One of the great ‘a-ha’ moments in my writing came courtesy of a Jack Dann workshop.
It was a good thing it happened during that particular workshop, because that weekend also ended up being one of the hardest things I’ve gone through. We were critiquing each other’s stories – submitted prior. I, for some reason, ended up last. We were running out of time, it was late Sunday afternoon, so there was no sugar coating of the crits and no opportunity to talk them through as other people had. I stumbled from the workshop into the car for the trip from Canberra to the South Coast and burst into tears. I cried for about an hour I think.
Despite that I’ve been back to two more of Jack’s workshops, and he’s one of the few people whose workshops I will attend again and again and that’s because I know he can give me more ‘a-ha’ moments.
So what was that particular ‘a-ha’ moment? Well, I’m paraphrasing, but it was this – the difference between a good story and a truly great one is in the details.
The things you choose to write about, and more importantly the things you choose to leave out, are what makes a story sing.
When I heard this, it was like lightning passing through me. I saw with absolutely clarity why my writing was still at the amateur level. Either I was throwing too many details in, or I was being lazy and not choosing the right detail.
The right detail is something that can achieve a lot with very little. Take an example I use now in my developing characters workshop.
Now, I bet lots of things have jumped into your mind at the reading of that name, and I bet one of the things a lot of you thought of is ‘martini – shaken, not stirred’.
The drink that Ian Fleming chose for Bond – that detail – does a whole hell of a lot for just four words. For those who don’t know martinis specifically but understand the place they hold in culture, it suggests a man of sophistication, glamour, who is comfortable mixing with the rich and famous. For those who do know martinis, there’s added richness cause we know that ‘shaken not stirred’ is not the usual method of making a martini. So we now understand Bond as a man outside the norm, a man who knows what he wants and won’t settle for anything else, a man who doesn’t particularly care what people think of his idiosyncrasies.
All that, from the one detail of the drink he chooses. A detail that has become synonymous with the character.
See the power of the right detail? Another drink would have meant very different things, and another drink may not have become the cultural phenomenon that ‘shaken not stirred’ has become.
Then there’s the details you leave out. A fabulous example for me is the description Terry Pratchett gives of the Lancre witches at the beginning of Lords and Ladies.
What I love about what Pratchett does is that he doesn’t describe the same thing for each witch – he chooses the things that will say the most and leaves out the things that won’t.
For example, he describes Magrat’s clothing but doesn’t describe Granny Weatherwax or Nanny Ogg’s outfits. Why? Because the detail of what they’re wearing doesn’t add any extra value – they’re dressed as witches, big deal, everyone knows what that looks like. Whereas Magrat DOESN’T dress like a regular witch and so describing her clothing says a lot about her.
In the same passage, Pratchett gives us just a throw-away line about Granny’s broomstick and doesn’t describe Magrat’s at all, but he goes into loving detail of the mess that is Nanny Ogg’s conveyance. Telling us about Magrat’s broom won’t add colour to the story. Telling us about Nanny’s does.
That thing about detail that Jack Dann taught me has stayed with me for – well, it must be going on ten years now. Jack’s taught me other things too, and I know I owe him a debt for being the writer I am today.
So if you’ve never tried a writing workshop – particularly a Jack Dann one, then give it a go. You too might find an ‘a-ha’ moment.
Conflux 8 (September 29-30, 2012) is hosting a workshop by Jack Dann – his well known ‘Keys to the Kingdom’ workshop. Other workshop presenters include Dawn Meredith and CSFG members Gillian Polack, Rik Legarto, Ian McHugh, Alan Baxter and Nicole Murphy. Details here.