Friday, August 17, 2007

It's all in the details

Last night, one of our new blog buddies, Kimberly Frost, shared the wonderful news that she has sold her first book. Books, actually, since it's a two-book deal to a major publisher. It reminded me of this wonderful story from the best-selling author Nora Roberts of her first sale.

"I honestly don't think anything can top it," Nora says, "I remember mine came in midsummer of 1980. My kids were fighting, as usual. It was murderously hot, and I'd just stepped, barefoot, onto a hugely fat tick one of the dogs had scratched off onto the kitchen floor. When the phone rang the last thing I expected was a voice from New York telling me Silhouette was buying my book. I paced back and forth, leaving bloody footprints on the kitchen floor, trying to take it in while my kids murdered each other. It was one of the most beautiful moments of my life."

I love that story. But what makes it great is not just the good news. It's her detail. When did it happen? "Midsummer." Which midsummer? "of 1980." What was the weather like that day? "Murderously hot." Was anybody else around when she got the news? "My kids. . ." What were they doing? "Fighting, as usual." How, exactly did she get the news? By phone. What did she do then? "I paced back and forth." And what is the most wonderful detail of all, the one that "grounds" us in her kitchen with her? The tick, of course. The one she stepped on, at the most exciting moment of her life, so that this future best-selling author left bloody footprints on her kitchen floor.

It is so damned human, real, and believable.

Kimberly, if you're reading this. . .what are the details of when you got your news?

When I got the news that I had sold a book for the first time, I got in my car and drove to my favorite cafe for an omelet with a croissant and a cafe au lait. What I remember most concretely is a single moment: It's spring of 1983. A perfectly beautiful day, 10 a.m., with a blue sky and a few clouds and temperatures in the 70's. I'm driving on Ward Parkway, over a little bridge over Bush Creek, at the point where the road curves onto the south side of the creek. I'm in the middle lane of traffic. Cars surround me. I'm so joyful I could burst, and I say to myself, "Always remember this. You may never feel like this again."

What if you want to make your fictional (or non-fictional) scenes as real as Nora's bloody tick? Writing guru and literary agent Donald Maass advises:

Recall an incident in your own experience that mirrors the feeling you want (e.g., the time you felt most betrayed). Record every detail you can remember. What was the exact moment in time? (No, precisely, to the calendar minute.) Who was there? Standing/sitting where in relation to you? What was quality of the light? Object in the vicinity you remember best? What was said/done that made you feel [betrayed]? What made it extra bad…it would have been bad enough, except that--? In other words, what twisted the knife?

Now, give those details to your character in the scene. If it means changing location, time of day, objects around…do it. Make it personal but with details.

The idea here is that if I tell you, the moment I felt most betrayed as when my girlfriend dumped me without warning…well, that’s fine. But when I say, it was a snowy March 31st in New York, I was walking home from a poker game, crunching through the snow, the city quiet, talking on my cell, breath visible, when I could tell something was wrong, finally my girlfriend told me it was over, I stood in my room in my coat and dripping boots, unable to believe it, hearing the words in the earpiece but not believing them, talked for twenty minutes without moving, still dressed for the blizzard…

…okay, what makes that story? Not “dumped” but the details around it, right?

Right. So very right.

Everybody here is a writer. I know you are--I see your own blogs everyday, or your comments, or I read your books. Can you--would you care to--share the details of a great, or less than great, moment? Or, how about this moment?

And a great good morning to you. Happy weekend, everybody.

(Nora's story is told in Seven Steps on the Writer's Path. For more of Donald's great advice see his Writing the Breakout Novel and Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook.)


Nancy P said...

Last night, after I read Kimberly's news and it inspired me to write about today's topic, I picked up Seven Steps to look for that story of Nora's. I opened right to it. Right to the page. And I laughed to myself and thought, "Okay, I guess it's a good idea to write that post."

It is 9:31 a.m., central standard time. The temperature inside here is 78. My mom is upstairs doing the daily crossword in the paper. When I look up I see the upholstered chair legs that Jimmy-the-One-Eyed-Cat has absolutely destroyed with his scratching. Green furry tufts of chair lie all over the floor. I don't even care. The chair was cheaper than those fancy scratching posts!

GreenMinute said...


Wow, that was quick. On here one day and a published author ther next.

Nancy, I think your blog is going to be famous. :-)

GreenMinute said...

Do I go first?

I don't remember what day it was. Nor what year. I don't remember what I was wearing or whether it was hot or cold outside. All I remember is that I'd been sitting at that fcking desk eight years.

Downtown public relations office in dear ol' KC-K. Second floor, four people in one big office pre-cubicle days. I kept a large outdated lidded metal trashcan by my desk (I'd found it in the hall one day for pick-up by the building's facilities crew).

It had the word "PUSH" in raised letters on the swinging lid top. You know the kind? I'd written "Comes to SHOVE" on a piece of paper and had taped it below the word PUSH. I loved my trashcan.

It may have been morning. It may have been afternoon. My agent called me and said Bantam/DD had offered me $15K on a 2-book contract, including my submitted novel. I stood up. I sat down.

I untied my shoes. I got down on the floor. I couldn't breathe all that well. I lay back on the floor and stuck my legs in the air and put my feet on the edge of my cluttered desk.

Two people gathered, then a third.
Then my boss came over from across the hall. My agent was going through the details of the 4-payment clauses and noted that I was due two of them upon signing.
She'd put the contract in the mail, etc.

There was an old Lifesaver candy mint under my trashcan. I don't know what flavor it was. I started laughing and couldn't stop.
I was young and single at the time and call I could think was "Poet Gets Girl" and that I was finally going to get laid over this, instead of the football players and the guys who went to law school.

GreenMinute said...

Thanks, Kimberly for the comment about the old photo. I love those kids dressed up as witches (circa 1910, btw).

But wait till you see the family. Accordion, cat, and can of taters.

P.S. For anyone who might want to see the family up close:

TGIF, all.

katiebird said...

(I am actually sitting in an office in dear ol' KC-K)

Nancy & GM, I love your memories. GM, I'm picturing you upstairs in my building during one of it's other lives. It was originally (1906-ish) a drug store at 6th & Minnesota.

I've got a moment, maybe of betrayal -- definitely loss:

Moving from California to Kansas. Mid-March 1967, just before dawn. All 8 of us kids were stretched out in the back of the van on sheets of plywood & padding & blankets with all our stuff underneath as we drove south toward San Francisco.

The sun was rising as we crossed The Bridge. And it cast a pure-golden light across the bay and out to sea. In that moment, I finally understood why it was called the Golden Gate. And that I might never see it again.

Two hours later my youngest sister woke up totally blind.

Anonymous said...

Katiebird, what's the rest of the story? What happened to your sis?

Thanks for sharing your memories, folks. Makes me promise to be aware of my moment when it happens. So far all I know is the awe I felt when I printed my first (theoretically completed) manuscript for the first time.

A moment - February 1999. I was returning to Idaho after 1.5 painful years in NY. I was driving (of course), and my year-old malamute was asleep in the back of my Pathfinder. It was late afternoon, and a light snow was falling. The dusty flakes were blowing across the desolate road in shifting patterns, and I felt as though I was chasing them. It was growing dark, cold, lonely at the top of Monida Pass. I had been driving for days; had left my partner of 7 years back in NY, and was starting life on my own at age 29.

As I crossed the state line, "Rocky Mountain High" came on the radio. In my life, that song plays every time I make the right decision about my life's path. 100% of the time. So as it played, I smiled, knowing I was supposed to be at this place, at this time, and that I'd survive.

Seems like a thousand years ago...

AndiF said...

I'd rather tell than write -- I seem to need face-to-face contact; I find it hard to even talk on the phone. Perhaps that's why I like taking photographs so much -- the tell is all there.

So, for example, I see this picture as my story about yesterday morning's walk.

And I certainly do appreciate all you fine and very skillful story writers.

Kelly McCullough said...

My first book sale. I was in my dining room late in the spring of '05. I don't remember the weather, but it was late morning and the sun was streaming in the windows. My agent called and asked if I was sitting down.

I wasn't, so I did. In my mother's leather recliner which was there because she was in the middle of a really nasty divorce and a serious breakdown and my house was filling up with her stuff.

Jack told me he'd sold WebMage and a sequel and started giving me other details, but that's the only one I really remember-I had 5 other books out, so knowing which one had sold was important enough to hold onto.

Beyond that what I remember is relief. I slowly melted into my chair with this enormous sense of relief and release. I'd been stressed to the gills for ages with my mom's mess and I was really depressed about where my writing was going and now my agent had called and was telling me it would all be all right. That wasn't what he said, of course, but that was most of what I heard.

It would all be all right.

katiebird said...

Hi Beth, I'll try to compose the rest of the story. But, it's not simple and I can't do it today. I hate to leave you hanging, but any answer at all would be wrong.

"As I crossed the state line, "Rocky Mountain High" came on the radio. In my life, that song plays every time I make the right decision about my life's path. 100% of the time."

When I make the right decision about my life's path, I hear a bell and a weight rolls off my shoulders. When I make the wrong one, I get strep throat. The summer of my first marriage, I got strep throat twice. And I didn't hear any bells.

Anonymous said...

No hurry, katiebird. It just sounds awful.

You think we'd learn to pay attention when we have signs that clear. I don't think I heard it with either of my husbands...

I hope you heard bells when you met your Mister!

katiebird said...

Oh, I should have said that -- yes, Bells everyday with mister!

Jen said...

When I was born in 1970, my dad was 22. He was a counterculture hippie type cat. He wore his pale brown hair thin and long, his leather jackets beaten and black, and his blue jeans ragged and dirty with trademark mechanic's grease stains. He rode a Triumph motorcycle, he played a Martin acoustic guitar, and the old man, then practically a child himself, could sing.

He was really a very talented musician, and he had the stereotypical rock band playing covers of all the late 60s/early 70s hits out in our yard, though he never did anything with his talent professionally. I remember being three and spending sunny South Florida afternoons sitting on the boxy front porch with him, on a battered old bench seat removed from a VW van, while he practiced James Taylor covers and taught me how to play the haunting opening notes to Led Zeppelin's Stairway to Heaven. The song wasn't yet the overplayed classic rock cliché that it would eventually become.

When my parents got divorced, I was 4. I don't remember much specifically about the divorce, although one of my earliest memories is standing in between them, tiny arms extended up and out in both directions, yelling at them to stop yelling at each other. And I have this sort-of fragmented set of memories of my dad, on the porch, and in the yard, and in our cheap and tacky 70s-era living room, playing a Martin 12-string and singing Gordon Lightfoot's If You Could Read My Mind:

I never thought I could act this way
and I've got to say that I just don't get it
I don't know where we went wrong
but the feelin's gone
and I just cant get it back

katiebird said...

Oh, Jen. Did they stop fighting after that?

Jen said...

He moved 5000 miles away and (for a while at least) they pretty much stopped speaking after that. (They still managed to fight but that's a tramautizing story.) As a Kindergartener I used to tell people that my parents were a whole lot better at divorce than they were at marriage, which imo was one of my better early jokes. ;)

Jen said...

PS. Katiebird what happened to your picture icon? I thought it was so cute.

katiebird said...

I think some people are A LOT better at divorce than marriage.

I took off my Icon because it made me crazy to see my face marching down the page. Once or twice would be OK. But, I am either in chat-mode or not. And chatty-me-with-Icon drove me crazy.

Nancy P said...

I think these are all so wonderful I don't even want to comment on them.

Andi, I thought about you photogs after I wrote the post. And, yeah, you and Olivia and knucklehead, especially, give us your details in your pictures. Thank you.

I just returned from the local Elvis parade, but I'm too hot to say more right now. The only reason I went is that I got lured by the promise of cupcakes afterward. A cupcake bakery right here in river city!! I had a Red Velvet cupcake with vanilla buttercream icing with sprinkles. Oh, boy.

katiebird said...

Where? An Elvis Parade AND Red Velvet Cupcakes? WHERE?? How did I miss THAT?

Nancy P said...

The Elvis Parade was downtown at Barney Ellis Plaza, and oh, what a pitiful sight it was, katiebird. Let me tell you, all the Elvises were definitely from his Las Vegas Period. I thought we might see a heart attack or two right there on Broadway. But the tackiest thing of all? A plumbing company towed a gigantic puffed up toilet! Guess where poor Elvis died?

The cupcakes were from Baby Cakes down in the River Quay. Oh, lordy. Yum.

katiebird said...

Gosh, I've never thought of memorializing THAT aspect of his life.

The cupcakes, though, sound good. Did he have a fondness for Red Velvet cake?

Nancy P said...

I don't know if Elvis liked Red Velvet Cake, but I can't imagine that he'd turn it down.

Nancy P said...

Andi, is that where the tennis balls were?

Jen said...

I don't know if Elvis liked Red Velvet Cake, but I can't imagine that he'd turn it down.

Especially if you dropped it in a deep fryer full of chocolate first. Hey, I think I might have a deep fryer somewhere...

katiebird said...

ummm. I love the before and after photos.

Nancy P said...

lol, jen. We'll be right over.

AndiF said...

Yep, Nancy, it's the same area, slightly different angle. What a good visual memory you have -- that must come in handy for continuity purposes in your novels.

Knucklehead gets my vote as someone who gets the important details in both his images and his words.

Family Man said...

Hello Nancy and everyone.

No stories or anything comes to me at the moment. It's just too damned hot to even think.

Hope everyone is doing fine.

See ya and stay cool

Nancy P said...

It's very Walt Disney here tonight. We just had a doe and two fawns in our back yard, and one of the youngsters still has her spots. When the fawns gamboled off toward mom, they rousted a rabbit who ran in the opposite direction.

Family Man said...

I have a very old home movie of a deer my Grandmother adopted when it was a fawn. I don't know what the deer was doing, but the movie show my Grandmother shooing him away.

I barely remember it, but I remember the deer was always something I looked forward to when we went to Grandma's house.

Nancy P said...

"Deer" and "Grandma's house" seem like words that go together naturally.

boran2 said...

In my life there are so many less than perfect moments that I would have a hard time choosing just one, or five, or...

GreenMinute said...


"Moving from California to Kansas. Mid-March 1967, just before dawn. All 8 of us kids were stretched out in the back of the van on sheets of plywood & padding & blankets with all our stuff underneath as we drove south toward San Francisco.

"The sun was rising as we crossed The Bridge. And it cast a pure-golden light across the bay and out to sea. In that moment, I finally understood why it was called the Golden Gate. And that I might never see it again.

"Two hours later my youngest sister woke up totally blind."

Lordy, Katiebird, I have NEVER read a better novel opening in my life. If this were chapter one, is there a person in the world who would not read chapter two?

katiebird said...

{{Greenminute}} Thank you, thank you -- that's probably the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me.

Kimberly Frost said...

Hi all,

Sorry I'm late to the party. I worked a 10-hour shift yesterday and just crashed last night.

I loved hearing everyone's story. Wonderful!

My story of the call started before the actual call.

I had been on night shifts for about 8 weeks and I had heard from my agent in a sparse e-mail, as an aside, that we were going to editorial board at Berkley.

A friend of mine used to be a temp at Putnam years ago so I asked, do you know when the ed board at Berkley meets?!? When your whole life seems to hinge on one gathering that you're not a part of, you are dying for a bit of information that gives you the illusion of control.

It was about one in the morning, shadowy and cool in my room, as we talked. He said: "I think it's tomorrow morning." The words echoed in my ears. We talked for a bit longer, and I tried to distract myself.

After we hung up, I tried to tell myself that I'd done my job. I'd written a book that deserved to be published. But waiting through the endless night, wide awake while most everyone I knew slept, was tedious. Up and down the stairs to the kitchen for a glass of milk, stamps to write letters, etc. simply couldn't chew up time fast enough.

Then I prayed. And in deference to the power of the universe I wrote a positive affirmation, a la books like The Secret. It felt a little bit like those tasks we got in elemetary school Remember them: I will not talk in class, written like 500 times?

Anyway, I wrote my positive affirmation 100 times. I can't remember what else I did that night, but I fell asleep for about three hours in the morning. I had my cell phone next to my bed/head. It was sitting on an enormous stack of writing reference books. The phone rang and I could see the number from my agent's office in New York. Then I knew that all I had to do was answer it to hear that my life had changed forever.

I answered it, heard the news and smiled for the rest of the day, week, month. In fact, I'm still smiling. I don't know what the shelf-life is for that kind of high, but it's pretty well preserved even now.

Nancy P said...

Omg, Kimberly. To KNOW when they were meeting. . .

Nancy P said...

I have to laugh at this quote from a NYT article about Serena Williams:

"Do you know Sprinkles?" she asked. "It's a cupcake place. I don't go there anymore." A brief, wistful silence. "I had to cut Sprinkles out of my life."