James Van Pelt

Writing Words Fantastical and Otherwise

Month: June 2016

Sunday Writing: Making the Abstract Concrete

tell tale heartMost everyone who has been responding to my posts seems well beyond beginner status as writers, but I’ve found that going back to the basics has always been good for me.  For example, two of the best books I have on writing are ones that were written for rank beginners, but I keep revisiting them.  Maybe it’s because I’m slow and simple, or maybe because reviewing the basics keeps me anchored.  I figure if my basics are solid, my experimental flights of fancy may have a better chance of working.

Here are two great books that would be good for newbies that I still find helpful today:

What a Writer Needs, by Ralph Fletcher, which is this really, really down to earth discussion of teaching writing that only uses elementary school kids’ writing for examples.

Poetry in the Making, by Ted Hughes, which is the book version of a series of lessons he gave for the BBC Schools Broadcasting Department for the program, “Listening and Writing.”

So, with the proviso that this is basic, here’s a lesson that I get considerable mileage from.

MAKING THE ABSTRACT CONCRETE

One of the qualities we have identified that a good writer has is the ability to be specific.  That means that good writers will avoid the use of unsupported generalities or abstractions and try to make those generalities specific and the abstractions concrete.

For example, time is an abstraction.  You can’t see, hear, taste, touch or smell it.  It is an abstract idea.  The author Ray Bradbury recognized this problem in his short story, “Night Meeting,” which is about the nature of time, so he made the abstraction concrete for the reader with this description (I’ve taken his prose passage and recast it as a poem so you can see the parts better):
There was the smell of Time in the air tonight.
He smiled and turned the fancy in his mind.
There was a thought.
What did Time smell like?
Like dust and clocks and people.
And if you wondered what Time sounded like
it sounded like water running in a dark cave
and voices crying
and dirt dripping down
upon hollow box lids, and rain.
And, going further, what did Time look like?
Time looked like snow dropping silently into a black room
or it looked like a silent film
in an ancient theater,
one hundred billion faces falling like those New Year balloons,
down and down into nothing.
That was how Time smell and looked and sounded.
And tonight–Tomas shoved a hand
into the wind outside the truck–
tonight you could almost touch Time.

To make the abstraction concrete, Bradbury made “appeals to the senses.”  He gave examples of what he meant when he talked about time.  He was specific.

This idea that abstractions should be made concrete play out in numerous ways in fiction, but mostly, I think, they are most important when we’re trying to communicate moods or feelings.  Saying that a character is afraid, for example, or that a setting is threatening attempts to evoke the abstraction by naming it, but no reader is ever scared by the word “afraid” or made nervous by the word “threatening.”  What we should be trying to do as we write is to provide enough concrete details and evocative metaphorical descriptions to make the reader conclude that the character is “afraid,” or that the scene is a “threatening” one.

A pretty good editing pass on a manuscript you think is complete is to look for words that are abstractions.  They can work in dialogue sometimes, or when they are paired with concrete appeals, but they shouldn’t be doing the heavy lifting by themselves.  Remember that readers hardly ever go to fiction to be told stuff.  They read because they want to feel and experience.  If that wasn’t true then someone telling us that the rollercoaster they went on was terrifying would be all we would ever need, and we’d never try a rollercoaster ourselves.

For me, one of the first stories that actually evoked terror and suspense in my young soul was Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell Tale Heart.”  I have no idea how that story appears in elementary school fiction anthologies, but it did (along with “The Black Cat,” “The Pit and the Pendulum,” and “Masque of the Red Death).

When I reread “The Tell Tale Heart” today, I see how Poe works hard to make his abstractions concrete.  I write better when I remember the lessons he demonstrated.

Today’s Writing Prompt

Using Bradbury as a model, take four of the following abstractions and make them concrete.  Do not use single word examples, like “Death is a grave.”  Expand your examples.

Friendship
Grief
Freedom
Fear
Democracy
Slavery
Hope
Love
Death
Humor
Compassion
Pity
Revenge
Capitalism
Joy
Triumph
Failure
Compromise

Sunday Writing: Best Writing Tips

wordfireDenver Comic Con was this weekend. I heard that 120,000 people attended on Saturday, making the convention the fifth largest comic con in America (the world?). Since the biggest convention I’d ever been to before was a WorldCon, with maybe 8,000 or so people, you can understand that Denver’s event was overwhelming. You know how babies can sometimes be over stimulated? I suffered the adult equivalent.

On Sunday, I sat on three panels. Authors and literature are a smaller part of a comic con than it is at WorldCon, but a small part of 120,000 is still a lot of people. The panels were in big rooms and a lot of people came to them, even the late afternoon one on Sunday when many people were heading home.

The panel I enjoyed the most was the one I moderated: “The Best Writing Advice I Ever Heard.”

For the record, here is the best writing advice tips I shared:

The first came from Connie Willis. She signed a book for me once, and I asked her to put her top three writing tips in. The one that stuck with me most was “Remember what you liked about science fiction in the first place.”

The second tip came from George Scithers on one of my early rejections, where he said, “I hope while you were waiting to hear from me on this one that you were working on your next.”

I don’t know where the third came from, and it’s less a writing tip and more a career one about envy. The tip was “Don’t compare your beginning to someone else’s middle.”

The panelists and I shared a bunch of other tips too. I tried to moderate to encourage brevity so we could get more content out and limit the long anecdotes panelists can sometimes be famous for. The questions from the audience in the last fifteen minutes provoked more interesting advice. I think the audience didn’t waste their time.

As I mentioned, the convention was overwhelming. I’ve heard it said that the science fiction community is greying, and that we’re losing our audience. From what I saw at this event, I’d disagree. Yes, many of the people came because of their interest in comics, movies, anime and television, but it was all about science fiction and fantasy. I saw a lot of people buying books. The Wordfire Press display was consistently mobbed (I think Kevin Anderson is doing a marvelous job of selling books and generating enthusiasm, not just for Wordfire titles, but for all books).

I don’t think a big convention like this is for everyone, but I’m glad I went.

Sunday Writing: Improving Your Writing When You are Stuck

The_Stand_UncutMost of us have times when we don’t know what to write next.  It could be in the middle of a project or in between them, but no matter what we do, we’re stalled.  So what can we do to work on our writing when we can’t write?  Reading, of course, is one answer, and you certainly should be doing that, but here’s a more active exercise: try copying some of the writing you admire.

Here’s how to do the exercise: find a passage someone else wrote that you think is really well done.  Now, copy it.  Don’t make a single change.  Be very aware that you get the comma, periods and paragraph breaks right.  What you are doing is trying to internalize a successful writing rhythm.

How this works is that you will start to get a feel for how the writer you like goes about being who they are.  Here’s a bit from The Stand by Stephen King:

Stu, who only understood that they were all in a hell of a pinch, turned Hap’s voice down to a meaningless drone and watched the Chevy pitch and yaw its way on up the road. The way it was going Stu didn’t think it was going to make it much further.  It crossed the white line and its left hand tires spumed up dust from the left shoulder.  Now it lurched back, held its own lane briefly, then nearly pitched off into the ditch.  Then, as if the driver had picked out the big lighted Texaco station sign as a beacon, it arrowed toward the tarmac like a projectile whose velocity is very nearly spent.

If I was going to use King’s The Stand for my copying exercise, I would keep copying for another thousand words or so, but even typing this little section, I notice that he didn’t put a comma after “The way it was going” that I would have put in, and that he used “going” twice in that sentence, so maybe my obsession with removing repeated words isn’t quite as critical as I think.  I like his verbs too: crossed, spumed, lurched, pitched, arrowed.

If I copy a passage from another author, like Ray Bradbury, I get a totally different feel:

There were fireworks the very first night, things that you should be afraid of perhaps, for they might remind you of other more horrible things, but these were beautiful, rockets that ascended into the ancient soft air of Mexico and shook the stars apart in blue and white fragments.  Everything was good and sweet, the air was that blend of the dead and the living, of the rains and the dusts, of the incense from the church, and the brass smell of the tuba on the bandstand which pulsed out vast rhythms of ‘La Paloma.

Ray_Bradbury_-_I_Sing_the_Body_Electric_-_book_coverBradbury likes the long sentence here, and I notice his tendency to pair and to list, so the air is “ancient soft,” the fragments were “blue and white,” everything was “good and sweet,” while the air also blended the “dead and the living,” and “rains and the dusts.”  His second sentence (did you notice he did this in only two sentences, while King’s passage that was only a tad longer took five sentences?) is mostly a list of connected noun phrases.

Bradbury’s rhythm is different from King, and copying him teaches me different lessons.

Some writer’s rhythms stay in my head longer than others.  H.P. Lovecraft, for example, is hard to shake, as is Bradbury, and the point of the exercise isn’t to make my writing become their writing, but by doing this I can feel what they were up to for a few minutes so that I can incorporate what I like best from them into my own toolbox.  How I blend my influences becomes my voice, but I don’t think I can go too far wrong if I find myself channeling, just a little bit, the echoes of Bradbury, Le Guin, Bronte, King, Steinbeck, Hemingway or Poe.

Try it.  Copy somewhere between 200 to 1,000 words.  Tell me what you notice.

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