A few months ago, I started a recurring series called Studying Storytelling. It was my plan to focus on stuff other than books for the most part, and indeed the first three entries have been about TV series. But here we are between “episodes” of Studying Storytelling, and I finished a book that I felt like writing about. That book is Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig.
So today I’m expanding Studying Storytelling a bit. Essentially all I’m doing is giving myself permission to write about books I read as I finish them rather than looking at long series in other formats. Condensed versions of these may also show up at Goodreads and/or Amazon, and I won’t be giving these posts the “Studying Storytelling” title, though they will get that category tag so they’re organized on the blog.
Okay! That is all boring background information! Let’s move on.
You Gotta Hook ’em, Kid
Writing a book is kind of an insane thing to do, especially when you’re just getting started. You do the work and then hope to get paid for it. Most professions explicitly do not work this way, thank God.* Would it look something like this?
“Hmm…I think I’ll analyze these spreadsheets, synthesize the key information into a PowerPoint, and then sell the insights to Procter and Gamble. They’ll back up a truck of money to me for this, surely!”
That is not how things work. Yet, in a way, that’s what anyone doing creative work is doing when they start out. And it’s not like there’s a shortage of books! I don’t think there can ever be too many, exactly, but I have no concern about running short of ones I wish to read.
So, then, how do you get anyone to pay attention to your book amidst the cacophony of other writers doing the same? There are lots of ways writers try to do this, and ultimately writing a good story is far and away most important.
But what else can help? Why should I read your book? What’s it about anyway, Mr. Wendig?
Miriam Black knows how you’re going to die.
Oh. Crap. Oh, that is, um…that’s…disturbing. Tell me more.**
That line alone was enough to draw me in, to make me investigate further. Because I cannot read everything I want to, lots of books that I’m sure would be delightful get passed over. I need to be hooked before I even start reading. If you want your story to stand a fighting chance, a killer hook helps A LOT.
Also, the cover is totally awesome.
“It should only be about the writing,” you say. “What good is a cool cover if the writing sucks?” you say. Well, if the writing sucks, I probably won’t finish the story, but I find a strong correlation between great covers and books I love. These things matter! Great artwork and a killer tagline, to me, reflect attention to detail and an emphasis on crafting a compelling experience from the first interaction to turning the final page.
That Miriam Black. Such a Character!
If the name Chuck Wendig is ringing a bell for anyone, it may be because I’ve mentioned him a couple of times before. It was his description of how he writes a novel that inspired my own tentative thoughts on the matter, and I grabbed a few pithy lines about characters in the second part of my recap of my National Novel Writing Month experience. Now that I’m writing about one of his novels, it seems appropriate to drop that bit about characters once more, found here.
Characters are everything. Focus on them. Characters make plot by doing things and saying things. Do not staple plot to the story. The plot grows inside the story based on the actions of interested and interesting characters. Story lives in how characters address (and fail to address) their problems. Plot is skeleton, not exoskeleton.
A character you want to read/watch will find good stories by virtue of being interesting. I continue to find this to be excellent and helpful advice. And while I sometimes struggle to take my own advice, Mr. Wendig certainly took his with Blackbirds.
Miriam Black can tell when and how you’ll die just from touching you. She experiences your death in excruciating detail and is powerless to stop it. You will probably not be surprised to learn that she has a messed up perspective on the world and is a bit dysfunctional in general. This results in her living something of a vagabond life and eking out an existence on the margins of society. Ipso facto — she has an interesting story, and Blackbirds grows into a good book.
I’ve seen a few criticisms of Blackbirds rooted in the believability of Miriam as a character — the way she speaks and acts, primarily. “She sounds like a woman written by a man” is the most succinct version of it. Two thoughts on that matter.
First, I think this is a valid critique. I tend to agree that a lot of what Miriam says and does sounds like a woman written by a man.*** The further a character gets from what you are like in your actual life, the harder (I think) it gets to depict such characters in a way that’s similar to how they might be in the real world. I hope my female characters (or those of different ages, races, etc.) will feel like they could exist in the real world, but I know that’s hard to get quite right.
But my second thought on the believability of Miriam, or any character, is that it’s okay if they seem unlike real-world versions of people. I have a pretty high “benefit of the doubt” threshold for writers. As long as a character is consistent within the parameters established by the writer, I’m good with whatever that character says, does and thinks for the most part. It’s when you betray those parameters that I’ll have problems. Why is a character who has always been brave suddenly afraid to act? This is interesting if the writer justifies the change but confusing and frustrating if not.
In the end, I don’t particularly care if a character feels ‘unrealistic,’ but your mileage may vary. I can accept that Miriam is an improbable character, but I found her to be a believable character because she’s written in a consistent way. That said, as a reader it’s on me to remember that it’s unlikely that many women will think, act and speak like her.
Miriam’s character arc was engaging, and that trumped whether or not she was realistic. The premise that she can foresee death is enough to generate a compelling plot, but Wendig gives readers reasons to care about what happens to her and those around her well beyond that. Her tough, cynical, snarky behavior feel justified by what she’s seen and done in her past, and the ways she evolves feel warranted within that context. Even when she seems to act in ways that are inconsistent (alternately sympathetic and dismissive of others), I saw it as representative of her internal struggle to decide what kind of person she is.
Oh God, This Is Happening Right Now
Blackbirds is written in the third person present tense, meaning the narrator is describing events as they unfold and not as if they have just transpired. Despite a significant growth in the popularity of this style, it’s still often considered a controversial or straight up-bad thing to do. Getting into all that here would be a distraction, but here’s a reasonable breakdown of the advantages and disadvantages of this approach. I’ll say only this about writing this way: I have zero problem with this choice when done well, though I acknowledge many writers struggle to pull it off.
For my money, Chuck Wendig pulled it off with aplomb. Aplomb I tell you!
Writers often choose this approach to lend a sense of urgency to the proceedings. It can make what’s happening more visceral, more immediate. Blackbirds is violent and brutal, and the present tense makes many of the story’s harshest moments land that much harder. It throws you into the action in a way that the same story in past tense might now. I found myself wanting to look over my shoulder or duck a gunshot as fight scenes played out. Pairing the immediacy of the narration with a compelling lead character made the book felt like an action-packed TV series.
Oh what’s that? It turns out, it’s in the process of becoming one.
And I’ll wrap up on that. Like a great action TV show, Blackbirds is tightly plotted and pushes forward at a relentless pace, pausing only to lend context and background that sets the stage for future Miriam Black tales. To writers, this can sound like something of a backhanded compliment, but Blackbirds reads fast and easy. I blew through it and immediately leapt into the first of three (so far) sequels, Mockingbird. That’s not to say it’s without artistry. Wendig writes with great panache, showing an efficiency in his ability to set a scene with few words in a style that befits the story.
I think all of this has a chance to translate into a really great TV show, and in that way I have done you a great favor this day. If you did not already know about Miriam Black, you now have a chance to read the books before the show arrives and be one of those people who talks about how you read the books and they are so much better.
Ahh, the gift of smugness. Is there any greater?
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*In truth, a lot of modern tech startups do basically work this way, though it’s not 100% analogous.
**Lots of stories have used variations on the “I know how you will die” concept. It’s not precisely the originality of the concept that matters here, it’s how effective the delivery of the central premise was for me.
***Part of this is due to my familiarity with Chuck Wendig’s potty-mouthedness in his blog writing which spills over effortlessly into Miriam’s speech. It inevitably colors how I experience the story.