Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld

Afterworlds

Wow. It has been a while since I reviewed a book on this blog. I’ve read a lot of good ones along the way. However, for whatever reason, none of them compelled me to write a blog post. There were a few I wanted to, but the words just didn’t come. Then Afterworlds came along. Something about this book is so. . .unique, it just had to be written about.

To begin with, it’s important that we realize that Afterworlds is actually two books in one. It is part Afterworlds, a novel written by fictional 18-year old Darcy Patel, and part the story of Darcy becoming a published author. These two stories are told in alternating chapters.

I won’t bore you with the details of either story, because, quite frankly, they’re good, but not the most interesting part of this book. The most interesting part is reading and watching Scott Westerfeld wield his pen and do magical things with this book.

First off, there’s the fact that the story-within-the-story is written by an 18-year old girl named Darcy, not a 51-year old man named Scott (who actually wrote the story). It’s also not only Darcy’s first published novel, but she wrote it in a month, and has spent a year revising it. I don’t know how he does it (probably because the man is a genius), but Westerfeld manages to create a novel (Darcy’s Afterworlds) that a publisher would take a chance on, but also reads like a debut novel from a teenage girl. By itself, it may not get a second glance from me, but the story is interesting.

Okay, I mentioned the story; perhaps I should talk about it a bit. The story of Darcy’s novel is of a girl named Lizzie (and yes, the fact that a girl named Darcy wrote about a girl named Elizabeth is addressed in the book). Lizzie is in an airport when 4 gunmen come in shooting up the place. A 911 operator suggests she play dead, so she does. Lizzie then discovers that she can sort of pass through between worlds — the overworld where we all live, and the afterworld where we go when we die. The story goes from there, there’s some paranormal romance type stuff going on, and she’s faced with difficult decisions along the way. You know, kind of like a debut novel from a teenage girl would read.

Then there’s the other half of Scott Westerfeld’s novel. The story of Darcy herself. As someone who has often been intrigued by the publishing world, I find this story fascinating. Darcy decides to postpone her freshman year of college to move to NYC and work on both Afterworlds and the sequel. She deals with her editor, her agent, and fellow writers. She finds love, and deals with being a young adult in the big city.

In this story, I can see Scott Westerfeld’s experience coming through. His experience as an author in the publishing world is evident, as he has been through the ins and outs of this process many times. Reading this book felt at many times like a veteran pulling up the curtain and poking a flashlight around for everyone to see what really goes on backstage. His experience as a writer comes through in ways I didn’t fully anticipate.

I have never written a book. I have a few I’ve started, but none I’ve seen all the way through. I imagine, though, that if I write a book and have it published, I would love to tell my readers certain things to look for — little pieces that I’m particularly proud of or that took a lot of effort on my part. Darcy, through Scott Westerfeld, gets this opportunity.

By telling us Darcy’s story of getting the book published, Scott Westerfeld can guide our thoughts on the book. We can see the connection between a ghost in Darcy’s book and a “ghost” from Darcy’s mom’s past. We can see how much work has gone in to the ending, so we will read it more eagerly, knowing what could have happened, or what was an earlier draft. We can even keep an eye out for a few words to make their appearance, as Darcy mentions they’d be good to use. How often does an author get to do this? Never. Never times. It’s a unique look into the mind of an author as she is creating the book — even if it is all entirely fictional.

That is the mastery of this book, and that is the genius of Scott Westerfeld.

I give this book a rating of 5 out of 5 fish, just for the flawless execution of the dual story-telling.
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Why I Don’t Have Length Requirements

I decided early in my teaching career that I would not use length requirements in writing assignments. I decided this in my math class, actually, for one of the papers I assigned in my Algebra II course. But it remains true in my English classes. If a student has all the requisite pieces, I’d rather they just finish their writing instead of filling it with BS. “Write until you’re done, and then stop,” I often tell them.

Of course, students still need some guidance as they’re figuring out how to put their pieces together. Should it be a page? Three? Seven? So I give them some rough estimates. “This should be about a page and a half when you’re finished.” “This will take at least three-quarters of a page to have a complete response.” The last assignment I gave my freshman was for them to write the ending of The Odyssey before we actually read it (starting with Odysseus’ return to Ithaca and completing the epic hero cycle). The length direction I gave them was to shoot for a thousand words. I know some of them would not hit this, but I wanted them to keep pressing if they only wrote a couple paragraphs and thought that was enough.

Really, though, the reason I give length directions and suggestions instead of requirements are for moments like these:

A conversation with a student in class:

“I wrote two and a half times what you suggested. My beginning ended up being a thousand words on its own, and then I just kept going.”

A conversation between two students:

“I’m at 800 words, but I think I’m done. Do I have to keep going?”
“The thousand-word mark was a suggestion, not a requirement. If you’re done, you’re done!”

But this one takes the cake. This is an e-mail from a student who is learning English:

“Hi Mr. Wyzlic this is [student name]. I finally finished this Odyssey ending. I am so glad to I did this. [Classmate] helped me little bit when I was writing outline. But I did this my own. It is super short but I used 325 words. I tried my best and I am proud of my self. This is my first time I wrote long writing with no help. Thank you Mr. Wyzlic!!”

If that last quote doesn’t describe why we do this, I think you might be in this for the wrong reasons. There is no way that student would have had the same level of pride in herself and her abilities if I had made the thousand-word mark a requirement. That’s why I don’t have length requirements.