Here’s the exercise I’ve been working on for the past couple of weeks:
1- Choose a few short passages, each by a favorite author, and read them aloud.
2- Choose a passage from your own work and read it aloud. (This exercise works best if you read the passage aloud to someone else.)
3- Revise your passage by improving its fluency and poetic musicality.
I’m writing a short story about a girl who is being bullied, so I chose an excerpt having to do with bullying from The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman as one of my read-aloud passages. Here’s a bit of the excerpt:
“[…] he walked into the tiny churchyard at the end of the road, a miniature graveyard behind the local church, and he waited beside the tomb of Roderick Persson and his wife Amabella, and also his second wife, Portunia (They Sleep to Wake Again).
“You’re that kid,” said a girl’s voice. “Bob Owens. Well, you’re in really big trouble, Bob Owens.”
“It’s Bod, actually,” said Bod, and he looked at them. “With a D. And you’re Jekyll and Hyde.”
“It was you,” said the girl. “You got to the seventh formers.”
“So we’re going to teach you a lesson,” said Nick Farthing, and he smiled without humor.
“I quite like lessons,” said Bod. “If you paid more attention to yours, you wouldn’t have to blackmail younger kids for pocket-money.”
Nick’s brow crinkled. Then he said, “You’re dead, Owens.”
Bod shook his head and gestured around him. “I’m not actually,” he said. “They are.”
“Who are?” said Mo.
“The people in this place,” said Bod.
(From Chapter Six [“Nobody Owens’ School Days”] of The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman.
Several things in this passage caught my attention:
1- the fluency of the dialogue
2- Bod’s courage and cool-as-a cucumber assertiveness
3- the creepiness of the details and the suspense they create
And here’s a bit of my story, revised after reading aloud Chapter Six of The Graveyard Book and after reading aloud my story:
“The day was already becoming uncomfortably warm as Jamie walked to school that morning. Her aunt and uncle had shooed her out of the house before she could grab something to eat and with no lunch or lunch money. Dinner the night before had been only a bowl of Ramen noodles, so she was very hungry. She arrived at school, sped to the cafeteria, and grabbed the students’ allotted serving: a box of sugar-free cereal, a small carton of skim milk, and half a banana. She was grateful that the school served all students free breakfast, even if it was a meager one. As she hurried with her tray toward her usual table – the one farthest away from Bullina’s crowd – the bully stepped in front of her.
“Hello, little maggot,” Bullina purred. Her usual retinue of girls fanned out from behind her, snickering. “Guess what.”
Jamie didn’t know what, so she just stood there and said nothing.
Bullina’s eyes narrowed. “We’ve decided to give you a chance to join our group.”
“Oh?” Jamie asked as she nervously glanced around the cafeteria. A couple of teachers were supervising the breakfast crowd, but they were having a conversation and were not paying attention to what was going on.
“Yes. Since you’re a sad and lonely orphan, we’ve decided to let you be our friend for the rest of the school year.” The girls’ snickering got louder.
“But, Lina, today’s the last day of school.”
“And your point is?”
I guess, thought Jamie, a few hours of friends was better than none. “I mean, thank you. My name is Jamie, not maggot. And I’d also like to be your friend.” She gave Bullina and the other girls her bravest smile.
Bullina smiled back. Her smile reminded Jamie of the banana-half on her tray: incomplete and yellow.“Not so fast, maggot. First you have to pass the initiation.”
The girls stopped snickering and nodded. They were clearly up to something. But what?
“Initiation? What do you mean?”
“You must prove yourself worthy of being in our group, maggot, what do you think we mean?”
Jamie gulped. “What do you want me to do?” She looked from girl to girl, trying to catch their gaze, but, except for Bullina, they were each looking – or pretending to look – somewhere else.
Bullina grinned. Jamie noticed that she seemed to have more teeth than a regular 12-year-old.
“It’s easy. All you have to do is skip one class.”
1- I tried to make the dialogue flow more naturally by reading it aloud.
2- My main character is clearly not as assertive as Bod, but I now have her mentioning that her name is Jamie, not maggot, which I believe makes her appear less wimpy.
3- I added a few elements of suspense in the description.
This was a productive exercise; I hope you try it.
Here’s the exercise for this week:
Repetition is one of the most commonly used rhetorical devices. But it only works when it’s used deliberately to create a special effect. The repetition in a compound sentence such as, “I’m going to the grocery store to buy milk, I’m going to the grocery store to buy cereal, and I’m going to the grocery store to buy eggs,” is redundant and even silly, whereas the repetition in the following compound sentence creates a compelling and visually powerful effect: “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills.” (Winston S. Churchill)
There are many ways of using repetition, and each way has a fancy literary name (epizeuxis, for example, is the successive repetition of a word: “The girl sat at her desk and wrote, wrote, wrote.”). You should look them up just for fun.
This week’s exercise is to search for powerful examples of repetition in the work of well-known authors and also in your own work.
I’ll post again next week.