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Dear scaredy-car drivers on I470:
Look, it’s just a stalled truck. I realize it’s a big semi, which is mildly interesting, but it’s all the way over on the shoulder like it should be. So why are we all slowing down to a snail’s pace to stare at it? I mean, it’s not on fire. The driver is not hanging out the window, trapped and screaming and burning to death. Sure, I’d slow down for that. Nope, it’s just a stalled vehicle with a guy under the front end, looking up into the innards as if he has any damn idea what it’s supposed to look like.
And once we get past the semi, why don’t we then speed back up? Why do we continue to drive five miles below the speed limit, like we’ve been so badly frightened that we’re feeling extra cautious?
It’s okay, scaredy-car drivers. The scary non-burning semi is all gone. Push your foot down on that little black pedal to the right.
Dear little black foreign car driver:
Please do not pull right out in front of my big ole American van in the rain. Like its driver, my van is a little heavy. It’s a big ole boy. I can’t just tap the brake and make room for your car, little as it is, especially in the rain. Them thare streets are a tad slick in that situation. And I’m afraid one day someone will smush you like a tin can. Especially don’t then slow down. It’s fine if you want to go slower than I do; frankly, most people do. Just do it behind me, not in front of me. That’s all I ask.
Thank you for listening, little black foreign car driver.
Details are awesome. Fancy writing there, huh? But they are. They do so much in your writing. They are the paint we use to create a picture in a reader’s mind. Words don’t stay individual words when we read. They almost become silent translators as we “see” a scene in our heads, as we “watch” what happens in the book. So the more details we include, the more real the picture becomes. Tell me what I would see if I were there — is it sunny, cloudy, day, night, city, country, colorful, drab? Tell me what I’m hearing — traffic, birdsong, children laughing, raindrops, dogs barking, ominous silence? Tell me what I’m feeling — hot, cold, windy, sunshine? (The most vivid memory I have from a total eclipse when I was a child was the weird, clammy chill in the air as the sun disappeared; sunshine doesn’t usually suddenly leave, so the humidity seemed to freeze in the sudden shade.) When we read, we leave this world and feel like we’re in the world of the book, right next to the characters.
But just any detail isn’t good enough. “The sky was blue” isn’t a telling detail. The sky is always blue. That detail doesn’t take me anywhere. But if I said, “The sky was a weird shade of green, almost glowing toward the bottom where the sun was setting,” and if you were from the Midwest, you would know exactly what shade of blue sky I was talking about. Anyone from Missouri can tell you that’s a tornado sky. So not only can a Midwesterner see that sky in his head, he will then pull in all sorts of emotions linked to that color. He’ll feel anxiety and fear; he’ll feel hyper-observant and jumpy. And all I had to say was “weird green sky.”
Detail can also cement regional characteristics. Describe the trees. Trees are different everywhere. In the south you see lots of conifers; in the Midwest you see big leaves in summer and bare branches in winter. I edited a book recently about a writer’s life in outback Alaska, and I asked her to describe the landscape in every scene, because I’ve never been to Alaska. I can’t “see” it in my head. If you say “trees” to me, I see big Midwest deciduous trees, but I’m guessing Alaska’s trees are quite different. If you want to take me there as a reader, you need to tell me everything I would be seeing and smelling and hearing and feeling if I were there.
Subtle differences can really flesh out the picture. For example, the angle of the sun is different in the north from the south, in the fall from the spring. Here in the Midwest in the late afternoon in the fall, the sunlight does something strange to color. It becomes very vivid and deep, somehow. A blue sky in fall is almost purple-blue, while a July sky is so pale, it’s almost white. The shadows are darker in fall and the edges of the shadows are very clear, not fuzzy like in spring. Those details bring people who have seen it back to that memory, really clicking into what they know, and make someone who’s never been to the Midwest in fall “see” something they never would “see” otherwise.
The smell of food can really cement a scene in a reader’s mind. Every region has its unique cuisine. The smell of barbeque, cajin spices, seafood, Tex-Mex, fried chicken, stew — they set the reader in a particular region. And they might make you remember Mom’s cooking, or that amazing vacation when you were twelve. They tap into emotion.
In The Twelve, Justin Cronin uses detail to create emotion. In one scene, he describes a perfect summer day in excruciating detail. You feel the sweat running done your backbone, I swear. You see the faded blue-jean sky. You hear the cicadas singing in the trees. You watch the sun getting lower in the sky, the shadows creeping longer. And the more he builds this perfect day, the more anxious you become, because you know it’s too perfect. Something bad is going to happen. (And it does.)
I think some writers use detail just to exercise their writing chops. If the writing can’t be beautiful, poetic, they don’t bother with detail. But to me, details aren’t really meant to be poetic. I love it when they are, but in every book, they’re the meat and bones of writing, the scaffold we hang the action on.
So describe, describe, paint those word pictures, pull the readers into your world, but choose your details wisely. Pick ones that have emotional weight if you can. Pick ones that perfectly capture what is unique about what you’re describing, or pick details that are ubiquitous, the ones that everyone gets immediately, the ones that make them say, “Yes, you’ve hit it, that’s perfect!” Pick details that capture a moment in time so perfectly, the reader forgets he’s reading and is just there.
Is there anything more annoying than the -’s? (Well, other than tornadoes.) When do you use -’s and when do you use -ies? Even worse, what about -ies’?
It all comes down to possessive or plural.
–If something is being owned, it’s -’s: The family’s car. (The family owns the car.)
–If something is more than one, it’s -ies: The families are vacationing. (More than one family.)
–If both: The families’ cars. (More than one family, and they own the cars.)
So, ask yourself the question: Does anyone own anything? If not, no apostrophe.
Ever wonder what would happen if you stuck your hand in a garbage disposal?
Well, surprisingly, not much.
But I don’t recommend it by any means. It does hurt. A lot. Feels like someone smashing you with a hammer. (It was a new-ish disposal.)
Two fingers are a little numb, but no blood, no cuts.
So, Stephen King, your Firestarter scene was not accurate. And here I’ve been terrorized by that scene all these years.
AGAIN: DO NOT TRY THIS YOURSELF. I PROBABLY JUST GOT REALLY REALLY LUCKY
HOW COULD THEY KILL MERLE?
I was so mad. He’s changing, doing something selfless and good, trying to finally protect his little brother, and they kill him.
At least it wasn’t Daryl. I will quit watching if they kill Daryl. Hear me, AMC? DON’T KILL DARYL. EVER.
Here’s the secret of job security on The Walking Dead: BE BORING.
Seriously, if you’re a boring character, you will live forever on that show. The second you show any character development or change or growth, watch out — they’ll ax you.
I never particularly liked Laurie, I’ll be honest. She moped around and didn’t seem to do much. Why everyone wanted to sleep with her was beyond me. And getting so PO’ed at Rick for shooting Shane? For killing before he was killed? I was really annoyed. Boring and stupid. There was that whole madonna-earth mother-repopulating the planet thing, which was all heart-warming and all. And then she got interesting! She acknowledged how wrong she was and was so patient with Rick and she was kicking butt on the zombies and allowing her son to grow up, and then BANG! — Laurie dies.
T-Dog started getting interesting, and BANG! — T-Dog died. Doing something selfless and amazing. You should have stayed selfish and boring, T-Dog.
Merle was actually pretty boring originally — I mean, senseless, purposeless meanness is boring. You sure never wondered, “Gosh, I wonder what Merle will do here?” You knew he would do the meanest thing possible. Then he has some character growth, lets Michonne go, and heads out to stop the gov’nuh, and BANG! — Merle’s dead.
Andrea stops the whining and “I feel left out” crap and tries to heal the world, and BANG! — Andrea’s dead. (Why did she ever sleep with the governor? I would rather stick needles in my eyeballs, seriously. I’d rather sleep with the zombies. Plus I thought she had a thing for Michonne.)
The scientist stops being an enabling wimp, and BANG! — scientist is dead.
Speaking of Michonne, I’m expecting her to die any minute. When she first came on board, all she did was stomp around looking angry and crazy and refusing to talk. Boooorrring. Then she joins the gang and does some spectacular zombie kills and talks Merle out of killing her (that girl tricked him but good) and forgives Rick…and is that chemistry I’m seeing between her and Rick? I figure she’ll sleep with Rick and then they’ll kill her off.
So who’s alive and will never die? The blonde sister (so boring I don’t know her name). And don’t think finally getting off your dead butt (no pun intended) and killing a zombie saves you, especially since you did it while hiding behind a fence. Look at your sister, getting all riot-geared up and kicking butt. That girl is interesting. (Oh crap). Glenn — he’s slightly more interesting this season, but he always seems about to cry, which annoys me. The old guy. What’s more boring than this sage voice of wisdom who just gives in to all Rick’s craziness? “You’re the boss” is his stock phrase. He was so much more interesting when he fought with Rick. Patricia would be interesting if she starting banging Daryl, but she hasn’t bagged him yet, so I guess she’s safe. If Daryl finally comes to his senses (and seriously, there are almost no women around, and you’re going to die any minute, and this woman offers herself up — why in the heck would you not bang anyone you could get your hands on?), then she’s a prime killing candidate.
I guess Laurie was just boring enough to get brought back to flutter around in a flowy white dress ad nauseam. What’s with the white dress? Did she ever wear a flowy white dress when she was alive? No, she did not. (I thought the viewer comment that Daryl might start seeing Merle in a flowy white dress was hilarious.) If she were smacking the crap out of Rick for neglecting her kids, that would work for me, but no, she’s going to drift around silently.
I used to worry that Rick would die, because he was interesting, but then he got all mean-Rick, crazy-Rick, which was boring the pants off me, so I guess he’s safe. I’m glad he seems to be waking up. Hopefully they won’t kill him for it.
The governor is BORING! Kill the jerk, please! But he’s boring, so he and his two buddies get to live. The one person I was really looking forward to watching die, and he lives. Arrrggg.
So, they bring a bus-load of old people and kids back to the prison. Am I the only one who sees an issue here? I hesitate to say this, being old myself, but old people in a zombie-virus apocalypse are a real liability. They tend to die in their sleep and become zombies and eat all the tasty, tender little children. Sorry, Myself, but were I Rick, I’d kick my tired old butt out of there. Where’s mean-Rick when we need him?