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.

 

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

Reframing “Success”: 5 Ways to be Happier as a Writer

Last weekend, I was at a writing retreat where middle-grade author Jennifer Nielsen talked about how we define success as a writer. Her talk was inspiring, as she reminded us that there are lots of different ways to measure success as a writer—but her timing was also fortuitous, because as it happened, I’d been thinking about “success” in preparation for this post.

And yes, I put “success” in scare quotes. There’s a reason for that—I’ll get to it.

I’m currently working on the last book in my contracted trilogy, and my agent has already asked me what I want to do next. While I have a couple of possible ideas, the looming question—what do I do next?—has also had me looking long and hard at what I want out of writing.

Of course I’d like to be successful. Ambition has always been a driving force for me (not surprisingly, my Pottermore results turned up Slytherin), and that’s no less true in my writing.

But what is “success” as a writer? Lots of attendees had good answers: money to supplement the family budget, connecting with readers, etc. But I realized, as I listened, that I had no idea what “success” looked like for me.

There are the obvious answers, like hitting a best-seller list, having your book made into a movie, selling x number of copies, etc. But the truth is, I’ve already hit a stage that five years ago I would have thought was successful: my first book came out with a big 5 publisher—my book is even in Target! But I don’t feel successful. I still feel wildly unsure, doubting my words and my craft. And even the measure of success I often hear—I just want my book to reach one person—doesn’t work for me. Because, if I’ve reached one person, then suddenly that isn’t enough. I want to reach one more, and then another, and then another. Most of the time, “success” seems like an endlessly vanishing summit, a trail that lengthens the higher I climb.

My friend Emily King articulated the inherent tension in writing “success” perfectly:

Anyone in the publishing industry knows that luck and timing account for more than a fair amount. Book covers, marketing, release dates, trade reviews, advances, invitations to conferences, etc. I realized as I sat with the question “What does success mean to me?” that success is ever-moving. It is a dangling carrot that motivates us to work harder and persist, no matter where we are on our personal journey. . . . In essence, success is something we chase, not something we achieve.

The intent of our heart, the reason we’re sacrificing and toiling for that carrot, and our motive for consecrating our time and talents, must bring us personal joy or contentment. Otherwise the success we experience will feel like just another step on a lofty ladder to a higher rung of achievement. We must be driven by the carrot hanging out of our reach, ambitious enough to go for it, and satisfied by what will feel like minor advances. Or at some point, we will stop fighting for our dreams.

So for me, success is finding a way to be grateful and happy with where I am today, while always keeping one eye firmly on that carrot.

This begs the question: how do we find happiness with our current progress without abandoning our goals? Here are five ideas (I should note that these are as much for my benefit as for anyone else!):

1. Find your why
Most writers, when they start writing, don’t write because they want to make money* or because they want to be famous (or if they do, they find that those goals don’t sustain them for long). Most writers start because they have a story they want to tell, or because writing fills some kind of creative need in their life. I’ve been telling stories since I could hold a pencil, simply because there’s something so inherently satisfying to seeing the story unfold in my mind.

*This is not to say that writing as a means of earning a living is bad—far from it! Many authors write to sustain themselves and their families. Only to say that money (and fame) shouldn’t be the only reasons to write.

2. Reframe the discussion
Instead of focusing on success and/or failure, maybe we should focus instead on satisfaction/fulfillment and creative play. When we (and by “we,” I really mean “I”) focus too much on success, it can rob us of the joy we find in creating. When we worry too much about failure, we lose the capacity to explore. Maybe, instead of asking, “am I a successful writer,” we should ask instead: “is writing satisfying to me? Why or why not?” If writing isn’t satisfying, it might be because we’re asking too much of it—or we’ve forgotten to play.

3. Be grateful
While goals can be an important forward-looking device, sometimes we need to look back and see how far we’ve come as writers. We need to acknowledge the good that has already come from writing, not just the imagined good we hope will come. I know authors who keep a bucket list of things they’d like to achieve as a writer, and pull the lists out periodically, not to mark how far they still have to go, but to appreciate the things that have already happened, from the mundane (the first query rejection!) to the more profound (the first fan letter!).

One of my critique partners recently forwarded us the pages we’d sent for one of our early meetings (nearly five years ago!) and my pages were truly awful. I’m grateful that I’ve grown as a writer—and this gives me hope that my writing can still improve. My life is so much richer for the friends I’ve made as a writer—even if I had never published, that would be an indelible good that came from a creative life. Sometimes I forget that.

4. Be brave
Sometimes I think we’re socially conditioned to think that happiness means the absence of fear or unhappiness. But mental health experts point out that trying to avoid stress can actually increase it by training our bodies to view all stress as a negative thing.

Part of being happy with our writing means being brave: sitting with our fear or our disappointment and then putting ourselves and our writing out there anyway. (Within limits, of course: knowing yourself and protecting your own health are also important). Brené Brown suggests telling our fears, “I see you, I hear you, but I’ll do this anyway.” (See  also Tasha’s excellent post from yesterday).

5. Tell your stories
Barbara Kingsolver has said, “Don’t try to figure out what other people want to hear from you; figure out what you have to say. It’s the one and only thing you have to offer.” I find that as a writer, I’m most satisfied when the stories I’m working on are stories that are meaningful to me, rather than the stories I *think* I ought to write. This doesn’t mean that all the stories I write for myself are stories that need to go to a wider audience (Jeanette Ng has a fantastic post on the need for egotism in writing and humility in editing), but that they ought to start with something that matters to me.

What brings you happiness as a writer? How do you reframe “success” in your own career?

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Rosalyn Eves is a part-time writer, part-time English professor, and full-time mother of three. She loves all things BBC, especially costume dramas and mysteries. When not wrangling children (and sometimes when she should be wrangling children), she’s often found reading. Her debut novel, BLOOD ROSE REBELLION, is now available.

Drawing Inspiration from Readers

Some days it feels like an appalling act of hubris to think I might have something to offer readers: my perspective doesn’t seem particularly unique–and I write genre fiction.

I have friends who write the kind of beautiful books where readers write back to say that the book changed their life, that it inspired them. I’ve never received a single letter like that. In other words, I don’t write “important” books.

But I still believe that there’s value in most books—mine included. Here’s why.

Different readers need different things from books. As a reader, I’m familiar with this—a book that moves me profoundly may bore my friend. The converse is also true. Sometimes I read to learn, to experience a perspective that isn’t my own and stretch my empathy, to be inspired. Sometimes I read purely to escape. I’ve read nonfiction books (most recently, Brené Brown’s) that changed my thinking. I’ve read memoirs that linger with me years later: Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior, Terry Tempest William’s Refuge. And I’ve read genre fiction that saved me in dark places.

I read Jessica Day George’s Princess of Glass one long, harrowing evening in a hospital waiting room, waiting for an ultrasound to confirm what I already suspected: I had miscarried at 16 weeks. That night, I needed an escape. About a year later, I again found a much-needed escape in genre fiction: after an unexpected emergency c-section stranded me in the hospital with only my new kindle (I could not leave my room or hold my baby for several hours after the surgery), I devoured Melanie Jacobson’s light romantic comedies.

Were these books any less important than weightier ones? Maybe objectively, when we look at something that contributes to a wider cultural conversation. But in those moments, when I desperately needed an escape, they were no less valuable.

As writers, we’re sometimes tempted to assign value to books, especially our own. But as readers, that distinction is much fuzzier, and something we should bear in mind when we write. Readers read for all kinds of reasons, and they need all kinds of books.

I asked some of my friends why they read, and the answers span a broad spectrum:

• To learn or improve a skill
• To enjoy a well-turned phrase and human creativity
• To change
• To be guided to new and deeper thinking
• To connect with others
• To learn how others experience the world; to see a new perspective
• To find someone like you
• To solve a problem before the main character
• To live more than one life
• To travel to other parts of the world (or universe)
• To travel through time
• To experience emotions we enjoy (whether that be fear, humor, romance)
• To escape
• To relax
• To have fun

Or as my friend Kristin Reynolds (whose beautiful middle-grade novel, The Land of Yesterday, will be out next year) says: “To find myself in others, to reaffirm my experience as a human being, to glimpse the perpetual uncertainty that I am not alone. To link minds and hearts with strangers who end up feeling like friends. And also for the poetry of words, where the meaning is in what’s not being said that ignites something otherwordly inside me, something true, something divine.”

There’s no one right answer to why someone reads—and most people read for multiple reasons.

Chances are, no matter what you write, there’s a reader looking for just the experience you offer.

What do you read–and why?

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Rosalyn Eves is a part-time writer, part-time English professor, and full-time mother of three. She loves all things BBC, especially costume dramas and mysteries. When not wrangling children (and sometimes when she should be wrangling children), she’s often found reading. Her debut novel, BLOOD ROSE REBELLION, is now available.

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The Truth About Writer’s Block

I’ve heard people say that claiming you have writer’s block is akin to a plumber saying he’s got plumber’s block. To me, that comparison is ridiculous.

Plumber's Block - 2
A plumber has the exact same wrenches and other tools he uses every day on the job. He has a clear-cut list of skills he needs and issues he’ll face, and he’ll use the same tools to fix them. Chances are he’d better make use the same fitting he did on a similar job yesterday, or the connection will leak.  Continue reading

On failing NaNoWriMo (or a different kind of pep talk)

It’s early days yet in November, and my social media feeds are peppered with enthusiastic updates of word counts and NaNoWriMo goals.

As a writer who is motivated by a little healthy competition and deadlines, I love NaNoWriMo–it’s exhilarating to watch your word count climb each day, eventually meeting (possibly outpacing) the charted graph on the official NaNoWriMo website.

But this year I haven’t said much about NaNoWriMo or my particular goals. That’s because this year, on day three of NaNo, I have a whopping 350 words.

There’s still a small part of me that holds out the (probably naive) hope that I’ll eventually catch up to my hoped-for word count. More realistically, though, I’ll spend the month chasing and not quite catching those 50k words.

But I’m not discouraged about this–and if you’re watching other people’s word counts climb while yours stay static, or don’t climb as high as you’d like, you shouldn’t be either.

In the past couple weeks, I’ve struggled to find any time to write. Those 350 words felt like a small miracle for me–and even if I end the month logging only a few thousand words, that’s more words than I’ve managed in October.

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I’m not, by any means, encouraging you to give up already. Far from it. The month is early still and there’s lots of time to cross that NaNo finish line triumphant.

But writing is hard on good days. Harder still if we constantly compare our own style and pace to other writers. If we do NaNo, it should be for the fun of it–for connecting with other writers, for writing more than we would have without it. We don’t need one more thing to flagellate ourselves with or make ourselves feel bad about our writing.

So whether you write 50 words or 50k, push yourself to write a little more than you might have otherwise, and let yourself enjoy the process.

What do you hope to achieve from NaNoWriMo?

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Rosalyn Eves is a part-time writer, part-time English professor, and full-time mother of three. She loves all things BBC, especially costume dramas and mysteries. When not wrangling children (and sometimes when she should be wrangling children), she’s often found reading. Her debut novel, BLOOD ROSE REBELLION, is forthcoming March 2017 from Knopf/Random House. She’s represented by Josh Adams of Adams Literary.