This book review is for writers, specifically novelists. For general book reviews on Courtney Summers’ debut novel Cracked Up to Be, seek ye to Google. This review is spoiler free; the actual book jacket says Parker, the main character, made a bad mistake. And yes she did.
Let me warn you right now, this review starts with a tangent.
Here we go!
There is an old maxim in advanced situational training; specifically training for self-defense, firearms, law enforcement training and what have you. This is training that deals with the totality of a situation, where the dynamic flow of multiple inputs meets the processor, your brain:
“If you’re not making any mistakes, you’re not learning anything.”
Sounds simple, does it not? Simplicity aside, this is an advanced training concept. Those who push the envelope and place themselves in situations where failure is not only likely but also expected, learn a great deal. This training sharpens the mind and teaches a person how to apply one lesson learned to other things, not just their particular area of study.
It is effective because it works. If you are not making any mistakes, you are not learning anything.
Summers’ book is a keen study in this area. The plot of her book is this: Parker was a perfectionist. She carefully built a world of her choosing. You know the type—wound so tight that they snap under their own drive or reality intrudes on these people and breaks them.
And Parker is so very broken. As the book relentlessly marches along, one comes to realize, even before the revelation of what caused Parker to snap, that the real world did not just come and bite her on the ass, but ripped out chunks of her heart.
I have a minor quibble with Cracked Up to Be, but nothing that deters my glowing recommendation of this book for any teen, adults, writers and certainly novelists going after the young adult audience. As I have stated before, if you want Fair and Balanced, go watch mainstream news. Here, I am going to gush. If I do not feel like gushing, I leave the book off my review list (which, by the way, has ten books in the queue).
I hate to say it, but I would not have picked up this novel at the bookstore. Why? Because it falls into the section of the bookstore that houses a lot of crap written for girls—novels specifically tailored to entice girls to buy them because girls are a great source of book buying dollars. What makes those books crap?
They are so dishonest. They are preachy, pretentious and filled with fake angst that makes me want to puke. Teens who have sex die, get an STD, pregnant or are cast out from society (or all four!). Boys written to be either shining examples of people who do not exist, or are passive-aggressive abusers. Stereotypes and stilted dialog. Someone dies just so the main character can feel what it is like to experience grief. I could go on and on, but you get the idea. All the consequences of every single action are there for the author to preach.
I certainly stopped buying those books, and now secretly wonder where the writers who grew up with Judy Blume went. There are exceptions, but I will assert these exceptions are not exceptional.
Until now. For Cracked Up to Be is awesomesauce.
The fact that Summers’ book is going to be smooshed in that prior mentioned section just pisses me off, but I have been on a Young Adult pissy rant for like ten years now, so that is just part of who I am. Cracked Up to Be is a book so honest its hurts. That is a primary reason I recommend this book for anyone writing for the young adult market. I felt vaguely uncomfortable reading it. Parker’s hidden pain was on the same level with her mistake, and with the first-person point-of-view narration you are sharing that understated pain. Despite the fact that Parker was a total bitch, who either needed to be slapped or fucked silly (I could not decide which), I held a deep sympathy for her because Summers wrote her so raw and honest—it was heartbreaking.
“If you’re not making any mistakes, you’re not learning anything.” Does Parker learn from her mistake? Ah such a good question, not to be address here! Go read the book.
More unapologetic gushing follows.
Oh oh, oh, the voicing! Summers writing voice through her minimalist prose is relentlessly good, relentless because that is what Cracked Up to Be is. The unrelenting pacing and tension built bit-by-bit was awesome. The voicing and the pacing alone is worthy of study.
The voicing played well in other areas. Summers took me back to high school. There were no over-done descriptions. She assumed the reader remembered (or, actually was in) high school and just went from there. The lack of over-done and forced setting descriptions was a breath of fresh air. You could say I am in love with her voicing.
Novelists should also take a meta look at Cracked Up to Be. I first heard about the novel via Janet Reid’s blog, which pointed to Courtney’s blog. Her whimsical, playful entries, sometimes even silly, cracked me up. Give me silly over pretentiousness any day! I became a regular reader. When she posted the first two chapters of Cracked Up to Be, man I was hooked. Doomed. I had to have the book. Thus, I arrived at Cracked Up to Be via word of mouth through the great and mighty Interwebs. Fascinating stuff.
That Cracked Up to Be is a debut novel is awe inspiring. Her agent should be doing a little dance right about now. I await her next novel with joyful anticipation. More please!
Finally, Cracked Up to Be is a morality tale, accomplished without preaching, forced circumstances, one-dimensional characters or through a false reality. How did Summers do that? Why, she simply told an entertaining tale with believable circumstances through the eyes of an all-too-real main character. She wrote the world as it is, not what she wished it to be. She told the truth.
Stick that in your Young Adult novel writing pipe and smoke it. Please.
In The Baby Dancers, the current work in progress, there is a crucial battle scene where our heroes (Zeke and Josh), do battle with the forces of… what exactly?
To be honest, I do not know. Certainly I know all the motivations, and I have a clear ending for a the book. Indeed, unless I have the last chapter outlined in my head, I do not start working on a novel. I learned that one the hard way with Unfinished Book.
There are the protagonists, stuck in a bad situation, and all that remains is the journey to the end of the quest.
All in a good, fun story, of course. With no preaching!
There is nothing like a good old story about good vs. evil, but is that interesting in today’s world of complexity? Do young adult fantasy readers want more?
There is a price to be paid for wantonly attacking a group of martial artist who have sequestered themselves in the northern mountains of Idaho. They isolated themselves for a reason. They are the best of the best, and should be left alone. When all is done and the battlefield is covered in blood, the antagonist is clearly the bad guy. But is he evil?
His actions are evil, from the point of view of the protagonists, just as the Indian’s actions in The Searchers were evil to Ethan Edwards. The novel The Searchers was an extraordinary book, and the film even more so.
I wonder why I can’t remember any teen novels with the complexity of The Searchers. Do publishers feel that the subject matter is too complex? Is it? I do not think so. No, to this day I remember being fascinated by the story that held no clear winner.
The Searchers anchors around the theme of the family and personal honor, a point often overlooked. This theme runs through The Baby Dancers, but I believe I have found a certain clarity. The protagonist, Zeke, has a moral code and a divine directive. He will suffer no man’s evil. But, Zeke is a thinking young man.
When the antagonist is gray, when evil comes in bits and pieces and not wrapped in bow that is easily identifiable, the stakes are high. Once could say they can go no higher from our protagonist. For, like Ethan, when faced with the quest, the power he wields puts him on the razor’s edge. To fall the wrong way in the quest is to become the bad man.
The sword has but one purpose.
I’m not going to preach to my readers, Lord knows I have several writing friends who will kick my ass if I do.
But I am not going to make it easy. Sometimes the journey is not the the reward. Sometimes, the journey is a long, terrible path, fraught with peril and a stain on the mortal soul.
Some of the best science fiction stories lately do not come from books. While it seems that some authors are trying to grasp a straw from the playbook of the golden years of science fiction Grandmasters, there are visionary people working outside of traditional story-telling to deliver the goods. Interactively.
Take for instance, Portal. Portal is a three-dimensional puzzle computer/console game that requires spacial thinking. But it also tells a story, and is vaguely connected, in a creepy way, to another great science fiction story from a computer game, Half-Life and Half-Life 2. Set in the grand and so very bleak Half-Life universe, Portal is, at its heart, a complex tale filled with tension, foreshadowing and base malevolence hidden behind sarcastic humor. Over the course of the game, you are slowly fed this story and if you do not pay attention you can even miss it! And when you escape from the clutches of the antagonist, your are not really too sure escaping was a good idea.
My point is thus: If you want to write science fiction (and the Bunny Trouble story is science fiction which is why this subject is dear to my heart), then you have to play and understand the appeal of these games. For they are very good, and very compelling. They tell a story in such a way as to draw you in and keep you thinking about it long after it is done, much like a good science fiction book does. That is caused not just by the game itself, but in large part from the pure science fiction goodness presented to the player. If you do not understand the appeal of the great stories, in their complex universes, such as Half-Life 2, Portal, Mass Effect, etc., your future audience is limited, your readers left wanting for more.
Evolve or die.
My book reviews are targeted towards novelists (my prior book review can be found here).
Neal Shusterman’s Unwind is a near-future science fiction horror tale that can be summed up in one word: delicious. Quite simply, Shusterman goes where few dare to tread. If you have a love of edgy Young Adult fiction, then look no further. This book belongs on your shelf for several reasons, one of which is the intense questions that get asked, each one more thought-provoking then the last.
The plot goes like this: abortion is illegal… on unborn children. During their teen years, parents can decide to send their child away to be “unwound” where 99.44% of their body is harvested.
The book centers on three teens that are now “unwinds”:
- Connor, chosen to be unwound because he is a rebellious teen
- Lev, who was born to be unwound based on his parents religious beliefs of tithing
- Risa, chosen by the state to be unwound simply because they decided that they could not afford to keep her alive
These three escape their fates in a fortuitous freeway pile-up. Now all they need to do is survive until they are eighteen, when they no longer can be unwound. Capture means not death (so they say), because all the parts are reused, the unwind is divided into parts for a cheerfully waiting populous where the art of doctoring is rare but surgeons rule the health scene.
Sound positively hellish? Well it is. The undercurrent of unstated horror is relentless in Unwind and then BAM! It goes from the unstated to the all too real like a punch in the gut. Literally, I felt vaguely ill at the end of the novel. The subtleness of the cruelties with smiles suffered on these children builds to an epic crescendo that cumulates in one of the most terrible bits of sheer creep that I have ever read.
If you care to write edgy fiction, then look to this horror novel because that is what it is. There is little gore in Unwind worth mentioning, oh no. Like a Japanese horror movie, there is a sense of malevolence running through this sick and twisted society that looks so much like our own—yet is so different.
Or is it?
Consider if you will, the teens that were dumped at Nebraska’s hospitals. The mirrored reflection is not a dark twin of our light. Far from it, the parallels in this dystopia are sometimes all too familiar, and all too normal. And that is what makes it a chilling read for teens and adults.
For the Young Adult novelist, this study of unrelenting intensity warrants your attention. There is more here to scrutinize, than just pacing, atmosphere and plotting.
Unwind asks tough questions rarely found in a book targeted for teens. What is the beginning of life? When exactly does life end? What is the nature of consciousness? What are the consequences of anarchy when the law is so very flawed? In a world of villains, who is the true villain?
What are the ethics of compromise?
This, my friends, is a book that never talks down to the audience it was designed for, as the questions posed above compose a heady literary wine. You will be hard-pressed to find an action-packed book filled with such teen reflective goodness.
Another important part of this book is the voicing. Written in the third-person present tense, the word-smiting lends a flare not often encountered. The way the book is crafted lends itself to a sense of urgency; I was dubious going into it, but Shusterman pulls it off with his screenwriting experience shinning through.
If it seems like I am gushing, I guess I am. I do have some minor faults and quibbles with the novel, none really I feel necessary to drag out for the sake of being fair and balanced. If you write Young Adult fiction, it’s a must read simply because it does something rare: For the reluctant teen reader, it is a novel that will draw him in and leave him wanting to read more—because the type of entertainment given by Unwind can be found nowhere else. For the already fan of outstanding Young Adult fiction, it is euphoric lifeblood for the mind. There is not a bit of fluff betwixt its pages.
That’s a win-win combination of awesomeness that deserves your purchase and study. For what better result could there be for an author of Young Adult speculative fiction?
Capt. Kirk: Matt, where’s your crew?
Matt Decker: On the third planet.
Capt. Kirk: There IS no third planet!
Matt Decker: DON’T YOU THINK I KNOW THAT? There was, but not anymore!
Oh man. Embrace the horror of one man’s personal Hell.
What’s the conflict? What are the stakes?
These are good questions, but I have recently realized there is another aspect to a plotting “got ya”, and that is momentum. Books that seem to have “fake” conflict, that is, a novel you pick up and feel it is contrived, inadvertently has a problem with momentum.
“Show not tell” is directly related to this. There are thrilling novels I have read that are somewhat Tell, and not because the author has been granted some leeway by her readers because they are invested n the author’s previously published works. Some of that reason is that even though the novel has dropped into Tell mode, the momentum of the story is significant. Perhaps the main character “discovered” something and now we as readers now share the joy in that discovery.
Fake conflict is easy to spot because it becomes apparent that the author is trying to interject momentum back into the novel, almost as if they have realized they are in “Tell” mode and need to come out. The pacing slacked; the plot has hit a wall. CONFLICT will fix that right? Not if it is contrived!
I have been guilty of this, I admit. Now I have the Evil Eye out for it.
Sometimes I have regrets about the missing holes in my education. I have promised myself if I ever made it as a published author, I would hit writer’s conferences hard. I bet they talk about things like this in the first ten minutes of Day 1.
Are there any specific elements of craft that beginning writers tend to neglect?
I think beginning writers tend to not think about a reader. They tend to think about themselves. They think about making themselves sound smart and good, and they forget that this is really all about telling stories. I used to joke that I was going to put a big sign over my desk that said, “Quit writing and tell me a story.” The problem is that they just write. They fall in love with their own voice. They write and write and write, and they lose sight of the fact that they’re trying to entertain somebody. You have to reel them in.
—Chuck Adams, Q&A With Chuck Adams
Based on feedback I have been thinking of ways to interweave my subplots to make them more integrated. One subplot I want to resolve at the end of the book for a satisfying conclusion. I have a clear roadmap on how to do that.
The other I want to carry over to the next book. This one disturbs me mightily, for I came up with a way to do it that is particularly heart wrenching. I had written before about a scene that was brutal. This chapter received accolades by my beta readers, including someone with experience with the plot details in question. My story telling instincts served me well.
Last night I came up with a way to tie this remaining subplot in but it is spectacularly harsh. The story is demanding that I go this way, indeed, it would make the book even harder to put down because it carries a lot of momentum with it.
I am not sure I can do it. It is too much. It is too sad.
I am setting aside the entire decision for a day. We will see how I feel tomorrow.
Bunny Trouble rolls over another beta reader, drawing her into the story and putting her into my world. Caroline weighed in last night and I respect her opinion mightily. She has very engaging and honest prose even in her casual writing. When she gets going, it is a delight to read because it is personal and she strikes me as someone comfortable in her own skin.
She thoroughly enjoyed the novel.
Moreover, boy-howdy did I get a lot of feedback! Secretly, I was expecting her to deliver the verdict of “crap,” and that had less to do with a lack of self-confidence than my overtly analytical nature. The Hack Writer is, after all, an arrogant ass. The likelihood of a first-time novelist getting the “crap” verdict from an honest genre reader/writer is high.
I struggle and worry about prose, but life throws you a cure. Sure, I pop up a grammatical boo-boo and the wretched mangle of sentence structure and every time someone points it out, I am embarrassed.
The real feedback I am getting however, is not “your prose is the suck,” but rather matters pertaining to plot, style and characterization.
Things I absolutely cannot have in my novel:
- Subplots that make no sense
- Gratuitousness without a reason
- A slow start
Caroline delivered a good amount of feedback in this area, and some of it mirrors what I heard from David #1. I need to hear from two others, but, my 8.3 readers, I believe we have a winner. There is a mile of difference between “your story is boring” and “your prose is bad” to “fix this, fix that, and when can I have the next book?”
Beta feedback is wonderful, as are my beta readers. The feedback thus far will let me spit out Draft 3 a month early. The feedback was that good.
I win critique!
Had a lengthy chat with one of my beta readers, and he gave me wonderful feedback on Bunny Trouble.
He found the novel riveting in places, but had some specific suggestions:
There are two characters in the novel that more or less “stay hidden” until the end of the book. They on occasion pop up in the story at times to do certain things (of which I cannot tell you). He wanted either more of that or less of that.
He felt the story was too gratuitous in places.
The dialog between three teenage girls was described as stilted.
Finally, he said my voicing was off. One of my main characters was bleeding into the others.
The “less or more” commentary is telling. I made a conscious choice to do this, but I did not know how it would pan out. I will have to see what the other readers think. I am trying to convey a sense of the unknown, but I may have been too cute about it. Cute is bad.
The girly dialog and the gratuitousness of the manuscript is somewhat related. I set out to have a sexy story (for the premise of the novel is a dark draw) but not cross a line I had for myself. It is now obvious to me that I failed in that regard. Just to see how the novel would go, I cut two-thirds of the teens in question. This eliminated some unnecessary sex, made the manuscript tighter, and improved the plot. I am confident I will not receive feedback that says I should leave that where it is, so I believe I am good there. There are other places to cut, but I have to have the rest of the feedback first.
The voicing is a killer, because he is right. Essentially, that is an amateur mistake, and out of all the suggestions thus far, will be the most time consuming to correct. I am confident I can overcome that problem… now that I know about it.
Despite the pile (and I mean a pile) of improvement suggestions, I remain upbeat. When the first three beta readers come back and report that the novel was “riveting,” that to me is a big win. My fear was the entire thing was preachy and essentially a big snooze, and who wants to read that?