I’ve confided in you before about my jello elephant novel. Each day I devote several hours to bringing it to its final form. It’s been completed eight or nine times, so it’s not that it’s not done. It’s just not right yet. This week I read The Dovekeepers, by Alice Hoffman, and learned a few things that might help. I hope they might help you, too.
It’s a novel about the two women and five children who survived
Masada, and it’s just amazing. She is
truly gifted. One of her characters resembles one of mine, which caused me to
compare my book to hers closely, even paragraph by paragraph.
As I did, I realized that there was a recurring difference. Every paragraph or two, she would relate whatever action took place to a deeper meaning. To do this, she would use a symbol and build on it—as Jodi Picoult does in all her novels. As a result, many commonplace events are elevated to a higher level. Birds flying in the sky are a sign from God; dust is her body, reduced to ash. The discussion was taken up a notch throughout. We weren’t worrying about how she was getting from A to B in the desert; we were worrying about how her soul would get to the World-To-Come, as her character called it.
For some, this could become tiring. My husband would have put it down after one paragraph, but I’m sure book groups everywhere have decided it’s one of the best books ever. There are plenty of symbols to discuss, hidden meanings to flesh out, the stuff of book groups. And for us as writers, it demonstrates a useful technique.
I find myself now going through the book and seeing where I could use Alice Hoffman’s technique to make reading my plot-driven book a more beautiful experience. As I do so I’m reminded of an exercise we were given at a writing retreat where we were asked to visualize a symbol and tell a story relating to it. The results were amazing; it really worked.
Examples from my current book: a plum blossom floating downstream on the River Thames becomes a symbol for a family’s return to their property in that direction. Hidden vaults filled with books in a church undercroft become symbols for the secrets of that place. A bird with notable characteristics becomes a symbol for a person, an oldie but goodie. Animals and birds work well because they’re exotic, and evoke speed, strength, sound, smells, and sometimes danger.