The Doo-Doo’s in the Details

Published December 12, 2011 by electricbluegaloo

This week when I heard a ten-year old passionate writer tell her friend “I’ve written 16 pages and I’m not even up to the complication yet!” I thought it was deja vous.  This type of writing is only interesting to the writer, not to the reader.  They don’t know what’s going to happen after all this introduction. Why should they stick with it?

It sounded exactly the way I used to write.  That was until I met Mark MacLeod, editor and children’s author.

I met Mark at a publishing consultation at the NSW Writers’ Centre about a week after my first child was born.  I thought at the time that was why he was so gentle with my other baby – Isa Ines and the Monkey Man.  He was gentle, but I went home and murdered all my darlings.

In my first drafts of Isa Ines and the Monkey Man I lovingly laboured over every languid lexicon.  And then I forced my friends to read it.  I even made the pretence of leaving the room, but listened at the door as they ooh-ed and aaah-ed over my poetic potential.  I also made my students read it and they loved me so they said they loved my story.

And then Mark basically told me my writing was crap!

Well, not in so few words but I could tell from the pained expression on his face that I was going about it all wrong.  Actually, I’ll revise that.  I was going about it all old fashioned, and also a bit . . . well, crap.

Mark gave me two pieces of advice which have vastly improved my writing (I invite you to look at “My Writing” posts and decide for yourself).

1. Verbs increase the pace of the story and make it more interesting.  Adjectives slow it down.  I was drowning in adjectives.  I now know that you have to think about the effect you want to create.  Basically, I do the modern thing and only add adjectives if they serve a purpose. 

A great example of this is in John Flanagan’s The Burning Bridge in which he described a character as having blonde hair.  Ok, no biggie, lots of people have blonde hair.  But till that point his physical descriptions of characters had always been so purposeful – Will is little, Horace is big, Halt is shaggy and unkempt, and these all add to the plot in some way.  I will not spoil the story if you’re mad enough not to have read it yet, but let me say the blonde bit was perfectly positioned.

Sadly, I don’t think primary school teachers really understand this point.  When I teach creative writing the first thing I do is point to all the details and ask “Why?”.  Why have you told me this?  Why is this important?  Why can’t it be in the evening instead of the morning? If you can’t justify it, don’t waste my time with it.  Also, Stephen King makes a good point in On Writing when he says if you give too many details about whatever character you’re describing, you can actually destroy the mental image the reader was creating.  By the way, you must, must, must read On Writing no matter which genre you write, or teach other people to write.

2. The second jewel of advice from Mr MacLeod that day was dialogue.  This will help if you’re trying to use ” show me the glint of moonlight on broken glass” to argue against the first point.  Dialogue is fast, it is interesting and it shows moonlight in a much more interactive way than a string of adjectives any day of the week.  For a first class example of how this is done read the conversation between Harry and Dudly at the start of The Order of the Phenix and just about every other section of dialogue published in any book in the series.  I personally think this is why I was able to read Rich Dad, Poor Dad by Robert Kiyosaki.

So in conclusion, don’t let the details make doo-doo of your darlings.

And please, if you teach passionate writers, ask them why?

2 comments on “The Doo-Doo’s in the Details

  • Verbs! I love that you’ve brought their greatness (and the adjectives’ bad reputation) to readers’ attention. It’s not until you learn about and see examples regarding strong verbs vs. adjectives that you get it.

    I.e. He was very tall.
    Or … He stooped to enter the threshold.

    And good points all round, incl. dialogue!

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