Sparked by Words

Archive for the ‘Quote from a Book’ Category

Make it Short, I Got a Plane to Catch

 

The contemporary reader has a short attention span and we writers need to respect that. We need to write toward their preferences because they’re the folks who buy our books. How to shorten chapters, reduce paragraphs, decrease word count, and still write a book with intriguing premise, significant character development, and exciting plot remains a challenge. It’s a desirable goal achieved by being attentive to what you need to keep and what you can toss into the maw of the paper shredder.

We all know the basics – excise the wussy words – nice, that, very, tiny, big, thing, just – vacuous words freeloading on your manuscript. Loosen the formal voice only spoken by professors: I would have liked to inquire of you if I might be permitted to invite you for a repast tomorrow evening at the exceptional restaurant on Snob Hill Avenue. Crap, no one talks like that. Just let dude take dudette to dinner.

Slice and dice repeated words: They walked to the store, then they walked back to the apartment where they walked down the hall and walked into their unit. All that walking around, but nothing of any import happening in the story. Delete the entire sentence. Maybe start the story over.

One of my problems is running every idea straight into the ground by twisting and turning it to see every visible facet. If I can find one way to express an idea, relate an action, divulge a motivation, (see what I mean?) I can probably find another six, so why not put all of them into my story? Well, I can give you six reasons right there. If one solid sentence will do, one is likely enough. Move on, tell the story already.

My most favorite first sentence is from Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. The first time I read it I was eight, too young to understand the book. But I loved the first sentence so much that I memorized it: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…It goes on for another ninety-six wondrously evocative and poetic words, well worth the effort to memorize. It’s always presented intact, one paragraph in one sentence that establishes the spirit of lives lived as polar opposites in London and Paris in the moment before the French Revolution.

One hundred twenty words is long for a sentence, whether first, last, or somewhere between. It’s not recommended as most writers can’t convey such mastery, and most of us would end up with a tangled run on sentence of no merit. Imagine then my surprise when I spotted the sentence in a newer edition of the book, and found the iconic opener divided not only into four sentences but also four paragraphs. Blasphemous cutting and pasting of an author long dead and unable to advocate for his literary propriety. I can hear Dickens sob.

(Of course we all know that Dickens made little attempt at brevity as he was paid by the word for his serialized stories that first appeared in a local newspaper. But that’s another story altogether.)

But something clever had been done in the travesty: an editor,  knowing of course that the work is in public domain and thus not liable for lawsuit, realized that breaking the long first sentence into four more easily accessible ones might attract the attention of readers who struggle with reading. Yet those readers might find themselves devouring Dickens’ book with less struggle in the reading trenches.

The lesson? Try it for your own stories, as I have. I’m not Dickens, neither are you. Drop the pretext of portraying a great author and figure out how to get your story across without bashing your readers’ noggins. Maybe chopping a really long sentence or paragraph into appetizer-sized tidbits will make your work more appealing. The concept may still endure in the shorter takes. It might garner more readers. As my wise mama would say, “It can’t hurt.”

Today’s readers are a quirky bunch of disloyal patrons. Out of college, most don’t ever read a novel again – the disappointing numbers are out there in the Internet. I’m not shooting arrows at them because I realize we’ve all got lots to do, some of them better than trudging through fifty ways to say, “I’m leaving you, love, got better offers down the road.”

We can wail and bemoan the footloose audience or accept that so few people count reading a book a delightful personal favorite habit to occupy free time, and instead find a way to attract a potential reader by making it easy on her eyes and brain. Yeah, we can all do that, and most of the time it will improve our stories at the same time. You know the metaphor, “kill two birds with one stone.” Gather rocks.

Think of the lady at the airport, waiting to catch her plane. Two hours in the airport lounge, max, then another two or five on the plane, catching up on business and emails, with maybe a half hour to devote to reading a book. How can we writers best gather our ideas and present them for that half hour attention span? Sometimes all it takes is kicking out the useless words, tightening those remaining, then breaking the whole shebang into short reading bites. Suitable for reading between perusing emails and gobbling the free pretzel lunch. Try it – it can’t hurt.

 

Riding a Flying Carpet, 1880 painting by Viktor Vasnetsov

 

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3 Day Quote Challenge #3

 

My dear friend, Sarah, brilliant innovator over at Art Expedition

tagged me to participate in the

3-Day Quote Challenge

Thank you, Sarah, for thinking me worthy of this honor and hoping I have inspiring quotes to share.

At university and afterward at supplemental lectures and classes, and from many writing books, I’ve worked at learning the craft of writing. I’ve participated in writing critique groups, helping other emerging writers as they hone their skills, and heard authors talk about their journeys to getting published. Each has taught me something worth deliberating over and remembering.

I’ve also been fortunate to be a “long distance” student to two women whose books have nurtured me with their passionate writing.

One of these teachers is Natalie Goldberg, who wrote Thunder and Lightning: Cracking Open the Writer’s Craft. From this book are these words:

 

Writing practice taught us how to contact ourselves. Now our job, our responsibility, is to contact what’s in front of us – the photo, the story, the place – and to hand that moment of contact, that merging of two presences, over to the reader.

 

Like many people, my love of writing showed up young, by my first years of elementary school. But I wasn’t a writer yet. I was a kid who could write a few sentences well, a couple of stories considered beyond my grade level. None of them made me a writer. Paying attention to the metronomic pulse around me, to the tiny movements of other people, and working at writing them in ways that reveal the concentric waves that eventually circle the Earth – that is what I do to become a writer. I practice and revise, like all of you. One day, one day you will be able to read my words in print, because I practiced and I learned.

Natalie Goldberg was one of my teachers.

 

Is there anyone who has not read the work of Maya Angelou? Is there anyone who has not been transformed? From pain and fear, from violence and ugliness, she found a voice and she gored everyone with her words. She woke us to rage and rocked us to sleep. You cannot do this to me, you cannot hurt me, I am someone who counts, this is my world as well as yours. That’s what I hear when I read her words.

 

Following is part of her poem A Brave and Startling Truth, written for the fiftieth anniversary of the United Nations and read by Angelou at the ceremony in 1995. I cannot read this poem without hearing her sonorous and confident voice, she who was as a small child cowed into silence by a horrific act of violence. But now she has a voice:

 

It is possible and imperative that we discover

A brave and startling truth…

When we come to it

We must confess that we are the possible

We are the miraculous, the true wonder of this world

That is when, and only when

We come to it.

 

In only 46 words she identified the truth we must find. Love is what she means, a love free of hatred, the only thing that can save us from death, the only thing to bring us peace. It is meant for all of us to hear, for all of us to benefit from.

We humans search for love but the object of our desire may be unique to each of us. A career to give us focus, a calling to give us a sense of worth, a lover to give us solace, a child to give our life meaning, a cause to benefit others. It may be our life’s challenge to find such to love or it may be a challenge to recognize it was there all along. Revealing these quests in the stories we write tests our strengths as writers.

Maya Angelou was one of my teachers.

 

A few times in my life I’ve felt a glimmer of success. The ordinary spotlight moments in school:  the lead role in the school play, a relay race in seventh grade, a medal for an art project, a solo in a ballet, an A in math, an honor in English class, an award at a speech competition.  Later the glow stemmed from relationships build with friends and colleagues, advances at work, opportunities take a lead position on a project.

Even more, my heart still pounds when thinking about meeting the man I would marry, the birth of my sons, helping them grow up, applauding them for their momentous life achievements, standing by their sides at their weddings and waiting in the wings at the births of their children. And even the failures that still give me nightmares and make me angry: losing a job  unfairly, the end of a long friendship because we’d both changed too much, weeping over the deaths of too many people I love, rage over the injustice in the world.

You may wonder what all those events have to do with these two quotes. Everything is the answer. I’ve lived, and I’ve learned to convey those moments in my writing. I’m learning to merge two presences – the experiences I’ve lived and the words I write – into a story that reveals a truth.

From a masterful writing teacher and writer to a master writer and poet, these two quotes are bookends to consummate storytelling. One day, one day you will be able to read my words in print, because I practiced and I learned.

You two women have taught me well. I am learning, thank you, I am learning.

 

The Young Student, 1894, by Ozias Leduc, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Photo of Maya Angelou courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Photo of Natalie Goldberg courtesy Creative Commons

 

3-Day Quote Challenge #2

My dear friend, Sarah, brilliant innovator over at Art Expedition

tagged me to participate in the

3-Day Quote Challenge

Thank you, Sarah, for thinking me worthy of this honor and hoping I have inspiring quotes to share.

For my second entry in the Quote Challenge, I want to highlight two of my favorite lines from writers. This was much harder than it might seem because both the quotes I’ve chosen are meaningful to me, yet so are a thousand others. Narrowing down to two quotes I could expand upon within the context of my own trials at writing made me search, think, choose, and do it all over again for the whole week before making my final choices. It’s why I wanted to put off completing this task to once a week for three weeks in a row rather than the three days in a row the challenge requests.

To begin, I chose Julian Barnes’ line from The Sense of an Ending, which describes the job of an astute observer.

“What you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed.”

I encourage you to read Barnes’ book because it’s an opus on how consciously we might live, especially if we realized before setting out in arrogant confidence that we know everything when we don’t get it whatsoever. Barnes manages to write in only 163 pages how much we squander of our life when seeing nothing important.

As an individual line, Barnes’ charges me to choose with discretion the parts of each story I write. Elimination is as essential as inclusion, and knowing which small gesture will illuminate a moment to carry the reader through is key. It’s also something I often miss on first draft. Second draft. Third. If I don’t get it by the fourth draft, I begin to suspect I can’t write, and this haunts me. I know I’m a decent writer, but a brilliant one? Not likely. I fumble.

In one exquisite line, Julian Barnes captured the golden moment of his story. I was touched so deeply by this line that it’s stayed with me since I read the book. It continues to imbue me with the effort to identify what is imperative – then to tell that story.

Mary Oliver is one of my favorite poets. Her poetry kneels down and picks up clods of earth, not packed in a cup, but sifting through her fingers. She doesn’t write in curlicues meant to distract. Rather she searches for the visceral essence of life and pulls out the heart still beating. Then makes us look – smell – breathe – feel. We understand.

I’ve always believed poetry must be read aloud in order to internalize it. Oliver’s poetry crawls into my bones, waits quietly, whispers to me. She speaks in dulcet tones. From her poem, Evidence, this is what she says:

“Keep some room in your heart for the unimaginable.”

Story should pry open our eyes and twist moments till, like a mobius strip, we trace the inevitable connection. If we want to read only the recorded facts, that’s a history or science book, not a work of poetry. Or fiction. The unimaginable drifts in, exposes sinews of flesh and flecks of silver, and reveals the thorns of truth through the shimmer in the water. What Oliver shows us is the wonder of life, life everywhere, innocently finding its flock and its children and its season. Not to be best or first or most, just to be.

We are taught in school to make an assessment, take note of all the details, write down names and dates, and be accurate in descriptions. But nowhere do we measure the movement of things once there, now absent but not wholly gone. I get caught up in the illusion of accuracy, minding my dates and maps, but they aren’t the important parts of story. Anyone can write technical notes.

It’s catching the remnant of energy that matters.

Julian Barnes and Mary Oliver suggest the kind of writing I want to effect. To share the memory more dimensional than history, the parcel of earth more life affirming than its problems. I want readers to grasp what I hold when my hand is empty, what I see when my eyes are closed.

In those tiny pulses of what is no longer there is something worth telling in a story.

 

 

Image courtesy Pixabay

 

 

 

 

A Gentleman in Moscow

Popular upheaval, political turmoil, industrial progress – any combination of these can cause the evolution of society to leapfrog generations, sweeping aside aspects of the past that might otherwise have lingered for decades. And this must be especially so, when those with newfound power are men who distrust any form of hesitation or nuance, and who prize self-assurance above all.

From A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles, © 2016, Viking

Quote from a book 1, a thought worth considering,  a book worth reading

 

 

Cover image courtesy Viking