Friday, June 11, 2010

Reading as a Writer

Are you preparing a proposal for your agent to present at ICRS? Several of us at Novel Matters are doing just that. It's like finals week at my house. Anyway, I decided to have a little fun with today's post. Prepare to make a true confession about your vacations.

Also...we're announcing the winner to the Audience-with-an-Agent contest. Janet Grant is requesting a manuscript! Be here on Wednesday, June 15th for the grand reveal. This is so exciting!!!

On a recent trip to Seattle, my husband and I went looking for a grocery store to restock our ice chest before driving across the Great American Desert. Not too surprisingly, we drove by a garden center. Dennis, the original nose-to-the-ground guy, actually craned his neck to get a better look at that garden center.

“Do you want to stop?” I asked.

“Could we? You wouldn't mind?” He managed a U-turn on Seattle’s narrow streets and parked the car.

Imagine an art history major visiting the Louvre for the first time. That was Dennis in that garden center. We manage to find ourselves at garden centers on most vacations, even New Zealand. We’ve owned our garden center for 27 years. Visiting someone else’s garden center is a great way to find new ways of doing things. There are also plant envy issues to deal with.

Once inside, Dennis bent to read a tag on a shrub. “Oh man, I wish we could grow these at home.” (Please note: Seattle gets 38” of rain a year. In a lush year, we receive 9" in western Colorado.)

“What is it?” I said, rubbing the glossy leaves.

Shrubagreata grandiflora fantastico.” Actually, he provided the spot-on Latin name for the shrub. This is my interpretation.

“Should I take a picture?”

“Maybe if we planted it on the east side.”

I snapped a picture. Dennis, wistful, took notes on signage, display, and product placement. We left the garden center with new ideas and the reassurance that our small-town garden center was above average. We also left with a shrubagreata grandiflora fantastico in the backseat. It died.

My husband’s passion is people who happen to buy plants. Mine is storytelling, so I do exactly the same thing, only with books. I read as a writer.

Reading as a writer means I pay attention to how an author has described a character in a fresh way, like Sue Monk Kidd describes Rosaleen in The Secret Life of Bees: “She had a big round face and a body that sloped out from her neck like a pup tent, and she was so black that night seemed to seep from her skin.”


I can’t and won’t copy that description, but I will look at my characters more carefully to find that common image and surprising comparison that paints an instant picture.

Describing the appearance of a character is one thing. Showing the inner conflict of a character requires incredible self control. Tell too much up front and what’s the point of finishing the book? The just-right amount will propel a reader into the story.

Christa Parrish is masterful at character development in Watch Over Me. Early on we get this glimpse into Abbi’s head:

How her mind had wandered from prayer to hair, she couldn’t remember. But it happened that way when she ran, her feet penitent against the loose stone at the start, her petitions spilling into the open space with each breath. And then, twenty or so minutes later, she slowed for a quick drink and realized she’d been making mental lists…
Parrish takes what is common to us all and uses language that provides a keyhole view of her character’s inner life. I love it!

And this might seem silly, but writers love a fresh use of punctuation or the lack thereof. Lately, we’re seeing punctuation used more in the manner it was originally intended, as cues for speech patterns: Sit. Down. Now. There’s no doubt the speaker is talking through her teeth.

I just finished Lisa Samson’s Embrace Me. Samson uses dialogue attribution tags (says, asks, etc.) sparingly. This keeps the dialogue moving along at an engaging, natural clip. She takes this to the next level by not using the attribution tag at all:

She turns around and crosses her arms. “Go thirsty then, big shot. It’s you choice.” And proceeds to make herself a cup of tea. “Go home then. I’m’ sure it’s more exciting there than this gloomy place.”

Gloomy? What’s so gloomy about Shalom?

I look around me. Cracked walls, buckled linoleum floors severely lacking that lemony fresh glow you see on television commercials.

“Anything’s better than that trailer.” Bobby. [Just Bobby!]

While reading Embrace Me, I was never confused about who was speaking. I’m not quite sure what I think about this technique, although losing attribution tags wouldn’t disappoint me. Whether I experiment with attribution tags or not, I appreciate the nudge Samson gives me to think about how I use them.

Writers love to think about things like this. I know. We’re strange.

The best possible reading experience for me, however, is like jumping into a vat of chocolate. I don’t worry about deciphering the recipe. How much cocoa? Butter? Milk? Nope, I open my mouth and start gulping. To think about the recipe would be a precious waste of opportunity.

And so, I’m curious, do authorial devices jump out at you when you’re reading? Do you find some language too conspicuous and distracting? Do you ever highlight a passage or a word in a novel? Do you visit odd places on your vacations? I won't tell.


Ariel Allison Lawhon said...

I'm reading The Gendarme by Mark T. Mustian. It's an historical novel set amidst the Turkish/Armenian war and the writing is a revelation (though the content is not for the faint of heart).

Mustian uses these wonderful choppy sentences. Pitch-perfect voice. Fragments everywhere. Clever use of punctuation and dialogue tags. It's so well done that I ought to stop reading because his skill level has me depressed. (Never a good thing to compare when one is working on their own WIP) This is one of his countless well-drawn patches of narrative:

"I squint now at the new dawn, at the flat roofs and domes the minaret and dark cypresses. The limestone that makes up so much of the city hangs damp and gray in the morning, chiseled into patterns for churches, carved into verses for mosques. Aleppo means "milk" in Arabic, testament to the fabled stopover by Abraham on his way to Canaan, the milking of his cow on the citadel hill - Abraham, father of Isaac, father of Ishmael, grandfather to us all. The muezzin's call, as if on cue, mixes its minor tones with the animal's snorts and shuffles. I fall to my knees, dip my head to the straw. My lips move in rhythm."

The Gendarme doesn't release until September, but mark my words, it will be the next Kite Runner.

Katie Ganshert said...

I LOVE the writing in The SEcret Life of Bees. Oh my, it's like velvet on the skin!

And Christa Parrish is amazing. I haven't read her new book yet, but I gulped Home Another Way down in two days.

I love reading good writing. A strong voice. Man, I love it. Right now, I'm reading Cynthia Ruchti's They Almost Always Come Home. I love the voice! So engaging.

Latayne C. Scott said...

Patti, your post about taking home the plant reminds me of a diary I read decades ago, the story of a wealthy woman from the East named Susan McGoffin whose account of a trip west is published under the title, Down the Santa Fe Trail into Mexico

She wanted to plant roses on her trip -- like Dennis and you, and I who every three or four years try to make gardenias grow in the mountains of New Mexico. . .

Now, that's hope. . .

Unknown said...

I love reading a great line that makes me wish I had written it myself.

Wendy Paine Miller said...

I am noticing more creativity with sentence structure, etc. I'm going on little sleep. Have a young girl w/ a potty problem. Wish I could add more to the convo. today, but I'm hurtin' for sleep.

Oh, and I'm a fan of minimizing character attribution tags like Samson. Gutsy...that Bobby line. I like.

Calgon. Take. Me. Away!

Patti Hill said...

Ariel: Adding The Gendarme to my TBR list, which is toppling already. And no fears, your reading with seep into your writing. Reading is your warm-up exercise for writing. 1 and 2 and 3...

Katie: It sounds like our tastes are similar. I MUST pick up Cynthia's book. She has always impressed me with her writing and speaking. She is an amazingly talented woman.

Latayne: Oh yes, we horticultural types are hopeless. Dennis and I babied a Santa Claus fuchsia through the worst winter ever. Seeing leaves sprout on our baby rekindled all sorts of hope. We planted two more!

Julie: I think of those lines or paragraphs or books as a beckoning finger, urging me to dig deeper and open my eyes wider.

Wendy: Praying a nap is in your plans. Poor little darling and poor mama. Tomorrow will be better.

Cindy R. Wilson said...

I love the writing style in Christa Parrish's novel. The more it flows the better. I also love unique descriptions that paint vivid images. Some of the best ones are short and quick but pack a punch. Reading other fiction is such a great way to learn what works and what style speaks to you.

Patti Hill said...

Cindy, I met Christa at the Festival for Faith and Writing. I made sure to tell her how much I appreciated her self-restraint. That girl nails metaphors and description, but more importantly she doesn't turn the hammer on the reader. She gives us just enough. She told me she worked very hard at doing just that. Well done, Christa!

Nicole said...

Funny thing about men and work. We invaribly stop at a pet shop or feed store on vacation. If none are in the area, I hear "We used to deliver there."

I notice when an author "breaks the rules" because quite frankly I love it. Rebel that I am. It makes me grin. Vince Flynn changes POVs like clothes on a drenching hot day. It's just what he does. I don't care. Go for it.

The versatility of writing appeals to me more than the formula for writing. Let the authors create! Have at it. Enough of the same old, same old.

And I love that Lisa changes it up in her books.

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed this post, Patti. I can't tell you how many times I've been riding with my husband, who will take a detour off the highway when he sees new construction going on. Years ago, when he was first starting out, it's how he learned to cut in a set of stairs.

I never used to mark in a novel, now I at least will put in a sticky tab to mark a spot I want to return to. I certainly love to take mental note of how a writer does something exceptionally well, or perhaps does something not so well. But if a novel is really outstanding, I just get lost in it. I read it for the sake of story. Then I go back as a writer and read it again and take notes.

You will LOVE They Almost Always Come Home.

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

Ariel, I love that: "carved into verses for mosques." Wow.

Patti, I'm with you on the TBR pile. I've added at least three from this post alone. So much fun hanging out online with people who love books as much as I do. But it's not helping with my - ahem - problem, people!

I don't mark books, but I sometimes open a Word file and type out phrases or descriptions I loved. I can't separate my writer's brain from my reader's brain anymore. No matter how involved I am in the story, on some level a part of me is always analysing the writer's craft.

Bonnie Grove said...

The novels I'm reading right now aren't CBA, and they aren't to everyone's taste, but oh how they challenge me.
I will be a writer of courage. I will tell the stories that burst from my being without remorse or second guessing. And I will tell the "rules" to sit out these dances.
I'm not a great writer, I haven't written an important novel, but I inch toward, day by day.

Nicole said...

Yay, Bonnie. A quiet revolution we.

Terri Tiffany said...

LOL My daughter absulutely hates getting books from me now as I hightlight phrases that fascinate me.
And on the side, we owned a Christian bookstore for years-- I think I've been in every one I could find too on every vacation we ever went on! Great way to find product:)
PS the 15th is Tues:)

Anonymous said...

I missed seeing this...YOU WERE IN SEATTLE?!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I'm so depressed now! You were in Seattle!