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

Finding Your Path to Resilience

I’m worried that I may never sell another book. No, it’s stronger than that. I’m terrified. More than anything else in the world, I want to write and publish books. At times it becomes such an overwhelming distraction that it bleeds into all other facets of my life. Whatever small successes I might experience here and there, I still feel like a failure.

It’s been the source of too many unhealthy emotions for too long: bitterness, anger, cynicism, envy, defeat, self-doubt. But no matter how many times I decide to leave it behind, I always fall back into the same old routine, for better or worse.

They say it’s the persistent ones who ultimately succeed. The ones who don’t give up, who keep trying in the face of terrible odds, who pick themselves up after a defeat and try again. There’s a word for that (a word other than obstinate or naïve or just plain foolhardy).

Resilient.

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I saw a news segment recently about a new book called Type R: Transformative Resilience for Thriving in a Turbulent World, by Ama Marston and Stephanie Marston. The authors propose that the most resilient people are those who will be most successful in life. I’ve added the book to my reading pile, because the idea makes perfect sense.

So does being resilient—trying and trying, bouncing back after every setback—guarantee that I’ll ever publish again?

No.

But it does guarantee that even if I never reach my goal, at least I can say I did everything in my power to make it happen. It means I have no intention of giving up. But it also means that I need a reliable, alternate source of success in my life. I realized a long time ago that focusing on writing to the exclusion of all else is not healthy for me. So I’ve tried spending time on other pursuits, though it’s been a struggle to find the right fit. Every time, I end up viewing the new job or hobby or project as a distraction; as time that could be better spent writing. It’s a vicious circle.

And then, this past week, I finally found it. I did something I didn’t want to do, didn’t think I could ever, ever do without making a complete fool of myself.

I went to a weight training class. Twice! And I’m going back again this week. Now, I have to clarify that a good friend is in the class. She played a huge role in getting me there, assuring me that it was low pressure, that everyone was nice and non-judgy, that I could go at my own pace. Still I was braced to discard it as another failed distraction.

Instead, I felt proud of myself. In control of my own success. And I felt…strong. Also really sore.

Writing is a beast. I can’t claim that I’m in it purely for the joy of creation. I crave professional success. I’d love to make a decent living at it. Mostly I want to reach young readers with my stories. So, since it seems that writing and I are stuck with each other for the long haul, I’m over the moon that I’ve found my path to resilience, and hopeful it will carry me through the inevitable ups and downs.

Maybe I’ll even end up healthier along the way.

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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.

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.

Writing Shortcuts: Dos and Don’ts

In writing, as in life, there are helpful shortcuts and harmful ones.

Life is busy. We all want to save time, get done faster, be as efficient as possible. But sometimes taking shortcuts can backfire. I can’t count the number of times I’ve tried to carry more than I know is reasonable, just to save a trip (and how’s that for an appropriate metaphor?), only to drop and/or break something along the way.

For my vintage business I often have to drive to unfamiliar places around Salt Lake County. To save time I’ve been known to try finding the address without GPS, because the city was built on a grid system and surely I’m smart enough to find my own way—until I become hopelessly lost and have to pull over to consult Google Maps anyway, after I’ve wasted 15 or 20 minutes to save my own stubborn pride.

In writing, sometimes it’s tempting to cut corners to get the dang thing done. Be there are certain essential steps that cannot be neglected.

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Bad Shortcut #1: Not Polishing Grammar and Punctuation

This is nonnegotiable. Do not submit a manuscript to an agent or editor unless you have done your absolute best to perfect the grammar. Don’t assume they will give you a pass because your writing is so awesome. It’s an instant turnoff and highly unprofessional. If grammar is not one of your strengths, enlist the help of a critique partner, spouse, or friend with mad grammar skills to do a thorough copy edit.

Bad Shortcut #2: Not Using a Beta Reader/Critique Partner

Even after your manuscript has been stripped of grammatical errors, you will need a few people to read your story to analyze plot, character development—all the mechanics of good writing. You, the author, are too close to the story to be objective. A good critique partner is invaluable, especially one who is both honest and kind. She’ll take note of places where the action drags, or the main character’s motivation is not believable, or the villain suddenly becomes left-handed when he was right-handed for most of the book. This is the big stuff AND small stuff we don’t always catch, and there is just no substitute for having a trusted, fresh pair of eyes (or two or ten) read your story.

Bad Shortcut #3: Not Researching Submission Policies

A form query letter mass emailed to agents and editors is not in your best interest, and will simply waste everybody’s time. Send your queries in small batches, and customize them to agents or editors who 1) represent your genre; 2) are accepting queries; and 3) work for reputable organizations.

Now, I do believe there are certain shortcuts that WILL make writing easier and more productive.

Good Shortcut #1: Place Markers

Sometimes my writing stalls because I need to research a topic or I don’t know to proceed with a particular scene. If you’re drafting and don’t want to slow your momentum, simply type “Insert something brilliant or historically accurate here” and keep going. Just don’t forget to go back and fix it later!

Good Shortcut #2: Using Small Moments

So many days I’ve chosen not to write because I didn’t think I had enough time to do it properly. But lately I’ve been trying to take advantage of free moments here and there, just to fill in scenes that are rattling around in my head. This past week I wrote out short scenes while waiting for food at a restaurant and during half time at a Utah Jazz basketball game. It helps to always have your story playing in the back of your mind. When inspiration strikes, you can pull out your notebook and capture those moments of genius.

Good Shortcut #3: ???

Honestly, I’m having a tough time thinking of a #3! There really aren’t many shortcuts to solid, impactful writing. Work hard. Keep at it. Be willing to learn. Polish, polish, polish. And don’t lose sight of your goals. When you put in the time your results, though never predictable, will no doubt be more rewarding.

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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.

 

First Draft Strategies

The Writing for Charity conference took place this past weekend, packed with amazing panels and speakers and a wealth of writing advice. One of the panels I attended was on how to power through the perils of a first draft. The advice was so valuable, I wanted to share a few of the best tips from the discussion.

Authors on the panel included: Elaine Vickers (TTOF contributor), Nancy Ling, McKelle George, Emily King, and Kristen Chandler.

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Prep Work

How much groundwork is necessary before starting a first draft? Writers tend to fall into two main camps on this topic. Minimalists, or discovery writers, prefer to jump right into drafting with little more than an idea to build from. Outliners, on the other hand, generally take a more organized and logical approach. But whether you are a pantser or a plotter, all of the authors agreed that some prep work makes the drafting process easier and more productive.

Creating even a basic outline can reveal so much about your project, including character motivation, conflict, the heart of the story, and even your elevator pitch. The extent of the research and planning that you do ahead of time will depend on your genre, topic, and intended audience.

For novels that require world building, Emily King recommends creating a story bible to help you keep track of characters, places, magic systems, etc. Nancy Ling keeps an idea journal to return to when ideas are scarce.

But, Elaine Vickers reminded us, at some point it’s okay to let go of your inner perfectionist. Too much time spent outlining can become an excuse to put off the actual writing.

Setting and Keeping Goals

The subject of setting goals generated plenty of input. Lots of people say they want to write a book, but so few actually finish one. “I think we have more time than we believe,” McKelle George told us. But she also argued that there will be things we need to give up, sacrifices we need to make, if we’re really serious about finishing. It takes focus and hard work. Moving past the fear of starting can be the single biggest obstacle.

Setting small, attainable goals is key, such as hitting a certain word count, or finishing a chapter or even a single page. Joining an online writing event such as NaNoWriMo can provide the urgency needed to get started and stick with it.

All of the authors recommended setting weekly goals rather than daily ones. When our writing is interrupted by normal, day-to-day obligations (or unexpected surprises), the chances of meeting a daily goal can evaporate in an instant. The resulting effect on morale can derail our progress—and our confidence.

Staying Motivated and Productive

Getting started on a first draft is challenging enough, but maintaining momentum is another issue altogether! Some of the panel members use rewards such as treats or stickers to track their progress. Nancy takes it a step further, buying herself an expensive present that is specifically tied to the book she’s working on. It’s something she can enjoy throughout the writing process and even refer to for inspiration.

Others admitted that physical incentives just don’t work for them, but that meeting an external or internal deadline can be a reward in itself. Writtenkitten.com was mentioned as a site that shows you a picture of a kitten (or puppy or bunny) every time you write a certain number of words. This is one I’ve put on my list of things to try.

Creative satisfaction can be its own kind of motivator. Kristen Chandler feels compelled to make sure a character in her head is able to be fully realized on the page. “That character doesn’t get to be a person unless I finish,” she said. “I have to care more about character than self.”

Finally, they emphasized self-care as an essential tool. Elaine stressed the importance of critique groups for support and motivation, and reminded us to be gentle with ourselves throughout the process. McKelle suggested eating a little healthier, going for a walk, or even taking a nap to recharge.

“Drafting is a mental marathon,” Emily said. “You have to do things to refill your well.”

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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.