The Hunger Games – On Creating an Independent Novel Within a Series

September 19, 2012

Let me first say that I didn’t plan this. On the night before a vacation, I needed a beach book so I grabbed what I thought was the second book in the Hunger Game series. It wasn’t until I’d checked into our condo and pulled out Mockingjay, that I’d realized my mistake, but with no other reading material, I was stuck. So I ended up reading the first, the last, and finally the second book in that order in the Hunger Games series.

So did reading the trilogy out of order matter? I have to say that the gap between the end of the first novel and the last was jarring at first, but after the first chapter I was once again sucked into Katniss’ plight. What was less easy to follow was the emergence of characters that were well-developed in book two (Catching Fire). Ultimately, the gist of the story was not compromised.

Did I need to read Catching Fire to experience the full story?  Nope.  Was I compelled to fill in the gaps?  Nope.  Did I enjoy reading the book even though I knew how the story ended?  Yes. Katniss is a compelling and likeable character.  The unique setting, the high stakes, and her relationship with Peeta are all intriguing.   I had heard numerous complaints about the ending of the second book and I would agree that it does not leave the reader satisfied, but having already read the final book the lackluster ending to  Catching Fire didn’t bother me as much as it might otherwise have.

I’ve heard it said that the storyline in novels in a series should be independent of the other books.  To that end, I believe Suzanne Collins succeeded.


Do Writers Need Book Clubs?

June 28, 2011

The Avid Readers Book Club celebrated its 15th year last month. In that time, we have read a mix of fiction and nonfiction. We’ve explored classics, mysteries, thrillers, romance, memoirs, and science fiction. Some I’ve loved, others I’ve suffered through.
Book groups offer two invaluable tools to writers. First and foremost, these sessions provide the reader’s perspective on a book from a variety of viewpoints. My group’s tastes are diverse and often opinionated. Our meetings can be emotionally-charged debates or more about the food and wine depending on how successful the writer connected with the reader. From these discussions, my writer persona has gleaned what works and what doesn’t.
The other advantage a book group offers a writer is the book selections. I am of the opinion that to write well, a writer must read. I have read books I would have never picked up. Being in a book club has forced me to persevere through novels I’d never have finished. Knowing what doesn’t work is just as valuable to a writer as what does.
Of course, my book group is more than a study in reading and writing. These are my friends and I value their thoughts and perspectives. Some people have come and gone throughout the years, some founding members remain, others went to one meeting and didn’t stick, but every person has taught me something about reading, writing, and even about myself. I wonder what the next 15 years will bring?

From Agents and Editors – Top Reason for Rejection

May 22, 2011

I heard it yesterday, I’ve heard it before and I have no doubt I’ll hear it again.  I’ve been to dozens of presentations by agents and editors over the last decade.  Invariably, they will discuss, or will be asked, what they are looking for in a manuscript.  Many reasons have been offered as to why a manuscript will get rejected by an editor or agent, but the most common reason is that they do not think the characters are developed enough.  My own experience as a reader is that a lot of literary fiction you find on the shelves are character-driven novels. 

Abigail Samoun, former editor of Tricycle Press, gave a talk to the winners of the Mount Diablo Branch of CWC’s Young Writers Contest.  She took us through the stages (a 5 year process), Paul Llewellyn, author of “The Tilting House ( went through on his journey to publication.  One of the issues Llewellyn had to deal with was developing his main character so that he felt real.  I, too, have gotten rejections where the agent’s biggest concern was that he or she did not like (or did not care enough about) my main character. 

Character development is not one of my strengths as a writer.  I am very much a plot driven storyteller.  It should also be no surprise that, as a reader, I am also drawn to page turners with lots of twists and turns to the plot.   I really don’t need to know the entire life history of the main character, give me action, surprise me, and I will be a satisfied reader.   

My book club recently read a thriller novel plot (Michael Connelly’s The Lincoln Lawyer) that I loved because of the plot.  One of our members described it as a “Brain Twinkie.”   The book is fast-paced, something that is needed for the thriller genre, but I wonder if she was also reacting to the main character – a smart, but not very likeable person.   

As a plot-driven writer, I have found character development exercises useful.  Here are a few websites that provide a list of questions or exercises to bring depth into your characters:

The more a writer knows about their characters, the better.  A writer must know what makes their characters tick before they can bring them to life on the page.

The Very Hungry Caterpillar

July 19, 2009

Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar was my daughter’s favorite book.  She’d learned to read, while her cute caterpillar friend ate his way through apples and pears and slices of pie.  Although she’s long outgrown it, that book remains on our shelf.  But this week, we had a caterpillar experience that was anything but warm and fuzzy. 

I had planted tomato plants in containers outside on my patio.  In the July heat, the plants grew large and leafy, loaded with plump, ripening tomatoes.  Every day or so, I would inspect my future harvest.  Then I discovered what appeared to a peck on one of the fruits.  A bird, I thought.  The next day, I noticed that a much larger chunk was missing.  No doubt about it, something was eating my harvest.  The pest had destroyed two juicy tomatoes, just as they were ready to be picked.  A squirrel or a rat or perhaps a raccoon?  The planter box had wheels, so I rolled it across the deck to another location, reasoning that I could outsmart the culprit.  Little did I know that I had simply wheeled the perpetrator along with the plants.

The next day, more fruit was damaged.  Then I discovered the biggest caterpillar I had ever seen.  Three to four inches long and about the thickness of my index finger with what appeared to be a thorn on its tail end.  Yuck!  The monster clung to a tomato stem, its pale green coloring providing the perfect camouflage.  “Very hungry” didn’t even begin to describe this ravenous beast.  It had stripped the stem of all its foliage and was chomping away at a green tomato.  A tomato hornworm.  Gross!

My daughter pled to adopt it as a pet, thinking it would soon make a cocoon and perhaps change into a beautiful butterfly.  My thoughts were far less charitable.  I dispatched the pest and now keep vigilant watch over my tomato plants for more of its ilk.  Oh, and The Very Hungry Caterpillar?  I don’t think I shall ever read that book quite the same way again.

Summer Reading

July 9, 2009

One of the pleasures of vacation is curling up with a good read.  This summer’s reading fare?  The MG/YA novel.  Both of my teens are into fantasy, so all three of us enjoyed reading and passing around the books we had chosen.

I chose Susan Cooper’s Over Sea Under Stone, the first novel in her Dark is Rising series.  This one is classic fantasy in the vein of C.S. Lewis.  Although slow to start, the plot picked up with the discovery of an old map.  From then on, it was a real page-turner as the Drew children raced one step ahead of their enemies in a classic Arthurian-inspired quest.

For my second selection, I traded with my son for Sea of Monsters, Book Two of Rick Riordan’s Olympian series. My daughter gave me a hard time for starting with the second book, but I argued that I should be able to pick up any series on book two and still be able to follow the plot.  Riordan didn’t disappoint. His book was written in a modern style – first person narrative, lots of voice, and humor (which my son loved). Of course, there was the requisite quest and a cadre of kid heroes, but with a clever twist on classical mythology.  This was especially interesting to me as I’m currently working on my own twisted version of the Cyclops myth.

Not only was this fun reading, but also educational from a writer’s standpoint. The authors wrote in two very different styles.  I noted how both told satisfying stories while planting the seeds of an overall arc for their respective series.  And I gathered ideas as I prepared to revise my own middle-grade fantasy, gaining insight into what works in my novel and what still needs attention.

I’m ready to delve into another book, but my daughter hasn’t finished with her selection yet.

What are you reading this summer?  How does it inform your writing?