Writing Wednesday: Details, Plaid Genitals, and the Devil

Before we begin, let me bring you bastards up to date.

So I was freaking out for quite a while there. Had a family member gotten cancer? No. Had I lost a job, lost a friend, gotten ebola? No, no, and no.

The caps lock and shift keys on my Bluetooth keyboard stopped working. Or, okay, to be honest: I was being all gloomy nineties college rock about it and writing in the rain. Like a moron. Like I do every couple of months, only to then be surprised when my keyboard dies.

Sure, laugh. I was in a foul mood for the entire week. I couldn’t write. I went through the stages of grief–or, okay, to be honest I think I bottomed out somewhere around ‘anger’–only to realize, towards the end, two very important things.

1) This is very much a first world problem, and as I still have food and running water I probably need to consider my priorities, sip my frappa-mocha-choka-whatever latte and shut the fuck up. Also:

2) A KEYBOARD HAS TWO GODDAMN SHIFT KEYS.

So yes. I am, if anyone was as of yet undecided, an idiot. Writing resumed. Woohoo.

As writing is resumed, I think it’s only fair that I eke a meager Writing Wednesday post out of my rosy buttocks. I apologize for last week, really I do. I was just too busy weeping into my soy latte to do it.

But this week, ladies and gerrymanderers, we’re going to talk about details. Why? Because the devil’s in them. And the devil usually makes things interesting.

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WRITING WEDNESDAY: THE DEVIL IN THE DETAILS

So you’ve probably seen this chestnut in your internet writeathon rounds: write what you know.

One of the basics, right? Good advice, right?

Well, it is. Collective oohs and aahs, because I’m actually agreeing with someone.

Here’s the thing, though. People take this way, WAY too literally. Writing what you know doesn’t have to mean writing about waking up at seven in the morning, accidentally using your husband’s toothpaste, and wearing a pair of slightly uncomfortable pumps to work. It doesn’t have to mean taking every little protoparsible word-snippet from your day to day. If you write fantasy, this is doubly hard–I mean, what do you know, like, really know, about hexing someone’s private parts? Not much, I’m hoping. If you do, please share your experience with the rest of us. In relatively non-graphic terms.

But here’s the thing. You’ve never hexed someone’s privates. You’ve never had your privates hexed. But I’m willing to bet you’ve had an itch down there, or a rash. Maybe even–gasp–an STD. Remember what that was like? Remember when you were eighteen, and you JUST KNEW you’d somehow gotten AIDS, dammit, how did this happen, how’re you going to tell Mom–and of course, when you DO tell Mom (aaaawkward moments, here) she sighs, shakes her head, and tells you it sounds like a yeast infection to her, but by the way, you’re grounded for like a year?

My experience here lately has been mostly culinary, so as a result, we’ll name our hero Sambal Oelek. His girlfriend, princess Garam Masala, took an elective class in the Black Arts in college. Three credits if you can pass the exam–which is, of course, the recitation and elocution of a spell that turns someone’s Gendered Giblets plaid. Because this is college, the spell is of course intended as pure demonstration and nothing harmful should come of it. Because, again, this is college, and you’re not going to get to the interesting stuff until grad school.

Now, there are a couple of places to draw from your own experience here. A couple of places where details–those crunchy, real-life details–will come in nougaty handy. First off, have you been to college? No? Then maybe this school should be more local. Or maybe Miss Masala is just learning a thing or two from a mysterious hunchbacked palace scrubwoman (in which case–have you ever had a servant?).

If you have been to college–and I have, so we’ll stick with this–think about your own college classes. I’ll be honest, I was at best an indifferent student. Classes often took a back seat to other important things, like discovering which liquor goes best with tomato juice, which is the only thing you have for a mixer in your fridge. And of those classes, elective classes, which didn’t fulfill any of the umpty-teen course requirements, were so far back they were practically standing in the lecture hall doorway.

Maybe our genital gentrifier, Garam Masala, is in a similar situation. She’s been having a little too much extracurricular fun, and she needs, NEEDS, to pass this class to keep herself out of magical academic suspension. (And here we have some basic detailing that broadens the ‘college’ feel already. There’s an academic suspension level of grading. There are credit hours, requirements for your major that are filled or not filled by certain classes. You remember this stuff. If you don’t, pick a more appropriate setting.)

So she’s studying. Hard. The trick is, she hasn’t been studying hard for the rest of the semester. So when it comes time to cast the spell, instead of aiming her wand at the plaster cast intended for this demonstration by her professor, Masala makes the terrible mistake of pointing it, blindly, out into the distance, and reciting the terrible words:

GENITALIUM TARTUM EST.

She missed the first-day lesson where the students were told that a hex must, under all circumstances, have a subject. Her professor tries to knock the wand out of hand, but he’s old and slow (and also a little disinterested–maybe he just lost magical professor tenure). The spell, in a flash of tartan brighter than the Hindenberg exploding, recedes into the distance.

She also missed the lesson where you were taught to empty your mind while casting. She’s been standing there, gesticulating wildly at nothing, thinking off-handedly of her long-distance boyfriend, Sambal Oelek, who she’s been having some trouble with lately. (Young lovers, separated by cruel college, able to communicate only by magic mirror. Sigh. Where’s Skype when you need it.)

Now, the professor checks in the village below to make sure the hex didn’t land anywhere important. A university always has some CYA policies in place for this sort of thing. He doesn’t find an afflicted mark, fills out his sheaf of paperwork, and goes back to dozing in his insufficient and cubbylike office, waiting to die and/or retire.

Meanwhile, in a galaxy far, far away, Sambal Oelek is practicing his fencing (because princes do that) when his privates start to itch. He excuses himself, runs to the restroom, and pulls down his particolored hose to find, you guessed it. Plaid penis.

The rest is up to you. A note–we recommend not mixing patterns.

There are a lot of places you can write what you know in this fantasy story to increase its impact and emotional resonance. First off, remember being twenty-one? Oh, god, I do. Garam Masala probably thinks she knows everything, probably thinks she’s not so much ‘a drunk’ as ‘avant-garde’. She probably hasn’t realized yet that, when she signed that ‘student loan’ contract in blood, the chalk circle and newt’s eye paste wouldn’t protect her from massive debt. She may or may not have had to make rent at some point in her life. She may or may not have had a real-girl job, even.

And the university. Remember your school? I bet there were sports. I bet there were a LOT of sports. I bet you had crusty old guys in polos and belted shorts LEFT AND RIGHT telling you about university sports, and how much better ‘the team’ was when THEY were in college. If you were me, you didn’t give a shit. If you weren’t, maybe you did.

I bet your campus had a ‘green’. I bet it was more often silver and nicotine colored than the aforementioned verdant hue.

I bet you had a cafeteria–I’m sorry, is it a ‘dining hall’ by the time your pubes are fully sprouted?–and I bet you remember what food you liked, what food you didn’t, whether or not Chik-Fil-A had a kiosk downstairs. This was the first and last time in your life Chik-Fil-A would feel special to you.

Did you live in the dorms, have a roommate? Did she smell funny, watch Judge Judy at three in the morning, save her crunchiest cereals for midnight cram-session consumption while you were trying to sleep? Living with somebody, especially someone you know, is annoying. In what ways did she piss you off? In what ways, and at what times, were you glad she was there?

You can take all these things and adapt them. Maybe they don’t have Captian Crunch at Fenugreek U, but you can work with it. For instance, maybe Masala’s roommate is one of those horrible fucking elves. Maybe she eats twigs. Maybe she poos compost, and it stinks up the whole suite.

Maybe the university sport is magical duelling, instead of whatever version of sportsball yours indulged in. Maybe the alumni, veteran duellers of old, tend to try and help out from the stands.

Maybe you have to invoke the demon Asafoetida and sign a contract in blood instead of paying tuition. Maybe college loans take years off your life if they aren’t paid, on time, every month. Maybe there’s a group of seniors, informed by their older siblings of the years of infernal slavery ahead of them in the name of college debt, who’re trying to find a loophole in the contract. Maybe they have. Maybe you have to be in Anise Hall, room 666, at precisely 12:03 AM for the secret to be revealed to you. Maybe they’re just blowing hot air, and they ambush you there and turn you into a muskrat. Maybe there’s now a muskrat wing in Student Health because of it, and muskrat care supplies in Student Stores.

See what I mean? No, you haven’t lived any of these things. At least, not exactly. But you’ve lived through things that made you feel the same way, made you react the same way, had the same repercussions in your life. And the basic premises–student loans, annoying roommate, sportsball–are still real-life premises. They’re things that anyone in a college setting remembers and will have to deal with. So you get emotional resonance as well as detail, detail, detail.

A note, however; the devil is also in TOO MUCH detail, and he is just waiting for you to waste those three pages describing the magical duelling sportsball system at the state university of your main character’s second cousin. Look at it this way, and only this way:

1) Does this add to my story?

Note–not ‘is it important’. Important can mean a lot of things. But.

Does this detail further, in any way, your main story? Does it increase your understanding of the characters? Does it make the setting more accessible to the average reader? Does it enhance the mood of the story? Does it keep the plot moving?

If it does none of these things, chuck it. Or, if you must, mention it briefly. But remember:

When you write a LOT about something, you are emphasizing it.

Hence, Checkov and the whole gun going off in the third chapter thing. (Don’t know about Checkov’s Gun? Google it. You need to.) If you draw your reader’s attention to something, they quite rightly expect it to be important. Too many false alarms, too many false starts, and your reader will start wondering if your story in total is important. Then, thirty seconds later, they put down your book.

So there you are.

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