Tag: Writer’s perspective on a Novel

#BestsellerCode100: Writer’s Analysis of Olive Kitteridge

Let’s analyze Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout from a writer’s perspective. The discussion began February 13, 2017.

This post contains spoilers.

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

 

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This title won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2009, so you would think it would be easy to review from a writer’s perspective. Obviously, it was chosen as the best novel written that year. I should be gushing about the writing. So why am I having so much difficulty?

One reason may be the novel is:

olive-kitterage-literary-fiction

Literary fiction has its own pace. To use an analogy, literary fiction is a slow drive through the countryside on a Sunday afternoon. The pace is slow. It meanders. It looks at the pretty scenery.  The car (plot) occasionally encounters some bad weather or a pothole or two,  but all in all it is a leisurely trip.

Compare that to a genre fiction, such as mysteries. In mysteries you don’t know where you are going, but you are usually traveling along at highway speeds, so you’re going to arrive in a reasonable amount of time. You are probably going to have some near misses and perhaps encounter some real danger to keep you alert.

Thrillers are the opposite of literary fiction. In a thriller the plot charges like a race car in a fight for its life. The events occur at a lightning fast pace and your adrenaline is flowing. The scenery may be reduced to a blur, with your focus directed to what’s ahead.

The bottom line is that sometimes you want to be in a race car and sometimes a Sunday drive is what you need. For whatever reason, I didn’t enjoy traveling in the car with Olive Kitteridge.

Plot/Structure

Unlike the rest of the novels we’ve read so far, this novel is organized into 13 short stories. As to be expected with literary fiction, the story does not proceed chronologically, but jumps back and forth in time.

Character

The main character is a woman named Olive Kitteridge. During the first part of her life she is a school teacher. She is curmudgeonly. She treats her husband Henry badly — for no apparent reason — and clashes with her son. In short, she has all the flaws of a real person.  Many readers will find her a difficult character to like, to identify with, or to root for.

Setting

Olive Kitteridge lives in the small town of Crosby, Maine. From the very first line, it is apparent that the author lives in Maine and has a strong connection to the state. The handling of the setting was outstanding.

 

maine-olive-kitteridge
Public domain photo via Visual hunt

Themes

Themes are usually well-developed in literary fiction, and this novel is no exception. The theme of suicide reoccurs throughout the short stories. There’s also a theme of how people struggle with love and relationships.  Another theme is loss, such as loss of youth and loss of Olive’s son when he moves to California, etc.

My Personal Comments About Olive Kitteridge

I know how difficult writing a novel is and usually I try not to be too hard on an author if he or she makes a few mistakes.  Because this novel has received so many accolades, however, I don’t mind being honest about not liking it. Specifically, although other reviewers have commented on the profound emotional impact of the stories, I felt manipulated. There were too many artificial constructs and convenient coincidences. For example, the scene in the hospital rang completely false to me. Stopping at  a hospital to use the bathroom when they were only 15 minutes from home was moderately contrived. Keeping her there for an exam was illogical and unrealistic. To have men with guns show up to steal drugs on top of it was so flimsy it made me roll my eyes. Yes, random bad things do occur in real life, but to me it all happened to set up a confrontation. I was unable to suspend my disbelief. I could see the author’s hand under the puppets.

Good thing I’m not a member of the Pulitzer Prize committee.

Have you read Olive Kitteridge? What did you think?

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Do you have suggestions for ways to improve this reading challenge? We’d love to hear them.
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What are we reading next?

If you ever have questions about what we are reading next or when we’re starting the next discussion, check the 100 Book List tab in the navigation bar at the top of the blog.

The next book is 92. One Day by David Nicholls (2009) – Discussion begins February 27, 2017

#BestsellerCode100 Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island from a Writer’s Perspective

Today I’m going to review Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island from a writer’s perspective,

Note:  This post contains spoilers.

Shutter Island: A Novel by Dennis Lehane.

When you’re reading a book as a writer rather than as a reader you tend to focus on the craft. For example, you may notice how the author handles dialogue, how he handles the scenes, or how he develops characters. This perspective can be like studying how magicians do their tricks, so be prepared for a glimpse at what goes on behind the curtain.

In the book we are using for our reading challenge, The Bestseller Code, Jodie Archer and Matthew L. Jockers discuss theme, plot, style, and character. To add more depth, for my analysis I chose to apply the categories from the Six Core Competencies of Successful Storytelling from Writer’s Digest instead.

1. Characters

(Note:  If you are unfamiliar with the vocabulary I’m using below, the Helping Writers Become Authors website has a clear, concise summary of the character archetypes.)

On the surface the characters seem to follow the standard archetypes. The protagonist (main character) is U. S. Marshal Teddy Daniels, a likeable, but flawed man. He is filled with angst over the death of his wife Dolores, whom he loved deeply. Dolores could be best defined as the impact character, although ironically the woman the marshals are looking for, Rachel Solando, also fills that role.  His new partner, U.S. Marshal Chuck Aule, is the affable sidekick. The antagonist is played by Dr. Joseph Cawley, who is in charge of the facility for the criminally insane on Shutter Island. At the end of the book, however, the characters get thrown into a blender and it becomes less clear who is serving which role. For example, is Chuck Teddy’s sidekick or Dr. Cawley’s sidekick?

Dialogue
One way for a writer to establish character is through dialogue. Dennis Lehane is a master of dialogue. He excels at making each character sound unique. (Note:  at times he uses some pretty raw profanity to achieve this. Do you think this helped or hindered character development?)

Some ways to make dialogue authentic — more like real speech — include using contractions, sentence fragments, vocalized pauses (like “um”), and mixing up the length of the lines. Lehane does it all, plus he’s such a pro that he flies through dialogue without using a single “he said.”

(Teddy:) “You guys do that a lot?”
(Cawley:) “What’s that, Marshal?
“Sit around over drinks, and, um, probe people?”
“Occupational hazard, I guess. How many psychiatrists does it take to screw in a lightbulb?”
“I don’t know. How many?”
“Eight.”
“Why?”
“Oh, stop overanalyzing it.”

2. Setting (Scene Execution)

Because the title of the novel is a place, it’s reasonable to expect the setting to be important. In fact, the first paragraph of the prologue sets the stage. It is all about the island.

I haven’t laid eyes on the island in several years. The last time was from a friend’s boat that ventured into the outer harbor, and I could see it off in the distance, past the inner ring, shrouded in the summer haze, a careless smudge of paint against the sky.

Lehane’s descriptions of the setting are visceral.

3. Theme

The theme of a novel is the part that applies to the real world or what the novel means. You can describe the theme as the questions asked or lessons learned.

In Shutter Island, one of the chief themes is mental health. How fragile is the human psyche? Parallel to that theme is how love/marriage can be a minefield.

Another strong theme in the novel is that water is a dangerous force of nature. In one scene early in the book, young Teddy gets motion sickness when he’s out in his father’s boat, but all isn’t as it seems.

“…Teddy unable to tell his father that it wasn’t motion that had turned his stomach.
It was all that water. Stretched out around them until it was all that was left of the world. How Teddy believed that it could swallow the sky. “

Soon afterwards his father dies at sea. Water turns up again and again at crisis points in the story.

Topic
The Bestseller Code examines novels using topics rather than themes, probably because it is easier to define using a computer model. What is the difference between a theme and topic? A topic might be “dogs,” whereas the theme of a novel might be “dogs are loyal friends.”

The authors found that a writer who devotes up to a third of his or her book to only one or two topics is the most successful. It does make sense that too many topics might confuse and misdirect a reader. Lehane did a good job because he stuck to a few intense topics developed as themes.

4. Structure

Structure is the order of storytelling. In this case, the prologue starts in 1993. The first chapter bounces back to 1954 and the main story progresses more or less chronologically through a period of a few days, with short flashbacks to Teddy’s relationship with his wife Dolores.

In a famous essay by Elmore Leonard in the New York Times, he states a writer should avoid having prologues because they are annoying. In Shutter Island, the prologue is critical to understanding what comes after, but it’s so different in tone from the rest of the book that readers might be tempted to skip it.

Did you read the prologue? What is your opinion of prologues?

Conclusions:

Whether or not you enjoyed the book as a reader, from a writer’s perspective Dennis Lehane did an excellent job crafting Shutter Island. A beginning writer could learn a lot from critically studying his work.

 

bestseller-code-100-first

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Currently we are hosting a challenge to read through the list of 100 best of the bestsellers recommended in The Bestseller Code by Jodie Archer and Matthew L. Jockers. Shutter Island is number 100 on the list, and we started discussing it on November 7, 2016. Please feel free to join the conversation.

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