Full disclosure: Josi Kilpack and I are good friends. She has been the chairperson of the Whitney Awards Committee for the past year and a half, and I have been one of her happy assistants during that time. She's a talented and generous friend.
But that's not why I like her latest book, Pumpkin Roll, and it doesn't color my assessment of her writing at all. There are lots of people whom I like personally, but whose writing is not my cup of tea. Josi is not one of those people.
Last night, I finished Pumpkin Roll--the sixth and latest in Josi's best-selling Sadie Hoffmiller culinary mystery series--and it was a Thumping Good Read. There are a lot of reviews and cool interviews of Josi floating around the blogosphere, so I thought I'd take this post in a different direction and analyze the book using Larry Brooks's Six Core Competencies model. Can I dissect a book and find within it a formula for success? Let's see.
Larry's first Core Competency is Concept, which he defines as the asking of a compelling "what if" question. A story's concept is different from an idea or a premise. To clarify the concept of concept (meta!), Larry writes,
A non-story example: An idea is to travel to Florida. A concept is to travel by car and stop at all the national parks along the way. A premise is to take your estranged father with you and mend fences while on the road.
What's the concept of Pumpkin Roll? Let me take a crack at it, with advance apologies to Josi, in case I don't get it quite right: "What if an aging, just-turned-pro detective finds that the only solution to a mystery may be admitting the reality of ghosts and witches?" Intriguing, yes? I thought so. Concept? Check.
Character is the second Core Competency, one with which readers and writers are familiar. Josi's protagonist, Sadie Hoffmiller, is quirky, believable, and utterly sympathetic. When I first met her in the pages of Lemon Tart, I liked her immediately. She loves to cook, she knows her recipes are outstanding, and she firmly believes in the healing power of a plate of brownies. We have those things in common. :) Sadie's a little obsessive, a little stubborn, and doesn't mind rolling up her sleeves and doing a bit of research. She's sounding more familiar all the time, now that I think about it...except Sadie's 12 years older than I am....
Josi's villains are just as real and believable. I can't illustrate that without spoilers, however. You'll just have to trust me. And Josi's character arcs work both on the book level and over the whole of the series. She's got Character nailed.
Next in the Core Comp lineup is Theme. How does theme differ from concept? In the writing gospel according to Saint Larry, theme = meaning. It's how the story relates to the reader's life; it's how the writer touches her audience.
In Pumpkin Roll, Sadie involves herself in the life of a troubled neighbor--with life-or-death consequences for everyone involved. Is it good to risk your safety to help someone in need? Is it right to trust your instincts when authority figures are telling you that you're dead wrong? Is it necessary to follow through on promises, even when it's difficult? Since Josi's mysteries fall into the cozy category, you can probably guess the answers to these questions, but that doesn't mean it isn't important to ask and answer them. Josi does this with satisfying results.
Fourth comes Story Structure. I've written before about how important structure is to a novel, and it's clear that Josi agrees with me. Pumpkin Roll is tightly plotted, with twists, turns, and pinches in just the right places.
Now, I knew going into the book that Sadie would prevail; a flip to the back, where a sample chapter of Banana Split awaits the reader, confirmed that. But Josi's genius is this: even though I knew Sadie would be all right, I got scared throughout her exploits. Nervous. A little jumpy. Heart pounding, quickly turning page after page, I was completely involved. The outcome was not in question; the how had me in its grip. Yep, Josi has structure down.
Numero cinco: Scene Execution. One of the tricksiest things for new writers is how to figure out what's most important in their narratives, and what can be cut out for maximum effectiveness and power. Each scene needs a purpose, with both resolution and new or escalating conflict embedded within. Scenes need to illustrate Concept, Character, and Theme and must keep Structure moving along at a precisely defined pace. Not easy.
Here, Josi's experience serves her well (Pumpkin Roll is her fourteenth novel, if my calculations are correct). There is no excess, not a single extra word. If anything, the reader is left wanting more--which is exactly the effect a writer (especially of a series) works hard to achieve. A+
Last, but not least, is Writing Voice. I believe voice is impossible to teach. You either have one, or you don't. Can you improve your voice through diligent practice and show off its strengths to their very best advantage? Absolutely.
As with singing voices, writing voices can be gravelly or silky-smooth; bluesy, twangy, or operatic. Every successful writer's voice is unique.
Josi's honed, polished voice is up-front, personable, and humorous--a lot like the in-person Josi, actually. Have you ever met someone with whom you clicked right away, and you felt like you had been friends for a very long time? That's how I have felt when reading Josi's books--and I read one of her non-Sadie books and felt that way long before I ever met her in the flesh. That's the power of writing voice. Well done, friend.
Ah, but Josi has a BONUS COMPETENCY, one that Larry Brooks does not address: Culinary Expertise. Each of the Sadie Hoffmiller books includes several delicious recipes. Josi takes these as seriously as she does the stories themselves. I know this because when she was writing Blackberry Crumble, she asked me to create a recipe for her--something that would suit the book's setting in the American Northwest.
I came up with a Salmon and Wild Mushroom Casserole. Josi and I both made it several times, with our families as (mostly) willing guinea pigs, until it was just right--rich, savory and satisfying. Now my mouth is watering. I know that her testing has been just as rigorous with all of "Sadie's" other recipes.
If you're new to Sadie's stories, start with Lemon Tart and work your way through the series--though I think Pumpkin Roll could definitely be read as a stand-alone, it's more fun to go through all of Sadie's adventures sequentially. If you're a Hoffmiller veteran, know that Josi gets better with each book, and Pumpkin Roll is the best one yet. Can't wait for Banana Split!
And now for some exciting words from Josi and her publisher:
In conjunction with the release of Pumpkin Roll, the author, Josi S. Kilpack, and the publisher, Shadow Mountain, are sponsoring a contest for a new iPad2. To enter, leave a comment in the comment section of this blog before November 1, 2011. Winners will be announced and notified November 3, 2011.
For additional ways to enter, go to www.josiskilpack.com.