There is a line in the comedy film THROW MAMA FROM THE TRAIN where Danny DeVito, who plays a whiny, annoying student in a creative writing class taught by Billy Crystal’s character, keeps repeating the mantra, “Writers write. Always.” Because it’s such trite advice, it’s a perfect line of dialogue for him.
But while we all know that writers should write—and often—what about writers reading? I have written before about the importance of reading deep and widely and how it helps us become better writers: to find our voice, learn more about our chosen genre—plotting, characterization, etc.—and think more about the setting of our story.
Now I tend to read at a much slower pace than the average person, mostly because I am always stopping to ponder things, like how an author:
• describes a setting without adjective overload. Delia Owens’s WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING:
“The morning burned so August-hot, the marsh’s moist breath hung the oaks and pines with fog.”
Isn’t that a gorgeous sentence? And with just two adjectives!
• handles transitions (passage of time or moving from one physical location to another. Richard Russo’s EMPIRE FALLS:
“The summer Miles turned nine, he played second base for the Empire Paper Giants.”
Russo quickly places us in time (the summer Miles turned nine) and action (the character was playing second base on a softball team).
• develops his/her characters. Elizabeth Strout’s OLIVE KITTERIDGE:
“Olive had refused to go to church the day before, and Henry, uncharacteristically, had spoken to her sharply. “Is it too much to ask,” he had found himself saying.
“Yes, it most certainly is too goddamn much to ask!” Olive had almost spit, her fury’s door flung open. “You have no idea how tired I am, teaching all day, going to foolish meetings where the goddamn principal is a moron! Shopping. Cooking. Ironing. Laundry. Doing Christopher’s homework with him!”
Early on, in writing about the title character, we see that Olive is strong-willed (she refused to go to church with Henry), quick to anger (“fury’s door flung open”) and a bit of a complainer.
• conveys the emotion in a scene in different ways. Joyce Carol Oates’s WE WERE THE MULVANEYS:
“By this time Mom would be pacing about, arms flailing, eyes hot with anguish. If there were cats in the kitchen, they’d rush out, ears laid back. If Little Boots was present, the most anxious of the dogs, he’d dance about, clicking his toenails on the linoleum floor and whimpering up into his mistress’s and master’s faces, vivid to him as balloon faces.”
How many readers have pets—dogs or cats—and can relate to animals getting stressed out if their owners are stressed? If we haven’t used this trick, we can always add a sentence or two in the editing stages to heighten the emotional impact of a scene.
So, there it is. The more books we read, particularly the novels of best-selling authors, the better we get at recognizing some of these tricks of the trade.
Okay. We started with the crazy film, THROW MAMA FROM THE TRAIN and we will close with it, the famous scene where students are reading their awful writing, excerpts from their novels-in-progress. Until next week: