I’ve decided to write some essays on the craft of fiction writing, each focusing on a particular and specific skill, and each referring to a stupendous book that serves as an example of that skill. That way, I get to dive into some nitty-gritty craft topics while also recommending good books.
This post contains some spoilers — though not the biggest spoilers! — for Monday’s Not Coming, by Tiffany D. Jackson.
Today I want to talk about a particular writing skill that, when done well, is often invisible to the reader who isn’t looking for it. That’s because it’s a skill that prevents the reader from being pulled out of the book. It’s a little hard to sum up in a few words, which is why I plan to write several paragraphs about it :o), but my first attempt at summing it up is this: in a masterful book, most building blocks — most aspects of character, most events, most settings, most every single thing that matters — serve multiple narrative purposes at once.
You know that moment when you’re reading a book and you’re suddenly knocked out of the narrative dream because something happens that seems random, arbitrary, or forced? As if the writer has shoehorned something in, and instead of it fitting, it pops you out?
You know when you’re reading a book and suddenly a fact seems too convenient, as if the only reason it’s in the book is because the author’s trying to make something else in the book believable?
You know when you’re reading a book and a character feels more like a list of characteristics, rather than a real person?
When you’re writing a book, problems like these arise constantly. It’s the nature of trying to fit a whole lot of different ideas into a cohesive whole: your first few attempts are lumpy, clumsy. Nothing is connecting yet. In fact, I think it would be fair to say that my first drafts are a big messy pile of events, personality characteristics, badly-placed clues, characters who aren’t comfortable with each other yet, etc., etc., all of it waiting to be fixed. And the more complicated the book you’re trying to write, the harder it is, in subsequent drafts, to weave all the parts together into a pattern smooth enough to soothe the reader into believing your story.
When this weaving works perfectly — as it does in Tiffany D. Jackson’s Monday’s Not Coming — it’s because of intensely hard and skillful work on the part of a writer. A lot of skills contribute to the weaving, but today I’m going to talk specifically about how most aspects of Jackson’s book perform several jobs at once. And I’m going to try to illuminate how the consequence of this is a perfectly woven web, so strong that a few chapters into this book, I relaxed, knowing that I, the reader, was safe. I knew that Monday, a missing girl in the book, wasn’t safe. I worried that Claudia, the book’s narrator, wasn’t safe. But I was confident that this book wasn’t going to drop me.
I’ll start by sharing a little plot to set things up.
In Monday’s Not Coming, after spending the summer with her grandmother in Georgia, Claudia returns home to Southeast, her neighborhood in Washington DC, ready to enter eighth grade, but worried about her best friend Monday, who didn’t write her a single letter the whole time she was gone. This lack of letters is Claudia’s first sign that something’s wrong in the life of Monday, and many more signs follow. When school starts, Monday doesn’t show up. When Claudia tries to call Monday, Monday’s phone has been disconnected. When Claudia asks Monday’s family members after her, they give inconsistent answers — she’s with her aunt, she’s with her father. When Claudia tries to visit Monday, Monday’s mother won’t even let her inside the house. The evidence mounts that something is gravely wrong… But no one will take Claudia’s worries seriously. Claudia is alone, growing increasingly distressed as Monday continues not to show up. The reader follows along as Claudia tries to find her.
At the same time, the attentive reader is trying to solve a mystery taking place on another level. This is because the events of this book don’t occur consecutively, and there’s a mystery about their order. We go back and forth in time, learning about the events that took place before Monday disappeared, then always returning to Claudia’s experience of trying to find Monday. Each chapter of the book has a title that places its events in time for the reader. Four times are represented: The Before; One Year Before the Before; Two Years Before the Before; and, The After. (There are also nine very short chapters each titled with a month name, starting in September and continuing through June, but for the moment, I won’t get into that.) The second-level mystery the reader is trying to solve has to do with the chapters labeled “The After.” These chapters seem consecutively interspersed with the chapters labeled “The Before,” as if they’re part of the same timeline… So the reader starts to wonder, before what? After what?
It’s so puzzling that in a different book, I might have started to wonder if the titles were mistakes, or if maybe it was some sort of strange artistic license that wasn’t working for me (“Time is a beautiful tapestry, la la, who cares!”). But I didn’t wonder that, because the skill of Jackson’s writing was so apparent — largely because of the thing I keep talking about where most aspects of the book performs multiple jobs — that I knew it was leading me someplace good.
Now I’ll finally explain what I mean! Note that the page numbers I reference are in the paperback edition, published by Katherine Tegen Books in 2018.
Okay. Here’s an example of an aspect of this book that performs multiple jobs. It’s one of my favorite characteristics of Claudia: her relationship to color.
Claudia has an unusual eye for color. It’s so unusual that in Claudia and Monday’s first scene together, on page 30, Monday teases Claudia about it. When a low-rider Cadillac creeps by, Monday chuckles and says, “Hey, Claudia, what color is that?” Claudia responds with, “Hmmm… It’s like a mix of rust and apricot with a yellow undertone.” Monday laughs and fondly tells her she’s weird, probably thinking, like I am, that the Cadillac is orange. But when Claudia looks at colors, she sees so much more than orange. Colors matter to her, deeply. It’s an interesting and endearing quirk. And as every student of writing knows, you need to give your characters a few quirks, something to make them feel like more than words on a page.
I don’t know about you, but sometimes when I’m writing, I assign a characteristic to a character, then, because I’m trying to juggle so many other things in this ##@$ goddamn stupid BOOK, I promptly forget about it. Unless l I remember again at some point, then try to make that characteristic work for me in other ways, it can feel a little tacked on. The sort of thing that draws the attention of the reader, because it interrupts the book’s feeling of authenticity.
Well, Jackson remembers about Claudia and color. Again and again, she reaches for this characteristic, using it to illuminate conflict. To advance the plot. To serve as a metaphor for growth. To demonstrate healing. This is what I was trying to explain above: Any aspect you choose to add to your book will sit more comfortably in your book if you attach it to other aspects of your book. When you decide something about one of your characters? Consider what other ways, beyond character-building, you can make that decision work for you. When you hit a snag in some other part of your book — be it plot, setting, mystery-building, dialogue, pacing, mood — remember that characteristic and ask yourself, could that characteristic illuminate the solution to this problem? Look for places to weave that characteristic into other parts of the book — not too much! But just the right amount — and don’t worry too much about that balance early on, because that’s the sort of thing you’ll work out over the course of several drafts, probably with the help of other readers, but mostly with the direction of your own instincts.
Oh, and by the way? It isn’t like there’s going to be one aspect you need to remember and weave. There will probably be dozens, if not hundreds. It’s okay. You can keep a list! Whenever you’re stuck, you can refer to your list. When you’re not stuck, refer to it then sometimes too, just to remind yourself what your aspects are! And if you feel like you’re constantly about to forget a hundred different important things, don’t worry. That’s one of the many normal ways to feel while writing a book.
But I’m getting carried away. I was talking about Claudia’s relationship to color.
Ready for some examples of color’s multiple jobs in Monday’s Not Coming?
- Color demonstrates Monday’s affection for Claudia (as shown above), which is really, really important, because the relationship between these girls is complicated. It’s rough in some places and built on some jealousies, selfishness, and lies, but it’s also really, really devoted and substantial. The reader needs to see these moments of affection, to clarify the love and closeness between these girls.
- Color also demonstrates some of Claudia and Monday’s mismatches. For example, late in the book, Claudia learns that Monday has always pretended that her favorite color is pink, to please Claudia. It might sound like an odd thing to be devastated about, but not for Claudia. It’s a spotlight on all the things she’s failed to see about her friend, and all the ways she’s never been able to help. On almost the last page of the book, Claudia says to herself, “Still felt a pinch of guilt whenever I saw pink” (431).
- Because of Claudia’s gift for color, we get a really rich sense of what people look like and how they dress — a richer sense than we get from most books. On the morning of the first day of school, Claudia’s mother wears “her short auburn hair still in pin curls. Sometimes in the light, little specks of gray peeked out behind her rose gold highlights” (7). Also, Claudia’s mother has a great sense of style. I began to look forward to Claudia’s descriptions of her outfits. On page 120, she wears “a sandy-colored long-sleeve dress with her black church blazer.” On page 141, it’s “a rose-colored skirt suit.” On page 383, she wears “a black wrap dress, church heels, and a frown on her face.” At school, we see a range of skin colors — Shayla has a “pretty brown face,” and Trevor Abernathy’s “white button-down shirt [makes] his rich black skin glow” (11). At one point, Monday decides to dye her hair blonde — “Not like white-people blond,” Monday explains. “More like Beyoncé blond” (206) — but when it goes wrong, Claudia almost screams at the sight of her. “Her hair was a violent burnt orange, her roots a rusted burgundy” (207). One of my favorite moments is when “April, enraged, snatched up my collar, pulling me so close I could see the drops of gold mixed in her brown eyes.” I totally believe that in a scary moment of being grabbed, Claudia would notice the gold flecks in her attacker’s eyes.
- Color is part of Claudia’s psychological therapy, thanks to the research of her father, who’s read an article about coloring books being calming. “I take my time picking the right shade,” Claudia says. “There’s a distinct difference between periwinkle and cobalt blue” (25). (This is also a moment to mention that color connects her to her father, who’s clearly noticed how much color means to his child, and who regularly finds her new coloring books.)
- Color illuminates the path to Claudia’s social growth. Before Monday went missing, Monday was Claudia’s only friend. How does Claudia begin to cement her friendship with other girls? She does their nails. “Megan, red with black dots like a ladybug; Kit Kat, pink with silver stripes like a candy cane; Paris, French manicure with a coffee base and black tips” (288). The girls are stunned at her eye and her skill. Claudia can use her facility with color as social capital.
- Color plays a huge role in the lyricism of Jackson’s prose. Remember those short month chapters I mentioned before? They’re reflective, lyrical passages, beautifully framing and positioning the rest of the book, and every one of them refers to color. Maybe my favorite passage from these is on page 337: “If Daddy was a color, he would be forest green — thick, lush, calm, whispering refreshing wisdom only few could hear. / If Michael was a color, he would be bark brown — cocoa, mocha, chocolate, the color of earth. Quiet, supportive, but strong. A softness that loves grows from. /Together, they are the tree I lean on when I’m weary. The tree I swing from.” This is just one of many moments where briefly, the scary story slows down and we sit with Claudia and feel what she’s feeling. In these moments, we’re also sitting with the mood Tiffany Jackson creates with her beautiful, color-specific imagery.
- Color serves as part of the tapestry of Claudia’s neurodiversity, her dyslexia, which she’s always ferociously hidden from every single person in her life except Monday. A teacher gives Claudia “a pack of these plastic gel filters, the size of looseleaf paper, tinted in various colors: aqua, coral, celery, and apricot.” (144). First of all, who besides Claudia would ever define the color of a gel filter as “celery?” I love her. But also, color becomes one of Claudia’s main tools for ease of reading. “They’re supposed to help me read better when I lay them over pages in books and stuff. I held them close over my face and watched the whole room turned blue, like we were sitting at the bottom of the river.” Claudia’s relationship with her dyslexia is a huge and important part of this book — so the discovery that color can be a helpful tool really matters. It also feels appropriate, and not the least bit shoehorned in, because color has so many other important roles in the book.
That’s seven examples of the functions of color in the book. As a reader, you’re encountering all of them at once. Can you see how they’re a web holding you up?
I’m not going to try to list all the other aspects of Monday’s Not Coming that Jackson uses as multipurpose tools, because I want you to read this book, and I’ve already given enough away. But as you’re reading, notice what Jackson does with the love and anger (and especially the loving anger) of Claudia’s mother. Notice what she does with the gentrification, racism, and poverty that beseige many of the residents of Ed Borough. Notice the ways that Ma’s miscarriages touch on different parts of the plot. Notice how Claudia’s dyslexia plays into her own character arc, but also illuminates some of the conflicts in her relationship with Monday. Notice all the ways Claudia’s dancing weaves through the book. Think about time: There is so much skillful weaving in this book with regards to time that that could’ve been my entire blog post. Notice the varying tools Jackson uses to demonstrate how differently this story would have played out had a cherished child like Claudia been the one who went missing.
Also, notice how nothing is shoehorned in. Nothing is sticking out at weird angles. Nothing feels random, arbitrary, or forced.
Also also! One of the things that happens when everything is woven together so nicely is that the real, true clues to the mystery — both the mystery of where Monday is and the mystery of what’s going on with the timeline — can rise sparkling from the page. Notice how those clues don’t get lost. You’re not left wondering what matters and what doesn’t, because everything has its clear purpose. This doesn’t mean that as the reader, you won’t miss some clues — I missed clues! And I followed some of the red herrings, just the way I was supposed to. But because of the way the book was woven, when everything finally came together at the end, I was left with that satisfying feeling of Yes, this was always where everything was leading.
I want to add that I don’t know Tiffany Jackson, and I haven’t talked to her about how she wrote this book. I don’t know how conscious or intentional any of her weaving was. I make no assumptions about her process. But I can see the results. And being a writer myself, I can appreciate what an accomplishment it is.
So. For the writers out there, what is the lesson here?
Here’s one way of putting it:
When you’re deciding who your characters are, be thinking about every other part of the book at the same time. If you decide to give your characters a particular personality quirk… Decide why that matters to the story, and weave it into plot. Weave it into mood or setting or dialogue. It doesn’t have to serve 7+ purposes, like color does in Monday’s Not Coming! But try to attach it to some other part of the book besides itself. Also, at the same time, think about it from the other direction. If you’re at a place in your planning where you’re trying to untangle some plot complication… Focus hard on what your book already contains. On who you already mean your characters to be. Is it possible that the solution you’re looking for can come from some aspect of your characters that already exists?
Here’s another way of putting it:
When you’re writing and revising, planning, rewriting, and reshaping, it’s always great to be looking outside your book for solutions and answers. But don’t forget to look really, really hard inside your book too. Find the solutions that create new connections between and among the materials you already have.
Make sense? Writing a book (and reading a book) is a complicated business. It can be tricky to articulate why and how. But I hope this was helpful! Now go read Monday’s Not Coming!
|Reading like a writer.|
A little housekeeping here at the end, since I’ve been mostly away from social media during the ongoing protests about the murder of George Floyd and police violence against Black people.
Here are some links that have helped me get my mind around what’s happening and figure out what to do to help:
This interview with Ta-Nehisi Coates on The Ezra Klein Show: https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x7uahcx
This article, called “The Story Has Gotten Away from Us: Six months of life and death in America,” by Betsy Morais and Alexandria Neason, which cuts through the bullshit and clarifies the story of the pandemic and how it intersects with racism in America: https://www.cjr.org/special_report/covid-floyd-protests.php
This Radiolab episode, called “Graham,” which explains the origin of the concept behind “the reasonable officer,” and how this affects the trials of police officers: https://www.wnycstudios.org/podcasts/radiolab/articles/graham
This list on Medium of “75 Things White People Can Do for Racial Justice”: https://medium.com/equality-includes-you/what-white-people-can-do-for-racial-justice-f2d18b0e0234
Finally, it occurs to me that for those of you who aren’t on Twitter, I should mention that I have a new book coming out on January 19 :o). It’s a Graceling Realm novel called Winterkeep, told in multiple perspectives. You can read more about Winterkeep here.