Saturday, January 28, 2012

Alvina Ling: Narrative Fiction

Alvina Ling, talking about narrative fiction.

The lovely Alvina Ling is editorial director at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. She edits everything from picture books to YA, along with some nonfiction, and is no doubt the person who discovered many of your favorite titles.

Did you love YOU WILL BE MY FRIEND by Peter Brown, and SHARK VS. Train by Chris Barton and Tom Lichtenheld? Her books. Same for the transcendent WHERE THE MOUNTAIN MEETS THE MOON by Grace Lin, the powerful NORTH OF BEAUTIFUL by Justina Chen, and the utterly dazzling DAUGHTER OF SMOKE AND BONE by Laini Taylor.

She blogs with a group at Blue Rose Girls and is on Twitter (@planetalvina).

She loves genre fiction of all kinds: open to fantasy, mystery and romance. But she requires a certain literary quality to the work. "Literary fiction is my love."

She talked with us about narrative fiction, focusing on three big elements: the narrative voice, the structure, and the plot, and starting with a great quote from W. Somerset Maugham: "There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are."

Narrative voice is intertwined with character, Alvina says. One of the things a writer needs to decide: Who is my narrator going to be? A character? An omniscient observer? A main character? A sideline character? Multiple perspectives? A third-person limited? (Her list was quite thorough.)

"There are a lot of decisions you have to make," she says, and sometimes, the choices can be unexpected. For example: PLEASE IGNORE VERA DIETZ by A.S. King was written from the point of view of a pagoda, Alvina said.

Sometimes, "When you're reading a first-person point of view character, you generally know the character isn't going to die. Unless the book is titled 'BEFORE I DIE.'"

She read from a number of books, showing how a choice like POV can be used to add suspense, relate-ability and other things to our stories--it was a fascinating exercise.

Structure, meanwhile, can sometimes be influenced by voice. It can be influenced by the characters you use and the perspectives your story is told from. It can also be arranged around a series of letters, objects, illustrations, or artifacts (like a Twitter feed).

She asked her authors what they started with when it came to structure. One author started with the last sentence. She also likes the structure of THE BOOK THIEF, which reveals one character would later die. This, for her, increased the tension and obscured the possibility of other deaths, which really worked for her.

Plot: Here, the most important thing is to have a conflict. Only one conflict is not enough--unless you're writing a very simple picture book.

"Don't be afraid to put your characters in peril. You need to fear for those characters and not know if they're going to be OK," Alvina says.

She comes up with a pithy sentence that explains what the book is about. It can sometimes be hard to summarize books this way. THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO and DAUGHTER OF SMOKE AND BONE are two successful books that defy such brief summarization, but in general, it's useful to have that elevator pitch.

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