Don’t Rely on Memory Alone

Monday, May 30, 2016

When I sat down to work on my novel, I knew I needed to work on my character descriptions. They were, at best, scant. I wanted them to be rich and full. I wanted my characters to be so familiar to the reader that they would be recognizable on the street.

That's how I feel about Sharon Shinn's characters.  If I were to pass Senneth or Gabriel on the street, I would immediately know who it was.  I would probably go a little fan girl.  Okay, a lot fan girl.  I want readers to feel this about my characters so I pulled out Shinn's Mystic and Rider. I decided to study up on how Shinn had made Senneth so familiar to me. Skimming the first two chapters, I looked for the character description. I saw a word here and a phrase there but not the passages that I recalled. I read on and eventually realized that I had misremembered.

Yes, Shinn had brought her characters to life, but she didn’t do it through key passages. She did it a word here and a sentence there. She did it through action and experience and time. It was a lot like getting to know a real person which could explain why her characters feel so real. If I had tried to accomplish this working from what I misremembered, I would have failed.  I needed to refresh my memory.

Whether you are writing a book inspired by reading from your youth or a favorite adult book, get that book out. Give it another read and this time read it as a writer. You know the emotion that it elicited in you, but now look at how that was done. Don’t assume that you remember because the very best techniques are subtle and almost silent.

Love Yolen for her lyrical prose? Pull down your favorite book, whether it’s The Devil’s Arithmetic or Owl Moon, and refresh your memory.

Perhaps you’re drawn to the impish humor of Bruce Coville? Reread Jennifer Murdley’s Toad or I Was a Sixth Grade Alien. Take another look at how he does it – do the laughs follow physical gags or jokes in dialogue?

Trying to emulate the descriptive passages of Anne Rice? Don’t try it for yourself until you’ve reacquainted yourself with The Vampire Lestat or Memnoch the Devil.

The problem is that although we remember very well how books and stories make us feel, we aren’t very good at remembering how the author did it. In reality, that’s a good thing because it means that you were immersed in the story.  This is, of course, the same experience that you want for your own readers.

Don't rely on your memory. Take the time to renew your acquaintance with the books that made you want to give writing a try. Once you’ve studied how they did it, you’ll be ready to put this knowledge to use at the keyboard.


Sue is the instructor for our course, Writing Nonfiction for Children and Young Adults. The next session begins on June 6, 2016.


Crystal Otto said...

Thank you for sharing your insight - great post!


Sue Bradford Edwards said...

Thank you!I learn so much from what I read, but only when I reread. Memory is a faulty thing!

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