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The Care and Feeding of Greater Lily-livered Speculative Fiction Writer

January 31, 2011

Since I was asked to write a guest blog post for Clarion, I’ve been going back and forth regarding what topic to blog about. Should I write some useful technical advice for the storyteller, or something a little more philosophical? I don’t think I’ve been this paralyzed since I was looking for topics for college admission essays. Too many options! Too much potential.

Until it occurred to me that I could do two for the price of one. Which is to say, I could talk about maintaining the physical plant, and the importance of telling detail all at once.

See, as writers, we have a tendency to live all up in our heads. And that–frankly–isn’t good for our narratives or our bodies. Human beings are animals–a particular and unique sort of animal, it’s true, that builds space ships and writes novels, but animals nonetheless. And animals are designed to move, to explore, to exist in an enriched environment. It is bad for us, in other words, to sit in a chair all day and type. We become depressed. We become unhealthy. We suffer from vitamin D deficiencies and flabby muscles that cannot adequately support our spines and repetitive motion trauma and deep vein thrombosis.

And our stories suffer too. Because one of the most critical skills of the fiction writer is the ability to observe, and to transfer those observations with detail and specificity to the page. Not a chair, not the chair, but this chair, right here. This mended, oaken chair. This square, puppy-chewed leather chair. This whitewashed ladderback with the wobbly leg fixed with a screw. Your grandfather’s recliner with the coffee stain and the faint aroma of hair pomade. Your Uncle Elton’s fragile Queen Anne. A bentwood rocker with a frayed cane seat.

This chair. Right here. This chair that could never be mistaken for any other.

And this, this need for specificity, this drive towards what John Gardner called ‘the telling detail,’ is critical. Objects in reality are not fungible. We are aware of their presence on significant, semiconscious level–and when you can make the reader similarly aware of the uniqueness of objects–and characters, and people–in your world, you will go a long way towards immersing them into a fictional dream–to borrow Gardner’s terminology again–that is vivid, continuous, and real.

And the only way to do that is to imagine that world concretely. Imagine it with all your senses: there are more than five (or six for that matter). Imagine it with your sense of balance. Feel the rock turn under your heroine’s feet. Feel the grass clutch at your hero’s toes.

It’s easier to do this, of course, if you have a rich internal library of sensation–of chairs, as it were, or people, or grassy meadows–from which to draw. And it’s easiest to do that if you get out in the world and experience it.

I’m not suggesting that every writer needs to take up jogging, or three-day-eventing, or triathalons, or open-sea kayaking. But it doesn’t hurt to get out and go for a walk, if you are physically capable. It’s good thinking time, for one thing, and it also helps the animal of your body stay useful and strong, so it does not distract you with crippled wrists and a collapsed spine. While you’re out there, notice things. Look at people. Notice how the woman across from you holds her cell phone with two fingers until she gets irritated, when she wraps her whole hand around it. Notice the guy on the bus wearing sandals in January. In Minneapolis.

If you can’t go for that walk, do what you can. Every bit helps–and the more knowledge and experience–first-person experience–you can bring to what you write, the easier it will be to evoke that fictional dream.

That’s one of the real secrets of the old chestnut about “write what you know.” It doesn’t mean that you should limit yourself to autobiography; it means that the broader your experiences, the broader your command of telling detail. And that is what gets the reader sucked in to the story like nothing else.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. January 31, 2011 6:12 am

    This was an excellent post. Meaning is added to fiction when you know what gun is being held, what car are they driving, or even if the sad tree out front is a weeping willow or an ancient oak. Each detail brings its own flavor to the story. So on top of that, I would urge new writers to learn the names of things so that when the time comes, they can describe in detail what they see.

  2. January 31, 2011 7:58 am

    Minneapolis sandal man is mysterious!

  3. Kari T permalink
    January 31, 2011 10:08 am

    I took this to the extreme. I went and spent 5 days on an old fashioned sail boat (think big white sails, like you see in pirate movies), just so I could live like my character. This part of the world is also where my story takes places, so I did lots of walkig (and picture taking!) with my notebook. Was it physical? God yes. (This is New Zealand, which you can’t see from the comfort of your car)

    But yes, I got some fantastic ideas. Most notably: I spent six hours sloshing through a muddy cave, just to see larvae that glow in the dark. We turned our headlamps out and ate warm brownies by bug light. You’d be amazed at how much you can see from bioluminescence!

    I agree with walking/hiking. Most of my story composting comes from long walks through the Bay area’s redwood forests or along our many beaches.

    Now if I could just figure out how to add glowing bugs to my story…

  4. January 31, 2011 12:07 pm

    Last night, my husband used the same idea: “Creative people like you need to not be insulated away from stuff.”

    Because I am a writer, he explained, we did NOT just make a mistake by buying me a 1968 VW fastback. Instead, it is an investment in better writing. And in greater mechanical knowledge.

  5. January 31, 2011 3:27 pm

    Reminds me of how I felt when I finished the Clarion West 1973 workshop. At first I didn’t know what to do with that feeling. I knew my writing lacked something but I didn’t know what it was. But after a few years I got out on the road and hitchhiked across the United States, then around Europe, then across the Mideast to India. Come to think of it, I haven’t found my way home yet – currently I live in Greece. On the way I’ve picked up a wife and five sons and a lot of experience and grist for the writing mill. Sometimes just gotta get out the door I guess.

  6. February 4, 2011 11:31 am

    But when one has spent half a century experiencing the world THEN it’s okay to be a soft-spined lump with a keyboard … so long as you have a really good memory. :-) Maybe.

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