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.
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?