Writing Words Fantastical and Otherwise

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Where Ideas Come From

Fairly frequently someone will ask where I get my ideas, and like most authors I am at a bit of a loss for a good answer. However, a couple days ago, an FB writer friend asked for reasons a teenager might be laid up for weeks but not cause long term damage.

Their question question made me think this at first:”Not totally related, but an anecdote about how medical research can be fraught. For story purposes, I wanted to know if a teenager with bone cancer might have to have both legs amputated. I called my doctor, and he immediately went into a diagnostic mode. “What symptoms do you have? When did you start experiencing discomfort? How long have you been ignoring this condition?” It took quite a bit of talking to convince him that I wasn’t sick myself. I’m pretty sure he worried about me for years after.”

Amazon - The Radio Magician and Other Stories: Van Pelt, James:  9780982073025: Books

I added, “I have written three stories with bed-ridden young people: “The Radio Magician,” about a boy with polio in the 30s, also the story about a boy who had his legs amputated because of bone cancer, “Roller Derby Dan'” and the piece I’m working on now with a boy in the 60s who has both legs in external fixators after surgery to correct severe bow leggedness. I think the antecedent to my interest in this trope is Ray Bradbury’s “The Emissary” from THE OCTOBER COUNTRY.”

The FB friend asked why that situation interested me, and I realized I had a partial answer to where I get ideas, at least this idea.”Besides the awesomeness of the Bradbury story, a friend of mine when I was 12 had both legs broken to correct for extreme pigeon toed alignment of his feet. His legs were casted from ankle to hip. He was miserable but suffered gamely. We pushed him in his wheelchair everywhere we went that summer. I’ve often thought since what his experience must have been like. Also, of interest in this situation, H.G. Wells broke his leg when he was eight. He was bedridden while it healed (they were much less into getting patients on their feet at that time). He spent his convalescence reading. He said that’s what made him H.G. Wells. He became devoted to books and writing.”

That’s where the idea came from.

Catching up with Van Pelt News

So here’s what’s happening lately:

  1. The May/June Asimov’s will be out soon with my story, “The Way Lost Cafe.”
  2. Daily Science Fiction published my latest with them, “NPC.”
  3. Analog Science Fiction bought “Party On” from me. It will appear sometime soon.
  4. I will be attending World Fantasy in New Orleans in November.

In the meantime, I continue my 200-word minimum a day writing streak that started in November of 1999. Right now I’m working on a near-future science fiction about a retiring high school English teacher directing her class through Hamlet for the last time.

ASF_MayJun2022_400x570

Practice and Theory of Naming Characters

Most stories start small for me and then accrete, like a pearl in a clam. The story I’m working on now has grown to 8,000 words, and I’m still writing the last scene. My challenge is that it’s a teaching story with a large cast: the teacher, a student teacher, a janitor and twenty-four students. I’m working at portraying a class environment. As the story stands now, I’ve named ten of the twenty-four students (and a couple parents).That’s a lot of balls to keep in the air!

The problem is the impact of those names. At what point would readers toss up their hands and say, “I can’t keep the characters straight,” or would readers realize there are quite a few names, but only the characters who keep popping up rise to importance while the others settle into the background?Either reaction is possible. I believe any writing challenge can be overcome with the right collaboration between a careful writer and competent reader. That’s one of writing’s joys: anything is possible.

As I write the last scene, though, I’m deciding which characters to use. Not all of them will appear, and I realized over the course of the couple weeks I’ve been working on this piece that I’ve lost touch myself of everyone in the story, so I inventoried them. Here’s the list I created with the first page the character appears and then how many times total I mentioned the name:

Ms. Milspaugh pg.1—73 mentions

Andrew Tyndale pg. 1—53 mentions

Jed Rote pg.2—40 mentions

Dove Klein pg. 2—38 mentions

Dennis Cho pg. 12—6 mentions

Cassie-Lasila Arms pg. 13—8 mentions

Paisley Lopez-Sang pg. 14—7 mentions

Len and Amelia Tyndale pg. 14—1 mention

Lisa Fromme pg. 15—1 mention

Toby Gwinn pg. 17—1 mention

Harmony Dlamini pg. 19—5 mentions

Jim John pg. 22—3 mentions

Sharon Hann pg. 23—4 mentions

Ryan Bigelow pg. 24—3 mentions

Hot damn! That’s a big list.

A closer look at number of mentions reveals my cast centers on the top four characters: the teacher who is my protagonist, Ms. Milspaugh, her student teacher, Jed Rote, and two students, Andrew Tyndale and Dove Klein.The rest are supporting cast.

I tried to pick names that reflected different origins to show Ms. Milspaugh’s class, like many real-world classes, comes from diverse backgrounds (my default when I don’t think about it is almost always north-western European). I also didn’t want the names to be visually similar. Different first letters help with this, as do names with different shapes. At first glance, Dennis Cho doesn’t look like Ryan Bigelow, so the eye cues help to differentiate them. I notice I have two names that are hyphenated, which might make them hard to distinguish. I’ll give that more thought.

I did choose a few names from my life. “Milspaugh” was the name of one of my junior high teachers who was memorable. I knew a pair of sisters in high school named “Klein.” One of my sisters is a “Sharon.”“Jed Rote” was chosen because of the meaning of his last name in the same spirit as the naming of Han Solo, Truman Burbank, and Willy Loman.

List of Dickensian characters - Wikipedia

I love how Charles Dickens created characters. Part of his genius was in giving them cool names: Seth Pecksniff, Mrs. Jellyby, Samuel Pickwick, Uriah Heep and many others. I’m not doing cool naming the same way he did in my story, although I do like the names I’ve chosen. A classroom of characters all named the way Dickens named characters would be awesome, though. What I do want to borrow from him, is his really well-done pocket characterizations. He could create a character in just a sentence or two.

Mr. Ayresleigh (Pickwick Papers) “A middle aged man in a very old suit of black, who looked pale and haggard, and paced up and down the room incessantly: stopping now and then to look with great anxiety out of the window as if he expected somebody, and then resuming his walk.”

Miss Barbary (Bleak House) “She was a good, good woman! She went to church three times every Sunday, and to morning prayers on Wednesdays and Fridays, and to lectures whenever there were lectures; and never missed. She was handsome; and if she had ever smiled, would have been (I used to think) like an angel–but she never smiled. She was always grave and strict. She was so very good herself, I thought, that the badness of other people made her frown all her life.”

Ned Beadwood (David Copperfield) “It won’t do to be like long Ned Beadwood, when they took him to church “to marry him to somebody”, as he says, and left the bride behind. Ha! ha! ha! A wicked rascal, Ned, but droll!”

Here’s a quick dive into Dickens’ characterizations and also a revelation in how many characters he created.

At any rate, this longish post came from me pausing to create the list of characters in my current project and got me thinking about names and characters. I’m not looking for advice about this ill-advised story problem I’ve written myself into. Writing into story problems is half the fun of creating fiction.

Training Critique Partners


I belonged to writing groups for many years when I started writing for real. Luckily, the groups contained a few skilled writers who were sensitive, insightful readers, who also wanted my work to succeed (they also contained folks who occasionally were helpful, and one or two who I learned weren’t useful in the least).


But I haven’t been in a group for years. I depend on willing friends who don’t have writing or workshop backgrounds. They want to help, but they might not know where to start or what I need to hear. I can get useful reactions to the story if I suggest these responses:


First, did the story work for you? I want to know if the reader liked the story. What did you like? This is a broad, global type of question. If the story doesn’t work for the reader for whatever reason, that will give me pause as a writer. It could mean I chose the wrong reader for the piece. I need more feedback.


Second, did the story provoke anything for you? Did it leave you thoughtful or change your mood? Did you feel moved by it and what did that?


Third, what did you like most? What caught your eye? Were there specific moments, scenes, lines, and/or wordings that tickled you?


Fourth, did you not understand anything or feel confused by it. Where were those specific moments, scenes, lines, and/or wordings that tripped you up?
Next, did the story drag in places?


Was there any place in the story that felt rushed or you really wanted to know more about?


What did you think about the characters?


Any other thoughts? This might be the place where an analytic reader might say what they thought the story was about, or what they thought they were supposed to get out of it. You never know what might come out of this question, but I listen carefully to those random observations.


Oh, and by the way, did you run across obvious typos or miswordings? I don’t expect my first readers to proofread for me, but if they see something, I appreciate hearing about it.


You might notice that I don’t ask my reader for suggestions on how to improve the story. I don’t know who it was that said, “Anything a reader notices is a flaw probably is right. Anyway, a reader suggests how to change it is probably wrong,” but in general that strikes me as true. A reader might see a problem with a paragraph, and then suggest a way to improve it, but you realize the fault actually was in how the paragraph was set up. You have to rewrite something pages earlier to make the “flawed” section work. Also, I’ve had readers go to town at length about something in a story and then go through gyrations to suggest how to fix it. All I did was delete it. Problem solved.


The point of all this is that a reader who just says, “I thought it was cool. Thanks for sharing,” might be affirming, but they’re not helpful. When I share a draft, I’m hoping for meaningful feedback that will give me an outsider perspective on the story. The longer I can get them to talk about the story, and the more different ways they approach the story, the better.


Here’s an example. My wife is not a writer, but she’s a reader and she’s been living with a writer for a long time. She read my latest piece and asked a basic question: Why did I have two policemen in the opening scene who I identified as the “man officer” and the “woman officer.” Later in the scene, I shortened it to “the man” and “the woman.” My wife said she stumbled when she read that. Why didn’t they have names?


I did the tiniest rewrite of the scene, giving them names, and it was way better.

An Occasional News Post

I have been spending much of my online time in two venues. The first is Curious Fictions where I try to post a story a week, generally on Wednesdays. The site contains a ton of free fiction. Readers can also subscribe to writers they like or give them tips.

Of course, I like tips. You can also follow writers who you want so when they post new stuff, you are notified. There’s a place to “like” stories or to comment on them. My latest contribution is “The Small Astral Object Genius,” which appeared the first time in Asimov’s.

I also have been posting short fiction reviews at Black Gate. Those also appear every two or three weeks and are free to read. The column is called “Stories that Work.” My mission is to comment on stories that I think are successful and what recommends them. I’m not searching for a “best of” necessarily, nor am I reviewing the stories I don’t think work. Here’s my latest for Black Gate.

Of course, I also hang out at Face Book regularly.

Keep safe! Social distance responsibly.

How to Improve as a Writer

I finished my two-day class called “Creative Writing for Teachers who would Like to Write” yesterday. I think it went well. I sent them this letter to the teachers today to give them some suggestions for what they can do for themselves as writers on their own (besides reading, reading, reading and writing, writing, writing).

Hi, all,

We talked a little about outside resources for writers that can help you on your journey, so I thought I could send you some specifics.

The first is writing workshops or writing retreats and conferences. A workshop would be where you meet up with other writers to share and critique each others work. A retreat is sort of like a writer’s vacation where you go to write in the company of other writers. A conference is more educational in its nature where there will be presentations during the day related to writing and/or publishing, but, depending on the conference, there can be opportunities for a professional critique of your manuscript or a chance to pitch a project to an editor.

I go to the Rainforest Writers Retreat in Washington each year. It’s easily the best five days of writing I get. It sells out quickly, but there are many other writing retreats all over the country. I also attend two or three conferences a year. Because I write science fiction, fantasy and horror, I go to conferences that focus on those genres. In the last year, I attended the World Science Fiction Convention that was in Kansas City, and MileHiCon in Denver. I will go to the World Fantasy Convention in San Antonio in early November.

I don’t think I can encourage you to look into attending a retreat, workshop or conference more strongly. It would be something you are doing to both acknowledge and feed your commitment to yourself as a writer.

You might also consider looking for or forming your own writers’ critique group. You can see guidelines here: http://writersrelief.com/blog/2014/09/start-writers-group-set-success/

Retreats and Conferences:

A list of well-respected writing retreats around the world: https://thewritelife.com/writing-retreats/

Colorado writing retreats and conferences: http://writing.shawguides.com/Tag/colorado

Writing Organizations:

Another way you can help yourself is to join a writing organization. The Grand Junction area has two that I can recommend. The Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers (http://rmfw.org/) and the Western Colorado Writers Forum (http://westerncoloradowriters.org/index.html). Both organize events for writers, including presentations, contests, critique groups, etc.

There are also national writing organizations that might interest you (http://writersrelief.com/writers-associations-organizations/)

If you are interested in writing for publication and are looking for markets for your work, one of the best resources is at https://duotrope.com/. They describe themselves this way: “Duotrope is a subscription-based service for writers and artists that offers an extensive, searchable database of current fiction, poetry, nonfiction, and visual art markets, a calendar of upcoming deadlines, a personal submissions tracker, and useful statistics compiled from the millions of data points we’ve gathered on the publishers we list. We have been honored as one of Writer’s Digest 101 Best Websites for Writers. Also, Preditors & Editors selected us for their Truly Useful Site Award.”

I hope this helps. Have a good summer and may all your words flow easily.

Best,

Jim Van Pelt

Imagery Carries the Weight

WHY I LIKE A WELL-WRITTEN SONG LYRIC: When I teach Creative Writing (actually, almost all writing), I often preach the primacy of image. Most kids don’t get it. They want to talk about abstractions with abstractions. Every sentence they build contains a linking verb in its weak heart. Their utterances are vague and pallid and sickly. When I show them the good stuff, they don’t see it.

Bruce Springsteen brought these thoughts up today. Look at how imagery carries this song, one of my favorite pop pieces. Start the video and read along. He gets a ton of mileage from bicycle spokes, a rubber ball, the various lights and a bit of dialogue.

GIRLS IN THEIR SUMMER CLOTHES

Well, the streetlights shine down on Blessing Avenue
Lovers they walk by, holding hands two by two
A breeze crosses the porch, bicycle spokes spin ’round
My jackets on, I’m out the door
And tonight I’m gonna burn this town down

The girls in their summer clothes
In the cool of the evening light
The girls in their summer clothes, pass me by

A kids rubber ball smacks
Off the gutter ‘neath the lamp light
Big bank clock chimes
Off go the sleepy front porch lights
Downtown the stores alight as the evening’s underway
Things been a little tight
But I know they’re gonna turn my way

And the girls in their summer clothes
In the cool of the evening light
The girls in their summer clothes, pass me by

Frankie’s diner, an old friend on the edge of town
The neon sign spinning round
Like a cross over the lost and found
The fluorescent lights flick over Pop’s Grill
Shaniqua brings the coffee and asks “Fill?” and says “Penny for your thoughts now my boy, Bill”

She went away, she cut me like a knife
Hello beautiful thing, maybe you could save my life
In just a glance, down here on magic street
Loves a fool’s dance
And I ain’t got much sense, but I still got my feet

The girls in their summer clothes
In the cool of the evening light
The girls in their summer clothes, pass me by

The girls in their summer clothes
In the cool of the evening light
The girls in their summer clothes, pass me by

Sunday Writing: Creating Believable High School Characters

86

The FMHS class of 1986 held their 30th reunion this weekend.  That’s my wife’s graduating class.  We perused the photos and videos that the class posted on their FB website.  The don’t look that old.  I can still see the teenagers in them.

Almost ten years ago, I wrote this article about characterization using the high school classes I was teaching as my examples.  Since I’ll be starting a new school year in another month, I think I’ll do the exercise again.  Has anything changed that I can notice?  How different are they from the class of ’86?


Creating characters must be hard because I read so many unconvincing, thin or cliched characters in fiction.  How high school characters are portrayed often bothers me because so many people default to a handful of stereotypes.  Since I teach high school and really, really, really respect high schoolers as people, it’s particularly upsetting to see them boiled down into predetermined niches.

We administered the ACT test to all of our juniors today.  I proctored for two hours, which involved walking back and forth among the desks for the whole time, I took notes on what I saw.

If you’re interested, here’s raw data from Fruita Monument High School in western Colorado, a predominantly white student body that draws about 2/3 of the kids from upper-middle class suburban neighborhoods and 1/3 from rural ranches and farms.  We have 1,200 students in three grades.

Twenty-one students took the test in the room I proctored, 17 girls and 4 boys, an imbalance caused by the randomness of assigning kids to rooms alphabetically.

–   14 carried cell phones (they couldn’t have cell phones on them during the test, so we had to collect them.  Some of the kids remembered this and didn’t bring a cell phone–clearly I have to buy a cell phone for my 11th grade son!)
–   3 wore hats
–   1 wore a school sweatshirt
–   1 wore a university sweatshirt
–   1 wore a Tigger sweatshirt
–   9 sweatshirts total–none of them were dressed in a style we normally call “preppy”
–   2 Hispanic students, no Black or Asian ones
–   1 facial piercing (a small diamond stud on the side of a nose)
–   2 unnatural hair colors
–   2 wore glasses (lots of contacts?)
–   1 male with an earring
–   6 females with hair below their shoulder blades
–   4 in shorts.  The rest in long pants, mostly jeans.  It’s been a cold spring.

They were all cooperative, quiet and industrious.  Once again, the luck of the draw.  I taught a sophomore class here a couple of years ago that was phenomenally bad.  I took three of the worst out to work on a paper with them alone while my student teacher tried to handle the rest.  The three I had were supposed to be working on a paper about influential people in their lives.  They all wanted to write about their probation officers.

The teacher who teaches in the room I was proctoring in today had the kids do an “I” poster for an assignment.  The kids are supposed to make a collage of who they are.  It reminded me a little of the writing assignment in The Breakfast Club, where the kids who were serving a Saturday detention were supposed to do an essay on who they thought they were.  I broke the posters down into categories:

–   2 pictured guns, one in a hunting context, and the other in a redneck context (to use a stereotype; the poster was hunting rifles and pickups)
–   4 agriculturally centered (livestock, John Deere machinery, etc.)
–   6 sports
–   10 fashion
–   7 music
–   1 overtly religious
–   5 travel
–   6 hunting
–   3 environmental
–   1 sort of disturbing one, that included the phrase, “Every killer lives next door to someone”

So, where am I going with this?  First, when a writer wants to write about high school, he/she has to decide first which high school.  FMHS is like the proverbial elephant being described by a bunch of blind men.  Who your character is determines the high school in the story.  For some individuals, high school is scary.  For others it is fun.  For many, they don’t have much of an opinion about it one way or another.

Here’s something to think about: the very best high schools in America have some kids who are deeply disturbed, lost to drugs, victims (or dealers) of violence, potential psychopaths or profoundly unhappy.  The very worst high schools in America have some kids who are academically excellent, love their classes, are kind to their friends, have good relationships with their parents, and are moving forward into fulfilling and happy lives.

I guess what I’m arguing against here is simplification and stereotypes.  High school students are not simplified versions of adults.  They are not driven by only a single motivation (any more than some adults are driven by a single motivation).  They are complicated, contradictory, fully faceted human beings, capable of cruelty, tenderness, cowardice, bravery and every other emotion you can think of.  They can be clear visioned or confused (sometimes several times in the same day, just like you or me).  Their hurts and their passions are as deep and profound to them as they are to people in their thirties.

If you want to be honest in your portrayal of them, keep in mind that every individual is . . . well . . . individual.

Sunday Writing: Practice and Theory of First Sentences

beginningIn May I wrote about story beginnings, but that’s a bigger topic than what I wanted to focus on today: the first sentence.

I’ve been working on a unified field theory for fiction, which is an impossible task. In every way the impossibility is clear when I take on the theory and practice of first sentences. A first sentence has so many possibilities! It’s supposed to hook the reader, of course (or at least not drive the reader away), but it also can introduce one or more of the following: conflict, character, setting, background, or action. It can start the story in the middle, in media res, or it can start at the end, the beginning, or way before the beginning. In a flashback story, the first sentence could start way after the end.

For me, the first sentence has to do three things: hook the reader, set the tone, and set up the end. Here’s one of my own favorite first sentences.  It’s from “Shark Attack: a Love Story”

“Willard was day dreaming about Elsa when the shark caught Benford, the new mail boy, directly in front of Willard’s desk.”
I liked this one because I got the two most important elements in the story within it: Willard’s attraction to Elsa, and the problem with the sharks. It seems like a good hook to me, it went a long way toward establishing the story’s tone, and it connected to the end, since the resolution of the story deals with both the sharks and Elsa.

But the problem with beginning sentences is that there’s an infinite number of ways to start!  Consider a story like a chess game.  In chess there are 20 possible opening moves, each one affecting how the game may go.  In a story, though, there are as many opening moves as there are words in the dictionary (isn’t it sad, then, how many stories start with “the”).

So, since there are so many ways to start, and any one of them could be the first sentence to a successful story, what should be considered when evaluating the sentence?

When I’m teaching story writing, I’ll often have the students put their draft’s first sentence on the board.  I’ll have them do two things: they have to identify what approach the sentence took (conflict, character, setting, background, or action), and then decide which sentence made them want to read more the most.  All the exercise really does is make them aware that their first sentence is a choice.  I’m constantly amazed by inexperienced writers’ inabilty to see the malleability of their own writing.  It’s like they are trapped by their styles!

I end up giving students three pieces of advice about first sentences (and that’s all I’ve got for them–there’s too much involved for me to go beyond these suggestions):

  • Remember that you can change your first sentence.
  • Make sure that the beginning sentence sets up the end of the story in some way.
  • Don’t worry about the first sentence when you are writing the rough draft.  Way too much agony can be generated while staring at a blank page, waiting for the perfect first sentence.

Here’s some first sentences I liked from literature.  I’m not sure, though, if these are great sentences on their own, or they’re great because they are the first puzzle piece in the intricate construction of a story I really like.  I have this same problem when I discuss the practice and theory of story titles.  Is the title great on its own, or is it great because the story that followed it made it great?

  • “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”  Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
  • “During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country; and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher.”  Edgar Allan Poe, “Fall of the House of Usher”
  • “There were fireworks the first night, things that you should be afraid of perhaps, for they might remind you of other more horrible things, but these were beautiful, rockets that ascended into the ancient soft air of Mexico and shook the stars apart in blue and white fragments.”  Ray Bradbury, “The Fox and the Forest”
  • “After the guy was dead and the smell of his burning flesh was off the air, we all went back down to the beach.”  Stephen King, “Night Surf.”
  • “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”  George Orwell, 1984

I see that three of these sentences begin with a pronoun and a linking verb, a style I discourage in class, and, yet, there they are, in my list of good opening sentences.  I guess that confirms another truism of mine, there are no unbreakable rules (if it works).

Maybe the problem with first sentences is that we put WAY too much emphasis on them.  They are too small of a piece of the puzzle that is the story to make or break it.  Maybe a better entry for today would have been about first paragraphs or first pages, but, well, I wrote this instead *g*.

Resources for first sentences:

The Write Club: First Sentences
100 Best First Lines from Novels

Thoughts on first sentences?  How do you know you’ve written a good one?  Does your first draft first sentence make it to the final draft?  How do you evaluate your opening sentence?

Sunday Writing: Making the Abstract Concrete

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

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

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

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

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

MAKING THE ABSTRACT CONCRETE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Today’s Writing Prompt

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

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

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