On the last day of 2018, my husband and I drove to Morro Bay, California, to introduce our new dog, Huckleberry, to the ocean. I don’t usually pick rocks up off the beach, no matter how pretty they are – they never look as nice once the sheen of seawater has dried off and then they’re just gathering dust in a bowl on your coffee table, anyway.
But this one was utterly irresistible: It had a perfect hole drilled through it, probably due to some piddock, worm, or sponge wanting a home. On one side, all you see is the hole. On the other side, a progressively narrowing, sloping vortex to the hole makes it seem like you’re sliding into a singular vision when you look through it.
I immediately held it to my eye. Morro Rock, a gigantic volcanic plug a couple of miles in the distance, was covered in winter fog, but its outline looked sharper when I looked through the hole. I pivoted, looking for Jim and Huckleberry, loping companionably along the waterline, Huckleberry hiccupping sideways to avoid wet paws. They, too, sprang into what felt like sharp relief, each of their actions distinct and crisp.
Sign up for our weekly newsletter, full of tips, reviews, and more.
Everything I looked at – the dunes; the disappearing line of Highway 1; the sandpipers and plovers spelunking for food in the surf – all seemed more in focus.
Almost belatedly, I realized that putting my eye to the little hole obscured everything but what was in a tiny circular frame. This let me see that object, that landscape, that much more clearly.
This advantaged view reminded me of something I’m working on with a writing coaching client. She’s a newbie writer, although she’s in her 70s, and her work has a habit of meandering, and sometimes careening, along on the page and through her memories with no real focus. Her words gallop. And when I meet with her in person, I get the sensation that she’s panicked, scared that she won’t be able to tell you everything you need to know before it’s too late.
One of the things we’ve been working on is adding specificity to her work.
In my client’s case, specificity should refer to the thing she wants to convey to her reader, the thing she wants the reader to walk away with at the end of each essay she writes or each story she tells. It can be one theme or one idea, it can be an emotion or it can be an image, but having some idea of what that thing is can help you to shape stories and essays that convey intent.
A story or an essay that doesn’t have intent runs the risk of being an “occasional” work, to borrow a phrase I learned from Kate Gale, the managing editor at independent publishing house Red Hen Press. The “occasional” story or essay is the event or anecdote you relay to your friends over coffee or at the bar right after it happened to you. It goes nowhere after that; it’s just amusing.
For my client, the specificity also forces her to slow the heck down, so that she can hone in on what matters to the particular story she’s trying to tell us. Narrowing in on one aspect of a period of her life, for instance, winnows down her thinking so that she can process what really mattered to her – both then, as a relative innocent going through the event, and now, as a much more experienced woman with lessons learned from it.
Let’s consider specificity from another point of view: The students in the online MFA program I teach in dedicate a term or more to working on their query letters. They were asked to read a post from the writer Nathan Bransford’s web site. (Bransford was formerly a literary agent, and is now an author himself). In it, he wrote that “summarizing through specificity”… “can help your query to reflect the uniqueness of your book.” What does Bransford mean by this? Instead of writing that your character Jack (of “Jack and the Beanstalk,” say) “needs to grow up,” you might write, “After a colossal mistake in which he trades a whole cow for a handful of beans, Jack realizes it’s time to trade his little-boy naiveté for some big-boy pants, and not just because his mama said so.”
See the difference? Turning a gimlet eye on the events and characters in your work can help you to convey the hook of any manuscript, concisely and in intriguing fashion.
The same thing works for any writer looking to improve on their characters. “Amy was a typical stay-at-home mom” gets you only so far, even with the phenomenon of collective experience working in the writer’s favor (we all have the stereotype of a frazzled, overworked mom in our imaginations somewhere). Really dialing down into Amy’s day, the specificity of it, her mundane tasks and the specific way they make her feel, for example – all of that goes a long way toward making her truly live in our imaginations. And for the writer, such an exercise – picking apart Amy’s day and emotions – can help you to get to the heart of what Amy’s North Star is, what her prime motivation is.
As an added bonus, specificity comes with great emotional weight. When a reader or a speaker or a storyteller gives us anything memorable, I guarantee there’s some specificity at play there. In an episode of Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast “Revisionist History,” he compares rock music to country and then rap music, noting that it’s the specificity of the lyrics in the latter two that causes us to feel sad, or angry, or bereft. In rock music, by contrast, the lyrics are fun, but it’s usually the melody that carries the day. (Witness the success, Gladwell reminds us, of something like Tutti Frutti, which is No. 43 on Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Songs of All Time.”)
The number of times I’ve told short story writers and students that “specificity is king” probably warrants my commissioning a rubber stamp for that phrase. I may just encourage them to go find a viewfinder rock of their own, or anything that helps us to remember how important it can be to focus on one specific thing at a time.
—Yi Shun Lai is the fiction editor and co-owner of Tahoma Literary Review. Read about her writing coaching and editing services; her novel, Not a Self-Help Book: The Misadventures of Marty Wu; and her daily adventures at thegooddirt.org.Originally Published