I am inching back toward my Bad Blogger ways. Last week I forgot to blog until about 4:30, and by that time I am usually in full-swing “I’m going home soon” mode and useless for anything besides something I’m already doing. I told myself I would blog on Tuesday, but let’s face it, once you’ve failed at something (my Monday blog promise) it’s quite easy to keep failing. Tuesday became Wednesday, and then I said, “I’ll just wait until next Monday.” So even though it is kind of late to be doing a Monday blog—my New York readers have probably left their desks by now—I am trying to be faithful where I can be faithful.
I am on vacation this week, officially. I am in Utah to help out the fam with various crises (I’m only being semi-blasé right now) but the crises don’t seem to be at any peak right now, so I have time to do other things. I am trying to download iTunes on my parents’ ancient laptop upstairs. I had downloaded version 8 about 15 months ago, but my mom bought herself a nano (planning on my setting it up for her—this blind faith may or may not be rewarded) and this new nano doesn’t work on 8, and requires 9. So I downloaded 9 (which took 45 minutes on previously mentioned Ancient Laptop) and then I had to hit “Install” which took another 45 minutes and didn’t work, so I hit Install again and that’s where we stand with that. Whew.
So the real purpose of today’s entry is to tell you to run, don’t walk, either to your local bookstore or library to read The Book Thief, a 2005 YA novel by Markus Zusak. I checked it out from the library last Thursday and finished it (500-plus pages) on Saturday. I could not put it down. It’s a fairly easy read, being YA, but the speed with which I got through it was more because of the author’s skill in drawing me in. I could not put it down. When I did put it down I was disappointed and found myself thinking about it and wanting to pick it up again. I spent all Thursday after work on the couch, reading it, and telling myself that I am actually doing work when I’m reading, because after all I’m a writer and you’ve got to research others’ styles/see what’s out there/fill your creative well, right?
And it was educational. The Book Thief has an omniscient narrator, which is something I’ve been struggling with. I am about halfway through a draft of a new novel, but I’m struggling. I have stopped the forward momentum in order to revise what I have, and one thing that I’m having a hard time figuring out is the voice. For a while I tried to write it in Close Third, because we have 5 different characters whose perspectives will be given. So when I write a passage with the 10-year-old girl, it should sound a lot different than the passages of the grizzled veteran detective who has seen it all, even though they’re not first-person narratives. The passages of the 10-year-old girl are more energetic, generally happy, because the narrator is kind of “sitting on her shoulder” and seeing what she sees. But I don’t want it to be exclusively Close Third. When you’re doing true Close Third, the voice always has to be that character’s voice; you can’t state anything the character wouldn’t know herself, which is really limiting. I decided for a while that I would write in Omniscient Third, and in a fit of learning frenzy I got Anna Karenina, a well-known Omnisicent Third book, to see how they handled it. As I suspected, the different passages tell us what everyone is thinking; there’s one voice throughout (the anonymous narrator). So I tried that, and it didn’t work; it came across as “head hopping,” which is annoying. In another learning frenzy, I ordered a bunch of How To Write books. They are surprisingly helpful. (They are also helpful for making yourself feel like you’re procrastinating when you’re really working—the best of both worlds!) One of the books (whose title escapes me and I can’t look it up, because I didn’t bring it with me) talked about the range of voices and suggested that you don’t have to fall heavily into one category. There’s Omnisicent, and First-Person (“I did this, I did that”) and Third Person (“She did this, she did that”) and Close Third Person (“She did this, she did that, darn it all to heck!” – a shout-out to my Utah peeps)…but there are also shades of gray, if you will. The authors of this book described it as a pendulum that swings between things. You can do Close Third Person and insert the occasional “Darn it all to heck” if that’s what your character would be thinking, but you don’t have to stay 100% there. You can swing out of it occasionally, back and forth; the key is consistency. If you’re going to swing back and forth, don’t just do it once; it has to happen with enough regularity that the reader won’t say, “Where did that come from?” Or so I have concluded.
So this is part of the reason that The Book Thief is so interesting to me: the writer has chosen Death as the narrator. The book is set in Germany in World War II, so Death was hovering over everyone, and saw everything. It’s only logical that Death would know what people were thinking, know their hearts, know what’s good and bad about them. (I have a short story with a different-and-yet-slightly-similar conceit, so this was even more interesting to me...and I'm thinking of making it into a book, so I may read this again just for "research.") Death is telling the story of a young girl named Liesel who is given up into foster care when she’s 10. Her younger brother dies on the trip to the foster family's town, and from then on she has nightmares. Her foster father, Hans, comforts her every night when she wakes up screaming from them, and when he realizes she’s almost illiterate, he teaches her to read. When they buried her brother, Liesel saw a book on the ground, The Grave Digger’s Handbook, and impulsively stole it, and that’s what Hans uses to teach her.
This is just the beginning…the book takes twists and turns and gets incredibly deep. I finished it on the plane, glad to be sitting in a window seat so I could turn away from prying faces as I literally cried at the end. I will occasionally tear up at the end of some books, but only very, very rarely do I break down. At the end of this book, I just wept. It was amazing. It was a great lesson in Omniscient storytelling and it was touching beyond belief. If you haven’t read this book—whether you want to learn or just read a good book—please, please, please read it. You won’t regret it.