Friday, March 4, 2011

Busted: A.S. King caught giving voice to a building

Young adult author A.S. King is fearless. Her first novel, Dust of 100 Dogs, begins with dead 17th century pirate Emer Morrisey returning to a human body after living out a pirate’s curse that had doomed her to a hundred lifetimes as a dog. She has retained her original human memories as well as her memories of lapping at water and fighting with litter mates, and all of this accumulated experience contributes to Emer's long-interrupted pursuit of love and riches.

And yep (or should I say, “yap”)—we buy all of this, hook, line, and sinker.

In her new book, Please Ignore Vera Dietz, King continues to exert an almost defiant creativity. Rather than rely upon prose alone, King employs flow charts, for example, to exemplify the decision making of her 18-year-old protagonist, Vera. The big decision: Vera must decide whether she wants to clear the name of a dead friend—a boy she loved, who she feels betrayed her, yet whose memory won’t stop hounding her. King has Vera use her school vocabulary words to parse out the conflicting motives of other characters involved in the story ("Here's me using parsimonious in a sentence.")

King also hands off a point of view to a building. And not just any old building. It's the Pagoda, a seven-story Japanese-inspired "monstrosity" (Vera's word) that has been sitting on Mount Penn, looking out over Reading, PA, for the past hundred years. Apparently, it's been collecting its thoughts.

For those of you who want to read the book, I won’t quote what it says, but when King inserts short chapters titled “A Brief Word from the Pagoda,” you’ll uncover several laugh-out-loud moments.

Why give a point of view to a building?

Creative writers do it all the time; it’s just usually a little less direct. At the end of the first chapter of my memoir, Standoff at Ronnie’s Place, I assign the burden of my own sadness to the sagging architecture: “Rain rolled down the unreadable faces of the outbuildings.” Already established is the fact that the farm in my story, old as it is, has seen many life cycles of joy and despair. Using setting to indirectly evoke emotion is a powerful technique that can detour you past clichéd biological responses like jaw tightening and stomach flopping; once I refer to the "faces" of the outbuildings, I don't need one brimming eyelid for the reader to know I’m talking about crying.

But King is after a humorous effect. Even though her story is contemporary, with no dragons or vampires or other fantastical elements, she allows a fanciful piece of architecture short chapters for direct commentary. Her objective was the same as mine—while sitting on its immovable foundation all these years, this building has observed the comings and goings of generations of misguided teenaged humans. It can therefore offer a depth of perspective that spans generations.

King shows us that once buildings are allowed to talk, they don’t have much of a filter. The result is both wise and outlandishly funny.

In this era of reality television, and with manuscript after manuscript crossing my desk with murders and rapes whose solutions are CSI-based and whose trials are “ripped from today’s headlines,” I'd love to edit such a fanciful manuscript. Many of us writers have drifted away from fiction’s true potential. Maybe, King’s approach reminds us, we should be a tad less concerned with verisimilitude, and a little more fanciful in search of what is true.

The result is still as enlightening—but it’s also entertaining as all get-out.

What outrageous moves have you come across in your writing or reading lately?

Kathryn Craft specializes in developmental editing at, an independent manuscript evaluation and editing service. What she believes: 1. Editing forever changed the way she reads. 2. Well-crafted moments of brilliance help her forgive many other problems in a manuscript. 3. All writers have strengths and weaknesses—but why settle for weaknesses? 4. We can learn as much from what other authors do right as we can from what we do wrong. This is her series, "Busted!—An author caught doing something right."

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  1. I applaud authors who have such great imaginations!

    Morgan Mandel

  2. What a terrific post. You have made me think about approaches to the writing that I had not before. This is most helpful in the edit I am currently doing for a client. I was questioning assigning POV to an inanimate object,which I still think he does too often, but maybe I need to pull back on my red pencil just a bit. Thanks.

  3. Morgan and Maryann:
    Another creative element Amy (A.S.) used was in the naming of Vera's mother. Her mother is a source of embarrassment for Vera because before she walked out on Vera and her father, she was a stripper. Mom eventually changed her name. So every single time Vera mentions her mother, we see it spelled "Cindy"--struck through--with the new name "Sindy" after it. Sound annoying? It is--and it perfectly exemplifies this constant irritant in Vera's life, without Vera ever having to comment.

  4. I just finished reading it, and to me, one of the best things about it was the flow charts! Amy and I did an event together last month and she mentioned that her dad was a serious flow-chart maker.

  5. Cyn: Thanks for stopping by! I had really hoped to get to that event but the weekend was over-packed and I ran out of steam--which means WE STILL HAVEN'T MET!! Still looking forward to it.

    For those reading these comments: Cyn Balog is an established YA author in her own right--check her out!

  6. Intriguing. I might have to look out for Ms King's books.

    HearWriteNow & Blood-Red Pencil


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