Bright Gems Amidst the Fog of Memory

I was thinking yesterday about scenes. And how there are just some scenes that whabam! stick with you forever. Like when Walter Hartwright first meets Anne Catherick in The Woman in White. No? Just me? How about that scene in Oliver Twist. Yeah, that one in the orphanage. Please sir, etc. Or in The Phantom Tollbooth when time flies. TIME FLIES! Brilliant.

My favorites, though, are the scenes that I remember without remembering what book they came from. For instance.

This book was a fantasy. One of those girl-witch-finding-her-power fantasies. And there was another main character, probably a boy, because I think this scene was from his point of view.

All I remember of the book is this image near the end. The Bad-Guy-Wizard is standing in like a circle of magic, untouchable, and the boy/POV character is standing/sitting in front of him, at his mercy. Then girl-witch-finding-her-power, forgotten at the side, crawls out of the bushes towards the edge of the circle of magic. BoyPOV sees her, and GWFHP, on her hands and knees, looks at him, shakes her head, and crawls onward to disturb BGW’s circle of magicalness.

Something about the crawling and the headshake are stuck in my head. I could not tell you why for love or money. It’s just a striking image.

The other main stuck-in-head-with-no-source scene is more of a concept, really. It was an awful sci-fi book, that’s really all I remember. (Boy, I read some quality books when I was a kid. Don’t take these two examples as representative, please. I mean, they are, but we can pretend like they’re anomalies.) In this sci-fi book there was some horrible mutative disease. But nobody cared, it didn’t affect anyone “important.” Then one of the main doctors (there were a lot of doctors, I recall) contracted a new, mutated form of the disease–right before he was due to go to a Senate hearing of some sort to beg for research money from a bunch of people who didn’t want to give it. And he didn’t tell anyone. The book ends with him flying off to government headquarters, with plans to infect every Senator he shakes hands with, to force them to care.

And I was like Wow.

That is literally all I remember about each book. Amazing that a writer can create such a whabam moment and not pull it off for the entire novel itself.

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So, two questions. 1. Does this ever happen to you? If so, give us the scene! and 2. Do you recognize either of these books, and if so PLEASE TELL ME. It is driving me to MADNESS.

Eat Your Vegetables

When you were a kid and your mom presented you with, I don’t know, BRUSSEL SPROUTS, *cough* you’d scrunch up your face and push them aside and refuse to eat them, right? Of course you would. They were green and not chocolatey.

brussel sprouts. ew

You would then get that classic parent refrain, “Eat your vegetables, Gracie.” (Your parents probably didn’t call you Gracie, but you get the idea.)

Turns out that in many cases, parents really do have your best interest at heart. (I think this is my first step towards adulthood. *wobble*) Vegetables are, in fact, good for you, even though many of them taste suspiciously like the monsters that live under the bed. And by making you eat your veggies, your parents not only made sure you grew up “healthy and strong,” they taught you a valuable life lesson.

Stuff you don’t like can be good for you in the long run.

Let’s apply this to writing. :-)

Say you read a book and you hate it. People generally fall into two camps on what they do at this point: the “Maybe-it-will-get-better/ I-owe-the-author/ I’ve-already-invested-this-much-time” camp and the “Life’s-too-short-where’s-the-trashcan” camp. I alternate, depending on just how bad the book is. But that’s not the point of this post.

So these bad books are the brussel sprouts of life. Let’s take those brussel sprouts and make lemonade. (what?)

Read the book again. You heard me. Stop whining, it’s good for you.

And take notes.

Where, exactly, does it go wrong? Characters or plot or style or something else? Is your reaction visceral or rational? Is the problem in the way the author did something, or is it just something you happen to not like? (someday I will spiel on romance in mysteries) Compare a chunk of dialogue you don’t like with a chunk from a book you do like. In a technical sense, how are they different? Does the book have any redeeming qualities? Do other people like it (*cough* DaVinci Code *cough*) and if so why do you think they do?

Now apply this to your writing. Look for and avoid those mistakes you saw. This process can be just as rewarding as trying to emulate good books. Every good book (read: book you like) is good both because of what it contains and what it doesn’t contain.

As a bonus, not only does this game help you understand the technical, crafty aspects of writing, it gives you ammunition when you come across someone who actually does like the book. If you’re going to dis someone’s favorite read, they’ll want you to back it up. Now you can! (As APW knows, I am bad at following my own advice. I PROMISE that by the end of the summer I will tell you what I don’t like about the Harry Potter books. crossmyheartandhopetodie.)