What Level of Detail is Enough for Fiction That Feels Alive?

Quoth Anonymous: When I write fiction, it feels too thin, more like the outline of a story or a script of one. How do I know how much detail to put in so it feels more like a real story?

When I think of detail in fiction, I remember the model railroading books I liked to read as a kid.

Some people run a loop around a Christmas tree with a garish locomotive and shiny plastic cars, and they call it good. Others paint a sheet of plywood green and put out a few wooden block houses.

And then some go all out with miniature trees, tiny people, gravel under the tracks, and dust on the boxcars.

What fascinated me as a kid about model trains was this level of detail that felt almost impossible for me to achieve with my limited patience, ability, dexterity, and funds.

When I write fiction, I almost always have to go back and add more detail because I write first drafts so quickly and with a sense of relief to have finished them at all. One of my editing passes, then, is to add more details:

  • Setting paragraphs at the beginnings of scenes so readers have a sense of where they are: “Out beyond Route 91, the orange groves give way to vast fields of yellowed grass and palmetto bushes.”
  • Physical descriptions within the text itself, usually based on what the characters would likely perceive: “What I noticed first about him was that he had a tattoo of my wife on his arm, and she was shirtless.”
  • Emotional perceptions, including judgments about the environment: “Grandma’s house was always a hellhole growing up, with fleas surging at your ankles from the puke green carpet like they wanted you to rescue them.”
  • Emotional reactions: “So that’s what she thought, that I’d abandoned my son?”

When we talk about detail in fiction, it usually means some critical mass of specificity when the prose lulls the reader’s brain into experiencing the events you’re describing instead of just hearing them as a checklist. (John Gardner calls this ‘the fictive dream.’)

That critical mass is different for different readers, but the good news is that it’s actually lower than you might worry; we really just need enough detail to get our brains filling in the rest. That threshold depends upon a reader’s experience with the time, place, or subject.

If I want to simulate, say, a dorm room at the University of Florida, I can do that in several ways depending upon the reader’s experience:

  • For my sister who lived in South Hall eight years before I did, I can say, “a room on the third floor facing the Mudfest field,” and she’ll get it.
  • For a UF student (likely of the past), I might have to add a little more: “one of those old brick dorms from the 60s across from the O Dome on Stadium Road.”
  • For other people familiar with dorms or even governmental buildings, I might go a bit further and say, “The dorm could have been built anywhere from 1940 to 1970, with its interior concrete block walls thick with layers of institutional white paint, floors of speckled linoleum, and furniture build by IKEA’s prison labor division from a soft blond wood.”

How much is too much? That’s harder to say than how much is too little (where nobody can quite see or feel what’s going on), but one good way to know is by the perception of the characters. What do THEY notice about it? What do they interact with every day? What annoys them, touches them, sparks memory in them, or represents something to them?

A smudge on the wall at that dorm for one student is a reminder that this is worse than home, but for another, it means the spot where she painted a temporary mural with her best friend for spirit week.

So detail is really emotional specificity as much as physical specificity, perhaps more so. We see with our hearts more than our minds.

That means we see weird things.

In the first episode of Twin Peaks, there’s a moment that people thought was strange and absurd and pointless at the time where Agent Cooper and Sheriff Truman go into a conference room at the police station and see a mounted buck’s head lying on the table because it fell off a wall.

“That’s so random,” people liked to say.

No, it isn’t. (Well, with Lynch, it might have been intuitively random.)

For one thing, that’s actually more realistic than a “normal” conference room in TV world because yeah, things fall off walls in the real world and people work around them.

For another, it says a lot about this place and its people:

  • Hunting (and perhaps by extension, the natural world) is important to them. Nobody’s weirded out or upset by a buck’s head.
  • Formality is not as important; it’s not odd to hang a trophy in a government office, nor is it odd to leave it there until someone gets a chance to hang it back up.
  • People there go with the flow of things instead of freaking out or demanding a repair or asking weird questions.
  • This police force may not be the big time where things like this wouldn’t be allowed to happen (or persist).

Why does this work as a detail? Because of Will’s Law of Detail:

Weird is normal. Normal is cliché.

Your mom doesn’t work in an office; she works in HR at the mannequin factory. Your dad didn’t go to the store; he went to Big Lots to buy a plastic colander to rinse out a motorcycle’s carburetor.

When you look closely at anything in the real world, you see that everything is weird. Everything is random. And it’s the random that’s realistic, not the planned.

What does a living room have in it? A couch, a loveseat, a couple of chairs, a coffee table, a TV. What does YOURS have in it? The remote for the TV that’s taped up because the battery hatch fell off. A water bottle drowning between two cushions soon to disappear forever. An end table with cat scratches across the top.

If you go with the weird and telling details that strike at a character’s emotions in the moment, you’re closer to the “right” amount of description than you’d be with a simple inventory.

There’s no such thing as typical in your life, and there shouldn’t be in your fiction, either.

What Tools Can Help Me Keep My Writing Organized?

Quoth Tom: How do you keep your larger writing projects organized? Do you use Word, notebooks, sticky notes, or some other tool, like Scrivener or Ulysses to keep everything straight (characters, plotlines, etc.)? My larger writing projects eventually turn into a tangle, which often become a chore, instead of a joyful, creative exercise.

Yay! A question about tools. I love talking about tools because every single tool holds within it the promise that FINALLY, writing will be easy.

Hunter Thompson might have had the right idea. Wrong stance, though.

I’ve tried writing in a million different ways, and what’s working for me now is this odd combination of things:

  1. Writing the initial lines, scenes, or even chapters of a work in Word, a plain text editor (like Sublime Text or even Evernote), or by hand with my twee fountain pen in a journal.
  2. Each time I return to that work, I read a little of what came before, tinker with a few things, and then ride that momentum a little further.
  3. In general, I try to write the story in order, though sometimes I’ll think of a dramatic moment and write it at the very end of the document.
  4. Eventually I get stuck, at which point I either write by hand in a journal or type in a blank document, “What the fuck is going wrong here?” and then I answer my own question until I feel a sudden spark of recognition and jump back to the main file.
  5. If a story grows beyond my ability to remember names or places, I’ll often create a secondary document (or a heading way at the bottom of the main one) where I list out things I need to remember.
  6. Sometimes, the sheer weight of stuff I’ve already written intimidates me so I’ll do the day’s writing in a file I call “workbench.docx,” working on the next small specific bit which I’ll then paste back into the main document.

That sounds really complicated, and at least one writer reading this is thinking, “But Scrivener can do all of that for you AND massage your [preferred flesh or appendage]!”

I’ve used Scrivener and done well with it, but I’ll admit that it feels very portentous when I open it, like somewhere I’m blasting a trumpet and crying, “TODAY I AM WRITING IN THE APPROVED TOOL FOR DOING SO!” That node structure on the side of Scrivener with all those folders and scenes and index cards and character sketches just looms in my imagination, even when I hide it.

(I am a total fucking weirdo, though.)

I need as little as possible between me and the next blank page, and for 90% of my writing process, I’m happily chugging along in Step 2 above using Word.

Given the question you’re asking, though, I would say that something like Scrivener (which now has a Windows version as good as its Mac one) is almost certainly what you need. You can include images and notes and videos, and it’s all nicely organized.

My caution for you, though, is this:

The less that stands between you and the words on a page, the better.

In much the same way that you’d, say, treat someone’s cancer, I’d start with simpler interventions before going full-on chemo. Some of those simpler interventions might be:

  • Writing in a single Word document using the Heading 1 style to break it into sections or chapters. Then you can open View > Navigation Pane and go immediately to any heading. Maybe those headings could be “Characters” or “Maps” or “Random Shit I Don’t Know Where to Put Yet.”
  • Writing in one document for the prose and another for notes. That might also be a physical notebook or folder.
  • Trying a product with a similar idea as Scrivener but executed a little less like the cockpit of a 747, like Novlr.org. It’s cloud-based, has a simple interface, and gives you all the organization you’ll likely need. Dabble also looks interesting, and so does Living Writer.
  • And if you need it, by all means dive headlong into Scrivener. Sometimes you’ve got a big enough lawn to need a tractor, and there’s no question Scrivener is heavy duty.

(Someone at Literature and Latte is thinking, “So do we link to this as an endorsement or what? This fucker is all over the place.”)

The reason I propose this escalating series of tools is because it’s so easy to get mired in finding the perfect one or spending way too much time setting it up or mutating your work to fit the tool instead of the other way around.

As my friend and mentor Jeffrey Ford often puts it, “What am I, a fucking bricklayer?”

At the crux of it all is finding the tool that will get out of the way of your creativity while enabling it. That will require some experimentation and some open-mindedness. You may well work best with a deck of index cards or sticky notes.

Robert Pirsig wrote Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in this heavily-fucked up Apple II. George R.R. Martin still writes in WordStar 2.0 in DOS, which seems to jibe with the modernity of some of his other views. Hunter S. Thompson gonzo-ed by spelling out each word with rounds from a .357 in sheets of plywood. Henry David Thoreau pontificated Walden in, like, sheep’s blood or Google Docs or something.

In each of those cases, they wrote until they get stuck and then found the simplest tool to get unstuck. Your instinct to follow what’s still fun and easy is a good one, and as you accumulate a large box of tricks to save your bacon, always choose the one that’s energizing instead of exhausting.

Scrivener can help! But then, so could amphetamines. Who am I to judge?   

How Can I Sell the 10% of My Soul I Don’t Use All Day?

Quoth Todd: What is your advice for good writer day jobs / careers that allow a fruitful healthy writing life? After transitioning into a “creative” career, my writing output dropped off. I find myself using that narrative energy at work instead of on the page. While I love my career, writing remains important to me—and I’m left wondering how to find a balance without having to go all in with one or the other. Is that even possible? Thank you so much!

Thanks, Todd, for the great question!

When I graduated with my undergraduate English degree in 1994, I was delusional enough to imagine that I’d go on for a Master’s and PhD for a life of teaching college literature with plenty of time and intellectual energy to dabble in letters at my gentlemanly leisure.

So the “day job” backup plan I had for writing was a career that was actually LESS lucrative and stable than writing.

For various reasons, I ended up in an office instead. For the first ten or so years of my working life, I was horrified that every passing moment in a cubicle was draining the lifeforce required to write vibrant, world-changing fiction. I often walked during my lunches or hunkered in the stairwell with my head in my hands, wondering if I’d ever escape. I worked in bursts of dramatic usefulness and skated by the rest of the time.

There’s only so long that can go on, and I’ve been lucky to have two bosses in a row who “got me,” understanding that I need to be creative and entertaining to get work done. Once they got me, I kind of got me, too.

It turns out that I like entertaining people with flamboyantly amazing things, and I can do that with non-fiction during the day and with fiction at night. They feed one another in a strange way: doing big cool things at work gives me the confidence to do the same at home, making it normal, just something I do.

How can you get there? Here are some questions I wish I’d asked myself at the start of my working life:

  • Setting aside your artistic ambitions, does the day job you have suck even if you WANTED it to be your career? If so, find another one, end of story. If the job and the people are toxic, you aren’t getting ANYTHING done, much less art.
  • Do you get energy from working with people or from working alone? If you’re stimulated by people, a good day job would involve interacting with them. If you aren’t, you’ll need something more isolated.
  • What kind of writing would you like to do?
    • Is there any hope that a day job could RELATE to it in some way? A lot of my hoaxing stories come from writing ostensibly non-fiction corporate communications. I’m really good now at making absolute bullshit seem plausible.
    • If there isn’t that hope, can you find a job that uses completely DIFFERENT creative skills? Visual if you’re a writer, writing if you’re a musician, musician if you’re a sculptor, etc.?
  • How much physical work can you endure or enjoy? There’s definitely something to be said for the kinds of jobs that require very little expressive creativity, but many of them require hours of standing or lifting or steering a backhoe. Bukowski was a mailman. Could you write after sorting mail all day?
  • What kind of lifestyle are you willing to accept? Will you feel more free to create if you’re always hustling for the next gig, or do you think stability would be better? Neither is a wrong answer, just something to know. How much stuff do you want to buy? Do you need to own a car? Do you want to own a house? Just because society wants you to want these things doesn’t mean you have to.
  • What kind of social class are you willing to accept? A friend of mine has been an assistant manager at a convenience store for the last thirty years. He makes enough money to fund his interests, but not many people call him “sir.” Does that matter to you? To what extent does it matter or not matter? Be honest with yourself and don’t feel you’re not dedicated enough to your art if the answer is, “I want to be middle class.”
  • How do you define “a good job”? For me, that means it:
    • Accepts (even appreciates!) my weirdness and creativity.
    • Respects my talents in communication.
    • Rarely (but not never) requires long days to finish.
    • Places me in contact with interesting and creative people who want to do cool things.
    • Pays me some decent bank, as the young folks say.
  • On your best day of writing, how long REALLY could you write? Almost certainly not eight hours or even six, but probably more like four or even two or less…which is fine! It’s good to remember that a day job can’t steal your whole soul.

The answers to those questions will help you in seeking a new job or accepting the one you have, I think. After about a decade of thinking that an office was killing me, my answers to those questions led me to conclude that:

  • I enjoy the freedom to write whatever I want instead of endlessly hustling.
  • At my best, I only write two to three hours in a day anyway, and it’s still possible with discipline to get those hours in even with a day job.
  • I need more stability than I do adventure so I can have the adventures in my head.

The rest came down to adjusting my schedule to a working life. If you’re finding that your job is exhausting you, it might be worth writing BEFORE you go to work. (Several of my stories were written in conference rooms at 6am before my day started at 7am.) Now, I write in the evenings after dinner, usually for about ninety minutes and somewhere between 300 and 1500 words.

Really the only choices we have as artists in our current society is trying to evade the working life or adapt to the working life so it works for us, with all the effort each entails.

I think the first step is deciding what kind of life you want to live and what kind of art you want to create, and then build backwards what you need to get there.

Good luck!

Is There a Way to Stay Visible Online While Preserving My Emotional Health?

Livia asks:

I think it’s become mentally and emotionally burdensome to be a writer nowadays, what with the internet sort of shoving the details of everyone else’s writing journey in our faces while we’re struggling to stay true to our own unique pace and milestones as artists. One must always be online and commenting, or risk being seen as an unsupportive and selfish asshole. How do you maintain balance and distance between what seems to be required of us as writers nowadays (promotion! community! etc.) and what writers typically need (silence, space, distance) in order to create and evolve?

Wow, that amazing question hits me hard because I have nothing but mixed feelings about promotion and community.

The lifelong attitude that has all but doomed me to obscurity has been, “If I have to tell you I’m awesome, I’m obviously not awesome enough.” The corollary idea to that, “If I have to convince you to let me into your tribe, I obviously don’t belong there,” hasn’t done me any favors, either.  

Both of those are deeply neurotic ideas gifted to me by my scamming bullshit artist of a father. I’d rather not succeed than succeed by fakery…which I’m doing quite well!

I am, in other words, basically a cat: I want you to pet me, but I ain’t coming over there.

However, I do know enough anthropology to realize that all communities require a show of commitment to join and stay inside. I guess our ape-ish ancestors needed to know they could trust us not to bail when things got tough. Back then, that might have required, I don’t know, picking and eating a lot of nits and fleas.

Today’s equivalent is social media, but every time I post, I wrestle with the sincerity of it all: am I posting because I have something to contribute or because I want people to know I’m alive and buy my shit? I really don’t want it to be that, but maybe I’m cleverly fooling myself.

I go through this exhausting test of my soul every time I post.

My compromise is to behave like I do with normal meat-space friends and acquaintances, checking in on them at regular intervals and responding if I have something interesting to say. It means that my “footprint” and “reach” are expanding slowly, but then, why have a bunch of fake friends?

Here is the cascading list of priorities that has been working for me as a creator in the modern world:

  1. First as a fan and friend, I want you to maintain whatever level of mental health (or neurosis, whatever) you require to produce the weird-ass work that’s important to you. That’s your first job as an artist, to protect and cultivate that by any means necessary. There’s not much point in promotion or networking if you can’t get anything written that matters to you.

    The minute that social media threatens the mindset for your work, bail out for as long as it takes not to feel that way. The peanut gallery can wait.   
  2. When you DO engage on social media, I suggest engaging selectively by imagining your contacts in tiers:
    • Close professional friends, people with whom I have shared a meal while talking about things BEYOND writing, like murders).
    • Professional acquaintances, people with whom I talk mostly business and writing but who COULD be friends.
    • Assorted randos for whom I hope the best even though I don’t know them well enough for a seamless interaction.
  3. Set yourself a “social maintenance” schedule, though it doesn’t have to be that formal.
    • I check in on close professional friends probably a few times a week and comment on their stuff.
    • I check in on professional acquaintances maybe weekly or every other week, commenting if I have something interesting to say.
    • I let assorted randos come to me, when I choose the level at which I plan to engage.
  4. Post your own stuff when you think of something interesting or helpful to say. 
  5. Be okay with your audience growing a little at a time instead of sudden bursts.

The main thing for me at least is not to do anything solely for the purpose of advancing my career. I don’t post vapid compliments unless they are SINCERE vapid compliments, and I don’t contrive things to say so people know I’m still alive.

I know there are agents and publishers now who insist on a social media presence, and I have no idea if I have enough of one to count. All I can do is the same thing I do with my writing: be authentic and win my readers in ones and twos.

It would be exhausting to fake being someone else.

Am I Meant to Be a Writer?

Anonymous asks, “I feel sometimes that writing is harder for me than most other people who want to do it, and it makes me wonder if I’m really meant to be doing it at all.”

When you think about it, there are only four possibilities:

  • God has accidentally given you the desire to write but not the ability, which makes him an idiot.
  • God has purposefully given you the desire to write but not the ability, which makes him an asshole.
  • God gave you both the desire and the ability to write and you should make the most of it.
  • There is no God or other unifying intelligence to the universe and you might as well do whatever the fuck you want as long as it doesn’t hurt anybody.

The upshot of all of those possibilities? Write, either as an expression of your deepest human potential or as a rebellious middle finger to a capricious universe.

Whichever works for you.

Welcome!

My name is Will Ludwigsen, and I’ve been publishing fiction and essays for over twenty years. My stories have appeared in places like Asimov’s Science Fiction, Weird Tales, Cemetery Dance, Nightmare, Lightspeed, Strange Horizons, and the Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy. My first collection In Search Of and Others received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Kirkus as well as a Shirley Jackson Award nomination.

I’m a graduate of the Clarion Writers Workshop and I have an MFA in creative writing from the Stonecoast program at the University of Southern Maine. I taught undergraduate courses in writing science fiction and horror for half a decade.

Before you think I’m bragging, let me add one more bit of information: my entire reading fanbase could probably fit on a single bus like the Muppets.

It would be an awesome bus, don’t get me wrong. There’d be a lot of conversation about UFOs, ghosts, missing people, serial killers, Boy Scouting, vintage computers, Edgar Allan Poe, D.B. Cooper, time travel, and shambling architecture.

But — and I say this without bitterness — I’m the kind of writer we don’t talk much about when we’re giving advice on how to “make it.” We talk about starting out and finding a voice and making a submission plan to all the best markets, but we don’t talk about how to continue and persist in creating our work when we hit a few baseline singles instead of a homerun for our first try.

This site is my attempt to change that. You could call it a writing guide for tired people, or an advice column for stalled careers, or a retreat to replenish whatever fuel makes you create in the first place.

I call it “Might as Well Write” because, even in the darkest moments of a confusing career when I’ve been tempted to give it up, I hear this voice that says:

What else better would you be doing? You might as well write.

This is a site for people who are adjusting their expectations from fame and wealth to something far better: the freedom to create what truly matters to us.