by Jerry Waxler
Lots of artists have tried to represent a starry sky, but few of their paintings became famous. What was it about Van Gogh’s rendition that was more popular than everyone else’s? The difference is not in what he painted but how. Style makes a difference in writing, too. Lots of people write about motoring around the country in a portable home. But Doreen Orion wrote her travel memoir “Queen of the Road” skillfully enough to attract an agent, a publisher, a bookstore, and then a reader (me). I bought it, read it to the end, and enjoyed it enough to share with you.
If you have any doubt that style is at least as important as content, consider “Eats, Shoots & Leaves” by Lynne Truss, a book about punctuation (!) that is so cleverly written there are three million copies in print.
Writing tip: To capture the attention of agents, publishers, and readers, you don’t need a perfect style. Just the best one possible. So start from where you are and then proceed: take classes, practice, and read about writing. In addition read books that have a style worth emulating. For example, by reading “Queen of the Road,” you can discover and imbibe some of author’s way with words.
Comedy as a stylistic choice
One reason I kept turning pages was Orion’s comedy. Her riffs start out restrained and dry, and then she exaggerates and twists so by the time I realize she’s joking I’m already laughing out loud. One of her humor tactics is to put herself down. In a style reminiscent of Joan Rivers she portrays herself as superficial, a lover of fashion above all else. By creating this shallow character, she sets up gags, provokes banter with her husband, and gives herself plenty of room to grow. This head room comes in handy in her Character Arc, when she shows the personal lessons she learns during her travels.
How does she do it?
In a discussion I had with Doreen on the Writer’s Forum, AbsoluteWrite.com, I asked the writer how she developed her knack to make me laugh.
Doreen Orion: “When I decided I wanted to concentrate on comedy in my screenwriting 10 years ago, I started challenging myself to be funnier in “real” life. I really do think like most knacks or talents, it is something that gets better with practice. So, I did. The feedback I got was mainly from other people not getting my jokes (or in some cases getting ready to punch me). I also took screenwriting workshops which helped a lot.”
She continues with another tip that could help any writer improve their style.
Doreen Orion: “I’ve been screenwriting for a decade, and along the way have studied acting somewhat (not to be an actor, just to understand the process actors go through), in order to write scripts actors would be attracted to, as well as help me in my character development and dialogue. No matter what I’m writing – scripts or books – I say EVERYTHING out loud on my final edits. If it’s dialogue, I actually act it out in voices. It’s amazing what I find that worked in my head, but doesn’t when spoken.”
The bus as a crucible for romantic comedy
Putting two people together in a confined space generates dramatic tension. If they hate each other, the situation turns vicious, like Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, duking it out in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.” If they love each other, it comes out comically, like Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. Orion’s marriage tends towards the comic variety.
In one passage that had me laughing out loud, she is nervous because her husband is tailgating the car in front of them. She says, “Listen, I don’t want to be a nag and I know whenever I tell you you’re getting too close, you just lament that you could have bought a system with radar, but don’t you think…?”
“Why would I need a system with radar when I’ve got the Nagavator,” he chuckled.
When I listen to impeccably timed verbal sparring on reruns of “Frazier,” “Seinfeld” or “Everybody Loves Raymond, ” I wish I too had a team of comedy writers to script my snappy retorts. So when I heard Doreen and Tim going at it so cleverly, I assumed Doreen made it up. It turned out my guess was wrong. Her written scenes actually replay real-life banter. Here’s what Doreen said when I asked her about it.
Doreen Orion: “Tim and I have always laughed together. A lot. I honestly don’t think many days go by in my life where he doesn’t make me laugh so hard I cry. I believe that being funny is like any other “talent,” if you work at it, you get better. So, since we also enjoy trying to top each other, Tim has definitely made me funnier over the years. As a result, our humorous dialogue isn’t really writing; it’s dictation.”
Funny dialog transcribed from real life
The next question is, “how do writers repeat dialog so accurately?” I asked Doreen if she could share her technique.
Doreen Orion: “I’ve never used a recorder – I just write it down. During our Queen trip, since I hoped I’d get to write a book, whenever Tim and I had some funny interchange, I’d just jot it down. Whenever we took day trips away from the bus in our Jeep, I had a small notebook, took notes on people we met/places we saw and again, any funny dialogue, then would transcribe those notes into a file on my laptop later that day on our return.”
A whole slew of memoirs take advantage of contemporaneous notes and journals the authors kept during the period they cover in their book. For example, when Alice Sebold, author of “Lucky” was going to the police station to identify her rapist, her writing teacher Tobias Wolff looked her in the eye and said, “Remember everything.”
Joan Didion, author of “Year of Magical Thinking” kept notes during her year of grief. Martha Beck’s memoir “Expecting Adam” and Kate Braestrup’s “Here If you Need Me” both use notes they kept during the period. Carol O’Dell journaled while she was caring for her mother with Alzheimer’s. Then she relied extensively on her journals when she wrote the memoir “Mothering Mother.”
In addition to recording events, journaling serves another purpose. Journals help the writer organize ideas into a coherent whole, one of the basic elements of mental health. So by deciding you are going to write a memoir next year, you might be able to gain a number of benefits. You become more conscious and organized about your life, and then as you become clearer about what you went through, you can share your observations with your readers.
Even memoirs about a period many years earlier can take advantage of journals. William Manchester’s World War II memoir “Goodbye Darkness,” published in 1980, refers to his wartime diaries.
And when Xujun Eberlein researched her memoir essay about growing up in China, she had lost her own diary, but did find one kept by her sister during these tragic years.
Read my other essays about Doreen Orion’s Queen of the Road