The following exchange took place between my three-year-old and I the other night:
Daughter: “Where’s Mommy?”
Me: “In the living room putting up a shelf.”
Daughter: “What kind of shelf?”
Me: “A wooden shelf.”
Daughter: “What kind of wooden shelf?”
Me: “A brown wooden shelf.”
Daughter: “What kind of brown wooden shelf?”
Me: “A big, sturdy, brown wooden kind of shelf.”
Daughter: “What kind of big…sssturdy, brown wooden shelf?”
Me: “The best kind.”
Okay, so what did we learn from this exchange? First, my daughter’s super cute–she must get that from Mommy. Second, Mommy is a better handyman than I will ever be; make of that what you will. And finally, my three-year-old thinks through the writing process the same way I do, only better, because here she made me break down this one simple idea–“What kind of shelf?”–into several different iterations, each one deeper and stronger than the last one. Now she–and I–had a much clearer idea of what the shelf looked like.
Same goes for writing: you can always go deeper. Instead of simply saying a character walked down to the Saturday Market in Portland, you can say “Buskers serenaded Karen from every other street corner, laughter surrounded her like a warm blanket, and a briny Willamette River breeze wafted into her nostrils, bringing along with it the scent of barbecue, Thai, vegetarian food, and elephant ears.” And the same is true about emotional descriptions. You can say a young man is standing in front of the sculpture “The Mitt” outside of Seattle’s Safeco Field, looking rather sad; or you can say, “Chet stared at the bronze sculpture he and his brother had taken pictures in front of each of Ronnie’s previous 12 birthdays, and held his breath as he thought–again–about how this would have been the 13th had that drunk driver not killed Ronnie several months ago.”
There are always ways to get more out of your writing. We just have to find the right questions, and ask them over and over again until we get as much out of a scene, a character, a beat as possible. This is the kind of hard work that will help your manuscript go from good enough to great, so don’t sell yourself short. Keep digging!