Thursday, September 23, 2010

the devil is in the details

Growing up, my favorite books had nothing in common, on the surface.  I was as deeply in love with the historical feel of Little House on the Prairie as I was with the fantasy elements (science fantasy?) of Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, and my favorite book for a long time was this strange paperback my grandma had picked up at a flea market called Charley, or The Girl Who Ran Away--a somewhat bizarre, feverish story about a child living on her own in a chicken coop, crawling through hedgerows and going to Sunday School with dying wildflowers in her hair.

It didn't matter what the book was about; what I wanted was for it to feel so real, so thick with details and rich settings and characters who seemed so entirely believable that I would get wrapped up in the story so tightly that I would forget where I was.  I loved being lost in a book, so far gone the sound of my mother knocking on my bedroom door would make me startle, confused and disoriented in the real world. 

As an adult, that feeling is harder to capture, but to this day, the books that truly amaze me are the books that feel...deep.  Sometimes I think of it as having layers, but other times I think of it like a thick, heavy patchwork quilt.  Every stitch was deliberately placed by hand. Every scrap of fabric has a history you can hear if you're still, if you study it long enough.  There are varied textures and funny smells and a weighty, comfortable feeling in your hands, on your lap.  And when you put it down, set it aside, there's a little moment of longing--a sad little shiver.

I want to write a book like that.  I do.  I'm trying.  But man, does it ever take a long time!

All this was sort of a lead in (or it was supposed to be, anyway) to talk about how I read through the first draft of my Cassandra WIP and scribbled notes about every other paragraph that said, "GO DEEPER HERE!" and "EXPAND THIS!" or "SLOW DOWN AND GIVE THIS SCENE A CHANCE!"  It feels so thin, so very far from that heavy quilt.  It's not even one of those double-layer fleece blankies with the fringes on the edge--the kind anyone can make, provided they can operate a pair of scissors and tie a simple knot.  This book is like...maybe a flannel sheet.

So almost everyone in my online writing group has at least attempted to do literary agent Mary Kole's 100 Declarative Sentences exercise to flesh out characters or settings.  I'm not sure if anyone has actually made it to one hundred, but even so, we've all discovered some useful tidbits about our characters in this way.  I made it to 45 sentences about Cass while I was writing the first draft, which was super helpful.  Some of the sentences actually helped me keep details straight as I was writing, like this:

14.  Cassandra has a sister Dicey, age 15; a sister Lexie, age 8; and a brother Eric, who is eleven months older than she is and will turn 18 at the end of this month.

So mainly, that kind of sentence helps me keep my continuity.  I have a hard time keeping track, for instance, of what color eyes and hair my characters have, or like, if I mention at one point that eating cheese gives them hives.

Other sentences end up telling me more about the character--sometimes giving little bits and pieces of their past lives that may not actually end up in the book, but which may give that bit of different texture to the patch that makes up that place in the quilt.  I learn things about them, like this:

22.  Cass has a vague desire to be a scientist when she "grows up", but she's worried that this is a little too nebulous...what do scientists actually do, in the real world?  She pictures herself in a lab coat, bending over beakers, but...doing what?  All the pictures in her head come out of that old biography of Marie Curie she read for a report in fourth grade.

Now, on my second draft, I'm making sentences for Darin, and Drew, and maybe even Kayla.  So far I'm on Darin number 24, and it's hard, but I've already got some notes in a different colored pen next to "EXPAND THIS!" and "GO DEEPER HERE!"  My favorite discovery is the first moment he ever noticed Cass:

15.  Darin noticed Cass for the first time on an eighth grade field trip to the underground mine.  Something about her face when the tour guide mentioned the underground physics lab reminded him of Meg Murray from A Wrinkle in Time, and he daydreamed a bit about traveling with her through space and time.  Or at least sitting close to her on tall stools, their heads bent together over a Bunsen burner.  He lagged behind the group for the rest of the tour, his mind far away.

So here's hoping that by the time I finish this draft, this story will have a little stuffing!


Kate Hart said...

Too funny-- I have a whole blog post waiting about how writing is like quilting. It's just waiting for me to, you know, finish the quilt involved. LOL But great minds think alike!

elissa said...

HA! Well, I had to take a photo of a quilt my great-grandmother made because, um...I have no sewing ability. My mom does, though! :)

cathellisen said...

Love your description of books with layers and details - that's the same kind of thing I try with the hobverse books, but dear god that level of stuff can get away from you (er, me *cough*) if you're not careful and end up just being worldbuilding wankery.

And yes! 100 sentences have helped me in pretty much the same asy - keeping track of details, and coming to surprising little insights into my character's world. It's also given me the germs of Really Cool Scenes, so I do like it as a writing tool.

elissa said...

*crossing my fingers for Really Cool Scenes*

:D (I love your worldbuilding wankery, btw...hobverse FTW!)