“Reading Like a Writer”

In my last two blog posts I’ve written about the books I read in March. Last Monday’s post was nearing 2,000 words, so I decided to save my comments about Reading Like a Writer:  A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them, by Francine Prose, for today. I’ll just hit some of the highlights.

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Reading Like a Writer, by Francine Prose

Chapter One:  Close Reading

I read and took copious notes from the first four chapters of this book and perused the rest of it. As an aspiring author, I loved how the first chapter confirmed that I read like a writer. It’s called “close reading,” and it means reading every word for the pleasure of getting every phrase – being conscious of such things as style, sentence formation, and how the author creates characters.

Based on what Francine Prose wrote, I no longer need to apologize for reading slowly. I’m trying to hone my craft by reading published writers.

Chapter Two:  Words

In the second chapter of Reading Like a Writer, the author recommends that you read slowly enough to read every word. She compares the language a writer uses to the way a composer uses notes and a painter uses paint.

To paraphrase Ms. Prose, reading to appreciate the writing is akin to not only admiring a beautiful painting from afar but also close up so you can see the brushstrokes.

I also appreciated Ms. Prose’s thoughts on the advice often given to writers, which is “Show, don’t tell.” Ms. Prose says this much-repeated advice confuses novice writers. I can vouch for that.

In editing my earlier manuscript for The Spanish Coin (before I started the complete rewrite), I took the “show, don’t tell” advice to the extreme. I was ruthless in cutting narrative, thinking I could best “show” through dialogue. It was all part of the learning process. Ms. Prose’s take on this is that showing is best done through “the energetic and specific use of language.”

Chapter Three:  Sentences

If I had known I would someday want to be a writer, I would have paid more attention in the 8th grade when we had to diagram sentences. I wasn’t very good at it, and I really didn’t see the point.

I hadn’t thought about sentence diagramming in years until I got to the third chapter of Ms. Prose’s book. She wrote about the value of diagramming sentences, and what she said makes sense to me now.

She lamented the fact that students are no longer taught to diagram sentences. Her explanation that sentence diagramming provides for the accounting of every word and provides a way “to keep track of which phrase is modifying which noun” gave me a way of understanding the value of the exercise that I could not have appreciated as an eighth grader.

I probably couldn’t diagram a complex sentence today if my life depended on it, but Ms. Prose might just be onto something when she insinuates that having that skill would help a writer.

This weekend I happened upon an article from the Huffington Post about diagramming sentences. Here’s the link, if you wish to take a look:  https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/10/01/diagram-sentence-grammar_n_5908462.html.

A word of warning, though, for those of you of “a certain age.” Reading the Huffington Post article, I soon felt like I’d entered a time warp. I don’t think our sentences had “complements” when I was in the 8th grade.

Chapter Four:  Paragraphs

In the fourth chapter of the book, Ms. Prose quotes master short story writer, Isaac Babel:

“’The breaking up into paragraphs and the punctuation have to be done properly but only for the effect on the reader. A set of dead rules is no good. A new paragraph is a wonderful thing. It lets you quietly change the rhythm, and it can be like a flash of lightning that shows the same landscape from a different aspect.’” – Isaac Babel

In all the various English courses I have taken, I don’t recall any teacher or professor ever saying to break for a new paragraph “only for the effect on the reader.” I’m still letting that sink in. It’s refreshing and freeing to think about it. It is for the writer to determine which rules are dead as far as her editor is concerned.

Chapter Seven:  Dialogue

Characters in a novel should “say what they mean, get to the point, avoid circumlocution and digression.”

Chapter Eight:  Details

Another interesting observation Ms. Prose makes is about details and the truth. She observes that details persuade that the truth is being told.

She points out that a piece of clothing can speak volumes about a character’s circumstances.

Chapter Eleven:  Reading for Courage

Continuing to fly in the face of common advice given to writers of fiction, Ms. Prose suggests that the trend in modern fiction that characters in a novel must be nice in order for the reader to identify with them is possibly not true.

She also says it’s not necessarily true that every loose end in a work of fiction needs to be tied up neatly by the end.

What a relief to read those last two theories! My characters don’t have to be nice in order for the reader to identify with them, and all the loose ends don’t have to be tied up at the end of the novel? This is in opposition to what I learned in fiction writing class back in 2001.

“Words,” by Dr. R. Brown McAlister

Chapter Two in Ms. Prose’s book brought to mind the title of the remarks made by one of the two guest speakers at my high school graduation. Dr. R. Brown McAllister, a beloved icon in Cabarrus County Schools at the time, had retired after many decades of teaching and working as a school administrator, and he had a dry but keen sense of humor. The printed program for the graduation ceremony listed “Words,” by Dr. R. Brown McAllister.

In his deadpan way, Dr. McAllister went to the podium and said something like, “I was asked to talk about words, so here I am.” That was in 1971 and I still don’t know to this day if he was asked to talk about words or to say a few words.

The more I attempt to be a writer and the more I read, the more I appreciate words.

Since my last blog post

I have made a social media plan and made an effort to do more on Twitter (@janetmorrisonbk), my writing-related boards on Pinterest (https://www.pinterest.com/janet5049), and my Janet Morrison, Writer page on Facebook. Implementing the plan will be a challenge but I’m told I must get my name out there if I hope to sell any copies of The Spanish Coin if and when it gets written and published.

I did not get much reading done last week, but I’m trying to learn that I can’t do everything I want to do. I can’t even do everything I need to do.

Until my next blog post

I hope you have a good book to read. I’ve just started reading Every Note Played, by Lisa Genova.

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Every Note Played, by Lisa Genova

If you’re a writer, I hope you have quality writing time

If you haven’t signed up for my sometime-in-the-future newsletters, please do so by completing the form below.

Janet

Early X-ray and a Thimble

Did you know that a girl from the Rocky River community in Cabarrus County, North Carolina was the first person whose life was saved in the United States with the aid of the X-ray? Today’s blog post is an edited version of a local history newspaper column I wrote in 2006 for Harrisburg Horizons, a short-lived weekly newspaper. I usually blog about writing fiction, but this is an example of my nonfiction writing.

Discovery of the X-ray

Just three months after Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen of Bavaria discovered the X-ray, a scientist from Davidson, North Carolina used it in a Rocky River home to help save Ellen Harris’ life. It was a February day in 1896.

Dr. Henry Louis Smith of Davidson read about Roentgen’s discovery of the X-ray. He went to Dr. J.P. Munroe’s laboratory in the small medical school on the campus of Davidson College. The laboratory had the same equipment as that used by Mr. Roentgen.

Dr. Smith fired a bullet into the palm of a corpse’s hand. He then made a successful X-ray of the hand.

Ellen Harris Swallows Thimble

Soon thereafter, Mr. and Mrs. William Edwin Harris’ twelve-year-old daughter, Ellen, swallowed a tailor’s thimble. The open-ended thimble lodged in her throat and made it increasingly difficult for her to breathe or eat over the following days.

Tailor's Thimble
Tailor’s Thimble

Area physicians did not agree on a diagnosis. Three doctors thought she coughed up the thimble and damaged her throat in the process. One doctor speculated that the thimble hurt her throat as it passed to her stomach. Only one of the five doctors consulted thought the thimble was still in Ellen’s throat.

A man in Charlotte, the largest town in the area, told Dr. Smith about Ellen’s predicament. Dr. Smith asked the man to convey to Ellen’s parents his willingness to help them.

Ellen’s frantic father and mother believed that Dr. Smith could help their daughter. Mr. Harris traveled to Davidson in a wagon (a distance of about 30 miles — perhaps more in those days) and brought Dr. Smith and his X-ray equipment to his home near Rocky River Presbyterian Church on Rocky River Road.

Mr. and Mrs. Harris placed Ellen on a sheet fashioned into a hammock. Dr. Smith set up his crude X-ray apparatus. A large and heavy battery and induction coil powered the equipment.

According to a letter that Dr. Smith wrote to Dr. Robert M. Lafferty, he crouched on the floor under the girl. After an hour’s work with a fluoroscope, he got a fleeting glimpse of the thimble in the child’s windpipe. There was no lasting image on film like in X-rays today.

Dr. Smith returned to Davidson and the Harris family set out for a hospital in Charlotte. The doctors there refused to operate on Ellen. They wanted to see exactly where the thimble rested before they made an incision.

The Charlotte surgeons wired Dr. Smith their concerns. Surgery was Ellen’s only hope for survival. Without knowing the exact location of the thimble, though, the surgeons feared they would lose their patient on the operating table.

Dr. Smith immediately brought his X-ray equipment from Davidson to the hospital. Once more, the apparatus pinpointed the location of the thimble in Ellen’s trachea. The image paved the way for the operation.

The surgeons soon discovered that Ellen’s flesh partially grew over the rusting thimble. This made the thimble’s removal difficult and challenging. The arduous two-hour surgery saved Ellen’s life and put the Rocky River community on the medical history map!

My sources:

Early Medicine in Cabarrus, primary data collected by Eugenia W. Lore and edited by Jane Harris Nierenberg, 1990.  (Includes newspaper articles from The Concord Tribune, November 9, 1945, and December 10, 1945.)

Open the Gate and Roam Cabarrus With Us, by Adelaide and Eugenia Lore, 1971.

The Historic Architecture of Cabarrus County, North Carolina, by Peter R. Kaplan, 1981.

Hornets’ Nest:  The Story of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County, by LeGette Blythe and Charles R. Brockmann, 1961.

Until my next blog post

I hope you have a good book to read. (I finished Right Behind You, by Lisa Gardner and have started reading Chasing the North Star, by Robert Morgan.) If you are a writer, I hope you have quality writing time.

Janet

Save

First Author Event Scheduled!

My first author event/book signing for The Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina will be held at the public library in Harrisburg at 5:30 p.m., Thursday, September 11th. This is exciting and a bit intimidating. Author events at the other three public libraries in Cabarrus County are in the works, but no dates have been selected.

I’ve tried for two weeks to arrange author events in the three public libraries in one of the counties in the foothills of North Carolina to no avail. It is disappointing. I really want to show my support for public libraries. I will turn my attention to the next county on my list and keep you posted.

Ending a chapter

I’m ending a chapter in my writing life this week. On Christmas Eve, I received an e-mail informing me that as of December 30, 2012, Harrisburg Horizons weekly newspaper will cease publication. I have written a local history column for the paper every other week since its second issue in May of 2006. I have learned far more about the history of Cabarrus County’s Township #1 than I could have anticipated when I set out on this journey. I enjoyed doing most of the research and loved doing the writing. The little bit of income this freelancing job gave me was icing on the cake.

It is time to start a new chapter, or perhaps return to an unfinished chapter as a writer. The manuscript for The Spanish Coin, my first attempt at writing an historical novel, has been on the back burner far too long. It is time to look at it with fresh eyes and get it published. It is time to look at other avenues of writing and see where that road takes me.

As I count down to my birthday in January… one of those dreaded birthdays that ends in a “0,” it seems fitting to take stock of what I have and have not accomplished and step into the next chapter of my life with boldness and enthusiasm!

another book recommendation

Thanks to my sister giving me an early Christmas present, I finally have a Kindle. The first book I downloaded was Bonds of Courage. Written by Sandy Hill, it is a wonderful work of historical fiction set in Pennsylvania during the American Revolution. The author draws on an intriguing piece of her family’s history and weaves a suspenseful story of war, kidnapping, and the desperate measures people will take in order to save those they love.

Reading good historical fiction like Bonds of Courage inspires me to turn my efforts back to getting the manuscript I’m calling The Spanish Coin published. Maybe 2013 will see that happen. In the meantime, though, I’m transcribing the handwritten Cabarrus County Board of Education Minutes from microfilm. I look forward to writing more newspaper columns about our schools when that research is completed.

While you’re waiting for my historical novel to be published, I highly recommend Bonds of Courage, by Sandy Hill, and I hope she will bless us with a sequel.

Getting back to research

For those of you who follow my local history column in Harrisburg Horizons newspaper every other week, my article was omitted last Sunday. It should be in the paper on October 7.

I neglected research for my local history column for a few weeks while I spent time making items to sell on Saturday, October 6 at the Harvest Fest at Harrisburg United Methodist Church. This is my first craft fair, so I’m eager to see how it goes. Variety is the spice of life, so I have enjoyed this recent diversion.

Monday will find me concentrating on my local history research and putting my fingers to the keyboard. Reading microfilmed records is tedious but full of surprises. I must psyche myself up to do more of that this winter.

Writing the newspaper column since May of 2006 has been a blessing to me, and I’m thrilled when people tell me how much they enjoy and look forward to my articles. I have enjoyed writing my “Did You Know?” column more than any other job I’ve ever had.

I plan to start blogging a couple of times a week to let you know what I’m working on and what I’m reading. Stay tuned.

Learning to Quilt, too?

Learning to play the mountain dulcimer at the age 57 apparently wasn’t enough of a challenge for me. Or perhaps I’m having a midlife crisis. For whatever reason, this seemed like the right time in my life to do some of the things I’ve always wanted to do.

My new endeavor is quilting. I’ve joined a small quilters group in my community.  We meet monthly. Individually and collectively they have welcomed me with open arms and much encouragement.

I literally had to blow the dust off the old Singer sewing machine. It’s one of those old “thread-it-yourself” models from the 1960s. It took a while for the machine and me to get reacquainted. Thread tension is still a bit of an issue, but I’m confident that the end result will be something of which I can be proud.  Project #1:  a sample quilt made up of a dozen 12-inch square blocks, each block a different quilt pattern.

With Block #1: Roman Square successfully completed, this week I will tackle Block #2: Log Cabin. It is fun to see the various fabrics I purchased for my quilt coming together in blocks. I had not sewn since the early 1980s and had forgotten how exciting it can be to shop for fabrics.

My assignment before the February quilting group’s (Friendship Quilters) meeting is to sew sash pieces of fabric between quilt blocks sewn earlier by other members of the group. With some luck, this piece will turn out to be a table runner to be sold at our sponsoring church’s fall bazaar. Imagine something I helped sew being sold at a bazaar!

My blog continues to be all over the map when it comes to topics. It started out to be a way for me to put out the word about my writing. Life is too short and precious to be lived enjoying only one thing, though. I continue to write a local history column for Harrisburg (NC) Horizons newspaper every other week, but playing the mountain dulcimer and sewing also beg for my time and attention. It is said that a writer writes because he or she has to. I feel the same way about playing the dulcimer. If a day passes and I don’t play this beautiful Appalachian mountain instrument, I feel cheated and my day is incomplete. I play for my own enjoyment. It is one of the most relaxing hobbies I’ve ever had.

I wish for you the same desire to learn new things. Writing, music, and sewing continue to bring new friends and pleasures into my life.

What have you always wanted to do that you have never pursued?