I first read North of Beautiful back after I heardJustina Chen speak at a SCBWI writers conference. She was lively and local (to me; she was living in the Seattle area) so I thought I should give her book a go. Whoa. I loved it. Really. And I read a lot of books for a lot of reasons; I don’t expect to love anything anymore—I just want to learn.
But I loved NoB and knew I wanted to write about it—eventually. But as life ground on, I completely forgot about the book, until a mentee asked me to review an article she was writing about the use of theme in How to Train Your Dragon. Reading her article, I knew she wasn’t referring to theme, but something else. I just couldn’t put my finger on the something else.
Then I read Laurie Halse Anderson’s Twisted. In Twisted, Tyler, the main character, is sent to in-school suspension. There, his English teacher reviews symbolism, motif, and theme. I was a little ticked at LHA for not telling us readers the difference but, well, she wasn’t writing an English textbook. It did lead me to Wikipedia and a few other sources (come on! I’m a (relatively) responsible researcher) to look up the differences and that taught me about NoB.
Justina Chen is a master of motif.
According to Wikipedia (OK, sometimes I’m just a lazy researcher), motif is “any recurring element that has symbolic significance in a story. Through its repetition, a motif can help produce other narrative (or literary) aspects such as theme or mood.”
JC’s use of maps and mapping terminology is consistent, constant, and clearly helps build on the narrative’s themes of finding and accepting yourself.
The book’s cover includes a compass rose, and the title is “North” of Beautiful. I don’t usually include cover and title when learning about books because often the author has no or little say in these things, but, what the author definitively has a say in are the parts and chapter titles. And the motif continues throughout that structure: the three parts are titled “Terra Nullis” (null earth, Latin), “Terra Incognita” (unknown or untested earth), and “Terra Firma.” The theme of each part reflects the part’s title. In “Terra Nullis,” Terra feels awkward, hating her face (she has a port wine stain) and herself. She is unsure of her future, her relationship with her parents, and her art. She feels like she is nothing. In “Terra Incognita,” Terra starts exploring her options, working on her art, trying a new surgery. Her trials at becoming a self-confident independent young woman are random stabs in the dark, unknown and untested. In the third part, “Terra Firma”, Terra’s journey solidifies as she grows into herself.
JC keeps the motifs going with the book’s chapter titles. Titles include “The Topography of Guilt” (topography is the study of the surface of the earth), “Here be Dragons” (in reference to dragons old mapmakers drew in the margins where unknown lands lay), “Dead Reckoning” (the process of calculating your current position by using a previously determined position), and “Orientation.” While each chapter references some aspect of mapmaking, the chapter titles are not random.
In “Orientation,” Terra and Jacob meet; they swap stories, learning about each other and their current journeys (they meet in Leavenworth—which really is as JC describes it—halfway to their final destinations). Additionally in this chapter, Jacob, as a Chinese Goth with a scar from a cleft palate surgery, shows (orients) Terra to another way to deal with the stares she receives because of her port wine stain.
It keeps going. The use of mapmaking as motif continues with the character names: Terra (earth) and Terra’s brothers--Mercatur and Claudius. (As a side note, I first learned about the Mercator mapping system on The West Wing.)
JC uses mapping as subplots in the book as well. Terra’s father is a disgraced cartographer. Jacob introduces her to geocaching (a sport/hobby where you try to find “treasure” caches using GPS coordinates. If you have a smart-phone, there’s an app for that. The Boy and I have found a dozen or so caches so far and have introduced a whole mess of other kids to the adventure. If it hadn’t been for JC, I’d never have known about it!). Terra’s aunt leaves one of Terra’s father’s challenged maps torn in pieces as a cache treasure.
Additionally, JC, through Terra, uses maps as metaphors for Terra’s feelings:
“But all maps lie. … even the best maps distort the truth… Greenland balloons; Africa stretches.” Page 4
“But Erik was at my side like a lost adventurer chasing the North Star.” Page 20
“Unlike his cartographic namesake, Geradus Mercatur, Merc wasn’t just laying down lines for lands that had already been discovered, transferring a globe into a flat map. He was seeing the world.” Page 41
It goes on, throughout the book, instances of mapmaking changing lives; mapping terminology describing Terra’s thoughts and feelings; mapping as an activity to provide background for the characters.
Because mapping is used so heavily throughout the book, and it is tied so closely to the theme (you need a map to find something, even if it’s yourself), motif can easily be confused with theme. The two may overlap, and motif can be used to build theme, but motif is separate: a subset of theme.
I can’t help but think this use of motif would make a good story idea generator. Figure out your hobbies—knitting, horseback riding, sailing—anything with its own language. How can you use the language of your chosen hobby to show—anything? Then build a plot around that.
Regardless, when you’re ready to add another layer to your novel through revision, scan for any powerful images you’ve already used and see if you can’t repeat those images, even just two or three times, to build up your theme. And read North of Beautiful to see how a master does it.
Bonus! A few characters from JC’s Girl Overboard make a cameo appearance here.
Whine: Justina (can I call her Justina when I’ve only heard her speak and read her books? Or is that like stalking?) totally used the naked spa in her book before I could. Pout.
Post first appeared on my now-defunct blog in 2010
Remember back in Read 1000 books about how I don’t like to review books? I don’t. But I love to read, both for pleasure and for learning. And I’ve learned something about writing from every single book I’ve read.
Before I started reading Going Bovine by Libba Bray, I had just read through a friend’s complete novel manuscript and two teen writers’ chapter submissions and received feedback on a few scenes from my novel. The common feedback? No one had any idea what any of the characters looked like.
THAT is a problem, I thought. And then I picked up Going Bovine and noticed almost right away Bray’s use of character descriptions and how she sprinkles them, repeatedly, into the story. For example:
Technically, girls aren’t allowed in men’s bathrooms, but since only the losers, present company included, ever use this one, it’s a nonissue. Besides, Rachel’s five ten with six tattoos and seven piercings. Nobody gives her shit.
Kyle tucks his long, stringy blonde hair behind his ears.
The door bangs open, and a really small dude with a huge ‘fro comes barreling out, pushing up his sleeves. It takes me a minute to realize he’s a dwarf.
She’s [Jenna] standing beside the water fountain with her dance squad, her dark blond hair pulled up into the requisite ponytail and cascading ribbons.
But against the uniform pert tan-blondness that is the dance team, my [Cameron’s] shaggy dark hair, British-musician-on-the-dole pale skin, and six feet of seriously awkward body stand out like a strip of film negatives plopped down on top of their happy group photo.
Eubie’s growing a little soul patch. It looks good with the dreads and the multicolored T-shirt emblazoned with the face of some famous reggae star.
Even though Bray introduces four characters in one chapter (pages 10 – 15), they each have a little something, not a huge description, but a little something that helps readers distinguish them. And that little something is so skillfully done, and so subtly, that we recognize the characters when they appear later in the book, like Rachel and Eubie, either as themselves or morphed into a new character on Cameron’s (the main character) road trip.
Not only does Bray provide individual descriptions unique to her major characters, but she also takes advantage of reader expectations and/or stereotypes to help fill in details for her minor characters: Jenna has dark blond hair, and she’s part of the dance squad. We can deduce she’s good looking, tan (even before Cameron’s description of himself), thin, and maybe even tall, based on our idea of what girls look like when they’re on the dance team. And as a minor character, we can even guess some things about Jenna’s character—again based on our ideas of a high school dancer.
Don’t be afraid to use stereotypes to help flesh out minor characters. Don’t RELY on those stereotypes and don’t use them for major characters, or for every minor character, but for a few characters—especially those who really just serve as background decoration—it’s quite useful.
And remember to “sprinkle” in your characters’ descriptions, as Bray does, in bits and pieces continually throughout your story to remind readers what they look like and how they act. Have Eubie rub his soul patch or push his dreads back under a cap (Bray puts him in new band T-shirts for almost each scene), but also have a reason why he does it. Does Eubie rub his soul patch when he’s nervous? Does he push his dreads out of his eyes just so he can see (has it become a habitual gesture)? These repetitions make your characters real to our readers.
Post first appeared on my now-defunct blog in August 2010
A few years ago, I finished reading A Single Shard. I loved it so much, I immediately headed over to the author Linda Sue Park’s website and read everything she had to say about writing. This was when my son was still a baby and taking up an inordinate amount of my time. I wanted a quick-and-easy out to spending lots of time writing every day, something I could easily do in between naps and feedings, playtime and errands.
Well, there isn’t an easy out, but there was something I could do. Park mentions she “heard an editor say, ‘Read a thousand books of the genre you're interested in. THEN write yours.’ "
And she went on to do just that. She read, wrote a book, and sold it on its first submission. She later won the Newbery Medal Award for A Single Shard.
Reading widely improves your writing.
And the converse is also true: NOT reading will NOT improve your writing. It may even hurt your chances at selling your work.
What do you learn when reading someone else’s book? Glad you asked.
Reading in your genre
When you read books in the genre you plan to write (fantasy, sci-fi, mystery, horror, picture books, middle grade, young adult…), you learn
What you like, and therefore, what you want to write. After reading many of Ellen Hopkins’ books, I’ve learned I don’t like books that bleak. I want my books to end in hope. Do you like books with a lot of action? Romance? Shopping? Reading widely will help you hone in on your own interests.
What’s become cliché. Diana Wynne Jones wrote The Tough Guide to Fantasyland exposing many of the clichés in fantasy novels (my favorite: “horses can be used just like bicycles”), but as no one (I know of) has done the same for every genre available, you’ll just have to read to ensure your plot, characters, and conflict contain some spark of originality that will appeal to tired readers.
How to handle description. Some genres (fantasy, science fiction, and literary fiction come to mind) love sweeping passages of description. Others, especially YA, don’t. As you read in your genre, you internalize how much is too much and when and where to place setting details.
How point of view (POV), word choice, verb tense, and other language decisions affect the tone of your story. First person present tense can create a close—sometimes claustrophobic—tone, but it’s also common for young adult novels.
You also internalize certain…not rules, but guidelines, for your genre. By reading widely within your genre of choice, you learn whether sex, drugs, cursing are "allowable." You internalize plot pacing commonalities—how much tension do you need to create? How often do you need to break the tension with some sort of relief? How long can the story continue after the ultimate denouement?
Reading outside your genre
Don’t limit yourself. Read widely. If you plan to write YA, make sure you read nonfiction, mysteries, fantasy, picture books. Everything. By reading outside your genre, you learn
Storytelling techniques that you can apply to your novel to give it a new spin that may sift it to the stop of an editor’s slush pile.
How to combine nonfiction elements into your fiction work and how to write your nonfiction work using fiction techniques to make your writing lift off the page and capture a reader’s interest.
New vocabulary used in perhaps new ways. (I love reading Barbara Hambly and Neal Stephenson just for that reason. She taught me chiaroscuro; he taught me gallimaufry. I’m hoping to use those words someday in a work of my own…)
Learning from books
I have a hard time writing actual book reviews. I know how hard it is to write a novel, start to finish, to revise it over and over and over again, to tentatively show it to someone, hoping for good feedback but likely getting notes for yet more revisions. If a book has been published, SOMEONE saw enough value in it to purchase it, put it through even more editing revisions, publicize it, and sell it.
So, I won’t be writing any book reviews here. Instead, I’ll share what I’m reading and what I’ve learned from it.
Read 1000 books. Then write one.
This post first appeared on my previous blog in August 2010.
I'm Val Serdy, and I'm an editor. I love writing, and I love writing about writing.