Thursday, February 09, 2006

The Divine Is In The Details

High time for some writing thoughts here.

I've been thinking lately about how important details are to a story. Some of this was inspired by the book I'm currently reading, which is Conquistador by S.M. Stirling. The premise of this book is that right after WWII, a veteran named John Rolfe tinkers with his shortwave radio and ends up opening a gate to an alternate universe where Alexander the Great lived past the age of 30. This changed the course of history so much that Europe never developed the science and technology to discover America, so Rolfe finds a California occupied only by Native Americans. He promptly proceeds to bring his friends over, and they settle the area while maintaining contact with their original universe. The bulk of the story takes place in the near future, after this alternate world has been settled long enough for one of the original families to plot a takeover.

I bought this book because of this premise, which is similar to what I do in Lennon's Line. What really made me take notice of this book is the level of description and detail Stirling uses to develop his alternate world. You can tell that he's done his homework. The book teems with descriptions of the ecology of this alternate world (unspoiled in comparison with ours, but still artificial in that the settlers introduced African animals into the American wilderness). But Stirling doesn't stop there. He also describes the weapons his characters use with an ease that made me think, "He really knows his stuff." The towns of this alternate world also feel real. His descriptions ring true to life and appeal to several senses. While at times he piles so many details into a single paragraph that I skim over them, the overall weight of them makes his fictional world feel real. It's a level of detail I seldom see on OWW -- or in my own work even. Part of that could be that when I write, I focus on the characters, dialogue, and plot first. Setting tends to get worked around all of that after I reread it and feel it comes across as "talking heads," like a cartoon with no background. I do try to take more notice of descriptions when I'm writing, now that I'm aware of how important they are, but I'm still working on incorporating that ball into the juggling act otherwise known as writing.

There's another level of detail that's also important in writing, and that's sentence-level structure, word choice, and punctuation. In fact, the mailing list for OWW was discussing punctuation today. I'm on digest mode, so I always feel I'm getting the e-mails too late to chime in. There's no reason I can't post my two cents here, though. To me, it's never too soon in a draft to make sure everything reads smoothly. I understand that in many cases, text in the first draft may be rewritten or cut; I do that all the time myself. Still, it should be written as clearly as possible. When I post a chapter to the OWW, I don't want my reviewers to worry about sentence-level problems (though some of them do, and they do make good points). I want the text to read as smoothly as possible so that my reviewers can focus on larger areas such as characters and plot without being distracted. It's not necessary to have everything be grammatically perfect; people don't speak that way, so dialogue should reflect what real speech sounds like. And sometimes you can break the rules for effect. For instance, a sentence fragment can have more emotional impact than a complete sentence would in the same context. But in order to write an effective fragment, first you have to know what a grammatically correct sentence sounds like, and you have to use fragments sparingly. I've read online stories that were filled with fragments, and you could tell they were mistakes. Such stories are painful to read. Grammar and punctuation are details no writer can neglect.

The normal saying is that "The Devil is in the details." For me, that's also where the divine is. When the story works at the detail level, it's easier to read--and perhaps easier to write. And since creative writing is a way to access the divinity in all of us, why not take the time to do it right? For that matter, why not take the time to do everything around you correctly? This may not be possible, but it's something to strive for.

1 comment:

Makoiyi said...

I agree with you to a certain extent, although not completely. To you, probably because you were taught properly in the first place, grammar and punctuation, if they don't come naturally, are embedded within your brain. For those of us who either weren't taught well (as was my case) or just cannot seem to absorb what to you are fairly simple concepts, if we stop to worry about every comma then the story loses its impetus.

Not to say that it doesn't drive others wild. But. I agree that one should post something on oww as clean as possible. One of the people I review drives me wild because she doesn't even correct typos. In one way tho, I do understand her enthusiasm to get the story down, and I know she doesn't do it to annoy me. I probably annoy her, because lately I've been getting very school marmish with her. The reason being that, I think she's been on oww the same time I have, and while she has improved, she's still doing the same old things. So I asked myself the other day. Am I? Am I just puddling along, not getting any better? Doing the same old same old. Am I even capable of improving? I sat down and had a good, hard think. I'm sure every writer does at several stages. Is it worth all the hassle and heartbreak of rejection etc. But I don't usually let things defeat me, and there's no magic ingredient to suddenly make me into an 'author'. I am an author. Just not the kind I want to be. Yet.

I know I have to take things in stages. Write the first crappy draft. Write the second to make it at least comprehensible. Write the third to try and knock the plot into shape. The fourth to make sense of what I'm trying to say. So by the time a story gets to oww, it probably is a third or fourth draft.

I do try to visualize every scene, and, as shown in my current wip, it is knowing what is 'important'. By that I mean what drives the plot most, or who drives the plot. At that stage I can't worry about every comma.

There's a good quote from Janny Wurts:
If you are drafting new storyline, you are CREATING. That means, turn off the voice in your head that wants to censor what's happening. Resist every urge that insists you must smooth out, correct, follow rules, or adhere to inflexible planning. Let the work GO. Allow all that chaos that wants to happen to creep in. DO NOT JUDGE what you write at this stage - just let the words pour out any which way, get the gist down, willy nilly. Push the passion, ride the emotion, nail down the raw concept on paper, and never mind how dumb it seems at the time.

I'm afraid that's me all over. I can do that. It's connecting the dots afterwards that's the problem; focusing on that important stuff that means a reader will understand my vision. That is what I'm still struggling with.

I do agree, the devil is in the details, it's just knowing which details to concentrate upon.

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