by Rachael Phillips
Are you a detail person? If we're speaking of knowing what to do with multiple dinner forks or making reservations before entering the front door of a hotel or airplane, I'm not. But I have learned in novel writing that while, as one dictionary states, details function as small, subordinate parts of a whole, another definition tells us these collectively constitute a work of art.
Details also can obliterate the work of art.
To a writer whose vision encompasses only the glorious dimensions of her heroine's character or her novel's teeth- and heart-grinding conflicts, which door the heroine uses for a dramatic exit appears irrelevant--until a prospective agent notices that, given earlier information, that particular door leads not to sorrowful moon-kissed paths of unrequited love, but to the junky shag-rugged '70s basement.
I mention this example because in my fiction, as in real life, I ignore spatial concepts, possess no sense of direction and occasionally defy gravity. My early drafts force characters to stoke fires in homes without fireplaces and send them through windows instead of doors. They drive to Chicago by way of Miami and frequently make left turns through barns. (How do I explain to an editor that I killed off a character who wasn't supposed to die?) And though I do not write sci-fi, my heroines and heroes show a marked tendency to float when no water or ballroom dancing are involved.
My solution: I draw crude house plans and furniture/yard/estate layouts and frequently study maps. I've considered installing a GPS in every story. And I chain my characters to sofas.
Readers do not not react well when Christmas arrives late, particularly in Christmas novella collections. Time issues, in general, must make sense. Cicadas should chirp during appropriate months; socks can't be knitted in one hour. If the heroine in my first novella hadn't stuck a Christmas cactus in a closet at the right point during its life cycle, the plant would not have bloomed at a critical point in the story, and its weighty symbolism [gasp!] would have been lost.
My solution: Print off a calendar and schedule plot events on it. I've never liked planners--but avoiding one may result in a lady character's 21-month pregnancy.
In editing others' manuscripts, I often encounter characters who switch eye color. Readers who fell in love with the emerald-eyed hero in chapter five feel betrayed when his midnight black orbs flash during chapter nine. I struggle less with character details than logistics in my novels, but occasionally I discover three walk-ons who all work as third-grade teachers, wear zebra socks and suffer from a tic.
My solution: I include all characters, named and unnamed, on a character sheet, plus details about each--physical characteristics, relationship to main characters and the reason for their existence. If no reason emerges, I may have to beam this superfluous character out of my novel. Editors, agents and readers are detail people, even if I am not.
How about you? How do you avoid the eye color switch?