Tag: To Kill a Mockingbird

Five things that make a Book Riveting

Some books skyrocket to the top of the sales charts. I’ve read a few and wondered why they were so popular. I’m sure you have, too. Most people agree on the ingredients that keep readers reading once they open a book.

I’m a voracious reader. If you’ve followed this blog long, you’ve seen a number of book reviews. You’ll notice that I don’t love a book just because it’s a Pulitzer Prize winner. Nor does the fact something was penned by Shakespeare guarantee my adoration.

On the other side of my brain, however, I’m a writer. As a writer, I need to know the elements of a breakout novel – so I can pen one. If it’s so subjective, how can I ever be sure?

It’s not really all that subjective

The truth is: nearly all best-sellers share important qualities. A truly stellar book will have all five: character, plot, tension, voice, and turn of phrase.


A story is about someone. This someone should never be perfect, but whatever their flaws, they have to gain our sympathy. We need to care about them.

I read a book for one of my literature classes about a middle class boy who had a rough upbringing, so he ran away. And became a total juvenile delinquent: breaking into houses and trashing them, living in a bus, and growing weed.

My professor swore this guy was an anti-hero, and I needed to learn how to see that. I still don’t see it – for one reason: The reader must care about the hero (or anti-hero). The author of this book never convinced me that this boy was anything more than a selfish jerk. Did he have reasons? Don’t we all? But there was nothing to redeem him or make me feel his pain. The writer didn’t do their job and deliver a character to care about.


Plot is simply the story. The events that happen to make the characters reveal themselves and their problems is the plot.

It’s more than that, too. There needs to be a problem introduced early in the story that will be resolved by the end. Each thing that happens and every choice the character makes, moves him closer to (or usually further away from) solving the problem.

If there isn’t a problem, there isn’t a story. If the problem isn’t resolved by the end (it doesn’t have to be a happy ending), the plot isn’t complete, and the reader will walk away feeling cheated.


Once we have a character who has a problem to solve, something must stand in the way.

If this is just a collection of random bad things that happen on the way to the prom, the reader is going to yawn and close the book. No writer wants a reader to close her book.

Every scene in the story must have tension. It can be tension caused by two characters wanting the same thing. Tension comes when bad things deliberately happen to the characters: chased by bad guys, beat up by the school bully. These things need to be directly related to the character’s attempt to solve the problem.

Secrets add tension. Major reversals add tension. Personality conflicts add tension. Romance can contribute to tension.

Stressed out characters are great. As long as your reader cares about your characters, they will not stop reading while your character is on the edge.


For me, this is one of the things that might keep me reading if I don’t like the character, and the story seems weak.

Voice is the ability for the reader to hear your character. The words on the page aren’t written by someone else, they are the embodiment of your character. The way he describes things is consistent with his fifteen-year-old vocabulary and world view. He probably isn’t going to describe the colors of the walls, but he’ll notice the gaming system in the corner.

A strong voice keeps the reader snared in the fictional world. A friend is in trouble, and they have to find out what happens.

Turn of Phrase

This is strongly related to voice. Words exist to paint the view an author sees. If the writer chooses the best words and arranges them perfectly, the reader will share the vision.

Some prose makes me laugh. ”The truth? That would earn her the boot and a restraining order.”

Some prose makes me cry. Some draws me completely into the story world.

Some keeps me thinking for days after I’ve closed the book. “The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience” (from To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee).

Any hack can write a story with an interesting character. A few can write this story with so much tension a reader can’t turn the pages quickly enough. A few make the voice of their character stay in your head for days, weeks and months. The true minority, who write a riveting book, can accomplish all that with words that sing the story into memory.

No, I can’t quote lines from books I loved. Not many, anyway. But I could tell you the story and why I liked the character. I could tell you about a scene that made me laugh or cry.

If the writing is average (like most of mine), I probably won’t even be able to tell you the character’s name. Even if I like her.

Do you agree with these essentials? Is there something else you feel is more important? Can you rank these in order of importance to you?

Three Young Adult books everyone should Read

A winner in my book - not just Pulitzer's
A winner in my book – not just Pulitzer’s

Feel the wind in my hair. See the passing scenery. Experience the joy only the telling of a good story births in my heart, soul and mind.

Books too numerous to name have impacted me. Some of them changed my opinion or beliefs. Others resonated on a spiritual level. Many made me weep and many others made me bust out laughing.

Only a select few meet my desire for authentic characters facing realistic foes in a story line that offered just enough tension to keep me turning pages. Even fewer have all this and poetic prose that ignites my imagination.

I won’t say that the five books I’m mentioning here have all of those things. What they do offer: a thoughtful message in a bottle within a framework that makes it enjoyable to read.

The other disclaimer I have is that these are books I’ve read in the past two years. They don’t represent the most important literature every young adult should read. Nor are they the most amazing books from that genre I’ve ever read.

  1. To Kill a Mockingbird by Lee Harper

It’s a Pulitzer Prize winner, but that doesn’t guarantee anything. This coming of age story paints a realistic portrait of small town life, sibling rivalry, friendship, single parenthood and the importance of being true to what you believe.

  1. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

I’m not a fan of stories set during the Holocaust; they’re just too heavy. The original voice gives this book an edge over all the others. If it didn’t have a happy ending, it wouldn’t be on my list. The characters are tried by fire and come out refined.

  1. Cinder by Marissa Meyer

Not just another Cinderella story, this book tackles important issues like discrimination, governmental controls, and defining the fine line between medical research and murder. If a person has some cybernetic parts, does that mean they are less than human? This is the only “fantasy” on my list.

If you’ve read these books, I welcome your comments about whether you agree with the “must read” status I’ve granted them.

Sound off readers of YA books. What books would you add from the YA category that you consider “must reads” for all young adult readers?

What Makes a Pulitzer Prize Winner?

Established by Joseph Pulitzer, prize-winning journalist, this award has become a coveted prize among many novelists. I dreamed I would be the winner after I wrote my first book in fourth grade. Did I mention I’m unpublished?

According to the Huffington Post (link below), “The Pulitzer Prizes are awarded for achievements in journalism, literature and musical composition. They were established in 1917, and are run by Columbia University.” In 2012, the board at Columbia deemed “no book worthy” for the second time, the previous non-winning year was 1977.

This term, I’m responsible for reading two Pulitzer winning fiction books, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, the winner in 1961; and A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, the 2011 winner. As part of my analysis, I hope to find common ground between these two novels so I could submit my “shortlist” of qualities that make a novel worthy of this distinguished prize.

These novels are light-years apart in theme, character, story and basic concept. However, I did manage to find some broad common denominators between these acclaimed novels.

1.      Unique Writing Voice

Lee writes solidly from the perspective of Scout. Her voice is child-like and authentic. Egan jumps from point of view to point of view but every new character has his or her own distinctive voice.

2.      Strong POV Characters

Scout is a beloved character in literature. Even though she sacrifices her childhood, she gains insight that many adults have never acquired. Egan switches between first, second and third person and most of her characters garner reader sympathy or powerful commiseration. Some of them are stronger.

I was most surprised by her chapter written from second person. It was convincingly written and I felt like I was inside that character, even as he shoved at me with “you” and “your.”

3.      Character Arc

If characters don’t change, learn or grow, a story has been wasted. Although Egan’s character arc was difficult to follow because of the non-linear way she organized her book, the major characters did grow and change. From drug-addict to kleptomaniac to respectable mother of two, Sasha overcomes obstacles I’m happy to have never faced. Learning that friendship is more valuable than prestige, Bennie suffers through many losses but ends up emotionally ahead in the end.

4.      Theme: Timeless but Pertinent

Like all good books, both of these novels have numerous themes. I will focus on the one I found to be most relevant in any era.

One thing Atticus re-emphasizes with his children is the fact that empathy leads to compassion and true understanding. In the end, Scout comes to the same realization. Gossip and speculation cause people to form erroneous assumptions, but from the porch of the Radley house, Scout understands empathy is the road to ultimate truth.

In her novel, Egan shows that no one is unredeemable. Failures and detours mark every character in the story. No one is unscathed. In the end, there has been a small victory for each person.  Not that it’s a happy ending, but the reader walks away with a tiny glimpse of hopefulness.

The Two Pulitzer Winners
The Two Pulitzer Winners

I think I was more surprised by the things that didn’t seem important. In this case, there were literary elements I felt a Pulitzer novel should include, but either one or the other of these authors fell short of the mark.

In my mind, a literary prize should include:

  • A linear plot line (or at least a clear plot)
  • Beautiful language
  • Strong structural elements

In fact, A Visit from the Goon Squad failed to include any of these three items. I will concede that Egan used her words well, sparingly and effectively, but I wasn’t enthralled by any particular turn of phrase.

On the other hand, Lee uses all of these elements in her winning novel. Many pithy turns of phrase made their way into my Reading Journal.

Is the committee starting to relax their standards? Is there no strong writing being produced in America that’s worthy of this prize?



Two Terms to Go

Image by 123rf.com

Embarking on yet another eight week tidal wave of mental expansion, I can’t help but smile. My beaming face dwarfs the sun. Of course, since I live in the rainy Northwest, it isn’t hard to eclipse that brilliant star. This time of year, the clouds do a fine job of it.

Both of my classes are applicable to my major and they seem interesting. It looks like I will be reading so much for class that I won’t have time for any recreational reading. I may even have to trade in my fantasy “one chapter before bed” for school-related reading material.

Context of Writing

In the class description, the context of writing should educate students on the publishing industry. With course objectives like: identify and examine the driving forces of the literary marketplace and examine current trends in publishing, it appears I might learn something.

Hopefully, the wisdom I glean will push me toward becoming published. If nothing else, it should at least help me determine if I’m going to go with traditional publishing, indie publishing or self-publishing.

I was required to purchase a prize-winning book to use for all the course work. In addition to reading this novel (more on that in a later post), I have to read Book Business by Jason Epstein. I hope it reads more happily than it sounds. (Newsflash: I read the preface and first chapter and it isn’t too dry – so far.)

Every week I have to write a short paper for this class and I also will keep a blog through the eight-week term. At the end of the term, a six-page paper on the future of the book business will wrap up my publishing enlightenment.

Seminar in American Literature

Finally, my senior level literature class has arrived. With it, To Kill a Mockingbird and a delightful anthology of short fiction taunt me with impending boatloads of reading assignments.

In addition to reading Lee’s masterpiece, I must read another novel. I’ll analyze this novel’s themes around the premise of the class. You’ll love this cheerful theme we’re focusing on: the American ideal of loss of innocence. Should the loss of innocence ever be considered ideal?

My final for the class is an eight-page analytical paper on this yet unnamed novel and a PowerPoint outlining its major themes. Along the way, I will have to write two other papers. Fortunately, the topics have already been given so I can begin the writing as soon as I’ve finished the reading.

Did I mention I’ll be buried with texts and reading assignments for the next eight weeks? I’m hyperventilating from the weight of literary dirt over my thin casket of time.

I was hoping that I might be able to get back to writing my novel this term. With the three blog posts per week, I’ve been barely keeping my head above water. Throw in two long term papers and some shorter essays every week for class, and I don’t see much creative juice being available for the novel.

Should I be making time to write that? I always feel so guilty when I’m not doing schoolwork, and so I write in unfocused circular motion.