Thursday, April 14, 2011

Reading (Again)

I got the nicest email the other day from a group of kids in Illinois who’d been reading my books in school. They sent questions. (And pictures! That was a treat for me to see all those smiling faces!) These kids are serious about wanting to write; they’re analyzing books they like and writing authors for advice.

One of the questions they asked was what writing exercises I’d recommend for young writers like them, and what kind of exercises I enjoyed doing.

I wrote back:

“I think one of the best things you can do as a writer is to REread other people’s books. When you read a book you like, read it again and look at how the author accomplished whatever it is s/he did so well. Satisfying ending? Well, how did s/he set that up? Exciting story? Well, what details or plot twists did s/he include? Characters you really care about? Well, how did s/he do that, specifically?”

I learned this tip years ago when I heard the wonderful author Nancy Farmer speak at a conference. She said when she was teaching herself how to write, she would read the same book three times. The first time she read it, she was so caught up in the story that she really couldn’t see how the author made it work so well. But by the third reading, she was able to step back, analyze what was going on, and learn from it.

I’ve been thinking about this advice every time I sink into the book I’m currently reading (or perhaps I should say, REreading). It’s a nonfiction book for adults called Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin.

The book is a fascinating look at the 2008 presidential race, and there is a lot a writer of narrative nonfiction can learn by rereading passages. (Be forewarned, however, if this kind of thing bothers you, or if you recommend books to teens: in spite of the measured, polite, authoritative stance the candidates strive to maintain during public events, in private, key players from both parties swear enough to make a sailor blush.)

Narrative nonfiction is all about telling a story, developing characters, and, for longer works especially, creating scenes, much as a novelist might—with the added caveat that everything laid down on the page must be true.

All narrative nonfiction books are a balancing act: you have to work in enough exposition for the story to make sense, but you have to keep the story moving forward. Game Change is a great big sweeping tale with enough characters to populate a 19th century Russian novel. So one of the challenges Heilemann and Halperin face is how to quickly introduce (yet another) character in a way that is engaging and memorable, so that they can get back to telling the story.

Here, for example, is our introduction to Republican candidate Mitt Romney:

“Romney was the guy on whom much of the smart Beltway money had been betting from the start. His résumé was impressive: former CEO of Bain and Company and founder of Bain Capital; savior of the blighted 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics; one-term governor of Massachusetts. His pedigree was glittering: his father, George, had been a governor of Michigan and a presidential candidate, too. His personal life was impeccable: he had married his high school sweetheart, Ann, with whom he had had five strapping sons. He was well spoken and terrific looking, with blindingly white choppers, a chiseled jaw, and a helmet of glassy dark hair.”

There is much to admire in this paragraph. Note the tremendous amount of information we learn about Romney in just a few short sentences: his viability in comparison to the other candidates; his relevant work experience, background, and personal life; and, as is all too important in an election, his physical presence.

And yet, in spite of the sheer weight of all that information, we are engaged and entertained. First there is the terrific rhythm that structures the paragraph, pulling us through what is in reality just a long list of facts:

“His résumé was impressive…. His pedigree was glittering…. His personal life was impeccable….”

And Heilemann and Halperin don’t just shove these facts down our throats; they make the facts tasty. One of the main themes of the book is how important a candidate’s image is during an election, and this description of Romney is pitch-perfect for capturing the sense of a candidate whose image is of an all-American hero who can do it all. Just look at all the smart vocabulary choices being made:

Romney, the “savior” of the Olympics, with his “glittering” pedigree. His sons are not just ate-their-vegetables healthy, they are Paul Bunyan “strapping” (and, by extension, so is their dad). Romney is not just good-looking, he is movie star handsome, with his perfect “choppers” and “chiseled” jaw. And that “helmet” of hair? It could crown the head of a star quarterback.

In one skillful paragraph, they have captured the sense of one of the characters in their story—and now, they can get back to telling it.

The story itself is largely told in scenes.

In his book Scene & Structure, Jack M. Bickham defines a scene as “a segment of story action, written moment-by-moment, without summary, presented onstage in the story ‘now.’”

A vivid scene pulls the reader into a story—we feel as though we are right there, in that spot and at that moment, standing in the character’s shoes. (And, as you’ll see in a moment, they are very nice shoes, indeed.)

Take, for example, the opening of a frantic scene to get Sarah Palin—John McCain’s last-minute pick for a running mate—ready for the national stage:

“Cloistered in a suite on the twenty-third floor of the Hilton, Sarah Palin barely noticed the storm raging outside. Not that the atmosphere of anarchy didn’t penetrate her quarters. Quite the contrary. The place was a freaking madhouse, a Grand Central rush hour of aides, kids, and minions….

“Boxes of Manolo Blahniks were piled up four feet high and stretching twenty feet along one wall of the living room. Neiman Marcus bags were everywhere, along with several rolling garment racks loaded with suits and dresses—maybe sixty outfits, beautiful threads…. A fleet of Hollywoodish stylists in tight black jeans and high heels were hovering and strutting.”

Heilemann and Halperin set up a scene of chaos far worse than the storm “raging outside.” Inside is “anarchy,” a “freaking madhouse” with a crush of people swarming like harried commuters at rush hour.

Having set the scene, the authors use specific details to bring it to life: the wall of shoe boxes, the piles of shopping bags, the racks of expensive clothes, the “fleet” of stylists milling around. In the midst of this chaos, Sarah Palin prepares for her convention speech, and we are right there with her.

Skillfully developed characters? Check. Well-crafted scenes? Check? A book worth REreading? Indeed.

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