Description Gone Wild



Description Gone Wild

First off, let me admit I’m not much of a description gal either in reading or writing. In many novels, I have to force myself to slow down enough to read the description or go with my default which is to skip more than three of four lines of it. In my own writing, I rarely describe the characters physically and my descriptions of the environment are, to be kind, limited. So, you need to factor this in when you read what I have to say about description.

Sensuous detail

Writers are exhorted to include all the sensuous detail. And by and large, that’s good advice. You want the reader to smell the coffee, feel the silk of the pillow, hear the rattle of the car, see the volcano erupting, and maybe even gasp aloud at the plot twist you cleverly inserted.

Having said that, it can go too far. I recreate a piece I once heard at a writing workshop.

I arrived at the entrance. It was a big grey stone building with bars on the lower windows and mesh on the upper ones. I knocked at the door. It was opened by a guard. He had on a grey uniform with a black belt. He had me sign in. He handed me a pass. The buzzer sounded to let me through the door. I walked down a long corridor. The walls were painted grey and nothing was hung on them. I got to the next checkpoint. There was another guard, also in grey with a black belt. He looked at the pass the first guard had given me and pressed the button which buzzed the door open. I walked down the long grey corridor, then took a left turn down another and found room 45.

I’ll quit before I fall asleep. This blow-by-blow description includes a lot of detail (although sensuous is in question). To my mind, it is not a useful piece of description.

I take that back, perhaps. In the hands of a skilled writer, the entrance into the building could have been valuable if the intent was to show the grey hopelessness of the surroundings. But then you need to rejigger it to emphasize this. In its present iteration, it is more a litany of steps rather than the creation of a specific mood.

The use of description

Description needs to be in service of the story. That is, an account of the countryside view is to establish how isolated the mansion is; you have to mention that Alice has dark hair so she’s less likely to be seen in a dark corridor when eavesdropping. Every part, including description, needs to be in service of the narrative. If it is not, no matter how beautiful, you need to give it a good hard look to decide if it stays or is consigned to the ‘extra’ file.

The annoying part of writing is, of course, that there are always exceptions to every rule. Some writers’ descriptions cause swoons in their readers’ ranks and perhaps you aspire to that. Okay, fine. However, I bet if you did a close analysis of a novel whose descriptions you particularly admire, you’d find that the descriptions by and large still are in service of the story as well as being beautiful.

The trick is to know whether you can ignore this practice or are better off sticking to the tried and true. See my upcoming post on breaking the rules. Obviously, and ultimately, only you can make that decision. But for the rest of us, I think it is well to keep in mind that description should be in service of the story, whether to establish mood, or anchor a plot point, or anything else which will help the reader stay in the continuous dream.

Is Journaling Writing?


Is Journaling Writing?

Yes and obviously, journaling is writing if writing is strictly laying words down in a comprehensible string.

But I want to talk about journaling and writing fiction.

What is journaling?

I think of journaling as an episodic or regular recording of your thoughts, feelings, events, etc. A natural way for writers to think through and about the current of their lives.

I know some people journal every day. I tend to journal about once a week—whether through a paucity of life or thoughts, I leave you to decide. And my journaling is decidedly of the pedestrian kind. I mostly write about how my week has gone, who has pissed me off (often accompanied by a pithy and well-reasoned analysis of their failings), what is worrying me, what I can do about it, what I can’t…I’m sure you get the picture.

Although I don’t consider it writing with a capital W, I still find it very useful, mostly in a mental health way. It allows me to vent my spleen on annoying people thereby avoiding doing so in person. It helps me work through a problem in my life, slowing down enough to be able to consider options rather than react in a knee-jerk manner. It calms me.

But I don’t consider this weekly dump as writing in the fiction sense.

Leading to fiction

You may journal or want to as a road to writing fiction. If that is your intent, then you may use a different approach. Rather than recording your life as it evolves, you may elaborate on big thoughts that you want to capture in words. New ideas for a fiction piece might come out of this.

It can also be fertile ground for speculations on how the story you are working on might develop, or thinking through a niggle you have about it. Snatches of dialogue or description that might be useful might also occur.

It seems some people seem to be able to combine my kind of journaling with falling into fiction. I haven’t been able to do it, but if you can, all to the good.

But don’t be lulled into thinking you are WRITING if you just do my kind of journaling, no matter how frequently. The only thing it is likely to give you is better typing and an ease with words (the latter not to be sneezed at).

As avoidance

In fact, I have found that journaling can be an excellent way to avoid writing fiction. Either by satisfying the need to play with words or, in my case, wasting time which I had intended to devote to fiction. In fact, at some writing retreats, I have written pages and pages (current record: 10) of anything but fiction. I’ve written about writing, about how much I would like to be writing at this moment, speculating why I am not writing, torturing myself on my inadequacies as a writer. Interspersed with charming word pictures of the gopher under the cottage or the ducks on the lake. Or any other topic which will assure that I don’t focus on fiction writing.

So, if you are journaling now, I encourage you to continue. But unless you are among the lucky few whose journaling turns into fiction, don’t confuse the two. Set aside time for journaling for your mental health by all means. But also time for creating magic.

The Problem with English Lit Courses


The Problem with English Lit Courses

Off the top, I differentiate between English Lit and Creative Writing courses. The latter is more closely aligned with this blog. English Lit courses focus primarily on reading the Great Literature of The English Language and talking about why it’s so great.

Great not being synonymous with ripping stories, by the way.   A friend and I once decided that to spend one lunch-time a week reading the Great Literature we’d missed. Unfortunately, we started with Moby Dick by Herman Melville. Fifty pages a week was our goal. To reach it, I had to sit in a hard-backed chair to keep awake.  That I had been unsuccessful was evident when my friend asked, “What did you think of the ship sinking at the end?”

“The ship sank?”

So concluded that pursuit.

English Lit is reductionist

My beef with English Lit for aspiring writers is that the novels are studied by parsing them to death. The devices and metaphors used; how they contribute to the major theme; the effect of the time period and context on the novel’s shape, etc.

Which, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. Certainly you need to be able to recognize the component parts of a novel and the effect of authorial choices on the shape of the story to inform how you create your own.

But because you’ve gotten adept at identifying devices, doesn’t mean you can use them in your own writing. It doesn’t teach you how to create them or when to use them and sometimes even more importantly, when not to.

And gives the impression of fait accompli

The other objection is that a published novel is of course a finished product which doesn’t, if it works, show all the doubt, re-writing, reshaping, and struggle that had gone into it.

I find it prompts one of two reactions to aspiring writers, both bad. The first is okay, I got it. Now I can do it. These writers are unprepared for the mastery of technique they must achieve nor the amount of sloughing. They can be put off and abandon their aspirations.

Even worse are would-be authors who read a novel which has been cut, recut, and polished into the jewel it is and think I could never do this. There’s no point in trying. They don’t realize that the author started off with the same unprepossessing lump of rock that they presently have. They compare their unfinished product to the finished one and despair.

No room for magic

However, my real objection is that English Lit courses leave no room for magic which is the real reward of writing. Oh, the magic of the finished novel might be acknowledged. But not the magic of creation which is the joy of writing. It’s not magic all the time, unfortunately, and you don’t control when it visits, but when it does, it reminds me that this is what I was meant to do.

Okay, I may have set up English Lit courses as a bit of a straw horse. Their objective, to be fair, is not to make you a great writer but to study those who are. You still need to work at technique, and write, write, write. And thereby make room for magic.

Developing a Theme


Developing a Theme

Most great novels have a theme, whether intended by the author or deduced by admiring readers is sometimes hard to tell. Theming your novel can enhance its appeal to your readers.

What is a theme?

There is of course the literary definition and the on-line Masterclass is an excellent source on that aspect. But, for me, a theme in a novel works when it gives me a feeling that I have learned something about myself or the world which is deep and true.  It might follow the typical literary themes of courage, death, friendship, revenge, or love but more important than the label is the visceral understanding I experience. In fact, I have finished novels where I know I have been changed even though I have trouble putting into words what I’ve learned.


Naturally, and reasonably, you want to know when I have experienced it to see if you agree with my analysis. I’ll do a short list with a note on how they moved/informed me. But I really want to focus on how to do it.

1984 by George Orwell. Even if it’s hopeless, you can stand up for what you believe.

The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis. Faith requires sacrifice and discipline.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. A blinkered view can distort your life.

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. How my life should be (turned out to be completely false but hey, I was ten at the time).

Macbeth by William Shakespeare. Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow—enough said

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. I can counterfeit the gold and then believe it true.

A theme can’t be force-fed

A novel with a theme can have a powerful and even lasting effect on your reader so of course you want to have one.

But as I have mentioned before, I don’t think it works to decide a priori the path the novel will take. Doing so can, and often does, produce a stilted, forced result which hits the reader over the head with this is the theme, get it?, rather than allowing her to gradually come to understand.

This is where magic comes in

To create a theme, I first think you have to open yourself to the magic lurking in your story.

Writing the first draft. In the original writing, look for the moments where you’re getting the sense of I think there’s something here. But don’t stop to try to figure out what it is, just keep writing. Write and write. Every once and a while, you’ll probably get that same feeling but just note it and keep writing.

It’s important to keep everything at the feeling stage. Don’t try to name it or the theme. Just write as much as you can from that emotion.

Editing the manuscript.  Once the first draft is completed, read it over to identify where that unnamed feeling occurs. Spend some time figuring out what these passages have in common—this is likely where your theme lies.

Strengthening the theme. Now that you understand what the novel means to you, go back over the manuscript to see where you can add or tweak scenes to reinforce the theme in a non-hit-over-the-head way.

So, in short, don’t look for your theme—let it find you.

How Much Detail?


How Much Detail?

So, we all know the adage of show not tell. In the preponderance of scenes, showing the protagonist yelling, “Damn right, I’m mad!” is more effective than writing “Sarah was angry.”

To show effectively, you need to be specific in the details of the scene.

Be specific

Not just: Samantha was suddenly alarmed as both men looked like they were about to fight.

But: The two circled each other. Adam raised a clenched fist and suddenly, Brian swung one up, too. “This is crazy!” yelled Samantha. “You think you’re gonna duke it out?”

How much detail is enough?

As I have already discussed in Description Gone Wild, doing static descriptions of the room, the weather, the characters, etc. need to be used carefully to avoid losing the reader’s interest in the plot. But writers also get caught in how much detail to include as part of the story. Let me give you an example.

Larry examined the lightbulb, shaking it, but there was no tell tale rattle of a broken filament. He craned his neck up to the socket and brushed away a possibly imaginary bit of cobweb. “This has been out of commission for a long time,” he thought.  He looked around for the switch. It was way over on the other side of the room, at the base of the stairs. But he could see that the toggle was down. He cupped the bulb and fit it into the socket. Then he began to turn.

Now, under what circumstance could this turgid piece of prose be considered worthwhile including in the story and, more importantly, interesting to the reader?

The automatic answer might be ‘none,’ but there is at least one situation when it might be appropriate. If a bomb is about to go off when the bulb and socket connect, the extreme detail could add suspense. But this is the important bit: the reader must know it’s going to happen.

If she does, then the detail increases tension. If she doesn’t, then all the detail is a nuisance to get through. Even if the bomb goes off at exactly the same spot in the story in both instances.

And if there is no bomb or other significant event attached to the lightbulb, when could it be used?

Answer: Never.

Okay, if changing the lightbulb might be needed for verisimilitude, you could go with:

At the bottom of the stairs, Larry flipped the switch. Nothing. He sighed and headed over to the socket.

And even this little bit isn’t needed if being in the dark has no other function—such as metaphor or foreshadowing.

Don’t fall in love with your writing

Sometimes, when the Muse is with you, your fingers fly over the keyboard and everything which emerges feels like gold. The moments we all live for.

However, in the cold light of day (i.e. editing), it’s not to say that every word created during that glow is still gold. What probably can be retained is the energy of the piece. But be on the look-out for bits that are surplus to requirements.

In short, detail, like description, needs always to be in the service of the story. Even a lovely and evocative element which you would hate to lose must be put under the plot microscope. If it isn’t doing something—even in a minor way—to create the story you want, then consider the chop.