I figured, if I don’t have anything that I’m burning to talk about at the moment, let me talk about stuff that people are burning to hear about. I asked for questions, and got a few back. So, this week, the ‘Booth is in your hands.
I’m still taking questions, @lizgallagherliz on Twitter or on Facebook, or simply here, in the comments. Ask about writing in general, about writing for young people, about the writing life, anything you’d like to have spoken to.
First up: a question from YA, middle-grade, and picture-book author Lisa Scrhoeder:
You are really good at details and including rich description. This is something I struggle with. Does this come easily to you, why or why not, and what secrets can you share on this? Also, do you tend to add details as you revise, or do they come to you right away, in the first draft?
Thanks, Lisa! Details and descriptions are a great area to talk about; I think that they’re often what makes writing accessible to the reader.
Here’s a scene from The Opposite of Invisible:
Never stop spinning. The liquid glass glows orange like the sun, with green and yellow swirls, as I control it at the tip of the blowpipe. It turns in the furnace. I’m spinning hand over hand over hand. This is my best try yet, after three hours of instruction. Jim yells, “Feel the weight of your piece!” “Keep turning!” “To the bench!”
So I go to the bench, turning, quick before the glass hardens. Sit on the bench, spin the blowpipe on the chair’s rail, spin, spin. Shape. “Chill the bottom half with air!” Jim shouts. I keep spinning with one hand and grab the air hose with the other. It feels awkward, but I manage to let air out of the hose and keep spinning the glass.
The glass is cooling.
Back to the furnace. Make the glass orange again.
The heat smells like burnt marshmallows.
“To the bench!”
Heat it up. Then cool it. Use air. Use water. Heat it up.
Everything has to be perfect or my piece will be destroyed.
But that’s okay. I am in control of this.
I’m proud of that scene because I think it includes details and description. People often ask me if I’m a glass blower, and the answer is: No, but I’m observant. I’ve seen people blow glass a few times, and when I knew I wanted a scene involving learning how to do it, I went to the glass studio that was handily down the street from my apartment and asked to observe a class. In about fifteen minutes of watching, I was able to capture the essence of the sensory experience.
When I think of details and description, it is the sensory experience that I think about. This does come easy to me, in some ways. The part that’s harder, I’ll discuss in a minute.
I’m not a visual thinker. I have a strong memory of being asked, as a kid in elementary school, to shut my eyes and picture a tree. The teacher went on about seeing the leaves, etc, and all I could see was the inside of my eyelids. I wondered if other kids were actually seeing trees. This scene, and I’d dare say most scenes that I write, don’t have a lot of sight description.
But they do have vibrancy: colors, familiar images (the sun). And they have movement, which I see as visual. Once you’ve got a picture of a glass studio in your mind, if you can do that, the character moves around in it, which helps the studio stay in your mind, even just as a suggestion.
When I think of writing sound, I think of comic books. Pow! Bang! Zap!
In general, I don’t think I do many sound details. I do have yelling in this scene. It ups the urgency of the action.
For me, this is a biggie. I’d be a happy writer if something I wrote made a reader feel something on their skin.
In this scene, I use heat. I use it by mentioning it several times, and by choosing specific details that are tied to heat (the sun, again, a furace).
For me, taste might be the least used sense, with regard to writing. But I do know that taste and food have the power to conjure strong sensory memories and reactions, so I mention food quite a bit. Oatmeal and butterscotch cookies. That’s a certain kind of home.
In this scene, I mention the scent, rather than the taste, of burnt marshmallows. If that evokes a taste for you, too, all the better.
Another biggie for me.
When I visited the glass studio, it smelled of burnt marshmallows. Once I realized that, I knew I had to put it in. It’s in the noticing.
So, the reason I’d say details come naturally to me is this: I observe. And I don’t try to get too fancy. I keep it simple, choose a few sensory details to describe what’s going on. I don’t get flowery. I don’t talk so much about lime green versus forest green, because in the context of fire and heat, I shouldn’t need to.
I like details that tie together. Specificity is good, and repetition is a handy trick.
Here’s the sixth sense part:
When I don’t have something to observe, I try to feel it on another level.
I shut my eyes, and think about something: being in a fight, a kiss, boredom, excitement. And I notice what comes to mind. I try to translate that closed-eyed feeling into something on the page that the writer will understand. For this reason, I am grateful that I can type with my eyes closed.
That kind of inner observation/experience is what defines the way in which I write: short sentences for a sense of urgency, or longer for a sense of lingering? Lots of dialogue or more description? And on and on.
Here’s what doesn’t come easily for me, and the part that I spend a lot of time going back to do: turning a sensory description into a scene.
I just went back and found an early version of the glassblowing scene in my files. All of those sensory details were there from the start. What was missing was the background, the exposition: I had to add in that line about three hours of instruction, for example. I had to make a scene into part of a story. That’s the bit that’s hard for me. I tend to write in flashes, and then I have to connect them.
So, I don’t really add details as I revise; I do tend to come up with them in the beginning. But I consider them as I revise, and try to choose just the right ones.