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Inkcouragement: We’re Crafty

How can reading someone else's work help your own understanding of how to craft a novel? Author Carmen Rodrigues explains, using Paper Towns as an example. Plus: a giveaway!

Inkcouragement: We’re Crafty
The complexity of this type of layering and reversals showcases Green’s mastery of form and is one that we can all learn from by reading Paper Towns several times over. The first time, with enjoyment, and each subsequent time, seeking out a new thread to follow, a new mystery to unravel in the intricate craft of writing.

 

In anticipation of the theatrical release of John Green’s Paper Towns, I thought to revisit the novel for a closer read. I do this often, return to the works of authors I admire to take notes that will later help me fine tune my own writing. This practice is so common among writers that I’m sure many (perhaps even you) can quickly list the go-to authors whose work provides inspiration. In fact, so important is this process in the writer’s development that William Faulkner urged writers to pretty much read everything.

So following Faulkner’s advice and also my own instincts, I’ve revisited quite a few of Green’s novels over the years, particularly Looking for Alaska, and An Abundance of Katherines, my personal favorite. But this was to be my second read of Paper Towns, and since it had been a while and I wasn’t quite sure for what I was looking, I started with this author Q&A. It’s delightfully extensive, and I urge all of you to read the exchange. Highlights include Green’s perspective on Paper Town’s character development and overarching themes. There are many great quotes but for the purpose of this post, I want to focus on a fragment of his response to the initial question: What was your inspiration? What compelled you to tell the story?

Green’s reply consists of four parts, the second of which stuck with me during my revisit:

“…2. I was really bothered by the way that I was seeing people idealize (and thereby dehumanize) the people they were romantically interested in. Whether it’s Edward Cullen or the beautiful girl in biology class, I feel like we consistently treat the people we’re infatuated with as if they aren’t regular people but instead something more and better. So I wanted to write a mystery in which the obstacle was ultimately that one character (Quentin) has so profoundly and consistently misimagined another character (Margo) that he can’t find her–not because she’s hard to find but because in a sense he’s looking for the wrong person….”

For those of you who don’t know (and I’m sorry but spoilers do follow), Quentin or is the narrator of the story and the mystery that he is trying to solve—at least on a most apparent level—is the disappearance of his neighbor and unrequited love, Margo.

Q and Margo’s shared history hinges on two events: the accidental discovery of a dead body in the park at the age of nine, and, about seven years later, a night of mischief and prank-filled revenge in the twilight before her disappearance. (This is just weeks shy of their high school graduation, adding another level of tension to the novel.)

The years between these two events is filled with a distance that begins, presumably, around the time of puberty when the populars and the not-so-populars typically part ways—Margo being among the populars and Q, not. But that time of distance does not prevent Q’s love for Margo from blossoming into what can only be called an obsession. The word obsession typically carries with it a negative connotation but Q, a self-admitted well-adjusted teen, displays an obsession that is seemingly benign. It’s a constant hyper-awareness of Margo’s existence and his longing for her. 

Q views Margo as Green says one does when infatuated, “something more and better” but, as we learn progressively throughout the novel, not as a real girl with real flaws, frailties, and pathos. This disconnect is subtly (and cleverly) illustrated early on in the novel when Q describes seeing the still-present Margo in the school’s hallway, detailing her collarbone, her outfit, and her face as she, he assumes, laughs.

“…her shoulders bent forward, her big eyes crinkling in their corners, her mouth open wide…”

But a mere twenty pages later, we learn through Margo that what Q had witnessed was not laughter but a confrontation between her and her cheating boyfriend. Her wide mouth and crinkled eyes, then, were not joyous but enraged.

From a craft perspective, it is this multiple tension of opposites that I find vastly interesting. On the top layer of this narrative, we have the tension of situational opposites: Margo and Q belong to opposite social classes with opposite types of friends and friend dynamics. On a secondary, deeper level, we have a different opposition: Q’s perception of Margo, the dream girl, which is in stark contrast to the reality of Margo, a human girl.

At the start of the novel, the situational opposites take precedence—Q’s encounter with Chuck, the bully; his pleasure at Margo’s unprecedented inclusion of him in her night of vengeance. But as the novel progresses, it is the strong opposition of perception versus reality that drives Paper Towns—all, of course, wrapped in yet another layer, the more literal mystery of finding Margo.

One of the ironies of the novel is that Margo’s disappearance from Jefferson Park  allows for her appearance in Jefferson Park as her truer self—the Margo who listens to records; the Margo who goes on urban explorations of empty buildings but appears depressed; and so on. 

The complexity of this type of layering and reversals showcases Green’s mastery of form and is one that we can all learn from by reading Paper Towns several times over. The first time, with enjoyment, and each subsequent time, seeking out a new thread to follow, a new mystery to unravel in the intricate craft of writing.

Assignment:

Return to Paper Towns or a novel that you love and trace one element of craft throughout the novel. To solidify your understanding, write out your thoughts and connections in a letter to a fellow writer. Then, try to incorporate some of those craft elements into your own writing, one layer at a time.

Giveaway:

I'm giving away a copy of Paper Towns with my notes, tracing these elements throughout the novel and noting what John Green does so well. Want to win? Just leave a comment on this post describing a book and the extraordinary element of craft you want to emulate in your own writing. Winner will be chosen randomly on Monday, August 3.

Carmen Rodrigues's photo About the Author: Carmen Rodrigues lives in Virginia, just four miles shy of the White House. (Invitation pending.) She is the author of 34 Pieces of You; Not Anything; and a third YA novel, The Universal Law of Sally & Marco: A Field Guide (Simon Pulse), expected to be birthed in late 2016. On her off time, she enjoys karaoke bars, Game of Thrones theories, and audiobooks narrated by Irish voice actors.