10 effective ways for characters to describe themselves

10 effective ways for characters to describe themselves

It’s Writescape’s 10th anniversary and we have lots of excitement planned for writers in 2018. This installment of 10 on the 10th is the latest in the series of monthly writing tips, advice and inspiration. Think of it as Gwynn and Ruth sitting on your shoulder and nudging you along. Share with your writing colleagues and encourage them to sign up for more.

How do you get readers to know what your main character looks like? Put your character in front of mirror and have them “notice” their almond-shaped eyes and cute dimples? Really? Sure, use that cliché if you want your readers to roll their own eyes and toss your book away.

There are much more effective ways to introduce descriptive qualities for your main character but first you need to make some important decisions.

Start with deciding what, if anything, you need your reader to know. And then get ready to get those important details delivered as soon as possible. Opting to bring in character description at Chapter 9 will only serve to annoy your reader because they will have already imagined what that character looks like. But avoid overloading the first few pages with description. Sprinkle it in, like a mild spice.

Like any good spice, character description should be subtle and give readers a glimpse of a character’s personality, skills, lifestyle, etc. Add to the story with character development or plot points: thick glasses, so does your character miss an important small detail? Long unruly hair covers the embarrassing childhood scar on his forehead?

Here’s ten ways to introduce character description without using a mirror:

1. Outside Observation: use another character to reveal details: All these months working beside you, I never noticed your green eyes. Or: That shade of pink really complements your peaches and cream complexion.

 

2. Closet Choices: when meeting someone they want to impress (are afraid of/are attracted to) they might think about their appearance and what effect it may have: He looked every bit a CEO. Would my gypsy skirt and Birkenstocks destroy the image I’d built up at the office?

3. Family business: try a comment directed to a family member on how alike or different they are. Sister — you may be lean and mean, but I like to think my ample figure speaks of kindness and warmth.

4. Action Figures: insert description as part of the action that adds to the mood – frantically rummaging through a drawer looking for the perfect sweater for a blind date or methodically polishing shoes before a big event;

5. Get Physical Part 1: choose to be indirect by describing another’s action — Jimmy easily handed me the file from the top shelf. “Here you go, Pintsize,” he said with a grin.

6. Get Physical Part 2: do it indirectly by describing an object: The box might be small but it was way too heavy for me to lift.

7. Use Science: do it by describing what physics allows them to do: With my height, swinging that broadsword through the fool’s neck would be childsplay.

8. Status: use profession/occupation – There was no point in brushing away the flour from my pastry chef uniform. My tailored suit was a stark contrast to the backyard full of jeans and sandals at this bbq.

9. Laughter: joke about it – most of us deprecate ourselves. Sure, I can have a second piece of cake. Especially if I want to add to the spare tire around my belly.

10. Self Aware: acute self-consciousness can be effective — I longed to grin back at him, but pressed my lips together instead. No way he was going to see my gap-tooth smile.

Often, the most powerful description is a trigger for an emotional reaction in your reader. A flaw or peculiarity can evoke empathy, raise questions and/or reveal your character’s humanity. After all, feeling connected is a big reason why we love stories and the characters we meet within them.

Ten Ways to Get the Most from Writing Prompts

Ten Ways to Get the Most from Writing Prompts

Gwynn Scheltema

At the recent Just Right at Glentula Retreat, we used a number of writing prompts. Most writers have tried them at some point in their writing journeys. Some love them; some not so much. I find them invaluable. I’ve used written, verbal, visual, and textural prompts. I’ve even used smell and taste prompts.

Some writers resist prompts, because they feel that their writing time is limited and they should be writing the “real stuff.” But remember that “completing the prompt” is not the object. The goal is to get you writing, to get you writing what has the most energy for you, and to lead you into your writing project.

How do you do that?

Follow the energy

Often when you begin writing about the subject of the prompt — say swimming in a lake — it can take you  somewhere else — say an experience of drowning or crab baskets in Italy or how your father never believed in taking vacations. Go there. Forget the prompt and go where the energy is.

Prompts unlock memories and experiences, and when you write honestly about them, about how you felt, what you observed, and perhaps even capture some of the dialogue that was spoken, you can take that piece and adapt  it later for your “real” writing.

Prompts are not precise nor prescriptive.

Understand the possibilities of “You”

Prompts often use the pronouns “you” or “your”: “Write about your greatest fear” or “Imagine yourself beside a body of water…” Of course, you can write about your own experience, but you can also approach it as if you are one of your characters. And not just your protagonist or your viewpoint character. Often it is more revealing to pick your antagonist, or a minor character.

Switch it up

Try the same prompt from two different characters’ points of view. If the prompt says “What’s your favourite colour?”, get your character to answer. What colours does she/he have an aversion to? Perhaps you don’t know. Write about the fact that you don’t know that about your character. Why don’t you know? What else don’t you know? Or have characters answer that question about each other. What did your protagonist’s mother think were his /her favourite colours? How did that play out in your protagonist’s life? Did the mother always dress your protagonist in blue for example?

If you are a memoir writer, remember that the people in your life are your characters; they are just called Mom, or Dad or Great Aunt Mabel. And like a fiction writer, you can stretch by writing as if you are another character.

 

Prime the Muse

Prompts take you places you don’t expect, but I’ve also found them useful for getting into scenes that I was planning to write. Start by identifying a scene in your story you want to work on. For instance, you might want to do a scene where one character makes the first show of affection towards the other. Using the prompt “What’s your favourite colour?” as a line of dialogue could take you to a scene at a fair or in a mall where he is buying her something, or in a garden where the flowers are in bloom, or just in the kitchen choosing a coffee mug.

Write what you know  

The facts of your life may not be the stuff of wild imaginative novels, but your human reaction to events is as valid as any character in any novel. Perhaps you haven’t been in a dugout canoe in the Amazon Jungle, but you know how it feels to sweat. You also know how helpless you can feel in a strange place. Could the feeling of being swept down the river with the jungle crowding in also feel like being swept along in a crowd at a frenzied rock concert or at busy subway station? It’s not the facts from your life that connect with readers, it’s the emotions and commonalities.

The Senses

Like the things you feel, what you see, hear, touch, taste and smell also relate to what we all know. When writing from prompts, the senses will always ground you and lead you forward. Make use of ALL five senses. Also consider the temperature, the quality of the light, time of day, the weather, the seasons, the historical period.

Move into Metaphor

When you have considered the senses, move into metaphor. Ask yourself: What does this remind me of? What is it like? What is it not like? Explain it to someone who’s never seen, heard, touched, smelled or tasted it before. What would a child relate it to? What would your character compare it with?

Be specific

As you write, imagine being in your scene. Notice and write about specific sensuous details: not “a car” but “the dented yellow Edsel-Ranger taxi.” Write about unusual details, incongruous details. Write about what’s missing. Imagine the scene with and without people — general people, specific people. Listen for snatches of remembered or overheard conversation.

 

Opposites

Turn the prompt around and do the opposite. Substitute “hate” for “love”, try “old” in place of “young”, use “like least” instead of “favourite”. Write using both approaches and consider the similarities or juxtapositions created. If you can’t remember, start with “I don’t remember.” If you’ve never experienced the prompt, say singing for a crowd, start with “I have never sung in front of people because …” or “I have never sung in front of people but I have …”

Lists

Sometimes a topic seems too big to approach with authenticity. For instance, if the prompt asks you to write about someone you fear, and you’ve always feared your father, you may not feel comfortable diving into writing about him. Instead make a list of all the people you fear. Try to make the list really long. The items you add to the list last are often the ones buried deep. At the end of your list may be a kid from grade school. Write about him. Chances are you’ll find you feared him for many of the same reasons you feared your father.

Or make a list about all the emotions you feel about your father, and write about any one of them.

Give it a go

Prompts have been the source of many of my “keep” scenes. I may end up only using a portion of what I wrote, perhaps just one paragraph, but the prompt usually takes me where I’ve been resisting going and anything that gets me writing is a good thing.

Need a prompt now? There are lots of online sites. Here are a few for fiction, non-fiction and poetry:

Now, go and write, write, write ….

DID YOU KNOW

At Writescape retreats, we provide optional creativity sessions to tickle your muse and a companion work book full of prompts and ideas to take your writing to places it hasn’t gone before. Join us at our next retreat: Turning Leaves 2017.

Writing Contests: One.Oh-oh.One

Writing Contests: One.Oh-oh.One

Ruth E. Walker.

It’s been my pleasure (mostly) to serve as a judge on a number of writing competitions. I’ve also been both a first-tier and second-tier reader, helping to cull the entries down by eliminating entries with problems. And I’ve been a final judge for regional, national and international writing contests, choosing winners from 15 or 20 of those final top entries. Each and every time, it’s been a thrill to read creative work that made me feel “as if the top of my head were taken off” (to quote Emily Dickenson.)

I wish I could say it is true for all contest entries. But it is not.

Take this past week. A national organization of professional writers asked me to be a second-tier reader. This means I read stories that had already been reviewed and moved forward by a group of first readers who eliminated others. This should mean I would be reading stories that were pretty darn good. I was looking forward to making my notes.

All the entries I read had a great story idea. But not all of them were great stories. Not even pretty darn good.

For this contest, I am only one of several second-tier readers who are also reading 14 entries. So I’m not reading all the entries that reached the second tier — I’m only reading a fraction of them. But of my 14 entries, there were only 6 that I would have recommended as a first-tier reader.

The other 8 all had problems in terms of technique and execution. Here are just four of the many issues I encountered in the stories I scored in the bottom 8:

Don’t tell me, show me. This is a familiar refrain from creative writing instructors. But what do we mean by that? It’s more than the difference between I feel cold versus I shiver and rub my arms, although that is a good beginning. It is equally an issue if the writer shows us something — The cold crept under my flesh and into my lungs and then in the next line continues to tell us about it: It was below zero and I felt so cold.

The need to tell, especially after a show, is a sign of a writer who doesn’t trust themselves or their readers. Does this mean that every line needs to be a show versus a tell? No. But any story that relies on tell is a story that soon bores its readers.

 

Description is great. But if you have to hit your reader over the head with a hammer to ensure they are “getting the picture”…well, it’s soon painful. Definition of Adverbitis: excessive use of adverbs, especially when a great verb is the better choice: swiftly ran = raced/rushed/galloped — any of those three options create great visuals. The same goes with unnecessary adverbs: hurriedly, loudly, slowly…crept slowly = crept carries the whole image. I mean, can you ever creep fast? And how about plummeted swiftly? Ever seen anything plummet slowly?

And a quick note on adjectives. Use them, sure. But think before you dip your creative paintbrush three times too many: A charming, vivacious redheaded librarian is way too much for any brain to unpack and visualize. Stick to the essential descriptions of your character or the setting — leave room for your reader to fill in the rest.

Passive writing: boring, boring and more boring. Be ruthless in seeking out and eliminating passive writing wherever you can. Look for the “to be” construction: was, is, were, has/had been, will/would be…etc. You can’t avoid passive verbs but they should not dominate the page. The same goes for passive sentence construction, where the object of an action becomes the subject of a sentence: The writing group was disturbed by the brass band. (passive) The brass band disturbed the writing group. (active)

Proofread. And proofread again. Best not to write your entry six hours ahead of the deadline because chances are you will miss mistakes. Put the story in a drawer for at least a day, longer if you can. Then use a ruler to focus your eye on a line-by-line check for errors or omissions. Why does this matter? One of the top three entries I read this week was tied, in my mind, with two others for first place. But it wasn’t error-free. So while I loved it, it made it easier for me to place it lower than the other two that didn’t contain errors.

Writing contests give writers an excellent opportunity to submit their work. Unlike the slush pile, writers know someone will actually read their entry. To be a finalist or to win is a validation of your craft and I can say it’s one of the best moments for any writer. I know because I’ve had that fantastic feeling many times in my writing career. It’s one I want every writer to experience and it’s why I wrote this post.

Quick Tips
Before pressing SEND:

  1. Telling us a story is not as interesting or engaging as showing us a story
  2. Lots of adverbs and plenty of adjectives are signs of a writer who doesn’t trust themselves or readers
  3. Passive writing is boring and often unnecessary
  4. Spelling mistakes and typos affect how a judge reads your entry
  5. A great story idea may get you past first-tier readers but 1, 2, 3 or 4 will not get you to the final judge
Did You Know?

Not only is Ruth E. Walker a sought-after judge for writing competitions, she has organized and run writing competitions for fiction and poetry. And Ruth’s fiction, poetry and non-fiction work has also won or placed in dozens of writing contests. Along with contest judge and award-winner, Dorothea Helms (a.k.a. The Writing Fairy), Ruth facilitates Write to Win, a full-day workshop devoted to entering and winning writing contests.

On June 17, Ruth and Dorothea will take Write to Win to Minden in the Haliburton Highlands. With writing, it’s all a contest where the judge can be your next literary agent or publisher. Why don’t you join them. Sign up here.

The Power of Colour

The Power of Colour

Ruth E. Walker.

St. Patrick’s Day is coming, and we can expect lots of green glitter, shamrocks and dyed beer. It’s a time where just about everybody declares a connection to the Emerald Isle, real or otherwise. On March 17, we are green with envy for anyone who really is Irish. But is it easy being green? Just ask Kermit. Or any seasick passenger.

Colour associations are like gold to the knowledgeable writer and when used in subtle ways, bring added depth to text. Figurative language–using words or expressions that mean something different from the literal interpretation– is a useful skill for all writers. And colour is a power tool that works brilliantly with figurative language. But don’t splash colour willy nilly into your writing. The link between colours and ideas relies on many factors to reach your readers’ imaginations.

Get red for your readers

Think of the colour red. Basic association leads us to all things bloody. Red is life, as in lifeblood. Red is love, beating-heart, romantic love captured in a red Valentine. Red is hot, as in fire. Red is also danger: stop signs and red flags. And it is anger, as in flushed cheeks. And what about those red flushed cheeks? They can mean shame. And arousal. Or the aftermath of a brisk winter walk.

See what is happening here? Red on its own has common associations and it also has branches. Once you throw “people” into the mix, our associations get increasingly complex with lots of room for error and misdirection. So it is up to writers to set the stage for meaning.

Here’s a simple sentence of description:

He hesitated outside the room, his cheeks reddened.

Is “He” embarrassed? Turned on? Frostbitten? Angry? The reader will never know if you haven’t put into place all the right ingredients. And is it necessary to say “reddened”? Why not imply red cheeks and allow the reader to imagine or even experience the colour?

Same colour…different tones

Here are three different takes of the same scene with some tweaking for changing emotions:

Fury:

Paulo hesitated just outside the door, gripping the handle so hard he was sure he could crush it. She was hiding on the other side. He felt colour ignite the skin of his face. Good. Let his fury be the first and last thing she sees.

 

 

 

 

Arousal:

Paulo hesitated just outside the door, gripping the round knob so hard he was sure it would catch fire under his touch. She was hiding on the other side. He felt heat rise over his face. Good. Let his passion be the first thing she sees.

Shame:

Paulo hesitated just outside the door, gripping the handle so tight he was sure he could break it and keep him outside forever. She was hiding on the other side. His cheeks burned. Good. Let his shame be the first thing she sees.

Remember: Preparing context  is important. And using imagery to support the emotional context helps guide your reader to understanding.

 

 

A rainbow is global but symbolism is another story

Another part to using colour in your descriptions is to remember colours hold different meanings for different cultures. Western brides would be unlikely to wear red to their wedding. But in many Eastern cultures, red symbolizes the colour of celebration, good fortune and a long life.

That’s why using colours is so dangerous to writers. You need to be clear about what you intend for the colour’s meaning, but subtle enough that you’re not hitting your reader over the head with a hammer. (As an aside, my three examples earlier are exaggerated for effect. I’m sure you could be more subtle than those attempts.)

Christina Wang explores colour in an interesting article for Shutterstock, the stock-photo company: Symbolism of Colour and Colour Meanings Around the World. And you can look further into the whole idea of imagery, symbolism and meaning. Head to the library and discover how symbolism is analyzed in psychology, art, religion and dreams.

There are only two kinds of people in the world, the Irish and those who wish they were

As for me, I’ll be putting on the green this Friday. I can truly claim some Irish lineage, admittedly mixed in with English, Scottish and Norman flavours.

Nonetheless, on St. Paddy’s Day, I’ll be wishing a leprechaun or two might happen by with all the colours of the rainbow to inspire creativity and a quick pen to record it with. Because for writers, that’s a true pot of gold.

 

Did you know:

The luck of the Irish may be with you. There’s still a couple of spots left in our writers’ retreat on April 21 – 23. Join Gwynn Scheltema and Ruth E. Walker at Emhirst’s Resort for feedback on your manuscript and one-on-one consultation. Enjoy dedicated time to write, the camaraderie of other like-minded folks and inspiring lakeside vistas. All-inclusive means you just need your writing project, jammies and a change of clothes. Writescape takes care of all the rest at Spring Thaw 2017.

The Art of Noticing

The Art of Noticing

Gwynn Scheltema

Lately I haven’t been writing much. For once I have a valid reason. I’ll spare you the details, but essentially, because of a family crisis, I find myself back at my childhood home in Zimbabwe with little to no time to myself and definitely no emotional energy to be creative.

I decided that I should at least do a bit of journaling, and record what is happening and how I felt about the situation I find myself in, but I’m too close to it right now, and too focused on what needs doing to write even that. My friend and business partner Ruth, in her wisdom, suggested that I just be aware of the five senses while I am here. Store up the smells and sounds and tastes of Africa where my novel is set.

It was a good idea. I had noticed, for instance, that when I arrived in the last week of October the Jacaranda trees were in full and splendid bloom. They only bloom like this for about a week, and if you are lucky enough to witness it, you can find yourself travelling under a canopy of trumpet-shaped lilac blossoms—no green leaves yet, just blossoms— each blossom bunch a nodding head of delicate beauty. Then one gusty wind storm or a thrashing afternoon thundershower and they fall en masse, carpeting the ground in lilac for one glorious day until they are trampled underfoot into a bruised mess. I knew this about Jacarandas. I’d grown up with them. But in my memory, I had one important detail wrong. I always thought this happened in September!

flying-white-antsIt’s also the time for flying white ants. I thought I knew all about them too. After all, as kids we used to catch and cook them on a fire till they were crispy and edible. (Yes, people, the fad move to eating insects is definitely not revolutionary.) What I had never noticed, however, was that once they lost their wings (a natural occurrence) they seek each other out on the ground and form a train of wingless bodies head to toe. To what end, I have yet to discover.

So, I told myself, maybe forget trying to advance the novel for now and concentrate on noticing with a writer’s eye. Australian writer, Paddy O’Reilly,  says, “Deep and focused attention makes the old new. It recognizes connections between things we thought were unrelated. It throws light on hidden parts of ourselves and others. The attention we pay to the world pays us back as writers.”

It’s advice I give to participants in my creative get-a-ways at Glentula. It takes time and focus and a willingness to really look and see what really is and not what you think is or should be. There is an art to noticing.

So how can you develop your writer’s eye and learn to really notice?

  1. Practise, practise, practise

cafe-845527_640Whenever you are out and about, pay attention. In cafés, in waiting rooms, at the supermarket or on a lonely country road. Notice with all the senses. I listen in on conversations at Tim Hortons, or between the cashier and the shopper, moms at baseball games and GO train passengers. I notice the words and phrases they use, the topics they discuss and the reactions of those around them.

I often travel by car long distances on the same road and have challenged myself to notice different things on different trips. One trip, I may focus on what grows in ditches. Or what yellow things occur naturally in nature. What birds sit on fences or what a roadkill really looks like. I feel the fabrics in a fabric store or smell the flowers in public gardens. How do you describe the taste of coffee?

  1. Look for incongruitiesleaves-1380761_640

How is the thing you are observing different from other things of its kind? Why is it different? What’s missing? What’s extra? Why are all the kids at the crosswalk wearing coats except one? Why does only one apartment in a high-rise have a balcony flower box? Can you think of a story behind that observation?

  1. The same thing can be different

Microsoft Word - Artist's Book Cover in total.docMy good friend, Ingrid Ruthig taught me an important lesson about observation: the same thing can be different. The basis of her book Slipstream was a scene observed out of a window every hour on the hour for eighteen hours.

Try describing the same thing at different times of the day, different seasons. Notice what cell phone covers women or young people choose over older men. Don’t just notice a colleague’s scarf, notice how it is tied today versus yesterday. What colour is the asphalt when it rains versus a sunny day? What colour is snow? (it’s seldom white).

  1. Read people

Don’t just look at people in general, look for specifics: what makes them stand out or blend in. What actions and body language do they use to exude confidence or jealousy or nervousness? What can you deduce from how they dress or wear their hair or hats? If a couple looks unhappy, businesslike or best friends, can you identify what made you come to that conclusion? What is it about someone that makes you uneasy or willing to open your heart to them?

  1. Challenge your powers of description

How many ways can you describe something? What is it like? How many different similes can you come up with? How would your characters describe it? My husband and I try to find different names for the kinds of moons we see: wolf moon, rain moon, wishing moon… Do you always resort to sense of sight? Do you consider light and temperature, texture and mood?

piet-my-vrou

So what have I noticed today? I’ve noticed the three-note call of the piet-my-vrou bird is the first birdsong of the morning. That the pods of the weeping boer bean tree hang like fruit bats. That the blue-green iridescent loerie bird that flew overhead has red underwings, and the bark of the fever tree is yellow.fever-tree

That my sister’s dachshund dog is so portly that when he sleeps his legs stick out straight like roadkill. That the tortoise in the garden can devour half a watermelon in twenty minutes, and that my mother’s hair is the colour of history: iron, copper, silver and gold.

flower-15249_640And I’m waiting to see if, like the lilac Jacarandas, the red flamboyant trees will lose their blossoms in the storm that is now brewing on the horizon.

What did you notice lately?

Purple Prose

Purple Prose

Gwynn Scheltema

In a course I teach on effective description, I talk about “purple prose” and invariably I’m asked what that means. To me, purple prose is writing that is so excessive, elaborate or flowery that it calls attention to itself and breaks the flow of the story. It’s usually recognizable by the excessive use of sensory detail.

But hang on…isn’t the use of sensory detail a mark of good writing? Absolutely! Using all the senses and painting with words through simile and metaphor makes for rich, engaging narrative. The operative word in my comment “usually recognizable by the excessive use of sensual detail” is the word “excessive”.

So how do you know what is enough and what is excessive?

Let’s find out by looking at this paragraph of purple prose:profile-461076_640

The pretty young girl sat delicately on the lush green grass under the old gnarled oak tree. The starlings sang excitedly above, and the air was filled with the perfume of wildflowers. Overhead the fluffy white clouds drifted gently, and the sun shone brightly in the blue summer sky. She felt happy. She turned coyly to the boy beside her and said hesitantly in her high sing-song voice, “Would you like a bite of this sweet juicy apple?”

At first glance, it seems to follow the guidelines for “good” writing. We have colour and sound and smells and textures. We have emotion and interaction. But for all that, it sounds amateurish. It’s awkward to read.

Here are five tips to recognize and overcome purple prose:

1 + 1 = ½

The first thing to notice is the proliferation of adjectives. When it comes to adjectives, I always say that “one plus one equals a half”. By that I mean that if you use more than one adjective to describe something, you dilute the effectiveness of each adjective. This happens, because the reader must process both adjectives separately with the noun it describes. The mind must process “the girl is pretty” and then “the girl is young”. It’s too much, and slows the reader down. In this paragraph, there are seven instances of this. (Can you find them?)words-1034410_640

Instead use just one adjective and if possible choose a stronger noun to convey the other descriptor. “Pretty young girl” could become “pretty teenager”. “Lush green grass” doesn’t need the word “green”, because “lush” says it all. Likewise, you wouldn’t expect a summer sky to be anything but blue.

Kill “descriptor” adverbs.

Note I said “descriptor” adverbs (my own label, by the way). I don’t condemn all adverbs. Adverbs like daily and often have a role to play in showing, time and frequency etc. by answering the questions of when? and how? It’s the ones that answer the question: in what way? that cause the problem. In our sample paragraph, “sat delicately” is a case in point. It’s much stronger and easier for the reader to process, if you ditch the adverb altogether and strengthen the verb to “perched” or “poised”. The starlings might “chatter” or “chirp” or “chorus” rather than “sing excitedly”. You could use a phrase like “the girl curled her legs under her”.

Swap out cliché.

A cliché is a descriptive phrase that once was a great way to describe something but which has been so over-used that it no longer has any effect on the reader except to draw attention to itself and pull the reader out of the narrative. This sample uses the cliché “fluffy white clouds”.dragonflies-1431304_640

It would be simple to say, “Find another way to describe the clouds,” and that would be valid, but I think it goes deeper than that. I believe that you should swap out cliché with details that are not already supplied automatically by the reader. If you mention a summer day, most people will automatically imagine blue skies, hot sun and fluffy white clouds. Pump up your writing by supplying a detail they may not imagine and therefore will notice, say, “a pair of tangled dragon flies”. Not only does this give a unique detail to the scene, it can also do double duty in mirroring or echoing the story thread of these two young people alone together.

Show Don’t Tell

Yes, I know, you’ve heard it before, but it’s true. This entire paragraph is tell. The reader is being told what everything looks like and what the characters are doing and how they are feeling. We are observers only, not participants in the story. We can only guess at the character’s thoughts and motivations.

This piece would be stronger if we saw at least some of the scene through the eyes and thoughts of one of the characters. That way, we get a feel for how the character feels, and this is heightened by descriptive details that the character would notice in that emotional state. Make the characters real. Give them names and thoughts and gestures.

To recognize “tell” look for places where emotions are named: “She felt happy”. Ask yourself: What does happy look like in this situation? What would she be thinking at this moment? What body language might she use? What sensory details would she notice?

Alice watched two dragonflies flit in a tangled dance near Robbie’s red face—whether from the summer heat or embarrassment, she couldn’t tell.

So what?

No matter how powerful the description, it has to have a purpose. Don’t describe for the sake of it, just to paint a setting. Always have a second purpose. As I said in my post Been There, use brief, targeted description to create atmosphere, to mirror emotion, to illuminate character or advance plot.

So let’s have another crack at the sample paragraph:

apple-1228374_640Alice curled her legs under her and lowered herself to the lush grass as close to Robbie as she could manage without startling him and breathed in the sweet smell of crushed wildflowers. Robbie closed his eyes and settled back against the ancient oak, folding his farmer-tanned arms behind his head. She watched two dragonflies flit in a tangled dance near Robbie’s red face—whether from the summer heat or embarrassment, she couldn’t tell. She hoped it was the latter. What now? Should she say something? But what? Above the chattering starlings seemed to egg her on. She reached into the picnic basket, swallowed hard and said in a voice she barely recognized as her own, “Want a bite of my apple?”

 Better?

Have a go yourself. How else could this paragraph be written? Paste your version in the comments below.

Sharpening your creative edge

Sharpening your creative edge

Gwynn Scheltema

This weekend, Ruth and I spent a few hours with a motivated and talented group of writers in St. Catharines. Some were beginners, some seasoned professionals, but all of them dived in and challenged themselves and took creative risks. It was thoroughly energizing.

boots on rail lineWriting is, for the most part, a solitary act. Sometimes lonely, sometimes blissfully peaceful. But I find that too much alone time as a writer is not always good. Yes, I might get more written, but it can also sometimes skew my writing perspective.

I can get rooted in bad writing habits, forgetting to use fundamental writing skills I have used before. My writing challenges can start to feel insurmountable. Or I can relax into my writing comfort zone and stop taking risks…dulling my creative edge.

Being with other writers this weekend, feeling that energy that emerges when writers get together, reminded me that I need to build that into my writing life. I also need to hone my creative edge by deliberately taking regular creative risks.

So how can you take regular creative risks and re-energize?

Give voice to non-POV characterseyes-141363_640

Write a scene from a non-POV character‘s perspective. This reminds you that each character has their own motivations. You don’t have to use the piece you write, but in the act of writing it, that character may give you insights about your regular POV character or about the events in the scene. Perhaps there are even connections to other characters you were missing.

Approach description differently

addict-84430_640Challenge yourself to use visual description sparingly, and increase the use of the other senses instead. Try also to limit scene description to just two or three details. (And make sure that the details are ones that the characters would naturally notice and not just things the author wants the reader to notice.)

 

Use prompts

Using prompts forces you to come at things from different entry points. They stimulate memories and experiences that can be adapted to fiction and can be a springboard to new ideas. Here are three links to get you started.

Freefall writestamp-895380_640

Freefall writing is one of the best and most satisfying ways I know to stay ahead of your internal editor and left analytical brain and give your right creative brain and your subconscious a chance to surface. By writing without stopping for a set time, and having no expectations of what will be written is extremely freeing, and time and time again I’ve seen wonderful writing emerge from the practice.

Get together with other writers
Dining at Turning Leaves
Dining at Turning Leaves

Even if you have a wonderful writing space at home, getting together with other writers to write is a different and energizing experience. I live next to a lake, but look forward to going on retreat whenever I can. It allows me to “leave the world behind” for a short while and concentrate on being creative. Being with a group of people who understand the writing world is invaluable and seeing others around me writing motivates me to write too. Try it. Join Ruth and me at our annual fall retreat Turning Leaves 2016 this November.

 

 

 

 

Tasting the Page:  Beyond the Five Senses

Tasting the Page: Beyond the Five Senses

With Gwynn Scheltema

In this one-day workshop:

  • challenge your reader’s perceptions and assumptions
  • deepen your powers of description
  • learn new descriptive techniques to give greater weight to your narrative voice.
  • master how to add description without slowing the narrative.

Don’t let your fiction be left on the plate. Prepare it gourmet style and your readers will beg for more.

Have fun experimenting with creative writing exercises that make your writing live. We’ll munch our way through a smorgasbord of fiction foods from image and emphasis, to movement, theme, and syntax.

Come prepared to go new places and try new things.

As past participants have said, “You provoked me into thinking of new ways of approaching my writing,” and “Your exercises were great—inspiring, short, but effective. You let us try lots of different things.”