What Writers Can Learn from ‘How Best to Avoid Dying’ by Owen Egerton

Owen Egerton

Owen Egerton is a novelist and a screenwriter known for his dark, satirical humor. His work often touches on religion, as evidenced by his last two novels, The Book of Harold, a modern-day gospel narrative, and Everyone Says That at the End of the World, which riffs on the Judeo-Christian eschatology of the end times.

In this glossy reprint of his first short story collection, How Best to Avoid Dying, lost souls search for meaning in both life and death. In “The Martyrs of Mountain Peak,” counselors at an evangelical summer camp schedule their own deaths to look like gruesome accidents in order to increase the number of campers who will “come to Jesus” in their grief. And in “Lazarus Dying,” John the Apostle and Lazarus continue to live in the 21st Century, working in a copy shop, blessed (or cursed) with immortality by Christ.

The Chicago Tribune says “Egerton is hardly the first to suggest that attention to the raw minutiae of beauty is the closest we get to grace. But he’s the funniest to do so in a long time.” I say there is much we as writers can learn from Dying about our craft.

Sometimes, Less is More
Writers are usually verbose by nature, but fiction isn’t really the best place to show off your vocabulary. Like Ron Rash or Cormac McCarthy, Egerton writes minimalist prose.  Take the opening lines from “The Martyrs of Mountain Peak”, for instance:

“Kent is dead. All the kids at camp are crying and singing and praying. They don’t know that it was my turn, not his.”

It isn’t showy or “writerly.” It’s simple. It sucks you right in and makes for effortless reading. It sounds like someone talking naturally.Take a nod from Egerton and simplify your prose. Resist the temptation to show off, to delicately construct each sentence into a linguistic mosaic. Make your sentences smooth and remove all obstacles to an effortless read.

Humor Opens Doors
Humor is a powerful tool in fiction, because it allows you to do things, and explore ideas, that might otherwise come across as ridiculous. Just ask George Saunders and Chuck Palahniuk. If Egerton took himself too seriously, if he wrote a straight-faced narrative about an artist who uses his bowel movements as a colorful medium (as in “The Fecalist”) or a children’s spelling bee where the punishment for a mistake is a gruesome and public death (as in “Spelling”).

Some writers omit all funniness from their work, for fear that they may not be taken seriously. Egerton proves that your unique sense of humor can be a defining aspect of your fiction, something that really sets you apart.

Characters Need Jobs Too
In MFA workshops, plenty of students will turn in drafts of stories where their characters’ jobs are never mentioned. And yet, real-life humans are often defined by their jobs. On average, we spend 54% of our waking hours on work or work-related activities. And when you meet a stranger at a party, what’s the first question you ask after getting their name? “What do you do?”

The scope and content of almost every story in Dying is defined by what the narrator does for a living: Waffle House inspector, religious cult member, camp counselor, student, etc. And Egerton has done his research, because he realistically portrays the daily life of his characters, depending on what they do for a living.

Do your characters have jobs? Do their jobs impact what kind of person they are or what kinds of challenges they face?


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