Tag Archives: details

Fresh Garlic, Fresh Writing and a Winner

While working on a major project for our church, I had the wonderful opportunity to strike up conversations with dozens upon dozens of people I had never conversed with before.  One of the hot topics became cooking.

Hands down, my favorite ingredient is fresh garlic.  A clove or three, minced and sauteed in a bit of extra virgin olive oil, can push  a tasty dish to the next level. 

One of the ladies (who is an amazing  cook with over 50 years experience in the kitchen) claimed she had NEVER used fresh garlic to cook with.  EVER.

That confession  was akin to blasphemy in my book. 

But it got me thinking.  Writing is like cooking.  We get stuck in a rut.  We cook the same dishes over and over again because we know our families will eat them.  We use the same ingredients and cook them in the same ways, never venturing too far out of the box for fear that our kids will turn their noses up and our spouses will no longer declare us Top Chef.

When we write, we tend to fall into the same patterns.  Our MC’s are of similar ages with the same fundamental personality traits.  We strike up boy/girl relationships, throw in a conflict or two and add a bully for good measure.

In essence, we cook up a story using the same ingredients.

Our job is to keep our writing fresh.  We need to strip our manuscripts of the canned phrases and salted story lines.  We need to give up on processed plots and go with the freshest ingredients available to us.

Instead of changing our fifteen year-old, female’s hair color from blonde to auburn and making her two inches taller, we need to infuse our MC with a flavor all her own.  She may pick her cuticles until they bleed when she’s nervous.  She might have a habit stepping over every crack in the sidewalk because she truly believes the old childhood ditty–even though she doesn’t believe in anything else.  She might have a touch of OCD.

Whatever the case, we need to write outside the box. 

What happens when the requisite love triange includes a same-sex friendship instead of two hot hunks?  What if the bully is the scrawny, smart kid instead of the lumbering idiot?  What happens when it’s the spouse who has committment issues instead of the detective?

These are small changes–a bit like adding fresh garlic instead of garlic powder–yet they can have a big impact on how our characters act and react.  In essence tiny details can change the entire flavor of a story. 

They can also make the difference between another formulaic storyline or the fresh manuscript that agents and editors are clammering to bite into. 

What do you have cookin’?  What are the most commonly used “ingredients” in your writing?  Can you tweak them in a fresh way to enhance your story as a whole? 

After writing this, I realized my bullies are so yesterday: the petite, cute cheerleader and the blundering idiot.  It is not until my NaNo YA that the bully is a braniac hottie with a penchant for misusing those around him. 

Why is it so hard to take your own advice?!?!?

And so, I shall heed the words of wisdom written by successful authors before me, including Rick Frishman and Robyn Freedman Spizman. 

I hope Lisa finds something useful too.  Lisa Gibson posted the winning comment for my Slumber Party Bash contest.  For her awesome entry and great party idea she will receive a copy of Author 101: Bestselling Secrets from Top Agents.

If you have never visited Lisa’s blog, you should do so today.  Her blog is one of peace and inspiration.  Thanks, Lisa!

The Case for Little Description

My DH doesn’t read fiction.  Since we’ve been together, he’s read four novels.  All to appease me.  While on vacation, he started another book.  So, you may be thinking, almost five books in 24 years doesn’t exactly make him a literary expert.  However, his incredible insight the other day makes him the perfect voice of reason for less is more in description.

On our way up north he, at the wheel and me riding shotgun with my nose in a book, says, “You know the crazy thing about reading?”

“Hmmmmmm.”

“When I started reading Insert Last Novel Title Here, I could picture the house perfectly.”

My ears perked up and I set aside my Latest Novel.  “How so?”

DH went on to explain that as he read, he saw the inside of the living room right down to the color on the walls.  The Dear Author had not given him this information in paragraphs of detail.  Instead, he had simply written that the bodies were found in the living room next to the couch and in front of the fireplace.  He also walked DH up the stairs to the little girls’ room.  Not through ornate words and adjective cluttered sentence, but rather one step at a time via emotions and actions. 

DA allowed DH to fill in the blanks.  In his mind, DH was there, in the house with the characters.  He was invested in the atmosphere because of the LACK of description.

I prodded him to continue.  “A bar, for example, should be a bar.  With a certain kind of music.  Smokey or not, light or dim.  That’s enough information for me to know exactly what kind of place it is.”

Dim and smokey.  Immediately I was transported into every Legion bar that I’ve ever seen.  Admittedly that’s not a lot, but I knew that DH and I would end up in the same bar.

Bon Jovi blaring through the juke box elicits a whole different atmosphere.  A place with ceramic floors, a younger crowd and plastic glasses filled with cheap beer tapped from the keg.  Oh yeah, and a few older, haven’t-left-the-80’s, mulletted men sitting alone in corner booths oggling the Gen Xer’s in their tight jeans and tighter tank tops.

Country music wafting through the air along with thin streams of smoke puts me in a place with wooden floors and the stale scent of beer, surrounded by scruffy men and poofy-haired, cleavaged women. 

I don’t know where you would end up with those simple descriptions, but the point is, it would be your bar.  You would be there, smelling the smoke, feeling the sticky counter, gazing out of a blue haze at the characters. 

If the bar was described ad nauseum, we would all end up in the same exact place.  However, we would feel like spectators, not participants. 

When I write, I seldom describe anything with more than a sentence or two.  And most of what I write is slipped in during conversation or action.  I do this because reading long passages that don’t allow me to create my own setting is boring.  I have been known to skip pages at a time to avoid being told every little detail.

How do you feel about description in novels?  Are you in favor of detailed passages that put your readers exactly where you want them, or do you prefer to let them wander through the story in a place slightly different than you envisioned?  Does it matter?

When you read, do you enjoy making the story your own or do you crave to see exactly what the author saw when writing?

Realism: It’s in the Details

Last night I snuck found a small bag of Whoppers in the left-over Halloween stash.  I don’t really like malted milk balls.  Yet, when I popped one in my mouth, I was instantly transported back in time.

In my youth, Whoppers meant movie marathons with my uncles, shoveling manure with my cousins and having more freedom than children should be allowed to have.  They were the best of times…

The worst of times centered around my third grade teacher.  I’m not sure if she was a real one, but she sat in the desk and we called her Teacher.  I think she was a failed musician.  My clue?  The fact that we all had to learn Twinkle Twinkle Little Star on the violin–everyday–after which Teacher would cry at her desk and leave us on our own to tell time, count money and not beat each other up.

Okay, maybe that’s not entirely accurate, but it is what I remember.  That and going across the monkey bars so many times my palms would blister into huge water pockets and I would walk around with them bandaged.  Those bandages were a matter of pride.  I lost so many layers of skin I’m surprised there are lines left to read.

The point of all this reminiscing is that the best things in life are chock full of details.  So, too, is great writing.  Just ask editor, Lynn Price.

On an AQ chat, we pondered how much of ourselves we should put into our writing.  My answer: the details.  Nothing brings characters or situations to life better than small details.

In one of my middle grade novels, I have a boy who associates learning to read with his weepy, whiney violin-playing teacher.  My beta readers loved this detail.  It’s also something I could’t have made up.   Thankfully, I didn’t have to, as my life is full of tiny experiences that breathe realism into my writing.

I did miss a plane once because my uncle had to stop for his Pepsi fix.  I know that you can run someone’s head over with a blue, banana seat bicycle and leave a nice tire track, but no lasting damage.  I have felt the stark terror of waking up with DH’s hands wrapped around my neck in his sleep-induced attempt to thwart a bad guy. 

If necessary, I can accurately portray how mind-numbing physical fatigue is.  Seriously, after an eighteen-game volleyball tourney that spanned seven hours, I was so exhausted I left the gym with fewer brain cells than I had going in.  I was quarrelsome, defensive and unmotivated.  I had no problem blaming others for my mistakes.  And no, I’m not usually like that.

The flip side of that is the adrenaline rush of being the hunter and the hunted.  After one stint on the course with my youth group, I’m a paintball addict.  Just thinking about it is energizing.

As writers, we should never memoir-ize our novels.  Quite simply, our lives are not that interesting.  Our readers would yawn their way through the first few pages before chucking our books into the nearest burn barrel. 

Yet, well-place details, taken from our experiences, can make the difference between flat characters and ones we cry for at the end of a book.  They can turn mediocre scenes into compelling reads.  They make fiction feel real and allow us to fall whole-heartedly into the pages.

I have no problem picturing my MC running to catch her plane after driving around town to assuage her Pepsi fix–her one weakness in an otherwise highly regimented life.  Suddenly she is thrust into a life-changing situation.  Maybe it’s sitting next to Mr. Wrong instead of having a seat to herself in first-class.  Or maybe she missed the plane that crashed.  Or maybe an airport cashier read her aura, making her question her entire life and everything she’s ever believed in.

While the possibilities are endless, the details make it fly. 

For my readers: What makes a character feel real to you?

For my writers: How much of yourself do you put into your work?

~cat