Therese butting in for a second to officially welcome Kathryn Craft to Writer Unboxed as a regular contributor. Kathryn has mad skills, which she’s shared with us as a guest of WU, and I couldn’t be happier that she’ll bring them to us now through her new column, Mad Skills. Welcome, Kathryn!
Most experienced writers know the syndrome: once you are a student of craft, it gets harder and harder to lose yourself in the work you read. Since being an editor of any sort exacerbates the problem, people sometimes ask if I can switch off my inner prose analyst long enough to suspend belief and get swept away.
The answer is yes, I can, but it takes some mad authorial skills. Passages from works that exemplify these skills will become the grist for this new Writer Unboxed column in the hope that we can all benefit from studying them.
It’s January 1, though, and you may be hung over, so I’m going to keep this first installment simple.
Trust your nouns and verbs.
Wait—can this really count as a mad skill? It’s grammar school stuff. My first grade reader, Tip and Mitten by Paul McKee, detailed the hijinks of a little terrier and a black kitten in such language:
My ball is not in the box.
Here is a little can.
My ball may be in it.
I have to find my ball.
Set aside for a moment the repetition needed to help children translate written shapes into the sounds of language. A story is developing here—by god, people, a ball is missing and the search is on! Okay, a publisher of adult stories would want you to raise the stakes, but if you think no one cares about this little drama, you’re wrong—two copies of the first 1949 edition of Tip and Mitten are available on Amazon for $80.00 a piece. Many of us are nostalgic about the words that first made us fall in love with reading.
How can nostalgia help me now?
The more you study novel writing the more overwhelmingly complex it can seem. But when you strip a story to its essence, you’ll find nouns and verbs fueling it: Something (noun) happens to (verb) a character (noun) that threatens (verb) her world (noun), so she sets (verb) a goal. A whole lotta nouns and verbs set up complications, which her backstory motivation (noun) and desire (noun) inspire her to surmount (verb). This is the cause and effect language characteristic of active voice, and it will keep your story moving forward.
Let’s take a look at an example from Falling Under by Danielle Younge-Ullman. After a short opening from the protagonist’s perspective as a child, the second chapter opens the current story action in her adult point of view:
When all else fails I go to Erik. Tonight, all else has failed.
He answers the door, eyes bloodshot, unsurprised. And then the hitch in my breathing that comes, that always comes with Erik.
“Can’t sleep?” he says.
He steps aside to let me in, shuts the door behind me, slides the bolts, and chains the locks.
This spare prose is not all that different from Tip and Mitten: “My ball is not in the box”/”When all else fails I go to Erik.” But oh, the layers of meaning hidden here. [Read more…]