. Maybe, as a writer and reader these aren’t qualities I enjoy and want to primarily foster. Possibly I’ve set myself an impossible task as it is hard to get an agent to buy on the strength of voice when all they have is my query letter. Possibly they would say voice doesn’t sell. They very well may be correct. It is also highly possible that my voice isn’t good enough to sell a story on that alone.

What, then, are my choices? I could stop writing altogether, but I’m not ready to do that. I could reframe each story to the demands of the market, whatever those shifting demands are. After talking with an editor this summer, I tried to reshape a manuscript to what she was looking for. I soon lost interest. My best option would be to find an agent who specializes in voice and happens to find mine to her liking. This is possible but not necessarily likely to happen.

The last option I see is to switch genre. The first story idea I had as an adult was in the realm of science fiction. I read science fiction as a teenager. I’ll continue to desultorily market some of my other finished manuscripts, but I think it is time to switch. The question is, do I continue with my current critique groups, especially in light of the time they are taking?

Can you identify what makes a book opening most intriguing to you? Does that have much to do with if you read on or not? Does your writing match the sort of opening you prefer?

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Name a “First Class” Novel

Recently Donald Maass published an article,The New Class System, about his take on the world of publishing in Writer Unboxed. In it he listed classes of novels. I am creating a checklist of his First Class Novel points. My first impression was that few novels would fit in this category, and of course, it probably isn’t necessary for all good novels to meet every point.

Here’s the list, taken from his post:

1. Memorable Characters
a. singular destiny
b. likeable
c. self-aware
2. Unique Premise
3. Instantly “real” story world
4. Gripping plots
a. gripping even when slow
5. Gorgeous writing
6. Surprising themes
a.which are challenging
b. change us or see the world in a different way
7. Break rules
8. Transport us to a different culture or time
9. Teach things we knew little or nothing about.
10. Overall “utterly unique”

For my first attempt at “rating” a book I thought I’d have to use something I’d read in the last year, but when I looked at my bookshelf, I realized I have other candidates. For my first attempt at analyzing a book, I am going to use Lambs of God by Marele Day.

1. Memorable characters. Yes, although I can’t, off the top of my head, name any of the nuns or the priest.They are likeable, although they have varying degrees of self-awareness. And yes, at least two of the main characters, including the antagonist, Father Ignatius, have singular destinies.

2. The premise: a group of nuns live isolated in a forgotten monastery have their new traditions and routines interrupted when a man (Father Ignatius) appears with orders to close their sanctuary. I’ve never read a book with this outlandish premise before, and it is hard to see how anyone else could propose it.

3. Story world immediately real. Yes.

4. Plots that grip. I read it quite awhile ago and plot is not usually a major factor for me, nor are nuns the characters I’d put at the top of my interesting traits/occupations list. Glancing at the book now, I’d say it takes a little (p. 5) to actually get into. I suspect it is mostly slow but still entertaining and interesting.

5. Gorgeous prose. This is another characteristic that I’d have to reread to accurately access. I found this novel hilarious and think comic novels can get away with a different level of good prose.

6. Themes: To definitely decide, reread, but probably yes, although obviously not memorable enough I can spout them now.

7. Breaks rules. Again, this is hard to access since I’m not sure what rules are being spoken to, but yes, a book with one male character set in an isolated spot probably breaks many rules.

8. Cultures and times. My recollection from an interview is that the author made up most of the Catholicism for this novel, but it fits due to the cutoff nature of the group. So in the world of fantasy, yes an unlikely culture.

9. Teaches things. I did have to look up the geography since the author is Australian and I was curious as to the setting. I was also curious as well as the accuracy of the theology. Although I may not have learned much about either in the book itself, the book could be considered a vehicle for learning.

10. Utterly unique. My initial thought was, “Yes, this is unique,” but on reflection, I think it could fit into a genre of science fiction/fantasy–isolated outpost. It might have some similarity to Lord of the Flies, (William Golding) and possibly The Sparrow  (Mary Doria Russell.)

I guess I’m calling it as having at least six attributes of the First Class Novel, with three unknown due to the necessity of rereading. The last is a draw since I would have said yes, utterly unique, but on second thought, it does share characteristics with some other stories.

Overall score: 6+

I would love to hear YOUR ideas of First Class Novels and how they rate using this system.

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