Adventures Around the Web Oct 28-Nov 3, 2017

I seem to have a writing with depth theme going on here.  Depth is one of those very advanced writing skills that’s incredibly hard to understand.  And the scary part is that it sounds simple to do, and it isn’t.  It took me three years to understand how to do it.

Clearing the Lens (Writing with Depth)

The title of the article is pretty poor, but it’s an article on writing with depth with some great examples.  It focuses mainly on the five senses, which I’ve seen many people write about–and it’s still an incredibly hard skill to master.

Describing Characters of Color While Writing

I think today’s political culture has made it hard for writers.  We’re both encouraged to included diverse characters (always a good idea because it makes for better stories), but at the same time, describing diverse characters can turn into a minefield.  The examples here are surprisingly simple.

8 Things Writers Forget When Writing Fight Scenes

When I was first on the writing message boards, I saw a lot of writers do an action scene in a very short paragraph.  They thought it had to move fast, so they kept it short and disappointing.  Fight scenes aren’t about being fast, fast, fast, but about the excitement, and the danger.  You don’t get that without #3 on this list.



What does a character look like?

Whenever I’m reading a book, it’s hard for me to put a face to the character if the writer doesn’t describe anything.  I know there’s a crowd that says to leave it off, leave it up to the reader’s imagination or imagine herself.

I don’t imagine myself in the character’s place.  If I don’t get a description of the character, it’s a missing piece of the characterization for me.

Not only that, it gives control of an aspect of the story up to the reader.

Even non-fiction tales about people describe the people as part taking the reader back into that world of the past.

If someone walks up to you, don’t you look at them?  See what they look like?  Maybe notice that the clothes don’t fit or that they lost weight?  Don’t you form an opinion about that person?

The problem is how description of characters is taught.  As an exercise, separate of a character’s point of view and separate of the story.  It’s like a mug shot:

He had brown hair and his eyes were blue.  He had to be over six foot tall.  He wore a black suit.



He was a big guy.  Made me feet short, and I wasn’t short.  Hair shaved to hide he was going bald.  He wore a black suit, but had gotten it off the rack without looking in the mirror.  Shoulders pulled wrong, button strained.  The pants hem pooled around his ankles.

Some of the particularly memorable writers I’ve read have been that because they described both the setting and the characters.

And just for fun, here’s a picture of what Ian Fleming thought James bond looked like.

Writing Mis-Advice Reported as Facts #2

This is the second part of some of the writing Mis-Advice I’ve heard all over the years. The scary part about all of these is that sound absolutely reasonable if you don’t dig deeper. Check out Part I.

  1. All description is boring.

Usually when I heard this one, it was accompanied by another piece of advice “Get rid of the boring parts.” I think it probably comes out of doing writer’s exercises, description is taken out of the context of the story and character. So all you’re doing is describing something like you’re doing homework.

Worse, writers repeat this mantra in critiques. A few years ago when I was doing reviews, I read a book where the writer said in the back he’d made changes at the recommendation of his critique group. It was really obvious they’d told him to take out the boring descriptions (in a fantasy where descriptions are part of the world building!), instead of telling him to work on his descriptive skills.

Description is only boring if it’s written that way.

  1. All writers need developmental editing

This is a recent one I’m hearing. Developmental editing is treated as if it were a one-size fits all thing for indie writers. It’s also the most expensive of all the editing choices, and, in my opinion, is essentially a paid critique.

It assumes that you don’t know how to write and need to be told how to fix it.

Think about how that infantilizes the writer. If I do something at work, I don’t send it to my boss to make sure I’ve done it right (not to mention my boss would have utterly no time to do her work!). So why on earth would I pay someone to tell me how to fix my story?

But some of this came out of the early indie stories where people were throwing up stories without even proofreading. Everyone starting saying, “You need editing,” and few thought that they might just need a copy edit to clean up the typos, grammatical errors, and style issues.

All I can say is try the copy editing first.

  1. Don’t use passive voice, usually based on using the word ‘was.’

This one’s always puzzled me. Are writers really writing in passive voice THAT much? Or are writers misidentifying it because “was” seems like an easier way to “identify” passive voice? I remember a writer using one of these programs that identified was as being passive voice, so he removed ALL the instances of it. Like it or not, was is an important word. It helps sentences make sense!

In my opinion, you have to work to get passive voice in the story. It doesn’t even seem like fiction would lend itself to passive voice as well.

Seriously, would you write the following in a story:

My breakfast was eaten this morning by the cat.

Or would you write something like:

By the time I got out to the kitchen, the silver tabby cat had jumped on the table and was lapping up the milk from my cereal with quick swipes of a pink tongue.

  1. No dream sequences.

Another one that comes out writers doing it badly. Dream sequences are often used by writers to info dump backstory they can’t figure out how to get into story proper. Why is that if writers do something badly, everyone says, “Don’t” instead of “Learn how to do it right”?

I remember asking other writers on a message board what would make up a good dream sequence. They admonished me that it was a Really Bad Idea, and then started backing slowly away like I was catching. No one even wanted to try it. At all.

Kind of sad that writers are limiting themselves. I’ve seen some wonderful dream sequences in books, wonderful because they added another level of characterization to the main character. It’s a given as a potential topic for science fiction. Star Trek—The Next Generation has done in twice, one great, one not. Anyone remember the Deanna cake?

  1. You can’t break the rules without knowing the rules first.

I saw this one on message boards, and really, really hated it. The problem was that there was no actual answer to this. There’s no rule book for writing fiction, no definitive source that everyone must go to so they can write fiction. Everything is just opinion.

Rules are a safety net. They make people feel better. But we’re not filling out forms to a picky bureucrat’s standard. We’re creating stories, and sometime the rules are the worst thing for that. Sometimes it’s important to try breaking the rules, if it means learning something new, or seeing how something doesn’t work.

I had to write all these out so I could be aware of all everything I’d heard over the years. These pieces of mid-advice were one of the reaosns I had to stop reading message boards cold turkey. Way too many writers repeat everything as if it were precious treasure that must be used, instead of thinking on their own. Even knowing that some of these really weren’t true, I found some of them creeping into my writing anyway, like the description one.

Visualizing the Setting

A couple of writers and I were talking on a list serve about describing setting — in this case, having trouble getting it into the story. Right up my alley. One of the writers said she didn’t get a visual image of the setting, so she had a hard time even remembering to get it on the page.

Then there’s me. I’m visual spatial, which means I think in pictures. You’d think that would translate easily into describing setting …

Not so much.

My default, in fact, is to simply leave it all out. It’s in my head, and it doesn’t get on the page unless I make the effort to do it — sometimes a lot of effort.

It’s hard taking a picture and translating it into words.

Add to that I don’t do well with the details, or the telling details as it’s been described for writers. I see more of the big picture, and the details tend to fold themselves up into that. So the woods are the woods. I can see them, and I get the picture, but I lose the specifics. So putting down that the character walked through the woods or that everything was brown makes perfect sense to me because I’m getting the picture, but then everyone says I didn’t describe anything.

But I can see the picture — why wouldn’t it be simple describing the setting?

I have to stop and think “Details.” Then it’s “What details are important to this character?”

I don’t think in details, so I’m having to do two things, both of which are very hard:

  1. Translate the details, which is sort of like translating French when I don’t speak the language.
  2. Sort through the big picture and try to figure out what details are important.

And none of this is like a description exercise where the goal is to treat the setting as if we were looking at a picture. Just about as dull as no description. It’s not about simply writing down what I see, but trying to figure out what the character would notice.

But also, it’s not just describing the setting once and getting it out of the way. If the character stays in that setting, there is constantly new setting information being introduced (about every 500 words) because he is still interacting with that setting. So I’m constantly having to revisit and translate that picture into words, at least two to three times in every scene, and it has to shift because it obviously can’t be about the same thing.

Take this picture of the tulips blooming:

Yellow and red tulips blooming

My default: Tulips were blooming at the side of the building.

Translation: Yellow and red tulips had started to bloom next to the building, soaking up a patch of warm sunshine. I wanted to lay down there with them and get some of that sunshine, against the warm, damp earth, and let the cool breeze carry everything else away.  I also knew I wasn’t going to get that.

This is not something I can let go for later and do a placeholder that says DESCRIBE TULIPS.  When I pulled the character into the description, it becomes a major piece of the scene that needs be in there.  So it’s constant state of trying to translate the pictures for each scene.

Details a Matter of Character

I wrote this post on having trouble with details over a year ago.  It was really hard for me for quite a long time getting even basic details into my stories.  In fact, I had to keep hitting at it with a battering ram.  Sometimes I have to hear something that seems obvious to everyone else before it starts to make sense (though, in this case, I think that a lot of people don’t get that obvious piece).

I’ve found that a lot of the writing advice approaches description from the outside looking in, and often portrays it as frippery, something that is always excessive and should be deleted.  I’ve heard this from the writers on message boards:

“I hate description.”

“All description is boring.”

“I’d rather leave it to the reader’s imagination.”

And from a recent blog:

“Editors hate description.”

That one was from a published writer with three or four books out.

The message seems to be that description isn’t important to the story.

What’s missing from pretty much all of the advice is that the description is done through the character’s eyes and is a function of the characterization itself.  It shows who the character is and where they are at that point in the story.  How could that get left out of everything about description?

Maybe it’s because description is often treated as an exercise, rather than a functioning part of the story.  I’m not sure how much of that steeped into my brain over the years and influenced the dysfunction.  But understanding this at least helped give me a better foundation for getting the specific details into the story.

To find the details, I do some research — not extensive.  If I know there’s going to be outdoor scenes, I try to get names of some of the local plants and trees that most people would know.  That’s actually harder than it sounds, because most sites and books focus on the scientific side and list everything.  Tour books can sometimes be helpful, and sometimes be terribly unhelpful, so it’s like a gold mine when I find something.  A visit to local Fort C.F. Smith mentioned White Pines and Magnolia trees, so I grabbed that for a future story set in Virginia.  If I can get three names, I’m happy, though I may search for additional ones as I write.

I also look at photographs.  I was writing a scene on a Hawaiian trailhead with a waterfall at the end of it, so naturally, I headed for waterfalls.  If I have a specific picture, I can build the details better; if it’s just a picture in my head, it’s very easy for me to go vague and fuzzy.  When I was originally doing the scene, I planted this waterfall in front of the characters and had a stream flowing out, and that was about it.  There was also a kind of a clearing because I needed a place to have a fight scene.

Once I got a picture I liked — I was focusing on terrain — then I started building the details in based on the main character’s situation.  This is an incredibly beautiful place, and he’s thinking about the danger that’s coming.  How does that play into how he describes it?

Indoor locations are a lot harder for me.  Rooms tend to go fuzzy for me.  I’m working on a scene in a living room, and I keep wanting to leave it at “sofa, some chairs, and there’s a door to another room on the left.”  It’s really forcing me to stop and think about what this character has in this room and why.  What kind of art does he like?  Does he like heavy furniture or modern furniture?  If you watched Star Trek: The Next Generation, we’d go into most of the character’s quarters, and they’d be pretty spartan.  White room, neutral colors, clean lines.  Then we’d go to Worf’s quarters, and it looked like a dungeons.  Dark, weapons on the wall, flickering candles.

I also don’t necessarily try to get all of it at once.  I move back and forth in scenes, adding to them as I do more research, or just get further into the story and realize something else is needed. (Breaking another rule here: I continue to make changes all over my story as I create.)

So the details are a matter of a bit of research, but mainly a matter of the character.

4 Links for Awesome Description

Description is one of those great things that can enhance a story and make it stand out.  Doing it can be tricky, but there’s some good information out there.  Check out the links below.

Denise Robbins: Description in Fiction.  This is a great list of tips, many of them going further than typical ones.  When she says “Be specific, but not too specific. Do not let the details you write limit the reader’s imagination.” the first thing I thought of was a writer I critiqued who tried to control the reader’s picture be being extremely specific.  Particularly check out the last tip: When is description too much?

Robert Sawyer.  The veteran science fiction writer uses the novelization of Star Trek: The Motion Picture as example of how not to do description of a pivotal scene.  Reading the book isn’t necessary; he provides all the context.  Though I don’t agree with him on first Star Trek movie.  Honestly, it was wasted opportunity!

TeacherWriter: Writing Effective Description is Not a SinThe first thing I thought when I saw the title was exactly what this blog was about — how everyone tells us: “Description is boring.  Use it sparingly!”  TeacherWriter makes some great points worth reading.

Ms. Garrett Online:  The name reminds me of Mrs. Garrett, the motherly caretaker on the Facts of Life, but this Ms. Garrett works for a library in Oregon, one of the places being hit by the Pacific Coast snowstorms.  The site has an extensive list of descriptive words, including the five senses.  Great for a bit of inspiration in a stuck moment.  Be forewarned though — the site is an eye popping yellow.

Got any favorite links for description?

4 Tips to Building Setting: Guest Blog for Sue Santore

Today, I’m dropping in for a guest post on Sue Santore’s blog.  A sneak peak:

In a movie or a TV show, the camera pans across the scene in an establishing shot and the viewer gets an instant impression of the setting.  The opening sequences in Hawaii Five-0‘ show beautiful beaches, surfers taking on the waves, and girls in bikinis.  But in a novel, it’s up to the writer to use words to evoke the images of the setting.  Read about the four tips on Sue Santore’s blog.

I hope you’ll also have a look at my article on writing called “Strawberry, Chocolate, and Vanilla,” published in Topstone Publishing’s Rejection Lessons, part of the Inside Writer’s Guide series.

Describing Clothes in a Novel

I attended a Civil War Fashion Show this morning, as part of research for my next book, Masks.  I know I’m going to need to come up with a second plot for the story, and since the modern day part of the story ties into the Civil War, I’m playing with the possibility of the second plot being during the Civil War.

This got me thinking about clothes in the story.  A lot of writers don’t describe characters or clothes.  Some of the reasons I agree with.  I read a few of the Chick Lit books, and they dropped designer names left and right to describe the character’s clothing and shoes.  I was bored because it felt like it was just showing off designer label knowledge.  Telling me a pair of shows is a Givenchy didn’t add anything to the story.

Yet, I always bring clothes into the story in some way.  But not like that.  And it’s for a very simple reasons:  Clothes are setting.  With my contemporary fantasy thriller Miasma, it’s set in a place like Hawaii.  So it would be typical of the characters to wear shorts, t-shirts, and sandals.  If a character wears something different, there’s often a story-related reason.  I have a running joke about shoes, because the main character and his sidekick can’t wear the standard footwear.  Kind of makes it hard to fight monsters or run from them in beach shoes. 🙂

Likewise, if a character ended up in a situation where what they were wearing was completely inappropriate the environment — no jacket, and it snows — clothes suddenly become a very important part of the plot.  With the Civil War, things like patterns might denote what social standing a character has.  Someone who is wealthy might have a dress with a large print or lots of trim.  Or an enlisted man’s pants might be stained and worn.  So describing clothes can have a big impact on not just the setting, but the story and characters as well.

By the woman the model in the photo made the dress she is wearing.  She said that a lot of the materials dresses were made of from the Civil War can no longer be found today.  No one’s making them, and where they are available, they are terribly expensive.

What does a man sound like when he’s being turned inside out?

Years ago, I was in a broadcasting class, and the teacher asked that question.  It had been done on early radio show when there were no CGI effects, and they were limited to sound and imagination only.  I’m thinking of this question now because I’m writing a scene in Miasma where Keymas, the main character, witnesses a man struck by magic who turns into a monster.  It’s not a cool thing like turning into a werewolf, but more like something the Nazis would do as experimentation.

The teacher never gave the entire class the answer — only to one person who guessed tearing up a Styrofoam cup.  This is one place where I actually want to stay away from the visual side and play up on the other senses!  It might actually be scarier!

How to Juggle Jellybeans

One of the things I thought when I was revising this novel last year was that it was like a juggling act.  I had all these plates in my hand, and I was trying to keep them in the air–but I kept losing track of what was what.  This was one of the reasons I had to get details under control.  With this revision, the non-lists I made have become a useful tool at controling the chaos and dealing with “jellybeans”–the small, colorful things that are needed in the story but a nightmare for someone not detail-oriented.

The lists actually aren’t very big.  There’s about ten pages of them, mostly because I wrote big and at all different angles.  The goal was not to record the details, but identify things that would lead to appropriate details.  Since I started revising, I’ve added a few more items to the list.  Some of them include jellybeans like:

  • One sense of smell or taste per scene.
  • One sense of touch per scene.
  • One color per  scene.

Then, once the scene is done, I can scan my non-lists and then review the scene to see if I got all my jellybeans in the basket.  When dealing with something like the five senses, it’s easy to either complete forgot to include anything or treat it like a checklist, trying to jam all the senses into a paragraph of description.  Instead, by imposing a limit, I both make sure something gets into the story and I don’t get too much into the story.  I also make sure that what gets into the story is important rather than window dressing.  For example, if I have the limitation of one color in a scene, do I want to waste it by stating the color of the character’s eyes–a detail that’s generally not very unusual–or use it as part of the world building?