Friday, October 29, 2010

Details, Details...

One of the problems a writer faces when crafting a story is the amount of detail to put in each scene. Put too little and the reader is confused, wondering what the hec is going on. Too much and the reader gets bogged down by unnecessary minutiae.

For instance: if a new character is introduced, how much detail you put in the description can depend on how important that character is to the story.

A patrolman cordoning off a crime scene has little impact on the overall plot, hence you don't need to provide hair and eye color, height, weight, tattoos, facial features, specific clothing, manner of speech, etc. Maybe just a something to distinguish him. “The patrolman's size easily intimidated the gathering crowd from pressing too close.”

However, someone you see often, such as the protagonist or a supporting character, should be detailed so readers can keep the person in the mind's eye. You know early on Mallory Petersen, star of Beta (due out July 15,
2011) is a six foot attractive blonde with blue eyes. You know her sidekick/secretary, Darren, has puppy dog eyes and an innocent face.

Of course, if the bad guy is someone you're presenting elsewhere in the story, you're not going to reveal the identity in those little scenes just showing his evilness. You're going to save the identity until the end and by that time, the reader has already met and been associated with the specific character. An exception may be is if the bad guy isn't part of the regular crew but is a totally separate character presented as only bad and isn't hanging around the good guys trying to hide.

I've recently run into a few scenes where the details are lacking, improper, or I question their placement within the scene. Taking the third instance first, the scene is action oriented, with the hero battling killer vampires and in the middle of the fight, her protection spell seriously affects the one who grabbed her. She then spends three lengthy paragraphs explaining the different magical spells available in her version of the vamp/magic universe. Then she goes back to the fight. I'm not sure if in the middle of almost getting killed is the appropriate place for a lecture. Apparently the author's editor deemed it acceptable.

I'm also reading another vampire story where one of the humans is performing surgery on a vamp who has been impaled by a barbed stake. I think this is a cool and potentially powerful scene, however, the medical details and facts are lacking as well as a logical progression of action. For instance, imagine the vamp impaled by a stake. The stake has penetrated through the body and is sticking out both sides. When the person performing the surgery starts operating, the patient's angle isn't going to allow for ease of motion. Plus, the instruments normally used to open a chest cavity aren't normally going to be found in a kitchen. The author needs a little research to bring realism to the scene (realism to the surgery, not the realism of a vampire).

Robin Cook is great at medical terminology. His latest novel, Cure, is chock full of very lengthy words of which I understand about two percent. Most of the time, however, he's good at translating doctor talk into layman's terms.

The second instance-improper detail-I've read several times. It tends to bog down the story. “He walked over to the cupboard and opened the door. Upon the shelves were plates and a humidor. He took the humidor off the shelf, opened the lid and withdrew a cigar. With precise motions, he cut the end off the cigar, struck a match and lit the end. Taking deep inhalations,he held the smoke in his lungs and upon releasing it, created smoke circles in the air.” Okay, fine, but he did all this while having a conversation with one or two other people and by all this 'stuff' inserted, the reader has lost the discussion.

Two authors at the opposite ends of the spectrum for detail. The late Robert B. Parker and his Spenser novels are not too detailed, especially when Spenser is engaged in a lengthy conversation with...well, any other character. The conversation flows almost without interruption for several pages. It reminds me of the old Dragnet TV shows. “Just the facts, ma'am.” While Joe Friday just blandly stands there.

H.P. Lovecraft's stories, however, are LOADED with detail, sometimes beyond the point of sanity. At The Mountains of Madness is especially difficult to read unless you are into Lovecraftian stuff. I've read that particular story at least three times and the first two I didn't understand what I was reading because I couldn't get past the details.

Be careful with details. They're important but my advice is to treat them like candy. Give them out as treats, but hold back when the child has had his fill.

Friday, October 22, 2010

1987, Part 3

Summer 1987. Warm comfortable nights, hot days. Riding horses when my parents, sister and grandparents visited; having contests with Clark on how many rib bones we could toss into the waste can using the serving tongs…and doing so in front of the customers; getting autographs from everybody on a souvenir-and purloined-apron; playing practical jokes on Marvin; acting stupid in front of a pretty girl just to show Clark I wasn’t a dork.

July third and fourth were the two busiest days of the summer. I worked from ten o’clock each morning and didn’t stop moving until about nine that evening. We went through so many burgers and chicken it was ridiculous. I was thoroughly exhausted after those two days.

Of course, I worked during the Sturgis bike rally. For endless days, there were no cars on Keystone’s streets. I had to work nine days straight, eleven to thirteen hours per day, because I was the only one of age to be around for beer to be sold at our stand.
Where the hell Marvin was, I don’t recall, but after the bikers left, I told him I was taking two days off the following week and I dictated the specific days.

My love life went through a second short-lived experience. I don’t remember how I met the particular girl, but she lived in Sturgis. One day, I drove over to her house one day-wasting a couple of hours fixing a flat tire on the interstate (I couldn’t figure out how to jack up the car)-and going with her family to the grocery store. I think I gave her flowers, but nothing ever developed. I don’t even recall her name.

I also don’t remember the name of the girl who lived next door to the camp office where I stayed for my tenure up there. Which is really a sad thing, because, apparently I greatly impressed her. We were friends even though I don’t recall ever hanging out with her too much. On the morning I left to return home to Iowa, she had put a huge banner on my windshield saying she’d miss me. I thought that was pretty neat and I regret not remembering her name or keeping in touch.

The fourth man in our cabin stayed but a short time. Clark and Jennifer departed middle August and Paul stayed a few days longer after I left. By summer’s end, I had a month’s beard growth irritating my face (a week after the semester started I shaved the face clean. I just couldn’t stand all that hair). My father hugged me so tightly when I pulled into the driveway; I so glad to be home.

I loved that summer, mainly because I can remember so much of it. Give me a random year and I couldn’t tell you much about it, but 1987 was special. It wasn’t even my first visit to the Black Hills; we’d taken a family vacation years before. But it was a time of discovery, of laughter, tears, rock ‘n roll, together time, and alone time. I saw stupid people, beautiful people, and lost people trying to find themselves. I made friends I wish had stayed in touch.

To Paul, Jennifer, Clark, Warren, Amy, Sheila and all the rest whose names have slipped my mind (if I dig out that old apron I’d remember you better) – thanks. I wish we could all have a reunion and laugh about that wonderful summer. I’ll remember you and that summer each time I hear Steve Winwood or Lionel Ritchie.

That glorious, wonderful, exciting, summer of 1987.

Friday, October 15, 2010

1987, Part 2

Summer of ’87. Keystone, SD. Black Hills, hiking to Harney Peak, betting on the dog races in Rapid City, Bear Country, Reptile Gardens, spelunking at both Wind Cave and Jewel Cave.

I mentioned certain songs take me back to that time. Rapid City hosted a number of concerts. Starship, Blackfoot, Ratt, Poison, among others. I even met an alleged member of a sixties pop band. But more on him later.

You’re saying, but what happened after the kiss?

Oh, Jennifer, you drove me crazy. When I said to give me a chance, I meant for you to end the relationship with Clark, then come to me. Yes, that streak of honor running through me couldn’t allow Jennifer and me to betray him. I didn’t kiss her back. The incident affected her, too. She wrote me a long letter telling me about a nightmare she had had a few days later where I ended up killing Clark. She professed her attraction for me, but I think she also found honor and ended up staying with him. We all three were good friends, but I always wonder what might have been… I also wonder sometimes, where she is and if she’s happy.

Alcohol flowed like water during that summer. Parties almost every night either in trailers or some little cavern of the beaten track. Nobody monitored underage drinking; nobody cared. As I said, my supervisor was an alcoholic. One time he drank Everclear straight from the bottle. If Marvin is still alive somewhere, his liver hates him. And no, I didn’t partake. I also didn’t inhale from the water bong a group passed around one night in one of the trailers. Later that night, I realized I would have nevertheless been hauled off to jail had the cops raided the place.

My Great Uncle Lawrence died that summer. A severe stroke hit him in his early adulthood, all but paralyzing his left side. As long as I’d known him, he walked with a brace on his leg and his vision wasn’t the best. He was a dear, caring, humorous man, and I loved him very much. I cried not so much because he died, but because I was a thousand miles away, feeling like I was stranded on another planet.

I loved the mountains, the back roads, the long three miles downhill going north to Rapid City. Unfortunately, I never got to explore the Badlands or the Needles Highway–my pass didn’t include those attractions.

I don’t remember the man’s name, but he claimed to once have been a member of the band The Americans. I found one their cassettes in a discount bin. The cover showed the band and he confirmed the younger version of himself. Was he really a singer or just pulling the boy’s leg? I don’t know.

General Hospital showed up in July to film some episodes. I thought that was so cool. I got to meet Shaun Cassidy, got his autograph as well as the show’s producer and director. My parents taped some of the episodes which aired in August and I watched them when I got home. One of the funniest couple of episodes dealt with a two characters lost in Rushmore Cave and risking death from a cave-in. If you didn’t know any better, you could use your imagination and visualize their plight. They filmed the scene in Rushmore Cave, and I’d visited the attraction a few weeks before. The problem with the plot was that it is impossible to get lost. The cave goes back fifty yards along one path, then returns down a parallel path, with several opening between the two. But it was interesting to see watch the soap and see the familiar sites.

More next week.

Friday, October 8, 2010

1987, Part 1

I’d like to slip back to 1987. I do that every now and then, especially when I hear certain musical artists. U2, Kylie Minogue, Lou Gramm. I couldn’t tell you with any certainty the release year of most songs, but I do know many from 1987. I don’t remember too much about most of the year, other than I finished my junior year at Iowa Wesleyan, spent the summer in the Black Hills to try to earn money to go to Mexico the following January, and started my senior year in August.

The time in the Black Hills was a magical time. A different world. I was twenty and truly on my own for the first time. I’d applied for a job as a burger flipper outside of a restaurant in Keystone, the tourist trap town at the foot of Mount Rushmore. I met some interesting people, was paid a pittance, but was provided a room and two meals a day if I wanted. I think the whole summer would be an interesting coming of age type of movie. It certainly makes for interesting stories.

I started a week after the college term ended. Keystone is really nothing more than a mile of gift shops and food vendors on the way to Rushmore. The Ruby House Café was the restaurant owned by a tough old man whom nobody liked. I worked in the burger/chicken /ribs place attached to the west side of the café. One side street off the main drag took me back to a series of houses and trailers where the some of the few dozens of actual residents lived. I was put up in an old camp office. Paul, who attended Morehead State in Minnesota, had gotten there first and claimed the only bed. I took the top bunk in a little side room. Clark had the bottom bunk. The dresser had four drawers, one broken. The couch housed spiders and when we were at capacity, one guy slept on the couch.

Normally, I worked a rotating series of days with two off. My supervisor drank every night and teens worked the cash register. Burgers sold for 89 cents, chicken came from the kitchen to warm in the front display case. Across from us was a gift shop that sold Jackalopes. I vowed to buy one before I went home.

Off hours were spent reading or playing tennis across from the camp office. Days off, I visited the local tourist attractions with a pass for free admission to most of them. Paul and I became friends with a family down the street. He’d met the daughter. They offered the use of their tennis rackets whenever we wanted. I remember playing tennis with one guy at one in the morning on several occasions.

Paul, a good-natured, but naïve romantic, couldn’t hit it off with the townie girl and subsequently met another girl, this one from Oregon, fell in love almost from day one and talked about marriage and kids by week’s end. In July, she fell ill to complications with her ovaries. While in hospital, she accepted Paul’s marriage proposal, but the relationships was not to be. After her parents arrived, I think she wised up to her situation and his; I know Paul was heartbroken.

My love life also went through a spin cycle. Clark had a girlfriend who was extremely pretty. Blonde, perky, fun. And she was attracted to me. I kept telling her to just give me a chance. One morning, on one of my days off, when the rest of the guys had left for the day, she did. I was still in bed; she caressed my back and when I turned, she leant down to kiss me.

What happened next? Tune in next week.

Friday, October 1, 2010

24 Things You MIght Be Saying Wrong, Part 3

I’m sorry, I must be dense because I’m still not getting the fine line between That and Which, although I’m trying. Anyway, here’s the last part of words you may be saying wrong:

You might say: That

You might mean: Which

Why: "The money that is on the table is for you" is different from "the money, which is on the table, is for you." That pinpoints the subject: The money that is on the table is yours; the money in my pocket is mine. Which introduces an aside, a bit of extra information. If you remove "which is on the table," you won't change the meaning: The money is for you (oh, and unless you don't want it, it's on the table). If the clause is necessary to your meaning, use that; if it could safely be omitted, say which.

You never mean: Outside of

You always mean: Outside

Why: These two prepositions weren't meant for each other. Perfectly acceptable: "Wearing a cheese-head hat outside Wisconsin will likely earn you some stares and glares (unless you're surrounded by Green Bay Packers fans, that is)."

You might say: Each other

You might mean: One another

Why: Tradition says that each other should be used with two people or things, and one another with more than two, and careful speakers should follow suit: "The three presenters argued with one another over who should announce the award, but Ann and Barbara gave each other flowers after the ceremony." (By the way, if you need the possessive form of either one when writing that business letter, it's always each other's and one another's; never end with s'.)

8 Confusing Pairs

leery, wary: suspicious
weary: tired

farther: for physical distance
further: for metaphorical distance or time

principle: rule
principal: of your school

compliment: nice thing to say
complement: match

continual: ongoing but intermittent
continuous: without interruption

stationary: stands still
stationery: paper

imply: to suggest a meaning
infer: to draw meaning from something

affect: typically a verb, meaning "to act upon or cause an effect"; as a noun, it's "an emotional response"
effect: typically a noun, meaning "something produced," like a special effect; as a verb, "to bring about," as in "to effect change" •

Hope this helps.