Layer Cake: How to Bake the Best Book

Okay, in case you haven’t figured it out, I’m a huge Suzanne Collins fan. From a readers perspective, Hunger Games was a story that rocked my world because it was unlike anything I’d read. A compelling heroine, who I was rooting for from page one. A setting that sparked my imagination. A plot that held my interest . . . for three books!

From a writer’s perspective, wow, she still rocks.

I’m revising a manuscript, and as I do so, a mental checklist is slowly being applied. It’s a technique I use in my 5th grade writing class, where students go through their writing and make sure they’re using similes or alliteration, etc.

My students loved the Hunger Games as well. So, in today’s post, I thought I’d share with you a discussion our class had about writing. How Suzanne Collins layered her story, and ways we, as writers, can add depth to our plots.

I know you might be thinking, come on already, you’re blogging about a 5th grade writing lesson. But keep reading, you might be surprised by what you know, and don’t know.
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Women of Character

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Since it’s Mother’s Day, I’ve been thinking all day about the women who have inspired me. There’s my own mother, of course, who got her GED and went to college in her 40’s, earning a teaching degree at the age of 47. I was 11 then, and I still remember going to her commencement at Kean College.

I think about my many women friends, who manage to work full time and raise families, and some, like my fellow authors, who still squeeze in time to follow their passion to write. I have a wonderful friend, Maureen, a social worker who tirelessly flies around the country, giving seminars, organizing workshops, seeing patients, and generally giving of herself every single day to help others. She is not only a friend, she is one of my heroes.

As a writer, I often cull the admirable traits of my women friends, put them in a hat, and draw from that hat to create a heroine I, and hopefully the reader, can love.

There are many such inspiring women in fiction. There is Elizabeth Bennett, who, despite a plethora of bird-brained women of her acquaintance, manages to rise above the frivolity and actually show some strength of character. There’s forward-thinking Jo March, of Little Women. More recently, look to The Hunger Games Katniss as the epitome of feminine strength of spirit and fortitude of heart. Katniss is selfless, courageous, willing to fight for her family like, well, a mother.

That’s not to say that heroines must be paragons of virtue. It they were, they would be goddesses, not humans. Even the strong characters listed above had their flaws.  In fact, it is often the frivolous, goofy, clumsy, whimsical heroines we love most in romance. Callie, the heroine in Kristan Higgins’ book All I Ever Wanted, is a quirky cock-eyed optimist. Despite a bum of a boyfriend and only one good example to go on in a sea of bad examples, Callie believes in happily-ever-after and sets out with a vengeance to find it.

Of course, the clueless, damsel-in-distress heroines risk the chance of the reader just throwing up her hands in despair. You can have a totally goofy heroine who pines away for a guy she will never have, as long as there is something about her that makes the reader care that she find the right man. Yes, Callie is a dreamer, naïve, and even hopeless where men are concerned…but she also holds her family together, has a keen mind for her job, and nurtures her co-workers with fresh-baked goodies every Monday. Who doesn’t like fresh-baked goodies?

Without Callie’s strength of character, I would just give up on her. Chances are, so would a lot of readers. Take Bella, of the Twilight series. I will admit, I loved the first book. Enough so, that it made me want to read more. So I picked up the second book in the series, New Moon, anticipating another enjoyable read. Unfortunately, I found I no longer liked Bella.

In the first book, I sympathized with her as she struggled to come to grips with her love for Edward. I applauded her guts to stick by him. And I cried when they were separated. Then came the second book…and I hated it. I couldn’t take Bella’s constant whining (“I want to be a vampire. I want to be a vampire!) through the first half of the book. I threw down the book in disgust, and I have no desire to pick it back up again. I don’t have a lot of patience for whiners in real life, so I certainly don’t want to read about them.

Finding the balance between a heroine’s virtues and strengths, and her vices and weaknesses, is the key to your reader falling in love with the heroine. So I’d like to know…what heroines have you fallen in love with, and which ones made you throw up your hands in despair? What kind of heroines do you like to read about? And what women have inspired you so much that you want to make them the heroines in your novels? Let’s salute the women of character in our lives, by making them immortal in prose.

Hugs,

Jaye

The Hunger Games and Small, Poignant Moments

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The Hunger Games: A Reflection on Small, Poignant Moments

This afternoon, I cried my heart out in a movie theater. I wasn’t the only one sniffling away for ten minutes or so. The movie was The Hunger Games. The scene that stole our hearts was when Katniss sang a song for Rue. Ironically, the same thing happened a year ago while reading the book. Same scene, same emotion.  This is the power of strong storytelling.

Today’s blog is my simple reflection on how an author—like the wonderful Suzanne Collins—makes moviegoers and booklovers alike, cry. Or laugh, wonder, and think.

Ever walk away from a book but a scene sticks with you in your head? The goal of small, poignant moments is to connect a reader with a character on an emotional level.

Take this scene from the Hunger Games:

All my bravado is gone. I’m weak from pain and hunger but can’t bring myself to eat. Even if I can last, eyes from some animal peer at me from the neighboring tree—a possum maybe—catching the firelight of the Careers’ torches. Suddenly, I’m up on one elbow. Those are no possum’s eyes, I know their glassy reflection too well. In fact, those are not animal eyes at all. In the dim rays of light, I make her out, watching me silently from between the branches.

Rue.

In one short scene, the author provides you with a likable impression of Rue and the heroine Katniss’s reaction to her. This scene initiates their friendship so when the tearjerker of a small moment appears later, it makes it so much more effective. Emotion: Worry for heroine mixed with compassion for little Rue.

Consider this scene from The Black Hawk by the fabulous Joanne Bourne:

She gave her attention to pouring hot water onto the tea leaves. Rain drummed on the roof. Since they were not talking, since they were not looking at each other, it seemed very loud.

He said, “As soon as you drink that, you should leave. It’s getting worse out there.”

I must do this now, before I lose my courage. “I am hoping to spend the night.”

This scene stuck with me for days. The simple act of preparing tea, so controlled and so nonchalant, contrasts beautifully with the tension between the hero and heroine.  The tea is prepared, swirled, and poured (before and after the excerpt above) yet it offsets the subtle internal dialogue between the characters. EMOTION: Anxiousness, hoping characters will break down the invisible barrier between them.

Consider this excerpt from The Lord of Scoundrels by the masterful Loretta Chase.

Her glance flicked over his companions. “Go away,” she said in a low, hard tone.

The whores leapt from his lap, knocking over glasses in their haste. His friends bolted up from their places and backed away. A chair toppled and crashed to the floor unheeded.

Only Esmond kept his head. “Mademoiselle,” he began, his tones gentle, mollifying.

She flung back the shawl and lifted her right hand. There was a pistol in it, the barrel aimed straight at Dain’s heart. “Go away,” she told Esmond.

Dain heard the click as she cocked the weapon and the scrape of a chair as Esmond rose. “Mademoiselle,” he tried again.

“Say your prayers, Dain,” she said.

This is one of my all time favorite small, poignant moments. What insight into both the heroine and hero—and a clever, never-done-before way of showing the darker side of both characters. The heroine clearly has had enough of Dain’s whoring ways, and what better way to prove her point! Emotion: Laughter.

 

Finally, the scene that prompted this post, from The Hunger Games:

“Sing,” she (Rue) says, but I barely catch the word.

Sing? I think. Sing what? I do know a few songs . . .

Sing. My  throat is tight with tears, hoarse from smoke and fatigue. But if this is Prim’s, I mean, Rue’s last request, I have to at least try. The song that comes to me is a simple lullaby, one we sign fretful, hungry babies to sleep with. It’s old, very old I think. Made up long ago in our hills. What my music teacher calls mountain air. But the words are easy and soothing, promising tomorrow will be more hopeful than this awful piece of time we call today.

           (Katniss sings song.)

Everything’s still and quiet. Then, almost eerily, the mocking-jays take up my song.

I love the bit about the mocking-jays and how even the mutated birds seem affected by Katniss’s humanity. This scene shows such strength of character for the author’s heroine that the movie The Hunger Games was able to effectively capture it, as well. Emotion: Compassion, respect, pride . . . you name it.

Next time you find yourself smiling or crying over one particular scene, stop and reflect on the author’s craft, and how she/he makes the scene stick within your mind as well as your heart.

Please comment and share your favorite small, poignant moments and why you remember them so.

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