Have you ever been good at something without knowing how? ‘How’ is the right question because you know why you’re good. You’re good because you stay up all night working, and re-working scene after scene. You’re good because editing is something that you have to do. It just has to be right. The ‘why’ is easy, though it would be embarrassing if people knew how much effort you had to put into a short story to be this good.
I began writing with just enough grammar knowledge to know a subject, verb and predicate. Just the stuff you could pick up from School House Rock – Lolly Lolly Lolly get your adverbs here. I was good though. No degree, or any special classes, but I had a “good ear” Mike told me. Mike was my boss, and my job was to write Copy.
Copy is extreme. I’m sure that Mike knew I barely finished high-school at the time, and knew nothing about grammar, but he never mentioned it, and maybe he didn’t know. He told me that Copy was the edge of writing. It wasn’t literature, it wasn’t poetry (unless that was what was going to sell), but it was the edge of fast hard writing that lived or died within five seconds of the reader’s eyes touching on the text. It was the art of the 30 second seduction. Within that moment my job was to make an emotional connection, push aside your disbelief, deny all doubt, remove all hesitation and make This Puppy Chow, the only Chow Tappy’s mother would ever consider.
Everything you want to put into a novel, in 350 words or less – except it’s not a dark handsome stranger holding the evils of the world at bay – it’s dog food.
Like every armature, the Idea stressed me. For hours at work and until 4AM, I hunted for the twist, the angle, the nuance of human nature to ‘make it happen.’ Two ads a day came off my desk -- three if I was lucky while Mike was kicking out eight to fifteen every day. And they were good too.
“Just follow the rules and write,” he would tell me. “You’re good enough. Stop stressing and make it happen.”
The rules were easy to read, a little hard to understand.
Adjectives and Passive Voice, those were my bane. Every day the red ink would slash through my copy, and Mike would say, “Again.”
“Adjectives,” he would agree.
Lolly didn’t sing about those. It took a couple of days to grasp the adjective problem. I just didn’t understand why. Wasn’t something happening “quickly” more interesting? Didn’t “quickly” add speed to the sentence? No. No it didn’t.
“If you want speed you use the right words,” Mike told me.
Copy was full of ‘using the right words’, but not in the way I thought about the right word. To me, the right word was the one that described that part of the moment with perfection. It was the ONLY word that could be there. Mike was far more advanced than this simple beginner idea. The right words were the ones that did the job better than any single word. Mike worked the ‘whole’ while I drowned in details.
For example, 60 seconds is faster than a minute. Run it through your mind. Someone says, “I’ll be ready in a minute,” you know you are going to wait.
“Give me 60 seconds,” she tells you and you feel like she is going to hurry -- that she doesn’t want you to wait -- that she is invested. In 60 seconds, she’s going to make it happen. In a minute, -- sit down. She’ll be out when she’s ready.
Beef tastes better than meat. You want meat for dinner? Meat is dead. Beef sizzles on a grill.
Two years later I knew what worked, and understood that the “idea” was good, but the impact and the journey were what sold books. That’s why we read, and why we buy things. We want to be outside of our life and immersed in another. We don’t want to read about an amazing idea, or an extraordinary twist of fate, we want to live it -- feel it.
There were three events that Mike studied over and over. He had two commercials on video that he had me watch at least once a week. One was the Indian’s tear, and the other was the old lady at Wendy’s – Where’s the Beef‽
The secrets to everything you want to do in writing are in those two commercials.
The third was the Baby Jessica event. Baby Jessica was two or three years-old. She was out in the backyard of her aunt’s house in Texas. She fell into a hole.
No, really, that’s what happened. I didn’t push her in, she fell. The hole turned out to be an old well hole that was covered with a few boards. Baby Jessica fell in – and the people of the United States went catatonic. Yes, the whole nation, from east to west, sending gnarled voltage down the middle. We held our breath for days. We heard her cry, we prayed for the monkey. Yes. Prayers. Monkey.
Mike couldn’t stop talking about it -- while we listened for the news of death or breath; Mike took notes and howled with glee. Took me years to figure out he wasn’t insane.
Mike was one of the best because he understood things. It wasn’t just the college, but he understood the ‘how’ of writing. He knew to ask, to find and to seek the right questions. Answers are everywhere. Knowing what to ask, that’s the real trick.
I showed him my first published short story, and he read it with his read pen in hand but it never touched the page. “Hendiadys?” he said after he finished. “Nice. And perfectly used.”
“You really don’t know do you.”
“No Mike, I really don’t know, alright? I had to quit school. Dad left, mom was insane and I have a sister. I got a GED and a job; a job I don’t understand but as long as you are willing to pay me, I don’t care.”
He looked me over and nodded his head, “You need to learn then. You’re too good not understand why you are this good.”
The line he showed me was in a tense moment of the story. The stake and pile of wood was ready for a witch burning the next day. The judge was on his way. She’s already guilty, but the people of the town can’t burn her until the judge pronounces sentence. Otherwise, it is murder, not cleansing. The storm is harsh and thunder hammers the town so hard, no one sleeps. The people tell themselves that God’s wrath is for the witch – but with each new assault their confidence cracks. Doubt rises, and gnaws. They’re sure the Judge won’t come -- and not sure if that isn’t a good thing.
Thunder hit as the door flew open. The man there was just darkness until he ducked to clear the threshold, and stepped inside. His black cloak, sheeted with rain, reflected orange hearth light. The judge arrived. He came despite the rain and weather.
Mike underlines the last sentence. “You could have said, ‘He came despite the rainy weather,’ most people would have because it is grammatically sounder. But it is stronger the way you wrote it, using the hendiadys. ‘rain and weather’. It goes with the storm, and the judge. You can hear it, like a heavy drum. Boom – shuffle – boom -- step. What you did was discard the adjective and use two nouns. The effect is a subtle amplification. The reader won’t know why the mood just turned deeper, They’ll toss it off to the storm or the dark cloak and fire light, but this is really why they will shudder. Here, let me show you how this works...”
Hendiadys… who knew?
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A Writer's Tale
Scarlett Van Dijk
Writer of young adult, fantasy series, the Sky Stone series, poetry and short stories.
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