The Most Important Writing Lesson I Learned
The most important writing lesson I learned was in a summer fiction workshop at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln more years ago than I care to count. I had turned in a story called “Clinical Evaluation” [pause for shameless self-promotion–it’s in my collection The Moaning Rocks and Other Stories]. A petty crook is shot during a liquor store robbery gone wrong, and his body is taken to the morgue where Willy, an inebriated custodian cleaning the morgue during the graveyard shift, imagines that this guy isn’t dead but only paralyzed and is trying to alert someone before the pathologist starts cutting on him in the morning.
The manuscript I turned in described the victim’s wound as a “gunshot wound to the head,” and that’s all. My teacher, Charlie Stubblefield, said he wanted to see a more detailed description of that wound. He wanted me to really get into that wound. So I did that in the revision.
“Clinical Evaluation” was the first story I sold, to an anthology of fiction, poetry, and artwork called The New Surrealists. But the lesson I had learned was not only about being specific with my descriptions. The lesson is: Don’t gloss over things, whether they are one-paragraph descriptions or entire scenes, if they may be relevant to the story.
I try to follow Elmore Leonard’s rule: “I try to leave out the parts that readers skip.” So I sometimes find myself wanting to skim over something or cut it out entirely because I think it will slow down the story. But one thing you must keep in mind is that it will take you much longer to write a scene than it will take your reader to read it. So even if a scene seems to be moving slowly for you, your audience may zip through it quickly and enjoy reading it as much as you enjoyed writing it.
Just remember that each scene must have a reason for its existence. You are giving the readers information they need, or you’re moving the story forward characterwise or plotwise. This doesn’t mean that every scene that has a reason for being should be in the story. That’s something for you to judge in the second draft and for your beta readers to judge before you unleash your brainchild on an unsuspecting public. I always ask my beta readers to tell me what parts of the story they didn’t like and why.
You may think I’ve diverged quite a bit from describing that simple head wound, but I haven’t. The lesson I took away is to not be afraid to examine things, whether they are wounds or the characters’ actions and emotions. Don’t summarize elements that may be important to your story, even if you may have doubts while writing the first draft. If something doesn’t work, you’ll find out soon enough, and you can fix it in a later draft.
NOTE: For examples of how to not gloss over things, read any of the novels of Stephen King. He is a master of examining wounds, whether they be physical or mental. His novels connect with his readers. That’s why he manages to sell so many.