Tuesday, May 26, 2009

God--and Emotion in Your Writing--Is in the Details

Striving to get more voice, more emotion in your writing? One of my favorite nonfiction writers, Rick Bass, shares an important clue on how to do this. It goes back to the old saying, God is in the details.

"All of the smallest elements," Bass writes, "the direction of a breeze one day, a single sentence that a friend might speak to you, a raven flying across the meadow and circling back again--lay claim to you, eventually, with a cumulative power."
We're all after creating that kind of cumulative power in our writing. It's like the moment of seeing a completely developed perennial garden in full bloom--the sight of all those flowers, shapes, and scents in the summer light can take your breath. How do we get this in our writing--this synergy, this emotional effect? I think the clue is in the details, as Rick Bass suggests.

How Much Detail Is Needed?
In my writing classes, we labor over this: how to bring in the small details, not get bored with our own writing in the process, add just enough and not too much.

Most writers add too little. I think it might be born from our sped-up lives. We move so fast, it's literally hard to stop and smell the roses. But we need to, in our writing, because the reader will want this emotional punch, this moment of truth, to come through. And if the writer doesn't experience it, the reader won't either.

I'm not talking about painstaking details. One writer thought I meant this when I talked about putting in more details: "I put my hand on the doorknob, turned it slowly, pulled the door toward me, stepped over the threshold." No, it's fine just to write, "I walked into the room." But whenever you want emotional punch, effect, a moment of truth, you need to linger in detail.

Externally Felt Senses--Keys to Effective Detail in Writing
My tried-and-true way: adding senses. I can almost hear my writing classes groan. That again? Well, yes. It's vital. How many senses are used in the paragraph above, from Rick Bass? I count three. Touch (the breeze), sound (the friend's voice), and sight (the raven). It brings home the emotion, doesn't it?

This week's exercise: Pick a random page of your writing-in-progress. Make sure it's random, not your best or worst page. Count the number of times you use the senses on that page. Where do you use them--when there's need for emotional impact? When you want a message to come across? Then brainstorm a list of sense details you could add to that page.

I realize, for some of you, this will be boring, feel like too much detail. Usually if you have that reaction, you need more of it. It's been way too long since you slowed down enough to even notice the roses, much less smell them.
Make sense? Agree or disagree? I'd love to hear your thoughts and your experiences if you try this exercise.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Building Just Enough Fire in Your Story to Attract a Reader

A writer in my Loft Literary Center book-writing class was working on her memoir. She asked a really good question during the weekend workshop. "How do I keep enough personal fire or passion in my story, since it's about me? Yet not be too big a presence? If I'm there too much, interpreting and being the narrator too obviously, my reader can't connect with the story herself. It becomes a three-way conversation--not ideal."

This writer is smart. She wants to understand a very basic book-writing challenge. How do we add just enough of our own passion to ignite the story for a reader--but not hang around warming our hands on the blaze?

Have you ever read a story that had too much narrator presence? Beginning book writers often feel they must interpret for a reader--tell why something happened, give too much background, rather than let the story tell itself. It's indeed like buiding a good campfire. You get it going. It lights up the dark. The reader approaches, tentatively at first. If your fire is blazing and inviting, maybe they'll linger.

Don't stand there talking the reader's head off, telling them about what wood you used and why it's so hard to build good campfires in this particular spot. Just let them enjoy the warmth. Let them inch closer. Otherwise, you're overwriting.

Are You Overwriting?

Your job, as the author, is to feed the fire, not worry it to ashes. You let a fire blaze on its own, after it has enough oxygen, kindling, dry wood. If you keep poking it every few seconds, the blaze will probably die out. Publishers, agents, editors--and readers!--look for stories that stand alone, fiery and bright, burning without any interpretation from the author. And it's not easy to keep a fire burning. Keep your passion for your story alive but take out your desire for interpretation.

This is called "overwriting," this is when you decide the dialogue isn't enough alone--you have to tell the meaning behind it. Some examples I've read of overwriting and author interpretation (beginning students' writing--used with permission):

The trashcan smelled really bad, like a million rotted apples.
Jason's hands shook and fear raced his throat. He felt scared.
I longed to be outside, smell the trees and feel the spring air. Nature always gave me strength. I loved the great outdoors.

Can you pick out the places where the author is standing too close to the fire, talking to the reader instead of just letting the reader enjoy the story that's being woven?

Here are how these sentences could look, without the overwriting:

The trashcan smelled like a million rotted apples. (We know rotted apples smell bad--why interpret?)
Jason's hands shook and fear raced his throat. (These are already signs of being scared--why add it?)
I longed to be outside, smell the trees and feel the spring air. (We'll read further to find out why--and the action itself will demonstrate that nature gives the narrator strength. The "love of the great outdoors" is implied--no need to restate.)

This week, as an exercise to hone your fire-building skills, read two pages of your recent work. Look for any place where you restated the obvious, added more background or feeling or information just in case the reader didn't get it. Strike through those sentences and read the paragraphs without. See if you don't feel a stronger blaze.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Marrying Two Things That Don't Go Together--A Book-Writing Exercise

When I was in the deepest struggle with my novel, Qualities of Light, I took a one-day workshop from author Alison McGhee. Alison has won awards for her fiction and my favorite of her novels is called Shadow Baby. I was truly stuck in the shadows of my story, not knowing where to go next. I thought she could help.

Alison gave us a writing exercise that changed the way I look at story-making. She wrote two lists on the blackboard. One list had five people--a six-year old boy, a seventy-five-year old woman, a teenager, etc. The other list had objects--a birdcage, a water glass, a jackknife. We were to pick one item from each list and write a scene using them both.

I picked the six-year-old boy, since one of my main characters fit that age, and the jackknife. I stared at my writing notebook, hoping for magic.

I don't know much about jackknives. I know they are precious to boys, especially if they belong to someone revered. I decided I would have my character steal the jackknife that belonged to his father, a war-era relic very precious to the older man, and the jackknife would be subsequently lost. When I began writing I didn't know all this, but I trust freewriting, automatic writing, stream of consciousness, for developing scenes.

The writing time was much too short. I was literally silenced by the scene that emerged. Sammy, the six-year-old, steals the jackknife on the morning of his birthday. Molly, his older sister, is badgered into taking Sam for a dawn boat ride, even though her father has forbidden use of the ancient motorboat. Sam, leaning over the side to watch ducks, drops the knife in the lake and falls in after it, hitting his head on the boat. That accident became the "triggering event" for my story. And because the trigger happened on the lake, I could then imagine the next twist: Molly falling in love with her water-skiing best friend, even as her brother lies in a coma in the hospital. The story became her story--what she does as her family blames her and copes with their loss, whether she can accept the amazement of love in the midst of her guilt over her brother. All because of a simple writing exercise.

Qualities of Light is now being typeset and the cover designed. It's going to be published by Spinsters Ink/Bella Books in August, the same month as much of the story on Cloud Lake takes place.

I have to write Alison a thank-you note sometime, send her a copy when the novel is printed. I love her writing exercises, and I think you will too.

To try it: make yourself two lists, one of people and one of items. Marry two things that don't go together. Shake them up, see what happens. Set a timer for 20 minutes for this writing session. It's bound to be a productive one.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Your Ideal Reader--Advice from Kurt Vonnegut

My ideal reader is a confused teenage girl; she feels like an outcast because her best friend just moved to Montana and nobody understands her at school or at home.

My ideal reader is crazy about fixing old cars. He's got three in his backyard, if you could call it a backyard.

My ideal reader is forty-two, a discouraged mother and homemaker who is looking for the spark in her life that disappeared too many years ago.

My ideal reader manages an art gallery; she's fascinated with Renaissance art. She wants a new system for managing exhibits.

My ideal reader is gay, single, and loves helping others. He volunteers at hospice and soup kitchens. He really wants to learn how to balance his life, though. It's too crazy...so he thinks my book will help him.

Readers wait for your story, like a group of beautiful still life objects in an artist's studio. They wait for your attention, your interest in their particular shape and size and need. When you start thinking about them, your art changes. In a good way.

As I write this, my class of twenty-seven book writers at the Loft Literary Center is exploring this question. They are busy researching this aspect of book-writing, one they may not have ever thought about. As they ask about their readers, the answers will shape their book journey--how the chapters are structured, what is added or omitted, what benefit (take-away) they present. Why would anyone read this book? Who is this "anyone" anyway?

Write to Please One Person
Kurt Vonnegut wrote, “Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.” When I heard this writing advice as a beginning writer, I couldn’t imagine what it meant. He’s a funny guy, but I didn’t see what was funny in this. Now that I’m an experienced book author, Vonnegut’s advice makes all the sense in the world.

Many professional writers talk about this idea. Some visualize their ideal reader—maybe modeling her or him after someone they know. As they work on their book idea, they imagine asking that reader, What would you need here—more time to digest the idea or more information? More character or more plot? It’s not so far-fetched to begin this kind of dialogue. It’s, again, another guidance system to keep your book on track as it develops. You can also watch your reader’s profile change, as you discover more about what you really want to write.

Vonnegut also said (both of these quotes are from his book, Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction, New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1999), “Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.”

This is another reason to consider a reader from the get-go. It’s unreasonable and a bit self-absorbed to think that a total stranger would take time to read your book, even if it’s fascinating to you, without being invested in its story.

This week, think about your reader. Who will read your book, who will get the most from it? Spend ten minutes describing your ideal reader--what you know about him or her, what you'd like to know.