Thursday, April 29, 2010

Wood for the Table

[Cross-posted from Boise's Novel Orchard, where I'm finishing up a stint as the guest blogger.]

“Ultimately, literature is nothing but carpentry… Both are very hard work. Writing is almost as hard as making a table. With both you are working with reality, a material just as hard as wood.”
~Gabriel Garcia Marquez

As writers, we work with the material we have at hand—which is reality, and the words we use to describe that reality. Now, I’m a nonfiction writer, so reality is a bit more of an issue for me, since the reader expects my pieces to be fact-checkably “real.” But fiction and poetry have an equal responsibility to reality. Because unless the writer can create a world in her story that’s as detailed and rich as the world we inhabit, the reader’s not going to stick with it. We’re using reality, but we’re also competing with reality, which is already a sensory overload experience.

Which is why good writing draws from reality. The best dialogue has the same rhythms as conversations we’ve heard before. The best characters, while unique in their own ways, often share characteristics with people we recognize from our own lives. Even sci-fi and fantasy worlds may not correspond to “reality” as we know it, but a good writer can fill these worlds with so much realistic detail that we hardly notice.

It’s these details that can make or break a story. So where do we get these details from? The details that allow people to enter the worlds we create, and be able to see and smell and touch the world around them, clearly? How do we gather the wood for our table? Here are a few suggestions:

Get out in the world, and take notes. This is crucial for nonfiction writers—to get out there and experience the reality we’re trying to convey. We can actually go to the settings of our stories, and get details there. But this can be a useful tool for fiction writers too. If your characters happen to be musicians or doctors, see if you can find some musicians or doctors in the real world to shadow. If you’re writing a bustling town scene for your historical/fantasy book, head down to the farmer’s market and watch how people interact with each other there.

Take a notebook and a camera (or a cell phone camera if you’d rather be more inconspicuous) and watch what’s going on. Write down the little things: colors, sounds, smells. Notice the way people move and talk to each other. You could even try to scribble down snippets of conversation, to get a feel for the rhythms of dialogue. Try not to particularly think about your story at this point: if you focus on what you’re writing, you might miss something that’s happening around you. Afterwards, when you read your notes over, you can work the details into your story.

Follow your obsessions. Tamora Pierce (author of the popular Tortall teen fantasy series) said that she watched “The Three Musketeers” movie 17 times during her years at college. Did it have anything to do with her work at that point? Probably not. But it gave her material later on. This is one of the most fun parts about being a writer—the license to be obsessed with anything and everything. Read books, blogs, websites. Watch and re-watch movies. As Pierce says, “All creative people--not just writers!--expose themselves to as much information, in as many forms, as possible, in the hopes that it will be useful down the road, or even right now. You never know what will spark something new!”

Write what you know. I know, it’s an old cliché, something writing professors like to say… and then they end up with a stack of dorm-drama stories on their desk. You may think that “what you know” is too boring to ever interest anyone else. But I’m willing to bet you know some pretty odd things. Just through 20-odd years of life experience, I’ve become (perhaps too) familiar with church politics, long-distance relationships, and wasp-proofing my house. Just to name a few! Go ahead. Take ten minutes, and write down everything in the world you know about, everything you’re an expert on. Maybe one of your characters will love the same band you do. Maybe your summer job waiting tables at a resort will give you the idea for a story.

How about you? How do you come up with the details that bring your stories to life?

1 comment:

Wildflower said...

I really enjoyed this piece, love! Some great practical advice for the act of writing. I really enjoyed two lines:

"You never know what will spark something new!"

"We’re using reality, but we’re also competing with reality, which is already a sensory overload experience."

My question relates to these quotes. Many of your points seem to focus around the author creatively repeating, i.e. finding new ways to speak of realities that will speak to people of the same thing they have experienced (or the author has even experienced).

What of the place for the unexpected, the jarring, the surprising and the unusual in the art of writing? I mean this question in two senses - first, for the reader. Is there a place in writing for rhetorical creative disjunction, i.e. the unexpected for the reader/audience? And is there a place in writing for self-expressive creative disjunction, i.e. a writing practice that even flows unexpectedly from the author? Can the process of writing surprise even the author?

If the author, in some sense, is competing with reality, is overloaded by the sensation of reality (perhaps contradictory sensations), what is the place for difference in writing?