For this Reading for Writing post, I'm learning from The Replacement by Brenna Yovanoff, definitely one of the best books I've read this year. It’s deliciously dark and atmospheric, with changelings, creepy children, and blood sacrifices set against the backdrop of a believable high school in an isolated small town. It’s an entertaining read with compelling characters and a lot to teach about effective storytelling...
Getting to the good stuff
When the protagonist is a contemporary teenager with a supernatural secret, readers get used to encountering certain scenes:
- Protag realizes, often gradually through a period of denial, that he or she is actually a witch/harpy/elf/ghost/vampire/were-unicorn.
- Protag has to come to terms with the fact that he or she is not just a normal teen.
- Protag has to hide the secret from friends and family as the danger escalates.
- Protag finally tells the secret to someone and encounters skepticism or rejection or both.
Obviously not every book should begin in medias res when it comes to the character’s supernatural life, but it’s an option to consider, and Yovanoff makes it work really well.
Breaking up (great) dialogue
It’s always a good idea to break up lengthy dialogue with action, such as having a character shrug or stomp or scratch his head. But if you’re Brenna Yovanoff, you make it WAY more interesting and have the character casually pull out clumps of her own hair while she's talking. Yeah.
But here’s the real kicker – the conversation is so interesting that it took me a moment to even register the hair ripping. That’s compelling dialogue.
I’ll definitely be looking for ways to step up both what my characters say and what they’re doing as they say it.
Hitting all the senses
We all know that we should pay attention to all five senses in our writing, but it’s easy to forget some of them. Yovanoff does not. She and her protagonist, Mackie, are especially attuned to the sense of smell. Here's a very small sampling of the olfactory awesomeness:
His voice was husky and I smelled the sharp, rusty smell of anxiety.
When I left the slag heap, the air was clammy, damp with autumn and the rain that never seemed to stop.
As I stared down, I could smell a wet, mushy odor like garden compost and rot.
I let her hold on to me and she was warm through her sweatshirt. She smelled like autumn and dirt and home, like the burned-out church and the grave.
On the front porch, I was hit by a barrage of smells: the raw vegetable reek of carved pumpkins, and the scorched smell of burning leaves, and faint but there, the swampy odor of the dry lake bed out on Country Road 12. The night was deep and vibrant and ferociously alive.Use those senses, even - or especially - if the surroundings aren't exactly appealing.
The only critique I have of this book is that it felt like some of the clarifying details and continuity were missing. The two examples I remember:
There’s an important object that Tate takes from Mackie and shakes in front of his face, but then it seems to disappear because her hands are doing other things, and then somehow Mackie ends up with the object a few scenes later (and this is not a magic object that is supposed to apparate or anything).
Also, the synopsis on the cover flap mentions a tattooed princess, but I swear there is no mention of tattoos anywhere in the text. The “princess” is still described in vivid, deliciously creepy detail, so I don’t think she needs any tattoos, but the discrepancy nagged at me.
Then again, it's quite possible I just missed something. People with searchable e-book versions, feel free to correct me. Either way, having an
obnoxiously nitpicky extremely detail-oriented critique partner or editor is always a good idea.
Here’s the thing though – none of the continuity concerns kept me from giving the book all five stars on Goodreads or wholeheartedly recommending it to others, because it was an amazing read that I enjoyed immensely. Nitpicky details do matter, but not nearly as much as compelling stories and characters.
An amazing cover never hurts either. Seriously, let's admire it one more time...
Go read it!