We meet every six weeks or so, a group of writers who formed a book club out of friendship and need.
Our purpose? To read currently published works, analyze their composition, and discuss the craft from a writer’s perspective. By studying published authors, one can learn what to do and what not to do.
In the last two years, we have reviewed seventeen books, hoping that what we have learned will strengthen our own writing.
Instead of offering a rated list, I would like to share my observations on what worked and what didn’t.
1. Bel Canto by Ann Patchett and Room by Emma Donoghue are excellent examples of how to present unpleasant, uncomfortable, and realistic topics through well-written, fascinating exposition. Both exemplify strong, sympathetic protagonists and continuous, forward action.
The Ark by Boyd Morrison is a graphic, fast-paced race against time. None of the main characters muster any sympathy and its title is nothing more than a commercial, red herring.
2. Four lengthy tomes – The Forgotten Garden and The Distant Hours by Kate Morton, The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield, and The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown – juggle multiple plots, characters, and varying time lines with finesse. They end realistically and offer fascinating resolutions.
The Friday Night Knitting Club by Kate Jacobs and The Homecoming of Samuel Lake by Jenny Wingfield are padded with extraneous characters and secondary story lines that have nothing to do with the whole, thus weakening the plot with their ponderous length and distracting the reader from the true story.
3. The Help by Katherine Stockett has amazing characters, both good and bad. The strength of the plot and its realistic, heart-wrenching ending make it a satisfying read.
A book with a similar plot line, The Space between Us by Thrity Umrigar has characters who are about as engaging as newspaper copy, and the ending is mentioned so subtly that the reader overlooks it in the first read through and has to go back and hunt for it.
4. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak expertly uses rhetorical devices, creating beautiful and haunting visuals on each page. His use of synesthesia is exemplary, as is his cold and horrifying personification of death.
After reading The River by Michael Neale, I may never again use the extended metaphor.
5. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Slayer by Seth Grahame-Smith and Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley offer new and refreshing twists in their genres. One plays with our knowledge of history; the other questions our knowledge of science. In both cases, every effort is made to make the stories plausible and convincing.
In The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde and The Heroines by Eileen Favorite, fictional characters come to life and interact with people in the real world, but how and why they are able to do so is never explained. No effort is made to give a plausible or convincing premise, so the reader never cares about the characters or their outcomes. Oddly, these famous characters were three-dimensional in their books, but become one-dimensional the moment they become real. It’s like playing with paper dolls; we never suspend our belief.