Monday, January 28, 2013

"Forget the Reuben; Focus on the Ninjas."

Ben Percy is one of my favorite teachers at Pacific. He gives some of the best craft talks - always focused and organized and intensely practical.

Something he said this January has been meandering around in my brain as I'm starting back at the beginning of my novel. "Forget the Reuben; Focus on the Ninjas."

I guess out of context it doesn't make much sense. :)

He was talking about indelible images - those images and scenes we see so clearly in our heads that we want to transpose into words. The trap with seeing things so clearly in our heads, though, is that not everything we see is that important.

The idea of being specific in writing doesn't mean we need to choke the reader with details. A story should rumble along at a nice clip until you get to the place (or places, in a longer piece) where you need amplification to slow things down, go deeper and grow the tension.

In movie terms, when the camera lingers on a detail, the director is saying, "This is important."

But how often in writing we misdirect out readers! We slow down, we linger at the places and on details that aren't important.

For instance, he said, in a detective story, you don't want to stop and spend two pages on describing the detective sitting in a deli eating his reuben sandwich. Do we need to know how high the meat is piled? Do we need to know the way he wipes the sauce from his cheek? Is it important we know the delicious combination of tangy and savory flavors erupting in his mouth when, two pages later, a Ninja is going to bust through the door?

The Ninja is what's important. And if we give equal weight to the sandwich and the Ninja, we are doing a disservice to what is important. We are leading our readers astray, asking them to focus on the things that don't matter and then leaving them wondering why they just slogged through so much information.

Forget the Reuben; Focus on the Ninja.

I think we all have our ticks - things we like to linger on and indulge our writerly selves with. For some people it's character descriptions. For others it's setting.

Every time I write now, I think, "Is this important to the story?" Is it important to describe a character to a T - that a character has a bulbous nose and dark hair and feet the size of a clown's? Is it important that the curtains in the kitchen are yellow with tiny daisies embroidered on them that flutter like a ghost when the window is open? Does my reader need to know the contents of the dinner plate?

Not to say specific details aren't important. When you can name something specifically rather than generally, that's always a good idea. ("Cars crammed the lot of the Shop N' Save" rather than "Cars crammed the lot of the grocery store"), but when they aren't crucial to a scene, but we shouldn't linger on them, add so much detail that a reader wonders if this needs to be remembered. It dilutes the power of the images and scenes that are important.

I think this isn't just writing, either. Don't we do this in life? Focus on the things that don't really matter, give them equal weight with the things that do? I worry equally about the cleanliness of my house and the surgery I have scheduled this week. I spend more time on facebook than talking to my friends face to face. I spent more time on this blog post than on my novel today.

Maybe Ben could just have said, "Focus on what's important." But I've heard that all my life, and isn't the Reuben/Ninja example just a bit catchier?


  1. I'm starting to be able to identify those moments when I slow down for no reason. Just recently I had a chicken killing scene that really didn't serve any purpose, so I'm killing the scene.

  2. Cutting whole scenes is hard! I think my hardest part is just identifying the areas I don't need. I think I need it all. :)

  3. "Forget the Reuben; Focus on the Ninjas." - I want this on a T-shirt! :)

    Great post, by the way.

    I've never been one to describe things too much in my writing, because I don't like reading those types of prose.

    I do go off track, sometimes. I'm lucky that I have a couple critique partners that aren't shy to let me know when this happens. :)

    Paul (

    1. It would make a great t-shirt! :)

      You write a lot of flash fiction, and I think that helps. The shorter the work, the more focused it has to be. I think when people sit to write novels, with 300+ pages looming, they feel there's room for more fluff.... or write more because they don't otherwise know how to fill the pages.

      Staying on track is one of my sticky issues, too. :)

  4. I often grapple with how much detail is the "right" amount. And so I do ask myself "how will this advance the story?"

    great post.

    1. I do, too. I think it's important to write it all down, and then be willing to cut later when you know what is important and what's not. The willing to cut is the kicker, though. :)

  5. I'm at this point in my manuscript, where I am adding details but I'm not sure if the details add to the story or just clutter it up. Like, I want to know what certain characters are wearing, but how often do I need to mention this? My betas will tell me, I suppose.

    1. I wonder if that kind of thing - what people wear - are more important in a YA or MG book? Kids most certainly are interested in that. And clothes can certainly define a person. I think those are good details to add if they tell us more about the character.

      Maybe the key is to integrate it into the story seamlessly, so it doesn't slow the story down. I don't know. I rarely get into clothes because, other than jeans and t-shirts, I'm pretty ignorant of what's out there. ;)

  6. Great. Now I REALLY want a Reuben sandwich. Ha, ha! Seriously though Heidi, you make a great point!

    "I think we all have our ticks - things we like to linger on and indulge our writerly selves with"

    As I edit my novel, I've definitely found those ticks! I can't tell you how many times I've described a character's eyes! And setting? Don't get me started!

    Great advice as always!

    1. People have always nagged me that I don't describe my characters - their eyes or hair color or body size. I guess it never mattered to me. I let the reader imagine them as they want. Setting is one thing I can get going on... I've had to back off that. Is that really necessary? Some writers think so, but I'm coming to the point where I think it only matters if it adds to the story and pulls it forward.

      I will say that there are plenty of award-winning writers that disagree with me, so everything I say will have its opposition. I'm okay with that. :)