Writer's Corner

  • Magic Waters, Wacky Characters, and a Disappointing Heroine... Oh My.

    Hyacinth and the Secrets Beneath by Jacob Sager Weinstein is a fast-paced adventure that unfortunately doesn’t deliver on the wacky, but heartfelt premise promised to readers. The story follows the heroine Hyacinth on her journey through the mysterious world created from the magic waters of London’s underground.

    The Secrets Beneath is filled with creative characters. There’s a giant pig wearing a bathing suit who communicates via printed message cards. Also, along for the ride are the unforgettable villains like the man with his head facing backwards and a surprisingly creepy unicorn. They are all clever, and sometimes eerie to imagine.

    Yet, these wacky characters are not enough. Especially not when its main heroine is rather… undeveloped. Within twenty pages, the official plot of the story has begun, and by that point, the readers don’t have a sense of Hyacinth’s life outside of the fact she just moved to London and has a number of interesting skills including plumbing.

    Now, we know that her parents are divorced based on a single phone call between Hyacinth and her father, where he tells her that he’s getting remarried. Until that moment, he did not exist within the story. Until that moment, I assumed Hyacinth was being raised by a single mother. Then after that call, Hyacinth only mentions her parents’ divorce, and her father in general, about two or three times. Hyacinth’s relationship with her parents is only used to explain why she knows about plumbing rather than develop her emotionally.

    This wouldn’t necessarily be a major issue if the entire plot didn’t rely on her relationship with her mom. After all, Hyacinth is entering an insane, and rather gross, world of magical sewers all to save her mother. But the only interactions we see are Hyacinth mocking her mother’s long monologs in which each sentence contradicts the one before it. While Hyacinth loves her mother, she acts more like the parent in the relationship.

    Also, as fascinating as the premise of the magical rivers proves to be, there isn't a clear idea of how the magic and the creatures relate to it. Why is there a giant pig, or Saltpetre men? Most of the monsters are dropped in without rhyme or reason as to how they exist, especially in relation to these magic waters.

    Apparently, magic can be channeled, especially if you are a member of Hyacinth’s family—which her mother remembers near the end of the book in a funny but dumb moment that is unrealistic even for her scatterbrained character. After all, who doesn't remember to mention to their daughter, "oh, we can channel magic water and stuff"? But that brings us back to the real question, how does this magic work? 

    Here's my personal bone to pick with this story. For at least half the book, Hyacinth doesn’t make her own decisions. The plot pulls her along for almost half the story—often times quite literally in the case of Lady Roslyn and the sewer water carrying her from one discovery to the next.

    Where the book picks up and starts to come into its own is when Hyacinth begins to learn. She comes up with clever solutions and makes her own decisions on how to get her mother back. Once she learns how she can’t lie around magic, she finds clever ways to hide lies in the truth, in order to free her mother. She pulls on the memories of her family and solves her own problems.

    This is when it’s enjoyable to be swept away by the story’s fast pacing. Because Hyacinth’s actually navigating through the world instead of being pulled around by it. If Weinstein had spent a little more time setting up his main character and allowing her to affect the plot—rather than the plot affecting her—then all other issues might have been excusable.

    Based on the ending, it’s likely Hyacinth has a few sequels in her future. With any luck, Weinstein will take the time to dig into her character and provide readers with the fully fleshed out comedic heroine we desperately want.

  • Reading About Writing

    There always seems to be an irony to reading books about writing. Not to say there's anything wrong with it. But often times, it's one person's opinion on what makes a good story and techniques for creating characters and pacing and so on. All good things. Except, what if these ideas don't fit with your own writing?

    Now, I've definitely read a few books about writing and I should certainly read a few more. But personally, should the best idea for how to write better be... to write? And read books and watch movies or television shows similar to what you want to write? Dissecting the stories that you love and find what works and how it can influence your own style?

    All this being said, I have started reading Stephen King's On Writing on advice from a friend in my writer's group. Which, one of the things I currently love about it is how King does not claim to know everything about writing. He has no interest in telling people what to like or what to do.

    Now, the first part of the book-- the portion I just finished in one day-- is a series of snapshot memories from King's life. These short memories are a fascinating and brutally honest about everyone involved. And it brought up a few interesting questions for me.

    As a person who has yet to read a Stephen King novel-- blame my natural anxiety around the horror genre-- I have limited knowledge about the man himself. However, I was struck by a few things.

    King had a generally happy childhood from what I could glimpse, but a difficult one. One with constant moving, money problems, and limited father figures. This could be utterly unrelated or completely intertwined with his problems later in life with alcohol and drugs-- it's is not for any of us to judge.

    He makes a clear stand that alcohol and drugs do not make great artists. They do not improve your craft, and to hinge your success and a "deep" style on substances is inaccurate. Alcoholic writers are simply alcoholics who can write. It is not a job requirement. It is not a real excuse.

    But I am reminded how many great artists seem to have these complicated histories. I think part of this reason could be, they have experienced in some cases the worst parts of life. They know how to write and create works that reflect these feelings-- and they resonate with people.

    I think it's also these lows that lead them to various coping mechanisms. Most of them are less than healthy. Which is not an excuse. Because there are healthy options out there.

    Pardon this post a bit, it is mostly me attempting to put my scrambled thoughts into words. I personally have had an overwhelmingly good life. So most of this is more general musings than anything in connection with these ideas. 

    The world seems to be moving far too slow right now, but I do find comfort in a few other things King had to write about. Like the rejection letters he received middle school past his college years. How he worked a few crappy jobs right out of college, in a struggle to support himself and his young family.

    I don't expect King's kind of luck on his first novel. But I like thinking that it's happened, it's possible, and hopefully commercial success is not the impossible dream it feels like right now.