Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Box of Words

Some year ago a friend mentioned I should have a box of words. He meant for my writing, but an idea sparked in my mind so I came up with Box of Words.

Today, I finally finished my own version of it and it stands in proud display on my living room table. However, it is empty! I'm going to fill it with positive words, and I need help. I want at least 500, I'll probably need more. So I ask for your help - please post a word, or several, in the comment section and I'll add them to my list so I can put them in my box.

Box of Words by ~Tusenord on deviantART

I'm guessing that people by now are going "what is a Box of Words anyway?". I think the essence of it can't be understood without the story behind it, so here it is.


Box of Words
by Malin Larsson

There was nothing quite as dampening to atmosphere as the knowledge that you will have to make an effort.
Toby knew it would be a very long, tiring day. He had known it as soon as the impact of the heavy hatch had reverberated through the floor, stirring century old dust into the air. Although he was prone to exaggeration, it was impossible to be wrong about that statement.
In the mixed light of a naked bulb and sun shining through windows never washed, the jumble was obvious. Toby saw four trunks or chests - he wasn’t quite sure what the difference was – but also an antique sewing machine, an only old sewing machine, stacked chairs, a so-called mobile fridge, two taken apart desks from IKEA, coat racks, a shoe rack, an umbrella stand with umbrellas and canes, vases, lamps of various sizes, and boxes. Boxes, boxes, boxes. Thousands of them. And that was only the front row.
Toby groaned.
He also added a mental curse at his two sons for dodging the task. Not speaking it aloud was a habit born of having strict parents and then reinforced by two unwieldy kids who quickly learned just which words they shouldn’t say.
It wasn’t as if his sons hadn’t known that they would need to clean out the old summer home this last week of July, before the new owners wanted to settle in. Instead they had fled to summer camp and foreign trips with friends. It wasn’t as if Toby wanted to do this at all. He had been very generous and offered the pregnant couple the treasures in the attic but they graciously declined. He wondered if they had seen it when the realtors showed them around. They probably had.
He pulled himself up the ladder onto the floor and stirred the dust again. The last time he was up in the attic, he had been younger than his sons were now and since then both his parents and other relatives had left their odds and ends there. Being slightly more middle-aged than he liked – which had first occurred when he turned thirty-nine some fifteen years ago – Toby was the only heir left of the crooked homestead.
The boxes towered above him. He swept his gaze over the haphazard stacks once more and tried to calculate just how anyone could have carried some of those things through the tiny hole in the floor. It couldn’t be more than five feet in every direction. Of course, the ones who had mashed their junk into the collapsing building certainly must have had the luxury of friends and family helping out. Unlike Toby.
He crossed his arms and sulked for a few minutes. In truth, he was glad for the solitude and the less audible complaints of his own mind in comparison to the ones from two teenage sons just hitting puberty. Yet, he had tried to lure them there with the promise they might keep or sell anything they found. They had laughed at him. Laughed. He wished he had two daughters instead; they always seemed more inclined to sentimentality and storing family heirlooms.
There was a honk from outside. Toby quickly and with surprising agility – considering no one was watching, he could easily claim this – descended to the second floor of the house, continued downstairs and then out on the driveway. There was a lorry with an open container and a man in a Red Bull cap standing there, both idle.
“Tobias Mathieu,” Toby introduced himself.
“Sounds foreign. I’m Roland Netles.”
Toby gestured vaguely.
“Might have been some long, long time ago,” he agreed.
“So where do you want this thing?” Roland asked, pointing at the container with his thumb.
Toby frowned and looked around indecisively. He dismissed the driveway where it would block his own car, just in case he needed to leave the premises. He turned his eyes to the patch of grass in front of the house but the two chestnut trees would be in the way. To the other side of the driveway, a stone wall narrowed the area to a slim strip.
“Right here?” Roland urged.
“I…don’t know. Perhaps.”
Roland peered at him and scratched his buttocks. The day was warm but the air was clear, just as the weather forecast had promised and hopefully it would remain so. Toby had long ago – or at least during the last five minutes – reassessed his statement and knew it would be several tiring days before he was done.
“As close to the door as possible, I guess,” Toby said uncertainly. “I’m clearing the attic and there are a lot of things up there.”
He added the latter not wanting to sound lazy or fragile. The man peered at the house. Toby wasn’t quite sure why he peered when he had his back to the sun and a cap on his head.
“You all on your own here?” Roland asked and nodded towards the Fiat wilting in the sunshine.
“Yes, my sons are on vacation, you see.”
“Very timely,” Roland said in amusement.
Toby just smiled, too torn between loyalty to his sons and the annoyance at their unhelpfulness to answer the man’s accusation with either outrage or agreement. However, the lorry driver seemed to take pity on him.
“There’s no window on that attic of yours?”
“Yes, one on each gable,” Toby answered, not quite following the man’s line of thought but liking the helpful tone of his voice.
“You got a lot of rock under this grass and it hasn’t been raining properly for days. How about I chuck the container in under a window and you can just throw it all out right into it.”
Toby brightened.
“That sounds like a splendid idea! It’s all rubbish after all,” he confided.
As he watched the driver back the thing a few inches past his Fiat, breaking some boughs off the chestnut on the way and lower the container down unto the overgrown garden, Toby considered asking for a pair of hands. He could afford to give the guy some extra. He could even offer the man some gifts from the attic. Surely he had kids who would like some of it.
Toby’s good intentions all fell into ruins as the man drove off with a wave without getting out of the truck again. With a sigh of martyrdom, Toby returned to the suffocating attic.


As twilight settled and another box of school papers followed one with clothes, Toby dragged out an old chair and sat down. He sneezed, wiped dirt to another place on his face, and wondered if his back would ever straighten again. He had cleared half of the attic; the easiest half with things that weren’t too hard to lift from the floor. Like boxes. The remaining ones still towered ominously and taunted his greying hair and trembling arms. He sighed. One more, then he’d call it a day.
He clawed at the armrests and got himself to his feet. The nearest object was a leather-like chest with a flat lid and two helpful slings of rope on each side. He grabbed them and pulled.
Gasping, he let go and was thoroughly disappointed by the fact there was no thud. He hadn’t even managed to lift it from the floor. Looking about, he made sure no one had seen it. He might be old but he had his pride.
He scanned the chest again. It didn’t look heavy. Kneeling down, he unclasped the lock and pulled at the lid. It didn’t budge. A frown formed on his brow at this unrelenting piece of rubbish. If he had only chosen another chest to be last thing to throw out, he might already be downstairs. He couldn’t as well surrender to an old chest that had been in the attic for eternity.
He stood up and pulled as hard as he could. The lid flew open and Toby almost ended up on his nose in a pile of mouldy garden furniture. He staggered, found his balance and returned to the chest. He peered into it.
Books. Big, bible-like things. He read the titles. Children’s stories. He shrugged. He didn’t have any children that young left, and no grand-children. There were enough new books out on the market that looked a whole lot better and didn’t weigh as much. He picked up a bunch and was rising to throw them out of the window when something purple and pink caught his attention. In the middle of the carefully stacked books, someone had fitted something flat. It was rectangular and no bigger than an ordinary sheet of paper. The purple was some sort of fabric-like paper and on top of it someone had glued shiny pink squares. There was a blue ribbon cutting off two corners, as if the thing was gift-wrapped. Across it all, someone had used a glittery-gold colour to carefully spell out three words.
It was a child’s work that much was obvious. It was garish and horrible, over-the-top and silly.
Toby put away the books he held and freed more of them until he could lift out the object, which was a shoebox. He turned it around and there was a faint rustle from within. The rest of the box was decorated as well, and the blue ribbons continued although now painted in another blue colour instead of being real ribbons glued on. There were green dots sprinkled across the sides and bottom of the box, among the pink squares, a painted star, an uneven something, and more purple. Toby put it right side up and ran his fingers over the thick letters on the lid.
Box of Words.
He sat down on the chair again, shoebox in lap. A girl’s toy certainly. Box of words. Toby wondered what kind of words, and why there would be a box for them. He couldn’t think of any reason. He had much to do, and little time for it, and he was starving. Yet he cautiously tilted the decorated lid back and looked inside.
Pieces of paper. Thin slices. All jumbled up. Some seemed blank, others with a word printed on them in uncertain letters. He picked up a blank one and turned it around. There was a word on the other side.
He picked up another one.
Another one.
He cradled the pieces in his palm, studying the words. He wondered what they were for. A bigger white note caught his attention. It was glued to the inside of the lid, and it too had a carefully printed message on it. It was longer than what had been written so far, and as he read it he unconsciously closed his hand over the pieces of paper in the same way you cage a butterfly within your fingers.
Use this box every day and renember the word you have all day and be it even if you dont think you are it. Then you will be it anyway.
Toby stared at the childishly abused language, feeling the edges of the pieces against his skin. As the evening breeze brought the scent of sweet-brier from the garden and mingled it with the smell of old books and furniture oil, Toby put the words back in the box. Then he carefully put on the lid and caressed the gilded letters.
As he climbed down from the attic, he held his treasure tight to his chest and thought loved.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Show Must Go On

I think few writers have missed the ever repeated phrase "show, don't tell". However, as a new writer (in fact, even as an old and experienced writer) it's difficult to tell what's showing and what's telling. Some cases might even be more effective "told" than "shown" but that is something to be left until after you can actively make the choice. I'm of the firm belief that rules are meant to be bent, if not broken, but only if you first know the rules.

Back to the vital question: what is telling?

He hated her.

The mere sight of her made him bare his teeth and it was only thirteen years of learning to control his reactions that allowed him to pull the growl back into a pleasant smile.

Which one of these conveys the most images and emotions? I hope you say "showing" or I've failed. But this was easy showing - you're in his head and can convey all these things to the reader without someone else interpretating. When it comes to writing, you must also be able to translate descriptions and characters through a pair of glasses = your POV. That's the active character, the one who sees. If you write with a complete omniscient everyone-included narrative this might not be a problem. However, I can't recall having ever read anything like that. Every story I've read has been from someone's perspective - be it a narrator, one of the 20 active characters or a completely unengaged narrator (a video camera - try Moderato Cantabile by Marguerite Dumas if you want to see how that works).

Now imagine the man in the previous example. He's controlling the flash of emotions, letting nothing show in his opinion because the growl was so brief no one noticed. The active character is now the woman he's meeting and she doesn't have a clue about his emotions. How do I give a sense of hatred from the man?

She could sense that he hated her.

He smiled at her when their hands met briefly, in fact so briefly that he let go before she had barely touched his skin. She felt unbalanced as she straightened, and she tried to understand his hooded gaze and the closed fists he pressed against his sides.

Granted, my showing isn't all too clear that he HATES her. He might be embarrassed, scared or just feeling awkward. But it gives enough away for the reader to pick up other hints along the way that might explain it more clearly. Also, is it important to know his exact feeling? The tension is there, the promise of conflicts and perhaps danger. That might be all you need.

The most difficult part of "showing not telling" is to describe when your own active character (POV) isn't aware of what you want to describe. We deny our own emotions, we doubt what we see and what we sense - we do this in real life and it should happen in writing as well. Even if you write fantasy, people are people. Alright, I give you the benefit of a doubt. You might decide to do a superadvance sci-fi world where people are completely aware of themselves. You can now go write something fantastic instead of reading the last paragraph (or go buy chocolate, make tea, watch Firefly).

She didn't realise she loved him.

Her chest tightened as he kept avoiding her eyes. Annoyance filled her and she brushed hair away from her face, molding it back into the curls falling down her back. He was being silly; it had been a long time since high school. Just because he had changed into some dropdead gorgeous brat he didn't need to stick up his nose like this. She had known him when he was a fumbling fifteen year old and she remembered he hadn't always had money on the bank or a face fit for ads. All he had had back then was his smarts, and she had longed for the ease with which he passed every exam thrown in front of him. It was unfair, she thought as she studied the indifferent expression on his face as he began talking to her husband. He had it all. She sighed, but she couldn't even envy him for it. She looked to her husband, then to the young upstart again. They were a world apart.

I think you all noticed the difference in length between the paragraphs. Showing takes more space, especially when you're showing something of which the active character isn't aware. I even compressed this more than I would have liked. To reveal things hidden within like this often takes a full manuscript , just consider the romances you have watched. I'm not saying romances are the only genre with it, but they are the stories where these hidden emotions are vital for the plot.

I have focused this post on showing emotions, but it's possibly to apply the same strategy of replacing an adjective with verbs for other descriptions.

It was a warm day.

The breeze licked her face like a human breath, and she stretched her naked legs out into the sunshine, hoping to make her dark skin shine golden by the end of the summer.

I now wish you good luck with your writing. You got more examples of "showing not telling"? Post them in the comment section, I'd love to read and discuss it!