The Power of Descriptive Language

When it comes to descriptive language in fiction, some authors revel in rich, detailed descriptions, while others prefer a minimalist approach. But most writers agree that well-crafted descriptions, no matter their length, build worlds that come alive in our hearts and minds, creating an immersive experience for the reader.

I love this quote by Anton Chekhov: “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”

In my mind, this advice reaches beyond the standard catch phrase of “show, don’t tell.” It teaches us to imagine ourselves in our characters’ circumstances, to see what they see, feel what they feel. To draw on personal experience, tune in to every emotion, engage every sense. Then, after sifting through that wealth of data, to capture and re-create those circumstances by putting words to page.

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Think of your favorite novels, the ones where you’re left blinking in surprise at your real-life surroundings when you finally put the book down. Whether the story took place in your own hometown or on an alien world, the author’s skill with building and conveying the setting doubtless played a role in drawing you in.

What types of descriptive language are most effective? What techniques? Are adjectives becoming a thing of the past, or should you use as many as you want? I suspect that every writer will give you a different answer. It can be dangerous to get caught up in the game of what’s “okay” and what isn’t: counting adjectives and adverbs, using words other than “said,” or agonizing over whether you’re allowed to describe what a character is wearing. So much depends on personal taste, style, and instincts.

Don’t ever stop honing your craft. Find critique partners. Always do your research. But please allow yourself some freedom of expression. The debate that’s currently raging in the literary world about what authors are and are not allowed to write about is a sure path to self-doubt and creative stagnation.

Maybe your description of a spaceship’s corridors will be sterile and crisp, with clipped phrases and stark language to convey the coldness and loneliness of space. Or maybe you’re writing an epic space romance where the main character waxes poetic on the infinite beauty of the stars.

At the end of the day, your goal is to create an experience for the reader that is both visceral and vicarious. How you achieve that is the real trick, as any writer well knows.

There is no perfect way to write. But I will close with a favorite passage from one of my absolute favorite books, The Empty Grave by Jonathan Stroud:

“Long gray hair lay thick and lush across an ivory pillow. It cradled a gaunt white face, the skin flowing like wax beneath our candlelight. It was the face of a woman; an aged, wrinkled woman—bony, with a nose curved thin and sharp like the beak of some bird of prey. The lips were closed tight; the eyes, too.”

In this one short passage I count 13 adjectives (14 if you count curved as an adjective vs. a verb) and two similes. And it’s freaking fantastic.

Enough said.

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Growing up, Christine Hayes loved reading stories about creatures that curl your toes and legends that send a shiver down your spine. Now she loves writing about them, too. Her debut novel, MOTHMAN’S CURSE, was released in June 2015 through Roaring Brook Press/Macmillan. Christine seeks inspiration by haunting flea markets and estate sales, searching for cool vintage finds with a story to tell. While earning her degree in music she visited Asia for the first time, and later moved there with her family for several years. She has been addicted to travel ever since. Christine and her clan now live in northern Utah. Find her online at www.christinehayesbooks.com.

 

A Study In Humanity

One of my passions is buying and selling vintage décor. I’ve been to a lot of estate sales, and they are a fascinating study in humanity. Estate sales are basically indoor yard sales where everything in the house is for sale. They’re usually run by an outside company that prices the items and receives a percentage of the profit. In most cases, the homeowner has passed away and the remaining family members need help sorting and managing all the belongings left behind.

At first, I admit it felt intrusive—even disrespectful—to traipse through someone’s home alongside all the other eager buyers, snapping up people’s earthly possessions for bargain prices. How would I feel if my whole life was on display, up for sale, reduced to boxed-up objects carted away by strangers?

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But soon my perspective shifted. Apart from the typical trappings of daily life—bedding, dishes, sofas, clothing—I started to pay attention to the fascinating touches that make every person precious and unique. I began to see these sales as a form of tribute to the people who had passed. I’ve found old family photos, love letters, and recipe boxes stuffed with carefully copied, hand-written recipes. I’ve purchased trophies, amateur artwork, and travel-worn suitcases.

Every house is different. Every life is one of a kind.

My favorite spots to explore are the garage and the basement storage room. Those spaces tell endless stories: there’s the man who stockpiled rocks and fossils; the seamstress with boxes upon boxes of fabric and ribbons and patterns; the family that collected antique tools and kitchen gadgets. All were people with their own dreams and passions, loves and losses, disappointments and triumphs.

Inevitably, many of the homes also contain the typical objects associated with the end of life: walkers, orthopedic shoes, oxygen tanks. There’s no avoiding the twinge of sadness I feel at the sight of those reminders that life is fragile and finite. Plenty of those items could be found in my own home before my mom passed away. But such reminders are important. They keep us rooted in our own humanity.

In my mind, these sales are more than a means to keep my business afloat. They are a source of Story, a prompting to pursue my passions, and a visceral nudge to make the most of every day I am granted in this life.

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Growing up, Christine Hayes loved reading stories about creatures that curl your toes and legends that send a shiver down your spine. Now she loves writing about them, too. Her debut novel, MOTHMAN’S CURSE, was released in June 2015 through Roaring Brook Press/Macmillan. Christine seeks inspiration by haunting flea markets and estate sales, searching for cool vintage finds with a story to tell. While earning her degree in music she visited Asia for the first time, and later moved there with her family for several years. She has been addicted to travel ever since. Christine and her clan now live in northern Utah. Find her online at www.christinehayesbooks.com.</div

The Impact of Teachers

I had the same teacher for both fourth and fifth grades. Her name was Mrs. Tapscott. Many details about her are fuzzy after so many years, but I do remember that she had gray, curly hair and a soft, sweet southern accent. But what I remember most is that she read to us every day. She read THE HOBBIT, and A WRINKLE IN TIME, and THE CAY, and MY SIDE OF THE MOUNTAIN. We were mesmerized by every chapter of every book, drawn in by her expressive voice.

Even back then I wanted to become a writer, but thanks to Mrs. Tapscott I became a reader, too. I can’t say that I always chose books of the caliber she favored. I read plenty of Choose Your Own Adventure, and Sweet Valley High, and every Trixie Belden book ever written. Of course I believe that any time a child picks up a book voluntarily it’s a Very Good Thing. But Mrs. Tapscott taught me—taught all of her students—to seek out quality and variety in the books we chose.

A WRINKLE IN TIME, in particular, stuck with me. It changed me. It was strange and new and important.

Now that a movie of this iconic story has finally been produced, I decided it was time to reread the book, to see how it held up after more than 30 years.

Here’s what I discovered: it was just as weird and wonderful, just as impactful, when viewed through the lens of age and experience. I could see how brave and groundbreaking it was, and how truly unique. I still pictured the characters and settings in much the same way as I had as a child. But things I saw more clearly this time around included the rich symbolism and the power of a strong female protagonist who broke the mold of expectation and was utterly herself. And I fell in love all over again with Charles Wallace’s ethereal calmness and Calvin’s kindness and loyalty.

I think the point I’m working toward is that my teacher chose material that challenged us, that made us think and dream and expand our narrow worlds.

Teachers come in many guises. Not all are teachers in the traditional sense. Some are neighbors, or coaches, or church leaders—or writers. As writers we’ve been given a rare gift: the chance to influence minds young and old, to advocate for kindness and justice, to encourage a thirst for knowledge and truth.

I’m grateful to Mrs. Tapscott, and to the other teachers in my life who made a difference: Mrs. Gray, Mrs. Keeling, Mr. Jacobus, Mr. Duffer, and Dr. Tunnell. Thank you. I will do all I can to pass on your incredible passion and purpose.
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Growing up, Christine Hayes loved reading stories about creatures that curl your toes and legends that send a shiver down your spine. Now she loves writing about them, too. Her debut novel, MOTHMAN’S CURSE, was released in June 2015 through Roaring Brook Press/Macmillan. Christine seeks inspiration by haunting flea markets and estate sales, searching for cool vintage finds with a story to tell. While earning her degree in music she visited Asia for the first time, and later moved there with her family for several years. She has been addicted to travel ever since. Christine and her clan now live in northern Utah. Find her online at www.christinehayesbooks.com.

Exploring Your Writing Identity

Who am I? Who do I want to be? How do I define myself as a writer?

We all ask ourselves these questions from time to time. Self-reflection is inevitable when we face frequent rejections and pour so much of our hearts onto the page for the sake of art. Our personal and creative identities are irrevocably linked.

Your voice is unique. Think of the countless influences and experiences that have shaped you. You are a complex, glorious being made up of every hardship, heartbreak, disappointment, desire, joy, and triumph you’ve ever known.

Your distinct writing identity stems from an endless list of factors: where you grew up, your socioeconomic status, family dynamics, belief system, schools, friends, jobs, favorite books–even the TV shows and movies you enjoy.

Are you writing the kind of books you want to write? How about the ones you have to write? Perhaps there is a certain type of book you longed for growing up, one you wished someone had written that spoke to your dearest hopes, your deepest fears.

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If you find yourself examining where you are in your writing journey and where you want to go from here, try these five simple questions:

  1. What are your strengths as a writer?
  2. What genre do you enjoy writing (and reading) the most?
  3. What do you want to say to potential readers?
  4. What are your long-term writing goals?
  5. How would you like to grow or change as a writer?

My Happy Place is writing for middle grade readers, preferably with healthy doses of adventure, humor, and the paranormal. Moving backward through time I can clearly pinpoint several touchstones on the path that led to this point: the children’s lit class in college; the bleak novels we were force-fed in high school English; the stacks of ghost stories I devoured as a young teen; the steady diet of earnest, cheesy 1980s TV shows I adored as a kid.

I used to believe that my Happy Place was static and unchanging. But as I grow older, as I read more widely and interact with other writers, as we as a nation wrestle with our values and face our shortcomings in the struggle for social justice, I realize that my writing identity is still evolving.

As writers we owe it to ourselves and our readers to learn, to soul search, to expand our minds and hearts.

Consider writing something outside of your usual comfort zone. Read something completely new and unfamiliar. Seek out news from a wide range of reliable sources. Strike up a conversation with someone you don’t know. Plan a trip or a simple change of scenery. Wander through a new neighborhood. Observe people in new places. Engage with them. Hear what they have to say.

You will become not only a better writer but a better person, more qualified to explore, understand, and represent the human condition. You will learn to write from a place not just of sympathy but of empathy. You will speak not from secondhand knowledge but from firsthand experience.

I firmly believe that you should embrace what you feel called to write—compelled to write—without fear of judgment that your work isn’t important. When you write from a place of authenticity and a well-examined life, there will always be an audience for what you have to say.

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Growing up, Christine Hayes loved reading stories about creatures that curl your toes and legends that send a shiver down your spine. Now she loves writing about them, too. Her debut novel, MOTHMAN’S CURSE, was released in June 2015 through Roaring Brook Press/Macmillan. Christine seeks inspiration by haunting flea markets and estate sales, searching for cool vintage finds with a story to tell. While earning her degree in music she visited Asia for the first time, and later moved there with her family for several years. She has been addicted to travel ever since. Christine and her clan now live in northern Utah. Find her online at www.christinehayesbooks.com.