Simple Words

I often feel like a pilot fish, swimming an ocean of writing, following the great author sharks, hanging just behind their mouths, hoping to snag some tasty bits of insight.

Sometimes, something delicious comes my way from an unexpected source.

Here’s a fine piece of descriptive prose I read yesterday in, of all places, the New York Times opinion page: “the light through my windows looks the way October light is supposed to look — mild, quiet, entirely unlike the thin light of winter or the sparkling light of spring or the unrelenting light of summer. In normal years, October is a month for open windows in Middle Tennessee. For cool, damp mornings. For colored leaves that quake in the wind before letting go and lifting away. For afternoon shadows so lovely they fill me with a longing I can’t even name.”

The writer is Margaret Renkl.

Description is part of every writer’s toolkit. In my thrillers, it’s often there to create a logical space in which action happens. In the best literary fiction, it exercises the mother tongue to tease out a feeling for place and time.

I loved the balance of Renkl’s prose. Simple words, but poetic, spare. She didn’t need to pile on intricate vocabulary to impress the reader, yet her words reach beyond pure description to convey emotion without emoting.

The opinion piece, called The Last Hummingbird, is here 

Collision: Football and Storytelling

Those of you who write know that writing comes to invade much of your life. You see an expression on a face in a crowd and think about how you would capture it in words. You see a news item that makes you add a twist to your plot. Putting words around life becomes a constant. Which brings me to football.

A few days ago, I read the beginning of my fourth novel to a critique group. One of the members said. “I like the beginning, but then you take me into a biotech development hub. Interesting, but it slows the story down.”  I was contemplating that comment, going back and forth about whether to cut the offending section.  I took a break to watch a University of Florida football game. (If you’ve lived in Gainesville, Gator football puts a stamp on you, even after you leave.) I was half thinking about my writing dilemma when Florida captured a Tennessee fumble, or seemed to. There followed a half-dozen video replays, shots of refs conferring, several minutes of ads, replays, conferences. Finally, a decision. By the time, I had lost track of the game. I had just read an article in which a sportswriter talked about the new safety rules and technology that made it possible for millisecond, millimeter measurements slowing the game, destroying its rhythm. The writer credited falling viewership on the delays that alter the rhythm, which is to say the emotion, of the game.

The same is true is true about writing, it seems to me. Like football, there is a rhythm to a story, and that rhythm needs to be ever-present in a writer’s mind, because rhythm is an important component of the emotional bond between the reader and the story. That bond makes the reader turn the page.

Looks like that bit about the biotech incubator is out. I loved writing it. I worked there (well, not the fictional one) for several years. I know the people, the structure, the kind of events that go on … and I neglected rhythm.  

Maybe I’ll get a chance to put it in later.