Friday, June 30, 2006

Ask Mr. Writing Person: Gracking Grits, Reefy Realism

Welcome home, dear Philistines, to Ask Mr. Writing Person. Please, draw up a chair, sit by the fire and listen as Mr. Writing Person explains the intricacies of writing really gritty stuff. How gritty? Spleefing gritty, that's how. Ray Pistil from Tomorrow, Alabama joins us with a question about his science fiction novel.

Q. I'm writing a novel about a mercenary, set in a dystopian future--

A. Great. We can never have too many dystopian future science fiction novels, especially about mercenaries.

Q. Yeah.

A. In fact, it should always be the first kind of novel any science fiction writer produces. Is this your first, Ray?

Q. Uh, yeah. Anyway, it's supposed to be all gritty and realistic, and I'm having a hard time pulling that off. Can I show you what I mean?

A. Certainly, dear Philistine.

Q. Okay, this passage is from when the main character, Leslie--

A. A woman, surely?

Q. A man--Leslie. He's been hired to take out the prime minister, and he's just got himself into position:
Leslie squatted behind the bushes. Part of his hot-pink cape had fallen around his left side, so he pushed it back behind him and pinched a part into his belt. He removed his weapon lovingly from its case--a Winchester 2165 Custom with pastel floral print--wiped the muzzle, and gently kissed it.

A. What in the heck are you trying to accomplish, grasshopper?

Q. I'm trying to, um, get opposite things to, um, well, they draw each other out and make them more vivid, so it's supposed to help make the setting more realistic.

A. I have a better idea. Why don't you contrast Leslie's quirkiness with the gritty reality of the setting in order to present both more vividly to the reader?

Q. That's what I meant to--

A. Anyway, I know of two techniques that should work especially well to add realism to your story. The first is reverse psychology. If you state that the reader should not believe what's coming next, he'll work extra hard to believe you. You might do something like this:
You're not going to believe this, but Leslie squatted behind the bushes.

Q. That works?

A. I've used it numerous times myself. That won't be enough, though, because you've got that hot-pink cape tugging on the reader's suspension of disbelief. Fortunately, you can employ this little trick:
You're not going to believe this, but Leslie squatted behind the bushes. Part of his hot-pink cape had fallen around his left side, so he pushed it back behind him and pinched a part into his belt. He also pinched himself to make sure he was real. He was.

Leslie is now a proxy for you, pinching himself, as you might, to determine whether he's real. And he is! Instant realism!

Q. Oh, yeah, I'd definitely pinch an armed mercenary. I almost feel like I'm there.

A. We're getting there, anyway. Now we come to grit--which, it is important to note, is only partly related to realism. There are two main ways of adding grit to a story: the first is to use gritty words, and the second is to have every character swear like a boat full of sailors.

Q. Do they have to swear?

A. Of course they do! Everyone in a dystopian future is a major potty-mouth, and readers instinctively understand that. Let's do the gritty words first, though. I'm afraid I'll have to change the name of your main character. You aren't too attached to it, I hope?

Q. I really like "Leslie," but if it helps, you can change it.

A. Great. Here's your paragraph with gritty words in it:
You're not going to believe this, but Grit squatted behind the bushes. He shuffled his feet on the gritty dirt beneath him. Part of his gritty, hot-pink cape had fallen around his left side. He gritted his teeth, pushed it back behind him and pinched a part into his belt. He also pinched himself in the grits to make sure he was real. He was. He removed his weapon lovingly from its case--a gritty Winchester 2165 Custom with pastel floral print--wiped some grit off the muzzle, and gently kissed it. For some reason, he remembered eating grits that morning.

Q. Oh, yeah, that's gritty alright.

A. And clever.

Q. Sure. Where exactly are Grit's, um, grits?

A. It doesn't matter. They only exist to show the reader that this is a very gritty kind of story. And if they don't get that from this paragraph, they're thicker than a bowl of grits.

Q. No kidding.

A. Let's get on to swearing. I see that your story takes place in 2200 or thereabouts, yes?

Q. 2197, yeah.

A. Do you think people swore in 1806 like they do this year?

Q. I don't know.

A. They didn't. Therefore, your characters shouldn't use the same swear words we do. You'll need to make some up.

Q. How do I do that?

A. Just paste together some random syllables, like stimp, grack, blim, quirt, hip, spleef, groit, hlek, piftle, nerk, zorb, stlick, reef, ritch, derk and spit. Those words all mean disgusting and horrible things that shouldn't be mentioned in polite company.

Q. They do?

A. In your story they do. Let's litter them liberally throughout the passage, give Grit some dialogue, and see how it turns out:
You're not going to stimping believe this, but Grit gracking squatted behind the blimming bushes. He shuffled his quirted feet on the gritty dirt beneath him. Part of his gritty, hot-pink cape had fallen around his hip left side. "Spleef!" he swore. "This groiting hlek is piftling my nerkkid zorb!" He gritted his teeth, pushed the reefy thing back behind him and pinched a part into his belt. He also pinched his own ritching self in the grits to make sure he was real. He was. He removed his weapon lovingly from its case--a gritty Winchester 2165 Custom with pastel floral print--wiped some derk and grit off the muzzle, and gently kissed it. For some reason, he remembered eating spitty grits that morning.

That's just lovely, isn't it?

Q. In the prose, too?

A. For more realism, you should use deep penetration for your point of view character, so yes, it's absolutely appropriate there.

Q. He sounds like an idiot.

A. It's a well-known fact that people from dystopian futures sound like spleefing idiots.

Q. You're quite the ritching hlek yourself, you know that?

A. I can't believe you'd say that in a family-friendly column. Begone, you nerkkid, zorbing Philistine.

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