Struggling with story structure

When everything shut down back in March because of Covid, one positive thought I had was, “Well, at least I will get lots of writing done.”

Reader, I did not get lots of writing done. I struggled for some time to get any writing done.

But recently I’ve returned to the draft I put aside all those months ago, and I am slowly making progress.

All this time away has allowed me to view my work-in-progress with fresh eyes. And, happily, I’m still enthusiastic about it. These characters are calling to me. They want me to tell their story. And I want to tell it. But I’m trying to figure out the best way to do that.

My work-in-progress is a family drama with multiple perspectives. I have a strong handle on the characters–what they want and need, what’s standing in their way, what they fear. The problem is the structure.

When I wrote my young adult novel (which I am currently seeking a publisher for), the story was very linear, and I wrote it that way. I started at the beginning and went from event A to B to C until the story got to the climax and then to the end. (Of course I had to go in and add and delete scenes in subsequent drafts, but you get the idea.)

My work-in-progress, however, is a bit different. Its focus is on ideas and character, and I want to show how things in the past have affected the family and led them to the present. I need to go back to reveal certain secrets. I need to make sure these are revealed at the right time, both to the characters in the book, as well as to the reader.

It probably doesn’t help that I didn’t write this book in a chronological way either. I started with one scene (that is currently placed somewhere in the middle of the book) and then I moved on to write a scene taking place at another point in time, etc. I don’t regret writing it that way. It’s how the story came to me, and how the story and characters developed in my mind. And now I can truly say I know my characters–and where they are coming from–extremely well.

But now I have some thinking to do. What’s the best way to tell this family’s story? Is this a book of linked short stories? Is it framed by the present and the middle is the past? Or do I alternate between the present and past? Should I divide the book into sections? And then is it divided by time or by character? Both?

There are a lot of options, and I imagine there might be some trial and error as I try to figure this out. I keep telling myself that all the work will be worth it. (Let’s hope I’m right.)

The Nix: an engaging novel about the things that haunt us

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What I read

The Nix by Nathan Hill

What it’s about

University professor Samuel Andresen-Anderson hasn’t seen his mother, Faye, since she abandoned him as a child. But when Faye is arrested for attacking a politician, the media digs into Faye’s past, revealing details that contradict what Samuel remembers about her. It has been more than 20 years since she’s left her family, but now Faye needs Samuel’s help, and Samuel needs to find out which version of his mother is real.

The narrative alternates between 2011, 1988 and 1968, and, while primarily dealing with Samuel’s perspective, it also switches to the point of view of others in Samuel’s and Faye’s lives.

It’s a story about a mother-son relationship, but it’s also about understanding other people’s stories in order to understand our own. It’s also about how our past can haunt us, and how our pain can be passed on to others in our lives.

Why I picked it up

I’d heard about The Nix, but it wasn’t until a fellow book club member nominated it that I really considered reading it. The Nix wasn’t selected for our book club, but I became curious enough to read it anyway. At the time, I was also craving a longer contemporary novel to immerse myself in, and it seemed like this one would fit the bill.

What I liked about it

Reading this book was quite an enjoyable experience. For one thing, it’s entertaining. I was impressed with Hill’s ability to write humour so well, and also with his ability to balance the humour with some more serious content.

Hill also did an amazing job of capturing the different voices of the characters. I especially enjoyed the voice of Laura, one of Samuel’s university students, and Pwnage, a master gamer who plays the same computer game as Samuel.

One warning: There are a lot of characters in this book, and I wanted to hear more from a lot of them. The one disappointment was feeling like the story ended before I got enough from some of them.

You’ll want to read it if…

At certain points while reading The Nix, I thought of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. This was largely because each book explores a childhood friendship between two boys that is central to the narrative, and because both stories involve a childhood crush that remains important to the protagonist in adulthood. Regardless of whether or not you liked The GoldfinchThe Nix is a great choice if you’re looking for a longer novel that’s easy to read.

Recommended refreshments

The green tea that Samuel orders at the airport coffee shop where he meets Guy Periwinkle, his editor and publisher. Or the cappuccino that Periwinkle orders. (As you can see from the photo above, I went with the cappuccino.)

Exit West: a book worthy of its buzz

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What I read

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

What it’s about

Saeed and Nadia meet and fall in love while living in an unnamed city, in an unnamed country, in the midst of civil war. The couple are opposites in many ways, with Saeed being more conservative and Nadia being fiercely independent, but their differences complement each other.

As the violence in their country increases, the couple escapes by passing through a magical door. They’ve heard about these doors and know that by going through one, they will end up in another part of the world, but they won’t know where until they’ve reached the other side.

The novel is interspersed with scenes of others who are fleeing conflict via these magical doors, arriving in places unknown to them, where there is no wartime violence.

This is a story of migration, both in a geographical and in an emotional sense, of the search for a place of belonging,  for a home. It’s about how people and places change, how people can change places and how places change people.

Why I picked it up

I’d heard a lot about Exit West before I read it. I saw several reviews and noticed the title popping up on many “best new books” lists.

When books get a lot of attention, I sometimes get wrapped up in the excitement and can be disappointed by a book that couldn’t possibly live up to my unreal expectations. I thought this might happen with Exit West, and so I hesitated to read it right away.

Then I went to see Hamid discuss the book at the Toronto Reference Library. Hearing the author talk about the concepts and themes solidified my interest in reading this book, and a friend kindly lent me her copy.

What I liked about it

Saeed and Nadia are interesting characters. They are clear individuals, with their own distinct personalities and voices, but together their bond makes them a strong unit. I liked that Hamid plays with gender expectations, with Nadia the independent one living on her own, who tries to convince Saeed to have sex with her, while Saeed lives with his parents and wants to wait.

But my favourite part of this book is the way that Hamid writes. The voice of the narrator has such wonderful rhythm and pacing. The prose is filled with long sentences which are punctuated perfectly so that they wind and flow but never lose the reader. And then there are descriptions of a life in a conflict zone, which I am grateful I do not have personal experience with, but the writing here touched me as if I were looking through a window into that world.

You’ll want to read it if…

One of the reasons this book is getting so much attention is because of its timeliness. Hamid didn’t plan this, of course, as the book was written before Trump and Brexit were dominating the headlines. But this well-written story about refugees and globalization makes it a book everyone would benefit from reading right now.

However, this is also a love story. It’s the story of the relationship between Saeed and Nadia. Readers who enjoy literary fiction about romantic relationships between two characters should read this book.

This is a great novel for a single sitting. If you have an afternoon to dive deep into a book–and perhaps also have the evening available to give the story some thought–Exit West is an excellent choice.

Recommended refreshments

Chinese food, just as Saeed and Nadia shared on their first real date.

Teddy Wayne’s Loner: a gripping and disturbing read

20170125_214130What I read

Loner by Teddy Wayne

What it’s about

Loner opens with narrator David Federman arriving to study at Harvard. While David spent high school getting good grades, he doesn’t have any friends to show for those years. He has basically been invisible. But now David has the opportunity for a fresh start, a chance to reinvent himself.

When David meets Veronica, he is convinced she will be his ticket into the new world he dreams of, and he is determined to get to know her. But Veronica doesn’t end up being quite who David thinks she is.

This novel explores the troubled and troubling minds of young adults, and it’s a frightening place.

Why I picked it up

I heard about Loner near the end of 2016, when I saw it in a Kirkus Reviews “best of” list. I like stories that take place in school and/or coming-of-age tales, so the genre appealed to me, and I also like protagonists who are outsiders. I bought a copy while browsing in Book City on the Danforth one wintry afternoon.

What I liked about it

I loved the way this story builds and transforms as you read. It starts off as being funny, and while humourous moments appear as the novel progresses, the story becomes more disturbing. It’s a powerful psychological portrait of the narrator in his formative years.

On a technical level, I liked the perspective Loner is written in. Wayne chose to write using the second-person perspective. Second-person perspective is less common than first or third because it can be awkward. But I love second-person perspective when the author gets it right, and Wayne has done just that.

You’ll want to read it if…

Pick up Loner if you like books that get you inside the minds of characters and books that have you thinking about them for a while after you’ve turned the last page. But you’ll have to be okay with reading disturbing subject matter. I finished this book right before I went to bed, and I wouldn’t recommend that. I imagine it would be better to finish reading it in the daytime.

Recommended refreshments

These kids have gone away to school and are living away from home for the first time. There is plenty of drinking in dorm rooms going on. I recommend mixing some vodka and club soda, as a few of the characters do during a blackout, or just grab some cheap beer.

Harmless Like You packs a punch

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What I read

Harmless Like You by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan

What it’s about

After the death of his father, Jay travels from Connecticut to Berlin to find Yuki, his mother whom he has not seen since she left when he was a toddler. The novel alternates between the perspectives of Yuki and Jay. Yuki’s story spans her teenage years in the 1960s up to the point of her leaving in the 1980s, and Jay’s story takes place in the present.

Yuki has lived in New York since she was a child, and when her father’s job returns the family to Japan, Yuki decides to stay behind. In the subsequent years, she struggles with her identity and with her dream to become an artist.

Jay is an art dealer married to the love of his life, Mimi. But after the birth of their daughter, he begins to question his relationship with his wife and child.

This novel tells a story of the search for identity and place of belonging while connecting it to the art world. It also looks at what we inherit from each other–the pain, conflict and harm that is passed down in a family.

Why I picked it up

This is another book I read about online, but I can’t remember where (I should keep better track of this). I think it was in a “Best of 2016” list somewhere. Then I read that Becky Toyne recommended this for readers who liked Imagine Me Gone (which I loved), and that increased my desire to read Harmless Like You.

In mid-December, I was shopping for books to give as Christmas gifts, and when I saw the cover of Harmless Like You staring at me, I decided to buy myself a Christmas gift, too.

What I liked about it

It’s not surprising to learn that Buchanan is an artist herself. This is not only because of the book’s art theme (and discussion of colour), but it’s also apparent through the style of the writing. It’s as though Buchanan went in with a big brush to tackle difficult themes and an interesting plot, and then went in with a smaller brush to add in the finer details (the sentences and paragraphs are beautifully crafted).

Yuki’s sections are told in the third person, while Jay’s are in the first. Because of this, it feels like there is a bit of distance created between Yuki and the reader, but, at the same time, this third-person narration almost gives us more insight into what she’s going through.

I also really liked the examination of parenthood in this book. It was smart of Buchanan to include various types of parents, such as Yuki’s parents and Yuki’s high school friend’s single mother. But it was most interesting to read of the struggles experienced by Yuki and then Jay when they each become parents.

You’ll want to read it if…

I agree with Becky Toyne that fans of Imagine Me Gone will like this book. It’s also a great choice if you like literary fiction, art and/or stories about complications within families.

Recommended refreshments

I think the jasmine tea that Yuki drinks (and gets her boyfriend, Lou, drinking, too) suits the book quite well. But American diners also make several appearances, and I found myself craving a slice of the cherry pie that Yuki’s friend Edison often orders after their life-drawing classes. So why not have both?