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.

Descriptive Language Pic

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.

 

Writing About Guns Without Shooting Yourself in the Foot

triggerTrigger Warning (heh): This post talks about guns and how to write about them. If that makes you squeamish, please go read something else. Thanks.

Good writing requires research. If you’re writing a story that involves open-heart surgery, you’re probably going to do some in-depth reading on the topic so you don’t get critical details wrong. If you’re writing a novel about hackers, you’ll likely want to consult with a computer expert or two to make sure you don’t embarrass yourself.

Unfortunately, too many writers ignore this advice when it comes to writing about firearms. Even well-respected authors tend to rely on what they’ve learned on the topic from movies, television and the news media. And sadly, much (if not most) of that is just plain wrong.

You don’t have to be a gun expert to write about guns. In most cases, you’re actually better off being as non-specific as possible. Getting into a lot of details about models and actions and calibers is a sure-fire way to put most of your readers to sleep. When details matter, though, it’s important to get them right. Failing to do so can turn readers off to your writing.

Whether you’re writing about guns or diamond mining or pigeon racing or square dancing, always remember:

Dave’s First Rule on Writing About Technical Details

When you mess up the technical stuff, not everyone will notice, and not everyone will care. But those who notice will care.

I have a friend who is a respected firearms instructor. He’s a walking, talking encyclopedia of firearms knowledge. A number of years ago, a best-selling author contacted him and said, “I need you to teach me about guns.” My friend spent days and days on the range with the author, teaching him everything from gun basics to marksmanship to defensive tactics.

I recently re-read this writer’s series from the beginning and it was easy to tell the exact point in the narrative where the author got his firearms training. First of all, the author named a character after my friend, so that was kind of a giveaway. Second of all, the author’s knowledge of weapons and tactics went up exponentially at exactly that point. A little knowledge went a long way.

The Language of Guns

Words, like guns, are tools … and we all know what happens when you use the wrong tool for a job. If you refer to a Glock 24 as an “automatic,” talk about inserting a “clip” into a revolver or describe a character “cocking” an AR15, you’ll reveal to your readers that you really don’t know what you’re writing about. This intrudes on the willing suspension of disbelief, and can lead to readers abandoning your narrative.

Major Categories of Guns

If you’re going to write a story that involves guns, you should probably know a few of the basics. The following definitions are adapted from the Bureau of Justice Statistics:

Handgun: A weapon with a short stock designed to be gripped by one hand, which fires a projectile from one or more barrels. (Subcategories include revolver, pistol and derringer.)

Revolver: A handgun featuring a revolving cylinder that typically holds five to ten cartridges, each within a separate chamber. Before a revolver fires, the cylinder rotates, and the next chamber is aligned with the barrel.

Pistol: Any handgun where the barrel and chamber are a single unit. Pistols can be manually operated or semiautomatic. A semiautomatic pistol generally holds cartridges in a magazine located in the grip of the gun. When the semiautomatic pistol is fired, the spent cartridge is ejected, the firing mechanism is reset, and a new cartridge is chambered.

Derringer: A small single- or multiple-shot handgun other than a revolver or semiautomatic pistol.

Rifle: A shoulder-fired weapon that uses the energy of the explosive in a fixed metallic cartridge to fire a single projectile through a rifled bore—one projectile for each pull of the trigger.

Shotgun: A shoulder-fired weapon that uses the energy of the explosive in a fixed shotgun shell to fire through a smooth bore either a number of ball shot or a single projectile for each pull of the trigger.

Note that some people call revolvers “pistols” as well—that distinction is not entirely agreed-upon. For obvious reasons, rifles and shotguns are often referred to as “long guns.”

If you’re writing historical fiction, there’s at least one other type of gun you need to know about:

Musket: A muzzle-loaded long gun that was the precursor to modern-day rifles. While rifles are distinguished by the “rifling” grooves that spin a bullet while it travels down the barrel, muskets generally feature a smooth-bored barrel.

Because of their smooth bore (and because the musket balls are often smaller than the barrels they shoot through) muskets are much less accurate than rifles. It’s said that rifles are aimed, but muskets are pointed. If you’re writing about the American Revolutionary War and you describe Redcoat soldiers “pointing their rifles” at someone, lots of your readers are going to laugh at you. The earliest muskets date back to the 1500s, and muskets were still in common use through the U.S. Civil War and even up to the turn of the last century.

Readers of historical fiction tend to be pretty particular about accuracy, so it’s worth doing some research if you want to sound informed.

Firing Action

Another way to categorize guns is by their “action,” which is a component critical to their design:

Fully automatic: A weapon capable of firing a succession of cartridges while the trigger is depressed, until the ammunition runs out or a malfunction occurs. Automatic weapons are considered “machine guns” and are highly regulated under the National Firearms Act and subsequent U.S. gun laws.

Semiautomatic: A weapon that fires a single shot each time the trigger is depressedA semiautomatic uses the energy of each fired cartridge to cycle the action and advance the next available cartridge into position for firing.

Machine gun: A fully automatic weapon that fires rifle cartridges (as opposed to handgun cartridges). Machine guns are usually designed to be shoulder-fired, and generally feature a barrel 14 inches or longer. Larger machine guns may be fired from a tripod or bipod.

Submachine gun: A simple fully automatic weapon that fires a pistol cartridge instead of a rifle cartridge. “Sub guns” are often short-barreled variants of light machine guns. Smaller submachine guns, called machine pistols, have no shoulder stock and are not designed to be fired from the shoulder.

The distinction between semiautomatic and automatic is an important one. Lots of smart people get this wrong. Plenty of famous authors get this wrong. Consistently.

The important thing to know about automatic weapons is how rare they are. They’ve been highly regulated since 1934, when Congress passed the National Firearms Act. It’s illegal for civilians to own any automatic weapon manufactured after 1986. Pre-1986 guns, when you can find them, are extremely expensive—$15,000 to $30,000 at the low end—and they require an intensive colonoscopy from the BATF to acquire.

Semiautomatic guns are a different story. They’re nothing special. In fact, the vast majority of guns sold in the U.S. are semiautomatic.

Calling a semiautomatic gun an “automatic” demonstrates either profound ignorance or an intent to deceive. Smart authors need to stop doing it.

Misunderstood Concepts

Assault Rifle vs. Assault Weapon

selective-fireAssault rifles, according to the U.S. Department of Defense, are “selective-fire weapons that fire a cartridge intermediate in power between sub-machine gun and rifle cartridges.” The “selective fire” part is the important part: a true assault rifle has a switch to select between semiautomatic and fully automatic modes. (Some assault rifles include a “three-shot burst” option as well.) This is a very specialized type of firearm, available only to military and law enforcement purchasers, virtually impossible for civilians to acquire. Roughly 99.999 percent of the time, when someone on the news is talking about “assault rifles,” they have no idea what they’re talking about.

barrel-shroudThen we have the “assault weapon.” From a functional perspective, “assault weapons” simply don’t exist. This is a purely political term coined in 1989 by anti-gun politicians who needed to classify an arbitrary group of firearms for the purpose of banning them. On both the state and federal level, “assault weapons” have been defined and redefined in contradictory ways. In many cases, the legislators creating the definitions don’t even understand what they mean. This is humorously illustrated by the famous interview with a politician who, when asked if she knew what a “barrel shroud” was, said it was “the shoulder thing that goes up.” (Spoiler alert: It’s not.)

“Assault weapon” is a completely meaningless term unless you’re writing about the politics of gun control.

It’s worth noting, by the way, that the “AR” in AR15 does not stand for “assault rifle.” It stands for “ArmaLite Rifle.” (ArmaLite was the company that originally developed the design.) An AR15 is not an assault rifle (nor is it a high-powered rifle). In truth, it’s a garden-variety semiautomatic that shoots a middling cartridge (.223 or 5.56x45mm NATO) that looks a lot like a military weapon but isn’t.

Magazine vs. Clip

mags-clipsThis is another one lots of writers get wrong.

Clip: A device that makes it easy to insert multiple rounds of ammunition into a gun’s magazine.

Magazine: A device that feeds ammunition into a gun’s action. Some guns have internal magazines, while other magazines are removable. The term is often truncated to mag.

If you’re talking about the rectangular thing filled with ammo that pops into the grip of a handgun, you’re talking about a magazine, not a clip.

Bullets, Shells, Rounds

If you buy ammunition for a rifle or handgun, you’re buying cartridges or rounds. Each cartridge consists of a brass or steel casing (or shell), a bullet or projectile (usually lead, sometimes jacketed in copper), a primer and propellant (also called a charge). Ammunition comes in lots of different sizes, and you have to use the right caliber and cartridge for the gun you’re shooting. Some common handgun cartridges include .45 ACP, .40 S&W, 9mm Parabellum, .380 ACP, .38 Special, and .22 LR (which is also a rifle caliber). Common rifle cartridges include .22 LR, .223, .243 Winchester, .22-250 Remington, .30-30 Winchester, and .30-06 Springfield. There are literally hundreds of different caliber/cartridge combinations.

If you buy ammo for a shotgun, you’re buying shotgun shells, or shotshells. Shotshells are measured in gauge, not caliber. The most common are 12-gauge and 20-gauge. A shotshell is generally a plastic casing with a metallic base, which contains the primer and propellant (or charge). A plastic or felt wad helps keep the powder in place. In front of that is the shot (multiple pellets or BBs) or slug (a single, big-ass bullet). Shotshells are subcategorized by the size of their shot, with birdshot and buckshot being the most common.

Incidentally, ammunition is referred to as rounds because … bullets used to be round.

Other Considerations

Counting Rounds

Don’t tell anyone in Hollywood, but guns don’t come pre-loaded with an unlimited supply of bullets. If you write a gunfight, you need to know the capacity of the gun or its magazine, and then keep track of how many rounds have been fired (and where they went). Does your character carry additional mags or speed-loaders? If not, your character is limited to the ammunition already in the gun.

Most handguns, when they run out of ammunition, don’t go “click, click, click” when the trigger is pulled. Many revolvers do this, but most semiautomatic pistols don’t. In most cases, when a semiautomatic handgun runs out, its slide locks open. Pulling the trigger will do nothing.

Oh, and anyone who’s ever bought a gun knows they’re not cheap. You don’t throw your empty gun at the bad guy when you’re out of ammo. That’s ridiculous.

Manual Safeties

A manual safety is a mechanism built into a gun that, when switched to safe, makes the gun incapable of firing. Some guns have them and some don’t. One guaranteed way to make a lot of your readers roll their eyes is to write about a character unholstering a Glock and clicking off the safety. Glocks don’t have manual safeties. Most revolvers don’t, either.

Most modern handguns (including Glocks) do have multiple integrated passive safety mechanisms to help prevent accidental discharges. These include hammer blocks, firing pin blocks, grip safeties and trigger safeties. This type of safety can’t be switched on or off, so if you mention a character flicking a safety, make sure the gun you’ve put in his or her hands actually has one.

Working the Action

You know the scene where the bad guy appears and the cop racks his slide or pumps the action of his shotgun in dramatic fashion?

Yeah, that’s stupid. Just about anyone legally carrying a gun will have “one in the pipe”—a round already chambered. This is especially the case if the person is a law enforcement officer. Working the action with a round in the chamber just ejects a perfectly good catridge onto the ground.

Hollywood does this all the time because it looks and sounds dramatic. But it’s not realistic.

Guns Are Loud

You know that scene where your protagonist runs into some bad guys, exchanges gunfire, and then hides in a closet or something listening intently for footsteps on the stairs?

That’s bullcrap. Guns are LOUD—especially in enclosed spaces. If your character fires a gun without hearing protection, he or she won’t be hearing anything but a nasty ringing sound for half an hour or so. At the very least, your characters won’t be whispering to each other just moments later, because they won’t be able to hear the whispers.

“Silencers”

You know that scene where the hit man shoots his “silenced” gun and there’s a tiny little sound like a mouse fart and the target collapses to the ground? Complete bullcrap.

Earlier this year, a prominent U.S. politician tweeted: “When someone gets shot by a gun with a silencer, it’s quiet. Witnesses might not hear. Police will be less likely to track down the shooter.” This is exactly the type of thing you expect from someone who learned everything they know about guns from Hollywood.

First of all, “Silencer” is the name of a specific product created by Maxim in the early 1900s. The generic term is suppressor. Suppressors are regulated by the National Firearms Act, the same law that controls the sale and distribution of automatic weapons.

Second of all, a suppressor only partially reduces the sound created by the rapid expansion of gasses at the muzzle of a gun. It doesn’t do anything for the telltale crack that occurs when a bullet reaches supersonic speed (1,127 feet per second, at sea level). Most suppressors reduce a gun’s noise output by about 30 dB—just enough to shoot without hearing protection and avoid permanent hearing loss.

If your character fires a big handgun (say, a 1911 chambered in .45 ACP), each shot generates up to 162 dB of noise trauma. Suppressing such a gun can “silence” it to around 132 dB, which is still louder than the noisiest rock concert or NASCAR race. A suppressed .22 rifle could be as quiet as 112 dB, or even a little less if low-powered subsonic ammunition is used. But that’s still roughly the same noise output as a household leafblower.

Any gunshot, suppressed or unsuppressed, is going to be heard by the people in the next room—and probably across the street. Suppressors don’t “silence” anything. They just muffle really really loud noises so they’re only really loud.

Most People Can’t Shoot

Seriously—most people can’t hit the broad side of a barn from 50 paces. And yes, this often includes law enforcement.

Shooting is a skill. It’s one that must be perfected through hours of training and practice. A top competitive shooter can blow through 25,000 or more rounds of ammunition in a year. Military snipers will shoot far fewer rounds, though they make every round count. Also, to be fair, their ammunition is much more expensive.

By comparison, most police officers shoot fewer than 200 rounds per year. Law enforcement qualifying tests are notoriously easy to pass, and most departments allow their officers to retake the tests as often as needed. It’s not hard to find stories of extremely poor shooting by law enforcement personnel. In one notorious case, two NYPD officers fired 16 total rounds to take down a single bad guy … while also managing to wound nine innocent bystanders.

I don’t mean to knock LEOs. Sure, they carry weapons, but their primary role is to investigate crimes, not prevent them. Most departments have very little budget for live fire training. Also, most officers never fire a single shot while on duty, and many don’t do much shooting outside of the qualifying range.

If your character is a firearms noob in a high-pressure situation, he or she probably won’t be pulling off amazing feats of marksmanship—especially at distances beyond a couple of yards.

Even in the hands of a trained shooter, handguns are only accurate for so far. You know that scene where James Bond shoots down a helicopter from a moving boat with a single shot from his Walther PPK? Total baloney.

Kinetic Energy

A person doesn’t get blown back 20 feet when hit by a bullet. This may look dramatic, but it ain’t realistic. A bullet just doesn’t have enough kinetic energy to do something like that.

There are plenty of videos on YouTube showing the effects of bullets on ballistic gel (an analog for human tissue) or animal corpses. I won’t post any links here, but it’s really easy to find that kind of thing, if you need to know more.

Shooting to Disarm or Wound

You know that scene where the cop takes careful aim and shoots the gun out of the hand of the bad guy? Pure nonsense. Likewise, the whole “shoot the bad guy in the leg to wound him” thing is complete hogwash.

Anyone with any law enforcement or self-defense training knows that you don’t “shoot to wound.” You “shoot to stop the threat.” If a situation calls for the use of deadly force, a trained shooter will aim for center mass, or the middle of the torso. Aiming for a person’s gun hand only increases the likelihood that a defender will miss and hit an innocent person. It also increases the chance that the shot will miss, and the defender will end up being hit by return fire.

Character Counts

Much of this goes out the window if you’re writing in the voice of a character who doesn’t know much about guns. In the movie “Stand by Me” (which is based on a fantastic novella by Stephen King), Chris Chambers shows his friends his father’s 1911 service pistol, which he’s brought along on their journey. Gordie asks, “Ya got shells for it?” It’s totally the wrong word, but Gordie is a kid and he probably doesn’t know better.

We don’t expect Gordie to know the difference between a cartridge and a shotshell. But when a soldier or police officer in your story uses incorrect terminology, it sets off warning bells. Similarly, no trained shooter who wants to actually hit his target would hold a handgun “gangsta style,” but a gangbanger (or a wannabe who’s watched Boyz N the Hood too many times) might actually do that.

If your characters are going to display their ignorance of guns, it’s a good idea to cue your reader that the mistakes they make are the characters’ mistakes … and not yours.

John picked up an empty magazine and tested the spring. “How many bullets does the clip hold?”

“It’s a standard thirty-round mag,” Mary said, trying to hide her irritation. “Why?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Just curious, I guess.” He picked up the rifle and fiddled with the charging handle. “Is this how you cock it?”

“John!” Mary yelped, pushing the muzzle aside. “Stop being an idiot and put that thing down!”

What to Do?

Are you feeling overwhelmed yet?

No amount of research can equal the experience of sending rounds downrange. If you’re going to write about guns, you owe it to yourself to actually do some shooting so you know what it feels like. And you don’t have to pay a firearms instructor to for one-on-one time at the range. Practically everybody has a friend who’s part of the “gun culture.” It might be that friend of yours who’s a hunter, your cousin in law enforcement, or a neighbor who’s a competitive shooter. Just approach the person and say: “I really want to get a little experience with guns. If I pay for the ammunition, would you take me shooting?”

From my experience, most gun owners love to take newbies shooting. Make sure you go somewhere safe and always follow the Four Rules of gun safety.

Finally, if your story involves a lot of firearms, invite a knowledgeable shooter to be a beta reader. Ask your reader to pay special attention to the gun-related content in the manuscript. Your story will benefit from having an expert double-checking the details.

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Postscript: I like to practice what I preach, so I had my friend (the one mentioned at the top of this post) check my work in advance of publication. He made some great suggestions, which I have incorporated into this piece. He also asked me to be a guest on his weekly radio program. You can listen to the program here. It’s the 1-06-18 show. My segment starts around 00:11:50.

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David-Profile-PicDavid Baker is an author, playwright, marketing professional, blogger and freelance editor. He has ghost-written several books and authored dozens of published articles on such topics as business technology, the insurance industry, marketing and data security. He writes both YA and “grown-up” fiction and is actively querying several projects. He also edits the monthly journal of a national trade organization. In his spare time, he runs marathons, shoots guns, cooks curries, paints shoes and builds things. He has an A.A. in theater, a B.A. in English and an M.A. in linguistics. Born in Arizona, raised in Hawaii, currently living in Utah, David is actively involved in theater. His stage play, Inside Al, won the Henry Fonda Young Playwright Award and premiered at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC. The play is published by Samuel French and has been in near-continuous production for more than two decades, with hundreds of performances across the US and Canada. You can find his personal blog at blog.bakerdavid.com.

The Art of Dropping Breadcrumbs

By Annette Lyon

Imagine that you’re reading an Agatha Christie novel. In the last chapter, Poirot calls the cops, tells them who committed the murder, and goes on his way, saying that of course everyone knows why Jeremy Jones is the one being carted off to jail.

TTOF - Breadcrumbs

After your confusion clears, you’d probably hurl the book against the wall in frustration. (Unless you were reading on a Kindle, in which case, you’d delete the dang thing with a strong click.)

Every story has mysteries and story questions. One of the biggest jobs a writer has is making sure that as the mysteries are revealed and the questions are answered, the reader isn’t confused to the point of book throwing. Continue reading

Mindful Details: Paying Attention to the World Around You

How many times do you find yourself in a waiting room, on a bus, sitting outside a restaurant waiting for the rest of your party . . . and to pass the time, you pull out your phone. You might be thinking it’s the perfect opportunity to catch up on social media or to shoot off some emails you’ve been procrastinating on. Maybe you’re playing a game or reading an e-book.

We all do this. I know I’m guilty of it. Actually, I shouldn’t use the word “guilty” here, because I, for one, see nothing wrong with this. I’m not here to shake my fist in the air and shout to the world that electronic devices are destroying human interaction, yada yada yada. (I actually believe they’ve brought people closer together in some ways, but that’s another post for another blog).

Nope, I’m not going to chastise anyone for playing a game of Candy Crush while sitting at the bus stop. I might, however, be so bold as to say that frittering away the “boring” moments of life on our phones is wasting an opportunity to improve our writing skills. When was the last time you kept your phone in your pocket and just sat, observing and experiencing the world around you? When was the last time you were fully mindful of your surroundings? When did you pay attention–really pay attention to the people passing by?

File Jul 20, 11 07 36 PM

While at an art museum this last weekend, my friend, who’d recently moved into the town in which I was visiting her, was asking the woman at the front desk if she had any recommendations of other things to do in the area. They talked for a long time, and I sort of let myself fall off to the background. At first, I busied myself taking pictures of the cool architecture in the lobby, then posting the pics onto Instagram. But eventually, as the two continued to chat, I became fascinated by the way the woman’s heavy jewelry clacked with every movement she made. And she moved a lot. She was animated, talking with her hands. I watched for a while, wondering how it didn’t bother her, deciding it would certainly bother me. And then . . . it occurred to me that I could use this for one of my characters. I excused myself, pulled out my phone again, opened up a note app, and wrote the description down.

The next time you have the opportunity to people watch, take it. See if you can find at least one unique detail about a person, whether it’s a distinctive article of clothing that hints at their personality, the way they carry themselves, what their voice sounds like, what they smell like (if they’re close enough)–and write it down. (One caveat: don’t be obvious about it. You never know how someone might react. I take no responsibility for any black eyes.)

Don’t stop with people. Be mindful of scenery too. Of the feel of a room when you enter it for the first time. Of the sounds of wildlife outside your window bright and early in the morning. Don’t push these observations to the background as you go about your day. Keep your eyes, ears, and nose open and really take it all in. Then write it down. Even if you don’t have a place for a particular observation in your current project, it’s good practice anyway.

One more thing: don’t focus only on the strange and/or unique. Focus on the mundane as well. Some of the best writing I’ve read has been able to transport me into a scene via one or two simple sensory details of something as plain as the sticky feel of over-waxed wood beneath fingertips, or the citrus scent and fizz of bubbles in a sink full of soapy dishes. You can feel that wood yourself now, can’t you? Because we’ve all felt it at one time or another. You can smell that dish soap and hear that faint crackle of foam, and now, you’re in the scene. These are mindful details. And the more often you take the time out to pay attention to the world around you, the more often these details will seep into your writing, making it so much stronger.

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File Jan 15, 5 15 03 PM.jpegWhen she’s not writing, revising, or banging her head on the keyboard (it’s all the same, right?), Megan Paasch can be found playing her ukulele (badly), knitting (rarely anymore, unfortunately), or herding two amazing, but rowdy little boys (pretty much constantly) with her husband. A native to the Pacific Northwest, Megan earned her B.A. in History from the University of Washington. (Go Huskies!) Her favorite history subjects were, and still are, Women in History, the Tudors, and the Celts. You can read more about her here.

 

Lyrical Writing vs. Purple Prose

I have always been a line-level writer. I live for poetic prose, for dazzling descriptions, for the sentences that make you feel like you’re sipping something delightful as you read. I love writing that makes you see the world differently, that pulls you so deeply into its narrative that you can’t seem to leave that fictional world once you’re done. I love authors like Laini Taylor and Maggie Stiefvater, who have such a deft touch with phrasing that their books are not only engaging, they are positively delicious.

Recently I got into a discussion with some friends on Twitter about how to find the line between pretty prose and purple prose. Purple prose, in case you haven’t heard the phrase before, is—according to its Wikipedia entry—”text that is so extravagant, ornate, or flowery as to break the flow and draw excessive attention to itself.” So how, exactly, do you know when you’re writing something that would be classed as literary or lyrical, and when you’re veering into purple prose?

 

1. Lyrical prose uses a light touch.

If you’re trying to write lyrically, it’s important to realize one thing: quality over quantity. True lyricism is a mix of plainer, more serviceable lines with lines that stand out and sing. If each line of your book is filled with metaphors, descriptions, and ten-dollar words, your story will quickly sink under its own weight.

Last month I read and loved Sandhya Menon’s bestselling young adult debut, When Dimple Met Rishi. One of my favorite lines from the book was this: “His eyes reminded her of old apothecary bottles, deep brown, when the sunlight hit them and turned them almost amber.” Can’t you just feel that description? Yet Menon’s followup is much simpler: “Dimple loved vintage things. She followed a bunch of vintage photography accounts on Instagram, and old apothecary bottles were a favorite subject.”

Notice how that first line is deeply poetic, verging on the fanciful; it uses description, an unusual metaphor, the striking image of sunlight through brown glass. But immediately, Menon grounds us back in the real world, with short sentences that give us the information without any adornment. If those lines had been as long and vivid as the first one, it would have taken so much longer for us to get to the actual crux of the scene—which would have brought us perilously close to purple prose, because…

2. Purple prose takes us out of a story.

The goal of truly great writing is to make the reader forget that they’re reading a book. As authors, we want our readers to be fully present inside our stories, to be so immersed in our characters’ worlds that we’ll feel disoriented when the book ends. Vivid, lyrical writing is a fantastic tool in our arsenal when we’re doing this—but if we overdo that vivid writing, it has the opposite effect, yanking us right back into the real world. Have you ever been reading a book and then found yourself stopping and thinking something like Good grief, I didn’t need to know that much about her dress or What does that scene even have to do with anything? Chances are, what you were reading could fall under the umbrella of purple prose.

I’m a highly descriptive writer, but I’m also a firm believer that description should be part of the lifeblood of your novel, not something that you intentionally break from your story to spend time on. Each time you use a descriptive passage, ask yourself: What is this accomplishing? Good description does more than just telling us what a person, place, or thing looks like. Good description heightens the book’s atmosphere, or gives us insight into a character’s thoughts and feelings, or even hints at character backstory. There are a lot of things that never really need to be described in a book—character clothing rarely matters, the precise layout of a house isn’t usually important, even what a character looks like can be mostly left up to the imagination. Vivid description, like poetic prose, is best used like salt: A sprinkle here or there to bring the flavor out on food, but not enough to overwhelm. Our readers shouldn’t spend more time noticing our descriptions than they do living in our novels.

3. Prose turns purple when you set out to impress.

Look, we’re all writers, right? And as such, it’s likely that we’ve spent a fair bit of our lives reading, building extensive vocabularies, and taking classes that have taught us all manner of cool literary devices. And let’s be honest: Sometimes it can be tempting to show all that off. But when we write with the intent to impress—even sometimes if we write with the intent to innovate—we often end up producing things that no person in their right mind would want to read. For an extreme, but still relevant, example, I turned to a source of unending purple prose… stuff I wrote as a teenage girl. Back then, my best friend and I played frequent letter-writing games, the first of which was a story between two Regency girls who wrote letters that were, well, about what you’d expect from two fourteen-year-olds trying to write in a Regency style.

Here’s a gem from one of those letters: “Our dear windowseat, I feel, will be such a place of endearment that when it comes time for us to spread our wings, we will shed many a tear over the parting of it and ourselves.”

Ridiculous, right? I mean, what I was angling for there could’ve been substituted with a simple “we really like this window seat, we’ll miss it when we get old.” But while I’m grateful to think that most mature writers won’t fall prey to quite such flights of fanciful language, the things in this sentence that make it ridiculous are sins of which seasoned writers can be just as guilty. When we replace words, drag our sentences out mostly for the sake of having longer sentences, or try to write in a way that neither feels nor sounds natural to our own writer voice, we fall victim to the dreaded purpling of our prose.

4. Prose can also become too purple if our authorial voice dominates our character voice.

Last week I got some editorial feedback from my marvelous agent on my latest book. One of the things that she mentioned was that she felt there were a few times where my writer voice leaked in to my character’s voice a bit too much—the book is about an eleven-year-old who can be described as lower middle class as best, and who isn’t shown to have a particular gift with words, but I have occasional moments like the one where she describes a fellow student’s hat as “unfathomable, in this kind of heat.” Though I totally hadn’t noticed it before my agent pointed it out, that is much more the kind of thing that I, not my protagonist, would say. When we allow our own vocabulary and aesthetic to interject when they’re not consistent with our character’s attributes or worldview, our attempts at lyricism fall flat and pull the reader right out of the story.

There is no hard-and-fast rule when it comes to avoiding purple prose, and some of it simply comes down to taste. Some readers and writers prefer stories that are told simply, with clean, spare writing that avoids fancy devices. To these readers and writers, anything that ventures into the realm of the poetic is going to feel over-the-top. More than once, I’ve heard somebody criticize a book that I loved by saying it was guilty of purple prose.

Still, for those of us for whom vivid language and careful wordsmithing is just as important as crafting a strong plot, it’s worth giving the matter some thought! A few resources I found helpful as I prepared for this blog post:

Purple prose definition on Wikipedia

http://thewritepractice.com/purple-prose/

Cindy Baldwin is a Carolina girl who moved to the opposite coast and is gamely doing her part in keeping Portland weird. As a middle schooler, she kept a book under her bathroom sink to read over and over while fixing her hair or brushing her teeth, and she dreams of someday writing just that kind of book. Her debut middle grade novel, WHERE THE WATERMELONS GROW, is forthcoming from HarperCollin’s Children’s in 2018. Find her online at www.cindybaldwinbooks.com and on Twitter at @beingcindy.

Going to the Movies and Learning Things

In the past couple of weeks I’ve been very conscious of a certain subject that has been driving wedges between friends, family, and otherwise level-headed people. This particular subject has been disputed across the Internet sparking Twitter wars and Facebook flame battles. And let’s not forget the memes. Good god, the memes! The subject I speak about of course is the Warner Bros. movie Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice.

Full disclosure I’ve seen the movie twice: Once with my nerdy kids and the other time with my not as nerdy girlfriend. For each it was a different experience, and I took away a writing lesson that I had not considered until my second viewing. When I saw it opening weekend with the kids, varying in age from eight to twenty-five,  (my sister is practically my daughter so don’t start trying to figure out my age) it was a shared awe of seeing things we wanted to see and plot lines we expected. While on the second view I had to take pauses to explain what was happening on the big screen. It wasn’t a problem for me but I could see how that could be an issue for others.

That brings me to what I learned upon my viewings of the movie. What I managed to take away from the film was that you have to be conscientious of what you’re asking your audience to know, especially if you’re doing a series. Just because you and certain readers may know exactly where you’re going with the story doesn’t mean that it should be universal knowledge.

During the film (no spoilers that aren’t in the trailer) there are no less than four classic Superman and Batman stories going on starting with Man of Steel, even one connected to the Injustice video game from about two years ago. When me and my kids were discussing the movie later we gushed about what we saw and what it means for later movies in the franchise. My girlfriend however wasn’t privy to the back catalogue of nearly 75 years of history between the two main characters. So for her these were just a confluence of events that happened to occur and needed explaining.

While I was writing the sequel to one of my stories I never considered how much back story was being added to it. There was a need to jump back into the story and keep it going. I suppose my thought process was “they would have read the first one”. However if you look at the Harry Potter series there’s no need to read the first book if you happen to jump in on the fourth book as J.K. Rowling spends the first few chapters of each sequential book with the characters remembering what happened before.

So yeah I’m thankful that my own sequel is only a first draft as I now have plenty of work to do. If you don’t see me for a while you’ll know why. When creating a series there may be a need to explain things to your audience. Take it from me or the failings of a certain movie.

Until next time have a writeous day!

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Matt Williams is an avid reader, a collector of many pens, an ever improving father of two, and an all-around fanboy. When he’s not wrestling with cats or a long commute you can find him hunkered down writing something imaginative. He’s working on publishing his first book Beyond Here, a middle grade story involving a coma and a singing flower with a bent stem sometime in 2016, along with a few projects with his other daughter.

15 Writers’ Light Bulb Moments

A few days ago, I asked my writing friends, “Have you ever had trouble with a concept, such as plotting, character development, dialogue, or pacing and there was a specific piece of advice or a book or an article that helped you in a profound way?” 



I was looking for light bulb moments, a sudden bit of inspiration or understanding that had previously alluded them. 

These were their fantastic responses:

On Drafting

#1: Shitty First Drafts by Anne Lamont. As a perfectionist, I would get writer’s block trying to write a perfect draft the first time through. This gave me permission to not worry about the first draft. Then by the second draft, I’m not dealing with a blank paper/screen. I make all of my composition students read this, and the vast majority tell me it changed their lives.” –Joy Sterrantino

#2: “She covers this in her book “Bird by Bird” and yes. It made me okay with my crappy first draft that I now have been putting so much time into after I was ready to throw it out and it’s actually starting to come together (I think…)” –Brekke Felt

#3: “Oh, I was going to say Bird by Bird – glad it’s already been mentioned! I read it so long ago that I don’t remember specifically what clicked, but I do still think about it when I get stuck, in fact just the other day, I was grumbling with myself over a chapter and I just told myself, “Bird by Bird, gal. Bird by Bird.” –Lindsey Becker
On Description

#4: “Yup! Sarah Eden’s class on description at Storymakers a few years back. Had the biggest light bulb moment of my writing life when she taught that you should only describe things it MAKES SENSE for a character to notice. Previously, I’d described anything and everything I thought the reader would benefit from experiencing. When I narrowed my descriptive focus on what an individual character would take note of, it deepened POV, emotional authenticity, and characterization…Wowza! The difference was mind-blowing. I feel like that’s the day I started to “grow up” as a writer. Or maybe “grow deep” would be more appropriate.” –Kimberly VanderHorst

On Plotting

#5: “I used to have trouble with plotting, but when I read Larry Brooks’ “Story Engineering,” it finally clicked for me. It’s still one of my favorite writing books!” Shallee McArthur
#6: “I really struggled with outlining a plot until I saw Dan Wells’7 point plot YouTube videos. I had tried other methods before that, but for some reason the 7 point plot really clicked for me”Rebecca Jamison
#7: “I found this post by Robin LeFevers really helpful at one point. And this post from Janice Hardy’s Fiction University really helped me figure out the plot for book two.” Rosalyn Eves


On Pacing
#8: “Someone, I think it may have been Orson Scott Card, suggested that the best way to learn the feel of pacing is to take a book you like and copy it, longhand.

“I’ve copied half of one of Patty Briggs’ books and it really DID help me learn pacing. It was like training wheels, and it’s something I keep around for when I’m really blocked. If I can’t come up with something to write for me, then I know I can always sit down and copy her book longhand and do a couple thousand words that way. That keeps me in the habit of getting my butt in a chair and writing for at least an hour a day.

“What I learned from pacing–I had previously thought that it was sort of a 2-1 ratio or 3-1 ratio of how long it takes me to write a scene versus how long it “reads” or plays out. It’s more like 5-1 or 10-1–and this is in snappy urban fantasy paperback stuff, so, slower-paced genres would be even more drawn out. I realized that we write in slo-mo. It’s like claymation.”—Rebecca Sachiko Burton

#9: “KM Weiland’s website for lots of things, especially an article on how putting movement in a scene can change the pacing. Also BrandonSanderson’s advice to make your character want something and get it in the first few pages, even if it’s just a glass of water.” –Rebecca Blevins
#10: “Pacing. Okay, I have to admit that this is a concept I haven’t totally been able to wrap my head around. And then I read Take Off Your Pants by Libby Hawker. Her bit about thinking of pacing like an inverted triangle is brilliant. The idea is that the start of each chapter is like the wide side of a triangle and as you go along it continues to slope until there is only one thing the character can do. And then the end of that triangle opens up into another inverted triangle. Now, that I can wrap my head around.” –Erin Shakespear


On Chapter Endings

#11: “Chapter endings and pacing. Read any of J. Scott Savage’s books to study those. Sarah Eden’s class on description was incredibly enlightening. Another one for description was one of David Farland’s Daily Kick in the Pants articles. Dan Wells Seven-Point Story Structure YouTube video for plotting.” –Rebecca Blevins
On Dialogue

#12: “I read a lot of writing books, so I can’t remember where this came from (but it was from multiple books, I know that) that dialogue shouldn’t be a give and take.

a: Where were you?
b: The bank.

Each character has different motives/realities, and they’re acting for their own best interest, not to make someone else’s life easier. So it would be more like:

a: “Where were you?”
b: “Did you leave any cookies for me? I could eat an elephant.”
a: Were you at Sally’s? I told you not to go there.
b: I need cookies. Real, real bad.

I guess Donald Maass’s book on microtension helped me a lot with this concept. That’s in his book The Fire In Fiction.” Sydney Strand
On Characters

#13: “One thing I learned from Writing Excuses that helped me understand characters better is that as real people we tend to act differently and speak differently depending on who we are around. When we are with our parents we may act differently around them than we do around our best friends…. So using that idea, we can show how our characters may act differently depending on who they are around. They won’t always necessarily talk or act the same all the time.” –Judy Robinson

#14: I love this article from Michael Arndt about the five things he learned at Pixar to make a good beginning. I especially love the bit about how our character needs to make the unhealthy choice. There’s a healthy, responsible choice to make and an unhealthy, irresponsible choice to make. Our character needs to make the destructive one or else there really isn’t a story. –Erin Shakespear

On Everything Else

#15: “I have a whole set of tutorials that I use over and over again, but KM Weiland helping Writers become authors and Writing Excuses are the most bang for buck.” –Michael Bacera



Have you had any light bulb moments? We’d love to hear about them!

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Erin Shakespear writes middle grade fantasy full of quirky creatures, magic, and strange adventures. With six kids, her days are full of quirky creatures, magic, strange adventures, and…loads of diapers. She also likes to dabble at photography, sewing, jewelry-making, and pretending she’s a grand artist.