This week’s Flashback Friday: Dark They Were, and Golden Eyed aka The Naming of Names by Ray Bradbury.
When I first read this short story, it was titled “Dark They Were, and Golden Eyed,” rather than its original name “The Naming of Names.” I read it as part of The Martian Chronicles, which has many excellent stories about Mars. They’re a bit dated now, but when I read them back in the ’90’s, I could picture the red planet, breath in the dust of red clay, and watch my eyes change from green to gold.
It wasn’t solely the topic that drew me into the story, but it’s circular plot line. Where the story ends is the beginning and the beginning, the end. It’s cyclical in nature, which was a new concept for me as a middle school student and budding writer.
In English class, we’d been taught that all novels and stories followed one singular plot diagram. The idea that this story didn’t, made me question everything my English teachers had taught me. Could plot lines be triangles? Mountains? Reverse chronology?
Between this story and certain RPG video games, I set out to write the most bizarre stories my mind could conceive–all following whatever weird plot line I’d brainstormed that morning.
Yet it wasn’t only the plot structure that pulled me into the land of Ray Bradbury. His vocabulary usage challenged me. I read his works with a book in one hand and a dictionary in the other. His word choice was precise–exquisite even. He was a master of metaphor and symbolism. What were once random literary devices teachers crammed down our throats became weapons in my writing arsenal.
Bradbury taught me the importance of using words carefully. My editor paid me an awesome compliment yesterday when she said:
You are achieving the goal of writing simply but about big ideas–so many people can’t do that, and they dress up small ideas with big words.”
I’ve seen many writers plugging away with whatever words a thesaurus shouts at them. Using big words to sound intelligent doesn’t work. It makes you sound pretentious. That certainly doesn’t mean that a writer can’t use large words or rich words, but a writer should pick their words carefully. Use devices and words with purpose and precision.
Fiction writing is always easier for me than writing nonfiction (like blog posts!), but word choice isn’t always instantaneous. My first drafts are full of brackets saying things like <insert clever description or metaphor here>, which gets corrected in later drafts.
When I think about stories like “Dark They Are, and Golden Eyed,” I wonder if Bradbury ever used similar tricks, or whether his first drafts held the intense descriptions of the final copies.
He wrote during a time when authors were paid by the word and thus, encouraged to write long. He also wrote on a typewriter, which in his early years, he rented by the hour. Computers have made it easier to correct our mistakes and write draft after draft. Maybe if we were limited to ten hours to write a novel or some similar limitation, we would write better first drafts. Pick better words and story structures.
Either way, “Dark They Were, and Golden Eyed” will remain one of my favorites by Bradbury. While I don’t teach anymore, I sometimes miss teaching this story in our unit on science fiction. Seeing students’ eyes light up when they realized that not all plots are linear is a sight to see.
It’s the same spark that hit me when I was twelve, and I stumbled upon a dog-eared copy of The Martian Chronicles.
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