Here’s a glacier melting on Mount Rainier, where I went hiking in August 2016.
I’m a sucker for descriptions that absorb me. I live for the moments when a story’s language inhales me and I lose myself breathing in another world’s air. Whether beautiful, strange, luminous, or disturbing, a skillful descriptive passage settles on the reader’s skin like a petal, a feather, a cobweb…or a knife. Description sets a mood–in gossamer, in mud, in blood. It establishes character and voice. It provides plot with an evocative place to hang out (even if it’s just passing through). Description deepens everything: people, places, plots, and the reader’s experience.
Description can also be dangerous for writers. It can tempt you to linger where the story wants, needs to gallop forward. It can bog you down in details the characters (and readers) don’t need to know. It can pull the story-curtain aside and reveal the writer at play, so caught in his/her own dazzling web that the words shout, “Narrator here!”
I’ve always sought to create the kinds of description that entrance me, but like any apprentice writer, sometimes I’ve become so captivated by the magic that the words shove the story aside. It’s a blessing to have words for everything, but when they grow wild and too tangled and prickly to pass through, you must prune them. (It takes bravery to wield your clippers before a seven-foot-high description hedge equipped with thorns. The words don’t always take kindly to being snipped out!)
Over time, and through guidance from veteran writers, I’ve learned to channel my enthusiasm for describing…at least when it comes time to edit a wild and wooly draft. So grab something you’re ready to revise, pick up your pruners and gardening gloves, and if you wish to add anything to these tips, please do share!
Carter Falls in Mt. Rainier National Park, August 2016
Don’t throw in that kitchen sink!
When I began writing novels as a teenager, I assumed you had to describe everything. My first novel opened with my protagonist, Dar, looking out his kitchen window while washing dishes. The action began four pages later, when Dar spots the father he thought had abandoned his family, struggling up the path to his house against a windy downpour, leading a child Dar has never met.
Between Dar’s first glance out the window and the moment his father and the kid lurch into view, I described the kitchen walls, furniture, pots and pans, floor, the food cooking on the stove, and how the rain outside cast a gloomy light over everything. Moreover, the house’s dismal state of repair and the murky light reflect Dar’s inner state. The mood and the verbiage are both deep and heavy, and the story struggles to rise from this descriptive morass.
Part of the problem was that I gave everything equal weight: I spent just as much time recounting how he got the raincoat he puts on to meet his father as I did describing his father. The sausages he’s cooking get equal billing with the reunion.
Description, like attention, is selective. An effective description highlights what’s important to the characters and their story. It also sets the emotional tone for that scene. This occurs through judicious seasoning with details. The same way as dumping a whole spice canister into your soup overwhelms the other flavors, shaking too much descriptive “seasoning” onto a scene smothers the main dish: your story’s direction.
An English hornbeam tree along a path in the New York Botanical Garden, Bronx, NY
Wandering down the garden path
Imagine taking a walk down a country lane: you watch the tall grass waving, you smell the wildflowers’ faint scents, you roll up your sleeves to feel the warm breeze stroke your skin. You’re just strolling along, soaking up that surfeit of sensory input, thinking about the path not as a means to a destination but as a journey, a process, an experience.
This is terrific for your personal development but deadly for stories.
Life becomes richer and more meaningful when we savor our experiences rather than focusing narrowly on goals. Stories operate differently. Life thrives on garden-path exploration. Stories are juggernauts, plummeting downhill toward a crash, an altercation, a life-changing revelation. Most of our real-life puttering and ambling doesn’t make it onto the page because an enjoyable life translates into a boring story. We’re left with the heights and the abysses.
Meandering country-lane descriptions plagued the beginnings of my stories, and I know I’m not the only one. But an opening scene needs to do more than give the reader a panorama shot. It needs to grab the reader’s hand and pull them along, not on a ramble but a brisk trot toward Destiny. This doesn’t mean your description has to be terse and minimalist. It does mean that it must contribute to the story’s forward (inward, downward) motion.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park, August 2016
Voice and Description: Avoiding Authorial Intrusion
Aspiring writers hear a lot about voice. Agents admit to swooning over a distinctive voice, which makes the difference between asking the writer for the rest of the book and sending one of those “sorry, but not for us” form responses. Voice is key to the deep point of view, which gives the reader the feeling that they’re not just riding shotgun with a character, but getting inside the character’s mind and heart.
When descriptions emerge from a character’s personhood rather than the writer’s sense of what sounds cool, poetic, or profound, they emerge as the writer would think or say them, using his/her vocabulary, knowledge and skill base, experiences, cultural background, etc. A stonemason looks at a dry-stone wall differently than a grocer would: with a specialized vocabulary, an understanding of how it was put together, a feel for the stone and the tools and whether or not it’s safe to stand on top of that wall. This is why it’s crucial to write about what you know, either directly through experience or indirectly through research. If on a whim you decide your main character is a stonemason and you don’t work with stone or do any research on it, the language won’t come out authentic and knowledgeable readers will wince (and put the book down).
I believe writers can solve many of our description problems by remembering that descriptions need to come through the viewpoint character’s sensibility rather than the writer’s. Any time you go over your work and read something that sounds “writerly” rather than natural, you’ve likely slipped out of your character’s head and back into your own, and the reader will do that too–but for readers, that’s a jarring change that can yank them right out of the story. Sadly, these writerly moments often contain our pet passages, puffed up with personal preoccupations perched on purple prose. If you’d rather save your darlings than execute them, consider whether you could convey the image or idea in a way the character would express it.
I don’t advocate one style or volume of description over another. Crisp reportage can work just as well as lush lingering. Your choice depends on your preference and the character through whom you deliver your narrative.
Bright Angel Trail, Grand Canyon National Park, December 2016
Too Much Weight: Description and the Theme or Moral
The final descriptive difficulty I wish to address arises from the story’s under-layer, where meaning and purpose dwell. Most stories convey a theme, and in the most artful ones, the writer discovers the theme as the first draft unfolds. (If the theme appears in the writer’s mind before the story, there’s the tendency to create those tiresome didactic stories which sermonize rather than entertain.)
Themes can manifest in descriptions. Whenever a refrain appears in the work, and when the description moves past the literal level (a room, an outdoor scene, a person, an object) to the figurative, you can be sure thematic resonances are welling up to the surface. But the writer needs to tread lightly when the subterranean waters start bubbling up. It’s easy to get heavy-footed and start bashing themes into the story’s soil with a mallet instead of letting them trickle up from below, where readers can choose to wet their toes in them or to leap over them.
Description can become overburdened under layers of metaphor, which is what happens to saplings when a heavy, wet snowfall drags their branches down. If a friendly hiker comes by and shakes off the snow, the trees spring back. If the snow freezes over, and more piles on, and nobody comes by, and the trees are forced to wait for the next thaw to melt all that snow, they may get stuck all slumped over and contorted and end up growing that way. Don’t let that happen to your story “sapling”! Let the symbolism rest lightly, like snowflakes, not like snowpack. The reader will glory in the glitter that shines off them when the sun of their attention hits the words just right.
Gulp…oh no, I let the metaphor get away from me. Sorry. (Dusting off snow.)
South Kaibab Trail, December 2016
I’ll end by encouraging you not to be afraid to invoke description’s power. The wonderful thing about revising is that, should you find the story getting buried under all those wonderful words, you can always shake some off and watch how the branches spring back and flirt with the sky–lean, supple, and powerful in their purity of form.
Image courtesy of Spark Life/Spark Notes: “6 Creative Writing Exercises”
As a part-time community-college writing instructor, I’m fond of telling my students, “It’s never too late”–to return to college and earn their degree, as well as to discover (or rediscover) writing as a potent tool for communication and personal growth rather than a delivery system for meaningless assignments. At least one student per term recounts a discouraging prior experience with writing: a teacher’s criticism, the wrong person reading their diary, learning disabilities that made writing agonizing instead of liberating. I count myself successful when writing-traumatized students tell me that the course has renewed their faith in writing, and in themselves.
It took me years to learn that writing for publication is a different animal from writing for personal growth and enjoyment. In my mid-twenties, equipped with a PhD in English Language and Literature, installed in a tenure-track community-college teaching position, and having read voraciously since I started deciphering picture books, I felt confident that I could identify–and produce–literature.
The situation proved more complicated than that. I don’t regret being a middle-aged debut writer–I appreciate how maturity and life experience contribute to my work–but I would also have preferred to learn what I now know about writing for publication when I possessed youth’s vigor (and no need to rely on chocolate).
Here are the discoveries I wish I’d made at the beginning of my writing career. Please feel free to share yours!
Books become classics for good reason: the writing style, characters, situations, and themes transcend their space-time to resonate with readers for whom the story feels fresh even if the writer picked up a pen five hundred years ago. However, literary conventions change over time and in response to readers’ preferences. How many books address the Gentle Reader nowadays? Would contemporary readers stick with a novel whose indolent pace feels more a stroll in the country, not a climb up a mountain in the midst of a blizzard? Keep reading classic works for your own delight and to absorb the masterful language, but don’t ignore new works in your genre and/or areas of interest. These are the books that are now capturing publishers’ (and hence readers’) attention.
2. Revision doesn’t mean mortally wounding your work.
When I was a young writer, I pledged allegiance to the “mystical channel” school of thought about writing: that it was a mysterious, quasi-religious experience where the Universe bestowed words and ideas on the Poet/Novelist. These words and ideas were inviolable, in my mind, and if someone dared to make a recommendation for editing, that would destroy the work’s integrity.
Like many developing writers, I’d had an unpleasant experience with an overzealous editing professional who preferred work that differed so much in style and content from what I wrote that she wasn’t the right person to provide me with a critique. Then, to make matters worse, I took a creative-writing course in college where the instructor set an adversarial, hyper-critical tone that goaded the students to tear one another’s work (and adolescent egos) apart. This infelicitous combination made me leery of critique groups and seeking feedback of any kind. It took me years to learn that self-editing (and enlisting fellow writers and trusted readers to give feedback) doesn’t murder the work–it heals writing “injuries” that damage the story’s health.
What helped me most to accept the revision process was working with my students. I strove to become a sympathetic, supportive guide who could pinpoint problems while celebrating strengths and encouraging the students to enhance those strengths. When I discovered that the right editor can empower students, I realized that I could become that kind of editor for my own work–and I could find outside readers who’d provide that essential balance between understanding and advocating for one’s work while being honest about what’s not working.
3. We only write alone some of the time.
Like many writers, I’m introverted. I thrive on “alone time,” which allows my ideas to percolate and my spirit to renew itself. I get up earlier than anyone else in my household (except the cats) so I can work with minimal noise and distraction. But once I finish that first draft, I open the work to others–other writers and non-writing readers I trust to hold the integrity of my vision in their minds at the same time as they inform me about the parts where the story clunks, creaks, and/or falls down. At various times, I’ve participated in writing critique groups, attended writers’ conferences, braved pitching sessions with agents, and read books on the writing craft. Yet this open-door policy didn’t come easily or naturally to me.
It took me some time to learn to let others in. It’s one thing to imagine readers savoring your book; you don’t have to see them doing it, and (mercifully) you’re not there when they get annoyed and talk back to the page. The wonderful thing about writing communities is that you can find mentors and peers–you don’t have to go through this by turns exhilarating and agonizing process alone–and in time, you can (and should) give back to the writing community by mentoring up-and-coming writers.
4. Talent, inspiration, art, craft, skills, and tools are all important, and they enhance rather than undermine each other.
Becoming a writer is, like so many endeavors, a combination of innate and acquired traits. The core is the desire, the all-consuming need to express oneself through the written word. Without that desire, you’re not going to stay with the process when it becomes difficult.
Writing’s an art, and like any art, it’s a combination of inspiration, persistence, and practice. That’s where the acquired aspects appear–learning the craft, attaining the skills, collecting the tools.
Because our society has made an artificial and elitist distinction between the arts (“high culture”) and crafts (“low culture”), some new writers dismiss the craft aspects as mechanical, technical, not Artistic. What would happen if architects thought that way? You might get a cool-looking house, but one day the second floor might collapse because a glass pole isn’t sufficient to hold it up. Likewise, story conventions can seem formulaic (and the best writers play with them as architects do with building components), but they’re also the infrastructure that holds up all those beautiful words and sublime concepts. I’ve been learning over time how to balance awareness of these structural components with the inspiration and creativity that moves the story in unexpected, and satisfying, directions. Awareness of craft doesn’t mean a book has to turn out contrived and uninspired. By incorporating these story principles into your heart-mind, you’ll satisfy readers by meeting their unspoken expectations for what a story should be like–with plenty of room for originality.
Looking back, from both writing-teacher and writer’s perspective, I would’ve been so grateful if my college English 101 teacher had taken me aside and said, “Margaret, I can tell you love to write. Have you thought about publishing your work? Yes? Well, here are a few resources that I think you’ll find helpful…” and then she would’ve given me a book list and the names of some writers’ organizations and conferences. (I was a young writer in the pre-Internet era, so these resources weren’t easy to find.) Because this didn’t happen for me, I’ve chosen to provide these resources to any students who disclose that they love writing poetry, short stories, or novels–in hopes that they won’t spend twenty years floundering around, picking up bruises along with the lessons.
Lessons are inevitable; bruises are optional.
In the seaside town where I work, every first Wednesday of the month, a cow’s irritable mooing erupts from the public-address system. Visitors get startled when her bellowing penetrates restaurants, shops, and hotel rooms. She’s disembodied and omnipresent, a bovine deity calling down wrath upon those who dare approach the ocean. For, as tourists discover when a soporific human voice takes over from the cow, we’re hearing the local tsunami warning system conducting its monthly test.
I’m not sure why local officials chose a cow to represent tsunami preparedness, but here’s my theory: could “cows” be an acronym for Coast Offshore Warning System? Or is Broadcast Bossy the mascot for offbeat local flavor, not just disaster response systems?
Image courtesy of fanpop.com
Worldbuilding, the act by which a writer creates an imaginary world and brings it to life on the page (and the signature move that sets speculative fiction apart from its realist cousins), can overwhelm the timid with its vast size and ponderous responsibilities. A whole planet? Gosh, that’s big! The idea can humble us, even scare us away from writing (or at least writing speculative fiction). On the other hand, the gargantuan task might attract us. Creating a world ex nihilo (or from shadows shuffling around in the subconscious): it’s the most conspicuously godlike of writerly activities.
Worldbuilding is not all endless space, humongous populations, and epic time-spans, though. To draw readers into an imagined world, you need the small, particular, and peculiar. Every world contains both. The tremendous (Haystack Rock! Ecola Point! The Pacific Ocean stretched out before us in her immensity!) and the small (the cow lowing on the loudspeaker!) combine to produce the identifiable real-world town where I work. Fictional worlds need both the grand vista and the tiny but telling detail to come alive for readers.
Spruce Burl Trail, Olympic National Park
While attending Norwescon in SeaTac, WA this past weekend, I listened to Greg Bear, Nancy Kress, Patrick Swenson, and Brenda Cooper presenting a worldbuilding how-to session. Pacific Ocean views and bovine emergency broadcast system tests didn’t make an appearance, but the principles behind them did.
The presenters divided their remarks into three segments.
Part 1: The Basics
Some speakers identified as planners (those who plan their story in some fashion before writing, for example, through outlining) and others as pantsers (those who let the storyline evolve as they write). These positions dictated the degree to which each one advised attendees to start building the world before writing the story. Nancy identified three areas where new world-builders should focus their attentions: physical terrain, big societal questions, and details. Map-making is crucial to defining the physical terrain. (If you’re not a cartographer, or even a visual person, I find the Cartographers’ Guild’s website helpful, and so might you: http://www.cartographersguild.com). This also means asking yourself questions about how gravity, light levels, climate, and flora and fauna may differ from the reader’s experiences with them on Earth. Big societal questions include economics (where resources come from and who controls them), technology level, and governmental structure (who holds the power). Details include clothing, entertainment, genders and gender roles, communication…all the fine-grained layers that vivify your world and generate plotlines.
Patrick encouraged us to remember that we’re writing fiction, not history, science, or a travelogue, so readers should receive their information and impressions about a world through a point-of-view character or characters. What would this character notice? What’s important to him/her/them? What does the character do and how does this influence the things, and the way, he/she/they perceive the world? Greg continued in this vein, recommending that we choose our characters carefully because what they experience is what you’ll show the reader. Also, by filtering the world through a character’s impressions, the writer introduces the world bit by bit, in an engaging way, and avoids the Dreaded Info Dump.
And that leads us to…
Part 2: Common Mistakes
Image courtesy of geekswithoutgod.com
Greg gave a rueful chuckle and started off with info-dumping. The narratorly kind is unsubtle: the writer just comes out and gives the reader the operating instructions for his/her/their fictional world. “As you know, Bob…” is a sneakier way to do the same thing: one character conveys in conversation (well, more like monologue) what the reader needs to know. The problem is that the characters already know it, so they don’t need to talk about it, and the reader spots the artificiality right away…and puts down the book.
World-building occurs in every fictional work, but it’s central to science fiction and fantasy, where the world you’re visiting will be either our own but transformed (accelerated into the future, deformed in a dystopia) or a world you’re meeting for the first time. Because the reader needs to know how this new (or altered) world works, it’s so easy for the writer to fall into the trap of imparting tons information all at once, right at the beginning. Greg winced as he described writers dumping the info in Chapter 1 and then starting the actual story in Chapter 2. The reader isn’t going to stick around for the second chapter. He reminded us that every time you create a character, you’re building a different world, and the characters make the story. “Building a world is easy,” he noted, “but creating people is hard.”
For Nancy, the standout world-building mistake is neglecting to work out and convey to your reader how the magical systems or technology work in your world. The lazy fantasy writer produces half-baked magical systems that lack consistency and limitations. (Is there nothing this wizard cannot do? What happens to the wizard when doing magic—any consequences?) The science-fiction equivalent would be implausible, poorly thought-out technologies. (How did the protagonist get from her homeworld to Planet X: a spaceship equipped with faster-than-light drive, a wormhole, or flying on the back of the Cow Who Jumped Over the Moon?)
Brenda identified a different type of authorial laziness: creating fictional cultures that aren’t sufficiently complex. Societies aren’t homogeneous—to be realistic, a world needs different ages, ethnicities, professions, etc. Background details that make their appearance from time to time can hint at this complexity. She also stressed how characters need mundane activities to do, even if the writer doesn’t spend too much time describing them (to avoid boring the reader). Heroes don’t spend one hundred percent of their time saving sentience—everyone has laundry and dishes to do, even if you limit your coverage to one sentence.
After taking listeners’ questions, the panelists wrapped up with…
Part 3: One Final Pointer
Image courtesy of hlfbriskeby.no
Greg: “Trust yourself. If you have an interesting passion, put it down on paper. Pick the right readers to critique it. If you write what you love, it’ll be interesting.”
Patrick: “Know and trust your details and get them across to the reader. Remember that people may be a lot different in your world than they are from people here and now.”
Nancy: “Remember that you know your world, but the reader doesn’t. Make sure you convey enough detail so they’ll learn what you know.”
Brenda: “Get readers to feel your world: if it’s cold, make them feel cold.” She might’ve added, had she ever visited Cannon Beach: if it has cows, make them hear the mooing, feel the amplified sound vibrating through their bodies, coaxing them to moooooove to higher ground.
I’m Margaret Hammitt-McDonald, a naturopathic physician, licensed acupuncturist, elementary-school librarian, college writing instructor, and writer. I contribute a monthly column on bicycle commuting and cycling culture to HipFish, an alternative newspaper for the North Coast of Oregon. I also make periodic contributions to Upper Left Edge, an online and print literary journal, featuring writers from our upper-left corner of Oregon. I’ve been writing and rewriting, demolishing and polishing science fiction and fantasy novels since I was a teenager, and now, as a better-trained and hopefully wiser writer, I’m embarking on the journey toward publication to share my work with a wider audience.
I live between the Coast Range and the coast itself, enjoying the beauty where forest, beach, and mountains meet. Hiking, backpacking, dragonboating, bicycling, gardening, and just being outside with my family inspire my writing. My favorite writers include Ursula K. Le Guin, Toni Morrison, Patricia McKillip, and David James Duncan. Here are my odd…um, unique writing habits:
I’m sure I have other writing peculiarities, but the most important advice I can give is this: write regularly, preferably every day. Some folks wait until inspiration strikes, but inspiration is a fickle being, crash-landing in your head to wake you up one night and then, rather than striking, going on strike for days, weeks, even years. Daily writing creates the physical-mental space that invites inspiration to visit and then to stay. Alas, writer’s block can pay a visit too, but never fear, you can conjure your own sneaky ways to get around this big, bad wall. My favorite is to read what I’ve written the day before and do some editing. This uses a different branches of my brain but also pulls me back into the story, and soon enough, the writing flows back into that dry streambed.
I welcome you to join me in my explorations, experiments, adventures, and occasionally advice, and I invite you to share your own thoughts from your writing journey!
When I was in my twenties, I took a Ninja Taijutsu martial-arts class on Tuesday and Thursday nights. Adrian, the class’ sempai (senior student), was a physics doctoral candidate by day. At night, he donned his gi, tied on his black belt, and assisted the instructor in pounding us new recruits into fighting form. One night, he approached me with a forward roll, leapt up into a defensive stance, and said, “Consider a spherical cow!” While I was considering, his opening move in our undeclared sparring match sent me sprawling. My surprised laugh turned into an even more surprised “oof!” as I struck the mat.
Adrian’s message? Always expect the unexpected and never get caught off guard. It’s hilarious to picture a cow as a beach ball. Just don’t get so absorbed in your Holstein hyper-sphere that you end up airborne when the real world crashes into that amusing picture in your head and sends you flying.
Later, he shared the joke that had produced that punch line. In condensed form: a beef farmer consults with three professionals about how to make his feedlot operation more efficient. The first two consultants are an agronomist and a business coach, and they furnish the expected advice, complete with charts and stats. The third consultant, a physicist, begins with, “Assume the cow is a sphere…”
So what do spherical cows have to do with a writer’s journey toward publication?
The journey to publication features similar waypoints and rules of the road for all travelers. You’ve encountered these before: why it’s essential to get an agent, how to attract the agent, why you need to revise, revise, and revise again, how a writer’s critique group can provide useful feedback, why it helps to share your manuscript with editing professionals (developmental editors for plot and style problems, line or copy editors for making the grammar and syntax road-worthy)…and all the rest.
If anything, publishing professionals would seem to discourage the spherical-cow approach. A winning hook is one thing; getting noticed for some wacky gimmick is another. In other words, don’t send a manuscript printed on cow-patterned paper. (For that matter, many agents don’t want a printed manuscript at all, and for Bossy’s sake, don’t send it unsolicited.) With a first novel, I’ve read time and time again, don’t submit anything too “out there” for the agent to sell.
On the other hand, spherical cows do sell. Who wouldn’t jump on the chance to publish a bovine ball’s autobiography? A topic or take that’s truly original, a striking voice to die for…the unexpected, not just a joy to ponder, but the kind of originality that knocks you over (with a mat to soften the blow, I hope) while you’re immersed in its provocative questions.
What we remember about any journey are the unexpected, quirky, possibly frustrating but always exciting parts: the bird who landed on your head while you took that selfie atop the Great Wall, the friendly stranger on the bus who ended up hiring you for a fulfilling new job, the gorgeous view from the train that inspired you to move halfway across the country to your dream home. And, of course, your first glimpse of a cow rolling across a field at dawn.
Whatever point you’ve reached on your own writing journey, I invite you to join me—and to prepare for the unexpected.
19th-century cow image courtesy of http://paintingandframe.com/prints/others_cattle_19th_century-23612.html.