Thursday, November 15, 2012

Gwen Thompson: Your Book Is Like Your Apartment

My guest today is Gwen Thompson, whose first book, Men Beware Women, won the Miami University Press 2011 Novella Contest and was just published by Miami University Press. Gwen has a particularly interesting perspective on writing because of her other work as a feng shui  consultant. Here she shares some fascinating advice about using words to your greatest advantage.

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Form : function :: sound : sense.  Yes, I know analogies have been eliminated from the SATs, but that doesn't let writers off the hook for making apt comparisons.  This particular analogy is a favorite of mine because when I'm not creating imaginary settings as a writer, I'm helping people re-create their real-life settings as a feng shui consultant:  At its most basic, feng shui is the art of harmonizing form and function in your home, where objects that only serve a practical purpose without pleasing the senses are missed opportunities.  City dwellers living in small spaces soon learn to be extra mindful about choosing household items that do double duty in this way.  With space always at a premium on the page, writers do well to choose their words as wisely. 

This is why my training regimen as a writer includes listening to the Afternoon Drama on BBC Radio 4.  The BBC broadcast original 45-minute radio plays in every style and on every subject imaginable five days a week, and make them available to listen to online for a full week after they're broadcast.  Besides providing me with a refresher course in trans-Atlantic idioms while I was writing MEN BEWARE WOMEN (set in Oxford and New York), Radio 4's afternoon plays are consistently compelling and well-written for the simple reason that they have to be.  Unlike in the theatre or on film, where special effects, scenery, costumes, and actors easy on the eyes can distract audiences from all manner of bad writing, you can't get away with lame dialogue in a medium where dialogue is all there is.  What draws us to remember and re-read our favorite passages of writing is the conviction that the author has said what he or she is trying to say in the best possible way: good writing is where sound meets sense.  In fiction this of course applies to narration and description as well as to dialogue--no surprises there.

What surprised me, as a first-time author, was how form and function, sound and sense came into play together on my book's cover.  The form the designer chose--the view through the gate into the quad of an Oxford college--gives potential readers an enticing glimpse of the world where much of the book takes place, fulfilling a cover's function of luring you to look inside the book and enter the story.  The title MEN BEWARE WOMEN is a play on the title of a play by Thomas Middleton called WOMEN BEWARE WOMEN that figures in the plot, but it also sounds a lot like a warning label.  Turning this title into part of the scene by placing it on the type of sign where you'd expect to see a prohibition posted (namely, KEEP OFF THE GRASS) deepens the sense of being drawn fully and immediately into the world within the pages.   

But when sound and sense are mismatched, whether accidentally in mistranslations or deliberately as in the Twinkie Song, comedy ensues, intentional or not. 

Writers, beware!

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You can learn more about Gwen Thompson's writing on her website.
She also has a site dedicated to her feng shui work.
You can purchase Men Beware Women from the publisher, at Amazon, or at BN.


  1. All^ good points.
    While the rest of us notice cover designs, a very important part of a book is the *book designer’s* work. At most publishing houses it’s not the same person. What font? Spacing? Weight/saturation of the print? What size for the book, and what paper to use?
    I never notice the book designers’ work unless it is poor, (I see a lot of that in self-publishing) or in rare instances- exceptionally great.

  2. Very true! I tend to abandon books where an unusual font or tiny font size or too-tight line spacing makes them too difficult or distracting to get through at a normal reading pace.

    Conversely, I can't count the number of times I've handed someone my business card and they've immediately commented on how nice the card stock feels--and then paused to take another, longer look. (Thank you, Jessie Glass of for insisting on satin finish!)

    I only discussed cover design in this post because that's all you can see in the photo, but once inside MEN BEWARE WOMEN, you know you've landed just where you'd expect based on the cover. The book designer chose an old-school font (Garamond) suited to the story's old-school setting (Oxford); she used the academic terms at Oxford that subdivide the story in lieu of chapters as page headers; and she hit upon a section-break symbol that mirrors the main character's obsession with rowing.

    I feel most fortunate in having a cover designer and a book designer (both of whom are credited on the back of the title page) who could make my book be--as well as tell--its story!