Now that I’m embarking on yet another rewrite of my novel on submission, I thought it might be a good time to share parts of the process. Parts of my process, that is. Everyone’s is different, of course.

But maybe we can find some common ground on certain issues.

Let’s talk about rejection letters for a minute. Anyone who’s been writing and pursuing publication for a while has gotten some. We all hate rejection. It’s depressing when The Publishing Powers That Be dismiss something we worked months or even years on with a hastily-folded form letter or a few electronic keystrokes.

It’s a smidgeon less depressing, though, when an agent or editor actually takes the time to offer some pertinent feedback. Are agents and editors always right? Of course not. But if several industry pros are telling you the same thing, then it’s wise to perk up and listen. It’s a gift, really, because the editors who take a little time to give you some useful feedback could just as easily have said, “Not for us,” and left it at that. So let’s be thankful for those little snippets of wisdom, even though they come in the form of rejection.

I recently received rejections (through my agent) from four editors at four major publishing houses, and they all said or implied pretty much the same thing: the ending is rushed. I need to flesh out the plot and characters, add more detail, slow down and let the story unfold...

I hadn’t read the manuscript for several months, since I sent it to my agent, but a quick review told me those editors are absolutely right. Maybe I needed that distance, those few months, to look at the book more objectively (there’s a lesson for those of you who type THE END one day and start submitting the next. Let that baby ferment in a drawer for a while and then give it at least one more polish...). At any rate, like the Scooby Doo theme song says, we got some work to do now.

First, I found the part of the manuscript where everything starts moving just a bit too fast. You know, like a fire truck moves just a bit too fast. “Fast-paced” is a good thing, right? Well, yeah, but it’s also true that speed kills.

My book’s final sixty pages HAULS ASS. We’re talking Warp-3. I was in such a hurry to get to the end and mail that puppy off to my agent, I unintentionally cheated the readers out of a good portion of Story. Never, ever, ever a good idea.

So now I need to fix it, and that involves adding pages. My agent says twenty, but I’m thinking more like fifty. Piece of cake, eh? Any writer worth his salt should be able to crank out fifty pages in a week or two, right?

Yeah, but I’m adding to something that’s already there, so everything needs to flow organically and seamlessly and nothing can feel tacked on, so it’s a little more involved than just writing fifty new pages. I’m shooting to have the new draft finished by Jan 1. We’ll see how it goes.

Which brings me to the real point of this post: details. While I don’t advocate getting bogged down in minutiae, or writing long adverbly (I just invented that word. Nice, huh?) paragraphs about the weather and the trees and whatnot, I do think readers appreciate strong images, and images can be strengthened and lengthened with details.

So here’s the first draft of brand new paragraph, part of my attempt to slow my novel’s pacing a bit in the last few chapters:

I came out of my self-imposed isolation one day to do some shopping. It was a Wednesday, half-price day at The Salvation Army Thrift Store. The place was packed with little old ladies wearing tremendous applications of little old lady perfume, kids running around and playing with toys that probably harbored more germs than an isolation ward, fat guys with glasses loading up on yesterday’s bestselling sci-fi, women with one in diapers and one on the way trying to stretch their meager budgets to the max...and me, a skinny middle-aged private eye searching for the perfect Lost Soul costume, as if the one I already wore wasn’t quite good enough.

As first-draft paragraphs go, that one’s not too bad I think, but now let’s beef it up with a few details:

I came out of my self-imposed isolation one day to do some shopping. It was a Wednesday, half-price day at The Salvation Army Thrift Store. The place was packed. Little old ladies wearing tremendous applications of little old lady perfume, cruising the bric-a-brac aisles and filling their buggies with sad-faced clowns and silver-plated crucifixes; kids running around coughing and sneezing and playing with plastic dinosaurs that probably harbored more germs than an isolation ward; fat guys with glasses loading up on novels with cigarettes and guns and scantily-dressed femme fatales on the covers; women with one in diapers and one on the way, trying to stretch their meager budgets till payday...

Now we have some images, some pictures to put in our readers’ minds: Sad-faced clowns and silver-plated crucifixes...plastic dinosaurs...novels with cigarettes and guns...

You get the idea.

Every reader will bring his or her own personal experiences to the table, of course, but I think peppering a paragraph with details enriches the reading experience for most.

Thoughts?

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In John Gardner's The Art of Fiction he says the two near universal mistakes of the beginning fiction writer are: too much abstract language and insufficient detail.

I suppose I try not to include any details that my POV character wouldn't attune to, that don't express the voice of the narrator, or that conflict with mood. Mostly I include details that I deem necessary to establish a sense of place in the reader's mind or that readers need to know or that I think readers will find interesting.
Hi Eric,

Your use of details sounds spot-on.
I think the problem with this specific paragraph is that you're just describing stereotypical characters. Adding details to that just makes it more specific, but they're still just stereotypes. Just taking me to the thrift store lets me know already what it will be like inside because that is a familiar image in itself. Saying that the kid is playing with a plastic dinosaur rather than just a toy doesn't really add anything. Yes, it does give me a concrete image, but I still don't feel anything when I read it.

It's hard to recommend advice without some context, but I would say if the store itself, the people, the atmosphere, if that's not important, then just say what the store is, get him there and then let him do whatever he came there to do. If it is important, then maybe just focus on one or two people in the store and describe them without exposition. Meaning, let me see the old lady pick the items off the shelf in real time put me in an actual scene. If the store is important, it will need a scene anyway, so why not start at the beginning with the people in the store and proceed to the reason the character is there, or whatever.

I think your philosophy about details is off, honestly. This is just my opinion of course, but in my view, details are not spices dashed on top to enliven the story. Details are supposed to be woven into the story; that is, details are supposed to be part of the story, without which the story is not complete. If your scene isn't interesting already, adding a few details will be about as helpful as adding pepper to spoiled food.

I feel there is an aversion to details amongst some writers. I've heard many times that you should only include enough to give the reader an image in his head, but if that's all that's needed, then just give me an outline and I'll dream up the story myself in my head. Or write a screenplay instead, because that's what a screenplay is, an outline, a guide for everyone involved in making the film. But a screenplay is not a complete story in itself--the film has to be made. But a novel is self-contained. Everything has to be in there. And if all I, as the reader, am getting is enough detail for me to form an image in my head then I might as well read screenplays instead.

This aversion to detail gives me the impression that the writer is only interested in getting me from one plot point to the next as quickly as possible. And to me, that is not what storytelling is about. You need immersion. I want to forget that I'm reading, so that when my wife comes up to me and asks me a question, I am jolted out of the world I was in and am brought back to reality. Details help with immersion. That doesn't mean the more the merrier, but put some care into the storytelling. Make me think that the author really loved this story. don't just rush me from one plot point to the next in order to make the story fast-paced. If I am immersed in the story, pace no longer has any meaning.

Of course this is all just my view on the subject. There is no authoritative position when it comes to storytelling. But when I'm reading, I don't want the control; I want to be taken away. When I want to decide what images are in my head, I'll write a story. But when I'm reading, I want to be free of that chore.
Hi John,

The fact that you recognize these folks as stereotypes tells me I did what I set out to do with this paragraph--provide a brief description of the typical atmosphere inside a thrift store on half-price day. Since the image is familiar to you, you can chuckle and say, "Yeah, Ive been there." For someone who's never been to a thrift store, it gives them a glimpse. It would be the same if I were to describe a bus station or a convenience store or whatever. I would start with the ordinary, business-as-usual scene and then possibly move toward whatever extraordinary circumstances are to occur there. I think it's important to have a somewhat concrete image of the ordinary to begin with, though.
I doubt whether the paragraph you gave us above would have much effect on someone who's never been to a thrift store. I have, so I get your characterizations right off, but the descriptions are so generic, for someone who's never been in a thrift store, I can't see that reader getting a true feel for the place.

I think Jack is talking about the same thing I am. I don't want to speak for him, and I haven't read the scene he described, but it seems to be what I am getting at. Put the scene in real-time. The thrift store would come alive better if it were described in real time as your character is walking through it. The sounds, the smells, the visual details your character picks up is not going to be a sweeping impression of the store as you've described it above. We don't notice everything at once, which is why I say to focus on one or two people in the store and describe them more fully.

But again, I'm basing this critique on only one paragraph; when put in the context of the entire novel, maybe I wouldn't even notice this paragraph and would just move over it to the more interesting parts. But if that is the case, I wouldn't spend time trying to tweak the scene. Both paragraphs you gave us are equally effective. I prefer the first-draft one because it is a little bit shorter, so I will read it quicker and get on to the interesting part.

I don't know how you feel about Elmore Leonard's Rules of Writing, but if you think they are sensible advice, then look at rule 10: Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. I think the paragraph you gave us might be one of those parts.
It may just be me, but I suspect this is just another literary vs. genre thing. Genre writers are taught to make the prose as tight as possible, using enough description to give a good feel for what's going on without getting lyrical about it. There was a literary agent who recently posted the opening paragraphs of a published work by a literary author that featured a description of a body floating down a river, being picked over by scavenger. (Sorry, can't remember the name of the novel.) It was written in lyrical, loving detail, and it was frankly much more than I needed in order to understand what was happening. I was ready to move on much sooner than the author was.

Jude's example in his post was a bit sparse, but it was just intended to illustrate painting in a few details to make the scene a bit more tactile. The background characters don't need much more description than this, because they're not important other than scene setting. (I imagine that character is going to come out of that shop reeking of second-hand perfume, given that description.) Small details can make a tremendous difference, if well chosen and well placed. It actually takes a lot of work to do it well.
...it was just intended to illustrate painting in a few details to make the scene a bit more tactile.

Thank you, Pepper. That's it exactly. You can open any book (even Elmore Leonard's) and find paragraphs like this, little segues into the next action bit or whatever. Like I said, I'm not advocating getting bogged down in minutiae, but these are details my character noticed...so that says something about him, I think.
I think the cinematic term for this is "establishing shot." They show the building, airport, market, stadium, whatever they need to get your head into the setting quickly. The length is often proportional with the importance of the setting in the seene to follow, or to the story as a whole.

You're right, Jude; everyone does it. It's a necessary form of literary shorthand.
Not sure this is what those editors are after, Jude. My work was often criticized for its shortness, but what I needed to do was "milk" the exciting, dramatic scenes, not pad out the casual descriptions. I remember a fire scene where my hero crawled into a burning restaurant and saved his buddy. Three pages. He's in. He fights the smoke and heat. He's out, buddy rescued. I slowed down my thinking (per agent's request), tried to describe everything my hero felt and saw and tasted as he crawled through the smoke. Bugs running. Cracks on the floor. The heat on his back and neck. The smell of burning materials. I fleshed it out to about five pages and my agent was thrilled. Guess what I'm saying, make the extra details part of the story, not just throw-away stuff (which clowns and crucifixes seems to be).
Hi Jack,

Yeah, I need to milk the exciting dramatic scenes as well, but paragraphs like this one are sort of like ambient sound in a film--it doesn't add a lot to the story, but something just doesn't seem quite right if it's absent.
I'm hesitant to comment based on the amount of information available, but it seems as though part of your concern --not wanting to pad--is due to worries the extra time taken might not be conducive to your writing style, or to the voice of the book. A way around this might be the introduction of a small but relevant subplot that can mingle with the tear-ass ending chapters to spread them out a little. This will mean you'll have to go back much farther in the book to get it running, and make other little additions to keep it in the reader's mind, but might also make what you're about to add seem more organic afterward.

Just a thought. Good luck.
Food for thought, Dana. Thanks.

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