Yes, if you send $20 to an undisclosed location in my wallet.
Look, puny human, you’re not alone. I too want to get out a few literary quickies before I give up the ghost but am intimidated by the great minds that have come before. How can I write anything that compares to Milton’s Paradise Lost or Arthur Miller’s The Crucible? Or even those poor-grade writers who churn out an ebook every six months?
Unfortunately, by allowing other writers to intimidate me into awestruck paralysis, I’ve played right into the hands of the Literati – a conglomerate of scholars and publishers that want me to buy classic books, and consequentially books about classic books, without making any impact other than a light wallet.
In retaliation to phallogenic capitalism, we must ignore all literature that comes with a price tag or bar code. Ignore even the free pdf, lest you be tempted to err. Don’t give in to the exploitation of the ancient writer! Just look at how the Literati has commercialized the scratch work of a dyslexic pervert like James Joyce. Let’s honor his wishes and put Ulysses to rest from prying eyes.
Read in the now. Write in the now. Don’t let claims of criterion or canon lead you astray, and you might even churn out the next 50 Shades of Grey.*
*Naturally, if you follow my advice you won’t know what a 50 Shades of Grey is, but that’s for the best.
You’re still reading, so you must be secure in your shoddy penmanship, or you think I’m joking. Either way, my plan to demolish competitors and succeed to the writer’s throne (forged in ink and reeking of intestinal worms) moves along unfettered, unhitched, un-unned. So thank you for your eyeballs, or retinal runes as they’re referred to in great literature. I’ll include easily conquered to your literary obituary.
Today’s topic will complement an earlier one in which I revealed the beautiful correlation between writers and whippets. Today we talk about description, or the account of an object or place. To be honest, any narrative (or essay) is just a series of descriptions with the illusion of cohesiveness. Even characters or plot are unnecessary if you possess extraordinary description, as anyone who’s read Cormac McCarthy can confirm.
But where does one find description, especially when all the good ones have been taken? There’s plagiarism, as I’ve mentioned before, and minimalism, in which people appreciate your lack thereof.
But for those with an affliction for adjectives or a lonely noun that needs a partner, it’s time to relearn a certain rhetorical mode. That’s the point of this article – to take our first descriptive baby steps.
When employing the senses, use details familiar to your reader.
Sensory detail is to description what jelly blood is to menstruation; it’s the part of the process you can touch, taste, smell. But you need to ensure your sensory details are relatable. Unfortunately, writers often alienate their potential fan base by delving into obscurism.
Remember, description isn’t an opportunity for you to show off. You might know your botanical fragrances, but readers won’t know the timeless calm of jasmine or the creamy must of tuberose. Try tossing in odors and smells that readers might know. Instead of describing a garden as a
bouquet of wet grass, fresh excrement and the bitter menthol of catmint
try using recognizable smells like
the garden smelled like a Big Mac. MMMM. Eat fresh.
the garden did not, I repeat DID NOT smell as good as Del Taco’s new chile verde burrito with a Dr. Pepper, but it was damn close.
All of which brings me to my next point.
Description should be digestible.
Description should be appetizing. It should be flavorful. People should hunger for it; they should complement it with salami and wine on picnics, or slobber over it at 2 o’clock in the morning in the back seat of their car. What I’m saying is people should eat your writing. Maybe print it on thin pancakes, or use strawberry sauce for ink. Support the environment and use fresh, wet kale.
Close your eyes.
Envision the scene you want to write. Now write it down. Everything you see, hear, or taste in your mind place – put it to paper. Okay, open your eyes and read what you have written. It’s garbage, right? That’s because you deprived your senses. You need to live in the real world, not fantasy land. Write with your eyes open.
Write like it really happened.
When you’re knee-deep in a cesspool of composition, imagine you’re filling out a police report. Be technical and get all of the details just right. Stay sharp. Focused. Don’t meander. Remember, other people are going to read this and they’ll be confused if your paperwork describes a bee’s solemnity like a church bell. A bee’s just a bug, dude. Don’t make stuff up.
Description needs descriptors.
Terrible writers prefer to cut out excessive modifiers, choosing reduction over induction into the Writer’s Hall of Fame. Maximize! Don’t limit your modifiers to the most relevant, useful, applicable, pertinent, apt, suited, compatible and appropriate. Quantity breeds quality, which is why a novel has more value than a short story, and why epic poetry trumps haiku. You need to embrace your full descriptive potential. The more adjectives, adverbs, and strings of nouns and verbs that you use, the less vague or unexplained your writing will be.
For example, the
fuzzy, adorable, cute, little hamster
is much more distinct and cherished than a
Likewise, I much prefer
tons of money, like handfuls, like a whole suitcase even
Modifiers are mini-metaphors that connect nouns and verbs to abstract concepts such as happiness or the eternal. Even the color of the sky is important in your story. Most likely it’s blue, but readers won’t know that. Never make assumptions about your reader, because you know what they say about assumptions – you’ll make an ass out of you and mptions. Which is why you should:
Pay attention to the little things.
One of my best friends once let me read the short story she was writing. I changed a few names, published the story, and made fifty bucks. How did I accomplish this feat? Hard work, but also by paying attention to the details. Finally…
Minimalism was an insecure arts movement in the 1950s characterized by repeating the same bullshit over and over again just in case we didn’t get it the first time. The style can be blamed on a story that O. Henry forgot to edit before he submitted it. Seriously, someone really should have taken a pen to The Gift of the Magi.
ONE DOLLAR AND EIGHTY-SEVEN CENTS. THAT WAS ALL. AND SIXTY CENTS of it was in pennies. Pennies saved one and two at a time by bulldozing the grocer and the vegetable man and the butcher until one’s cheeks burned with the silent imputation of parsimony that such close dealing implied. Three times Della counted it. One dollar and eighty-seven cents. And the next day would be Christmas. (O. Henry, The Gift of the Magi)
Sometimes too much can be just that. Inversely, sometimes too much of too little can damage your story. In this case, the repeated amount of $1.87 is not an impressive increment so I’m not impressed. If O. Henry was writing about charismatic millionaires playing chess with human slaves, I would have been more interested.
Okay, now finally…
Show, don’t tell.
They say a picture is worth a thousand words, so why not replace a thousand words with a picture? Become a photographer. Writing is overrated.
In conclusion, there’s okay description and then there’s description that soars off the page and licks your brain’s nuts. Write like that last one.
Murphy Paul, Annie. “Your Brain on Fiction.” The New York Times, 18 Mar. 2012, Web. 12 Oct. 2014.
by Desmond White
Not to bust your blocks, but before Star Wars, there was a conspiracy to make films as boring as possible. The idea was to censor controversial topics such as sex, politics, and racism by talking about them lethargically, endlessly, and with such garble that viewers couldn’t help but feel fatigued whenever the topics were mentioned elsewhere. Most films featured white folk standing in a room talking about stuff that happened off-screen – a trend started by Shakespeare but traceable through film history to 12 Angry Men and The Odd Couple. The stars might be shouting about depression, but audiences were too depressed to care.
Because baby-murder or suicide could excite viewers, the writers of Old Hollywood relied on implication to make their stories even more incomprehensible. The idea was to put exciting bits in the background and only have characters imply they happened. For example:
Do you have any children?
Well, not exactly, but I did sell some baby shoes that were never worn HINT HINT.
Oh, I get it.
Unless you have a Ph.D. in six-word stories or knew Hemingway personally, the conversation above would be boring, implication-ridden gibberish. But that’s how films did it – by taking sensitive subjects like poverty and the premature death of children and only hinting at them through subtle head nods and nudges and starring at the camera with an eyebrow raised.
In 1977, Star Wars saved the film industry by reviving the mantra of creative writing professors everywhere: ‘show, don’t tell.’ Subtly and inflection were replaced by exhilarating space battles and merchandise; dramatic pause with special effects; thinking with fighting. Any implication was tossed out the window (literally, they could afford the budget). Star Wars established the blockbuster, itself connotative of a city block exploding into fire and smoke, as a genre that ignores delicacy, ignores humdrum and lifelessness, that blasts its fans out of their sluggish minds with the blatant truth.
Which brings me to Guardians of the Galaxy. What makes Guardians so perfect is that it completely understands what Star Wars was trying to do, and doesn’t get in the way. Instead, the film’s contribution is no contribution. It’s not an homage so much as filler, giving fans some time off from watching Star Wars so that the eventual re-watch will feel refreshed.
Guardians understands that there doesn’t need to be another huge Hollywood shake-up. If anything, the CGI spectacle movie needs to be preserved before the sinister supporters of Old Hollywood can convince the big movie studios otherwise. Movie executives aren’t the smartest of creatures. They’re more like the Guild Navigators from Frank Herbert’s Dune, although replace melange with cocaine and the ships they navigate with their minds with, well, more cocaine. The Navigators don’t really determine anything, but parasitically feed on the existing power structures that be. So, too, do executives, and in their spice-mindled states, they become easily confused as what those power structures want. If they think that cerebral mind-bogglers or metaphysical horror films are trending, they’ll deliver. What Old Hollywood doesn’t understand is that they’d probably hate it if every movie made them think. They’d start putting off going to the movies just like we might put off documentaries on Netflix to watch stray episodes of Psych.
One last thing but probably most important – I’m surprised at the countless critics upset at Guardians lack of depth or its reliance on video game logic. We live in an age of post-modern enlightenment, an age of post-structuralism and the deconstruction of the metanarrative. Shouldn’t we relish Guardians‘ twists and innovations, such as the lack of any genuine character development? Why can’t we have a movie that artificially mimics emotions but never truly conducts it? Maybe a film that’s really a series of meaningless action sequences and lowbrow comedic pandering compiled in an order that imitates cause-and-effect is exactly the kind of film we need in our movie theaters.