By Anne K. Kaler
Writers use patterns the same way that fabric designers use patterns – as guides for their material. (Note the pun there – both use “material” which means it is “of matter” or words.) Writers use the patterns called formulas to make their words conform to an understood, preconceived expectation for the reader.
And readers become intensely annoyed when the pattern/formula/genre is misrepresented. Classic story. The well-meaning children of a church pastor bought him a surprise book – Erskine Caldwell’s God’s Little Acre — thinking that the subject matter was suitable for a man of the cloth. It wasn’t.
So, knowing what the pattern of a book is becomes paramount in the construction of that book. That’s why there are genres or types of books which are classified by the patterns they use. Often times the title itself will suggest enough of the ultimate pattern for me to want to read the book.
That is, I believe, the title alone of Jennie Nash’s The Threadbare Heart seduced me into choosing it.
Why? I am a fabric person. I grew up in a textile household where the making of fabric supported our family and the making of clothes was a mandatory and pleasurable task. In any store, I automatically run my fingers over the shoulders of clothing hangers. I stop at the towel section and bedspread sections to soak in the variety of colors and design. I love cloth and clothes so much that when I find a book about fabric I gravitate toward it. And I am enjoying it enough to tell you about the book and its lure, even though I am not finished reading it.
Look at Nash’s description of her heroine’s fascination with cloth. “Lily walked up and down the aisles of the fabric store in a state of rapture. Surrounded by meaty wools, diaphanous silks, and row after row of vibrant cotton prints made her pulse quicken and her mind spin.” (26) Utterly luscious writing like a good piece of chocolate…
“Meaty wool” could satisfy me for a meal. Can you feel the heft and slickness of the woolen cloth with its shaggy hairs grabbing at your fingers? Or as the author describes further on “the improbably thin merino wool from Milan” and the “riotous cotton prints…block print silk from Japan…ruby red velvet” for her young daughter’s dress. (27)
However, Lily’s backstory is told as her grandmother Hattie teaches the young Lily how to cut patterns from newspaper. “’It’s all a matter of getting the vision right.’” (27) When Lily confesses later that she had no need for a fancy dance dress, her grandmother takes out precious lace which she has saved but cannot bear to use “silvery white, with wide, open flowers, whose petals formed the scalloped edges of the cloth. Around the flowers, delicate ribbons curved and spun like tiny shimmering roads, and in the center of each flower was burst of seed pearls.” (29)
Yes, I drool over imaginary fabric like this but best of all is what Lily’s grandmother insisted. You as a writer have to get “the vision right.” As a writer you have to get the length, the dimensions, the emphasis or accessories, the entire effect “right” to have a successful book or dress.
Physics tells us that there are only two forces in the universe – energy and matter. All else is shaped by the force of the energy principle forming “all else” from matter it finds around it. Matter is, in itself, inert needing energy to change it into usefulness.
Writers need both. The universe of matter (words) is out there. The creative energy and impulse to transform ideas into words for others to read and understand is out there. Use both and create.
And look for our book Writers Who Quilt and Quilters Who Write, available on Amazon or at the PSB Gift Store.
One thought on “How to Write Using a Pattern”
Anne, when does a pattern descend into a “formula” and is that bad. We frequently hear things like “oh, his latest effort is just formulaic” meaning unoriginal or hackneyed. At the same time, some of the most successful writers are clearly using a winning formula around which to spin their tales.
What do you think? (and no fair falling back on “it depends on the writer’s vision”)