Friday, June 30, 2017

What makes a book "good"? Part 2 - Similes

Originality was the focus of my first post in this series, and that elements carries through in this post. One of the hallmarks of good writing is the use of original similes. Similes are often word pictures, and as a visual learner, I appreciate how they make the text come alive. Here are some examples from some good books I have recently read, and a few quotes from my two novels in waiting (waiting to be published)!

"Our guilt coated the house like pollen" (Bohjalian 39). This line in The Sleepwalker is a perfect example of how "good" writing contains similes that are original and have veritas.

"The sun was a red bindi dot on the forehead of the sky as they started their walk," (Umrigar 33).  Thrity Umrigar has so many stunning similes it is hard to choose just one, but this line from The World we Found stuck out.

"From the moment she began to boil the water for breakfast, she never sat down but was always busy with the children, the washing, the meals, the garden, the animals. Her days were all the same, like a rosary of identical beads shaping her existence" (Allende, Of Love and Shadows, 14). It's important that the simile relate to the theme of the book (I think). It pulls everything together nicely, and as Catholicism is one of the themes of this book by Isabel Allende, the simile is appropriate.

"At night it creaked softly, like a weary, rheumatic old woman" (Allende 26).

"A cool breeze blew through the trees, and Ledu and I held each other, laid out side by side on the thin blanket, like two knobby walking sticks" (Sweeting, Remnant). I had different wording for this, but I was trying to think of something in Ibo culture to relate to, and came up with this.

"The mother was already thin, her arms like sugar cane stalks" (Sweeting, Remnant). Again, sugar cane is commonly grown in Nigeria, so I thought this might be an appropriate simile.

"Three stories high, the house boasted a wrap-around porch, fitting as snugly as a babe on a mother’s back, pots of geraniums, marigolds and camellias brightening the porch and scenting the air" (Sweeting, Remnant). 

"Her eyes were swollen and red, her hair looked like a cross between Medusa and a spider web, and there was dried snot on the side of her face" (Sweeting, Expecting).  This novel is American and contemporary.

"It’s almost like an unwritten taboo. If you’re deaf or hard of hearing, you stay in the community. I think it’s a bigger taboo than marrying outside your race, or your religion" (Sweeting, Expecting). In this book I am working on now, the reference is to a deaf person marrying a hearing person. 

Please let me know what you think of these similes, and share some of your favorites!

Sunday, June 25, 2017

What makes a book "good"? Part 1 - Originality

I read a lot - an average of two books a week. Some of these are easy, quick reads - contemporary women's fiction, romances. After I've read a few "lighter" books, I go back to more "literary" books. But I've been thinking about what makes a book "light" reading, and what makes a book "literary." A very condensed definition of a "good" book is... a good story well told. The two elements to any work of fiction are the Story itself and Writing Style.

The story can be further broken down into several categories - these are not set in stone:
  • Plot - this is the "what" in a story; what happens to whom, when, why, where, and how
  • Characters - who is in the story? Characters are usually human, but they don't have to be.
  • Setting (sometimes called World Building) - sometimes the setting is to important, it's like another character
  • Tone - as Sebastian said in "Little Mermaid," "I need to set the mood" - what great old movies did with music, writers achieve with words
  • Themes - is there an overall theme to the story? It is about love, loss, betrayal, revenge, ambition, greed, indecisiveness, hubris....
  • Symbolism - do some elements have a deeper meaning? Do they stand in for something else? Is the snake only a snake, and is the dream just a dream?
The writing style is more illusive, but here are some elements:
  • Prose - how does the author put words and sentences together
  • Dialogue - is it realistic?  Does it add to the story?
  • Narrative - is it a page turner? Do you want to read more not just to find out what happens, but because the story is so beautifully told?
For this post I'm focusing on prose. What I have noticed in some of the books I've read lately, is that originality is vital to good writing. But it's not originality for the sake of being original. The originality in "good" writing has a purpose, and it draws the reader in - it provides an "aha" moment. The reader will think, "Yes, that's exactly right. I don't know why I didn't think of it that way before."
Here is one example:  

In The Sleepwalker, Chris Bohjalian writes about the mother who has gone missing, presumably after sleepwalking:
"She was, at once, never there and always there, as undeniable yet untouchable as the sky... And so there lived a hollowness in the heart of the house. The three of us were missing the semaphore that was wife and mother. We needed a new language and new rituals, but it was going to take time for them to evolve." (Page 63)

Oh yes, good writing also often includes words one has to look up - like semaphore.

Have you been reading a good book lately? Please share your own examples!