Writers 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.
Sometimes 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.
The 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.”
You 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?
A 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.
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!