Sunday, February 16, 2014

Obsessing About Details

        By W.S. Gager
Details. I’ve been thinking a lot about the details we choose to put in our novels and the details we leave out. How much is too much and how little do we need? I’ve described my own writing as minimalistic when it comes to setting details because I hate to read long passages of description. However, you do need enough to details to whet the readers’ imagination to create a picture for themselves.

Maybe my obsession with details is because I am conducting a writer’s workshop called “It’s in the details” with one of my critic partners at our local library on Feb. 27 and March 6. We are planning on who is doing what and what areas we can cover. Let’s just say I’m obsessing about details and analyzing what I do and why.
I also volunteered to do the part on active versus passive voice because I have found in my recent writing that I’m regressing into a lot of “was” language and figured if I could teach others how not to do it, I would drum it out of my writing. I’ve not found the perfect advice for that except a really good and painful edit.

There is no magic bullet or pill to take that will make me a great writer. What it takes is a lot of work, looking at every word and turning it around and making sure it is the best it can be. If I accomplish nothing more at the workshop than making the budding writers love words even more and the willingness to keep working on their writing, I will have achieved my goal. 

Will that work? I’m not so sure but all the obsession can’t hurt my writing. May your next writing session bring you descriptive words that set the stage for your characters to steal the show. That is all we can ask.

P.S. If anyone would like to share any helpful hints or exercises that they use, I would appreciate it. You can never have too much material.

W.S. Gager Bio
Award winning mystery author W.S. Gager has lived in Michigan for most of her life except when she was interviewing race car drivers or professional woman's golfers. She enjoyed the fast-paced life of a newspaper reporter until deciding to settle down and realized babies didn't adapt well to running down story details on deadline. Since then she honed her skills on other forms of writing before deciding to do what she always wanted with her life and that was to write mystery novels. Her main character is Mitch Malone who is an edgy crime-beat reporter always on the hunt for the next Pulitzer and won't let anyone stop him. Her third book, A CASE OF HOMETOWN BLUES, was a finalist in the 2012 Daphne Du Maurier Award for Excellence in Mystery/Suspense. A CASE OF VOLATILE DEEDS is the latest in the Mitch series.


Holli Castillo said...

Wendy, I am like you in that I hate to read long passages of description so I tend to write without them. I actually go back in and add description, especially setting descriptions. I also go back during editing and add in New Orleans things, since that seems to be what readers want and one of the things people complained was lacking in my first novel.

WS Gager said...

Thanks holli, I loved Gumbo Justice and felt it was filled with New Orleans flavor! Thanks for how you do descriptions. Wendy

Billie Johnson said...

Good topic, Wendy. If the details are bringing in new and/or interesting information, then I hang on every word. But if it is the same ol-same- ol, then I lose interest pretty fast. IMO, this is much more true for mystery readers than other genres.


WS Gager said...

Mystery does revolve around the details and lets not forget the red herrings, a great bit of detail!

Sharon Arthur Moore said...

I agree with Holli. My critique partners are always on me about needing more setting detail, so I add it in later. My advice to your workshop authors, have your critique group read for where there's too much detail/not enough. Then go back and fix it.

Thanks for a good post. Re red herrings--I have a post I'm working on re the red herring food and the mystery clues. Fun to see where the term came from.

Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith said...

Excellent post, Wendy. Getting rid of "was" when you can, but not always possible. But when it's was with a word ending in ing it's a cinch to make it more active as in was singing to sang.

Eileen Obser said...

Great post, Wendy. In my creative writing workshops, especially for memoir, I often quote William Zinsser (from On Writing Well, page 137): "One secret of the art (of memoir) is detail. Any kind of detail will work -- a sound or a smell or a song title -- as long as it played a shaping role in the portion of your life you have chosen to distill." Zinsser then gives examples; Eudora Welty, Alfred Kazin, Maxine Hong Kingston, etc. What he says applies to fiction writing too, of course. Thanks for making me take Zinsser off the shelf. He's one of my favorite teachers of the craft.

Patricia Gligor said...

I have a friend who loves to read novels by southern writers who write long, flowery descriptive passages. I don't.
In my opinion, writers walk a fine line between giving enough description so that the reader can visualize the scene and going overboard with way too many details.
Great post!

WS Gager said...

Sharon: I always add in the weather as the last bit. I try to tailor it the mood of the story.

Marilyn: Thanks for stopping by and the reminder about getting rid of "-ing" verbs.

Eileen: Thanks for the Zinser reminder. I will go back and catch up on some of his work.

Pat: Thanks for stopping by. I'm with you on the description!

Anne Schroeder said...

Great post. I write historical western and the details help to set the story, since the West is actually a main character in this genre. You asked for tips for your class--in my first writing class the instructor asked us to come up with as many words for a verb we could. I don't remember is it was "walk" or "said". Point is, I filled a sheet with alternatives and never forgot that somewhere out there is the PERFECT word for expressing the point.

WS Gager said...

Anne, I did ask for suggestions and yours is great! Thank you so much!

Pat Browning said...

Wendy, Great post, with lots to think about. Getting rid of "was" is easy, as Marilyn M. points out.

Thanks to Eileen's comment I'm looking up William Zinsser's book ON WRITING WELL.

Holli, I'm getting ready to read your book JAMBALAYA JUSTICE and I love your opening lines -- "Dead eyes.Ryan could think of no other way to describe them. Except maybe dead eyes staring back, if something dead could stare." That's the kind of telling detail that pulls me into a story.

On the other hand, I love the descriptions in cozy mysteries, the ones that set a scene, especially the weather, the moonlight, the fragrance of honeysuckle, and so on.

Lastly, two examples of description by a couple of masters.

From Raymond Chandler:"She gave me a smile I could feel in my left pocket."

From Mickey Spillane: "She crossed the room, her hips waving hello."

WS Gager said...

Pat: I love your examples of description from two of the masters. They create a picture with only a few words.

I loved Jambalaya Justice. I couldn't put it down. Holli does a great job building suspense and you just can't let it go.

Nice to hear from you!