The Friday Rant: To the little black foreign car driver

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.

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Writer Wednesdays: Telling detail

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.

 

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Writer Wednesday: Apostrophe s

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.

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The garbage disposal

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

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The Walking Dead season finale

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?

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War and peace

I find it ironic that Cleo the Horrible Kitten has declared war on my peace lily

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February 2013 100

February 2013 098

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Missouri weather sucks

So in the last six days, we have received 25 inches of snow. Drought all summer, and now this. You know it’s bad when the snow on the side of the driveway is taller than the pickup truck in the driveway. Welcome to Missouri!

pickup in the snow

snow side yard

tree in snow2

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Cleo the Adorable Kitten

Just found this old picture of Cleo before she became the Horrible Kitten. She was so cute!

cleo! 010

She is still very cute. But quite horrible.

keas and gypsy 003

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The Friday Rant: The dog and the glove

This is The Glove.

Gypsy glove

The first time Gypsy came home to visit Grandma (that would be me), she went upstairs to my son’s room and found this old weightlifting glove under his bed. She came trotting downstairs, so happy to have this wonderful toy.

Which made me sad. Gypsy had been in a dog shelter, and would probably have been euthanized before too long. It was a small shelter in a small town and very overcrowded. When my daughter went in to look at the animals, this little papillon/weiner dog/chihuahua-mix dog ran up to the wire cage. Sheri stuck her hand through the chain link, and this little dog stood up on her hind legs and wrapped her front paws around Sheri’s hand, and she wouldn’t let go. A worker started spraying a hose right by her, and the dog just stood there getting sprayed, looking up at Sheri like, “Get me out of here!”

Which obviously Sheri did.

So Gypsy wasn’t used to having toys. We let her have the glove and then got her balls and stuffed animals and chew toys, and she became very spoiled. But she loved that glove.

When they left town again, I took this spitty, disgusting glove and washed it and put it on the counter to dry. The next time they came to visit, I forgot to give Gypsy the glove.

A few minutes later, she came trotting down the stairs with a glove in her mouth. I looked over at the counter, and there was the original glove. She had remembered and had gone upstairs to drag the other one out from under the bed!

So now I have two slimy, spitty, disgusting gloves laying around on my carpet. Grrr.

She has even more toys, and she’s gone from skinny to having a little round tummy, and she finally trusts people. She realizes most people are nice. She has to be in physical contact with someone almost every minute of the day. She’s in my lap or squeezed in next to me in my chair all of the time when I’m editing, and when someone else comes downstairs, she just moves to the new lap.

Shelter animals are awesome. They’re so grateful to have a forever home, so lovey. I can’t understand why there are so many animals in shelters when they’re so awesome.

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Writer Wednesdays: $10 words and $1 words

I learned this phrase when I was working in journalism, editing a monthly magazine: “Don’t use a $10 word when a $1 word will do.”

What does that mean? Simple: don’t say “azure” when you mean “blue.”

Never say “azure”? Seriously? Of course not. It would depend on the setting. If you’re describing your male character’s gorgeous eyes, heck yeah, call them azure. Or beryl, cerulean, cobalt, indigo, navy, sapphire, teal, turquoise, or aquamarine. Describing a Kleenex box? Probably “blue” would cut it just fine.

But would I ever have a character masticate? Heck no. My characters will always chew, because anyone who masticates is usually a pompous ass. As is anyone who points his digit or engages in coitus or drives an automobile or pets his canine or lives in an abode or dresses in his best apparel. Now, maybe your character is a pompous ass; if so, by all means, have him masticate.

Sometimes beautiful words really set the tone of your book. If you’re describing a sunset, you probably wouldn’t say, “The orange and pink sky was pretty.” You would use words like nacreous or opalescent or titian or tangerine or rose or fuchsia or breathtaking or dazzling. These words match what you’re describing, and they show that this sunset is not a normal sky; the unusual words reiterate the unusual beauty. So don’t think you can’t use beautiful, “fancy” words when they fit.

Just don’t use them when they don’t fit the situation, when they aren’t necessary, or when they actually detract from what you’re writing.

For example, the NYTimes.com website lists the 50 words their readers most frequently had to look up, words like inchoate, profligate, solipsistic, obduracy, soporific, jejune, laconic, prescient, and verisimilitude.

As the website said, “We should remember that this is journalism, not philology. Our readers, smart as they are, are often in a hurry. They may be standing on the subway or skimming a story over breakfast. Let’s not make them work any harder than necessary.” http://afterdeadline.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/06/08/50-fancy-words/

Now that’s showing real concern for your readers.

Tumblr.com has a whole section on “fancy words.” According to the website, “William Faulkner, speaking of Ernest Hemingway, said, ‘He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary.’ Hemingway’s response? ‘Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words?'”

So are you as a writer more like Faulkner or Hemingway? Do you think book readers should have better vocabularies? Should they love words so much  that they want to learn new ones? I think so to some degree, but your readers aren’t your students. They don’t want to go running to the dictionary every five minutes just to figure out what you’re saying. Here they are, enjoying a good book, and every few minutes they get yanked out of the story, out of this other world they’re trying to escape to, so they can go, “Huh?” They might feel talked down to, or worse, they might not think your book is worth the effort. They might run to the dictionary, stop halfway there when they notice another book just sitting on a table, looking tasty enough  to be read, and forget all about the dictionary. And your book.

If you’re not careful, you might end up looking pedantic. Or chappy. Or just generally like a big, fat know-it-all.

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