By Eilene Lyon
Somewhere is a mountain built of nothing but books on how to be a better writer. I’ve got a boulder from that mountain sitting on my shelf. Still, it’s nice to have a few exercises that make me feel, when I’ve done them, that they really did improve my work. Added spice to the narrative. Brought the reader into my world. I have a long way to go, but here are a few gems I’ve chipped from the boulder to share with you.
What’s Not There?
Too often we get caught up in describing what our characters see, hear, smell, etc. We describe the scene as we imagine it. That can get old and tedious. Sometimes, the best way to draw a picture for your reader is to point out glaring omissions. What isn’t there that should be?
“The last time George walked into his mother’s house, there was no knife clacking on the cutting board, no spoon scraping a bowl, and the mists of casseroles past did not assault him in the hallway. Mr. Coffee was not brimming with fresh Folger’s. But eau-de-unfiltered-Camels would forever permeate the walls.”
“When Paul and Karen left the fromagerie in Orleans, they walked the two blocks to where they had parked their bikes, ready to pedal back to camp. The rack was spare and the locks puddled on the sidewalk. They looked around in disbelief.”
Animate the Inanimate
Stephen Buhner, in Ensouling Language, offers an exercise using a simple question: How does it feel? The operative word is “it.” Put yourself in the place of some inanimate object and try to become one with it.
What would its emotions be? Or how do the physical characteristics of the object represent emotions or events? How would it experience the environment around it? Buhner calls this “analogic thinking” or the “secret kinesis of things.”
Even better, describe how the object feels to the character.
In Buhner’s example, a man who just lost his son in a war looks at a barn and thinks how the building was meant to harbor life, built by loving hands from sturdy ash. But looks are deceiving. The harsh weather comes in between the boards, the framework shudders in a blast of wind. He never mentions his son or the war, but you can feel his anguish as he places his emotion into the structure before him.
My examples below are not great, I’ll admit. This is a difficult exercise for me.
I was looking at my water glass and it came to me that it felt like a canyon, with a pool of still water at the bottom, wind moaning in the upper reaches. It could be that I’m recalling the feelings I had on the Colorado River as I’m looking at the glass.
When writing my story about Dr. W. C. Ransom’s Trip Around the World for Michigan History magazine, I thought about what inanimate object was key to the story. The schooner, George L. Wrenn, was the obvious choice.
The fate of the boat in the story was a reflection of what happened to the young men and women aboard who thought they were going to spend three years sailing around the globe. The big launch was set for Independence Day. Here’s how I opened the piece:
“The schooner George L. Wrenn rested lightly in the South Haven harbor. Her 250 barrels of salt ballast wouldn’t be loaded until she reached Ludington. Known around the lakes as a fast sailor, she had worked hard as a freighter since her debut in 1868. Now, on July 4, 1894, she was about to embark on an entirely new career – global gadabout.”
While we all aim to find our “own voice” as a writer, learning to mimic the styles of writers we admire is a good way to expand our repertoire and find additional ways to express ourselves. You can do something as small as a sentence, paragraph, or poem. Heather Thomson at the Commonplace Book Blog demonstrates this well.
One way I did this was to create a prologue for my gold rush book mimicking the style of one of my favorite authors, Bill Bryson. It was fun to do, and though it may not end up in the final book, I like how it turned out.
I was about to do a mimicry exercise based on a work by Michael Pollan: The Botany of Desire. Before I got that far, I re-read his introduction and found an excellent writing exercise. As he was planting potatoes in his garden and observing bees at work in the apple trees nearby, he had an epiphany that became the basis for the entire book.
“We divide the world into subjects and objects, and here in the garden, as in nature generally, we humans are the subjects…What if the grammar is all wrong? What if it’s really nothing more than a self-serving conceit? A bumblebee would probably also regard himself as a subject in the garden and the bloom he’s plundering for its drop of nectar as an object. But we know that this is just a failure of his imagination.”
Pollan reverses the subject/object relationship, asking, “Did I choose to plant these potatoes, or did the potato make me do it?” Did the bee choose the apple blossom, or did the apple blossom choose the bee?
I took a random sample sentence from my writing and reduced it to the simple subject-verb-object.
“Pierce and his partner worked their claims.”
Then I reversed the subject and object.
“The claims worked Pierce and his partner.”
Suddenly the perspective changes enormously. In the first instance, the men are in charge, forcing the land to do their bidding: yield the gold, dammit.
In the second, the land and the gold it contains are forcing the men into hard labor. It gives me a new angle to consider, though I may decide it doesn’t really fit the circumstances.
Exercises like these will help enrich your work, adding to the reader’s pleasure. Polish those gems and your writing will sparkle with new fire.
Feature image: Mt. Sneffels in the fall, near Ridgway, Colorado. (E. Lyon)