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.
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.
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.
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.