Details in our Writing: How Many?

One of the biggest challenges for me and my students is how much detail to include in our work.  Always we hear the phrase, “show, don’t tell.”  Writing texts stress specifics—details, details, details.  But finding the balance between “show, don’t tell,” and “less is more,” another oft-repeated phrase is tricky.

In the memoir I’m finishing about the guide dog/human partnership, I wrote about the research into dogs’ five, often astounding, senses and talk about my own. Though totally blind and substantially deaf, I’ve learned that the brain’s plasticity and my training have enhanced my other senses. But the details, though pretty delicious, overloaded the members of my writing group, hearing the chapter.

I hypocritically comment, “cut, cut, cut,” in the margins of my students’ papers so it was good to have the same reaction from my peer group.

Orson Scott card and probably a host of other writers talk about every aspect of our writing being autobiographical, the settings, topics, characters, metaphors, and every word we choose. In this way our writing with its specifics out of our cores becomes fresh and important.  But how to judge if we have too many “spare parts,” as Ted Kooser calls them?  I suggest reading aloud, but also reading aloud to others, or having them read aloud to you.  This last especially works.  I wrote an article for a writing journal about it, actually.  Hearing your work in the voice of someone representing your target audience really lets you know, not just the overloaded details, but when the reader is absorbed and engaged, or when she’s just reading words, but has lost interest.  Note: preferably the reader should not be a relative, close friend, or someone biased toward you.

There are probably other ways to check for excessive details. Some suggest using differently-colored markers on your printed pages for action, dialogue, narration.  Then check the balance.

Simply knowing that too much detail is just as bad as too little may be a help. Ah.  The quest for the Goldilocks measure continues.


Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Gathering Ideas and Revising our Work

I cannot recommend enough the Ted Kooser The Poetry Home Repair Manual: Practical Adice for Beginning Poets.  So far as I’ve read, it could be called simply The Handbook on Writing.  In the early pages he talks about getting ideas and about revision.

In an appearance at Chatham a year ago, Lois Lowry said that she didn’t believe in “writers’ block.”  She went on, “Is their dentists’ block?”

Novocain, I’d suggest. I respectfully disagree with Lois, at least about writers’ block.  Last Monday night during the Drew-Heinz lecture, Roxanne Gay,  Difficult Women, also disagreed.  I definitely think many of us get “stuck” or empty of ideas.

Kooser addresses that beautifully and inspirationally, I think.  He spoke of William Stafford who said getting ideas was like fishing.  You just toss in your line and sit.

Kafka addressed the process somewhat differently. To paraphrase, he said, “you just sit and listen.  Well, don’t listen, just sit and wait.  Well, don’t wait, just sit.  Ideas will roll in…”  His advice is to do this every day.  This is the writer’s work, to show up at the computer.

I share this, knowing that life interferes with that dictum of showing up every day.  Illness, and, well, work (I almost said “real work”  which is as bad as the person who asked me once if the book I had coming out was a real book or another children’s book)  And our children always come first, and our families, our dogs…all meaningful relationships.  But please don’t wait till you have the idea before writing.  Sit, and ideas will come, at least according to Stafford and Kafka.  Personally, I can’t promise.  But I do think to sit regularly and welcome ideas is worth a try.

On revision, Kooser says most people see it as the worst kind of drudgery. I have to disagree, again.  Cleaning, cooking, laundering—for me, these trump revision flat.  Kooser says that he has revised most of his poems of only 20 lines forty and fifty times, looking for clarity and freshness.  I say I’m on a third rewrite of my guide dog story, but that doesn’t include the endless revisions plus tinkerings of chapters.  It doesn’t take into account that I’ve written this story as a fictional series, as a lengthy memoir about blindness framed by my dogs.   Trying to write about my guide dogs has been something I’ve been doing for years now.

And although, like most of us, I’m crazy to publish a book, and revision seems to stall that process, I’ve grown to love the tweaking and detailing and deepening of a project. Tweaks that might have to be trimmed or abandoned altogether are fun.  Oscar Wilde supposedly told someone about his writing one day.  Paraphrasing, it went something like this:

“Well, I spent all morning and put in a comma.”

“And what did you do in the afternoon of this exhaustive work?” the woman asked.

“Oh, I took out that comma.”

So please don’t feel pressure from me about getting to that computer more often. Life offers enough pressures.  But please don’t postpone sitting at the computer because you don’t have an idea.  And don’t postpone sitting down to revise, because the work needs to be turned on its head altogether.  Just think, one comma at a time.



Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Digital Frustrations and Triumphs

My smart phone has been making me feel dumb again—which is especially bad because my laptop has been mocking me for a month, ever since I installed an update to my screen reader.  (Beware of JAWS 18, blind friends.)  JAWS has been acting like a sullen teenager, not speaking to me.  And if it deigns to speak, it takes it’s time as if it’s gathering its patience to deal with such a slug.  And then it seems to have decided to test me on every operation I’ve managed for years.  And JAWS seems to have traumatized the entire laptop, causing it to buzz uproariously or, now that I think about it, give me the raspberry periodically.  Truly, I’m just glad it’s winter and the windows aren’t open, or our neighbors with the impressionable, little girls would be scandalized by my language.

And then over the last two days my husband has informed me that the screen on my Smart phone is black.  I try to ignore his sighted arrogance, but can’t help a defensive, “Just my way of keeping you from snooping on my private messages!”

Inwardly I’m thinking, “Not something else to deal with.  How can anyone ever finish a book when all time is spent trouble-shooting her helpful technology?”

But something is niggling in the back of my mind.  I’d heard my guru techie mention some finger tap or gesture to turn off the screen, hadn’t I?  Among the thousands of single finger single taps or double taps, or double finger single or double taps or triple…A middle finger came to mind, and also the grand gesture of a fist to the screen.

In desperation I skimmed through my 47 pages of notes on using the damn thing, doing a word search for screen.  And aha.  A double finger single tap mutes the phone, but a triple finger triple tap turns the screen on or off.  I raced down the two flights of stairs from my office to catch my husband about to leave the house.

“Bob, Bob.”

I poised my three fingers and triple tapped, and voila  the screen came back on.  Yay!  Bob cheered; Dave, my dog, leaped.  I shoved my fist into the air, not the screen.  What triumph!  What joy!

What a sad state I’m in, feeling high from a technological problem solved.  Pretty pathetic.  Is this what my life has become?


Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Character Development…again



One of the most overused phrases in texts on writing is “Show, don’t tell.”  Another, equally repeated, is “what does your protagonist want?”

Character desire is so paramount to the story, yet it is no small thing to figure out.  I find that in my students’ work  and in my own writing, the trick is to keep delving deeper for what that character essentially wants.  So often the answers we come up with are superficial.  We check off the answer and move forward in the plot.  Digging further into what the character wants, what the obstacles are to keep her from getting it, what actions she takes to fulfill that desire are all helpful left-brain work.

I just read “How to set a Fire and Why” by Jesse Ball.  The protagonist Lucia still lives with me.  I think she’ll step through my door, probably with her dad’s zippo lighter, her only remnant of him.  I don’t know how Ball created Lucia, if he did any analytical work to produce such a voiced, real character.  But I hold Lucia Stanton up as a model for deeply delineated character.

Orson Scott Card in his book, “Character and Viewpoints,” defines character in his first chapter.  He says the 3 most important details in developing real characters are:

What the character does…work/actions,

What the character’s motive is,

What the character has done in the past, and what’s been done to him.

In addition, he suggests looking into the character’s habits and patterns, his stereotypes, his reputation (not always a true picture of the person), his persona (since people show different sides to family than to friends or colleagues, etc.), the unique talents, and finally the physical appearance.  Physical limitations as well as physical beauty affect personality in a variety of ways.  But physical description is much less important than the other aspects that define character.


Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Considering the Perspective of both the author and the character

As I work with students and encourage them to add specific setting details, I’m reminded of my early days of publishing.  I’d sold two picture books and the photo-essay for older readers and decided to try my hand at a middle grade novel.  It was about bullying, I remember, and called, “Standing Up to Sixth Grade.”  My agent liked it and sent it on to my editor at MacMillan.  She wrote saying that the book was too episodic, then added, “Sally, is this boy blind?”

Ah, no.  I’d intended for him to be sighted.  I had 26 years of vision and planned to draw on that visual memory.  Both my picture books had sighted protagonists, as well.

But the protagonist in the sixth grade novel never looked out the bus window, never described the playground, and only responded to tactile and auditory stimuli.  Gulp!

On further scrutiny in my picture book, “Maggie’s Whopper,” the great uncle expressed affection never with a wink or a smile, but always with a tug to Maggie’s braid, a tweak to her nose, a pat.  The uncle could see well, but expressed his fondness for Maggie exactly as I expressed love.

So I’ve learned that I have to be fiercely diligent about adding visuals to settings and relationships unless my characters are blind.  But I noticed that students, too, need to be nudged to write fiercely from their own perspectives, but also to do a check within their characters’ shoes to see if they’re speaking that character’s experience or only their own.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Idiom for a Hero

The Wallace Stevens poem , Idiom of the Hero, seems so appropriate for today.


I heard two workers say, “This chaos,

Will soon be ended.”


This chaos will not be ended,

The red and the blue house blended,

Not ended, never and never ended,

The weak man mended,


The man that is poor at night



Like the man who is rich and right.

The great men will not be blended…


I am the poorest of all.

I know that I cannot be mended,


Out of the clouds,

Pomp of the air,

By which at least I am befriended.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

“Snuggle Bunny” by Kate Dopirak

Snuggle Bunny is another Kate Dopirak lyrical book for preschoolers.  It’s as delightful as her debut work, You’re My Boo and full of rhyming perfection.  Kate’s a picture book proliferator, someone with ceaseless hilarious and moving ideas.  She’s an inspiration to other writers having spent years coming very close to publication, but just missing because a book was too similar to something the publisher had on its list etc.  But she persevered and now her career is taking off.  Go girl, my lovely, talented surrogate daughter!


Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments