2019 Novel Prize Advice & Tips: The Devil Is In The Details
Hey guys, me again. We're on final approach now! There's just 8 days left to get your novels polished and submitted, and I'm coming at you with another little nugget here today.
In our experience of reading and judging, we find, without fail, that the stories and novels which do the best in our competitions are the ones which feel the most... real. Now, that isn't saying that only literary fiction does well, because we've had science fiction and fantasy pieces winning and placing since day one.
So what I do I mean by 'real' then? Well, think of someone you know well. A friend, a family member, a spouse or partner. Anyone. Got someone? Good.
Picture their face. Picture their hairstyle and their eyes. Picture their skin. The freckles, the lines, the contours. Picture how they look in the morning versus the evening. How do they look when they're happy? How do they look when they're sad? What does their laugh sound like? What does their voice sound like? How do they say things? What makes them them? What idiosyncrasies do they have? A certain walk, or a bad habit? Do they spit when they talk or do they mix their words up? Do they have any weird hobbies or likes that make them unique? Do they wear a shirt that's long since seen its best day just because it means something to them?
Now dive deeper. Where were they born? Where did they grow up? What's their favourite memory, their favourite movie? Where do they call home? What sort of relationship do they have with their parents? What's their most traumatic childhood memory? What's the worst thing they've ever done? Who do they work with? Who do they like? Who do they hate? Who would they murder if they could get away with it?
Now picture them in a place you know well. Picture them somewhere that you know like the back of your hand. Your childhood home, maybe, or your office. Or maybe it's outside somewhere -- a city street or a bar you love. Is it a place in the mountains or deep in the woods? Can you close your eyes and be there right now? Smell it? Touch it? Inspect its details?
This is how your storyworld should feel to you. Your characters are people you know better than anyone, and where your story takes place is somewhere you've lived a thousand lifetimes in.
The only way to build truly real characters and places is to know them this well. But you don't need to put it all on the page. In fact, 90% of it stays in your notes. But, that 10%, when you've got 90% squirrelled away, always feels more real. When you get a sense that there's a whole ocean beneath the surface of the words -- that's when books come to life.
How do you strike this balance? How do you make things feel real?
Often it's in the smallest details. An example I often use is that when I think of a friend who used to smoke, he'd always hold the cigarette between his fourth and little finger. I don't know why -- I think he just liked doing it. But, I've translated that to page before, and it works well. It gives characters depth.
He lifted the cigarette to his mouth and took a long drag, his eyes never leaving mine.
He lifted the cigarette to his mouth, holding it between his fourth and little finger. He took a slow drag, his eyes never leaving mine.
I'm not saying it's great, but what I am saying is that it adds something more. Just a little detail that seemingly costs nothing to write, but creates that much more of a vivid picture in the head of the reader.
She walked through the forest, running her outstretched hands over the trunks of the trees. She picked her way through the fallen leaves, listening to them crunch under the heels of her boots.
She walked through the forest, running her outstretched hands over the gnarled trunks of the oak trees. She picked her way through the fallen leaves, listening to them crunch under the heels of her worn leather boots.
We add in that they're oak trees. We add in that they're worn leather boots. Those two minor details tell us something, don't they? You can picture those trees, those leaves now, right? You know the shape of them -- what they look like? And you can see her boots too? But more than being able to see those worn leather boots, we're told more. They're worn. That means well used. That means she walks a lot. She runs her hands over the trunks of the trees as she goes. What does that tell you about her? In themselves, those details perhaps don't mean anything, but we're working to deepen the feeling of the character. And if you've got a reason for why she walks with outstretched hands, whether you tell us or not, we'll be able to feel it between the lines.
Granular details like that shape a novel, adding the sort of brushstrokes that make a narrative feel detailed and immersive.
Be careful not to go overboard, though. Don't throw them at us continually. Choose carefully. Read through your work and see whether there's room to put some of these details in -- to really allow the reader to visualise what you're writing.
I always try to think of these little flourishes and additions like hot-sauce -- and it's a good rule of thumb to follow. A little can add some real flavour to your work, but too much will likely ruin it.
Sometimes, a drop is all you need.
A drop that shows us who your characters are beyond the pages, or a drop that puts us right there with them.
Oh, I'm so excited to read your work, guys! Not long now.
Good luck, and see you next time,