A. L. Buehrer What I Write and Why

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Learning From Novels: Leah Good’s Counted Worthy


 

For the first of hopefully several novel discussion posts, I’ve chosen a novel I got for Christmas last year. Leah Good is a young, self-published, Christian novelist. This can be a good thing or a bad thing. I was convinced to put Counted Worthy on my Christmas list because there was some excitement over the book on The Rebelution.

  First, before I go on, let me say that I am almost literally impossible to please when it comes to novels. (And I use ‘literally’ in the literal sense.) Modern novels have even less of a chance. I don’t like the typically scanty atmosphere they are barely able to muster. Nonetheless, I decided to try to stay positive, and read Counted Worthy.

  There are a lot of different little things I could say about this book, but I’ve narrowed it down to a major good point, and a major bad point. Bad news first:

  In a word, worldbuilding. The term “worldbuilding” is commonly thrown around in the realms of speculative fiction writers, but really, it applies across the board. You must build your world. Counted Worthy is a futuristic dystopian novel. One of the essentials of the dystopian genre is to give a very strong sense of cultural decay by vivid, imaginative worldbuilding.

  Good slacked a little bit here, in my opinion. No, she did try a bit. You have the typical banned-book list and incinerator combo, the neglected city slums, the hyperactive corrupt police force…but she stopped there.

  Frankly, what she needed was either more imagination or more ability to express it. We have here, the framework of a dystopian culture—the bare essentials. We need some specific details.

  For example, she metions briefly that the clothes people where in the inner city are extravagant. But she never describes a single outfit that would typify these fashions. So, the reader is left wondering if it’s really okay if they’re imagining Hunger Games style mock 17th century garb.

  Likewise, you hear next to nothing about architecture, technology, or transportation. Okay, so we know people have these things called ‘pocket screens’ which are essentially no different than today’s iPhones. For whatever reason, we just call them pocket screens now. (Think about this: do names for technology usually become more bland and literal, or more trendy and brand-based as time goes on? Television is called TV now.) Also, she does avoid the problem of creating futuristic means of transportation by saying that cars are too expensive for non-government people to drive, therefore they stick to old-fashioned bicycles.

  In my opinion, this makes some of the action scenes a little bit humorous to imagine visually, but for some reason I’ve never been able to take cyclists seriously.

  On the other hand, the main thing I observed about the book was a good thing. There are a ton of Christian writers at work today, but barely a handful actually write Christian fiction.

  In saying this, I’m not judging Christian authors as writing immoral or un-Christian novels, what I’m saying is what they’re really doing is pumping out a lot of ‘clean’ romances. If you took the occasional prayer, or church service, or scripture-quoting out of the manuscript, not much would change. Not so with Counted Worthy.

  The subject matter of Good’s novel is what makes it good. It’s not just a mediocre story with some good things in it and, most importantly, some bad things not in it. The essence of the story is Christian. What’s more, it’s a very non-rosy, non-happily-ever-after story about gritting your teeth and hanging on when things look hopeless. For that reason, I hope it starts a trend.

  But keep in mind, if you intend to write a dystopian novel, you will need to invest in your setting. Hone your worldbuilding skills. Have fun with it. Your readers will thank you.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Don't Do The Mirror


People really struggle with figuring out when and how to describe their characters’ physical appearances. Some people just throw it in there in the middle of the narrative as a rather long, off-subject aside. Others skip it altogether. But one of the most common and lazy ways to get the information out there is the mirror.

So, you’re in the first scene of your novel. Your character is getting ready to go somewhere, or just waking up in the morning, or something convenient like that. So, of course, he or she looks in the mirror. How natural is that?

  Well, here comes the unnatural part. For some reason, we readers are forced to look in the mirror too, and are subjected to a detailed report of what is reflected there. And (voila) we have our physical description of the main character.

  Here’s what makes it awkward: when you look in the mirror, what do you see? Of course, you see a rather sickly-looking sandy-haired girl with long bangs, light freckles and denim-blue eyes, if you happen to fit that description. But you’ve seen that for years. You’re not checking to see if your hair-color has changed, or if your eyes are now brown. You look in the mirror to see if you’re presentable. Or to find out of your eye is still swollen, like it was yesterday.

  You could approach a mirror scene in this more realistic way, but it still doesn’t solve your problem of trying to describe your main character. You have to find other ways to do this.

Really, you have to rely on your own imagination and judgement to make this work out right, but here are some tips.

·         You can get away with a brief couple of physical attributes mentioned on your character’s first entrance. Just keep it quick.

·         You can be sneaky and compare you character to somebody else in your story, or outside it

·         People tend to complain about how they look. Take advantage of this.

·         It’s almost always fine to mention any physical attribute that would be relevant to the action.

 

Along the lines of that last one, as a reader, I’ve always been bored to death by descriptions of clothing. However, if your character just donned a knit-cap, or needed a raincoat on a wet day, this is an exception. Likewise, if they have some reason to be thinking about clothes at the moment, it’s okay to bring attire into the narrative then, as well.

  Really, timing and relevance are important here. Keep in mind that everything you write in a novel has to have a reason to be there. Don’t let awkward description scenes trip you up.