Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Digging for Detail

"That's why writers love to write. They discover things. They surprise themselves the more they dig deeper into a subject." --Barry Lane

Every profession has its perks. Education, I'm telling you, has a bajillion. Take Barry Lane, for example. I never would have stumbled upon him if I hadn't been a teacher. His book, After the End, is a must-have resource for any teacher of English, writing, or course of Language Arts tendencies. The rest of the title reads: Teaching and Learning Creative Revision. And that would be, of course, because most people (1st graders, sevvies, juniors in college, memo-taking temps) hate revision.

But writers know it must happen. They understand that it not only makes the writing better, but that it takes tenacity and time. And guts. Especially when you have to strip a scene down to the bare bones, or start over, or hack off pieces with a machete. The courageous ones blog about it, like Anthony who recently rewrote a chapter seven times.

[Author Note: The flip side of teacher-inherited perkdom is The Eye. Rest assured, being a teacher of writing doesn't mean you write any better. It just means that you're trained to recognize the good, the bad, and the ugly. Writers, too, undergo this evolutionary adaptation. I've read of writers who can no longer read books because they're always picking the plot apart. Or staring in horror as passive sentences sprout mold and spore the whole page. It's hard to turn off the inner critic. Especially if you do it for a living.]

Good writing, like any endeavor, takes practice, training, and an innate knack of sorts. Lane writes that "rich detail is the end result of an inquisitive mind." So how do we train our mind to constantly seek the deeper layer of detail? How do we take a scene or chapter or character and dig deep? How do you coax out that metaphor or word choice or image?

Consciously: Take the scene you're working on and read it with new eyes. Mimic your four year old nephew and ask every question you can think of. Follow up with "why?" whenever you get stuck.

With a partner: Pick out several details (or have a partner do so) and ask for help. For each detail have the partner ask several questions.

Lane's example:
  • Detail: There are no parents on the planet
  • Question: Where do kids come from?
  • Answer: They spew out of volcanoes once a year.
  • Question: But where do they get born?
  • Answer: They don't get born; they were created at the beginning of time, like rocks.
With a character: Some writers pen pages of notes, digging for details, chipping away marble to reveal the work of art beneath. These stories or histories rarely, if ever, make it into the final work, but the act of creation allows the author to understand the motivations and background of each character.

Lane's advice:

  • Pick a character you're struggling with and brainstorm a list of details about him/her.
  • Give the character a problem.
  • Work out a solution -- but answer the "why," too.
  • The nugget of truth rests within the why.

Unconsciously: You can always tuck the plot away for a moment and dream about it; or try the Lewis Carroll method; or undergo hypnosis. Flippancy aside, some of my best ideas surface when I'm not thinking about plot or character development or even my WIP. The trick, of course, is catching those fleeting thoughts before they circle the drain and disappear in a herd of soap bubbles.

Revision is more than editing or changing a word here and there. It is re-visioning. To re-see. Or to re-think. Or to look at with new eyes. How do you revise? What methods do you employ? What helps you get through that seventh rewrite?


  1. Great post . . . and advice. I see the purchase of a book in my very near future.

    Some advice of my own about characters . . . I normally create an Excel worksheet for the main characters with such details as hair color, eye color, height, weight, family (mother, father, # of siblings), drink of choice (wine, scotch, etc.), favorite Mexican food, books, movies, car, hobbies, and whatever. This list helps me as I'm going through and giving depth to the characters. I've also been known to detail the # of years characters have been friends. I always print out the worksheet and have it next to the computer as I write. Just a handy-dandy reference guide as I'm typing along.

    Thanks again for the post.


  2. This is my favorite part of your post: "Revision is more than editing or changing a word here and there. It is re-visioning. To re-see. Or to re-think. Or to look at with new eyes." That's exactly what I've been doing with my ms. It's a lot of work, but I like the new version better.

    Lynnette Labelle

  3. Excellent post Alex,

    The thing that struck me funny was about how writers cannot read anymore, because they are picking the plot apart. Yep, that's me. I used to watch brainless Hollywood movies and not really notice that the characters were cardboard cutouts, that the dialog wasn't the writer putting words in the character's mouths to move the plot along, but I don't anymore. It has made my movie watching both less enjoyable, and more enjoyable.

    Less enjoyable because I cannot get into the latest brainless action movie like I used to, but more enjoyable because if a movie really is well written, I enjoy it even more.

    Such is the life of a writer...

  4. @Scott: that's an interesting method; and effective, too, I imagine. thanks for the tip!

    @Lynnette: I think it's sometimes the hardest part too -- especially since one's WIP is usually beloved. But you are so right: the end result is totally worth the agony :)

    @Doug: thanks :) and isn't it fun thinking out a better plot twist? or more complicated character development?

    @Ben: pipe or cigar or cig? I caught a whiff of vanilla scented smoke as I read your words, which is hilarious since I don't smoke. Evidently, if I did, it would be vanilla scented :)


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