New Writing Studio for Let’s Write!

Let’s Write! Announcement of New Writing Studio

 625 Cherry Street, Santa Rosa, CA 95404

(between Mendocino Ave. and Humboldt)

Hi! This is to let you know that Let’s Write! Creative Writing Services is opening a new studio inside a little house-turned-office-building on Cherry Street.

There’s even a comfy-cozy waiting room and 2 friendly receptionists! :- )

My first day will be Dec 10, 2018.

So if you’re working on a writing project, or want to, now’s the time to take the plunge and give your writing the attention it deserves!

For now, I’m offering 1-hour private sessions, but later may also introduce small groups.       (My next general class will start March 2019 at the Finley Community Center.)

BLOGGING:

I’m also now offering basic blog setup and instruction for those of you who want to write online for others to read without having to publish a book.

PRICING:

Click here to enjoy a $15 discount when you pay in advance on LetsWrite.com for 4 sessions at $145 (instead of $160 at the regular fee of $40/session).

EASY TO FIND ME:

The address is well marked at 625 Cherry Street between Mendocino Ave. and Humboldt, in Santa Rosa.

 If you see “Hubbs Law”, you’re in the right place. (I’ll soon get a sign that meets the permit requirements for the Historic District)

PARKING:

Parking is behind the building to your left as you come in the driveway (not to the right, please), with 2 disabled spots, if you have a placard.

If there’s no space available in the back, please park on the street (two-hour parking) and enjoy a lovely, short walk up historic Cherry Street.  :- )

CONTACT ME:

Write me at valser27@gmail.com with your writing plans and ideas.

Or comment here and I’ll respond promptly.

I hope to hear from you soon.

Be well and Let’s Write! :- )

Val

 

 

Everyone has a story. (link to My Spirals)

Everyone has a story. A deceptively simple title, but don’t let that fool you. Utsav Raj of My Spirals,  has written a short-short story which I read to my creative writing class as an excellent example of the use of fine, original detail which brings our writing to life on the page (or screen).

With phrases like he decided to use photo frames to hold musical notes” Utsav keeps us paying attention because we can’t help it. The language is simple, yet when put together in sentences and paragraphs it paints pictures which tell a story much broader than can be contained within it.

Please read not only this post of Utsav Raj’s but the rest of his writings on his blog My Spirals, such as A Letter to Music. His voice is unique yet we understand him perfectly. Utsav’s writings are beautiful examples of how Specific expresses Universal.

~ Val

Why Not? (link to The Godly Chic Diaries)

Please read this wonderful and timely post Why Not? by the writer of The Godly Chic Diaries about “Why Not” do what we want to do, even when we didn’t know we wanted to do it until someone suggested it?

Godly Chic writes: 

My friends often joke that spending time with me is dangerous — because I will make you want to start something. Sometimes that something wasn’t even something you wanted until you begin to believe in yourself

And that last part is key: “until you begin to believe in yourself”.

Reading The Godly Chic’s article Why Not? “iterated” (her word :- ) for me what I try almost daily to convince writing students of, but she says it much more eloquently.

Thank you, Godly Chic, for your article and for your website overall. (I highly recommend reading all Godly Chic’s articles and following her blog for more).

~ Val

“You’ll Get An F.”

“What?” I said out loud to nobody, then laughed. “An F? Moi? Can’t be. She must have me mixed up with one of her students who can’t write.”

“I’m your straight-A, remember?” I said to the email, which I had finally received (years ago) from my undergraduate writing teacher on my essay proposal. (We had to send in a proposal of the topic about which we intended to write, before starting our term paper for the class.)

For the perfectionist that I have been since kindergarten, to be threatened with an F was a blow to the chest that took my breath away. She must have made a mistake (though I took an F years later in graduate school for refusing to edit pornography…but that’s another story).

I sat down, ready to write the teacher back and complain that she had the wrong student, but then took a moment to read further into her email, and that’s when I saw the reason for her indictment.

Her reason for giving a straight-A writing student an F for a term-paper topic was explainable in one word. You might say she gave me the F for Focus (or the lack thereof).

Keep Your Eye on the Ball

What was the topic I proposed that she said would bring me an F? Introversion—being an introvert in an extraverted world. She said it was too broad.

She said if I were planning a book-length work on the topic, it might have been acceptable because each chapter could address a different aspect of the issue, but for an article it was much too broad.

Getting Warmer

So after hours of deliberation I came up with a subject more specific: Being an introvert in the typically extravert world of the workplace. I sent it back to her, confident, even smug, satisfied that I’d given her what she wanted, and ready to start on my term paper – until I received her prompt reply: “You’ll still get an F.”

“What? Are you kidding me!” I yelled at the computer. As I read through her email I saw that word again: “Focus. Bring it down to something much more specific,” she wrote. “A specific problem with at least one specific solution.”

I had thought being an introvert in an extraverted world was specific. In my mind, I was zooming in on introverts versus the rest of the world of categories out there into which you can slip almost all the people you encounter, such as being short in a world of tall people, being blond, being overweight, being a vegetarian among carnivores (or vice versa). The list is endless.

Just a Little Bit Closer

So I wrote down my key word: Introverts. Okay, so what’s their problem? Being one myself, I had no shortage of a list of problems, such as: malls, busy restaurants or other public places; parties; networking events; the workplace!

And that’s where I landed. For me, the workplace has always been an office of one type or another or a classroom, with coworkers, office politics, fellow teachers and admin with whom to mix in the break and conference rooms, whether one wanted to or not.

But the more I looked at it, the more I saw that others will have workplaces such as various outdoor settings, factories, and so many other different kinds of backdrops. Widening my thinking and realizing this fact showed me why “introverts in the workplace” was still too general.

After going over the initial research I had done for my introvert proposal, and writing different versions of topics in order to find one that clicked, the title at which I arrived and that she accepted as being focused enough was “How Introverts Can Survive and Thrive in the Office”.

V Is for Vortex

When I think about it now, I view it as an upside-down triangle, an inverted vortex or V, to represent the situation.

At the top of the vortex is the topic at its most general, introversion versus extraversion.

At the bottom is the specific application on which I finally landed, the introvert surviving and thriving the extravert office.

In the middle somewhere is the introvert in the more generalized “workplace”, and so many other aspects of introversion.

In Summary

1. Introvert versus extravert world: Too broad.

2. Introvert in workplace: Still too broad.

3. How an introvert not only gets by, but thrives, in what is considered to be a hostile environment to most introverts—the office, with all its implications: Specific.

Not to Put Too Fine a Point on It…

Other similar approaches might have been: How an introvert spouse survives and thrives an extravert husband or wife, or the best ways to nurture your introverted child in an extraverted school environment.

There are many possibilities along the spectrum, but the narrow point of focus at the bottom of the vortex is the goal. However it gets narrowed on the way down, in the end it reaches as fine an application as possible.

It should be obvious that this idea of focus and the inverted vortex is not just for college papers or grades. This should guide all writers whenever we sit down to approach any given topic.

The Enemy: Generalization

Beware generalization in all its manifestations in writing—not just regarding subject but with every word you commit to paper or screen, within any sentence, paragraph, chapter, book—generalization is always a danger by which to be enticed. I say enticed, because to generalize is to take the easy route.

I will say, I do disagree with my undergrad writing instructor back then on her comment that my general topic might have been okay for a book-length work, though she could have been saying that to lessen the blow of pointing out my bad choice for the proposal. But, depending on the kind of book a writer was proposing, I’d normally tell a student the same thing she told me: Book-length or not, it’s too broad.

One More Thing

In case you were wondering, I wrote the paper using citations from articles and books on the subject, and she must have been happy with my approach and conclusions, because when it was all over, I got an A on the finished paper. (I also learned a few things from my research, being an introvert myself.)

And I thanked the nice lady for her guidance and warnings, instead of just letting me go ahead with my too-general topic and getting the F, breaking my (almost) perfect record.

“As the World Turns My Stomach”, Ch. 3b, Excerpt 9, Archangel

Later, when I awoke, the bedroom was dark except for the streetlight streaming in from behind Saint Michael the Archangel on the wall between the two windows. I thought about Alison and how she had stood up to Sister Rosalind Basil, The Razor Blade. Alison was the only thing that made the thought of going back to that class the next day bearable. I watched the Archangel on the wall, the light behind him, feathery wings, sword held high, stepping on the serpent, then fell asleep again.

Later, I awoke to a dark room. Pretty soon I heard my favorite sound again, the one I waited for every day—the squeal of the gate and Michael bounding up the hallway stairs, the kitchen door opening, then slamming shut. The kitchen cabinet opened, banged shut. He’d be looking for something to eat, like a bear in a campground. I smiled at the thought. When he was home, home to stay for the night, it was as if Teresa and her doctors didn’t exist. I was safe for a while, the only time I smiled, though now thinking about Alison was having that effect on me, too.

Michael appeared at the door of the bedroom, carrying a half-eaten banana with a brown-spotted peel in one hand and a bowl of cheap cornflakes with milk in the other.

“Hey, Shorty,” he said. He sat down on the bed next to me. “Grenelli paid me today. I got some more milk. You want some? I got you a Mr. Goodbar, too, but eat the cereal first.”

“Okay,” I said. The last thing I had eaten was those few bites of the second peanut butter and jelly sandwich he’d made me, when the doctor had called.

“Here,” he said. He threw the candy bar on the bed and shoved the bowl of cereal at me. “Eat this. I’ll go get another one.”

I picked up the candy bar as he jumped up and flew out the doorway. As I sat up and balanced Michael’s heavy bowl of cornflakes on my lap, I could hear him banging around in the kitchen getting himself more cereal. I spooned up a cornflake and sucked the milk off it. My stomach insides were raw. I chewed the cornflake slowly before swallowing it. Then, I picked up another one. Michael bounded back into the room and fell back on the bed next to me, his warm, solid leg up over my skinny one still under the blanket. He dug his spoon into his cereal and crunched a mountain of flakes between his teeth. The veins on either side of his forehead moved up and down as he chewed.

“So, how you doin’?” he asked me through crunching flakes. “What’s this about you being sick? What’s wrong with you, anyway?”

Teresa had told me countless times that if Michael ever knew about my sickness he’d go away forever because then he would know I was bad and he wouldn’t love me anymore. The truth was I had no idea what was wrong with me.

“Oh, I’m not sick anymore,” I lied. I sucked the milk from another cornflake, trying to act as if it were true. The sucking made a lot of noise.

“Then why’d she say the doctor was coming tomorrow.” More crunching of cornflakes and bulging veins. His cereal bowl was already almost empty.

“Oh, but the doctor’s not coming anymore after this time,” I lied some more. “I guess he just wants to be sure.” I tried to sound as if the doctor stuff didn’t bother me. I hated lying to Michael. It made the cornflakes and milk start moving back up my throat.

“He wants to be sure of what?” He clanked the bowl and spoon down on the nightstand, still chomping the last mouthful of cornflakes.

“Oh, he just wants to be sure I’m not sick anymore.”

Michael’s eyebrows scrunched together the way they did when something didn’t make sense to him. I handed him my bowl of cornflakes.

“How come you didn’t finish your cereal?”

“I’m full.” Another lie.

Michael shook his head, gobbled up what was left in my bowl, and plunked it down on the nightstand next to his own.

“Well, Shorty, I’m tired,” he said, opening his shirt. “You ready to hit the old sack?”

I was.

END OF EXCERPT 9, CHAPTER 3. The Archangel of Hamilton Beach

“As the World Turns My Stomach”, Ch. 3a, Excerpt 8, Archangel

The rain and thunder and lightning had stopped, and a bit of afternoon sun shone on the raindrops clinging to the clothesline. I finished hanging out the clothes and sheets and went back to my room (I didn’t fall out, though I was still a little dizzy and my stomach woozy). I put on the bed a clean sheet from the laundry I’d done a few days before.

When I was finally done, I climbed back into the bed I shared with my brother. I held on to Michael’s flannel shirt and dug my face into it. I rocked back and forth, back and forth, the way I always did when I was in bed alone. It felt good when I rocked. The steady rhythm got me through whatever was going on. In the rhythm, no one could hurt me. I was about to drift off to Hamilton Beach when I heard the high-pitched squeal of the front gate outside the apartment house. The Archangel was again too late to rescue me, but it was better than him finding out about my treatments.

I climbed out of bed and crept slowly past Teresa and into the kitchen. My stomach was still woozy, and the living room moved around me in waves. Michael came through the kitchen door, with Sal right behind him.

“Hey, Shorty,” he said. “How you doin’?”

“Fine,” I said. That was what I always said.

“Come on, Meathead,” Michael told his best friend. “Let’s grab something to eat before I have to go to work.”

“Okay, I’m starving,” said Sal.

“Want a sandwich?” Michael asked me.

“Um, okay,” I said, as I always did, never wanting him to wonder why I wasn’t eating. Even though my stomach was usually a mess, I knew he worried about my eating enough, and the less explaining I had to do, the better. In fact, the only time I really ate was when Michael made me something. He was getting the peanut butter down from the cabinet when I heard Frances pounding up the hallway steps outside the kitchen door.

“Sounds like You-Know-Who,” Michael said. “She’s probably got her snobby little friend Linda with her—you know, my boss’s daughter.”

“You mean the rich one?” asked Sal.

“Yeah, conceited, too,” said Michael.

Sal laughed.

“Though, I have to admit, she’s the best lookin’ of all Frances’s stupid friends,” said Michael. “In fact, she’s probably the best-lookin’ girl in the whole school. Ya know what I mean?” He laughed.

“Yeah,” said Sal, smiling. “Nice body, nice long blonde hair.”

Frances and Linda came through the door.

“Oh, making sandwiches?” said Frances. “We’ll have one, too. Want a sandwich, Linda?”

“What kind?” asked Linda.

“Looks like peanut butter and jelly,” said Frances.

“No, thanks,” said Linda. “I hate peanut butter.”

“What is this, a restaurant?” asked Michael. “Make your own freaking sandwiches.”

“Oh, thanks a lot,” said Frances. “You’re so rude.”

“And you’re so fat,” said Michael.

Sal laughed.

“Shut up, Michael, and drop dead,” said Frances. “Danny, what are you doing? Holding up the wall?”

“No,” I mumbled. “I’m just standing here.”

“And how come you can make him a sandwich, but you can’t make me and Linda one?” Frances asked Michael.

“’Cause he’s just a little kid,” said Michael.

“You make me sick,” said Frances. “You act like he’s so helpless.”

“Bug off, will ya?” Michael said. “You’re already busting the seams in that uniform, anyway. You don’t need a sandwich.”

Sal shook his head, smiling.

“Drop dead!” yelled Frances.

Teresa shuffled into the kitchen, empty glass in hand, a lit cigarette between her fingers. I slid onto the edge of a chair at the table.

“What are you two yelling about, now?” she said. “You’re giving me a headache.” She dragged herself to the cabinet over the sink and pulled down another bottle of scotch, though it was only half full. She poured it into the glass she was holding.

Michael mumbled to himself, “Maybe if you didn’t drink so much you wouldn’t get so many freaking headaches.”

“You shut up and watch your language,” she yelled at him. “I don’t need to hear that out of you. You got no respect for your own mother.” She moved back into the living room, glass in one hand, bottle in the other.

Michael shot a glance at Sal who shot one back at him. “Here,” said Michael. He handed Sal a sandwich. “See if that milk’s in the fridge.”

“Okay,” said Sal.

“Here, Danny,” said Michael. “Sit down and eat this.”

“Not too much in there,” Sal said, and shook the milk carton and gave it to Michael.

“Here, drink this,” Michael said. He poured what was left in the carton into a plastic cup and plunked it down on the table in front of me.

“How come he gets the milk?” asked Frances, her hands on her hips under her navy blue school uniform.

“’Cause he’s the baby. That’s why. Sit down, Sal. Hey, Shorty, move over,” Michael said and sat down next to me.

“You’re right, Frances, it doesn’t seem fair to me, either,” Linda said.

“Nothing’s fair around here, don’t you know that, Linda?” said Frances in a sing-song voice. “Little Daniel here gets everything, we slaves get nothing.”

Michael was about to answer her when Sal piped up, “Hey, when we’re done eating, Mike, you wanna play some stickball?”

“Nah, I told you, Meathead. I gotta work. Not everybody around here gets to sit around and do nothing but eat.” Michael continued chewing his sandwich and stared at Frances who opened her mouth and showed Michael the chewed up bread and peanut butter inside.

“You’re disgusting,” said Michael.

Sal, the peacemaker, glanced over at her and tried not to laugh. “So, how’s it going workin’ at Grenelli’s Collision?” asked Sal.

“That’s my father’s shop,” Linda added with her nose in the air, its usual position. She sat down at the table.

“Yeah, right, and I gotta be there in half an hour,” Michael said.

“He can’t be late or my father will fire him,” Linda said.

Michael scrunched up his face at her. She turned away from him and looked at Frances.

“Hey, it’s boss-A you got a job working there, anyway,” Sal said. “Geez. You’re only twelve.”

“I know but I need money, and the only way I’m gonna get any is to work for it,” said Michael. “I’m gonna buy me a car.”

“Yeah, I know, Mike!” said Sal.” “Wow! A car! When you gonna get one?”

“Not yet, you meathead, but I will. You wait and see. I’m gettin’ me a ’57 Chevy. Black. Beautiful.” Michael smiled as he always did when he talked about his car. He took a big bite of his sandwich. “Yeah, I’m glad Grenelli’s giving me a chance,” he went on. “I think he likes me.”

Frances and Linda looked at each other, then both rolled their eyes, pursed their lips, and shook their heads.

“Grenelli said he’d help me when the time comes,” Michael said. “Yeah, that’s why I gotta keep this job. I wanna learn all I can, so when I get my car I’ll be able to put it together myself.” He took another bite of his sandwich. “And some day, I’m gonna have my own repair shop. You wait and see,” he said.

The phone rang. Michael and Frances both scrambled to grab the yellow receiver from the wall. Michael picked it up.

“Drop dead,” Frances said, pushing him and running back to the refrigerator before Michael could push her back.

“How about cream cheese?” she said to Linda. Linda lowered her mouth, turned her head, and blew air through her pursed lips. She did that a lot. I guessed she didn’t like cream cheese. But, from what I could tell, there wasn’t much Linda did like.

“Hold on,” said Michael to the phone. “Ma, it’s for you,” he called into the living room. “The doctor.”

I shut my eyes tight and lay my half-eaten sandwich down on the table. I heard the shuffle of Teresa’s slippers as she moved past me into the kitchen. I heard her pick up the phone.

“Yeah?” she said.

“Danny, what are you doing?” said Michael. “Eat your sandwich.”

I opened my eyes, blinked a lot because they were stuck closed, and picked up the partly-eaten sandwich and held it up to my mouth.

“Tomorrow, one o’clock,” she said into the phone. “Okay.” She hung it up and pointed her finger at me.

“The doctor. Tomorrow. One o’clock,” she said. “You hear me?”

I nodded. Tears forced their way up to my eyes. I couldn’t let them spill over, not with Frances and Linda there.

“How come he has to see the doctor so much?” asked Michael. “What’s wrong with him?”

“I told you, he’s got a condition,” said Teresa. “Born with it. He knows what it is. Don’t you?” She shot me a look, eyes squinting. I nodded again, still fighting the tears. I put my sandwich down. My throat had closed.

“But he’s okay, right?” Michael asked.

“He’s anything but okay,” stuck in Frances, laughing. She jabbed Linda‘s arm, though Linda wasn’t laughing and shot Frances a look.

“He’ll be just fine,” Teresa said. “As long as he keeps seeing the doctor.”

“Oh,” Michael said. “Well, I gotta go.” He stood up and checked his pocket for his Camels.

No please, don’t go, I wanted to plead, but didn’t. “Where are you going, Michael?” I asked.

“I just told you. I gotta go to Grenelli’s.” He looked over at Linda. “I mean Mr. Grenelli’s.” His face broke into a big smile. “I gotta go to work. Remember?”

“You should be glad he lets you work for him,” Linda told Michael who pretended not to hear.

“Yeah,” Frances butted in.

“Shut up and mind your own business,” Michael told Frances.

Sal chuckled.

“Michael, can I go with you?” I said, trying not to sound desperate. I knew he’d say no, but inside I was crying.

“Danny, you know you can’t go to work with me,” he said. “It’s too dangerous.”

“I’ll stay out of the way. I promise.”

“Sorry, Shorty, Mr. Grenelli wouldn’t like it,” Michael said and shot Linda a quick smile. “I’ll see you later when I’m finished. Okay, Shorty? Come on, Sal.”

I watched them leave, with Frances and Linda trailing behind them, against Michael’s protests, and heard them all pounding down the staircase. I slid from the kitchen and through the living room. I could see that Teresa was sprawled on the couch with her glass and bottle of scotch nearby.

Not wanting to disturb her, hoping she’d fall asleep if she wasn’t already, I dared not look close enough to know for sure. Creepy organ music from another of her usual afternoon soap operas, As the World Turns, played loudly in the background, with the guy’s weird voice saying, “Join us again tomorrow for another half-hour of drama on As the World Turns.” I crawled into bed under the covers and rocked myself to sleep as I always did.

END OF EXCERPT 8

My Two Cents on a Stephen King Quote

“Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.” 

~Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Pocket Books, 2000.  (Quote taken from Goodreads.)

Let me say up front that aside from a scary movie now and then in the past, before I got squeamish about such things, I am not a fan of the horror-writing  man, or I should say I’m not a fan of the horrors about which he writes; but the man himself, I don’t know well enough to have anything against.

Can I Get A Kickback?

All that aside, unbeknownst to Mr. King (is that his real name?) as a writing instructor, recommended this book to so many of my Let’s Write! students, who actually went out and bought it, that I should rightly get some kind of kickback.  Though I’m nerdy enough that all the kickback I need is my students buying a book I recommended to them (which means they actually listened to me), their reading it (no way!), and then (what?) they actually applied it to their writing?  That’s all more than enough kickback for a weary writing teacher to recommend it all over again to the next class.

Under “I” For Index

This isn’t a book review for On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, but I just want to say the book is excellent in its reflections on writing and its teachings, except for the missing index at the back of the book which I keep complaining about, hoping against hope that King might come across one of my posts somewhere and get the idea to put out a new edition with an index, though I know indexes (indices?) are a lot of work, but oh so worthwhile to the writing student or teacher, so couldn’t he have hired someone to do the grunt work?

For example, if I had an index in my copy of the aforementioned book I could look up the aforementioned quote and give you the page number on which it can be found, but no, not even a Table of Contents, much less a index, and flipping and flapping through the pages, I’m sorry, but I haven’t found the page number.  Sheesh!

The Craft of Writing?

 King’s On Writing is a unique combination of important writing “tools” (his metaphor in the book, which he takes one by one from his “toolbox”) and of his own story (the memoir part).  He reveals both the man as writer and the points he’s learned along the way.  (I just wish he could find something on the lighter side to write his novels about, but….)

So today I’m here to talk about the above quote taken from On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.  Nice title but considering King’s stories, I can’t help but wonder if the title would refer to the craft of writing or (hopefully, not) witchcraft.

“Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.”   

                                                                 ~ Stephen King

Simply put, Mr. King is reminding us not to list everything the narrator sees in our descriptions, but, to, instead, choose a few key details and let the reader’s mind fill in the blanks.

And along these lines, my two cents’ worth is this and King agrees:  What you leave in, as well as what you leave out of your descriptions should characterize a person (a man, a woman, a child), a place (a room, the inside of a car, a city), or a thing (the outside of a house, a computer, a dress).  “Characterize” meaning it tells us something about the person, place or thing which allows the reader to read between the lines, so to speak.

So This Hippie Was Building This Robot….

This idea of drawing pictures with just enough words applies to both fiction and nonfiction and is one I cover in my writing classes often, because how we handle details (or the lack thereof) affects the depth and richness of our writing.

In a book about artificial intelligence you might not think what we’ll call “strategic description” would apply.  Au contraire, the more technical the writing the more important not to bore your reader.  In Our Final Invention: Artificial Intelligence and the End of the Human Era (by James Barrat, 2013, St. Martin’s Press), the author, Mr. Barrat, does a beautiful job of exactly what Mr. King (and I) recommend:  Give readers enough to go on based on what the narrator sees, and make what you tell readers count, so they can picture the rest.  After all, isn’t that the beauty of reading versus video?

Here’s an excerpt from Our Final Invention where Mr. Barrat, an investigative journalist, is visiting an artificial intelligence expert in order to conduct an interview for the book.  As the writer arrives at the scientist’s house, Barrat says this:

“On a spring morning I found in his yard a weathered trampoline and a Honda minivan so abused it looked as if it had flown through an asteroid belt to get there. It bore the bumper sticker, ‘My child was inmate of the month at County Jail’.” (p.168)

What a perfect example of exactly what Stephen King advises us to do!  Has not Mr. Barrat told us just what we need in order to fill in the  blanks about what kind of scientist it is who works actively every day to create substitutes for human beings?  Barrat then goes on in the paragraph to list a slew of animals that live in the house with the scientist and his daughter (some rabbits, a parrot, and two dogs).

Are we getting a picture of what this robotics guy is like?  Barrat goes on:

“The professor met me at the door, having climbed out of bed at 11 a.m. after spending the night programming.”  Barrat then proceeds to say the artificial intelligence expert looks like “the consummate hippie”. (p.168)

So a few lines and we know not only what the guy looks like, more or less, but we know a lot more about him, and a little about his family and his surroundings—and all in one paragraph.  This is what I mean (and King agrees) by characterizing with your description without going on with long, boring laundry lists of every detail, in an attempt for your readers to get the point.

There Are Angels In The Details.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m crazy about Detail (capitalized because I love it so much)!  Detail is my middle name when it comes to writing of any kind.  But we have to make it work and not let it just sit there being cute.   Description is not an ornament, otherwise known as filler; it should serve a purpose, justify its place in your writing, where every space a word takes up is valuable real estate.

In the above sample by James Barrat, he has started the description of the man he’s about to interview, but we readers will fill in the rest, using our own experiences and points of view as to whether or not we’ll like this guy.

That’s one thing Barrat didn’t tell us.  He didn’t tell us how he feels about hippies or all those animals or Honda minivans or this man who may well be contributing to the destruction of all of us, directly or indirectly, as the title of Barrat’s book suggests (our Last Invention, get it?).  As a reporter, Barrat’s just telling it as he (the narrator) sees it” and leaving it to us readers to make up our minds about the rest of it.

Now in fiction if you’re writing from a character’s point of view it tends to matter more how the character feels about what’s being described.  If the narrator is a part of the story, his or her descriptions of people and things serve to characterize him or her as much as who or what is being described, because readers are seeing through the lens of the character’s own experience and point of view.

And speaking of that, here’s another example of description through narration and the lens of the character’s viewpoint, this time in fiction.  Please pardon me if I use my own writing.

“Read My Book.”

In my novel Two Shores (in the process of being re-titled back to its original of The Archangel of Hamilton Beach), I practiced what I (and Stephen King) preach.  Here are a few lines from the first paragraph of Chapter 2 of my novel, narrated by the main character at age six, just returning from his first day of kindergarten.  The chapter is entitled “Escape to Hamilton Beach”:

“When Michael disappeared from my view, I sat down and ate part of the sandwich he’d made for me and drank some of the milk. The kitchen smelled like cigarettes. The garbage in the pail leaned against the wall and trailed up it. Some flies buzzed around. I wondered if they thought the yellow daisies in the faded wallpaper were real. I also wondered where Teresa—my mother—was, probably asleep in her bedroom, or drunk, or both.”

Now, if I do say so myself, I think Stephen King would be proud of me for my use of just enough detail to describe not only the kitchen through the eyes of this troubled six-year-old boy, but also just enough to tell my readers something of Danny, his life, his brother, his mother—in other words, to characterize all of it without giving every detail of what’s in front of Danny in this scene.  Even if you hadn’t read Chapter 1 before Chapter 2, you’d have some idea of his family situation and his surroundings, and surroundings are important to ground your reader, so to speak (but that’s another post).

Get a Job!

I tell my Let’s Write! students, whatever you put down on the page, tell it to get a job!  What kind of job, you ask?  Well, for one is this characterization I’ve been going on about—using description to help the reader know more about and understand in more depth what you’re looking to convey with your writing.

Moving the story forward is another job of describing people, places, and things in ways that tell readers more than just what they look like.  The above paragraph from my novel moves the story forward in that readers see this boy’s home is unkempt, his brother made him a sandwich and is gone, and mom lurks somewhere nearby, probably not in the best of moods.

And speaking of moods, another  job which description should perform includes setting the mood (the above kitchen?) of the scene or even of the whole story.  I’ll save more talk on the various jobs description should accomplish for another post.

A Dark And Lonely Night

Well, I’ve already gone on too long here or I’d go into the various ways of approaching description to suit Mr. King’s admonition, such as the use of simile, metaphor, dialogue, and others, but I don’t want to lose you (or put you to sleep).

But if you happen to run into Stephen King on a dark and lonely night, please tell him I said to give us a new edition of On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, this time with an index? So instead of wasting time searching his book for what we know he said in there somewhere, we writers can use our time more productively searching our imaginations for just the right words to use in our beguiling descriptions, which the readers will then finish in their own  minds.