20 Ways to Make It Better — Way #7

Be specific. Write in concrete, not in clouds.

Last post we talked about going deeper and suggested one way to go deeper is to be specific. When you write, write the names of things. Rather than bird, write sparrow or starling; instead of tree, write eucalyptus or willow. Give colors their shades: tomato, brick, blood, and sounds their tones: high-pitched, squeal, honk. It’s not just a house, it’s a Spanish bungalow. We’re not eating cupcakes, we’re eating Ho Ho’s.

Hemingway said, “There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity.” The Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the Chinook off the Pacific. Billy’s Lunch Counter. Giving places their names honors them and brings a sense of verisimilitude to your writing. You become an authority.

Another way to be specific is to use the concrete, not the abstract. The abstract—dinner was delicious—leaves the reader to guess what delicious is. She has to take a break from your story to go into her own mental files to find “delicious,” which bumps her out of your story for just that long. Then what she comes up with might not be what you meant at all. The concrete—we had seared albacore with a hot Chinese dipping sauce—tells what delicious is, at least for you or the character you’re writing about. Specificity helps the reader use their imagination. How much more colorful and rich to imagine a plate with the dark lines of the grill seared across the white skin of the albacore, beside it, the small dish of Chinese dipping sauce.

Abstract words always ask for judgment—delightful, thrilling, disgusting, ugly, lovely, tremendous, and so forth–all need the reader’s interpretation. (And is anyone besides me over the word amazing?) Concrete words say what is.

Note: Make sure the specific details you choose are true and right for the piece. Take care not to bloom your azaleas in the fall or pop up your toast before Herbert Hoover was elected.

Specificity is generosity, someone said. Be a generous writer.

Homework assignment: Write 17 shades of blue, give me nine kinds of cake. Describe something “beautiful.”

20 Ways to Make It Better–Way #6

Into the Deep

Sometimes a writer skims on top of a subject. Or is too nice. Maybe the writing is glib and clever and even funny, or the story moves along from plot point to plot point, but the piece is shallow as a wading pool. The  facts are there, maybe even shocking or dramatic facts, but there’s no emotion beneath them.

If the piece lacks honesty  the reader may feel cheated. The writer, too. To discover what you really have to say, what matters to you, what your story is about, take some time and go deeper.

Here are a few ways to go deeper in your writing:

  • Put a comma at the end of a sentence, rather than a period, and go a little further.
  • Look for doors to go through, openings that take you deeper into the piece. After you’ve written a scene or a section, read through and see where openings to “show” offer an opportunity to go deeper.
  • Ask your characters the kind of questions that matter. Risky questions. (Ask yourself, too.)
  • Go for details. The telling detail. Write the concrete, the sensory, the specific. Upon rewriting and editing, you’ll choose the details that work hardest.
  • S-l-o-w  d-o-w-n. Sometimes we’re so anxious to get to the end of what we’re writing we go too fast, skipping over parts that cry out for deeper attention.
  • Do a sensory inventory. Bring the physical world alive through writing about the senses. Let the words you use to describe them create the atmosphere you want.
  • Don’t just write actions. Go inside. What does the character think? Feel? How does she respond? (If you’re writing nonfiction remember you’re the “character.”)
  • Write specifics rather than generalities.
  • Play off the landscape. Let the place or the setting deepen the story.
  • Look for pulled punches. Where did you play it safe? Did you cheat the scene or the character, or yourself?
  • Look closer. Close your eyes and write what you see on the screen in your mind. Write the pictures.
  • How does it feel? Ask yourself or ask your character. Breathe and feel the emotion, and write what you felt.
  • Dance with your shadows. Acknowledge the parts of yourself and your characters that are a little shady, less that what might be acceptable or appropriate. This is where it gets interesting.
  • “Look long at what pleases you, longer still at what disturbs you.” -Colette
  • Use metaphor and simile. Symbols and echoes.
  • Tell your secrets. Tell your character’s secrets. Be willing to be vulnerable on the page.
  • Follow memories, let them take you into deeper places. You won’t use all of what you unearth, but you can make use of it— sometimes just an image, a phrase, the tattered edge of something.
  • Risk writing long to go deeper. You can always go back and prune away. Better to write 1000 words and cut 900, than to leave out the 100 words that takes the writing to a deeper place.
  • Get yourself out of the way and surrender to the page.

Close your eyes and dive in. You won’t drown; you’re a writer, you can breathe underwater.