Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Tuesday Books for Writers! A Prayer For Owen Meany

For the past week I've been reading John Irving's A Prayer For Owen Meany. I haven't finished it, but I am enjoying it very much. I have attempted only one other John Irving book in my life (The World According to Garp) and, to be honest, I didn't have the patience to finish it.

I am by no means scared of lengthy books with over-attention to detail, but there came a point in my reading of Garp where I couldn't bear to go on and I simply shut the book, placed it on a bookshelf, and declared it unfinished indefinitely. This is very rare for me. It's only happened one other time, during my reading of Stephen King's Insomnia, and I hope that Owen Meany does not suffer the same fate.

There are a lot of things I admire about Owen Meany so far. Right off the bat, I was intrigued by the use of capitol letters, which are used whenever Owen (whose voice is apparently rather irritating) speaks. I have never seen this done before and I considered it absolute genius. It certainly made me wonder how I can use physical letters and punctuation to achieve something similar. How can I highlight a certain physical or emotional characteristic beyond simple description? Is there another way? Beyond capitalizing all of the dialogue of a character with an annoying voice--well--I couldn't come up with one. Let me know if you do.

The other thing that struck me is the first sentence:

"I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice--not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother's death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany."

I happen to be writing a novel that is about a person who is changed by someone else. I think this is pretty common in a character driven novel. And even if it's not the whole story, if a protagonist is on any kind of spiritual or emotional journey, every experience and every person they interact with at every point in that novel is going to change them. Or at least move the story forward. I probably wouldn't call it out in the same tone and manner that John Irving does (I'll leave that to the masters) but I want to be sure that every character my protag meets achieves something.

So, this got me to thinking, once it's time to edit, every person in this doggone novel is going to have to be held up to what I'm going to call the Owen Meany First Sentence. If you break it down: "I remember this person, NOT because of a unique physical characteristic and something they did but because of how they changed my life or at least moved the novel forward." I mean, when you think about it, it pretty much covers everything. A physical description of this secondary character, an action they took, and a spiritual and emotional change that pushed the protagonist forward or backward. Or at least contributed in some way to the main character's arc and growth in the story. That's pretty cool. And I really think it's going to help! Thank you John Irving!

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