Something of Value

Stories are never really about what happens but about what it feels like when something happens. We don’t really care that our heroine is being chased by a killer, we care what it feels like when she is being chased. If she is an off-duty police officer, she will feel one way; if she is a cheerleader, she will probably feel another. In this way, all stories are really a trace of emotion conveyed through characters in conflict.

And nothing amplifies a feeling more than specific details. There is no heat in the sentence: Holly was angry. In many ways, it is as emotionally neutral a sentence as: Holly was a mother of two. There is much more heat if I write: Holly came home and dropped her purse on the floor and sighed. Even from the front door she could see a sink full of dishes. Two sons home from school for the summer and a husband out of work, and cleaning every square foot of the house still fell to her.

This is why writing teachers implore their students to fill their stories with specific details. This is why it is usually better to say a character arrived at the meeting with one shirttail untucked and a pear-shaped stain on his pocket, than looking disheveled. Writer and reader alike want to feel this imaginary world as completely as if they were living in it, which, for the duration of the telling, they might as well be.

All of this detail-choosing and showing-and-not-telling is done not the name of good writing, but in the name sharing something of value. As it happens, all that humans actually value is what they feel. Everything humans think they value, they value only because of how that thing seems to make them feel. This is good news for storytellers. We have nothing whatsoever to offer the world but pages filled with feelings caged in words, feelings loosed when opened by reader’s imagination.

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Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.
A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!
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In The Details

Wine aficionados are notorious for their creative specificity when trying to detail precisely what a given wine smells or tastes like. There are all the usual suspects: bright, dry, sweet, black current, cherry, grapefruit, peach; and the less usual – leather around the edges, road tar, petroleum. While taking my sommelier class the fellow in front of me, after snorting a glassful of something white, felt he detected a hint of “decomposing limestone.” Decomposing, mind you.

But I once read an article by a wine writer who defended this kind of unavoidable pretension thusly: “Try to describe a cheeseburger with onions without using the words onions, cheese, or burger. Now you know the plight of the wine writer.”

How true. What would be the use of telling your readers that every wine you tried this month tasted like fermented grapes? Such is also the plight of any creative writer. Nabokov believed a writer must “caress the divine detail,” by which I have always felt he meant that good writing, whatever precisely you think that is, exists in the details. It is in the details that a writer distinguishes between, say, jealousy and envy, between love and fascination.

And by the way, you are giving life itself the attention it deserves when you draw these distinctions. In Antony and Cleopatra Mark Antony says a crocodile is “shaped like itself.” Aren’t we all? The moment you enter your work fully, seeking those details that separate one moment, one look, or one smell from all others, you are faced with the relentless individuality of creation. How can you not then count yourself amongst that?

And yet sometimes you don’t. Sometimes you find yourself in the crowded subway, sometimes you hear of the hundred daily submissions to your favorite literary magazine, sometimes you wander a bookstore packed with tens of thousands of books that aren’t yours, and you despair, feeling for a moment like a thing without detail. What a lie you’re living. And how perversely vain the ego grows in its voracious need, believing that you alone, from the seven billion souls around you, are the first to be born with no distinction whatsoever.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!

More Author Articles

You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

In The Details

Wine aficionados are notorious for their creative specificity when trying to detail precisely what a given wine smells or tastes like. There are all the usual suspects: bright, dry, sweet, black current, cherry, grapefruit, peach; and the less usual – leather around the edges, road tar, petroleum. While taking my sommelier class the fellow in front of me, after snorting a glassful of something white, felt he detected a hint of “decomposing limestone.” Decomposing, mind you.

But I once read an article by a wine writer who defended this kind of unavoidable pretension thusly: “Try to describe a cheeseburger with onions without using the words onions, cheese, or burger. Now you know the plight of the wine writer.”

How true. What would be the use of telling your readers that every wine you tried this month tasted like fermented grapes? Such is also the plight of any creative writer. Nabokov believed a writer must “caress the divine detail,” by which I have always felt he meant that good writing, whatever precisely you think that is, exists in the details. It is in the details that a writer distinguishes between, say, jealousy and envy, between love and fascination.

And by the way, you are giving life itself the attention it deserves when you draw these distinctions. In Antony and Cleopatra Mark Antony says a crocodile is “shaped like itself.” Aren’t we all? The moment you enter your work fully, seeking those details that separate one moment, one look, or one smell from all others, you are faced with the relentless individuality of creation. How can you not then count yourself amongst that?

And yet sometimes you don’t. Sometimes you find yourself in the crowded subway, sometimes you hear of the hundred daily submissions to your favorite literary magazine, sometimes you wander a bookstore packed with tens of thousands of books that aren’t yours, and you despair, feeling for a moment like a thing without detail. What a lie you’re living. And how perversely vain the ego grows in its voracious need, believing that you alone, from the seven billion souls around you, are the first to be born with no distinction whatsoever.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group conferencing.

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You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

The Essential Detail

China Miéville writes novels that take place in worlds of his own invention. This presents particular challenges, namely, how does one reveal this world to the reader while also carrying on with the business of telling the story. After all, if I set a book in modern New York, most readers immediately have their own stock images of that city; as a writer I need only fill in the most telling details.

But in a world of a writer’s own invention the reader begins with a blank canvas. How then to paint this picture efficiently and with narrative oomph? Interestingly, China believes (as do I) that it is most often what the writer chooses not to describe that gives the most fantastic worlds their own sense of verisimilitude. For instance, by simply mentioning (but never describing) Mount Cragmore, or Oracon 6, or The Army of Nin, the writer invites the reader to give flesh to the world of the novel using his or her own imagination.

Lazy?  Not at all.  Every writer does this every time they write.  As uber-realistic writer Andre Dubus pointed out, we are only seeking the “essential details” when we describe a setting—the rest is left to the reader’s imagination. As it should be. Everyone believes what they decide for themselves. You can’t tell your readers that your protagonist is angry, you must, as you know, show that your protagonist is angry, and then let the reader make up their mind for themselves.

All art, writing included, is the discipline of living empty space. We create fertile open spaces for our audience’s imagination to flourish. It is the greatest gift you can give. By trusting your reader to finish your work for you, you are allowing them to make their world their own, which it always has been and always will be—a truth so constant and reassuring we can often forget it.

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