“Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.” – Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
I’ve noticed a pattern.
I read fantastic books, and afterwards, my writing is fantastic. I read mediocre books; my writing becomes mediocre (at best). My voice and style aren’t really affected, but my sentence structure and general thought processes are dumbed down by exposure to weak writing. I find this all a bit disconcerting, so I’m going to read fantastic books until I finish my first draft.
My question: What’s the latest fantastic book (or essay, short story, whatever) you’ve read?
“The only way you can write the truth is to assume that what you set down will never be read. Not by any other person, and not even by yourself at some later date. Otherwise you begin excusing yourself. You must see the writing as emerging like a long scroll of ink from the index finger of your right hand; you must see your left hand erasing it.” – Margaret Atwood, The Blind Assassin
by Chris Rosales
I was once running a workshop at the Boulder Writing Studio when a student handed me a list. It had been compiled by a man named Gordon Mennenga, of Coe College, and had been passed around after the University of Iowa Writing Festival in Iowa City, until it ended up in my hands, here in Colorado. Unlike most such lists we see passed around writers circles, it was not a list of must-read books, and it was not a list of common mistakes writers should avoid, and, as much as most of us may have wanted it to be, it was not a list of Glengary-like leads on agents and editors. It was a list of particular details found in the first two pages of published novels.
bodily fluid—sweat, tears, urine
reference to sex or to death
something sinful or painful
a physical feature
a personality trait
mention of nature
anything with a brand name
city, state, or street
Now, take a moment to study the first two pages of a few of your favorite books. How many particular details from the above list do you find in its first two pages? Likely, you find most. Particulars build context, and context is essential and all-powerful because it fills in the gaps for your reader without boring exposition. Vanessa Redgrave once said of acting—an art I argue shares much with writing—“If you don’t understand the social-economic realities of the character—their education, how they were raised financially, and what they did to get an education or not—you can’t understand the character.” In other words, if you don’t understand the particular details of your characters, their actions, and their world… Well, it’s not an option. And the most efficient way to convey this understanding to your reader is through your choice of particular details. You decide. Does the character arrive driving an El Camino, or a Saab?
As Francine Prose says in Reading Like A Writer:
Details are what persuade us that someone is telling the truth—a fact that every liar knows instinctively and too well. Bad liars pile on the facts and figures, the corroborating evidence, the improbable digressions ending in blind alleys, while good or (at least better) liars know that it’s the single priceless detail that jumps out of the story and tells us to take it easy, we can quit our dreary adult jobs of playing judge and jury and again become as trusting children, hearing the gospel of grown-up knowledge without a single care or doubt.
The kinds of well-chosen details Francine Prose refers to can enhance all aspects of the writing of fiction, from characterization, to dramatic action, to description of setting, in ways that fill out context rather than pile up like compost.
To see particularity at work in characterization, we’ll start with an altered excerpt from James Baldwin’sGiovanni’s Room, an excerpt from which I’ve stripped away a few particular details. A typical first draft might read this way:
I can see her, elegant and glittering, surrounded by light. Drinking and laughing. Watching the party.
Is it awful? Maybe not. But it lacks life. And why? Notice what’s missing from the first version when you compare it to the following:
I can see her, very elegant, tense, and glittering, surrounded by the light which fills the salon of the ocean liner, drinking rather too fast, and laughing, and watching the men.
In addition to making our characterization more painterly, particularity can enhance the dramatic effect of simple actions. At some point in our writing lives, most of us will have to acknowledge that our characters open doors, read mail, and sit in chairs, more often than they slay dragons. But it’s important to keep in mind that it is not only the dramatic-situation that charges that action with importance, it is also the particular way in which that action is delivered.
He handed her the envelope.
That was easy. It got the job done. But what about something more particular?
He rolled his desk-chair back, swung it round, and slugged his tongue against his teeth as he searched the drawers. He set aside two smaller envelopes before he found the one that raised the heat beneath his tight collar. The envelope was an eight and one half by eleven inch manila with the postage pre-paid, the address stamped, and no return address on either side.
He cleared his throat. “Well, here it is.”
Lastly, particularity can enhance our descriptions of setting, as seen in this wonderful example from Sol Stein’sStein on Writing. First, we’ve got a generalized description of an apartment.
The apartment was bigger than they ever expected.
Next, we see how a combination of particular details, including dialogue and action, combine to give the reader a much truer impression of an apartment that is bigger than expected.
The renting agent said it was their last best chance of finding an apartment in the neighborhood that wasn’t as cramped as the place they had now. Elizabeth and Joe hurried up the stone steps to the parlor floor. The agent stepped aside to let them in. Their first impression was a vast emptiness in which the echo of the agent’s voice reverberated.
“It’s fourteen feet high.”
They followed the agent’s gaze to the ceiling, with its tiny plaster angels around the perimeter.
Joe said, “There’s room for astronauts. How do you change the light bulbs?
Elizabeth said, “With a ladder, dummy.”
The agent, glad to see the wonder on their faces, said, “Wait till you see the bedroom.”
“Is it in the same town?” Joe said, squeezing Elizabeth’s hand.
Before you shut down your computer for the day, return to that list at the beginning of this article. Study the first two pages of your manuscript and ask yourself if you tend to make particular choices regarding the listed ingredients. If your choices seem too generalized, if, for instance, your characters stop for “food” instead of “pastrami sandwiches”, if they walk down “the street” together instead of taking “Larimer up to the Square”, slow down. Include. Explore your characters, the significance of their actions, and the particularities of their settings. That last detail you choose may be the one that convinces your reader that you’re either a damn good liar or a damn good story-teller, as if there’s any difference.
I’m an American…. *sigh* and I’ve always wanted to try Wensleydale.
Originally posted on HarsH ReaLiTy:
Most of OM’s authors get invited on here to talk about their books. The blood that has poured from their fingers as they hammer frantically on their abused computer keyboards, the rivers of tears and sweat (yuk!) that have dripped from their faces as they reveal their tortured souls on screen: the agony and ecstasy of rejections, acceptances, and seeing their work in print… You are probably all bored to tears with that, so I’m here today to talk about cheese.
You see, I’m a fantasy author. Not a fantastic author, but a fantasy author. Stop panting there at the back, I didn’t mean *that* sort of fantasy either: OM doesn’t have that sort of thing on here. Or so I’ve been led to believe. You regular readers might know better. In fact, I’ve seen a lot of the posts on here, so maybe I should know better. Sorry, back…
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Caddie’s struggled with anxiety since her parents divorced, convinced that if she doesn’t touch another person’s skin her dad may come back. Harmless at first, the obsession becomes a problem when her crush Peter is cast opposite her Ophelia in her high school production of Hamlet. With her dreams of becoming an actress and her growing feelings for Peter on the line, Caddie must find a way to battle her fears and take back control. Rachel M. Wilson’s debut sheds light on how the stigma of mental illness can hurt teens seeking help, and readers who struggle with anxiety of their own are sure to find understanding and solace in Caddie’s story.
On shelves: September 2
Living outside the box
Comic artist Liz Prince grew up feeling as though she just didn’t fit in. She didn’t like anything she perceived as being girly, but the coach of her Little League team also proved she couldn’t seamlessly fit in with the boys either. Tomboy is Prince’s graphic memoir of her years of challenging the stereotypes others attempted to put on her, while attempting to pin down her own identity within the confines of a society that prefers for boys and girls to be neatly defined. Relatable, hilarious, and insightful, Tomboy is a must-read for anyone who feels like a square peg in a round hole.
On shelves: September 2
Stranger than fiction
Ever wish your life was like the books you read? Finn Easton doesn’t. He shares a name with a character in his father’s sci-fi novel, and most of his real life is spent attempting to convince himself that he’s more than a subpar version of a novelization. When the only girl he’s ever loved moves away, Finn and his best friend Cade embark on a journey that proves he is worthy of his own story. Penned by Winger author Andrew Smith, 100 Sideways Miles presents the high school dramas of friendship, love, and academia with sly humor and genuine heart.
On shelves: September 2
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It seems like years since you’ve been here
Once-inseparable twins torn apart by betrayal each share their story in Jandy Nelson’s shining second novel. Noah reveals their early years of close friendship, inside jokes, and secret language. It was a time when Jude did most of their talking and he’d prefer to draw and daydream about their handsome next-door neighbor. Three years and one unspeakable incident later, the twins are strangers. Jude takes the reigns of the later story, giving the reader deep-seated emotion where Noah gave artistic visuals. While the twins pass the narration back and forth like ball, Nelson brilliantly guides the reader through the tragedy that ripped them apart.
On shelves: September 16
Eliminate the impossible, believe the improbable
Season 4 of Sherlock is still a long way off (2016 can’t come soon enough), but fans of the series may find William Ritter’s Jackaby can help to pass the time. Supernatural investigator R.F. Jackaby has an eye for seeing what others miss. When it’s revealed that a serial killer is on the loose, police suspect an ordinary man, though Jackaby’s convinced that there’s something more going on. With the help of his new assistant Abigail Rook, Jackaby sets off to solve the case and save the good people of New Fiddleham.
On shelves: September 16
Light ‘em up, up, up
What to read, what to read now that Leigh Bardugo’s Grisha trilogy has ended? Perhaps it’s time to start a new fantasy series about a girl who can start fires with her mind? A member of a magical mafia, Ava refuses to use her powers to kill a family friend and soon finds herself on the run from her former boss. Set in a vivid magical world filled with adventure and danger, the snarky Ava finds herself surrounded by a cast of strong characters that help to flesh out Lish McBride’s fantastical new world.
On shelves: September 23
Pulled apart, put together
In this debut novel, a young girl chronicles her life and the struggles she experiences during her senior year of high school. From body image and coming out to addiction and rape, Gabi transcribes the world around her through diary entries that reveal a raw portrait of a teen struggling to figure out how she fits into the turbulent world around her. Through authentic prose and poetry, Isabel Quintero gives readers a glimpse of a girl discovering ways to embrace her modern desires and stay true to her Latina identity.
On shelves: September 23
Got a hook on me
A deadly virus is sweeping across America and national security is convinced that Emily Bird, the daughter of two black scientists, knows something about the disease that she shouldn’t. After an encounter with Roosevelt David, a security agent, leaves her without memory of the night she met him, Bird knows that something is wrong. The only person she finds she can trust is Coffee, a diplomat’s son and conspiracy theorist who believes that Bird is right. A perfect blend of suspense and science fiction, the novel also delves effortlessly into topics of race and class at Bird’s elite D.C. prep school. Fans of the cyberpunkThe Summer Prince will devour Alaya Dawn Johnson’s latest.
On shelves: September 30
I need feminism because…
As high school comes to a close, most seniors begin thinking of the future. Glory can only focus on the past. After her mother’s suicide, she’s been haunted by the idea that she might one day go down the same route. Then one night she discovers she has the power to see a person’s infinite past and future, and the future looks bleak. As she watches women’s rights disappear and war breaking out, Glory has to find a way to change the world’s future, even when she can’t see her own. With women’s rights never far from the media, curious and passionate feminists alike will find strength in A.S. King’s heartbreaking and powerful novel.
On shelves: October 14
Slayers and dragons and drama—oh my!
A new Julie Kagawa series? Yes please! Filled to the brim with her usual mix of supernatural and romantic elements, fans old and new are sure to sink their claws into Talon. After dragon slayers drove them to near extinction, dragons began hiding in human form to escape the slaughter. Dragons Ember and Dante are siblings destined to help the dragons of Talon take over the world, though everything Ember has ever thought or known is thrown into question when she meets Garret, a deadly dragon slayer. October seems too long to wait to meet these fiery star-crossed lovers.
On shelves: October 28
Baptism by fire
The fall is off to a flaming start with the release of Talon, Firebug, and True Fire. While all share fantasy elements, 16-year-old Megan’s story is far different from Ember and Ava’s. Focused on telling her family that she’s pregnant, Megan never sees the attack on her village coming. When her twin sister Gwyneth is taken by witches, she sees no other choice but to set out to rescue her. A prophecy that seems to connect to her unborn child looms over Megan, as she teams up with new friends Damon and Eleanor to face down certain peril, save her sister, and discover the truth.
On shelves: November 4
Awesome list from BuzzFeed… I’ve read the majority of books on this list, and they’re all fantastic, but my favorites are The Giving Tree, the Miss Nelson books, and the Louis Sachar books! And read them now, even if you’re a grown-up without kids. – sld
The right word may be effective, but no word was ever as effective as a rightly timed pause. – Mark Twain