Describe description

Joe’s Post #165

potterWell, it’s time for me to do a series. Every book I write I envision as a trilogy so I’m all about coming up with one idea and making a ton of books from it. Like JK Rowling. Only she’s super successful.

Anyway, for the next few weeks, I want to look at the basics. Plot. Theme. Characters. Dialogue. Pacing. And the toughest nut for me to crack – Emotion. Not that I’ll give you any great advice (I’ll leave that for others), but I want to explore those topics a bit. As a writer.

First up (you guessed it) – Description.

For some people, description comes easy. Like Joe Montana throwing a football. Or Donald Trump insulting people. Or the Canucks losing.

For me, it’s a struggle. I want to move on with plot and character and if the reader can’t see what’s in my head, then that’s their problem, not mine, right?

One day, Apple or Google or that Elon Musk robot will invent a virtual book that downloads what’s in the writer’s mind. Until that day (and God help me if they don’t put some sort of adult content filter in there), I have to come up with decent descriptions of my characters and the places they inhabit.

Drawings might work, sure, or fancy-schmancy photos but (sadly), not many best sellers come with pictures. At least until I write one…

So that leaves me having to come up with settings that ring true.

If you want to check out a few authors who have recommendations on this, check out the links below, but let me tell you about how I get the job done.

My 4 rules on it are…

  • Setting MUST be seen through the eyes of your character. I mean, look at how an undercover cop would walk into a restaurant. He’d look for exits, people not donutssupposed to be there, and donuts. An interior decorator might notice how the the blood pooling on floor clashes with the green and yellow checkered floor. An erotic novelist might notice the hunky guy working in the kitchen, shirtless from the heat, his six pack glistening with sweat while he washes his giant cucumber. (Like in life, we all see things differently.)
  • I must have a photo or painting of the place, or have visited it myself. A picture is good, and even with google maps, I can haul out all sorts of interesting details. But nothing beats being there. Why? Because I can get an idea of the other things that matter in good description. Smells. Sounds. The feel of a dusty brick. The taste of penis shaped peppers. Whatever. If I am there and using my writing brain, then I can create something that’s real, because it is real.
  • dorothyIf there aren’t pictures or I can’t be there (like going back to ancient Egypt), then I will read what other novelists have written. Want to know what the roofs of Florence were like in 1724, then read Dorothy Dunnett. But be careful, you have to trust the source. I’m not convinced everyone’s done their homework, I mean, movie-wise, look at Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood. It’s frigging painful.
  • chekovIt’s all about bringing a world to life, so I do my best to add small details. Like my man Chekov said…

So that’s how I get it done. Or at least try to.

I can rely on my imagination, but unlike a friend of mine who can picture a whole scene in her novel like a movie in her head, my mind is a disorganized jumble of images and thoughts. Do I have to pick up the kids? What are my key plot points? What’s that song I keep hearing in my head? Where did I leave my iphone? What characters will be on stage in this scene? What themes will I forget about? Who was that half-naked woman that I looked up because of, ah, research?

No room for organized description, you see. Reality is my only hope.

So… How do you do description?


11 Secrets to Writing Effective Description (cuz 10 isn’t good enough)

3 Must Know Ways for Creating Meaningful Settings. (K.M. Weiland includes my most difficult of writing challenges  Emotion!)

Stephen King (though he pretty much says ignore everything I just said and write, dammit!)

Novel Writing Help  (with some good examples)

Word Painting (more cool ideas)

Making it up vs. making it real


Silk’s Post #139 — As the 5writers and friends dive into our second write-a-book-in-five-months challenge, we will all (at some point) come face to face with The Research Conflict.

I’m dramatizing, of course – isn’t that what writers do? But especially at the beginning of a fiction project, research certainly can feel like a conflict. It keeps insistently horning in, begging for attention just when we’re trying to lay down some narrative riffs, slowing our progress and often carrying our attention off in far-flung directions.

How to manage simultaneous research and writing is a topic we’ve talked about before in this blog (search this site for “research” and you’ll see how many posts pop up), but it all came rushing back to me last week when I tried to get off to a quick start and pile on some wordage. For me, early progress is the critical push I need to keep momentum going. As Karalee noted in her recent post, “Commit to finish”, most of us are much better starters than we are finishers.

The last thing a writer needs is to get bogged down at the starting line, dragging a heavy load of research references along.

Now, we’re all writing different stories in the 5/5/5 challenge, with some projects still to be confirmed, but it looks like at least four of us are writing real-world fiction in which settings, topics and context will require a high level of accuracy and authenticity. Two of us have added the extra challenge of writing historical fiction, and at least two of us have chosen settings in places we don’t live – and perhaps have never even seen.

All to say that most of us are embarking on a research journey as an integral part of our story development. We’re not necessarily starting on a blank page, however. A lot of homework has already been done in preparation, and there may even be some outline-ish story plans lying around. Most of us also have early chapters drafted (some of these written quite a while ago and pulled out of the drawer again on September 5th).

But regardless of conceptual story plans, or background reading, or research notes … you know what happens when we sit down to actually write a scene. A ton of fresh questions suddenly materialize, demanding answers before we can confidently craft that next paragraph.

For example, I have an opening scene in a prison visiting area. Yeah, I know. What was I thinking? I’ll probably lose eight out of 10 readers in the first three pages (and the two that read on will be weirdos), but it seemed like a good idea at the time. I’m happy to say I’ve never had the pleasure of sitting in a prison visiting area, but as a writer that’s now a problem. I’ve seen lots of them on TV and in movies, but since this is a specific prison, I need to describe a specific visiting area, not a generic one.

My choices: 1) go there (not now, thanks); 2) search for information online (did that for half a day, didn’t find a visual representation); 3) call and request a photo or description (maybe later); or 4) make it up.

I chose to make it up, and that was okay.

Until curiosity got the best of me and I made another foray online, dug deeper, and deeper, and actually came up with some footage of the visiting area in that particular prison. Woohoo! I couldn’t have been more excited if I’d discovered a forgotten winning lottery ticket in the back pocket of my jeans. And all it required was, oh let’s see, about 8 hours of research.

Wow, this book is going to take a loooooong time to write at that pace.

There are lots of strategies writers use to work around this research vs. writing time/distraction conflict. Some dedicate a significant preparation period to research and outlining, then barrel on through their first draft without interruption. This doesn’t work so well for “organic” writers (sometimes called NOPs or pantsers), however. Others flag unresearched items with a “check later” note, and just keep their writing pace up without breaking stride – not a bad idea.

Most of us probably do a bit of everything: some basic research in preparation for writing, some interruptive side-trips while writing the first draft to research critical points that affect context or plot points, some good old making it up as we go, and some clarifying research at second draft stage.

But while that’s all well and good, it may also be worth thinking ahead about the level of detail and accuracy really required to tell a particular story authentically, and engagingly.

That’s my challenge to the writers on our 5/5/5 journey: stop now and consider the most congenial balance between making it up vs. making it real.

It is fiction, after all. It just needs to feel true, to be authentic enough to suspend disbelief. Yes, inaccuracies will be picked up by readers who are more intimate with your topic, or setting, or context than you are. It would be nice to make everyone happy, but the majority of readers really won’t know whether there are 15 cubicles in the prison visiting area, or 20.

And there’s another, even more important, consideration: the story flow. All the details that make a book “authentic” are really there to set the stage for your play. Story is king. The factual details should add texture, context and sometimes meaning – but not distract.

Inaccurate details or lazy generic writing distract. Have you ever read a book that made you mentally chew out the author for “obvious” blunders or frustratingly vague or clichéd descriptions? Of course you have. Even famous authors can be guilty of this. Tsk tsk.

But equally distracting is an avalanche of carefully researched, totally accurate details that are entirely irrelevant or unnecessary for telling the story. It’s just show-offy. Look how much research I did! When I encounter this, I want to scream I don’t care, just get to the point for crying out loud.

If I may repurpose the sly quotes Stephen King chose to open his wonderful book, On WritingI think they perfectly frame The Research Conflict …

Honesty’s the best policy.   — Miguel de Cervantes

Liars prosper.   — Anonymous

Word count:  5,658

Rewrote:  Prologue

Blog posts written:  1

Research done:  2 days’ worth

Best new thing:  A weekend of harvesting the apples in our orchardapple-harvestjonagolds

Thought of the week:  Like so many other aspects of modern life, politics has now fully metamorphosed into a reality show. What’s next?

Clearing roadblocks to writing


Silk’s Post #120 — As I promised in my last post, I’m on a mission to find useful tactics to help overcome my (and maybe your) self-imposed obstacles to progress on the writer’s journey.

Why? Because I’ve sworn off writing about why I haven’t made progress on my writing.

Last week, I explored the tactic of using milestones – points in the process where the writer reaches some new level that marks progress in the writer’s journey – in order to break up the daunting task of writing a novel into manageable “legs”.

Here’s another tactic I’ve been thinking about …

Writer’s Journey Tactic #2: Notes to Self

Did you ever start writing a scene – a scene you’ve already outlined, or at least imagined – and found yourself dead in the water before you even get started because you keep running into research roadblocks?

Your protagonist, a bounty hunter, is running down an alley in a dodgy part of, let’s say, Seattle, with a couple of enforcers from a biker gang in pursuit after he tried, unsuccessfully, to take the gang’s leader into custody for jumping bail. (How did he get himself into this mess? Don’t ask me, I’m making this up as I go along, so just roll with it).

Okay, so he hears the rumble of the bikes approaching, ducks behind a dumpster, and pulls his Glock out of his holster, and then …

Wait. Would he be carrying a Glock, or something else? What kind of holster would he have, or would he have one at all? What kind of weapons would the pursuers be carrying? And what neighbourhood is this, anyway? Where would you find dodgy alleys in Seattle? Would it be in a neighbourhood with steep hills? Near the waterfront, or maybe a highway, or an unlit park?

It sounded so simple in outline. Guy gets chased into an alley and makes a narrow escape.

But now you’re actually in the alley and, although you feel like you’ve already researched this story to death, you realize that you need to know a lot more details to make that escape work in a believable way. Details that need yet more research at a nitty gritty level. And your writing flow … comes … to … a … frustrating … halt.

You have three choices:

  1. Stop writing and research the weapons and specific location, or
  2. Make it generic enough that the details won’t really matter, or
  3. Make it up in as much vivid detail as you can milk out of your own writer’s imagination, and flag it with a NOTE TO SELF that reminds you to check the details later

I don’t know about you, but I’ve bogged myself down by choosing Door #1 too many times to count. And I’ve read too many lazy, mediocre scenes where the author obviously chose Door #2 and never revisited the results.

Door #3 seems like a logical way to go. You don’t interrupt your writing flow, but you don’t compromise the authenticity of the scene by filling in the unknown blanks with familiar, generic clichés.

Of course, you could just “sketch” the scene and deal with it in rewrite, rather than exercise your full imagination and creativity. Either way, you’ll have to come back to it later and do the work.

But I think generic, flabby writing is habit-forming and should be avoided. It’s one thing to write a great scene that has a few details wrong and needs to be fixed later. It’s a completely different thing to write a flat, dead scene and then try to come back later and breathe life into it.

The main thing is to keep the writing fire going – give it the oxygen of imagination. Don’t interrupt your flow with an hour of research when you’re hot … or douse it with cold, lifeless prose because you’re afraid you’re going to get a detail wrong.

Of course, you do have to do your research – we’ve all been told over and over. But you’ll never be able to research every life-like detail of every scene in advance. That would mean you’d have to anticipate every single thing you’ll put in your book before you sit down to write it. Maybe this would work for extremely conscientious – not to say obsessive – planners and outliners. But for pantsers? Forget it!

The NOTES TO SELF tactic also works for other writing roadblocks. I recently read a good, short post on flagging areas with style problems that someone sent me a link to (unfortunately I can’t find it now, wouldn’t you know). The basic premise was that when you get stuck on a description, or a grammatical issue, or you aren’t happy with the way a paragraph is working, just flag the roadblock with the word FIX, and keep on writing. The only thing I’d worry about is using style flags as a kind of crutch, because I think it’s hard to pump up a story with a lot of stylistic “flat tires” by applying patches later on.

This NOTES TO SELF tactic also raises a perennial research issue: how much advance research is enough research?

I wish there was a simple rule of thumb on research, but I suspect there is not. So much depends on your genre, topic, setting and other elements. Historical fiction necessarily demands more research, for instance, while fantasy gives authors permission to build their storyworlds mostly out of their own imaginations.

If there is a common sense principle to follow, it’s probably this: research the basic, critical elements that will support the foundation of a story in advance. This will help avoid major authenticity blunders that could kill the story premise or necessitate large chunks of rewriting. This kind of research is largely left-brain work.

When it comes to writing “colour”, though, I think the right brain does most of the heavy lifting. The kind of experiential detail that really puts the reader in the scene comes from the writer’s five senses and imagination. It doesn’t benefit from description that sounds like a Wikipedia dump.

Once you’re in the heat of writing, don’t let research roadblocks get in your way. Flag what needs checking and keep on going. Because nothing kills the joy of writing quicker than a stop-and-go traffic jam of needless interruptions.

How is fiction not like reality?


Silk’s Post #83 — Does this sound like a pretty stupid question? It’s a no-brainer, you might think. Fiction is not true. Reality is.

Are you sure?

Maybe this only seems obvious because, by definition, we don’t give “no-brainer” questions much thought. We treat them as givens. Settled law. Reality is something we can believe in. Rock solid. Fiction is—well, just something made up. Unreal. Fiction is the thing that “truth is stranger than” according to the old saw (an adage that is predicated on the notion that reality can sometimes surprise us by being more unbelievable than fiction, but fiction is always unbelievable).

And here’s the challenge for writers of fiction: to engage readers in your made-up story – to make them care about your characters, your plot, your setting, your theme – you must make it all seem like reality. Or at least plausible within a context that readers can relate to. The world and people in your book may be fake – works of imagination – but they need to feel true at some level to be meaningful to readers.

Authentic, convincing, resonant, compelling – these are the words authors would love to be reading in reviews of their novels. How do we get there?

Let’s start with the Oxford Dictionary, just to give this post a whiff of authority:

fiction — n. 1  an invented idea or statement or narrative; an imaginary thing. 2  literature, esp. novels, describing imaginary events and people. 3  a conventionally accepted falsehood (legal fiction; polite fiction). 4  the act or process of inventing imaginary things. Synonyms: unreal, imaginary, invented, made-up, fanciful, mythical, fictitious.

reality — n. 1  what is real or existent or underlies appearances. 2  the real nature of a thing. 3  real existence; the state of being real. 4  resemblance to an original (the model was impressive in its reality). Synonyms: actuality, fact, truth, genuineness, authenticity.

But indulge me for a few minutes while I try to follow the twisted loose thread in this neat dichotomy: the thread of believability. Here are two simple questions, each of which can only be answered  with “no”, that pretty well blow Oxford’s comfortable clarity to smithereens and (fortunately for us writers) open up a wonderfully blurry world:

Does something need to be believable to be true?

Does something need to be true to be believable?

Before I get totally lost in the depths of philosophy and etymology, let me explain my inspiration for this post. It was a tweet from Senior Editor Melissa Ann Singer at Tor/Forge Books:

feel like I can’t say this enough: every scene must have a purpose. every part of every scene must have a purpose. no filler.

I think this neatly sums up the most important way that fiction is not like reality. Real life is absolutely chocked with filler. A great novel has none.

I think this is where so many “emerging” novelists – myself included – get lost trying to follow the believability thread. Believability isn’t about reality at all. When readers (your critique group, your agent, your aunt Polly) tell you that your story is unrealistic, inauthentic or not believable, they aren’t longing for true-to-life filler. The tooth-brushing scene where a character thinks deep thoughts while gazing into the mirror (or maybe just remembers to buy more toothpaste). The waking up scene. The drinking tea scene. The hanging out at the bar scene. The driving (or walking or riding on the bus) scene where the character needs to get from one plot point to another and is conveyed there literally. The waiting scenes in all their myriad guises – waiting for the phone to ring, the plane to land, the other shoe to drop. Give your readers these realistic bits of filler and they’ll stop turning pages in a hurry.

Let’s face it, a lot of reality is just plain boring.

Even worse, from a reader’s perspective, is that many of the filler scenes in fiction seem to be inserted for the purpose of delivering backstory and exposition that the author couldn’t really find a place in the story for, but believes the reader simply must know in order to understand the plot or the character.

Another, even less appealing, type of filler is when the author just likes the sound of his/her own voice. Real life is full of such tangents, but fiction can’t survive them. All of us, on occasion, have been guilty of indulging in flights of fancy, or mini-treatises on a favourite topic, or deft philosophical observations, or long poetic descriptions, or just cleverly worded side-trips that sound wise and erudite. Guilty as charged here, I don’t know about you.

But, while these forays might make for interesting late night conversation over a bottle of wine in real life, in fiction they’re filler.

So, if fiction needs to feel true and be believable, but not literally be true or mundanely realistic, what do you leave out and what do you keep in? How do you even recognize filler in your own writing?

In writing fiction, we get to take tremendous liberties with reality in order to achieve believability, tell a good story, and connect with the reader at an emotional level. In fact, we must take those liberties. But when you’re still a novice, this can produce a lot of angst. Especially if you get lost in research.

For example, much is made of accuracy in details. What type of firearm does a police officer carry in Pasadena? What factory colours did they make ’57 Chevies in? What are the first symptoms of bubonic plague? How does the Cloud actually work? We live in fear of getting these things wrong and being caught out. But perhaps we shouldn’t confuse the need for authenticity with slavish adherence to reality. What we really need to serve is the story’s believability (taking into account the genre’s audience).

While getting the details right is challenging, the hardest thing is to pick which ones are necessary and which ones are filler. And that goes for every bit of content in the story: characters, descriptions, settings, events, and all that difficult connective tissue that binds the scenes together. Filler must be exterminated. For a lot of writers, the seek and destroy mission to eliminate filler may happen in the second or third draft. The sooner, the better, because the longer words stay on the page, the more necessary they seem to your story. When they become like old friends that you hate to abandon, it’s harder to recognize them as deadly filler.

But if you want to end up with a manuscript that a publisher will leap on and people will gobble up, you need to pare it down to exactly what’s needed to tell a memorable story – not one word more, not one word less. You have to get it down to its essence.

Great fiction compresses reality, enhances it, sculpts it to the needs of the story. Great fiction stimulates the colours of the imagination, whose brilliance far surpasses the colours the eye can actually perceive. It animates unforgettable characters and larger-than-life heroes. It creates grace notes seldom heard in the noisy everyday world. It dials up emotion, collapses time, supercharges curiosity, and above all imbues every event with meaning, value and consequence. And great fiction demands that every story end with a satisfying conclusion, whether happy or sad or triumphant or haunting.

None of this is like real life. But great fiction makes us believe it. Or maybe more important, makes us believe in it.