Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Ask O?




Hi it’s me, Ocieanna! You may remember my Wednesday Grammar-O posts. I had to take a break from Seriously Write for a few months due to a cardiac arrest. (It’s a pretty dramatic story. You can learn more about it on my website, ocieanna.com.) Anyway, we decided to change up my Wednesdays a little bit. Rather than searching for the topics I hope you’ll find helpful, I’m talking about subjects you pick. That's right, I'll be answering your questions. So, be sure to write me a note in the comments section (or contact me privately through ocieanna.com) with all your writing questions—grammar (I can’t completely hang up my Grammar-O hat!), plotting, planning, prose, alliteration, characters, emotions, conflict, inspiration… I’ll do my best to answer them. Remember what my seventh-grade English teacher always said, “The only dumb question is the one not asked.”

Our first question comes from Jan from western Washington.

“What is the difference between writing a book people want to read and writing a book people want to re-read?”

The longer I pondered, the more I realized at the heart of this inquiry lies something deeper. This question explores the mystery of what makes a book rise above the masses on bookstore shelves to the status of classic. What makes a novel a “friend,” or a part of who you are, rather than just a book you once read?

That’s an enigma I can sink my brain into.

Now, I realize the answer may lie beyond anyone’s ability to answer. I mean, if I could simply pass along the ultimate secret to creating a classic, we’d all be writing books like, Little Women, Pride and Prejudice, or The Secret Garden. That would be awesome, but I’m not sure it’s realistic.

Despite the sad truth that I probably won’t deliver five easy steps to create an epic, the question did spark a thought I’d like to explore.

We can probably all agree that great achievements don’t happen by accident. Eric Liddell didn’t wake up one morning and win the gold medal for running the 400 meters. He trained diligently and with a purpose. Thomas Jefferson studied, wrote, and served in order to be ready to pen the Declaration of Independence. I’m sure you can think of other examples.

The same is true for great works of fiction. If we want to write novels to remember, we simply must set our minds and hearts to that purpose.

I met a woman the other day who said, “I don’t know how you authors do it. I could never write a book. You all must be crazy to work that hard.” I chuckled, but it may be true! Writing is not for the weak. We can’t come at this half-heartedly. We can’t think, Oh that plotline’s good enough or Do I really need to plunge deeper in my hero’s point of view? or I’ll just slip in one cliché. No one will notice. I can't imagine consciously thinking these things, but I do feel this way sometimes, especially when the writing road tilts uphill. I'm tired, and weary of the journey. Weak.

Recently, I read an article entitled, “In Search of Impossible Goodness.” The phrase caught my attention. Could it provide a hint to becoming the kind of author who will write the next classic? According to the article, impossible goodness is reached when excellence surprises us. When the level of service goes beyond satisfying and delights. It's more than we dreamed of or expected.

Yes, I think the authors who write books to re-read possess this kind of excellence, do you?

So how does this flesh itself out? Here’s what I’ve been trying.

Perhaps I’ve labored over my character until she’s basically layered, realistic, heroic, interesting, and likeable. That’s good, right? What we strive for. I’ve done my best. But characters that become our friends go beyond these basic qualities. Elizabeth Bennett exudes these, but with a level of perfection beyond the norm.

So once I’ve created the best character I can, the question I ask myself becomes, “How can she be even more layered, more realistic, more heroic, more interesting?” And I keep doing that until my deadline comes.

If we do this with each element of our novel: plot, setting, prose, character, etc.—well, we may not write a classic the first time--but we'll get closer to achieving that re-readable quality than if we just slumped around in mediocre-ville. And who knows, if you keep it up, perhaps one of your readers will say of your backlist title, “Huh, where’s that novel? I want to read it again.”

You can learn more about Ocieanna on her website: ocieanna.com

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