Of Yellow Barns and Info Dumps

https://mabicker.blogspot.com/2009/02/skippack-barn-in-snow-i.html

I love the yellow barn.

That’s not a metaphor for anything; I honestly love the yellow barn. It sits on the crest of a curve, far too close to the busy road. As if someone spilled a load of rebar onto a country lane and decided, “…meh. Play it where it lies.”


It’s not an obnoxious yellow; it’s soft and comforting–just enough to contrast against the changing seasons’ reds and golds, greens and grays. The trim has antiqued and is now closer to cream than white. There’s a wind vane on the spire, and rhododendron at the corner, and vines growing along the wall that bloom in the summer, heavy with purple flowers.

I might have made that last part up. Maybe I just want there to be purple flowers.

It’s an unexpected scene that appears in the middle of an otherwise mundane drive. If I were writing this into a fiction piece, it would be something I’d spend time mentioning. I wouldn’t describe everything that came before, nor would I waste time on everything after. That would be a long list; ballfield, greenhouse, church, the panhandler at the corner, brick wall, yellow barn, water station, more houses, a road, a bike-trail, are you still reading?


Yeah–me either. Lengthy descriptions take too much work to process. You lose the reader. You risk losing the point.

Let’s go back to that list. Say our protagonist focuses on the ballfield–how he views it will tell part of his story in a way that an info dump never can. If he sees a quiet, lonely field, then maybe he’s a father missing his son. Or if he quickly assesses the amount of space between the fence and the tree line and thinks to himself, I could hit it that far— then he might be a man staring down middle-age and feelings of inadequacy.


If our protag focuses on the panhandler who always seems to be at the corner, then perhaps they’re struggling with the trauma of growing up poor or the fear that everything they worked for is a breath away from crumbling.

Maybe your protag will be caught off guard by the yellow barn. In an area seated deeply in tradition and conformity, perhaps the barn symbolizes a reticent protest to the status quo. Or perhaps it reminds her of someone who loved that color, someone she’s never fully grieved. Perhaps that barn hurts her heart a little every time she drives by, but she goes out of her way to do so—even if it’d be easier in every way not to.

Laundry lists of descriptions can be distracting. Word economy is a thing, and we don’t have all the time in the world to get the point. We paint pictures with words; we find the heart driving the story and bring it into focus. The way we describe what our characters experience in the setting is as important as what they see. Using the setting and setting description can tell more about your characters and your theme than pages of backstory and exposition ever will.

If I were writing myself as the protag to this story (*note to self–that might be an interesting future blog), then I would absolutely focus on the barn. And I would use it to tell you the kind of person I am.

The kind who hopes for yellow barns with rambling vines and purple flowers in summer.

The Subtleties of Subtext

This post is less how-to and more hell if I know. Because truly–hell if I do (cue shoulder shrug).

I watched Pride and Prejudice last week, a mere fifteen years after its release. In my defense, I didn’t get to watch many movies the first decade of this century (I did, however, see every episode of The Wiggles–if that counts for anything). I found the swoon-inducer on whichever streaming platform I’d retreated to and decided to indulge myself. If I were to write anything about this movie, I would pen a piece to ponder what cosmic karma we, as humans, collectively aligned to deserve the marvelous gift that is Judi Dench. Honestly, I don’t think there is any role she does not shine in. The rest of the movie was beautiful and brilliant and provided the perfect escape from reality. Its cult-like following is easily understandable.

However… I missed something. Something huge.

The hand-flex.

Yowza


I read an article about how people are utterly obsessed with that moment in the film. The electricity, the excitement, the heat. The audacity of him to touch her hand to begin with, even if under the pretense of helping her step into the carriage. She’s Lizzy Bennet; she’s quite capable of managing by herself, thank you kindly Good Sir. But we know that, and Mr. Darcy certainly knows that–which means he touched her hand with the express intent of touching her hand. *gasp*

I won’t go into the social norms of the time; I barely understand the societal expectations of the era in which I live. I will delve into the fact the hand-flex speaks volumes about the characters and the story. And I missed it. Maybe I was reaching for my wine. Or the remote. Or my phone. Maybe I saw it and thought it meant something else; what, I don’t know–maybe he’d spilled the tea and his hands were sticky. Maybe he was shaking off the girl-cooties. I’d caught the snarky *af* curtsy at the beginning of the scene but missed the hand-flex.

I have never been good at subtext. Not ever. By nature, I’m a bit on the blunt side–although my intent is always the utmost affection and respect. I once discussed the importance of context with a fellow writer, going so far as to suggest removing all context from a piece would leave the interpretation completely up to the reader. He called it lazy writing. I called it interactive art. Arcs–both story and character; I get. Deep point-of-view? Yep. Show-don’t-tell? All over it. Subtext? I got nuthin’.

I bought a book on it–possibly more than one. Most everything I’ve read on it describes it as the words unsaid, or the meaning beneath the meaning. Now… I’m not altogether without intelligence, but none of this makes any sense to me. I’m starting to think the lessons on subtext are written entirely in subtext, in which case–kudos to those writers. Well played.

But I still don’t get it. The more I study, the more I start to worry my writing will be, in fact, too much on-the-nose and end up laughable at best. I know how to layer nuance with setting and description. I know which details to include to set the tone, and I can bury some Easter eggs in dialogue–but I have no idea if any of these counts as subtext.

Maybe this means I suck as a writer. Maybe this means I’ve been missing super-important details my whole life. Maybe this is why I’m so bad at dating–I interpret signs of magnetic attraction as a clear indication he thinks I have cooties. Or maybe I’m just over-thinking it.

Perhaps I’ll curl up with a warm blanket and some hot tea and watch Pride and Prejudice again. Keep my eyes open for the hand flex this time. Figure out what else I missed.

Welcome to my normal

The cat and I have a ritual. She head-butts me, and I feed her. There’s more to it, really; she meows pathetically, and I apologize for the inconvenience of her hunger (even though I know she’ll only take two bites). I grab her food and pull back the tab–making a point to fashion a scoop from the lid, excavate the food into her dish, and drop the can into the trash. The whole process happens very quickly;

MEOW-pop-plop-drop.

This morning, however, thoughts are fighting for space in my head; this blog post, the WIP, COVID, the Holidays, the DMs I’m ignoring, the DMs I should ignore, the question of my sanity–or lack of it. I should clean. Start some laundry. Drink something besides coffee. Maybe I’ll put the chicken in the crockpot and figure out what to make of it later. Did I pay the water bill? I’m sure I did– I think. 

Pop. Plop. DropThud.


I stare at the glob of turkey and giblets pate at the bottom of the trash can, the scoop-spoon still in my hand. The cat looks from me to the trash and back again from her elevated perch where we feed Her Royal Highness (to keep the yumminess away from the dog, Glutton McFluffybutt), clearly contemplating if I mean for her to jump in after it. Another can of food and another apology–except I mean this one.

Any levelheaded person would tell me that I can skip a day of writing, perhaps attend to my adult duties for a bit. Put on some lip gloss and a happy face. At least pretend to have some semblance of normality. Except this is my normal, it always has been. I have had my nose in a book for as long as I can remember; it was the way I discovered the world and my place in it. It was my escape, my refuge, and my sanctuary. My hidden tree-house in the woods, and my secret garden behind the wall. I could be anyone, live anywhere, interact with people, and never worry about saying or doing the wrong thing. Reading helped me make sense of the world.

Writing helps me make sense of myself.

I try to write every day, although to be honest, I’ve gone months this year without writing anything at all–outside of deflective Facebook posts and responses to impassioned texts about the current state of American politics. Those things’ culmination is probably what led to this state of inner-chaos; too much absorbing and not enough purging. It’s almost like I was waiting for permission to acknowledge the awfulness around me, to stop believing all those anxiety-inducing motivational posts meant to decrease the anxiety of a global-pandemic. When I did create, I fought to write happy things lest I speak my fears into reality. I needed to focus on staying positive and upbeat, and unafraid. It turns out this is not a beneficial course of action for me. My creativity suffered. I suffered.

A few weeks ago, I decided to write every day–no excuses. I decided to go on archaeological digs in the emotional wasteland that sometimes doubles as my personality–just to see what I could find. I unearthed both treasure and toxin, and I started writing it all down. And not that safe kind of writing you do on the off chance someone might stumble across your word vomit and have irrefutable proof of your derangement. No, I stopped aiming for the safe middle ground between the crap we bedazzle in an attempt to make ourselves seem not-quite-so-awful and the sob-stained passages of writing exercise-turned-exorcism. I wanted the shit to stink and the tears to flow.

Let me tell you–it did. And it felt good.

The thoughts I’d been carrying around for far too long stayed on the page, only a couple boomeranged back to lurk in the shadows of my mind–and their days are numbered. My fears didn’t manifest–they got smaller when they hit the light of day; their roots shallow, their yield small. I stopped worrying about being “all in this together” and instead focused on some self-care that didn’t include putting on a happy face. It’s a damn pandemic; there are days I’m happy if I manage to wash my face. Please don’t take this wrong–I haven’t abandoned my humanity or my fellow humans altogether, but they do say the in the event of a crash landing–you need to put your own oxygen mask on first.

That’s what writing is for me–it’s honoring the world around me and my place in it. It’s exploring the darkness instead of succumbing to it. The kids aren’t going to starve, the house isn’t going to fall, and I will eventually do the laundry–albeit most likely while wearing little more than a marginally dirty t-shirt and my last pair of clean underwear. Understandably, I’m a little scattered and weird right now–the whole world is a little scattered and weird. What’s important is that I’m starting to find my voice again after months of being too afraid of what I might say.

I put my oxygen mask back on.

And then I picked up a pen.

That’s about as normal as I’m going to get.

Snowdust

My kid is wearing his brother’s coat and my shoes–the waterproof ones with the Sherpa lining. The coat is too big for his thirteen-year-old frame; surprisingly, the shoes are not. He stands in the middle of the driveway, looking out at the houses, watching. The trees are blanketed with white and blend seamlessly with the gray sky. Fragments of barren branches stand out, haphazard and stark–like a picture that’s been shattered into a thousand pieces, leaving you to guess what used to be. The snow falls from the boughs above his head, making it look like we’re mid-storm even though it’s long passed.

He turns around but doesn’t see me watching from the window, coffee cooling in my mug. He’s all long arms and gangly legs and shaggy hair; the coat’s weight makes him look smaller than I think he is. The angle of his jaw is beginning to take over his baby face, and I can see the man he will become shadowed behind the little boy he still is. He shakes the arms of the coat past his hands and, using them like gloves, goes back to shoveling snow.

He’s not clearing it as much as he’s moving it from one spot to another. Slowly. Gently. He picks some up and drops it precariously close to the spot he just cleared. He watches it fall, shifting and swirling, tumbling down and changing the shape of the hill he’s made. He takes a step forward and repeats the process; the shovel’s scrape, the plume of snowdust, the tiny avalanche. Scrape. Snowdust. Avalanche.

I wonder how long it’s been since I’ve paused in a moment to feel it? When was the last time I wore something simply because it was warm? Or stood in my own thoughts without being afraid that someone would hear them? When was the last time I let words fall and swirl and change the shape of something I’ve written?

Another shovelful, and he’s back to looking out over the yards. They’re even and empty and beckoning; waiting for snowmen to be built or tracks to be left, for snow forts and castles and angels. For pretend blizzards and real snowcones and breathless laughter that echoes against the stillness. But there’s none of that, only the shovel’s scrape against concrete and snow that dances, unnoticed by the child he’s trying hard not to be.

His dog scratches at the door until I let her out; she bounds down the steps and disappears into a drift. She bounces out and leaps into another, her red collar and black ears the only things visible in the snow. He laughs, drops the shovel, and jumps in to join her. Plumes of snowdust swirl around them.

A Dinosaur Walked Into A RadioShack… or “Should you add tech to fiction when you’re technologically stunted?”

Once upon a time… I discovered the secret to happiness; I downgraded to a $.99 phone. That’s cents- as in “less than a dollar.” It made calls, kinda. I could hear people on the other end. Mostly. And my texts were limited to one-word responses. There was no internet. No Facebook. Nary a selfie to be had.

It was glorious.

I’d downgraded from an iPhone4 (I still have it if anyone from the Smithsonian is reading this), and I still used a first-generation iPad (now serving as a doorstop-sorry). In my humble, middle-aged opinion, one of the coolest features was the GPS tracking, which allowed me to find my device should it be stolen (not likely) or lost (just shy of regularly). This was before GPS was a standard-issue on phones; before the apps that let you see your children’s location- and the speed at which they traveled to get there. I was so impressed with the “find my phone” feature, I wrote it into one of the chapters of my current WIP.

And now it’s a problem– and not only because I’ve clearly been working on this book for, what amounts to, ever.

Nowadays, if a teenager has a cellphone, they probably also have a parent threatening them to keep the GPS locator activated lest they be invited to pay for their own phone plan. …that’s not just my house, right? My problem in the WIP stems from the father not remembering until the sixth scene that he can track his son’s location with ease. Now, if your kid goes missing, it’s likely to be one of the first things you check. And that kind of wrecks havoc on my story.

So it begs the question- or at least *I* am begging the question, “How much technology are you writing into your fiction, and will including it leave your work pathetically dated?”

I’m not talking the Jules Verne-level of imagination and writing fantastical machines into existence. Fiction has been filled with dreamed-up technology that made its way into reality. Dick Tracy’s watch isn’t terribly impressive anymore. And “Hal, open the pod bay doors” isn’t as thrilling as “Alexa, order a pizza.”

Period pieces benefit from technology reminiscent of a more innocent time; a kid with a transistor radio in the 1960s is far more charming than one obsessing over their MySpace page in 2005. Handwritten, hand-delivered notes are more romantic than a text–calling cards over talking into the Ring doorbell camera. I can keep going, but it’s only going to show my age, which is apparently “pre-Industrial Revolution.”

Someone recently asked me if I would change my story to better reflect a post-COVID19 world, and I had to think about it. The pandemic currently raging around us is going to leave an indelible mark. I do not know exactly *how* we’re going to change, only that we will. This leaves me with three options; reflect the changes, make my setting era-specific (i.e., pre-COVID or pre-cellphone), or keep writing like those things never happened.

Perhaps I can lessen the role modern (read “soon-to-be-outdated”) technology plays in this story. I can feasibly craft the dialogue to hint at the misuse of the available technology versus highlighting the current state of said technology. Or maybe I’ll write the adults in this story as borderline-clueless but well-intentioned dinosaurs when it comes to applied sciences. Maybe they’ll be the kind of people who find joy in landlines, forget GPS on phones is a thing, and for whom iPads are better used as doorstops.

So, what say you? How are you including, or eschewing, the modern technology that defines our world but may ultimately date our work?

Imaginings, reimagined

My favorite writing exercise this year (so far) was during a class called “Fairytales Reimagined.” The premise was just as it sounds; reimagine classic tales, and give them new twists. There were some very creative writers in that group; one rewrote Hansel and Gretel and turned them into incestuous cannibals who turn on each other after making tapa of the evil witch. My favorite “after the happily-ever-after” offering turned Belle into a sulking bride, disenchanted and disgruntled by her husband’s new, princely state, longing for his animalistic appearance and demeanor.

Belle–the furry-loving sub who craves a strong-hand. Paw. A strong paw.

My own effort lacked creativity; I think I turned Sleeping Beauty into a Vampire Queen or some other yawn-inducing trope, awakened from the protective spell and unleashed on an unsuspecting kingdom, blah blah blech..

Yeah…. me, neither.

However stinky my ideas, the exercise reinforced a piece of writing advice I’ve loved, the source of which I cannot remember.

*Caveat-I’ve read so many books, I’m not apt to remember what I learned from whom. Please be aware that ideas tossed about in this blog are not likely my own. Perhaps I’ll make a list of every writing book I own, and folks can sleuth it out by themselves. Until then… onward,

One of the books I read discussed the danger of your characters falling into predictable situations and the story becoming painfully two-dimensional. That author suggested changing it up if something isn’t working; if you love the line, change the context. If you love the situation, change the setting. They gave the example of one of the most famous lines of dialogue in the history of humanity.

But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?

-Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Act 2

Spoken by Romeo while gazing up at Juliet’s balcony. Every. Single. Time

But what if Romeo had already climbed the balcony and whispered those words while staring deeply into Juliet’s eyes? That kind of changes the meaning and the tone just a smidge. My high school class saw Othello on stage — it’d been set in Nazi-controlled Europe. If you think Iago is a vicious little monster, try sticking him in an SS uniform. ::shudder:: Almost 35 years later, and I still think of that production.

Steven King writes about a problem he encountered while working on The Stand; he had too many characters and storylines and not enough time and space to make them all converge in a way that made sense. His solution? Blow half of them up with a bomb… or two. Problem solved. Our solutions needn’t be nearly so drastic (unless you want them to be. Admit it — drastic can be incredibly fun to write). But we can still change the story by changing a detail or two.

What if “I love the smell of napalm in the morning” was muttered by a groggy but smiling Robert Duvall as he drifted off to sleep at night? Suddenly Col Kurtz isn’t the only one you need to be concerned about.

What if Renee Zellweger wasn’t moved by Jerry Maguire’s “You complete me” line, and replied with “I know,” invoking both the self-confidence and chutzpah of one Mr. Han Solo? Jerry wouldn’t have time to show her the money; she’d be showing him the door. Truthfully, I’d pay to watch that version.

I’m stuck with my WIP right now; I have one character I have to introduce and another who needs rescued — now throw in the exposition, the situational tension, the story arc, and the individual character arcs that I need to make fit, and I’ve got a recipe for a mess. Nothing is working; it’s either too neat and tidy, or it’s absolutely ridiculous. There’s been no in-between. I’ve been playing the “What If?” game with the troubling chapter, and I think I’ve figured out a way to set the scene, plant the necessary back story, and generate some doubt about the new character while still giving my protag no other choice but to trust her.

Granted, my solution isn’t as fun as turning someone into a horny little cannibal or creating a swarm of BDSM zombies — but it’ll get me out of the corner I’ve written myself into. And if worse comes to worst, I will play the “what if” game until a better idea comes along and rescues me from the long night of writer’s block.

Do you have any tips or tricks for getting yourself past a block or out from a corner? Please share them in the comments — because blowing up half my cast would make me very, very sad.


“So you write, huh? What advice do you have?”

The punctuation goes inside the quotation marks.

The people asking for advice do not require rudimentary grammar lessons, nor am I, duty-bound as a “real writer” and all, sworn to deliver those lessons on a gleaming platter of sanctimony and pretentiousness.

It’s because that comment is, without a doubt, the one I get back most frequently from my editors… my poor abused editors (I love you all, please don’t leave me).

It’s not the advice other aspiring writers want, and I know it. They want to know about agents and contracts and advances and if I’ve started to practice my autograph yet. The answers to those questions are easy; you’re not ready yet.

Also–no one wants it.

Usually, I can chuckle and shrug it off with a “Not yet, hopefully soon!” but they push for a more definitive answer every once in a while. So I lay out the whole plan;

  • finish the first draft
  • do at least three rewrites
  • go over it with a fine-tooth comb a couple more times for continuity
  • polish it up
  • do a round with beta readers
  • compile feedback
  • polish a bit more
  • send it to an editor
  • cry over the red-lines when it’s returned
  • polish it again
  • perhaps another round of beta
  • at least one more professional edit
  • another polish
  • beg someone who isn’t ignoring my calls by this point to please read my book-just one more time

Only then does it get sent to an agent with a query letter that was obsessed over after following every single one of the specific rules for submissions. And then it sits, awaiting its fate; either the glowing acceptance of an agent… or a quiet death… alone and cold at the bottom of the big, dark slush pile.

It’s not the tale of quick fortune and easy fame that people were hoping for. I can tell from their glassy eyes and dead stares.

The rest of my advice is the same boring blah they’ve heard a dozen times before; write. A lot. And read even more.

I read writing craft books like they’re the only ones published. My work-in-progress looks more like a workbook than a manuscript, full of new skills being clumsily practiced on my unsuspecting characters. But it’s how I work; I read-then I do. It’s a habit I got into when learning to crochet; I’d learn a new stitch by starting a new dishcloth. By the time I was done, I had the stitch down pat, and I had a new dishcloth–same thing here; monkey read, monkey do.

Which leads me to this blog. I really do get asked for advice more often than I’m comfortable with, and it’s not because I’m a keeper of the secrets-there aren’t any secrets. I’m uncomfortable because I don’t feel like I know enough to be telling other people how to do this. But that’s not exactly true; granted, I do not have an advanced degree in writing, literature, or English. However, I did develop a passion for writing that has led me to study the art of the craft. I can share the things I’ve gleaned and the tricks I use. I can publicly revel in my embarrassing giddiness when I learn something new. I have no problem admitting that I don’t know something, and even less humility when finding the answer.

So feel free to follow along; maybe we can learn a few things from each other. This journey we’re on together will help me sort out the WIP that is my writing career. And one day, when someone asks you for advice, you can think back to this blog, and all the goofy stuff I’m apt to post, and you can tell them,

“The punctuation goes inside the quotation marks.”