A Writer’s Life: Details

A writer’s life is in the details.

Have you ever noticed this? Of course, our stories are about grand adventures, life-changing events, and worlds and people that only belong in our minds.

But where the story really catches a reader—where it connects, where it makes them pause and linger because in that sentence they were there, in the story—those moments are in the details.

In the hitch of breath. In the smell of crushed grass and blood. In the silver gleam of a dragon’s scales, or the glint of moonlight on a soldier’s musket in the midst of the Civil War.

Those are the moments that catch a reader. Not the dates, not statistics, not the entire history and structure of the Paris sewers. (Looking at you, Victor Hugo.) The reader wants to see the world through the eyes of your character, and the best way to make it happen is in the details.

Details

Still, that’s hard, right? How do you know which details to write about? Because I can guarantee, if you toss every single detail in a battle scene at the reader, your scene will be ten pages long and the reader will give up in exasperation.

It’s just as bad to overwhelm your readers as it is to starve them.

Thankfully, most of us are writers because we aren’t content with the world through the eyes of a nine-to-five job.

We know what we want to see. We know what snatches us into the scene, what makes us pause.

Except when we don’t.

Sometimes it feels like some kind of witch’s brew that we forgot to get the recipe for. A little lighting, a little sound, maybe the creak of an old oak in the wind. Oaks creak, right? Or an owl. We could stick an owl in there—if owls live in that sort of environment

After a while, it gets a little desperate, and the details we throw in end up taking away rather than adding to our scene.

How To Make It Happen

So how do we know what belongs and what doesn’t? How do we find the details that matter, that catch a reader, and avoid our characters talking in white space, or worse, spending ten pages describing the Paris sewers instead of telling the story?

So how do we find life in the details?

Because you can. I do. The details are my favorite part of a story, and when I find them as a reader it always, always catches me into the story.

As a writer, I revel in them. I’ve made my mistakes (too many to count, actually), and I’ve found my rhythm.

I do it with two truths, three tricks, and one breath.

Truth #1

Magic is everywhere . . . especially in the mundane. Everything around us is moving, shaping, telling stories that will probably never be written down. Everything is story fodder, everything has the details you’re searching for.

And you won’t find them in front of a blank screen and a blinking cursor.

Writers need to live. They need to go for walks, sit in coffee shops, go to plays and movies, walk through crowded rooms. The more you notice the details—especially the ones that catch your eye and feel important—the more you’ll be able to project that into your writing.

Truth #2

If you haven’t made a mistake lately, you aren’t growing.

My delete key is my best friend. I have deleted probably ten times as many words as I’ve ever kept and never felt bad about one of them. If a scene is going wrong, and I feel like I’ve missed the details that matter, I’ll start over.

It drives my sister nuts.

Every word I write is teaching me, whether I keep it or not. The mistakes you make in pursuit of the details are your apprenticeship. What you delete will teach you more than what you keep.

Three Tricks

  1. Notice everything. When you’re out walking, when you’re at the mall, and especially when you’re traveling. Keep a journal just for the things you see and smell and taste and touch. The more you immerse yourself in the details, the more you’ll understand which ones are important and which can be tossed aside.
  2. Find what you love and write about that. The rain. Wind. Coffee shops, sunshine, pine forests. If you love what you’re describing, it will come out that much more vivid. My stories always include rainy nights—because I love rain, and I can immediately capture the details that matter to me.
  3. Take special care of the small things. The larger something is, the more time it will take to describe and the quicker you will lose your reader. So describe your huge cities and palaces that reach to the sky as briefly as possible, then show the reader the swinging sign above your character’s apothecary, the cat lounging in the window, and the steam rising above a bubbling beaker. Those are the details that will matter.

One Breath

As I’m writing this, I’m sitting on a picnic blanket in a neighborhood park with a view of Pikes Peak stretching out in front of me.

And I’ll be honest, it’s far easier to focus on the kids that are chasing each other around the park or the clutter of things we brought with us or even the work I’m struggling to get done rather than enjoying the fact that the peaks are gray and blue today and crowned with snow, that I’m sitting under the most beautiful spruce tree, or that the wind smells like spring at last.

That needs a pause. One breath. A moment of mindfulness. That’s where the details are found.

Good luck, dearest writer! May your tea be hot and your dreams wild.

What are your favorite kinds of details to use in a story? Tell me about them in the comments! And stay tuned for next week, when we will be discussing perfectionism and toxic effect it can have on a work-in-progress.

A Writer’s Life: Routines

Writing is hard.

And not just because I’m typing this with one hand because I’m cuddling a child in the other. I’m actually remarkably good at typing with one hand. I’m versatile like that.

No, writing is hard for a whole different set of reasons. Time constraints, previous commitments, and life tend to get in the way of creativity and our stories, and when—magically—everything lines up for us to sit down for an hour or two to smash out a thousand words, we suddenly hit a block.

Who else hates that blinking cursor?

I do. When I’m stuck, I feel like it’s mocking me.

I resent that.

My solution?

Routines

Writing is hard. It’s harder when you’re not ‘inspired’. But, writer, no one is inspired every time they sit down to write. If you wait for inspiration, you will get three chapters in six months, and a book that will never be finished.

Writing is a discipline, and you won’t always feel like it.

Working through that reluctance and learning to write anyway is what distinguishes the authors from the hobby writers. If you can write when you don’t want to, you will finish more manuscripts than most people will finish chapters.

And believe me, that’s a good feeling.

The trouble is, how do you get your creativity flowing on a day that feels drier than dust? Because writing isn’t like crunching numbers, stocking shelves, or painting a wall. Sometimes, you’re staring at the blinking cursor, determined to write, and you just . . . can’t.

How To Make It Happen

Here’s the thing.

Your brain is incredibly complex. It’s brilliant and limitless and incredibly, incredibly powerful. Day or night, there is no time when you can’t access the skills you’ve built or the stories you’ve planned.

Writer, it’s your mind you have to convince. (And yes, your mind and your brain are two different things.)

And, if you can’t convince your mind that you are totally capable of writing at any given time, in any given place, then it might just be time to resort to a little trickery.

Yep. I trick my mind. All the time. I’ve learned to snap myself from a slump into high gear and to write like the wind on the days when I am completely stuck.

I do it with two truths, three tricks, and one moment of intentional discomfort.

Truth #1

Writing is magic—and it’s not.

The magic is in you, writer. In your head, in the stories, in the effort you put into your work. There’s no mystical time of day that you have to ‘catch your muse’, no sacrifices to burn, no secret formula.

There is only you. What works for you, what tricks your mind into putting words on the page. What brings joy into the process for you.

Truth #2

There is no wrong way to get yourself moving.

Need a twenty-minute power nap before you start? A half hour of reading? A cup of coffee? Maybe you like to run to get your mind moving or have a favorite snack that triggers your writing mood. Or maybe you like to listen to the same song on repeat for an entire session—or have your space completely silent.

The only wrong routine is the one that doesn’t work for you.

Three Tricks

  1. Have a routine. A thing—or series of things—that you do before and while you’re writing that tells your mind it’s time to focus and get things done. A song, a cup of tea, rereading what you wrote the last session. Something that you do every time you write to trigger your writing muscle and get you going.
  2. Tailor it to you. Writer, you are unique. Looking up writing routines on Pinterest and choosing the best one is great—as long as you tailor it to fit. Your mind is not like anyone else’s. What will get it in gear is completely unique. So take some time to find what works best for you . . . and give it a while to start working. Habits aren’t made in a day.
  3. Know your limits. I try to write six days a week, every week. It keeps me in the zone, keeps me productive, and gets things done. For me, it works. One of my writer chums lasts about three weeks in that routine before she hits burnout and crashes—a totally unhealthy thing to have happen. What works for someone else may not work for you. Find your own routine, your own limits and what keeps you productive, joyful, and healthy, and run with that.

One Moment of Intentional Discomfort

I did not want to write this morning.

I’m going to be honest about that. It happens to me a lot. I would rather read, or listen to an audiobook and do Sudoku puzzles. Or clean my house. Or play chess with the kids. Just about anything really, because writing is hard, it taxes my brain, and as much as I love it, sometimes it’s just—work.

And yet, I set aside the things I would rather be doing, dumped my excuses in the trash, and went to it. Because even the best things in life are uncomfortable at one time or another. They force us to stretch and grow and keep us honest.

But I’ll you something. After that moment of intentional discomfort—that uncomfortable realization that I was going to do this whether I liked it or not—the words started to flow, and I started to enjoy myself.

Sometimes, a moment of intentional discomfort is all it takes.

Good luck, dearest writer! May your tea be hot and your dreams wild.

What kind of routines do you have for your writing? I’d love to hear about them, or answer any questions you might have about developing a routine. And stay tuned for next week, when we will be discussing details, and the impact they have on a writer’s work.

Portrait of a Missionary

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As a writer, I am fascinated by people.

No two people carry the same stories. Their life experiences, their worldview, and their hopes and dreams are uniquely their own. No work of fiction can compare to the beauty and complexity of the world around us, but, caught in our jobs, our routines, and our day-to-day tasks, it’s easy to lose sight of the richness of life amidst the mundane.

In this series, I would like to reawaken your awareness of the extraordinary.

A.R. Geiger

Not everyone has the privilege of a returning missionary sitting at their dinner table.

As I was setting out our plates and sitting down opposite my visitor, I was very aware of this. Even in my unique position as this particular missionary’s sister, I only get the chance to have dinner with him once every other year or so. Armin Geiger is a youth pastor in Vanuatu, a collection of islands in the South Pacific, and he returns to the United States very rarely.

When he does, I like to make sure I have at least one evening with him.

He didn’t hesitate when I told him I wanted a story. His life in Vanuatu is a strange mix of the mundane and the fantastical, of office work, a regular job, and schedules, and, scattered throughout, adventures worthy of a far longer post than this one. He always has a story ready when I ask.

“We were in west coast Santo on the medical ship last year,” he told me, already forgetting his dinner. “Giving care to the local communities. But their clinic location was set up in one village, and all the other people had to travel to get there. We knew a lot of elderly and disabled people needed medical care. So a local, one other girl, and I took a tender—a small speedboat—and drove forty minutes up the coast from where the ship was anchored.”

He sat back in his chair, pausing to remember. “We arrived and the waves were stronger than we anticipated. So I hopped off with this other girl, and we go off with the local to find these two old ladies. In this small woven hut, we find this one lady who was practically deaf, hunched over, frail as a bone, with this stick that she used to walk. She was in her seventies, I think, dressed in a classic, flowery gown that they wear in the islands. My friend began to walk her toward the shore, while I went to get the other patient, who ended up being an old lady who had no legs. Not as old, probably in her forties or fifties, but she had no legs and some sort of odd, wheelchair type thing that didn’t work so well.”

“So we half-carried, half-wheeled her to the shore, which was probably 200-300 meters away, and when we arrived, the waves had gotten even bigger.” He ran his hand through his hair, looking out the window. “And so the challenge was to get these two old ladies into the boat with waves that were up to my chest and not kill them or drown them. Cause at that age, you’re very frail. The guy on the boat had it running because you had to keep it running continually. So he’s running it with prow pointed out to sea, hitting every wave and riding it out. We’re timing it with the waves. So I scooped up the old grandma with the walking stick, and when a wave comes and it runs down, I run in and chuck her on board.”

I laughed, and he grinned, continuing, “She’s sitting there, freaking out,” he lets out a yell that sounds as much like an older woman as a twenty-something man can sound. “Then we go back for the next lady. I’m carrying her in front of my chest and the boat comes down—‘cause when it’s on a wave it’s up high, like above my head—the boat comes down, and I go for it to put her in. Then the wave comes a little sooner than we anticipated, so I lift the lady up high above my head, and the wave hits me in the chest, drenching me, ruining my phone.”

He lifts his arms above his head, demonstrating for me, totally caught up in his story now. “So I’m holding her as high as I can, and the waves are still coming, and then the boat comes down again and I chucked her onto the side and the guy on top grabbed her and pulled her up.”

“Pretty intense couple of moments,” he tells me, pausing again as he remembers the boat trip and the struggle to get the women aboard and back down the coast, “because if she fell in, that would not have been good. But we got them safely to the location, where they got medical care and glasses.”

I got up to refill his plate, marveling that, to him, his story is a fairly normal part of his life in Vanuatu. To me, it sounds as outlandish as one of the history books I grew up on, and the realization serves as a reminder that the extraordinary still remains hidden among the mundane.

But, as I said, not everyone has the pleasure of a returning missionary sitting at their dinner table.