Reading Like a Writer Attempt 1: The Manual of Detection by Jedediah Berry

Jedediah Berry reading two of his short stories of surreal detectives

Procedural Tips

After reading The Manual of Detection by Jedediah Berry to the end, I filled out the questions I could by memory.

The first exercise where I hunted for examples from the book was looking at how each chapter ended. I found this a useful exercise and a good way to start reviewing the novel. Then I started at the beginning and read the first chapter aloud. I found reading aloud really helped me get into the writing and see how Mr. Berry was setting up the character and the plot.

I jotted notes on small post-its as I read and after tearing strips from the small yellow squares, I decided I wanted to use different colors, and I didn’t want to waste time tearing anymore. I thought about buying new post-its, but instead I cut small stacks into four strips up to the sticky part. Now when I want to mark a place in the book, I can quickly tear off a strip of the size I want.

My color code at the moment is:
yellow – plot points and general comments
pink – emotion
orange – humor
green – sensory and setting description 
blue – character description and development

The process of deciding which color to use, and making a note, helped me see why I picked that example from the book.

Now that I have a system for noting the techniques that interest me, I will start marking with post-its as I read the first time, so when I review, I can start with the places I noted and hopefully save time. However, I think reading the first few chapters aloud during review will continue to be part of my process. Reading aloud made a huge difference. It slowed me down, and made me see/hear the sentences differently.

Learning As I Go

Things I Learned

Instead of taking you through all of my answers to the four pages of questions I wrote up on Monday, I chose four things I learned from reading The Manual of Detection by Jedediah Berry that I think I can use in my writing right away.

First, a little overview:

The book is a magical realism mystery that came out in 2009. I learned about it on Twitter when someone posted that it is the book they read for pleasure when they’re feeling down. The premise sounded like something I would enjoy as well, so I got it from the library.

Quick summary: A clerk for The Agency who enjoys typing correct reports, is suddenly promoted to detective but believes it is a mistake, when he tries to get his clerk job back, he finds his superior dead in his office, and the detective he clerks for missing. He then has to take on his new job as detective to find his detective to get his job back as clerk.

These are the writing techniques used in this novel that stood out to me:

1. Using objects as description – When I started looking for the linchpin moment of the first time the main character was introduced, I noticed that he was described not through his appearance but through the objects he interacted with: his bicycle, his umbrella, his briefcase, his wristwatch. Later, I noticed that rooms were also described through objects:

“Unwin saw a broad maroon rug, shelves of thick books with blue and brown spines, a pair of cushioned chairs angled toward a desk at the back. To one side was a great dark globe, and before the window loomed a bald massive globelike head. On the desk a telephone, a typewriter, and a lamp, unlit.”

Did you notice how there’s a character description in there in relation to the objects in the room?

2. Using dialogue to show what others think of the main character – Another thing I noticed while looking for the main character’s description was that other characters said what they thought of him out loud. Here are some examples:

“Listen carefully, now,” said Detective Pith. He emphasized the words by tapping his hat brim against Unwin’s chest.”You’re an odd little fellow. You’ve got peculiar habits.Every morning this week, same time, there’s Charles Unwin, back at Central Terminal.”

Even Mr. Duden alluded to them, most often when scolding someone for sloppy work.”You like to think your files stand up to Unwin’s,” he would proclaim, “and you don’t even know the difference between a dagger and a stiletto?” Often he simply asked, “What if Unwin had handled The Oldest Murdered Man that way?”

These kinds of statements tell the reader much more about the character than the narrator just stating that Unwin is respected by other clerks and his director, but thought odd and peculiar by detectives. And it also shows that the two identities of Unwin’s internal struggle see the world very differently.

3. Using sensory perceptions to create intrigue – While attempting to pay attention to the author’s use of sensory detail, and show and induce emotion, I noticed an overlap.

“She was about to speak but was interrupted by a creaking sound that came out of the wall beside the bookshelf. She and Unwin both followed it with their eyes. He imagined a monstrous rat crawling up behind the wainscoting, led by its infallible nose toward the enormous cadaver that Unwin had hidden under the desk. The creaking sound rose nearly to the ceiling, then stopped, and a little bell on Lamech’s desk chimed twice. “

Mr. Berry uses an unexpected sound to create an image in the main character’s mind, an image of something that would induce fear in the character, and creates intrigue in the reader. What made that noise? He makes the reader wait because Unwin needs to be alone to figure it out. When he gets rid of his visitor, the author then uses another sense, touch.

“The bell rang again.
“He went to the wall and felt it with the palm of his hand. The surface was cool to the touch. He put an ear against it and held his breath.From the building’s unseen recesses came a low keening sound, as of wind trapped in a tunnel or air shaft. What could be hidden there?”

I enjoyed this use of sensing the unseen to intrigue the reader and bring the reader along while Unwin faces his fear.

4. Subtle foreshadowing – Re-reading the beginning of the book after reading to the end, made it clear that the author used a lot of subtle foreshadowing, giving the reader clues to what will happen later in the novel. These hints also help the reader suspend belief when things get further and further into the surreal. This subtle foreshadowing is found in descriptions and dialogue. For example:

“Droves of morning commuters sleepwalked to a murmur of station announcements and newspaper rustle.”

Upon first read, the word “sleepwalked” seems like a normal way to describe people going through the motions of commuting, but in this book, these people could literally be sleepwalking.

“The floor was covered with red and orange oak leaves, tracked in, probably, by a passenger who had arrived on one of the earlier trains from the country.”

This basic description of the floor of the train station also foreshadows an important location later in the book.

“For better or worse, somebody has noticed you. And there’s no way now to get yourself unnoticed.”

This bit of dialogue doesn’t mean much to Unwin when it’s said. Unwin believes his promotion is a mistake and that he will be able to point out the mistake and go back to his job, but that line of dialogue foreshadows Unwin’s fate.

 I always thought foreshadowing was that blatant statement of upcoming events: little did she know she would soon be a master of reading as a writer. But I liked noticing this much more subtle form of foreshadowing, and look forward to using it in my work.

So Much to Look At

Applying What I Learned

Since I’m still letting my new novel draft rest, I decided to practice on a short story I’m ready to revise.

1. Using objects as description –

For this exercise I read the beginning of my story, looking for where my main character is introduced. In the story I’m revising, my main character is a long-haul trucker. She is introduced in the very first sentence parking her truck. I looked through my story for any important objects that my main character uses or mentions that might be in the cab of her truck at the beginning of the story. The only thing I found was the money she uses to buy a candy bar from a vending machine. As I read, however, I found a couple moments later in the story that I could foreshadow through objects at the very beginning.

Coyotes taking people across the border is part of the story, so I thought of a postcard with a coyote howling at the moon that she keeps taped to her dash. It can be the last post card she ever got from her mom. Or it could be a post card from a sibling who she hasn’t seen or spoken to for a long time.

After that idea, I did a quick internet search for what truckers have in their cabs and found some items that could add some characterization. Her raincoat’s color and design can say a lot about her preferences. I see her in a bright yellow raincoat that reminds her of Christopher Robin and Winnie-the-Pooh. Her reusable water bottle’s color and design can speak to her preferences and also that she cares about not putting more plastics into the world. Her coffee thermos speaks to her need for caffeine, probably a deeply rooted addiction. She might have a few coffee thermoses. Does one have special meaning? Is it the old style that can also keep soup warm? Did her friend Stookey give it to her? Other things I listed are: mini hand sanitizer bottles, paper towels, mints/gum, a multi-tool, and a box of tissues.

Here are the opening lines of the story draft: “Johnell DeLand took a deep breath and pulled both breaks. She stayed in her cab long enough to hear the end of “How Fast Them Trucks Can Go.” She usually liked listening to early radio shows on her long hauls, especially ‘Suspense’,  but Stookey had recently introduced her to the songs of Dave Dudley. She found the old-style blatant sexism ironic. It made her laugh.”

Now let’s add some objects for description and subtle foreshadowing: Johnell DeLand took a deep breath and pulled both breaks. She stayed in her cab long enough to hear the end of “How Fast Them Trucks Can Go.” She felt at home surrounded by everything she owned in the world. Her bright yellow raincoat sat in the passenger seat like an old friend. The thick plaid thermos that Stookey gave her for soup nested in the console with a box of tissues, mints, gum, and loose change. She put her fingers to her lips then touched the coyote howling at the moon on the last postcard her mother ever sent. She usually liked listening to early radio shows on her long hauls, especially ‘Suspense’, but Stookey had recently introduced her to the songs of Dave Dudley. She found the old-style blatant sexism ironic. It made her laugh.

It needs work, but wow what a difference. This is already working. How exciting.

2. Using dialogue to show what others think of the main character

In this story there are only two main characters, and only one other character that could have a speaking role, the waitress at the Denny’s where my main character’s meet to talk. So I read through the story and looked for my waitress. Here’s what I found:

“The waitress arrived with a heaping plate of eggs and bacon and a huge cinnamon roll dripping icing. The smell of bacon overpowered.”

 I thought about what the waitress could say that would tell the reader something important about my main character. Here’s what I added:

“As she laid the plates on the table she said, “Watch out, Johnell honey, I think you’re startin’ to look like him. If I didn’t know better, I’d say you were father and daughter.”

This little bit of added dialogue tells the reader how often they meet there, how friendly and familiar they are with the staff, and the close relationship they have which will make the revelation that’s coming even more painful for the main character.

3. Using sensory perceptions to create intrigue

I have a moment of this in the first draft using touch:

“The metal flap squeaked as she pushed her arm in, but no matter how she twisted and turned, she couldn’t get to her chocolate. With a frustrated grunt she gave up. While pulling her arm out, her hand brushed against something soft in the corner of the machine. At first she feared a rabid spotted ground squirrel, but nothing bit her, so she grabbed it, and pulled it out.”

It’s the same idea as the example, but doesn’t get the same effect. What can I do to create that intrigue? Johnell squatted down and lifted the rusting metal flap. It creaked its resistance. She only saw darkness, but imagined wads of chewed gum, and filthy, grime-covered, disease-ridden hands of all shapes and sizes. Her stomach growled, commanding her to take action. She lowered to her knees, closed her eyes and puckered her face, holding her breath as she plunged her arm in, stretching, twisting, turning and contorting her wrist and fingers, but she couldn’t get to her chocolate. She let her breath out with a grunt, and began to untangle herself from the machine when she felt something soft in the bottom corner. She recoiled, picturing a rabid ground squirrel, expecting it to leap out, it’s foaming rage biting her and biting her, pain and hospital and shots. Nothing happened. She leaned back, closing her eyes and turning her head away in case the crazed animal was biding its time, and slowly lifted the flap again. Nothing bit her, so she grabbed the soft thing and pulled it out.

4. Subtle foreshadowing

I thought it was fun as I started looking for descriptive objects how they intertwined with subtle foreshadowing. I found a place in the story where the main character says that a pouch of trinkets might be all someone has in the world. I foreshadowed  that while listing the objects in the truck cab in the opening by stating that the things in the truck are all she has in the world. Not only does that shape my main character, but it puts her in relation to the migrant character later in the story.

I know that there is so much more I can learn from this novel. It has an interesting plot and does some cool tricks with circling back to the beginning. But for this first venture into reading as a writer, I’m excited that I learned from what I read and was able to apply it to my writing. I’m going to start a master list of what I talk about in these posts, so I’ll be filling my writer’s toolbox as we go. I hope you’ll take what I learned from reading The Manual of Detection by Jedediah Berry and apply it to your own writing.

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