Ink & Bourbon
Tilting at windmills. Because those windmills think they're better than us.

The Fall of the Empire

So, this happened.

For those of you too lazy to click the link, I’ll provide some background.

The s/f cartoon Rick and Morty made a craving for McDonald’s discontinued Szechuan Dipping Sauce into a thing. It was a joke on the show, and as happens so often in geek culture, it became a huge thing on social media.

McDonald’s, sensing a marketing opportunity like shark smelling a wounded seal, jumped on it. Rather than a conventional ad campaign, they sent Rick and Morty’s creator a tub of the sauce, and advertised that it would be back for one day only, letting Facebook and Twitter run with it.

Predictably, s/f cartoon fans proved to be both plugged in to social media, and the exact demographic to whom to sell the combination of deep-fried compressed chicken parts, cheap faux-ethnic sauce, nostalgia and irony.

But McDonald’s screwed the pooch.

Most stores got very little of the sauce, or the limited edition posters, some franchises never got the memo that this was even happening. What should have been a great opportunity to cash in on more or less free viral marketing and gain some geek cred turned into a PR nightmare.

And the fans, deprived of one ounce packets of cheap dipping sauce, rioted like idiots.

Seriously, the police had to get involved in a few locations.

This is almost an episode of Rick and Morty.

Now, this touches us at QM because of the connection to s/f, to the power of the web, and illustrates some of the issues with fan culture in general. That’s kind of our wheelhouse.

But I find it part of an even more profound and disturbing trend.

This is a microcosm of everything that is wrong with America.

A reality TV star is President. Who is golfing while California burns.

The gladiators are revolting.

And now, the biggest fast food company is the world just fucked up the Bread and Circuses. And people rioted over the lack of what is almost surely a packet of equal parts soy sauce and corn syrup.

Any day now the Visigoths will be showing up at the gates.

We had a good run.

I’m gonna go pour one out for the dream that was America.

Last one out, turn off the lights.

The Devil’s in the Details

Specifically, how much detail. How much detail and description you put into your writing is a decision that will profoundly affect the way you story reads. Too little and the world and characters become flat and generic, too much can bog down the whole thing, sacrificing pace and readability for the sake of a more painstakingly drawn scene.

Description, where the detail tends to live, is pretty much by definition not action or dialogue or character development, and doesn’t move the plot. It can tell us about the world or the characters, but so can the voice, the speech, the actions and attitudes your characters express. A certain amount is helpful to set a scene, particularly in science fiction or fantasy, where you want to show the reader that the world of your story isn’t the world we’re used to. Strange planets or alien species or speculative technology or magic might call out for a bit of explanation. That said, most readers fall in love with the characters and their story more than the setting, and you don’t want them to bog down and lose interest. You need to be honest with yourself and admit that you probably find the gritty details of your world more fascinating than everyone else does.

It’s kind of the way my kid’s act in the school talent show was adorable and precious and needed to be recorded and shown to all my friends but the rest of the night was a slog to get through.

I think the best writers don’t dump vast swathes of descriptive pose onto the reader. They break it up and dribble and sprinkle it into the story.

Another good guideline on how much detail to put in, especially if you aren’t working in a wholly fictional setting, is that it is better to be vague than wrong.

If somebody walks into a store, pulls out a gun and demands the contents of the cash register, readers will run with that. If you write that the robber pulled out a nickle plated Smith and Wesson .44 caliber revolver, you need to get that right. Take a few minutes and make sure Smith and Wesson makes a nickle plated .44, make sure you know how many rounds it holds, how big and heavy it is. The world is full of people who know about these things, and if you have the guy pull the gun out of his watch pocket, fire ten rounds then drop the magazine, people who know you can do none of those things with the weapon you described will be wrenched out of the moment. Don’t say a character used to be a sergeant in the Navy, because there are lots of people who know that the Navy doesn’t have sergeants. Don’t have the medic give somebody 100 milligrams of morphine to take the edge off after he breaks an ankle because that dose is only appropriate if he weighs 2200 pounds. The same thing goes for any profession or tool or historical event.

With the internet out your fingertips, it’s easy to check things with a quick search, so you can get stuff right. But if you don’t want to do your due diligence, be vague. The man pulled a gun. The police officer had been in the Navy. The medic gave him something for the pain. Vague is OK, especially if your point of view character isn’t an expert in the field you’re describing, but being factually wrong will break immersion for readers who spot the error.

Detail in fiction is like spice in cooking. Too little and it can be bland, too much can overwhelm. Writers and reader have different tastes and preferences on how much is enough. Melville and Hemingway both wrote stories about a man’s epic battle with a creature of the ocean, but Moby Dick is groaning with description while the description in The Old man and the Sea is sparse and simple

And an incorrect detail is like grabbing the salt when you wanted sugar.

Properly applied, details can add richness and texture to your story. Just don’t weigh it down too much to move, and for the love of Bradbury, don’t put in the wrong ones.

Finding Your Tribe

It’s a difficult thing to write in isolation.

For one thing, it’s not easy to find motivation ti write when nobody’s reading what you’ve written. Just having a group pf writers who exchange works on a deadline can help push you to buckle down and be productive. It’s almost like the prospect of an empty liquor cabinet, the idea of not dealing with that just isn’t thinkable. Any writer worth his salt can come up with a rationalization to not write today, but it’s harder when you have to admit to your colleagues that you didn’t write today.

The second thing is that you need somebody else to run an eye over your work. Someone who isn’t too close, the way you are. We know what we mean, even if we don’t convey it. You need somebody else to let you know if your making yourself clear. To call you out of you get too head over heels in love with the sound of your own voice.

So we rely on our writers’ groups. My author friends were invaluable to me getting my books to a state where they were worthy of publication. I can’t thank them enough.

Today, with the ubiquity of the internet, it’s easy to find your tribe. I had friends on three continents reading my manuscripts and offering helpful feedback.

‘Twas not always so.

My first writer’s group, which I renamed the Worst Writers’ Group Ever, formed about 20 years ago. We were all local and met at the local Barnes & Noble bookstore coffee shop to exchange hard copies of our latest works in progress.

And to totally miss one another’s point.

Since we were working with a limited pool of writers, we didn’t share a genre. That’s not a complete deal breaker. Writing is writing, and if it’s unclear it doesn’t matter if it’s hard s/f or romance, any reader can tell you where he or she loses the plot, but it helps if your audience is familiar with the conventions of your chosen genre.

This group ended up being a group of people who would never see one another socially who sat around a table over overpriced lattes and took turns slagging one another’s passions. I tend to sum it up as “This story is called ‘The Walking Dead’ and I don’t like walking, or the dead, so I don’t see why anyone would read it.”

I disbanded the group in December as Christmas present to myself.

Fortunately, today we have better options. The Web abounds with online writers’ groups and there’s no excuse not to find people who are both familiar enough to get where you’re coming from, but honest enough to tell you when you’ve gone too far up your own backside.

So get out there and find your tribe.