Monday, August 15, 2016

REVIEW: "Polarity in Motion", by Brenda Vicars

Genre:  Young Adult, Coming of Age, Whodunnit
Publisher:  Red Adept, 2014
Length: 266 pages

This book was recommended to me as being an especially good representation of the genre. I almost never read young adult novels - they just rarely interest me, and so few are well-done. So it was with a little reluctance that I began Polarity in Motion.

About ten pages in, I was hooked. The opening was expertly-written, immediately grabbing the reader as it should. As I read, it occurred to me that I would like to use it as an example to beginner novelists I am working with as a mentor and/or editor, as I try to instill in them the terrible importance of a great opening to a novel. At that point, I double-checked to see how many books the author had under her belt; I was surprised to find out that this was her first novel.

The next thought I had was that she had an excellent editor. Not only was the text clean (I think I found two typos and one grammar error - this is present in any novel, no matter how thoroughly edited), but the book was structurally extremely sound. This wasn't an easy task for a beginning novelist: the book is at its core a mystery, and with that type of book plot structure must be near-perfect: in order to keep the reader wondering and the story flying along, a writer has to do some painstakingly careful plotting. Foreshadowing must be continuous but not overwhelming; tension must be maintained to a high degree; most importantly, all the strings of plot must come together neatly at the end. The reader must be surprised by the ending, and yet satisfied and not surprised at all by what they learn. This book, for the most part, accomplished that.

Polarity in Motion is about a young girl caught up in a sexting scandal at a high school - one in which she is victimized. We follow her as she is removed from her school and home, and - during the impending formal investigation - becomes a temporary ward of the state. I really liked this section of the book, because I think it deftly illustrated the confusion, helplessness and anger of a child in such a situation. The main plot revolves around the discovery of who set her up, where the photo originated, and how it came to be a tool of bullying as it was disseminated among the peers in Polarity's social and academic world.

This book is entertaining and suspenseful and would entertain anyone from 12 to 80. It contains a lot of teen angst, crazy teachers, annoying parents, bullies, cute boys and a little romance. It really is a bang-up debut young adult novel, and is far above most others out there in terms of both quality of writing and of story.

As an editor, I did have one reservation about it, and it is one particularly interesting for me to bring up because it concerns all beginning novelists. This book makes one mistake that is very common in first books: it wants to be too many things. It hovers between being a mystery novel and meandering into various social issues that really have little to do directly with the plot. Although these passages do build layers of character and add atmosphere, they are a bit clumsy and neither advance the plot nor affect the outcome of the story.

I want to take a moment to speak about this in general terms, for the benefit of writers. Oftentimes, first-time novelists try to work a social issue that is near and dear to them personally into their story. This is perfectly fine, as long as the issue is shown within the plot of the story and has some effect on the plot's outcome. Too often, a new novelist wanders occasionally from the narrative of the plot to get on a soapbox of some sort. In terms of the technique of writing there are a few problems with this:

1 - It slows down the tension of the plot. In some cases pontificating about some moral concern goes on for paragraphs, in the middle of what should have been a continuous build of dramatic tension. The new writer will justify this as "well,  but the main character is talking about it, so..."  I appreciate that it is worked into the character's thoughts or dialogue, but that isn't enough. It still has to advance the plot, and be directly related to the story.  Otherwise the impatient reader is skipping those passages in frustration.

2 - A reader is satisfied by a well-defined theme. A great reading experience requires that the book know what it's about. As I said above, this problem is so common with beginning novelists - especially the intelligent, involved, engaged people who have real passion about a cause - and I often find myself saying to someone I'm editing, "Do you want to write a good novel, or do you want to do some real research and write a good non-fiction book about this issue? Because you need to pick one." When the narrative is interrupted by paragraphs of moralizing - even when it is part of the characters' thoughts - and that moral message doesn't directly affect the plot or move it along, it causes the reader to get an overall sense of disorganization in terms of theme. It's very hard to explain to someone inexperienced with writing that a novel is not the place to lecture the reader about social issues. Which brings me to my next point...

3 - Readers don't like unsolicited lectures. The reader of a novel is in it for two reasons. The first is enjoyment. An uninvited, unexpected lecture on a moral issue can be annoying and takes away from the enjoyable experience of being told a story.  But secondly, some people like to learn something as well from a novel. It may be argued, in fact, that the greatest novels in literature explore the social issues of the day. I would absolutely agree with that. But I guarantee you that every one of those great novels presents that social issue in a way that it is 1) incidental to the fabric of the story (that is, it never interrupts the flow or reads like a lecture to the reader) 2)  completely and intricately woven into the plot itself: that is, the social issue is the primary cause of tension, affects the plot, and affects the outcome.  It takes some very experienced writing to deftly work a moral lesson into the weave of a good story, and the best writers learn to do it well... which brings me to the last point...

4 - Readers don't need to be beaten over the head. Especially not with the author's life philosophies. Not outright, anyway. Ask my editing clients how many times I said to them, as we worked on a first novel, "Less is more. Less is more."  What I mean is, if you are going to work in philosophizing - and you certainly have the right to as a the author - work it in subtly. Most beginners don't understand how smart the reader is going to be, and how much a reader likes to work things out for themselves. Do you remember when you were a child how your mom used to tell you the same thing over and over to make her point, and how annoying that was?

Beginning authors explain way too much about the meaning and morality of the tale. They need to show it, not tell it. Too much telling - in this case talking about this social or moral issue or that (regardless of who is doing the talking) - feels to the reader like being hammered over the head with a moral. Especially when there are several (let's define that as three or more) places in the novel where that happens. I would argue it doesn't ever need to happen in a well-written novel, because the moral message should be conveyed subtly by the very action of the tale alone, and never have to be stated outright.

In the case of Polarity in Motion, the moralizing is separate from the plot. There is a lot of talk about race, and a lot of talk about inequality of privilege as regards race. But within the story this point is not illustrated: all the kids at the school seem to have the same opportunities for success, and successful individuals are presented in all races. Consequences for characters have everything to do with action, and nothing to do with race. Everything that happens in the story could have happened regardless of what color everyone's skin is. There is some suggestion that only kids of color end up in juvenile detention, which anyone who has worked with teen offenders knows is hooey  (I can say from personal first-hand work experience that many are white). There is suggestion that the kids of color are less often guilty of the charges that put them there - but it is never shown positively that this is true. And again, it's a side-plot.

One disturbing element was Polarity's many descriptions of her love interest's skin color - so many that the reader wonders if the girl is a bit obsessed with him precisely because he is black. Which would be in itself, of course, a type of racism, wouldn't it? And that would be a subject for a whole different story and possibly a legitimately interesting plot it itself. But it doesn't belong here - because in the end his skin color has nothing to do with anything.  I think this feeling comes, again, because the reader is being beaten over the head by the fact his skin is brown - the implication being isn't it cool that this white girl can fall for this great black guy. But I think most modern 13-year-olds already know that.

At the end of the book, to her credit, the author valiantly tries to tie together bullying, racism, economic under-privilege (of white "trailer trash" and blacks), and then other various notions about inequality, all together... but it ends as a jumbled bit of yet more philosophizing (not to mention some bad poetry - such as that our 15-year-old character would in fact write) and it ultimately feels out of place - because there is too much effort to make it fit neatly in to a package. The mystery story works well, and would have felt more organized, if this moralizing had all been left out or had been worked into the actual plot with subtlety.

I don't mean to seem to pick on this book - I want to state again that it is overall well-done and an exceptionally competent first effort at a novel. I simply want to clearly illustrate for potential writers who read my blog how easy it is to get caught up in trying to convey one's personal passion and political philosophy; and without the skill to do it right, you can end up lowering the quality of the novel for the reader.

I did some research on the author of Polarity in Motion after reading it, and find that she has an extensive background in secondary education. This was apparent in the book, in which the reader is taken into the inner workings of high school administration.  Ms. Vicars has openly stated her passion for questions of inequality among teens, and I'm sure that it was tempting to try to work some teaching into her novel.  I really hope to see another novel, and perhaps some of these sub-themes worked in again, but less blatantly and more closely with the plot line.

Polarity in Motion is widely available and can be found at Amazon, where I posted a portion of this review.