Description: Tools from the Apothecary

apothecary.JPGWriters are literary apothecaries.  We scour books of all types, and extract strange components, only to shelve them in our mental storehouse for use later.  We pull from those dusty shelves various ingredients to suit our nefarious purposes.  Even the word, “apothecary,” derives from Greek and means a repository or storehouse.

It’s from this growing collection of ingredients we begin experimentation. A newt eye here and a butterfly wing there.  We take the parts and pieces that intrigue us, and stuff those into our mental crafting satchels as we chuckle under our breath.

Then, often in the dimly lit confines of our secret lairs (writing nooks), we start combining those ingredients.  We grind, and slice, and extract the juices, combining them into a strange smelling slurry.  Then we apply open flame.

alchemis.jpgSometimes there is a puff of acrid smoke and we are blinded for days.  But every now and then, a miracle happens.  The components dissolve and merge together.  They glow blue, then purple, then all color fizzles away leaving a glimmering clear liquid.  By the gods of dusty vials, you’ve made a potion!  Not just any potion.  A potion that can change the way a person looks at the world.

When it comes to the apothecary’s craft, the details are important.  Life and death even.  Consider the newt eye and butterfly wing I mentioned above.  That’s not nearly enough description for the mad creator of potent potions.  What kind of newt or butterfly?  How must the parts be rendered?  Whole, sliced, mashed, distilled?  These details are vital.  Ignore them, and see your eyebrows burned from your face in a puff of fiery black smoke.

For the purposes of this next section, you have taken on an apprentice apothecary.  Congratulations.  The wide-eyed juvenile will likely be a useful pawn, I mean assistant, in your quest for rare ingredients.

apothecary recipe.jpgThe apprentice will dutifully follow your instructions in hopes of acquiring the skills you have gathered over the years.  Unless we have a dark sense of humor, we must provide detailed description to our apprentice.  Lest they themselves be turned into a newt – which may not be entirely a waste.  Newts are slimy and hard to find.  Perhaps if a steady string of apprentices came through our stock of…er…back to the blog!

Your apprentice must acquire the feather of a crested river griffin for a flying potion.  Being the all-knowledgeable maestro you are, you know just where one of the glorious feathered beasts sits and watches the river.  You turn to you apprentice and say…

“Find the feather by following the river to a tall evergreen tree.  Search the base of this tree.”

Or, “Find the feather by following the river until there is a sharp bend.  You will see a towering evergreen tree.  Search around the base of this tree.”

Or perhaps, “Find the feather by following the river until there is a sharp bend.  You will see a towering evergreen tree, taller than all the others.  There should be bones around it.  Search around the base of this tree.”

griffin.jpgYou go with number three.  Your apprentice nods absently and scurries away leaving the door wide open behind him.  With a heavy frown you close the door with your mind, after all, you mixed a telekinetic potion into your chai tea latte earlier – delicious!  As the door swings closed, you begin humming the Imperial March (if I want the apothecary to know about Star Wars…he/she knows about Star Wars).

A few hours pass and you begin to wonder if you need a new apprentice.  Then the half-wit stumbles through the door.  His chest is ripped open and is bleeding all over your perfectly clean oak floorboard.  Unacceptable!  You do a spin move, douse him with healing elixir, and smile as the slimy green fluid worms its way into the cuts crossing the young fools chest.  They close with a hiss.

Perhaps it was exhaustion, perhaps it was something more, but your apprentice falls to the floor with a thud and passes out.  You look at the vial you just upended on him.  In your scribbled handwriting you see, Healing Elixir/Eternal Sleep.  Why did you even make that potion?  Oh yeah, wicked witch special order – this is what was left over.

You smack your forehead and lean down to inspect your fallen minion.  His right hand is wrapped around something.  You peel the clenched fingers apart and what do you see?

crow.pngA crows feather?  Bloody hell!  What went wrong?

Well, for one, you forgot to mention what a griffin feather looks like.  Don’t be sad you mighty apothecary friends of mine, and don’t spike my chai tea latte with Eternal Sleep.  We all do this.

In fact, when I wrote this blog I did it unintentionally.  After I had written the three potential descriptions, I looked at them and realized the mistake.  I said, “Dude, you wrote useless description about the setting, but didn’t even mention what the feather would look like.”  After a brief moment of self-loathing, I ran with it.

There are two points here.  First, sometimes in the mad rush to point our apprentices (characters) down the path (through our story) we provide description that is inherently useless, while somehow forgetting the most important pieces.

A Writer Faces Self-Doubt

Is this bad writing?  It can be if we don’t take the time to do solid reviews/re-writes and really consider the worth of the words.  Strive to ensure the description you are providing adds value to the story.  Or like me, you will be writing yourself out of holes with varying levels of success.

Secondly, don’t get down on yourself when you write.  I screwed up in this blog initially, but went with what was written.  For me, it was fun to write myself out of a hole and use my mistake as a, “what not to do,” point.  Your writing should be fun too.  The more you enjoy the process, the more it will reward you with unexpected twists and turns.

That’s it for today.  I need to drink a caffeine concoction now.  Until tomorrow, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp!

Copyright Info (final)

21 responses

  1. Poor apprentice. Wonderful way to describe ironically enough, description within literary works and its importance! This was an amusing post, and I love how you wrote yourself out of a hole after realizing your mistake as opposed to just editing it away and redoing everything.

    I believe your on the fly writing and improv, helped the the post that much more. I just finished a caffeine concoction of my own and am trying to catch up on reading as I actually half slept last night. Xp

    Thank you for sharing your wisdom.

    Cheers! ^_^

    Liked by 1 person

    • Either the apprentice becomes the master, or they sadly become fodder. And when the master is humming the Imperial March, sipping from his own stock, and using mind powers – you should know to run.

      I’ve been building up a backlog of posts and am trying to vary the content. More serious intellectual posts on some days, nonsense like this on others. Hopefully it works out!

      As always, thanks for swinging by today and leaving some thoughts. I need to stop by and check up on your dark rantings.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I would be wary of a master who knows of Apothecaries, and Star Wars myself! I would argue that your supposed less serious nonsense posts hold every bit as much brevity with their wisdom as do your serious posts.

        Also way to mix it up. I like that.

        Cheers! 🙂

        Liked by 2 people

  2. I thought the overarching message of a writer not only must include details, but relevant details made this post a serious post. The tone in which it was written only provided further entertainment. If I were teaching the importance of the correct use of details to students, especially to my high school students, they’d be far more likely to remember the story of the apothecary and apprentice and the story’s purpose than if I droned on without an entertaining analogy.
    When teaching my kids direct characterization and indirect characterization, I use the following: direct- she is mean. Indirect- she cooks kittens in a dryer. After their appalling gasps of horror, we analyze what that statement says about the character. They essentially come to the same conclusion about the character, maybe e is a little more diabolic, but they remember and later can apply it.
    So, for me entertaining analogies are serious. Great post.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That is a brilliant bit of advice (the direct vs. indirect example). I especially like how you use this as a means to reach your high school students. It also ties into the idea that we must alter the message (add detail, make humorous/serious, provide analogies) to reach certain audiences. Knowing our audience should help dictate the means in which we deliver arrows of information at them.

      I’m really glad you stopped by and read my rantings, and even happier your found some sense in them.

      Now I’m going to go check my dryer and make sure my cat Niblet isn’t taking a nap in there…

      Liked by 1 person

  3. One of the first lessons you learn as a writer is that it’s okay to write badly. I find that if I spend too much time organizing the thoughts in my head, nothing gets done. You need to see the work in front of you to make sense of it. I once read about a sculptor who made his creations by taking a lump of clay and just removing all the bits that he didn’t need. Writing is the same process. I agree with little white desk writings’ remark about the use of your analogy to get your point across. Another great post!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for swinging in and reading. For me, my blog is my own little apothecary shop where I store information for use in recipes. What I love about my shop, is it has a revolving door for people like yourself to come by and leave great comments and bits of motivation.

      I’m much the same way when it comes to writing. The first-draft hacks away some of the clay, and the first major revision starts smoothing out the surfaces. I try not to stress the small stuff too much. For me, the craft should be enjoyable. If it wasn’t, I wouldn’t be able to swing a post a day, write my own books, edit other peoples, and be able to function as a stay-at-home dad too.

      Again, thanks for the kind words. They keep my machete sharp for the hacking.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I really enjoy the back and forth between bloggers and writers. I have friends who do both and talking to professionals such as yourself really is inspirational, as cliche as that sounds. Looking forward to your future posts. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Description isn’t something I enjoy. I don’t have it down yet, but what I do have is something that’s better than what I started with. Step one…write. I call this my discovery draft. No one sees this. NO ONE. When revising, I sometimes wonder if I was looking at it when I wrote it. Step Two: Description Draft. This one still sucks. BUT during that, I post blocks of description. I describe EVERYTHING I could think of. Third Draft (which is actually what I call my first draft because it’s what some people finally see). Here I take those blocks of description and massage it into the rest of my book. I still have a ways to go, but I think this got me to where I am. Great post bud.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks for sharing your process Matt. Really, it’s great information.

      Different writers operate different ways and it’s important to offer solutions to different problems. You lack description, so you address this in your writing process.

      On the other hand, another writer may just vomit huge amounts of description in their discovery draft (we both know someone like this). They could alter this plan of yours to cut description moving forward.

      For me, the biggest takeaway I get from what you just said is to understand where you are strong and where you are weak and learn how to develop tools to compensate for this.

      Solid comment!

      Liked by 2 people

  5. I always have the issue that if I try to write description I tend to go Tolkein-esque and write four hundred pages about one tree. My apprentices fell asleep long ago and I didn’t even have to use any potions!

    Great post though. Humorous AND full of good points? How better to procrastinate when I should be tidying.

    Liked by 2 people

    • For someone who has been writing a well written short story everyday for more than 100 days (you), I would think selective description would be one of your specialities. Regardless, thanks for swinging in and commenting. Don’t let your apprentices sleep too long…

      Liked by 3 people

  6. That is why I write in layers. The first draft is just to get the story on the paper, then I add in descriptions and buff up the points I glossed over, until the finished OFFICIAL first draft looks more like a story and less like a dreaded Air Force Power Point Presentation.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Writing in layers is great advice, especially if you are lacking descriptive detail. Instead of letting progress halt, you push through and fix it later.

      It’s funny because my writing varies. Some days I’m a description creating machine and other days I’m writing and suddenly I’m adding brackets to just advance in the story – [explain what this looks like] [figure out how they got here] [when did they eat last?] and on and on.

      Whatever the process, I think the end goal is finishing the book – even if the book is barely breathing and bleeding from the eyes. We can always bring it back with a good re-write and edit.

      Thanks, as always, for sharing your process!

      Liked by 2 people

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