Saturday, May 31, 2014

Why CAN'T All Books Be Like WE WERE LIARS? (Also, please tell me when I have spinach on my teeth)

I read a great book the other day. We Were Liars by E. Lockhart. One of Lockhart's earlier books The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, is a favorite of mine. Laugh out-loud funny, clever, and original. It's got a cool feminist manifesto twist at the end that'll make you (if you happen to be a woman) pump your fist in the air and roar.

We Were Liars will probably make you burst into tears. I just want to give you fair warning.

It's about a girl named Cady who spends summers hanging out with her cousins on their grandfather's private island. When the story begins, Cady's not doing too well. She's suffering from horrible migraine headaches. Something happened a few years ago during her fifteenth summer and it's what probably caused the headaches. She's not sure. She can't remember much of what happened that summer.

Now she's back on the island and hanging out with the cousins and everyone's tiptoeing around her. They've been instructed by their mothers not to tell Cady what happened.

So that's all I'm going to say about the plot and Cady.

I knew going into the book there was going to be a big twist and I was trying to figure out what it could be as I read.

I have a difficult time reading books and falling into them the way I used to as a child. Years of deconstructing texts as an English major and English teacher and years of writing and trying to figure out how stories are put together so I could put my own stories together end up being hazards when you just want to lose yourself in a book.

Reading We Were Liars, I was doing that. Thinking. I'd put the book down and marvel for a minute at the strong, crystal clear voice of Cady. I'd bend a page corner over and wonder about the structure of the book. Why did E. Lockhart begin with that particular moment? Why'd she stick the fairy tale interludes in where she did? Why all the mentions of dogs? Etc. Then I'd keep reading, thinking, This is a pretty good book, enjoying the cleverness of it and the humor and insightful bits.

And then. BAM.

I turned a page and it hit me. The twist. With such force I gasped out loud and burst into tears. I cried as I read the last few pages. I turned back to page one and started reading the book again trying to figure out how Lockhart did it--how she tricked me--not just with the brilliant twist--but how she struck such an emotional chord, how she made me feel for these pretend people and forget that I was reading a book.

I couldn't figure it out.

I called my friend Donna, who happens to be my beloved trusted amazing critique partner and we hashed it out for a while. What makes the book so good? How did the author pull it off? How'd she write something that transcends the genre, that makes you THINK and FEEL as well as be entertained for a few hours?

(Back story: Donna is my Ideal Reader. She is the person in my head whom I write for--the reader I most want to please. Last week I finished the fifth revision of a book I have been working on and struggling with on and off since 2009. When I "finished" it last week, I had no real sense of what the hell I had. I still don't know exactly. I realize that I don't trust my own judgment anymore when it comes to my writing. I see smatterings of beautiful stuff and I see larger chunks of garbage and the two things intermingle and even switch places depending on my mood and/or the weather.

I sent the manuscript to Donna and waited anxiously for her response, going back and forth between dread and eagerness to hear it. I geared myself up for the worst. The worst would be Donna saying the book is a massive unfixable mess and she can't believe I spent 5 years of my life wasting my time on it. I am not proud of this, but I toyed with the idea of asking her to lie to me if it came down to that. Then I worried that she WOULD lie to me to spare my feelings and the book would eventually be published and every reviewer on Amazon and Goodreads would give it 1 star and muse about how such a mess ever made it to publication.)

Anyway, we kept talking about We Were Liars. Donna read a book recently that bugged her for a variety of reasons and she started telling me about it and that led to us discussing other flawed books that failed for a variety of reasons. Poor writing, weakly developed characters, massive plot holes, whatever. We worried about the authors of these books. Why didn't anyone TELL them when they still had a chance to fix their various messes?

I said to Donna, Oh well, not every book can be We Were Liars. 

And she said, Why not?

And then I wondered, Yeah. Why not? Isn't writing a great book what we're all striving for?

Maybe some writers don't think about this kind of thing. I don't know how a book goes right and I don't know how a book goes wrong. I only know the end result--whether it falls into the We Were Liars category or, um, the other category. I also know that if I am going to bother, if I am going to spend 5 years writing and rewriting and rewriting a book, tearing my hair out and pacing around my home muttering and staring at my computer screen until my eyeballs burn in my skull, then, damn it, I'm shooting for the WWL end of the spectrum.

Which means that someone-- DONNA God love her--must absolutely level with me and tell me the truth.

I gave her this speech before she read my book.

She just laughed. "Aren't we always honest with each other?" she asked. "If you had spinach on your teeth, I'd tell you."

Whew. I guess.

I mean, Whew. Thank you, Donna, as I would tell you, too.

She sent me her response a few days later. I was at the grocery store and I made my daughter pull the critique up on the phone...

(to be continued)


  1. Jody: WHAT DID DONNA SAY?? Don't leave us in suspense! p.s. over on your lower right bicuspid... just a tiny bit of spinach...

    1. She tiptoed around me gently, massaging my ego, gave me a couple of things to think about it, and told me to get right on it. PS. thanks.

  2. Jody, Jody, Jody. I love you, but haven't I always been painfully honest? You KNEW I would be honest with this one, didn't you? I mean, five years and four re-writes (sorry, was it more than four re-writes? I know it wasn't LESS). I KNOW you are capable of brilliance, so why would I settle for less?

  3. I requested this at our library and am waiting.