Friday, December 2, 2016

Writing Small

Shannon Dittemore is the author of the Angel Eyes trilogy. She has an overactive imagination and a passion for truth. Her lifelong journey to combine the two is responsible for a stint at Portland Bible College, performances with local theater companies, and a love of all things literary. When she isn’t writing, she spends her days with her husband, Matt, imagining things unseen and chasing their two children around their home in Northern California. To connect with Shan, check out her website, FB, Twitter, Instagram, or Pinterest.


I'm neck deep in an edit right now, so I've been thinking a lot about the concept of writing small. Writing small, as Richard Price defines it up there, is hard to do when you're drafting, especially if you have some idea of where your plot is headed. In the drafting phase, our focus is on getting there, to the end, to the action, perhaps, and we often forget that it's often the smallest moments our characters navigate that will resonate most fully with our readers.

In all fairness to the drafting process, it would be very difficult to get all our big ideas on the page if we kept stopping for each small moment. That's what editing is for, right? One of the many tasks we accomplish as we edit is penciling in detail where our writing has left only giant swathes of color and feeling.

Perhaps it was the references to "burnt socks" and "the horrors of war" in Mr. Price's quote that reminded me, but Marcus Zusak is brilliant at writing small in his masterpiece The Book Thief. Here's an excerpt that shouldn't give too much of the story away. Read it with an eye to see exactly what Liesel is seeing in this small, quiet moment.

Papa's bread and jam would be half eaten on his plate, curled in the shape of bite marks, and the music would look Liesel in the face. I know it sounds strange but that's how it felt to her. Papa's right hand strolled the tooth-colored keys. His left hit the buttons. (She especially loved to see him hit the silver, sparkled button--the C major.) The accordion's scratched yet shiny black exterior came back and forth as his arms squeezed the dusty bellows, making it suck in the air and throw it back out. In the kitchen on those mornings, Papa made the accordion live. I guess it makes sense, when you really think about it.

How do you tell if something's alive?
You check for breathing.
Isn't it beautiful? It reminds me of the accordion my mother kept at the back of our hall closet when I was a kid. It was such an alien thing--green, if I remember correctly. Mom only played it once in my hearing. We thought it was a silly looking contraption, my sisters and I. I don't know if we shamed it back into hiding or if Mom simply didn't like to play it, but I understand Liesel's awe here. And Zusak's writing about this small manageable thing, is both fresh and resounding.

Some thoughts on writing small:

A little goes a long way. It can be overwhelming to feel you have to be so detailed with every aspect of an 80k word manuscript. That kind of writing is likely to overwhelm the reader as well, but taking time to expound on small moments here and there, will do a lot of good and the payoff will be felt in the reader's connection to the story.

It helps to put on your director's hat. Sometimes it's helpful to view your story as a movie instead of a two dimensional story, flat on the page. Allow yourself to be the director, zooming in on intricate details and whispered conversations and then widening the shot again when you're ready to move forward on your timeline.

Specific stories have the widest appeal. When you take the time to give your characters specific, authentic moments, your story suddenly becomes universally appealing.

My daughter, for example, has a sparkly stuffed octopus named Dazzle. Well, really, she has a fleet of them. There's Mommy Dazzle and Daddy Dazzle and Brother Dazzle and a slightly different version named Dizzle.

Her favorite, though, is Mommy Dazzle. When she's tired, Jazlyn rubs her index finger and thumb--and sometimes even the tip of her nose--over Mommy Dazzle's eyes. The purple octopus has fuzzy eyelids and the texture variation between the glossy marble eye and the material holds some kind of magical power that lulls my munchkin to sleep. God bless magical cephalopods!

Now, this is a very specific, very particular memory I've shared with you. It's not likely you know a little girl named Jazlyn with a fleet of stuffed octopuses graced with magical eyes. But I'd bet big money that you know a child who is deeply attached to a stuffed animal or snuggly blanket and because that's true, you can understand just how precious this memory is to me. My small moment likely resonates with you.

And the small details you color your story with have that same kind of power. The power to connect readers and story. The power to connect your voice and their heart.

Tell me, have you ever thought about writing small? Is it something that comes naturally to you or do you have to work at it? If you have an example of writing small from your own work that you'd like to share, please do so in the comments here and be sure to encourage one another. 

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14 comments:

  1. Great thoughts, Shannon.

    Getting specific is something that I've been working with myself on. For me, it's honestly that I'm just too lazy or too rushed to go to the effort to imagine the scene clearly. Your example is spot on.

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    1. Thank you! It's such an editing thing, really. It's THE reason I can't wait to be done with the drafting phase of any project. So I can add my details.

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  2. Here's an excerpt from my manuscript that may count as writing small. "At some point during Armand's guilty trance, his granddad had completed his case, and now Hums [a pastor] rubbed his smooth chin, more likely testing the quality of his shave than actually considering the offer." Somehow that was one detail that always stuck in my mind, so hopefully it will appeal to me future readers as well. Thanks for sharing, Mrs. Dittemore! This is definitely something I need to spend more effort on.

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    1. "Testing the quality of his shave." Ha, that's great! XD

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    2. Thank you, Tracey! :D

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  3. I love this! The quote, the excerpt, and your daughter's octopus fleet--all of it!

    I think this is why I've been kind of unhappy with my current WIP. I haven't first-drafted something of this length in ages, so I'm not used to skimming over those small details that make the story come alive. Remembering that the point of this draft is just to drive the book forward so that I come back and add details later--that's probably what I need right now. Thank you!

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    1. It's SO HARD for those of us who really enjoy writing small. Getting through that initial draft so we can play with perspective and intricacy. Keep on keeping on, girl. You'll get there!

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    2. Thank you so much! It's good to hear someone echo that struggle and offer encouragement. <3

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  4. Beautifully written, and really helpful! I've seen that quote many times but have never stopped to think about practically how one writes small.

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    1. It's a fabulous quote! Totally wish I thought of it myself.

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  5. Beautiful, Mrs. Dittemore. I really needed this reminder. Fortunately, I do this pretty naturally, but I'm far from perfecting the art, especially in longer works. It is the small details like those that I love. (Both while reading, and it is my favorite thing to write.)

    I'm not sure if this counts. But it is the best example of "small" writing that I can think of at the moment. (BTW Sugar is a horse)

    I left Sugar to follow Tommy to the pond, my fingers lingering for a moment on her soft neck. The dusty pebbles on the long road to the pond skittered away from my feet. The hay lay cut, the juices that provided them life returning to the earth, leaving parched stems that would feed the horses during the winter. How many more summers would Sugar live to see – before she too lay still in the dirt?

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  6. I am learning to do this with a book of poetry I am working on. My editor is a friend of mine and she is really helping me to write small.

    I love The Book Thief! One of the most amazing books ever. That was written by a master's master. Love the narrator and the way with words. Movie was good too. Thanks for the memory. :)

    God bless, Anne Marie :)

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