A Moment of Self-Discovery
It’s in the Details
A fact about me that you may, or may not, know is that I am a professional photographer. About a week ago, I had an assignment that had me on my feet lugging seventy pounds of equipment for about seven hours. Needless to say, by the end of the day, I was exhausted.
Working on Hilton Head Island.
(THAT WAS THE EXPOSITION)
So, I arrived home tired and thirsty. I put on some shorts, my good Nike sneakers, and a T-shirt. I then grabbed two cervezas (beers for those that don’t speak Spanish) and I asked my wife to join me at the beach. We sat on the sand and watched the waves for about thirty minutes before returning home.
Image by Kent DuFault
All that probably seems pretty ordinary, and you’re wondering, what does this have to do with writing?
Something in my brain clicked.
The next day, I was outside, staring up at the sky thinking. (This is something that I do quite often.) My mind wandered back to our beach visit the previous evening. As I thought about what happened in those thirty minutes, I had an epiphany.
A writing epiphany- if you will.
This is what I didn’t tell you about our couple’s moment at the beach. It was cold, windy, and the sea spray had turned the sand into a sticky mess. Once we arrived, my wife and I barely spoke. She sat huddled in a hooded sweatshirt; her face barely visible. It was so cold that my bald head was noticeably uncomfortable. The cold beer was hard to hold on to with exposed fingers. I set it down between my legs and sand became stuck to the bottle. The sand eventually made its way into my mouth. I also scolded myself for putting on my good Nike shoes. Sand had filtering down into them. Uncomfortable, I tried to knock the sand from all of my exposed flesh. I drank my beer fast to end the moment. When, I asked my wife if she wanted to go back to the house, she was standing up before I finished my sentence.
And THIS was my revelation – IT”S IN THE DETAILS
I mentioned in an earlier post that I was a short story writer. I have not written a novel. I also told you that my wife says that I’m scared of writing a novel. But that isn’t how I see myself. I see my writing as painting with broad strokes, lacking in definition, but a beautiful and clearly defined “whole” in the end product. But my wife, (who is my greatest confidant, and editor) says that I can’t get to novel length because I don’t include enough detail. I never really understood that line of thinking until I relived our moment on the beach.
It occurred to me, that if I had written that beach scene prior to my epiphany, (and a lot of other writers would write it this way as well. My slush reading gives testament to that), it probably would have read something like this;
The couple sat in silence on the beach, sipping their beers, and staring at the waves. The cold wind whipped around them. She pulled her coat tight to warm herself. He looked at her. Noticing her discomfort, he pulled her close. After a few moments, he guzzled his beer, and then asked her if she wanted to return to the house; which they promptly did.
Now there is nothing wrong with this version. It tells the scene, it covers what happened, and it does that in a succinct fashion that is perfect for a short story or flash fiction. (In fact, I’ll admit something to you. When my wife read this article, and she reads everything I write before it goes public, she said she preferred the short version)
Now, In an effort to expand on my details, I would write it something more like this.
Their laughter subsided when they plopped down into the wet sand. His wife pulled her coat tight, burying her face into the hood. He looked at her and saw nothing but the tip of her nose; it was turning red.
Jeez it’s cold, he thought.
The wind whipped ruthlessly, nipping at his ears, the dank odor of dead fish drifted by. He had nothing with which to protect himself, so he placed a hand on top of his bald head. It felt like ice.
The two of them stared at the waves, struggling to enjoy the moment while sipping their beers.
He crossed his legs and nuzzled his beer in-between his thighs to give his chilled fingers a break. The bottle slipped sideways and became coated with grit. Anger slipped into his eyes, before he bit his lip to force back a curse.
This sucks, he thought. All day I was thinking about doing this, and I’m freezing. I can’t even think.
She remained silent, seemingly unaware of his troubles. She stared at the gray seas and grounded birds. He knocked some sand from his bottle, and it stuck to his leg. He took a big swallow. Grit wedged into his teeth. He gagged while spitting it out.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“Sand got in my mouth; from the bottle.”
“Oh,” she replied.
The man looked left and right. They were the only two out on the beach other than several joggers.
She shivered, and thought, those idiots are out here no matter what, even in a hurricane.
One jogger wearing Nike’s passed within a few feet of them, it caused the man to glance at his own shoes. His heart sank. Clumps of sand lay along the top; between the shoes and his socks. They looked like mushrooms sprouting. Instantly, he realized that sand had gotten inside his shoes, his good shoes; ruining them forever.
He sighed. Anyone who ever lived at the beach knows once the sand gets in- it never goes away.
Enough is enough.
He drained his beer in a single gulp.
“It’s cold. You want to go back?”
“I can’t believe it took you this long to ask.”
He stood, reached down, and pulled her to her feet.
“Hug me tight,” she said, and they scurried up the walk to their condo.
We now have the same scene but it incorporates little details that touch the senses of the reader and builds up the word count.
My point to you, today, is to engage the senses. Think about those little things that might happen. The out of the ordinary things. Too many emerging writers tell us about the color of someone’s hair, or their eyes, or other simple facts that are broad (and common) strokes. Tell us about the grit in someone’s teeth.
I know that from now on, I’m going to live my scenes in my head. I’m going to take in every little nuance of what might be happening. I’m going to notice the grit, the stench, the pleasant (or the unpleasant) feeling of the moment. And, I’m going to incorporate those details to the best of my ability.
And, you should too!
Who knows, maybe I’m ready for that novel!
I am very opinionated about the craft of writing, and life in general. But… I am well-tempered with an enthusiasm for debate. Please leave comments, even the ugly ones, I dare you.
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I’m also an avid reader. If you desire success in your writing career, you should be too.
I’m currently reading, 3024AD, by DES Richard and edited by Corissa Poley
All my best on a beautiful day in South Carolina.