Friday, May 7, 2010

Evocative writing

Before I get into descriptive writing, I feel compelled (don't ask me why) to tell you about something that's driving me nuts. See, I've recently changed my daily routine. I now go to the gym much earlier than I used to. I get there a bit past 7 a.m., which puts me home and writing by 9:15.

I like it. It works for me. In fact, I've been averaging more than 2,000 words a day this week on the new novel. For me, that's an astounding amount of work to get done each day, since I tend to write very precise first drafts. Mainly because I hate rewriting.

But every day this week when I arrived at the gym, there was this older woman leaving at the exact same time. I passed her every day, right at the front door to the health club. And like I do to everyone, I smile and say hi. And each time, she glares at me, rolls her eyes and makes that certain sheesh sound that people make when something or someone repels them. As though I'm some kind of child molester or circus freak or something.


Now I have no idea why a 65-year-old woman sheeshing me and rolling her eyes is making me so goddamned crazy, but it is. So today, I decided I would glare at her first, roll my eyes and sheesh her. So I did. And what did she do? She sheeshed me back even louder. I mean, it was more a hiss than a sheesh. In fact, it was almost a frickin' growl!

I think I'm going to stay in my car until I see her waddle out. I'm not saying she frightens me or anything, but damn. That's one scary old lady.


What I really wanted to talk about today is descriptive writing, the kind of evocative prose that stays with you forever.

I was thinking about this while in the steam room this morning at the gym (well, sure, I was also thinking about the crazy lady). I was thinking of certain passages, in both books and songs, that I still remember, that still stay with me, years later.

For example: Back in the 1980s, an English writer named John Gardner was commissioned to write several James Bond novels by the estate of the original author, Ian Fleming. (Interesting fun fact: the MC in my new novel is named Ian as my way of honoring Sir Ian Fleming). Now Gardner was no Ian Fleming, of course, but he did have a certain lyrical, descriptive way of writing that has always stuck with me.

I distinctly remember one passage, although I can't remember which book it's from, in which Gardner described Bond as such (I'm forced to paraphrase here):

Tall and elegant with a shock of black hair and piercing blue eyes, Bond slipped into a pair of comfortably worn leather moccasins, no socks, pulled on some soft pressed blue jeans and a blue chambray shirt. He rolled his sleeves tightly, precisely to his elbows. He strapped on a black-leather Rolex with a gleaming, beveled glass face. Gardner then goes from this rather elegant physical description to that of Bond, now fully formed in my mind, reaching into a dresser drawer and pulling out a sleek black Walther PPK handgun. He tells us how heavy it is, how it feels cold and oily in his hands, and how he slowly and carefully screws the silencer on it before heading off to a breakfast of kippers, freshly squeezed orange juice and Earl Grey tea.

Bravo. I never, ever forgot that couple of paragraphs of character description. I can't even tell you exactly why, just that it has is stayed with me for 25 years. To this day, when I drink Earl Grey tea (and I do, often), I think of James Bond. If only I knew what a kipper was ...

Well-written phrases in rock songs have also struck a chord with me over the years. I love a clever, well-turned lyric.

Some examples:

Elton John in Saturday Night is Alright for Fighting (written by Bernie Taupin):

My sister looks cute in her braces and boots
A handful of grease in her hair

To me, that never fails to conjure a cute punk-rock girl from the 1970s. Always.

How about Bruce Springsteen in Thunder Road?:

You can hide 'neath your covers
And study your pain
Make crosses from your lovers
Throw roses in the rain
Waste your summer praying in vain
For a saviour to rise from these streets

Oh baby, that's some writing there. I could pick a thousand samples from Springsteen that never fail to trip my trigger.

Want to make Terry cry? Play Desperado by the Eagles:

Now it seems to me, some fine things
Have been laid upon your table.
But you only want the ones
That you can't get.

Amen brother. Amen.

Or Elvis Costello (I don't recall the song, just the lyric):

I wish you luck
with a capital F

Don't you wish you had written that? I know I do.

Back to literature (and I used that term loosely; you'll see why). Here's me, trying to use descriptive language to describe my beloved Wrigley Field in my new novel. Beware, this is a rough first draft that I wrote just this afternoon:

Wrigley Field stood empty, since the Cubs were in St. Louis for a three-game series. But the team’s absence didn’t prevent a gaggle of tourists from milling about outside the venerable old stadium, mugging for cell phone pictures and peering in through the many peepholes in the crumbling outfield walls. Wrigley had always reminded Ian of an elegant old whore—way past her prime, but with just enough class left to seal the deal.

Now my writing skills are certainly not on par with those I cited above, but I am proud to point out the scarcity of adverbs in the above paragraph. Hey, I'm working at it. So how about you? Are there any passages in books or song lyrics that you've never forgotten, no matter how much times passes? I know I'll think of thousand more the second I hit the publish button. Have a great weekend. We'll meet right here on Sunday night.


  1. Oh, hell, the crazy old lady is probably just a writer...

    I love Dean Koontz's fabulous, foggy descriptions in MIDNIGHT.

    "Wrigley Field stood empty, since the Cubs were in St. Louis for a three-game series. But the team’s absence didn’t prevent a gaggle of tourists from milling about outside the venerable old stadium, mugging for cell phone pictures and peering in through the many peepholes in the crumbling outfield walls. Wrigley had always reminded Ian of an elegant old whore—way past her prime, but with just enough class left to seal the deal."

    Great stuff... I can just see the emerald green grass, smell the popcorn and the sausages and the pink cotton candy, hear the crack of the bat and the whomp of the ball in the glove... damn, I have to go to a game this spring.

    -- Holly

  2. Interesting about the crazy old lady. Try arriving at the gym a few minutes later to avoid her. Or try the opposite approach -- give her a big, beaming smile and tell her GOOD MORNING! See what happens!

    Yes, just about anything Leonard Cohen sings. The man's a genius. I particularly love this from the song ANTHEM: "Ring the bells that still can ring, Forget your perfect offering,
    There is a crack, a crack in everything,
    That's how the light gets in."

    Also, the song THE FUTURE is a very grim look at how things were in the 1990s & it was used in the movie NATURAL BORN KILLERS.

  3. I love your sheeshy old lady! I think you've been blessed with a great character dropped straight into your lap (sorry for the image). She needs to make an appearance in your book and then very bad things must happen to her. :-)

  4. Too bad you have to run into a mean person FIRST thing in the morning. Phrases that stick in my mind from books are Robert Ludlums heroes always saying, "This ends NOW!" and the villain in Misery by Stephen King (hey, she's much like your gym meanie) saying things like "meanie" and "cockadoodie" instead of the usual swear words.

  5. Terry -- Try and push one day to get to the gym a little earlier and go in and see if you can find out what machine the haggy old broad is using. Maybe that's why she's such a prune.

    A kipper is a sort of sausage, they have them a lot in England. But a bangar is better (I kid you not, there is such a thing and it's like bratwurst).

    I love your description of Wrigley, I have tourist pictures myself. I can't hear anything by Bruce that doesn't make a tear come to my eye. Especially Thunder Road.

    How about "Me and Bobby McGee" by Janis -- that'll rip your heart out once or twice.

  6. Shaun Morgan words that stick with me:
    And I'm out of reason to believe in me
    I'm out of trying to get by
    I'm so afraid of the gift you give me
    I don't belong here and I'm not well
    I can't face myself when I wake up
    And look inside a mirror
    I'm so ashamed of that thing
    I suppose I'll let it go
    till I have something more to say for me
    I'm so afraid of defeat
    And I'm out of reason to believe in me
    I'm out of trying to defy
    Hold me now I need to feel complete
    Like I matter to the one I need

    Blue October:
    The 21st. comes so soon every month
    An anniversary of not being strong enough
    He loves the winter, but it smells too much like memories

    Rob Thomas:
    I don't know if I've ever been good enough
    I'm a little bit rusty, and I think my head is caving in
    And I don't know if I've ever been really loved
    By hand that's touched me

    and of course, Pink Floyd:
    Above the planet on a wing and a prayer,
    My grubby halo, a vapour trail in the empty air,
    Across the clouds I see my shadow fly
    Out of the corner of my watering eye
    A dream unthreatened by the morning light
    Could blow this soul right through the roof of the night

    A soul in tension -- that's learning to fly
    Condition grounded but determined to try

    Can't keep my eyes from the circling skies
    Tongue-tied and twisted, just an earth-bound misfit, I

    As far as authors, Dean Koontz put in Twilight Eyes a quote from 'anonymous carnival pitchmen' something I'll never forget. In fact, it's about memorized:

    Humanity aint always what's pretty
    Some of the worst killers are pretty.
    Humanity ain't always what sounds nice and falls smooth on the ear
    Cause any person can charm a snake, but some people ain't too humane.
    A person shows humanity when he's there if you need him
    when he takes you in, when he has a genuine kind word
    when he makes you feel not alone
    when he makes your fight his fight
    that's what humanity is, if you want to know.
    and if we had a little more of it in this world
    maybe we could get ourselves out of this handbasket we're in ...
    or at least stop carrying that handbasket straight to Hell
    the way we have been for so long.

    Have a good Mother's Day weekend. Take Roller Derby Queen somewhere nice and don't mention your writing even ONCE.

  7. Okay, like I said above, the crazy old lady might be a writer, which explains everything.

    Or she might be really crazy. And that's why we should never get into spats with strangers. You don't know who's bipolar and off their meds or mad at the world because the post office fired them, or whatever. Heck, your Novel #2 starts out with this stuff.

    Me, I hate tailgaters. The last time I gave one the finger, my late husband reminded me that people have guns today. A few people would love to follow you and have it out on the street.

    You're fine. Stay away from the old bag.

    -- Holly

  8. Well, lyrics that really do it for me are things like Men Without Hats: "The party is over, it has been for years. Let's use the water to wash up, not for tears".

    As for books, and I know I'm going to take some heat for this one, but I think the scene in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban when we first meet the dementors is absolutely brilliant, I actually shuddered while I read it.

    I don't know what to say about the crazy lady at the gym, other than (and I apologize for this in advance): sheesh.

  9. I think the next time you see the crazy gym lady you should ask her out for coffee and see what she does. I double dog-dare ya!