J.T. Bushnell is Brilliant

J.T. Bushnell blew my mind at my first-ever writer’s conference in Kalama, Washington last week.

What do you think your most powerful tool is as a writer?

Dialogue? Characterization? Description?

Bushnell pointed out that scientists have taken people who were born blind and hooked them to a chair that brings information to them through their skin (by use of vibrating plates) – information about things happening on a screen in front of them. They postulated that the information was processed in the occipital cortex of the brain because of the way the test subjects responded.  At one point, a blind test subject was said to have literally ducked to avoid something on the screen that “appeared” to be coming at him. Bushnell said that in these sorts of neuroplasticity studies, emotions appeared to appropriately go to the “primitive” lower areas of the CNS, while complex thoughts and interpretations found their way through higher cortical areas.

Here’s a link to a Wikipedia article that discusses a bit of this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Bach-y-Rita#cite_note-8.

Norman Doidge’s book, The Brain that Changes Itself, also discusses this research.

A PDF file of the original article (P.Bach-y-Rita. 1967. Sensory Plasticity. Acta Neurologica Scandinavica, 43:417-26) can be purchased here: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1600-0404.1967.tb05747.x/abstract .

Similar things have been done using a postage-sized stimulator placed on the tongue. Here’s something on that: http://www.biomedsearch.com/article/use-tactile-vision-sensory-substitution/247030733.html

Bushnell says the developments in neuroplasticity tell us that the emotion’s central processing unit (the limbic system) can be reached directly and appropriately regardless of how the original stimulus arises and finds its way to the brain. Since vibrating plates can cause the visual cortex to “see,” and make a blind person feel the urge to duck, there must be hope for fiction writers.

Bushnell also said that one emotion can spill over into an area that deals with another emotion. So a smell in a story might evoke a feeling that spills over and adds zip to the neurons taking in an action scene.

Taking these ideas, he combined them to make the point that a writer’s description is the most direct, natural and effective way of reaching the reader’s emotions. This was a breakthrough moment for me. I work harder when I understand why the heck I’m working. Being told, “Show, don’t tell,” is telling, not showing.

I tend to consider description the “work” of writing. It’s something I’ve been told sets the backdrop for the good stuff, the characterization, plot and dialogue. I try to make descriptions live by having the vp character express feelings and opinions about the scenery, a technique that was discussed, in fact, in another excellent workshop earlier that day.

But now, such techniques reflect an old paradigm for me. It’s no longer as if description is an inherently weak element that needs a good trick to make it shine. Science is saying it’s the sharpest tool in the box.

The point was made that emergency medical techs calm the emotions of accident victims by asking questions designed to recruit the cerebral cortex. Questions like, “Who is the president?” and “What is your address?”

Why ask? Apparently, linear thoughts stir up the cortex which quiets the limbic system’s emotions. It’s analogous to giving Adderall, a stimulant, to hyperactive kids. The stimulant awakens the prefrontal cortex (so the story goes) which inhibits the lower parts of the brain, calming the kids down. Somehow I’m not comfortable with that analogy, but anyway…

This implies that interesting and complex ideas in a story may rev up the cerebral cortex and thereby dampen the limbic system’s emotional response. Readers tend to think or feel. Not both at the same time.

Man, is this counter-intuitive to me!

A description, on the other hand, may bypass the reader’s scientific curiosity and math skills, but go directly to the limbic system, making the reader feel what you’ve written.

A page-turner is born in description.

In an interview, Hemingway once said, “…I was trying to learn… and was searching for the unnoticed things that made emotions, such as the way an outfielder tossed his glove without looking back to where it fell…” (Here’s a link to the full interview:  http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/4825/the-art-of-fiction-no-21-ernest-hemingway )  Bushnell contrasted this with a “telling” of the emotion: “The outfielder was dejected.”

Notice that when Hemingway speaks about conveying emotion, he goes straight to description and searches for “unnoticed things.” For him, the description of unnoticed things “made emotion.” He didn’t say that emotion is made by dialogue, clever twists of phrase, word rhythms, the scarlet letter worn by all adverbs, the plot, the OCD of consistent viewpoint… not even characterization.

Notice also the visuals that Hemingway did not mention here: “an outfielder tossed his glove without looking back to where it fell…”  He left out “in the air,” “behind him,” and “as he walked away.” He showed these details without mentioning them. I think this is respect for the reader, and embodies the most significant reason to strive for tight prose.

Bushnell said that symbols in description can evoke disproportionately powerful emotions because they “connect with the primitive brain.” For instance, he discussed a story about a man who stopped smoking. The man’s beloved father had been a smoker. As a child, the smell of smoke and the color of tobacco were associated with his father. Although his father had died years before, when the son gives up smoking, it feels as if the last remnant of his father has been taken from him.  He gave up more than an addiction.

The fact that all this was never spelled out, but was left in the vague realm of symbolism, made it powerful to the readers – at least to those who “got it.”

A reader’s sense of personally “getting it” in symbolism is analogous to the I-get-it nature of humor. Similarly, the reason why great writers say we should “show the reader some respect” by not spelling everything out, is that it leaves the door open for little “I get it” moments along the way that lend emotional power and perhaps art to our work.

Here’s a link to J.T. Bushnell’s bio: http://oregonstate.edu/cla/wlf/bushnell-jt

What a guy!

M. Talmage Moorehead

If you’re interested in intelligent design, weird artifacts, genetics and psychology from the perspective of a nineteen-year-old “Hapa Girl,” my in-progress novel may be a fun read. The protagonist, Johanna, is a genius geneticist with a younger brother who struggles with depression, though you wouldn’t know it to meet him. Her evolving story starts here.

It’s an experiment called, Hapa Girl DNA, and is a hybrid itself – a tightrope crossing of fiction and non-fiction. “Hapa” is the Hawaiian term for “half.” Johanna is half Japanese and half Jewish. In writing her novel, she and I ignore some important fiction-writing rules, partly because we like to test dogmas and partly because it’s fun to try new things.

But the “rules” are essential knowledge to anyone crazy enough to either break them or follow them mindlessly.

So you could download my e-book on fiction writing, the second to last chapter of which gives my current opinions on many of the dogmatic rules of fiction writing. Downloading that 10,000 word file will place you on my short list of people who will be politely notified when my traditional novel is done – possibly before the next ice age. (No spam or sharing of your info. I haven’t sent an email to my list yet. It’s been over a year.)

Next time you’re writing emails, if you think of it, please tell your best and hopefully weirdest friend about my blog (www.storiform.com). Thanks! I appreciate your thoughtfulness.

Talmage


“Hardwiring Happiness” for Your Readers

sunset

Hardwiring Happiness by Rick Hanson, Ph.D. is book about learning to soak in good feelings so you’ll develop neuronal pathways that change you from misery-prone to happy. I recommend the book to all writers, not just because I think we’re susceptible to despair, but also because of this…

Page 86 is about “bringing a feeling to the front of awareness.” It’s telling us that we have things at the edges of our mind that we’re not thinking about directly, but which are available to us if we look inside.

Duh!?

When I read this I thought, “Seriously, are there people out there who need to be told to look around inside their heads for things that aren’t central to what’s going on in front of them?”

I guess so. The book is basically amazing and the author is a Ph.D., so he must know a lot more about people than I do. There must be plenty of us who are relatively unaware of what’s not in “the front of awareness.” There must be plenty of us who naturally live in the moment.

Whatever it is that these people have, can someone please bottle it and sell it to me?

For me, it’s difficult to live in the moment for even three consecutive seconds – to stay out of the periphery of my subconscious mind where I worry about Monday’s frozen section or something happening now (or in the past) to one of my kids.

I do yoga now to stay in a concrete, superficially painful moment (stretching), so I can get a break from the background anxiety I live with much of the time. If you’re a writer, you’re probably a little like me.

Although it’s beside my point, I should mention that Dr. Hanson is saying to go inward to find positive feelings, not negative.

When I’m writing dialogue, I do have to constantly remind myself to get into the characters’ heads and look around at their internal thoughts and feelings. If I fail to do so, the dialogue comes out linear and flat, as if a puppetmaster is trying to “move the story ahead” in an efficient manner.

Of course, as I learned the hard way this year, if I go too far with the inner complexities of a character, I wind up with excess backstory which causes plot paralysis and takes too much energy to read. (A novel has to constantly give the reader more energy – excitement, interest, weird information, etc. – than she puts into the work of reading, or she’ll set the book aside for later.)

So there’s got to be a balance that fits you and the reader you target. Keep in mind that the evolution of popular fiction in the last century from slow-moving to fast-paced will probably accelerate. Our children’s grandchildren will be intolerant of all but the fastest-paced of today’s novels, I would guess.

And keep in mind, when you go into your characters’ heads to write their dialogue, if you don’t want them to be depressed and depressing individuals, re-live some of their positive feelings and experiences. Often I tend to only focus on their pains and problems.

Notice how much focus is given to the description and feelings surrounding good food in The Hunger Games, by Collins. Notice how that you don’t just skim over these sections. You read them and you feel them with Katniss. They are bitter-sweet, sometimes, but not negative.

Go now and buy Hardwiring Happiness by Rick Hanson, Ph.D. I’m begging you. Here’s a link: http://www.rickhanson.net/books/hardwiring-happiness

Of course, I’ve got no dog in the fight, no conflict of interest and nothing to gain financially if you buy his book.

Please, though, if the book changes your life, tell a bunch of other people about it. A bunch of other writers, maybe. Thanks.

M. Talmage Moorehead

My current in-progress version of Johanna’s novel is not merely character driven, it’s written by a girl from a parallel universe. If you’re interested in intelligent design, weird artifacts, genetics and psychology from the perspective of a nineteen-year-old “Hapa Girl,” it may be a fun read. The protagonist is a genius geneticist with a younger brother who struggles with depression, though you wouldn’t know it to meet him. Her evolving story starts here.

It’s an experiment called, Hapa Girl DNA, and is a hybrid itself – a tightrope crossing of fiction and non-fiction. “Hapa” is the Hawaiian term for “half.” Johanna is half Japanese and half Jewish. In writing her novel, she and I ignore some important fiction-writing rules, partly because we like to test dogmas, and partly because it’s fun to try new things.

But the “rules” are essential knowledge to anyone crazy enough to either break them or follow them mindlessly.

So you could download my e-book on fiction writing, the second to last chapter of which gives my current opinions on many of the dogmatic rules of fiction writing. Downloading that 19,000 word file will place you on my short list of people who will be politely notified when my traditional novel is done – possibly before the next ice age. (No spam or sharing of your info. I haven’t sent an email to my list yet. It’s been over a year.)

Next time you’re writing emails, if you think of it, please tell your best and hopefully weirdest friend about my blog (www.storiform.com). Thanks. I appreciate your thoughtfulness.

Talmage


“You Will Be The Worst Writer”

7-11-12 Dr. French's Office 003

It’s been somewhere near a year since I started this blog. Today while browsing my spam I came across something that I think may be my first real (non-spam) comment – even though it was relegated to the spam file by some excellent software.

Here it is:

“You will be the worst writer”

The comment led back to a website selling drugs, including testosterone supplements for men.

Hmmm. Maybe there’s insight to this.

At any rate, thank you for your comment. It’s high time I got one!

You’re not alone in thinking that I’ll be a hack, perhaps even the worst hack writer, although taking the absolute bottom or top seat on a roster seems arrogant to those of us devoted to mediocrity.

But all kidding aside, I have two readers (of my fiction, that is. I have one and maybe slightly more than one reader of this blog. It’s difficult to be sure.)

Those two readers of my fiction are, not necessarily in any order:  my wife and my daughter.

Now before you start saying that they couldn’t possibly be objective, and I shouldn’t get a swelled head over their kudos, let me stop you. They don’t like my stuff. Polite? Yes, they are. Encouraging or supportive, they’re not.

My wife likes my non-fiction prose, though. That means a lot.

She finds my fiction a chore.

A few days ago I conned her into reading this blog and she chuckled encouragingly as she read.

A few weeks ago I asked her to check out the website where I’m working on my story, and she said something to this effect: “It doesn’t seem like a story anymore. I’ve never read anything written like this, so I don’t know what to compare it to.” Admittedly, it was an experimental version in which I was pretending that the protagonist was a real person who has a website and was recording her every move as it took place. And yes, my wife was a good deal less negative – even positive, as I recall – when she read the more traditional version of the story nearly a year ago.

And I should point out that she only read as much of the latest version as she could stand, which wasn’t very much unless she’s a closet speed-reader, which I doubt.

My daughter loves me dearly and would never want to hurt my feelings, so she pretends she’s forgotten to read the stuff I’ve sent her. She’s really a sweet girl. It’s too bad everyone can’t meet her and have a friend of her caliber.

So why am I bringing this up?

Partly because I think it’s humorous and I’ll do anything to get a laugh. (Just ask my daughter.) But mostly because of this…

If I can write fiction without getting discouraged and giving up, so can you!

You? You should never give up!

Never, never, never give up!

The world needs to hear what you have to say, trust me on that.

When you get discouraged, don’t give up! Don’t even let up.

Bottom line: Neither you nor I could tolerate someone like YOU giving up. You have real talent.

Me, I mostly have desire and a mind for over-analyzing things to exhaustion. But even my gifts are plenty to work with, because, like you, I’ve got something to say.

Content.

So please, get back to writing your story, already. This is enough web surfing for today. Don’t you think?

M. Talmage Moorehead

Wow, how times change. I’ve got some readers now, thank God!

My current in-progress version of Johanna’s novel (written by my protagonist from another universe) is a lot like the experimental thing she and I were doing back when I wrote this post.

If you’re interested in intelligent design, weird artifacts, genetics and psychology from the perspective of a nineteen-year-old “Hapa Girl,” it may be a fun read. The protagonist is a genius geneticist with a younger brother who struggles with depression, though you wouldn’t know it to meet him. Her evolving story starts here.

It’s an experiment called, Hapa Girl DNA, and is a hybrid itself – a tightrope crossing of fiction and non-fiction. “Hapa” is the Hawaiian term for “half.” Johanna is half Japanese and half Jewish. In writing her novel, she and I ignore some important fiction-writing rules, partly because we like to test dogmas, and partly because it’s fun to try new things.

But the “rules” are essential knowledge to anyone crazy enough to either break them or follow them mindlessly.

So you could download my e-book on fiction writing, the second to last chapter of which gives my current opinions on many of the dogmatic rules of fiction writing. Downloading that 10,000 word file will place you on my short list of people who will be politely notified when my traditional novel is done – possibly before the next ice age. (No spam or sharing of your info. I haven’t sent an email to my list yet. It’s been over a year.)

Next time you’re writing emails, if you think of it, please tell your best and hopefully weirdest friend about my blog (www.storiform.com). Thanks. I appreciate your thoughtfulness.

Talmage


The Meaning of “Your” Writing Voice?

7-20-09 Capilano Suspension Bridge and Stanley Park 010

Voice – not the Einstein-Rosen Bridge but a way to find it.

 

The meaning of the term “voice” as it applies to writing seems to have changed over the years. At least it has for me.

In the past, everything about “voice” seemed to relate to the author, but today, with most popular fiction written strictly from the viewpoint of a character, I think the term “voice” applies more to the viewpoint character than to the writer.

It’s true that it will always be a synthesis of the author and the viewpoint character, because neither can completely shake the influence of the other, but in the stories I’ve read in recent years, it seems that the author and her “voice” are mainly a reflection of the personality of the viewpoint character and how she thinks, speaks and “writes” her own story.

My purpose in this site has always been to help people, myself included, write “meaningful page-turners.” (I’m probably helping my writing more than anyone else’s.)

I’ve always said that our job must be to first establish an interesting character with a quality about her that makes the reader personally care what happens to her. Then our job is to make her life’s plot and her fellow characters meaningful and spellbinding.

To make the main character seem alive and impossible not to care about, I’ve come to realize that one of the main ingredients is the way the writing reflects the character’s personality. As a reader, I want to feel that the viewpoint character wrote the story in her own words, or better yet, she told me the story through mental telepathy. The words I’m reading are merely a transcription of her thoughts.

So much is contained in the character’s “writing voice.”

An innocent twelve-year-old boy with high-functioning autism might say to the reader, regarding his sister,

“I know why she’s so smart. Because she remembers everything she reads.”

The fact that the little autistic boy confuses cause with effect shows him at a level that nothing else could. This is his voice. It’s not the author’s. The “narration” is his, just as the dialogue is his.

I’m beginning to think that this viewpoint character’s “writing” voice is often one of the top three ingredients that makes the reader initially care about the vp character. (The first is empathy. The second is probably danger or challenge to the VP character.)

The VP character’s “writing voice” also seems to be one of the key forces that makes the plot hold the reader to the end because it keeps the reader feeling as if all the plot twists are happening to a real person.

I’ve got a secret project going now in which I’m writing a story in first person, present tense. (Example: I stand in the room. “Shut up,” I tell him. He closes his mouth and listens.) To make things as real as possible to myself and to the “readers,” (who don’t exist) I’m writing the story on the internet and telling a potential lie (it would be a real lie if there were any readers). The lie is that I’m giving the impression that the viewpoint character is a real person (with a web site) who is telling everyone her own weird life story as it happens. She is supposedly telling it with a device on her ear that she speaks into all day long, saying whatever comes to mind, even repeating what other characters say. Other characters don’t think it’s normal, or even tolerable – the fact that she’s repeating everything they say and blabbing her every thought into a recording device.

In doing this I’m learning about the main character’s voice in a way that astounds me and opens my eyes to the subtle world of “writing voice.”

Writing in this potentially deceitful way makes it crystal clear to me when the viewpoint girl’s writing voice changes from the way she normally writes/ talks to the way I sound when I’m writing a story.

The reason it’s so clear is that I can fairly easily put myself into the mind of an anonymous reader who might happen along and start believing she is a real girl talking about her life. From that strange vantage point I’m keenly aware of when my potential lie is starting to fall apart.

Places where the writing slips into that “once upon a time” sound of my usual “writing voice.”

The only thing I don’t like about the whole thing is lying to the potential reader. It’s conceivable that a reader might come along and believe the lie, get sucked into this story and later feel hurt when it becomes obvious that it’s all a lie, the girl is made up and her life is just a novel.

Plus, I have sort of OCD-ish aversion to lying.

Yeah, I’m weirder than you. But you don’t mind, I bet.

Anyway, for now I can tolerate the lie that is my viewpoint character’s web site, simply because I have no readers there to lie to. I’m going to keep it that way by not telling my one reader, you,  (or anyone else outside of my family who think it’s weird that I write fiction in the first place) where that website is.

I recommend that you try what I’m doing, especially the potential lie. assuming you make a new blog site that has no readers. (I think real lies are destroying our culture, but that’s another post.).

You could click on the button that makes your website private (on WordPress software), but if you do, the whole thing might not work for you. Taking away the “potential lie” might take away that strange feeling that you must keep the character’s “writing voice” believable to your “potential readers.” To me, anyway, the fact that a reader could truly show up and believe the whole thing creates a subconscious, but real-time motivation to keep the character sounding real and consistently like herself.

Anyway, since I’ve got no readers on that site, I don’t think it’s a real lie. It’s like Schrodinger’s cat, simultaneously dead and alive.

M. Talmage Moorehead

Update 9/22/14: I later discontinued that version of my novel, then spent a long time writing a new version in 3rd person, past tense. Abandoned that, and now I’m starting over and posting another total re-write on this blog. Here’s a link to page 1 of that ongoing story: Hapa Girl DNA. It’s science fiction set in the present with a ton of fringe non-fiction and many links, some of which blew my mind when I discovered them.

If you’re a new writer, or curious about my take on the so-called “rules,” download my new aging e-book, Writing Meaningful Page-Turners, here. We’re lucky to be among the most influential minds on Earth. The last chapter talks about how to meet a viewpoint character who adds the dimension of joy to your fiction and to your life. For me, it was Johanna Fujiwara, my Hapa Girl protagonist. If you haven’t met someone in your fiction who means a lot to you, there’s an amazing experience waiting for you.

 

 


Cliche Purging, Forget About It

Clichés, like just about any other biological thing, can be placed on a nearly bell-shaped curve. With clichés, there are a few outliers on the left tail that are essential to basic communication, and a few on the right that actually deserve a speck of a writer’s attention.

Some from the left tail we don’t even call clichés: IMG_2260

“In other words…”

“If only I could have…”

“I’m sorry, but…”

“Of course.”

“I love you.”

Here’s a cliché of sorts from the right tail of their bell curve:

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

You probably recognize this from a political speech by FDR. If you use it in a story, your editor (I wish I had one) may balk and write, “cliché” beside it with three exclamation points to grind your limbic system into eternal shame.

FDR’s words are relevant to writers who are afraid of clichés.

I was in high school when I first felt the dark power of cliché purging. I didn’t know what the teacher meant by the word, but pretended to get it because her body language was telling me to feel sheepish, and I didn’t want to add to that by admitting I was an illiterate slug.

Years later, the many books I read on writing fiction stressed the “poisonous” nature of clichés and their power to kill anything living for pages around.

The books needed only to warn me once.

The fear of fear itself  can be strong, but the fear of humiliation is stronger.

One time I literally put my life in danger just to avoid humiliating myself in front of an unseen hunter who had fired his shotgun into the fog at birds that must have been near me. I was too worried about embarrassment to shout, “Don’t shoot!” I didn’t say a word. And now I’m too ashamed to tell you all the details.

Needless to say, some fearful people will kill the flow of their writing to avoid clichés and that peculiar flavor of humiliation.

Forget cliché purging, already. Writing spell-binding stories requires every neuron in your head. If you keep some neurons busy hunting self-consciously for clichés, you’re diminishing the quality of your work. Your focus has to shift back and forth from creativity to self-defense.

The more  you focus on the words, the more you ignore the magic.

Of course, there are those who have read so much fiction that “the story” is no longer where magic lies for them.

My former brother-in-law, a well-read man, used to find a transcendent euphoria in an ethereal quality of the words themselves. Their rhythm, their flow.

It’s not that I can’t relate. I love some of Robert Zimmerman’s (Dylan’s) lyrics for similar reasons (feelings) that I can’t put my fingers on. This passage, for example, is magic to me – from One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)

“and I told you as you clawed out my eyes that I never really meant to do you any harm.”

And this, from Visions of Johanna

“The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face where these visions of Johanna have now taken my place.”

To me, the magic of words is found primarily in poetry, while the magic of a story lies almost entirely in its characters and the grip of the plot on their lives.

I can imagine that a cliché might poison a poem.

I doubt that a cliché could give a sniffle to a page-turning novel. Maybe an army of clichés could.

But I know from personal experience that cliché purging produces a concrete, word-conscious and timid writing session where nothing comes to life.

Be brave.

M. Talmage Moorehead


Description – A Modest Proposal

First, make the reader focus at near objects with minute detail, and also at far-away objects.  This is a type of contrast that gives a 3D image to your work.

Next, remember that some say the only purpose for description is to create a mood or a feeling.

I would suggest that there are two components to this:  first you draw something with the potential to carry the elements of the mood you want to transmit.  Then you do something to transmit it.

Let’s say you want to create a dark place where some sort of nebulous danger awaits.

First you draw a mental picture of the things IMG_0940you want to see.  But to do this well, you might want to brainstorm it by listing a bunch of mood objects, noises, smells and textures that might be found in this sort of place.

You might make one of the objects symbolic of or related to something in the hero’s life…. The hero lost her daughter in a fire she caused by falling asleep while smoking, for instance.  So here in this solitary dark room there is an antique doll, a hundred years old if a day, with cigarette burns on its belly and chest.

You’ve got your list, you pick out the best stuff, make a mental image of the room and start putting the stuff where you want it.

It’s going to be effective if it’s not too wordy, not too long, not too static, and has objects that are interesting in and of themselves (so the reader is not just interested in getting through the boring description).  Example: in the “secret” chamber of the empty jewelry box there’s a tiny gyroscope, a child’s toy from an era where subtlety existed, even for children.

Don’t groan, that’s rude.

Now I’m thinking the next step is to somehow transmit the feelings of this room to the reader.

To do this, I don’t know. But I have some suggestions, at least.

Make the hero’s emotional reactions subtle, less than you hope the reader will have.

Bring the viewpoint character in with his back exposed to something that he and the reader disagree about. Perhaps the hero doesn’t think the object to his right is anything special so he looks away.  But the reader is more concerned about some detail the viewpoint character cavalierly described and dismissed.

Have your hero fixate on one object.  Maybe she stops and back-stories on the object’s history – briefly.  Maybe the object falls from her hands and cracks on the floor.  If so, it was expensive and now she’s worried about having to pay for it. Now you have two worries going on at the same time.  This is like real life!  And two worries amplify each other.  The reader is worried about “what’s behind the door,” and the hero is worried about paying for something she just broke.

That reminds me…  Naah, I’ll write about this later.  But for now, I just want to say that the human mind finds it exhilarating to do two things at the same time.  For instance, most of the best songs have a place where two melodies are going on at the same time – or two melody-like things.  They tend to be simple melodies that are down to a level where the average person and I can keep both melodies going at the same time in our heads even after the song’s over.  The same kind of thing might just apply to writing fiction.  I’m too much of a hack to know, but since I’m infallible and fearless, I’ll write more about it later.

Description is, according to one guru, the place where the magic happens in a story.  I don’t know, it could be.  I tend to write pages of “talking heads” sometimes.  You know, pages where one guy talks to the other and nothing else happens?  Then I go back and it feels like work to put in descriptions of things here and there, just for the sake of making the talking heads seem attached to chairs and whatnot.  I’m not going to be able to write great description while I’m struggling to write decent dialogue.  But, if I can make the process of writing description more interesting, it will be more fun and better for the reader (that theoretical person).

Dude!

M. Talmage Moorehead


“Adverbs are Not Your Friends” Except When They…

8-2010 Coeur d'Alene--Alanna's 011

 

“They moved wordlessly to and from the tables they were waiting.”  Hmm.  Is there a single verb you could use to get that idea across?  They sneaked?  No.

I listened to an excellent tape where Stephen King read his own non-fiction book on writing fiction.  At one point he said, “Adverbs are not your friends.”

Yet fiction writers use them effectively sometimes.  I think I may have an idea worth sharing on this.

An adverb that adds something to the verb other than simple modification seems sometimes indispensable.  Maybe the secret rule is that “adverbs should be avoided except where indispensable.”

An example from “Hunger Games” by Collins is, “[They] move wordlessly to and from the table…”.  When your people walk and you want to modify how they’re walking, the books will tell you not to find an adverb.  They don’t want you to say things like, “They moved quickly down the hall.”  They want you to find a stronger verb that means, “moved quickly.”  Like, “they ran down the hall.”  OK, I’ve got no problem with that.  But…

In Collins’ example above, I learned something from, “moved wordlessly.” I noticed that the adverb adds something to the walking that IS NOT about the act of walking.  This may be the key to using adverbs (as opposed to pretending they don’t exist, which is what I’ve been doing for years).

And, of course, being an unpublished hack writer, I’m always right about these sorts of things.

Let me see if I can think of other examples of this new adverb usage principle…

“She diced the eggs mindlessly.”  That works, maybe.

“She diced the eggs rapidly,” does not work because the adverb doesn’t add a new dimension or a new unrelated thought to the verb, “diced.”  Zat make sense?

I remember reading a novel in which the author listed one adverb after another to such an extent that I thought he might have been mocking the how-to-write dogma books that say to avoid adverbs like plague.  I wish I had that quote now so I could look at it again and see if, perhaps, each adverb added a new unrelated thought to the verb…

Like, “He walked foolishly, unknowingly, wordlessly, and routinely toward the ice cream box in the refrigerator.”  Genuine hack, but you get the point.

I hope my new insight is correct because I get frustrated writing obediently in the straight-jacket of  current dogma and trends.

M. Talmage Moorehead