The Harrow Was Not Writing Blog

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Two things immediately jumped out at me while reading Brown Girl in the Ring: Hopkinson’s muscular pacing over the course of what is ultimately a simple but suspenseful plot and her powerful control of language that is not only readable but also lyrical. In this post, we’re going to take a look at the latter, especially when it comes to descriptions of magical moments. 

The Challenge: 
When you have to write a moment that feels otherworldly, because it’s magical or because it’s literally on another world, it can be hard to know exactly how to approach it. A minefield of possible mistakes: a jarring and confusing landing, wording that feels sufficiently magical but lacks precision or fails to create an image, or just a basic failure to connect at all. 

To clue me in, I took a look at this novel by Nalo Hopkinson. 

The Story:
Hopkinson’s Brown Girl in the Ring was a thrilling read, and the kind of book where you can discover nuggets of wisdom all over the place. It’s got a plot that’s both compelling and steadily-paced, and it has incredible moments of linguistic strength. That latter bit plays a huge role in the ability of this author to describe magical moments in her story, two of which are excerpted below: 

Excerpt 1
I should help her. I have to help her, but God, the dazer! Tony heard Ti-Jeanne whimper, risked looking out of the corners of his eyes. Jay was frog-marching Ti-Jeanne over to the bushes, Crapaud scuttling alongside, gun still held nervously on her. 
And then Ti-Jeanne chuckled in a deep, rumbling voice, the same unearthly sound that she’d made in the chapel. ‘Brothers, brothers, don’t fight! It have plenty of me to go around.’ She suddenly seemed much taller than Jay. She broke his hold with ease, reached to her own neck with long, long arms, and grasped the head of Crapaud’s dazer. He fired. She shivered, apparently in ecstasy as the power surged through her. She smiled lovingly at Crapaud. ‘Ah, me brother; you know how pain could be sweet, ain’t? You want to go first?’ 
Crapaud released the dazer, took a step back. Ti-Jeanne/Prince of Cemetery took a daddy-long-legs step over to him, put a hand on his shoulder. The man did the crazy dance of the dazeshot and fell twitching to the ground. Jay rushed Prince of Cemetery, who picked him up like a baby and cradled him to its bony chest. 

Excerpt 2
They were coming up the Strip; Yonge Street, the dividing line between the east and the west sides of the city. For some minutes now they’d been able to hear the buzz of voices and music and see the glow of light that rose from the Strip, above the city buildings. The Strip came alive at night . . . 
The noise and lights crashed on their senses. If you didn’t look too closely, you could believe that the Strip was the same as it had been before the Riots. Garish storefronts flashed crazed neon outlines of naked women with anatomically unlikely endowments. Deeplight ads glowed at the doors to virtually every establishment: moving 3-D illusions that were hyped-up, glossy lies about the pleasures to be found inside.

The Solution: 
There are several key techniques worth noticing in these excerpts. 

  1. You can see the standard practice of known to new used in practice in both of these excerpts. Before launching into the magical description of the strip, it gets mentioned casually in the posterior of a sentence in the previous paragraph, so we’re ready to take in a description when the next paragraph returns to the topic, opening by mentioning the strip. Even the magicality of the description is known beforehand: “The Strip came alive at night.” We’re prepared to see it come alive by the time the metaphorical “crash” takes place. In Excerpt one, you can see the same thing taking place, if in a weaker form, with the mentioning of Ti-Jeanne at the end of the first paragraph, transitioning into her transformation. 
  2. Excerpt 1, easily the strangest and most magical of the two (thus the hardest to communicate), goes even further, syntactically. It focuses on Ti-Jeanne as the subject throughout the paragraph, holding on to her as the “known” information, introducing a new piece of magical information at the end of each sentence. This allows the paragraph to retain a sense of cohesion, making the moment easier to parse. Taking a somewhat similar approach, Excerpt 2 begins each sentence with a mundane part of any familiar “strip” and then uses the end of the sentence to add magic to the description. 
  3. As magical as the moments seemed in text, Hopkinson actually describes these events simply and precisely. In Excerpt 1, she describes a change in height by comparing Ti-Jeanne to another (rather tall) character, and we get a number of vivid verbs and adjectives: “daddy-long-legs” and “cradled.” We see the same precise word choice in Excerpt 2 (“crashed,” “flashed” and “crazed neon”) displaying Hopkinson’s powerful sense of language and obvious attention to detail. 

Finally:
What we can see here is a simple but effective framework for getting across magical moments. Pay careful attention to your word choice. Use an uncommon verb or adjective, or even an invented compound word, that pops off the page (Hopkinson’s gets across an entire metaphor in a single word) and let it pull weight for you. Try to set up your reader for the description by focusing your subject matter over a paragraph and following a known/new construction.

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Dancers

This week’s story is available on Beneath Ceaseless Skies. Click the image to get to issue 192. I’d suggest reading at least the first 15 paragraphs or so for context, but it’d be really cool, also, if you read the entire story. Or, as I did, listen to the podcast, which is incredibly well-read. As much as possible, I’ll avoid spoilers. 


The Challenge:


One of my unsettling habits is “accidentally” writing fairy tales.

Haven’t done it much recently, but it used to be a huge problem for me. It was easy to see why it was happening: a lot of the work that I was reading and enjoying most was fairy-tale like, and fairy tales have this resolve-or-die pacing that worked for me while I was doing the whole full-time work/full-time class thing. But I didn’t always want to write a fairy tale and didn’t always feel in control of that. 


But I was able to find out why the stories came off reading like fairy tales. One reason, already mentioned, was the pacing. It was quick, almost like the narration was skimming the story. Minimal on description, minimal on character. Consequently, the second major reason my work read like fairy tales was a lack of detail. 

So minimally-younger me shrugs and decides to include more “grounding” details in one of my fairy-tale like stories. 

But the problem becomes how to choose details. You can just toss in a bunch of description and detail and cross your fingers. Your story will sludge up and readers will have to wade through all that.

Here’s a story that does an excellent job of being choosy. 


The Story:

For a study of detail, is there a better place to turn than secondary world fantasy?

Tamara Vardomskaya’s “The Three Dancers of Gizari” from Beneath Ceaseless Skies back in February (that’s really all the longer ago it was?) uses detail to awesomely. In so few words, all while moving the story forward, Vardomskaya gives us an excellent sense of this world, which we know from the get-go is in a modern-ish era thanks to the quick detail of the “Arts Today” magazine (an important setup move in a genre when readers tend to expect older eras).

Through the use of detail, we get this intense look at not just the history of the world but also at the characters. 


And, also, what an incredibly well-structured, well-paced story, complete with a surprise ending that was totally given away in the first scene, somehow without me catching on! Seriously, read it and be amazed. 

The Solution: 

We learn such a wide-breadth of information in this tale: a brief history of each character, of the use of artistic materials, and of each of the two countries involved. We also get detail on how women are treated in these societies and how the rich and poor differ (and just how big a gap there is between the rich and the poor). We also happen to learn about the evolution of theater troupes and media conglomerates the world over. 

How do we learn all of this?

We learn it through Bathenica Morning, the point-of-view character.

It seems obvious to say that details of the world should come from the main character’s concerns. That’s advice I think I’ve heard before. But it’s also so vague as to be mostly useless. 


Switching gears, let’s talk about specific moments in the story. After you read the first 15 paragraphs you should basically be able to name the kinds of details that the story returns to pretty often. Well, you should be able to name at least one, maybe two, or all three if you’re a genius. But once you’ve read the story to the end once or twice, it becomes fairly obvious that the story limits itself (for the most part) to three kinds of details. 
  1. Costs of Things
  2. Trivia about/Descriptions of Art
  3. Family Names 
Why these?

Firstly, I’m going to focus on the most obvious set of details: cost.

One of the first details we get is the cost of a floor mosaic (1,023,048.18 thalers sterling). Interesting to note that this is a very large number and we know it before we even get the context provided by Bathenica’s weekly wage (only 30 thalers sterling a week), at which point we understand that a million ts. is a ton of money in this world. And, because her backstory seems to indicate that she’s come a long way, we understand that 30 ts. a week is a good wage. 


As the story goes on, Bathenica lists the price of just about everything. We come to understand that it is an obsession of hers and it puts that first million dollar price-tag in perspective so that when you re-read the story the constant pricing of items seems almost some kind of OCD response to anxiety. 

Which matches up well with the other two kinds of details.

Bathenica’s anxiety about money goes back to her childhood and connects with her last name “Morning” which is indicative of her class. Through her narration, she ensures that you know everyone’s last names, because she is constantly thinking about the stratification caused by family. Even in the first scene she refers to Izida, who she is close with, by her first and last name. Awfully formal but also, an important part of Bathenica’s psyche. 

Because of her low income, art becomes this thing that Bathenica strives for but cannot actually have.

We realize that while she can afford nice things on her wage, she could never afford a million dollar mosaic, and certainly would never deign to walk all over said piece of art, the way her boss does in the first paragraph. But it is an interest of hers to the point of obsession, so she gives us all the juicy tidbits about art. 


These three detail touchstones (the luxury of art, the stratification of names, the prices of everything) spin around each other in this story, creating a subliminal kind of drama. She wants art, but can’t afford it, and it makes her anxious enough that she is constantly picking at the cost of daily things. It is this drama that pushes us headlong toward the end of this story and the terribly satisfying resolution. Funny thing: these same details also disguise the ending–claiming that it’s impossible. Without these details and their constantly revolving conflict, the story would be boring. 

So while “details should come from the main character’s concerns” is true, it can be better said. 

Finally:

Better way to say it: Details should spawn from the main character’s obsessions

Best way to say it: Details should spawn from the main character’s obsessions and evoke the plot of the story

When you know what your story is about, whether it’s before you draft or after, figure out which details can contribute to the push and pull of the conflict. The right details can move your plot and bring it to a satisfying conclusion. Of course, this isn’t the only technique that I’ve seen for choosing details (Kij Johnson and Kelly Link often list stuff in big chunks) and it probably wouldn’t work for every story, but in the right narrative, it can be very effective. 

Have anything to add? Anything you disagree with? Let me know in the comments. Or let me know if there’s anything you want me to read or if there’s a difficulty you’re having that you want me to keep an eye out for while I read.