Viva la vivid!
I have a bad habit when I’m writing. Well, several bad habits actually (not plotting out the story far enough! Too many adjectives in speech! Not finishing novels!) – but here’s the one that struck me the most while I was rewriting the first draft of my horror short story last night.
Have you ever been for a job interview and known exactly what you’d like to say, but when the interviewer finally asks you a question, you only say half of what’s in your head? They might ask you what your previous experience is, and although you might have prepared the answer; ‘I worked for 10 years at X, did project Y, which resulted in outcome Z’ – what comes out is, “Yes, I can do spreadsheets.” And then you see the interviewer’s smile become a little too fixed, and your heart sinks and you know you haven’t given them anywhere near enough info. You spend the rest of the interview sweating profusely and worrying over every word that comes out your mouth, before mouthing a garbled goodbye and fleeing as fast as you can.
As I was reading through the opening scene, I realised that I do the equivalent of this in my first drafts. In my head, I live every scene vividly – I can see the way a character moves, their facial expressions, what they’re wearing, what they can see, feel, hear and touch. What comes out in my first draft is what happens in a job interview – the bare bones. Enough so the reader knows what’s going on, but not enough to hold their attention.
Weirdly, this isn’t intentional. When I’m in the ‘first draft frenzy’, I totally believe that what’s in my head is coming out on the paper. It’s only when I’ve left my work for a while and I come back to it with fresh eyes that I realise how much I’ve left out and how much I’m relying on the world I’ve built up in my head. Readers aren’t mind readers (unfortunately) – as a writer, it’s my job to guide the reader through the story with enough description to keep them interested, but without info-dumping or describing every little thing in such detail that they become bored as they’re not allowed to imagine anything for themselves. It’s a fine line to tread, and a skill that I’m constantly learning and re-learning.
Take the scene I was rewriting the other night. This was my opening paragraph:
“Annalise stood outside the front door, raised her fist to knock, and hesitated. She took a deep breath.
It’s just your sister, she reminded herself, it’s just Constance. Get her disapproval out of the way, and then we can all move on.
But still her hand wouldn’t move. Sweat beaded on her brow from the midsummer sun. Her whole body ached; both from the tedious train journey from London, and from the recent trauma her body had been put through. In her other hand, she clenched her battered blue valise tightly.
And this is what I rewrote it to:
Annalise stood outside the front door, raised her fist to knock, and hesitated. Her hand was an inch from the glossy green paint, her clenched knuckles white, threatening to burst through her skin. She took a deep breath.
It’s just your sister, she reminded herself, it’s just Constance. Get her disapproval out of the way and then we can all move on.
But still her hand wouldn’t move. Sweat beaded on her brow from the midsummer sun. Her whole body ached; both from the tedious train journey from London and from the recent trauma her body had been put through. In her other hand, she held her battered blue valise in an iron grip.
It’s still not exactly right – now I’m wondering if there’s too much description (is the green paint relevant? Probably not). I’m pretty sure Stephen King mentions this in his book ‘On Writing‘ – it’s been a while since I read it, but there’s loads of great advice in there about description, how to use, when to use, and the process of rewriting. I might re-read what he has to say before I rewrite the story again.
Anyway, my point is – live your story as vividly as you can. Maybe you’re like me and do the bare bones before going back and adding in description; or maybe you word-vomit adjectives in your first draft and then have to take them out during editing. Whichever way you write, live your story vividly – find the joy and the flow in your words, and sweep the reader along with you.
Viva la vivid!
Which way do you write? Do you find it difficult or easy to breathe life into a story?
Til next time,