Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Writing lessons learned from HATE LIST

I recently finished "Hate List" by Jennifer Brown, and I have one word for it...wow. Here's a brief description:

Five months ago, Valerie Leftman's boyfriend, Nick, opened fire on their school cafeteria. Shot trying to stop him, Valerie inadvertently saved the life of a classmate, but was implicated in the shootings because of the list she helped create. A list of people and things she and Nick hated. The list he used to pick his targets.

Now, after a summer of seclusion, Val is forced to confront her guilt as she returns to school to complete her senior year. Haunted by the memory of the boyfriend she still loves and navigating rocky relationships with her family, former friends, and the girl whose life she saved, Val must come to grips with the tragedy that took place and her role in it, in order to make amends and move on with her life.

I learned several writing lessons from this amazing book, and here's a sampling:
  • Create a sympathetic villain: this is possibly the best example I've ever read. Nick brought a gun to school and shot other students in cold blood. Students who begged for their lives. He was a monster...we should hate him. But this author did an amazing job of showing Nick's pain, and how bullying transformed his life.
  • Use newspaper articles to provide plot and character details. Sprinkled between the chapters were newspaper accounts of the shooting. It was a clever way to add details without an info dump, and without taking away from the story. And each of the shooting victims was memorialized in the local paper, familiarizing the reader with the teachers and students that lost their lives on that fateful day.
  • Use old emails instead of flashbacks. During the police investigation, Valerie was forced to defend the email exchanges she'd shared with her boyfriend. They told the emotional story of frustration, bitterness, and hate without boring the reader with long, detailed flashbacks.
  • Mixed-up timelines can keep readers guessing. Sometimes I'm frustrated by a mixed-up timeline, but in this book, it kept me interested. It doesn't open with the shooting--it opens on Valerie's first day back to school. But little by little the author deftly went back to the day of the shooting, then back to the present. I was hooked.
  • Introduce characters, clues, and details slowly. A lot of victims. A lot of survivors. A lot of clues and details. None of this was dumped on me as I read the story. It drip, drip, dripped in, and I was able to absorb it all as the threads came together.
If you read YA, and you like contemporary stories, I highly recommend this book. Although it involved a school shooting, it was mostly a character story, and the author handled the violence well.

If you've read this book, what was your opinion? And if you've learned any writing lessons from a great book, please share!

36 comments:

  1. This book has been on my to-read list for a while. Maybe it's time to bump it up. Thanks for the great post!

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  2. I absolutely loved this book. Definitely agree that this was the best example of a sympathetic villain I've read in YA, not just with Nick but with Val. (Though obviously she's a villain to a much lesser extent.) This was one of those "stayed up waaaay too late to finish it" books and I just lent it to a friend who loved it as well.

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  3. Wow, this one is definitely going on my list. Sympathetic villains can be hard to nail, so I'm really curious. The plot and other techniques you mentioned make this sound like a great read!

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  4. Ahh, great article! Thanks for sharing but I think I can't get what you meant with emails instead of flashbacks. Maybe because I haven't read the book. :)

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  5. This sounds like a must read. It's going on the list :-)

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  6. It is marvellous, isn't it, how much we learn from others.

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  7. I haven't read this. I wasn't sure I wanted to read this kind of story. Maybe I'll see if my library has it. Maybe I'll read the first chapter and give it a try! I do like those kinds of stories where the back flashes are done well!

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  8. I like the sound of this book. I am going to add it to my TBR pile.

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  9. Thanks, Julie. Weaving plot and character details into my story was something a literary agent told me to work on - vs. dumping a paragraph into the text. Evidently, you can get away with that in adult fiction; it's a no-no in MG and YA. It sounds like this book did a lot of things right. I'll definitely put it on my list!

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  10. Those were all smart ways to handle those items. Email flashbacks - I'll have to remember that one.

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  11. Wow! Sounds fabulous. I wonder how many revisions this one took before it was ready to go...

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  12. Sounds like an amazing book, and better than Jodi Picoult's 19 minutes. I love the way you pull the writing lessons from your reading. Thanks for sharing!

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  13. Guys, thanks so much for stopping by and sharing your thoughts on this book!

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  14. I'm not really a YA reader but this book sounds quite interesting. You think it might be my cup of tea?

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  15. I love this, Julie! Wow, such great ideas for getting a lot of info into the story with smothering the reader all at once. I need to read this one!

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  16. Wow. I don't read a lot of contemporary but this sounds way awesome. Thanks, Julie!

    Becca @ The Bookshelf Muse

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  17. Julie, what an amazing story. Thank you so much for featuring it. The devices used in this story are intriguing. I can't wait to see how it all fits together.

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  18. Sounds like a terrific story! Making a sympathetic villian is hard! I'm putting this on my wishlist :)

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  19. This sounds amazing. Thanks for the terrific recommendation, Julie!

    Amy

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  20. Okay, this one sounds really good! I'll definitely add it to my TBR list! Thanks for the review!

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  21. Wonderful analysis. Creating sympathy for a villain who caused so much pain and suffering--that's impressive.

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  22. I've been reading more YA because I'm thinking about taking a stab at writing it. I haven't read this one.

    Thanks for the recommendation on the book. It sounds good.

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  23. Wow, this sounds like a powerful book. And the lessons you learned are great. I'm actually using a couple in my book. Thank you for sharing them!

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  24. I haven't heard of this book yet. Thanks for the recommendation. It sounds very interesting.

    Have a great week. :)

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  25. Oh wow. Now I have to read this book!

    I know what you mean about messy timelines. Courtney Summers is excellent at making a timeline that goes back and forth work extremely well, and it does keep you glued to the page when done right!

    Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

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  26. Wow, how many of us probably did a similar thing in high school (not the shooting, but the list). Sounds like a good topic. I hadn't heard of the book before. Thanks!

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  27. Oh my gosh, Julie, thank you so much for sharing this lesson. It ties in with so many questions I've been asking myself & others on how to write my current WIP. Your advice lets me know I'm on the right track after all. What a relief! See, I'm ALWAYS learning something new from you. And though I only read a handful of of YA in a year, I'm definitely going to check this book out if for no other reason than to observe how the author pulled these things you list off.

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  28. I've GOT to read this! Not only does it sound like a powerful story, it sounds like it's brilliantly written. I love the idea of using emails instead of flashbacks!

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  29. ooo, I haven't read this book, but it sounds like the author used a lot of my favorite devices. I love the whole newspaper clippings idea. And old emails. Very cool. Also that whole premise is just terrible. What an interesting book! thanks, Julie!

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  30. I read this book when it first came out and it's everything you described. I am in awe of Jennifer and her writing.

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  31. BTW, I just got this book and it's helping me figure out to tell my own story. Thanks for the recommendation!

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  32. Ooh, it sounds like an awesome book! I've had to work to make my characters sympathetic as well, so it's always intriguing to see how other writers do it. Bumping it up my TBR list.

    Hugs,

    Rach

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