Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant
Recently my book club took a Dashiell Hammett tour of San Francisco. We ate at John’s Grill (which appears in The Maltese Falcon, the book our club read in preparation for the tour). The guide has been leading Dashiell Hammett tours for 30 years and was a fount of knowledge about not only Hammett but also Lillian Hellman (who was Hammett’s long-term lover), the history of mystery writing, and the current state of publishing. Despite the physical challenge of taking a walking tour in San Francisco (up steep hill, down steep hill), the time was enthralling.
One of the comments Don, our guide, made was regarding the importance of icons in a novel. He used the figure of the Maltese falcon as an example. That started my mind swirling to come up with other icons that were introduced in literature and have become a part of our culture. Dorothy’s red shoes and Scarlett O’Hara’s Tara belong on that list.
What do I mean by icon? The traditional meaning is a religious symbol; some of these symbols are believed to be imbued with spiritual power, others not. The cross is an icon.The Silver Chalice (which was a novel and then a film in the 1950s centered on the cup Jesus used at the Last Supper) is an icon.
A more contemporary understanding of icon is a symbol that communicates a certain meaning. The Maltese falcon symbolizes the lust for riches; Dorothy’s shoes symbolize an adventure to another land while longing to return home. The films of both of these books were instrumental in making the bird and the shoes iconic. Nowadays we speak of “icons” as computer symbols that we click on to get to Twitter or Word.
What does an icon have to do with your writing?
Once a person is published, he or she soon realizes that merely being published isn’t enough to keep a career alive. The next step is to figure out how to break out from the pack; how to develop momentum and build on a strong foundation.
One of the ways to purpose to break out–or to break into publishing–is to write a manuscript centered on a powerful image. The book’s readers are the ones who make the image into an icon, but without the image, there is no icon.
Imagery is important in nonfiction as well as fiction
That’s especially today, when story often is an elemental part of successful nonfiction. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings conveys, even in its title, a powerful image.
If I think back on books that endured on best-seller lists, often–though certainly not always–the book titles contained an evocative image. In nonfiction I recall Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin and Oprah by Kitty Kelley, which reminded me that a person as well as an object can be an icon. In fiction, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo conveys the iconic importance of tattoos in current culture. And The Underground Railroad by Colton Whitehead uses an iconic American image, but the author gives it a twist by making it a literal underground train to freedom, fraught with the dangers of that perilous journey many are still traveling.
How to write a breakout book. Click to tweet.
Using icons to make your writing stand out. Click to tweet.
What books can you think of that have center on a powerful image? And the much bigger question, do you have a powerful image at the core of your work in progress?