I have been embroiled with my current novel for a few months now. For some reason, I keep hitting areas of writing that feel like trudging uphill through mud. I discovered in my last re-read of chapters one through eight that when I hit these lovely areas of molten sludge, I tend to add details.
Details like, oh, I don’t know… “the red carpet fiber wrapped itself sinuously around the blue one next to it” and “her fingers gripped the pink and purple toothbrush with enough force to break it in two.” Unless the carpet fibers are also drenched in blood (they aren’t) or the toothbrush is about to be used as a highly unlikely murder weapon (it isn’t) these fanciful tidbits of word-smithery are bold examples of how lost I had become trying to find the thread of this story.
Having recently read Stephen King’s book, On Writing*, I found myself cursing the fossil I was trying to excavate from concrete. In order to solve this problem, I took a piece of advice from Mr. King and committed myself to writing a thousand words a day.
At first I found I was writing page after page of moons glinting on pine boughs (silvery, moulton light poured through the uppermost branches of the tree… oh no) but as I wrote, something else seemed to be happening too. My point of view character began to whisper to me. I’m here, she said. Listen to me. One night, while writing about the shifting shades of brown on the pebbles at the beach, something else appeared. Her footprints, leading me through a completely different story than the one I thought I was going to tell.
I followed her, and she began to run. That night I found I had to force myself to stop writing and go to bed. The old familiar pull toward the keyboard started again the following day, along with the scribbled paper notes filling my purse and appearing on yellow pads at work as I heard her whispers. She spoke to me and the words flowed through my fingers.
As the words flowed, the details softened, leaving passages that I found myself revising by adding stronger, more meaningful details. Passages filled with sunlight and shadow were supporting a story arch that had a lot more meaning. They were often necessary and beautiful words that expressed the time of day or the subtle shifting of the clock as something more important occurred.
I love detail. I love description. When I read a book or see a movie, there is beauty in the way a writer and a director use the subtle clues of setting, lighting, and costume to tell a deeper story than the dialog can tell. I understand now from my experience with this novel, details are also capable of killing everything else on the page. I understand that for me, at least, it is an effective crutch, useful when avoiding truths about the stories I am telling.
The best details vanish into the arch of the characters or the twisting turns of a tight plot. They are there to be relished later, when the story is complete, as a part of a strong supporting cast. Telling stories is a joy and a pleasure. It is also challenging and demanding and time consuming. Writers face so many walls. I am aware after this experience that I need to watch for the rough-hewn stone ones covered in creeping olive-green moss that run along a crystal clear river filled with thriving orange fish…
*Stephen King: On Writing A memoir of the Craft (Scribner 2000)