I regularly turn to my writing critique group to share my WIP and gain valuable feedback from fellow writers.
But I also find much value in my monthly book group—and not just because I love to read and then discuss what I’ve read. I marvel at how divergent opinions can be about a book. I’ve wondered at times: Are we talking about the same novel?
Sometimes—actually, rarely—the group coalesces in full delight about a book. More often, some love it, some find it so-so, and some are outright sorry they read beyond the first chapter.
Of course, sites like Goodreads offer ratings and reviews on books for people who don’t have or don’t want to be in a book discussion group. But sitting together with a glass of wine and a plate of snacks is my preferred way of finding out what others think about that new novel or latest work of nonfiction. (My group reads both.)
As a writer, I also see how my take on a book is often at least somewhat different from a nonwriter. I can get caught up in the craft—how do the sentences flow, why did the author use that story structure—and forget that most readers just want a good story. The structural elements are important; they are the solid framework upon which the good story is built. But many readers are willing to give a pass on less-than-perfect structure if they are compelled to keep turning the pages to find out what’s going to happen.
It’s often a reminder to me that as writers we can’t predict what will appeal or connect with readers. One example is Kate Atkinson’s A God in Ruins. While I thoroughly enjoyed the novel—the crisp narrative, the layered characters, the grim depiction of war—I was disappointed in the ending, which I thought was a cheap shot, the equivalent of a story in which the main character wakes up to realize it’s all been a dream. But one member of my group gave an alternative explanation. For her, the ending with its surprise reveal represented the awful price the soldiers paid: that they forfeited their future, of what might have been. I had to agree.
The devil is in the details—not only when moving forward with any plan—or with life, but also when working to make a novel, short story, or even narrative nonfiction come to life for the reader.
In the following examples—selected randomly from my bookshelves—the specificity of the details pulls you right into each scene.
The slick black road became narrower, windier, became the single-lane track I remembered from my childhood, became packed earth and knobbly, bone-like flints.— from The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
His eyes had the bluish gray color of a razor blade, the same polished shine, and as he peered up at me I felt a strange sharpness, almost painful, a cutting sensation, as if his gaze were somehow slicing me open. — from The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
Her clothes can stay behind—her humble pale-print dresses, her floppy hat. The last library book can remain on the table under the sagebrush picture. It can remain there, accumulating fines. — from “The Jack Randa Hotel” in Open Secrets by Alice Munro
With just a few precise details, the authors do more than describe; they weave their tale. The road in Gaiman’s story speaks of the character’s childhood, perhaps a rough one, based on the bumpy flints. The razor-like stare of the man in O’Brien’s scene lets us know the main character has met someone from whom it may not be easy to disengage. And while we know that Munro’s character visits the library, the urgency of her departure makes an overdue book seem trivial.
So, details, yes, but only the right ones. That’s something I struggle with in my writing. As a former journalist, I was taught to focus on the who-what-when-how, so I’m prone to put in too much information.
Earlier this summer I was fortunate to hear Colum McCann speak at the Rutgers Writers Conference in New Jersey. I loved his Let the Great World Spin, and I wasn’t disappointed by what he had to say. In his keynote, he told us of his travels across America when he first arrived in the U.S. from Ireland. All interesting, entertaining stuff, especially when told in his lilting accent, but what really resonated with me was what he called “the beauty of the extreme detail.”
It’s finding the one bit of description to insert in the scene that makes your reader believe that what you’ve described is true. How do you find that one perfect bit? Through your research, of course, whether the research of human experience, through interviews, or by Internet searches.
McCann offered for his example his research into the world of ballet while working on Dancer. After spending hours of time hanging out with a ballet de corps, learning the terminology, the joys and frustrations, the daily life of a dancer, he took his young daughter to see their production of The Nutcracker. He later shared with the dancers his daughter’s hands-down favorite scene: the Waltz of the Snowflakes, with the snow drifting down. It was, the daughter said, magical.
Instead of agreeing with him, the dancers groaned: That scene was their least favorite. The “snow” that fell was swept up after every performance and set aside to let loose at the next one, without filtering out any of the dirt and debris that might have been on the stage. The dancers told McCann that the only thing they could think of when the “snow” began falling was that they would need to wash their hair.
He said that nugget of detail gave him more cred among dancers who read his book than if he had used other, more mundane descriptions of the corps.
I can’t say that I no longer struggle with the details in my WIPs, but they don’t devil me quite as much.
How do you decide which details to include in your writing?
How do you spell summertime? V-A-C-A-T-I-O-N. Sometimes it means a long weekend away, sometimes, several weeks—or more, if you’re lucky. Local or exotic, by the day or by the week, the time away from the daily grind is important not only for the fun or relaxation you plan to have, but also for your creativity.
This hit home for me after a recent vacation trip. I’ll admit it: I’m a work-a-holic, and the thought of taking time off, away from my desk and my plugged-in life, seemed a waste. I do take my weekends off (for the most part), so what more break did I need?
It turned out that the six days away—six days, to paraphrase Monty Python, of something completely different—were just what I needed to reset my mental stress levels. Instead of sitting at my desk, worrying about my next deadline, I was out on the lake in a wood-strip canoe or attending a lecture on the indigenous history of the Adirondacks or walking the woods with fellow birders as the sun rose.
On purpose, I kept my online activity to a minimum, and I resisted the temptation to check in with my team at work. I had committed to the time off and I was going to keep that promise!
Being in a different setting also sparked writing ideas. I wasn’t brainstorming on purpose—just letting the thoughts flow, set into motion by the act of doing something outside of my usual routine.
When I returned home, work was waiting for me—the emails to answer and the projects to complete—but the otherness of being away lingered. I continued to feel relaxed as the days spooled by. That restfulness won’t last, of course. But when it comes time to plan the next vacation, I won’t be as hesitant to pull out the maps and start planning.
What’s your favorite kind of get away to recharge?
This month, A Slice of Orange is proud to announce that Dianna Sinovic will be blogging regularly for us. Her column Quill and Moss is scheduled on the 30th of May, July, August, October, December, January and March. Please take a minute to welcome her.
One late afternoon after work this past week, I walked down the drive to decompress and unkink, and noticed the winged maple seeds scattered across the asphalt and sprinkled on the lawn.
Silver maple whirligigs, falling by the hundreds—thousands—each a seed that will get eaten (by the squirrels), squashed (by my car), or swept up and tossed in the trash (not the compost!). A few may find themselves on soil rich enough to sustain roots and decide to sprout.
I likened the whirling seeds to the many ideas writers sift through for their next writing project, whether a blog post or a short story or a chapter in a longer work. You might reject one after another idea—too silly, too serious, too [fill in the blank]—until you hit on the one that inspires you. Or that idea may need to lie dormant for a while, until the time is right to nurture it into a sapling.
Case in point: For several years, I sat on the first two paragraphs of a story idea. In my mind’s eye, I saw a middle-aged woman, an aging “hippie,” lighting a candle and trying to connect with the spirit of her dead husband. His name was Tommy. Her name was Weejah, pronounced like the Ouija board. That’s all I had for a long while. I would revisit it periodically, hoping the time was right, but I still stared at same two paragraphs.
Then, just like that whirligig, the seed of the idea finally began to sprout. On the next revisit, as I saw Weejah sitting in front of the candle, I knew then that she was asking Tommy about a new man in her life, one whom she was considering marrying. The conflict would be with her grown children, who were against the marriage. But then, like a seedling, the story stayed small and incomplete for a while longer.
At last I knew I was ready to write it as a paranormal story. It would be presented in scenes that were tied to a séance: Each time Weejah tried to reach Tommy, whether by herself, with her son and daughter, or with her fiancé, something would happen to make her believe he really was there—communicating across the Great Divide.
After several rewrites, it became Tommy, which made it into the Bethlehem Writers Group’s latest anthology, Untethered.
What seeds of ideas have you returned to again and again, waiting for them to finally put down roots?
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