Word by Word

Practical insights for writers from Jessica P Morrell

Been reading a lot lately?

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Jan• 21•22

Do you read more in the winter? I believe reading is better with a blanket to snuggle under. I also believe the Gregorian Calendar established in 1582 by the Catholic Church ignores the real seasons of the year. Surely the year starts in spring when nature is awakening.

The library I haunted as kid was built in 1891 and was moved to a pretty, riverside park with funding from the Andrew Carnegie Foundation in 1911. It’s the same time they developed a traveling library that included the small surrounding communities. I vaguely remember a bookmobile visiting our neighborhood and these days along with Head Start programs, the region has pop-up libraries. One of my life’s great satisfactions is knowing my books are available in my hometown library. Do you have a similar goal?

BOOKMOBILE - 1967 | Bookmobile, Mobile library, Local libraryThis is similar to the bookmobile I remember as a kid. I’m happy to report bookmobiles are on the upswing around the world.

Reading was my everything when I was a girl. True, there was a  small town for exploring, the big outdoors, trees, rivers, ice rinks, and snow–so much snow. Once I was too old for make-believe reading carried me to other places, and granted freedom.

These days reading is so much different because I read like an editor which can take some of the fun out of it. In my gig as a developmental editor I try to read widely so I’m reading a Dean Koontz thriller l this week. I’m not too enamored of it because he overuses metaphors, too many of his characters philosophize, he spends too much time in the villain’s disturbing viewpoint, and while it is layered (especially with greedy, soulless bad guys) it’s just too commercial for my taste. I’ve been skimming often and get annoyed when he uses words like ‘darkle’ more than once. And prefer the canine characters over all the others.

Some of my clients write thrillers so I’m sticking with it until the likely bitter end and I’ve jotted down several pages of notes. I’ve especially been following his use of the wind in this story because Koontz is great at using nature to increase tension and verisimilitude. And, of course, he  lards the pages with atmospherics as in ‘a wind had risen out of the northwest filling the air with whispers and moans’ and ‘wind seethed into the house, huffing and wailing.’ See what I mean?

My question to you is are you reading like a writer? Are you analyzing the choices the writer made? Can you locate the underlying structure such as the midpoint reversal? {In Koontz’s story he added more bad guys we hadn’t met before and a kill order for the vulnerable characters.} Are you making notes and underlining in books you own? Jotting down insights in your writer’s notebook? Collecting words, descriptions, and figurative language?  When you are walking or driving do you mull over what you’re reading? And let’s not overlook talking about the books with fellow writers or your book group. There’s nothing like articulating what works in the story, what distracted you amid the story, your satisfaction with the ending.

Highly recommended: Lauren Groff’s Matrix. It’s set in a medieval abbey and loosely based on the life of poet and mystic  Marie de France. What I most appreciated about this story was the accuracy of the research and language, and how the story simply stayed with me, if I was reading it or not. The characters followed me, whispering, and it was as if I could smell the world, feel the seasons overlaid on the world I live in.

Here are the first captivating lines:

She rides out of the forest alone. Seventeen years old in the cold March drizzle, Marie who comes from France. 

It is 1128 and the world bears the weariness of late Lent. It will soon be Easter which arrives early this year. In the fields, the seeds uncurl in the dark, cold soil ready to punch into the freer air. She sees for the first time the abbey, pale and aloof on a rise in this damp valley, the clouds drawn up from the ocean and wrung against the hills in constant rainfall. Most of the year this place is emerald and sapphire, bursting under dampness, thick with sheep and chaffinches and newts, delicate mushrooms poking from the damp soil, but now in late winter, all is gray and full of shadow.

How could I not read on?

I’ve come to believe she’s one of our best living writers and reading another of her novels is my reward for finishing the gory thriller. I’m looking forward to leaving the world of evil where I rarely venture any more.

PS Finished the dreadful Koontz novel by skimming and skipping though much of it. Too many themes crammed into the story with a silly, muddled, saccharine ending tied up in a giant happily-ever-after bow mixed in with horrors. It’s obvious Koontz is deeply saddened or disturbed by our contemporary society and government. As he should be. Never again.

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