Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Writing lessons learned from WHAT HAPPENED TO GOODBYE


I zoomed through my third Sarah Dessen book, WHAT HAPPENED TO GOODBYE. Here's a brief blurb from Amazon:

Since her parents' divorce, Mclean and her dad, a restaurant consultant, have been on the move--four towns in two years. Estranged from her mother and her mother's new family, Mclean has followed her dad in leaving the unhappy past behind. And each new place gives her a chance to try out a new persona: from cheerleader to drama diva. But now, for the first time, Mclean discovers a desire to stay in one place and just be herself, whoever that is. Perhaps Dave, the guy next door, can help her find out.

As I've mentioned before, I've become a huge Dessen fan. Here are some of the lessons I learned from this book:

  • Consider a short opening to show character: the book opens with a short scene in a diner, where a lot is revealed. Mclean and her dad move around a lot because of his job.  Mclean's attitude? Instead of looking at her situation as a negative, she views it as an opportunity to reinvent herself in each new town. This perfectly sets up the character quirks, with enough backstory to make it believable.
  • Hint at strife: Dave, the love interest, lives next door. Before Mclean meets him, she watches him and his parents through the window, during dinner. Body language conveys that all is not right with this family. No conversation, shoulders rounded in defeat. Without a spoken word, we see that Dave and his parents are not happy.
  • Sum up a character in a nutshell: through inner thought, Mclean sums up Dave in one sentence--boy genius, smoothie maker, cellar dweller. It's a tight character description that says so much. It reminded me to use this type of description not only in a query, but in the manuscript as well.
  • Character contrasts: at school, the perky welcome-committee-of-one reveals she used to be a drummer in a metal band. With her quilted purse and sunshiney demeanor, this is a pleasant surprise. Dessen does this so well. She slips in fun details without it seeming calculated.
  • Serious moment? Add humor: Mclean's dad and his female restaurant manager must decide who's the weak link on staff. Problem is, it's everyone. When Mclean walks in on their discussion, they aren't stressed out and angry. They've opened a bottle of wine and they're goofy with laughter. It's endearing.
  • Involve a "together" project: the restaurant manager agrees to put together a model of the city in exchange for parking spaces. Dave is forced into the project to fulfill community service obligations, and Mclean works on it to help her father's restaurant. The couple bonds over this project, and the model city works with the plot as well. It becomes a symbol for finding your own place in your community.
"What Happened to Goodbye" is a quiet book that delves deep into family, community, and the courage to be ourselves. 

What's your opinion on these writing lessons? Have you used these techniques yourself? Please share any tips that have worked well for you.

26 comments:

  1. I read widely, especially when writing for children - I return to authors who wrote at the beginning of the 20th century, such as Hugh Walpole and his Jeremy books. When you read a master craftsman, as you say, there is so much you can learn, Julie.

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    1. So true, Carole. I'm amazed at their skill, and I'm so thankful I can learn from them.

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  2. These are great tips! I've only read half of one of her books, "This Lullaby", about five years ago and quit because I wasn't too impressed with the language and a few other scenes. I may try to read this one though. Thanks for sharing!

    Tessa
    www.christiswrite.blogspot.com

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    1. Tessa, I'm sorry you weren't able to connect with This Lullaby. I haven't read that one yet! It just proves how all of this writing and publishing is totally subjective :)

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  3. Great observations as always. I rely heavily on the "serious moment, add humor" example. Creates a lot of levity in a story, and makes it real. I come from a family of jokers, so we tend to alleviate stress with humor a lot.

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    1. EJ, that's a great skill, and it sounds like you come by it naturally!

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  4. Great tips! I wrote the opening scene for my next novella, "Bayou Princess," this a.m. and kept it short, so that's good. :)) But I'm keeping your tips in mind as I hit the keyboard.

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    1. Oooh, how fun, Kittie! Good luck to you with your novella :)

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  5. This sounds like a great book. I think I'm going to pay a visit to my library today!

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    1. Oh, if you get one of her books, I'd love to know what you think. I know they're not for everyone!

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  6. I'm becoming a big fan of Sarah Dessen as I work my way through her books. I enjoyed this one!

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    1. Ghenet, there's still a couple more I need to read. So far, "Just Listen" was my favorite :)

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  7. Used a little bit of the last one. And a little humor can help any moment.

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    1. Ooooh, you used a "together project?" Good one! I worked that into draft one of a manuscript. Hopefully I'll make it much better in revisions.

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  8. It never ceases to amaze me how simple writing appears when done well... but it's not. It's extremely difficult. Love all of your thoughts here, Julie. It's clear you've got a great eye!

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    1. Morgan, I tell ya, I read the simplicity, and then I try to replicate. Not easy at all!

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  9. I'm so glad that you're still being inspired by Sarah D. I think your style and hers compliment each other nicely.

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    1. Leslie, I sure am learning a lot from her!

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  10. Hi Julie, I've been tagged and you were next on my random list, don't bother if you would rather not. Carole. :0)

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  11. Most of what you mention can be summed in two sentences:

    1) Be brief.
    2) Show, don't tell.


    This is true especially with descriptions. These slow the story and bog the reader. I rarely use internal monologue, and when I do, it's one or two sentences, and it is usually in there because the editor wanted it in there. When I run into it as a reader, I skim, because if the author did their job ~showing~, then you do not require this ~telling~ from inside the character's head.

    - Eric
    Digging With the Worms

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  12. It always amazes me what you manage to learn from reading books.

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  13. Julie, I love these lessons. I'm reading a book on screen writing now, and I think a must for all writers. This is the ultimate of show don't tell. On the big screen, we really have to show. Fascinating tools here. Thank you!

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  14. I have got to try her books on my tbr pile!! Lol. Love the lessons!!

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  15. I recently took a class on outlining a scene of a story. Many of these were used. I'll share it:


    IBackground

    Protagonist Name:

    Protagonist Trait:

    Antagonist Name:

    Antagonist Trait:

    Protagonist's Main Goal:

    Story Question:

    Antagonist's Main Goal:

    Scene

    Sub-goal:

    Scene Question:

    Sub-goal Conflict:

    Sub-goal Disaster:

    Sub-goal Answer:

    Sequel

    Emotion:

    Quandary:

    Decision:

    Action:

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