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.