Having so much focused time on writing in these past few weeks has re-taught me some lessons that apparently I needed to be re-taught. Right now, I’m working on very rough, first-draft material, so I’m trying very hard to simply get down the story, to not worry about the exact word and the exact phrasing. Still, that’s hard for me—it feels discouraging to be spending hours writing what is, at this point, crap. But I don’t want to get bogged down and write the perfect, perfectly revised scene set in a restaurant and then later realize they’d be eating dinner at home.
Consequently, at this stage I often don’t feel pressed to figure out details like, oh, say the names of minor characters; there are several people walking through my book with the first name of XX and the last name of XX. I named a Polish lady “Sue” because there were too many XXs in one chapter and I didn't want to stop to think about what her name really is.
So I didn’t think it was a big deal when a character in a bar showed up with, in my mind, either a birthmark or a burn on his face. Having him slightly disfigured in some noticeable way was the main point, and it didn’t really matter which it was. I was writing along, keeping him at “birthmark/burn” stage for quite a while, getting him talking and interacting with my main character…and, suddenly, I understood absolutely and without question why the mark on his face had to be a birthmark, and immediately that birthmark became an integral part of the story. It did matter—it always matters. The difference between a birthmark and a burn can be crucial—they are entirely different things, giving a character a different background and life.
So, keep it loose as long as you can, but remember that those details ARE important, not simply cosmetic. Sometimes you will tell the story what you want, but sometimes if you’re lucky, the story will tell you what it needs.