Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Writing lessons learned from NINETEEN MINUTES



Hey, friends! I hope you're all enjoying your summer. While on vacation, I re-read NINETEEN MINUTES, which was written by one of my favorite authors, Jodi Picoult.

From Amazon:

Sterling is a small, ordinary New Hampshire town where nothing ever happens--until the day its complacency is shattered by a shocking act of violence. In the aftermath, the town's residents must not only seek justice in order to begin healing, but also come to terms with the role they played in the tragedy. For them, the lines between truth and fiction, right and wrong, insider and outsider have been obscured forever. Josie Cormier, the teenage daughter of the judge sitting on the case, could be the state's best witness, but she can't remember what happened in front of her own eyes. And as the trial progresses, fault lines between the high school and the adult community begin to show, destroying the closest of friendships and families.

In my opinion, Picoult is a brilliant storyteller. I learned many writing lessons from this book, but here are some of my favorites (Warning! Avert your eyes if you haven't read this book yet and don't want to know any plot points):

  • Open with the theme & reference to the title: depending on your perspective, nineteen minutes can zoom by or be agonizingly slow. Picoult opened her book like this...In nineteen minutes, you can mow the front lawn, color your hair, watch a third of a hockey game. In nineteen minutes, you can bake scones or get a tooth filled by a dentist; you can fold laundry for a family of five...In nineteen minutes, you can stop the world, or you can just jump off it. In nineteen minutes, you can get revenge. Already we had mood, title, and theme. 
  • Chaos breeds confusion: the scene was a high school shooting, and the level of confusion made it seem real. We got the cop's point of view, which showed us the "fog of war." Who's a victim? Who's running to safety? Is one of them the shooter? That scared boy crouched by the lockers, is he a victim? The shooter? The pov character's inner thought here was crucial, coupled with bursts of dialog.
  • Journal entries in pieces: throughout this book, snippets of journal entries were introduced. At first I assumed they were written by the shooter, but later I wondered if they were written by another troubled character. Just like in 13 REASONS WHY, we got brief glimpses into the mind of a character who had reached the end of the line. The regular story thread kept the plot moving, but these glimpses were good reminders of how much pain the character was in.
  • Consider attaching only one character name per letter: with such a brilliant book, this small complaint is petty but worth mentioning. One main character's name was Patrick, another was Peter. When a paragraph opened with the name, it took me a couple of sentences to realize which "P" person it was.
  • Assign each character a unique backstory: there were many characters and moving parts to this book. Each character had their own easily recognizable backstory. I wouldn't say each of these characters had super-sized unique voices--the author's voice is very distinct--but they each had a unique story that was obvious from the first words of the scene.
  • Add one detail that doesn't fit in: one bullet hadn't been found during the investigation. It came from a gun that had been fired but then jammed. I knew this was significant. In fact, it led to a big twist at the end. The missing bullet was mentioned maybe three times before the twist was revealed. It was there, lurking in the background, which kept me curious.
  • Tackle tough subjects: one thing I love about this author is that she boldly plunges into difficult subjects. In an interview on her web site, she explains how sometimes we can process these touchy subjects easier through fiction. She shows the story from all angles in such a way that we understand why her characters do what they do. Why they chose what they chose. And why life can be so darn complicated.
Despite the gut-wrenching subject, this book kept me just as riveted the second time around. 

Have you read any of Picoult's books? What did you think of these writing lessons?

18 comments:

  1. I love Jodi Picoult's books although I haven't read all of them - yet! This one sounds like one I'd stay up too late to finish!

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  2. Marcy, like you, I'm a huge fan of Picoult. Her style is beautiful. I haven't read all of them either, but I'm working on it :)

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  3. She's one of my favorite authors. Great storyteller and compelling subject matter. I think I've read most of her books. There was one I wasn't crazy about, can't remember which one at the moment.

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    1. Karen, you're right about compelling subject matter. I'd say "House Rules" may have been my least favorite (although I still liked it!)

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  4. The comments are excellent, and I learn from my favourite children's authors all the time.

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    1. Carole, it's like the best of both worlds. We get to read an awesome book AND learn at the same time!

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  5. I haven't read any books by Jodi, but I want to read this one. And I think my library has it in audio version. I'll check it out as soon as I finish the new audio book I'm set to start.

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    1. Oooh, I'm curious how it would be in audio. I'm so into my own head when I read her books. Will you let me know what you think?

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  6. The cover doesn't reveal the dark tone of the story.
    Giving characters names that begin with different letters is something I strive for. (Yes, I know my two main lead in the first book had names starting with B. Those names are the only thing that survived from the first draft.)

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  7. Alex, I totally agree about the cover (although I like it). There's a young couple in love in the story, but the cover doesn't hint at the dark stuff that happens.

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  8. My Sister's Keeper had multiple narrators with distinct voices and it was very good. I didn't like the 10th circle though.

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    1. Beth, I read both of those and totally agree.

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  9. Wow. Now THAT is a strong opening to a book!

    Oh, and I have the same problem with characters' names that begin with the same letter, especially if the characters are similar (for example, both high school boys.)

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  10. I skipped over the post because now I want to read the book. I've heard great things about her writing, but have never read anything she's written.

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  11. Her set up was brilliant. She captures the setting as well as the mood and theme so well.

    I read this some time ago, but now you've got me thinking I might have to reread it. Thanks, Julie.

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  12. I love these writing lesson posts, Julie. They're seriously SO FUN. I need to read more heart wrenching books--it's definitely where I'm lacking in my writing, so I need to branch out and let myself "feel" more. ;-)

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  13. Jodi Picoult is one of my absolute favorite authors. The way she constructs images and detail is amazing. Nineteen Minutes was fantastic. Picoult's best work since My Sister's Keeper. The plot was gripping. I had trouble putting this book down. In a post-Columbine world, I think the reader is searching for an answer as to why something like this would happen, even if it is a work of fiction that provides it. I cannot praise this novel enough. I highly recommend this novel and all of Picoult's works.

    Marlene
    View this site for Westport Fishing Washington

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