Sunday, October 5, 2014

What's the "just right" amount of description in fiction?

Writing description is perilous. Write too little and it's as if your characters are wandering around in a void. Write too much and the reader puts the book down and goes online to check the weather. What's a writer to do?

No worries. Here's how to know how much description to use.

Trust your characters.

There you have it. Oh, you want a little elaboration? All right then.  :)

When your character enters a scene what does she see? What are her circumstances? Does she have time to fully look around the room? Is there any reason she would notice anything (or perhaps the complete room) in detail? What's her background? What kind of things would a person of her background notice? What about the difference between what a guy and what a woman would notice?

So an art historian wanders into the Louvre's main gallery fulfilling a lifelong dream. Well, she is going to describe a hell of a lot of stuff. She's blown away. The beauty is overwhelming her senses. And being an art expert she is going to notice the nuances of the paintings, the thicker brushstrokes of the Van Gogh or the flawless perspective of the Vermeer. If you gave a short generic description here, your reader would find it hard to believe and question your character's authenticity.

But a French guy, a motorcycle mechanic by trade, dragged to the Louvre for the umpteenth time by his girlfriend, walks in and looks around. "Same boring paintings everywhere," he says, and he checks his cell phone for the soccer scores.

Or how about the time factor? Our art historian has all day to look over those beautiful paintings. How about a crack addict who's coked out and holding up a 7-11? His eyes are glued to the clerk's and the cash register, the eyes in the back of his head looking at the parking lot to see if anybody's pulling in. What if he were to give an in-depth description of the store? "On the floor next to a refrigerated case filled with twelve-packs of beer there was a "Big Gulp" cardboard poster. The air conditioner was running and just about drowned out the Katy Perry song on the overhead speakers. The air smelled faintly of fresh-brewed coffee and doughnuts." Uh, the reader's thinking, is this guy a normal human being?

Remember that to just describe a single scene setting you could write 100,000 words.

And don't forget to use all the senses in your description. That air might be perfectly room temperature in the Louvre. (The art historian would notice this because she knows the air needs to be that to protect the masterpieces.) The crack addict's hand is so sweaty the door handle slips out of his hand when he gets to the 7-11 and he has to open it again.

The temptation, especially if you're writing fast, is to just use visual writing. And writing fast may be a good way for you to go—get your story down. Then when you go through it again you can add non-visual descriptors.

Just don't forget that too much non-visual description is also a mistake. The majority of your description is going to be visual and that's as it should be because that's the majority of how we take in the world. But if your character is constantly feeling things, or smelling stuff, or hearing things, that's going to come off as inauthentic.

I've heard of writers suggesting things like 'Use two non-visual descriptors each page.' Don't do it. Good writing is organic writing. That writer is going to have to stop twice on every page. That manuscript is going to be stilted as hell (and inauthentic). And you may want to use ten non-visual descriptors on a page if it's called for. Think of a character on their first trip to a farm. The freshly cut hay smell. The apple blossoms. The tilled soil. The manure in the stables.

Trust your gut with the non-visual stuff. Again, what would your character notice? If he's a baker he's going to notice a smell every time he walks into a restaurant. A musician will notice music more. Etc. etc.

Be judicious (and limiting) with your use of adverbs and adjectives. The Chilean poet Vincente Huidobro wrote: "The adjective, when it doesn't give life, kills it."

Ditto for adverbs. And don't forget that adverbs modify verbs. Enhancing your verb will often eliminate the need for the adverb.

"I'll be home soon," Jimmy said angrily and he hung up the phone.


"I'll be home soon," Jimmy said and he slammed down the phone.

If he slammed down the phone we know he spoke angrily, right?

And as with all writing, characters are compelling when they are doing something. Jimmy slamming the phone down has us watching him closely. What's he going to do next? And that is exactly where you want your reader.

The one place you might want to use an adverb is where the character's mood is entirely opposite of what they say.

"I love you," Jimmy said angrily.


"I love you," Jimmy said and he slammed down the phone. (That doesn't quite cut it.)

So it's not hard. Trust your characters to tell you the "just right" amount of description you need. Remember who your characters are. The situation they're in. The time frame. The things they would notice. Keep that as your rule of thumb and you can't go wrong.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

How rich do you want to be?

A millionaire? A billionaire? Bill Gates rich?

Nothing makes people crazy like money. I still have dreams about finding money and those dreams are exhilarating. I always wanted to be rich. Why not? Rich was symbolic of success, of power. It was cool.

How rich was rich enough?

Nothing! Dynasty. Empire. Those were words I liked.

Somehow through the years things changed, the biggest change being that I didn't get rich. Well, at least bank account rich. And along the way my thinking underwent a change too. Mostly in the notion of—just what is rich anyway?

That's more of a metaphysical question than it appears on the surface.

When my nephew was ten he surprised me in that he had questions about life and death and "big things." I told him about the idea of living forever after we die, and he said: "Why can't we live forever here?"

As you can imagine I didn't have an answer for him. But our conversation got me thinking about "big things" too. In that we don't live forever—at least here. And the question that posed itself to me was—if we do live forever after our physical bodies die, is there anything we're taking with us from this life?

The answer seemed apparent to me—we're taking our souls. Our experiences, our memories, our feelings.

Not money or jewels or CDs or stocks.

And that got me re-thinking what it means to be rich.

Jackson Browne has a song called "The Pretender." One of the lyrics goes: "I'm gonna be a happy idiot and struggle for the legal tender."

I decided I didn't want to be that happy idiot. I wanted to focus on what I could take with me. What mattered. What lasts.

And those things were the riches of the soul. To quote another song. Bob Seger sings in "Travelin' Man": "Those are the memories that made me a wealthy soul."

So now I face the same question about being rich but the question has a new meaning.

How rich do I want to be?

The richest. I want my soul to be chock-full of great memories, experiences and feelings.

How rich do you want to be?

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Do we owe God 10%?

Do we owe Him anything? Everything?

Many churches insist that giving God the 10% is mandatory. Tithing. Giving 10% of your income to the church, to be disbursed (or kept) by the church leaders as they see fit.

Of course the church leaders would like you to believe that you're actually giving that 10% to God. I've been in churches where pastors have thundered, 'If you're not tithing, you're ROBBING GOD!' 'Hmm,' I'd think. 'God could use a better security system if somebody like me can rob him.'  One pastor yelled, "That's God's money!" Okay, pal. If you say so.

But this post isn't about tithing per se. It's about the idea of do we owe God? Forget about percentages. Just the general notion—Do we owe God?

I'll admit I used to think we did. Admittedly, growing up I'd heard a lot of things in church about how bad I was, a sinner, and all that, so I suppose it wasn't surprising that I felt I was somehow in God's debt. He created me. He made the earth. Etc. etc. etc.

But through the years my eyes must've been opened wider because the owing God thing seemed to lose its grip on me. Life was hard. It was a struggle to live, to know who I was, to find my way. People I cared about died. I got sick. On and on and on it went and I'd think, "I owe God for this?"

We are born without our knowledge and we die against our will. Seems to me given these circumstances, if anything, God owes us.

The element of choice seems paramount in coming to this conclusion. If God brought us into the world, He owes us.

Perhaps it's not the best analogy, but if I decide to get a puppy and take it into my house, does that puppy owe me? No, I decided I wanted the puppy. I owe him.

And so it is with God and us.

The next logical question would be, 'If God owes us, how much does He owe us?'

I don't know. What do you think?

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Does God play favorites?

It's the classic example. Near the very end of a tie baseball game, the batter praying for a hit, the pitcher praying for a strike-out. Whose prayer does God answer? It seems silly even as I write this. But that sort of stuff happens all the time.

Or what about people groups feeling like they're 'God's people' or 'chosen' or 'elect'? Has God somehow set these people aside for preferential treatment and favor?

Or take a more commonplace example. The person born to wealthy, beautiful, intelligent parents, and who is accordingly set for a life of ease and pleasure.

And then there's the flipside. Someone  born into poverty to dumb parents who perhaps sexually or physically abuse the kid. The kid's maybe fat or has a limp or is ugly.

Is God making those decisions? Is he setting some up for a life of ease and others for a life of suffering?

No one can completely know the answers to these questions, but I think it unlikely that God is pulling all these strings. The way I look at it, he wouldn't be much of a God if he did.

Same goes for the 'chosen' or 'elect.' I'm sure it's comforting to think that way, but what kind of God would show such unmerited favoritism. Again, he wouldn't be much of a God if he did.

We play favorites. God doesn't.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Are believers better than atheists?

I think most people would say believers are better than atheists. There's something comforting about a person who believes in God. It's certainly a must for all presidential candidates. But are believers better people than atheists?

This is where I think most believers would say 'yes' and most atheists would say 'no.' Human nature really. Everyone thinks they're a good person—believer or atheist.

But does believing in God set a person on some kind of higher, better, moral plane? Doesn't believing give them a higher moral authority than atheists since they have the connection with the Divine? And doesn't that Divine connection transform them into better people, if only by osmosis?

Or maybe atheists are better. They see the world for what it is. Eyes wide open. Not following the comforting myths and fairy tales of belief.

Atheists often look at believers as deluded, as people looking to get something for nothing, people with blinders on to the reality of the world.

Believers often see atheists as cold and hard-hearted.

So who's right? Who's better?

To me, there's no easy answer but I know one thing—the most important thing is what people do. Good intentions are fine. A wonderful, perhaps even mystical, connection with God is great. A clear-headed open-minded rationalism is fantastic. But what are those people doing? That's the question.

And you'd be surprised sometimes by who does what.

I've seen "holy" people do some amazingly heartless things, and I've seen atheists do some amazingly caring things. But...I have also seen holy people do some amazingly caring things and atheists do some amazingly heartless things.

So where does that leave us? It leaves us with the truism—people are what people do.

Like the guy who beats his wife. The wife says, "Oh, it's terrible what my husband's doing but I know he really loves me."

No. He doesn't love you. People who love someone don't beat them.

And that logic goes across the board. It applies to everyone.

Want to know what someone's like? Watch not what they say, think, intend, or promise. Watch what they do.

So who's better, believers or atheists?

Neither. Whoever is better is whoever is doing better things.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Is there no hope for an end to the violence?

2014. The world stands at the apex of stunning technological achievement. And yet, the world is more brutal and out of control than ever. Wars are everywhere. Groups hating groups. Impossible hatreds. Revenge leading to counter revenge. The killing never stops and worse yet, it looks like the killing will never stop.

It's scary, yes. It's infuriating. The stupidity of it all. It's deeply saddening that people on this beautiful planet of ours are killing each other when it doesn't need to be.

There is a first step that no one seems willing to take. The step that says, 'You have hurt me or mine and although you deserve payback I will not retaliate.' Not like that's an easy step to take. I do not say it glibly. But that is the step that needs to be taken.

Will it?

I don't think so.

Look at the entire world. Squirrels fight. Monkeys form "armies" just for killing rival tribes. Geese squawking and threatening other geese. The world is violent. The world will continue to be violent.

And yet there's hope nonetheless. Because despite all the violence, there will still be love in the world. Despite all the killing. Despite all the hatred. Despite all the revenge and brutality. Despite all of that, there will be some people who refuse to let their love die. There will be some more radical in their belief in love, than those are radical in their pursuit of hatred.

The power of love will not die. No one can kill it.

Violence, killing and brutality have existed in every generation since man first drew breath. Do not let those who perpetrate it kill your soul. Your love is the one thing they can not touch. It is more powerful than they are and they know it.

So fight to keep your love alive. For love is truly the one thing worth fighting for.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Is God sending the solar storm? (Does He send natural disasters?)

Many people think God sends natural disasters. Most recently it was talked about with hurricane Katrina that struck the New Orleans area with a vengeance. The logic of those who felt the storm was God sent said that the inhabitants of New Orleans and their visitors were being judged for their raunchy, sexually permissive lifestyle. Perhaps the Biblical justification for such thinking would be the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. God didn't like what they were doing there so He wiped them out.

Thankfully, the solar storm is not that devastating, but the question lingers—does God cause natural disasters?

In the Bible again, it says that 'God sends the rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.' (Gospel of Matthew)

Hmm. Pretty ambiguous. And interesting. In this sense rain is referred to as a blessing. Which makes me wonder about when there's too much rain, and it becomes a flood that is a natural disaster. So how does that play out? God wields nature to bless or punish?

That would be my take on the Bible's interpretation.

But I can't see things working out that way in reality. On December 26, 2004, a 9.3 magnitude (the third largest earthquake ever recorded on a seismograph) earthquake rocked the Indian Ocean floor spawning a massive tsunami that killed over 230,000 people, mostly poor villagers and fishermen from third world countries.

So okay, God had a lot against the sleazy people in New Orleans and sent Katrina. Did He have even more against the poor villagers and fisherman of Indonesia and Thailand and other countries devastated by the tsunami?

And if God sent the tsunami, what about the sweep of it? 230,000 people! Were they all bad?

No. God doesn't send natural disasters. That sort of thinking's crazy.

Image used in this blogpost is CC-BY-SA-2.0