I came across some very no-nonsense advice that John Steinbeck gave a friend who asked him for “some rudimentary suggestions” about how to write a book. See what you think:
“Don’t start by trying to make the book chronological. Just take a period. Then try to remember it so clearly that you can see things: what colors and how warm or cold and how you got there. Then try to remember people. And then just tell what happened. It is important to tell what people looked like, how they walked, what they wore, what they ate.
“Put it all in. Don’t try to organize it. And put in all the details you can remember. You will find in a very short time things will begin coming back to you, you thought you had forgotten. Do it for very short periods at first but kind of think of it when you aren’t doing it. Don’t think back over what you have done. Don’t think of literary form. Let it get out as it wants to. Overtell it in the matter of detail — cutting comes later. The form will develop in the telling. Don’t make the telling follow a form.”
I really like the roughness and the spontaneity of Steinbeck’s tips. Sure, the guy was a wonderful writer who made spinning a story sound simple. But I like his idea of overtelling when it comes to detail. Just recently, I read the beginning of Madame Bovary. Early in the story, Flaubert describes the cap of a young Charles Bovary — Emma’s husband to be. He summons it before the reader in a long paragraph absolutely awash in detail.
Here’s just one sentence from it: “It was a headgear of composite order, containing elements of an ordinary hat, a hussar’s busby, a lancer’s cap, a sealskin cap and a nightcap: one of those wretched things whose mute hideousness suggests unplumbed depths, like an idiot’s face.” And that’s just for starters! Flaubert goes on for several sentences. At the end, we not only know everything about the cap, we know everything about Charles. Fantastic!