Reading is one of the most effective ways to improve your writing, and the good news is that this can be a do-it-yourself project. But simply scanning words until you find out “who done it” isn’t going to get you very far.
I’ve posted several times about the value of keeping a log of wonderful phrases, dialogue and detail. Writing reviews has sharpened my ability to dig more deeply for structure and nuance. I strongly encourage you to post reviews on Amazon anytime you read a book that’s worth a bit more study.
Taking this one step further, author interviews are a great way to learn, both by doing the interviews and reading them. One of my current memoir favorites is Tracy Seeley’s book, My Ruby Slippers: The Road Back to Kansas. After reviewing the book, I was asked to interview Tracy for Story Circle Network. She predictably did a great job of answering. One question specifically addresses my current passion for writing description:
Sharon: You use such lovely descriptions, especially of emotions and feelings, for example, “The ghosts of my dozen childhood moves and my father’s leaving had laid their chilly hands on my heart.” Do you have any secrets you can share about how you access these succulent similes?
Tracy: Boy, I really don’t have any secret techniques. I wish I did. Similes usually just come to me, if I sit quietly and wait and pay attention to the mood and feeling I want to convey. I listen, and gradually it arrives. That sounds completely unhelpful, I know.
One thing that may help is that I really pay attention to the metaphorical power of individual words and then develop it. Which is what happened with your example.
Just to explain a bit further. It’s fair to say that I was haunted by the many times my family had moved and then by my father’s leaving. We use that word “haunted” all the time. So much so, that we don’t feel the full weight of it. So it really wouldn’t have had any power if I’d written, “I was haunted by my father’s leaving.” It’s become a cliché, and so it’s empty. But haunting led me to ghosts, which I thought would be too heavy-handed in the passage, so I just waited a bit, and the chilly hand just arose out of nowhere. Not a whole ghost, just a hand. Immediately I recognized the power of that image. The chill adds a physical sensation to something that’s not really physical, which brings that moment an added dimension. So when the ghosts of the past laid a “chilly hand on my heart,” the image conjures the right mood and conveys the emotional effect of my past, but it’s also indirect and suggestive—and that’s always more powerful than something explicit and obvious. So if I had a secret, it would be sit quietly and let the metaphors speak through the words. Then make sure the metaphor suits the situation in all of its connotations, its moods. And keep pushing until you arrive at something surprising and fresh.
Write now: read a memoir and write a review. Include your thoughts about the book and what it meant to you. Mention the structure and what you liked or would like to see handled differently. You can include a brief synopsis of the story, but what I find most helpful in a review are people’s reactions. Those help me find more meat as I read the first time.