5 Tips for Writing About Bathrooms

06092019 Writing Club witty nib

Welcome to the Witty Nib Writing Club, where we study all things writing and look to hone our craft! This week we’re examining something that can be jarring when people read it: bathrooms and lack of bathrooms. I’ve read plenty of bathroom scenes that are pretty sh*tty, so come right in, sit on the throne, and have a read.

5. Consider that Most People Pee and Poop

Believe it or not, most people happen to have bodily functions that end with excretion of undesirable by-products. And, even more unfortunately, most humans experience several instances per lifetime of food to excrement processing time being less than desirable.

Do your characters even think about going to the bathroom? Does no one experience the urge, whether at critical or non-critical moments? Isn’t that unrealistic?

When you read about someone going to the bathroom, it’s often meant to give one of the following feelings:

  1. Added realism
  2. Some kind of sex thing
  3. Give a character an excuse to not be on screen
  4. Get a character somewhere it’s just them and the narrator

Bathroom scenes need to accomplish something, or they’re just a waste of space. If the scene doesn’t add anything to the story, people will notice. People remember poop stories because they’re so jarring; don’t make an empty scene be the thing readers remember.

4. So You Want to Add Grittiness?

If you want to add grittiness to your story, start by taking out the TP and replacing it with sandpaper.

sandpaper tp

More seriously, grittiness of feel is one step away from putting in a scene solely for “realism”. “Realism” The difference between grittiness and an attempt at realism is worldbuilding.

Why is opening your sphincters different in your world? Do you live in Arizona and worry about scorpions in the toilet on the regular? Are you in space where everyone and their mother (even if dear ol’ mom won’t admit it) wonders how you use the poop chute in zero G? Those types of situations are things you could do to reinforce your world.

You may even use the opportunity to reveal the stringency of social norms. Let’s say your characters have to perform a makeup regimen on the regular, and deviation from this protocol will cause major social blowback. That’s worldbuilding. That’s grit, even if it’s not bloody awfulness.

And, then, you can use a bathroom while a character’s bleeding out, adding some grittiness in that there’s no other option or it’s a terrible place. Bathrooms make us automatically feel a little dirty (and by us I mean most people), so adding dirt to a vulnerable situation can often make it feel grittier.

3. Are Your Characters Into Bathroom Sex Things?

Pretty sure this is a thing some people are into, also sure it’s not me.

However, this is something you’ll need to think about if you ever have two characters in the bathroom at the same time. I’ve read several stories where there’s two women in a bathroom, and that (at the moment) doesn’t seem so weird because society has taught us it’s not weird. But when you have two men who do any talking – ANY talking – in the bathroom, there’s a weird feeling that leaves the question of eroticism or sparks open.* A girl and a boy in the same bathroom? Slow down, Nelly, that’s gonna require some ‘splainin.

Enough people appear to have a sex thing/expectation with bathrooms that you may want to consider how to mitigate it (unless, of course, your raunchy characters are fixin’ to bump nasties). Battlestar Galactica (the new version) includes bathroom scenes with teeth brushing and face washing with men and women using the same room, and they do a great job taking their super-sexed-up characters and somehow showing greater-than-real-life equality between men and women with their weird bathroom scenes.

Extermination

So yes: if you want sex clues in a bathroom, go for it. It’s easy. Otherwise, think about it and get Beta Readers to help you figure out if there’s some lascivious feelings laced up in that mess.

*I’ve heard this mostly from my husband and an interesting conversation about the placement of the urinals in the library bathroom during Korean Music Appreciation class in undergrad. You may disagree with my friends from Korean Music Appreciation class.

2. Give a Character an Excuse to be Off Screen

This one’s pretty common.

Spy says “Gotta take a piss,” or a woman says, “I’ve got to go to the powder room.” Next thing you know, they’ve left through the bathroom window and come back with the mafia to kill the hero. Alternatively, tne character in the group leaves and everyone else instantly starts telling secrets the missing individual can’t know.

But be careful: this sort of thing is common enough that it may be noticed. When a character leaves to go to the bathroom, a reader may get this twinge of “Ok, so why are they going to be absent right now?” Taking a piss is rarely the point of a bathroom in a book, and getting a character off screen can provoke a reader to pay attention or start being suspicious. Use this to your advantage by allowing for the hint, but be sure to let the absence pay off. Otherwise, it’s just “realism for the sake of realism” again.

1. Get Your Character ALONE

My favorite instance of this is in The Long, Long Trailer, a 1954 film by Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. It’s not the same characters you know of Lucy and Ricky, but they’re “Tacy” and “Nicky”. They buy a long, long trailer to live in while the travel the country, and it progressively makes them both miserable. 

The Long Long Trailer

In the bathroom scene, however, Nicky (Desi Arnaz) tries to take a shower. He can’t seem to get the shower head to suit him, and everything keeps falling. It’s a wonderful symbol of his growing resentment, of his marriage, and of his life. It’s humorous while at the same time foreboding and telling.

The best “alone in the bathroom scenes” have a definitively literary examination of the story. It adds to the characterization and plot in such a way that nuances enter your mind, even in subtle, sneaky ways. Get your character alone, and let them pour out secrets while they’re in a very secret place.

Have you ever written a sh*tty scene? Remember any that you’ve read or watched? Dump something in the comments for the rest of us to read while we’re taking our own dumps!

5 Tips for Writing About Something Technical

06092019 Writing Club witty nib

Welcome to the Witty Nib Writing Club, where we study all things writing and look to hone our craft! This week we look at something I personally have struggled to get better at: writing about technical things.

Do you want to write a book in which cars take a central role? A fighting style? A complex system of magic? All of those things can get technical, and there’s a fine line between not enough and too much information!

5. Do Some Research

Unless you are already an expert on the subject, you’re going to want to bone up on what you’re writing. Let’s say your main character uses a bow to hunt or, like Katniss from The Hunger Games, kill people. You might, then, want to know words like “fletching” or “nock” and what that means. And there’s two ways to do your research.

One is to experience it yourself. Go to a shooting range and get someone to teach you about bowhunting. Your experience will sharply deepen your ability to understand your characters. It will also help you speak with some authority on your subject.

Unfortunately, gaining real life experience is often expensive, time consuming, or completely unavailable. If that’s the case, it’s a good idea to read as much as you can, look at pictures and – most definitely – watch YouTube. There’s tons of videos of people doing sword fighting, bow hunting, almost anything that ordinary people won’t be experts on. Keep a list of resources, and follow some of the tips in my Research post.

If you’re doing a fantasy or hard science fiction system, of course no one else knows what you’re doing; the difficulty of this research is looking into yourself and establishing the rules of your world’s system. This can be hard because you’re inventing the knowledge yourself!

4. Establish the Limits of Your Knowledge

Unless you’re an expert who can’t be easily questioned or pressed about their knowledge, you want to better understand where you are and how much you know. There are two main reasons you should do this: one, and the most obvious, is to see if you’re ready to write extensively about a technical subject.

Another, and the more devious, is to avoid the Dunning Kreuger effect. This is when a person who doesn’t have any expertise considers themselves to have more knowledge than they really do. Think about the last time you talked with someone about driving, and you’ll realize almost everyone says they’re an above-average driver. That statistically can’t be true. And, what’s worse, I believe I’m an above-average driver and there’s no reason for me to think that.

We tend to over-inflate our skills when we think about things we’re just ok at or even just dabbling in. When we’re talking about our driving skills, it probably won’t affect us much (as it never has). When we’re writing a book, though, it does matter. Establishing how much you know and how much is possible for you to know will help you avoid saying incorrect things, help you establish a path forward, and decide when your research stopping point will be.

3. Figure Out Your Target Audience’s Typical Knowledge

Most fans aren’t going to be like the Game of Thrones superfans who know more about the setting than the author. You really can’t write for those people because you’ll always be wrong. But, if you’re writing any specific genre (which, let’s be honest, you’re inevitably writing some genre), fans of those books have an idea of what to expect. If you’re writing a steampunk story and put your characters in polyester, the fans are going to call you out on that. If you have a medieval fantasy and your character uses a steam engine, your readers won’t stand for it.

One way you can do this is be familiar with your genre. If you’re writing historical fiction, how do other authors handle the information about the time period? How do other people review this author’s book, especially when it comes to analysis of the period pieces? How do people of that time period write about themselves?

Another wonderful thing the internet and modern technology is extreme connectivity. You can look up forums in which people discuss the topic or books relevant to your interests. Connect with people and figure out what other people know.

2. Less > More

If there’s anything I can’t stress enough in this article, it’s this one:

Don’t. Over. Do. It.

Yes, you just gained all this information and have thought critically for untold hours. You’ve just decided exactly why your plot will work given the constraints you’ve researched. You’ve established where your readers’ knowledge ends and yours begins.

And now, I swear to you, you don’t want to go much further than your average readers’ knowledge – if at all.

When one is reading a novel, we’re reading for characters and plot. We’re reading for themes, symbols, metaphors. Technical information gets in the way very easily.

If your reader wanted to know the extra tech, historical, or other info that you’ve gathered, they’d have done the research themselves. And, you know, there will be readers who know that info. You don’t need to tell them about it as long as you’re self consistent. Consistency is what you do your research for, not for your writing.

What I’ve experienced happening with runaway explanations of technical information is that they either bore a reader or they make them feel stupid. Use the most common terms as you can without being incorrect. Don’t talk about numbers if you can avoid it. Even if you’re talking about cars, it’s probably best to avoid things like horsepower or torque unless essential to the plot.

Most of all: don’t brag or act like you’re bragging. There’s nothing worse than feeling debased by reading a book.

1. BETA READERS

You’ve done all of the above. You think you’re spot-on. But it’s not over!

All sorts of guesstimates about your average reader can be off. Once you do enough research, it’s hard to go back to where you were before. For example, I recently wrote a story that includes 19th century cannons, and I used cannon terminology like “caisson” and “limber”. Both these words are common in books about the Civil War or the Napoleonic Wars, but when I tested it with a purely fantasy audience, I got a lot of “wtf” and “this is confusing – I’m going to ignore this word.”

That means I estimated using the wrong standard! I shouldn’t have chosen a Civil War buff as my standard audience. The people willing to read the book showed me that. A test audience will help you figure out just how technical you need to be – and it’s almost never as technical as you believe it should.

What obstacles have you come across when reading or writing technical things? Have any opinions about info dumps? Let me know in the comments!

Book Review: Where the Crawdads Sing

A Southern book about white trash in eastern North Carolina – the only excuse I have for not reading this before is that it came out in 2018.

The Book

36809135._sy475_Where the Crawdads Sing
Author: Delia Owens
2018
Amazon Link

This book better become a movie or I will scream at every romance movie that has ever come out. I will hate Hollywood forever.

And I have no doubt it’ll happen – it’s too cheap a movie to make with too intense a storyline and a great freaking title.

Non-Spoiler Review

Got to be one of my favorite books I’ve read this year. It’s beautifully written with amazing natural imagery, the best in-prose-fiction poem integration I’ve seen in my life, an intense and amazing set of romantic relationships, and a vivid main character. The story has two parallel plots going on, and they converge near the end of the book in a very fantastic way. Each of the major characters have their own voice, and I was able to discern them all.

Honestly, I have very little I can complain about with this book. It was beautiful, well constructed, thoughtful, empowering – my goodness, I couldn’t believe it. I could believe the author wasn’t actually from North Carolina when I read it, though, because of some misrepresentation of region and accent (found out after that she was born in Georgia, and I do believe you’d have to be Southern in some capacity to write this book). There were some issues with slang and lingo being modern instead of from the 50’s and 60’s, which is when the story takes place. But I can forgive these details easily because white trash lit is so hard to find, because the overall trajectory of the story is beyond amazing.

If you’re Southern white trash or have been at any point in your life, get off your freaking butt and read this book. If you’re looking for a book about a fantastic female character who kicks butt without being “a man with boobs,” this is a great book to look into. If you’re a naturalist or enjoy vivid imagery and chats about animals and plants, you can’t miss this one. If you enjoy romance that’s not terribly steamy (just a wee bit), this book is for you.

But, if you’re none of the above, you might not want to read this. My spouse, for instance, would never be able to “get” this book. My best friend probably would never “get” this book. But my God – my God – if you do get this book, it’s amazing. I’ve looked at several 1-star reviews since writing this one, and those people who “don’t” get it often look at minutia and call it a day. They often claim to have skipped most of it (which I don’t blame them for if they didn’t like it) due to what they considered “purple prose”. So yes, there are those who hate it. You may be one.

Perhaps being able to associate with poor Southern whites gives me the ability to love this book. Perhaps not. But for real, give this one a chance if you think it may even slightly be relevant to you.

5/5 Discoball Snowcones

5 Discoball Snowcones

SPOILERS REVIEW

Like I said in the non-spoiler review, this book had 2 converging plotlines. One takes place entirely in 1969, and the other zooms from 1952 until it catches up with the 1969 plot. It was a great decision to do so.

Why? The 1969 plotline reveals a murder case: the killing of quarterback and small-town-hero, Chase Andrews. As the sheriff and deputy investigate and find evidence implicating the main character, Kya, the other plot reveals information about who Kya is and gives both corroborating and confounding additions for the reader to consider. By the time of the trial, I was in desperate need of knowing who – if anyone – really killed Chase Andrews. Was it Kya, who resented Chase for attempted rape? Was it Tate, who resented Chase for being mean to Kya? Was it Jumpin’, Kya’s surrogate dad who would have also hated Chase for the same reason? Was it Chase’s mom or wife, who were both so ashamed that Chase had affiliated himself with white trash? Or did Chase just commit suicide?

The book does reveal all by the end, but I think even I won’t spoil that here – you’ll have to seek that out yourself. 😉

Next week:

I begin September with a batch of shorter books – books you may want to read yourself if you want to start off with something easy and fun!

Book Review: Gone With The Wind

Enjoy my first review from what I’m deeming my “Southern Month.” As a good Southerner, I should have read Gone With the Wind way before now, but I hadn’t. So here’s to my efforts to rectify this travesty.

The Book

p5094_v_v8_aiGone With The Wind
Author: Margaret Mitchell
1936
Amazon Link

Oh, uh, the Amazon link above won’t give you a cover like the one you see to the right… it’ll give you something I don’t quite feel comfortable being the featured picture on the reader. You get the movie’s picture instead.

Something I will be accounting for in this review is the controversial portrayal of slavery. Sometimes I read a book and, even though it’s old, will complain about the author’s obviously flawed sensibilities. I’ll try to keep the time period in mind, but I won’t hold back punches if they need to be made!

Non-Spoiler Review

Ok, first off: WOW. I see why this book was one of the top-selling books of all time. Holy crap is it well constructed. Though it’s enormous (418,000 words, approximately 1,000 pages), it went amazingly fast. The sentences were masterfully gorgeous (though she didn’t use the Oxford comma, which nearly killed me), and her characters were as rich as chocolate cake.

As someone who didn’t know what to expect going in, I had no idea that Scarlett was such a scamp. She was horrible, but she was strong, determined, and smart. Scarlett was a great female character to read because she never really gives up her femininity, but she works and succeeds in a man’s world. It shows both a wonderful side to her, but also the horrifyingly evil side. I’ve never read a book with a character built like her before. For this reason, I’d say Gone with the Wind is worth reading as long as you take it with a big ol’ grain of salt.

Because WOW. Holy crap is this book racist. It’s a damn shame it’s so racist, because the book as a whole is fantastically built. It’s racist in both casual and overt manners. Even though I believe Gone with the Wind is worth reading, I also recognize that it might not be worth it for everyone, and I don’t believe it should be required reading for, say, high schoolers. If you do want to read the book, be careful, because the sheer, stupid amounts of racist comments are numerous and spread throughout. Read it for the fantastically built plot and character of Scarlett O’Hara, but criticize it in all your heart for its terrible, inaccurate depictions of slavery and life in the segregated South.

5/5 Discoball Snowcones – because I loved it despite the egregious errors

5 Discoball Snowcones

SPOILERS REVIEW

I think this book could be considered a tragedy. Scarlett works hard to get through awful events during and after the war, so you kind of rooted for her even though she hated everyone including her children. I enjoyed how Mitchell wove in careful ideas about how women’s lives were made harder by their being blamed for their own rapes/assaults, and how that blame carried over into larger events like Klan lynchings. Perhaps I’m reading this into the story due to my millennial age status, but I thought it was very clear.

The foils between Scarlett and Rhett vs. Melanie and Ashley were so well done. Scarlett and Rhett were intelligent and heartless, while the other two were all heart with no intelligence. Despite Scarlett’s hardness and Melanie’s apparent weakness, by the end of the book it’s clear that Melanie was truly the stronger one all along. In addition to the cleverly built Scarlett, Melanie was such a fantastic foil to go along with that salacious hussy of a main character.

The ending was also perfectly vague. Will Scarlett get Rhett back? Will she use his money to keep being successful? Will she ever like either of her still-living children or Melanie’s “brat”?

I believe she will. She’s not failed at anything else she’s set her mind to, so why assume she won’t succeed when the book ended?

Next week:

Stick around for a story with more Southern flavor, this time from a non-white perspective! I’m excited to present my review of Oprah favorite, The Underground Railroad.

Cadillacs and Crocodiles

car vehicle classic american

The little lady showed up at the pump riding a hot-red Cadillac convertible with ostrich leather seats. She put out the cigarette in her ash tray and told me with pouty, vermilion lips, “Fill ‘er up.” She got out and, with her crocodile-skin purse, went into the store.

While she perused the candy shelf and soda fountain, I pumped in the liquid at 10 cents a gallon lamented my paltry pay. Rich people, getting richer off the backs of us poor. I’d like to kick people like her down a couple pegs.

And she’d left her keys in the ignition.

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This was written for the May 28th Carrot Ranch prompt, opposites. I chose Cadillacs and Crocodiles which, beyond starting with C, can come together as representatives of luxury (though alligator would have been better).

Thought I’d join in a prompt right now – don’t know how many I’ll get off in the near future, but this was good enough for now!

Trip to the New World

ship-sailing

The old world had been good, but not perfect.

What would this new one hold? She’d never been told exactly what this place would be like, and all the souls held in the bow of this ship were similarly confused – if they even spoke the same language.

Which, much to the sailors’ consternation, most of them didn’t.

She couldn’t understand the sailors’ tongues, but she did understand their sticks, whips, and clubs. She understood angry glares, uncaring tones, and raised hackles. She understood the chains around her wrists and ankles.

And she could guess their destination wouldn’t be fun.

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This was written for the August 22 Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Challenge, old world.

Image by ArtTower from Pixabay

The Founding of Pewabic

decorative toile plate lot

Horace Caulkins, owner of the local kiln, harrumphed when he saw her paint. “That’s a pretty pattern, but what an ugly color.”

Mary Chase Perry dipped the brush in the delicate glaze and swept the liquid over the plate. She formed a delicate circle, close enough to perfect that few would notice any off-center bits. “You own the kilns. You should know this olive-green will become the loveliest blue when it’s fired.”

“I make teeth, ma’am. I use only white glaze, not this frilly stuff.”

Mary dipped her brush back in the pot. “Would you like to change that?”

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This was written for the July 4th Carrot Ranch prompt, Keweenaw Microhistories. You can read some of the microhistories from the National Park website here. I chose to write about Mary Chase Perry because the idea of her and Horace forming their company was interesting to me. Also, if you follow the link to the kiln’s page, you can see the history of Pewabic Pottery and glean more info on how Perry founded her company.

Photo by Toa Heftiba Şinca on Pexels.com

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Paints of Peace

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“Dance well.” I stroke my fingers across my son’s cheeks, drawing symbols to praise the creator. “Please the gods and praise their creation.” The white paint of peace applied, I clean my fingers then swirl them in a blue paint made of crushed berries and buffalo fat.  This will remain smooth through the day while the white clay cracks and falls. I hope my paints strengthen him throughout the ceremony.

“It is excellent, mother.” My son in his ceremonial clothing exits the tent.

A white soldier frowns and, through the translator, growls, “Why are you painted up for war?”

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This was written for the June 27th Carrot Ranch Prompt, paints. What I was going for here was the misconception/falsehood that native Americans used paint only for war. How many times, do you think, white people used that as an excuse to perform evil? I shudder to think.

I would credit the photo, but it technically isn’t required and the username was… well, it wasn’t very nice, haha!

With a Splash

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It would help if they didn’t wiggle so much.  But boss says it’s cleaner, quieter this way.  I do as boss says.

I tie the cinder block to the potato sack full of human refuse, then toss the concrete over the bridge. It hangs in midair.

“No! Don’t do this!” the sack shouts.  Damn, he’s undone his gag somehow.  I hate it when they do that. Now I have to pick him up and toss him by the legs so he won’t bite me.

He splashes into the canal.  I wait ten minutes to confirm the job is done.

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This was written for the June 6th Carrot Ranch prompt, splash.  It actually took me a bit to figure out what to write for this one, but you know what?  I really like gangster stories, and I like the story of Rasputin (which this reminds me of a little).

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Consumption Chic

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The princess awoke amidst heraldry and cushions. Her red lips and flush cheeks were perfection straight out of bed. She put no hensbane in her eyes, as they were already bright.

She coughed into a handkerchief as she stood and found blood left behind. Such is the price of beauty!

(50 Words)

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As part of my series where I showcase different prompts across WordPress, this was written for 50 Word Thursday.  In addition to the photo, Kristian and Teresa gave this quote:

“Her lips were red and perfectly shaped, her cheeks blushed prettily when she spoke.”
– Neil Gaiman, Stardust.

If you’re looking for a flexible prompt, look no further than 50 word Thursday!  You can do anything as long as you write in increments of 50 words.

My response was inspired by the fashion trend in the Victorian era to look like you had consumption (or tuberculosis).  People would do things like dilate their pupils to look pretty, or give themselves that healthy flush that was indicative of certain stages of the infection.  Consumption chic was so popular, in fact, that it actually delayed diagnosis of tuberculosis in many women who followed the trend.  CRAZY.