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Read Recently: Divergent

Title: Divergent (also book 2: Insurgent and book 3: Allegiant)
Author: Veronica Roth
Published in 2011 by Katherine Tegen books, a division of HarperCollins Publishers
Read on February 11, 2014
Recommended by: no one in particular. The movie trailer, I suppose.

Synopsis from the publisher:

In Beatrice Prior’s dystopian Chicago, society is divided into five factions, each dedicated to the cultivation of a particular virtue—Candor (the honest), Abnegation (the selfless), Dauntless (the brave), Amity (the peaceful), and Erudite (the intelligent). On an appointed day of every year, all sixteen-year-olds must select the faction to which they will devote the rest of their lives. For Beatrice, the decision is between staying with her family and being who she really is—she can’t have both. So she makes a choice that surprises everyone, including herself.

During the highly competitive initiation that follows, Beatrice renames herself Tris and struggles to determine who her friends really are. But Tris also has a secret, one she’s kept hidden from everyone because she’s been warned it can mean death. And as she discovers a growing conflict that threatens to unravel her seemingly perfect society, she also learns that her secret might help her save those she loves… or it might destroy her.

The gist:

It’s a creative and deliciously readable YA dystopian future novel with a strong female protagonist and a significant romantic storyline. Did you enjoy Hunger Games, The Gift,  Star Split, The House of the Scorpian, Uglies, et cetera? If yes, you will like this book. Possibly even more than those others.

The good:

Roth writes action well and her characters are layered and interesting. The protagonist, Beatrice (“Tris”), is the character with the clearest voice and personality of the group. That’s not surprising, really. Divergent is written from the first person. What is surprising is how likeable she is even when doing some incredibly unlikable things. In that, Roth has done a very good job in making her seem real, and also sort of kick ass.

The best aspect of these novels is the setting. But let’s put aside for a moment that I’m a sucker for this dystopian future stuff. By segregating the population into four groups (well, five really if I include the Factionless – and if I paid attention at all to the lessons of the series, I should include them) Roth demands that her readers consider where we would fit, and what benefits and sacrifices we would experience because of that choice. (If you’re wondering, I’d choose Erudite without hesitation. Amity would be torture.)

A lesson in self-examination, stereotypes and labels, government interference, survival instinct, terrifying technological advances, and the generally grey and complicated nature of humanity (with a surprising amount of death. Who are you Veronica? George R. R. Martin?), Divergent is a read that should resonate with you on a personal, moral, and political level.

The bad:

Though Tris is written very well, there is one part of her character that just doesn’t fit. Roth describes her as a sort of average-looking girl who grew up for 16 years in an Abnegation house without mirrors, without vanity, without compliments. Then she chooses Dauntless and really comes into her own. She finds her inner strength and daring and spirit appreciated. She becomes less clumsy and more fit. She becomes a fighter and finds things worth fighting for. At this time people start to be interested in her romantically.

Here’s where I have the problem: Maybe the Abnegation part of her, who isn’t used to being noticed, would ask “Why me?,” but I find it extremely hard to believe that her first reaction to romantic overtures would be “But I’m not as pretty as the other girls.” Tris has always known precisely how attractive she is, and didn’t seem to care too much. She was much more concerned about not being as strong, or tall, or fast, or well-trained as the others. The interest of a cute boy isn’t going to change her character that dramatically.

Also I found that the character arcs of a couple of other characters through the series are choppy and disappointing. Notably, Four.

The other:

Roth loves to describe the scent of things. Her descriptions of smells are vivid and sometimes beautifully worded, but really frequent. Almost distracting.

The Divergent film hits theatres on March 20, 2014 with Shailene Woodley (you might know her from The Descendants) playing Tris. The trailer looks pretty awesome. Also, Kate Winslet is in it, and she can do no wrong.

As always:

If you’re interested in reading this, please visit one of your charming, musty, local libraries. If you want to own it for yourself, try your hardest to GO TO A BOOKSTORE instead of an online retailer. (As a former bookseller, I must plead with you to keep those wondrous book havens alive). If at all possible, make it an independent bookstore, but in a pinch, even the giant corporate books/music/housewares/wrapping paper/Starbucks monstrosities will do.

S.E. Lund

Just one more chapter…

You know that moment when “just one more chapter” becomes three hours later? It’s a truly precious moment, because it means you have been caught up in a story so compelling that it causes you to forget that alarm clocks and day jobs and flannel pajamas are the reality. You’ve obtained a new reality inside a character’s head, and it so outshines your own that you don’t even remember that time is passing.

What magic.  What sleep-deprived magic.

I love this experience, but you know who hates it? Future me. Future me with her office hours and responsibilities and decision not to be a coffee drinker. Future me is super resentful of “just one more chapter.” But she’ll have to suck it up. Story trumps sleep every time.

S.E. Lund

Unplugged.

A Facebook friend of mine (our relationship used to be face-to-face but now exists purely through the evil genius of Mark Zuckerberg) is also a hobby writer. He suffers, like I do, from follow-through issues stemming from habitual procrastination and a willingness to be distracted. I figure he’s talented. Years ago he promised that I could read something of his and shortly after our friendship dissolved… perhaps the pressure of my possibly judgemental review of whatever he was planning to let me read contributed to that. But I’m getting off topic. The point is he’s funny and creative and one of the rare people whose Facebook statuses are very frequent and completely personal, but somehow entertaining and engaging.

(To me, the worst Facebook offenders aren’t the vapid daily selfie posters, or the people incapable of spelling any words correctly, or even those glorious few who have uncomfortably personal conversations and arguments out there for the world to see – my dark side finds these last examples a certain kind of wonderful. What I can’t stand on social media is people being BORING: “Just got a grilled cheese. Yum!” “Ugh. More snow.” “Watching hockey with the fam. #blessed #goteam #hashtagsonfacebook.”)

This friend’s ability to post about his unextraordinary life is a friggin’ miracle. I look forward to reading what he has to say in three sentence tidbits, and I’d love to be able to read something longer. Last week he took a break from social media and the internet as a whole. My Facebook feed suffered, but his writing flourished. In his words “An entire week offline. I haven’t thought this clearly and undistractedly (not a word) since the 90s […] this is the key to being able to write. Being unplugged for relatively extended periods.”

I’m trying to decide if I agree with this statement. For the first two weeks of NaNoWriMo, I turned off the internet while I was writing. I had a rule that I could only go online once an hour for fifteen minutes, or every thousand words, whichever came first. It worked wonders, forcing me to put (virtual) words on the (digital) page because there was nothing else to do. However, about halfway through the month, once the daily writing had started to be habit and I didn’t have to be as vigilant about avoiding distractions, the tools that the wondrous internet provided were essential. I became a devotee to the @NaNoWordSprints Twitter account, which had me competing for word counts against myself and others while throwing in optional challenges like using the word sloth or writing a birthday party scene. My personal beast to slay was the #1k30min. If completing NaNoWriMo was my primary goal, completely a #1k30min was a very close second. I managed it with a few days to go while writing a scene about a shark attack. No kidding.

I’ll say that if you’re stuck, uninspired, lazy, or procrastinating – definitely unplug from everything. Go out somewhere. Sit in a quiet space with a pen and paper and watch the world. Then write stuff down. For me, if inspiration comes from the physical world, motivation can come from the digital one. If you must be plugged in, find online outlets that will push you to write – communities, writing challenges, blogging.

(Psst: My Facebook friend doesn’t know I’ve posted about him, but I guess that’s the risk you take when you say anything online).

Self-indulgent crap: Or, how not to be Dawson Leery.

Netflix has the entire series of Dawson’s Creek available currently, and I’m not ashamed to say that I watched it all. I actually started it during NaNoWriMo on the second day of my flu, when the Dawson-Joey-Pacey love triangle was the most complicated thing my sickly neurons could process.

Aside from reminding me that Joshua Jackson’s Pacey is really the star of the show (sorry James Van Der Beek… Dawson is just incredibly unlikable for the first couple seasons, and by the time he grows up, we viewers can’t ever forget his whiny, wide-eyed childishness), Dawson’s Creek teaches budding creative types that their lives are super interesting – as a primetime soap opera. If you’re unfamiliar with the show, allow me to say *SPOILER ALERT* now, and you can decide to skip ahead a couple of paragraphs if you like.

Dawson Leery, naïve wannabe film director, makes a film in the second season to try to imbue his (first? second?) breakup with Joey with meaning. In the final season, he looks back on this attempt and calls it, if I can paraphrase, a self-indulgent piece of crap and waste of money. Then for some reason (mostly because people keep telling him he used to have “heart”) he does it again, sells it as a T.V. show that is exactly the same as Dawson’s Creek – because meta – and it leads to fame and fortune since teenagers acting out tiresome melodramas and deciding over years whether or not to have sex with one another has the “heart” everyone’s been looking for.

Maybe the average person’s life is interesting enough that others will enjoy experiencing it as second-hand fiction. But personally? If I can’t write an amazing story about my first year of high school, then I won’t be able to write an amazing story about “Jamie”’s first year at my high school either (She’s not me! Really! Look! She’s a red-head!).

I’m not saying that characters, settings, and themes need to be completely original to a writer (as we know, there’s nothing new in storytelling). Of course we’re going to pull from our own experiences, relationships, and personal feelings.

I am saying that if your story is simply your clone acting out the exact situations you went through, but it wouldn’t stand up as literary non-fiction, it’s probably self-indulgent crap. It’s fantasy mixed with nostalgia, and it may very well sell as a primetime soap opera to the CW, but it won’t help you grow as a writer.

A caveat or two to my argument: Maybe your story is interesting enough to stand on its own as literary non-fiction, but you want to frame it as fiction for some reason. That’s cool. More power to you. Maybe your purpose is not to grow as a writer necessarily, but to understand yourself as a person. I’m sure exploring yourself as a fictional character could have some psychological merit.

When I’m tempted to write a protagonist that is a not-too-veiled version of me, instead I write a fringe character who is definitely me. For example, I’m writing a young adult short story right now and I began molding “Aly” into a glorified fourteen year old me. So I introduced her parents. I tried to imagine what I would be like at forty, with a teenage daughter, and in the world of the story. This exercise makes me develop a creative version of myself (instead of a version blurred by wistfulness), and forces me to make my actual protagonist distinct from the “me” in the story. Much more interesting.