Lessons Learned from WAKE

[There are some mild spoilers. You have been warned.]

Last week I finally settled down with WAKE by Lisa McMann. (Thank you, Gwynne, for giving it to me. I’m sorry it took so long to read it.) You can find a plot summary for the book through either of the previous links. What I want to focus on instead are the things I learned about storytelling from WAKE.

First and foremost I learned that it is really hard to read critically, especially when a story is compelling. I read WAKE in one session (about two hours), and because I didn’t have any breaks, I didn’t spend much time trying to analyze the book. This story gripped me by the ear and dragged me along with it, which is an excellent thing for a general reader, but as someone who was trying to read as a writer, this was frustrating in retrospect. (At the time I was perfectly content to be a consumer and not a student.)

Part of what made WAKE so compelling was that it was written in the third person, present tense. I’ll be honest, the present tense took a while to get used to and on occasion tossed me out of the story completely (typically when I ran across constructions that you rarely see in anything but the past tense). But once I was used to the rhythm of the book, I was mesmerized. The present tense is perfect for telling a personal and emotionally raw story, and it really made me feel like I was getting as close to Janie as possible. I don’t think it would have been nearly as effective for a story with a larger or less personal scope.

McMann also used sentence fragments to her advantage, often using several in a row to convey images or action and deliver some explosively emotional moments. (The scene where Janie sees Cabel’s scars springs to mind.) And on the emotional side of things, I really appreciated that McMann wasn’t afraid to show Cabel’s weak moments and even let him cry a couple times.

However, I do have to ding McMann on one style point: there is a scene roughly three-quarters of the way through the book where we go from our third-person present tense text to what is, essentially, script format. The change was jarring and catapulted me straight out of the book, which was disappointing as it was supposed to be a very cute scene.

Another thing that bothered me was the timestamps before every scene. At the beginning of the book I kept flipping back and forth to make sure that I was correctly piecing together the chronology even though there was nothing particularly difficult about it. (Basically the first scene is a prologue that’s set during her senior year, and then we jump back to when she is little and move forward in time in a straight line, hitting the highlights until the really important stuff happens.) Then, toward the end, when I realized that we were approaching the first scene I kept flipping back and forth to find out where that scene fit in the story proper. This probably wouldn’t bother most people, but I’m one of those people that need to understand chronology, so it interrupted an otherwise even read.

On a different note, this book is definitely meant for older teens. McMann isn’t afraid to have her teenage (and other) characters use foul language, abuse various substances, or have dreams about sex. I wouldn’t label anything as excessively graphic, but it is not going to sit comfortably with everyone.

Even though WAKE is the first in a trilogy, this installment was very satisfying. The overall myth arc (Janie, her powers, and a nursing home resident) was hinted at, leaving intriguing questions to be answered in later books, and the day-to-day plots (Janie and high school, Janie and Cabel’s relationship, Cabel’s mysterious goings-on) were resolved to my satisfaction but still left tantalizing options open for the remaining books in the series. I plan on keeping an eye out for FADE the next time I go to the library.