Tag Archives: story structure

Book Review Saturday: ‘The Spindlers’

I hope it’s a bright and beautiful Saturday where you are; if not, then maybe this review will bring a bit of sunshine into your life.

Today, I’ll be talking about Lauren Oliver’s beautiful book ‘The Spindlers’.

Image: goodreads.com

Image: goodreads.com

Ms. Oliver is a noted author of both children’s and YA novels, though I have yet to read any of her books for older readers. I’ve been wanting to pick up some of her work for a while now, and when I saw the beautiful cover art on ‘The Spindlers’, I knew it was coming home with me. Plus, the story is about a young girl who braves the terrors of the underworld to rescue her little brother’s soul – what more could any book promise?

Lauren Oliver’s book not only promises much, but it delivers too. I really enjoyed ‘The Spindlers’, and if you sit tight and behave, I’ll tell you why.

Ready? Okay.

So. ‘The Spindlers’ introduces us to Liza Elston and her younger brother Patrick, who live with their parents in a normal house on a normal street in a normal town. Their parents are loving and kind, but also stressed and overworked and tired and have little time to play or have fun anymore. The kids’ beloved babysitter Anna has just gone off to college, and they both miss her terribly; they talk about her to one another and they remember her as being fun, a teller of great stories and an inventor of brilliant games – but, most importantly, she has always given them excellent advice about the nastier things in life, things that lurk in the dark and which want to steal away children’s souls. Following her directions to the letter, the children stay safe for a very long time, but then one day Patrick forgets to take precautions, and he’s claimed by the fearsome Spindlers… and so our tale begins.

Despite the fact that she doesn’t actually appear in the book, Anna is one of its most important characters. Her wisdom and love for Liza and Patrick shine through the whole thing, and at times of crisis Liza remembers the lessons taught to her not only by her parents but also by Anna, and it’s actually Anna, who (somehow) has an intimate knowledge of the workings of the world Below who gives Liza the most help on her quest. It’s not even important that we don’t find out how, and why, Anna is so knowledgeable about the other world; she’s like a good witch, or a fairy godmother. She gives love and advice and guidance, expecting nothing in return, and even in her absence she is a force for good. Liza, too, is a wonderful character – strong and brave and intelligent, she knows straight away that her brother’s soul has been taken by the terrible Spindlers, creatures who are half-spider and half-human, and who are so awful that they’re feared even by the other creatures who live in the underworld. She is not fooled by the fact that a changeling is left in Patrick’s place, a being which moves and looks and sounds like her brother – she knows it’s not him, and she knows what she has to do to save him.

Having found the entrance to the underworld, she meets a huge variety of strange and wonderful creatures, including a rat who wears a wig (as well as rouge and lipstick) who acts as her unofficial guide; troglods, little brown, scuttling creatures who buy and sell all those objects humans ‘lose’ in the world Above and which somehow find their way Below; scawgs, shapechanging horrors who try to lure you in by tempting you with gorgeous food that makes you hungrier the more you eat of it, and the beautifully described nocturni, or dream-bringers, of which every soul has one, paired together for all eternity. The journey itself is reminiscent of a lot of quest narratives – a guide is found, trust is built up between them (but is it misplaced?), tests are encountered, terror is faced up to, threats which are mentioned in passing end up becoming horrifying reality, and the rules of the otherworld are broken by the intruding human to interesting narrative effect. The gradual building up of the relationship between Liza and Mirabella (her rouge-wearing rat guide) is wonderfully done – the initial disgust and mistrust between them slowly warming into friendship before hitting a seemingly insurmountable barrier – and the complicated feelings Liza has for her little brother are realistically, and touchingly, described. The feats of imagination on the part of the author are wonderful, particularly with regard to the nocturni, which are truly beautiful creations.

Liza must face a test near the end of the book, a test which has three parts. The last part sees her tempted by a ‘perfect’ family, one who promises to love and treasure her, to pay her attention and play with her. They tell her they’re better than her family Above, who are too busy and too stressed and preoccupied by bills and jobs and problems to take proper care of her. In this respect, the book reminded me a little of Neil Gaiman’s masterful ‘Coraline’, in which the Other Mother tempts Coraline to stay with her for much the same reason; of course, our heroines in both cases see through this temptation, and realise how much they love their own families in the process. Another theme I relished in this book is one of justice vs injustice, a topic which was close to my heart as a youngster – Liza is unfairly judged by the Court of Stones on her way through the underworld, and then near the end of the book the Spindler Queen does not keep her part of a bargain – and the sense of rage and unfairness is deftly handled. Not only does it serve to underline the evil of Liza’s enemies, but it also drives the reader to empathise even more with her desperate plight.

Some of the ideas in this book will be familiar and dearly-loved territory to readers, like me, who love mythology and are interested in story structure and motifs; even if you’re not a nerd like me, though, the book is beautiful. What makes it so especially lovely is Ms. Oliver’s use of language; her imagery sparkles at times and she doesn’t dumb down her vocabulary or descriptive touches. I really like that in a children’s author – a person who’s not afraid to stretch young readers with long and delicious words is, to my mind, a good children’s author.

I thoroughly enjoyed ‘The Spindlers’ – there’s enough terror and peril there to keep even the most bloodthirsty reader happy, and there’s enough wonder and beauty there to charm the rest. As well as that, the over-arching themes – loyalty, love, bravery, facing up to challenges, digging deep within yourself for strength you didn’t even know was there – are delightful. I’d recommend this book if you know any 8/9+ readers in search of a gripping story, and I challenge you not to dip in and have a read yourself…

Happy Saturday! Enjoy, relax, put your feet up and read.

Image: learn.esu10.org

Image: learn.esu10.org

The First 10,000 Words

I’m almost finished with my edits for ‘Eldritch’. I thought, yesterday, that I was completely done and dusted, but then I remembered that there was another important job to do.

That job? Polish the book’s beginning with such vigour and vim that it shines.

Now, of course, the whole novel has to be written as well as I can write it, and the entire story has to shine as much as possible. This, without doubt, I know. But I think it’s worthwhile going back over the manuscript and focusing on the opening sections, the first few chapters, the source from which the river of the story flows. The reason I’m focusing on ‘the first 10,000 words’ is because those words are the ones which will be looked at by agents and/or publishers during the querying process; those are the words that really need to be catchy, compelling, interesting and fresh. Those are the words, in short, which have the power to sell, make or break your book. For some obscene and devilish reason, they’re also often the hardest words to produce. They’re easy to write, first time round – you’re enthusiastic for your story, and you want to get stuck into it, so you dive right in and get going – but they’re hard, very hard, to come back to and spruce up.

At least, that’s what I’m finding at the moment.

Not all agents are the same, of course; they don’t all request the same things from prospective clients. But, from the research I’ve been doing over the past few days, one thing seems to be fairly common among them, which is that they like to receive 10,000 words, or three chapters, whichever comes first, from querying authors. This puts me in mind of a job interview, or meeting a new person for the first time, and how important it is to put the best of yourself forward; it also reminds me how socially awkward I am. I am that person who goes in for a cheek kiss and ends up giving a smacker on the lips instead. I am the person who laughs at all the wrong moments. I’m the person who puts their hand out to shake at just the wrong angle and ends up whacking someone across the face. So my 10,000 words – my equivalent of a first meeting – is really going to take some work.

Sometimes, I remind myself of this guy. Image: suchsmallportions.com

Sometimes, I remind myself of this guy.
Image: suchsmallportions.com

I’m a nice person when you get to know me. But I hate to think of the amount of people who’ve come away from their first meeting with me wondering what on earth just happened. I’m sure there are plenty. I hope the same isn’t true of ‘Eldritch’ – in other words, everything from Chapter 4 onwards is fine, but the opening sections are completely off the wall.

It’s hard to find a ‘hook’ – something which will hint at the wonderful story to come, which sounds different (but not too different), fresh (but not completely out of left field) and interesting (not in that raised-eyebrow way, the one which is just ‘weird’ in a fancy coat). It’s hard to know whether your idea is flabbergastingly good, one which will make an agent’s heart start to beat a little faster, and one which will make them start sending you an email to request the rest of your manuscript before they’ve even finished reading your query, or whether it’s just plain crazy. Or, worse than these – perhaps your idea is so bland, so boring, so porridge-y that it makes the agent stop reading before they’ve even reached the end of the first page. The first 10,000 words have a lot of hurdles to leap over, and a lot of sinkholes to avoid.

I’ve made a choice with the narration style of ‘Eldritch’ and the structure of the story that I’ve never come across before in any book I’ve read – certainly not one aimed at this age group – so this might explain my trepidation. I’m not sure if I’ve taken a sensible risk, or if I’ve thrown the baby out with the bathwater altogether.

And this is important to me because, of course, I’m hoping to start making query submissions within the week. Within the week.

Image: buzzle.com

Image: buzzle.com

I reckon the only thing I can do is have the courage to stick to my convictions, and have faith in my choices. There’s no point being half-hearted about it; if you make a choice with regard to narrative style, then go for it one hundred percent. Make it snappy, fast-moving, interesting, fun and exciting; make it new, unique and ‘you’. Make it good. Write it well.

So, no problem then.

Aaaand We’re Back…

Happy Thursday!

I was taken away from my duties at the keyboard yesterday by a ‘real life’ issue, but today it should be business as usual. I hope this blog post finds you all well?

I had a bit of ‘thinking time’ yesterday, during which I was furiously plotting (of course) and amusing myself by writing ‘blurbs’ for the backs of my future novels. I only managed to do a few of these blurbs, but – as well as being a lot of fun – I realised that they had a wonderful and useful function, too. As I sat, trying to find the catchiest way to condense a plotline into 100 words or less, I realised: What a great way to focus your mind on the important bits of your story.

This is not my book shelf, but it *really* looks like it.

This is not my book shelf, but it *really* looks like it.

I’ve blogged before about blurbs in relation to other books, and how they can make or break your decision to pick up a book if you saw it on a shelf. Some people will be attracted to a particular blurb, while others will not; a good blurb can sometimes fool an unwary reader into buying a not-so-good book. (This, of course, has happened to me on several occasions – but I’m not going to name names, this time!) Blurbs are vital when it comes to selling a book, undoubtedly. But they’re also useful tools for those of us who like to create books. I’m going to start doing one for every idea I’m currently mulling over, just to see what I come up with.

Anyway, yesterday, I found myself writing blurbs for the book I’ve just written, and the sequel that I’m planning. I also wrote a blurb for the book I’m currently working on, and the sequels I’m planning for that one. And, as well as making me really think about the important, essential details of the plot, it also made me excited about what I’m doing. It made me realise what’s interesting and intriguing about the stories, and it got me to really investigate the ‘hook’ of the books I’m working on. Writing them filled me up with that particular sort of restless ‘fizz’ you get in your blood when you’ve really hit on something that you love to do. The blurbs I wrote may never grace the cover of anything – come to that, the books I’m writing may never grace a shelf, anywhere! – but that’s not even the point of writing them. It was just an exercise to help me, and as well as that, I really enjoyed it.

Does anyone else make out chapter plans when starting a novel, by the way? I did when writing ‘Tider’ (the old WiP) but I haven’t made out a chapter plan for my current WiP yet. I have a clear idea where I want the story to go, and so I didn’t feel the need to actually write down what I wanted to do in each chapter – I figured an overall plot structure would do. However, I do find myself stopping and re-reading what I’ve written a lot more regularly than I did with ‘Tider’. It’s like I tend to forget where I am in terms of the plot, and I have to remind myself every so often. With ‘Tider’, I had the written novel structure to refer to. I didn’t always stick to it, of course, and the story changed and morphed as I wrote it, but I did lean quite heavily on the chapter plan, and the story ended up exactly where I’d planned it. The plot of the current WiP, tentatively entitled ‘Eldritch’, is a lot less complicated than ‘Tider’, and I suppose this was the rationale behind not sketching out the contents of each chapter on paper first. However, I wonder how much further I’ll get with the book before I need to revisit that decision! I guess I’m the kind of person who needs a plan and a clear structure. It’s hard to write a detailed chapter plan for a book that doesn’t exist yet, but – just like writing a blurb – it really helps your brain to focus on what you’re doing and what you want to achieve, and it makes you sort the important details of the plot from the supporting structure.

I also started reading Laini Taylor’s ‘Daughter of Smoke and Bone’ yesterday – its blurb was just too intriguing to pass up. However, I sort of wish I’d waited to start reading it until I was finished with my current project, because the book is just… stupendous. Incredible. There aren’t enough superlatives! Reading something so good, when you’re trying to write yourself, is a bit overwhelming. It sort of makes you think ‘what do I think I’m playing at, trying to write books?’ I’m really enjoying it so far – it’s not really the kind of book I normally love, but the author is dealing with her subject matter in such a fresh way that it really appeals to me. Also, there’s the writing – the gorgeous, gorgeous writing! I have to stop talking about it, in case I swoon.

And, as for the blurbs I wrote yesterday? Here’s the one I wrote for ‘Eldritch’, my new WiP. See what you think:

” ‘Jeff Smith is such a boring name. Sometimes, I wish names could get passed down from your mum instead. I think I’d have a lot more luck with girls if I could introduce myself, Bond-style, as ‘Asotolat – Jeff Astolat.’ “

Ever since his mother’s death, Jeff’s life has just ticked over. He can’t remember the last time anything interesting happened to him, and his dad is as normal as dads get. That all starts to change as his thirteenth birthday approaches, and he gets three very weird gifts from three eccentric old relatives…

His Eldritch Test has begun, and Jeff’s life will never be the same again.

Good Things

We’ve all heard the phrase ‘Good Things Come in Small Packages’. I’ve often used it in self-defence, as I’m quite short and also, for some crazy reason, married to a very tall person. I thought it was just a saying, without any real meaning, and I certainly never really thought it could apply to my writing, but – guess what? – it does. It really does. Over the last few days, I’ve been challenging myself to write to strict word-counts. My last blog restricted me to 500 words, but I also wrote a short story in 100 words yesterday, and then took the idea a bit further and posted an entry to another competition which limited the word count to 31. Yes – thirty-one words! It’s hard to imagine writing a story in such a constrained space, but I’ve discovered it is possible – and not only possible, but liberating.

person in a box

Normally, my writing suffers from an excess of words. When I was at university, it happened several times that my grade was dropped because I exceeded the word count for my written work. My tutors used to beg me to rein it in, this need I had to use every word in the dictionary when – really – I could have said what I wanted to say in a much more compact way. I never believed them. I felt, very deeply, that I needed all these words, and I found it very hard to say things in a more concise way. Perhaps I felt that words were what I understood, and what I knew, which led me to use so many of them. Also, of course, I just loved words and I loved getting lost in writing – but the danger there, of course, is of really getting lost. Of using lots and lots of words, but not saying very much, or of writing yourself into a corner and realising you can’t finish the piece you’re working on. That has happened to me, so many times!

A story needs certain things to function, of course, and these rules apply to any story, no matter how long or short it is. It needs a narrative voice, and a character or characters. It needs an arc – i.e. a definable beginning, middle and end. It needs conflict or tension, it needs resolution. It needs drama, and normally it needs a crisis or turning point, wherein our narrator/protagonist/characters find themselves faced with a huge choice or decision, or forced into a dangerous or life-changing situation which will see their character strengths or weaknesses brought to the fore. So, how to do all this in (for example) thirty-one words? Well, this is what I did.

The competition (run by Alison Wells on her WordPress blog) used the words ‘The woods were silent, not even the twitter of a bird’, and we were asked to write a piece of ‘flash’ fiction (or short fiction), using either 31 words or 131 words based on the effect these words had on our imaginations – but not using those words exactly. I chose to use 31 words, and this is what I wrote:

“I dropped the gore-spattered rock. He wasn’t moving. Was it finally over? I tried to smile with a broken face, deafened by sudden silence. I spat at him, then stumbled away.”

In this tiny storylet, I did my best to create a narrative arc within the very constrained word count. My reasoning went something like this: By using the phrase ‘Was it finally over?’, the character creates a past – a shared past – with the person they have just killed. Clearly, to beat someone’s head in with a rock means their past has not been a happy one; also, the character tells us that their face is ‘broken’, meaning (perhaps?) that the dead person has hurt them. The fact that they stumble away at the end can be taken as a further indication that they’ve been hurt or attacked. I thought that by combining the character’s attempt to smile (in satisfaction? In relief?) and then showing them spitting at the dead character, I could express their anger and their deep hatred of one another. Of course, the story doesn’t tell us what their backstory is – we don’t know why they found themselves alone together, we don’t know what happened exactly to lead to this moment. That sort of detail is left up to the reader to provide, and as a reader I like that – I like being given the freedom to use my own imagination, too. I think that’s what flash fiction is all about – it’s very well named, because you’re describing a flash, or a pivotal moment, in the life of a character. The short word count is apt too, because these sort of moments, in real life as well as in fiction, don’t last very long; the roar of anger, the burst of hatred, the jolt of jealousy. These intense moments can be described very well using very few words.

If you’re stuck for inspiration, and you want to get your mind moving again, you could do worse than taking a phrase or an image out of the world around you and giving yourself 30 or 50 or 100 words to tell a story based on that phrase or image. It’s really difficult, but it gets your mind to focus with extreme clarity on the core of what a story is. Maybe, your flash fiction can become the heart of a longer story – perhaps it might be fleshed out into a longer piece, and you might find yourself with a novel on your hands. But, I think the beauty of flash fiction lies in just leaving it be, and allowing it to be what it is – something brilliant in a tiny package.

What do you think of what I managed to do in my 31 words – if you were to take up this challenge, what would you write?


The only theme I can think of for this morning’s offering is that of ‘home’, and what it means to me. This is probably because I was ‘at home’ this weekend, by which I mean in my parents’ house, for a second weekend running; that hasn’t happened for a few years. I used to be the kind of dutiful daughter who would come home to her parents every weekend, but the last few years have seen some monumental changes in my life (husband, moving further away, etc.) so I don’t get ‘home’ very often.

On Saturday morning, just before we set off for my parents’, I told my husband that something I had to do that day could wait until I got home, and he gave me a funny look. I knew what was causing his disconcerted expression – the fact that I was standing in the kitchen of our home, talking about another place as being ‘home’. He knew what I meant, but I could see that he had a point! It’s hard for me to separate myself from my childhood home, and I feel a huge psychological connection to my parents, their home and the town in which I was raised. Sometimes I wonder if this connection is too strong, and if other people have such a tough, sinewy tie to their childhood – sometimes I feel like it’s just me. I do tend to feel very sentimental when I’m either coming to or going from my ‘home’town, and my husband used to be accustomed to me wiping away silent tears for about fifteen minutes after we’d driven away from my parents’ door. After a certain distance, I was able to recover myself and all would be well – until the next time we visited my parents, at least, when the whole sorry cycle would begin again. It’s only recently that I’ve started to realise it is possible to leave my parents’ house without weeping, and I’ve been doing very well on that front for the last while. It also occurred to me that it might not have been the most pleasant experience for my husband, having to drag his weeping wife away from the bosom of her parents’ loving embrace, and all that other melodramatic stuff – not that he ever gave me any hint that it was tough for him, but it must have been. So, I’m glad that the ties are starting to soften, just a little.

It’s difficult to create a home somewhere else when you still feel that, emotionally, your ‘home’ is where you grew up. It took me a long time to feel like the home I share with my husband was really home; as well as my attachment to my childhood, I was also used to living in a succession of rented houses, and my brain took ages to switch from the ‘this is temporary, not really your home’ mentality to ‘this is your forever home, you can be happy here.’ Perhaps part of it is not quite believing how lucky I am to have not one, but two (and three, if I count my husband’s parents’ home) places in which I can be at home, and places where I know I can relax and take refuge. I’m very aware that most people are not so lucky, and this is particularly so in modern Ireland where families are struggling to keep their roofs over their heads. Not that my husband and I don’t have to worry about money, of course, but we’re not in the danger that some people are in – something for which I am profoundly grateful.

It’s also true that the concept of ‘home’ is one of the most powerful themes in literature – and it’s certainly a theme in my WiP. For a story to work and be satisfying to a reader, you need a character who has a home, whether it be a perfectly satisfactory and loving home or a dysfunctional one, and this home either needs to be lost or destroyed or left behind in some way in order for a quest to start. Most of the time in traditional storytelling a story ends when a character finds another ‘home’ – one they’ve created themselves – and this new home replaces the one they lost or left early in the plot. The idea of marriage as a symbol for peace and completion (as well as entry to adulthood, and hence the right and responsibility to create your own home) is also one which features in storytelling – who would have thought marriage would be symbolic of anything? But there you are – apparently, it is. (If you’re interested in this idea, you could do worse than have a look at Derek Brewer’s book, ‘Symbolic Stories’ – it does have a medieval/Renaissance focus, but it’s very interesting. Honest!)

So, ‘home’ is a vital concept to us humans, whether it’s on the micro-level of our own lives and experience, or the macro-level of our culture as a whole. It means different things to different people and different cultural groups, of course – to me, it might mean ‘a brick building with windows and a door, in a particular location’, and to a nomadic tribeswoman it might mean ‘a clean supply of water and a place to tether the livestock, in no particular location,’ but the same feelings surround it. It’s more than just a place, it’s a state of mind. Everyone needs a place to feel safe, but I’m aware, of course, that so many people are denied this basic right. So, I’m very grateful for my home, and I hope that today is a happy day in your home, wherever it is you may live.

Thank you for reading, and have a wonderful day.