You Know Where the Devil Is

In the details, right? Writing my brief review of the nonfiction book Spycraft this week started me thinking about details, because that book provided them in encyclopedic proportion (bad choice for an audio read; I should have bought a dead-tree copy instead). In my own writing and in reading the work of some twenty-five or thirty other newish writers, I’m well aware of the many ways details trip us up.

Writing description is a tightrope walker’s game. Authors have to include enough detail to put a picture (the right one) in the reader’s mind without being tedious. In the Victorian era, readers loved detail, and that’s part of what makes reading those novels hard for many people today, living life in the fast lane. Victorian detail came in long loopy sentences, but less ornate approaches can stimulate pictures in readers’ minds equally effectively. Read Cormac McCarthy to find starkly simple detail, yet surgically precise description: “The night was falling down from the east and the darkness that passed over them came in a sudden breath of cold and stillness and passed on. As if the darkness had a soul itself that was the sun’s assassin hurrying to the west, as once men did believe, as they may believe again” [The Crossing]. (McCarthy also teaches the subtle power of “and.”)

tightrope walker


When the writer’s balance gets off—too much, too little—problems such as these occur: Pure decoration—a lot needs to be happening at different levels when moving a plot along, and it can be distracting when writers stop the action to explain that a particular weed was “no more than knee-high and had white, daisy-like flowers, each the size of a dime and centered with a bold dot of eggyolk yellow, and erupted in drifts along the dusty roadside,” if those weeds are never going to matter in the story. In Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger (recent winner of the 2014 Edgar award), he describes in detail a young punk’s Deuce Coupe, black with red and orange flames painted along the sides. The punk and the car figure prominently in the story, and, in subsequent mentions, all Krueger needs to do is mention the flames and the whole image—in all its symbolism—is brought back.

The irrelevant detail (or “Chekhov’s gun”)—Anton Chekhov famously said, “Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.” I hate finishing a book with that “Whatever happened to—” feeling about some vividly described character or thing. Yes, authors can include red herrings, but they ultimately have to be understood as such. At the same time, the groundwork for the resolution of the plot—and in mystery-writing, the clues—must be artfully laid so that the ending seems true, not a deus ex machina, nor totally predictable. Scott Turow’s first book, Presumed Innocent, gave such a neon-lit early clue that I knew the killer’s identity from that page on. Disappointed.

Other common problems are:

red plate, pie


The misplaced detail—It’s jarring to read a long description of a plate, a car, a dress—its shape, material, use, whatever—and then, five pages or paragraphs later, after the reader has formed a firm picture of this plate/car/dress, provide the additional information that it’s red. All such basic descriptive details need to be in one place. And should include the shade of red: cherry, scarlet, maroon. You may ask, what difference does it make whether the damn plate is blue or red? Color matters. I will assume the author made a thoughtful choice.

The lack of sensory detail—to engage readers, details need to vary—not always to appear as if the writer was copying off the character’s driver’s license—and to appeal to more than the sense of sight (“I saw her cooking”). They need to describe characteristics that demand our other senses, too, those we can feel, hear, taste, and smell. Was Mom in the kitchen cooking, or did the clattering pans reveal Grandma had arrived and the rich aroma of sizzling chicken fat mixed with the burnt-sugar smell of caramel assure Sunday dinner would be a feast?

Details about characters—my writing coach, Lauren B. Davis, gave the perfect summary of what to aspire to in describing a character. What to aim for, she said, are details that don’t just tell how a character looks, but who he is. Two examples from Margaret Atwood: “(She wore) penitential colours—less like something she’d chosen to put on than like something she’d been locked up in.” Or “He’s a large man, Walter—square-edged, like a plinth, with a neck that is not so much a neck as an extra shoulder” (both from The Blind Assassin).

To sum up, while details brings a story to life—writers need not too many, not too few, and just the right ones, Goldilocks.

Not My Type

comic sans, gravestone

Comic Sans used on a gravestone (photo:

Perhaps you’ve missed the graphic design world’s kerfluffle over Comic Sans. I had. It’s just a simple, unembellished, jaunty little typeface, I thought, but perhaps its very unassertiveness, its cheery friendliness make it ripe for assault by the typographical bullies, confident Times New Roman and sleek (but dull) Ariel? Oh, sure, sensitive people wouldn’t use Comic Sans for an eviction notice or a letter to the IRS, but are we to abandon it entirely? Apparently so, according to this infographic from Comic Sans Criminal, which displays some of those questionable uses.

When Pope Benedict XVI retired, the Vatican published a photo album of his papacy, along with his resignation letter—all in Comic Sans. The designers behind the website “Ban Comic Sans” responded, “As all seasoned graphic designers know, this is a desecration of the cardinal rule of design – NEVER use Comic Sans.” Then they asked, “Among all the apocalyptic speculation is this simply further proof that the end is near?” And a NSFW defense.

We Need a Word for That!

owl, wordbirds, Liesl SchillingerCharming description of Liesl Schillinger’s book Wordbirds: An Irreverent Lexicon for the 21st Century in the New York Times this week, illustrated by Elizabeth Zechel. When confronted by some mind-freezing dilemma, did you ever say, “there oughtta be a word for that?” Well, maybe there is, in her collection of 200. Her tumblr blog is updated weekly, too.Some of her favorites are collected in the book.

Here are a couple of gems with Schillinger’s definitions:

  • Icyclist: a person who bikes in the dead of winter
  • Occuplaytion: the fanciful jobs invented for heroines of Hollywood romantic comedies
  • Nagivator: a person constantly giving directions to the car’s driver
  • Cancellelation: the joy you feel when you cancel something you didn’t want to do in the first place


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Watch Your Words

crossword puzzle, wordsFor the fifth year in a row, Dan Feyer got the last word, winning the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, a bruising competition for speed and accuracy. Feyer was originally inspired to develop his lethal skills at the board by the documentary Wordplay (trailer), which turned solving “into a spectator sport”! Rotten Tomatoes rating: 95.

Director of the tourney is the NPR and New York Times puzzlemaster,Will Shortz. If you’re a crossword enthusiast, you’ll enjoy this list of online crossword sources, including American-style and cryptic crosswords, reference books, and so on.

A real detriment to enjoyment of my subscription to New York Magazine came about when it abandoned the London Sunday Times cryptic crossword for The Guardian’s, then for a more conventional type. Typical LST clues: “School run—true/false.” Ans: Nurture. Or “Superman retains interest in painter.” Ans: Titian. “Ancient fruit.” Ans: Elderberry. That kind of thing.

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Where Words Come From

Where do words come from? The dictionary’s entries arrive in their alphabetical slots through a lengthy process of vetting. Rules of acceptance require that they be fairly well accepted, at least in some significant population subset (rocket scientists or software engineers, for example), that they don’t squat precisely on the meaning territory of an existing word, that they be pronounceable, and so on. Which may explain what doomed Prince’s preferred name, above. Meanwhile, on the frontiers of language use—how you and I talk and write—whole arrays of new and often context-specific words crop up.

Since its inception, Wired has included a Jargon Watch feature for decoding the digiworld. Some of the entries are new words, and some are new uses of existing words. In this month’s issue is a new phrase laden with grim possibilities—“wi vi.” In case you aren’t yet familiar with wi vi, it’s wall-penetrating vision based on Wi-Fi signals, which “could be miniaturized into a handheld device for police and rescue workers.” Superman may be kvelling, but for the rest of us, where are those lead-lined bomb shelters when we need them?

In a disturbing story also in this month’s Wired, “Public Enemies: Social Media Is Fueling Gang Wars in Chicago,” Ben Austen describes how Chicago’s youth gangs are using social media to call each other out. Insults and threats flow, couched in a very specific street slang, and people die. These teens’ YouTube videos, tweets, and Facebook posts are full of violence-related words like “drilling” (shooting someone—hey, didn’t mobsters use that one? I hear a Jimmy Cagney echo); “cobra” (a .357 Magnum); and “30-poppa” (a handgun with a 30-round clip).

Only time will tell how many of these usages will become language fixtures, but it’s easy to think of words from the past with similar paternities and all now resident in “hit,” “vig,” “bit,” “byte.” “Cyberspace” itself. Writers use new words with trepidation—will they be understood twenty, ten, two years hence?

According to Orin Hargraves in his October Visual Thesaurus column, that process of lexicon expansion is difficult to document: “Even today in the Internet age, tracing the origins of linguistic innovation is a sleuth’s game.” Parallels with evolutionary biology abound. Just as our genes enable the transmission of biological information, and mutations produce life forms with new and unexpected features, words transmit cultural information, and their changes enable understanding of new cultural phenomena. If they don’t fit well into the vernacular environment, they die.

You can play games having to do with word development at Wordovators, a project involving scientists from Northwestern University and the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. The project is inspired by analogies between biodiversity and language diversity, and is attempting to figure out why new words become acceptable. Meanwhile, says Hargraves, “Those who think of a dictionary as an authoritative book are ever decreasing in number; more who will know it mainly as a helpful but not necessarily authoritative Internet-based service are born every minute.” This shift changes the dynamics of word-acceptance just as new crops of words continue to sprout.

Word Play

The Sunday paper’s Word Guy column started me musing about words in general and  the April 29 New Yorker essay by John McPhee (Draft No. 4) that works its way around, in a McPhee-like peregrination, to commending “le mot juste,” and the thrill writers feel when they find the exactly, precisely, inarguably very best word in meaning, connotation, and sound (extra points!) to express a particular thought. That article inspired me to put a “favorite word used today” widget at the bottom of my website home page.

McPhee doubts that a thesaurus will help much in extricating that perfect word from our farrago of a language. He prefers a dictionary, so he can delve into etymologies and associations, and is a fan of those paragraphs that shave the distinctions between, say, dark, dim, obscure, gloomy, and murky.

Nevertheless, Visual Thesaurus is a subscription site I use when the word I want is off napping somewhere in my brain. The definitions component of the site is weak, precisely because it doesn’t adequately explore shades of meaning. But it’s helpful in reminding me about extended word families, which helps me sneak up on a napping uncle and poke him awake.

Visual Thesaurus has other pleasures, and allows some lucky folks to have the job of developing arcane word lists (“Ten Words from the New York Times – July 3, 2013,” a list that included autocrat, throes, culminate, and intransigence; “‘Jabberwocky,’ vocabulary from the poem”; “100 SAT words beginning with ‘A’”; and the like). It has word games, a spelling bee, and VocabGrabber, which can create word clouds and perform other analyses.

I dropped the 36,000 words of my novel-in-progress into VocabGrabber and found I’ve used 2500 different words so far, 94 from the fields of social studies, 65 from arts and literature, 128 from science, and 13 from math (huh?). That doesn’t add up. “Misalign” turned up at the bottom of the list based on “familiarity,” and it occurs in the book’s first paragraph: “biding his time while the alcohol-soaked reception ratcheted forward on misaligned social wheels.” Interesting, since “ratcheted” is the word that’s received question marks. It’s the bedraggled old words at the top of the frequency list that concern me most, though. I know, “When in doubt . . .”

Lerner and Loewe have the last . . . well, you know.

Embroidering the Tale

The two books I’ve finished most recently couldn’t be more different. One was the 2012 Pulitzer-nominated Swamplandia!, about a 13-year-old girl who lives on an island in the Everglades and whose family earns its living by alligator wrestling and other dubious pursuits; the other was Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue, which takes place in Oakland, California, separated from Florida by three thousand miles and cavernous cultural divides. Yet Chabon’s book and Karen Russell’s have a striking similarity in the way they are written, a process I think of as embroidery. They both use unexpected and vivid images to snare the reader, creating a rich, colorful, multilayered text. Russell isn’t quite up to Chabon’s skill as yet, and some of her efforts fall flat, but then she will pick up again, writing, “With a grim, spiderlike lacemaking Kiwi’s brain knit his surprise into a dull and terrible knowledge,” followed a few lines later by “A pat of sun slid down the doctor’s biscuit-white face.” I didn’t mark up either book, thought I’d illustrate just by picking a page at random, which I just did with Telegraph Avenue and found “For years he had been on and off various medications whose names sounded like the code names of sorceresses or ninja assassins. . . . each wore out its welcome in his father’s bloodstream without ever managing to lay an insulating glove on the glowing wire inside him.” He could have said, “For years, he’d tried numerous mood-controlling drugs to no avail.” Thank goodness, he didn’t. Nor did he say “The old man stood up”; instead, he wrote, “The old man was up and on his feet like an umbrella opening.” What both books require is the reader’s attention. The images are so startling, so unusual, every page holds a revelation. In an era when writing is often stripped down and fast-paced, these authors’ art demands that readers slow down and luxuriate in the fresh ways they use words to stitch the hues and patterns of the worlds they have created.