Reading for Better Writing

My hubby is great at uncovering writing lessons for me. It never ceases to amaze me that a nuclear physicist who took the minimum requirement of lit courses is able to rattle off such stunningly insightful critiques of structure, conflicting detail, character development and other matters of interest to a writer. He freezes up at the thought of writing anything nontechnical himself, but he's a masterful reader, and I'm especially blessed to have the benefit of his skill.

Last spring I nearly wrecked my voice reading Haven Kimmel's memoir, A Girl Called Zippy, aloud in the car on a long road trip. This memoir, published in 1991, came at the early edge of the current spate women's memoirs, and due to some weaknesses, it may not make the publisher's cut today. Despite the flaws, it's a charming and delightful story, and we spent lots of time laughing at the humor found throughout.

I hadn't been sure Hubby would relate to the book, but he did enjoy it. He also rattled off some flaws before I'd even finished reading. Four stand out:

1. She didn't date-stamp her accounts, and she jumped around in time like a grasshopper on a sugar high. We often wondered whether she was six or twelve during a particular episode. Age was relevant to putting the story in context.

Writing lesson: Be sure to anchor each story in the five W's: who, where, when, why, and what.

2. She repeated material many times, without any indication that she intended to do so. Repetition is okay, but tends to bore readers and sound sloppy.

Writing lesson: When you assemble random stories into a collection, check for duplication of material. After the first time you mention an event, refer back to that first mention rather than retelling it in full. If you do retell it, recast it to shed a different light on things. Best of all, tighten up your content to avoid the need for repetition.

3. Her dialog was overdone. Many conversations sounded more like something you'd read in the New Yorker than a memoir about childhood. Perhaps she really was that precocious, but it sounded as authentic as a toddler wobbling around on oversize stilettos, wearing lame, lipstick and lots of bling. It was splendid creative writing, and had it issued from the lips of a more mature character, it would have been gold-standard.

Writing lesson: Keep your vocabulary age-appropriate when you use dialog. As I've mentioned several times in previous blogs about The Albuquerque Years,
“grown-up” words or interpretive sections jangled loudly. My sense of things told me I had to keep it consistent with my age at the time; to keep the words true to the music.

4. She honed in on certain details with laser-like precision. Who can say? Perhaps her memory is that sharp. But for most of us, the mists of time tend to blur the edges of physical surroundings, and specific wording of remembered conversations. Sharpening them too much is like over-sharpening a picture with photo-editing software. The picture no longer looks real, and the story begins to sound contrived.

Writing lesson: Detail is good, but reaching too far, filling in too many blanks with guesses, or relying on input from too many others, weakens your credibility. Write from your own memory. Let intuition fill in a few blanks, but don't grasp for straws. Leave it out, or honestly admit that you don't remember.

In spite of these criticisms, the book is a delight to read, and I consider reading it time well spent — especially since my resident literary critic was along to point out the lessons.

Perhaps there is a further lesson in all of this
— the importance of finding support people who are skillful readers. I feel especially fortunate to have one under my own roof. You may have to look a bit further. I'd suggest attending a few sessions of a reading group at your local library. Pay close attention to those who seem to be the most articulate in analyzing the books. If you can get one or two of those people to give you honest feedback on your own writing, you'll be getting some of the best coaching available, and they will probably be flattered to have you ask them, and glad to help.

Write now: about an early childhood memory. Use some dialog in your story and describe the surroundings. Before you begin writing, sit back with your eyes closed and try to remember what things looked like when you were that age. What did they sound like? How did you think about things. Try to become that age again. Then, open your eyes, and start writing. Most likely, your muse will be whispering in your ear, and words will flow right out onto paper like magic, in just the right words and level of description. It's okay to edit, but resist the temptation to "pimp it up."

Write on,

Sharon Lippincott, aka Ritergal


Anonymous said...

I am so excited to hear this review of this particular book! It is my first memoir that I picked up to read after joining Story Circle. I agree with your husband's comments. I appreciate the tips that you include here, to help me as I go forward with writing my own life stories. I add that some of the dialogue/language was exactly what Junie B. Jones would say, if you are familiar with this character. I love Junie B. But it didn't ring true from this author. Still I enjoyed the book very much.

David Rochester said...

I've found that being a talented reader is quite a different kettle of fish from being a talented writer. Perhaps this is why so many agents and editors are not, themselves, writers ... the ability to read well is an underrated creative gift.

Ritergal said...

Interesting point, David. Our daughter, who majored in English Lit, has an amazing way of reading. If I remember correctly, she reads once through quickly for getting the lay of the story, another pass for details, and a third for structure. And she does all this in about the same time her over-achieving spouse reads the same thing once.

If her father technically oriented father weren't such a gifted analyst (he only reads once, and rapidly at that), I might attribute her powers to her training. As it is, I'm more inclined to see it as you do, as a gift, and a brain wiring attribute that may be at least partly hereditary.

What I do know for sure is that I'll never hold a candle to either on of them in the reading arena.

Thanks for stopping by.