Tag Archives: Description

Take a Look at the Mountain

Blood on the windows
Millions of ordinary people are there
They gaze at the scenery
They act as if it is perfectly clear
Take a look at the mountains
Take a look at the beautiful river of blood.
– Genesis, Domino, part 2

I’ve never been one for writing exercises, even as a fan of Writing Excuses. I think I’ve done exactly two of their writing prompts in all the episodes I’ve listened to. It’s not laziness–on the contrary, I’ve got my own projects to work on and I don’t have time for extra work to do.

And I’m starting to think that might be a mistake. If there is a weak point in my writing (and there is, and plenty of ’em), it’s description. I’m not just “light on description”, I’m guilty of acute sensory deprivation.  I know I should do more. I just…don’t. Perhaps this is an opportunity for some practice exercises? Can I teach myself to add description more instinctively?

I’m going to try it, and I’m going to drag you along, kicking and screaming. I need a starting point, though, and fortunately Phil Collins and gang have provided me one. Let’s take a look at the mountains–or one mountain in particular–and see what we can do with it.

Prompt: My character looks at a mountain. What does she see?

Mount Kokaibo rose majestically heavenward, its forested lower slopes giving way to sparse scrub, to unforgiving rock, and finally to a snowy crown, wisps of cloud spinning out into the air.

Not bad, though this is all visual. Granted, mountains are usually far away if you’re going to be looking at them, and visual may be all you can get. Or can you?

Mount Kokaibo rose before her, covered in vibrant, steaming jungle nearly to its rough granite peak, like a favorite uncle, his bald head barely visible above the swarm of nieces and nephews clambering up his frame, trying to pull him down.

Though not technically describing the mountain, perhaps this attempt endows the mountain with a bit more personality and relates it more to its surroundings. There’s sound elements to the simile, and perhaps even some tactile connections. Moreover, it endows the setting with a sense of tone. In this example the mountain seems almost pleasant, perhaps, largely because of the “favorite uncle” comparison. But how about this?:

Mount Kokaibo rose before her, angry orange in the dying light of day. Though cloaked in festering, fetid jungle up much of its slopes, its unforgiving, lifeless stone peak thrust up from the green like a bloodied knife blade emerging from its victim’s back.

Hopefully this feels much different from the previous example. This mountain hardly feels like a place for a family campout–unless that family campout is about to be broken up by a psycho-killer. But hopefully this is a good example of how having a goal in mind can help drive your description to achieve a given feel. If you want your readers to be drawn to the mountain, use the former example. If you want to fill them with foreboding about what might happen when the characters reach the mountain, use the latter. There’s a reason why Tolkien’s Mount Doom is described the way it is compared to the Misty Mountains.

But perhaps we want only to provide a sense of mystery–we don’t know whether the mountain is good or bad–and perhaps it’s neither:

Mount Kokaibo rose before her, a massive mound of vibrant jungle receding into the rain-laden clouds that came in low off the ocean. Gaps in the clouds teased the imagination like a belly dancer, hinting a ragged gash of stone here, more teeming, glistening green there, all the while hiding its true size, or even where the peak might stand.

The more I do this, the more I’m convincing myself that I not only can do more with description, I should. What’s more, I’m beginning to see opportunities for concentrating and sharpening that description further.

For example, in the line “…the rain-laden clouds that came in low off the ocean…” the word “came” sits like a stone paperweight in the middle of a birthday cake. It does little but stand out when most of the words around it are specifically chosen for impact. It could easily be replaced with something more evocative, like “…breezed in…” or “…wafted in…” or “…lumbered in  like a threadbare blanket from the ocean…”.

Of course it’s entirely possible to spend too much time on description. If a character picks up a pen during a scene and its only real purpose is for him to sign a document, spending too much time describing the pen might trick the reader into thinking they’ve spotted a “Chekov’s Gun“. A little description might tell us something more about the person who owns it (“he picked up a pen, ebony and trimmed with gold, from his mahogany desk…”) without drawing undue attention.

Similarly, there is often no reason to spend more than a few lines at a time describing something. We get a pretty good idea of the mountain from any of the above attempts. To go on for several more paragraphs would likely bore the reader, unless the information will actually prove vital later on. For example, if you can see the terrain the characters will pass through on their way up the mountain, describing it now can help prepare reader expectations. If they’ll never even go up that mountain, too much detail will just be overkill at best, and disappoint reader expectations at worst.

Description, like most elements of a story, is a balancing act between what the story needs, the writer’s style, and the reader’s imagination. After all, most readers have seen mountains, or at least pictures. If the characters are passing through the mountains it may not be necessary to describe them much beyond calling them mountains. If the mountain is important to the story, though, it might be good to give the reader more. It’s a recipe that will need tweaking to get right. One teaspoon or two might be a matter of personal choice. No salt or an entire cup? You might lose the reader altogether.

It may well be that I’m preaching to the choir here. Many authors instinctively “get it” when it comes to the right amount of description. But perhaps some don’t. Some might include too much. Others, like me, might use too little. It’s something we can learn, we can fine-tune, until it becomes more instinctive. That’s where exercises come in, and after writing this column I’m starting to think I might have missed the boat in ignoring writing exercises all this time. A little exercise might not be such a bad idea.

Thom Stratton

About Thom Stratton

Thom Stratton was born and raised in Idaho, and now lives in Utah with his Finnish wife, three amazing kids, three distinct cats, and a big, goofy dog. He works for a regional bank, and is part owner of a video game store. He enjoys writing, photography, war gaming, music, theater, building things, and reading. Though active in writing as a teen, he convinced himself it could never be a career. Decades later upon moving to Utah, where there’s something odd in the water, he has decided to get serious about writing. To date he has written five novels to be published posthumously by his greedy estate and is polishing a set of short stories to start submitting. Any day now…

Character Analysis

Today I want to look at a few examples of how characters are first introduced to the reader. How much does the reader really need to know about a character at first glance? How much description is needed? Let’s grab a few excerpts to examine.

First up, the character Kelsier, from Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn:

Kelsier had heard stories.

That’s the first paragraph. We basically have a name, and nothing else. The second paragraph, other than letting us know Kelsier is a ‘he’, is pretty much exposition of the setting by describing the stories Kelsier had heard. We don’t get much more on Kelsier until the third paragraph:

Kelsier watched the sun, his eyes following the giant red disk as it crept toward the western horizon. He stood quietly for a long moment, alone in the empty fields. The day’s work was done; the skaa had been herded back to their hovels. Soon the mists would come.

We get a little more about Kelsier here, mostly be observation. He’s quiet, contemplative, and he’s connected with a farm, though we’re not sure he’s a skaa (whatever that is), so he may or may not be a worker.

Eventually, Kelsier sighed, then turned away to pick his way across the furrows and pathways, weaving between large heaps of ash. He avoided stepping on the plants–though he wasn’t sure why he bothered. The crops hardly seemed worth the effort. Wan, with wilted brown leaves, the plants seemed as depressed as the people who tended them.

Still not much to go on. He seems to respect plants, or is at least careful enough not to step on them.  And he seems depressed or downcast. But we’re still not sure of his status. Is he a worker or not? We get our first clue two paragraphs later.

The skaa hovels loomed in the waning light. Already , Kelsier could see the mists beginning to form, clouding the air, and giving the moundlike buildings a surreal, intangible look. The hovels stood unguarded; there as no need for watchers, for no skaa would venture outside once night arrived. Their fear of the mists was far too strong.

I’ll have to sure them of that someday, Kelsier thought as he approached one of the larger buildings. But all things in their own time. He pulled open the door and slipped inside.

So it looks like he is a skaa. But we’re still not sure, because in the next paragraph his entrance causes everyone inside to stop what they’re doing. We get more setting description,  and then some dialog. Four paragraphs later we get our first, small dose of physical description:

“Fieldwork hasn’t ever really suited me,” Kelsier said. “It’s far too hard on my delicate skin.” He smiled, holding up hands and arms that were lined with layers and layers of thin scars. The covered his skin, running lengthwise, as if some beast had repeatedly raked its claws up and down his arms.

And so it continues, characterization details measured out in drips and drabs. By the time we reach the end of that section we still only really know what Kelsier is like, with only the barest inclination of this appearance.

The next character we are introduced to is Vin, a young woman. The first physical description we get of her is four pages into the chapter:

Theron eyed Vin, obviously noting her bloodied lip. She glanced away. Theron’s eyes lingered on her, however, running down the length of her body. She wore a simple white buttoned shirt and a pair of overalls. Indeed, she was hardly enticing; scrawny with a youthful face, she supposedly didn’t even look her sixteen years. Some men preferred such woman, however.

We don’t get a lot. Other than her bloodied lip, which is more setting than description, we know she’s wearing simple, workman-type clothing, she’s thin and looks young for sixteen. Not much to go on, really. Certainly not the “police sketch” writers often feel like they need to provide.

The thing is, readers have imaginations, and with even the most sketchy details provided we will start to fill in the missing data on our own. I picture Vin as being small, almost boyish, with dark bobbed hair and a cap like a Greek fisherman’s hat. The dark hair I likely got from the cover, but the hat? Where did that come from? It’s not mentioned, and it’s definitely not on the cover. I suspect it’s an unconscious connection; boyish worker-types in overalls have to have some kind of cap in my mind.

I suspect most of you, even with practically no physical description given, are starting to fill in an image of Kelsier as well. We get mostly personality clues from him, so clearly physical descriptions are not essential. The only physical clue we get is his scarred arms, and that’s it. And yet we don’t get thrown out of the story. We don’t feel a need to skip ahead in hopes of finding a scene where we get to see him from another character’s perspective in hopes of getting a rundown of his looks.

The long and short of this exercise is this: there’s no need to dump. We don’t need to know everything there is to know about a character condensed into two paragraphs. Clearly we can take our time, spinning the description out bit by bit, point by point as the story evolves organically.

That’s not to say there’s not a place for “police sketch” style description dumps. If it makes sense for your perspective character to notice such details, then go for it. Certainly it’s not out of the ordinary for a detective character to notice such details. They’re trained to observe. We’re not surprised when we get a string of details like, “She sauntered in the door slowly, like a panther, her long legs peeking out from the slit in her black silk dress, her high heels clicking steadily on the floor. Her blond hair was the color of cigar ash, her full lips were a little too dark. She wore a prim, red silk blouse that covered up to her neck, but her assets were too ample to provide much of a mystery. She was stacked, and she was dangerous. And she was headed straight for my desk.”

But some for some middle-aged city clerk who seldom even looks up from his work to suddenly wax so profuse in his observations would seem entirely out of place. Let the perspective of your characters determine who much and what kind of details to reveal, and don’t be afraid of being stingy with your description. It’s amazing how little you really need to provide without running the risk of losing readers. Give them even the smallest of cues and they’ll gladly do the work for you.

This is, of course, Brandon Sanderson’s style. Were this Bradbury you’d likely get several paragraphs of profuse, vivid detail elucidating not long their appearance but serving up a concise picture of their world view as well. That’s Bradbury’s style. He’s generous with the paint when he creates his word pictures.

Your style may be somewhere in between. You may need time to discover where your balance lies. You may learn to vary the amount of description in response to instincts telling you where to place your focus. There’s likely not any one or even a few “right” ways of approaching character description. We only know that you need to give your reader something, even if it’s almost entirely personality exposition rather than description.

Balancing your description is a writing skill we can all develop, and a good tool to have in your writers toolbox. It’ll be a different balance for nearly everyone, and that’s okay. But finding the balance that works for you is just one skill of many that writers need.

 

 

 

Thom Stratton

About Thom Stratton

Thom Stratton was born and raised in Idaho, and now lives in Utah with his Finnish wife, three amazing kids, three distinct cats, and a big, goofy dog. He works for a regional bank, and is part owner of a video game store. He enjoys writing, photography, war gaming, music, theater, building things, and reading. Though active in writing as a teen, he convinced himself it could never be a career. Decades later upon moving to Utah, where there’s something odd in the water, he has decided to get serious about writing. To date he has written five novels to be published posthumously by his greedy estate and is polishing a set of short stories to start submitting. Any day now…

When time slows down

It’s pretty much accepted as fact that when something exciting happens time slows down and people gain heightened awareness. My recent vacation has made me question this–or at least the notion that we all experience “time dilation” the same way.

Two particular experiences I had emphasize this. The first was an incident when my family and I were out hiking. We stopped for a rest on a small neck of land connecting the mainland with a nearby island and were enjoying ourselves when I looked up and saw a bear on the mainland, right next to the connecting land.

Now, we’re not national park novices. We’ve heard all the warnings many times. Immediately we started making noise and backing away. But it’s hard to back up quickly on gravel, and for some reason the bear began heading in our direction. About that time I saw a group of hikers coming toward us along a different trail that was separated from the bear by a few large bushes. I called out a warning to them to get them to stop, or else there could be serious problem when the bear and the hikers met.

I suspect the bear sensed the hikers, too, as it began running toward us. At that point I really became worried. I started urging my family farther away and onto the beach, hoping the bear would be more interested in the cover of the woods on the island. Suddenly a park ranger (I think) appeared from the island side and told my wife and older son, who were closest to him, to take the trail up into the woods.

As it was, the bear bypassed us all and hid in the woods, but it was still several anxious minutes before my wife and son extricated themselves from the woods and joined us on the beach. And it was half an hour or more before we all could relax enough to return to our camp.

The other incident I want to explore occurred on the way home. We were passing through some road construction when a truck ahead of us clipped a couple of the construction barrels, which then caromed off the concrete barriers and back into traffic ahead of us. The first didn’t go far, and we were able to dodge it while remaining in our lane (traffic was packed in pretty good in both lanes). The second, however, was dead ahead, and there was nothing we could do but hit it.

Fortunately said barrels are lighter than they appear. It only got caught under the front of our car. I put on my blinker and crossed the other lane over to the shoulder (what little there was), and my wife got out and removed the barrel. Soon we were on our way again. I was a bit rattled–and definitely wide awake now–but no other harm done.

These two experiences taught me a few things about what really happens in “adrenaline” situations–or at least what happens to me. In either case, the observations should give us some ideas about how our characters might respond in those tense moments of action.

  1. Time does indeed seem to slow down. The incident with the bear seemed to take a long time, and yet when we review the video (I had been taking video at the time) it seems the incident took very little real time. That burst of adrenaline we get when excited does make our brains seem to run faster.
  2. Hyper-awareness…not so much. In my case, at least, while I was more deeply aware of everything in my immediate field of vision, if anything I developed tunnel vision. I was focused intensely on what I could see. I knew where the bear was until the ranger broke my concentration. I could see both barrels and know which way they were bouncing, but I had no idea what the cars around me were doing. I certainly didn’t experience any “Kung Fu Panda-esque” ability to discern the beating of the wings of the dragonfly that flew through the scene or notice every single hair on the bear. If anything, my brain filtered out any information it deemed extraneous. Details of the bear were unimportant beyond the vague shape of the bear that indicated it was running or walking.
  3. Every detail wasn’t burned forever into my memory. All of that time dilation and laser-like focus? Gone. I only have vague recollections of these events now. They’re not etched forever in my memory. I even had trouble remembering which of my three kids got stranded on the trail with my wife only a few minutes after it happened. I’m perfectly willing to admit that this aspect may be unique to me. I have a terrible memory.
  4. Both events left me shaken. Everyone is capable of developing a certain familiarity with some situations to which they are regularly exposed. The park ranger wasn’t as rattled by the bear sighting as I was. He’d been around them before. It was totally new to me. People will respond differently to new situations than they will with things that have become somewhat routine. A hardened warrior may come out of a skirmish feeling much the same as if he’d just eaten lunch. A brand new civilian would likely be shaking and in shock after the exact same experience.

So what am I suggesting we should learn from this? For one, at the very least, everyone could be different. Not everyone is going to respond to a situation the same way. Some will take it in stride. Some will be upset and freaked out. Take time to consider what your characters are used to and what would be new to them.

For another, if you’re describing a tense situation from a single character’s point of view, realistically they’re not going to be able to tell you what is happening to every member of the party the entire time. They’ll be doing well to describe what is happening to them. Unless there is a good reason, don’t expect your characters to be aware of everything at once. In the interest of storytelling you can cheat a little, of course, but realistically, chaotic situations are just that. Chaos tends to overload the receptors.

Don’t expect witnesses to have crystal-clear memories of events. A victim may remember significant details about their attacker, but the chances that they’d be able to identify a face in a crowd at the time or be able to describe by-standers is pretty low. They won’t likely even have noticed their was a bird flying overhead at the time, let alone what kind or specific markings. There may be exceptions to this, but I suspect those are rare.

But at the same time, don’t worry about getting too descriptive in your action scenes. If you’re writing it correctly your reader’s brain will be accelerating, and so they won’t notice your writing may actually have been slowing down while you describe it. They’ll process it faster so that it will seem normal speed to them. Don’t worry about taking too long–just make sure the action is clear.

On the other hand, just because time does seem to slow down, if your character is in the middle of a life-and-death fight, they probably won’t be having multiple-paragraph ruminations about how they got to this point, the morality of what he’s doing, or anything else like that. He’ll be focused on the fight.

Those are just a few things to consider when writing intense scenes or action sequences. As I said before, I won’t claim to be typical. Your results may vary, and as writers we can get away with a lot so long as it enhances the story. But we should also be careful not to buy too deeply into the clichés about how the human mind and body responds under adrenaline. Everyone is different, and I believe our writing benefits when we take that into account.

Thom Stratton

About Thom Stratton

Thom Stratton was born and raised in Idaho, and now lives in Utah with his Finnish wife, three amazing kids, three distinct cats, and a big, goofy dog. He works for a regional bank, and is part owner of a video game store. He enjoys writing, photography, war gaming, music, theater, building things, and reading. Though active in writing as a teen, he convinced himself it could never be a career. Decades later upon moving to Utah, where there’s something odd in the water, he has decided to get serious about writing. To date he has written five novels to be published posthumously by his greedy estate and is polishing a set of short stories to start submitting. Any day now…

FIVE WRITING RULES AND HOW/WHEN TO BREAK THEM

I found a statement in an old copy of Writer’s Market on line by Jessica Strawser (Feb. 13, 2012 issue) that made me laugh out loud, and I quote: “As wordsmiths, many of us rejoice in a single fact every day: “Writing is not math.”

The reason it hit my funny bone is that I know a number of writers who would agree. I, on the other hand, loved math when I was a kid in school — probably from early junior high school on — Oh, not even! I remember maybe in upper elementary (?) whenever we hit fractions, both dividing and multiplying. I got an old steno-notebook and filled a page, top to bottom, with a straggly column of fractions. I moved over an inch or two and made a second column. Between the two I placed a “multiply” or “divide sign”; then moved over another inch or two, and I’d see how fast I could write the answers. My form of playing “Angry Birds” or some other “game” on an android, or even a phone, before those were invented.

What does all that math have to do with writing? Actually, it has to do with the “rules” imposed on us. Math has rules. So does writing. And every conceivable language, whether written or spoken, has rules. In math, formulae and protocols must be strictly adhered to . . . I wonder if anyone told Einstein that? Or Newton?

We writers “know” our rules too, and sometimes understand how and when to break them:

  1. WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW.
    But does that yield “bland protagonists? “Sleepy settings?” “Mild plots?” Instead, think “Write What You Know means Write What You See Differently, Feel Profoundly, Know is Important, Where You Find the Extraordinary in What is Universal.” Don’t limit yourself to what you know: use your imagination, exercise your human potential, stretch beyond your “borders.” And “The Rules.” Go ahead: Natalie Goldberg has advised writers to “lose control,” say what they want to say, break structure, and sometimes assigns them to write “what they’re not thinking of” or “what they don’t remember.” It’s the writer’s job, Goldman maintains, “to give the reader a larger vision of the world.” She claims everything — every person in Portugal or darkest Africa, the grass, bees, a horse, even a rock — all have different languages. And Donald Maass adds “. . . you can always research what you don’t know. But you can’t fake what’s in your heart. Say what matters. That’s writing what you know.”
  2. HOOK YOUR READERS ON PAGE 1.
    “Most experts advise starting with or quickly getting to an ‘inciting incident,’ or at least something that implies a main character’s status quo has been interrupted,” says Jerry B. Jenkins. Above all, he says, “it’s not gunfire, murder or mayhem,” but something wherein you want to know what’s going on — and you’ll stick with it until you find out. But, can we break even this rule? Steve Almond says most “student authors” refuse to orient the reader by providing “basic dramatic circumstances, such as where we are and what’s happening, and to whom. Instead we’re plunged into “[an] ectoplasm of vivid descriptions and incisive observations. I refer to this style of writing as hysterical lyricism.” All because they’ve been told over and over that they have to “hook readers on Page 1.” What the reader seeks to learn above all is “whom she should care about, and what those characters want or fear. Readers deserve clearly told stories, not high-watt histrionics.”
  3. SHOW, DON’T TELL.
    What, exactly, does that mean? Your job as the writer is to “transmit experience so the reader also experiences it. Details. We need details to let us envision. Back to Goldberg, “Writing is a visual art — and a visceral, sensory art. The world is not abstract, it is full of particulars.” Later, she says to “Lay out all the jewels for us to behold. To only tell about them is to hide the emeralds from view.” Donald Maass argues that, generally speaking, this rule is sound, but asks that we “make it concrete. Externalize . . . [what] is internal. Use a slap instead of a slow boil. A single four- letter word in dialogue can do the work of a whole paragraph.” But, he argues further, sometimes, “what you want to capture on the page is intangible. You can’t see it, weigh it, smack it or lick it. You have to trap a wisp in words. Trying to turn it concrete only causes it to evaporate.” He compares it to the change of mood in a stadium when fans know “with bitter certainty, that their team is about to lose.” There’s “the buoyancy of . . . new spring fashions . . . or the intuition . . . for no solid reason that she’s going to leave me.” So how do we break this rule? Maas says “Realize there can be tension in the invisible. . . found inside he who’s experiencing that which is vapor.” So the trick to telling is to base your passage “in emotions. Less obvious emotions are good. Contrasting emotions are better. Conflicting emotions are best. If moving beneath the surface, then you’re cooking. Fold into these feelings whatever outward details are at hand in the moment . . . Telling doesn’t ignore tension, it just snatches it from the air.”
  4. WRITE “SH*TTY FIRST DRAFTS.” (REALLY, DO YOU HAVE A CHOICE?)
    Nope. No choice in the matter. So “let it rip. You have nothing to lose as long as you make a deal with yourself: NO ONE will ever see it,” says John Smolens. “Here’s the thing about writing fiction : You’re alone. You work on your sentences, again and again. You have a chance to seem smarter in your final draft than you were in your first. Your character may not have the right rejoinder today, but by next Thursday she may come up with something . . . witty, urbane and wise and, despite your hours of labor, it may even appear to be spontaneous.” Musicians can jam — it’s not solitary, and what you hear is what you get — goofs and all. For writers, the first draft is a Solo Improvisation, “littered with sour notes and botched chords.” You’re just trying things out, what works, what fits. It’s the reason you write that “sh*tty” first draft: to see what you can’t/shouldn’t do before you discover what you CAN do. And with revision, patience, no one will ever know your first draft existed.
  5. WRITE EVERY DAY.
    John Dufresne believes in writing every day: says that writers want to write, but there’s the world beyond the writing room, intruding. And all those books to read! But “the doing, the intense activity of the mind . . . fascinates the writer . . . allows her to shape order from chaos. Writers write. Writing is work. And you go to work every day. It’s not a choice. If you don’t punch in, you lose your job.” He goes on to say “if you’ve tried to quit and catch yourself back at the desk — well, then don’t give up. Give in.” Good news: all the writing doesn’t go on at your desk. It goes on while you’re out in the world. So he advises carrying a pen, notebook; (today it’s more likely to be an Android or your phone). Whatever works. Gather evidence. With pen in hand (or other recording devise, perhaps), you think differently, observe more keenly, learn to pay attention, keep your senses alert. The note is repository, source of material, and refuge. “Go there when you need to think. Writing . . . engenders more writing. “And everything you write today informs everything you will ever write. James Scott Bell, on the other hand, is a big believer in word quotas. He claims the best advice he ever got was to set a quota and stick to it. He started doing a daily count, but life would intrude, and he’d miss a day (who hasn’t done that?), but when life intruded and he missed it, he became “surly and hard to live with.” He switched to a weekly quota, and has used it ever since: doesn’t have to beat himself up if he misses a day. He just writes a little extra on other days, uses a spread sheet (I, personally, let 750words.com keep track of my daily writing, and my total. Long ago, I passed a million words, and I’m almost 200K beyond that one now. And I can go look at any specific day since I started at ANY time!) Bell also intentionally takes one day off each week, his “writing Sabbath”. That seems to recharge his batteries. Meanwhile his projects are cooking away in his subconscious (like Stephen King’s ‘boys in the basement’ hard at work while King takes a day off). Bell also suggests taking a week-long break from writing each year. Use the time to assess your career, set goals, make plans — because “if you aim at nothing, there’s a very good chance you’ll hit it.”

Next week, Five More Writing “RULES” and How/When to Avoid/Circumvent Them.

What Is Creative Non Fiction?

Last night I went to a League of Utah Writers’ meeting. The invited speaker, Meg Kinghorn who teaches at the U of U in the Lifelong Learning Annex, talked about “Creative Non‑Fiction.” I’d heard the term many times in the last few years and thought I knew what it was, but wasn’t all that sure. Meg managed to assure me that “Creative Non‑Fiction” can be exactly what I thought it was: a story, essay, whatever, told from a particular viewpoint and explored to find a (maybe) hidden or “special” message of great meaning to the writer.

I told the group about the time I found myself in Rome looking in great awe at the statue of The Pieta: Mary, holding her crucified son across her lap. I’d read Irving Stone’s The Agony and the Ecstasy many years before. In it, he’d described Michaelangelo’s dissatisfaction with the placement of his magnificent statue, presented to the Pope, but set up in an out‑of‑the‑way alcove. According to Stone, the artist sneaked back into the area at night and boldly carved his full name across one of the straps holding Mary’s robe together. He did NOT want his work to be ascribed to some other . . . think Da Vinci!

And there it was: his name, boldly proclaimed across Mary, shoulder to lap.

Tears came to my eyes. For many minutes. And do, again, as I tell the story, or write it down.

I don’t know if that was when or why Michaelangelo did that part of the carving or not. How can we know, centuries later? But I DO know Stone was particularly noted for his meticulous research. His Men To Match My Mountains was once used in a court of law to prove particular property rights. So I chose to believe him.

Meg Kinghorn said to write Creative Non‑Fiction, we need to “behold” something. Look at it. Really see it. Wonder why it has some power over us. What that means. How it can be shared and made viable so a reader may also “behold” and connect with that item. Think of the old broach handed down from your grandmother. Or your mother’s fancy gloves she wore on the last day of her life. Now, write about it, including all the many emotions it dredges up. Let your reader in to your snapshot of what and why that item meant so much to you. Let it remind him or her of something precious in his/her life.

That is Creative Non‑fiction.

 

Your results may vary

My daughter is rereading a series that she and I have both read before. It’s been a source of fascination to her to recall just how much she’s forgotten. And, as she reports these things to me, it’s been interesting to me for other reasons: the characters she describes don’t always match my own mental image.

Hair color, distinguishing features, height, age–it seems more often than not I’m wrong on at least a couple details. And yet I have a fairly clear image in my mind what they look like. Did I just misread the descriptions in the book? Did the lack of regular reinforcement of those details throughout the novel allow erroneous imagery to take root? And does it really matter?

Perhaps I’m not typical, but I’ve found that my brain is quick to take a few salient details and run with them. I don’t need or even want a lengthy police sketch of character descriptions. Just give me something memorable and a vague idea of age and my imagination will fill in the rest. I’m not consciously trying to picture the characters in my mind as I read. And yet as the book progresses I do find my subconscious picturing scenes and supplying them with characters. Sometimes the really match their descriptions, sometimes they don’t.

The lesson here is that character description doesn’t have to be difficult. What matters most is what features make them different from those around them. I have a character who comes from a race that tends to have red hair. And yet there are not a lot of characters from this race populating my story, so I can focus in on his red hair as a key feature without much risk of getting him confused in readers’ minds with other redheads.

On the other hand, many of my other characters have dark hair. So unless it’s shot through with gray, abnormally short, or an unusual color of brown I probably won’t want to focus on their hair color so much as other features where they are more unique. Thick flowing tresses, or permanent beard stubble, or always sticking up at weird angles might be more memorable descriptions for hair.

Of course you don’t even need to describe their hair if you won’t want. A missing ear, a peg leg, a permanent limp, effeminate hands, unusual choices of clothing are all details that will stand out in a reader’s mind much more than a checklist of hair color, eye color, build, or height.

Chances are even if you give your reader that checklist they’ll still fill in any missing data on their own and perhaps even overwrite your bland details with their own.  Do don’t stress about describing your characters in detail. Focus instead on distinguishing features, and let your readers to the rest of the work.

Thom Stratton

About Thom Stratton

Thom Stratton was born and raised in Idaho, and now lives in Utah with his Finnish wife, three amazing kids, three distinct cats, and a big, goofy dog. He works for a regional bank, and is part owner of a video game store. He enjoys writing, photography, war gaming, music, theater, building things, and reading. Though active in writing as a teen, he convinced himself it could never be a career. Decades later upon moving to Utah, where there’s something odd in the water, he has decided to get serious about writing. To date he has written five novels to be published posthumously by his greedy estate and is polishing a set of short stories to start submitting. Any day now…

Picking the RIGHT Details

If you’ve been writing very long, you’ll know the importance of mentioning details in your writing. Appealing to the senses and attention to detail is what will ground your reader and bring your story to life. Details often make it so that your reader experiences your story, instead of just reading about it.

So as writers, we might want to mention what a character is wearing, the color of her hair, the smell of a river, or the texture of a tent. Usually we want to tag our character’s with a particular description. If you read Harry Potter, you’ll know the Minister of Magic, Fudge, always has a bowler hat, that Dumbledore has twinkling eyes and half-moon spectacles, that Professor Trelawney wears shawls and smells like sherry. J.K. Rowling mentions the same details for these character regularly to tag them (or in a future post, I’ll refer to them as “anchors”). It helps us remember who the characters are and reminds us of their demeanor.

But sometimes as writers we don’t pick meaningful details. We just pick something. We might say that “the man wore a white shirt.” Okay. But that’s so generic, we might as well not even mention it. It’s so generic, that the reader is going to forget it almost immediately after reading it. It’s not even characteristically interesting enough to be a tag. So it won’t even help us remember the character.

Continue reading Picking the RIGHT Details

September C. Fawkes

About September C. Fawkes

Sometimes September C. Fawkes scares people with her enthusiasm for writing and reading. People may say she needs to get a social life. It'd be easier if her fictional one wasn't so interesting.

Fawkes wrote her first story on a whim during a school break when she was seven. Crayon-drawn, poorly spelled, and edited so that it contained huge, fat, blacked-out lines, the story (about chickens seeking water) changed her life. Growing up, she had a very active imagination; one of her best friends accused her of playing Barbies wrong when she turned Ken into a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde mad scientist love interest. Her passion for stories led to her playing "pretend" longer than is socially acceptable. It was partially a symptom of never wanting to become an adult. Luckily she never did. She became a writer instead.

Fawkes has a soft spot for fantasy and science fiction, but she explores and reads anything well crafted. She has a passion for dissecting stories and likes to learn from a variety of genres, so you may find her discussing classics in one blog post animated shows in anotherTry not to be afraid of either. (And do be sensitive to the fact she never did reach adulthood.)


September C. Fawkes graduated with an English degree with honors from Dixie State University, where she was the managing editor of The Southern Quill literary journal and had the pleasure of writing her thesis on Harry Potter. She was also able to complete an internship in which she wrote promotional pieces for events held in Southern Utah, like the National Cowboy Poetry Rodeo, and she participated in a creative open mic night, met some lovely people in a writers’ group, and worked as a tutor at the Writing Center. Her college experience, although demanding, was rewarding.
She liked it enough to consider getting her M.F.A., and she got accepted into a couple of programs, but decided to pass on it.

Since then, she has had the opportunity to work as an assistant for the New York Times bestselling author David Farland, while (rarely now) critiquing novels or proofreading promotional pieces on the side, and she even had the chance to meet J.K. Rowling in New York City, but mostly she hides out in her room, applies her butt to her chair, and writes. Other than that she reads fiction and books about writing fiction.

She has had poems, short fiction, and nonfiction published.  Her main writing project right now is a young adult fantasy novel she plans to publish traditionally.

Some of her favorite things include, but are not limited to, Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, Les Miserables, The X-Files, The Office, Spider-Man, Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, rock concerts, Creed, ballet, pugs, cherry blossoms, Ethel M. Chocolates, and anything yellow.

“I never metaphor I didn’t like” *

D. H. Lawrence once described a row of distant houses on a ridge at night: “The homes stood . . . black against the sky, like wild beasts glaring curiously with yellow eyes down into the darkness.” WOW! But what if he’d just said, “The lighted houses were black against the sky.” Now the idea has lost all its color, all its energy.

Read Pearl Buck’s words about the surprise when an opened bag revealed a handful of precious jewels: ” . . . such a mass of jewels as we had never dreamed could be together, jewels red as the inner flesh of watermelons, golden as wheat, green as young leaves in spring, clear as water trickling out of the earth.”

Now we’re talking “figurative” language, which lends beauty, interest, intensity to our writings. Two such devices, shown above, are similes and metaphors

A simile compares things which may be unlike, but uses a “comparing” word such as like or as. “Her hair was like silk.” “He was thin as a stick.”

“Books are like imprisoned souls till someone takes them down from a shelf and frees them.” ~ Samuel Butler

“Justice is like a train that’s nearly always late.” ~ Yevgeny Vetrushenko

“Books are like lobster shells, we surround ourselves with ’em, then we go out of ’em and leave ’em behind, as evidence of our earlier stage of development.” ~ Dorothy L. Sayers

“How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child.” ~ William Shakespeare (King Lear)

A metaphor compares things which are unlike without the “comparing” words, like or as. This is an implied, rather than a stated, direct comparison. Metaphor will often say one thing IS another: The road was a ribbon of moonlight.

I happened upon a strange (and funny) little book one day in a bookstore and had to have it. The title: “I Never Metaphor I Didn’t Like” by Dr. Mardy Grothe. In this tome, you will find wonderful examples of both similes and metaphors (and many more, like analogies, puns, etc.). To quote a few gems, he garnered from a variety of sources:

“A committee is a cul‑de‑sac down which ideas are lured and then quietly strangled.” ~ Barnett Cocks (Why am I thinking about politics? Elections? Senators and Reps?)

“A skyscraper is a boast in glass and steel.” ~ Mason Cooley (Funny, I’m still thinking politics . . . but I won’t say WHO.

“America is an enormous frosted cupcake in the middle of millions of starving people.” ~ Gloria Steinem

“The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page.” ~ St. Augustine

Several years ago, I wrote a blog for the ABC Writers Guild about borrowing from friends. And friends borrowing from friends. The short of it is, I borrowed an idea from Carol Lynch Williams and Ann Dee’s blog “Throwing Up Words” (FOLLOW it, if you don’t already!). Ann Dee had borrowed and adapted a writing exercise from THE PRACTICE of POETRY by Linnea Johnson, to come up with this fun list for you/us to recreate as completed metaphors and/or similes.

So from Linnea, down the line, to me, to you — have fun finishing these metaphors/similes:

  1. Blue paint spilled on the road like . . .
  2. Cancelled checks in the abandoned subway car seemed . . .
  3. A spider under the rug is like . . .
  4. Graffiti on the abandoned building like . . .
  5. Nothing was the same, now that it was . . .
  6. The dice rolled out of the cup toward Veronica like . . .
  7. A child in . . . is like a . . .
  8. . . . is like muscles stretched taut over bone.
  9. The fog plumed through gun shot holes in the car windows like . . .
  10. She held her life in her hands as if it were . . .
  11. Lacey poured coffee down her throat as if it were . . .
  12. If I should wake before I die, . . .
  13. The security guard walks the lobby as if . . .
  14. The library books left in the rain . . .
  15. Music in the hallway like . . .

I’d love to see your best three is the comments below. And don’t forget to add color and verve to your writing by utilizing apt similes and metaphors.

*”I Never Metaphor I Didn’t Like” by Dr. Mardy Grothe

Tricking the Mind

Mary Robinette Kowal once described writing as telepathy. Our job as writers is to communicate ideas from our mind to the minds of our readers through indirect means, sometimes even across oceans and years.

However, no matter how good we might be as writers, it’s also almost guaranteed that what we had in our mind and what our readers will picture in theirs will not be the same. Everyone has different experiences and memories to draw from, and that is what their subconscious will use in creating the mental pictures they form when they read your descriptions.

For example, suppose I were to describe a stone archway with moss growing between the blocks. What do you see? Is the stone light colored? Dark? Dry? Wet? Is the moss frilly or think green clumps? Is your archway set in a larger wall? Holding up an aqueduct? Leading into a castle? I didn’t have to fill in those details–unless they were important to the scene–but you likely saw all of that anyway. A few cues are all that’s needed to tap into the deep and rich ground of a reader’s imagination.

I experienced this in person just this past week. I was in Vegas on business, and we went out to dinner in the Venetian hotel. On the way back to our car, we took a different turn and I found myself outside along a Venetian canal, complete with gondolas, under a beautiful evening sky. I was immediately entranced.

Then I noticed a strange aircraft flying overhead. When I looked more closely I noticed there were several of them, all flying in a loose formation. Then I realized they weren’t even moving. With a mental grinding of gears I suddenly realized the sky wasn’t a sky at all. I was still indoors, and the “sky” was an elaborately painted ceiling with vents in it.

I had been completely fooled. For close to a minute I was entirely convinced I was outdoors. Even when my eyes presented me with contrary information my imagination automatically re-framed it to fit into the context I had created. Eventually, that context couldn’t hold up under the increasing evidence, and the paradigm shift was jarring.

Our goal as authors should be to tie into the psyches of our readers to provide them enough detail to trigger their imaginations, and then keep everything that follows consistent enough that they’re not jarred out of that imaginary realm they construct.  Learning to do it both effectively and efficiently is a skill that can be mastered with practice.

It is also important, however, not to assume too much. Readers may have common experiences sufficient to keep up with your descriptions, but take care to be clear.  If you present them with a castle wall, for example,  and then have your character step out of a door onto a field just beyond, you may wish to establish beforehand that there is no moat and that the open fields come right up to the castle walls. Many readers would not be bothered, but enough might automatically picture castles with moats around them that such a revelation could be jarring.

But, for the most part, if your readers trust you, they will be willing to do much of your work for you, creating awe-inspiring scenes from a few, well-chosen descriptive phrases. They’ll even pick up on contextual clues to adapt their mental images to the right tone. It won’t just be a castle, for example, but a dark castle, wreathed in thunderstorms, without your ever mentioning the clouds.

Sometimes it’s important to present your reader with a very precise image, and so your descriptions will need to go into depth in creating that image. But when the setting or certain details are not so important it’s perfectly okay to allow your readers to provide the imagery themselves. They’ll do the heavy lifting, so to speak, and still believe you to be a descriptive, evocative writer.

Such is the beauty of writing. Communicating with another mind across time and space is hardly a precise art, but it can certainly be rewarding. The more you practice the better you’ll be able to guide your readers willingly into other worlds where they will enjoy spending time. It will feel like home to them, partly because they provided it themselves.

 

Thom Stratton

About Thom Stratton

Thom Stratton was born and raised in Idaho, and now lives in Utah with his Finnish wife, three amazing kids, three distinct cats, and a big, goofy dog. He works for a regional bank, and is part owner of a video game store. He enjoys writing, photography, war gaming, music, theater, building things, and reading. Though active in writing as a teen, he convinced himself it could never be a career. Decades later upon moving to Utah, where there’s something odd in the water, he has decided to get serious about writing. To date he has written five novels to be published posthumously by his greedy estate and is polishing a set of short stories to start submitting. Any day now…

Ask the next question

In William Gibson’s novel “Pattern Recognition” he created a character whose occupation is to find the “next big trend” and help companies capitalize on it. This “cool hunter”, Cayce Pollard, doesn’t consider herself overly lucky or clever. She’s just mastered the art of asking the next question.

I more I study writing and try to improve my own writing the more I’m coming to believe that an important element in writing well is to emulate Cayce Pollard and learn to ask that next question.

Let’s take an example from a novel I’ve been reading. Suppose we have a character we want to send to study with a weapons master who also happens to be a powerful ally of the local leader. Suppose we don’t want to just tell some important facts about this weapons master, but would prefer to show. So what “next questions” might we ask?

Q. Why is this weapons master so important to the duke?

A. They’ve been through a lot of battles together.

 

Q. What might our character see on his way to the training space that could communicate that?

A. Souvenirs of the battles he and the duke both fought in?

 

Q. Souvenirs?! Like thimbles or teaspoons or penants–or those oval acronym car stickers?

A. Uh…no. Something they could gather after a battle from the battlefield, preferably.

 

Q. What would be on a battlefield that would interest someone of such high rank? He wouldn’t be a common looter.

A. How about the banners of the defeated companies/armies?

 

Q. Great! What more could we discern from those banners that would help paint the picture?

A. The different wars themselves? We need to indicate they’ve seen a LOT of battles together.

 

Q. Okay. What might we name some of these battles or wars?

 

You get the idea. I think it’s usually easy to stop after one or two levels of depth, but if we can train ourselves to keep asking the next question we increase our chances of hitting on something really awesome in our descriptions, characterization, plotting, etc. Consider the following passage from “The Lies of Locke Lamora”, by Scott Lynch:

They wound their way up past three floors of glittering glass and ancient stone, decorated with thick red carpets and innumerable stained tapestries that Jean recognized as battle flags. Don Maranzalla had served as the duke’s personal swordmaster and the commander of his blackjackets for a quarter of a century. These bloody scraps of cloth were all that remained of the countless companies of men fate had thrown against Nicovante and Maranzella in fights that were now legend: the Iron Sea Wars, the Mad Count’s Rebellion, the Thousand-Day War against Tal verrar.

I don’t know about you, but I got a lot more out of that description than perhaps Lynch even intended. The fact that it’s banners, for example, and not, say, swords, or heads makes a difference. I picture this display as both indicating just how incredible a warrior this man is as well as his attitude toward his enemies. Displaying their company banners suggests to me that he respected his enemies, even while destroying them, and not just their officers, but the fighting men.

Did Lynch intend that interpretation? Perhaps not. But that’s what good description does–it encourages the reader to put something of themselves into it, to fill in the details, so to speak.

We get even more detailed imagery when we actually meet the weapons master a few paragraphs later, and before long we have a very thorough image of a rather minor character who, as far as I know at the moment, never appears again in the novel. But the effort was far from wasted. We learn a lot about the setting from such passages as well, not to mention the caliber of people our characters have access to. Such deep descriptions can serve multiple uses at once.

But most of us likely skip past such opportunities, opting to take the quickest route to our destination. That’s not necessarily wrong. There are several chances in the completion of a novel for “asking the next question,” including in later drafts. It may very well be that having the entire novel undery our belt may help you ask better “next questions.” But training yourself to even go one level deeper even on the first draft will likely yield profound results.

Thom Stratton

About Thom Stratton

Thom Stratton was born and raised in Idaho, and now lives in Utah with his Finnish wife, three amazing kids, three distinct cats, and a big, goofy dog. He works for a regional bank, and is part owner of a video game store. He enjoys writing, photography, war gaming, music, theater, building things, and reading. Though active in writing as a teen, he convinced himself it could never be a career. Decades later upon moving to Utah, where there’s something odd in the water, he has decided to get serious about writing. To date he has written five novels to be published posthumously by his greedy estate and is polishing a set of short stories to start submitting. Any day now…