Getting Your Ducks in a Row

Quack! Have I mentioned lately that I really love the programs put together by the Alaska Writers Guild’s Interior Chapter? ‘Cause I do. Love, love, love. Despite our being a tad isolated from most of the writing world, the chapter president always does a fantastic job of presenting relevant information and finding qualified guests.

Last month’s guest speaker was Gerri Brightwell, the Director of Creative Writing at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Her presentation, titled “Getting Your Ducks in a Row”, was about revision. Dr. Brightwell broke revision down into three clumps: content editing, line editing, and copyediting. Line editing has to do with concision and style, while copyediting digs into grammar. She focused her presentation on content editing and, in particular, the things we need to focus our attention on in revision to make sure our story’s content is interesting, clear, and enjoyable- and makes our reader think. As Dr. Brightwell said (in a charming English accent), “You can edit the heck out of so-so writing and it’ll still be so-so writing.” so-so writing

To take our so-so writing to its full glimmering potential, Dr. Brightwell suggests “the Magic Three”: psychic distance, detail, and character motivation.

Psychic Distance This is how close the reader to the character. Psychic distance can be very far or very close, the difference between “It was the summer of 1982 and the hottest season on record”, and “Her back prickled with sweat as the summer sun burned into her scalp and shoulders, Eye in the Sky drowning out the hum of mosquitoes”. Doing your entire story from a great psychic distance doesn’t give your reader much to attach to. But spending the entire story sifting through the character’s every thought and feeling and motion can make readers claustrophobic. Get inside your character’s head, let us know what they’re thinking and feeling, but also shift out a bit more every now and then. Varying your narrator’s psychic distance from time to time can help to keep the perspective fresh and interesting.

But most of your reader’s attachment to characters is going to happen while riding buddy in their heads. Also, closeness to the narrator (or point of view character) means that we’ll experience the world as a natural, living thing. It also means that the details we see through that character’s eyes will do more than just show the world- they will show character and significance.

Detail Part of getting into your character’s head is noting the details that he or she would notice. Specific details, especially sensory details, can really ground a reader in the character’s world. Including details doesn’t necessarily mean more words on the page, although it can. The best use of detail comes in the efficient use of language. English is rich with very specific words that can tell the reader a lot while saying little. Consider the difference between these two sentences. “The woman’s dog was angry.” “The duchess’ shiatsu snarled.” Both tell us about an angry dog. But the second includes a lot more detail: about the woman, about the dog, about what was physically happening. And it does it with one less word. Use specific words to get more bang for your buck.

Details are important for another reason. Being vague allows your readers a lot of latitude in what they imagine. “The boy went.” Does that put an image in your head? Without using details, we don’t know if the boy is three or twenty-one, whether he went on bike, foot, or airplane, or where he went to. Readers will either imagine nothing at all- which is terrible for their connection to the story- or they will imagine the wrong thing. And then when they find out three pages later that they were wrong, they will feel cheated. Use language that creates Motivation an image in your reader’s head.

Character Motivation Details, especially those from a close psychic distance, also help us to understand a character’s motivations. (See how nicely those fit together?) Purely physical details don’t tell us who a person is- merely what they look like. When we meet a new person, rarely do we catalog him in our minds as the 5’11” man with black hair and blue eyes, although we might note these things at first. Normally, we catalog him as that goofy clown with the wheezy laugh whose eyes kept darting back and forth to make sure his jokes were well received. Only put in the details that matter. Put in details that assess personality traits rather than take measurements. Those details, whether in thoughts or in actions, also help the reader to understand why a character does the things he does. As Dr. Brightwell put it, “Motivation is important. Without it, we don’t believe the character; we don’t believe the story.”

So when you’re reading through that first draft, keep these three things in mind. How close is your psychic distance- and could it be closer? Where have you directed your readers’ attention through details? What do those details say about your character’s personal motivations? With another NaNoWriMo behind us, these Magic Three- psychic distance, details, character motivation- can take your writing from the so-so level to the awesome level.

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