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ReunionReunion by Fred Uhlman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Reunion is beautifully written, with some passages reading almost like poetry. That may seem strange for a novella focused on the events of World War II and its impact on two particular friends. In some ways, it reminded me of A Separate Peace. It was particularly nice, for a change, to get a feel for the German countryside and way of life in the years before Hitler’s rise.

Still, I wish the author had chosen to lengthen the story, for the last third of the novella seemed to be a too-quick summary and it brought me up short. After dawdling in the description of pre-war Germany and particularly the lengthy build-up to the friendship between the sixteen-year-old Jewish boy, Hans, and the similarly aged Konradin, a Protestant son of a prominent Swabian family, I wasn’t prepared for the quick shifts that followed.

In any case, for a story that gets at the heart of the tragedy of World War II without making the reader wallow in its evils, Reunion is well worth the short time required to read it.

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I’ve begun to read Madeleine L’Engle’s Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art, and I thought I would begin a series of personal reflections here on ideas she raises. This quote jumped out at me in her first chapter, entitled “Cosmos From Chaos:”

When I am constantly running there is no time for being. When there is no time for being there is no time for listening. I will never understand the silent dying of the green pie-apple tree if I do not slow down and listen to what the Spirit is telling me, telling me of the death of trees, the death of planets, of people, and what all these deaths mean in the light of love of the Creator, who brought them all into being, who brought me into being, and you.

This questioning of the meaning of being, and dying and being, is behind the telling of stories around tribal fires at night; behind the drawing of animals on the walls of caves; the singing of melodies of love in spring, and of the death of green in autumn. It is part of the deepest longing of the human psyche, a recurrent ache in the hearts of all of God’s creatures.

This questioning of the meaning of our existence is at the very heart of who we are as human beings. Perhaps the pheasant outside my window (yes, we do have a pheasant who strolls, every now and then, across our back slope and up onto our lawn) even ponders the meaning of his life. I can’t speak for animals, but I do know humankind.

We have a compulsion for meaning, for understanding, for the truth of things. While we may not be able to control all the elements of our world, and we’re often at the mercy of nature, we can conceive a truth and capture or convey it in drawings, music, dance, or words (whether spoken or written). And because we can, we do. It is instinctual, perhaps even an inherent trait from the Creator who made us.

He conceived a world in His mind before He ever set about the work of organizing it. And He conceived the story of our salvation before He even set it into effect by placing Adam and Eve in the garden.He is the Author of our faith. His, the greatest story ever told.

Thus, we have story, and thus, we are always drawn to story. We need to tell our own stories, and we need to read or view or listen to the stories of others. Why? To discover and re-discover the truth of our existence, our being. To understand how bound we are in love, one to another…and all to our Creator.

I’m still thinking about a presentation by Dave Wolverton at the recent LDStorymakers Conference. The title of the presentation was “Using Resonance to Attract Readers.” Dave thinks a lot about why people read what they read, and his approach on this topic was very practical as he tried to get us, as writers, to think of how we might gain more fans by crafting our work to hark back to other popular or well-known pieces of writing.

Resonance is defined as “the quality in a sound of being deep, full, and reverberating.” Figuratively, it means “the ability to evoke or suggest images, memories, and emotions.” The term originated from the Latin resonantia (echo) and resonare (resound).

Reverberation isn’t much different: “a re-echoed sound; being reverberated or reflected. In physics, it is defined as “the persistence of a sound after its source has stopped, caused by multiple reflection of the sound within a closed space. The term originated from the Latin reverberat (struck again).

The concept applies throughout the arts. Consider music, where most first hear of resonance. Any symphony has certain themes (melodies) which repeat during the course of the piece, with or without variations. So the music has resonance built in. I imagine the same occurs in art (although, not being an artist, I can’t be certain). It definitely occurs in dance and theatre.

We can do the same thing, as writers, with our written work, whether it be poetry, plays, essays, short stories, or novels. Repetition, or resonance, adds power to a piece if not overdone.

And it doesn’t have to exist only within the piece. Ideally, what we have created will resonate and reverberate long after. As stories similar to ours are read in the months and years to come, ours may be remembered along with all the sweet and powerful memories originally evoked. It works the other way, too (and that’s mostly what Dave was talking about). If we’re smart, we’ll write something that will remind our readers of powerful or popular books already out there.

On a more spiritual level, I’ve come to realize that this is simply another manifestation of the “two or more witnesses” principle in judging truth. “It is also written in your law, that the testimony of two men is true.” (John 8:17) “…In the mouth of two or three witnesses shall every word by established.” (2 Corinthians 13:1) Art is an attempt to discover and communicate truth and it comes closest to its purpose when a piece of work is resonant–“deep, full, and reverberating”–like this performance of the Christmas Carol, “Of the Father’s Love Begotten,” sung by the Azusa Pacific Men’s Chorale in an impromptu performance in the Mormon Tabernacle, renowned the world over for its acoustics. (The carol was based on the Latin poem Corde Natus by the Roman poet Aurelius Prudentius and its musical arrangement has been added upon and embellished over the centuries, thus making it living proof of resonance in the arts.)

Art and Story

I am not an artist. I think I had potential as a child, but I pursued language instead. (By language, I mean writing.) I have tremendous admiration for those who can do both, for both are forms of storytelling. I love this video in which David Wiesner explains his creative process. Wiesner is a three-time Caldecott medalist and he was named Illustrator of the Year at last night’s Children’s Choice Book Awards. This video shows how art can lead to story and words:

I’ve been on a three-month sabbatical, of sorts, except I’m not a teacher, I didn’t get paid for it, and I didn’t travel anywhere. Perhaps I should re-phrase: I quit blogging for the last three months because I simply didn’t have time while trying to create a new website for LDStorymakers, an author’s guild to which I belong. (I’m the Director of Communications for the group and, hence, am over their online presence among other things.)

In any case, I haven’t forgotten that I promised to post the 14 tips Karen Joy Fowler (author of The Jane Austen Book Club and other novels) shared during a writer’s retreat I attended in Maui some six or seven years ago. Keeping in mind that she writes literary fiction, here they are:

  1. Don’t let the setting disappear during your dialogue. Remember, the dialogue is happening during a particular time and in particular place and the reader needs to be there with the characters as they talk. So you, as the writer, cannot afford to disengage from those surroundings.
  2. To keep the reader on track with who’s talking, (a) never use a verb other than “said” with dialogue, (b) never use an adverb to modify “said” (as she put it, “The adverb is a leech sucking the strength from a verb.”) (c) express movement by a person before or after talking, and (d) start a new paragraph every time another person begins to talk. She did say you can use an occasional “asked,” but it’s almost impossible to overuse “said.” Also, consider not using a tag at all. If you have a character do something and then a line of dialogue, the reader will connect the dots.
  3. If a line of dialogue is funny, let it stand on its own. Don’t try and prop it up with a smile or laughter written in.
  4. Don’t fatten the dialogue by adding pauses (like umm, er…, etc.). In place of a pause, break up the sentence naturally by putting “she said” or a character’s movement in the middle of it (and the movement should be something bigger than shrugging or smiling…she said there are far too many shrugs and smiles).
  5. Generally, avoid ellipses (…) in dialogue.
  6. In a conversation, frequently the first and last phrases can be cut. You don’t need all the niceties. Start and end where it’s really interesting.
  7. Remember that dialogue is usually much more about how people imagine they are than how they really are. It’s kind of a performance, so you, as the writer, can juxtapose how they really are with how they present themselves to others. Don’t be afraid to bring out the hypocritical side of your characters in your dialogue.
  8. In creating dialogue, always ask “What does this person want?” rather than “How does this person feel?” She said that, at heart, we are all pretty selfish creatures and we’re always angling for something when we speak.
  9. Remember there is almost always a power dynamic between any two people talking, with one having more power and the other having less. This means one character will talk more and the other less in any scene…and that dynamic will change from conversation to conversation depending on the scene. The one in power will not always be the same as the story progresses.
  10. In her opinion, dialogue is not good at all in advancing plot. It’s good for tone and building on the character. In fiction, you often show and sometimes tell, but good dialogue is almost always showing, and not telling. (My other instructor at the retreat, Gail Tsukiyama, disagreed with her on this point about dialogue not being good for advancing plot, but did concede that good dialogue should always show more than it tells.)
  11. Good dialogue keeps you, as the writer, invisible by not being patently helpful. It should feel natural…something they’d actually say, not what you need them to say.
  12. Use dialogue to help pull in things outside the arc of the story that are interesting or help set your story’s time or place. This can particularly be done by using conversations overheard by the main character.
  13. Good dialogue makes the work more real and less planned. You can do this through eavesdropping (For example, imagine having one of your characters overhear this piece of dialogue: “I don’t know what else I can tell you. She rolled down the window, he jumped out, and the gator got him!”  If the reader had been drifting along in the story by this point, that piece of dialogue, or something similar, would certainly wake him up as long as it came across as something credible the character would overhear) or by undermining a lying character’s credibility (remember that liars tend to say the same thing two or more times in an effort to get their story across). Misunderstandings make for great dialogue (when people hear a word incorrectly, for example, funny conversations result).
  14. Finally, remember that dialogue is the fun part and it doesn’t need to match what’s going on in the story. (This last approach applies more to literary fiction than genre fiction and is particularly reflective of Ms. Fowler’s style of writing.)

I know I haven’t posted for a long while and that I last promised to share the list of tips on dialogue from Karen Joy Fowler, but I have to share a brief review of a terrific book I read about a week ago.
Eight Months on Ghazzah StreetEight Months on Ghazzah Street by Hilary Mantel
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An excellent look into the life of an expatriate British woman in contemporary Saudi Arabia as she stumbles across a mystery but lacks the freedom and means to really explore for answers. Answers come in any case, gradually unfolding as the pages turn. Mantel is excellent, once again, at drawing her characters in unique ways, displaying all their various (and sometimes contradictory) facets like a diamond held up to the light.

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As I said in an earlier post, literary fiction is a different beast altogether when it comes to dialogue. This is one of my favorite quotes regarding the use of dialogue in literary fiction:

“The use of dialogue in fiction seems to be one of the few things about which a fairly definite rule may be laid down. It should be reserved for the culminating moments, and regarded as the spray into which the great wave of narrative breaks in curving toward the watcher on the shore. This lifting and scattering of the wave, the coruscation of the spray, even the mere material sight of the page broken into short, uneven paragraphs, all help to reinforce the contrast between such climaxes and the smooth effaced gliding of the narrative intervals; and the contrast enhances that sense of the passage of time for the producing of which the writer has to depend on his intervening narration. Thus the sparing use of dialogue not only serves to emphasize the crises of a tale, but to give it as a whole a greater effect of continuous development.”

—Edith Wharton, The Writing of Fiction

The reason I bring it up again here is that I want to share a list of dialogue techniques taught by Karen Joy Fowler at that same Writer’s Retreat in Maui. You may know her as the author of “The Jane Austen Book Club,” but while that book had a more populist appeal, much of her fiction is quite literary.

While her aim with dialogue is more literary, most (if not all) of her techniques are as effective in genre fiction and some may reflect what we’ve already discussed here. I’ll begin that list tomorrow, so stay tuned…