Revisionist

You bet I’ve got revision on the brain. There are books and websites a-plenty that will tell you how to go about revising your novel, memoir, essay, or whatever, but here’s what I’m doing. I can’t tell you what to do, but maybe this will give you some ideas.

Scribbles on the printout

Scribbles on the printout

In my writing time each morning I’m reading through draft #2 of the novel in progress, making notes on the printout and also preparing a longhand synopsis. In the synopsis, I go chapter by chapter, describing what happens in each scene in black cherry ink (a rather disappointing color, by the way: I was hoping for something that was more cherry and less black), then in red I scribble whatever occurs to me about where something might lead, what it reminds me of, or whether it might be better off somewhere else.

After a couple of hours of this, Travvy — on whom Wolfie, the title character of this novel, is based — and I go for a long walk. While I walk, scenes and fragments are usually churning, swirling, composting in my head. Sometimes an idea or insight will swoop in out of nowhere — or maybe they’ve been there all along waiting for an opportunity to pounce.

Synopsis in progress, with commentary

Synopsis in progress, with commentary

Re-vision: To see again, to see with new eyes, to see new possibilities.

A few months ago I blogged “Simplify: A Key to Revision.” My later drafts are mostly about simplifying — pruning whatever doesn’t enhance the story in some way. I’ll be doing some of that in draft #3, but at this point “the story” is still expanding and deepening so it’s often not clear what’s essential and what’s extraneous. Some of the latter bits turn out to be hidden doorways or the glinting of sunlight off something that needs exploring.

At this point Wolfie is still evolving. It’s a will o’ the wisp, out of reach but still reachable. Revision brings me closer to it.

My response to anyone who asks what Wolfie is about has been “It’s about a girl and a dog who need rescuing and how they rescue each other.” The very first scene I wrote brings together Glory (the girl), Wolfie (the dog), and Shannon (the rescuer). That scene, currently chapter 3, has changed very little since I wrote it, and it’s not likely to change in draft #3.

In the course of draft #2, however, Glory, a smart, artistically gifted sixth-grader who loves dogs and hates her stepfather, has become more guarded, more calculating. Felicia, her mother, has evolved from a two-dimensional figure whom I didn’t much like into a more complex and much more interesting character who may hold the key to the whole book. Shannon, who as an advocate for women and children in crisis is an old hand at rescuing, is contacted by the one person she couldn’t rescue: her younger sister, long-estranged refugee from the same violent, alcoholic family, now sober and wanting to make contact.

Rereading the early chapters of draft #2, I’m surprised to see that much prep work and foreshadowing for these themes is already there. It just took me a while to figure out where it was going.

I still don’t know how the novel ends, by the way. Draft #1 didn’t tell me, and draft #2 hasn’t either. Each draft has come closer, though, so maybe by the time I get close to the end of draft #3 I’ll know.

How will I know? That’s the question. I’m always saying “Your writing will teach you what you need to know,” which can sound terribly glib when your writing is staring you in the face and not saying anything. Mine does that too. Sometimes you just need to walk away and ignore it for a while.

Other times — well, learning to listen to your writing is part of the process too. Since I’m an editor as well as a writer, it probably won’t surprise anybody that I like revising more than first-drafting. First-drafting is like breaking trail. Revising is working with something that’s already there — and that’s what I do for a living. I’ve come to expect each new manuscript, be it academic paper or memoir or novel, to tell me what it needs, and it nearly always does. Same goes for my own stuff.

Reviewing other people’s books can be useful too: It focuses your attention on the big picture and how the pieces fit together. Trouble is, really good books often seem inevitable, and you don’t see any of the drafts that got them to that point. With works in progress or less accomplished works, it’s easier to see the gaps and the missed opportunities. This is why I heartily recommend writers’ groups, if you can find or start one that works for you, and sharing work in progress informally with other writers. Reviewing, evaluating, and critiquing other writers’ work will make you better able to hear what your own writing is trying to tell you.

Breakthrough

I’m walking toward a wall. The wall is solid. It stretches upward, leftward, and rightward as far as I can see. It looks like the Great Wall of China.

The closer I get, the more slowly I walk. Small steps turn to baby steps turn to walking in place. If I don’t turn around, I’m going to break my nose on the wall.

I keep walking. A crack appears in the wall. As I walk, it gets taller and wider. I glimpse what’s on the other side.

I sit down, pen in hand, and start writing. The other side gets clearer and clearer. When I look back, I can’t see the wall at all.

20160730 breakthrough

The other side of the wall

Every Damn Day

From the third week in March I’ve been swamped with work. April was already looking busy when I was offered a proofread about the Attica prison uprising of 1971. I’m going to turn that down? No way. So what if the text was almost 600 pages long, with another 100 pages of notes.

No matter how you look at it, editing and proofreading are time-intensive. You’ve got to put in the hours, and you can’t add more hours to the day. If you’re anything like me, you can’t devote all your waking hours to reading as closely as a copyeditor or proofreader has to read. Nowhere close. The brain gets tired. The eyes glaze over. The body needs to get up and move.

As March gave way to April, I wasn’t sure I could meet all these deadlines, some of which were firm, others of which were flexible, none of which were “whenever.” So I decided to give over my writing time to editing.

Travvy looks for a squirrel in a tree.

Travvy looks for a squirrel in a tree.

I’m a morning person. I write best in the morning, usually from 7 or 7:30 to 9 or 9:30. Then Travvy, my malamute roommate, and I go for an hour-long walk. I do a fair amount of writing-related mulling on these walks. Ideas, insights, and solutions to plot snags pop into my head the way they usually don’t when I’m sitting at the keyboard.

So Monday morning I gave over my writing time to proofreading. After Travvy and I got back from our walk, I checked email, played a little on Facebook, then got back to work. I did the same on Tuesday, and on Wednesday, and on Thursday. While out walking with Trav, I noticed that when it wasn’t just enjoying the sunshine or whining about the rain, my mind was occupied with one or another of my various editing projects. A plot snag was approaching in Wolfie, the novel in progress, but my mind was not interested in mulling about that.

By Wednesday afternoon I knew I was in trouble. The plot snag was looming larger and larger, so large and so daunting that I couldn’t even imagine the short transition scene that leads into the one where the snag had to be resolved. I couldn’t even imagine imagining that short transition scene.

In short order I regressed from I can’t figure this out to I’ll never figure this out to I’ve bitten off way more than I can chew here and who needs this stupid novel anyway?

This was drowning out the little voice in my head repeating two of my main mantras: “The way out is through” and “Your writing will teach you what you need to know.”

What I was having, in other words, was yet another crisis of faith.

By Thursday it had gotten so bad that I was sure I’d have nothing to take to writers’ group on Sunday. This reminded me that what I’d taken to writers’ group last Sunday was really good. It was also the culmination of an extended sequence that had taken several weeks to finish and worn me out in the process.

Aha, I thought. Maybe the well is just temporarily dry.

Right. It does happen, but you don’t know if the well’s been replenished unless you drop your bucket into it. For me this means picking up a pen and moving my hand across sheets of paper, but I wasn’t doing this because I was editing or proofreading during my best writing time.

So this morning I took pen in hand, fully ready to start with “I can’t write this scene because . . . ,” but instead there was my protagonist, sitting on her front step in the twilight, accompanied by her two dogs, thinking about the momentous conversation she’d just had with her estranged sister.

Writing every damn day really is the answer. My faith wobbles if I don’t.

This is what came out of the pen this morning, and two and a half more just like it.

ms page 3

What You Don’t Know

There’s nothing like writing to show you what you don’t know.

The other day I took two of my characters on a field trip. Rather, they took me. These are the same two, Shannon and Jackie, I blogged about last month in “The Importance of Place,” after they took me to the Gay Head Cliffs.

Shannon has lived on Martha’s Vineyard for decades. Sister Jackie has never been there before. Shannon is playing tour guide. (Come to think of it, there’s nothing like playing tour guide to show you what you don’t know — and also what you do. Shannon listens to facts and factoids coming out of her mouth that she didn’t know she knew. I didn’t know I knew them either.)

So we went window-shopping in Edgartown, where in novel time it’s Thanksgiving weekend so some shops but not all are closed for the season, then we strolled along State Beach. The sheer vastness of the ocean started getting to us, so Shannon and I simultaneously hit on the same antidote: “Let’s go to the Campground.”

In the Campground — formally the grounds of the Martha’s Vineyard Camp Meeting Association — more than 300 cottages sit on about 34 acres of land.

I’ve been to the Campground many times over the years, but never accompanied by these two characters. As we walked, the conversation they were having flowed in interesting directions, shaped by the narrow walkways and the colorful, cheek-by-jowl cottages.

The Pink House from the front

The Pink House from the front

The most colorful, and by far the most photographed, cottage in the Campground is the Pink House so of course Shannon guided Jackie in that direction. When we got to it, I was glad we’d made the trip.

In my memory the Pink House stood apart from its neighbors, as if they’d startled at the sight of it and taken a giant step backward.

But it doesn’t. It’s on a corner, yes, but it’s nestled as close to its immediate neighbors as any other house.

Jackie then wandered around to the back of the house. The Pink House may be the most photographed cottage in the Campground, and maybe the most photographed building on Martha’s Vineyard, but I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a photo of its backside.

Pink House, rear view, with mystery plant

Pink House, rear view, with mystery plant

The trouble started when I got home and started to write. What the hell were those tall stalky things on the left? I wrote “tall stalky shrubbery” and knew immediately that I wasn’t going to let myself get away with that.

Like what if I were reading about a character running through a meadow noticing little white flowers and little blue flowers over there and hard orange berries over here? A little of that goes a long way. At some point I start to suspect that the author didn’t know the names of the things and didn’t care enough to find out. This subtly undermines my confidence in her knowledge of other things.

So I posted that rear-view photo on Facebook and asked for help identifying the tall stalky thingies. The first two friends who responded said it was hard to tell without foliage or flowers, but they thought it was probably rose of Sharon. Others thought privet, which I’d always thought was an evergreen but it turns out it comes in deciduous too. Trying to confirm one or the other was difficult because all the pretty pictures I found on the internet were of flowers; no stalks were visible.

Rose of sharon is currently in the lead.

Sturgis’s Law #6 says “Your writing will teach you what you need to know.” This is how it works. That particular scene may disappear from future drafts of the novel, but now I’ve a pretty good idea of what rose of Sharon looks like. Who knows where it will show up next.

Logjam

For the last week or so I’ve been writing around a logjam in the novel, nudging at it from time to time but not trying to break it up.

This is a log pile, not a logjam, but you get the idea.

This is a log pile, not a logjam, but you get the idea.

Imagine logs massing where the river widens, jostling each other to fit through a narrow gap and float on downstream. These logs aren’t wide around like tree trunks, or all that long either. They’re small enough to fit in your woodstove or fireplace, but that’s big enough to create a logjam.

Morning is my writing time, from whenever I get out of bed till 9 or so. The novel was jammed, but I kept writing. You may have noticed that my bloggish output has increased in the last week.

It's hard to take a selfie of me and Trav walking, so here are our shadows.

It’s hard to take a selfie of me and Trav walking, so here are our shadows.

Images and ideas, scenes and snatches of dialogue, often come to me when I’m out walking with Travvy. Forward motion is all the more important when the novel is stuck, so this is where I did most of my nudging.

But “nudging” isn’t really the right word. What I was doing was listening — listening to Shannon, one of my viewpoint characters, listen to what’s going in her head. It’s pretty cacophonous: much has happened in the last 24 hours, and her own childhood has been pounding on a long-locked door. I knew what she was going to do next, but I didn’t know how she was going to get there.

This morning when I sat down in my chair, Shannon was waiting. Pixel, her old dog, was curled up next to her on the sofa. Wolfie, her recently rescued younger dog, was stretched out on the rug. The November sun has long since set; the living room is dark except for the power lights on her computer monitors, the red “on” light on the coffeemaker in the kitchen — and the blinking red light on the answering machine. The message was playing when she walked in the door half an hour earlier. It’s her younger sister, with whom she’s had little contact in 30 years. She’s about to listen to the message and return the call.

That’s the log that jostled itself loose from the jam, slipped through the gap, and started on down the river. The rest of the logs will follow in good time.

When Trav and I headed out for our walk, this song was running through my head. Different kind of logjam, very different solution, but you get the idea. Slaid Cleaves singing his “Breakfast in Hell.” Now that’s a story.

 

The Name Game

Editing nonfiction, I’m always astonished and delighted by the sheer variety of people’s names. Some are common, others unusual. Many hint at where the individual or his/her forebears might have come from — at least the forebears in the paternal line. The names of women are usually plowed under by marriage, though they may resurface in a child or grandchild’s middle name.

Other names are more generic — which in English-speaking countries means “more Anglo-Saxon” — than the people who bear them. Immigrant names were often changed at the border by immigration officials who found the original unpronounceable or unspellable. Individuals change their own names for an array of reasons. Sometimes the grandchildren of immigrants reclaim the ancestral name, though it means they’ll be continually asked how to spell or pronounce it.

One of the first things a small-town newspaper copyeditor learns is that most readers will forgive the occasional error of fact and rarely notice the grammatical gaffe, but if you misspell their names or, worse, the name of one of their kids, they will remember it forever. The first name of one fellow who appeared occasionally in news stories was Kieth. Yep: i before e. As with Triple Crown champ American Pharoah, the impulse to “correct” it was strong, but once I ascertained that “Kieth” was correct, I didn’t give in to it.

I’m jealous of nonfiction writers. They do have to get the names right, but at least they don’t have to make them up.

Fiction writers do.

Naming characters is like titling the work. Some names come easy. Others come hard.

A character in Wolfie, my novel in progress, appeared as Bruce McManus. “Bruce” has stuck, but “McManus” was a placeholder. His real name didn’t show up on its own. I had to poke around my brain looking for it.

What made this difficult is that Bruce is not a nice man. He’s not-nice in a particularly loathsome way, but his particular kind of loathsomeness is not all that rare.

What was wrong with McManus? Well, I wanted a generic name that would not be associated with a specific ethnic or national group. “Mc-” suggests Irish or maybe Scottish. Bruce comes across as WASP and probably is. When it comes to names, I have a couple of ruts that I regularly fall into, and one of them is names beginning with M. A main character in this novel is Shannon Merrick. Up the road from her is a couple named Morris.

Another of my ruts is trochees — names of two syllables with the accent on the first: Shannon, Merrick, Morris . . . I’ve also got a few three-syllable names going — Segredo, Kelleher, Correia, McDermott — but not many with only one syllable. So I started brainstorming single-syllable, generic names.

Trouble was, nearly all those single-syllable names were good English words: Black, Brown(e), White, Green(e), Stone, Hunt, Young, Pierce . . . Their meanings and connotations were likely to color (sometimes literally) readers’ perceptions of the character, and raise the possibility that this was intentional on my part. Nothing wrong with that: I’ve done it myself. In my first novel, The Mud of the Place, Jay Segredo got his surname for a reason. “Segredo” in Portuguese means “secret.” But with this Bruce character? No.

So while I was out walking one morning and thinking about something entirely different, “Smith” slipped into my conscious mind. Bruce Smith. Bruce Endicott Smith. I had it: a one-syllable surname that was about as generic as you can get in English and that didn’t begin with M. 

Some characters show up with names firmly attached. How to name the ones that don’t? There are plenty of options. Some writers open the phone book at random then let their forefinger do the picking, once for the first name, once for the last. I often discover names by listening to the characters talk, either to themselves or to each other. My novel is set in a particular place — Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, New England, USA — which limits my options somewhat. If your story is set in Croatia, Armenia, Brazil, or Japan, or if one of your characters comes from somewhere else, there are names lists galore on the Web for different places and different languages. If you don’t know the place or language, though, take care: the name you choose may have associations you don’t know about. (“Bush” was not one of the monosyllabic names I considered for Bruce.)

For fantasy and science fiction writers the possibilities might seem endless, but not really: readers have a harder time with names they can’t pronounce or remember easily.

Do names really matter all that much? “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” true, but if roses were called rhododendrons, they probably wouldn’t show up in so many poems. The busybody who appeared in the excerpt I quoted in “Free the Scene” didn’t give her name, but it turned out to be Juliet Cavendish Cooper. If that suggests someone who’s imperious and proud of her genealogy, fine with me.

For the important players, though, the name can provide a way into the character’s head and history. How did the person come by that name? Does s/he like it or hate it? Growing up a Susanna, I wanted a name like everybody else’s so I went by Sue or Susan (occasionally spelled Suzan). After high school I decided that Susanna really was much better, even if I often have to spell it out. One of my main characters, given name James, as a kid was widely known as Jimmy. After he left home, he started calling himself Jay. Now only his mother calls him Jimmy.

My friend the prolific mystery writer Cynthia Riggs sometimes donates naming rights to good causes. If you’re the high bidder at a benefit auction, you or your designee gets a namesake in Cynthia’s next novel. This is how Bruce Steinbicker, in Cynthia’s recently released Poison Ivy (St. Martin’s, 2015), got his name. But in the writing Bruce the character took on a personality of his own, as characters are wont to do. This prompted Cynthia to write to Bruce the real guy:

In the Martha’s Vineyard Mystery Series book I’m writing now, Poison Ivy, I intended the character named after you, the TV star Bruce Steinbicker, to make a simple cameo appearance on the porch of Alley’s Store. However, the character insisted that he play a larger role . This is a problem writers often face. A character takes over and there’s not much we can do about it. But since our character, Bruce Steinbicker, decides to have a dalliance with a woman other than his wife, I thought I should let you know in case this might cause problems for you in your personal life. If so, I can give our Bruce S. character an alias.

Please let me know whether or not you’re comfortable with being loosely identified with our naughty Bruce Steinbicker, as I’m in the home stretch.

To which Bruce the real guy replied: “I’m fine with this and when I showed your message to my wife of 49 years, she just laughed.”

Since Cynthia and I are in the same writers’ group and I heard most of Poison Ivy in manuscript, I’m now wondering if that’s where my Bruce’s name came from. Maybe yes, maybe no, maybe yes and no. The writer’s mind steals from here, there, and everywhere, then forgets where the shiny baubles came from.

 

 

Titles

No, not job titles or aristocratic titles or even the title to my finally paid-off Forester that arrived in the mail a few weeks ago.

Titles of stories, novels, essays . . . especially the title of a piece I posted to my other blog, From the Seasonally Occupied Territories, yesterday morning. The post was ready to go except for the blank box at the top where the title was supposed to go.

That blank box was staring at me.

Some titles come easy. Not this one, but I was more than ready to go walking with my dog. I typed “Rootless” in the blank box, hit Publish, gave it one last read-through for typos, and logged off.

This oak was felled by Hurricane Irene in 2011. For three years it leafed out lying down.

This oak was felled by Hurricane Irene in 2011. For three years it leafed out lying down.

“Rootless” wasn’t a bad title. The blog post is about two different trees, a birch and an oak, that I pass often on my walks. Both trees were felled by storms, the oak by a 2011 hurricane, the birch by one of this past winter’s blizzards. Both remained partly attached to their trunks, and both continued to leaf out after they fell. Both have since been severed from their roots. One is dying, the other dead.

As I walked, another title came to me: “Two Downed Trees.” Bingo.

The winter of 2015 severed the oak's trunk. Its leafing days are over.

The winter of 2015 severed the oak’s trunk. Its leafing days are over.

It’s nice when that happens.

Some titles come easy. Others come hard. Some don’t come at all — you have to go looking for them.

When titles come early, they often help shape the story. The epigraph for my first novel, The Mud of the Place, gave the novel its title and kept me honest while I was writing it. It’s a remark by the late Grace Paley (1922–2007), a wonderful poet, fiction writer, and political activist.

“If your feet aren’t in the mud of a place,” she said in an interview, “you’d better watch where your mouth is.”

I added some literal mud to the novel so readers wouldn’t be disappointed.

Novel #2, in progress, needed a working title so I could stop referring to it as “my current project” or “the novel I’m working on.” I started calling it Wolfie, after one of the main characters, a dog. That may turn out to be the actual title. Who knows? It’s definitely the one to beat.

The novel on the back burner has been The Squatters’ Speakeasy almost since it first flickered into my mind. This is the project that stalled out because of its “surfeit of subplots,” one of which has to do with a bunch of musicians and artists who take over a trophy house and turn it into, well, a sort of speakeasy. I love the title. Trouble is, as the novel bubbles along on the back burner, the speakeasy subplot is fading into the background. I don’t know what the main plots and themes will turn out to be. Will they include a squatters’ speakeasy? Damned if I know — yet.

So where do your titles come from? Do they come easy, or do they come hard? How do you know when you’ve got a good one?

Leave your comments here. If you’re shy, feel free to use the handy-dandy form below. Seriously — you don’t have to be shy to use the form, and it doesn’t have to be about titles either.

 

 

Restarting

I can revise, rewrite, and edit pretty much any time I’m awake, but for writing, especially early-draft writing, especially writing long and scary projects (like Wolfie, my novel in progress), I’m best in the morning, in the hour or two or three after I wake up.

I’m braver in the morning. I’m less easily distracted by the voices chattering inside my head and by whatever I’m supposed to do that day.

For several recent weeks my early-morning writing time was taken up by work, editing for pay and on deadline — my livelihood.

Another thing: When I’m working on a long and scary project, my mind is usually mulling it over while I’m out walking with my dog, or dropping off to sleep at night, or waking up in the morning. Mental logjams break up when I’m nowhere near my pens or my laptop.

During those several recent weeks, the jobs I was working on took up semi-permanent residence in my head. That’s what my mind kept mulling when I was out walking, or driving, or dropping off to sleep.

Blank paper is scary, but it's full of potential. (That's the scary part.)

Blank paper is scary, but it’s full of potential. (That’s the scary part.)

In short, for about three weeks I did no work on the novel. I barely even blogged.

How to get back in the groove?

Starting is easy (ha ha ha). Blank pages are scary but they’re full of potential.

I’d recently started a second draft. The not-quite complete first draft is more than 225 pages long. (First draft = first draft prime: the real first draft is in longhand, and I always do a little revising as I’m typing it into Word.) When I tried to recall it, it was like looking through the wrong end of a telescope.

More to the point, I was sure that if I actually looked at it, I would realize it was crap. I have had this problem before. It’s why when I’m working on a long and scary project I look at it every day. Five minutes is enough. I don’t have to write anything. I just have to open the file and look at it.

Once I’ve opened it, I always find something to fiddle with, and after I’ve done a little fiddling, I nearly always write something new.

Wolfie‘s title character is a dog. So far the only cat in the story is Schrödinger’s, and of course I don’t know if that cat is alive or dead, real or unreal. Schrödinger’s famous thought experiment hypothesized a cat in a closed box with a vial of lethal radioactive material. The vial may or may not have broken; the cat may be alive or dead. I, outside the box, don’t know what has happened inside the box until I open it. Is the cat alive or dead?

I, sitting at my laptop, am dead certain the novel in progress is crap. If I actually look at it, I will know for sure it is crap and then what will I do with the rest of my life?

But it never works that way. It’s always

looking -> fiddling -> writing

After I’d read a few pages of my second draft, the seed of a new scene took root in my head. The scene comes much later in the novel. I sketched it out in longhand then went back to reading.

So why the dead certainty that the writing has turned to crap in my absence? Interesting question, but it’s going to have to wait. I’m writing.

The moving hand writes and a scene takes root.

The moving hand writes and a scene takes root.

 

 

Wrung Out

The end of draft #1 of novel #2 is in sight. Not close exactly, but I can see it on the horizon. Plot lines are converging. Things are getting, shall we say, tense.

For instance — two main characters meet by chance in a hardware store. They’re kibitzing about the complexities of modern lightbulbs, though neither one is all that fascinated by lightbulbs. Amira notices that Shannon looks preoccupied. A few moments later Shannon blurts out that she’s just had bad news.

The hardware store aisle isn’t a good place to have this conversation, so they adjourn to a nearby café for coffee (Shannon) and lunch (Amira).

This is the scene I wrote this morning.

Shannon has just learned that her dog has inoperable cancer. She is starting to beat herself up about her failure to (a) notice this earlier, and (b) prevent it.

Amira doesn’t want Shannon to go there. She recounts the story of how her father, visiting his other daughter and her family in Florida, went to the neighborhood convenience store with his four-year-old niece riding on his shoulders. A robbery was in progress. The robbers run out shooting; the niece is hit and dies two days later. Amira’s father never stopped beating himself up with what ifs and if onlys. He has since died.

Amira started down the what if / if only road herself but friends helped pull her back to the land of the living.

I knew this scene was coming but I didn’t know how or where it was going to happen.

I was totally wrung out when I laid my pen down this morning. Could not write another word. So Travvy and I went for our morning walk. With sunshine, brisk air, and steady steps my energy returned. It always does.

It can be scary to look down the road and see that the writing is leading you toward a scene that’s going to wring you out. I’ve been known to do other things — aka “procrastinate” — until I feel ready, even though I never feel entirely ready. Just ready enough.

But those wrung-out moments tell me that I’ve been writing well, and true, and deep. My pen has tapped into something I can’t reach any other way.

Details, Details

“The devil’s in the details” — or is it God that’s in the details? God and the devil are always mixing themselves up, but that’s a post for another time, another blog. What matters is that details are important.

For writers, they’re crucial. Whether you write fiction or nonfiction, poetry or plays, details help bring your stories to life. (They can also weigh your story down. We can talk about that some other time.)

Where do details come from? They’re all around you. All you have to do is pay attention.

Four buses in waiting at the West Tisbury School

Four buses in waiting at the West Tisbury School

I was reminded of this yesterday when I posted “Little Changes” to my other blog, From the Seasonally Occupied Territories. On our walks, my dog and I often follow a trail that skirts the school bus parking lot at the nearby elementary school. Last year four buses parked there. They went away for the summer, but when school resumed earlier this month, there were again four buses in the parking lot.

124 signFrom a distance they looked like the same four buses — not only do school buses look alike, big, long, and bright yellow, but they look a lot like they did when I was a kid back in the Pleistocene. But they weren’t the same buses. Each bus has a number. Last year the regulars were 121, 123, 124, and 117H. This year 124 is back, but with different companions: 125, 126, and 116H.

Close-up of the 116H bus

Close-up of the 116H bus

Finally I got curious about the H. What made 116H and 117H different from their buddies? This wasn’t obvious from a distance either, so I looked more closely.

116H seats fewer kids than the non-H buses — because it leaves room for a wheelchair and has a wheelchair entrance at the back. The H, it seems, stands for “Handy Bus” (so it says on the side of the bus), and “Handy” is probably shorthand for “handicap access.”

Back in the Pleistocene, the school buses in my town weren’t accessible by wheelchair. By noticing the details, I learned something about school buses. Will this ever come up in my writing? (Other than this blog, I mean.) Probably not, but who knows? If I ever write a murder mystery, maybe a school bus will have been seen at the scene of the future crime. Maybe some alert soul will have noticed the number.

Too much detail can obscure the main point.

Too much detail can obscure the main point.

Details often sprout into images, similes, and metaphors. Images, similes, and metaphors aren’t scary when they grow organically from your own experience. If you mess around in a garden, for instance, your mind is almost certainly linking what your eyes see, your hands feel, and your nose smells to other things in your life. When I look at my little garden, sometimes I think about making pesto or eating cherry tomatoes, but other times I think, What a mess! I can’t see what’s going on here.

Which is what I sometimes think when I’m revising and come to a passage that’s drowning in detail. Pruning is good, both for prose and for shrubs.

I often think in generalities and abstractions, but when I describe my thoughts to someone else, I almost always reach for concrete images to illustrate them. No surprise there: most useful generalizations are firmly grounded in specifics. In the spring of 1970, I was a freshman at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. Here’s a story from that time, as recounted several decades later:

Lauinger Library opened toward the end of my freshman year, about a month before the Kent State shootings shut the campus down. Within a very few weeks footpaths had appeared across the green lawn fronting the library, one leading from the main gate, the other from the corner of Healy Hall where foot traffic from several dorms and classroom buildings converged. Imagine a terrestrial ice cream cone, with the traffic circle standing in for one scoop of your favorite flavor and the tip at the library’s front door. While war raged in Southeast Asia and anti-war movements fought it across the United States and around the world, university officials battled the entire student body over the right way to walk to the library. The officials contended that we should follow the existing asphalt walkway around the perimeter of the lawn. Our footsteps, in their hundreds, then thousands and tens of thousands, countered that the shortest distance between two points was a straight line.

Our footsteps carried the day. Officialdom conceded, and the foot-beaten paths were enshrined in asphalt.

“The shortest distance between two points is a straight line”: Well, duh — everybody knows that. But the truism doesn’t stick in my mind the way that story has all these years. It taught me to pay attention to something that just about all of us tend to forget: footsteps matter.

Footsteps, come to think of it, are like details. Pay attention to them. They’re important.