Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Writing lessons learned from TENDING TO GRACE

I recently finished TENDING TO GRACE, by Kimberly Newton Fusco. Here's a brief summary from Amazon:

Lenore is Cornelia's mother--and Cornelia's fix-up project. What does it matter that Cornelia won't talk to anyone and is always stuck in the easiest English class at school, even though she's read more books than anyone else? She feels strong in the fixing. She cooks vegetable soup so Lenore will eat something other than Ring Dings; she lures her out of bed with strong coffee and waffles. She looks after the house when Lenore won't get out of bed at all.

So when Lenore and her boyfriend take off for Vegas leaving Cornelia behind with eccentric Aunt Agatha, all Cornelia can do is wait for her to come back. Aunt Agatha sure doesn't want any fixing.

Here are some writing lessons I learned from this poignant book:
  • Create a sympathetic narrator. I know, I know. Obvious, right? But it bears repeating. Cornelia has a speech impediment, and right away the reader feels her shame. She's smart, but only the reader knows that, and we root for her from page one.
  • Create a quirky sidekick. In some scenes Aunt Agatha could be labeled the opposition. Her goals conflict with Cornelia's goals, but she does it with flair and good humor. She wears a giant purple hat and moccasins, no matter what the season. She eats fiddleheads, munches on sugar cubes, and drinks sassafras. You can't help but love her, even when she's not being nice to Cornelia.
  • Bind the two main characters together. Cornelia's mom has dumped her off with Aunt Agatha, and she has no choice but to live in a dusty old house with no bathroom. She struggles to speak, but is an avid reader. Aunt Agatha is strong-willed, but illiterate. They're bound together by circumstances, yet they find a way to help each other.
  • Postcards can add backstory. Cornelia's mom sends postcards from Vegas. Even though her messages are short, the reader understands that mom is a flake, she makes terrible choices, and Cornelia pays the cost.
  • Less = More. With her sparse style, the author created chapters that were sometimes only half a page long. One and a half pages at the most. But each small chapter is packed with voice and character. It made me wonder how much fluff was left on the cutting room floor.
Have you read this book? And what's a writing lesson you recently learned from a great book?

20 comments:

  1. I haven't read that book, but it certainly sounds appealing. I like quirky characters.

    I'm reading an interesting book now called The Taste of Snow, by Stephen V. Masse. His writing isn't as spare - no chapter is half a page long, but it is lean, and I'm learning a lot about a small German village at Christmas holidays. I love his descriptions.

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  2. I learned to embrace your own style from a recent read. ;D

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  3. oh how I love books that make us love them AND teach us something about writing. Daughter of Smoke and Bone did that for me recently.

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  4. I am always pulled in by a quirky character who keeps me guessing.

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  5. Sounds awesome. Adding to my TBR list.

    Becca @ The Bookshelf Muse

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  6. I love analyzing books! And I couldn't agree more--great list, Julie!

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  7. Thank you, Julie. This sounds like another amazing book! I like your taste. :)

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  8. Sounds like a powerful book! I recently finished a book that made me think a lot more carefully about how to slide in those descriptions :)

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  9. Thanks Julie! This is going straight in my shopping cart on Chapters :)

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  10. I write sparsely, so I'm glad to know of a strong example. Thanks!

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  11. These are great lessons. I love reading the lessons you learn from your reading. A great review and very helpful!

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  12. Sounds like a great book. I love characters we can root for. And I love the quirky sidekick when the story calls for it. Sounds like it added balance here and some conflict.

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  13. I haven't heard of this book! And I have to confess, for whatever reason, that description was confusing to me. But once I figured it out *snort* (blonde?) it sounds great! And see, I like the whole using correspondence in stories. I think it's cool~ :o) <3

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  14. I haven't read this yet, but now I really want to! I have to admit though, I agree with LTM, the description was confusing and if it's the synopsis, I probably wouldn't have made it past it. I'm glad you featured it so I know to look beyond that!

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  15. Awesome breakdown / analysis of this book! I'll have to check it out.

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  16. The title of this book is so beautiful. Arghh, I'm jealous! I want that title for *my* book! And your analysis is so useful. I love taking books apart and seeing how they work. Thanks!

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  17. You've made me want to read this! It sounds great.
    The last book I read definitely reminded me of your final tip. Less = more. Let the reader figure it out. The trick is knowing how the reader will do this, and leaving appropriate clues. So tricky!

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  18. I love quirky sidekicks! Thanks for the great list here, and the review. Sounds like an intriguing book. :)

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