A Wild Parade

On March 18, 2020, SilverSky wrote, I’m writing an experimental book where I play with things like gender, age, and the five senses. I’m working on each of these one at a time. I’m almost finished with the gender and age part but, I’m coming up on senses and I’m trying to figure out a balance between writing too many details and not enough. For example, I think too many details would sound like, “I walked into the dark room. I heard the creaking of the floor boards as a large, grey rat ran across the dark oak floor. The room smelled dusty and moldy with a hint of smoke. It was so dusty that I could taste the dirt on my tongue. I placed my hand on a cold, rough table and a floor board began to break beneath me” or is that just enough details? Would it be better to briefly write what I’m trying to say like, “I walked into the dark room. A rat ran across the floor. Everything smelled dusty. I put my hand on a rough table and the floor gave out below me.” Or not?

I guess what I’m trying to ask is, how can you find the balance between too many details and not enough? And, does the book get boring after a lot of details or does it get more interesting?

I know you already answered a few questions about details but I thought maybe you could elaborate on using the 5 senses when writing details.

A discussion broke out.

future_famous_author: I haven’t read a book that went in too much detail in a while… but the book I am reading right now does it in a very interesting way. The author doesn’t usually explain how things look, except characters, but even then only sometimes, but when the character is coming across a new place (castle, house, field, woods, etc.) she seems to explain every detail! While this is a time when details are necessary for the reader to fully understand the story, I don’t think that she should go so in detail with the setting, and then completely forget about other things.
Also, I think that your first example may have been a little too much, but I also think that it could be condensed. Maybe like this: “I walked into the dark, dusty room, smelling of mold and smoke. There was so much dust that it coated my tongue, and the table that I placed my hand upon as a rat ran across the squeaky floorboards. As the squeaking of the rat disappeared, a floorboard began to break beneath me.” I’m sure I’m not any better at description than you are, and there is really no right way, but that’s just how I feel like it should go. Fewer words, almost the same amount of description. Also, if you don’t pile all the description on the reader at once, adding details as a character explores a place, they may be more likely to grasp what you are saying, and to enjoy it.

Melissa Mead: I think the important part is to pick the details that are important to your character. Are they scared of rats? Allergic to dust, mold, or smoke? Is there something special about the table?

future_famous_author: And not just what is important to your character, but what will be important to the plot. Will the rats spread a disease? Will the darkness mean they can’t see their enemy? Does the smoke show that there was a fire, one that killed an important character? Does the dust show that this place has not been occupied in a long time, meaning that whoever they thought might be there is long gone?

Erica: Make sure that all of the details you include are reasonably observable in the situation. For instance, in your first example, you mentioned that the floor was made of oak. Could your character really tell what wood the floorboards were made of in a dark room, or did she already know? Questions like that help me make sure that descriptive details don’t go overboard.

future_famous_author: Oh, I’ve never thought about it that way! That’s interesting!
Also, if your character did mention that it was oak, maybe it’s because she has a past with wood, because a relative taught her what different kinds of wood looked like. Thinking about what a certain character might say about a certain place might help.

Christie V Powell: I’m just throwing in a resource here. I enjoyed “Word Painting: A Guide To Writing More Descriptively” by Rebecca McClanahan. It’s a whole book filled with tips for describing things, and the language she uses, both examples and narration, show that she knows what she’s talking about.

Melissa Mead: I hope it’s ok to throw this in too. I went to HS with the author. He’s a writer, English teacher, and cartoonist, and he illustrated the book with cartoons: https://www.amazon.com/Teaching-Students-Writing-Visual-Vivid/dp/0545147816

These are terrific! I particularly agree that detail supports both plot and character development.

However, these may be less important in a work of experimental fiction than in other literature. Here’s a link to a Wikipedia article on experimental literature: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Experimental_literature. Writers of experimental fiction may expect more of their readers than other writers do and may not feel the need to create a page-turner. They may believe their readers will make the effort, to be interested in elements other than plot, character, dialogue, and setting–elements, for example, like language and the unexpected.

Such literature is a bit like poetry. Poets expect their readers to linger over a poem, to let it unfold gradually, some poems more gradually than others.

If we’re writing experimental fiction and playing with the five senses, what’s too much or not enough is entirely up to us, and I’d say that in this case more is better. I like the dirt-on-the-tongue example. If we’re exploring taste, for example, we can keep going. The MC tastes the dirt. How does it taste? Salty? Bitter? Chickeny? Does it dissolve or linger? Does it call up memories of other odd tastes? Think of this as Alice following the white rabbit down the hole of the taste of dust. The dust can taste like the color blue. It can make the MC’s tongue swell–or shrink. It can affect her other senses. She can smell in the dirt its history. Readers can be treated to a geology lesson on the origins of the dirt in the last ice age. A woolly mammoth can appear. Enter the other senses, as the MC looks into the small, angry eyes, jumps on the mammoth for a wild ride, feels its coarse hair, aches from the impact as the beast rears, hears its excited squeals.

We can stretch whatever we like. We can report on the vision of the mammoth, which we make up. Its vision is the sense of sight just as ours is. What would it see if it were presented with an eye chart? Our MC can imagine what she looks like to the mammoth.

And so on. Especially in a first draft, I’d suggest writing a lot. Later, we can decide what should stay. For this, I’d suggest choosing the parts we enjoy. The reader can take it or leave it. We shouldn’t judge good and bad for this (or for anything else, as I often say).

We can also go into the sensory ability of our MC, whose senses can be heightened or reduced. In plot terms, the loss of sensation can call forth a crisis, as may its opposite, a painful intensity. That can be the tension or part of it.

I suspect that sensation is a subset of touch. Or maybe it’s another sense. Please weigh in if you have an opinion. I’m thinking of physical pain or a racing heart or the feeling of fever or sneezing or itching, being hot, being chilly. We can delve into those too. Some of these have an emotional side, but the physical is there too. In experimental writing, we can let ourselves run on with sensation.

If we’re not writing experimental fiction, then the amount of detail does matter, mostly when it comes to pacing. Too much detail will slow things down. Two little, and the reader won’t be able to imagine what’s going on and enter into it. Here too, though, I suggest not worrying much in the first draft. Too much is better than too little, because it’s easier to cut than add when we revise. We do want our details to support character development, plot, and setting, as Melissa Mead and future_famous_author suggest.

Also a sense of wonder if we’re writing fantasy–or even experimental fantasy. Wonder can be introduced into any sense: the dirt that tastes like the sky with a teaspoon of honey and smells like peaches; the floorboards that creak out a song; the rat in tap shoes that gives the floorboard’s song a beat; the wall mold that, when a light is lit, depicts a forest scene.

And, as Erica says, we have to make sure that the details are ones that our MC can experience.

Here are three prompts:

• Write a paragraph on the (imagined) taste of dirt. If you can, write a page. Do not taste anything that may harm you! No poisoning for the sake of art!

• From the POV of the woolly mammoth, write its sensations when the human appears. Write at least a page. If you like, turn it into a story.

• Your MC is in on her way to meet a friend for an important reason–you decide why. On the way, by whatever means of transportation you choose, her sensations go haywire: intensify, fade, play tricks. Despite what’s happening to her, she needs to reach her destination. Write the scene.

Have fun, and save what you write!

    • Although I have tasted dirt, accidentally. And the one time I made amaranth, that was what I thought it tasted like. Don’t know if the problem was the amaranth or my cooking. 🙂

  1. I’m doing a presentation in my Children’s and Adolescent Literature class on Gail Carson Levine, and so I was wondering if you would mind telling me your reasoning behind starting the blog. I think I remember you saying somewhere that it was your editor’s idea to start a blog, but what made you decide to make it a writing blog? Was the creative writing class you taught an influence? How many followers does the blog have, anyway? Did Covid change the number very much?

      • Gail Carson Levine says:

        I’m honored you’re doing a presentation on me!

        My publisher wrote to its authors and asked us to get involved in social media, as a marketing strategy. I also post on Instagram and Facebook, but a blog seemed the most congenial for me. I made it a writing blog because writing is what I know best, and it’s the activity that interests me the most. The writing classes I taught and teach aren’t much of an influence–a little, I guess. The writing classes I took when I started out influence me more.

        It must be possible to find out, but I don’t know how many people follow the blog, so I don’t know how it’s changed during the pandemic.

  2. Hi Ms. Levine! Sorry this isn’t related to the post, but I was wondering, how many hours do you write per day? I recently read that the most successful authors write for 4+ hours each day. Do you think that’s necessary? I’d love to see a post about how much to write each day and if you already have one it’s be great if someone could direct me to it. Thanks!

    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      I’m adding your question to my list, but it will take me a long time to answer. My minimum daily writing time is 2 1/4 hours. I try to go longer and often do, but sometimes I don’t make even my minimum. I don’t think 4+ hours are a necessity, but consistency is important. If you have little time, try carving out at least 15 minutes a day for writing.

      • Brambles and Bees says:

        I don’t have a goal, but I try to write for at least a few minutes a day. I usually have to because of classes, but I like to find some free time to work on stories and ideas. I have a goal to finish a book (hopefully) by the end of this year. If that doesn’t work out I’ll probably just try finishing the book.

      • I have a goal to write at least a chapter a week. Sometimes that means an hour a day. Sometimes I get distracted by other computer stuff for most of the week, but then I crank out a whole chapter on Friday and Saturday. I have four small children and a busy husband, so I never know when I’ll be able to concentrate.

  3. FantasyFan101 says:

    I think my daily goal is 30 minutes. I don’t have a lot of time to spare, but I try to work on my projects as much as possible before I burn out of ideas. Then I go back and edit or review or rewrite any older stories.

  4. At the beginning of my story, my MC, who has lived his whole life in his father’s shadow, makes friends with a very charismatic guy to try to learn how to be more like him. Problem is, over the middle of the story, he comes to realize that his friend is somewhere between “has a very different ideology” and “is actually evil.” There’s this great big dramatic scene where the MC refuses to sneak away and let 1,000 people die in a surprise attack, and the “friend” is eventually captured and brought to trial, but what I can’t figure out is how the MC would feel about this, or how to bring their relationship to a satisfying conclusion. The MC isn’t really the type of person to hate him forever, but at the same time, I don’t want him to forgive the “friend” because he was willing to let 800 people die to kill 200 of his enemies. Any thoughts?

    • Actually, I think nuanced emotion is powerful. Your character will probably feel a lot of emotions mixed together: Anger, betrayal, sadness, maybe even guilt. That’s normal, and the more you can show the turmoil, the better. You might consider studying the stages of grief for ideas.

      One of my good friends is in prison. It’s a confusing situation. I found out that he came from a secretly abusive home. I didn’t know his victim. I felt confused when I heard of what he did and his arrest. I was concerned for my friend. I definitely felt sorry for him. I was sad for both him and his victim–and angry at his abusive family. I questioned what was really his fault, and what was the fault of his abusers. I questioned the good times from our past and what was real. In my case, I decided to be supportive and write him letters, skipping over the trauma and just reminding him of good times, and I am super grateful that I don’t have to be the judge.

      Actually, a lot of this turmoil showed up in the novel I was writing at the time, The Spectra Unearthed. One villain is a terrible person who caused death to many and terrified the main character, yet he helped her in the end. The epilogue, where she discusses her mixed up feeling with the villain’s family, was heavily influenced by this situation. I actually sent a copy of the book to my friend in prison, without telling him of the connection. He wrote back to say that he felt sorry for the villain.

      Sorry if that’s vague. I’m trying to avoid real-life connections for my friend and spoilers from the book.

    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      If the charismatic character were genuinely remorseful, maybe that could lead them to renewed closeness, especially if your MC helped him understand the harm he’d done or almost done.

      • Unfortunately, the charismatic character is kind of the villain of the piece. He already decided the costs were worth it, and the fact that the people survived would only infuriate him. He thinks of the MC as a traitor to his cause, even though the MC never really supported it in the first place. Really, my question is what, in your opinion, would be a satisfying ending from the MC’s perspective.

  5. StoryBlossom says:

    The process for writing second and third drafts is so confusing. Most of what I’ve read says something like wait some time, read it, and then wing it.
    Do you have any suggestions for planning techniques and how to be consistent with planning so you get it done in a timely manner so you can get to the actual writing? What can I do during the first draft that will make writing future drafts easier without stifling my creativity by overplanning? In other words, can you expand upon, “Too much [writing] is better than too little, because it’s easier to cut than add when we revise?” I’m thinking this might mean writing every single scene idea whether it fits or not, but that would probably mean adding more during the revision process as I try to fit everything together cohesively.
    That’s the problem I had when I started editing one of my WIP. I didn’t plan my first draft at all. That didn’t even occur to me. I planned my second draft using the snowflake method, but the story ended a complete mish-mash mess. The plot was in my head and not executed properly. I tried again with my third draft, going up to 60ish pages, but then I got sick of the story because I’ve been working on it for six years. There was still so much to more to write to complete the plot. I took a break from writing because I didn’t know what I wanted to write. I also think I was focusing too much on keeping up with my writing goal (which was ridiculously high) because I wanted to finish within three months. How long can it realistically take for a beginner to write a book? Finally, I ran my ideas through a randomizer and tried writing that one. I tried writing non-chronologically, where I just randomly wrote scenes in no particular order, but that felt even messier and I gave up on that. I’ve moved on to yet another story, which I already had a half first draft written. I read the draft, which was based on the same universe from the first WIP I mentioned and had to scrap most of my ideas. I invented a whole new universe and started writing a new draft. But my perfectionism and need for speed is getting in the way. I don’t know why I have such trouble planning– I am a planner in most other respects. I don’t know why I want to write quickly– I hate rushing in all other respects.

    • What occurs to me is that you might want to write quickly because that seems like the sort of thing a “real writer” would do. Three months is almost ridiculously fast to write a book. If you really work at it, you can get a first draft in, but you won’t have time for editing. (And yes, I know NaNoWriMo people are probably laughing at this.) I did it once, 60,000 words in a semester, but I didn’t finish the actual story and I never wanted to look at the thing again in my entire life.
      I think really the issue here is that you haven’t figured out your special kind of planning, and as a die-hard, there’s-no-point-in-even-trying-to-plan-this-because-it’ll-go-off-the-rails-anyway pantster, I can’t help you with that. Reading your comment, my thought was “Oh, yeah. Just start over with whatever idea you have now and see where it takes you. It’s supposed to be messy, so you can clean it up.” My advice would be to read every writing book you can get your hands on and see if something clicks.

    • I agree with Katie W, in that it sounds like you need to figure out your own process and what works best for you. I can tell you mine, and give you resources. It works for me, and it’s fast–I can publish at least a book a year, start to finish, with my method. But you’ll want to adapt and eventually make your own.

      I started to write down my whole process here, but I don’t want to take up a ton of space, and I’m probably repeating myself from other comments I’ve made. I copied it all down to my own blog post instead, so you can check that out if you’d like: http://atypicallyordinary.blogspot.com/2021/04/my-writing-process.html

      • Gail Carson Levine says:

        I’ve added the question to my list, although I’m about a year behind.

        In solidarity with Melissa Mead, it took me ten years to write DAVE AT NIGHT, also my first novel, and it started as a picture book!

  6. FantasyFan101 says:

    My advice for you is just write. Zip. Nada. No more. Just kidding. Often I find that when I write, I like to just let the idea flow until my mind is like, whoa, slow down, change this, it’s way better that way. For instance, my current WIP has an MC who still isn’t quite as polished as i’d like, but looking back, her personality and even description fits better into the story. My friend and I also were able to add more details to the world and backstory as the story built up. Now we have not just words on paper, but the seeds of a world. My point is, most of the time your world and story isn’t going to be perfect right away. You’ll get ideas and inspiration the farther along you get. It can help to get to know your world better later in the story. You don’t want to infodump right at the beginning of the story. Things have to start worse before they get better. You have plenty of time. Just relax. Jot down a few ideas. Talk about it with a friend or family member. Have them read it. They might have some eye-opening insight that changes your whole perspective. Readers can have that kind of influence. I wish you luck, from one writer to another.

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