Tuesday, November 15, 2016

It turns out I don't know it all...or didn't

You would think I'd have read Lou Berney by now.
He's been nominated for an Edgar more than once (won one of them too, or was it two he won?)

But, I hadn't.

Then I was called upon to moderate a panel at Murder and Mayhem in Milwaukee. Since I've seen brilliant moderaters in action (Katrina Niidis Holm, I'm looking at you) I just copy what they do. Step one: read the books of the panelists.

Thus it was that a big ol' box o'books dropped on my desk a few weeks back and I had to take time away from work to read them. All of them. It was my solemn duty, you see.

"Wait a minute," said the clients. "All of them??"






Ok, ok I said, one from each panelist.

So I dove in to The Long and Faraway Gone by Lou Berney.

And writer friends, holy moly.
What a read!
I didn't want it to end!

I slowed down. I stopped reading on the subway.
I stopped reading in the tub.
I only read on the couch, lingeringly, lovingly.

But then it did end, so I cleverly snuck a copy of his previous books inside "The Agent's Guide to Contracts on Carkoon" and read those too.

And they were just as wonderful.

Now, I do not mention this just to increase your To Be Read stack (although these books deserve your eyeballs!) but to talk about the insight I got while reading these books.

We always talk about world building in books that are other-than-here and now. World building for fantasy novels, for historical novels of all stripes.

But I realized that world building is just as important in a book set in the present day and time.  In The Long and Faraway Gone, I was right there as the story unfolded because the world building was done so subtly and so well.

I've been reading books for a good long time, and offering up my opinions on what makes good ones for almost as long.  And I just realized this now.

Which goes to show: you do learn new stuff even when you think you know it all (cause of course I do think I know it all)

and
world building is important no matter what you're writing.


Is there a particular book you credit with illuminating something about the writing process for you? Share in the comments column!

41 comments:

CynthiaMc said...

Adding another author to my TBR pile.

I'm late to the party on the whole Game of Thrones series. Pretty much everyone who knew me told me not to read it, said how much I'd hate it (though they themselves loved it). Even now people who know me say "You're reading WHAT? No way!"

And the reason I'm reading it is a fellow book junkie and I were trading favorites (hers was Devil in the White City and GOT series). Devil...meh. GOT - Holy cow!

I hate multi-viewpoints. I hate time lines that don't go in order. I'm not a fan of violence or incest, but I have learned a lot about world building and character building. I'm on #5 and still being surprised (and for someone who can predict 99 out of 100 plot lines that says a lot).

I feel as though I'm taking a master class and am a better writer because of it.

Bethany Elizabeth said...

It's a rare book that makes me slow down while I read it - Name of the Wind being one of them - but it's a great feeling. It reminds me that reading isn't just a delightful chore, it's the seasoning of a well-lived life. And learning while you read? Even better!

I'm often surprised by how much I learn reading my 'guilty pleasure' books (my mom calls them easy reads). Pacing is my weakness, and reading page-turners helps me learn when to speed shit up and when to slow shit down.

Karen McCoy said...

Aaaaand, that puts my TBR list up to a mile long. Ha. Seriously though, he sounds like a great author.

And, this offered a good tonic for me this morning. World building has always come easily to me--knowing that it's worth something makes me cry happy tears.

Cheryl said...

I had the same epiphany a few months ago, when I started writing a novel that takes place almost entirely in one house, one piece of property, in the south of France. I realized the house and property couldn't just be backdrop, it had to be as rich and detailed as any fantasy world. So I went at it from a world-building perspective: detailing the history and folklore, drawing maps, writing long descriptions of everything, and my story is much better for all that.

Susan said...

Kevin Brockmeier's "The Brief History of the Dead" was one of the most memorable books of the past few years for me--it literally took my breath away from the first page, and I remember the "slowing down to savor it" feeling, too. It does have a touch of fantasy, the setting being the afterlife and all, but it parallels with the land of the living--right down to the deceased having jobs and going out for breakfast. The descriptions are sumptuous, and I felt a longing for this place (the city that's described, not the afterlife) I'd never been.

I'm glad you mentioned that world-building can also be a contemporary--and even common--place because I think the best world-building makes everything seem familiar, like you've been there before. And if you haven't been there, you long to go.

Ah, the gift of books--where you get to live in different worlds for as long as you need to.

Karen McCoy said...

I've also been inspired by master character-driven authors, since that's my weaker point...Lauren Oliver and Alyson Noel come to mind...

Colin Smith said...

I think of all the books currently sitting on the floor of my new office, and the books still in boxes, all waiting for a new home... and now this!! Oh well, I'm sure we can put another bookcase in the living room. Who needs wall space? Pictures?! Pah! ;)

When I decided I was going to get back into writing fiction, I realized I was going to have to read more fiction. The Harry Potter series was the final kick up the backside to actually start writing, largely because it felt like the kind of thing I would have wanted to write. Not that I wished I had written it, but it reminded me how much fun it is to write fiction, and how much I missed it.

I then started asking myself, "how does one write car chases and fight scenes?" So I read Ian Fleming (James Bond). Then I pondered how one writes a good thriller, so I picked up THE DEAD ZONE by Stephen King. There are probably better books I could have picked, but I was winging it and going by authorial reputations, not solid recommendations. Of course, I have since read many other books, and I try to learn something from each. But I still do the same kind of thing today: if I want to learn how to write a particular style, or certain types of scenes, I hunt down someone recognized as a master of that style and read them.

Steve Forti said...

I think I learned a lot about action from reading Matthew Reilly years ago. Both good and bad. I read an interview with him where he talks about never using adverbs, and as he progressed he removed many of his adjectives, too. His stories are summer action films in novel form, and he didn't want any extra words to slow down the frantic pace. Just choose better verbs and speed up the sentences. At the time, I would think "But I LIKE adverbs" (oh to be young again), but I learned the value to his work.

On the flip side, while that breakneck pace was entertaining, it also wore thin after enough novels. There's only so much you can do with that, and you need to slow down at times, let the reader catch their breath, build slower suspense so the action has more pay off. Otherwise, it gets skimmed over and dull, no matter how exciting it would be on its own. The superficial "I want more to happen!" desire is really "I want what happens to be more impactful" under the surface.

Also, Greg Iles' "The Quiet Game" really clicked something about using the first person, showing me the power you can have over your reader by really getting deep in the main character's head and experiencing the novel as they do.

RachelErin said...

The Girl Who Drank the Moon showed me how each character can be its own hero, even with A LOT of characters. I would struggle to name the MC. And even the wife of the side character who got about six pages had a complete story, impacted the plot, and was fully fleshed out. Kelly Barnhill did an incredible job of telling a whole network of stories - sort of like a MG version of War and Peace, but with magic.

Oh, and the unintended consequences. Sometimes authors, especially for YA, confuse accidents with unintended consequences. Not so in this book - each character is purposeful and motivated, but because of what they don't know (and the questions they neglect to ask), the consequences of their choices spin out of control.

I have to read this aloud to my kids just so I can enjoy it again (I mean, they'll like it, too).

Kitty said...

I must have read Nora Ephron’s roman à clef, “Heartburn,” 3 or 4 times before I realized how she seamlessly incorporated backstory. I’m taking lessons and learning how to do the same.

I love the first Harry Potter movie. What a unique imagination! I have the first book in my to-read stack just so I can learn how to translate that imagination into print.

Julie Weathers said...

Dune, I inhaled Dune and realized I wanted to create worlds that were as vibrant. Then I went back and read it again. Now, years later, the writing seems clunky to me, but I am still in awe of the world-building and the story. I refuse to get rid of my Alienware R2 Aurora because it reminds me of the container the navigators travel in.

I put off reading Outlander forever. Now, I go back and re-read to see how she does whatever. It's a course on writing, as any good book is.

C.C. Humphreys is great at fight scenes.

And with that, I must bathe my body and get ready to head to North Dakota. I'll be gone for a week tilting at windmills and stuff. Take care of the queen.

french sojourn said...


For me reading is an escape, the same way writing is. I would list, I know you said “which one”…but there are three. The trilogy from Carlos Ruiz Zafon, “A hundred years of Solitude”, by Marquez, and “The Overcoat”, by Gogol.
Their commonality for me, is the journey of the mind, and how the author develops the character. The growth, or in these cases the bend of reality is so well developed.
I was going to include “Ancillary Justice” by Ann Leckie, but it was more of a Space opera POV with a difference. And "Das Boot" I read in one night, then reread it two more times the following two nights, back in High School. I think it was the most influential book of my youth that I incorporated into my Sci-fi writing style.

ahhh books!......

stacy said...

Janet, you posted fairly recently a list of books with good world building and SUNSHINE by Robyn McKinley was on that list. Gotta say, WOW. It really is great, world building and all, and her style is at once conversational and cinematic. Thanks for this new rec. I love book lists.

Jennifer R. Donohue said...

In a way, I tend to feel out of place in "craft" type conversations, because I don't really give enough conscious thought to the textures of sentences, plot structure, world building etc. Or, I have so many things that are really technically in "early draft" form, they're still finding their legs and thus so am I. Okay, world building I think about, but it's also a thing I struggle with, not because I can't envision a different world, but because I explain it to death until it isn't fun and interesting anymore.

So my pick for "which book" is William Gibson's Neuromancer, because it certainly isn't the first scifi book I read (that was Alexander Key's The Magic Meadow), but it was just the right flavor of near-ish future science fiction, that took our very familiar world and changed it with a simple authority and little to no extraneous explanation. And with language that catches in my brain and repeats itself on occasion (and yeah, fine, I just ordered that swank new Penguin classics edition). It's also a book that, though I've read it...3 times? 4? since I discovered it, I still feel as though there are bits of it that I'm not really quite grasping, and that's a good and rare thing for me to experience.

We'd played Shadowrun a bit before I read Neuromancer, but Neuromancer is when I fell in love with cyberpunk (I've written a cyberpunk book 1 and have a sequel in progress for NaNoWriMo, after all), with its main characters who, no, aren't good people but who are doing what they can. With its technology that really doesn't seem terribly implausible, not for 1984 when it was written and not now in 2016. With its comments on what people do in desperation, on what people do to each other, and I'll stop there, I think.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

World building is a black art. Trick is author needs to know everything about their world but only about 10-15% makes it on page, enough to show the depth of their world without turning book into a history text with the story taking a backseat.

In my NaNoWriMo work I have lots more world building than will appear in final text which will help me tell the story. I added a Queen named Janet last night with sons, Colin and Jeffrey. I am sure it is a coincidence. This queen is planning to leave her kingdom the her cat as her sons are...well not entirely as clever as the cat.

Which is true as her cat used to be a god. Well, a fallen angel that ruled a lovely little world that was swallowed by the Desolate, the thing scientists call Dark Matter. Anyhow, not sure any of that will make it into the final draft of book but I have to know it.

Claire Bobrow said...

RachelErin: I just finished The Girl Who Drank the Moon and was completely swept away. What a truly magical story, in all the best ways. I'm still thinking about the rich characterizations, the unintended consequences you mentioned, and how true it all felt.

Ian McEwan's Atonement knocked me sideways. I'll never forget how shattered I felt at the end. Similar to reading GOT (which I love, love, love), McEwan and Martin illuminate how it's possible to break a reader's heart, but make you love their stories even more for it. Ditto for Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner.

Me - I'm writing picture books. No current plans to kill anyone off! I do want to learn how to capture deep human emotion in my stories, though. What a joy to read the work of those who've mastered it.

I know it's not a book example, but here's an illuminating breakdown of powerful storytelling, using Spielberg's Jurassic Park as an example: How Stuff Works Jurassic Park

Melanie Sue Bowles said...

I cut my teeth on Laura Ingalls Wilder. The "Little House" series was a world I wanted to live in, and it was the inspiration for repeatedly telling my mother that I was going to live on a farm one day and write about my life with the animals who live with me - a dream realized. I was rarely drawn to read fiction, preferring non-fiction, memoirs, and biographies. But even these writers must build a world where the reader can become immersed. One book that had an enormous impact on me and my desire to write was CROSS CREEK by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. This book would most definitely be a snore-fest for folks who want high-octane action and suspense... but for me, it was pure magic.

Brenda Buchanan said...

Oh Janet, I concur. The Long and Faraway Gone is a master class in world building.

Tana French is another writer who can take me there. I believe with all my heart I can navigate the Dublin Murder Squad's physical and emotional turf, though I've never been a cop and (not yet!) made it to the city on the Liffey.

Claire Bobrow said...

MelanieSueBowles: I hear you re: the Little House series. I read them, and re-read them, over and over. I can still hear passages from many of those books ringing in my head. Farmer Boy, in particular, was my favorite.

Beth said...

I remember as a child getting lost in White Fang and Call of the Wild. I didn't know it then, but they taught me much about point of view. I'll have to reread them sometime soon and see if they stand up after a few decades.

Amy Johnson said...

I couldn't narrow this down to one particular book. I think I probably learn about writing every time I read a book. Which is probably why I'm such a slooooow reader. Oftentimes even when I'm getting carried away by story, I'm still analyzing:

Wow, she did a really nice job of (fill in the blank) here.

Oh, I like how he did (fill in with something else). Now let me go back to the page where that started and take a closer look at how he did it.

I hear about people taking an afternoon to read a novel. Merely one afternoon? What? Never.

Sha'el, Princess of Pixies said...

As you know, these days I write history books. World building is essential. We don’t teach history well; readers are disconnected from the past. I want my readers to connect to the era. Every skill I used when writing fantasy fiction is essential to writing history, except I don’t get to make up the world I write about.

The last half of the 19th Century is an alien world, as much so as Landover, as the Pixie Home Forest, as Oz. Those who read our books, even other historians, are often disconnected from daily life of the era. When I taught history (I recently stopped teaching because of health issues), I connected my students to an era of no electronics, no flush toilets, rats, filth on the streets, and belief systems that were common then but alien now.

Every writer should be a world builder.

RosannaM said...

World building shouldn't just be for sci-fi and fantasy. It is for me just as essential in the every day world. Because we all live in different worlds even though we all live in the present.

I'm just thinking off the top of my head, but I really enjoyed all of Philip Craig's books set on Martha's vineyard. I don't know that part of the country at all, yet I feel like I have fished with JW Jackson and wandered the island with him.

Dana Stabenow has brought Alaska vibrantly alive for me. Small villages, native culture, and the wilderness and vastness that is Alaska. I have to sit under a blanket to read her books.

And Nevada Barr's novels set in National parks has taken me to all sorts of places I need to put on my To Be Visited list.

Some books don't do this well. They could be set in any big town USA. Or any suburb or any backwater town. But endless descriptive passages are not the way to achieve a rich environment. The authors that do it best incorporate it seamlessly into their stories. Delicious.

Mark Ellis said...

Dittos for Rawlings and Cross Creek. Most know this author for The Yearling, also great. When I first read Stoker's epistolary Dracula I was drawn into the creepy world created by the letters and diary entries the characters wrote. Contemporarily, I have always enjoyed the worlds created by Richard Ford. His portrait of Detroit in The Sportswriter sticks with me. Currently reading Solzhenitsyn's Cancer Ward, the world of the post-Stalin Soviet Union made all too real.

Beth said...

Amy, I have the opposite problem. I start a book I admire, trying to extract lessons on how it's done, but I get caught up in the story and before I know it, I've finished the book. I can study a flashback technique or how they handled dialogue tags in a party setting, but as to the pacing or flow of the whole story, I forget to notice. When done well, pacing seems effortless.

Lennon Faris said...

C.S. Lewis's Narnia. I won the first book in the fourth grade and remember holding it and thinking, "what is this?" I had dreams adventuring with the Pevensie kids and meeting Aslan. I wished I could meet them all, but especially Edmund with whom I felt a big connection.

When I got to the last few chapters of the seventh (and final) book in the series, I read a sentence a day for months and finished it on my birthday. It felt like a good-bye ceremony for people I'd never see again. I was sad for a long time after that.

Also, Watership Down. Crazy how a book about rabbits can do that to you?! Just goes to show, it's all in the writing.

Steve Forti said...

Definitely agree that world building in non-scifi/fantasy stories is great. It's the kind of thing you don't really notice or think about unless it's done really well. Immerses you in that world. I've never actually been to Paradise, MI or Natchez, MS or Harlan, KY but I feel like I've experienced pieces of those worlds. Had the towns become a character in the story.

Theresa said...

Helen Dunmore's The Siege is a master class in economy.

Ian McEwan's Atonement and Kate Atkinson's Life After Life are brilliant examples of plotting.

Peggy Rothschild said...

I'm a huge Lou Berney fan. Loved Gut Shot Straight and Whiplash River, as well as Long and Faraway Gone. David Guterson's Snow Falling on Cedars had me consciously slowing down, covering the next page so I wouldn't leap ahead. I wanted the story to last...

RachelErin said...

Oh, one more. Vanity Fair, for the most fascinating anti-heroine I've ever encountered.

Vanity Fair is a comfort read for me, in a perverse way. I'm the opposite of cynical, and I have never tried to live on nothing a year, but there is something about the characters and the choices they make, the mixture of love and selfishness in everyone (even the "noble" Amelia) that never fails to fascinate me, to reflect the imperfections of human existence.

For all the shady things Becky Sharp does, I think Thackeray shows her vulnerability, her search for security that comes before all other attachments (yes, she's vain and proud, too, but those are secondary motivations). She's not so different from Lizzy Bennet, just twisted by less fortunate circumstances (and a more talented musician).

Joseph Snoe said...

It’s interesting to me that when I read the selections and think of my own, the ones that spring to mind are not the books I’ve read the past five years or so (except for C.J. Box - and he doesn’t build a world. He just plops us down in Wyoming and Montana), but the ones I read as a teenager and in my twenties.

Of the ones mentioned today so far, Dune, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie series, Harry Potter, Watership Down make my list. But also 1984, Catch-22, The Hobbit, Clan of the Cave Bear, Lost Horizon, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe, the James Bond books, any Robert Louis Stevenson book. Maybe even Stan Lee’s Marvel Universe.

Series books stand out. Two I still remember. A series on an imaginary baseball team. I can’t even remember its name – The St Louis Blues perhaps. Each book was the story how a new player was added to the team. One constant through all the books was the first baseman. The last book in the series was how a new first baseman replaced him. Noooooooo. The other was about the men on the ship Araby. Looking it up, it’s called the Tod Moran Mystery series by Howard Pease.

Adib Khorram said...

I'm always amazed when any contemporary book manages to sweep me away in the world building. I'd say it's more common in books that take place outside of the United States—Michael Gruber's THE GOOD SON springs to mind for the vivid picture of Pakistan it paints—but I was also enthralled with the world building in Jonathan Safran Foer's EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE. Oskar's New York is alive in a way I had never experienced New York before.

Beth, I do the same: get absorbed when the writing is too good. Which is why when I want to really study something, I'll set the book down and start typing the whole thing out, cover to cover. (Full disclosure, I got this idea from Janet who has recommended it more than once, though I think more frequently on QueryShark than on this blog. And it's also recommended in SPELLBINDING SENTENCES.)

Donnaeve said...

"Is there a particular book you credit with illuminating something about the writing process for you?"

My reaction to books I'd categorize into the "illumination" category are the ones I usually thought, "whoa, that was so good I didn't want it to end." And then I have to go back and look at certain passages and re-read, likely hoping it will soak in.

One book I thoroughly enjoyed, and didn't want to end, (and is going to be an oddball example to choose) is THE BOYS OF MY YOUTH by Joanna Beard. Even though it's a memoir, she had such a quirky, spot on way of describing life events that equaled what I'd felt while growing up. There's a chapter where her parents are confused over why she was crying in her crib, and is a hilarious portrait that depicts (very likely depicts) the way a child, who is unable to speak, might react to a situation. I learned you COULD do this, write from the POV of an infant (hey it's been done with dogs), if you knew how - either way, I loved it.

And then, more in line with what I write is Rick Bragg's ALL OVER BUT THE SHOUTIN' and (and many of you know this) BASTARD OUT OF CAROLINA. And SO many more...but we don't have all day here. :)

roadkills-r-us said...

Several series stand out.

The first influences in that vein were all sci-fi, from Tom Swift, Jr when I was young, through Keith Laumer's Retief novels, Asimov's Foundation and robot novels, and the glorious, all too little output of James Schmitz (_The Witches of Karres_ is still a fave). Andre Norton. Frank Herbert (Dune). Madelaine L'Engle! Anne McCaffrey's Pern books. Etc.

But the biggest, direct influences were probably:
Tolkien- before I met this man's writing, I already spent a lot of time building worlds for the sheer joy of it, long before I started saving the things I wrote. He planned like no one else, and it shows in his work.
C. S. Lewis- While his worlds were simpler and he didn't invent entire languages, his worlds were wondrous. One of the things I especially loved was the WAY in which he revealed the worlds. The modernists who push to have the stories read in chronological order vandalize a great deal of his work.
Rowling (Harry Potter) and Collins (Hunger Games) inspire me as well, both having some of the complexity of Tolkien and the revelatory pacing of Lewis.

These people all touch me with their characters, dialogue and other elements as well.

So, no, there is not a particular book I can credit for world building or the writing process. There is, however, a library full of them. It's at Casa Roadkill. 8^)

Craig F said...

Personally I am a fan of the simplicity and effectiveness that late 19th and early 20th century used. In some of the better world builders of today you can read those influences.

I am also a fan of using casual references to that world. It makes them seem more lived in. Leaving 85% or so of that particular world to the readers imagination seems to make them more memorable.

Read critically and pick up the pieces that give you a thrill. I am learning a lot that way. Donna and her characters have taught me a great deal about voice. I have read other things that had as much voice but I am a better critical reader now. In the long run it will make me a better writer, I hope.

Mallory Love said...

I loved The Long and Faraway Gone. It had me from the first page and kept me turning until the end.
I'm a craft book junkie, so I love to go back to novels I've read with a new perspective after reading some awesome books about writing fiction. The Great Gatsby is definitely one I return to again and again. The book is so lean and yet contains so much depth and so many layers. So many writing books I've read have highlighted a different aspect of Fitzgerald's classic that I'm continually surprised by what I can learn from it. Same with the Harry Potter series. Or any book that has touched me in some way. There truly is a method to the magic, and I'm an apprentice hungry to learn all the clever slights of hand I can.
Craft books I recently read and highly recommend: Thrill Me by Benjamin Percy and The Secrets of Story by Matt Bird. Currently, I'm study Karin Slaughter novels. I'm in awe of her writing.
By the way, Ordinary Grace by William Krueger is great too. Just thought I'd throw that out there.

Lisa Bodenheim said...

Hm...books that sucked me in so that I wanted to stay in the world.

Jonathan Livingston Seagull. POV from a seagull? Who would have thought? Forgotten Beasts of Eld by Patricia McKillip. And as someone else mentioned Anne McCaffrey's dragonrider series. Mary Stewart's English world.

Beth said...

Adib I never thought of that. Not sure I'm committed enough to type a whole book, but I can see doing it for certain passages.

Janice Grinyer said...

Robert Parker RIP - what he could say in fewer words yet put a vivid picture in your mind. Truly a gift.

I have one of his first novels (paperback!), and good lord was he wordy when he first started out. Just.so.many.words. I found myself flipping pages because it was "yeah yeah, let's get to the story already!"

But that early paperback of his gives me hope as a writer...

MA Hudson said...

I find analysing a good book completely impossible. I'm just so completely sucked into the story and unique turns of phrase, that I don't give analysis a second thought until I've read the last page.
Bad books, on the other hand, are excellent for analysing, and it's so very self-satisfying to think, ha, if a book this crappy got published then at least there's some sort of hope for me!!!

mickibrowning.com said...

I finished reading The Long and Faraway Gone the day before this post came out. It is an amazing read. I had the pleasure of listening to Lou Berney speak on a panel at Bouchercon. It was that exposure to him that prompted me to pick up the book, and boy, am I glad. There are a few writers that I deconstruct and try to understand their magic. This book is well worth the effort.