Tuesday, December 1, 2009

5 Things I Learned From Re-Reading The Pearl

I was a reader miles before I was a writer. From the time I learned to read, I wanted to be more involved in books. That's why I became a writer. I always listen to writers speak about the method a certain author used or how the plot developed in a book or the style of the author. They read books as writers. I find that so difficult to do. Being a longtime story lover, I get lost in the story and can't stop to look for the puppets' strings. I've always thought the story would be lost for me if I read a book in that way.

I recently found a half price copy of The Pearl by John Steinbeck. Steinbeck was one of my favourite authors while growing up. His focus on the underclass with so little choices and insurmountable injustices to fight against was a theme close to my heart. I re-read The Pearl and tried to maintain my position as writer. I stopped my reader/story lover mind and tried to search for the secrets Mr. Steinbeck might teach me. I'll admit I was not 100% successful. Can you maintain that objective distance when Kino and family are on the run? Difficult, but I tried my best and here is what I learned.

5 things I learned from The Pearl

1. The foundation of a good book is a strong, and often simple, story.
Nowadays we have so many books with complicated magic and new worlds, vampires and technical medical jargon it seems almost impossible to get a book published with a simple story. Still, I believe the really good books are human stories and those human stories don't need flash to work.

2. Pacing is very important and easily done wrong.
There is a scene in The Pearl where Kino is home with the pearl and his neighbours have gathered at his house. They want to see the pearl and they want to hear Kino's plans for it. The slow pacing of that scene builds fantastic tension. You shouldn't slow down just to slow down, you must keep readers interested, but sometimes slowing down the pace is the very way to let the impact of the event sink in and the tension to take up its rightful space. By slowing things down in that scene Steinbeck lets the reader realise the implications of finding that pearl; the good side and the bad side. The reader must be brought to that point and to sit for a moment and consider it, so that the events that lie ahead have the correct impact.

3. Simple strong language is better than trying to wow the reader with your linguistic gymnastics.
Steinbeck's language is never flowery, never over the top. Always simple words used in an interesting way to let the reader see. Look at this example:

"For Kino and Juana this was the morning of mornings of their lives, comparable only to the day when the baby had been born. This was to be the day from which all other days would take their arrangement."

How lovely is that last line-.... the day from which all other days would take their arrangement .. Simple words to make a beautiful , spot on picture in the reader's minds.

4. Give your readers limited information about your characters, mostly through actions.
Steinbeck never stops and gives a description of Kino. We don't know if he has a big nose or thin eyes. We learn about Kino from his actions and from there Steinbeck respects his readers and their imaginations enough to allow them to build a Kino in their minds, each will have a slightly different Kino but that's okay. By giving your readers too much character information you are disempowering them, and in most cases boring them too.

5. Consider perspective and distance carefully.
More and more I'm realising the distance you take to tell your story becomes almost a character in itself. I'm likely not going to explain this well as I have no proper training as a writer being a science teacher by profession but it is more than Steinbeck choosing third person. Sometimes he comes in close, he moves into Kino's mind and we hear the songs that play there. We need to do that to develop the empathy we need for him. But then Steinbeck can pull back to the people of the town. From each distance the reader gains something that is needed to move the story forward or to build the tension. First as writers we must choose our perspective: first, second (rarely) or third, but then if you use third, think carefully if you need to be close or far and why. Don't move around without intention. Use the pulling back and moving in only to further your story.

This was an excellent exercise for me. I will try to do it more often.
Do you read as a writer or as a reader first?


Elizabeth Bradley said...

I too, am an avid admirer of Steinbeck. It was a big deal for me to visit the museum in Salinas, where he was born, and his childhood home still stands. Not to mention, I got to see cannery row before it was demolished.

That said, I agree, it's so hard to read with a critic's eye, UNLESS YOU'RE READING DRECK, then it's easy. When I am engaged I don't have the capacity to tear what I'm reading apart--or, I don't care to.

You did a fantastic job though. I too am learning better how to pace myself, how to keep the reader wanting more. And what better way than reading authors that mastered the technique?

Sue Guiney said...

What a terrific exercise! Linking it to a specific book really illustrates your points, all of which are important and spot on. As far as whether I read as a writer or reader, alas the more fiction I write the more I read as a writer. Unless a novel is absolutely phenomenal and something to last through the ages, I see it with my writer's eye, which makes the experience of reading it much less satisfying. I guess that's why I don't read all that much contemporary fiction. I find it too frustrating.

karen said...

Great, I really enjoyed this! I remember The Pearl so clearly from high school days...

Lauri said...

Elizabeth that is so true- I also do tend to revert to writer's eyes when reading a really bad book.

Sue- I feel sort of sad that you're losing your reader's mind. Maybe I should be more careful how often I do this excercise it might take over and I wouldn't want that.

Karen-Glad you liked it.

Anonymous said...

This is one of my most memorable high school reads and I still love it today. I think I'll dust off my copy...

Helen Ginger said...

I think I'm a reader first. It's only when I, like you, intentionally read as a writer. Or when something so wonderful makes me stop and re-read and wonder over how it was done or constructed.

Except, of course, when I'm editing someone's manuscript. Then I'm in editor mode.

Straight From Hel

Anonymous said...

I'm definitely a reader first.

You would make an excellent English/creative writing teacher. You have analysed The Pearl so well.

I remember reading it in Year 8 at school and just falling in love with Steinbeck. He is one of the few writers who makes me cry over and over. He just gets the human struggle. Now I'm going to read The Pearl all over again!

Lauri said...

Selma- do you really think so? I'm doing a good job of winging it then. HA!

Lyn said...

I haven't read The Pearl but I am definitely adding to my Must Read list. Thanks for stirring the interest Laurie.