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aawoods

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  1. With skill and passion, any subject can be done well! I recently realized that I've been running Audrey's Corner for more than a year now and I still haven't made a post about my strange but totally sincere love for World War Z. What an oversight! I know exactly what expression you're wearing, because I've seen it time and time again on the faces of whoever I'm recommending this to, accompanied by a litany of unspoken questions. A zombie book? Really? Aren't they done to death? Aren't they stupid? That all may be true, but Max Brook's epic and far-reaching masterpiece is neither stupid nor overdone. No, in World War Z Brooks takes the well-trod and cliche-to-the-point-of-silly subject of zombies and does what few authors have dared to do. He takes them seriously. Written in a documentary-type style, World War Z takes place after a theoretical (and fictional) zombie war, where a virus or pathogen hijacks human beings to create what we think of as zombies. Looking back on "the war," the journalist who puts together this "dossier" is recording the unbelievable rise of these creatures and then humanity's struggle to survive against such a monstrous and unstoppable force. Sounds like a pretty standard post-apocalyptic story, right? And true, World War Z plays a lot of those familiar notes (the fall of New York being a particularly notable section). But what sets this book apart from others in the genre is that Max Brooks really knows his stuff. He's thought long and hard about what would happen if something as wild as a zombie outbreak occurred. How would the various governments respond? How would the military try to fight back? What would people do when something out of nightmares stepped into reality? What would the effects of their reaction be? Brooks walks the reader through every detail, all the way down to how dogs and whales might be affected by this particular apocalypse. It's so prescient that the book was banned in China at the beginning COVID and the author hosted a viral Reddit AMA about how eerily accurate his predictions were. The book isn't for everyone, especially readers who dislike multi-POV narratives. For some it's too real; for others too ridiculous. But if you want an example of something done with so much passion and meticulous craft that it overcomes the initial "silliness" of it's core idea, then I highly recommend checking out World War Z. And if the zombie apocalypse ever does happen, you'll be that much better prepared!
  2. Find a niche and make it work for you! Everyone likes to belong. We all want to be a part of a group or fan club or exclusive membership. One might even argue that tribalism is one of the most fundamental driving forces of, well, everything! Knowing this, one has to acknowledge the genius of Emily Henry's bestseller book... about book people. Book Lovers succeeds on a whole lot of fronts. It's a quippy, witty, and fast-paced romantic comedy about a career-driven woman and the grumpy, brooding, gorgeous man she's forced to work with because of her job. Overdone trope? Perhaps, but here's where the book takes a brilliant turn. The main characters in Book Lovers aren't big-city lawyers or business executives or high-powered CEO's. They're a literary agent and an acquisitions editor. Few people outside the world of publishing even know what those two job titles are. Everyone who's ever queried agents knows the blank stare your friends and family will offer when you tell them what you're doing. But why do you even need an agent? Even editors are, to the outside world, a vague and unspecified role outsiders only know about because of how often they show up on the acknowledgements page. And yet this story has landed on every bestseller list in the country. Perhaps this is due to Emily Henry's sizable online following and previously successful novels. It's entirely possible that this book's success was compounded by the momentum of her backlist, inspiring readers to take a chance on a topic they know nothing about. But I'd argue that there's a large and satisfied segment of her audience who are book people, who love to see themselves represented on the page. Neurotic, obsessive, half-mad, overworked, heartbroken but still fighting, we in the publishing industry ironically don't see ourselves in stories all that often. Sure there are plenty of portrayals of the genius writer in the rustic cabin, banging out his next masterpiece on his ancient typewriter. Or perhaps the mustache-twirling publishing executive kicking the young hopeful out of their office, or pressuring a late writer about their deadline. But this hopeful, funny story about two people elbow-deep in the back recesses of an industry few people know about clearly has hit a nerve. And it doesn't hurt that both main characters are gorgeous, successful, and talented. It is a romance novel after all. All this to say that it's worth thinking hard about whether or not your project could be targeted toward a small but dedicated niche audience. Are you relying on well-worn tropes like ambitious lawyers, lazy stoners, or manic chefs? Could you shift your story to dig deep into a specific world or culture? Could you write from inside a group you're a part of and speak to those who might not often see themselves in whatever genre you're writing in? Could you, as they say, write what you know? Niche audiences might be small, but don't underestimate their power. Win over your tribe and you're well on your way to success!
  3. If the people are real, then the story will be too! I went on a real Taylor Jenkins Reid kick last year, as you might be able to tell. In 2021, I tore through basically her entire catalogue. It was heady and wonderful to have an author that just kept delivering, just kept impressing me, and just kept giving the exact reading experience I was looking for. Now, knee-deep in the doldrums of a reading slump, I find myself looking back and wondering what it was about her books that captured me so thoroughly (and, conversely, why the last 20 or so books I've picked up have not). Why did this author blow me away with such predictable regularity? What was she doing that the other books in my TBR list are failing to accomplish? The answer, I think, lies in her latest bestseller, Malibu Rising. On the surface, it's a pretty classic book club type piece. The four children of a famous but dysfunctional Hollywood star (one of them famous in her own right) throw the party to end all parties. It's tense and dramatic and ends in (literal) flames. It's a voyeuristic insight into rich-and-famous culture and a complex and melodramatic family saga, which alone elevates it to high-concept territory. But what really works in Malibu Rising, which is also true of her other books, are the characters. Every sibling in Malibu Rising is richly textured, deeply understood, and achingly real. They're all in pain for various reasons and dysfunctional for various reasons and familiar for various reasons. Each of their points of view feel both fascinatingly different and like you're reading about yourself. And watching them all learn and grow and deal with the oh-so-real problems that life or luck or they themselves have created makes one feel inspired to do so in your own life. As a writer, I spend a lot of time ruminating on the point of stories. It's literally make-believe, often with ludicrous elements like space travel or dragon fights or romantic melodrama. And yet stories are integral to our culture. Why? I've come to think that following a character through a set of challenges in which they grow and learn is humanity's equivalent of virtual reality. It's a safe way to experience the vast complexity of life and learn painful lessons without actually needing to go through them. Seen through this lens, the brilliance of Taylor Jenkins Reid is that her characters are so well done, and their problems so familiar, that it makes them the perfect conduit for this kind of crash-course in life. Malibu Rising is, on it's surface, a flashy, lush narrative about a big Hollywood party. But deep down it's about a group of complicated people dealing with the issues we all find ourselves facing (although admittedly not in beachfront mansions). The messiness of love. The crushing responsibility of family. The burden of success and the burden of failure. And by reading about these characters struggling, falling, and then succeeding, we too can grow. So think about your characters and what a reader can learn from them. If your story is meant to mimic a life lesson that a person can then apply to their real-world existence, what is it they're going to apply? Without telling or preaching, what will your character (and therefore your reader) gain through the course of the story? If you make their problems real enough, human enough, and offer a solution to them, then there's no limit to the audience you can reach.
  4. The author didn't shy away, and it paid off! This book created quite a bit of buzz when it came out back in 2018. A story about the body parts of magical creatures being sold on the internet? Gross! Weird! It was an immediate sensation. Some people thought it pushed the boundaries of YA too far, edging into "creep-out" category. However, with almost 2 thousand Amazon reviews, clearly the audience wasn't creeped out enough to avoid it. Having finally spent the time to read it, I can see why this novel took the YA horror scene by storm. Not only is it a hooky idea, the author isn't afraid to go there. It's bloody, gory, and honest to the concept. After all, you can't really have a black market for magical body parts without the grotesque realities of body parts, some of them being removed from living victims. Trust me, it's just as chilling as it sounds. I'll be honest: horror isn't exactly a genre I spend a lot of time in (can you tell?). But it seems to me that there is an ineffable allure to books that aren't afraid to get as dark and spooky as the real world can sometimes be. It's refreshing to read an author whose characters are just as complicated and vile as real people, whose story reflects the atrocities that humans can and often are responsible for. A lot of fiction, especially in the YA field, pulls its proverbial punches. The bad guys are never that bad. The danger is never dangerous. The stakes never truly reach life or death, and if they do they're often resolved with an easy plot twist or chosen one deus ex machina. So I can see why this novel stood out in a crowded YA market. The characters in this book don't break down easily into hero and villain. Yes, there are some good antiheroes in here, and you're forced to root for people who are sort of evil in their own right. But the thing that I most respect about Not Even Bones is that it wasn't afraid to depict what this concept would truly look like. There's no sugarcoating here, just as there's no sugarcoating in life. And clearly the audience appreciated it. What about you? Do you read horror? What do you love about the horror genre? Tell us in the comments!
  5. Learn visuals from the masters! As you might have noticed, I've been on a graphic novel kick lately. It started with On a Sunbeam, but has since expanded to several series, some of which I might discuss here later on. But one that deserves to be brought to your attention is the creative, beautiful, and eerie masterwork, Monstress. Monstress takes place in a world where there are magical subspecies of half-human creatures whose bodies can be harvested for Illium, which is used by the human world for power and weaponry. In this beautifully-illustrated, violent setting a young woman named Maika Halfwolf is infected with a dangerous demon who both keeps her safe and makes her into a villain. A monstress, if you will. The story is steampunk and weird and sprawling. But the thing I think writers can learn from this and other graphic novels is the value of imagery. Reading these is, in some ways, more like watching a movie than reading a book. You can see exactly the image the artist/author are trying to convey, and there's very little lost in the translation of telling the story. Their fantasy world is immersive and real, the characters vivid, and the experience all-consuming. Because of this, the plot is able to get away with certain... softness. There's a lot of rambling, many parts of the story that feel like filler, and often a feeling of aimlessness in the character's progression toward her (ever-shifting) goal. This isn't necessarily the comic's fault; most long-running series suffer from similar problems. But because of the gorgeous art and imagery, I (a picky reader, as I'm sure you've noticed by now) don't mind those foibles. I'm so happy just being submerged in this world that I don't care if the story takes more time than it needs to reach where it's going. The lesson, then, is the value of well-executed description. As authors, it can be easy to get lost in the drama, the characters, or the plot and forget to build the world around them. What do things look like, smell like, feel like, taste like? While graphic novels have a clear advantage in the visual department, novels can go even deeper, tapping into all five senses. Don't info-dump, of course, but there's a real art to leading your reader into a world of your making and letting them breathe it in. This is not to say to suddenly inject your narrative with only visuals and abandon the idea of plot or story. It's still critically important to value concept, arc, character growth, and plot points. But even a mediocre or slow-moving story can be elevated by the subtle use of human senses. Build excellent visuals and readers will stay for them. Are you creating a world? How are you creating an immersive experience for your reader? Tell us in the comments!
  6. Different medium? New storytelling lessons! I've never been an enormous reader of graphic novels. Sure, I read Watchmen, Dark Knight, and V For Vendetta, but I was hardly a comic book nerd. Comics always seemed overwhelming to me, this behemoth industry with no clear inroads. Where does one start? Which ones are accessible to the uninitiated, like me? Better to stick with novels. However, a few weekends ago a friend pressed this book into my hands and told me to just give it a try. And, because I can't resist a heartfelt recommendation, I did. To my surprise, I very much enjoyed the beautifully illustrated, surprisingly heartfelt, and well-developed graphic novel, On A Sunbeam. Blending elements of Studio Ghibli, Firefly, and boarding school tropes, this mystical and whimsical story takes place in a universe that is clearly not our own. Its main character, Mia, begins the novel joining a crew who travels around in a giant fish-like ship, restoring ancient floating ruins. Through dual timelines, the reader will come to realize that Mia's tragic past tangles with her current present, pulling her and her newfound "family" across their strange universe to find the love she lost years ago. On A Sunbeam isn't your average science fiction novel, and not just because it's illustrated. It's very light on the science, almost more of a fantasy set in space, and depends more on characters than concepts to draw you into the narrative. Mia, the troublemaking misfit, and the crew she falls in with are warm, welcoming, well-rounded people. The experience of reading her story is slow, cozy, colorful, and safe, despite the high stakes and tense moments that culminate in the climax. The whole novel felt dreamlike and atmospheric and left me with a lovely, uplifted kind of energy that I appreciated, especially in this day and age. On A Sunbeam wasn't perfect, of course. There were a few preachy moments that threw me out of the story, and the author's choice to make the entire cast women without ever acknowledging or explaining the lack of men was distracting. But overall, I think that the lesson an author can take from this story is the value of imagery and meticulous attention to the kind of experience you want to provide. In various interviews, Tillie Walden makes it very clear how inspired she is by Studio Ghibli films and how she wants to recreate that experience in her own work. She executes that intention beautifully here, careful to make every element in the story reflect that sort of whimsical, otherworldly charm. Everything from the art to the dialogue has that soft, friendly openness that pulls you into her world and makes you want to stay a while. So think about what kind of experience you're promising with your novel. Do you want it to be soft and cozy? Hard and thrilling? Epic and raw? Tight and claustrophobic? Contemplate what the reader should expect when coming into your story and then do your best to hit that note on every page. And maybe read a few graphic novels. Because no one does style quite like comic artists. What do you think? Do you read graphic novels? Let us know what you think in the comments!
  7. Horror is more than just jump-scares and gore! It might sound strange, and I've had more than a few weird looks because of it, but whenever I'm asked for my #1 book recommendation, my perennial go-to is the zombie classic, World War Z. That's right, this book reviewer's favorite comfort read is a post-apocalyptic thriller about reanimated corpses. But if you haven't read it I do urge you to give it a chance because it is frankly awesome. Maybe I'll write a book review of that one soon... But because I'm such a Max Brooks fangirl, I couldn't resist listening to the audiobook for Devolution, his latest fictional-documentary approach to another classic horror trope: Bigfoot. Again, it sounds beyond weird to enjoy a book about Bigfoot, but let me tell you that I couldn't put this one down (or stop listening, in this case). I was riveted by the story of a bunch of pampered Seattleites trapped in their small, isolated, eco-friendly commune by the eruption of Rainer. There's this wonderful sense of slow, building tension in the story, knowing what's coming, knowing what happened, and then seeing it all play out through the surviving journal of the protagonist, an anxious millennial-type named Kate who goes from not being able to stand up to her own husband to (SPOILER ALERT) bashing in a primate's skull with a rock (END SPOILER). And therein lies the brilliance of Devolution: how well the horror elements link in with the characters. At its core, the book is about how far from the feral brutality of nature we are in our sheltered modern lives. Each of the characters embodies this contemporary naivete, through their blind faith in the government, idealistic veganism, the savior complex of foreign adoption, or sheer gluttonous laziness. At the start of the novel, the group of people who become stranded together in Greenloop are soft and safe and accustomed to the luxuries of their lives. Needless to say, the story forces them to change. Beyond the wonderful way the book challenges the characters to grow by facing something none of us can even imagine (except Brooks, I suppose), the horror is also deep and, if you'll pardon the pun, primal. I'd never put much thought into why the Bigfoot mythology is so pervasive and fascinating. To me, it had always been this weird thing some people believe in, like anal probes in alien abductions. But reading Devolution you realize that Bigfoot is, in fact, terrifying. The idea of a larger, stronger primate species who might have once overpowered us, who might see us only as troublesomely intelligent food, is spooky to say the least. Because primates are pack hunters. They're smart, use tools, and can be maliciously vicious. If you know anything about chimpanzees, you'll know how horrifically they treat the monkeys they hunt down and slaughter. Setting the stage where a group of abandoned humans have to face their most ancestral enemy was a brilliant storytelling tool, because it allowed Brooks to not only push the character development to its limit, but also help the story worm its way into your mind. Reading Devolution, I couldn't help but wonder how I'd react. What I'd do in a situation like this. How it would feel to suddenly be at the bottom of the food chain again. In short, Devolution was more than just a book to scare you. It was a damn good story! What do you think? Have you read anything by Max Brooks? Do you believe in Bigfoot? Let us know in the comments below!
  8. Any book with this much buzz deserves your attention! Love her or hate her, Sally Rooney is one of the most famous authors of our time. Hailing from Ireland, she came out of nowhere in 2017 with her surprise hit, Conversations With Friends. Blending elements of literary and women's fiction, the book was well-received and widely read, leading a splashy deal for her next book. Which was Normal People. You'd have to be living under a boulder in Croatia to have missed the massive media storm that was Normal People. It spawned a BBC adaptation, sold literally millions of copies, won tons of awards, and probably showed up in your mom's book group. Everyone was reading it. Everyone was talking about it. Which is exactly why we should here. On its surface, Normal People is a pretty straightforward story. It's the painful and frustrating tale of two people who seem well-suited for each other but, for a variety of reasons, keep crossing signals romantically. Marianne and Connell are from different economic strata, which creates tension in their ongoing relationship/friendship. But really, they're both flawed and selfish and tragically bad at communication. But also deeply, deeply compelling. When I first started Normal People I didn't think I was going to finish. The writing was simple to the point of boring, the formatting odd, and the dialogue cringe-worthy (I still go back and forth on whether or not Rooney intended it that way). However, the more I read the more I realized that these two fully-realized characters were getting under my skin. I found myself caring about the self-hating Marianne and the socially awkward Connell. They were almost too real, devoid of the shiny polish that most modern entertainment gives its characters. They were people you might meet at parties, friends you might complain about because they were so stupid. But that was what made them addictive. It was the romance trope of miscommunication done in a hyper-realist way that slipped under my skin and stayed with me, even a year after reading it. I'm not sure I'll read Rooney's next book, but I think the appeal of her writing is the raw humanity that she never shies away from, no matter how uncomfortable. She's unflinching in her portrayal of people as disastrous messes, ever wounding each other because of the issues they can't escape. It might not exactly be pleasant to read about, but it's real and believable and you find yourself praying the whole time that these two unlikable, compelling people can find happiness that, in the real world, they likely wouldn't. So think about your story. How can you bring more authentic honesty into your characters? How can you make them feel so real that the reader can't look away? It doesn't matter what genre you're writing in; every story must have a person at its heart, and the more real you can make them, the more real their story (and the drama by extension) will feel. If you can make them as evocative as the main duo of Normal People, then even the most mundane story can become a page-turner.
  9. Elevate the mundane with an expertly-crafted plot device! I suppose it's no secret how much I enjoy a good romcom. If an author can make me laugh while also providing some of the romantic warm and fuzzies, then here, take my money! But the problem is that romance is heavily trodden ground. It's incredibly hard to find something that hasn't been done a thousand times, and better. In the game of publishing statistics, the odds of writing a novel romance (pun intended) are against you. Enter: plot devices. Perfect on Paper by Sophie Gonzales has a lot of tropey elements. The story revolves around sassy and smart Darcy Phillips who is blackmailed into helping sexy Australian Brougham get his ex-girlfriend back. What follows is a sort of love-square, where Darcy is in love with her best friend and Brougham is in love with his ex-girlfriend and shenanigans ensue that keep both of them from who they want, only to have them fall in love with each other instead. It's got LGBT representation and the intriguing backdrop of an expensive private school for spice. But what really makes this teen romcom stand out is Darcy's side-business of answering anonymous letters from her fellow classmates and helping them solve their problems. As a plot device, this works exceedingly well to elevate what would have been a ho-hum story of missed timing into a tense and interesting drama. Not only do Darcy's misadventures in giving advice add complexity to the tale, they also provide opportunities for characterization, heightened stakes as you wonder whether or not she'll get caught, a compelling backstory that could come between her and her love interest, and a reason for the whole story to kick off (Brougham discovering Darcy's secret and threatening to expose her unless she helps him). It might sound like a simple fix, and it is! But so many writers would stop at the first level, building a handful of engaging protagonists in loving detail without considering what will make them stand out in a crowded market. Your writing can be gorgeous, your heroes sympathetic and funny, your setting amazing. But sometimes (often) that's not enough. So give your novel that extra something. Who knows? Maybe it's all you need to go from querying trenches to bestseller success! Have you considered a plot device? What are you using to elevate your story? Let us know in the comments!
  10. If your book is all concept, it's all boring! First of all, I will admit to having enjoyed this book when said and done. Even though I'm about to use it as an example of what not to do, it was still a heartwarming read about love and loss and how trust can conquer fear if we let it. But... This novel is a classic case of the concept getting way, way ahead of the plot. So first, the concept: How to Stop Time revolves around a man named Tom Hazard who ages slower than normal people. He's not immortal exactly, but his body takes so long to grow old that he might as well be. Born in the days of witch-burning and religious fanaticism, Tom has learned the hard way how hostile society can be to his condition. Nowadays, as part of The Albatross Society, he follows the command of an ancient man named Hendrich who does everything possible to keep their existence a secret. Including kill people. Now, the plot of the story is fairly straightforward. Tom meets a woman and breaks the most important rule of The Albatross Society: he falls in love. On the surface, this should lead to an exciting tale of him struggling to keep his love interest safe as the Society closes in on her. But it doesn't. That's because the majority of this book focuses on Tom's various jaunts through history, meeting Shakespeare and surviving the suspicious streets of London. We end up learning more about the mother of his only child, who died over two hundred years ago, than we do about the actual present-day person he's supposed to be interested in. There's a bit of danger and excitement toward the climax of the book, but it doesn't make up for the 330 pages of jarring flashbacks and nicely-written but ultimately pointless tangents. And the character of Tom doesn't help matters, spending most of the story aimless, goal-less, and feeling sorry for himself (one might even say that his lack of a goal is the reason the story has no plot to begin with). In short, Haig fell in love with his concept and didn't build a strong enough plot framework to support it. We at Algonkian teach the importance of a high concept. It is arguably the single biggest factor in a book's success. This novel, if anything, proves our rule! Despite its slow pace, plodding and uneven storytelling, and morose protagonist, How to Stop Time is an international bestseller, soon to be a movie with Benedict Cumberbatch. So clearly the hook is working. However, this book could have been much better if Haig had given his protagonist a proper goal or made him more active. If Tom had been driving the plot forward, acting with direction and purpose instead of letting others dictate his life, then the story could have been energetic, propulsive, and impossible to put down. Who knows if it would have made the novel more successful, but I sure think it certainly would have made it more fun. Look at your own novel and ask: have I lost my plot in favor of my concept? Is my main character interesting outside their circumstances? Or am I relying on the flash of cool ideas and settings to hook readers in rather than telling a proper, human story? Let us know in the comments!
  11. Ever wanted to read a story about a lesbian from the 70's trapped on a modern-day subway train? This novel has been getting all the buzz, hitting every bestseller list known to man, flush with 5-star reviews, and positively exploding the internet with fanart, fanfiction, and legions of excited—you guessed it!—fans. McQuiston has acheived with two books the level of star-power that most authors never reach in their lifetime. Which, to any aspiring novelist, begs the question of: how? Flush from the success of her first book, Red, White & Royal Blue, McQuiston's sophomore novel branches into supernatural territory. When protagonist 23-year-old August stumbles upon a charming stranger on the subway and falls in love, she'll soon find out that Jane has actually been stuck on that same subway train for nearly 40 years. Together they'll have to conquer the space-time continuum to set Jane free and maybe reach their happily ever after. On the surface, this is a fairly straightforward high-concept romance. It's Kate & Leopold redone in the era of LGBT acceptance and angsty millenials. Written by an author with a pre-existing fanbase, it was destined to be a success. But after reading it, I realize there's a thing this book does that elevates it from simple entertainment into something that digs beneath the surface and really makes the reader stop and consider more than just the story. Historical contrast. In this novel, McQuiston shows with thoughtful clarity how much the world has changed since the 1970's. The reality Jane left behind is painfully different and bleaker than the one August lives in today. Where August has the freedom to question her sexuality, explore her identity, and be free and safe in her self-expression, Jane grew up in a world where such things were socially unthinkable, maybe even deadly. This disparity serves as the foundation of a story that centers around queer characters and social misfits, crafting an atmosphere of celebration and enthusiaasm. How glorious, this book seems to shout, that we now allow people to be themselves! The effect is an uplifting and personal read that resonates well beyond the romance in its pages. If you're writing a novel with any kind of historial element, then perhaps consider what kind of contrast you can create with the reality your readers live in (e.g. the modern world). How can you illuminate the difference, in ways both good and bad. This is not only a way to give your story more theme and depth, but also craft a narrative that echoes in the reader's own mind. Make them picture themselves in the time and place you're describing. Make the story personal, and that'll make it last and linger. And maybe hit some bestseller lists as well.
  12. It's amazing what a great cast can do. Having already read some of Taylor Jenkins Reid's writing, I went into this audiobook with high expectations. I loved Evelyn Hugo and was excited by the prospect of a novelized documentary about a fictional band from the 70's. I've always been a fan of non-traditional novel formats, so this book was right up my alley. What I wasn't expecting was how much Daisy Jones and Billy Dunne got under my skin. Daisy Jones & The Six is more than just the story of a made-up band. On the surface, the plot itself if fairly mundane. It's built around a pretty straightforward romance between the married lead musician of The Six (Billy Dunne) and Daisy Jones herself. The story revolves around these two characters, dipping in and out of some minor drama in the rest of the band. It's light on plot and heavy on character, leaning hard on its two leads (much like the band's success) to carry the story. And the reason it works so phenomenally well is that those two leads are fantastic. The thing that propels this novel from mundane into bestseller category is that Jenkins Reid managed to capture the essence and charisma of rock stars. There's a reason we're drawn to certain people, a magnetism that some have more than others, and this book brings to the page that nameless, alluring something that keeps our eyes glued to the Brad Pitts and Scarlett Johanssons of the world. It's in Daisy's uncaring vulnerability, in Billy's restless and addictive personality, even in the quirky-but-lovable members of the band who stand in the shadow of their two superstars. The Six's story is a complex, addictive mess and I found myself unable to look away. Plot is important, don't get me wrong, and I think this novel could have done with a bit more of it. But the lesson to be gleaned from Daisy Jones & The Six is to think about what people are drawn to. What makes a Hollywood star or a successful movie or a big-hit reality TV show? What do people find themselves glued to, sometimes in spite of their better taste or interest? What do audiences find magnetic? Then try to replicate that in your stories. After all, fiction is a funhouse mirror meant to reflect the best and worst of life. So take the most alluring, addictive things you can find and make them as shiny and supersized as possible. If you're lucky, you too might have a blockbuster on your hands.
  13. In the spirit of frankness, I'll admit that it took me a while to pick this one up. I'd seen The Midnight Library by Matt Haig on pretty much every 2020 list imaginable. The sales were through the roof, the 5-star reviews stacking up, and still I dragged my feet. What was the appeal of a story about a suicidal woman experiencing all the lives she didn't live? It didn't exactly sound like a crowd-pleaser to me. But eventually, I couldn't stand the suspense. I checked out the audiobook, cleared my weekend schedule. And was blown away. This story is an emotional, brilliant, heartwarming exploration of loss and regret and depression. With beautiful but straightforward writing, Haig breathes life into Nora Seed and her sympathetic disappointment in herself and life in general. What begins as a dour, desperate situation leaves the reader with the uplifting feeling that life is a beautiful gift to be savored. Trust me, it's great. No wonder it's doing so well. The lesson we writers can learn from The Midnight Library is the importance of emotion. Haig doesn't just tell you Nora is depressed. He walks you through the course of a day with her, a terrible day that leads her to conclude that life isn't worth living. Nothing particularly awful happens, but you can feel the blow of each small, lonely indignity: the death of her cat, the loss of her job, the run-in with an old friend she disappointed who is in touch with her estranged brother. Haig makes you feel as Nora does. Then, over the course of the novel, the reader feels Nora changing. You're brought in through her eyes to see the beauty of life, the pointlessness of regret, and the truth that the window-dressing of an existence doesn't change what's inside. You can be a famous rock-star and still be depressed. You can be an Olympic swimmer and still be disappointed. And because you feel these things with Nora, see them in action, it's that much more real. The revelation at the end that (*mild spoilers*) life is filled with endless potential simply because it is life and it is always worth living feels earned. It feels right. Because, having experienced it yourself, it's become an emotional truth for you as well as Nora, which is a thousand times stronger than logic. It's a truism that novels are supposed to make you feel, but I think it's easy to forget that when caught up in the details of plot, character, setting, and structure. We writers can get so focused on the minutiae of storytelling that we forget the fundamental reason people read in the first place: to feel. To experience a human life different than their own, in all it's emotional complexity. Reading is a sort of virtual reality, a way to experience vicariously through characters, to learn as they do. The best novels make us laugh, smile, and cry. They leave us full of something, whether it's hope, tragedy, anger, revulsion, or joy. They resonate with our humanity, and in doing so connect us to something bigger than ourselves. Which is a gift in itself. It's not easy to create something like The Midnight Library, but if you aspire to write a novel that touches hearts and minds then I highly recommend giving this one a read. What more do we storytellers want than to offer people hope and joy... and maybe hit a few bestseller lists on the side?
  14. Is there a more classic story than man vs. nature? Yes, I admit, I caved to the hype and read (or rather listened to) Midnight Sun, the latest installment of the guilty-pleasure franchise that is Twilight. I'll also admit that I was one of the millions of teenage girls who read the original quadrilogy under the table during math class, breathlessly wondering whether Bella would end up with Edward or Jacob (the vampire and werewolf, respectively, for those who didn't partake in this pop culture juggernaut). At the time I was young, lonely, and as ill-fitting in teenage society as any bookworm. So who can blame me for using this vanilla-bland character to project myself into a supernatural romance perfectly calibrated to appeal to teen girl fantasies? But like everyone else, I thought the Twilight fever had broken. After the (in my opinion) disastrous movies and the long tail of open mockery, it seemed like the story was destined to be little more than a whispered secret around the women's water cooler. Reader, I was wrong. Last August, Stephanie Meyer surprised us all with Midnight Sun, which is basically the original Twilight story written from the point of view of the vampire. It is 650 pages, or well over 200K words, following the exact same plot as the first novel, including the same dialogue, events, and dramatic reveals. In short, there are no surprises, plenty of purple-prose descriptions, and enough teenage angst to give TikTok a run for its money. And yet I devoured it. Shameful? Perhaps. But once I set aside any expectations for high-brow literature, I have to admit that I was extremely entertained. It was fun, which was a great relief in the waning days of COVID. The audiobook was well-narrated and dramatic, the new backstory interesting, and the story was, as ever, as addictive as movie-theater popcorn. When the ride was over and I'd reached the predictable but no less exciting finish, I spent some time thinking about why the Twilight stories, despite the iffy writing and sometimes cringe-worthy dialogue, work so well. Here's my answer. The thing about Twilight that its detractors refuse to acknowledge is that it's an archetypal story. It is, at its core, a variant of the Beauty and the Beast myth. A vulnerable-but-good woman who needs protecting attracts the notice of a man who wants to overcome his monstrous nature. He must fight his worst instincts to become deserving of the woman's love while also keeping her safe from worldly (or in this case, otherworldly) dangers. It's why we love the Bad Boy stories, why romance novels so often feature the domineering alpha-male stereotype. Deep down, women like to fantasize about not only being protected by masculine strength but also being something worth protecting. Someone special enough to tame the beast. It's certainly not feminist, but the allure of this set-ups is hardwired into us. Its roots twist so deep into our collective cultural psyche that no amount of modern sensibilities can yank them free. And Twilight is far from the only pop culture behemoth that has taken advantage of such classic, ingrained tales. Star Wars, Harry Potter, and Hunger Games can all be tied to ancient legends or biblical stories. Marvel superheroes are arguably a new kind of pantheon. In many ways, gigantic commercial success can almost always be tied to our shared mythos, our deeply held common stories, spun in a way just fresh enough to be new without losing the ancient commonality. Now, this doesn't mean that Twilight is for everyone. It's perfectly understandable to loathe the franchise for any number of reasons. My only point is that, despite the ridicule that's become as ubiquitous as the books themselves, we shouldn't forget to grapple with the reason these novels became a worldwide phenomenon in the first place. There's more to them than just glittery vampires. And if we writers are willing to plug our literary-snob noses and take a peek beneath the hood, perhaps there are lessons to be learned there.
  15. Writing a series is serious business! If you're a fantasy or science fiction fan, then few things are more classic than the trilogy arc. Dating back to Lord of the Rings (probably even long before that), there's something about the three-book structure that calls to the human subconscious. We like stories that break into three parts, that travel from humble beginnings to epic middle to explosive end, especially in genre fiction. And I've seen few modern trilogies as successful at this arc than Pierce Brown's Red Rising series. [SPOILERS AHEAD] Red Rising starts, as many books do, with the origins of its hero. In a high-tech future where humanity has colonized the solar system and stratified into a color-coded hierarchical society, Darrow is at the very bottom as a Red. Condemned to a hard life of mining in the tunnels of Mars, he's accepted his lot in life. However, his story kicks off when his youthful wife is executed for dissent and he's recruited to serve in a rebellion called the Sons of Ares. He's transformed into a Gold, the top tier of this society, and sent to infiltrate their ranks to take them down from within. Right away, you can see that Darrow's story is sympathetic and epic, rising up against a broken society with a righteous cause. The stakes are huge (the settled worlds, the freedom of his people) and his mission daunting. But the propulsion of his personal tragedy combined with a strong main character ropes the reader into rooting for him, despite the impossibility of his task. In the first book, Darrow enters a school for Gold children who must fight to prove themselves, brutally if necessary. Darrow, being both genetically enhanced and also toughened by his time as a Red, manages to succeed well enough to graduate with a leadership position in book two. Even though he lacks title and history, Darrow fights hard and earns himself a strong position in Gold society, which allows him to, in Golden Son, start a war between families that begins the process of breaking down their power. Things are going well for him and he's achieving what he set out to do... But--and this is where Brown makes his trilogy stand out--Book 2 ends with Darrow being betrayed, revealed, and knocked out of Gold society, forced to lead a truly desperate rebellion on the fringes. Morning Star is a tale of extreme risk and death-defying (or not-so-defying) stunts. It has ridiculous space battles and wild twists and every fresh reveal makes the reader question if a happy ending is even possible. Of course, the series ends with an explosive and expertly plotted climax that brings all the elements together into a satisfying finale (if you'd like more detail, then I highly recommend reading the books!). The Red Rising series has many flaws, and each book itself has high and low points in terms of writing. But I've always looked at it as an excellent example of a trilogy, because it has such a spot-on story parabola. It begins in a low place, where its hero must fight hard and take great risks to earn himself victory. His trajectory goes up, up, up with held-breath tension and white-knuckle jeopardy. And then, perfectly timed at the end of Book 2, there's a crash. Darrow loses it all, falls to almost as low as he began, and then must start over stronger and smarter and build up victory in the right way, without the weaknesses that took him down the first time. It's a classic hero's journey, and doesn't pull any punches for the protagonist. The victory at the end feels thrilling and hard-earned because Darrow went through hell to get it, and the reader understood the stakes from the first moment in the story. The Romans-in-space setting is (you guessed it!) window dressing to an otherwise classic and archetypal structure. It's fancy toppings on your favorite flavor of ice cream, a fun new thing with a core so familiar that it's almost universal. Which is (almost always) the foundation of high-concept ideas! Are you writing a trilogy? If so, I highly recommend checking this one out. It's great to study, and you'll have a ton of fun while you do!
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