Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Be Kind to Yourself

Carol Cassella ( is a practicing physician and the national bestselling author of three novels, GEMINI (2014), HEALER (2010), OXYGEN (2008), each published by Simon & Schuster and translated into multiple foreign languages. All three novels were Indie Next Picks. On top of that, she’s the mother of two sets of twins (count them, two) and is working on her fourth novel.

Her workshop was entitled, “The Devil Is In The Details.” The etymology of “details” means ‘breaking something into very small parts’.

Doctors are interested in details and, when writing on medical or scientific issues, the details must be true but also must be chosen with
the greatest care so that the reader can understand even the most technical matter.

She differentiated between “objects” and “details.” Imagine, for example, that you are writing a scene in which a car hits a child. You will need “objects” such as the car. But to really make it a scene, you need details. How old is the child? Did he run into the street? Why? Did the driver get distracted? Had she had an argument with her husband just before she got behind the wheel? Is she impaired? Is she ill? How badly was the child injured?

It is important that the details relate to all senses: sight, smell, hearing, touch, and taste. Imagine, she said, that you are in an open Mexican market and you see all the fresh vegetables laid out, the fish and meat vendors, the tamale and taco makers. You are starving. How does the market affect you? Now imagine that you had a huge breakfast and are not the least bit hungry. Is it a different experience? Finally, imagine that the night before you ate a piece of fruit bought from a street vendor who hadn’t washed his hands and you are just now getting very sick. Now, how do you experience the market?

Turning to her role as physician, she explained that our brains take in absolutely everything we see, hear, smell, feel, sense in any way, even though we are not aware that it is doing so. The brain constantly filters all this information to find, “What’s important?” (Is the tiger jumping out of the bush more important that finishing the chapter you’re reading?)

Writers must do the same thing: filter all the information to find what’s important; what specific word is needed? What word will convey the most possible information? Which word will sound right in the sentence? Which word has the right “shape” (soft, hard, sharp)?

Just as important, Cassella said, is reading, reading, reading but reading like a writer: how did this author do what he or she did? Was the right detail chosen? Which should have been deleted? Which could have been added?

She emphasized again and again that the detail must be true and believable. Imagine, she said, a woman gets out of her car at the mall and a man approaches her with a gun in his hand. What does she notice? (Certainly not the caliber and maker of the gun unless she’s a weapons expert.) More likely, she’ll notice whether his hand is shaking. Whether his face is covered? Whether he’s by himself? And what physical reactions does she have? Have her hands gone numb? Is she unable to take a breath? Does she lose control of her bladder?

Like Mary-Rose Hayes, Cassella urged us to watch and listen to others. Go into Starbucks to eavesdrop. Stand on a curb and watch people coming back and forth. How are they dressed? How are they relating to one another? To their children?

Watch and make notes. When Cassella sees or overhears something interesting, she whips out her phone and sends herself an email labeled “Ideas.” She suggested keeping a small notebook or phone handy for this purpose.

But, she said, the very best piece of advice she could give us was this: Be Kind to Yourself. It’s easy to create writer’s block by criticizing yourself.

NOTE: Cassella has created some great exercises and has given me permission to pass them on to you. I will do just that in a subsequent post.

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