The Mark Blog

Clarifying Goals

I’ve heard that you should write a book that you would want to read. Lately, I’ve been reading works from a wide variety of genres and styles – George Sheehan’s Running & Being, Karen Russell’s Swamplandia!, Kristopher Jansma’s The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards, Sonali Deraniyagala’s Wave – and it’s got me thinking about what sort of books most draw me in, and why. What characteristics enrapture me as a reader? Which of these characteristics are present in my novel, and how can I develop the ones that aren’t?

In Swamplandia!, I like the melding of the fantastic and the mundane. Ava Bigtree, the 13-year-old protagonist, narrates the story of her family’s crumbling alligator theme park and the disintegration of her family. I appreciate Ava’s voice, full of depth and zest. As I mentioned in a previous blog, I’m interested in adolescent female narrators because the protagonist of my book is 15-year-old Lillian. It’s something I’ve struggled with since the inception of the book: How to navigate the story through a first-person teenager’s voice while being both true to her age and, at the same time, conveying the complexity of the situation, of which she might not yet be aware?

The stark honesty and bravery of Wave, a memoir about a woman who lost everything—her husband, parents, and two young sons—in the Southeast Asia tsunami of 2004, has humbled and shaken me. She is at once unsentimental and full of emotion. The story is told non-chronologically, flashing between present action after the tsunami, memories of the flooding, memories of life when her family was alive, and reveries. Emotional truth in fiction is the characteristic I admire most about a book, and Sonali Deraniyagala achieves it fully in this memoir.

I’ve found that I like literature that lets me feel as if I’m getting a surreptitious peek into the author’s life. In The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards, Kristofer Jansma achieves this, as he layers story within story, creating a meta-effect. It reminds me of People of Paper, another experimental novel I value. At the same time, I found aspects of the novel dissatisfying. In the second half, its thematic concerns seemed to shift from the story of the characters’ lives to a concern with the idea of storytelling itself and, more specifically, the difficulty of writing. While this may sometimes be a compelling topic, its specific presence in The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards undid, for me, the more compelling emotional investment in the people themselves.

I’m still in the midst of George Sheehan’s Running & Being. (Love that title!) So far, I’ve found that I love the rhythms of his writing. It feels free and natural, while simultaneously focused and articulate. He writes about the similarities between running and writing; during his life, he excelled at both. He offers mind-opening insights, such as, “Good writing is true writing,” and “I must achieve the aloneness that is necessary for the creative act whether one is a master or a common man like myself. Because nothing creative, great or small, has been done by committee.” (Also, I’m in awe of the fact that this man ran a 3:01 marathon at the age of 61.)

My priorities, as I work to complete and polish my book, are these:
1) Write a full and open world. Build a world that can be seen in a reader’s mind.
2) Care about the characters and their problems, because this can be felt on the page. Develop and deepen characters, and their relationships with each other.
3) Pace the novel, giving space and words as needed, so that the story feels fully experienced by the reader.
4) Make conflicts complex and multi-dimensional. They cannot be easily resolved; there is no single clear-cut answer. They demand internal struggles.
5) Give readers an intimate sense of the first-person narrator. The aim is to write a novel that feels as if the reader is, in fact, occupying her soul and looking from within the sockets of her eyes at the world.