Master Mondays, Week Six: The YA Novel Recap

Master Mondays, Week Six: The YA Novel Recap

Figure 1. Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta

Figure 1. Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta


TL;DR Version

We discussed manuscript review protocol, fertile and fallow seasons in writing life, trade/industry reviews, book flap copy drafts, Jellicoe Road and David Jauss’ article in March/April 2013 issue of The Writer’s Chronicle, titled “Homo Sapiens v. Homo Fictus: Or Why A Lot of Knowledge Can Be A Dangerous Things Too.”

Unabridged Version

I’m going to jump to the discussion of Jellicoe Road just because it was so delightful. I feel like I’ve waited my entire life to talk about this book with others and this session did not disappoint. SPOILERS BELOW BEWARE…

Some issues we discussed:

– Are the dreams and echoes between the past narrative and present narrative a kind of magical realism?

– Why didn’t Hannah tell Taylor they were related? That the plot hinged on something that could have been cleared up (and should have been, given how fragile Taylor was) with one conversation was problematical. Lots of adults knew Taylor’s history but wouldn’t share it, which made no sense. And why couldn’t Hannah just tell Taylor, “hey, I’m going to be out of town for a few weeks, I’ll call you, it’s no big deal?”

– The rate of revelation in terms of Taylor’s own past history (especially re: her experience with Jonah on the train) is quite slow. You don’t get a sense of how traumatic and chaotic her childhood is until the scenes in Sydney when she and Jonah are looking for her mother.

– For a first person narrator, Taylor is quite distant and guarded.

– Jonah’s character transition by the time they reach Sydney is also remarkable. He starts out as being violent and cruel and becomes this boy who orders breakfast for Taylor, who will do anything for her. Yet he’s also frustrated and pissy with Taylor in Sydney, kicking over rubbish bins, telling her she needs to get it “through her thick skull” and wanting to fight Sam in McDonald’s when they’re trying to get information about Taylor’s mom. The guys in the class weren’t big Jonah fans, in general.

– The tunnel was unbelievable and the fire as an analogue to the traumatic car crash was a bit melodramatic. Why the hell would Chloe P. and Jessa know about the tunnel if no one else did?

– Is keeping a “mystery car” that your parents don’t know about something that happens in the outback of Australia?

– What was the function of the “serial killer” subplot? Was it ridiculous or serving a purpose in keeping Jude’s identity clouded?

– Hannah and Jude having sex in the book – are they adults? Are there any other YA books that feature adults having sex like this? Does it not count because they are in their late teens? Does Carrie need to take a pill about this issue?

 On Creating Characters

We discussed David Jauss’s “Homo Sapiens v. Homo Fictus: Or Why a Lot of Knowledge Can Be  a Dangerous Thing Too” and its impact on our own view of how we create characters.

This article, which is not available online (believe me, if I could’ve found it, the photocopying time would’ve been cut down 95% on that score), is worth seeking out. Jauss takes as his central thesis that “knowing everything” about your characters – as Carol Bly posits in The Passionate, Accurate Story, knowing their entire biography, from birth to death – is not good advice. He sides with Robert Boswell in that fiction is a “half-known world” and quotes him too: “‘Here’s another definition of stereotype: any character that is fully known.”

Jauss cites many reputable fiction craft books that advise authors to “know all” about their characters and then dismisses this as a waste of time and indeed, something that contributes little to the final product.

Our class maintained that some of the activities dismissed – doing a Q&A with your characters, taking personality quizzes for your characters – can be fun and interesting and can yield small bits of useable data. So it’s really a matter of preference, if you want to “know more” in this manner, or “discover” what’s important about your character in the process of writing and following the story. Either way, you have to revise and revise and edit and edit and draft and re-draft. There is no way to get to the heart of the story without putting in the time.

“Surprise” on the part of the writer making his/her way through a draft can be a good thing, whether that is a “surprise” in plot or character.

Letting the readers fill in the blanks in the story that you don’t fill in explicitly is part of what’s enjoyable in reading. So pages and pages of description can not only bore a reader but also take away their pleasure in imagining. Jauss quotes Voltaire: “The secret of being a bore is tell everything.”

Desire and motivation are fluid and dynamic in real people and can be as well in fake people. Some people don’t know what they desire, or think they desire something, but don’t realize it’s not quite the right thing until later, etc. Sometimes desires/motivations run at different priority levels; sometimes desires/motivations are hidden to the reader and from the characters themselves.  What’s behind Hamlet’s dithering, for example, is unknown on many levels. Why he hesitates and angsts so much is part of why his character fascinates.

Essentially, I think Robert Boswell’s The Half-Known World: On Writing Fiction and David Jauss’ Alone With All That Could Happen: Rethinking Conventional Wisdom about the Craft of Fiction are really good books for fiction writers. This is only my opinion, of course, because these texts spoke to me in a way that was sensible. Anyone telling me that I have to Do Less gets a win in my column, to be honest. I’m pretty lazy in that sense.

Next week we have manuscript review! Woo! Recaps might be shorter! Or longer! Who knows! Stay tuned!

Additional Books Referenced

Just Listen by Sarah Dessen
Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger (in Jauss article)


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