Today we’re excited that Kate Karyus Quinn is swinging by the blog to talk with us about the importance of specificity in our writing.
I will read anything. Books in all genres and all age categories. I’ve got only one caveat. The writing has got to be good.
But what does “good writing” mean? How does one know if they’re a good writer and how does one become an even better one?
These are questions I’m constantly pondering. When I’m watching TV or listening to the radio, when I hear something that grabs me and makes me go “oooh” – I know it’s good writing. But then I want to dig even deeper and find out why. Often I find the answer has to do with specificity. Specifics are what make a story feel lived in. They also give it that ever elusive quality called “voice”.
Specificity isn’t just noting the make and model of the car your character is driving. Or how many diamonds are on the gaudy necklace around their throat. Or explaining the position and color of every object in a room.
Specificity is finding the exact right pitch perfect detail that adds to the world and gives us a better sense of how your character fits into it.
For me, specificity also needs to be pithy. As a reader, I tend to get bored with overly detailed writing fairly quickly. Again, unless it adds to the world or your character’s place in it, then I’d rather not read through a page long paragraph detailing all the flowers currently blooming in the front garden.
I’ve given several examples of what doesn’t work, but it’s always harder to find what does work. Luckily, we have music. I’ve actually used song lyrics to give titles to all three of my published novels: DOWN WITH THE SHINE (Avett Brothers), ANOTHER LITTLE PIECE (from Piece of my Heart, most famously sung by Janis Joplin), and (DON’T YOU) FORGET ABOUT ME (by Simple Minds and we all know and love this song because of The Breakfast Club).
But songs are good for more than just title inspiration. Being shorter than novels they have to pack a lot into a little package. And while music and a catchy hook can often carry some pretty lame lyrics, I tend to think the best songs are the ones where the words can be read sans music.
I especially love songs that tell stories. One of the first I ever fall for was “Piano Man” by Billy Joel. This is how it starts:
It’s nine o’clock on a Saturday
The regular crowd shuffles in
There’s an old man sitting next to me
Makin’ love to his tonic and gin.
We’ve got lots of nice specifics there, but nothing is lingered on for too long and overall it really gives a nice sense of the atmosphere.
Then a bit later in the song we get some really wonderful character descriptions:
Now Paul is a real estate novelist
Who never had time for a wife
And he’s talkin’ with Davy, who’s still in the Navy
And probably will be for life
And the waitress is practicing politics
As the businessmen slowly get stoned
Yes, they’re sharing a drink they call loneliness
But it’s better than drinkin’ alone
Wow. From just those few handfuls of lines, I can see this place. I can practically smell it too. Here’s a YouTube link if you want to hear it as well. Go ahead. Sing along.
The next song example is one that I noticed as being strongly written, and then in one of those weird kismet moments, my writing buddy Dee Romito, also mentioned this song as being such a great example of great strong writing.
So here we go, see if you recognize this one:
Right now he’s probably slow dancing with a bleached-blond tramp,
And she’s probably getting frisky…
Right now, he’s probably buying her some fruity little drink
‘Cause she can’t shoot whiskey…
Right now, he’s probably up behind her with a pool stick,
Showing her how to shoot a combo…
And he don’t know…
That I dug my key into the side
Of his pretty little souped-up four-wheel drive,
Carved my name into his leather seats…
I took a Louisville slugger to both headlights,
Slashed a hole in all four tires…
Maybe next time he’ll think before he cheats.
Can you hear Carrie Underwood really digging into those great lyrics of “Before He Cheats”? You could go through with a highlighter and end up highlighting almost every word, because the writing is so perfectly concise and perfectly imagined. She doesn’t name the type of car it is, but we can still easily see that “pretty little souped up four-wheel drive.” And she doesn’t get her baseball bat, no she uses a “Louisville slugger”. We also get a searing portrait of this guy and the girl he’s cheating with – her “fruity little drink” and him with his pool stick, pressing against her giving lessons and tips and just generally sleazing all over the place.
The next verse is just as good, but you’ll have to head over to YouTube to hear the rest of it because it’s time to move on to our next song.
“Closer” by The Chainsmokers came on while I was at the gym the other day and although I’d heard it hundreds of times before, it was the first time I really listened and heard the lyrics. And I was like, “Okay, wow, this is really great.” I especially love how specific this chorus is and it really brings the two characters alive:
So, baby, pull me closer
In the backseat of your Rover
That I know you can’t afford
Bite that tattoo on your shoulder
Pull the sheets right off the corner
Of the mattress that you stole
From your roommate back in Boulder
We ain’t ever getting older
So this song does name-check a specific car, but for good reason because it then follows up with the “that I know you can’t afford” line, which for me makes it more interesting. I also love the mattress getting stolen from the roommate back in Bolder, because that feels like such an early twenties type thing. For more of this song (along with some cool inside info from the band) click here.
Okay, I love songs about being young, like the one above. And I love songs set in a bar – like Piano Man. So Fun’s “We Are Young” is kinda the perfect song for me, and it also does some great storytelling.
Give me a second I, I need to get my story straight
My friends are in the bathroom getting higher than the Empire State
My lover she’s waiting for me just across the bar
My seat’s been taken by some sunglasses asking ’bout a scar
And I know I gave it to you months ago
I know you’re trying to forget
But between the drinks and subtle things, the holes in my apologies
You know I’m trying hard to take it back
So if by the time the bar closes
And you feel like falling down
I’ll carry you home
OMG. I want to know about the story behind the scar. So badly. And isn’t that what we want our words to do – to draw the reader deeper into the story? To have them turning pages, wanting to find out what happened and why? Also, without ever using the word love, this for me is a great love song. Because what is more loving than letting the person you’re with know that you’ve got them and if they’re falling down, you’ll carry them home? Click the link to listen.
Of course, since most people visiting this site are writing books not songs, I’d be remiss if I didn’t include at least a few novels examples, because yes, you can also make music on the page. Here are just a few examples from novels I’ve recently read and enjoyed:
“Sex was like the can of baking powder she kept on a high shelf in her pantry, something she didn’t need right now but that she knew she could get her hands on without too much trouble.”
― Sarah Dunn, The Arrangement (Kate: This metaphor!!! Oh man, I could write a whole book on metaphors and their beauty and ability to translate difficult concepts in ways that are incredibly relatable and specific.)
“I knew it started being over with Joel when I’d open a bottle of wine and he wouldn’t drink it.
Sharing things is how things get started, and not sharing things is how they end.”
“Penny arranged everything exactly the way that made sense. TP was hung in the correct direction (‘over’ obviously; ‘under’ was for murderers).”
― Mary H.K. Choi, Emergency Contact (Kate: This small, mundane bit of business, is a great example of showing us who the character of Penny is. And voice too! It’s third person writing, but this parenthesis section is so obviously Penny’s voice.)
“That long sigh again, above us. This time I saw it, moving through the branches. Like the trees were listening; like they would’ve been sad about us, sad for us, only they’d heard it all so many thousand times before.”
“His name tasted of fire and wings, of curling smoke, of subtlety and strength and the rasping whisper of scales.”
“Sunny put on eyebrows, eyelashes, makeup, matching pajamas, a silk robe, and then say looking at herself in the vanity mirror in her bathroom. She had experienced moments in her life when she realized that she was actually alive and living in the world, instead of watching a movie starring herself, or narrating a book with herself as the main character. This was not one of those moments. She felt like she was drifting one centimeter above her physical self, a spirit at odds with its mechanical counterpart. She stood up carefully. Everything looked just right.”
“Years before, Mother had shown her pictures of the thirsty dead. Their skin hung from their bones like the wallpaper that sloughed from the walls in the unused upstairs hallway. Swollen tongues were forced past lips cracked and bleeding. Eyes sunk so deep into sockets that the outline of the skulls were evident.”
– Mindy McGinnis, NOT A DROP TO DRINK (Kate: In truth, this isn’t a recent read. I read it years ago. But Mindy’s writing is always so spare yet so punchy. She has a gift for finding those perfect details and only the best and most necessary ones so as not to clutter things up. I also love here how she ties the description of the dead in with a description of her house, it’s so fluid and makes the whole section feel more personal for the main character.)
Okay, that’s all the examples I’ve got, but I’d love to read your examples! Leave a comment here or tweet @ me with a great song or line from a book that has great specificity. And, of course, look for it in your own writing as well!
Kate Karyus Quinn is an avid reader and menthol chapstick addict. After living in both California and Tennessee, she returned to her hometown of Buffalo, New York, and now lives there with her husband, three children, and one enormous dog. She is the author of young adult novels: ANOTHER LITTLE PIECE, (DON’T YOU) FORGET ABOUT ME, and DOWN WITH THE SHINE all with HarperTeen. Find out more about her books and her author critique services at www.katekaryusquinn.com, or If you just want to say “Hey” look for her on Twitter: @katekaryusquinn
Check out Kate’s books: