VanderMeer on writing

Jayaprakash Satyamurthy

Knivesout no more
Nov 11, 2003
Bangalore, India
Jeff VanderMeer (a surreal fantasy author whose Veniss Underground you really ought to have already read if you are concerned at all with fantastic fiction today) recently fielded questions on writing from visitors to his blog. In conclusion, he contributed this post, which addresses the most essential advice he'd like to give aspirants (Evil Monkey is VanderMeer's devil's advocate-alter ego):

Question from Evil Monkey
What's the most important advice you could give a beginning or intermediate writer?

Pay attention to specific detail--and by specific detail, I mean using all five senses. The building blocks of all good fiction start with use of specific detail, which tends to annihilate cliche. This doesn't mean that I think all stories should overwhelmingly consist of descriptions. It means that specific detail should be deployed as appropriate. Sometimes that means a few paragraphs at a time, sometimes that means a single sentence or phrase that perfectly conveys a character trait, a setting, etc. The amount of description and how it is deployed depends entirely on what kind of writer you are. But the biggest defect I see in beginner fiction is the inability to accurately describe the world and distill that description effectively in fiction. Every single person, thing, and place in this world is unique. Even one Burger King is not exactly the same kind of place as another Burger King. Every mall is different. Every table in a restaurant is different in some minute but discernable way. When we find the way to render the perfect detail for the situation or character, we get very close to understanding our world on the micro level. Whether it is a mannerism observed in a crowded mall and airlifted in to the exact point in the story where it can be used, or a description of setting taken from real life and then distilled through the imagination into something that still relates something essential about the psychological truth of the original real-world place, you are interacting with our world and the people in it. This is a life-long attempt to reject cliche and replace it with a truth about the world. We don't always succeed, but we should always try. Because, at base, everything we write is still about our world, whether transformed or mutated into something that seems unfamiliar.

When teaching new writers, I always recommend they do word sketches to improve their ability to render specific detail. Go out to a public park and sit there with a notepad and try to capture the essence of the place in your word sketch. Try to get to the core of what makes what you're looking at unique. Do the same with people walking by. Get to the core of them through observation, discarding anything that doesn't seem true or relevant.