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Don’t substitute generic . . .

As the director of the Rabbit Hill Writers’ Studio, one of my jobs was to diagnose problems with my student’s stories. Not as easy as it sounds. Often, a member of the class would produce a “nice” piece that just didn’t grab me. This would happen over and over. I finally figured out what was wrong:  the writing was generic. It lacked those good solids details that bring a piece to life. I would read sentences like this: “A car was parked under the tree.” It’s hard to visualize this. What kind of car? What kind of tree? The mind reels. “Her Jaguar was parked in the shade of a willow tree,” is a much different picture than “A muddy pickup was parked under the scrub oak.” Do you see how just adding in a few significant details brings these sentences to life?

If fiction is “a dream in the mind of the reader,” remember that dreams depend very much on details. Dreams aren’t abstract. If you’re being stalked by a tiger in a dream, it’s not Blake’s poetic “Tiger, tiger, burning bright,” but a bloodthirsty predator who claws your arm and snarls right in your face. You can smell his bad breath.

Look at the effective use of concrete details in this passage from Darkness Peering by novelist Alice Blanchard: “A dense forest abutted the pasture, balsam firs releasing their aromatic fragrance from sap blisters on their trunks, leafy ferns thriving along with golden saxifrage and wild iris at the forest’s edge. The day was hot, the sun high, and the silence was so thick you’d’ve thought they sky didn’t have any air in it.” And there we are, standing beside a pond in Flowering Dogwood, Maine. This passage shows clearly that the prescription for vivid writing does not include generics, but the full potency of a specific place and time.

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Guest Thursday, 14 December 2017