Archive for May, 2018


mom and baby

We tell kids all the time in school that description is good and that “showing” is great. But description is only good when it does more than describe and showing is only great when what it shows is a great deal of depth and texture.

When kids slop a bunch of adjectives and adverbs around in an endless attempt to please their teachers or themselves, what they’re trying to clarify for their readers becomes, ironically, murkier.

Great writers know this intuitively. They use description for more than making pictures in their readers’ minds, and they use it, often in tiny bits, for powerful in-the-moment impact.

Barbara Claypole White is one of those great writers.

The Promise Between Us by [White, Barbara Claypole]

The Promise of Great Detail

In her latest Amazon bestseller, “The Promise Between Us”, Barbara uses bits of carefully crafted description to elicit from her readers a flood of inferences that reveal the depths of her main character.

Barbara’s descriptions are vivid and enjoyable for their own sake, but they accomplish more than mere entertainment. With just a few well-chosen phrases, she tells us things that might require thousands of words of exposition.

Let’s take a long walk off a short paragraph and see how she works her magic.

Crouched in the corner of my baby girl’s bedroom, we both shake: the three-legged mutt and the mother with a colony of fire ants multiplying in her brain.

“Crouched in the corner…”

“Crouched” is a terrific verb. “Corner” is a perfect place.

Four words in and we know this character is frightened, anxious, falling apart perhaps, wedging herself against walls to hold herself together.

“…of my baby girl’s bedroom.”

More alliteration, that’s nice for energy. Now we know she’s a new mom. This adds to the weight of her anxiety and opens a question: “Is the fear she’s feeling about herself or her child?

Let’s read on.

“…we both shake:…”

Maybe it’s both of them. Or?

Now, look at those tiny two points of punctuation: a colon. This tells us that the words on the left side that we’ve just read are in some way equivalent to the words we’re about to read on the right.

“…the three-legged mutt and the mother with a colony of fire ants multiplying in her brain.”

“… three-legged mutt….”

A dog who has lost a leg, a stray, a rescue, not a purebred—and no longer “whole”.

“… and the mother with a colony of fire ants multiplying in her brain.”

“…THE three-legged mutt and THE mother…”

Switching to the third person here. Why? We’ll tackle that in a moment.

“… with a colony of fire ants multiplying in her brain.”

Me—an arachnophobe and a just-about-every-other-kind-of-insect-aphobe—I’m a little creeped out by this which is probably exactly how Barbara wants me to feel, whether she knows about my quirky queasiness or not.

It’s a “colony of fire ants”. That’s pretty serious. Not your every day bumble bee buzzing around like a random thought looking for a pretty flower.

These are fire ants. They’re in this woman’s brain. It’s a “colony”, an organized mass of Helter-Skelter-scurrying creatures. And it’s “multiplying”. This is not a static situation. It’s terrifying, it’s intensely painful, and it’s getting worse!

Is it a panic attack? I’d say not. I’d say it’s something more chronic, something that happens often to this woman, if not very often.

What’s the clue for me? The switch to third person.

When we go from “I” to “me”, we distance ourselves from ourselves. This typically indicates that a behavior or situation is something that happens so regularly we can describe it as if we’re the omniscient narrator of our own lives.

I think this woman struggles with some kind of serious mental illness: anxiety or OCD? But probably not PTSD or paranoia. The first two tend to be chronic and seemingly continuous; the last two, while possibly chronic, tend to be episodic.

 

The Known Unknowns

What I’m also pretty sure of is that we can rule out one thing that’s very common in fiction today: she’s not hiding from an intruder.

If she were, the book would be some kind of thriller perhaps. But I don’t think she’s afraid of someone else. I think she’s afraid of herself and what she might do, or fail to do, for her child, if those fire ants continue to multiply.

Do we need a definite diagnosis of her mental state? Nope. We just need to know that this is probably the worst possible feeling a person could hold in her head and still be self-aware enough to momentarily reflect on her situation.

This is another reason why the switch to 3rd person is so important: we know she’s not mentally dissociative; she’s holding it together—herself, her child, her motherhood—even if just barely.

The important thing for me is that I’m getting the feeling, in just one sentence and 29 words, that this is not a thriller, that this may be the story of a personal struggle for a new mother.

 

Let’s Not Forget the Title

Oh! The book is called “The Promise Between Us”.

Is the story about that implicit promise of protection that exists between every mother and child? Just a guess on my part. But not a bad one. And if I’m right, Barbara has also solved the genre question for me.

This isn’t a thriller or anything like it. It’s probably a drama of some kind. A drama about family.

 

From a Few Words Come Many Ideas

A few well-chosen words can do a lot of work—if they’re the right words written in the right order. Using only 29 of them, a talented writer can set up an 80,000-word novel.

This is what we need to tell our students, again and again and again—well, every time they burst into the full-flowered purple prose they often do. The words need to work, of course, but most young writers don’t know how hard they need to work—nor how hard they can be pushed. (I talked to Barbara about this bit and she said it was possibly the toughest few lines she’d ever written: 10, perhaps 20, revisions.)

With practice—and models of good writing broken down as we’ve done here—kids can do it. Even very little kids can do it. But we need big kids, like Barbara, to show them how.

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Facing Pacing

facing-pacing

Writing mystified me when I was in school, and many mysteries remained long after I got out. One of them was about something called pacing. I knew it had to do with how fast or slow a piece of writing felt, but that was all I knew.

I didn’t figure pacing out until I had to teach it to kids. I wish I’d learned everything there was to know about writing in high school, through my English degree, or in my 10+ years of professional writing. But I didn’t. When I started teaching in classrooms, I was both surprised by how little I knew and more than a little embarrassed.

We often say that kids are our best teachers. I’ve certainly experienced that. For me, however, the obligation I feel to kids is my best teacher. It’s not a very kind teacher. It’s always telling me I’m failing. And it doesn’t accept late work or give extra credit. But the cruel master of obligation to others (especially to young others) pushes me to understand things I probably wouldn’t push myself to understand. So it is with pacing.

Here’s where I start with kids when I want to talk about pacing. It’s not a definitive treatise by any means. But I’ve found over the years that this is the best place to start because I’m really just talking about details, something the kids hear me talk about almost every day I’m with them.

 

Embracing Pacing

The pace at which a piece of writing moves forward is influenced by several things: (1) the number of words used to describe a set of ideas or actions; (2) the type and amount of details used; and (3) the lengths of sentences. Here, we’ll take a look at #1 and #2. I’ll talk about sentence structure in a forthcoming piece.

In general, the more detail a writer uses in a part, the slower that part seems to move along, especially when those details are descriptive details. When we move from part to part with more actions and fewer descriptive details, the pace quickens and the piece seems to speed up.

 

Read this:

As she awoke, she realized something wasn’t quite right. There was too much light coming from the above-ground display. Too confused to climb down the ladder all the way to the floor, she squinted at the screen on the far wall directly across from the sleeping-shelves stacked 10-high with barely a meter between them. The blinding white of sun-bright snow on the screen illuminated the dirt floor below. When she last closed her eyes, there were many days of darkness left in the season. Now it seemed, all of a sudden, that the light season had appeared. How many days and nights had she slept through?

 

Now read this:

She awoke confused and hurriedly climbed down the ladder. She knew something was wrong and ran to the door. Peering through the tiny window, she saw no one. Turning around, she realized she was alone in the room. How could she have slept past the second-morning bell? Where were the other girls? Why was it so bright in the middle of the dark season? Frantically, she pounded on the door. It moved slightly. It was unlocked. That was strange, she thought. They always kept the door locked whenever children were inside. More anxious now, she threw open the door and ran down the empty hallway.

 

Both passages describe exactly the same character in exactly the same scene. They’re also exactly the same length—to the word. Yet the second passage seems to move more quickly than the first. Why?

In the first passage, most of the words describe the scene itself; fewer things happen; it takes more time to move from one action to the next. In the second passage, almost every sentence describes a thought or action; many things happen rapidly.

This is one way to control pacing. In general, the more important a part is, the more detail you should include about it. This slows readers down, makes them pay closer attention, and extends the suspense.

By mixing more descriptive, slower-paced sections with more action-oriented, faster-paced sections, we ensure our readers have the energy and interest they need to read to the end.

 

Acing Pacing

Controlling the pace in narrative writing is easier than it is non-narrative writing because narrative writing has a timeline—sometimes explicit, sometimes implied, but always there. I have kids think of any action movie they’ve seen. Hollywood writers and directors understand pacing well.

The first two hours of an action movie may cover years of story time. But as the clock ticks down through the final crisis, running time slows way down relative to story time. In Minority Report, for example, where Tom Cruise plays a police detective who uses the prophetic power of a small group of strange people who seem live in a shallow pool of water (Hey, don’t blame me. This is dystopic sci-fi!), he can arrest people before they actually commit crimes.

By the end of the movie, of course, the hunter becomes the hunted. Cruise finds himself with just 15 seconds (there’s actually a clock ticking down in the movie) to do whatever Tom Cruise usually has to do to save himself, some beautiful woman, all of mankind, or the career of the executive producer who sold the studio on an alleged box office blockbuster.

The end of this movie really is fascinating and suspenseful. We watch the clock ticking down from 15 seconds to zero. We know there’s only 15 seconds left. But it takes several minutes for that tiny amount of time to elapse. The pace literally slows down with a bunch of cool slow-mo sequences at key points. We know Cruise is going to save whatever it is he has to save but it doesn’t matter. The long, drawn-out, slowed-down execution is riveting. In particular, the amount of detail the director shows us (like views of the scene from multiple perspectives) is excellent.

 

First-Base-ing Pacing

If you’ve read this far, you probably know two things: I’m about to wrap this up and there’s a lot more to say about pacing. We’re only on first base here. But this is a good place to start because every kid I’ve worked with, no matter how young, has been able to get to first base with pacing.

Sentence structure, word choice, voice, even punctuation can be used to change the pace of a piece of writing. Pacing in non-narrative writing is different than it is in narrative writing. In some cases, pacing may not even be a definable element because a text reads differently to different readers.

So why do I take on something this challenging with K-12 writers? Because they desperately need it. If I don’t give them at least a hint of what pacing is about (if I don’t get them at least to first base), I’m going to receive writing all year long with extreme amounts of detail in some places and no details in others. Kids also won’t understand pacing in what they read. They won’t understand, for example, that they need to slow down their reading rate as authors add additional detail because this is often a tell that the writer has something very important to say.

Small Words

small words

Word choice is hard to teach explicitly within the context of original composition. Even in revision, kids are apt to keep the words they have as long as those words make sense to them.

I’ve had a gut feeling for 25 years that most kids don’t develop that “gut feeling” for varied language that many adult writers develop. To me, this is a feeling that says, “Oh! Can’t use that word there!” or “Ya know, this word would be so much better here.”

Kids don’t naturally do this because the “game” we teach them about writing is really the game of “drafting”. We often say, “Just get your ideas down for now.” But “now” rarely becomes later. When it does, word-level revisions often aren’t nearly as important as idea- and organization-level improvements. These changes have to be made first anyway lest we spend our time working with words only to abandon them when our ideas are out whack or we cut a section to improve organizational flow.

When it comes to word choice, I want kids to get the same feeling I get, the feeling that a word or phrase isn’t quite right or that a more right alternative would make a difference. But I’m completely convinced kids have to experience this explicitly—during original composition—in order to develop the true intuitive sense so many advanced writers have for words that are “just right”.

 

Constrained Writing

To help kids make different word choices, I often use so-called “constrained writing” activities. These are just simple activities with a constraint about how they are to be completed.

A palindrome is a form of constrained writing where a thought must read identically forward and backward: “Ana nab a banana.” So is a pangram where all 26 letters must be used in a sentence: “How vexingly quick daft zebras jump!”

The constrained writing activity I like best for teaching word choice, and for helping writers learn how to say things simply and clearly, is the “single-syllable” piece. That is, only words of a single syllable are permitted.

Here’s a self-referential example from my book, “Be a Better Writer”, that is an explanation, in single-syllable words, explaining why these small words work so well.

 

SMALL WORDS

What if there was a rule that said you had to use small words when you wrote? Could you still say what you had to say?

We tend to think big words are worth more than small ones. But I think this is wrong.

Small words do big things. They are clean, they are clear, they are strong, they are true. They help us write how we feel, say what we mean, be who we are.

 

I’ve taught this to kids as young as 2nd or 3rd grade. No matter what we come up with, it always sounds like poetry, even though I always use it as a means of writing prose.

 

It’s About Choice, Not Words

Most adults think kids who use big words are smart. I think kids who use the best words are smart. I know I’m pushing a huge societal bounder up a hill and having the typical Sysiphean experience of getting kids to do exactly what I think they need to do—and then watching their skills roll all the way back to down to where they were when they move on to the next grade.

So be it. I teach a lot of things that are, paradoxically, highly valued by society, yet hardly valued in school. Many of us do. That’s part of the heartbreak so many of us go through during this highly restrictive time in education.

The writing skill I’m teaching here has nothing whatsoever to do with expanding kids’ vocabulary; I’m actually trying to show how a constrained vocabulary is often more effective. The constraint forces writers to go through word after word as they work to find something of one syllable, or a set of single-syllable words that helps them express a thought.

The hardest part about teaching word choice is getting kids to realize that they are intentionally choosing the words they use. Constrained writing activities force them to recognize this explicitly. After many practice sessions, kids become more flexible writers in their regular work after completing just a few short passages in a constrained style.

In my next article, I’ll share another constrained writing exercise, one that has been used to write entire full-length novels.