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Sunday, June 20, 2010

HOW TO WRITE THE BREAKOUT NOVEL: Part 5 - A Vivid Setting

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If these walls could speak, what would they say?

They would say, ‘We see King Henry, still fit and dashing, ride up on his fine horse, all arrogance and certainty. We hear the crunch of the stones, the flash of an emerald ring, and the young Princess Elizabeth escaping her keepers as she runs towards her father.  We hear the tears of Mary, already sad and angry, as she watches everything from the balcony above. And we see the King look up, catch Mary’s eye and bow ironically before grabbing her red-haired little stepsister and throwing her, giggling, into the soft sky.

These walls felt the glory of the Tudor age, the fearfulness of Henry VIII, and the dreadful, life-long anguish of Mary who lost her mother, her father and her place in the world.  But best of all they knew Elizabeth who grew up here – a child of hope and destiny, who also lost her mother but who, in the gardens around these walls, received the message that she was to be queen.

There is a whole world contained within the bricks of the old palace at Hatfield House, in Hertfordshire, England. I have leaned against the ancient stone, seen the facsimiles of the letters Elizabeth wrote from this then country house, and even the pair of silk stockings she wore, still virtually intact. And when I turn a corner in the gardens I imagine her and the large-brimmed hat she wore as she strolled outside. How do I know about the hat? Because I’ve seen it.

At Hatfield, past and present merge in the most vivid of settings, and the dramas that played out here are replayed in one’s imagination with only the tiniest of nudges.

If the walls in YOUR story could speak, what would they say? How strongly and effectively does your setting carry and enhance the action that plays out against its backdrop?

In our series on Writing the Breakout Novel we have so far looked at four aspects of a great work of fiction: An inspired concept; larger-than-life characters; a high-stakes story and a deeply felt theme.  Today it’s Part 5 – A Vivid Setting.

Not every story can – or should - be set around a palace or some other location of supreme geographical or historical significance. But every story does need a setting that is imbued with emotion and such a strong sense of place that your setting really becomes a character in its own right.

Did you catch that?

A vivid setting is one that is IMBUED WITH EMOTION AND SUCH A STRONG SENSE OF PLACE THAT YOUR SETTING BECOMES A CHARACTER IN ITS OWN RIGHT.

Have you ever thought about Place like this?

Think about Harper Lee’s depiction of rural Alabama in TO KILL A MOCKING BIRD. Or the town of Naomi, Florida, where India Opal Buloni first meetsWinn-Dixie in Kate DiCamillo’s famous novel.  Then leap forward a little and consider how Philip Pullman uses the town of Oxford in THE GOLDEN COMPASS (NORTHERN LIGHTS in the UK), or how Carl Hiaasen brings the ecology of Florida to life in his children’s novels.  Can you imagine any of these with DIFFERENT settings? How could you possibly separate story from setting in any of these works?

This integral, captivating use of Place can be spotted in MANY Greenhouse novels too. Think how Sarwat Chadda’s London, its topography and history, are the catalyst for the action in DEVIL’S KISS, and how Sarwat’s first-hand knowledge of Russia transforms his second book, DARK GODDESS (publishing July in the UK and January in the US). Jon Mayhew’s MORTLOCK also brings London to life – albeit the grim, dark London of the Victorian period.

Or what about how the sumptuous beauty of the Dutch Antilles conceals a wholly unexpected ugliness in Val Patterson’s THE OTHER SIDE OF BLUE? And just wait till Tricia Springstubb’s WHAT HAPPENED ON FOX STREET is available (Sept 1, US only) – the sense of place in THAT beautiful novel is extraordinary, despite the fact that most of the action happens in just one street.

And this brings me to one of my favourite big quotes! Are you ready?

STORY IS CREATED BY THE REVELATION OF THE INTERNAL AND THE EXTERNAL.

Wow?

Wow!

STORY IS CREATED BY THE REVELATION OF THE INTERNAL AND THE EXTERNAL.

Sorry, but it’s so darn good I just had to say it again.

Hatfield House. A world of human dramas haunts those walls; I feel them, I live them as I draw close and enter its grip.

As I enter your novel what will its setting tell me? Can you imbue it with emotion? Can you make me feel like I am walking its streets and breathing its air? If you can, you are for sure one step closer to writing a great – a really great – novel.

Happy writing, everyone!

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Friday, June 04, 2010

HOW TO WRITE THE BREAKOUT NOVEL: Part 4 - A Deeply Felt Theme

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Another very hectic week, and I’m writing this semi-packed for a late-afternoon flight to London.  Yes, I really am leaving in just over three hours . . .

Our great news of the week, which you may already have spotted, was the fabulous deal for Megan Miranda’s debut YA novel FRACTURE, which sold during BEA in a joint transatlantic 2-book preempt to Emily Easton at Walker USA and Sarah Odedina at Bloomsbury UK (Walker US is owned by Bloomsbury, so this was a real corporate offer).  All very exciting because these kinds of deals – for both sides of the Pond simultaneously – don’t happen too often. Plus a lot of toing and froing was going on by Blackberry while I was in New York for the Expo.  And it was all sealed with a big hug between Emily and I in her office in Macmillan’s Flatiron Building at Broadway/23rd Street.  (In case you’re wondering, Macmillan distribute for Bloomsbury, thus the location.)

FRACTURE is about Delaney Maxwell, who falls through the ice into a Maine lake. Death should happen almost instantly in this kind of cold, but when Delaney is pulled out by her friend Decker – after eleven seconds – she is somehow still living. And when she surfaces from her coma, she is well enough to look at the scans of her own traumatic brain injury.  Something very strange is going on – just how did Delaney cheat death? And why does she feel a physical connection to the dying?

It’s a brilliant and chilling story – intelligent and crafted, supernatural yet very original, and we welcome Megan to the growing Greenhouse ranks of debut writers who are setting out on a whole new adventure. Sadly, you’ll have to wait till Winter 2012 for FRACTURE to publish, but no doubt we’ll have an ARC or two to give away much nearer the time.

So, continuing our series on the Breakout Novel. Sadly, a slighter shorter post this time (due to the whole imminent-and-not-ready flight thing), but nonetheless a very important topic for any new writer who wants to make their debut stand out.

A DEEPLY FELT THEME.

As someone once said (no idea whom – if you happen to know, please tell me!), ‘The best books teach us more about ourselves than about the characters.’

THE BEST BOOKS TEACH US MORE ABOUT OURSELVES THAN ABOUT THE CHARACTERS. 

This one is worth capitalizing because it’s a wonderful line, and oh so true. Just think of all the books you love most. Which ones stay in your head and won’t let you go? I’m betting it’s the ones that moved you, spoke to you – and made you understand something new about yourself or your world as you read.

Please note that I do not mean you should PREACH or MORALIZE or ‘TEACH LIFE LESSONS’ in your novel. This is fiction, not an outworking of your secret agenda to do good to children the world over. And I must confess to a strong aversion to moralizing by stealth.

I am also not suggesting that you over-write, piling up adjectives, adverbs and metaphors in an effort to create an overlay of emotion. (I see a lot of this in my submissions inbox among new writers who are understandably trying so very hard to be ‘powerful’.)
Rather, I’m saying that there needs to be something DEEPLY FELT in your story that will stay with your reader after the last page is turned. Something that gives us a newly perceived truth about what it means to be human.

A NEWLY PERCEIVED TRUTH ABOUT WHAT IT MEANS TO BE HUMAN.

Wow.

Great, intelligent fiction, rooted in big ideas and strong themes, will also leave the reader with something to take away from the story that is implicit in its ideas and characters. And as always, I believe this is true in both ‘commercial’ and ‘literary’ work though in different ways and to different degrees perhaps.

This deeply felt theme needs to be built i to the story at planning stage at its deepest level and it should be something integral to your concept.  What is YOUR theme and how will you get it across?

In FRACTURE, Delaney realizes that yes, life IS good and that it is love that overcomes fear and death.

In 13 REASONS WHY, Clay knows at the end that we all affect each other in ways we can’t always predict – and that ultimately there was nothing he could have done to stop Hannah taking her own life.

In PRINCESS FOR HIRE, Desi discovers the importance of speaking the truth – of being true to oneself.

In DEVIL’S KISS, Billi knows she must sacrifice her innermost wishes and desires for the good of the many and a destiny from which she cannot turn away.

In THE OTHER SIDE OF BLUE, Cyan knows that there is hope – fragile but beautiful.

That’s a tiny snapshot of very different books – have a think about YOUR favourite works and see if you can sense that ‘deeply felt theme’ which illuminates the ending.

Do you see where I’m going with this?  Find the heart. Be beautiful. Be unique. Linger with us.

I know you can do it.

Cheers from flying-away Sarah. Back in the hotseat on the 16th.

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