Saturday, June 7, 2014

Still Learning (after all these years)

After more years of teaching and writing than I care to admit, I am still learning new techniques.  No surprise: Those who stand still, atrophy.

Having turned to fiction writing in the last two years after a lifetime of doing mainly non-fiction, I see over and over the importance of bringing a page to life by revising it with descriptive details.  I look at what I have written and see what's missing, and what's missing are the specific details that, along with dialogue, make a scene come alive.

Consider a few details from a short (non-fiction) piece in The New Yorker (June 2) by Emma Allen. It's a profile of the actor Hamish Linklater that I would not have read except that its descriptive detail--original and concise-- caught my eye.

For example: "Linklater--who is thirty-seven, lanky, toothy, with tousled curls--selected a seat next to his mother (white hair, polka-dotted socks), and slid into a slouch, arms crossed, black boots stuck straight out in front of him."

In one sentence, Allen has given me a snapshot of this man on a particular day. She does not waste words in long, fancy descriptive paragraphs: just a few deft touches are all we need.  The tone of this sentence is fresh, smart, and original.

I like writers who stick interesting details between dashes or parentheses (as long as the interruption of the main sentence is not too long).

Later in the article we read: "A student with gelled hair and ripped jeans raised his hand."  A fair amount of description is built into that neat little sentence. Quite often, less is more.

Someone said long ago, the truth is buried in the details. Writing without vivid description is dull, and description without sharp details is weak.

The challenge for me as a writer is to keep refining my sentences until they have been stripped of anything trite and have enough sparkle to make the reader want more.

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