Thursday, September 8, 2011

Books I love and why they make me FEEL

Continuing with the last post, I thought I'd take a look around at my bookshelves and note what it is about them that makes me love them. This is certainly not an all-inclusive list! But it does hit on some key things.

A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L'Engle. One of the first books to impact me emotionally. Meg feels unlovable, yet it's the fact that she loves her brother that ultimately saves them both.

Scumble, Ingrid Law. The twisty feeling of wanting something so big and right, and yet, your own weaknesses are what stand in your way.

The Perilous Gard, Elizabeth Marie Pope. Kate's unflagging integrity really appeals to me--she's determined to look truth in the eye, no matter how painful it is. And the fact that sometimes, she thinks she sees the truth, when she really doesn't (ie how Christopher feels about her).

Crossing to Paradise, Kevin Crossley-Holland. Gatty has such a big heart, and she is so loyal--and yet, people don't see that. They just see a dirty servant. The contrast between what people see and what she is inside--and the fact that she tries so hard to do the right thing when no one else cares--really hits me in the heart. It makes me want to cheer her on. When injustice happens to her, I feel hit in the gut. When she gets what she deserves, it brings tears to my eyes.

The Dreamer, Lora Innes. This is actually a web comic, but the first volume is out in print, and the second one will be soon. It's very YA. Bea, the main character, shares her feelings rather dramatically, but what anchors the story is the bravery in the face of losing a lot that the 18th century characters show--Alan posing as a British soldier to steal her off a British ship, Knowlton leading his intelligence troops despite the danger that it might (and did!) pose to him.

The House of the Scorpion, Nancy Farmer. I'm starting to see a pattern here--this is another book with an underdog, a kid whose worth nobody sees. But he desperately WANTS to be worth something, and to be loved. He treats people the way he wishes they'd treat him. There are a few layers of innocence that come off, and it hurts, and you feel it as a reader. Which makes you love his triumphs all the more when they do happen.

So, things like self-worth, justice, loyalty, integrity, and courage seem to be important draws for me. I think this is why agents and editors sometimes either decline to name a genre they are looking for, or name one and then reject mss as not being what they're looking for. Because I think what anyone is looking for in a book is beyond mere genre. It's something at the heart of a book, regardless of whether it's contemporary or historical or full of zombie aardvarks. It's not always easy to define, but you know it when you see it, because it makes you fall in love.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Making the reader feel

I stayed up late to finish Maggie Stiefvater's final wolves book (Forever), and because she does such a lovely job of making the reader feel for her world and characters, it made me want to analyze the whole feeeeeeling thing in books. I think many times you can have a book that has an interesting plot and you can have good prose--but still get the response from readers/agents/editors that "I don't love it enough." Obviously, some of this is subjective--I can think of well-written books that other people love that I find repellent, and vice-versa. But I do think there are elements that can help a reader feel more, and therefore love the book more. I don't think every element applies to all books simultaneously, but here are a few things I can think of:

1. Be inside the character. Like the character lets you be privy to intimate information s/he doesn't share with just anybody. (Think DJ Schwenk of Dairy Queen, who can't string two words together to anyone, yet we get to see all the depth of feeling she has inside her head.)

2. Be inside a character who is likable. A book may be interesting with an unpleasant narrator--but a book I LOVE has a character I love and want to have as a friend. Flawed, vulnerable, but with heroic potential. Obviously, what appeals to each person is slightly different.

3. Be inside a character who yearns for a basic, primal need. The thing that's at stake MATTERS. You could say that this just means high stakes (plot), but I think it's more a choice of how personal that stake is, AND how deep it is. I've been reading the screenwriting book Save the Cat! as well, and that's a point the author makes, too--what's at stake is a need on a gut level. Life. True Love. Etc.

4. One True Thing. Just knowing One True Thing might be enough for a highly literary book that kids have to read in school. But for a kid to LOVE that book, I think the character has to not just know, but GET--against impossible odds--that One True Thing. Like the notion of love and family in Harry Potter. It's not enough to see that there is life after death ("those who love us never really leave us"). What makes us feel is the fact that those dead love Harry enough to come back and protect him. The love Harry has for his friends/adopted family drive him to sacrifice everything to protect them, just as his own family did for him.

One more thought--in the midst of all this feeeeeeling, you have to vary things up a bit. You have to have plot happening. Sam and Grace have two primal problems, actually--both staying human so they can be together, and keeping the pack safe and alive from the likes of wolf hunters. So part of the story is having them on either side of a divide from each other, and the other part puts them together on the same side against a different problem. Having both of these issues going on keeps tension up, yet at the same time, gives the reader an emotional rest once they start feeling saturated. And, it's true to life. When is the last time you had one and ONLY one issue to deal with at a time? It makes the book feel more well-grounded in reality, which makes it more believable, which makes it easy to suspend disbelief and feel for your characters.