Details, Details, Details – Details Matter in Novels

“Sometimes I read your stories and I like them, Mom,” said my middle son. “But sometimes, when I read some of your stories, I forget I’m reading. That’s when I know they are really good.”

He’s right. And that’s all thanks to details.

Everyone know the phrase ‘devil is in the details’ but I don’t really like it. It makes details sound like a trick or a scam. Details are super important. And I know that. But sometimes it is so hard to make sure my novel has really good details. Maybe that’s the devil’s fault again, but I think it’s really just mine. It takes a lot of work to check every single detail. But if you love what you do, isn’t it worth it? I think it is, no matter what you’re doing whether it’s writing a novel or building a robot or cooking a meal. The results are worth it.

Details Matter

Here, take a look at these photos from my recent house renovation. These are examples of how our excellent foreman has a keen eye for detail. He takes his time, he does it right, and the results are worth it.

Photo 1 is a close up of the top of some cabinets. The ceiling is sloped just slightly enough that the moulding wouldn’t fit. So the ceiling needed another thin layer of plaster. It took a little more work, but now the moulding will look smooth and clean.

In your story, you want every sentence to read smooth and clean. Where do things slope too far away? Could you add some details to even things out?

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Here’s a photo showing the precise markings of some blocking that will support our floating shelves. The shelves will look like they are just floating magically against the wall, like magic. But it’s really careful math and science.

What parts of your story do you want to feel magical but haven’t given them enough support? Are there details you can add so that the entire plot has a good foundation?

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Here’s an example of some wall outlets. It’s a bad photo, so just trust me. These wall sockets aren’t aligned. Our foreman didn’t put these in and I know he’d never install wall sockets without lining them up.They were put in decades ago, and they look bad. They disrupt the lines of the wall.

What parts of your story just don’t line up? What details can you add to get things into line?

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Here’s a rather amazing example. After laying new floor and installing a new door, our foreman noticed the crew had to chip a tiny hole out of the floor to get the door frame to fit. Our foreman knew right away this hole would bother us every day, since it’s right at the top of the stairs that we use to enter the house. He left a note to himself to fix it.

What tiny plot holes have you left gaping open that you need to close? Is there one detail you can fill in to make the story feel complete to readers?

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Details can be added as you hammer out the first draft, but are also a big part of revising.

Details are connected to our senses, so as you’re revising, think about how things look, but also how they sound, smell, feel and taste. One of my favorite details in my manuscript is the sound of cicadas. That sound is part of the Maryland summer soundtrack. I also want to add in the smell of hot tar on a parking lot, and the taste of honeysuckle.

These are all small examples, but details are small. As you read through your favorite books, take note of the details that mattered and how small they are. Then go back through and add them to your story.

Five Focal Points for Revising A Manuscript

I am training for a triathlon. That means I have to practice three different ways of racing: swimming, biking and running. Each one requires me to work on my form for that sport. But the form for each sport has lots of moving parts: arms, legs, head, neck, spine. When you’re practicing any of those, it’s hard to think about your entire form all at once. So I think about it parts. When I’m swimming, I’ll think about elbows one lap, or keeping my neck loose. When I’m biking I’ll work on relaxing my shoulders and leaning forward for a half mile at a time. When I’m running, I’ll work on my forward lean for 2 minutes, then knee lift for the next two.

The same goes for writing and for revising a manuscript.

It’s hard to think about all of it, all at once. So try breaking it into parts.

In May, I attended an agent workshop hosted by my local SCBWI chapter. I spent the most time with Vicki Selvaggio from the Jennifer de Chiara agency. In final presentation of the weekend, she suggested each of us go back through our manuscripts and read it over five times. Each time through, she offered a different focal point for us to consider. Because it’s hard to revise your manuscript and think about all the important pieces all at once.

Here are the five focal points she suggested for revising a manuscript:

  1. Make an X in the manuscript whenever you get bored, a character says the same thing more than once, you’re confused, or you see a tell vs. a show.
  2. Make an X if a scene, page or chapter doesn’t move the story forward, if it doesn’t end when the story is over, if there’s a main character change or if the theme isn’t clear.
  3. Make an X if it’s not written in a unique voice, if someone doesn’t have an important role, if they dialogue tags are too visible (“said” is just fine).
  4. Make an X if your story is missing sensory details, if the story feels like it’s in a void, if you haven’t mentioned how things look, sound, smell, taste, feel, if you can combine setting details with action.
  5. Make an X where you start paragraphs the same way, if you can avoid “-ing” verbs, if you can avoid double verbs, if you can remove adverbs, or other weak words.

Before you tackle this, she suggests letting the story sit at least a month. I’m well overdue for revising my manuscript, so I have to get started making x’s right now!

 

Read it five separate times. Revising a manuscript

Read it five separate times!