The Book Thief Did Not “Make My Heart Race”

I finally got around to reading The Book Thief. It’s mind-bogglingly good. Its author, Markus Zusak, does everything right. Perhaps the most striking thing about the book is the voice of the narrator. This omniscient but reticent observer expresses most of his opinions and sympathies through seemingly simple verb choices and elegant descriptions. I haven’t had that kind of emotional reaction to a novel in years. If you haven’t read it, stop what you are doing and go out and get it. Don’t wait for the movie. I’m serious. Move it to the top of your reading list right now.

But I’m not here to write another rave review of The Book Thief. I only mention it because it’s a perfect example of what can happen when a writer pushes through those first, easy word choices, refusing to settle on the merely adequate. I don’t pretend to know Zusak’s writing process. But the great lesson I took from his novel and am striving to apply to my own writing is this:

If my word choices feel like they’re coming easily, then that’s a sure sign they’re not very interesting.

A couple of books I went on to read after The Book Thief are examples of what I’m talking about. They too were YA. And the authors each did fabulous jobs constructing well-paced, compelling plots. But they undercut all the great action in their stories by constantly using their hero’s hearts as emotional indicators instead of digging deeper to try to find a more perfect verb or describe a less worked over bodily function.

Early on in my editorial career, I had a conversation with a veteran managing editor. This is the person who gave me one of my earliest shots. She assigned me to work one-on-one with a YA novelist on a full rewrite. During one of our check-in meetings I confessed my frustrations with my assigned author’s reliance on cliché cardiopulmonary metaphors. My mentor agreed that the pounding heart was used way too much in YA fiction but then went on to excuse it as a necessary evil. She described it as a type of writerly shorthand that allows an author to communicate a high stress emotional state without getting bogged down trying to come up with a new way of describing it.

I chose not to argue. Who was I to tell this much more experienced editor that she was wrong? But I have to say that conversation broke my heart a little (yes, I realize that’s a cliché word choice, but this is a blog post, not a novel). Ever since, I’ve struggled with whether or not what she said was true. I don’t think it is.

Isn’t coming up with new and singular ways of expressing truths at least part of why we write?

Great writing is great writing whether it’s in a picture book or a historical monograph. Readers respond to it in profound and unpredictable ways because it changes them. Sure, using shorthand word choices is easier and it basically gets the point across. It’s just not as good. And writing which relies on shorthand and cheats can never rise to the immortal greatness of The Book Thief because it doesn’t create a different reality the way relentlessly crafted-down-to-the-last-word fiction does

Like pretty much everything, if it comes easy it’s probably not worth the effort.