Review: “Vicious” by VE Schwab

Blessed be, all! As the month of July comes to a close and the end of this year’s Camp NaNo sessions draw near, it’s exciting to look back on all of the progress I’ve made so far in both writing and reading. This year’s challenge for me was to branch out into more adult fiction instead of keeping my YA blinders on. I’m so happy that I did because I’ve been introduced to so many great authors already that I wouldn’t have picked up otherwise.

The one I want to talk about today is Vicious by VE Schwab. I think this was a great way for me to get a glimpse into the kind of writer she is; I’d heard her name associated with some YA novels before but had never picked them up. In a way, it’s appropriate that I started here since this was her first adult novel.

It’s hard to list exactly what I loved about this book without venturing into spoilers, but I’m going to try. Starting with the characters. Victor and Eli are such delightful sociopaths. I mean that in the literal sense. They’re both terrible people, as cruel and vindictive as the title would suggest. But they’re also among the most compelling characters that I’ve read lately. That is difficult to do, but I bought it completely.

All of the secondary characters are amazing, too. Victor’s little found family that you meet over the course of the book are delightful. Even the lesser antagonists that Victor and his crew happen across feel fully-realized. Everyone serves a purpose in the narrative and each comes across as a distinct person beyond their role in the text.

Obviously the plot is incredible, from the pacing to the non-linear telling. It’s multiple-viewpoint without ever being disorienting, and I can’t think of any scene or arc that didn’t tie together at the end. But the wildcard, the thing that rendered me unable to put the book down, was act two’s countdown mechanic. Where all of the chapters in act one are told out of order, jumping back and forth chronologically as the reader needed particular pieces of information, the same utilitarian date stamps take on a new purpose in act two. They become a ticking timebomb, hurtling the reader forward, and they give everything a delicious tinge of malice.

People, Plots, or Planets?

Blessed be, all! I hope your week has been going well! Mine’s been a little rocky, but I’m keeping with it. My draft is lining up exactly as I want it to, which hopefully bodes well for the remainder of this Camp NaNo session. We’ll see how it all falls out!

What I wanted to talk about this week, though, was not so much different kinds of stories as different kinds of authors. Which, I suppose, by extension also extends into the kind of readers one can come across and the kinds of books they’ll enjoy. But for my part, I’m more interested in what it looks like from this side of the screen at the moment.

Understanding what gets you excited to write a story–what you’re telling this particular tale for–I feel is an important step in understanding your writing process and the kind of books you’ll enjoy writing. It also gives you an idea of the kind of problems that you might encounter. Let’s have a look!

  1. The Worldbuilder- These authors love intricate, detailed settings. Whether it’s a fantasy, a sci-fi, a long-ago time in history, or just the next block over, the point of the story is to show off the world. What gets these writers from beginning to end is the where.
    The good news is that they tend to craft immersive settings that feel as though you could reach out and touch them. The bad news is that sometimes it feels as though nothing happens in that beautiful living landscape. They can also come across as empty, being sparsely populated by characters.
    If you find yourself in one of these two pitfalls, try thinking of your world as a beautiful work of art in the Louvre. A painting needs an audience to give it meaning. People your world with characters as fully-realized and detailed as your setting and watch it come to life!
  2. The Schemer- These fine folks are more interested in the goings-on in the world. Whether an epic journey, a thrilling heist, or a forbidden romance, what gets these writers going is the what.
    To be fair, the first thing a person usually asks about a story–be it a play or a book or a movie–is, “What happens?” This puts the schemer at an automatic advantage since they’re to be focused on honing exactly that. The bad news is that this can mean the characters fall into flat stereotypes or seem to be slaves to the overarching plot. It can also mean that the setting isn’t fully immersive.
    For both of these issues, the fix is the same. Get more fully into the character’s mindsets. Let them tell you about the world, and allow their thoughts and motivations to add a level of complexity to your plot.
  3. The People-Watcher- This one is definitely my alley. We’re the ones that tend to be in it for the characters. Their quirks, their voice, the things they want and the things they fear. The ones we love and the ones we hate–they’re all our bread and butter.
    The good news is this makes for characters that read as if they could actually exist. They move on the page, and readers love them or love to hate them. The bad news is it can lend itself to stories about great people doing nothing or living in a whitespace world.
    The best solution I have found is to give my characters more obstacles. Be it other characters at cross-motives, a time crunch, or the environment itself. All of the above help my cast not exist in a vacuum while pursuing their goals.

Plotter, Pantser, Whatever.

Blessed be, all! We’re underway at Camp NaNo, and things so far are going swimmingly in the draft. I still have about thirty days to finish the story or at least get 80k of it done, and I’m on track for that currently.

Today’s topic comes from one of my writing kiddos. She’s working her way through Stephen King’s On Writing again, and it occurred to her that, even though she loves this book and finds that it, in general, has good advice, she disagrees with his writing method. Stephen King is a hardcore pantser. He starts with a question or a concept (What would happen if a mother and son were trapped in their car by a rabid dog with no help in sight?) and dives directly into the draft with no further development or planning.

Rachel cannot do that. She needs a structure, a plan, which King calls stifling to the creative process. For her, though, it’s the process of making the plan that helps the story feel alive. It helps her create a roadmap for the world and flesh out the characters, their goals, and their relationships.

For myself, I fall somewhere in between. I like to thoroughly build out my characters and my world before I start, but I prefer to only have the basic gist of the flow of the plot while still leaving room for my characters to surprise me. Too much structure and I feel boxed in or bored. Too little and I find myself paralyzed by just how many roads I could take.

Most writers, I think, are some combination of plotting and pantsing. It’s also important to note that some will vary by the project. I have heard of stories that vehemently defy any attempt to plot them but fall together effortlessly when pantsed. I’ve heard of tangled messes that lay down in neat rows when plotted. There isn’t a right or wrong way to do it, just what you need as a writer and what works for the particular project in front of you. It’s all a matter of knowing how to narrow down your process to find the way to do this specific story.