Original Detail

I’ve been reading  a lot of books on the craft of writing lately, perhaps as a way to inspire myself to become a better writer.  Throughout this journey, I have discovered a few authors who amaze me.  Natalie Goldberg is one of them.  Her book, Writing Down the Bones has such good advice and encouragement for all writers, not just beginners.  Here is a snippet about original detail.  It was too good to summarize, so I thought I’d share it with you:

Life is so rich, if you can write down the real details of the way things were and are, you hardly need anything else.  Even if you transplant the beveled windows, slow-rotating Rheingold sign, Wise potato chip rack, and tall red stools from the Aero Tavern that you drank in in New York into a bar in a story in another state and time, the story will have authenticity and groundedness.  “Oh, no, that bar was on Long Island, I can’t put it in New Jersey” – yes, you can.  You don’t have to be rigid about original detail.  The imagination is capable of detail transplants, but using the details you actually know and have seen will give your writing believability and truthfulness.  It creates a good solid foundation from which you can build…  Be awake to the details around you, but don’t be self-conscious.  “Okay, I’m at a wedding.  The bride has on blue.  The groom is wearing a red carnation.  They are serving chopped liver on doilies.”  Relax, enjoy the wedding, be present with an open heart.  You will naturally take in your environment, and later, sitting at your desk, you will be able to recall just how it was dancing with the bride’s redhead mother, seeing the bit of red lipstick smeared on her front tooth when she smiled, and smelling her perfume mixed with perspiration.

Writing a Novel – What to Avoid

State of Being Verbs

Avoid using the “to be” verbs which are: am, is, are, was, were, be, been and being. Any sentence that uses these verbs is “telling,” rather than “showing,” which is what we want. For example, instead of saying: “Sally is a funny girl,” you could say “I like Sally’s sense of humor,” or “Sally makes me laugh.” Even better, you could portray her being funny – maybe have her telling jokes, or making witty comments, which will completely negate the need to say she is funny in the first place, because the reader will already know.

Excessive Adverbs

Try to avoid using adverbs in your writing, especially after dialogue. An adverb is a word that modifies a verb, adjective, other adverbs, or various other types of words, phrases, and clauses, and typically are just adjectives that end with the suffix -ly. They will distract the reader from your story. There are too many instances of “he said incredulously,” or “she said sarcastically.” A good story or dialogue will convey the tone you’re trying to create without the use of an additional descriptor. The reason adverbs are bad, is that they draw attention outside of your story. It’s important that the reader does not feel the author’s presence but instead, should be able to absorb the story without distraction.

Excessive Description

Description is very different from specific details, which are necessary in a good novel. Description, however, can slow down your narrative. Use this rule of thumb to decide whether to provide a description in your writing – Does it relate to the plot and advance the story? If the answer is no, cut it. Writing is all about moving the plot along, and if you pause to provide a two page description of a building, no matter how lovely, you are stopping the action and taking the reader out of your story. Pace is everything. Stick with the action.

Avoid Generalizing

In contrast to excessive description, specific details are very important to a story. Taking a moment to name a street, or a restaurant, or to briefly describe a dress, makes all the difference to your readers. I recently read a book, which I won’t name, that didn’t provide any details. It made me so mad! She talked about a dress she had chosen to wear out that evening, but didn’t say a thing about it! She could have said it was a little black dress, or a slinky red evening gown, or a floral sundress. The fact that she neglected to provide such important details really took away from her story. It made it less believable. Most readers do have some imagination, but you have to give them something to work with. Expecting them to come up with all the details themselves is unprofessional, and frankly, a bit lazy.