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Aim for the “Extra” in the Ordinary


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photo adapted / Horia Varlan

In 1999, when Janet Fitch’s debut, White Oleander, was chosen as an Oprah Book Club pick, Winfrey described Fitch’s prose as “liquid poetry.” In an interview at the time, which I’ve never forgotten, Fitch said something that she’s repeated during the free “Writing Wednesday” talks she’s been giving on her Facebook page since the start of the pandemic: that her constant goal, in revision, is to replace any wording in her draft that she’s seen before with something that feels fresh.

Clouds like cotton candy? Out. Heart-breaking sorrow? Out. In: a sky the color of peaches; sorrow that tastes like a copper penny.

Whether or not you write on the literary end of the fiction spectrum, we can rise to Fitch’s challenge of combining words in a way that creates a revelation for your reader. By “revelation” I’m not referring a big plot reveal, but to quieter moments that delight by lending fresh perspective to a situation the reader might already think of as familiar.

The books I’ve been reading this summer are full of great examples. While collecting them for this post, I happened to read a passage in George Saunders’ book, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life. Saunders writes:

Any of us who’s ever walked out of their house on a lovely summer morning knows the truth of that moment is more than just “I walked out of my house one morning in June.” In that sentence, there’s something missing, which is the “I” walking out of the house. That morning has to fall on a certain mind for it to feel like any kind of real morning.

While the point-of-view character may be enacting an ordinary moment, his specific perspective—formed by his goals, past experiences, passions, beliefs, prejudices, fears, distractions, capabilities and limitations—can inspire an extraordinary expression of it. This authorial effort deepens the reader’s appreciation for the character’s journey while helping her see her own life anew.

Here are eight everyday occurrences, common to so many novels, that have been transformed by an author’s caring evocation of their character’s perspective.

 

Childbirth

What can possibly be fresh about childbirth? It happens, on average, four-hundred thousand times per day. And the pain just…is. It’s hard to describe.

In Hamnet, Maggie O’Farrell took on the challenge:

Her body is one of resilience, of power; she is all muscle beneath smooth skin. But this is something else. Something other. It laughs at her attempts to master it, to subdue it, to rise above it. It will, Agnes fears, overtake her. It will seize her by the scruff of her neck and plunge her down, under the surface of the water.

 

A mother’s limited patience

I’ve never thought in quite this way about the tripwire at patience’s end, but thanks to Hamnet, I’ll never forget it:

Before even realizing that her patience has slipped out from under her, like ice from under her feet, she is up, she is standing, she is gripping her son by the arm, she is shaking it, she is saying to him, “This whole scheme is nothing but foolishness.”

Note that this sentence contains no elevated language. It simply pairs patience with the notion of being slippery, something that could just as easily be done in a children’s picture book.

 

Death

Most of us have experienced this final loss; surely we’ve all read about it. In Hamnet, after her character Agnes buries a loved one, O’Farrell writes:

It is even more difficult, Agnes finds, to leave the graveyard, than it was to enter it. So many graves to walk past, so many sad and angry ghosts tugging at her skirts, touching her with their cold fingers, pulling at her, naggingly, piteously, saying, Don’t go, wait for us, don’t leave us here. She has to clutch her hem to her, fold her hands inwards. A strangely difficult idea, too, that she entered this place with three children and she leaves it with two. She is, she tells herself, meant to be leaving one behind here, but how can she? In this place of wailing spirits and dripping yew trees and cold, pawing hands?

By using her setting to draw the entire world into her character’s highly emotional moment, O’Farrell is able to build toward the image stated so powerfully in the last sentence.

 

Thanksgiving

In The Dutch House, Ann Patchett adds a revelatory twist to a Thanksgiving scenario that was standard in my youth:

The dinner was a huge production, with kids stashed in the den to eat off card tables like a collection of understudies who dreamed of one day breaking into the dining room.

This made me laugh aloud in delighted recognition.

 

Family dynamics

In this excerpt, Patchett delivers the sad truth about the family that lives in the Dutch House with one final, gut-punch of a word.

But my father surprised me, saying he would drive me to New York himself and let me come home on the train. Barnard was about two and a half hours by car. My father said we would pick Maeve up and the three of us would have lunch, then he would drive back to Elkins Park without me. It sounded so nostalgic when he said it, the three of us, as if we had once been a unit instead of just a circumstance.

 

Cooking out

In Colson Whitehead’s Sag Harbor, revelation comes through use of a standard summer prop:

Kingsford charcoal, my father’s fuel of choice. When it came to grilling, anyway. The coals rustled out of the big blue-and-white bag onto the grate. Gravity had a design, tossing them in a certain arrangement. My father had his own laws, a precise concept of fire formation honed over the years. To people like you and me, a briquette is a briquette. Not to him. He seemed to analyze each coal individually, taking measure of its strengths, deficits, secret potential. The diamond in the darkness. He knew where they needed to go, recognizing the uniqueness of each cube and determining where it fit with the rest of the team. He assembled the pyramid meticulously, perceiving the invisible—the crooked corridors of ventilation between the briquettes, the heat traps and inevitable vectors of released energy, any potential irregularity that might undermine the project. The sublime interconnectedness of it all. He asserted his order. Built his fire.

 

An ended relationship

In Writers and Lovers, Lily King has her character reflect on the end of a two-year, international romance with keen insight:

Maybe the thrill of the relationship was the languages, that everything was heightened for me because of it, more of a challenge, as I tried to maintain his belief in my facility with languages, my ability to absorb, mimic, morph. It was a trick no one expected of an American, the combination of a good ear, a good memory, and an understanding of the rules of grammar, so that I appeared more of a prodigy than I was. Every conversation was a chance to excel, to frolic, to amuse myself and to surprise him. And yet now I can’t remember what we said to each other, Conversations in foreign languages don’t linger in my head like they do in English. They don’t last. They remind me of the invisible-ink pen my mother sent me for Christmas when I was fifteen and she had gone, an irony that escaped her but not me.

 

This is not a writing rule

Let me anticipate the FAQs.

“This sounds exhausting. Must I reach for the extraordinary all the time?” No—your book would be ridiculously overwritten.

“Can I get an agent without take the time to craft revelatory prose?” Yes.

“Can I get published without going to these lengths?” Yes.

“Can novels hit bestseller lists without doing this?” Yes.

“Then why bother?”

George Saunders has been teaching literature for the past 20 years at Syracuse University, so I’ll hand this one off to him first. He maintains that our readers want more than entertainment from our stories. They seek the richness they want from life itself: “An acknowledgment, in the prose, that all of this is too big to be spoken of, but also that death begins the moment that we give up trying to speak of it.”

Personally, I have another reason: it’s fun. Fun for the author, to see how the characters and world you’ve created can serve up fresh perspective on our crazy human existence, and fun for the reader, who will return to your books again and again for more of the same.

Choosing an excerpt from above, what specific character perspective comes across? How does punctuation use, word choice, and word order help build an impression? Did these examples engage your mind and heart in a way that made you want to keep reading? Feel free to share a moment from your own writing where you sought the extraordinary within a common scenario.

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About Kathryn Craft

Kathryn Craft (she/her) is the author of two novels from Sourcebooks, The Art of Falling and The Far End of Happy. A freelance developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com since 2006, Kathryn also teaches in Drexel University’s MFA program and runs a year-long, small-group mentorship program, Your Novel Year. Learn more on Kathryn's website.

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