The books say (and there are lots of books now, many more than when I started writing, not to mention blogs) every story needs a beginning, middle, end. They teach you how to write a perfect beginning, perfect middle, perfect end. Then you write the beginning, and there isn’t any life. The books didn’t talk about that. The beginning is inert, like those writing exercises you did in high school, compare and contrast. You know in your bones that the audience you hope for will be bored, demoralized, unable read. Eventually you abandon the beginning, declare a busman’s holiday. You write anything, a thousand-word monologue from the point of view of a character you barely know, and for the first time in weeks you feel life. Where does that fit, in the instruction manual? The part where you sense something wrong, like a diviner, and turn away, because you know there’s no water?

I read The Nature of Jade, which felt burdened by too many elements— working with elephants, parents getting a divorce, runaway boy with a baby, anxiety disorder. She stitches the chapters together with epigraphs about animal behavior, making them appear connected, but they never add up to one thing, thematically. Like, Fault in Our Stars: mortality. Right at the center, all the time. How can we live, how can we love, why should we love, knowing our days are numbered?

Yesterday Ellie reminded me that the genius of The Fault in Our Stars is the size of its thematic question, and the grace with which John Green answers it. Thematic question: what’s the point of living if you’re just going to die? Every character in the book grapples with that question in some way, not just the dying girl and the dying boy. The writer they went looking for, shattered by his inability to answer the question. The blind kid’s girlfriend, who left him because she couldn’t stand to think about the question, preferring the illusory comfort of her current health. And of course Anne Frank, fighting for whatever scraps of life were left, believing until the end that her life mattered. That’s what gave the story its power— not boy meets girl, girl loses boy to cancer, but how do we make sense of a world where death will happen?

That seems to be part of why I read: lessons to live by. Help figuring out what it means to be human.

Something I did learn from We Were Liars (which, like Gone Girl, is beautifully written): character really matters. These characters are real to me— the tiny scar Gat works in his eyebrow, the fact that he cares about class, and knows the names of the servants who make their box lunches; the fact that Cady has retreated into a dark, punishing thinness. This is how close we need to get, to make stories live, and once they come alive, they have authority, whether people like them or not.