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8 Writing Lessons from "Tom Lake" by Ann Patchett


Ann Patchett.


Amiright?


Reading Ann Patchett feels like breathing. It's natural. It's feels good. And for me, it feels necessary once I start reading a book of hers. When I envision one of her novels, I picture it sitting on a bench or side table made of a dark hardwood. I approach the book and don't pick it up, first I place my hand onto its cover then press my palm into it. It doesn't push back but I feel myself inhale, a big belly breath that fills my abdomen with softness.


That's before I even start reading!


I digress. What I want to share with you are a few (not nearly all) passages from the book, "Tom Lake," and the writing lessons I learned from them.


1. Zoom out during an intimate scene.

Passage: "'It is a story about Duke,' I say, taking in a deep breath of northern Michigan in the summer, the smell of the trees, of these three girls. Nothing will ever be like it."


What I love about this passage is Patchett zooms out for a moment and takes us along for the ride (she does this often, but this was one of my favorites). And of course, she adds some senses to the sentence, making it jump off the page even further.


2. Zoom in when a big idea or scene is happening, or a lot of time is covered in one paragraph.

Passage: "One more baby, we whispered to each other when the snow was starting to melt, one more under the wire, a terrible extravagance we could in no way afford, but we did it anyway. We went back to bed."


This last sentence caught me off guard. Like Patchett has done before, she told me the location of a conversation at the end of it, but this time she's moved me into a more intimate setting, forcing us back into the character's day-to-day life. But instead of something boring, I'm in their bedroom. Maybe they're touching. Maybe it's dark. Maybe moonlight pours through their window. Either way, we're in a vulnerable space that is also delicate, sensitive, and possibly erotic, just like the topic of whether or not they should have another baby. Patchett brought me to that space as if I were following a rope through a jungle.


3. Describe what's overhead and below, or left and right, to help frame the character in a scene.

Passage: "No one sees us but the swallows looping overhead. She puts her arms around my waist and we stand there, just like that, casting a single shadow across the grass."


What an amazing way to show a scene! Instead of focusing on the two characters, she only mentions a quick note, "she puts her arms around my waist and we stand there..." but what makes the moment come alive for me is what's in the sky overhead and on the grass at their feet. She wrote about the things around the characters. Specifically, overhead and below.


4. Write a character's response to a privilege they have.

Passage: "I picture the farm as a giant parquet dance floor [my husband] balances on his head, the trees growing up from the little squares... [My three daughters and I] try to be helpful but it is his head this place rests on. He carries it with him to our bed at night. I put on my nightgown and crawl in beside him, covering the hand that covers his heart. Live forever, I say to myself."


The details Patchett chose to include throughout the book about the main character's husband allow me to know him as well as any of the characters. But this sentence especially stands out. To me, she chose to say something that goes without saying, and a privilege, and then shared how she felt about it. What a wonderful way to show interiority, huh? How does a character feel about a specific privilege they have? Are they grateful? Do they take it for granted? Do they care? Or do they simply acknowledge it, then go to sleep?


This passage also showed me that just because we're going deeper into the character's psyche doesn't necessarily mean there's more intensity. When I write, sometimes I feel like if I dig deep, I'll show my character's strong feelings about something. But maybe they just... exist.


5. Give each character's reaction/assumed reaction from the main character's POV.

Passage: "He gets off his bike long enough to kiss Emily, and we appreciate this: Maisie, whose vet school boyfriend is stuck with his own family in Oregon; Nell, who has no boyfriend; me, who loves love."


It's like Patchett is having all the characters take stock here. We get to see a simple thing, a kiss, from everyone's perspective. Even in the first person, this works. The main character, whose voice we're reading here, is the mother of the other voices, but even if they weren't closely related, getting that main character's perspective of everyone in the room builds that main character more than the others (even though she's describing them) in a scene like this.


6. Write a character reacting to the weather instead of describing the weather.

Passage: "Emily and Nell just look at me, their throats already closed. The four of us are back among the cherry trees where the rain is falling so gently we don't even acknowledge it."


I didn't even know where the characters were when this scene began five paragraphs ago but here it is, and what a glorious way to show me. Patchett is constantly involving the character's opinions on what's happening around them but in different ways. It feels like each character is being woven in front of my eyes like a dreamcatcher is woven.


7. Write two sentences of an interaction between the main character and a very minor side character.

Passage: "Hazel has found a filthy tennis ball, god knows where, and brings it to me. I throw it as far as I've ever thrown a tennis ball and she tears out down the row of trees, Hazel who cannot climb stairs."


First of all, this is just cute. Second, here's another way Patchett gives characters more interiority... she gives the main's character's opinion on a minor character. Here she not only shows her daughter's dog, Hazel, but she shares a scene between the main character and the dog. And there's not much to it, is there? No dialogue. No eye or physical contact. But a scene nonetheless, moving the plot 0 inches but making us love both the main character and Hazel even more.


8. Write an amazing metaphor in the "Dark Night of the Soul" beat.

Passage: "[We] drove quite a way, out of the small town the hospital was in and into the small town beyond it, like we were scraping the whole thing off our shoes."


This was not just a great metaphor, but having it placed right after the main character's "All Is Lost" beat, either immediately before or during their "Dark Night of the Soul" beat, really sums up more than just a scene but an entire relationship with their "big bad" wrapped up with a bow. Brilliant.


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