Wow, I’ve already covered this. Look, before you can write a great story, you need to build that confidence that’s been weakened in the presence of your literary betters. This means ignoring the books that have come before your brief tenure on this planet.
The works of other writers will distract you from your inner-greatness, or worse, make you feel insignificant in comparison. You don’t need those jerks always showing off how well they can piece words together like it’s some kind of skill. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, derp derp flowers are pretty.” Compelling stuff, Charles Dickens.
Instead, write with confidence and build that natural aversion to reading.
Stories used to inform us about humanity. One might read about lions in Africa and it’d be about the human condition in some sick, twisted way. Today’s stories have become glorious spectacles with the implication of relevance but no true depth, like a cocktail that’s all umbrellas and no juice. That’s a good thing, because it’s much easier to purchase mini-umbrellas than to learn how to mix drinks properly.
So go ahead and write about smoking pot and how that guy you’re sleeping with probably doesn’t love you. Who cares if it’s just a series of sensations ordered to have the appearance of a narrative? Just call it post-modern. Call it stream-of-consciousness. Call it free verse. Call it personal narrative. If you have trouble writing extensively, call it anecdote.
Don’t worry about saying anything bigger than your beer gut. Write from your life and about your life. Start with the here and now. Write about this very moment. About how you’re reading a writing advice blog because you’re too scared to start writing yourself. About how you’re distracting yourself from the real work you need to get done, because you know that once that work is done, you’ll have to face your purposelessness on this planet. And if you’re depressed and closing this tab to explore happier realms, write about how you’re tumbling through imgur and reddit like they’re the endless tales of Sherazade. Write about how you’re probably going to die without accomplishing anything. And even if you were given the chance, a couple hundred years of healthy living, you probably still wouldn’t be a great writer.
Why is all of this important? Honesty is the first step in telling a good story. So go look at yourself in a mirror and be honest. Note the pimples, the moles, the awkward ears, the unexplained peeling. The acne snuggling beneath your skin like ocean polyps. Have you gained a few pounds? Is your hair receding? Are you ugly even when you look your best?
What you’re seeing are the concrete details of your existence; the facts that everyone sees. These are your descriptions, which you should take pride in even when they disgust others.
Once you learn to see the cracks in your face, you’ll be able to see the cracks in your own writing. Even a quick skim will make you want to throw up. In fact, you’ll know you’ve made it when you wake up late in the night, panting and sweating, and you begin tearing apart your latest short story. Your significant other will ask what’s wrong, and you’ll push him/her away, maybe head into the bathroom to look at yourself in the mirror. You’ll pound a fist into the grotesque mask that responds you in an attempt to free yourself of its burden.
Can you see death in that face? The leering skull, hidden by folds of fat and well mostly fat? The portent signs, the end of things, and with it the suddenness and inevitability of your last gasp on earth?
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.