Monday, January 26, 2009

Welcome to My World

A recent issue of the Washington Post reports that there's good news about reading, according to the National Endowment for the Arts.

The newspaper says, "For the first time since the NEA began surveying American reading habits in 1982 -- and less than five years after it issued its famously gloomy 'Reading at Risk' report -- the percentage of American adults who report reading 'novels, short stories, poems or plays' has risen instead of declining: from 46.7 percent in 2002 to 50.2 percent in 2008."

That's great news for those of us who write fiction. Or to paraphrase The Beatles, "In times of trouble, a good book will comfort me. Let me read, let me read."

Fiction has always offered the opportunity to escape. For me, growing up in an alcoholic home, books offered the promise that life could get better. Heck, I didn't know that Jane Eyre was fiction! I thought it was a truth, proof that if a plain girl got a good education she could fashion her own future. (At least to an extent.)

And the best books are those that allow a reader to suspend reality, to give over his/her own self, to step into another world so entirely that what happens on the page is happening in the reader's head as well as on paper.

How do we do that? Here are a few ideas:

1. We evoke the five senses. We include sensory detail that helps the reader experience what our characters are feeling. Most easy to overlook, and the most powerful is the sense of...smell. Yep. It's the one sense that will most effectively and accurately evoke a memory. But it's one that writers often skip. Here's a tip from Anne Perry: She goes over her work (doing an editing pass) and consciously looks for places to include the sense of smell.

2. We seek universality. Nancy Pickard gave a wonderful presentation at The Great Manhattan Mystery Conclave where she examined powerful openings. The commonality? Each opening portrayed a univeral experience which acted as a hook for the reader. What constitutes a universal experience? For example, have you ever been taken to task unfairly? Have you ever been curious? Have you ever felt powerless--or alone? These are human conditions which we've all experienced. (And if you haven't, you need a reality check.)

3. We choose our words carefully with our eyes and ears as well as our brains. For example, I could say "the rain hit the window." That's fine. But if I vary the verb and say "the rain splashed the window," I appeal to the reader's eye AND ear. "Splash" with its descending letter "p" (which reminds us that the raindrops run DOWN), and its onomotopoeic sensibility both looks and sounds like the action I'm describing.

4. We make it easy when we can. Jeff Deaver explains that he carefully chooses memorable names for his characters because these monikers make it simpler for readers to remember who is who. So, Lincoln Rhyme is no accident.

How do you invite your reader into your fantasy world?


Keith Raffel said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Keith Raffel said...

This weekend I listened to a terrific lecture by Penelope Lively, one of my favorite writers. (Try Heat Wave and The Photograph; both, especially the former, are arguably crime fiction). She relates writing fiction to history. In writing both, the author is trying to explain what happened. Take a listen.

Anonymous said...

Joanna - Why would someone who looks like you be inspired by the tale of a "plain girl"?

Joanna Campbell Slan said...

Dear Anonymous,

You are very kind, but I was a very, very ugly little girl and young woman. I had buck teeth, huge glasses, frizzy too-short hair, and a huge scar across the side of my face. I was teased unmercifully. My family was poor so I didn't have a nice wardrobe. And body issues? Whew. My dad told me I had a "fat girl inside struggling to get out." So Jane Eyre really "spoke" to me.

On the other hand, when I showed up at my 25th high school reunion, there was a lot of shock on people's faces. (Especially the guys!)

I just needed time to grow up!

Joanna Campbell Slan said...

Keith, thanks for the link to Ms. Lively. She's right!

Joanna Campbell Slan said...

But Keith, I couldn't find her lecture via your link. Could you try again?