Tag Archives: Writing Advice

Post# 34: Utilitarian Description

I read a short passage in Joe Hill’s Heart Shaped Box the other night and I liked it so much, I wrote it down and am here to burden you with it.  It’s a short passage.  Here it is:

“She glared at Jude, saw he was dressed, black Doc Martens, ankle-length duster.”

Wow, you’re thinking, I’m so relieved you brought that to my attention.  But, to me, this is a great example of what I like to think of as totally utilitarian physical description.  Joe Hill is not the most concise writer I’ve ever read (I recently read Justin Torres’s We the Animals which re-defines concision in a way I’m not totally crazy about), but he’s got a great eye for the telling detail and he’s very precise and direct with physical description.  And his descriptions, like this one, work for you, consider your experience, your busy day, and your ability to think for yourself.   For me with physical description I’m always thinking, what have you done for me lately?

This description comes about a third the way into HSB in which we’ve met aging rocker Jude Coyne and learned the reasons that he’s now being haunted by a ghost who’s trying to ruin his life and drive him insane as quickly as possible.  We know Jude’s lived hard, spent a lot of time on the road.  We know he’s a rock and roller and probably dresses accordingly, and in six words (black Doc Martens, ankle length duster) Hill confirms this and then some, totally filling in the gaps for me about what Jude looks like and how he carries himself.  He looks like a bit like The Punisher, another Doc and Duster wearing bad ass kind of fellow.

Physical description should always be doing more than describing what a person looks like.  I don’t care if a guy has blue eyes, but for God’s sake, use them.  Description should be working for the character, and therefore, for the reader, dealing with characterization as well as description.  Only a select number of people leave the house in black Doc Martens and an ankle length duster and Jude is one of them.

Here’s how Hill might have written the same description if he wanted to make it a lot worse: “She glared at Jude, saw he was dressed in a pair of gleaming Doc Martens, the yellow stitching running up their sides like broken lines down an endless highway.  The shoes were old and broken in and Jude rarely wore any others because they felt so good.  Nothing fit him quite like his trusty Docs.  His duster was ankle length and also black and tickled the shoes as Jude walked.  Its leather had worn with the years and was now soft and supple and fragrant with the many years of his life.”

This description, instead of working for the reader, throttles her with information.  Its greater sin, though, is that it doesn’t put a whole lot of faith in the reader, not nearly as much as Hill’s six words do, which allow you to fill in the gaps for yourself.

If you can deliver the effect of ten words with six, or even better, twenty words with six, keep the six.  Kill the rest.

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Post #25: Circumstance

Ask 10 random people what “Setting” is and they’ll tell you something resembling the following:

The Time and Place a story occurs.

Not so fast.

A third element of setting worth celebrating, though oft neglected, is that of Circumstance, which I humbly submit is actually its most interesting and durable attribute.

In a park at dusk is a time and a place.  But in a park at dusk the moment a war breaks out between two warring factions of squirrels known as the “Corns” and the “Oaks,” that’s another thing entirely.

In Ann Patchett’s lovely novel Bel Canto, a group of distinguished guests is held hostage at a vice president’s manor in a small South American country.   The setting (the house) is, frankly, not particularly interesting.  It’s fine–it’s a big house, lush, and a marked contrast to the roughness of the terrorists who live in the jungles surrounding the city which plays up the unjust ills of the class system in the third world–but they could have been many places and the same set of events (mostly) could have occurred.  What makes her use of setting noteworthy is the circumstance of music.

The group of people had congregated there to celebrate the birthday of a rich Japanese businessman named Mr. Hozikawa.  He’d been enticed there on the promise of his favorite opera soprano, Roxanne Koss, who’d been paid to come and sing five arias to celebrate his birthday.  The plot–a prolonged hostage/terrorist set-up–becomes infected with the presence of music and informs everything that happens.  In the presence of beautiful music, strangers declare their love for one another, friendships are formed, time drifts as hostage and terrorist alike are swept away by the universal tide of music.

As the book begins, we already picture the conclusion, the one Die Hard has taught us to expect.  We meet the standard cast of characters: the defiant vice president who initially stands firm, the gruff and intelligent terrorist leaders all generically called “General,” the cool headed intermediary negotiator (Swiss, no less), the intelligent Japanese translator, child terrorists with guns and hair triggers who appear ignorant, angry, and afraid.  And yet, Patchett must have planned, or decided along the way, that the circumstance of being around music, and not just any music but THE soprano of her generation was far more interesting than mere life and death, and to make that the focus of her story and the engine driving her narrative.

Half way through the book, one of the hostages, a Japanese diplomat, begins playing piano on a whim; the original accompanist has already died from lack of insulin.  Roxanne then begins practicing with him every day and they form a duo.  Soon she begins to give small concerts to which there are curtain calls and bows and applause.  She sends out for sheet music to expand her repertoire.  The terrorists assent to her whims, treat her differently because she’s famous, yes, but more so because they are completely astonished and overwhelmed by the power of her singing.  She falls in love with Mr. Hozikawa, who she was brought there to entertain, and he is snuck up to her room in the night by one of the female terrorists, who herself has fallen in love with Mr. Hozikawa’s translator, Gen, who has become the official translator for pretty much everyone.  Soon after that, on a morning Roxanne has slept in after (presumably) wild hostage sex with Mr. Hozikawa and therefore isn’t there to fill the morning with music, to compensate, one of the young male terrorists, while wielding a semi-automatic rifle, begins singing arias a capella from memory, and turns out to have a world class voice.  Roxanne then becomes, wait for it–his teacher.  During all this, vast meals are prepared.  Terrorist generals play civil games of chess with hostages.  The vice president finds a strange love of domesticity and keeps the house immaculate, dusting and sweeping and discovering the joys of weeding a garden.  Multiple men declare their love for Roxanne, not able to resist their hearts.  For four and a half months things progress in this way, the situation in the house becoming so self-sufficient, so insular, so normal that both hostage and terrorist lose complete track of time.   And reality.  No one seems to remember that half of them are holding guns and it’s all going to go tits up in the end.

The beautiful thing is that we accept it.  Believe that this is probably what must happen during every prolonged hostage situation.   The ending is harsh and fast and, to me, was very predictable.  The only failing here on Patchett’s part is that the ending undermines the glorious fantasia that’s just transpired, reminds us at the last moment of the extent to which her elaborate conceit (maybe) wasn’t all that possible after all.

Patchett’s created a fantasy that reads like realism, which is really something.  And the thing that made it all possible, was music.  The circumstance of music.   What was primed to be another story of terrorists and hostages becomes one about the miraculous power of voices in flight and fingers in motion, of love and community, how quickly these things can take over and how suddenly they can be taken away.

Post #18: Finish Lines

As I wrote my 50,000th word this month I was at a coffee shop alone.  I’d gone in a few thousand short of my goal, ordered coffee and a peanut butter cookie, then set to work, vowing not to leave until I’d finished.  I didn’t.  A thrill went through me as I checked the word count.  50,007.  I looked around.  No one looked back.  I smiled.  No one seemed to notice.  I looked back at my computer.  It gave no notice, no indication of what I’d accomplished, of what it had been a part of.   No secret hand emerged to high-five me or pat me on the back.  The scenery remained unchanged.  People coming, people going.

I was listening to Andrew Bird’s Noble Beast.

Part of me wanted to strut to the nearest table, interrupt whoever was sitting there, and say, “you don’t know me, but I just wrote 50,000 words in November.  Now, what do you think about that!”

But I didn’t.

Because the truth is that, well, it wasn’t exactly anti-climactic, really, but…OK, yes it was.  Only a little, but still.

Finish lines, I’m finding, come in all shapes and sizes.  Each school year finishes in a summer, with more time to write and more time with my kids, with longer days and extra sunshine.  As a parent of young children, each evening finishes with a quiet house and a cold beer and toys dotting the living room floor.  Each year finishes with champagne and resolutions.  I hiked the Grand Canyon rim to rim in a single day once, and that finish line was dusty and sweaty and achingly satisfying.

But the finish line for NANOWRIMO?  Well, it looked kind of like the starting line.  A blank page.  Waiting to be filled.

No finish has ever looked quite so similar to the start to me.  And here my hat goes off to NASCAR drivers.  Jesus, those people must be haunted by the feeling that they’re driving and driving and never going anywhere!

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m damn proud of what I accomplished.  I’m not the sort who can’t put his feet up and tip his cap to himself.  I set my mind to something, got to work, tried not to complain or get distracted or make my wife too miserable, and did what I’d set out to do and I like to think I earned the small measure of pride I felt and still feel.  And much love here to the folks who created and maintain NANOWRIMO.  Initially skeptical, I’ve emerged a believer and would encourage anyone to try it for themselves.

But for me, finishing NANOWRIMO, well, I feel like the joke is on me a little bit because I finished, but I’m anything but done.

First off, Blue Dot isn’t even over yet.  I’ve still got, I’m thinking, 7,000-10,000 left before I can put a THE END on this very, very, very rough draft.  And then comes the real work of revision, which, honestly, I’m greatly looking forward to but which is its own kind of marathon, so different from the sprint I’ve just been engaged in.  That’s a trick that NANOWRIMO plays on you, by the way.  It looks like a marathon, but it’s actually a very long sprint.  A marathon is about pacing yourself, but NANOWRIMO felt more like I was always in a hurry, trying to get to the next turn.  It’s a writing high that way, and sometimes you’re flying along in disbelief of your own pace and stride and how goddamn great the wind feels in your hair.   The rest of the time, you’re just trying not to trip and send yourself flying into the grass.

Sure, I want to celebrate, to soak up the moment.  Put my 50,007 in lights, take it out to dinner, show it off a little bit and make the neighbors jealous.  But honestly, none of that feels quite right.  Because the truth is that I kind of just want to get back to work.  Is that okay?

Post #17: Crawling Through the Nearest Window

Doing National Novel Writing Month is exhilarating.  I think this is mostly because I’ve never written, outside of education, for a capital “D” Deadline and the need to complete X quantity by Y date is a utilitarian sort of enterprise that’s added a different timbre to this writing experience than others whose end point hinges on a self-imposed deadline.

I’ve decided that NANOWRIMO is more about stamina than it is about creativity.  Not to shit on creativity.  Not at all.  But the truth is that the writers who have the best chance of starting and finishing a task like NANOWRIMO are those not necessarily with the keenest imaginations, but with the deepest well of endurance.  Those who can follow that sage piece of writing advice that I sometimes think is the only truly useful one: ass in chair.

Writing on a deadline makes you solve problems quickly.  My analogy is that when your story runs into a wall, find and crawl through the nearest window. Can’t find a window?  Tough.  Invent one.  I’m writing a sci-fi/horror mash-up because it sounded like a novel (pun so very much intended) change to my usual subject matter (realistic literary fiction) that would breathe enough fresh wind into my sails to make it to the finish line.  What I failed to realize is that genre writing is a lot harder than I thought it was.

Of course, all kinds of writing are difficult in their own way, but what I’m talking about is closer to the necessity in genre to respect the beginning-middle-end story structure.  I’m not writing a book about an existential crisis that doesn’t need to have an ending to be considered successful.  The plot is front and center this time out and the plot needs to, perhaps above all things, make sense to the reader.  And not sense as in “real,” but sense as in “consistent” and “logical.”  There’s a difference.

Consider The Catcher in the Rye.  In Salinger’s classic, one need not believe that the things that Holden does are the only things that could have happened.  For instance, after Holden’s conversation with the nuns in the diner, we don’t feel the need to make the meet-up logical or the basis to judge what happens next.  It may affect the next action, but it doesn’t have to.  Nor does the book have to really go anywhere, to end up someplace in order to be a great book, which is, of course, why it doesn’t.  For Christ’s Sake, the book’s final image is a kid on a merry go round!  In many ways this is exactly what makes a book like Catcher so great and so lasting–it prizes emotion and character above action.  And, quite frankly, character is more interesting.

But it all depends on how you look at it.  Seen through certain eyes, too large an emphasis on character could be a liability.  Most people I know who don’t like Catcher don’t like it because they don’t like Holden, not because “nothing happens.”   And if they don’t like it because nothing happens, well, they should probably put down Salinger and read Blue Dot, my NANOWRIMO book.  Because, let me tell you, all kinds of things are “happening” in my book.

But, of course, making things happen is its own kind of problem.  One problem being that the “happenings” have different rules in a plot driven piece than in a character driven piece.  Not dramatically different, but different all the same.  In genre, the cause and effect sequence needs to be cleaner, leaner, and ultimately, more satisfying to the reader.  After all, that’s what you’re selling them.  No one wants to buy tickets to the circus only to find, after the lights have dimmed and the curtains have closed, that they’re actually at an antique show.  It’s false advertising.  In filmic parlance, you might compare the ending of Die Hard to the ending of the last season of The Sopranos.  If Die Hard had ended with a long, slow fade out on the bloodied face of John Mclaine before his final show down with Hans and his reunion with his wife, and we were given no closure, no sense that the good guy had prevailed or that the estranged couple had re-united, myself, and a lot of other late 80’s Bruce Willis fans, would have wanted their money back.  The Sopranos could get away with such an ambiguous ending because the show was always more about Tony than it was about what Tony was doing.  Die Hard is about a guy too, but for that story to make sense to us, that guy needs to always be doing things that lead places.

I guess what I’m saying is that I choose a genre piece for NANOWRIMO because I thought it would liberating, and perhaps easier, to write.  But I’m realizing now this was a false assumption.  Genre isn’t harder, but it sure as hell isn’t much easier.  Which leads back to the earlier point that all kinds of writing are hard.

A problem for me is that I’m not used to writing plots that need to add up so neatly and my characters keep trying to stop my story and let themselves come front and center.  Part of me feels like they’re stalling because they don’t know what to do next.  I’m on track to finish my book on time, or at least get to 50,000 words on time, but right now the ending keeps getting further away.  And the further away it gets, the more I’m getting the feeling that Blue Dot may just be the world’s first alien invasion story that ends with a kid on a merry go round.