Books about dead people almost always interest me, but there’s a big difference between a Nancy Drew dead person and a Donna Tartt dead person. Part of the difference is detail– Nancy’s pink sweaters and healthy lunches, and Donna’s snakes and water towers, leeches and spreading trees. Part of the difference is voice: what Nancy thinks about life, which is, come to think of it, pretty much nothing, and what Donna thinks. What do we learn from Nancy? Mr. Tindle tried to hide the fact that he embezzled money. What do we learn from Donna? Life is unpredictable; one cruel accident can unmake a family: the loss can be absorbed, but never repaired. These are the reasons I put one book down, distracted, and stay with the other one, reading late into the night.

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?