For all the imgurian writers out there, The wheel of emotions
When I’m almost done reading a good book.
((You guys don’t know steampunk until you head on over to this awesome little slice of heaven over here in Baltimore. This is a repurposed power plant that was built in 1900 that was converted into a Barnes and Nobel. It boasts a good selection of books, has the obligatory Starbucks inside with an awesome view of the city, but also has a really neat and informative aquarium that features wildlife you’d find in the bay! This is one awesome looking place to read. If you guys ever visit me up here in Maryland, we’d totally visit this Barnes and Noble.))
I went there 2 weeks ago! So cool!!
He’d walked through the dim light of the forest as the moon shone through the dying branches of the trees. His feet began to ache as the moon started its slow decent toward the horizon. He groaned to the forest in his pain, cried to the animals as they were snoring in the their homes. He walked a silent path around sleeping bears and moaned again over the death of those he held most dear. A light appeared in front of him as his tears rolled down his cheeks again, the sun’s bright red rays finding their own way between the brittle branches.
He took a step than and heard an unfamiliar crunch beneath his small feet. He looked down and slid his foot to one side, there was red there, crumpled beneath his uncaring foot. This did not make a squashing sound as that other red did. It let off a pleasant scent that just barely changed the morning air. He bent down, his small hands curled around the broken petals and lifted them to his face. He breathed in the smell and looked up.
Before him a field of red broke from the line of trees. The sun burned bright out in the open, dew still hung on the roses. He ran into them, not crying, not laughing, only running and then he collapsed among them. He rolled around, slide to one side, than to another until he seemed to find just the perfect patch.
There he fell asleep while rose petals danced in the breeze.
He settles himself on her window sill just as she’s getting her goodnight kisses. Her father tucks her into bed, his hands run down the sides of the bed making sure that the blankets are just the way she likes them. She smiles and he smiles back, his wrinkles appearing as he does so. He places another kiss on her forehead before walking to the door and turning to close the door. He glances to the window and winks to the man sitting there smiling. The man winks back and blows a breeze over the dreamcatcher hanging in the window above him.
The child stirs but soon settles and her dreams come quickly. The man on the window smiles at most of them, a few he tightens his hand on the stick that lies across his lap and they turn and run away. The girl smiles in her sleep.
The sky just starts to lighten as a dark cloud of nightmare comes sweeping over the neighbors roofs, zooming between the buildings and in and out of windows. The man stands on the window sill, bringing his stick up in from of him. The stick shimmers and shines as he grips it tighter, the dark wood turns to a shining silver as the nightmare bears down on him.
A face grins out from the darkness, sharp teeth sending their challenge just as the darkness wraps itself around the man. Gleaming silver flashes through the darkness trying to enter the room, high-pitched screeches come echoing out of the dark, the sun moves further up in the sky. Grunts are heard from within the cloud of dark nightmares. The silver glimmering falters, starts, falters, then blinds even the sun’s rays as the cloud zips away from the window following the retreating shadows.
The man floats exhausted just beyond the window. His head hangs low, the stick again a stick, almost slipping out of his grip. Then, he looks back toward the window in hopes that the darkness didn’t seep in. He sees the child smiling there, her hand on the window pane.
The man smiles back and places his hand on hers just as he fades behind the growing light.
Her eyes fly open and she slams her hand against her alarm clock. She closes her eyes as she rolls to her back and runs her tongue over her lips. The ghost of his arms still warm her and she can still see every line on his face as he smiles at her. She shakes her head, sending the images away, locking him back where he’s been for years. That smile is years older now, those arms never held her like that and yet… she sits up and the air whistles past her ears. Another head shake and a deep sigh and she stands, starting her day the same way she always had.
He pops in her mind again as the people around her start talking about college and his smile blinks behind her eyelids. She’s suddenly back there again, back on that first night after they met. She hears her name called, hears his mouth wrap itself around her name, her name echoes again and the people are asking her a question about her college years, she shrugs and her smile disappears.
Facebook is on her screen, she scrolls through the statuses she can’t seem to care about any longer but can’t seem to not read. She scrolls past pictures of smiling faces and arms wrapped around each other, lives that she’s not - and there he is out of the past and once again right on her screen. Another status that sends her wishing he was still only a hallway away.
She settles down in her bed, buries herself beneath the covers and closes her eyes. She’s silent, then her leg moves, she rolls over, her cat settles himself beside her and she falls into the darkness. Falls into her dreams and there he is waiting for her again with open arms that never really held her the way these do.
Your alarm sounds it’s long bleating scream at you in the early morning hours, you open your eyes slowly and turn your head to the clock, 6:15 am blinks on the screen as it screams at you. You pull your arm out from underneath your blankets, the cold hits your arm and it turns from smooth to hilly instantly. You reach over and hit your clock, hard, hoping that it learns it’s lesson and shuts up. It keeps screaming at you in that jarring annoying tone so you hit it again, again, and once more with even more force before suddenly the only sound is the echo of the alarm through your ears. You slide your arm back under your fluffy comforter, beneath the green throw, below the white sheet and shiver as it makes contact with your over heated skin, your eyes slide shut again.
There’s a noise at the foot of your bed, metal tinging against metal, paws lightly walking on the floor, a meow comes from the depths of the foot of your bed and you feel your cat jump up at your feet. He slides himself up your bed and finds where your hand must be hiding under all those blankets and he lays down, just to the right of where that hand is. His tail flicks back and forth over your stomach and his purrs vibrate through your whole body.
The sun hasn’t even started peaking through your blinds and the heater hasn’t made it’s tick tick sound of waking so you lay there. You wish not to get up and crack an eyelid to see the time, the clock will shout at you again in no less than five minutes. You take a deep breath in, blankets rise, and a slow breath out, they fall. You stick a foot outside of your heated space and the goosebumps travel up your ankle, your cat watches your moving leg intently.
The alarm sounds and wakes you once more, once again you pull your arm out, hit the clock several times and quiet it. You sit up quickly, hoping that getting up is like a band-aid, but it’s hopeless, just like every morning. You can get up slowly, or quickly and the same world waits for you outside. You look at your cat and give him a little wink before you fall back down on your bed and close your eyes again.
In six seconds, you’ll hate me.
But in six months, you’ll be a better writer.
From this point forward—at least for the next half year—you may not use “thought” verbs. These include: Thinks, Knows, Understands, Realizes, Believes, Wants, Remembers, Imagines, Desires, and a hundred others you love to use.
The list should also include: Loves and Hates.
And it should include: Is and Has, but we’ll get to those later.
Until some time around Christmas, you can’t write: Kenny wondered if Monica didn’t like him going out at night…”
Instead, you’ll have to Un-pack that to something like: “The
mornings after Kenny had stayed out, beyond the last bus, until he’d had to bum a ride or pay for a cab and got home to find Monica faking sleep, faking because she never slept that quiet, those mornings, she’d only put her own cup of coffee in the microwave. Never his.”
Instead of characters knowing anything, you must now present the details that allow the reader to know them. Instead of a character wanting something, you must now describe the thing so that the reader wants it.
Instead of saying: “Adam knew Gwen liked him.” You’ll have to say: “Between classes, Gwen had always leaned on his locker when he’d go to open it. She’s roll her eyes and shove off with one foot, leaving a black-heel mark on the painted metal, but she also left the smell of her perfume. The combination lock would still be warm from her butt. And the next break, Gwen would be leaned there, again.”
In short, no more short-cuts. Only specific sensory detail: action, smell, taste, sound, and feeling.
Typically, writers use these “thought” verbs at the beginning of a paragraph (In this form, you can call them “Thesis Statements” and I’ll rail against those, later). In a way, they state the intention of the paragraph. And what follows, illustrates them.
“Brenda knew she’d never make the deadline. was backed up from the bridge, past the first eight or nine exits. Her cell phone battery was dead. At home, the dogs would need to go out, or there would be a mess to clean up. Plus, she’d promised to water the plants for her neighbor…”
Do you see how the opening “thesis statement” steals the thunder of what follows? Don’t do it.
If nothing else, cut the opening sentence and place it after all the others. Better yet, transplant it and change it to: Brenda would never make the deadline.
Thinking is abstract. Knowing and believing are intangible. Your story will always be stronger if you just show the physical actions and details of your characters and allow your reader to do the thinking and knowing. And loving and hating.
Don’t tell your reader: “Lisa hated Tom.”
Instead, make your case like a lawyer in court, detail by detail.
Present each piece of evidence. For example: “During roll call, in the breath after the teacher said Tom’s name, in that moment before he could answer, right then, Lisa would whisper-shout ‘Butt Wipe,’ just as Tom was saying, ‘Here’.”
One of the most-common mistakes that beginning writers make is leaving their characters alone. Writing, you may be alone. Reading, your audience may be alone. But your character should spend very, very little time alone. Because a solitary character starts thinking or worrying or wondering.
For example: Waiting for the bus, Mark started to worry about how long the trip would take…”
A better break-down might be: “The schedule said the bus would come by at noon, but Mark’s watch said it was already 11:57. You could see all the way down the road, as far as the Mall, and not see a bus. No doubt, the driver was parked at the turn-around, the far end of the line, taking a nap. The driver was kicked back, asleep, and Mark was going to be late. Or worse, the driver was drinking, and he’d pull up drunk and charge Mark seventy-five cents for death in a fiery traffic accident…”
A character alone must lapse into fantasy or memory, but even then you can’t use “thought” verbs or any of their abstract relatives.
Oh, and you can just forget about using the verbs forget and remember.
No more transitions such as: “Wanda remembered how Nelson used to brush her hair.”
Instead: “Back in their sophomore year, Nelson used to brush her hair with smooth, long strokes of his hand.”
Again, Un-pack. Don’t take short-cuts.
Better yet, get your character with another character, fast.
Get them together and get the action started. Let their actions and words show their thoughts. You—stay out of their heads.
And while you’re avoiding “thought” verbs, be very wary about using the bland verbs “is” and “have.”
“Ann’s eyes are blue.”
“Ann has blue eyes.”
“Ann coughed and waved one hand past her face, clearing the cigarette smoke from her eyes, blue eyes, before she smiled…”
Instead of bland “is” and “has” statements, try burying your details of what a character has or is, in actions or gestures. At its most basic, this is showing your story instead of telling it.
And forever after, once you’ve learned to Un-pack your characters, you’ll hate the lazy writer who settles for: “Jim sat beside the telephone, wondering why Amanda didn’t call.”
Please. For now, hate me all you want, but don’t use thought verbs. After Christmas, go crazy, but I’d bet money you won’t.
For this month’s homework, pick through your writing and circle every “thought” verb. Then, find some way to eliminate it. Kill it by Un-packing it.
Then, pick through some published fiction and do the same thing. Be ruthless.
“Marty imagined fish, jumping in the moonlight…”
“Nancy recalled the way the wine tasted…”
“Larry knew he was a dead man…”
Find them. After that, find a way to re-write them. Make them stronger.
The Story Coaster
Drawing for the 7/14 Sunday NY Times Book Review - thanks to editor Pamela Paul!