Today, I am delighted to host exciting new writer J E Byrne on my blog talking about detail in novels and how important it is to set the scene. As readers we want to the writer to paint a picture in words but it’s a fine line – we want tobe able to use our imagination too, not have our senses overloaded. As a debut author, it’s something I’m still learning which is why advice from writers such as J E Byrne is invaluable. Also, check out her new book (there’s a synopsis below and links) – it’s not to be missed! Take it away Jodi … !
“Details, Details, Details…” By J.E. Byrne
“It was the only thing to do,” he said. “The operation proved—“
“I do not want to talk about it,” I said.
“I would like to take you to your hotel.”
“No, thank you.”
He went down the hall. I went to the door of the room.
“You can’t come in now,” one of the nurses said.
“Yes I can,” I said.
“You can’t come in yet.”
“You get out,” I said. “The other one too.”
But after I had got them out and shut the door and turned off the light it wasn’t any good. It was like saying good-by to a statue. After a while I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain.
The famous ending to Hemingway’s A farewell to Arms – it gets me every time. For the past ten years I have taught American literature to high school juniors, and each time we close the pages of Hemingway’s masterpiece, I visualize this scene. I see Catherine, reposed still and frozen in her hospital bed, her color gray, her lips postured in silence, her eyes open and blank. I, too, see Frederick, face red with emotion that he is determined to contain, eyes lost and searching, heartbroken. He has lost her. He has lost his child. He has lost everything. Alone and swelled with shock, he takes the only action a Hemingway hero can – he leaves. I love this ending. It is concise, it is real, and it leaves the details to the reader. My students, well, not so much. The ending leaves them dissatisfied. They want more. They want Frederick to scream. They want him to turn the furniture upside down as he rejects the decisions life has made for him. They want to know what he is thinking, how he feels, what he is going to do next. In short, they want more. In today’s YA literature, details need to be a part of the action.
In a world where special effects and technology rule, details are imperative. It took six months and several revisions for me to understand this. I am a storyteller. Whether I am writing my stories for others or just creating them cerebrally for my own entertainment, I like to escape reality with stories. When in this “zone,” I am able to picture my characters and their actions clearly, and it is very real to me. I become a part of their story, and am able to dismiss my present circumstances. I see my character’s faces, the way they might glow in victory or contort in defeat. Because I completely enter this visual realm, I tend to keep my plot lines busy, with the details skeletal, intending the promotion of action flow and leaving details to reader invention. Enter my first draft of Dead Land. The first draft was plot intensive. The writing moved the action along quickly, with each chapter teasing the next. I thought it was exciting. I thought it was complete. After all, I knew these characters. I could see their faces as they witnessed death, or as they first realized love. I knew their world. I saw the shadowy darkness of their post-apocalyptic landscape, and the long roads they travelled longingly toward hope. I thought my readers would feel satisfied. I was wrong.
Reader after reader of the first drafts claimed the same truth. I love the plot. I couldn’t put it down. But, I need more detail. I want to know what Claire looks like. I want to know what roads they are travelling. I want to know the sound of David’s voice. I want to know if Sarah has freckles… Why didn’t they know these things? Why couldn’t they see what David, Sarah, Claire, and Lance looked like? Why didn’t they know that the group was initially traveling through the woods of Pennsylvania? Then I had my epiphany. They didn’t know these things because I never told them! I had kept it as my story. I needed to write in the details, making it their story too, introducing these characters who were my friends. They were real to me – now I had to make them real for others. In a massive revision, I went back and read the story aloud. Each time I saw an image, I added the words. For example, in my first draft, I didn’t describe Sarah’s physical world before the explosion. In the new draft I shared my vision, one that I created from an actual drive, on April 26th, down Creek Road in Chadds Ford Pennsylvania:
It was an especially beautiful day. I rolled the window halfway down for a better view. The sunlight highlighted the banks of the swollen Brandywine River. I could see a mother duck, belly puffed-up with promise, cutting a serpentine trail behind her in the water. Wild daffodils sprouted up in random bouquets, staring into the mirrored water like Narcissus. Small birds were nestled in the sturdy oaks and maples shading the river, their cover disturbed by Alex’s car as it whizzed by, kicking up rebellion.
Then after the apocalyptic event:
I guessed from the thick and slightly gray haze that it was late morning. Rick said that his house faced east, and based on the directions I had given him, that was the direction we should travel to find my neighborhood. I knew the direction. I knew this road. It was the road I had last traveled in Alex’s yellow Mustang.
Because of the details in the first description of Creek Road, my reader could reflect upon how it had been altered in the tragedy of destruction.
Before I provided little to no physical character descriptions, but in the revision went back and used words to describe how each character looked upon h/her words or actions:
Feeling a presence, I slowly turned to my left. I saw David lying next to me, asleep on the ground. His face was turned slightly toward mine. He looked terrible. His dark hair had grown so long, way past his shoulders, and it was plastered all around his face and neck. He had a full, dark beard from months without grooming, and I could see that he had dark circles encasing each of his eyes. His mouth was slightly opened, revealing just a hint of his white teeth as his silent breaths blew softly in and out. I went to lift my arm to touch him. It felt so heavy. I just barely slid it over and touched him on his cheek. I stroked his beard. I didn’t want to awaken him; I just wanted to feel him. Still asleep, he turned and wrapped his arms around me. I could feel his warm breath on my neck. I went back to sleep.
How I love this scene. It reminds me why I am so in love with David, and through sharing my vision, hopefully others will fall in love with him too.
So, my lesson about adding details in writing is two-fold. First, of course, I am definitely no Hemingway! I give Cormac McCarthy the accolades of mastering the omission theory; and secondly, I better understand that in sharing my stories with others, I need to share the complete story: thoughts, feelings, visuals, directions, plot, and myriads of specifics. As my early readers pointed out to me, I know that you can see it, but I want to see it too! Thus the summer of 2013 was spent adding necessary details to Dead Land. I can’t thank my early test readers enough. Because of them, my later draft readers came to me with a different set of comments: When will book two be completed? I NEED to know what happens next!
J.E. Byrne Bio
As an undergraduate Journalism student at Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania, Jodi took the advice of one of her professors and changed her major to English, specifically focusing on the art of writing. This decision laid the foundation for a career in technical writing, teaching, and eventually fiction writer. Her debut novel, Dead Land, is set to be released by Take Two Publishing on December 3, 2013.
Dead Land follows the life of eighteen year-old Sarah Cain as she struggles to survive the pressures and temptations of high school, relationships, self-discovery…and the end of the world. The novel combines Jodi’s love of fiction, appreciation for young adults and the many challenges they face, and a passion for the spiritual components in life.
Jodi resides in Pennsylvania where she’s working on the second installment of the Dead Land series as well as running her online book club blog.
Jodi’s Blog: http://authorjebyrne.com/blog/
Jodi’s Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/authorjebyrne
Buy Dead Land
Caught up in the rave of the ultimate high school party, eighteen-year-old Sarah Cain finds herself outside at 3:10am with her high school crush. Together they witness a violent explosion that tears through the sky. Knocked unconscious, Sarah awakens to a world she no longer recognizes.
The sun does not rise, there is no moon or stars, and black rain falls heavily on her shoulders.
Forced into survival, Sarah is frequented with strange words and dreams that mystically draw her toward a mountain promising life, even amidst her dying world. Setting out on foot to follow this vision, Sarah meets up with other survivors and discovers that some of them have shared her same dream. Together the group sets off to find The Mountain.
Tempted by good and evil at every turn, survivors must decide which path to take.