Reading Like a Writer Attempt 3: The Woman in the Library by Sulari Gentill

RLW VI by Maria L. Berg 2023

Procedural Tips

Since The Woman in the Library by Sulari Gentill was so different than the others I’ve looked at so far, I had to come up with another color code for my post-its and notes. I marked the beginning of each of the letters with orange, thinking that on second read it would be useful to read through all the letters together.

I used yellow for plot points, and based on page count, I marked the midpoint, quarter, and three-quarters, and the midpoints of those, to mark the possible places for important plot points.

This meta-novel had authors talking shop, so I chose neon-pink for craft talk.
I used blue for character, and green for setting.
And I marked the romance scenes in light pink.

Things I Learned

With this book, what started out as a fun and unique format for a mystery novel turned out to take away from what was a fine mystery with fun characters and good twists. I learned that a clever idea with great potential can end up taking away from the story instead of adding.

First, a little overview:

The novel starts with a letter from an author named Leo who lives in Boston to an author named Hannah who lives in Australia. The reader only sees the letters Leo writes to Hannah, but it appears that it is a correspondence relationship that has been going on for years. After the letter, is the first chapter of Hannah’s novel. The novel is about a writer from Australia who gets a writing fellowship to Boston and is just starting a crime thriller / mystery when she, and the people sitting near her in the library hear a scream. Curiosity over the scream binds them together and inspires her novel.  The format of the book continues with a letter at the end of each chapter commenting on the one just read.

I really liked the concept and was really enjoying it until the letters started talking about the pandemic. I wasn’t expecting to read a second pandemic novel in a row. I though it was handled well in The Madness of Crowds, but I did not think it was approached well in this novel. The choices made after the pandemic came up in the letters were more and more disappointing, and I ended up feeling like an idea with great potential was squandered.

Shop Talk: Because this was a novel about a novelist writing a novel, among other writers, there was a lot of interesting shop talk and some of it felt like a writer’s workshop. Here are five moments I found interesting:

1. “True. The scream might have been what the crime writers call”—he paused for effect—”a red herring.”
I smile. “Still a heck of a coincidence.”
“They do happen in reality, even if they are a bad plot device.” Cain rises and excuses himself . . .

The first two times I read that, and even as I wrote it down, I thought the author was having a character say that red herrings were a bad plot device. That rubbed me the wrong way. Especially in mysteries and thrillers, red herrings are necessary. However, I now think the comment is meant to say that coincidence is a bad plot device. Clarity of meaning is the lesson here, as much as a discussion of red herrings vs. coincidence.

2. Words are put down in solitude; there is a strange privacy to those disclosures. Time to get used to the revelation before readers are necessarily taken into your confidence.
. . . “It’s part him, part me, part stuff I just made up.”
“The magic formula,” I say.

If there is a magic formula for writing, is that it? Using some truth about another person, some truth about oneself, and making the rest up? Something to think about.

3. ” . . . allowing what is unsaid to carry the narrative, aware that overt emotion could well move the story into melodrama.”

There’s a lot packed in that partial sentence. What does it mean to allow the unsaid to carry the narrative? Is the real story read between the lines? It’s been drummed into me to show the character’s emotions, to never name the emotion and let the reader define how the character is feeling, and yet does it turn the scene into a melodrama if my character is always emoting?

4. “Have you . . . have you always written romance?”
“Yes, and what’s more, so have you . . .everybody but the people who write instruction manuals is writing romance. We dress our stories up with murders, and discussions about morality and society, but really we just care about relationships.”

I love this point. And the romance in this book is so cliché and formulaic, and yet works so well with the plot that it’s inseparable. The attempt at a love triangle or at least a second love interest is poorly timed and doesn’t work (in my opinion) and turns the nice other option into a bit of a stalker figure, I guess, but a nice stalker? Anyway, The shop talk about every story being a romance is one of the highlights of this novel.

5. “Would my book, my words be different if I was a murderer, for example?” Cain asks carefully.
I think about it for a moment, “Words have meaning. I suppose who he author is, what he’s done might change that meaning.”
“Isn’t meaning more to do with the reader?”
“No . . . a story is about leading a reader to meaning. The revelation is theirs but we show them the way. I suppose the morality of the writer influences whether you can trust what they are showing you.”

Leading a reader to meaning to me is more about the premise of the story than the author’s connection, but it makes sense that if a novel has led the reader to a realization through the proof of its premise and then the reader finds out something horrible about that author, the premise and journey could lose merit, and the reader could feel betrayed, especially if the author’s actions in real life are hypocritical/antithetical to the premise. In other words, the premise of the novel should be something I can live up to. Not some idealistic impossibility that my own actions prove false.

That’s really helpful at this stage in my writing. I need to pinpoint the novel’s premise and make sure I prove it by the end. I’ll brainstorm every premise I can imagine until I find the one this novel is truly about. Then I’ll do the same for each of my five contradictory abstraction characters. And while I do that, I’ll make sure that I’m not telling people to be something I’m not, or change in some way that I wouldn’t, or do something hypocritical to how I am. And yet, isn’t that what readers buy? Complete hypocrisy? Scandal, lies, extreme behaviors? Wasn’t Poetry selling magazines? Like magazines do? Also something to think about.

Romance and Sex:

How did the author approach emotional love? A connection through a shocking or memorable (traumatic: though in this case only curious at first) event.  In relation to herself: he is also a published author. Then through play: a game of looking at places and imagining what happened there. Talking shop, then confession which leads to trust, belief in an undeniable truth.
How did the author approach physical love? First, visual and cliché: She sees him and tags him as “Handsome Man.” Holding hands, dates, kissing, the act of  “making love.”
Did it develop the characters’ personalities? The main character is annoyingly three characters: the author, the author in the novel, and the main character of the novel, so whose to say? She appears very manipulated into believing everyone’s the good guy even when they are confessed murderers.
Did it further the plot? Absolutely. The main character was already all mushy-gushy by the time she had to make the hard choices. And when some major truth-bombs explode in her lap, she’s helpless because she’s hooked.

I like how the questions made me look at the emotional and physical aspects separately. That was a good exercise.

RLW VII by Maria L. Berg 2023

Applying What I Learned

This week I did what I said I would, and formatted my novel draft and started reading it and . . . found a bunch of pages missing, and freaked out. Then I convinced myself that was okay, that I could keep reading and fill in the blanks better than before. Then I found the missing pages (whew), and I’m enjoying my draft. I mean, I actually enjoyed reading the opening scene, and can see how to improve it. So this week the things I’ve learned from RLW will be about brainstorming for my big picture edits and not specific examples of changes to the writing.

Format Brainstorm:

My MC is a jogger: I could use her running route, her fit-bit-type tracker, her running soundtrack, or zombie-run-type motivator
She was a detective: I could use her old cases and how she solved each one uniquely and have each unique connection have something to do with each chapter
She is obsessed with random killings: I could use examples from historic apparently random killings
She’s obsessed with an unsolved murder: I could use old local unsolved cases

The original unsolved case has to do with Magic the Gathering, so I made up my own card game. I could have each chapter start with one of the cards. I could tell the story on cards like the author of The Manual of Detection, Jedediah Berry, did with The Family Arcana, I could have each chapter start with the rules of gameplay. I could have each chapter start with emails between the game company and Celia about her Master Deck art, or it could be fans sending email to Celia about her cards.

Like The Manual of Detection and The Madness of Crowds, I could find or create a non-fiction book that is part of the novel.

red herring vs. coincidence: One thing I thought the author did well was surprise the reader by having a person who was asked about one character dish out some dirt on another character. My novel takes place in a small town, so this might be a useful tool for disseminating information without relying on coincidences.

The magic formula: While writing my draft, I was inspired by an old unsolved double homicide, but I didn’t look very closely at the actual facts of the case and after the initial spark of inspiration, made up all the details. I don’t think I want to use any of the real details from that case, but during my format brainstorm, I thought doing some local historical research might add to my story. Research into old-west bank robberies might turn up some interesting characters for the “part him” part of the formula.

leading readers to meaning, showing them the way: As I read through my draft, I need to make sure I’ve defined my premise and proved it by the end of the book. At the moment, I think it’s We only See What We Want to See, or We Can Never Really Know Another Person, but before I start my re-write, I want to know exactly what my premise is and have a clear map to prove it step by step through the story.

romance: If Leo (in The Woman in the Library) is right, and every novel is a romance, then my MC might need a love interest. At the moment, she doesn’t seem open to the possibility, but that’s how love is, isn’t it? Shows up when you least expect it.

I Hope You’ll Join Me

This week I’m reading Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert and will be sharing what I learn next week. What are you reading? How do you approach reading like a writer? What are you trying to learn as you read? I look forward to hearing about it in the comments.

Reading Like a Writer Attempt 2: The Madness of Crowds by Louise Penny

A Madness of Pines by Maria L. Berg 2023

Procedural Tips

This week I focused on marking while reading the first time. This focused my intention on reading like a writer, and I could tell I read differently. One quick and easy thing I can do is look at the page count divide that by two and mark the mid-point. Then divide that in half and mark the quarter point and the three-quarter point. I’ve now roughly marked where to look for the Act changes. I can divide in half again to find the “pinch points” or other expected points of rising action.

This quick exercise before I even start reading reminds me to pay attention to plot and structure, and to note what the author did at these key moments in the story.

Things I Learned

Sarah David from Words and Coffee Writing left a nice comment on this week’s RLW (Read Like a Writer) focus post, saying she’s especially interested in beginnings.

For me, the sections about beginnings in The Linchpin Writer by John Matthew Fox, really opened up the importance of the firsts at the beginning: The first paragraph; the first time the reader meets the main character (how the main character is introduced), and the main character’s first line of dialogue. Other firsts to think about are the first setting description, and the first conflict.

While studying the opening pages of The Madness of Crowds by Louise Penny, I realized there’s as much to learn from what I don’t like as what I do like.

First, a little overview:

As I mentioned in the focus post, this novel is the seventeenth in a Canadian police procedural series about Chief Inspector Armand Gamache who lives in a small town called Three Pines in Quebec. It was published in 2021. Amazon has recently put out a series called Three Pines starring Alfred Molina as Gamache. The series appears to cover one of Penny’s mysteries every two episodes. Watching the series gave me some perspective on this book.

Quick summary: In the aftermath of the pandemic, a woman who uses statistics to create evidence for a form of euthanasia gives a speech, and due to violence at previous speeches Gamache is asked to provide security for the event to keep the peace. Someone shoots at the speaker during her presentation, and tensions are mounting in Three Pines. (I don’t want to give away any more).

This is the first novel I’ve read that talks about the pandemic. It was interesting to see it from an Eastern Canadian point of view, since I’m here near the west coast and the Canadian border. It’s odd to think about how the whole world had similar experiences and yet every community reacted differently as well.

From watching the Amazon series, I could see that tackling difficult social themes and historical events are part of all of Penny’s books. This novel not only talked about the pandemic, it talked about statistical data manipulation, dangerous and brutal scientific human trials, the difficulties of dealing with a loved one’s things after they die, the horrors of human trafficking, and even the Nobel Peace prize, among other things. That’s one busy little Canadian village.

The Beginning:

This novel starts with a line of dialogue: “”This doesn’t feel right, patron.” Isabelle Lacoste’s voice in his earpiece was anxious, verging on urgent.”

This opening line creates a question for the reader right away. “What doesn’t feel right, and why? It must be something bad if a police woman is “verging on urgent” to her boss.

Together with the title, this opening would make me think the book is about people getting trampled in a crowd at an event. It states the energy/tone as anxious, verging on urgent, and presents mystery: What doesn’t feel right? Why doesn’t it feel right? The characterization is that of a boss and a subordinate by using the word “patron.” It’s a professional relationship but also one in which feelings are shared. The emotional bedrock is trust and safety. Of control and chaos.

How would I rewrite it/improve it? I think I would switch the first two lines, so it starts with the main character instead of the secondary character to orient the reader more clearly: “Chief Inspector Gamache looked out over the roiling crowd, as the noise in the auditorium rose to a din.
“This doesn’t feel right, patron.”Isabelle Lacoste’s voice in his earpiece was anxious, verging on urgent.”

Learning from What I Didn’t Like:

After those first two lines, the author leaves the present moment to talk about how this event couldn’t have happened during the pandemic. I feel like the first two lines were cut and pasted there for in medias res (to start in the middle of things) and then left there dangling. The author’s blatant pacing become more and more apparent even after the three chapters of not letting the reader know why people are so upset by a speech at the beginning. Flashback upon flashback upon flashback. Bad edits like a choppy movie happened more and more throughout the book. It’s a pacing technique meant to keep the reader enthralled, but in this book, I found annoying. The lesson I learned from not liking those scene chops, is don’t put one paragraph from my B story in the middle of a scene from my A story like snipping up film and taping it back together. It annoys the reader to be interrupted for no reason.

Another thing that I didn’t like was the head hopping. For most of the book it feels its written in close third POV from Gamache’s point of view, but then you’ll get different peoples thoughts, feelings, and observations in the same paragraph. “Armand felt the trickle as snow melted down his burning cheeks and the back of his neck. Beside him, Dr. Harris took in the crowd, noting the children, many in animal costumes, asleep on sofas, chairs, and the carpet in front of the fire. It looked like a tableau vivant. Until one woman moved.
Abigail Robinson stepped forward, turning for a brief moment toward the door. Expecting one more person to walk through it. Hoping . . .”

If we weren’t head hopping all over the place, we wouldn’t know what Dr. Harris was “taking in” and we wouldn’t know what Abigail was expecting or hoping. These moments of head hopping took me out of the story, and could easily be remedied by sticking with Armand in the first paragraph, having him take in the scene instead of Dr. Harris. And having Abigail ask about Debbie, or walk outside and yell her name. Of course, that whole sentence doesn’t make sense unless it’s from Gamache’s POV, so it should be re-worded as “Abigail Robinson stepped forward, turning for a brief moment toward the door. Gamache imagined she was expecting one more person to walk through it.” Or something like that. These moments of head-hopping in this novel remind me to be very careful when writing in close third person, to only share the inner thoughts, feeling, and observations from the perspective of the point of view character.

Main Character Introduction:

How is the main character introduced? He is introduced working, connected to his fellow officers through an earpiece communication device, and in the act of observation. But the job he is doing is unusual for him. He has been asked to work the security detail for a speech at a seldom used hall at the university.
How is the main character first described? He is introduced with his title “Chief Inspector” showing that his job is part of his identity. And he is described through action, “looked out over the roiling crowd.”
Is it just eyes and hair? No. This being the seventeenth book, it makes sense that the author has already physically described him plenty of times, so instead of repeating herself, she uses his unusual circumstances to introduce him, but then goes straight into backstory to explain how the event was unusual because in the past couple of years it couldn’t have happened due to the pandemic, and now it is also unusual because it’s almost Christmas and the University is on winter holiday.
What is a single word to describe the main character? Observant
How would I rewrite the description? Maybe his height has something to do with his view. Does he strategize his location based on his body-type? Comfort due to an injury? Or is something he’s wearing important to the job.

First Line of Dialogue:

What is the first line of dialogue? The very first sentence is dialogue of his subordinate heard in his earpiece: “This doesn’t feel right, patron.” But he doesn’t respond right away. His first line is on the next page.
What is the main character’s first line of dialogue? “Is everything under control?”
Did it reveal the main character’s main concern? Yes. It does double duty, talking to their job of keeping the event safe for everyone there. They are hoping to avoid violence that had happened at the last speech this woman gave that they saw online, but it also speaks to the main conflict of the book which is can we keep “everything” under control? Does anyone have the right to control population to “save people from suffering” by killing off the weak before they get sick—Make “necessary” sacrifices to save resources for the “greater good?”
Did it foreshadow what was to come? Yes. It speaks to the general chaos of life, and the problems that arise when people try to control it.
Does it showcase the character’s personality? In a way: he wants order and peace and knows it can change to disorder and chaos in an instance from so many angles, and not where one expects it.
How many words is it? four
Does it have a surface meaning and a deeper one? Yes. The surface meaning is talking to his co-worker about the task at hand. But the deeper meaning is about whether there is ever control, if people are really ever in control.
Does the dialogue reveal character, support the plot, hit the emotional theme, escalate the tension? Yes. It makes the reader aware that the control can and most likely will be lost escalating the tension and supporting the plot, and bringing the meaning of the title into focus as well.
Does the main character have a unique voice/way of speaking? Not in this statement. A bit of a cliche actually. Because the book is set in Quebec the French phrases thrown in made for a unique way of speaking but all of the characters do it, so Gamache’s way of speaking is different than characters outside of East Canada, but I haven’t noticed his unique way of speaking that’s different than the other characters in the book.
Do I like this first line of dialogue? Yes, but I think it should have come before the author left the present situation to flashback and talk about the pandemic.

Gamache’s longevity:

So what is it about Armand Gamache that keeps people coming back for seventeen novels?

He is a family man: He has a loving relationship with his wife. He is a grandfather. He has a lively home life.
He forgives his son-in-law who also works for him when he leaves his post and brings a gun into the auditorium.
And he is wise: can see the problem from both sides. “But before Jean-Guy could speak, Armand said, “I’m sorry. You’re right. Everything in your life now is about Idola and Honoré. I should have known that. Forgive me. I should never have put you in that position. It was wrong of me.”
He listens to people’s concerns in the community.
He takes his responsibilities seriously, and works hard.
He puts himself in harms way to save others, even someone he dislikes.
He supports others in need.
He’s human: gets mad, makes mistakes, is vulnerable.”About to yell at him again, to scream at Gamache to let him go, Jean-Guy looked directly at the Chief. And saw tears in his father-in-law’s eyes.”

Not Three Pines by Maria L. Berg 2023

Applying What I Learned

Beginnings:

What did this novel teach me about beginnings? It starts in the action, and raises the dramatic questions right away, but then it holds the answer back for too long. I found it irritating that it goes into backstory right away.
How can I apply it to my own story? I want to start with action and a dramatic question. The story starts with the action of stopping her truck and listening to the end of a song while sitting in the cab. The dramatic question raised is why did she stop? And why does blatant sexism in old trucker songs make her laugh. By adding the objects that she has in her cab, I hope I’ve added enough intrigue into her character and her story to keep the reader going.

What did this novel teach me about character introductions and descriptions? Introduced by their job, something unusual about it, and introduce the character using their strength to do their job.
How can I apply it to my own story? What is Johnell’s strength when it comes to long-haul trucking? Stamina, aware of things in her periphery, spacial awareness, concentration. How can I show these traits in her introduction? In the next paragraph, Johnell gets out of the truck. I wrote “She enjoyed the stretch of it, though it was a bit of a free-fall every time.” I can change that to something like: Because of her above average stamina and concentration, she really stuck to her seat. When she did stop—like now, because her stomach was growling and her mind was on a chocolate loop—she enjoyed the stretch of the extension to the step, though it was a bit of a free-fall every time.

How can I apply what I like about the first line of dialogue to my own work? I can look for the first line of dialogue and see if  it’s short, concise, and has a surface and deeper meaning that speaks to the overall theme. In this story my main character doesn’t have any dialogue until the second page. The first thing she says is, “I was trying to get a candy bar out of the vending machine at Safety rest stop last night—” and her friend interrupts her. I like that she has one thing on her mind, no pleasantries, straight to the problem, but it’s not concise and doesn’t have a deeper meaning or get to the theme of the story. Maybe she comes in hot with “I found something.”Or “I found something hidden.” Ooo, I like that. That gets to the main point of the story, that things don’t stay hidden, and is much more inviting and exciting.

Character Longevity and Likability:

Though I am revising a short story in these examples, and not working on a long-lasting series, I might be able to make my characters more likable using Gamache as an example. I can mention a little more about how hard Johnelle works and how seriously she takes her job. I can emphasize the familial relationship she has with her friend Stookey, and that he’s the only family she has. I already mention that she used to have a problem with cleptomania, but she has gotten help and recovered with Stookey’s help, perhaps at a stressful moment she feels vulnerable and has to stop herself from back-sliding.

What could she do right at the beginning that shows she’s generous and caring? I could have the person in front of her at the vending machine need more money for their snack and she gives it to them. She could take time to help someone who is lost and needs directions. She could ask if she could pet someone’s dog being walked at the rest stop. She could re-unite a crying kid she finds in the bathroom with a mother yelling a girl’s name out by a car. She could stop a pet that has gotten away from an owner and return it. She could see someone leave a ring or a watch by the sink and get it back to them just in time before they drive off. She could just pick up someone’s ball or frisbie and throw it back to them. So many things can go wrong at a rest stop. I just need to choose one thing that shows she’s nice, thoughful, and does the right thing. For this story, I think the idea of giving someone back their watch or ring left at the sink will not only make my character likable, but add to the decision she has to make at the climax of the story.

I Hope You’ll Join Me

This week I’m reading The Woman in the Library by Sulari Gentill and will be sharing what I learn next week. What are you reading? How do you approach reading like a writer? What are you trying to learn as you read? I look forward to hearing about it in the comments. Next week I will start revising the novel I wrote in November. I hope you’ll join me on the adventure.