When a Writer Defaults — Muse on Writing

Karl C. Klein, author of Unnatural Girl soon to be published by Second Wind Publishing, muses about writing:

I cover a lot of ground.

Reminder: I don’t have the benefit of a formal education. This essay is from my observations. 

The difference between an archetype and a stereotype is vast. The archetype stands as bones upon which we hang flesh — a stereotype is a cardboard cutout we allow our readers to flesh out. I’ve come to call the use of stereotypes defaulting.  

People assume what they assume, shorthanding the world. (I know shorthanding isn’t a word.) We pre-decide many aspects of life. I believe this to be a gift from Darwin, but I’m not going into that aspect. I want to talk about literary fiction.  

When a writer defaults.  

Reading a short story some years ago, I was introduced to many characters. Finally, a new character entered the story. The writer wrote: 

“He was a black man.” 

I wondered about the racial background of all the other characters. I wondered why the writer found it important to mention his race and not the race of the other characters. I wondered: what does he really mean by “He was a black man.” 

The writer used a default. Obviously, all his characters were white, unless otherwise noted. But still, what does he mean by “He was a black man.” I think of the many, many black males I’ve known over the years, their similarities and their differences and realize the statement doesn’t tell me anything worthwhile. After all, Colin Powel and William Drayton (Flavor Flav) are both black men and from where I’m sitting, have little in common. 

“He was a black man” is meant as a default, a stereotype, a cardboard cutout, a straw man merely to take the place where a real character might stand. The reader has the responsibility to hang the flesh on this character based on the reader’s prejudgment of what a black man looks like and how he might act. 

Let’s bring another character into the room: “She was a blonde.” 

OK, now we have a story populated with Will Smith and Brittany Spears. 

Note: Blonde is a person, normally female, with blond-colored hair. This term in many circles is consider derogatory (The color of the hair is not the person. To say, “See that blonde over there” is akin to saying: “See those tits over there?”) To me, in literary fiction, I see ‘Blonde’ as a meaningless term, saying nothing about the character. The term blond refers to a range of colors from sun-faded wicker to light walnut. 

Allow me a copy and paste here, a snippet from a short story, “Remembering the 4th:” 

“Minutes before lunch, I found myself suspended against the lockers outside English class, angry faces like an animated Whitman Sampler pushed shouts at me. The walnut face holding me leached so close, I knew we’d be having pizza for lunch.” 

Let me backtrack a moment and say this: there’s nothing wrong with populating your work with straw men, allowing the reader to flesh them out. It’s been a style growing in popularity, some people arguing we should describe characters and scenes as little as possible, allowing the reader to be more involved in the creation of the story. I have no idea what the style might be called, but I call it ‘reductionism.’  

The rewrite of “Waiting for Godot:” 

The curtain opens, the stage is bare. For sixty minutes the audience stares, waiting for something to happen, imagining what Estragon and Vladimir might do if they were there. Now that’s existentialism.  


(Note: OK is the preferred spelling over okay, though I prefer okay, I write OK with clenched teeth just like I drop the *@%* comma between two independent clauses connected with a conjunction, though I hate that comma with the passion of 10,000 suns. However, I’ll only give up my comma splices when they peel the pen from my cold, dead hand). 

Anytime we drop something generic on the page, we’re defaulting. When we say ‘his eyes were brown,’ we’re assuming the reader is going to know what we’re talking about when in reality, brown for eyes is a generic color.  

Again, a copy and paste, this time from a book in process I’m editing as she writes, “As Time Goes By:” 

“I thought her eyes should be blue like the midday summer sky, but they were like oiled rawhide with splotches of suede and a baker’s chocolate corona.” 

(there’s that comma I hate with the passion of 10,000 suns) 

Note, too, the ‘midday summer sky’ is a different blue than a winter sky or even a morning sky. 

Another copy and paste from the same work: 

“Uncle Mike’s eyes are dark and rich like winter evergreen in the shadows but with a hint of moist soil. His hair’s black, almost blue with a curl flipping in the front like Superman. I had to look up, standing under him.” 

Let me address modifiers while we’re here. As the writer, we often get in the story and write from our point of view and not the character’s. We want to make a statement like “He was very tall,” which in reality is meaningless to the reader. First off, ‘very’ is not a very good modifier because it doesn’t say much.  

Substitute “damn” every time you’re inclined to write “very”; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be. —Mark Twain 

“Very” isn’t a very good modifier.

“Very” isn’t a good modifier. 

Both say the same thing. “Very” is great in dialog, particularly with excited tweens, but in narrative, similes and comparisons are better. 

“I had to look up, standing under him.”

is much better than:

“He was very tall.” 

Another example of ‘show’ instead of ‘tell.’ 

Another example from a short story: “Love Letters,” by Kacie Kameron: 

“I had the gift of a perfect love. 

I was fifteen, spellbound by his brown-green eyes, the color of wet cow dung, intoxicated by the moist sea air and hot summer morning.” 

I think when people say a story needs to open with a hook, this is what they’re talking about.  

“wet cow dung” is wonderful. 

Good writing is hard work. Great writing is damn hard work.

Diatribing Show-n-Tell — My opinion on writing

Karl C. Klein, today’s guest blogger and the author of Unnatural Girl, soon to be published by Second Wind Publishing, has consented to show and tell his views on writing:

I’m new to writing. I don’t have the benefit of a formal education. I’ve not been writing since before I born, having grabbed the doctor’s pen soon after sliding into the world, scribing some Hemingway-ese prose on my swaddling blanket.

I’m a newbie, a neophyte, a rookie, a babe, a novitiate, a novice, newcomer, fledgling, tenderfoot and a greenhorn.

I’m wet behind the ears.

I’ve been reading many critiques over the past couple years to the point where my teeth want to turn around in my head and eat my brain. (Normally I say “until my eyes bleed,” but since I’m going to climb all over cliches, I thought I’d use something fresh).

If we feel the need to suggest that someone not ‘tell’ but rather ‘show’ his or her story, he or she is not to have clue what we’re talking about. (Remember, I’m a neophyte, an outsider who doesn’t know the jargon.)

“Critics too often forget they’re supposed to help, not hurt.” Lewis Black, from his book.

“Show not tell” has become a cliche, something else a writer should avoid. On some critiques, I can see the critic with her chin raised, slashing at the air like swatting flies.

I have never in any of my critiques used the expressing in any way: “show not tell,” or in any form.

I think the writer, when told something like this, should ask: “Why?” and get a better answer than: “Agents and Publishers say so.” We can and should ask why if we don’t understand and we should demand an answer.

Here’s my general advice to writers seeking their voice (when we begin writing, that’s what we do in a long, painful process — we seek our voice, which is not to be mistaken with the generic voice ‘agents and publishers’ would like to mold their writers)

This applies to third person, but much to first person, too.

Let me get this out of the way:

Don’t preach — ever. If you want to make some spiritual, religious or social point, write an essay. It’s fine for your characters to have a point of view, but keep it real. (Which is not to say the story shouldn’t make a point — even my parabolic stories look like the message is incidental).

(here’s the show and tell in a way that’s easily understood):

Let your characters tell the story. In third person, I don’t want to hear nothing from the narrator. No opinions and no hyperbole. Nothing will set my teeth on edge quicker than in 3rd person the narrator stating: “She was beautiful!”

I think in the million and a half words I’ve committed to manuscript, I’ve used ten exclamations marks. Again, ‘showing.’

If you unfurl your scene clear and sharp, the characters should show the reader everything the reader needs to know without ‘stage direction’ (telling) or what I call “movie scripting.”

I say it this way: Have faith in your reader.

1) Don’t preach
2) Let the characters tell the story
3) Have faith in the reader
4) Avoid movie scripting
5) Avoid wordiness
6) Don’t default (assuming stereotypes as universal concepts)

John walked into the room, approached the table, greeted Sally and sat on the chair. Sally greeted him back and asked if he’d had breakfast. John wasn’t one for breakfast, but knew it was polite to accept something offered. He told her no. She asked if he wanted eggs.

“Hi, Sally.” John dropped to the chair.
“Good morning. Had breakfast?”
“Love ’em?”
“How do you like them?”
“Hell, I like ’em fine!.”

There’s a best kept secret rule in writing:.

Only one point-OH-view per paragraph. If you keep this rule in mind, you can cut out 96% of your ‘saids, asks, questioned,’ etc. Why do you wish to do that? I’m glad you asked.

If you look at the dialog above, you that see no ‘saids’ are needed. The quotes indicate direct speech and the way I laid this out, it’s obvious who’s saying what. Said’s would merely be wordy and get in the way. When reading, MOST people skip them anyway.

next line:

Sally got up from her chair.

“from her chair” is wordy. We can have faith in the reader to know she was sitting on a chair.

Sally stood.

When I do a critique, if I find the writing heavy with movie scripting, I’ll copy-n-paste a few paragraphs and mark in red what I find wrong, then rewrite the section, explaining each suggestion and why I feel it makes the writing better.

Needless to say, I invest a great deal of time in my critiques.

Good writers work in groups. Great writers work alone.