Jandy Nelson’s I’ll Give You the Sun blew me away. She writes in high-definition. It’s more than highly developed characters you care about. When Jandy Nelson writes it’s in color, and almost everyone else is in black and white. Reading Nelson is like walking into Wonka’s chocolate factory and it’s not just a mirage –you can walk into it and touch everything and taste it. I tried tearing apart what Jandy Nelson had done to achieve this, but it wasn’t until I read another nameless new novel that I fully understood some of what Nelson is doing when she writes. I finished the fifth chapter of Nameless Novel breathless, about to start telling people I wished I had written this book. The premise was out of this world. But it is way too easy to post-it pages that let me down. Though each of these four post-it points deals with a slightly different writing craft principle, I suspect they are all negative examples of what Jandy Nelson does so well.
I had the distinct feeling that Nameless Author was using her characters to move the reader through her own thoughts. Too often scenes weren’t about characters in conflict over their desires. Instead, the author uses her characters as puppets to walk us through her own line of thought. The result is the characters do not sound like young people, nor do they sound distinct from each other. The dialogue reads as hokey and fake. I am so much more present in the author’s head than I am in the novel’s scenes, scenes which could have been dripping mood and tense with conflict.
Her ability to stage characters’ essential discoveries through action is perhaps Nelson’s greatest strength as a writer. The most memorable occasion in I’ll Give You the Sun occurs on page 308:
It’s time for second chances. It’s time to remake the world.
Knowing I only have one shot to get it right with this tool, I wrap the cord around my shoulder, position the circular saw between Noah’s shoulder and my own, and turn on the power. The tool roars to life. My whole body vibrates with electricity as I split the rock in two.
So that NoahandJude becomes Noah and Jude.
Jude splits her sculpture down the middle epitomizing her need to be a whole person separate from her twin brother. She could have just said this in a line of dialogue, but as an action the moment is heightened, beautiful, and memorable.
Nameless Author often dangled potential scenes in front of me only to snatch them away and avoid them entirely. Two main characters discuss a move on of them has to make. No sooner does one of them reflect, in her head, how hard this will be, than we skip ahead to the next scene, a scene in which the significant move has already been made. The reader never gets to see the scene happen. I felt so cheated. I wanted to see this experience in a scene. As a reader, I want to head directly into the characters’ messiest, most emotionally challenging, horrific moments. I want to head into the moments that deal directly with the emotional core of the story.
In contrast, Nelson’s Noah has just been caught masturbating with Brian, caught by his mom. “She doesn’t pretend it didn’t happen,” Noah says narrating the opening of the next scene, and neither does Nelson. She lays down sentence after sentence heading directly into the messiest of moments, the one Noah would most like to avoid, and –oddly enough –one right at the emotional core of the novel. As Dianna enters Noah’s room to talk about what happened, I wriggle in my chair squeamishly. I want to get out of this scene as much as Noah does. But Nelson steers us right through it, and her courage results in fabulously real moments like Noah’s exclamation:
How does she know what I’m feeling? How does she know anything about anything? She doesn’t. She can’t. She can’t just barge into my most secret world and then try to show me around.
And the scene ends with Dianna’s theme-cracking statement to Noah:
“Listen to me. It takes a lot of courage to be true to yourself, true to you heart. You always have been very brave that way and I pray you always will be. It’s your responsibility, Noah. Remember that.”
And, yes, that cuts right to the core of Noah’s conflict with his mom and, more importantly, himself.
Character Development & Stakes
Namelss Novel’s protagonist loses her closest friend to a decision she, herself, will soon have to face. Nameless Novel’s protagonist witnesses the loss, she sees it happen, and it is final. This should be a climactic scene in the book. The protagonist, already dealing with traumatic loss, stands to lose the first person she’s trusted to be a real friend. But the scene leaves me cold. Why? The lost friend is severely underdeveloped. She doesn’t feel distinct from the protagonist as a person. She doesn’t even speak differently. She is characterized differently in terms of interest, background, and even race, but on the level of the soul, her approach to life has never been given definition. So, I never come to care about her. Beyond that, close friends each contribute something to the relationship the other needs; if I’d known what the protagonist lost with her friend, I would have felt the loss as it happened.
Jandy Nelson has me caring from page one:
This is how it all begins.
With Zephyr and Fry –reigning neighborhood sociopaths –torpedoing after me and the whole forest floor shaking under my feet as I blast through air, tree, this white-hot panic.
In these two sentences I come to know about care about Noah. Because he is running from bullies, I feel immediate sympathy for him. I smile at his voice, at his hyperbolic way of thinking, at his energetic, racing syntax. I also admire my first glimpse of Noah’s vivid way of viewing the world. If Nelson can do this in two sentences, imagine how much I, the reader, care about Noah by page 145 when Jude describes Noah’s new, non-painting personality as “death of the spirit”. I literally gasped. I felt the loss, because I’d been given a chance to feel what Jude was losing. I lost Noah with her.
The Readers’ Job
In one of the final scene of Nameless Novel, one character basically explains the meaning of the entire book, over the course of eight pages. No fair. A book is supposed to be an interaction between the reader and the text. It’s the author’s job to put a story out there. It’s the readers job to react to it. No fair kicking the reader out and taking over that role. A significant thematic line or two placed appropriately? Okay. But eight pages. It kicks me right out of the story because I have no more thinking to do. And, frankly, it feels disingenuous because in reality nobody shows up to explain the meaning of life.
To be fair, even Nelson dallies with the temptation to moralize at the end of I’ll Give You the Sun, but at least her thematic lines are tied to in-scene action. It’s a little much when Jude rambles on about how maybe we are accumulating new selves all the time, but this is so incredibly overshadowed by action-action-action at all the climactic moments. Jude saws the NoahandJude statue in half. Oscar tackles Noah. Guillermo realizes Dianna is Jude’s mother –not because someone tells him – but because he sees the studies for her statue. This is a novel of secrets revealed, but they are never just disclosed from one character to another, they are revealed through action every time.
I hoped by exploring the contrast between these writers’ approaches I would be able to arrive at some general principle of novel writing that embodies all four of these writing musts:
• Staging characters’ essential discoveries through action achieves the integrity at the core of why we write in the first place.
• Heading directly into the messiest moments at the emotional core of the material results in radically true, reader-changing moments.
• Slowing down and spending the time to develop characters who need each other raises the stakes, heightening the moments when we lose them.
• If you do these things, there won’t be any need for you to explain your book’s meaning in the final chapters because your readers will have lived it.
I think all of this can be summarize by some of the most powerful words a writing teacher ever shared with me. Editor Patti Lee Gauch often says, “Go far enough.” I’ll Give You the Sun is a prime example of a writer going far enough.