Writing is easy. Writing well will make you question your life choices. It’s similar to, “My God. Why did I eat that entire burrito and the whole bowl of queso?” Writing seems like a good idea. Even a great one as you start. But then you realize your characters are dull, much like that bite that was mostly tortilla and sour cream. You’re gagging on trope-y plot points and your metaphors are cold, filmed-over goop not worthy of another chip.
I was in a slump. MAD MOON was finished, but I was feeling down about it. I kept wondering if I’d made the right decisions. I knew it was good, but I wasn’t sure if breaking the “writing rules” was something I could do and get away with it.
I did what I typically do when I’m creatively stumped or worried about my writing (or on a day that ends in “y”): I read. Reading helps me remember why I love a good story and why my stories are worth telling. I chose THE CURRENT, Tim Johnston’s follow-up to his bestseller DESCENT.
In THE CURRENT Audrey, a college-aged woman, and her friend are traveling home to visit Audrey’s dying father. On the way, they are attacked and driven into the icy waters of Black Root River close to their destination in Minnesota. This particular river holds local significance. Ten years earlier in those same waters, another young woman was murdered.
As Audrey is processing what’s happened, she feels a connection to the girl murdered the decade before and begins her own investigation, stirring emotions in the small town and angering locals who want their marked history left alone.
Johnston’s formatting choices are bold. We’re taught to use quotation marks for dialogue, but not using them is a stylistic choice that some won’t agree with. I loved it. There’s a freeing quality to this choice, especially for a writer. It’s also a way to highlight the narrative, to allow the natural flow of storytelling instead of breaking it up visually or conceptually. Johnston switches points-of-view and moves from the past to the present depending on the chapter, which makes the forward movement of the story highly important. Discovering plot details, character traits, and clues that create suspense keep the chapters and voices connected, successfully creating a seamless and captivating story.
It is beautifully done.
I think readers know when they’re reading something superior. Maybe we can’t all describe why we feel that way or pin-point the thing that makes the writing so wonderful. For people who love a good story, it will make them want to pick up the next book or slow down their reading so that the end doesn’t arrive so quickly. I remember holding this book, stopping mid-sentence, and thinking, “I can do this.” In some way, Johnston’s book gave me the permission I needed in order to go ahead with my own writing and the courage to break a few rules while I was at it. It wasn’t an acknowledgment that I could write like Johnston or a book just like THE CURRENT. It was a reminder that what readers want, myself included, is just really good storytelling.
“Truly, it is that simple,” I say through a mouthful of burrito.