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It’s raining concrete: the #1 rule of writing, Part 2 of 2

Over the years, I’d trained myself to be an observer of life’s details and to use those concrete details in my writing. (I do have an MFA in people watching). But I’d never done the opposite—never thought about turning details into abstractions as Ayn Rand suggests we do in her book The Art of Fiction.

I’m sure at some unconscious level, the details and abstractions ran parallel lives in my mind but I wasn’t consciously aware of them. I never thought, “What do the moles on my mother’s neck represent?”

While on vacation earlier this year, I sat on a white sand beach on the island of Kauai and thought about Rand’s advice. She suggests we practice seeing the abstractions within the concrete details in order to make our minds supple and easily able to notice both the abstractions or premises in our work and how to show them through details.

I looked around the beach for a detail that I could turn into an abstraction. Sand? Water? Blue sky? I could get philosophical about those details. But nothing really grabbed my attention. At least, not until the bald Russian and his string bikini-clad girlfriend began to strut the beach in front of me. And I do mean strut.

He paraded her back and forth across the hot white sand, as if showing off his prize show pony. Chest out, he didn’t even glance around the beach to see if anybody was watching. He knew all eyeballs were glued to them. He took pictures of her posing next to large pieces of driftwood, splashing in the waves, and leaning against a nearby rock wall.

I wasn’t the only witness to this amusing public display. A young Indian couple near the shoreline also watched. The dark-haired woman, covered with long shorts and long t-shirt, glared at the Russian couple while her husband snuck peeks at the girl in the string-bikini—or what lay between the strings.

Perfect, I thought. This I can get into. So, what abstractions did I see in the show before me? Pride. Ownership. Ego. Confidence. Inferiority. Jealousy. Judgment. Coveting. Desire. Longing. Lust.

And, as the Russian held his girl’s hand while she dismounted from a large rock, I saw tenderness. The concrete of the scene conveyed the abstractions and vice versa.

Rand says that as writers, when we sit down to write, we usually begin with an abstraction and then look for the details that will show our intent. When readers read our work, they see the concrete details which then help them discover the author’s abstractions or themes.

It’s important to know both because our best writing has both—details and universals. Plot and theme. The more we practice seeing these in our everyday life, the easier they will come when we sit down to write.

Exercise:  Next time you go out in public—a restaurant, coffee shop, the mall, or just out for a walk—notice your surroundings. Pick a few details and see if you can relate any abstractions to them. Then do the opposite: pick an abstraction like love or trust and see what concretes you can dream up to give it life.

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