The cultural meaning of strangers tends to be fear-oriented: they are shadowy and dangerous. That’s often with good reason, but it’s also reductive. “Strangers” is really just a shorthand for “everyone else.” That’s a pretty wide-ranging category, to preposterously understate it! In my encounters letting everyday situations escalate at the dentist, in the grocery store, on trains, strangers were also scratched up lottery tickets to spontaneity and poetry.
The best conversations crack us open. They leave us tender and reeling, alive again with possibility, mesmerized by the uncanny nature of things. When you really “get there” with someone, you reach what my friend once referred to as the wilderness. You may not know where you are anymore, but you know it’s a place of mystery and beauty. You know you want to keep going. I felt this most acutely a few years ago when I kept having unexpected interactions with strangers. I wrote a book about those experiences — No One You Know, which is very much a…
You’re walking on an empty street in your hometown. Someone approaches and a meeting of some kind is inevitable. To ignore them would be an act in itself, since it almost seems, for a moment, like you’re the only two people in existence. Perhaps there is mistrust or fear or who knows, but there is an antidote, it turns out: the humble nod. That simple movement, if returned, can be a powerful act.
The word in black keeps your secrets
“It can be tempting to try to be more descriptive with your dialogue tags” she said, enigmatically.
“But that comes at a price,” he blurted.
Dialogue tags are the way that a writer conveys that a character is saying something — like “enigmatically” or “blurted” above. The worst offender I’ve seen is unquestionably “ejaculated,” which forces quite a different frame of mind upon the reader. J.K. Rowling seems to be especially fond of adverbs — Harry and Ron and Co are always saying things “darkly.”
The beauty of “said” and said alone is…
Neo isn’t the only one who needs liberating
When describing a character or subject, it’s natural to mention characteristics like age and style of dress, but one thing that’s often forgotten is to put the person in space, ideally performing an action. Otherwise, they’re stuck in what I think of as the Matrix Space — that white construct where Morpheus takes Neo to show him reality.
When describing someone, you want the reader to intuit the essence of a character themselves. Adjectives alone are not always effective — more like a mini bio packet handed to an actor while…
It holds the treasures you seek
I was elbowing my way through Grand Central, early for the tour. An idiosyncratic tour guide (and hero of mine), was returning to New York to guide people through his observations of the venerable train station, and I’d raced to make my reservation, afraid it’d be sold out. But there he was, all alone in a sea of passing commuters. As I approached, he pondered me, and then finally spoke.
“Are you improvising?” he asked mysteriously.
I hesitated. Did he mean in the cosmic sense, that we’re all making decisions on the fly?
Choose them with care
When writing fiction, names should not be lightly chosen. Nor should they beat you over the head with their meaning, like providing a greedy character with the surname Coin. One tactic to soften that over-obvious effect is to misspell a loaded word when turning it into a name. So instead of Coin, Coyne would work better, since it offers at least some orthological veil, allowing the reader to decipher the meaning on their own as they move through your work.
Names that reveal a meaning about a character are called “cratylic names.” The term comes from…
Slice up those pages
The best stories act like portals into another realm and consciousness, but it’s hard to avoid the feeling that once you’re finished, you’re out, grasping at the experience like tendrils of a fading memory. It always strikes me how little I’m able to retain from a book I read years ago no matter how much I loved it at the time. In some ways, it feels like the only way to enter that place again is to return to the pages, and reread them. …
A tool of the trade
Yes. It’s wise to read a draft of something you’ve written out loud during the editing process. The ear has a way of catching what the eye misses. But what specifically should you be on guard against? One problem to look out for is known as a “bad echo.”
An example is if I start talking about a lasso, and then invoke a scene in Krakow. That inadvertent almost-rhyme, or echo, can trip up the reader, reminding them that they are in fact reading a story — breaking the spell you’ve worked so carefully to…
Setting is more than the surroundings.
McMansions, skyscrapers, mountains —the simplest way to think about setting is in terms of physical space. But to bring a place more vividly to life, one technique is to use an interaction, or street scene, as an establishing shot. Different places tend to act as theaters for different types of behaviors. In the words of Modest Mouse:
“People as places as people.”
One of my most salient memories of visiting D.C. was being repeatedly (and immediately) blitzed with different versions of “who do you work for?” & “what do you do?” in casual social…