Last week I found out that my friend, Carole Enahoro, has been shortlisted for a Commonwealth Writers Prize for her first novel, Doing Dangerously Well. Regional winners will be announced in early March and final results in May.
Carole was a member of my writing group here in Whitby. Actually, she was the one who invited me to join, so I owe her a lot. But don’t tell her I said that; it’ll go to her head.
Anyhow, it’s wonderful to see a Whitby writer doing well. (Okay, so she grew up in Britain and Nigeria and even lived in Oshawa for a bit, but once a Whitby girl, always a Whitby girl.)
I read Carole’s book last June. It was my first time reading it; DDW passed through the writing group long before I ever got there. I’ve read friends’ published novels before, but this was different. I’ve taken a couple of writing courses from Carole, so I know something about how she puts her books together. It was incredible, reading her story through that lens.
Here’s something I learned from Carole: words count. (Well, duh, you say. Isn’t that what being a writer is supposed to be about?) But Carole is very particular about word choice. I doubt that there’s a noun or a verb in her book that she hasn’t examined.
An example: she has two sisters in her book, Barbara and Mary Glass. A main theme in her book is water. Think about what glass has in common with water. With ice. With mirrors. A name is such a little thing, but when Carole names a character, it isn’t. You could probably write a whole thesis about the water, glass and ice images in DDW, the ways they’re used, and what that’s meant to reveal about each character and moment in the book.
Here’s the best part of the post: the lesson. This is a tiny snippet of something Carole taught me. I can’t give it all away, or Carole will get mad and use some of her schmancy British insults on me. And since I have to look most of them up, it gets embarrassing. Still, I’m willing to risk it to share this.
Think about your manuscript. Think about a central theme. Now come up with an image or word to represent that theme. Write it in the centre of a blank page. I’m willing to bet that Carole started with “water.”
Brainstorm. Brainstorm off your brainstorm ideas. Don’t stop until your whole page is covered. Get into opposites. Water might lead to wet, which might lead to dry, which might lead to desert, sand, sun, heat. And sun might lead to moon and stars. Or to fire which you might already have on your pages as an opposite of water. Draw a line to connect it to sun. Moon and stars might lead to night, black, ink. Just keep going.
When your pages is covered in spidery scribbles, sit back and look at it. Read the words. Circle the ones that resonate for you — the ones that strike you as particularly strong, or that just feel right for some reason you can’t explain.
Now put it away until your book is written. This isn’t early draft stuff. Wait until you’re pretty sure of your story and ready to think about specific word choices that will make your novel stronger. And then, when you need to introduce a minor character or a town name, take a look at your page. See if there’s a word or an idea that might work. “Smith” is boring. Maybe there’s a name that can link to theme in some way — either by falling in with it or by highlighting its opposite.
When you’re describing something, see if some of those powerful words will work for you. Is that skinny, silvery cat tail curved like a scimitar or like a crescent moon? It depends. But when you choose words that resonate with your theme on that weird, subconscious level that you access when you’re brainstorming, cool stuff happens.
I don’t make a lot of grown-up book recommendations. I write for kids, so most of what I read is written for kids. I will say this, though. Once I started reading Carole’s book, I couldn’t put it down. It was vastly different than anything I had ever read. It was funnier, sadder, richer, and just plan more than I expected. And once you read it, you won’t look at water, or words, the same way again.