I recently blogged about books that have influenced me as a writer. One question that comes up is the difference between being influenced by other novels in your genre and copying them.
In some ways, if you’re writing in the same genre, you’re bound to use some of the same elements. Readers choose those genre books partly because they like those elements. But readers also like to be surprised, so a writer can’t just reproduce what’s already been done. Instead, you have to borrow with a twist.
This week, I reread Fonda Lee’s Jade City because the next book in the series is out, and I wanted to remind myself what was going on. I had time to read because I’d finished a draft of a book about Dilly, a secondary character from The Wind Reader. As I read Jade City, I started a list of things I learned from it that I could use to revise the Dilly book.
A Layered Book
Jade City is a layered book. By that, I mean there’s a lot going on that’s woven together to form a single, complex story.
I’ve written before about the four doors by which a reader enters a story: plot, character, setting, and theme. Different readers prefer different doors, so in general, the more doors that are open, and the more widely they’re opened, the more readers a story has. Lee has left all four doors wide open.
Think of Jade City as The Godfather set in a fantasy Asian country in which jade gives people with right genetics augmented strength and perception. Jade wearers (Green Bones) form into clans that violently compete for power. That being the case, the risk of death is high and so is plot tension.
I was particularly interested in the clans because in the Dilly book, one of the two point-of-view characters is part of a criminal family that his culture calls a kinship. At a recent workshop, the leader asked me how my YA fantasy was different from every other one out there. I think this clan/family/kinship element may be part of the answer. It’s important in this character’s culture and you don’t see it much in other YA. So drawing on Lee’s example, I plan to strengthen it when I revise.
The story in Jade City is told from about half a dozen points of view, all of them members of the No Peak clan. Point of view is a powerful tool for making the reader care about a character, and Lee uses it well. Thus the violence of the plot is often committed by or against people we care about.
One handy rule of thumb for good fiction is “everybody arcs.” The more characters who develop, grow, and change, the richer the story. The No Peak clan members arc, often against their will.
Lee also uses internalization well to help us know and understand the characters. Internalization can be tricky because too much of it can slow a story down. I think Lee goes right to the edge of how much works, but for me as a reader, she stays on the right side of the line.
The major characters in the Dilly book do arc, but when I revise, I plan to see if I can’t build arcs in for more of the secondary characters too.
Setting has both physical and social aspects. Characters live in a physical place and in a specific society. In fantasy, both place and culture are often created, which gives a writer a wide scope to do interesting things—assuming the writer can think of them.
The geography of Jade City feels real to me. As an example, the physical and cultural aspects of setting come together in the names of neighborhoods or buildings: a restaurant called The Twice Lucky, an area called The Armpit. There’s also a fair amount about the religious beliefs that control or justify the violent aspect of life in Jade City.
When I revise the Dilly book, I’ll do more with the culture if I can, maybe with food or mode of dress. The story takes place in the middle of a Mid-Winter Festival, so there’s also room for music and other kinds of performance and play. All those little things contribute to a fantasy reader’s enjoyment.
The themes running through Jade City tend to be about the nature of power and its expression in war or politics. The story is told in a way that blends the personal and political.
There’s a thread of a political theme in the Dilly book. I’m not sure I want to do more with it though. I think there’s enough to give the characters’ personal struggles a large impact, and that’s probably sufficient.
Will the example of Jade City, an adult fantasy, work in young adult?
In addition to the Jade books, Lee has written a young adult fantasy series that starts with the science fiction book, Exo. The central character is a teenage boy who fights in a war wearing an exo-body of armor. The theme is coming of age and making your own choices, a common one in young adult. The central character is the only point of view.
I don’t want to say this story is simple, because it’s not. The central character grapples with the ambiguous nature of various political powers and his role in supporting or opposing them. However, I found Exo to be less layered than Jade City, and it’s possible that more streamlined story is appropriate for teenaged readers. YA books are, on average, shorter than adult ones for a reason. However, it seems to me some YA fantasy books are complicated in the way Jade City is. I’d cite Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows, Kristin Cashores’s Fire, and Rachel Caine’s Great Library series as examples. Given Lee’s obvious skill, she may have decided Exo is a story that needs to be told in a more straightforward way.
After rereading Jade City, my impulse is to make the Dilly book more layered as I revise, even though it is YA.
In summary, when you read very good books, the trick is not to copy them, but to learn from them.
The Wind Reader (Inspired Quill 2018) by Dorothy A. Winsor is available in e-book and paperback. E-book only $3.99.
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When street kid Doniver accidentally tells a true fortune for the prince, he’s taken into the castle to be the royal fortune teller. Good news? Food and a warm bed. Bad news? He can’t tell fortunes.