The discussion of the power of a single detail in episode 152 of The Journeyman Writer podcast reminds me of the consideration of Anton Chekov’s idea of the “telling detail” in the Gotham Writer’s Workshop book Writing Fiction. In the chapter “To Picture in Words” Chris Lombardi gives us insightful ways to think about the power of this kind of detail.
A telling detail does what it says: it tells the essence of what it’s describing… A telling detail can speak volumes in a very short amount of time. They help you achieve a golden mean—enough description to paint the picture, but not so much as to weigh it down.
It feels like all the things my undergraduate fiction writing classes didn’t cover or skimped on are given insightful attention in this highly readable resource. Here are some points that really resonated with me…
Think of yourself as a collector—of sensations, of objects, of names. Especially names.—Chris Lombardi
The first job of a story’s beginning is to start at the right time.—David Harris Ebenbach
With the first few paragraphs of a story of novel, you make a contract with the reader. You agree to tell a particular kind of story in a particular voice. Whatever you contract to do, as with POV, you contract to do it consistently.—Peter Selgin
The beginning of a story has to get three things done: it has to drop the reader right into the middle of the action, it has to provide all the necessary background information to get the reader up to speed, and it has to establish the major dramatic question.—David Harris Ebenbach Continue reading
Every story is about saving the world. The only question is: what is the world you’re saving?—Max Gladstone
It’s so fantastic that the Cambridge Public Library has an author speaker series for National Novel Writing Month! The last session on world building with Max Gladstone was fully of lively discussion and great perspectives about creating immersive, coherent worlds in fiction. One point that really stood out to me was a world-centric view of stories that Max mentioned, quoted above. In the days following his talk, I found myself looking at story after story through this lens, considering the sorts of worlds various characters are trying to save—a microcosm of interconnected friendships, the Candy Kingdom, a starship full of spacefaring humans, the inner life and family life of a tween… I love how applicable this way of looking at narratives is.
I wish the NaNoWriMo Author Insights speaker series could go on and on beyond November… Fortunately, it seems like there are always author talks and more on the library calendar!
tNY Press’ The Electronic Encyclopedia of Experimental Literature (the EEEL) just published my flash fiction story “My Lovely Nemesis”! If you could use a compact dose of quirky creative writing, please give it a read!
Almost every autumn, I facilitate a two-hour workshop for high school students that explores and encourages the writing of extremely short fiction. Through nearly a decade of iterations, this workshop has evolved, expanded to encompass Mac vs. PC commercials and Ben Loory’s “The Girl in the Storm”, while contracting to only mention rather than consider the stories of Alan Lightman and David Eagleman. But even with all the exciting new developments in short-form media (the advent of hint fiction, resurgence of interest in short films, etc.), I always have my students read and discuss work by Barry Yourgrau, a pioneer of flash fiction who excels at telling adventures in mere pages or even paragraphs and is a master at mixing the mundane with the magical. Maybe you’ve never heard of him. He seems to be often overlooked, and if it weren’t for one evening over ten years ago, I too might never have heard of him.
I don’t remember how I ended up there; it was probably mentioned by my creative writing instructor. But what matters is that I did end up there, at a most delightful and extraordinary event for his book The Haunted Traveler in the MIT Media Lab building, where Barry Yourgrau embarked us upon a safari into a realm of literature I’d only glimpsed, acquainting me with a place so enchanting I have never since left. Throughout that evening, over and over, mere minutes with his words would bring me deeply into, through and, before I knew it, out of some strikingly peculiar situation, perhaps humorous, definitely relatable. A man stalking a woman with Cupid in tow, the relationship between a ghost and the music teacher he comes to love, the strife ensuing from furtively watching the dreams of sleeping lover. These stories were uniquely, marvelously enthralling, only roughly characterizable from past experiences as something and nothing like Roald Dahl meets Edward Gorey meets O. Henry. And I was hooked. There was then little choice but to become a denizen of Barry Yourgrau’s universe of mini-worlds that foray into varied topics from familial relationships and perilous travel to romantic affairs and monsters. So many of their scenes and escapades are too good not to share with avid readers and aspiring writers. Continue reading
After enjoying David Morley’s fantastic Writing Challenges podcast, I decided to take a look at the book David Morley co-edited with Philip Neilsen, The Cambridge Companion to Creative Writing. Overall, this collection of articles offers some helpful perspectives (ranging from philosophical to practical) and exercises for creative writers. Here are a some lines that resonated with me.
What are you challenging yourself to do that makes it worthwhile for the reader to join you?—Kári Gíslason, “Travel Writing”
Is it not the point of art, both the production and the experience of it,
to transcend your own reality, your own autobiography?—Jewell Parker Rhodes, “Imaginative crossings: trans-global and transcultural narratives”
…to “write what you know” fosters provincialism. —Jewell Parker Rhodes, “Imaginative crossings: trans-global and transcultural narratives”
My admonition is to write what you can dream… write what you wish to discover… write what you need to about human nature. Stories, for me, have always been a wish fulfilment — an opportunity to make my life larger by stimulating my intellect, deepening my empathy, and connecting rather than distancing my self from others.—Jewell Parker Rhodes, “Imaginative crossings: trans-global and transcultural narratives”
…the writing workshop isn’t about being published… it is about being more deeply alive.—A.L. Kennedy, “Does that make sense?”
I currently believe that writing is a way of life, that it is a massively demanding discipline, that it is an almost irresistible source of enrichment, expression and change.—A.L. Kennedy, “Does that make sense?”
Writing consists of a multitude of individual decisions, massive and complex control of language in depth and considerable personal responsibility…—A.L. Kennedy, “Does that make sense?”
Ever since Harvard Bookstore started printing it, I’d been meaning to read Steve Almond’s chapbook/mini-book This Won’t Take But a Minute, Honey, and a few years later (after acquiring a copy from Steve Almond himself for a not unreasonable price paid in cash), I finally did. It’s a very readable, compact collection of flash fiction and views on writing, with the latter severely grabbing my attention with pithy, punchy perspectives. Though often stated with an air of certainty, authority or almost sarcastic sagacity, there’s almost a challenge implicit (then finally explicit) in these perspectives/pieces of advice—a dare to one up what Steve Almond stated, and the consideration or even debate that this work may provoke can be valuable to a variety of writers and readers.
Here’s one idea I wound up with after the chapbook ran its course.
Steve Almond’s “Hippocratic Oath of Writing” (shown below) led me to consider a potential Hippocratic Oath of Teaching: Never confuse the student, in the end. I think learning involves a degree of confusion, of exposing and messing with knowledge gaps, to borrow from Made to Stick. But confusion in the service of understanding. By the end of a topic discussion, semester, college, whatever, a student should not leave confused about an essential truth their teachers/mentors/facilitators have been entrusted with guiding them to. For those of us in education, Never confuse the student, in the end, that is a stupendous charge, and while we can’t ever fully ensure that, it’s an imperative that is essential, always posing the critical question to us as we’re trying to explain something: could this be clearer?