Basic Rules of Writing, AKA How to Not Suck

Where do you start a story? How do you explain a situation? Describe a person? Paint the landscape ’round the subject?

Some authors allude to a running away of characters once they are formed. “They write themselves!” Those writers explain. Most others warn of much more work than that.

Whatever way you wish to describe the process, one thing is certain: you have got to make whatever you write interesting.

And so, I present to you a brief tutorial of How to Jazz Up a Paragraph of a Story.

Sample Paragraph (Warning: really boring):
Sam is a man. Sam owns a dog. The dog is a golden retriever. Sam and his dog went on a walk to the park. They walked around the park. They came back home.

1. Redundancy.
For the love of Sam, use different words. That is the point of a thesaurus. Besides replacing overused terms like “Sam” with “He” or “The man,” this also means you need to not always begin the sentences the same. Try putting the action first, like, After walking around the park, the pair returned home.

2. Descriptions.
Sam is not just a man. Sam has a height, a weight, blood pressure, blood type, interests, hair color, bad habits, and a golden retriever. Speaking of, Sam’s dog probably has a name.
Instead of Sam is a man, try Tall, pale, and lanky, Sam Stephens did not fit one’s usual description of a man.

3. Show, not Tell.
If we wanted Dr. Seuss or Dick and Jane, we’d pick those up and read them to Kindergartners. Your audience is not likely to be such a young crowd. Therefore, you need to think about the situation your character is in and describe events and landscapes and such.
I often imagine myself watching what I want to describe. I start to feel the wind sifting the hairs of my arms as the grass waves in a soft shush of sound near my feet.
See?
So, try Bright streams of summer sunbeams played across the moving pair, as they walked briskly beneath the arched entry-gate of the nearby park.

4. Be Specific.
This option is a bit of icing on the cake.
Being specific means that an author needs to write something the reader can relate to very personally.
Let’s take Sam, since we’ve brought him this far. Instead of just a park or a golden retriever, name them. Or, if you don’t really want to, have something happen at the park or have Sam be thinking about a troubling event many people think about.

5. As a Grammar Fiend, Please Fix Spelling and Grammar, Too.
That’s fairly self-explanatory. You have tools, and a few annoying friends who love to correct people’s mistakes.

And now, Class, let’s re-write our paragraph using what we’ve learned:

Tall, pale, and lanky, Sam Stephens didn’t fit one’s usual description of a man. Sam’s dog didn’t mind. Of course, golden retrievers didn’t usually mind much of anything, particularly when they were walking outside on a fine day. Sam stretched one long leg in front of another as he and Captain strolled down the sidewalk. A slight breeze ruffled Captain’s fine coat, distracting Sam from moody considerations of Sylvie. Sylvie didn’t exist out here; she was back in the dark apartment, behind the door he’d slammed after grabbing the dog leash. Bright streams of summer sunbeams played across the moving pair, as they walked briskly beneath the arched entry-gate of the nearby park. Friendly passersby said, “Hello,” and “How are you?” to the handsome dog and his owner. They couldn’t stay long, however, and Sam knew it. After walking around the park, the pair returned home.

Today’s Lesson

“All right now, class: each of you will receive a copy of this sheet of a family. You’ll need to color it, cut it out, then paste it onto card stock. We’ll be displaying them on the bulletin board for everyone else to see.

“You will only have a short amount of time to work on it, so color what’s most important to you. Maybe it’s the house. Or, you’ll focus on the mom’s hair and the kid’s clothes. I know I like to pick lovely colors for those flowers.

“When I say it’s time for scissors, you will have to see what you have time to cut out before we need to paste them. Sometimes, students only get the mom and dad out, and one of the dogs, before we need to move on. I had one classmate who removed the house, family members, and a flower very meticulously but the card stock was gone by that time and they had no background.

“If everyone is ready, then, you may begin. Hurry, but have fun!”

Life Cycles

As a child, I was cripplingly shy. I spoke barely audibly, hated to look people in the eye, and cried at social stresses.

Then, I started to grow and mature. During this stage of metamorphosis, which usually takes from two weeks to several months, the larval tissues completely break down and reorganize. The outlines of adult features—the wings, eyes, tongue, antennae, and body segments—can be seen on the surface of the pupal skin.

When fully formed, the pupal case splits and the butterfly emerges. The butterfly first expels its meconium, metabolic waste products that have accumulated during the pupal stage. It then expands its shriveled wings—by pumping them full of blood—before flying off.

What? Sorry; I dozed off and let some autofill site finish this post. I’d better get off to bed. Goodnight, everyone!

C.S.I.

Two a.m. was never an easy time to go to a job. But here they were again, hedged by police tape walls and squinting in the dark illuminations of floodlights.

“It don’t look good, Hurles.” He dragged at his e-cig, blew the filtered, no-emission, smokeless, digitally-altered remains of what may have been fumes into the air as dramatically as he could, and gave his partner a serious look.

Julie Hurlesman turned to the prostrate female form on the floor before rolling her eyes, to give him his illusion of dignity. “You’re right, Tray.” She responded cooly. “I don’t see any silver lining in this case.”

Richard Tracy shrugged away from the wall he’d been moodily supporting and effectively shrugged his oversized lapels higher round his neck. Finally abandoning the e-cig to one of many pockets within the long coat, he instead used his right hand to pull his hat brim even tighter down his brow. Satisfied with the final results, he hunched over to stand behind the squatting Hurles.

“Tray,” Hurles said with a decade of patience, “You’re blocking the spotlight again.”

Tray pretended concentration on their assignment as he sidestepped a foot to her left. She pretended not to notice, then intently tried to eliminate distractions as she began her usual examination.

Swirling dust motes and remnant e-cig particles outlined the shadow puppet hand orchestrations of her careful, thorough search. Tray looked on, more distracted in his somber thoughts of how he could finally get Hurles to use the nickname he kept asking her to, instead of the one his mother always used.

“Aha!” Hurles whispered. Tray immediately drew closer, even forgetting to flail his coattails behind him as he squatted next to her elbow. Hurles never made a verbal exclamation unless she’d found something really important.

“What?” He asked excitedly, also forgetting to use his gruff voice.

Infinitely meticulously, Hurles lifted the damp, lanky, unwashed locks from the pale face of the prone body before her. Damp eyelashes bordered a bottomless pool of darkest sadness. A deep brown iris contracted slightly at its sudden exposure to the glaring light beyond Hurles and Tray. The lashes slowly closed and reopened in calculated effect of misery. The rest of the long, drawn face held its agonized expression.

Tray took in a surprised breath. This was important. “You don’t mean -?” He began, turning to Hurles and regaining some of his former composure by raising his thick eyebrows over a fierce glare of suspense.

“Yes, I do,” Hurles told him, meeting his eye and successfully keeping her expression both neutral and normal for the circumstances.

They simultaneously moved their faces slightly to watch, as the woman on the floor heaved the heaviest sigh in human existence. She lifted just enough to turn away from the two investigators, her hair falling naturally from Hurles’ fingers like rain-soaked tree fronds. She lay still once again.

Hurles withdrew her hand, and unobtrusively wiped it on her jeans. She stood. Tray followed suit.

“Another one,” Tray concluded in a deep, gravelly voice. “A victim of her own emotions.”

Over the River and Through the Woods

This morning, I dreamed of returning to my grandmother’s house.

I walked through the door in wonder, and my feet slowly echoed a dark tread through memories. Everything was browns and shadows. The walls and floors were like stage walls -façades of what her house really had been.

I sought her lookout living room. This had been hers: from the praying Harvesters guarding either side of her music cabinet to Where’s Waldo? books hidden near the wall by the glass doors leading onto her narrow, darkwood deck. We always felt like kings overseeing her vast backyard, since her rambler-castle opened up to two floors in the back.

Now this room was as empty and nondescript as an uninhabited paper shack. There were no signs of any decorations, and only my imagination furnished it.

Eagerly, I turned to the stairs that steeply dropped from one side of the living room. I had always loved these narrow, turning steps into the dark, unfinished lower level. Down there had been a cement floor carpeted with fraying rugs; an old, metal wood-burning stove she might light; paintings of Victorian figures looking disapproving at us from shadows; antique toys to play with; a huge stuffed couch; a bar we played pretend at; and the hallway to her food storage, computer, bedroom, and art studio.

Even in life the basement was a dim, dusty, disused area. Now, not even the stairs were there. I looked over the empty gap and saw an incomplete staircase of books. How would I get down and salvage what I could?

The floor gave way beneath me, in an impossible tilt of the entire slab, and I traveled to the lower level on a falling teeter-totter of living room.

I walked around this angled now-ceiling to look around. My mind told me I was downstairs, but it was one, closed-off room. There were secrets stored behind a wall, as all basements appear in my dreams; but, there also was an enormous, dirty cardboard box with a torn-open top to examine. The book staircase was a stage prop of shiny-bound classics purchased only for looks that would never be read.

Inside the box, though, I found mounds of literature that were her. Antique Dick and Jane and dusty A Child’s Garden of Verses sat piled on Old Hat, New Hat and hundreds of unnamed children’s classics, properly faded and aged and loved. Scattered atop this scattered library was a large collection of pages, like a broken-binding calendar or matte-sheet magazine, covered in her writing and illustrations. She had been an artist.

I was in a state of near-waking, and told myself to get these things out, somehow, and get them to my mother. My mother coveted her mother’s things, especially after the house, furniture, and artwork had never resurfaced since her death.

This was a physical impossibility, however; as I saw the enormity of the cardboard box, tested the weight of the books, and wondered at the boxed-in state of the basement itself. The dream slipped away, leaving only memory dust and frustration.

I awoke determined to somehow get my grandmother’s belongings from some hidden location I must have been inspired to seek. Only, it really is all gone. The house has been sold. And even the living model of my imagination has turned to facsimile.

Sleep Tight, Continued

I can only blame my grandfather. “You like antiques,” he’d told me, smiling. He didn’t smile often, so that should have clued me in. He also loved a bargain; to the point of renting the discounted room, that smelled of everything used, if the motel clerk knocked the price down so low that most people would smell a rat. Literally.

“You need somewhere to live for a while,” he’d added. “I won’t even charge you rent till you get back on your feet.” Being my own grandfather, most people would see this as generosity. In my present, stressful circumstances, I think I convinced myself of this as well.

“You like antiques,” I mimicked, as I re-tied the kerchief around my sweating hairline. I checked it in the hallway mirror, which returned a distorted, musty outline of my strained features. I heard Sam yelling outside, but he was calling his brothers to play in the mud pile. It was better than the potentially-poisonous foliage.

I sighed. I would clean the bathroom first.

The bedrooms had made my skin crawl. Well, they’d made it feel like something was crawling on my skin. My hesitant inspection of the bathroom, safely conducted from the doorway, had the added sensation of my stomach reacting. I never could handle mold. That was one reason why I would sleep in the car over the discounted motel room option. Grandpa would say I’d get used to it, but I didn’t. The mold would grow in my mind the way it was surely growing inside the walls, entering the air sacs of my children’s lungs and poisoning them for life.

I not only smelled mold, I could see it. Someone, somewhere along the line (probably another victim of a well-meaning patriarchal relative) had installed more modern plumbing in this room and the kitchen. By the looks of things; that person had cleared the space needed for improvements, installed them, then left them victim to whatever time wished for decades. I assumed that was the reason for the water damage.

Browning spots, circled darkly then fading to the middle, were splashed around the crumbling plaster walls. The floor looked sound, at least. It was filthy like the rest of the house, but whole. There were probably creatures holing up under the sink cabinets, but we weren’t going to fall through to the basement.

I didn’t see the bathtub until I was brave enough to stick my head in farther. It sat very solidly against the door-wall, and the sight of it was the first time I considered a word like haunted. Then, of course, I told myself I was too old to feed my phobias and I’d watched too many scary movies about bathtubs (two, to be precise).

Whenever I saw a free-standing antique tub, I couldn’t help but hyperventilate a little. My mind would detach just slightly from the concrete world at hand and, instead, see hands groping the air above the too-deep water as a murderer shoved a helpless body down into the porcelain depths where no human had strength to prise the ancient stopper from the drain.

Laughing and yelling, the sounds of play, the sunlight bravely glancing in through bubbled glass, all helped to bring me back to the crusted, spotted ground on which the tub sat. “Just a tub,” I told myself. I kept telling myself.

This mantra sustained me through sweeping, dusting, bleaching, and scrubbing. It barely hummed when I first turned on the water, though. “It’s just rust,” I added, for good measure. I impatiently watched the dark liquid splash around the bathtub I’d just sanitized. “Just a tub. It’s just rust.” I told my mind to stop seeing what the water really resembled, even as I couldn’t help but glance over my shoulder or around the room.

Maybe it would have helped me to know they didn’t like the bathroom, either.

Sleep Tight

I never would have slept in that bed, normally. In fact, why stop at the bed? The house, alone, was a bad idea: dilapidated, creaking, practically condemned. Faded, peeling, nondescript paint hung tenaciously from the wood slats and window frames. Fresh air hung tenaciously from without, occasionally sneaking in through assorted gaps.

Mostly it was the vermin that made me nervous. I looked around the dusty, filthy floor and was certain I heard scuttling everywhere. Pieced sunlight streaming through the boards across the window played across the litter at my feet and rested on the bed I was meant to sleep in: an antique metalwork frame straining to hold its own lumpy mattress. Its own lumpy, dusty, filthy mattress.

Good thing we brought our own blankets. Too bad I didn’t bring my own house, or bed.

The boys’ room wasn’t much better, in terms of cleanliness. Peering carefully through the door, my hands twitched as I imagined crawly things attaching to my hair. I slapped and scratched at sudden, suspicious itches on my body and scalp.

The boys were going to have to play outside till I could fumigate this place. For a few days. Hopefully they wouldn’t fall in the old well, land in the winding creek, or swim through possible poison ivy in the tired old forest that clothed most of the hill on which the house rested.

I should have realized that insects, mice, cobwebs, repair, and dirt were not the biggest problems.

When the warm, friendly sun penetrated most of the house, I saw only that the physical problems were significant.

Looking at the spots on the bedframe and its mattress, I’d told myself that sleeping would be uncomfortable, if not impossible. I’d slept in a basement in my childhood, in a much newer house, and refused to lay under the covers for fear of night things crawling up my legs. Memories of this had crossed my mind briefly as I’d studied my sleeping arrangements.

Still, I hadn’t actually felt the nighttime. I hadn’t experienced cocooning my tired body carefully in the middle of the old mattress, nor staring up at the dark ceiling. I didn’t watch imagined movement wherever my imperfect vision blurred at the edges of clarity.

Most importantly, I had never considered who else still lived there. Well, more precisely, who else lingered. I’m certain they were no longer alive.