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Monday, March 26, 2012

What Writers Can Learn from Lauren Oliver

Here's something I almost never do: Check out a book from the library, read it, and fall so in love with it that I must own it. So yes--I go out and buy a book I've already read.

That's what I did with Liesl & Po by Lauren Oliver. Here was my gut reaction: I read this book, closed the cover, and heaved that delicious but grief-stricken sigh that I do when I know a great book is done but I wish it would live on.

Now I could just write a review of this book, but I thought it might be more helpful to think about why it's so good--and what can we as writers learn from it? I'll break this post into three parts: Writing/Prose, Characters, and Plotting.

First, let's talk about the writing--just the prose. Great writing doesn't have to be flowery--in fact, it really shouldn't be--but it has to be precise. It has to hit you in all the right ways. Consider this sentence, from a scene in which Liesl is trying hard to remember something important:

And so she squeezed her eyes tight and climbed down the tower of months she had been in the attic, reaching back and back into the rooms of her memory that were so dusty and dim she could catch only little, flickering glances of things.
That sentence, like so many gems in this book, resonated with me. It's that aha! moment when you say, Yes, that's exactly how it feels when I'm trying to remember something!

How does Oliver create this image? She goes straight to the heart of the matter. Liesl squeezes her eyes tight. So much is conveyed in that simple phrase--anxiety, the physical sensation, that otherworldly feeling of entering your own mind and closing off the outside world. Then she climbed down the tower of months--what a lovely phrase. Again, Oliver just describes what the rest of us feel. Searching for a memory is like climbing back through time. In this case, it makes even more sense because Liesl has been trapped in an attic, so she must climb down to the real world again in her mind as well as climb through her memory. And then, the memories themselves: little, flickering glances. Isn't that what you see when you try to access long-forgotten scenes from your life? Flashes, bits and pieces, like stills from an old movie?

I don't know what Oliver's writing method is, but if you find yourself writing a bland sentence like, Liesl closed her eyes and tried to remember, it might help to think about what it really feels like to remember. If you had to remember something crucial, what motions would you go through? Would your character go through those motions, or do something different because of who he/she is? Describe the sensations--all of them.

And speaking of sensations, here's another, from the scene where Will visits Mr. Gray:
No matter how many times he came for a pickup, Will could never get used to it: a bitter, scorching smell mixed with the smell of bodies, like a fire lit in the very center of a dirty stable.
I've never lit a fire in a stable, but that sentence resonated too: I could smell it, the warm musk of animals and the sharp sting of smoke as the hay catches on fire. It all makes sense, of course, because Mr. Gray runs a crematorium.

Note how Oliver focuses on one sense, smell, to create this image. Why a stable? Besides having animal scents to mix with the fire, the stable also conveys a sense of being closed in and trapped. A fire in a stable is a dangerous thing--the smoke would choke you (there's no chimney), the straw would ignite like newspaper, the whole flimsy structure would soon collapse. That's how Will feels, and we feel it along with him.

As writers, we too need to look for unusual ways to draw our readers in with scents and sounds and touch. Remember that smell, especially, is the most evocative of the senses, able to waken memories in an instant. I'm not sure why--maybe because it's so primal and instinctual? But we can use that to our advantage. What do scents conjure for you? Think about damp, freshly mown grass; a basket of strawberries; raw garlic; sizzling steaks on the grill; a dog drenched with rainwater. These are strong smells. What memories do they evoke? Use that. Use it all.

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