Attention to Details

 

Attention to detail

Attention to detail matters.

“What’s wrong with a drawer full of jar lids?” I asked Roz Chast during the Q & A following her recent author talk before a capacity crowd.

I’d hesitated to ask the question because it was so unlike the questions about process and inspiration readers usually ask authors. But I’d loved her graphic memoir, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? – except for the one frame about the jar lids, which bothered me both personally and professionally.

You can read my personal reasons at Living In Place; the professional reason are about craft, and are what this post is about.

DETAILS

Attention to Detail

Chast’s graphic memoir about caring for her elderly parents.

Chast’s frame about the drawer full of jar lids struck me as off, not just because I have a drawer full of jar lids, but because Chast didn’t give me enough information about what made this bizarre.

All the other frames in the section – photographs rather than drawings – of the “stuff” she was left to clean out of the apartment in which her parents had lived for forty-eight years made sense: the photos show piles of magazines and papers, dozens of handbags and several defunct electric razors. It’s clear that the things we save – sometimes deliberately for reasons of potential usefulness or sentiment and sometimes from sheer neglect – take on a meaning of their own to she who has to sift through it. I know; I’ve just emptied my dad’s desk of pens that had run out of ink.

As a reader, I simply wanted more information about why Chast chose this particular detail, because it wasn’t clear to me the way it was clear why she chose to photograph her mother’s two-dozen nearly indistinguishable old handbags and electric razors that clearly no longer worked. So I asked.

“Rusty jar tops?” she said, her voice rising as she wrinkled her nose in disgust.

I got it.

And I got more.

Chast went on to tell a story about a man who’d saved the screw tops of toothpaste tubes. He’d always planned to use them as lampshades for his granddaughter’s dollhouse.

This is a detail I’ll never forget because Chast did more than simply answer my question: she told me another story. In the process, she illustrated the kind of details that help a reader get what the writer is trying to convey. She amplified the characterization of the narrator of her memoir’s persona with her intonation and nose wrinkle, “They’re rusty!” And she created an idiosyncratic grandfather who saw the potential for miniature lampshades in every toothpaste tube cap.

THE TAKE AWAY

A single vivid detail can make the difference between the mundane and the memorable. If you make your details accurate and vivid, you will help your reader will see objects and attitudes the way you want them to. That’s authority.

www.deborahleeluskin.com

Deborah Lee Luskin

Deborah Lee Luskin blogs weekly at Living in Place.

 

 

Reposting: B.S. (Be Specific)

No_Bullshit            B.S. is one of the abbreviations I pencil in the margin of prose I’m reviewing –my own or a client’s. It stands for Be Specific, though it evokes a different two-word expletive that means much the same thing.

The best way to be specific is to know what you want to say – and sometimes that takes several meandering drafts. Once you’ve figured out what you want to accomplish in a scene or a post, a chapter, a story or a report, you can guide your reader to understand you clearly with specific language – with words.

Words can be general, like the word food – the fuel that sustains life. A general word fails to give your reader much guidance, leaving her to imagine grapes when you imagined roast beef.

Words that are more specific are limited in scope, like the word snack – which is a small amount of food between meals. This narrows what your reader can imagine, though one reader might think carrot sticks and another chocolate chip cookies with milk.

Words that are concrete are even more specific, and tell your reader exactly what to imagine. Make the snack chips, and you’ve given your reader the kind of narrow direction that allows him to see just what you intended.

Of course, words don’t exist by themselves, and the more specific you can make them all, the clearer your reader will see. Here are two different examples.

George held the bag between his knees, pushing a steady stream of chips in his mouth as he sat in traffic.

            Jeremy set out blue corn chips in a yellow bowl to brighten the November afternoon.

Here are some other examples of general, specific and concrete words:

  • Clothes, business casual, khakis
  • Writing, poetry, sonnet
  • Birds, raptors, eagle

You get the idea.

Adjectives are another opportunity to Be Specific. Here’s an example from My Writing Bible, The Harbrace College Handbook:

  • Bad planks: rotten, warped, scorched, knotty, termite-eaten
  • Bad children: rowdy, rude, ungrateful, selfish, perverse
  • Bad meat: tough, tainted, overcooked, contaminated

Every time we use a general adjective, we miss an opportunity to guide our readers closer to what we mean. English is a rich language, so there’s no excuse for using small when you could say so much more with tiny, microscopic, sub-atomic, undeveloped; or big when you could say plump, hulking, towering, Herculean.

A thesaurus is a dictionary of synonyms, and it’s a good place to find words. I find mine in The Original Roget’s Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases, originally published in 1852 and revised many times since. I love poking around in it, and find it much more complete and satisfying to use than the thesaurus in my word-processor.

It is a writer’s job to direct readers to reimagine for themselves what you mean. Since readers bring their own, varying, experiences and prejudices to your work, you must give specific instructions that narrow how your work can be understood. You must be authoritarian. And one of the best methods is to cut the BS and Be Specific with your words.

While I’m away, I’m rerunning some posts with writing advice worth repeating. This post originally appeared here on December 3, 2013.

When I’m not traveling, I live a rural and rooted life in Vermont, which I chronicle in my weekly blog, Living in Place. Look for replies to your comments in mid-July.

Please visit my website to learn more about my mission: advancing issues through narrative; telling stories to create change. Thanks!

Reposting: Six Writing Lessons From The Garden

veg garden I love to garden. It’s a meditative activity – something I can do while my mind freewheels. Last Sunday, I found myself thinking how preparing a small vegetable patch is like writing a book.
Lesson 1: Writing is Solitary.Scarecrow

For the first time in thirty years, I’m planting the garden solo. My husband helped me install the fence posts (just as he built the studio where I write), but he prefers to nurture the orchard. I’m on my own, just as I write by myself during the week while he’s off tending to his patients’ health.

Lesson 2: Selectivity is Good.

There was a time when we grew and preserved all our food – but no longer. We’re now supplied with locally grown produce from a neighbor’s organic farm, so I’m only planting high-value items that are harder to find in local markets – shallots and leeks, fennel, veg garden2escarole and Brussels sprouts – as well as items we consume in quantity – cucumbers and cherry tomatoes, hot peppers and a wide assortment of culinary herbs.

I’m leaving the prosaic vegetables – the zucchini and green beans, the carrots and potatoes – to the production professionals. In a similar way, I’ve retired from the teaching, managerial and editorial jobs that others can do as well as or even better than I can. No one else can tell the stories I imagine, so I’m concentrating on them.

Lesson 3: Limits are Helpful.

GardenPrep050513I started by limiting the scope of my garden. I’ve fenced off an eight- by sixteen-foot rectangle to keep the free-range chickens out, and to keep my intentions focused – and manageable. Our previous gardens were huge, time-sucking affairs, and sometimes we raised an equal quantity of weeds as tomatoes. Similarly, over the past year, I’ve drafted thousands of words about my character’s life. But recently, I’ve come to realize that the story I’m telling takes place over the course of nineteen months. So that’s what I’ll develop; everything else must come out, just like the weeds.

Lesson 4: Writing Takes Time.

At the outset, a hundred and twenty-eight square feet looks just as big as a 100,000-word novel, and turning it over with a hand fork appears as daunting as filling a ream of paper by pen. My husband offered to do this heavy task for me; he sundialwould have had the garden-plot ready in less than an hour. I thanked him and said I would do it myself. It took me three hours, during which time I meditated on how preparing the garden is like writing a novel. I stopped only for water and to take pictures for this post, which I was composing as I dug.

Lesson 5: Small Tasks Yield Success.

gardenprep10A week earlier, I’d covered my plot with a tarp to warm the earth and kill weeds. The weeds continued to flourish, however, and the prospect of turning the soil by hand and pulling the weeds out by the root was too much. So I put the tarp back in place and

Working a small section at a time.

Working a small section at a time.

uncovered only a quarter of the space. After I turned those thirty-two square feet, I peeled the tarp back again, turning and weeding the next section. Now, the job was half done. I folded the tarp back again and again, always giving myself a small, measurable task that I could reasonably accomplish. Writing a book is just the same: I break each chapter into sections, and each section into paragraphs, each paragraph into sentences, each sentence into words. Each time I stuck the fork into the soil, it was a reminder that books are written one word at a time.

Lesson 6: The End is the Beginning

By the time I had raked the soil into beds and outlined the footpath with string, my neck was sunburned, my back was sore, and I was ready for a bath. I was done – for the day. I now had a well-defined garden plot with clearly outlined beds as weed-free as a clean piece of paper. Even though I was done-in, I’m anything but done. In fact, I’m just ready to start.

GardenPrep8Ellen, the novel I’m crafting, is further along than my garden. But the garden is a good reminder about how to maintain forward progress on this first draft. My afternoon preparing my garden yielded these six truths: 1) Even though I work alone, I’m deeply engaged with my characters; 2) every time I cut out a scene or a character or an unnecessary word, I gain a clearer sense of what aspect of the story to nurture; 3) knowing the limit of the narrative has helped me focus on the story I have to tell; 4) drafting the novel is taking a long time – and I make progress daily; 5) I experience the elation of success when I set myself small, measurable tasks; and 6) every time I finish a section, a chapter, an entire draft, I’m ready to begin another section, another chapter, another draft.  And even when that’s done – even when the writing and revision are finished – there’s another whole set of steps to see a book to completion, but those are chores of another season.

This growing season has just started. I tell myself, if I write word by word, weed by weed, my effort will blossom, and in time, I’ll see my book in my readers’ hands.

Meanwhile, I have a lovely garden bed ready for seeds.

I garden and write about my rural, rooted life in Vermont at Living in Place.

This essay originally posted in May 5, 2013. I’ve scheduled more reruns while I’m on summer vacation. Look for replies to your comments in mid-July.

The Forest for the Trees

fall-trees-skyWith New England’s hills ablaze in their autumn foliage, it’s impossible not to see the forest for the trees. But the forest is made up of individual trees, each of which turns a characteristic color this time of year.

Generally, it’s the maples that turn scarlet and the poplars and birch that go yellow and gold. Sumac turns purple, and hobblebush burgundy. For the most part, oak stay green before rusting to brown, and they hang on to the branches long after the leaves of other trees fall.

I’ve always loved the autumnal forest, but lately, I’ve become interested in individual trees. I’m learning how to read the New England landscape in order to know it better, and to be able to hunt the white tailed deer. This weekend, I finally learned how to differentiate four types of maples by examining their leaves.

sugar-maple

sugar maple

The sugar maple has smooth-edges between its five points, which looks to me like an open palm, like a sign of peace.

 

 

 

red maple

red maple

The red maple has saw-toothed edges on three major points, like a fleur-de-lys.

 

 

silver maple

silver maple

The silver maple leaves are long, narrow and jagged, like a skeletal hand.

 

 

 

striped maple

striped maple

And the leaf of the striped maple reminds me of a medieval shield, bold and protective. It on this tree that white tailed buck rub with their antlers to mark territory and to let the does know they’re around and interested.

 

 

I once had a professor who said, “Truth lies in minute particulars.” Learning to differentiate leaves requires observing the minute particulars. It’s in the details that we see difference, in details that a story becomes vivid.

Without details, we might only see the forest, and not the trees.

Over the chin of Mount Mansfield - Vermont's highest peak

Over the chin of Mount Mansfield – Vermont’s highest peak

Deborah Lee Luskin divides her time between her desk, the outdoors, and http://www.deborahleeluskin.com

Friday Fun – Least Favorite Writing Rule

Friday Fun is a group post from the writers of the NHWN blog. Each week, we’ll pose and answer a different, get-to-know-us question. We hope you’ll join in by providing your answer in the comments.

QUESTION: There are so many rules about writing, some more useful than others, some more universal than others. What’s your least favorite writing rule – the one that you think should be broken?

JME5670V2smCROPJamie Wallace: As a lover of all kinds of speculative fiction, I am not a fan of the oft-quoted writing rule to “write what you know.” I love reading stories that create previously unknown worlds filled with unique characters, landscapes, cultures, and possibilities. And, as a writer, I love the creative challenges of coming up with entire new worlds or realities.

I recently read a post (I wish I could remember where, but the details have slipped away from me) in which the author pointed out that even when we are writing about fantastical characters, settings, and plots, we are still – in a way – writing what we know by incorporating universal themes and emotions. So, basically, even when we’re writing about a story that takes place in a galaxy far, far away or a land from long ago filled with dragons and faeries, we are still writing about the experiences we know – the longings, heartbreaks, challenges, triumphs, joys, fears, and everything else that’s part of being human. Bringing in those elements that we “know” is what makes the really great speculative fiction seem as real and alive and true as our own lives.

Diane MacKinnon, MD, Master Certified Life CoachDiane MacKinnon:  “You have to know the rules before you can break the rules;” that’s the one that’s stopped me in my tracks many times over the years. I didn’t major in English in college, I don’t write for  a living, so I must not know the rules of writing well enough yet. I need to read about writing more before I can write, I need to take a class, or listen to a podcast, or something else that’s not actually writing. In the last few years I’ve ignored this rule more and I’ve gotten more writing done. I don’t need to study writing–I need to write! So I do. Later, as needed, I can look things up, show my work to my critique group, and/or hire an editor. For now, getting it down is what’s most important to me.

Deborah headshotI live by what W. Somerset Maugham observed: There are only three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.  I’ve found that these three rules are different for each novel.

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Lisa_2015Lisa J. Jackson: I like Deborah’s response. I’ve seen that saying in memes on Facebook quite often. Two writing rules jump to mind when I read this question – the first is to avoid starting a sentence with a conjunction. But I find it to be the rule I break the most. The other is to avoid ending a sentence with a preposition. Sometimes it’s fun to break the rules we speak of.

Recycle, Reuse, Reduce

It is possible to recycle ideas, reuse stories and research and reduce effort.

It is possible to recycle ideas, reuse stories and research and reduce effort.

You’ve all heard the mantra, “Recycle, Reuse, Reduce” in terms of paper, plastic bags and trash. The mantra also applies to writing. It is possible to recycle ideas, reuse stories and research and reduce effort.

Recycle.

Sometimes, it’s possible to mine one piece of work for another. Recently, I wrote a post about the application of the word “elderly” to Bernie Sanders for my blog about being middle aged. These posts also appear in the Rutland Herald (both in print and on-line) as well as on my website, my Facebook page, LinkedIn, and Twitter.

You can recycle your work for different audiences. photo: Deborah Lee Luskin

You can recycle your work for different audiences. photo: Deborah Lee Luskin

I then reworked the piece for broadcast. While still focused on the definition of elderly, I slanted the piece more towards Vermont, where Bernie Sanders is junior to thirteen other, current US Senate. He’s even the junior senator from Vermont; Sanders is two years younger than Patrick Leahy.

The piece was broadcast on April twenty-first, and is archived in both audio and text formats on the Vermont Public Radio website.

Reuse.

It’s possible to reuse your research and ideas for different formats and different audiences, as long as you’ve retained rights to your work. This is crucial, especially when you’re being paid, as I am.

I’ve been able to reuse research I’ve done for novels to write essays and give lectures. This has been a great way to recoup some of my investment and generate interest in a novel that has not yet sold.

I have also mined this novel and its outtakes for short stories, which have won prizes and publication. Plucking a chapter out of a novel, or condensing a storyline from a larger work into something shorter to suit a particular call for submissions, is a terrific way to reuse your own material. Often, the exercise of condensing a story helps me see how to tighten the original work and make it better.

A magazine article I wrote was then anthologized in a book.

A magazine article I wrote was then anthologized in a book.

Another way to reuse your work is in anthologies. Sometimes, editors of anthologies put out calls for stories on a certain topic and invite writers to submit previously published work for consideration. Other times, editors read something you’ve published and ask permission to include it in an anthology they’re putting together. I’ve had work republished by both these methods. A cover story I once wrote for a magazine was anthologized in a book and also reprinted in a newspaper. Three credits and two paychecks for one piece of work.

Reduce.

Maximize your time, output and income by reducing your effort. This is especially true in regard to research, where you inevitably learn more than you can use for the initial project. When this happens, you can find another way to use the material in a piece with a different slant. No knowledge ever goes to waste.

Compost.

Ideas and drafts can yield rich fertilizer for new work, just as composted vegetable scraps yield rich soil. (pixabay)

Ideas and drafts can yield rich fertilizer for new work, just as composted vegetable scraps yield rich soil. (pixabay)

To Recycle, Reuse and Reduce, I’d add Compost. Just as your compost pile you can turn your vegetable scraps into valuable, rich, soil, so you can turn your outtakes, incomplete drafts, and half-baked ideas into finished prose – with time. I keep running lists of ideas and file drawers of stories I’ve started and abandoned – until the idea turns over in my mind, and I’m ready to take another look, give it another try. Truly, these pieces may not ever be successful stories on their own, but they can and do often fertilize a new idea and help it grow to publication.

While I always welcome your comments and usually reply right away, I’m writing this post in advance of being away and off-line. Look for my replies when I return to my desk in mid-May.

Deborah Lee Luskin, M. Shafer, Photo

Deborah Lee Luskin,
M. Shafer, Photo

Deborah Lee Luskin has won awards for her fiction and editorial columns. You can subscribe to her weekly blog at Living in Place.

Friday Fun – Creating Emphasis in Your Writing

Friday Fun is a group post from the writers of the NHWN blog. Each week, we’ll pose and answer a different, get-to-know-us question. We hope you’ll join in by providing your answer in the comments.

QUESTION: We recently asked you what questions you’d like answered in our Friday Fun post. Today, we’re answering the following reader question:

FriFunQuestion8

JME5670V2smCROPJamie Wallace: Hello, Faye. There are probably dozens of ways to emphasize a particular statement or detail in your writing, and which ones work for you will be a matter of personal style as well as what makes sense in the context of your work. I’m a fan of white space and short, punchy sentences. I like setting important bits off visually by literally putting space around them. For instance, I might give a five-word sentence its own paragraph, leaving blank space above and below it. I also like paring my sentences down to the fewest possible words so that there’s nothing left to cloud my meaning. Simple is often better when you’re trying to make a point, so keeping it short and sweet is a good bet.

You can also use cinematic writing to draw the reader in so that they are able to understand exactly why you are so vehement about a particular point. In your example above, you mentioned that you detest cruelty to animals. Instead of just saying that, describe a scene of cruelty and use all the descriptive powers at your disposal to make the reader see the horror and by seeing it not only understand your passion, but come to adopt it for themselves.

Deborah Lee Luskin, M. Shafer, Photo

Deborah Lee Luskin,
M. Shafer, Photo

Deborah Lee Luskin: This question goes directly to the heart of style, and each writer develops her own, so there is no “right” answer per se, just the best choices that suit the circumstances layered with your voice and personal preference.

Grammatically, “and” is one of seven coordinating conjunctions, used to link equal parts. It’s been said that “and” is one of the hardest words to use effectively. When joining two independent clauses or complicated items in a series, it can be replaced with a semi-colon; or, as Jamie suggests above, when used between two independent clauses, it can be eliminated with a period.

And white space, for emphasis.

As you can imagine, there are whole books about writing effective sentences. Coordinating conjunctions are just one tool; punctuation is another, and word order is a third – of many. You might look at The Harbrace College Handbook or similar manual of style for insights. There are also writers whose prose style can take your breath away, and there’s nothing like reading great prose to learn effective methods. A great example of tremendous writing is The Really Big One by Kathryn Schulz, for which she just won a Pulitzer.

Good luck!

Lisa_2015Lisa J. Jackson: I think Jamie and Deborah have great comments. All I can add is, I recently saw a statement  that said that when you use ‘but’ in a sentence, it negates everything that came before it.

So, “I like you, but you make me crazy.” is contradictory and it’s difficult to ascertain which part of the statement is true.

In your example, I’d keep the statements separate (maybe even different paragraphs as they are opposites) so that neither loses its importance.

Diane MacKinnon, MD, Master Certified Life CoachDiane MacKinnon: Hi Faye! I agree with all of the above advice. The only thing I can add is an element of style I’ve taken from the world of public speaking: Always put the most important part of the sentence at the end. I think, for your purposes, you could end with …”and I detest cruelty to animals.” Keep it clear and declarative. And use lots of white space, as already mentioned. Good luck!