"I honestly don't think anything can top it," Nora says, "I remember mine came in midsummer of 1980. My kids were fighting, as usual. It was murderously hot, and I'd just stepped, barefoot, onto a hugely fat tick one of the dogs had scratched off onto the kitchen floor. When the phone rang the last thing I expected was a voice from New York telling me Silhouette was buying my book. I paced back and forth, leaving bloody footprints on the kitchen floor, trying to take it in while my kids murdered each other. It was one of the most beautiful moments of my life."
I love that story. But what makes it great is not just the good news. It's her detail. When did it happen? "Midsummer." Which midsummer? "of 1980." What was the weather like that day? "Murderously hot." Was anybody else around when she got the news? "My kids. . ." What were they doing? "Fighting, as usual." How, exactly did she get the news? By phone. What did she do then? "I paced back and forth." And what is the most wonderful detail of all, the one that "grounds" us in her kitchen with her? The tick, of course. The one she stepped on, at the most exciting moment of her life, so that this future best-selling author left bloody footprints on her kitchen floor.
It is so damned human, real, and believable.
Kimberly, if you're reading this. . .what are the details of when you got your news?
When I got the news that I had sold a book for the first time, I got in my car and drove to my favorite cafe for an omelet with a croissant and a cafe au lait. What I remember most concretely is a single moment: It's spring of 1983. A perfectly beautiful day, 10 a.m., with a blue sky and a few clouds and temperatures in the 70's. I'm driving on Ward Parkway, over a little bridge over Bush Creek, at the point where the road curves onto the south side of the creek. I'm in the middle lane of traffic. Cars surround me. I'm so joyful I could burst, and I say to myself, "Always remember this. You may never feel like this again."
What if you want to make your fictional (or non-fictional) scenes as real as Nora's bloody tick? Writing guru and literary agent Donald Maass advises:
Recall an incident in your own experience that mirrors the feeling you want (e.g., the time you felt most betrayed). Record every detail you can remember. What was the exact moment in time? (No, precisely, to the calendar minute.) Who was there? Standing/sitting where in relation to you? What was quality of the light? Object in the vicinity you remember best? What was said/done that made you feel [betrayed]? What made it extra bad…it would have been bad enough, except that--? In other words, what twisted the knife?
Now, give those details to your character in the scene. If it means changing location, time of day, objects around…do it. Make it personal but with details.
The idea here is that if I tell you, the moment I felt most betrayed as when my girlfriend dumped me without warning…well, that’s fine. But when I say, it was a snowy March 31st in New York, I was walking home from a poker game, crunching through the snow, the city quiet, talking on my cell, breath visible, when I could tell something was wrong, finally my girlfriend told me it was over, I stood in my room in my coat and dripping boots, unable to believe it, hearing the words in the earpiece but not believing them, talked for twenty minutes without moving, still dressed for the blizzard…
…okay, what makes that story? Not “dumped” but the details around it, right?
Right. So very right.
Everybody here is a writer. I know you are--I see your own blogs everyday, or your comments, or I read your books. Can you--would you care to--share the details of a great, or less than great, moment? Or, how about this moment?
And a great good morning to you. Happy weekend, everybody.
(Nora's story is told in Seven Steps on the Writer's Path. For more of Donald's great advice see his Writing the Breakout Novel and Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook.)