Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Reaching for Details in Fiction

When I think, I think in broad, sweeping strokes, always attempting to see the whole essence of a thing at a glance.  To me, details are small, brightly-colored specks of dust that will float in one side of my brain and out the other unless I can fit them into a larger framework.  In my mind, details have their proper place, but its not first place.

However, the problem with this method when it comes to writing fiction is that I can have the overarching plot and purpose of a story in mind, but because those larger concepts have nothing tied to them, the story feels like it lacks substance.  Good stories and good prose are rich in detail.  Without them, whatever the author is trying to say floats above our heads like a lofty cloud which we can see but cannot touch.  So then, when big-picture people like me write, we have to reach through the fog of what we’re trying to say in order to grasp the details hidden within it. 

So, the question becomes, how do we reach for details? 

Here are a few tricks that can apply to almost everything:

1. What Things?

While we are still alive, we experience everything big and intangible through things that are small and tangible.  We experience love through warm hugs, uplifting words, and unexpected gifts.  We experience rejection through unanswered phone calls, condescending laughs, and refusal to make eye contact.  Other people can tell you are angry by your raised voice, frowning brow, and harsh words.  Other people can tell you love to read by the frequent stops at the library and the paperback that’s always in your purse. 

We see the big things in life by looking at the small things.  So what things?  Find the specifics that tell a larger story. 

2. Color

Everything that can be experienced with the eyes has some kind of color.  Even if the color of something isn’t that important, you still want to give people an impression of whether something was light-colored or dark-colored.  The story may not be about what things look like, but humans are primarily visually-oriented, so we must give our readers’ human brains something to work with.  And color is huge. 

For example, I believe it is very important to state a character’s hair color right away – especially if the character is female, since female characters tend to have more hair.  This is because hair color has a dramatic effect on the way the character looks, even if they’re portrayed in a black-and-white movie.  I’ve discovered the hard way that it’s very difficult for me to reimagine a character as being blonde if I’ve already imagined them as being brunette.  It’s not really about the color as much as its about whether the hair is light or dark.

The light/dark dynamic holds true for what kind of day it is (sunny or cloudy), what kind of clothes a character is wearing, what the inside of a building is like, how a landscape looks, and many other things.  If you’re in a hurry, you don’t have to include much more detail than that – but at least give your reader somewhere to start in imagining the scene. 

3. Shape / Size

Short or tall?  Large or small?  Wide or narrow?  Curved or straight?  Flat or three-dimensional?  Cubic or spherical?  Yes, these are basic things that sound like they came straight out of the grade-school lesson where you first learned about adjectives, but basics remain basic because they are foundational, and give a lot of information in a little space. 

4. What tells the most?

Find the extra things that say the most about an object, place, or person.  Is the baseball smudged with dirt?  Is the coat of paint fresh and flawless?  Is the pine forest scraggly?  Does the mansion have a large picture window that looks out over the valley?  Is the man’s hair ruffled the wrong way because he’s been running his hands through it in frustration? 

Reaching for a poignant detail takes practice – and it helps to practice by starting with other details.

Putting it Together

I believe you can start practicing hunting for details before you actually try to write something.  The act of pushing through the vague ideas to something definite will help strengthen the part of your brain that gives you the words to write. 

So, let’s do an exercise, putting these four detail-finders into action. 

I’ll start with an assertion – I am a writer

Really?  How would someone know that?  What things say this is so?

I always have a notebook and some pens in my bag that I take everywhere

OK, notebook, pens.  Two good details, but that’s only the surface.  What kind of notebook?  What kind of pens?  Do they have colors? 

A green notebook, a blue pen, a purple pen, a black pen, and a pencil

That’s a little better, but we still don’t know what kind of things these are.

A bright-green 5-subject notebook, blue and purple ballpoint pens, a black liquid-ink pen, and a mechanical pencil.

Now we’re getting somewhere.  A few more clarifying details will demonstrate what exactly are my relationships with these items. 

A large, worn 5-subject notebook with a swirling vine doodled on the cover in faded sharpie, accompanied by two smooth-writing, click-top ballpoint pens in blue and purple, a fine-tipped, black liquid-ink pen, and a deluxe mechanical pencil with a twistable eraser on top.

Now we know just about everything about what writing materials I use when I’m on the go.  We’ve described my notebook and my pens exactly as one would first experience them.  However, we’ve spent more time talking about the pens, and less time talking about the most interesting part, the notebook.  Since the notebook is more likely to say more about who I am, we can trim down the description of the pens, and then we’ll have space to say what the inside of the notebook is like.

A large, worn 5-subject notebook with a swirling vine doodled on the cover in faded sharpie – filled with pages of writing interspersed with the same swirl designs.  One section is mostly made up of freeverse poetry, and in the back a page covered in anime faces can be right next to a page with a much more realistic sketch of an actor from a geeky TV show

Now we’ve taken a step beyond knowing what materials I use to write, to knowing a lot more about ME and what I’m like.  (Being the private person I am, I’ll stop feeding you details at this point, if you don’t mind.)

As you’re practicing the art of coming up with details, start with details from your own life.  Dig into the objects you care about the most and find out what about them says the most about you.  When you see how detailed your own life is, you can begin to give your characters and their lives a similar amount of detail.

Here is an exercise to help stretch the detail-muscle, whenever you feel it begin to atrophy:

List of Things

Make a list of things (including places and people).  They don’t have to be related to each other – in fact, it’s better if they are not.  They just have to be definite, concrete things that you can experience with at least one of your five senses – and it’s much more fun if you pick things you like.

There are a couple catches, though:

1. They cannot be objects/people that are in the same room you are in (and it certainly can’t be the same place).
2. If you do list an object/person/place that you are familiar with, change it in some significant way.
3. You must use more than one word to describe each object/person/place.  Say exactly what kind of something it is. 

With #1, say you are sitting in your kitchen writing, and you have with you a small mug of green tea with blue flowers on it.  You can still list ‘mug of tea,’ on your list, but it cannot be the same mug of tea.  It must be a big, brown mug of tea with a white polka-dot design on it, and the tea must be Earl Grey.  You see what I mean?  You must use your imagination.  Make something up.  Once you’ve made it up, take a moment to visualize what it would be like, sitting here writing with a completely different mug full of completely different tea. 

Try to make the items on your list very different from one another.  Now that you’ve written down a mug of tea, try thinking of a place.  How about a garden?  Yes, but what kind of garden?  Not the little vegetable garden with tomatoes and cucumbers you plant in your back yard every year.  Perhaps a flower garden – a rose garden, specifically, filled with roses of the most delicate shade of pink.  And this garden isn’t a small garden – it’s a big garden, with fountains and little stone benches to sit on.  A royal garden. 

Now let’s try a person – a pastor, perhaps.  My pastor is short, white-haired, and clean-shaven, so let’s instead imagine a young pastor, tall and lanky, with close-cut blond curls and some feeble attempts at a goatee.  (This would probably be a youth pastor, not a senior pastor – but what if he was the senior pastor?  What kind of church would he be pastor of?) 

Keep making the list.  Don’t stop until the page is full.  Some of the things you come up with may bore you, but keep going.  Don’t be afraid to make things wild and extravagant, if you have to.  But be specific.  Mention things that will raise questions.  Why does the plumber read so many books on World War I?  Who on earth decided the mansion should be painted that shade of purple?  Is there a reason the trees on the ridge are sickly? 

Reach.  Reach a little farther than you ‘have to.’  You can always take out details later, and it’s a beautiful thing to have a wealth of specifics to choose from.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

What About The Children?

There are times when you come across a thought which may not strike you with realization in the moment, but which rolls around in your mind for years and then, one day, emerges from the midst of your musings and bears fruit.  

So I must say that everything that follows is indebted to Madeleine L'Engle and her observations from her book Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art, which I read a couple years ago.  I didn't agree with everything in the book, but there were several thoughts in it that were helpful, and the one I found most helpful was this:

In one of the chapters, Mrs. L'Engle relates a story in which her husband, an actor, was trying to decide whether or not to accept a role in a certain play.  The play was edgy enough to make them uncomfortable, but it paid well and they desperately needed the money.  As they wrestled with the decision, eventually her husband came up with the question, "Would I want the children to see me in this?"  After asking that question, he realized he would never want the children to see him in that role, so he turned it down.  

Mrs. L'Engle goes on to say that the question stuck in her mind ever after, whenever she was trying to make a difficult decision about what was and was not acceptable in art -- "What would I want the children to see?"    She says that children can understand a lot more than we give them credit for, and can understand many of the difficult issues of life if we take the time to explain them.  But there are things that children shouldn't see, things that will hurt them instead of helping them.  When we make art, we may make things that are beyond a child's ability to comprehend fully, or that will require a bit of thought before a revelation materializes, but we should never make something that will hurt them.  

This thought originally fell into the "Oh, That's Nice" category in my mind.  I didn't realize at the time that if we are looking at it right, it really is an illuminating standard.  Frequently when I have looked at an aspect of the culture – or American Christianity, for that matter – that I felt had something wrong with it that I couldn't quite pinpoint, an application of the simple question, "What about the children?", suddenly made everything clearer.  

What about the children?  

We've forgotten about them, haven't we?  

Our culture remembers to deal carefully with many things – it has to, living in this lightning-quick era where anyone can get offended at the drop of a hat.  But in the midst of overthinking so many trivial issues, it's managed to forget a number of the most important things.  Children are one of them.  

We've not just forgotten about our specific children, living their growing-up lives and turning into adults whether we're watching or not.  We've forgotten about children as a concept.  I would argue that most of the time, we don't even remember what they are.  We put everyone under the age of 12 or so into a box labeled 'Child.'  Around age 13 they are scooped out of that box and dumped into the 'Teenager' box, where they stay until they are shipped off to live in the 'College' box, and finally once they return from this box they will have the education necessary to settle into the 'Adult' box.  The problem with this system is that once we have everyone properly organized, we tend to start dealing almost exclusively with the boxes, and not with the people in them.  It enables us to forget the most obvious and ordinary thing in the world: that every adult was once a child, and every child is an adult in the making.  The two are inseparable, because they are the same being in different forms.  The thoughts we give the child to chew on will be the thoughts the adult will rely on.  A child's mind starts small and grows to adulthood by eating whatever it can find – the adult mind will form, by itself, constructed out of whatever thought-materials happen to be nearby.  

This means that, contrary to popular yet unspoken belief, children have a great capacity to begin to understand the most important things in life from a very early age.  Because the minds are young and small and not yet fully-formed, the knowledge about life and death and other things doesn't come front-first or logically, but it still comes.  Children observe and absorb and can reach startlingly profound conclusions because they are paying attention, even if the adults around them are not.  This is why adults must pay attention from the beginning, because by the time the children are ready to be moved to the 'Teenager' box and modern society tells us that now at last we can give them real things, it may be too late.  The children have already learned an alarming number of real things, whether right or wrong, and those thoughts will bear fruit for years and years to come.  By giving them little more than 'age-appropriate' fluff until we deem them 'ready,' we are harming them and robbing them of the foundation-forming thoughts their young minds need.  

Is it not, in a way, insidious to save our more complicated themes in literature, TV, movies, and the like for works that are only appropriate for older age groups, when they are desperately needed to begin molding the thought life of the younger generation?  

My thoughts on this topic are still growing, but the more I look, the more I see that the most-forgotten people group in our culture may very well be our own children.  And considering that we were once children, and our children will someday be us, that means we are hurting ourselves.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Artists vs. Non-Artists

I consider myself an artist.  But whenever I start to talk about ‘artists’ apart from the I-mess-with-paint definition, people start to get uncomfortable.  The term ‘artist’ in this culture carries with it a picture of elitism and snobbishness.  This is because most artists tend to be elitists and snobs, and take great pleasure in corrupting the next generation of artists with the same we-are-special beliefs.  But I believe the artists have done a great disservice to their own name.  The word ‘artist’ used in the abstract is a useful term, and I for one would like to be able to use it without sounding condescending. 

So, for the record, here is my view of artists and their place in the human race.

Artists are not better than other people.  In fact, they are frequently much worse, since by adopting the vaunted label of ‘artist’ many artistically-inclined people feel they now have permission to let all their vices run wild – particularly pride, which is the most odious of all the vices. 

Artists do have a special understanding of beauty and creativity.  But while that may be our blessing, we are constantly dogged by our curses.  We have great gifts, but we also have such great weaknesses. 

And isn’t that the story of everyone? 

No one has yet mastered the trick of being a complete and perfect human being.  When we are born there is written on our souls somewhere a list of all the things we could be and do, all the ways in which we can be human, all the fascinatingly beautiful things that make life worth living.  But as we grow, we grow lopsided.  I think that’s part of the curse – some things that others find hard will come to us naturally, and some things that to others are easy will, inevitably, be painfully difficult for us.  We can pour ourselves into one thing or many things, but there will never be enough time, energy, and talent for us to grow strong in everything.  

However, that means we all have things we can teach each other.  Yes, we have our great leaders, great scientists and explorers, great organizers, great teachers, great husbands and wives and parents, great healers, great counselors, great artists* – people who have pursued their gifts to the fullest.  But regardless of our gifts, each of us should try, in our own ways, to learn to explore, to teach, to organize, to counsel, to heal, to lead, to create.  When we stretch ourselves in the things that don’t come naturally, we discover more ways to live.  In a sense, we become more human.

An artist, then, is one who teaches beauty and creativity, because that is his gift and that is what he has to give.  A wise artist must guard the truth that creativity is for everyone, that no one has a monopoly on beauty, that these things are a part of being human that should not be fenced off by elitism.  And an artist must remain humble before those who have strengths where he has weaknesses -- which is everyone, really -- and always be willing to learn more about the mystery of living. 

*I mean these outside the strict occupational definitions of the words.  

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

2013: Resolution Showcase

I'm having trouble cutting my list of resolutions down to 13.  (You know, 13 for 2013?  Well, yes, maybe a little cheesy...)

So, instead of fighting with it, I'm just going to showcase the resolutions that I'm most excited about!

1. Write 50 blog posts.  Blogging more is forever on my list of things I would love to do if I had more time and motivation.  No surprise there, right?  However, this year I decided to add a number to it.  50 posts a year averages out to about one post a week, which is very doable...and it's a small enough goal that if I get to the end of October and find I haven't posted all year, I can probably still make it.

2. Keep a reading journal.  In 2011, I read 53 books.  In 2012, I read 25 books.  Now, the reason for the drastic difference in the number of books read between the two years, besides the fact that 2012 ended up being one of the most eventful years of my life, was that I was dismayed at how much I failed to retain from the books I read in 2011.  As I look through the list of those 53 books, I found an alarming number that I feel I need to reread, simply because I remember that they were good and not much else.  Yesterday, though, one of my dear friends suggested I start a reading journal.  She said that if you respond to what you're reading, either in the margins of the book or in another notebook, you retain so much more.  I need this -- not so much for the fiction I read, but definitely for the nonfiction.

And along those same lines...

3. Form a reading habit.  I've noticed there seem to be two types of readers: those like me who read randomly, whenever they feel like it, and those who read consistently at a certain time of day (typically every night before bed).  I've noticed over the years that readers like me don't seem to read as much as they transition into adulthood, while the consistent readers continue to consume books regularly and don't seem to be hindered as much by an adult schedule.  I want reading to be a life-long habit, so I'll see if I can adopt the every-night-before-bed method.

4. Draw a little something every day.  This Christmas, most of my gifts to relatives were handmade bookmarks.  I had originally intended to do mini collages out of magazine clippings, but in the end I drew all the pictures I used.  And I discovered, much to my surprise, that I can draw much better than I think I can -- all I need to do is try.  Before Christmas, I would never have thought I could draw an elephant or a cocker spaniel.  But now I know better, and I believe I need to spend some serious time growing this skill.  Even if it's nothing more than a random doodle, I need to put pen to paper every day and keep the artist awake.

5. Journal consistently.  Much like #1 and #2, only more private and more me and much more random.

6. Write 10,000 words every month (for a total of roughly 120,000 words at the end of the year).  Not quite sure about this one yet.  It sounds pretty ambitious.  But at the same time, I NEED to write more, and 350 words per day really isn't bad.  These words don't have to all be fiction, either.  I want to write more about art, cultural and moral issues, personal reflections, and other things.

I am really excited for the chance to pursue all these things this year.  And the best news is, I can start now!  So, I'm off to read and journal and write and draw (maybe all at once).