10 August 2016

Apologies for the S-18's

More than a few years ago, I was helping my friend Alice move. She was living in the Berkshires, in western Massachusetts, and she was headed for Cape Cod. He dad, Joe Pelkey, had a silkscreen print shop in Pittsfield called Editions Ltd., and he shipped product all over the country. He told her to come by and pick up packing materials, and when we got there, Joe said, "What you guys want is a couple of sleeves of S-18's." Corrugated cardboard boxes. They come folded flat, you open them up and tape the seams, ready to go. They get their name because dimensionally, they measure 18 by 18 by 18 inches, which makes them practical for books or record albums, say. Or bricks. They don't weigh that much when they're full.

Like a lot of writers, or probably most, I've got a soft spot for nomenclature. The difference between a reveal and a rabbet, or a
clip and a magazine. Not everybody makes that big a deal out of it, but there are of course those of us who wax wroth over the Oxford comma. We dislike lower standards, cutting corners, getting sloppy. "Use the right word," Twain cautions, "not its second cousin."

Somehow the term S-18 stuck in my head. I relish arcane knowledge, insider lingo. When the subject of shipping cartons came up, S-18 was my mental default, and I'd deploy it like plumage. Over time, it turned into an inside joke, a private shorthand. Alice would read one of my stories, and when I asked her what she thought, she'd say, Well, you lost me in the S-18's. It was generally valid. Writers have a common weakness, and it's showing off. How better than turning over the chosen card, like a magic trick? Yes and no. The trick isn't effective if you call attention to it.

In performing close-up magic, an effect is made up of sleights, or manipulations. You use misdirection, verbal or physical distractions, to establish a false narrative - what people think they're being shown - and the narrative is a construct, a house of cards. Its structural integrity is sustained by the willing suspension of disbelief, an investment on the part of the audience, and we agree not to break the spell.

I heard Mark Billingham make an interesting remark about thriller
writing. He started out as a character actor, and then did stand-up, and he says comedy and thrillers are both about timing your
punchlines. You're at the mike, and you've got thirty seconds to get the laugh.

You don't break the spell. You've shaken hands with the reader, you've agreed to the purchase-and-sale. You don't need to be a know-it-all. Just keep faith. With apologies for the S-18's. You can leave out most of the stuff you know. Hemingway said that, and he was right. Don't be afraid to leave some space. Give yourself room to breathe. You don't have to fill every silence.


  1. Timing. I like that. It often feels to me that the main reason I read my own writing out loud as I polish it is that I'm listening for the cadence and rhythm. But "timing" is another way to think about it, and very illuminating. Thank you!

  2. Good advice throughout this... and I'm fascinated by that name S-18s! As soon as I read that (even before I saw what you were going to say about it), I thought, "Well, that's a really cool term to know, I need to remember that one...." :-)

  3. Interesting post, and some great examples. You're right--writers need to exercise restraint, and we too often fail to do so. Thanks for the reminder.

  4. Definite thanks for the term S-18.
    For myself, working almost exclusively as a short-story writer, it's all about remembering there's a difference between all that I WANT to say and all that I HAVE to say. And sometimes all that I SHOULD say. I have to keep things tight, but not too tight; with clues that hopefully aren't TOO obvious; with characters (hopefully) that a reader may remember from other stories without too many shorthand tics. The right word helps. And sometimes I wonder if I'll ever find it.

  5. I tend to think I don't do well remembering numbers, especially state road designations here in central Florida where we have a dozen or more routes starting with 4-. People rattle off "Take the 417 to the 420 and you'll find it at the intersection of 436 and 434." And I say "Uh… where?"

    However, I recall obscure IBM computer numbers and even the part number 5081… the common IBM punch card. These details would bore readers silly, but in the right context, they might help a story.


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