Monday, August 24, 2020

Little Big Words

 Ever read Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep? Classic hard-boiled detective genre from the 1930s. A good read, but not necessarily for everyone. However, that’s not the point. If you were given a choice, would you read a book called The Big Sleep, or a book called The Sleep? Let’s face it – you would read The Big Sleep for one reason alone – it’s bigger. The promise is in the label. This is something we need to consider when we write.

When we create our worlds and all the elements, it’s obviously important to make it feel detailed, practical, graspable – it needs to be a real world. However, with the art of writing, the world needs to draw the reader toward the little details that move the plot. In a movie, this might be done with a trick of lighting to showcase a particular item. In video games, special items stand out or shimmer against the scenery. In writing, it is not as easy, so we do it with little words. Little words that carry big weight.

Like The Big Sleep, the draw is created by "Big." It creates questions in the mind: What makes that sleep so big? Can sleep be big or small? Is it a reference to something else? (it is) Indeed, the unusual description sets off the entire meaning. It helps that it’s in the title, but that’s not the point.

Let’s take a look at a random character, not from any particular book. She is a brunette, wearing sunglasses, a big blue sun hat, a blouse to match, and jeans, sitting outside Starbucks enjoying her morning coffee. This description is a basic write-up, but it packages up a couple of things within this sentence. 

First, all of this simplicity is disrupted by a big blue sun hat. We don’t know details about whether the jeans are acid-wash or dark denim, the sunglasses are mirrored, or really anything about the hair style, but there’s that hat. Also, the blouse goes with it, so the writer has in turn tied importance to this. I would wager that in your personal image of this scene, the sun is now out, and you have a very vivid image of this woman. We created this image with a few strategically placed descriptors, not worrying about the color of the jeans, the kind of coffee, or whether she’s even wearing shoes.

Using this kind of description can be controversial. It is considered minimalist, and often is alluded to as white-room writing, where a scene feels blank without descriptors. However, there is a difference between minimal and precision. Minimal is barely any description. Precision, as mentioned earlier, is focusing on the one element that drives the story. If our coffee-drinking lady above suddenly loses her hat in the breeze, and it rolls along the street, between the morning commuters, the reader can better feel the situation and the author can play on that connection. The big sunhat can fly past the charcoal- and grey-suited commuters, who only see a flash of blue rushing along the sidewalk, heading for a stagnant puddle in the alley. The reader now cares about the hat and its perilous situation because they identify it in their mind, they connect with it as a part of the story, and care more about it than the woman, her coffee, or her ambiguous shoe situation.

The beauty of this writing style is that its distinct focus guides along the reader without them knowing it. They follow the story from the leads they've been given, and they tend to not worry about the trappings around them when they are not necessary. They just want to know if the big blue hat went into the puddle, and the resolution of the hat's fate is a satisfying conclusion to the story, even if description is lacking.

(Don't worry - the hat is fine.)

The next post will add another element to the art of description - mood. Our big blue sun hat is not safe yet...

Monday, August 17, 2020

More About Writer's Block... or Whatever it is

The debate about the existence of writer’s block may go on forever – and I know some people who will eternally defend their side of the argument. Some say it doesn’t exist, while other people insist it’s as real as anything they’ve written. The answer, however, doesn’t matter when… whatever it is takes over. As far as I am concerned, all that is important is the moment when I want to write and no words come forth. When my urge to create is stifled by… whatever it is, that’s when I need help. That’s when I need the cure.

In a past article, I mentioned how… whatever it is can come from being hung up about writing – either nothing to write, too much in your head, or the uncertainty of whether or not something is worth writing. That article focused on how the intimacies and internal processes of writing can get us hung up. This article is about the externalities that get in our way. Apparently, the world does stuff other than contribute to a writer’s life, and often it tries to take away from our capacity to create.

Take me for example. I have been particularly industrious lately, focusing a lot of energy into a bunch of projects. Between putting in several miles of walking every day along with other exercise and a wildly varied schedule, I am achy, a little sore, and honestly, exhausted. When I get home I feel the tightness in my back a little more, and it’s easier to think about wrapping up my last few responsibilities then taking a nap. It doesn’t seem like there’s time for writing, and my mind isn’t exactly in a creative place. It’s focused on recovery. Writing is not on my mind. It’s just not the right time – or so I think.

Actually, this is a good time for writing, just not in the usual manner. As I look at my screen right now, I get myself to write not by forgetting about my aches and pains, but by writing about them. In my mind, I think of the red serpent that is one of my neck muscles, slithering up my spine and biting on that nerve that sets off that tingling numbness in my fingertips. I envision the ropy knots in my back and the scraping bones that are my knees, and write about how they look in my mind. My wobbly body and sore muscles become my studies, not that I will write an epic tale or a grand story of recovery. I just use them to get my fingers typing and the writing process flowing. My case of… whatever it is fades.

As all of this pain becomes my writing, it can also prove therapeutic. Putting on some liniment for the evening is a wonderful feeling to write about. The mentholated chill soothing my neck could be a wonderful poem, but as I describe the sensation, it also helps me recognize the pain fading away. As I write about things, I notice them more intensely, and feel myself loosen up. As I stretch my legs, I become more tuned in to the tension flowing out. I actually start to feel better.

Does this sound kind of holistic? Possibly. However, as writers, when we write about something, we engage with it. We concentrate on it. Our mind explores the subject, discovering the details that others might never engage in, and we don’t think about the problem of… whatever it is.

Think about when a writer people-watches, studying the faces and behaviors around them. The slightest details come into full focus, how someone constantly touches their chin or says, “Well,” all the time, or how they rub their fingertips when they think. When a writer applies this technique to their own self, things become more vivid. And then we write about it.

I’ll admit it – I am still achy. There’s only so much magic that can come from typing, and I will need to use some proven ways to get rid of my soreness. However, despite an exhausting day, I wrote my commentary and felt good about what I have created. As a writer, that’s another technique I use to get past the… whatever it is.