Thursday, August 29, 2013

Measuring Literary Success Through Memorability

If I can't remember what happens in a book, or recall a glowing line from a poem, story, or article, then it has failed my test of success. Something--a character, a line, a scene--has to stay with me for me to add a title to my list of works I recommend to others. Too often I read a literary work and can't recall anything a week later. Now I could blame that on my age, but the fact is, I have forgotten many books throughout my 45 years of reading. The reason that some works have stayed in my memory files long after I've deleted many other brain files holds the answer to my own creation of memorable words. STUDY THE WORDS THAT HAVE RESONATED WITH YOU AND YOU WILL DISCOVER THAT MAGIC MEMORABILITY.

For example, I recently reread a book that I cherished as an elementary school girl: A Girl Called Al, by Constance C. Greene. I was shocked when I realized how much I still remembered--over 40 years later--and how much that work has influenced me as both a writer and a teacher. I teach many lessons related to nonconformity, and the first time I ever heard that word was in Greene's book, used to describe the girl, Al, who taught me that it was cool to think and act differently from the so-called "popular" kids. I brought out this old treasure of a novel for my youngest student, in fact, at the same time that I was using a few poems and stories on the same theme for a few of my older students. Al came into my life and stayed there, apparently.

Similarly, Holden Caulfield met me when I was a new teenager and has resided in my brain, along with his self-deprecating opening in which he doubts that I, his reader, will really want to hear about his story--a hook I will never forget. His voice resonated then and now echoes through my own YA works-in-progress in various ways, I see. And John Irving's style, which captivated me with The World According to Garp, with its matter-of-fact punchlines that left me saying, "Wait--what?" and laughing or gasping aloud, and his wandering storytelling style that always manages to bring the reader back to the original point from which it began meandering, now manages to find its way into the style I use in my current middle-grade novel. One editor who read an early draft called it "John Irving for kids."

Even nonfiction lines stay with me as both a writer and a teacher. Anna Quindlen wrote an article just after the September 11th bombing of the World Trade Center, in which she described how the world changed with an image of a To-Do list floating 80-something stories to the ground below, against a backdrop of smoke and rubble. Other journalists described the rubble, the ambulances, the sightings of falling bodies, but her To-Do list struck a chord with me. The list represents all the things that will never get done by the person who wrote it, as many of us do each day, without any inkling that he/she would never complete it for reasons beyond anyone's imagination, reasons that make us realize that we must never take anything for granted, or stress out over task lists that mean we are alive and well to pursue their completion. That fragile piece of paper floating against such destruction strikes an indelible image not just visually, but also emotionally. That is the kind of image I want to write. I have used that image to teach writers about the importance of choosing the perfect detail to convey multiple messages--MEMORABLE details that matter.

I could go on and on, clicking on the many documents in my brain that comprise the Memorable Documents File, but I know you understand and are now clicking through your own mental documents. Find them, analyze them, and see how they infuse--or should infuse--your writing today.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Know the Flow

If the first line of your manuscript doesn't grab your reader, it's not the right first line. Readers don't have time to waste on false starts. Cut lines until you find the most compelling opening. Then start from there.

I once told an author-client to cut his first three chapters and start with the fourth. "That's where your story starts. The previous chapters are backstory, necessary to you, maybe, but not to the reader. Weave in the few details that the reader needs to know to understand certain plot points and restart from that great first line of chapter four."

My client was ticked off, let me tell you! "Just throw away all that work of the opening chapters? Do you know how many times I rewrote those? They were my most difficult chapters to revise!"

"And once you finally got those chapters done, the rest flowed much more easily, right?"

"Right! Only after all that initial set up was done!"

"And 'set up' is the operative word. You know how in a play script you read the stage directions, separate from the lines? Well, chapters one to three amount to stage directions that set up the play and the players for YOU, the director, who will use those stage directions to plan and direct the scenes. But your audience doesn't read or hear those stage directions; they merely absorb the essence of them that you infuse into the actions. All that your audience needs to see is the point at which the spotlight introduces the first action. Get it?"

He didn't get it, and I thought he would fire me...until a few weeks later. The one piece of advice he had taken from me was to set the work aside and take some time away, to freshen his perspective. Then he sent me a new manuscript, with a Post-It note that said, "Thanks," but not much more, while under that note was a much tighter manuscript, more than three chapters thinner.

What I got out of that experience--which has occurred numerous times in my book editing past: If we struggle to create certain chapters or lines, rather than pour them out of our minds, that's our Muse's hint that we should delete them. Immediately. Before we waste more time. Know when it flows. Redirect when the flow gets clogged.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Standing Like Stone

One of my dearest friends died on this day, a decade ago, and in thinking of her and our relationship, this verse pops into my head:

"Life is mostly froth and bubble,
Two things stand like stone,
KINDNESS in another's trouble,
COURAGE in your own."
(Adam Lindsay Gordon, Australian poet)

That verse from a much longer poem came to my attention via other memorable words, by one of my new favorite authors, Owen Egerton. Egerton quoted Gordon in his indelibly moving novel The Book of Harold: Illegitimate Son of God. Thus, memorable words give rise to other memorable words--and to images, ideas, and anything else born of artistic passion.,TopRight,1,0_SH20_.jpg

While reading those words aloud, I imagine a short film of the tide rolling in, leaving froth and bubbles on the shore--seen via a close up shot--and then rolling out to reveal two rocks protruding from the sand. Zooming in on the rocks, we see that each one bears an engraved word: one says KINDNESS, the other says COURAGE. Then a huge wave crashes over both, and the shot of the submerged rocks is drawn out, making the viewer wait for it, wait for it, wait for it--until the water again recedes, showing the engraved stones standing firmly where they were.

My mental movie shows how memorable words affect me. How do they affect you? How do they affect your own writing?

I aim to evoke mental movies in my readers. From the bottom of my computer screen, where I've minimized the document containing my current novel-in-progress, a voice now yells, "Rolling!" I need to get back on set. 'Bye-bye!