Aw, we’re learning and growing

Happy Friday from someone who *hates* to update her blog.

I hate it so much I feel my body clench up at the thought. That’s ridiculous, because I love to write. I just don’t want to write the damn blog.

I think it comes down to expectations. Like I think every stupid blog post should be the one that catapults this sucker to viral infamy. If the thoughts crossing my mind aren’t up to that standard, why bother committing them to blogdom at all?

Dumb, right?

With no better reason than that I need to update the damn blog, here’s what’s going on in my thoughts this Friday AM. Lately sometimes I feel old. Don’t get me wrong, I still text with my thumbs and go to rock shows and spend a lot more time thinking about my next tattoo than about retirement planning. But I’m grumpier about almost everything than I used to be. I’m hitting critical mass on how many friends and acquaintances I’m willing to juggle. And sometimes I feel like I’m no longer learning.

This makes me sad. Learning is fun. It’s fucking exciting. It’s sexy. Reading this article reminded me of that feeling, and made me think specifically about how we continue to learn to shape our writing craft, years after we think we’ve got it nailed. For me those leaps of learning come from reading a kick-ass book and seeing something new a writer has accomplished, something that makes me jealous enough to try emulating it.

Here are a few recent reads that made this cranky old grump feel awesome about learning again: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, The Orphan Master’s Son, Wintergirls, Winter’s Tale, and The Birthday of the World. Don’t let me forget The Sugar Frosted Nutsack.

Here’s a photo of a cactus flower!

IMG_7318

 

 

Eight stories for EI8HT, continued

Seven

I come into the studio and he’s tearing old photographs of me to shreds and mixing them with his saliva,

masticating them into a sticky pulp which he is then using to sculpt his own likeness

and I don’t know whether to slap or kiss him

so I just laugh nervously and pick my nose

he kind of ducks his head like he’s embarrassed to have me see the unfinished papier maché torso

before all his lats and deltoids are sort of fleshed out and bulging

and I can tell he’s wondering to himself, “Do I have shreds of her baby pictures sticking out between my teeth?”

because he’s sucking them and spitting and looking around for his highball of bourbon

so to put him at ease I deliver a flirtatious blow to the side of his head

and he laughs and turns to me and headbutts me hard in the gut and knocks the wind out of me

and I’m choking and trying to laugh and tears are streaming down my face

and he’s clutching me around the waist and nuzzling my stomach with his bristly chin

and I box his ears just to sort of lovingly daze him a little

and he reels back shaking his head and grabs the seltzer bottle of battery acid

and lets fly on me, just a little baby spray really

“Cut it out,” I’m whining as the drops sizzle on my sweater

cuz it’s one of my favorite Comme des Garçons pieces from the late eighties

and he knows that

and he seems to sense that maybe he’s gone too far with the sweater

so he drops the seltzer bottle

and comes close to me

and we kiss

and he backs me into the unfinished torso and sort of sandwiches me between him and his statue of himself

and even though I know the soggy masticated shreds of my baby pictures are insinuating themselves in the weave of the sweater,

I’m immensely excited and direct him to take me right there on the worktable

7 ways to rock your setting like a boss

I assume you write stuff you want human creatures to read. Yeah? Well, human creatures are sensory. And nearly always location-based. Setting provides essential context that informs your plot, shapes your characters, and enriches readers’ experience of your story.

pin it down2

…on the map if possible. No, seriously. Look it up, pick an address if that’s relevant. Narrow in. What are the coordinates, the exact date and time, what was the temperature and average humidity that day, when did the sun set? If it’s a real place, get to know it as deeply as you can. If it’s imaginary, you should know it even better. (The social systems, the infrastructure, the local flora and fauna, how the laws of physics work there, etc.) You might not end up including any of this in your story, but you should know it.

capture the vibe3The gestalt of a place may seem ineffable, but you can convey it with a few well-chosen details. For interiors, consider the shape of the space, the light sources, the air quality, the acoustics, the textures, the objects in that space. How high are the ceilings, is there an echo, can you smell mold, how thick is the carpet, is the feng shui harmonious or like totally malevolent? For exteriors, think about the geographical features, the shape of the land, plants and trees, weather, temperature, angle of the sun, proximity to water, local ley lines…whatever you need to create the right mood.

ambient humans2People (other than your characters) are a critical part of your setting. You don’t have go all Margaret Mead on that shit but you do need to consider the cultural aspects. Think of how Junot Díaz conveyed so much about his New Jersey locale with a little street slang in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Is this place densely populated? How often do your main characters run into people they know? How would a tourist characterize the locals? How do people treat strangers? How flagrantly do they jaywalk? What languages are spoken on the street? How many people are yelling at a given moment?

examine motives2Choose a setting because it contributes something unique to your story, not because you live there or want to go there or think it would sell books or make a pretty movie.

Having said that: If you’re sufficiently passionate about a particular setting, it’s worth exploring it to see what stories will arise.

use a light touch2A story is about characters in conflict and shouldn’t try to minutely describe every sensory detail. Yes, there is bad showing (see this post on when showing goes wrong).

Most readers don’t enjoy long passages of description. It’s boring and leads to visualization fatigue. Trickle in the pertinent details as they come up naturally. If it doesn’t directly enrich the story, leave it out.

keep perspective2Remember your POV and view the setting through your character’s eyes, not your own. Fish don’t notice they’re in water, and people experience a place differently depending on their maturity level, mood, worldliness, whether they’ve been there before, innate powers of observation…. All the qualities that make them unique make their perspective unique, too.

Where do your primary characters stand in relation to their setting? Are they wholly products of it or are they in opposition to it? In what ways might they transcend it?

shine light on themes2Use descriptions and metaphors that hint at, develop, and illuminate your themes, and choose settings that amplify them as well.

 

 

 

Huge thanks to Michelle Su for the gorgeous photographs!

Showing and Telling

One of the first pieces of advice any new writer gets is “Show, don’t tell.” This is akin to telling a new driver “Brake, not gas.” Of course you need to do both, though it’s true that only the most gifted of beginners gets the balance right.

Showing refers to evocative writing that immerses readers in a vivid, continuous dream. Think sensory description, figurative language, and those convincing details that come from close observation. Not every detail—just the ones that matter. Telling is most useful when you need to show the passage of time, summarize boring events, or give critical background information.

Like we say of gender: It’s not a dichotomy, it’s a spectrum. And neither technique is intrinsically good or bad. Showing and telling (and really, all writing) are bad when they are vague, general, abstract, clichéd, predictable, and boring. Good telling and good showing (and good writing) are vivid, specific, concrete, original, unexpected, and high-interest.

Easy, right?

John Gardner says you can tell anything except emotions. Jeff Gerke bans all telling from the first fifty pages. Emma Darwin advises us to show the big scenes and tell the transitions. Nathan Bransford recommends presenting the evidence and letting the reader draw conclusions. To these, I’ll add: Be less of an essayist, more of a cinematographer.

Breaking it down…

WORST TELLING: Cheats the reader out of something that should be experienced.

Example 1: Summarizing important scenes. (“That was the year he worked his butt off and overcame personal obstacles to become the most respected Solitaire player on the planet.”)

Fix: Slow down; come down to earth. Root yourself in the moment. Set the scene. Add specific details. Put your characters in motion. Add dialogue and interaction. Describe their body language. What do they see, hear, smell, feel, taste?

Example 2: Getting lost in abstract ideas or in a character’s mind. Passages seem to occur in a void. (“Basketball was Bill’s greatest joy in life. He thought about it constantly. Go Warriors!”)

Fix: Same as in Example 1. What is the character actually doing, experiencing, seeing, hearing? Intersperse abstract thoughts and internal monologue with concrete scene-setting.

Example 3: Judging or interpreting for the reader. (“She was beautiful.” “He felt very angry.” “The news had a big impact on Bob.”)

Fix: Describe body language or sensations rather than naming emotions. Replace adjectives and adverbs with vivid verbs and original metaphors. Give readers the evidence, not the conclusions. (“Bob hung up the phone. A sour mass formed in his throat and descended to his gut.”)

Example 4: Over-analyzing; explaining what it all means. (“My negative attitude was the only thing holding me back.”)

Fix: You should directly state your themes and analyze your own ideas, but you shouldn’t include any of that in your story, unless you are very meta-meta and need to jazz around like that. Otherwise, leave this business to readers. Trust that they can do it (and want to).

BEST TELLING: Improves pacing by moving the story along; is used sparingly and consciously; retains the reader’s interest; delivers information economically without being intrusive. Develops characterization. Contributes to the voice/tone/mood. Is interspersed with vivid showing.

Examples: A brief insertion of backstory (“He’d flunked out of Yale three years ago”). A quick summary of boring or noncritical events. Transitions between scenes; the passage of time (“I spent the next week avoiding her calls”).

WORST SHOWING: Misdirects your readers; bores them, wastes their time, frustrates them. Bogs down your story with pointless detail.

Examples: Scenes where every movement, gesture, and utterance are lingered over. Long passages of description that don’t contribute to the story. (When I was a high school teacher, I regularly surveyed ninth graders to find out what they most hated about their most hated books. Number one response? “Lots of description.”)

Fix: Pare down your descriptions to critical, evocative details—ideally, details that perform more than one duty. They set the scene and move the story along and characterize and foreshadow future plot points and establish the voice/tone/mood.

BEST SHOWING: Paints a picture in a few strokes. Evokes a multisensory, emotion-rich dream; immerses us in the story through vivid description of characters in conflict. Makes us care about the characters, ideas, and outcomes. Allows readers to draw conclusions, make inferences, connect the dots.

Example: Whatever you were reading when you couldn’t put the book down.

Here’s a photo of some flowers!

Picture 240

Sentences in service

Sometimes we try too hard to make a clever idea work. We have an effect in mind—a surprise or a joke or just a punchy, dramatic line—but the buildup is implausible. It doesn’t bear close scrutiny. Or even light scrutiny.

Example:

He woke to the sound of someone moving quietly around the room. Oh yes, the girl from last night. He rolled over in the sheets to watch as she got dressed.

“Wait,” he said as she headed for the door. “You never did tell me…”

She paused, her eyes lighting up. She tucked a strand of hair behind one ear and gave him a sweet smile. “My name? It’s Arabella. I thought you’d never ask.”

“No,” he said, “what time is it?”

Here’s another:

Lakewood is so charming, so well situated on popular routes, you’d think we’d have an inn, some charming spot for weary travelers to rest, nestled among the cottages of those who’ve made this lovely place their home.

But you’d be wrong.

The moment night fell, the monsters would eat you. That’s why we don’t have an inn.

Um…are we to believe that said monsters only attack buildings where people pay by the night, but not those where they rent long-term or own the land? Come on, people.

Avoid writing sentences that are obviously in service to a clever idea. Make sure your clever ideas spring organically from the more critical aspects of the writing—the actual story, themes, and characters—and never sacrifice meaning or plausibility for the sake of a joke.

Don’t be afraid to kill your darlings!

Eight stories for EI8HT, continued

Five

He smoothed the mosquito netting on her sad skin. This galactic maiden sleepwalker was beginning to have effects on his senses. He’d had lovers dazzle even his solitude before, even his mighty heart. But her frenzied mermaid struggles, her wet anaconda face, her palliative song and the sensual unintelligibility of its lyrics—it was all instrumentation for a very quiet and lovely sleep he didn’t want to wake from. Usually he did not have a moment’s rest until he felt his own sleepwalker senses gasp and strangle. Now his gasping felt routine next to the magnetic satellite of her body.

Eight stories for EI8HT, continued

Four

“Your frames-on-face lifestyle-dispensing methodology has grown tedious” was the last thing he said to me before hefting the KFC bag of his personal effects and walking out of my life forever.

What really gets to me now is just how far off the mark he was: My methodology has never been about frames-on-face. I’ve always been about proximity-sensor, signal-analysis, vibration-mounting controls, but never about frames-on-face, never about manifold antistatic ionization, and most of all never about precision-wireworked catheterizing-habitat devices.

Classic “he said, she said,” I suppose.

Eight stories for EI8HT, continued

Three

They met at a bar frequented by revolutionaries and writers of zines. He wore a mock turtleneck and camo pants. She wore a leather skirt and a t-shirt strategically ripped to show off the tattoo in her cleavage. Said tattoo depicts Jesus riding a pegacorn, you know, those unicorns with wings. Jesus is wearing an FDNY trucker cap and crying tears of blood. Lazer-bolts from the pegacorn’s eyes are smiting these caricatures of Bin Laden, Hussein and Nader, who are groveling at its hooves.

He said “Rad tat” and then they commenced to sticking their tongues down each other’s throats. Grinding their skeletons together, mashing the muscles between them, bruising each other’s lips and hips. In the general snoggery, his mustache came completely unwaxed and hung limply down his face. He was so embarrassed he ran out of the bar, sticking her with the tab. Dick.

 

Eight stories for EI8HT, continued

Two

War comes to Lamorinda.

Janelle cleans the house, kills the cat, smears La Mer on her fallout rash. Survivors have been ordered to assemble at the country club. Janelle packs her Prada backpack with water purification tablets, eyeliner, fish sticks, other necessities for her journey.

There’s a first aid table set up at the country club, where the valet station used to be. The attendant insists on taking x-rays of Janelle’s head, saying she’s looking a bit tumorish. Sure enough, she’s got tumors: one small and dark, one large and glowing, spinning in orbit inside her head like a tiny earth and moon. The attendant is sympathetic to Janelle’s plight, and takes many x-rays of the tumors in various positions in her brain until he finds one that looks good. Now she can die beautiful.