Friday, July 3, 2009

Tell me more

I loved Latayne's post on Monday, love talking about writers and the craft of writing. Similes and metaphors, if fresh and unique, can enhance fiction like nothing else. Sol Stein, in Stein on Writing--a book every writer should read and reread--calls them "the wonders of writing...when carried off, especially when a simile is original and a metaphor sings, there is no greater glory in the practice of words." Wow. Quite a boast. And I tend to agree. I know good writing shouldn't draw attention to itself, but I can't help stopping at every great simile I come across, taking a moment to savor it, to praise the author for digging deep.
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Whether we're writers, readers or both, we want the words on the page to sparkle, to sing, to draw us in like a temptress and have their way with us. According to Stein, detail is another way to achieve that. But it's not just "detail that distinguishes good writing, it is detail that individualizes." It's detail that tells us more without employing tired adjectives to get the job done. Stein calls this particularity. Here are some examples from the skilled women I share this blog with. I've italicized key phrases that smack oh-so-nicely of particularity.
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"...Kirsten Young lay on her back, a serene Ophelia in her dusky pond of blood" (Latter-Day Cipher, by Latayne C. Scott). Pool of blood would have gotten the point across in a tired way most readers would have skimmed right over. But dusky pond of blood, well, that sings. You don't skim over a phrase like that. You read it again, and maybe again.
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"Five women as gnarled as driftwood shuffled into the chapel...they smelled of mentholated lozenges and joint ointment" (The Queen of Sleepy Eye, by Patti Hill). What a visual we're given by Patti's particularity to detail. She accomplished more in that first lovely phrase than ten tired adjectives could have.
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Here's a description of one of Katy Popa's memorable characters from To Dance in the Desert: "'...there she was with her long gray hair fanned out on the pillow like the Lady of Shalott. And her hands folded on her chest--with a lily! And her face all sunk down like a badly made bed...' Dara cupped a hand over her mouth to contain the revulsion. She saw too clearly the flesh-draped skull sunk into the pillow, the jaw hung open...Dara peeked over her shoulder and there at the door was the bombshell (the very woman we've been reading about), in--for heaven's sake!--white stiletto heels." Masterful particularity!
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"I grin back and tug on a piece of tape, careful not to tear the brilliant red paper...I laugh and pull off the wrapper. A white box, the kind you use to wrap the sweater you bought Grandma for Christmas. I throw him a toothy grin that I hope covers my disappointment. I don't want a grandma sweater" (Talking to the Dead, by Bonnie Grove). The use of grandma as an adjective to define the sweater tells us so much more about Kate's disappointing expectation than the word sweater alone ever could. Of course, it wasn't a grandma sweater in the box--not even close! But you'll have to read the book to find out what he gave her.
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And this from a courtroom scene in Debbie Fuller Thomas's Christy-nominated Tuesday Night at the Blue Moon. "Dad sat beside me doodling a perfect likeness of Andie on the manila folder stuffed with evidence that argued our right to disrupt her life." That one phrase tells us more dynamically what a whole page of text couldn't, and in a way that packs an emotional punch. But notice the contrast of doodling (a light and whimsical activity) on such a document. That too is a great example of particularity.
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Share some of your favorite passages of particularity for a chance to win this month's giveaway novels: Blue Hole Back Home, by Joy Jordan Lake, and Safe at Home, by Richard Doster. And, if you haven't yet read the novels available from the authors here at Novel Matters, I hope this whets your appetite. Watch throughout the summer for opportunities to win our books.

5 comments:

Janet said...

Consider my appetite whetted. And I just so love that you spelled that right...

Sharon K. Souza said...

Thank you, Janet. Yep, we need our appetites sharpened, not doused : )

Judith Couchman said...

I remember a line from The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver that I don't even need to look up. Describing the heat in Africa, she wrote:

The earth curled its toes.

Sharon K. Souza said...

Judith, that's fabulous particularity. Thank you for sharing with us.

Joyce said...

This is a subject close to my heart! Thank you for writing about it and thank you for using examples from some fine CBA novels. We need to see more of that. We are writing for CBA, most of us, anyway.