olive oilAll my physical therapist, who is from the Netherlands, has to do is lay his hands on my neck or back and I’m all better. He’s a wonderful painter, as well as a reader, and so we spend the rest of my thirty minutes talking about his paintings and my novels. He read my first novel and loved it. And recently, he read my third novel, Love Like This. Here’s what he said about it.

The story is so good. I mean, I would get in the middle of a scene and not have any idea what was going to happen next–and then you would describe a bottle of olive oil so specifically that I felt like I could go to the grocery store and pull it off the shelf–but what I wanted was to get back to the husband and wife.

I’m not sure why it takes me so long to figure these things out. Details are good, right? Be specific. How many times have I heard this?

Well, here’s the thing. Details are good. They go toward bringing things to life. They go toward creating our characters–what Angelina might notice, Lucy might not. They go toward creating a world the reader can see and believe in.

But. They can also annoy the reader and pull her right out of a scene. They can bog a scene down.

A year ago, Pam Houston, reading a few of the pages from the novel I’m working on now, reminded me: details need to do double duty. They need to do more than just be details. Why do we care that the bartender is wiping off the counter and putting out a candle? Now I know the answer and I’ve adjusted the language.

The Writer's ChronicleAnd good for Benjamin Percy, in this month’s The Writer’s Chronicle, taking the time to go beyond the pat be more specific:

Over and over again in workshop, [students] have heard their instructor say, “Be specific.” They listen, but they go too far and end up choking the reader with details. So there should be an asterisk next to the command “Be specific.” Be specific when something is interesting. [emphasis mine]

When something is interesting, you look at it longer. You prolong and amplify. These set pieces are the most interesting moments and so they demand a slowness, an elongation. Stretch out the physical beats.

Or as Mary Gordon told me back in 2005: saturate these moments.

In other words, go light on the olive oil.