Friday, December 5, 2008

Going viral, what does it take?

Negative stained Transmission Electron Micrograph of Marburg virions, provided by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Public Health Image Library (PHIL), with identification number #275, Photo credits belong to Content Providers(s): CDC/ Dr. Erskine Palmer, Russell Regnery, Ph.D.
Dear Gentle Reader,

Talking about yourself can sometimes be as toxic as the Marbug virus pictured above, (The Marburg virus yields Marburg Haemorrhagic Fever, which is very similar to another CDC Category Four Biosafety Agent, Marburg's close relative, Ebola...) but your scribe will risk it.

While quite pleased with the surprising success of the two almost-viral posts mentioned on Tuesday, your scribe always thought that one of these two posts from Taiwan would have become more popular:


These two stories are chapters in a travel book I am writting on living in Taiwan.

What would it take for these posts to be "viral worthy" of being spread by word of fingers? I am curious, Gentle Reader, as to what you think and what you think should be changed... (and there is no need to be gentle in critique).

Your Heroine and scribe are in Cambodia, and incommunicado. But, when your scribe returns, he will be keenly interested to see if anyone has offered feedback, and what that feedback is...

I have the impression that everyone else writing a blog is a signed, published,or a soon-to-signed author with a much more extensive set of contacts and knowledge of the system.

So, if I am breaching etiquette here, I apologize.

I would still appreciate feedback.

Your scribe can dream, right? As long as he is willing to back up his dreams with hard work, and if he is somehow able to make the invisible visible...

Tschuess from Cambodia,
Chris and Regina (Pommes, with Macavity's Hidden Paw and some mayo, is striking terror into the fish quivering in their tanks in Hong Kong...)


Laura K. Curtis said...

Well, I write a blog, and I am not published, etc, so take my thoughts for what they're worth. "Better writing" may or may not be necessary but I doubt it's what make something "go viral." Much of the "viral" writing I've seen is dreadful. But it catches a particular moment of imagination.

Most of the time, the viral stuff I read is politically oriented. Two weeks later, it's no longer relevant, but for those two weeks it's the top of the charts.

The humor columns I've seen that everyone I know seems to be reading at the same time are, perhaps, less time-sensitive and more dependent on good story-telling, but they're also very punchy. Short, perky and universal.

An example--

You say:

The outer wall was also a very strange colour, I'd call it radioactive taupe; it was beigey, taupey, and curiously luminous.

I'd rather see something like:

The outer wall was also a very strange colour. Darker than beige, yet curiously luminous, almost a radioactive taupe.

If you don't like sentence fragments you could alter it with a color or semi-colon. (Myself, I don't object to fragments if they're used intentionally.)

If you want to keep your story structure the same, later on, you might go with something like --

At least I had one thing to be thankful for: the strange wall did not derive its luminosity from radiation. Rather, the years of congealed fat, mixed with particulate waste covered a bank of windows.

Or you could switch the story around a bit, heighten the tension, don't tell me what's there until you go to the store and buy what's needed to get rid of it.

Just some thoughts late at night. They're free, and worth what you've paid for them!

Now, it's off to bed to dream of grease walls and giant spiders.

Cloudia said...

Going Viral involves "catching" it first and making it compelling. Laura's right: it fades fast (tale told by an idiot . . . signifying nothing . . .)
But what's the value? D'you wanna be the guy hit in the groin with a whiffle bat on UTUBE that gets a million hits, or be your unique, fascinating, off-center self and find nuts like us who appreciate you? Just asking . . . Aloha-

Travis Erwin said...

How about you and Junosmom both compile the links. that will it will double the exposure for those who are still participating while I'm on hiatus.

jjdebenedictis said...

Laura K. Curtis makes some good points there! I really like her first rewrite of one of your sentences.

Writing (fiction, at least) has a bunch of "rules" that aren't really rules, but guidelines to help a beginner get past some common beginner mistakes.

One of these rules is "show, don't tell", which you're doing really well with, because you strive to get the reader there in the kitchen, seeing the "flesh wall". Good work!

Another common beginner's error is to use too many adjectives and adverbs. We tend to speak this way, which is why it's common. The sentence Laura rewrote was charming, but it did rely on the adjectives to do most of its work. This constitutes "telling", and her rewrite helped reduce that reliance.

Generally, if you find you're using too many adjectives and adverbs, that means you need to choose stronger verbs and nouns. For example, "The line-up wound sinuously around the corner of the building" isn't as strong as "The line-up snaked around the corner of the building."

Likewise, "The wide palm of his hand dwarfed the thimble" isn't as strong as "The slab of his palm dwarfed the thimble."

Another thing to watch for, in terms of making sure you're not "telling" instead of "showing", is the verb "to be", i.e. is, was, etc.

When you say "The wall was ... a very strange colour", you're telling the reader a fact. It's better to show them, by writing about the event in such a way that their imagination sees an image (or hears a sound, or smells a smell, etc.)

Thus, one way to liven up your writing is to look over your first draft for all the places where you used the construction: "[something] was [something]" and then try to rewrite those sentences. For example, you could just say:

The outer wall glowed radioactive taupe.

(Note: In this case, I really like the adjective "radioactive", and I think you should keep it. The phrase "Curiously luminous" also works for me. See? The rules aren't really rules. :-) )

Here's a few paragraphs I'd like to use to point out some other things:

I frantically yanked my hand out of the wall...

...and the wall followed my hand, sliding out of its vertical moorings, thinning as it stretched until part of the wall separated...

The separated flesh of that living wall struck the opposing wall, splattering thickly and pungently.

One thing I notice here is that you've got some word repetition that should go. The word "hand" appears twice in the first sentence, and the word "wall" appears in close succession in the second and third paragraphs. You can probably arrange for the repetitions not to be necessary.

Another "rule" is that you should avoid words that end in "ing". I don't actually understand why this works, but it does make sentences read better when you try to avoid "ing".

So, here's a possible way to rewrite the paragraphs:

I yanked my hand out of the wall...and the wall followed. Adhered to my skin, it stretched from its vertical moorings, thinned, then broke.

The separated flesh slapped the opposing wall and spattered there, thick and pungent.

Oops; I'm afraid this is getting to be an obnoxiously long comment, but I'll keep going for just one more example!

Another rule is "Omit needless words." (This is from Strunk & White's The Elements of Style.)

Here's one of your paragraphs, which I'm going to alter just by removing words:

I later realized that the "wall" was a thick layer of rancid fat or semi-solid oil. There was no exhaust fan in this kitchen, so for twenty years the fat from cooking with the wok simply coagulated and congealed on the windows, never to be cleaned. It was just too hard to reach for people to bother cleaning it, I guess.

Here's the edited version:

The "wall" was a layer of rancid fat. There was no exhaust fan in this kitchen, so for twenty years, fat from the wok coagulated on the windows, never to be cleaned. It was just too hard to reach.

The edited version gets the point across faster, and arguably with more impact.

You always tell great stories, Chris, but occasionally their best points get lost in verbiage. A good exercise for you might be to try to rewrite the stories you liked best in as streamlined a fashion as possible. Try to take out as many words as possible without changing what the sentences communicate. Remember that using a strong noun or verb can make two or three superfluous adjectives and adverbs unnecessary.

One last thing: note how my edited version of the paragraph used the word "was" a lot? That is "telling", but in some cases, telling is exactly the right thing to do. In a story, it moves events forward fast, which is useful when nothing of importance is happening, e.g. "The detective drove to the crime scene."

In your story, the description of the icky flesh wall is the set-up, and finding out what that wall is made of is the punchline. I think it's exactly correct to "show" the audience the set-up (i.e. put them right there in the moment, wondering what the hell they just touched) and to then "tell" them the punchline. It's a very tidy and engaging format for this kind of story.

Okay, I'll shut up now. I hope that was helpful. Good luck! :-)

Sepiru Chris said...


Thank you very much for feedback, Laura, Cloudia, and OxyJen...


I hope to be appreciated for the stories I tell and never to be seen as a whiffle-bat victim. I also believe that there are a lot of quirky people out there, and the internet is certainly a great medium to connect us all.

Laura and OxyJen,

Great points. I don't want people to be lost in verbiage, and I have that tendency.

Both of you suggested fantastic rewrites.

I am going to keep this punchy and try to follow your advice. I know where it comes from, I appreciate it, and I see great value.

Doing rather than thinking might be hard; practice, practice, practice...

I will attempt to show my appreciation rather than telling it, and I think it will take time.


PS. Laura and OxyJen, I cannot help myself. Thank you very much for the time and attention that you gave me. It is comprehended. Telling is now done.