Book Coach Corner: Valentine
Background: What Is Book Coach Corner?
(For those of you who have seen these types of posts before, you can jump down to Synopsis :)
I am a certified book coach via Author Accelerator. The goal of a coach is to help writers get their best story into the world. This covers support in every part of the writing process: planning, drafting, editing, polishing, and publishing.
A big part of the job, though, is helping writers create their best stories. This means strengthening character motivation, tightening cause and effect threads, assisting with plotting, and much more.
In this blog series, I thought it would be fun to look at popular and classic books, TV shows, and movies with the eye of a coach. What would I suggest to the artist to help make the narrative stronger? What are the strengths and opportunities in the piece?
A couple more details to see if this tantalizes your blog-reading taste buds:
- The reviews will go in-depth on the subject, so it may not make sense if you haven’t read/viewed it
- It will spoil everything if you haven’t read/viewed the blog’s subject
- At the beginning, I’ll give a quick synopsis and my “gut” reaction to the work. This is the subjective stuff, so that I can then get into the work’s architecture with more of an objective eye to story, improvement, and praise
Those are the details. This entry takes a look Valentine, a fantastic book with some of the most gorgeous setting descriptions I’ve ever read.
Valentine tells the stories of multiple women in the town of Odessa, Texas in 1976. A brutal sexual assault causes their worlds to intersect.
I really enjoyed this book. It’s been a while since I’ve read something with this level of writing. The prose is gorgeous and Wetmore draws such a haunting and beautiful image of Odessa that I felt like I was actually there.
The women’s stories were also all fascinating and varied. I saw the author speak at an event and she said there really isn’t much “plot” in the book, but I thought there was plenty. All the women have fascinating backstories and the novel builds to an exhilarating climax.
As I mentioned, there is a ton of wonderful things to take away from this book. The one I wanted to focus on for this post, though, is Wetmore’s use of microtension.
I came across this blog via Lisa Poisso’s newsletter. I’ve become a little obsessed with the concept because it helps define so many issues that I find in writing.
Microtension is the unease in a book “achieved on a line-by-line basis.” It isn’t the big climax or plot twist but the conflicting feelings, confusion, misunderstandings, or pain that occur at a beat-by-beat pace in the story.
Wetmore is a master of seeding this tension into her prose. The opening paragraph is a brilliant example of putting two characters together and creating a profound sense of unease and mystery:
Sunday morning begins out here in the oil patch, a few minutes before dawn, with a young roughneck stretched out and sleeping hard in his pickup truck. Shoulders pressed against the driver’s side door, boots propped upon the dashboard, he wears his cowboy hat pulled down far enough that the girl sitting outside on the dusty ground can see only his pale jaw. Freckled and nearly hairless, it is a face that will never need a daily shave, no matter how old he gets, but she is hoping he dies young.
In two sentences we have an entire world opened up for us:
- We have two characters.
- We know the time and place of the events.
- There is a clear tension between the male and female in the space. They are separated physically and emotionally. The girl wants him dead!
We don’t need to know anything else to be fully locked into the story. We don’t need to know every detail about how they got there or what happened to be immersed in the drama: we, of course, WANT to know all that, but if Wetmore had started too widely, it could have been a slog. We could have gotten too much setting, backstory, or emotion and not been placed in the first, most intense conflict in the scene: Glory staring at her rapist and wanting him dead.
I was recently working with a friend on the opening of their novel. The book starts with a scene between a college student and an admissions advisor. In those first drafts, they really wanted to give the reader full context right away on the narrator, the conflict, and the character’s arc. They sent a bunch of possible paragraphs to revise the opening (they’d received some really helpful feedback from agents and an editor that it needed more drama). In those drafts, the action started too wide. We were given an explanation of the story’s setup rather than being placed inside the story.
It may seem like a small differentiator, but the first drafts of the scene explained why the protagonist was in the office rather than what she was doing while seated there. It’s the difference between:
- Sally was nervous because she was asked to see the principal.
- Sally watched the principal flick through her permanent record.
The first example is explanation. The second is tension.
Wetmore is a master at this sentence-by-sentence tension. In her opening, we are placed with urgency and immediacy outside a truck. We don’t need to know who the characters are to understand that there is something tense and terrible going on. There’s not a bit of explanation, only tension.
Don’t think that you have to have a sprawling, wild plot to keep readers engaged. Engagement starts at the sentence level and pulls readers along bit by bit.
If you get feedback that a part of your story is sagging in terms of tension, look at the microtension in that section. What’s at stake? How can it be reflected in setting, character action, or description?
For example: If you have a dialogue scene and it feels boring, break down the elements and see where you can pull out drama.
- Setting: Where are they? Can the setting be used to add menace or drama?
- Action: What are the characters doing? The small movements people make as they speak help define their character and mood. If you have dialogue and one of the characters seems distracted, you immediately open a mystery for readers: What is the character thinking about? Why? What’s going on?
Even adding some small movements to a character as they speak can raise the tension dramatically: Are they nervous? Angry? Excited? Make sure it’s clear.
Just as with my post on Piranesi, I had to stretch for critiques in this book. There were two that stood out after some thought:
- With the multiple characters moving back and forth, I actually lost the main thread of the story with Glory for a while. This is also a compliment because the individual stories were so riveting that I was distracted.
- The larger issue was also with Glory’s story. The climax of the book does not involve her — her story is the reason the characters engage in the climactic scene, but she is not involved or present.
After seeing Wetmore speak, I expected there to be very little plot, but the climax is really intense and riveting. In it, there is a misunderstanding, and one of the main characters pursues a man in a car chase because she thinks he is going to hurt a little girl (just like the man who hurt Glory in the story’s opening).
It is a fast-paced, page-turning scene with three of the main characters in hot pursuit of each other.
The issue for me is that after the intensity of the climax, we move to Glory’s story and her trip back to Mexico with her uncle. It’s an odd deflation of tension, and because Glory is distanced from the climax, we don’t see how the events of the story have transformed her.
In the climactic scene, all of the characters involved in the chase, have some revelation of character. All three are transformed by the drama and tension of that pursuit.
Glory, on the flip side, doesn’t have that moment. Wetmore tries — in the final moments there is an intense scene with Glory and a snake — but because it’s a new source of tension rather than something that has brewed over the course of the novel, it feels flat.
Because of this, I didn’t really FEEL how Glory changed in the book. It is stated that she does. The ending chapter makes it clear she is taking agency for her story, but it didn’t affect me because the transformation wasn’t woven into the climax. I think there are a lot of reasons to do this in a book about sexual assault, but as a reader, I wanted her character arc to be more tightly bound to the main narrative events of the story. This would help more fully express her emotional change.
In a book with multiple POVs, make sure the narrative events of the primary character are fully intertwined with the main plot events of the story. Had Glory not been set up as the main character with her experience driving the other events, I wouldn’t have missed this as much. Because Valentine ends up being her story, I wanted her to be involved in the climax and see her arc of change more closely highlighted.
Valentine is a beautiful novel full of incredible stories. Throughout the text, Wetmore presents a masterclass in microtension that pulls readers deftly from one sentence to the next, but there is still opportunity to more fully integrate the main protagonist into the climax of the novel to highlight her choices and transformation.
Thanks to Ms. Wetmore for writing such a brilliant book. I’ll be thinking about Odessa, Texas for a long time to come!