I can recommend several books to read for this Holiday season for aspiring (or accomplished) writers, that will help you gain a deeper understanding of craft and storytelling. Because, as Stephen King, that great Father of Storytelling, said in “On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft,” “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There's no way around these two things that I'm aware of, no shortcut.”
For one, if you like suspense: Jenny Milchman’s “As Night Falls.” (2015.) It’s an ass-kicker of a ride that never stops, never let’s go. If you like being pulled along for a ride, this is your book. Great for studying cliff-hangers, how to add suspense and then slow time for greater effect, how to plunge sympathetic, likeable characters into an extreme situation and create a hero we care about, and solid for general plotting, going from scene to scene using action and dialogue to move us along. (Every scene has an action and reaction that moves us forward.)
If you like middle-grade/young adult fantasy, Donna Galanti’s “Joshua and the Lightning Road” is a good choice. (2015.) Study this for how to hook readers right out of the [literary] gate, how to craft a very likeable main character/protagonist we root for, and how to press hurdles and obstacles in on that protagonist and find creative ways to force that character through the hurdles out to the other side. Also, study her writing for short, active-voice, well-executed sentences that engage the reader and draw them in.
Lori Windsor Mohr’s literary YA novel, “The Road at my Door,” (2015) is a fantastic example for all of you aspiring literary writers of how to craft a compelling, deep, drenched-with-meaning novel that appeals to a young audience and yet is from an earlier era (the 1960s). A great study of writing craft in both the sense of diction (word choice; she uses very precise words), syntax (how she strings sentences together), and how to effectively meld plot and a literary sensibility without sacrificing either audience or depth of meaning (another way of saying, being true to your literary fans while also not boring your more commercial, plot-driven fans; no easy feat).
And finally, most recently, Joe Clifford’s “Lamentation.” (2014.) Study this book for, again, craft on a line-by-line basis (this guy obviously snagged his MFA at some point), deft awareness of his particular genre (thriller/mystery/noir), articulate plotting (quite complex), and complex characters.
Lamentation follows our protagonist, Jay Porter, through a series of mishaps trying to find out the truth related to a murder connected to his in-and-out-of-jail, junkie older brother. At first, for me, as a reader, it was a little tough to “care” about Jay. I definitely didn’t care much about Chris, his older brother who was the progenitor of all the drama. In a sense, it felt like Jay was built from the start to be a sort of pseudo anti-hero of sorts. Being noir, where the protagonist often crosses blurry moral lines, and where we don’t always necessarily know if the “hero” is supposed to make it, I wasn’t sure how much I cared.
But then something shifted. First off, Joe’s writing is spectacular. He can spin a yarn like nobody’s business. His sentences sparkle with brisk muscularity, and the paragraphs and scenes move us from point A to point B without too much interruption. Within all this are characters we begin to care about. Why? Because, though they are not middle-class, professional, outwardly nice/kind/polite, or externally sensitive (and are, in fact, quite crude), they are also complex and real-feeling and altogether human. In short, we care about Jay Porter because, if we’re honest with ourselves, we can relate. At least to an extent.
Over the course of the novel we begin to realize that things aren’t quite as they perhaps seemed on the surface (surprise, surprise). Maybe Jay is more than just some gruff, out-of-work 30-year-old who’s wounded from his folks’ car crash death 20 years prior. Maybe it’s about more than just saving his brother from himself. And the complexity increases when we follow Jay’s rocky relationship with an ex girlfriend (also the mother of his two-year-old son), his past with applying to college and almost going but choosing to work in their small New Hampshire, 3,000-population town instead, and his ambivalence around helping his brother, whom he loves deeply, deciding whether to let him suffer the consequences of his own actions.
Told in a dark, elegant prose style that brings to mind “The Motel Life” by Willy Vlautin (they made this novel, from 2007, a major motion picture), Joe Clifford’s “Lamentation,” in my opinion, deserves high praise. It does everything a good novel—whether crime noir, action-adventure, suspense, literary, or other—should do: It creates compelling, complex characters; it draws the reader in and doesn’t let go; it creates a deep plot network that keeps you guessing and asking questions; it forces the reader to face uncomfortable truths; and it plays with craft in a very fun, very authentic way. If nothing else, the voice is incredibly strong, and that’s something you cannot ignore.
So if you like dark, give this a try. Unless, of course, you’re too scared.
Happy Holidays to all writers, readers, and humans alike! Merry X-Mas and a Happy New Year! I’ll shoot my next blog post up there in 2016!