Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Lisa: On Quiet Novels

Hi, my name is Lisa and I love quiet novels.

I love writing them, and I also love reading them. Am I in a group of a select few when it comes to this? Hold on to this thought, I'll come back to it in a minute.

I've been thinking about quiet books after a writer told me she received a rejection letter that basically said, "I'm sorry, this is just too quiet."

So, what does quiet even mean when we're talking about books? Some people instantly think quiet = literary, but I don't think that's necessarily the case. I think it's more than that. And maybe it means different things to different people, which makes it's hard to slap a definition on there that will satisfy everyone. Here are some things it *might* mean:

Fairly ordinary.
No big hook.
Hard to summarize what the book is about in a short and succinct way.
Mostly about relationships.
Not a lot of tension to keep the reader flipping those pages.

Anything else you might add?

I feel like most of my published YA novels are quiet. Some have better hooks than others. But they are all definitely about relationships.

Let's take my upcoming YA novel, coming out in July, THE BRIDGE FROM ME TO YOU, as an example. It doesn't have a big hook. It is hard to summarize what the book is about in a short and succinct way. It is mostly about relationships. It takes place in Small Town, America, so in that sense, it is pretty ordinary. I'd like to think there is a little tension in those pages, but is there a ton, like a thriller would have? No way. Not even close.

It's a book about small town life, about what family means, about what friendship means, about helping someone else be the best version of themselves that they can be.

Yep, I know - a hard, hard sell. Thank goodness I have an agent and an editor who love quiet books too. Or, as I like to say, books with heart. And that's one of the important things, I think - your quiet book better have a whole ton of heart if it's going to have any chance of making a splash in the publishing world.

If I had tried to sell this book before it was written, I'm not sure I would have been able to do so. That's the thing about quiet books -- they are often the kind that don't sound like any great thing, so it's in the execution. It's in the characters and how people feel about them as they read. It's in the setting and atmosphere, which I would argue are hugely important in quiet books. It's in the details - the little things that make the reader go "ooooh."

One of the most popular books of 2013 was ELEANOR AND PARK. From Goodreads, the one sentence description: "Set over the course of one school year in 1986, ELEANOR AND PARK is the story of two star-crossed misfits – smart enough to know that first love almost never lasts, but brave and desperate enough to try."

Some have argued that this quiet novel found legs because of John Green's endorsement, and that may be true, but as of this writing (the end of January, because I'm organized like that), it's still on the NYT bestseller list long after that endorsement. (Edited to add: Yes, it did just win a Printz honor, but I checked the NYT list before that happened). I don't think staying power like that happens unless a book is loved and talked about and talked about some more. What I've heard over and over again about this book is that readers fall in love with both of the characters of Eleanor and Park. So yeah, characters in quiet books are really important.

Okay, so who else writes quiet books? I would argue Sarah Dessen's YA novels are pretty quiet. I found THIS INTERVIEW she did with "The Horn Book" a few years back, and I think it's interesting what she says here about her books:

"SD: There are certain things about the teenage experience in our culture that are always going to be there: the issues you have with your parents; the boy you have a crush on who doesn’t know your name; the friend who isn’t nice to you, but for some reason you’re friends with her anyway. But then there’s room within those experiences to make each character unique."

All of the things she talks about are quite ordinary for teenagers. And yet, what makes each Sarah Dessen story unique is the character, her situation, the people in her life, and how the main character deals with the change.

Again, it's in the execution.

Another quiet novel that's done very well is THE SKY IS EVERYWHERE by Jandy Nelson. It didn't hit the NYT bestseller list (I don't think?) or win any major awards, but it has over 25,000 ratings on goodreads, which is a lot! And it made its way onto more than ten state reading lists. That is no small feat. It's a book about grief, and we know there are a lot of books about grief. But what you hear again and again about this book is the gorgeous writing. AND the publisher did some amazing things with the poems the main character writes throughout the novel. It is a beautiful book, in many, many ways, and that is how this book is unique and stands out from so many.

And maybe that is the take away here. Quiet books ARE published, but the ones that do really, really well have something special. Something unique. Something you don't see everyday. ANNA AND THE FRENCH KISS by Stephanie Perkins takes place in Paris. PLEASE IGNORE VERA DIETZ by A.S. King (another book about grief) is incredibly smart and tells the story from multiple points of view, including the pagoda that plays a small role in the book. IF I STAY by Gayle Forman uses flashbacks in a very unique and extremely effective way.

Clearly, people will read quiet books, and we shouldn't believe otherwise. My quiet novel coming out in July is unique in that it is written from two points of view - Lauren's and Colby's. Lauren's story is told in verse, Colby's story is told in prose. Somewhat ordinary, but also, somewhat unique.

What about you? Do you like quiet novels? Do you think they're a hard sell? Would love to hear your thoughts on this!


  1. I love quiet books.

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  2. I love books that I can sink into and feel a part of and never want to leave. If those are quiet books, then okay, I love quiet books. But they don't feel quiet when I'm reading them. They feel enveloping.

    1. That is a great word - enveloping!! Love it, thanks Denise!

    2. Also, I can't wait for your new book, Lisa!

  3. Loved this piece--and love quiet novels.

  4. I never knew there was a word for books like these. Quiet is the perfect word. All of my books are quiet books, even the ones I'm writing. I love this terminology and this post. Thank you so much for sharing. This was so helpful!

    Tightrope to the Sun

  5. Ah, yes. In praise of the quiet book. I am heartened by this article. I've been feeling bombarded with splash out there on the bookshelves. Your words resonate with me as a reader and as a writer, Lisa. Looking forward to your new book.

    1. Thanks Alice. I know it can seem like only the BIG books sell, but that isn't the case at all. We need all kinds of books!

  6. Thank you so much for this! My books are character and relationship driven and I have always loved books like that. I really needed this.

  7. Lisa,
    I love to read and write quiet novels, but the funny thing is, while I'm reading or writing, they're not quiet to me! Good ones are so full of character, emotion, beautiful writing, meaningful themes, etc.that they connect with me in ways a "noisy" novel never can.

  8. Glad to read your post :). It is very informative!

  9. I love quiet novels -- both reading them and writing them. I wrote (and deleted) a blog post the other day that began, "I have the dreadful habit of writing quiet books", lol. It came from a moment of discouragement... but I found this post very encouraging, Lisa! Thank you!

    Looking forward to reading your new book when it comes out. :)

  10. I like quiet books, but I don't think they're a good sell for a YA readership. I've got the opposite problem-a YA historical set right smack in the middle of the 3rd Reich (pause here for horrified outcry and the sound of fleeing feet) that and agent at a west coast agency more or less broke the 4th wall with when she admitted that she was quite impressed and thought it would sell big-only she's personally so creeped out by the whole time period and subject that she passed. (Her agency also passed on The Book Thief) Quite encouraging, I thought, and definitely puts the carefully cherrypicked rejections from the half dozens reads I've gotten so far in context. Sorry for wandering so far off the subject, but if you want to compete with Veronica Roth, quiet doesn't do it... Kevin A. Lewis

  11. I'm reading Sara Zarr's How to Save a Life and I think it's quiet in that way that defines a great writer. She takes her time and doesn't need to fall for a lot of the drama I used to think made up good story-telling.

  12. Banned complain !! Complaining only causes life and mind become more severe. Enjoy the rhythm of the problems faced. No matter ga life, not a problem not learn, so enjoy it :)

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  13. Well said! All very true,I like quiet books, But they don't feel quiet when reading them. SEO Company

  14. SO interesting! I write quietly, I read quietly - because the stories I love are so noisy with relationships and extraordinary ordinariness. Thank you for posting this. I feel very reassured that it isn't just me.