By Josi S. Kilpack
My blog this week is taken from Jack Bickham’s book “The 38 most common fiction writing mistakes (and how to avoid them)”. This is one of my very favorite writing books and one I go back to often. I often send a copy back with manuscripts I’ve edited with specific chapters marked to help the writer understand a point I was trying to make in my edit of their work. The chapter I am highlighting this week is Chapter 21 “Don’t Ever Stop Observing and Making Notes.”
Most writers feel they are good students of the world, keep observers, and attentive life watchers. We view the world around us as writing material and often find inspiration directly through observations we make. However, as years go on we sometimes stop doing this. We no longer listen to conversations around us, we no longer notice the details—or perhaps we were never all that good at it anyway. Bickham points out that attention to detail is the difference between good fiction and great fiction, and I agree. I have read over manuscripts of my own and realized that details are missing. On my pursue of a great plot, I have lost my tight descriptions, or my active voice. He gives a four-step process of honing our observation skills and applying it to our work.
1—Examine your environment. As you look at the world around you, and examine it, you become an active participant in it. The grass isn’t just green, it’s bright, with crisp edges and creates a lush carpet still wet with morning dew. Is it brighter than it was last week? Is it drying out, reflecting the summer heat in it’s dull blades. Pay attention to the details.
2—See out what makes this tree . . . this person . . . this storefront unique. What sets this woman apart from the other? Is it simply her blond hair? Or the fact that her roots have grown out, attesting to her vanity, but procrastination in keeping it up ,which then makes you wonder why she colored her hair in the first place if she wasn’t committed to keep up the charade of being a natural blond. Look for those details, focus on them, compare and contrast items in order to set them apart from one another.
3—Go through the formal process of recording your observations. This means taking notes. Write about the grass, write about the woman’s hair, write about just how fat that cricket was. By writing them down you ensure they will be there when you need them, but you also practice your own ability to translate your observations into actual language.
4—As you practice translating your observations, use deft, brief, evocative writing. Don’t go on and on, keep it tight and to the point—but rich in what it gives the reader. It also keeps you from telling so much, allowing the ability to show a setting or presence. For instance:
Mary ran her fingers through her black hair, wishing the sun was out.
Mary’s hair was black, thick and tangled; details perfectly matched to the dismal morning.
No matter how long you’ve been writing, attention to detail in the world around you will bless your writing and benefit your reader in that the story will be more than something they read, rather it will become something they see, and feel and relate to. You’ll be amazed at how the world wakes up around you when you take the time to listen.
I know many writers read this blog, what have you done? How do you keep your descriptions fresh or work in details to your stories?