The Magic of Detail

Fox Pond Detail.jpg
A small detail from one of my paintings


Whether we’re talking about a story, an article, a painting, or a drawing, the devil really is in the details. Get them wrong and you have a flop. Get them right and you’ve made something great.

Research is really important to make sure you get those details right. Just how should the knight’s sword gleam? What does a rose smell like, exactly? How does a Great Dane generally behave? What are some of the normal brands of potato chip bought in the East Coast?

Details, and how you portray them, are everything. If you’re writing about an object, the reader should know what it looks like. They need to know the color, make an model of the car the protagonist sees. The scent of the forest as the heroin walks into it. How the fur of the wolf feels as the hero tentatively strokes its ruff.

In a picture, little details can really make it come alive. Say you paint a mountain scene. It’s pretty, but what’s going on? Add a bird, and there’s life. Add a boat and a mysterious head in the high mountain caldera-lake, and you have a story. What creatures populate your woods? Who walks through your cities? What do they wear? How do they live? In a portrait, what favorite piece of jewelry, what sly look of the eye, will the viewer see?

Remember to include these things and watch your viewers, or readers, love you.

Tips for Bloggers – a great ‘lede’

The key to capturing your readers’ interest is a great ‘lede.’

Sometimes referred to as a “lead,” a “lede” is the first sentence or paragraph of a news article. Secondary only to the headline, the lede describes the most important parts of the article. Read some newspaper articles and observe how the author tries to hook your interest with the first sentence.

You can use this in your blog, as easily as in a news article. A good lede highlights what’s important and encourages the reader to continue. It also directs the reader to the thoughts you want them to have. Just like with a news article, you only have a few seconds to interest your audience. A lede helps you do that so people are less likely to click on by.

I recently wrote an article where I was trying to lead the readers to a conclusion – but made the mistake of doing that in a high volume venue where everybody skims things. My plan backfired because everyone read part of the first paragraph, responded to that, and moved on.

I should have picked a good lede, one that indicated the direction I wanted things to go in.

For example, in a blog entry about a famous badger race, this might be a good lede:

Sir Fluffbottom is the new world champion in the exciting Beetle Cup race!

Much better than:

I think you’ll love finding out who one the latest edition of the Beetle Cup!

The second lede has no real information, isn’t specific about the Beetle Cup being a race, and makes the reader work for their answers. Many will move on – or click by. Better to be short, punchy, specific, and work into the details in the body of the work, after the reader knows why the article is relevant and interesting to them.

If you haven’t done this yet, try it out. Also, practice picking out ledes in news articles. It can be fun and educational. And who knows, you just might get more people reading your blog.

Improve your stories with Loss

One of the common themes in stories, both short and long, is the cycle of loss. The character starts out with something. It might be knowledge, a home, a location, a thing, a person. The bulk of the story consists of the character dealing with the loss or change, adapting to it, trying to get whatever it was back, etc. The end of the story, if the story is good, shows the character come to some kind of resolution – growng as a result of the loss, learning something, getting something, having an insight. A good story is not a circle but a helix. The character ends up in a different place than where they began.

This is why some TV shows and book series can be unsatisfying! If everything has be put back the same way it began by the end of the episode, the character can never experience true loss or true growth. Have you ever watched or read something and thought “they can’t get rid of that character so I know they will get out of this somehow.” That’s what I’m talking about.

It’s interesting to look at different stories show what parts of the loss cycle. Cinderella, for example, goes from a bad but normal state, gains something, loses it temporarily, and eventually ends the story in the “gain” part of the cycle. It wouldn’t be as interesting a story if there wasn’t that temporary loss part of the story, where the prince is looking for her and she’s having to deal with her sisters.

War and Peace starts in a time and place of relative prosperty, moves through many phases, most of them involving loss of one type or another, but eventually ends up in a happy place again. The characters grew and changed through their losses and gains.

Black Beauty starts with a place of peace and happiness, goes through loss and troubles, and ends up happy again but with the main character being much wiser.

Most sit-coms start from a place of gain, move temporarily into fear of loss, then go right back to the happy ending without learning anything.

What are some stories you can think of that are like this? Do you ever consider this type of thing in your writing?

Two tips for writing fiction

Tip #1:

Get it all down before editing!

I have started many novels and many more short stories. I also have a bad habit of not finishing them!  Luckily, I finally found one of the secrets to finishing them and so I’ll share it with you.

The key? Don’t start editing as you go along. I’ve gotten more done in a shorter time than I thought possible, just by posting on an online site.   (This can be public or private, by the way.)

Why? Because it forces me to keep moving forward. Instead of writing two pages, going back, changing things, editing, and reworking, I write two pages, post them, write the next two, and keep on going. I’ve made a few notes about things to include or change later but I’ve gotten a lot more of the actual story told than I otherwise would have. So keep writing! Don’t stop till you are done, and then go back and polish! You will notice a difference.


Tip #2:

Embrace conflict and confrontation in your stories

Why? Because conflict is what creates drama. Conflict doesn’t have to be argument between people. It can mean an obstacle to the character’s goal. Conflict of some type is usually needed for an interesting story.

Your character is trying to get to grandma’s house, but there is snow in the way and the horse doesn’t want to pull the sleigh. Will your character ever get to grandma’s house? Or will they be able to convince the horse to pull the sleigh?  On the way, what if there are robbers or sheep wearing wolf suits?  Anything could happen.

The challenge to the character creates the suspense, the drama.  If it was a story about how the person got in the sleigh and everything went perfectly, it would be boring, wouldn’t it?  That can be fun for a scene, or to set the stage for something else, but not as a whole story.  You’d think that would be obvious, but can’t we all think of stories where the author didn’t think of it?

Use conflict and confrontation as tools to add spice to your stories.  At the very least, try being aware of the conflict in a story as you read it, and watch how it makes that story more interesting.

Essential Tips for Aspiring Writers

I’ve watched the publishing industry change radically over the years, helped publish a few books, and in all of it I’ve seen that certain things remain true. So I have come up with some tips and rules to help protect you from career-breaking mistakes.

Do not ever pay an agent fee or pay a company a publishing charge. Those are used by vanity publishers and scam artists to separate you from your money and give you nothing. I don’t care how good they make the deal look stay away!

If you are an aspiring writer and want to be published traditionally, do not let your desire blind you to scam artists. Get a copy of Writer’s Market, find an agent that will look at your work. Do not pay anyone. Be particularly wary of any unsolicited emails from publishing companies with glowing testimonials, compliments about your work, and promises of big profits. I’m looking at you, SBPRA!

Carefully check any contracts to make sure you retain control over your work. Look for hidden fees. Get someone else to look at it with you if you have to.

When you self publish, and even if you don’t, use a beta reader. Have one or more people carefully read your work, looking for typos, misspelled words, awkward grammar, or anything else that will make your work look less than its best. The more eyes, the better!

Write what you love, write what you know, and never ever write something you don’t know without expert help. That is, talk it over with someone who knows the subject and then listen to what they have to say!