Peevish Pen

Ruminations on reading, writing, rural living, retirement, aging—and sometimes cats. And maybe a border collie or other critters.

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Location: Rural Virginia, United States

I'm an elderly retired teacher who writes. Among my books are Ferradiddledumday (Appalachian version of the Rumpelstiltskin story), Stuck (middle grade paranormal novel), Patches on the Same Quilt (novel set in Franklin County, VA), Them That Go (an Appalachian novel), Miracle of the Concrete Jesus & Other Stories, and several Kindle ebooks.

Friday, July 02, 2010

Details, Etc.

Boredom warning: Another post wherein I'm writing about writing.

"The devil's in the details," the old saying goes. 

I'm starting a new middle grade novel, a sequel to Stuck, and I'm bedeviled by details. What do I show, what do I omit? I'm writing in first person point of view. The narrator, Jacie, is eleven and a half, so I have to use details that are important to her. For instance, this is my current (subject to change, since this is only a first draft) opening paragraph of Chapter 1:

Blaze cantered along the woods trail, jumped the creek, and headed for the field. When we started up the graveyard hill, I dug my fingers into his mane and leaned forward. I clucked to him and loosened my grip on the reins to give him his head. Blaze broke into a gallop, and I felt like we were flying. I could do this all my life and never get bored.

The narrator is the age of my target readers. One of my writer buddies, to whom I'd emailed a copy of this chapter, emailed back with this suggestion:

I almost wrote back about . . . being more descriptive in a few places. Example: "Blaze broke into a gallop and I felt like we were flying." [His] hooves dug into the moist warm soil and released the invigorating smell of fresh spring clover infused with the sweet smell of hay that wafted from the barn...... that sort of thing. I felt you "digging" and "flying" and I wanted more.
But more wouldn't work. Especially the hay reference—there wouldn't be a smell of hay wafting all the way up the hill from the barn. Plus the young narrator, living on a farm, would know better than to gallop over a moist field.

Then my friend added, "But then, I remembered your audience and rethinking that it may make it too  cumbersome of a read for fast thinking, fast moving kids." 

Yep! Kids don't use words like "invigorating" and "infused." They want action, not an over-load of sensory details. And what details an author gives them had better be right.

Last night, I ran this chapter through a writers group, where I'm the only kid-lit writer in the bunch. I didn't get many comments. Several liked the chapter, but it didn't hook a few. One thought "woods trail" used a clumsy modifier. But how should I—one who often walks the woods trail, the creek trail, the pasture trail, the power-line trail, or the graveyard trail on my own farms—say it? "The trail through the woods" is too wordy and cumbersome.

The same guy wanted to change a sentence in this passage: "My dog Locket ran behind them. Locket is a border collie, and they are bred to herd. I guess Locket thought she was herding Thunder toward me." into this: "Locket is a border collie, bred with an instinct to herd." But would an eleven-year-old say "bred with an instinct"?

However, I thought about it and revised the passage into one sentence: "My border collie Locket ran behind them, like she was herding Liz and Thunder toward me." Does this work better? Do I need to add a detail explaining what border collies do, or will kids get it?

Once I've finished revising this chapter, I'll give the result to my SCBWI crit group for a much deeper (and wonderfully nit-picking) critique. But first I want to get the details right—especially details concerning border collies and horses. (When I was a kid, I loved horse books by author-illustrator C.W. Anderson—now there was a guy who got his details right!)

I'm bothered when I read books written by people who don't know much about horses or about how to ride, and thus really screw up the details. Check out this passage from a self-published book I acquired a few years ago:

The high-lighted passage reads: "She mounted her horse, adjusting her right leg between the two pommels while placing her left leg in the stirrup, resting that leg against a pommel." Can you picture this? Try acting it out. 

Since the character is riding side-saddle, someone—a servant, or whoever had her horse waiting for her—should have helped the damsel mount, or at least have held the horse. The attendee most likely would have given the damsel a leg up, thus lifting her onto the saddle. If the damsel did indeed mount unassisted (quite a feat!), she would have to swing her right leg over and sit BEFORE she "adjusted" her right leg. Odds are good that she did not place her "left leg in the stirrup." Generally one places one's foot in a stirrup—a small detail but an important one. Foot and leg are not interchangeable words.

For more details than you'll ever want to know about correctly mounting sidesaddle, click here.

Sometimes incorrect details can be in the artwork rather than the words. That really bedevils me. The picture below illustrates an essay about the joys of horseback riding that appeared in the March 2010 issue of Country Living magazine. The essay is very well-written, but its accompanying illustration has numerous errors. How many can you find?

Aside from the problems with the horse's conformation (Arrgghh! The hooves—or lack thereof!), did you notice that the girth is way too far back. And the saddle itself is kind of strange. Maybe it's backwards? And the bridle is missing something. 

I'm delighted when I read books where a writer—writing about horses—gets the details right. Two good examples of contemporary writers who do that are Gigi Amateau in Chancey of the Maury River and Sara Gruen in Riding Lessons.

Meanwhile, I'll keep revising my work in progress.

And— just in case you're wondering—Stuck will be published by Cedar Creek in early 2011.


Blogger Cherie Reich said...

"My border collie Locket ran behind them, like she was herding Liz and Thunder toward me."

I like this sentence better than it was before. I don't think it is necessary to say that a border collie likes to herd. It seems implied to me, and I think kids would understand too.

10:17 AM  
Blogger Betsy Ashton said...

Cheri is right. If you write as if your reader would know that border collies are born to herd, you recognize the reader's intelligence. If the reader doesn't know this fact about border collies, perhaps s/he will Google border collies and learn something.

11:39 AM  
Blogger Becky Mushko said...

Sometimes it's tough to know what a reader aged 9 to 12 would know—or want to know. I doubt a kid would stop reading a book to go Goggle.

And it's important later in the story that the dog is a border collie who likes to herd.

11:48 AM  
Blogger CountryDew said...

I like the change on the dog sentence, too.

However, I am not a horse person so I could not find the errors in the picture. I suppose the drawing is for people like me.

8:25 PM  

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