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)

Animate the monster

Helga’s post # 22 — As the story goes, if you were to eavesdrop at the London Book Fair, the comment you’d most often hear as novels are pitched is, “It’s beautifully written,” followed by:  “of course.”

At least that’s how Donald Maass tells it.

In one of Joe’s previous posts, ‘Book buying’ his point, especially poignant for newbie writers, is this: ‘As new writers, I think we need to remember this. Words matter. Voice matters. Style matters. How a story starts… matters.’

Truer words were never written. Think about it:

If ‘beautifully written’ will someday be said about a novel that you have written, you’d likely think there is no greater compliment, no bigger reward, than your readers saying:

“She (Karalee, Paula, Silk) or He (Joe of course) has got a way with words.”

Conversely, as a buyer of books, if the words don’t captivate me right from the start, no matter how clever the plot, how stylish the cover picture, even the smart title, the book will probably be a flop. I will feel duped as a buyer and reader. The writing sucks.

So then, how do we make our words sing, make them float on the page, make them ‘swirl and swing as they tangle with human emotions’, as James Michener said.

Maybe to do what Anton Chekov had in mind when he said: ‘Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.’

As writers, we need our compass for pointing us in the direction of ‘beautifully written’ vs. the opposite, ‘the writing sucks’. We know instinctively what we need to do. Sometimes it helps to be reminded though. Legions of books are written on the topic, their authors not always in agreement. There are however some common traits.

‘Beautifully written’ is more than description, images, and metaphors, though that’s part of it. More so, a beautifully written novel invokes emotions, ‘moving readers’ hearts, ‘changing their ideas, and even rocking their worlds’.il_570xN.350947546

To quote from Maass again: Beautiful writing is more than pretty prose. It conjures a world that is unique, highly detailed, and brought alive by the characters who dwell there. Beautiful writing also illuminates a story’s social world, its era, the passage of time and the story’s larger meaning. When a novel’s grasp is sure and its ambition is vast, then it is beautifully written.

At the other end of the compass, the ‘writing sucks’ point, there is one writing tool that should be thrown away: description. Most readers skim it. Even if using the five senses, it’s dead weight. Instead, describe a character’s experience, conveying how things look, smell, sound, taste, etc.

For example, it’s not enough to show that a character owns a luxury home and to describe its details. The reader needs to see him in that house when the family gathers for Thanksgiving dinner. We want to know his feelings. Is he conflicted? He loves his wife and he hates her. He feels trapped by her, thrilled by her, disgusted, but unable to leave. It’s his personal world. His feelings are the lightning bolts that ‘animate the monster’ and make it live.’ (Maass)

2336426905_fa1dcb6ef7_oSo much advice, so little time. Perhaps it boils down to this:

‘Write for the right reasons. The ability to write is a gift and should not be abused for cynical purposes. Resist the temptation to imitate what is currently commercially successful. Write what’s in your heart.’ (Thrity Umrigar, The Space Between Us)