There is no answer. No right answer anyway.
I think lots of people are out and about Googling away and reading blogs and, a lot of the time, they’re looking for an answer. The answer. The right way to do something.
While the internet and all the experts it contains can give you lots of answers – it cannot offer you THE answer that’s right for you - at least not with regards to things like writing and philosophy and generally running your life (and not parenting; especially not parenting). I totally give you that the internet may be able to give you the definitive answer about how to get a red wine stain out of your white tablecloth – or then again, maybe not because some people swear by a name brand you buy in a store while others recommend you mix two parts baking soda with some vinegar and add eye of newt and the spit of an ailing bullfrog.
At any rate, in my writing world I’m often conscious of the “rules”, the “rights and wrongs”, the “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts”. Here are some examples:
Example A: Resume clients will often tell me they’ve heard a resume should only EVER (on pain of death) be one page. Or, someone else has been told, also on pain of death, it can only ever be two pages. Or, someone has heard keeping it short is so old school and you should always make it at least five pages just to show you’re non-conformist. So what’s the answer? The answer – or at least how I work – is I write the resume as best I can and see how long it is. It almost always ends up being two or three pages which, I believe, is quite reasonable. However, I always tell my clients, if the job posting asks for a one-page resume, you’d better cut your resume down to one page and if it wants 10, you’d better do some padding. There is no one right answer. I tell my clients the only people they should be suspicious of are those who tell them there is only one answer.
Example B: In dealings I had recently with another writer, I was told I “should” have an online portfolio. Now, since I already know I should be making my yogourt from scratch and I should iron my t-shirts and I should drink less Diet Coke, the idea of having to find time to create an online portfolio was kind of freaking me out. And then I thought harder about it and realized because this particular writer is very much an online creature with social media being the main focus of their work, yes, certainly that writer definitely should have an online portfolio. Me? I’m not so sure. I’m certainly not convinced enough to take the time needed from revising my manuscript to build said portfolio. Maybe when my kids are in university and I am a successfully published author and, in theory, I have more time. But by then I probably won’t need to promote myself anyway right?
Example C: Writing in general. I break rules all the time. I just did with my “writing in general” sentence. That’s not a sentence is it? Word definitely doesn’t like me when I use sentence fragments and spell things with Canadian spelling and write long, fun, rambly run-on sentences. The rules! The rules! screams Word in red and green, with its little lines of code all wrung up from the confusion and tangle of dealing with rulebreakers like me. But if we all followed the rules exactly, all of our writing would sound quite, well, similar. Some would probably be better for it and some much worse and - I bet you anything - no two people would agree on which was better and which worse. Because reading, like writing is subjective.
Now, don’t get me wrong, even though I love my sons and think they are brilliant writers, when they write Mother’s Day cards telling me they love their mother because “elle don mwah des clashions” (aka “elle donne moi des collations”, aka “she gives me snacks”), I do realize they still need to learn a few writing rules. I believe firmly in learning the basics, walking before you run, learning the rules before you break them (Mary Kole has a great post on this).
I guess what I’m trying to say is, yes, there are rules which have developed for good reasons. But this world – the writing world, the world of relationships, the world of etiquette and so on – this big world we live in is full of shades of grey so I think you should seek out resources, gather advice, weigh it seriously and then follow your heart. Because maybe the critique partner who tells you she dislikes your run-on sentences just simply doesn’t understand them. Maybe her critique partner is always warning her about her fragments.
I’m not saying ignore advice – especially not if the same advice comes from many different corners – but I am saying, in the end, it’s up to you how you write.
Then again, having said that, it’s up to other people whether you get published but that’s another discussion for another day…Filed under From Tudor, Inspiration, Language & Usage, On Life, Organizing our Writing Lives, The Writer's Path, Tips on technique | Comments Off
I know I said I might make this week’s post about alliteration but then I realized in last week’s glosa post I talked about stanzas without exploring what they actually are.
Most of us prose writers probably know stanzas as the paragraphs – or maybe even the scenes or chapters – of the poetry world. I’d actually be interested on the feedback of any poets out there as to what stanzas mean to you; are they paragrahpy or chaptery or does it depend on the poem?
At any rate, according to M.H. Abrams’ A Glossary of Literary Terms (of which there should be a dusty copy on the bookshelf of every English Lit major), stanza is the Italian for “stopping place”.
Mr. Abrams goes on to say many interesting things about stanzas but, for the purposes of this post, I’m going to stick to the different types of stanza. Here we go:
1) First you’ve got your couplet - two rhyming lines equal in length. Easy right? However there can also be octosyllabic couplets (lines of eight syllables) and iambic pentameter lines that rhyme in pairs are decasyllabic or heroic couplets (ten syllables). Abrams points to Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” as a good example of the use of octosyllabic couplets.
2) Tercets, or triplets have – surprise, surprise – three lines, usually with one rhyme. The lines can be the same, or differing, lengths. A type of (very difficult, if you ask me) tercet is terza rima in which tercets are joined one to the following using a pattern such as aba, bcb, cdc, etc.
3) Now for the quatrain (four-line stanza, of course) which, apparently, is the most common. When written in rhyming iambic pentameter, this type of stanza is called an heroic quatrain.
4) Stanzas of other lengths include a seven-line iambic pentameter stanza called rime royal, the eight-lined ottava rima and the longer, and more complicated, spenserian stanza which is nine lines long with the first eight in iambic pentameter and the ninth in iambic hexameter.
This is by no means a complete list of types of stanzas, however, I’m exhausted just thinking about all these different types. I have a particular admiration for poets who devote themselves to not only writing creatively and beautifully but to following all these rules…
I don’t think there’s any escaping Iambic Pentameter as next week’s post do you?Filed under From Tudor, Language & Usage, Poetry, Tips on technique | Comments Off
I was waiting to see how it all went, but now I can tell you I found out in March that I was a finalist in the National Capital Writing Contest, and the Awards Ceremony was May 10, and I went and received an honourable mention, and it was a very lovely evening.
My younger son turned to me the next morning and asked “Did you win?” and I said “No,” and he said “I knew you wouldn’t.” Hmm – it would have been nice if he had told me and I might not have worried so much about my hair.
Although, every single finalist was called up on stage and we all received very nice certificates and had the judge’s comments about our work read out loud, so I guess it was good I fixed my hair (which my older son had warned me earlier “didn’t look very good” – I suppose we’re honest in our family).
My husband kept emphasizing it was an honour just to be recognized and it 100 per cent, truly was. Except, you see, it felt like a bit more of an honour when we were all in it together; a small group of people all chosen from the greater pool of entries. Once some won and some didn’t the honour of being recognized dulled just a tiny bit.
I want to emphasize, however, that I am not complaining and I wouldn’t hand in my (very beautiful) Honourable Mention certificate for any reason and, as a bonus, an anthology has been created - a real live book anthology with an ISBN and a price and everything and my story is in it, along with the stories of all the other finalists and so, I suppose I have now had my second piece of fiction officially published, and in a book which I now own (or, more precisely my husband owns as he insisted on paying for it) and so, all in all a great experience.
And that, by the way, is where I learned about a glosa because the first prize winner in the poetry category had written a glosa and it was beautiful.
I have had many thoughts about this evening and stemming from the evening and, like the glosa post, no doubt many more posts will be spawned as a result.
I would say, based on this alone, the Year of the Contest has been a success and so I urge you to think of what you really want to do, make a plan and do it because you never know what may come of it.Filed under Contests, Markets & Events, From Tudor, On Life, Organizing our Writing Lives, Tips on technique | Comments (3)
I like the subject Peggy’s been pursuing lately of overkill. It’s a great question – how much is too much?
And now for my great and oh-so-wise assessment…there is no answer. Sorry. Like so many things in writing there’ s no “yes” or “no”. No black and white. One person’s “too much” is another’s “not enough”.
I, personally, often have trouble reading books or watching movies that have been really well-reviewed, hyped and much-loved by many people (I hesitate to put names / titles here just because they are so well-loved). To me, many of these stories do a little too much “hitting over the head with a hammer” for my liking. I sometimes feel offended that the writers feel the need to not only show me something, but also tell me, then take me by the hand and lead me over to it. It’s how you might train a puppy but it doesn’t work for me.
However, that’s just my taste. I suspect sometimes I’m guilty of the opposite in my own writing. Not wanting to hit anyone over the head with my own hammer I might not foreshadow enough. Might not put in a scene which, to me (because after all I’m living with these characters every minute of every day), seems too obvious but which readers might really hunger for.
So, this question of how much – and how often – to tell something is personal but obviously there is a general range that works, otherwise we wouldn’t have breakout stories. I guess I would say, just make sure you think about it. Asking yourself “does this need more” or “have I already done this to death?” is a great first step to achieving the right balance.
And, finally, I have another (in my opinion) great example of less being more in terms of language use. This is one most of you will know:
Jerry: Hello? Hello.
I’m lookin’ for my wife.
If this is where it has to happen, then this is where it has to happen.
I’m not letting you get rid of me. How about that?
This used to be my specialty. You know, I was good in a living room. They’d send me in there, and I’d do it alone. And now I just…
But tonight, our little project, our company had a very big night – a very, very big night.
But it wasn’t complete, wasn’t nearly close to being in the same vicinity as complete, because I couldn’t share it with you. I couldn’t hear your voice or laugh about it with you. I miss my – I miss my wife.
We live in a cynical world, a cynical world, and we work in a business of tough competitors.
I love you. You – complete me.
And I just had…
Dorothy: Shut up. Just shut up.
You had me at hello.
You had me at hello.
Not only is Dorothy right that he had her at hell0 (I think he had most of the audience at hello) but also, isn’t it interesting that, out of that whole long speech, all most of us remember is “You complete me”? ‘Nuff said…
(By the way, for anyone who slept through 1996 – can you believe it was 15 years ago? – the speech is from Jerry Maguire)
Filed under From Tudor, Language & Usage, Quotations, Tips on technique | Comment (1)
Last week at this time I referred to a line in Great Expectations that reminded me of the wise writing adage “one plus one equals a half.”
This week my reading gave me another gift: an example of exactly what William Stein meant by the expression.
For years I’ve seen Augusten Burroughs books on the shelf and paid them little heed. But having heard many good things about them, I bought his memoir Dry at a library book sale. I loved the story and the exquisite details he used to tell it. So I ran out and found his first memoir, Running with Scissors.
It’s also an amazing read, but not quite as polished as Dry (though it feels cheeky to say so, given it was on the New York Times bestseller list for four consecutive years).
I didn’t approach it as a critical reader, but as someone happy to be carried away by the narrative. All the same, a paragraph on page six leapt out at me – the aforementioned “1+1= 1/2″ example.
“My mother is from Cairo, Georgia,” he writes. “This makes everything she says sound like it went through a curling iron.” Isn’t that a wonderful image? It immediately made my toes tingle.
But then he continues: “Other people sound flat to my ear; their words just hang in the air. But when my mother says something, the ends curl.”
To me, this over-exposition deflated the power of his initial statement. We get it already! I wanted to shout into the book.
You want to leave your readers with the tingly toes, not the exasperated sigh. “Leave them wanting more” doesn’t just apply to show biz, but the world between the covers as well.Filed under From Peggy, Language & Usage, Memoir, On Books, Tips on technique | Comments Off
I’m one of those people who can’t quite bring herself to shell out big bucks, or even medium bucks, for an e-book. While there may be some titles that I don’t mind owning in digital form, I still want the vast majority of my books to be tangible, caress-able, and lend-able.
So I’m using my new iPad (thank you, family!) to catch up on public domain classics that I’ve always meant to read or re-read. Right now I’m enjoying Great Expectations and constantly marvelling at the freshness of Dickens’ imagery and humour and human understanding.
A few days ago I came across one of my favourite pieces of writing advice, nestled in a conversation between Pip and his kind brother-in-law Joe. In response to a statement made by Joe, narrator Pip says “Joe felt, as I did, that he had made a point there, and he pulled hard at his pipe to keep himself from weakening it by repetition.”
Years ago, I first read this sentiment in Stein on Writing, in which William Stein insists that “one plus one equals a half.” He’s right. Sometimes we don’t trust ourselves to adequately convey a nuance in our story, or we don’t trust our readers to ‘get it.’ So we hammer the point home with a further explanation or expansion… and suddenly, what was once a tantalizing or delicate or artful reference becomes plodding and tedious. The power of your original statement or allusion deflates like a tired balloon.
You can catch these overstatements with a careful re-read, or, even better, through reading aloud to yourself or a trusted listener. If you feel a paragraph start to bog or sag, check it for unnecessary repetitions. If you’ve already said “Mo looked like he’d dressed himself in whatever clothes might have been poking their limbs out of his laundry hamper that morning,” leave it at that and don’t follow up with “He didn’t care much for his appearance.” We get it!
Thanks, Pip, for the reminder. We may not be able to ‘pull hard at our pipe’ to keep from repeating ourselves, but we’ll do our best anyway!Filed under From Peggy, Language & Usage, On Books, Tips and Tricks, Tips on technique | Comments (2)
Happy New Year!
I recently told Peggy I’m not into resolutions but I do believe strongly in refocusing. I’m thinking a great source of focus will be to have a writing “workshop” we work on together with a new theme for each month.
I’m not pretending I know exactly how this is going to work out but I think interesting things can come from trying this. First, as I’ve said before, creativity begets creativity, writing begets more writing and you never know what will turn out to be the basis for a new writing project.
Also, I want to try to address topics that come up quite a bit in writing. So, as you can see above, January is going to be about weather. I think it’s fair to say weather is going to come up in a fairly large percentage of writing projects we all might tackle. That’s why it’s probably useful to flex our muscles a bit and think about effective ways to include, describe and just generally handle weather in our writing (especially as Canadians).
One thing to keep in mind during this whole exercise is that originality is great and it’s lovely to find a nice, new way of describing something (like the weather) that’s been done to death. Clearly “it was a dark and stormy night” isn’t going to knock anyone’s socks off. So, yes, be original.
However, please don’t be too original. Don’t be different just for different’s sake. Don’t invent some new and twisted way of describing the weather that, in the end, only you can understand. A simple way of saying this is DON’T BE TOO CLEVER (Mary Kole has a great post touching on too-clever writing on her Kidlit blog). Sometimes the weather is just the weather. Just part of the background. Sometimes it’s OK to describe it simply and clearly.
OK, so on to this week’s assignment. What’s it like outside where you are right now? Briefly (one or two paragraphs) describe the weather to somebody who will totally get it. Somebody who lives or has lived where you do – a familiar reader. Now, describe the same weather to an “alien” reader. It’s winter here in Canada so imagine describing what you see outside your window to somebody who has always lived in a tropical climate.
I’m interested to see how these two descriptions of the same weather turn out. If you participate, and you feel comfortable doing so, please go ahead and post your paragraphs as a comment. If that’s too public, please feel free to e-mail them to me at email@example.com.
Here’s my weather photograph taken earlier today in Gatineau Park, QC:
Filed under From Tudor, Inspiration, Language & Usage, Tips and Tricks, Tips on technique, Writing Exercises | Comments Off
I finally succumbed to the ubiquitous, in-your-face product displays at Indigo and purchased The Book of Awesome by Neil Pasricha. And I’m glad I did – mostly because it’s given me a super tool to bring to writing workshops.
The book was written by a down-on-his-luck fellow who brought joy back into his life by paying attention to those small, wonderful moments that make us smile. He started a list of them on a blog and it hit a chord with millions of readers, and then of course came the book deal.
As you’ll see on his site, the moments he captures are, truly, awesome. Recent ones include “when someone returns your book and they’ve actually read it” and “when you get in the car and notice someone’s filled up the tank.”
The book is full of more little happinesses, like those times “when you get an eyelash out of your eye” or get “the thank-you wave when you let someone merge in front of you.” They really are great.
But the reason I bring the book to writers’ workshops is to illustrate the danger of over-explaining things in your writing. Each of Pasricha’s ‘awesome things’ is followed by his explanation/analysis of the pleasure – text that can run from a paragraph to two pages in length. And the effect, for me at least, is to dilute the power of his original idea.
When you’ve found the perfect detail or descriptor in your writing, let it speak for itself. Attempts to make sure the reader ‘gets it’ saps its initial impact. As publisher Sol Stein put it “one plus one equals a half.”
Comedian Sarah Silverman puts it another way. As quoted by Shinan Govani in the June 23rd National Post, she made a reference at a Nantucket comedy festival to a “hat on a hat.” As Govani explained that’s “a joke that ruins a joke by adding an extra bit of comedy when the joke, as it happens, is simple and clear.”
However you want to phrase it, it’s a lesson worth remembering.
Bonus tip: If you’re looking for a party game for your writers’ group – and who isn’t – try this one: Ask people to write down their top three or four ‘awesome things’ but to keep them anonymous. The group leader reads out the list, and a prize goes to whoever can identify which writer belongs to which list. It’s illuminating! A variation, of course, would be to include two or three anti-awesome things, too, like those times you realize it’s garbage day just as the truck thunders by your house…Filed under From Peggy, In the News, Language & Usage, On Books, Sites We Like, Tips on technique, Writing Exercises | Comments Off
Tudor: It’s about time to talk about it. Like so many other topics we’ve addressed on this blog, revision can be painful yet is undeniably necessary (I revised that last sentence three times before I even finished typing it).
Here’s how I see the writing / revision process:
(1) Throwing it down. This is just what it sounds like. Getting down all your ideas and thoughts into a first draft. Sometimes this will be too long; sometimes not long enough. Mine often have little notes scattered throughout, as in “look this up later” or “move this earlier” – and it’s precisely the existence of those little notes that show I’m inevitably heading towards revision.
(2) Taking a break. This could be overnight or for a month. For me the longer the piece, the longer the break. You might put it in a drawer to look at later with fresh eyes or you might send it to someone else to read with their fresh eyes (this is when I call Peggy!). Either way, believe me; this period of doing nothing is one of the most important steps in the revision process.
(3) Rewriting. Hard slog. Possibly more difficult than the first step. This is equivalent to the post-honeymoon period of marriage where you have no thoughts of not making it work but you realize it is work.
(4) Repeat steps (2) and (3) as many times as necessary. In theory each time is less drastic (the possibility of a wholesale re-write at this stage in a project is probably one which deserves its own post). I usually know I’ve finished this part of the revision process when I start tinkering; changing words just for the sake of it. Wondering if a character should “laugh” outright or simply “grin”. When I start doing that I realize there’s not much more I can do by myself and it’s time to let the intended audience (client, editor, publisher) have their say. But before that there’s one more important step and that is:
(5) Polishing. This is fine-tooth-comb sort of stuff. By all means start with Spelling and Grammar but don’t end there. You have to do a line-by-line re-read to check for typos not caught by spell check, awkward lines and wonky page breaks. To do this you should probably print out a hard copy (using recycled paper and changing your type to 50 per cent grey will save money and the environment) or, at least, scroll through a print preview version of the document. Some people swear by reading out loud. At this point your work should be easy to read and look professional.
So now after, what – five or maybe six drafts – you’ve got a finished product to submit to your client or editor or potential agent / publisher. Fantastic right? Except, remember, to them this is the first draft. The rough copy. As far as they’re concerned all the revision is yet to be done and, this time, they’ve got a say in it.
Now I’m afraid this post sounds pretty discouraging. It describes writing as never-ending hard work. Which is true. But it’s also true that if you love to write, all this “work” is, well, it’s what you’d be doing anyway. And the bonus is, if you’re committed to the revision process and if you do it well, you’ll come out the other end with something so much better than you could ever have imagined on day one and it will all be worth it.
Where I’m gaining lots of experience in revising, I know for a fact, Peggy is great at helping others through the revision process. Which is why I’m going to hand it over to her for her thoughts on the big “R”.
Peggy: Oh, it’s definitely easier pointing out issues in other people’s manuscripts rather than tackling your own, that’s for sure! But in the past month I’ve made a conscious effort to make more time for revising my own work.
Because I spent many of my writing years in a newsroom or writing columns from home, my relationship with revision has been more distant than perhaps it should have been. Writing news, I would twiddle with sentences as I went, trying to pack each one with as much information as possible while maintaining clarity of meaning, a balance of viewpoints, and making sure that the most important facts came first so that if the final paragraph or two had to be cut for space at the last minute, it wouldn’t be the end of the world. “Revising” consisted of a quick read-over, another tweak or twiddle, then sending it off to the editor who rarely made any significant changes.
As you might imagine, when I started taking fiction classes, I realized that there was a whole other world out there behind the looking glass, and its name was Revision. What?!? I thought, rather stunned You mean you aren’t meant to come up with a nearly ‘perfect’ story the first time round? You mean writing is in fact, re-writing? That writing a crappy first draft is, in fact, somewhat expected, and sometimes even encouraged?
And yet, the tendency to edit as I write lingers. Trying to be time-efficient, I don’t sit down until I have a fair idea of what I want to write, and I shape it as I go. (This, even though I know how magical, marvellous things often happen when you sit down without a plan and just start writing.)
But I’m realizing that if I want to push my writing to the next level, if I really want to explore the myriad possibilities in the creative non-fiction genre that I so enjoy, I’m going to have to start investing more time in the entire process. I’ve started to pour out a first draft in the full knowledge that it’s only clay, not the final sculpture. And then I’ve stepped back and tried to leave my mind open to all the different forms that that clay might take, even if it means a full re-write or substantial cuts and changes.
I’ve realized that I’ve often been settling for work that’s pretty good, instead of experimenting and pushing myself to try something different that might make the same article pretty great. For inspiration, I’ve been immersing myself in the work of other non-fiction essay and memoir writers and studying a variety of structures and styles.
It all takes time, of course – to read others, to write, evaluate, reflect, and thoughtfully revise – but my relationship to, and satisfaction from, my finished work is that much stronger, and the chance that it will find a home in the larger world all the more likely.Filed under From Peggy and Tudor, Language & Usage, Organizing our Writing Lives, Sunday Special, The Writer's Path, Tips on technique, Writing as Career | Comments Off
Peggy: As readers, we sometimes gloss over it, but as writers, we ignore it at our peril.
I’m talking about description. I’m one of those legions of readers who will sometimes let their eyes jump ahead or their brain go into neutral when I encounter passages that wax on about the shades of green in the ocean, or the pedigree of the furniture in a heroine’s mansion.
But when just the right details are told, at just the right time and in just the right quantity, the result is quite magical.
We talk about a story being ‘plot-driven,’ or ‘character-driven’, but your story isn’t driving anywhere if the reader won’t come along for the ride. So how does one persuade them to come aboard? It’s the skilful use of descriptive details that will engage readers’ imagination enough that they are willing to hop in, slam the door, and say “Okay, let’s go!”
And for most of us, that’s easier said than done. When we’re writing our first draft, I think it’s OK to just get the story banged out. Don’t stop the flow by agonizing over just the right posture your protagonist adopts when he’s awaiting news about his son’s surgery, or the title of the magazine he’s reading on the bus. But when we’re revising, we have to jettison lazy scene-setting, stereotypical character appearances, and flabby words that do nothing to feed images onto the movie reel that the reader hopefully has running in his or her head.
Here’s an example. Recently I was listening to a CBC radio interview with Shania Twain, whose upbringing in a family with a limited budget has inspired her to start a children’s charity called Shania Kids Can. When times were lean, she described going to school armed with a “makeshift lunch” – nothing very edible, but something she could use to show the world that she had lunch, just like the other kids.
Now, it would be easy for a writer to describe a low-income child coming to school with NO lunch, or on an empty stomach from having had no breakfast. That’s what I’d call a first-draft sketch; using those images that first come to our mind as we’re pounding out the pages. But it’s the hardworking writer that goes back and strives to conjure up that one telling detail that renders the whole so explicitly – in this case, that child assembling a makeshift lunch that will help maintain their dignity. Immediately, the character escapes the stereotype and becomes a real person, one that has engaged our attention as well as our sympathies.
When I’m desperate to pluck from my head those few, perfect details that will express a person’s character, or the mood in the room, or the way he’s looking at her, I often go dry. The harder I search my brain, the more I come up empty. So I flag it for the next draft, or I ponder it in the bath.
Or sometimes unique descriptive lines or observations come to me, and I don’t have a story in which to put them. So I write them in my notebook and hope they’ll find a home in the future.
Tudor, I know you’re not a fan of doing writing exercises, so I know you wouldn’t try out any of the exercises to strengthen one’s descriptive abilities that we offer here on our Workshop page. So tell me, how do you feel about the role of description in your work, and how do you keep striving to make it better?
Tudor: Oh yes, the dilemma of description. You need enough but can’t have too much and – to make the subject downright impossible – everybody has a different tolerance description and, therefore a different opinion of where the enough / too much line lies.
I’ve talked before about what we can learn from songs and this is another area where excellent songwriting provides a good example.
Last time I was talking about a genre of music in general (country) but today I’d like to focus on one song; the Tragically Hip’s “Thirty-Eight Years Old”.
Here’s why I think the Hip has something to teach us; imagine someone asks you to tell a story incorporating the following events: a rape, a resulting murder, an arrest and incarceration, a jailbreak and the recapture of the escaped prisoner. (In the interests of full disclosure let me admit I have just had major colon / semi-colon angst about the preceding sentence – probably a topic deserving of its own post.)
Imagine you are also told the bare facts won’t cut it; we need to know a bit about the supporting characters. How has the family faced these events? What about the community where they took place? Is the murderer a true bad-ass or is there more to him?
How many words would you need to tell this story effectively and even poignantly? Could you do it in 600 words – a not-unreasonable word allocation in a daily newspaper? Would you prefer to have a couple of thousand words – more like what you’d be given in a monthly magazine? Some people have based entire books on less material.
The Hip do it in 241 words. Two-hundred-and-forty-one. As of now, I’ve already used 249.
By mining the right details and describing them using sparing and sharp language, they deliver a story, fully-formed and give the listener a feeling for all the extras going on around the periphery.
Read it for yourself to see what I mean. And then decide; would the story be told any better with a higher word count? I don’t think there’s much missing and that, to me, is masterful description.
Twelve men broke loose in Seventy-Three
From Millhaven maximum security
Twelve pictures lined up, across the front page
Seems the Mounties had a summertime war to wage
The Chief told the people they had nothing to fear
Said, “The last thing they wanna do is hang around here”
Most of them came from towns with long French names
But one of the dozen was a hometown shame.
Same pattern on the table
Same clock on the wall
Been one seat empty, eighteen years in all
Freezing slow time, away from the world
He’s 38 years old, never kissed a girl
We were sitting round the table, heard the telephone ring
Father said he’d tell ‘em if he saw anything
Heard the tap on the window in the middle of the night
Held back the curtain for my older brother Mike
See my sister got raped, so a man got killed
Local boy went to prison, man’s buried on the hill
Folks went back to normal when they closed the case
But they still stare at their shoes when they pass our place
My mother cried, “The horror has finally ceased!”
He whispered,”Yea for the time being, at least”
Over her shoulder, on the squad car megaphone
Said,”Let’s go Michael, son, we’re taking you home.”