In October 2005 I was in the HYPER HELL stage of thyroid cancer treatment. My thyroid gland and about 30 lymph nodes had been scalpeled into medical waste. I had been a science-fiction freak in the hospital, undergoing radioactive iodine treatment. I was kept in the hospital for three days until the Geiger counter read less than 4mc of radioactivity. The final stage is six months of taking the highest amount of thyroid hormone as you can without hurting anybody.
I took the three kids I was homeschooling and drove to Montana.At 40 years old, I still needed my Mommy and Daddy.
While reading the Helena Independent Record, I found this ad.
I wasn’t just recuperating from my present cancer, I was instant replaying my past and adjusting to the reality of my future. I loved the hubby and the six kids. I loved the rest of my life, minus the part about puking my guts out in the hospital and wearing a scar that looked like I almost got decapitated.
The only thing unfulfilled in my life was writing, and the Festival of the Book was offering me a chance to change that.
The first workshop I attended was the “Art of Surprise” with Deirdre McNamer, novelist.
I think I stared with my mouth wide opening, absorbing her wisdom. I also know I wiped away more than one tear. How could I begin to express the way the Lord led me to that time and that place?
So, my free Cool Tool today is the “Art of Surprise” as introduced by McNamer so many years ago.
She described our imaginary cliché’ drawer, an inexpressive place we reach in and grab what’s quick and easy, but she begged the room full of novelist-wannabes not to use tired and predictable language.
It’s easy to spot cliché phrases. I even knew that as a beginning writer, but she dove deeper than I’d been challenged before with personal anecdotes and advice, quotations from writers and examples in writing.
Metaphors are small surprises in a reader’s experience.
“When writing is successful, the reader senses that the climax is coming and feels a strong urge to skip to it directly, but cannot quite tear himself from the paragraph he’s on. Ideally, every element in the lead-in passage should be a relevant distraction that heightens the reader’s anticipation and at the same time holds, itself, such interest – through richness of literal or metaphoric language, through startling accuracy of perception, or through the deepening thematic and emotional effect of significant earlier moments recalled – that the reader is reluctant to dash one.” John Gardner in The Art of Fiction.
She illustrated with Bryan Di Salvatore’s description of Merle Haggard’s walk, “…and as he swings his arms and bends his legs the effect is of an almost fluid lurch, as if he were forever taking his first step off an escalator.”
The Unpredictable Word:
When you use a surprising word, especially at the beginning, it signals more surprises and keeps the readers at a higher level of attention.
“Chloe had red-gold hair, hazel eyes, an illegible smile, face like a doll…” Chronicles by Bob Dylan.
“Carry a notebook and write down all the details and description as you see them,” said McNamer. I haven’t been without a journal and a pen since then.
The Unpredictable Character:
McNamer encouraged writers to break assumptions people might have about our characters. “A kind woman with an obnoxious voice surprises you and creates tension, a sweet voice doesn’t always indicate kindness.”
Points of Surprise in a Plot:
She used Penelope Fitzgerald’s description of a good plot as one that “makes you want to interfere.”
McNamer said, “If the plot is too plain or clichéd you lose people, if it’s too wild you lose people.”
Other great quotes I scribbled on my college ruled notebook paper:
“In the end the reader should feel the world has opened up.”
“Even the writer should be uneasy (creatively).”
“Don’t storm around about how YOU feel – bring them there.”
I drove Montana for relief and help at the end of my healthy life and found the beginning of my writing life.
I’d say the Lord practices the Art of Surprise even better than McNamer.