The Raven Boys: an Analysis of YA Fantasy

The Raven Boys (The Raven Cycle, #1)

The goal of this blog series is to explore YA fantasy. My plan is to read ten books in the genre and study how they were constructed along thematic lines. Also, I want to determine if they meet genre expectations as outlined here by author March McCarron.

Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven Boys is the second book in this series. Though I finished reading the novel in late September, I’ve been putting off writing about it. A major reason for this is that I just can’t figure out what the book is about.

Thinking back, the lack of discernible themes may be a function of a novel holding its mysteries too close to its chest. The Raven Boys is, after all, part one of a quartet. This means I have to consider all the plot elements and see if I can decipher anything from the book’s arrangement. Warning: spoilers abound.

Novel Setup

The Raven Boys takes place in the small town of Henrietta, Virginia. We’re first introduced to a girl named Blue Sargent, who comes from a family of clairvoyants. A prophecy is made early on in her life that states she will kill her true love with a kiss. Because of this, her mother, Maura Sargent, keeps close tabs on who Blue associates with. In a way, Maura is like the mother figure in a Heroine’s Journey. She hinders her daughter from freely experiencing life and adventure.

Though members of Blue’s family can foresee the future, Blue herself has no such paranormal abilities. She does, however, have one gift, and that is the ability to enhance other people’s magical powers. This is why her mother takes her to a church every Saint Mark’s Eve, when the ghosts of those who will soon die manifest themselves. It is during one of these vigils that Blue has her first paranormal experience. The spirit of a boy calls her name before walking away. Her Aunt Neeve Mullen tells her that the ghost belongs either to Blue’s true love or to someone she murdered. Because of the prophecy hanging over Blue, both can be true.

The other major characters in the novel are the raven boys themselves, all of whom attend a prestigious private school called Aglionby Academy. There are four of them: Gansey, Adam, Ronan, and Noah. While Gansey and Ronan are rich- it’s noted the Gansey is old money- Adam attends Aglionby as a scholarship boy. As for Noah, for much of the book, he remains a cypher.

The raven boys’ story revolves around a quest to find the legendary Welsh King Owen Glendower, a sort-of sleeping barrow king who will grant a wish to anyone who wakes him. Mostly, the quest is Gansey’s and Adam’s passion project. Both desperately seek the sleeping King, but for different reasons. Gansey believes that his search for the King will give meaning to his otherwise un-travailed existence. Adam’s goals are a little less pure. Like the scholarship boy that he is, he seeks an escape from his current life of poverty and parental abuse. He seeks material gain.

The two story threads come together when Blue learns that the ghost she encountered on St. Mark’s Eve belongs to Gansey. She slowly becomes one of the raven boys and joins them on their expedition to find the ley line- the corpse road, as it is called- which will lead them to Glendower. Though Blue has a bias against entitled Aglionby students, she soon warms to them, especially Adam and Gansey. She feels an attraction for Adam and a powerful pull towards Gansey, who might be her true love. This love triangle is the third thread in the novel.

Doubling of the love triangle and the quest

The fourth thread is the mystery behind Blue’s parentage. We learn that Blue’s father originated from the ley line, a magical path that amplifies magic, which explains the origins of Blue’s own gift. In a sense, Blue is a walking-talking ley line. Thus, the love triangle reflects the quest for the ley line itself. Like the female character in early Trollope novels, Blue almost exists a prize. Who will she give herself to- a man pure of heart or a man after material things?

The fifth thread in the novel is a mystery. As the raven boys search the ley line, they find a skeleton which belongs to Noah, meaning Noah is a ghost. We learn he attended Aglionby seven years before the other boys, and that his best friend, Barrington Whelk, another seeker of Glendower, murdered him in a failed ritual sacrifice. Thus, Barrington Whelk and Noah mirror Gansey and Adam, and for an exciting second, I thought The Raven Boys was going to enter David Lynch territory, with its dreamy world and character obverses. Who knows? Maybe that’s what the book is going for.

Doubling of Gansey, Whelk, Adam, and Noah?

Too many competing plot threads

The Raven Boys thus has five plot threads, but which is the novel’s through line? Let’s look at the book’s major plot points.

Plot point 1: The inciting incident of the novel is the church scene on St. Mark’s Eve. Blue meets Gansey’s ghost, which means he is (1) either her true love and will die soon, (2) she will murder him, or (3) she will do both. This sets the novel rolling, putting Gansey and Blue in each other’s paths. Thus, plot point one belongs to the love triangle and main quest plot.

Plot point 2: The Raven boys and girl take a helicopter ride and find the ley line. This is a strange, dreamy place where time and space are altered. This is a part of the Quest plot.

Plot point 3: Gansey and Blue discover Noah’s bones. This is the mystery plot.

Plot point 4: The Raven crew goes after Barrington Whelk to stop him from finding Glendower. This is the conclusion of the mystery plot.

For me, there is a disconnect between the mystery plot and the first half of the book, which explains why the book bored me. On the other hand, you can see how Stiefvater uses of shifting plots to keep all the mysteries intact. Indeed, a reader on Goodreads said that while they reread the series, they found so many “Easter eggs” littered throughout the text. I’ll never know because I won’t be reading the rest of the books. A shame really because The Raven Boys has all the things I like in paranormal urban fantasy.

Genre Expectations

YA fantasy is a genre I’m not too familiar with, but I’ve blogged about it before (here and here). Most of what I know comes from March McCarron’s blog post on the subject, which delineates some hallmarks of the genre. As a writer, I thought it would be fun to see if The Raven Boys conforms to genre expectations.

1.) be character driven rather than plot driven.

The Raven Boys is character driven. Blue’s and the boys’ relationships to each other takes up a lot of the narrative. For me, these explorations of character were mostly one note, especially as far as the boys are concerned. Gansey’s character tends towards largess (the pure of heart theme), Adam is always poor, Ronan is always doing his girl-interrupted act, and Noah is just there. These character aspects are just on repeat for most of the book. We do, however, get a sense of their loyalty to one another at points.

2.)  be set in a world that is only as big as it needs to be.

The Raven Boys is a semi-portal story. And while the world of the ley line feels like the world of dreams, it isn’t explored much in this book. So, the fantasy world is small. Really small. Even the real world is small. After reading the book, all I know about Henrietta, Virginia is that it is full of trees and has a pizza joint.

3.) be fast paced

This book is the opposite of fast paced.

4.)  ease you in

We don’t need too much easing into the story since it takes place in the regular world.

5.) make you feel SO many EMOTIONS!!!

The characters are too one note and mysterious. I didn’t feel any of their emotions.

6.) be more focused on inter-character drama.

There is drama between Adam and Gansey since Gansey want to help Adam monetarily, but Adam doesn’t want to be a charity case. Gansey also mothers Ronan while he is going through his punching the walls moments. Ronan resists Gansey as well. In all, most of the drama is about showing what a great guy Gansey is (pure of heart).

7.) feature dramatic character growth.

Definitely does not. Once again, the characters are too one note for this.

8.) be anachronistic.

Not applicable, since the novel is a semi-portal story.

9.) have some unexpected twists.

Noah being dead is the only twist (an unsurprising one).

10.) have pretty covers.

The cover is just okay. Some of the fan art I’ve seen is cooler.

Final score: The Raven Boys has 4 out of 10 hallmarks of YA fantasy.

Three UNSPOKEN Dont’s of Deep POV

When it comes to writing in deep POV, there are so many things you shouldn’t do. So many, in fact, that writing in deep POV often feels constraining. Still, every writer today should consider using the technique. One reason is that traditional publishers prefer stories told in deep POV. A second reason is that deep POV is now the new narrative voice. In fact, if you come upon a writer these days talking about voice and fiction, they are usually discussing deep POV.

So What Is Deep POV?

As I mentioned in an earlier post, deep POV emphasizes character and their relationship to the story’s plot, whereas narrative voice favors looking at characters in their milieu. Thus, a novelist writing in deep POV has to stick close to a scene’s story arc while interweaving descriptions and character revelations into the text. In a way, it’s much like plot driven fiction. The aesthetic also discourages narrative digressions, which is another reason why writing in deep POV feels so limiting.

So Many Don’ts

A major reason deep POV is so hard to master is that there are more don’ts than do’s. Here are the classic ones you can find on/in most Writing Blogs/ AuthorTube videos.

  • Don’t use filter words
  • Don’t use emotion tells
  • Don’t use narrative tricks/ Don’t break character
  • Don’t flash back
  • Don’t make characters explain their thoughts, beliefs, and world view
  • Don’t tell

But having to follow these rules can frustrate a writer, especially ones who are used to writing in a more traditional style. You might start asking yourself, does it really matter if I break the rules just this once? Such a writer might even start taking shortcuts to achieve deep POV in their writing.

Don’t Take Shortcuts

As I study other writers using deep POV and practice it myself, I’ve discovered that the overwhelming desire to attain deep POV often leads to sloppy writing. So here are three more don’ts for the list.

  • Don’t Ignore Paragraph Flow

Paragraph flow is the one facet of writing people rarely ever talk about. It is, however, the most important aspect of writing. Good flow connects individual elements into a unified whole and creates meaning. Smoother connections also keep the reader under your narrative spell.

Prose written in deep POV, however, is often choppy. I suspect this occurs because writers are trying to transform traditional narrative styles into deep POV. When they see a “tell” in their writing, they merely replace it with a “show”. Here is a paragraph from K. M. Weiland’s post on choppy prose, This is her “improved” version:

Ariel arrived at the train station only two minutes late. She ran down the platform and screamed at the train to stop. She had to get on! Finally, she gave up and stopped short. Tears welled. This was so unfair. Now, what would happen to her? She was doomed, of course. The strength melted out of her legs, and she sat down on her suitcase. Maybe the next train would leave soon? Or perhaps someone would take pity on her. A kind man in a fedora stopped beside her and asked if he could help. She sniffed and looked up. Maybe this was her lucky day after all—or maybe it was a miracle?

As you can see, the writing is in deep POV, but clearly, the main character’s introspections are tossed into a paragraph with no consideration for the sentences that come before or after it. After reading a lot of choppy deep POV fiction, I’m starting to suspect that well written deep POV will require a different ordering of information in paragraphs.

  • Don’t Just Delete Filter Words

Mavens of deep POV often imply that filter words exist to create distance between a reader and the character. Nothing is further from the truth. Filter words are mostly used to create transitions in a paragraph, a shift from the panoramic to the personal. Willy-nilly deleting them often leads to choppy prose.

Experts often advise writers to search their manuscript for filter words and then just delete them. For example, transforming “He saw a body floating in the pond” to “The body floated [or was floating] in the pond” is easy enough, but make certain that the revised sentence flows with the rest of the paragraph. That “He saw” might be a transition.

  • Don’t Infodump in Dialogue

One lazy way to write in deep POV is to move everything- from setting description to a character’s thoughts and feelings- into dialogue. The logic is that dialogue is always a part of a scene and therefore always showing. And while this may be technically true, infodumping in dialogue is still a form of telling. It will also bore the reader. I recently read a traditionally published novel where the main story was told in dialog infodumps. It wasn’t fun.

So in conclusion

  • Deep POV requires a different approach to storytelling
  • There are no shortcuts when writing in deep POV

Agree? Disagree? Leave a comment!

Want to know when I post something new? Follow me on Twitter.

Help! Can I Transform My Plot Driven Novel into a Character Driven Novel?

Altered screenshot from an article posted on The Writing Cooperative

If you fully flesh out a character before sending them off on their journey or adventure, have you then created a character driven story?

The answer is not necessarily. Not even if you know what’s in their closet or under their bed or in their purse.

That’s because plot driven stories and character driven stories focus on different things. A character driven story focuses on the illumination of a character or some aspect of life, while a plot driven story focuses on telling a story. Even the ways a writer goes about writing the two types of books are different.

Two Goals, Two Approaches

In a plot driven story, each scene moves the story forward. This doesn’t mean that characters in a plot driven novel are cardboard cutouts. It merely means that characterization is woven into the novel’s narrative. On the most basic level, how a character pursues her goal or reacts to a plot development shows who they are. This is inherent to all plot driven fiction. Besides this, authors can also embed snippets of backstory into the narrative or allow us to meet the character’s friends and family. An additional option is to use character driven subplots.

On the other hand, a character driven story is built entirely differently. The author must first decide what they want to say about a character or what aspects of a character’s life they wish to explore. After that, they must devise scenes and sequences to illuminate that aspect of a character’s life. The key is to choose a perspective for your portrayal (have something to say). The sky’s the limit in terms of themes. A character driven novel can be about handling grief or falling in love, betraying a loved one or sacrificing themselves for the greater good.

Right about now, you’re probably thinking: “But wait! Since all plots require active characters, can you really separate the two?”

The Plot Driven-Character Driven Story Combo

Some very confused writers will answer no. They will argue that if a character drives the plot, then the novel is character driven. Here’s a link to an article featured on The Writing Cooperative that suggests just that. The argument here is not about different narrative compositions (as outlined above). The argument is more hierarchical. Character based stories are more literary and therefore better. An added carrot is that publishers prefer books that are character driven.

That said, it’s easy to find examples in which fleshed out characters inhabit a strong plot. The novels of Gillian Flynn are good examples. The question is, how do we categorize novels like Dark Places and Gone Girl.

Ultimately, I’d say they’re mostly character driven fictions.

Agree? Disagree? Leave a comment!

The Heroine’s Journey: Disillusionment, Alchemic Transformation, and Philip Marlowe

The Heroine’s Journey

While researching the Hero’s Journey for my last blog post, I came across an alternative called the Heroine’s Journey. It was devised by psychologist Maureen Murdock, and like Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, the Heroine’s Journey was never meant to be a primer on writing novels. Murdock’s book, The Heroine’s Journey, Woman’s Quest for Wholeness, is about redressing our society’s unbalanced value system, which privileges rapaciousness and greed over kindness and compassion. The character going through the Heroine’s Journey will first become disillusioned by the male sphere she has entered, after which she will be reborn as a spiritual warrior with the “male” and “female” aspects of herself reconciled and in harmony (wholeness).

While the Heroine’s Journey is interesting as a concept, using the problematization of the “feminine” as a framework for every female centered story seems too rigid for general use. I also object to story outlines that tell you what your book should be about. By contrast, the midpoint section (the dark cave) in the Hero’s Journey is open enough to let a writer explore any theme as long it is binary Alchemic transformation: “despair to hope, weakness to strength, folly to wisdom, love to hate” (Vogler). While the Hero’s Journey still makes demands on theme, the transformation can be anything you want, including a return to the feminine.

Since the publication of The Heroine’s Journey, Woman’s Quest for Wholeness, many writers have adapted the Heroine’s Journey for fiction much in the same way Vogler adapted The Hero with a Thousand Faces. One version appears in Victoria Lynn Schmidt’s book, 45 Master Characters. I haven’t read it, but it is summarized on the Heroine’s Journey’s Wikipedia entry. Here is a condensed, side-by-side comparison of the two:

Maureen Murdock’s Heroine’s Journey

  1. The heroine actively enters a sphere outside of the domestic (the “masculine” sphere)
  2. The heroine becomes disillusioned
  3. The heroine seeks the feminine
  4. The heroine reconciles both sides of her nature

Victoria Lynn Schmidt’s Heroine’s Journey

  1. The heroine becomes disillusioned
  2. The heroine will react to disillusionment
  3. The heroine’s reaction will be a failure; she will react again by reconnecting with the feminine
  4. The heroine reconciles both sides of her nature with a little help from a friend

Like Murdock’s Heroine’s Journey, Schmidt’s version is also about disillusionment. The chief difference is that the heroine in Murdock’s version becomes disillusioned at the story’s midpoint, while Schmidt’s heroine learns that the world isn’t perfect at the inciting incident point.

I think I prefer the original Murdock version. Because it follows the heroine’s journey into a “masculine” world, the narrative framework gives ample space for world building and the layering of themes. It is also closer to the original Hero’s journey because the return to the feminine feels like a transformation. By contrast, Schmidt’s Heroine’s Journey produces a heroine that is very reactive and one that seems to fail a lot.

I also love the idea of characters finding balance and synthesis, but how exactly do you get character to this destination?

This prompted me to think about stories that fit the Heroine’s Journey pattern. I couldn’t really come up with one. I suspect if anyone ever wrote a back story for my favorite detective, Philip Marlowe, he or she might use the Heroine’s journey. He’s very masculine and feminine, a compassionate strongman. But I suppose his transformation into a spiritual warrior would be incomplete. He still has an asymptotic yearning for perfection- the alchemic transformation. The final destination of the Heroine’s Journey wouldn’t be enough.

And that is the secret to writing noir.

I’m Not a Pantser. I’m an Extreme Pantser.

The Derek Murphy System

I’m not just a pantser. I’m an extreme pantser.

Most pantsers begin with a story concept- a “what if” or a setup. My process begins with a walk. I could be anywhere- on my way to a bus stop or trawling through a supermarket. As I amble along, lost in my thoughts, an image will pop into my head. The first few times it happened, I ignored it. But then one time, I came home and wrote down what I saw. And that’s how I started writing novels.

Once I have the image on paper, a context to them will emerge. Then characters will appear, and these will bring other characters as well as a setting. Scenes will form as characters come into conflict, which will suggest other scenes, until eventually a story forms. It’s only then that I start seeing a plot. After that, I exist in a fictive dream for months until I finish the final draft.

While this is a fun way to write, a major drawback is that you don’t always end up with a salable high concept work of fiction. After writing two books this way, I’ve concluded that this is a poor strategy for getting published. Of course, it was never a strategy in the first place.

After coming to this realization, I started looking into alternative writing processes. Last week, I came across a blog post here on WordPress about novel outlining.

The article spotlighted an uber-novel outline developed by Derek Murphy, one of the hundreds of novel writing gurus one can find on these here interwebs. According to the creator, this outline is good for most “commercial fiction,” though he doesn’t elaborate which genres. The outline he provides not only focuses on elements of a story but also their placement in the novel on a chapter by chapter level. Murphy identifies 24 story-plot points, all of which originate from the Hero’s journey as described by mythologist, Joseph Campbell, and popularized by Hollywood development executive, Christopher Vogler. Using the Derek Murphy System will produce a novel with 24 chapters.

Vogler’s Hero’s Journey overlaid onto the three act structure

That’s pretty neat.

But then I started thinking about it, and my initial enthusiasm waned. Part of this is my pantser nature. A part of it is not.

One issue is point of view. Murphy uses the Hero’s Journey as the source for his guideline, which is a natural fit for him as he is a YA science fiction/fantasy novelist. But even if the Derek Murphy System is appropriate for fantasy, the outline ignores something basic to that genre, namely multiple points of view. The Hero’s Journey typically centers a single hero. It highlights the transformation of one person. So, it’s hard to know how to deal with other POV characters in the 24 chapter outline. Do they get their own hero’s journey? If there are three POV characters, then do we get 24×3 chapters in a book.

Also, I find the Hero’s Journey an odd way to think about non-fantasy genres or even writing in general. Murphy’s outline has the inciting incident at chapter 3 or 4, but this is too late for say a mystery or a romance. And aspects of the Hero’s quest, such as the mentor, don’t necessarily appear in those genres. Sure, mysteries and romances can have them, but it’s not a key genre trope. Philip Marlowe, a detective who most typically resembles a hero, doesn’t have a mentor. Rarely does he have allies and friends. He’s usually a loner. A solitary man against a dirty, rotten world.

(Let’s be honest. Most heroic myths don’t have all the elements of the Hero’s journey either)

And a lot of novels these days are two books in one. Many of the urban fantasy novels I’ve read over the years are one part action adventure and one part erotica. How is the writer supposed to incorporate the Hero’s Journey into such dual fictions? Likewise, if you are writing a mystery for the first time, what you want to consider while outlining is not only the detective’s character growth but also other basic aspects of mystery fiction such as the placement of red herrings.

In conclusion: a template like this is useful, but it has its limits. And if you think back to the last few books you’ve read, very few (by which I mean none) will have any structural similarities with the Derek Murphy system. There’s a reason for that.

Deep POV: an Alternative Version

What do people mean by deep POV? Based on everything I’ve read on the subject, deep POV is a form of hyper-showing, meaning authors must (1) convey the story through dramatic scenes and (2) make sure that the writing is not vague but specific to the mindset of the point of view character.

I previously blogged about an AuthorTube video on deep POV that not only defined deep POV but also provided some excellent tips on how to write in this mode.

Looking for more videos on the subject, I stumbled on Michele Sayre’s YouTube channel.  It was eye opening because what she means by deep POV is a little different from what most blogs I’ve read call deep POV.

In one video, called Deep POV- a Writing Workshop, she gives us a definition of deep POV, which for her is the “removal of the author’s voice and replacing it with the character’s voice.” The nice thing about the video is that Sayre provides examples from her own writing to illustrate what she means. You can see in her example scene (screenshot below) that her form of deep POV has little to do with hyper showing.

The happiness soaring through the character is vague. In traditional deep POV, that happiness would be anatomized. It would be described. Sayre’s aesthetic, however, is against description. In another video on deep POV called “Deep POV-Setting”, she refers to the problem of info-dumping setting, a problem I rarely encounter in my reading outside of high fantasy. Both this and the previous video argue in favor of description that is “short and sweet”. In one example, the setting is a “small London flat” and nothing more- which seems odd for a city that is so socio-economically diverse.

In her examples, Sayre’s storytelling often breaks out of what most would call true deep POV. In the example below, she slips in backstory about a jungle setting, which if done in proper deep POV, would have been conveyed through dialog. Maybe by two characters anticipating an attack.

Then she does it again in the next paragraph.

We neither see the two men’s resentment nor how they give the protagonist Jake and his partner, Patrick, a cold shoulder. Sayre isn’t hyper-showing. She is hyper-telling.

Sayre also doesn’t prohibit the use of filter words, one of the major don’ts when writing in deep POV. Recognize, saw, and heard all appear in her writing examples.

So, here is a whole another way of doing deep POV. Too bad it’s not so different from third-person limited.

As for tips to take away from her videos:

  1. Use only action verbs (limit use of “to be” verb forms)
  2. Keep the story moving (this will limit digressions into backstory or scene description)
  3. Limit description only to the character’s moment by moment existence and make sure it is important for the movement of the plot

I rate this video five stars.

Note: This video is a rare bit of writing advice that advocates for the adverb. Sayre uses adverbs for emphasis, although her video is vague about what she means by that. Adverbs don’t typically add emphasis; they usually modify and restrict the meaning of a verb or adjective. Unless she means adverbs like totally: as in the sentence, “After he emerged dripping wet from the sea and she got a good glimpse of his package, she totally wanted him.”

AuthorTube video star rankings:

1 Star Babbling

2 stars Too basic to exist

3 stars Uninformative but entertaining

4 stars Useful but not engaging

5 stars Highly recommended

The Hazel Wood: an Analysis of YA Fantasy

Screenshot of Goodreads page

What is The Hazel Wood? It’s not an adventure story- not much of one, anyway. It’s a fairy tale story about STORY; a novel that starts with the trappings of a portal story, but one that becomes literary towards the end and maybe even postmodern.

The novel centers on a book called Tales of the Hinterland, a Necronomicon of sorts, which serves as evidence of a world beyond the physical one we inhabit (see note 1). Though the stories are fairy tales, two different characters in the novel note how the writing feels beyond real, and more like war reportage (see note 2). By this, they mean that the stories are unvarnished tales of trauma. They feature cruelty, anger, and a desire for revenge. What’s left unspoken is the possibility that all stories are born of trauma, and that stories serve as an unhealthy, circular script for our lives.

That’s profound stuff.

The central question of the novel is can we escape story or does trauma dictate destiny? The writer, Melissa Albert, tells the tale through two teenagers, a young woman named Alice Crewe (Alice Proserpine) and a boy named Ellery Finch. One is white, and one is mixed race. Both take comfort in stories as an escape. For Alice, her trauma is submerged in her memory. Ellery Finch’s trauma is submerged in the narrative. We get hints and clues about it, but nothing definite. He cheerfully hides his pain.

After Alice’s mother is kidnapped by characters from Tales of the Hinterland, the two teenagers try to recover her by journeying to the mythical Hinterland. After that, the book becomes dreamlike, which makes sense. Trauma means dream.

YA fantasy is a genre I’m not too familiar with, but I’ve blogged about it before (here and here). Most of what I know comes from March McCarron’s blog post on the subject, which delineates some hallmarks of the genre. As a writer, I thought it would be fun to see if The Hazel Wood conforms to genre expectations.

1.) be character driven rather than plot driven.

The Hazel Wood is character driven. As noted above, the story is about trauma. The trouble is that the trauma/ character backstory remains vague. Honestly, I think the book suffers because of this, and a part of me thinks that the novel would have been more enjoyable if it were told from Ellery’s point of view.

2.)  be set in a world that is only as big as it needs to be.

The Hazel Wood is a portal story, and as such, features a secondary world. Here, it’s the writing that lets the story down. What should have been a world full of wonder is rendered with as little description as possible. A writer can get away with this, if the descriptions are impactful, i.e., highlight a novel’s theme. The Hazel Wood relies more on a “look how weird everything is” approach. So, while the world feels small and undeveloped, it’s not nearly as big as it needs to be.

3.) be fast paced

The book is fast paced for the most part. It’s also digressive. Two fairy tale stories inserted in the novel stop the narrative in its tracks. These fairy tales are the best part of the book, though.

4.)  ease you in

We don’t need too much easing into the story since it takes place in the regular world. The beginning of the novel is just the Alice Crewe character’s life before the inciting incident (it reminded me of the Gilmore Girls). The reader is more than prepared for the secondary portal world since it runs on fairy tale logic (no rhyme or reason for anything).

5.) make you feel SO many EMOTIONS!!!

The characters are cyphers, so you don’t feel their emotions so much as observe them.

6.) be more focused on inter-character drama.

There isn’t much drama between Ellery and Alice, just a connection.

7.) feature dramatic character growth.

Spoiler. Alice grows at the end of the novel. She breaks out of her story, but as the writing at this point of the novel is in wrap-up mode, you don’t experience her growth in a satisfying way (see note 3). This was a strange choice on Albert’s part, since Alice’s breaking free from her story is the heart of the novel. At least, it should have been.

8.) be anachronistic.

Not applicable, since the novel is a portal story.

9.) have some unexpected twists.

The book has a lot of twists. Nothing in the novel is as it seems. Some of the twists, however, jarred me out of the story.

10.) have pretty covers.

Indubitably.

Final score: The Hazel Wood has 8 out of 10 hallmarks of YA fantasy.

Note 1: The novel has at least one homage to Lovecraft.

Note 2: The novel contains two fairy tales, a whole one and a fragment. Both read like traditional fairy tales and not like war reportage at all.

Note 3: It’s interesting that while Alice escapes her story, Ellery chooses to remain within his. The reasons for this are hard to fathom, mostly because the trauma’s in Ellery’s life are so vague. There’s a whiff of tragic mulatto about his choice, which is sad to see. I hope the second book is about him finding a way back.

AuthorTube Review: Achieve Deep POV (five stars)

Do books compete with films and television shows? Not for my attention. But are books the dominant popular art form they were in the 19th century. Not even close. One means of redressing this irrelevancy is for the novel to ape film. Some authors do this by mimicking the deep structures of screenplays, going so far as to argue that the film lurking inside every narrative ought to be readily apparent to any man or woman working in Hollywood. Others try to beat film at its own game. They write essentially cinematic works- action driven, motion focused- and then give readers deeper access to characters through the use of deep point of view (POV).

Achieve Deep POV (posted on the YouTube channel, Nick’s Lessons on Story) makes just this compelling case before it goes into the nitty-gritty of how a writer can achieve deep POV. Whether you agree with the video’s arguments or not, I think it’s the best video yet posted on the subject.

Here is a list of tips on how to write in deep POV. What makes the video a cut above the rest is that it gives advice on how to stay in deep POV using illustrated examples. It’s a must watch.

  1. Don’t set the scene: Since the main viewpoint character is just a moving camera, a writer must establish the setting while the character is moving through a scene. I’ve seen similar advice before, most recently in a book called Plot & Structure. The goal as stated in Plot & Structure isn’t, however, to achieve deep POV but to create a hook that compels a reader to continue reading.
  2. Write with immediacy: The prose should reflect the character’s existence on a moment by moment level. Two things that disrupt this are (1) narrative considerations (i.e., creating suspense) and (2) digressive character thoughts.
  3. Don’t break the fourth wall: Deep POV requires that you cut out narrative story telling in toto. This means any writing that suggests there is a storyteller spinning a yarn. Here, the AuthorTuber’s example falters. He gives an example of a comic sentence that breaks the fourth wall and then provides a correction. But I think the correction also breaks the fourth wall. It’s possible that comedy, which requires a setup and possibly a detached point of view, may not be compatible with deep POC.
  4. Embrace the viewpoint character’s voice entirely: This means you can’t switch back and forth between third-person limited and third person omniscient in a scene. Writers I love, like Daphne du Maurier, do this often. The mode of storytelling switches as the drama ratchets up. The prose moves from third omniscient to third-person limited and then to deep third person. This technique is best illustrated in her short stories. This is, however, unacceptable in novels written in deep POV.
  5. Write from an inside out perspective: A view point character shouldn’t be aware of their own body language or image, though they should be conscious of such aspects of other characters in the story. When describing a viewpoint character’s experience, it’s best to stick to “primary thoughts,” which take the form of “visceral reactions” and “introspection.”
  6. Limit the amount of point of views: He recommends one viewpoint character for horror or mystery novels and up to three for epics.
  7. Choose introspection over visceral reactions: This was my favorite tip, even though it’s a rehash of tip 5. The example he gives, though, is odd, because his introspection sounds like narrative telling. Deep POV is tricky.
  8. Don’t hide emotions from readers, even for dramatic purposes: Access to a character’s head means access to a character’s head. That means no secrets. His example, however, is about hiding plot points, not emotions. Still, neither is acceptable in deep POV.
  9. Avoid all filter words: This point is the bread and butter of all videos and blog articles on deep point of view. It isn’t a panacea that will lead to deep POV.

At the end of the video, he advertises his novel (you can purchase it here). I was curious about it because I haven’t been successful at finding books written in deep POV. I opened up the sample and read the first page. I’ve pasted a screenshot of the first paragraph below.

Screen shot from the novel, Empty Vessels

The writing is unattractive and feels choppy. I had wondered in an earlier blog post if this would be the case for all books written in deep POV, but as I look at the passage, I can definitely see how you can improve the choppy writing.

In conclusion, I’m rating this video five stars.

Note: My favorite part of the video is his shout out to Gillian Flynn. I love her books too, but none are written in deep POV.

AuthorTube video star rankings:

1 Star Babbling

2 stars Too basic to exist

3 stars Uninformative but entertaining

4 stars Useful but not engaging

5 stars Highly recommended

Deep Point of View: a Relationship between Character and Plot

Recently, I’ve become obsessed with a new mode of storytelling called deep point of view (POV). The term sounds like it has something to do with point of view- first person, second person, third person, and all their variants, but it doesn’t. So don’t let this confuse you. Deep POV is foremost about content and composition. It limits what can and cannot go into a novel. In particular, deep POV removes narrative voice in preference for creating character immediacy.

Now, I love narrative voice. Books that engage you both emotionally and intellectually can make you see the world through fresh eyes. At their best, they give us access to the inner lives of interesting characters like Jane Eyre and Holden Caulfield. Without narrative voice, Jane Eyre turns into governess ever in love, and Holden Caulfield is just a young man wandering about New York. We lose their sharp takes on society and their alienation. We lose their world views.

Deep POV, however, allows you, the reader, to enter a character’s head and live their experience- or such is the claim. To achieve this, an author must cull from her text any digressive character thoughts because in actual life people don’t have digressive thoughts as they go about their day. Nor is moment by moment conscience existence filtered through internal narration. This means that Deep POV is hyper-showing. An assumption underlying deep POV is that authors can dramatize every aspect of a character’s life or thought. I suspect this is an impossibility without the novel turning into something full of “all that David Copperfield kind of crap”, which means what will get dramatized in deep POV will be plot and story (see note 1).

Ultimately, the two modes of writing have two different goals. Narrative voice deals with a character’s relationship to the world while deep POV deals with a character’s relationship to the plot.

On the MasterClass website, there is an example on how to write deep POV. I have pasted it below:

He peered out the window. “Are they coming for me?” he wondered as he listened to the sound of distant hoofbeats.

The above could be written in deep POV as follows:

He peered out the window. Are they coming for me? Hoofbeats rumbled in the distance.

The deep POV version, while economical (it’s six words less), is both choppy and ugly, and I can’t imagine writing like this getting traditionally published. An entire book with such prose would give me a headache. I suspect other readers would feel the same.

Since reading the above linked post, I’ve been looking for bona fide examples of novels with deep POV. Interestingly, a simple Google search turns up nothing. I did, however, come across a blog post in my WordPress feed called “8 Common Questions about Writing Deep Point of View.” In it, they list 15 books that use deep POV. I’ve only read two: The Help and The Hunger Games. I’m 100% sure The Help does not use deep POV. Right from the start, the book feels narrated. And that makes sense for a book like The Help, which is all about sharing stories from marginalized points of view. (Whether it was appropriate for Kathryn Stockett to do so is another question entirely.) Thumbing through The Hunger Games quickly reveals it also doesn’t use deep POV. The book’s protagonist, Katniss Everdeen, addresses the reader in several of the passages I looked at. She’s an Appalachian yarn spinner, and  a part of the book’s charm comes from her pseudo-Appalachian voice.

I’m left wondering if there are deep POV books out there, or if the idea just exists theoretically (see Note 2).

Note 1: By the way, I love David Copperfield. It’s my favorite Dickens novel. Also David Copperfield has a strong character voice- Dickens’.

Note 2: Once I identify a book written in this mode, I’ll write another post.

Do YA Novels Require a High Concept Premise?

Yesterday, I watched Part 2 to Diane Callahan’s three-part series on writing better YA fantasy (posted here on her YouTube channel). In the video, she claims that YA fantasies have vivid world building, strong narrative voices, and high concept premises. As that’s a lot to unpack, I decided this post will only deal with her assertion that YA fantasy novels have high concept premises.

So, what exactly is a high concept premise? According to Callahan, high concept premises are story premises that have (1) mass appeal, (2) dramatic stakes, (3) familiar elements that can be visualized, and (4) a twist on a familiar trope. The last three elements can be forged into a single, one-line statement, which in effect would constitute the premise of the novel. Callahan then presents us with five such examples of high concept fiction to illustrate what she means:

  • The Lightning Thief, the first Percy Jackson book: “A boy with dyslexia and ADHD learns he’s the son of Poseidon and must find Zeus’ stolen thunderbolt to prevent war between gods.”
  • Six of Crows: “Six criminals carry out a heist to steal an imprisoned scientist from a heavily guarded fortress.”
  • These Broken Stars: “A luxury spaceliner crashes on a deserted island. The sole survivors are the daughter of the richest man in the universe and a young war hero. They must work together to cross the wild terrain in search of rescue.”
  • One of Us Is Lying: “Five high school students walk into detention, and only four walk out alive. All of them have secrets they are trying to hide, and all are murder suspects.”
  • To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before: “A girl keeps a box of unsent love letters to her crushes, but when someone mails her letters, all those crushes confront her about her feelings for them.”

A strange thing about Callahan’s analysis is how almost all the examples, with the exception of Six of Crows, fall outside the subgenre YA fantasy. One is middle grade, one is science fiction, one is a mystery, and the last is a contemporary romance. This left me scratching my head, and I still don’t know why she choose to illustrate her point in this way. But even if I set that aside, I think there is an even bigger problem- namely, that only two of the five novels she discusses actually seem high concept. Sadly, Callahan doesn’t explain just what makes these novels high concept- not even by her own odd definition of the term.

So let me try.

It’s easy to see how Percy Jackson (in Rick Riordan’s The Lightning Thief) finding out he’s a demigod is a fun premise. Not only does the character learn he’s special, he also enters the fantastic if familiar world of Greek Myth. That said, I wondered if the premise was all that different from, Harry, you’re a wizard? If a high concept is a part of a publishing trend, at what point does a high concept premise cease to be high concept premise? Shouldn’t uniqueness count for something? And does uniqueness really matter if the premise’s appeal to a mass audience is so obvious?

Of the remaining examples, the only other book that seems high concept is One of Us Is Lying. Sure, on the surface it’s just a lock-room mystery, but I immediately started wondering how a kid in after school detention could commit a murder, especially if there are three other witnesses present (Blackmail?). You can even observe a twist on a familiar theme: The Breakfast Club meets Agatha Christie. It’s not quite high concept, but close?

By contrast, the other three books seem run-of-the-mill. The premise of These Broken Stars seems like an 80s spoiled rich girl/ scrappy young man bickering lovers romance movie I’ve seen a million times. Whether or not the book is like that, I have no idea. All I can say is “Let the Schwartz be with you!”

Then there is Six of Crows, which, by its premise, seems like a typical team mission story. Based on the bland description Callahan gives, I can’t see what makes this particular premise high concept. A similar novel, Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson, is also a heist fantasy novel. Its high concept premise, however, lies in its world building as the story is set in a secondary world in which the fantasy big bad, someone like Sauron in Lord of the Rings, has won and the good guys have lost. Thus, Mistborn has a trope twist and a familiar (genre) element.

Finally, there is Jenny Han’s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. The novel’s use of a gimmick as framing structure for the book does make it interesting. It may be cliché too- I wouldn’t know since I’m not widely read when it comes to romance. That said, I immediately thought of Nicholas Sparks’ romance novel Message in a Bottle, which, while different, is similar in that it also uses a letter as a plot device. Thus, there is a familiar (genre) element in Jenny Han’s book, but is there a major trope twist?

Interestingly, when I consider which books felt high concept to me, I realized that the two I choose simply reflected my own reading biases. When I was a kid, I did nothing but read and re-read and then read again books of Greek and Norse myth. Even dry stuff like Edith Hamilton’s Mythology (I still own my yellowed copy). If the Percy Jackson books had been around when I was a middle grade student, I’m sure I’d have read them to death. Similarly, One of Us Is Lying’s appeal stems from my love of mystery and crime fiction.

I wondered then if the other three books are in fact also high concept, and if I just don’t get their appeal. It’s still an open question. All I can conclude is that there is nothing that will appeal to everyone. Furthermore, it’s difficult to see how any of the discussed books transcend genre. I can’t imagine science fiction readers rushing out to read These Broken Stars just on the premise alone. If the book is executed well- the romance is subordinated to the science fiction element- I can imagine word of mouth bringing it to a science fiction audience’s attention- that is if it’s a good science fiction novel. Otherwise, it just comes off as romance in a space setting. After reading reviews on Goodreads, my impression is that this is very much the case.

The final thing I gleaned from this exercise is that much of what people deem “high concept” is not all that unique. In fact, all five books have literary or film antecedents. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Jane Smiley in her wonderful book, Thirteen Ways at Looking at the Novel, observes that writers are continually influencing each other, not only across time but across oceans and cultures. Premises move from place to place, mind to mind, and they alter. I think writers interested in creating works of YA fantasies shouldn’t agonize if their books are not high concept- which requires books be premise driven, suited for a wide audience, unique, and immediately intriguing (see here). A high bar indeed! So, let go of such anxieties as books that truly fit that criteria are rare.

While a real high concept premise will get you noticed by agents, so will books that twist familiar genre specific tropes (most of which will have little interest to a general audience). And dramatic stakes will always be welcomed by readers- dramatic stakes seem to occur naturally whenever a book is written! And lovers of genre will always adore familiar elements. Indeed, the smartest thing a budding YA writer can do is read popular adult fiction and think, how can I twist this established premise so that it centers teenagers and their lives. After that, everything else will just come.