Helen (heleninwales) wrote,
Helen
heleninwales

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Adding detail to description

This is prompted by green_knight's post on how hard it is to add detail as you're writing first draft.

One of the things I've learned during the past two years on the Open University's creative writing courses is that the first draft isn't the final story.

Though I've always known that consciously, I now really know and accept that the first draft is just a step on the way to a finished story and revision is more than correcting typos and moving the punctuation around. I will therefore happily accept a much scrappier first draft than previously.

In the past, short stories have tended to come out right more or less first time and thus had little in the way of revision, or they've bogged down at the one third finished stage where it's suddenly got hard and the story is looking dull and feeble.



The story that I submitted as my end of course assessment started well. The opening of the first draft flowed quite nicely. It was a situation that would grab the reader's attention (cat trapped in burning kitchen) and the opening scene made it through to the final draft more or less unchanged. At the point where the story went into flashback, however, it got an attack of the blahs. This is the original transition -- and yes, it was all one long paragraph!

As a small kitten, George remembered nothing of his former life as a concert pianist. It wasn't until Annette picked him out of the basket at the shelter and snuggled him under her chin that the scent of her perfume triggered the first confused memories of desire and frustration. It was only later that he remembered the name of the perfume, Pomegranate Noir a heady mixture of (insert details here). She'd always worn the same perfume, even at rehearsals, even when she was casually, even scruffily dressed in her favourite old cream sweater and faded jeans and without makeup. She'd worn it that night at the party too. How many years ago was it now? As a cat, it was difficult to work it out because he could no longer read. He could see better than any human in the dark, he could hear sounds that he'd never heard before: the full range of a bat-squeak, the tiny rustlings of mice in the walls of the old Victorian terrace where he now lived with Annette and her family, the highest and softest overtones of a plucked piano string, but his brain could no longer process the black marks on paper that used to mean so much and he could no longer fully understand spoken language. It could be any number of years since his death, but not too many, he suspected because Annette looked hardly any older and her eldest child was still only just tall enough to open the big American style fridge.


Though there is some precise detail, too much is summarised, but I let it go because I wanted to press on with the rest of the story.

Anyway, when I came to finish it some weeks later, I had to tackle the blahness of the middle. One thing I did was shift the flashback into present tense. Also, instead of telling the reader about George's background, even though the narrator still maintains a distance from the viewpoint character, I took a few specific incidents and described them in a more detailed way. Here is the transition as per the version submitted for the assessment.

'Can I hold the kitten? Please let me hold the kitten!'

George's first memories of coming to live with Annette and her family are pleasant ones. He is a still small, a very confident, self-assured eight-week-old scrap of ginger fur and bright white needle teeth, found at the bottom of someone's garden, along with his mum and three littermates. The human lap he is currently lying on is warm and though he is disoriented and confused, he is not afraid. A gentle finger caresses the top of his head and slides around under his jaw to stroke him under the chin. He raises his head and the purr that has been silently shaking his body for the past few minutes now becomes audible.

More scraps of memory: being led round the house on a piece of string by Jack who is pretending that George is a dog; lurking around the foot of Abi's high chair, waiting for her to drop scraps of food and one day ending up with a whole bowl of milky cereal dumped on his head, like a gift from the gods. Cleaning that off his fur is a long and tasty job.


I realise there are some people who say they need to get the detail right before continuing, and if you're one of these people, then for heaven's sake, don't start changing your way of working just for the sake of it.

However, thinking that a story has to be told the way it started out can also lead to stories not ending up as good as they could be and sometimes something that's rather blah as initially written could be transformed by using a different viewpoint or changing the verb tense. After all, Jasper Fforde failed to sell the first version of The Eyre Affair, which was in third person. Re-writing the whole novel in first person brought it alive and he thus made the sale.
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