Saturday, September 24, 2016

I love sharing your friendship. I don't want to share your germs.

How I dress for church in the fall/winter
months to try to stay cold-free

For many years, I've shared a post about the importance of staying home when you're sick as soon as the first autumn colds start to circulate. As a cystic fibrosis patient, my immune system is compromised, and I have a tendency to pick up any viruses within a hundred-mile radius—at least, that's what it often feels like! Not only am I more likely to get colds and other illnesses in the first place, but those illnesses are nearly always much, much worse for me than for a regular person. What may be a case of the sniffles for you typically turns into a lung infection for me, nearly always requiring antibiotics and frequently requiring a hospitalization or course of home IV antibiotic therapy.

And don't even get me started on more serious viruses, like influenza, which can be a literal death sentence for CF patients. In 2007, while I was engaged, I caught the flu; I was almost immediately hospitalized, and ended up going into the hospital something like 7 times over the next 18 months. It took me at least that long, if not longer, to feel like I was back on my feet health-wise.

Every winter, I personally know far too many peop

le with CF who die—and quite often, the infection that leads to their decline is caused by a cold, influenza, or other virus. And death is only the most dramatic result. Every winter, I also see far too many friends spending months in the hospital, enduring cycle after cycle of body-destroying extra-strength antibiotics, and, like me, finding themselves unable to engage with life at all because their strength is so totally zapped by dealing with persistent infections.

CF patients aren't the only population at risk, either. Cancer patients, transplant recipients, and medically fragile children and adults all can have life-threatening reactions to a virus that, for you, manifests as an annoying case of sniffles.

Every year when I blog about this, I get push back in two primary ways: from people with kids who are sick all the time, and from people who don't have the option of taking sick leave from work. I get that, I really do. I've been that parent before - there have been times where Kate was sick over and over for months in a row. And I understand, also, that there are lots of jobs where a worker is penalized or let go for missing work, regardless of the excuse.

In light of those issues, here are some things that you can do to mitigate the effect of your illnesses.


1. If you can stay home, do so. Postpone the shopping trip. Get takeout instead of eating at a restaurant. Stay home from church—truly. Church is one of the big danger zones for me, because people have a tendency to come regardless of how they feel. Really truly, you can nearly always find someone to fill in if you have something to do, and those of us with compromised immune systems will thank you. If you really cannot get out of a responsibility and must go sick, see #2 and #3.

2. Be honest. If you're going to a gathering where you know that someone with a compromised immune system (or a baby) will be, let them know how you're feeling. Describe your symptoms and let them tell you what they feel comfortable with. Work out a plan you both feel okay with.

3. Wear a cheap mask. You can get inexpensive disposable surgical masks at any drug store. Did you know that wearing a standard paper mask won't actually protect the wearer from viruses? That's why I don't wear one when I'm out during cold and flu season (I actually just purchased a pricey fitted mask in the hopes that it can help me stay safe this winter, but that's not an option everyone has). However, what those paper masks do very well is protecting the people around you from your germs while you're wearing it. If you have to go out while you're still symptomatic, consider wearing one. Also, use hand sanitizer, wash hands frequently, try not to sit close to anyone else, and make sure to cover a cough.

4. Learn to tell the difference between allergies and a cold. If you or your kid has a stuffy or runny nose that isn't going away after several weeks but has never been accompanied by a fever, body aches, or a cough, it's probably allergies... But if that runny nose just started, give it at least a few days before deciding it isn't a cold. Contrary to popular wisdom, a clear runny nose is no safer than a green one, and it actually usually comes at the point when a cold is most contagious (ie the beginning).

Remember how Smoky the Bear said "only you can prevent forest fires"? The same might be said in this case: only you have the power to help make public spaces a safe place for those of us with compromised immune systems to be!

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Descriptive Writing 101: Adding Sensory Details (Plus a Postscript)


Here we are, writers, in our final post in this descriptive writing 101 series! And I've saved one of the most important—but also, in many ways, the easiest—techniques for last.

We all of us experience life through our senses, and some senses in particular have the particular power to evoke memories and emotions—both in real life and as we read. Few things can ground a reader more deeply in a character's POV, and in a setting, than the author's use of well-rounded sensory details, especially if those details are combined with some of the other techniques we've discussed, like metaphor and relationship-based description.

As writers, it's easy to fall back to using only one or two senses; often, we rely heavily on sight as we're describing what a reader should see in his mind's eye. One of the things that I like to do as I'm revising is keep an eye out for how often I'm bringing in descriptors that call on all five senses. Not every scene will need to have all of the senses invoked, but being mindful as I revise of how often I'm using them is very helpful.

This passage from Maggie Stiefvater's The Scorpio Races is an excellent example:
My father gives me the reins so that he can saddle the war horse with a red cloth. I lick my teeth—they taste like salt—and watch my father tie the matching armband around his upper arm. Every year I have watched him, and every year he has tied it with a steady hand, but not this year. His fingers are clumsy, and I know he is afraid of the red stallion.
I have ridden him, this capall. On his back, the wind beating me, the ground jarring me, the sea spraying our legs, we never tire. 
In these two paragraphs, Stiefvater has given us so much sensory detail: The color of the cloth and the armband, the salty taste on Sean's teeth, the clumsiness as Sean's father ties the armband, the physical sensations as Sean remembers riding the stallion (wind, jarring ground, sea spray, the energy implied in "we never tire"). Right there, we have three different senses involved, each one of them pulling us deeper into the scene and helping us to feel it, the way the very best writing does.

It's also helpful to me to think about what kinds of sensory experiences I have in my own life: What times and places do I tend to notice scents? What about sounds? Colors? Textures? Sensations in or outside of my body? What emotions tend to be associated with different senses? (Scent, for example, is tied in pretty heavily with memory and nostalgia for me.) As I think about these questions, it helps me to hone in on which senses are going to be the most evocative in any given scene.

And just as certain people tend to pay more attention to certain senses, your characters will behave the same way! An artist might see things as textures and light, while a musician might notice the tones and resonance all around her and a baker might be more likely to fixate on scents. In Sarah Addison Allen's The Sugar Queen, the sweets-obsessed protagonist imagines that she can taste the winter weather:
If she could eat the cold air, she would. She thought cold snaps were like cookies, like gingersnaps. In her mind they were made with white chocolate chunks and had a cool, brittle vanilla frosting. They melted like snow in her mouth, turning creamy and warm.
This is an excellent example of sensory detail being combined with other descriptive techniques (in this case, metaphor) to produce a paragraph that is as delectable as it is immersive!

Your assignment for today's post, if you choose to accept it, is simple: Write a brief scene, trying to incorporate all five senses.

And this, my friends, brings us to the end of our series on descriptive writing! I hope that these posts have been helpful and given you some ideas for new things to try to bring your descriptive writing to the next level.

As a little postscript, I will add one thing that I didn't write a post on because there's not a ton to say about it, but which is also important in good description: I know I began this series ragging on adjectives, but they're (obviously) still an important fundamental when it comes to descriptive writing.

However, not all adjectives are created equal. As with other descriptive techniques, adjectives are stronger the more unique and specific they are. Just like picking metaphors, it's a good rule of thumb to use in selecting the right adjective for your descriptions is that the first idea is almost never the best one. Let things percolate. Use a thesaurus. Try writing the scene from a different angle and see what you come up with.

And most of all? Have fun!

Did you miss the earlier posts in the Descriptive Writing 101 Series? Check them out here!

Part 1: Relationship-Based Description
Part 2: Building Strong Metaphors
Part 3: Describing Emotion Through Objective Correlatives

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Descriptive Writing 101: Describing Emotion Through Objective Correlatives


Let me preface this post by saying that I'm a little bit intimidated by addressing this particular topic, only because my brilliant friend (and former Pitch Wars mentor!) Rosalyn Eves has done it so well and thoroughly in her own wonderful post on objective correlatives. Check it out here! Rosalyn explains and breaks down the objective correlative in a terrific and easy-to-follow way, and you'll understand my take much better if you've read hers first.

That said, I couldn't in good conscience do a blog series on the things that are crucial to me in descriptive writing without addressing objective correlatives—a tricky, cerebral concept that can be hard to grasp but adds so much power into a narrative when used well. The use of objective correlatives is a way to communicate emotion (and induce emotion in the reader) without ever actually naming that emotion, or describing it in more traditional ways like physical reactions. As such, objective correlatives may at first glance seem to have not that much to do with descriptive writing—but as far as I'm concerned, they've got everything to do with each other. The goal of immersive descriptive writing, in my opinion, is to emotionally invest your reader in your narrative to such a point that they feel like they are there, living it, breathing your POV character's breath; objective correlatives can be a great way to do this. And, depending on what sort of objective correlative you use, it can also reinforce your setting, strengthening it until it's a character in its own right.

I was first introduced to the topic of objective correlatives at the 2015 LDStorymakers conference, in a presentation by author Martine Leavitt (the same presentation Rosalyn mentions in her post). An objective correlative is, essentially, kind of a grand-scale metaphor: rather than being a sentence-level structure where you implicitly inform the reader that one thing is standing in for another (for example, "he was a rock, the kind of man who would move for nothing"), an objective correlative is something that is usually woven into the text in such a way that the relationship is implied rather than stated—though, as with any rule, there are exceptions, as (confusingly enough) regular metaphors can be a type of objective correlative in certain situations. (Rosalyn goes into more detail about this in her post above!)

Often, though not always, an objective correlative is carried throughout all or part of a story, like a sort of extended metaphor. In the Harry Potter series, for instance, Harry's phoenix-feather wand functions as an objective correlative, symbolizing his sense of belonging to the wizarding world, the first place he's ever felt at home. In the final book, when his wand breaks during a confrontation with one of Voldemort's creatures, we feel Harry's shock and grief—not only because the wand itself was so beloved to him, but because it carried a deeper meaning in the narrative, and its shattering represents the breakdown both of Harry's innocence and of his beloved and safe wizarding world. And at the end, when Harry has vanquished Voldemort and gained the most powerful wand in the world—a wand that could earn him glory for the rest of his life—instead of choosing to keep it, he uses the Elder Wand only to repair his old phoenix-feather wand before breaking the Elder Wand and tossing it off a cliff, showing that the sense of belonging he's found in wizarding culture is far more important to him than fame or glory.

Think of all the things that little objective correlative, which is a relatively tiny plot in the overarching Harry Potter series, has described to us: We've learned about wizarding culture and its quirks ("the wand chooses the wizard!"); we've learned about Harry's deepest motivations and desires (belonging, acceptance, a safe place to call home), we've viscerally felt Harry's emotion at the peak of his distress in HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS. Without ever telling us "Harry was sad because of what the breakage of his wand represented to him," Rowling has pulled us deeper into her story, her character, and her setting through this objective correlative.

Last year at the Storymakers conference, I was really intrigued by Martine's brief explanation of objective correlatives, and since I was at that very moment outlining a new WIP, I decided that I was going to pick an objective correlative to use throughout my novel as a way to show my protagonist's sense of overwhelm with the situation that she was in. That book takes place on a farm, and an important subplot revolves around the fact that the area is in an unprecedented drought that's placing great stress on its rural inhabitants. As such, the weather—the heat and crush of an unusually rainless North Carolina summer—seemed like the perfect thing to use as an extended metaphor. As I drafted the book, whenever I found myself wanting to describe my main character's emotions, I would describe the weather instead, specifically choosing descriptors that evoked the sense of heavy oppression that fit not only the actual temperature but also Della's sense of hopelessness at trying to care for her mentally ill mother. Here's one of the more obvious examples:

“It’s all right, it’s all right,” I said over and over again, but Mama didn’t act like she’d heard me at all. She just kept on crying, not making any noise, her eyes puffing up and turning as red as her hands. I clumsily unscrewed the spray bottle and dumped everything inside it down the sink, my own eyes watering—it smelled like straight-up bleach, not thinned out with anything at all. 
“You gotta wash your hands, Mama,” I said, remembering what Mrs. Gregory had said last year in science lab about touching bleach, but Mama didn’t answer. I reached into the sink and grabbed a washcloth off the faucet, running it under water till it was as cold as the sink could get it, and then crouched down and wiped Mama’s hands off one at a time. It might not be enough to stop her hurting, but it was all I could do while still holding crying Mylie on my hip. 
The heat of the kitchen pressed down hard on me, warming up that washcloth till holding it felt just like being wrapped up in the humid air. Mylie rubbed her face into my shoulder, her arms holding tight onto my neck like she was afraid of what might happen if she let go, and whimpered. 
“Stowy?” she whispered. 
“Not now, Mylie.” I wasn’t sure I’d ever be ready to tell another Bee Story again. Instead I just held Mylie and looked out the window over the sink and wished, more than ever, that the sky would just open up and cry all the tears I couldn’t.
That book—called WHERE THE WATERMELONS GROW—ended up being the book that earned ten agent offers, and without fail, to this day every single person who has read it has commented on how vivid the heat was, how they felt hot reading it, and how the extended metaphor of the drought helped to pull them deeply into the story and really feel what Della felt as they read. My hope (which, based on that reaction, seems to have succeeded!) was to ground a reader both in Della's emotional overwhelm and immerse them in the setting in such a way that they seemed to be right there, experiencing all that heat and frustration along with Della.

An objective correlative can also be used on a smaller scale, though, in just one (or just a few) scenes, to illustrate a certain concept or emotion. In my last WIP, one of my favorite objective correlatives was one that was mostly confined to a single scene:

“You know, Annie Lee,” said Mama, and I jumped a little. Her voice was strange and floaty. “I knew a girl once, back when I was in high school, who got herself stung by a Portuguese Man’o’war while she was swimming out in Wilmington.”
A Man’o’war was a jellyfish, a horrible kind with lacy tentacles that could be thirty feet or longer, and if it caught you it would wrap those tentacles around your arms and legs, tangling you up in it and stinging over and over again. I stuck my hand into my pocket, the warm familiar smoothness of George Washington’s faces calm and comforting.
“They had to cut it off her, there on the sand,” Mama went on, “and she spent the next five years getting plastic surgery over and over again to get rid of all those hard red scars. But you know the thing that’s never made sense to me?” 
I waited, but she didn’t go on. “What?”
“She kept swimming after that day.” Mama shook her head. “Her family went to the beach a few weeks every summer, and she said she still kept swimming.” She paused. “I don’t think I could’ve done that.” 
I turned the quarter over in my fingers. Daddy had been able to make it pass over and under every finger of his hand before disappearing it, poof, into the air.
“Losing your daddy,” Mama said, her face tired and grey-blue in the light of the computer screen, “it was like being wrapped up in those tentacles, Annie Lee.” She looked back at the screen, at whatever she’d seen there.
“Sometimes, it still is.” 
If you're feeling a) confused and or b) overwhelmed by this whole concept at this point, don't despair. It's a tricky idea, and one that can seem hard to wrap your brain around! If you'd like a practice exercise today, I'm totally stealing from Rosalyn's (fantastic) class on objective correlatives at LDStorymakers 2016. The assignment is simple: Pick an emotion and then pick an object or image (anything will do!). Write a paragraph, or more, using that image or object to try to make your reader feel that emotion. The above jellyfish excerpt was actually based on what came out of that class exercise for me—if I remember right, my image was a picture of a jellyfish and my emotion was sadness. Now it's one of my favorite passages in that book!

Did you miss the earlier posts in the Descriptive Writing 101 Series? Check them out here!

Part 1: Relationship-Based Description
Part 2: Building Strong Metaphors

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Descriptive Writing 101: Building Strong Metaphors


Any lover of lush prose will tell you: There is no more valuable tool in a descriptive writer's box than a well-placed metaphor. Good metaphors are like a book's salt—they can draw out all of the other flavors of the narrative, adding punch and depth in just the right places, turning fairly run-of-the-mill descriptions into things worth pausing over and savoring. (Want proof? I'm still, weeks after reading it, in awe over Julie Berry's fabulous grape-crushing metaphor from the excerpt I quoted in yesterday's post!)

Few things can bring a description to life the way a metaphor can... at least, that is, as long as it's a good one. Weak metaphors, like weak adjectives, serve at best as merely-adequate sentences, the kind of prose a reader skims but doesn't become immersed in. At worst, weak metaphors (also like weak adjectives!) can pull a reader right out of the story. Metaphors that are too out of left field, or that attempt to combine too many different ideas, or that are simply over-used, definitely don't earn you any extra reader investment.

So how do you make sure that you're writing the good kind of metaphors, and not the bad? Here are my own personal rules for writing metaphors (of which I'm quite fond—as you've probably noticed from the fact that I've used several in this post already!):

Rule #1: The first idea is almost never the best one.

This applies to a lot of things in writing, and metaphors are no exception! For me, at least, I've found that when I'm trying to describe something, the first metaphor that I reach for is usually one that's clich├ęd and common. You know what I'm talking about—her eyes were like stars, his jaw was set like stone, it was as soft as a pillow, etc. etc. etc. While these metaphors are a step up from just using a weak adjective like "bright," "hard," or "soft," they're so embedded in our cultural consciousness that they become invisible, entirely lacking the power to make a reader see things with that pop and fizzle you'd like to evoke.

Both while drafting and in revision, I try to keep an eye open for these overused metaphors when they pop up. I've been paying attention to them for long enough now that I often catch them as I'm drafting, but inevitably a few sneak through to be caught later—and that's okay. This kind of thinking takes practice, and it's 100% all right if your descriptions begin fairly simple and unevocative and build over time during revisions.

When I do find that I'm about to use, or have already used, a weak metaphor, I pause for a bit of brainstorming. This is actually a game I love to play while I'm falling asleep at night: I pick an image from my WIP that I know I'll be describing the next day, and then I try to think of as many metaphors as I can to describe it until I hit on one that feels right! I do something similar when I'm mid-writing-session.

In my just-completed WIP, for instance, I knew that I'd need to describe early on one of the characters, an elderly homeless man. Initially, in thinking about the sorts of metaphors I'd use to show what he looked like, I hit on two: his skin like paper, and his bones thin and birdlike. Both of those were unsatisfying, though, because both of them are metaphors that are used relatively often to describe people who are old with weathered skin. So instead, I spent one of those before-sleep brainstorming sessions trying to come up with other things that worked well. What I ended up with was this:

He was old, with a mostly-grey beard and skin like the bark on the birch tree by my apartment, as thin and saggy as if it had seen a hundred years of sun and wind. 
It's still a first draft, and it's entirely possible that in the future I may punch that metaphor up further or take it out entirely. But for right now, it's a much better option than paper-thin skin or birdlike bones!

Rule #2: The best metaphors fit well with the overall story and its setting.

In high school, I spent a semester building my own creative writing course (the perks of being a homeschooler!) that was comprised largely of reading and underlining my favorite books to try to figure out what made them tick, and writing lots of short stories to use the tools I'd learned. This is an approach I both recommend and don't recommend—had I been a little less clueless I would've thrown some good craft books in there, too, but at the time I was kind of snobby about craft books—but that's beside the point. One of the big epiphanies from that class was the day that I was reading Shannon Hales' THE GOOSE GIRL and realized, with a minor thunderclap, how much power Hale's metaphors had because they were tied in so well to her story and its setting. For a character who could speak the language of birds, Hale used bird metaphors. For scenes that took place in a stable, she used stable metaphors.

Often, the most powerful metaphors are ones that evoke and strengthen an aspect of the story itself—the setting, a specific relationship, a character's feelings. Early in THE GOOSE GIRL, for instance, Hale describes her main character, Ani, coming into her horse's stable like this:

Ani entered the first stable. The familiar smells of warm bodies and clean hay greeted her like a friendly touch.
At this point in the book, Ani is a princess, the daughter of a permanently-disapproving mother; Ani feels caged and awkward in her life, unable to ever do anything that makes others proud of her. Her one refuge, which she mostly isn't allowed, is her connection to animals, and the metaphor that Hale chooses to describe the smells of the stable—like a friendly touch—immediately brings home to us just how much of a relief it is for Ani to be away from the perpetual stress of the palace and into the one place she feels peace and friendliness.

This rule isn't hard and fast, of course; there will definitely be times when the metaphor best-suited to a specific description doesn't have much, or anything at all, to do with your overall story. (Birch trees, for instance, aren't ever mentioned by name again in my WIP that I know of, though there are scenes in a forest.) But it's often worth pondering, as you're sitting down to describe something, whether or not your choice of metaphor can tie in to a larger theme.

Rule #3: Good metaphors are unique without being strange.

Every now and then if I'm having a hard time finding a unique way to describe something, I'll say something about it to my husband (my best brainstorming buddy). Inevitably, he comes up with something super whacky, like "The food was so bad I felt like a dinosaur choking on a planet", which is the real true example he just spouted off when I told him to give me a weird metaphor. And, while that sort of over-the-top silly description can be perfect for a madcap adventure or a zany, voicey satire (which goes right back to rule #2!), usually this isn't the kind of metaphor that's going to work best for most books.

The strongest metaphors manage to strike a balance: They're unique, but they don't cross the line into strange. You want something that is fresh and new enough to make your reader pause, but not so far out of left field that she's left scratching her head about it. In general, you want to make sure that your metaphors match your story's tone—you wouldn't, for example, have a bunch of violence-centric metaphors in a quiet MG, unless violence was important to and consistent with your story's plot and tone. Metaphors should build and enrich your writer's voice throughout the book, not detract or distract from it.

Unofficial Rule #4: It's okay if it takes time.

For me, at least, learning to write with metaphors this way has been a long work-in-progress, a process of years of teaching my brain to recognize when my description is weak and figure out how to brainstorm my way into a solution. If you're feeling overwhelmed at this point in our Descriptive Writing 101 series, that's okay. Good descriptive writing takes time—time to absorb and practice techniques from book-to-book, and time to add layers and depth to your description from draft to draft.

On that note, who's up for a challenge? If you'd like to practice the techniques I talked about in this post, here's your assignment: do a little metaphor brainstorming of your own! Think of a character, setting, or object that you'd like to describe, and then make a list of as many potential metaphors for that thing as you can. Look at your list to see if any of them have particular resonance with any of the characters, plotlines, themes, or settings in your story—or if any of them just seem to fit with the thing you're trying to describe, whether or not they echo your overall story. Give yourself permission to take some time and let your brain marinate over the assignment a little bit. There's no rush!


Did you miss the earlier posts in the Descriptive Writing 101 Series? Check them out here!

Part 1: Relationship-Based Description

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Descriptive Writing 101: Relationship-Based Description

One of the fundamental building blocks in good descriptive writing is what I think of as "relationship-based" description (or, sometimes, "reaction-based" description). This piece from our descriptive writer's toolbox packs a double punch, because not only does it allow us to show our world to the reader in a more vivid way, but it also allows us to take our characterizations much deeper—and, ultimately, characters who feel deep and with whom readers connect on a deep level are the heart of any impactful book.

So what, you ask, is relationship-based description?

Pull up a chair, friends, and let's explore this concept.

In every scene, you'll have a point-of-view character, whether that's your book's protagonist or somebody else. You'll have a point-of-view character even if you're writing in third person—and in general, the more dialed-in to that POV character you are, the more invested your reader will be in the scene, too. (This is true for everything except 3rd-person omniscient narratives, but I'll make a sweeping generalization and say that in most genres, close 3rd-person is much, much more effective.)

In the best descriptive writing, all of the observation and description in the scene is filtered through the POV character's worldview. This means that what they notice at any given moment will be influenced by everything from their background, lifestyle, and childhood experiences, to their current occupation, current mood, and current goal.

Everyone in a scene will react to stimuli differently, just as we do in real life; for example, as a musician, I notice very different things when I'm sitting through an amateur musical performance than one of my friends, who doesn't have musical training, does. Likewise, as a mom, when I'm out with my daughter I notice things differently than I did before she came along—I'm much more attuned to how situations could become dangerous (don't run out into the road! Don't touch the hot stove!) and also tend to notice things that are at waist-level and below much more than I used to. And I could go on; for all the different aspects of who I am (writer, disabled person, etc.), there are ways that that identity affects the way I process things around me.

Keeping these character-specific filters in mind boosts both the punch of your descriptions and the depth of your characterizations, making it doubly awesome.

Recently I read Julie Berry's THE PASSION OF DOLSSA (which I highly recommend), and couldn't help but mark this beautiful passage, which is an excellent example of what I'm talking about:

Harvest frolics were known for this. All those tozets with their lusty eyes upon her, her buoyant chest bouncing practically into her eyeballs, and her skirts tucked up and pinned over her bottom... Of course she would feel herself in a mood to pick one of these young men, like a grape off the vine, and crush him against the roof of her mouth.

In these few lines, we're given insight into so many things: how the narrator feels about the girl she's describing, how the girl treats her suitors (isn't that line about crushing them on the roof of her mouth absolutely perfect?), what role the grape-harvest/winemaking plays in the culture of their village. Berry could have just written something like this:

Astruga was a good-looking but shameless hussy who moved from boy to boy and then left them, flaunting her attractive body to reel them in one after another.
We'd still have had all the pertinent information about the character in question. But the way it's presented now, we have so much more than that—we're pulled deeper into the world, deeper into the head of the POV character, and deeper into the author's lush and beautiful voice, all at once.

In my original draft of this post, I had two original examples written out to show how this sort of relationship-based description can be used to convey a character's mood and backstory. Unfortunately, my computer rudely ate it, and I was never able to remember what those examples said well enough to rewrite them (doggone it! I was really mad!). For more examples, though, I highly recommend checking out this post by the inimitable Maggie Stiefvater, in which she talks about using literary devices to tweak reader emotions and breaks down some great examples of relationship-based description from The Dream Thieves.

So, lovely readers, here's your challenge for today, if you choose to accept it! Choose a character, a setting, or an object that you'd like to describe, and also choose a relationship (between two characters, between a character and himself, between a character and an object or setting) that you'd like to highlight. If needed, make a brief list of ways that that relationship might affect the way your POV character sees the thing/person/place you're trying to describe. Then get out your pen and write a paragraph (or more!), choosing your descriptive words carefully, putting yourself as deeply as you can into the viewpoint of your POV character.

Alternatively, if you'd like to practice but you're having trouble coming up with something to use, here's a prompt: Pick one setting and one relationship from the following lists, put them together in some descriptive writing, and see what you can come up with!

Setting:
A moss-covered forest
A crowded suburban Super Target
A mountain trail
A high school hallway
A kitchen
An urban backyard patio
A farm

Relationship:
A character who's about to break up with his/her significant other
A character who's about to propose
A character who resents his/her mother
A character who's obsessed with a specific possession
A character who's got PTSD after a bad car accident
A character who feels inadequate at everything he/she tries

Friday, September 16, 2016

Descriptive Writing 101: It's Way More Than Adjectives, Baby

This forest is lush and green, with trees that are towering and stately
as they preside over the sinuous stillness of the river!
#WhatNotToDo

This summer, while preparing feedback for authors who subbed to me for Pitch Wars but weren't chosen, I started noticing that I was saying the same things to many of them:

"Use fewer adjectives."

This, I admit, gave me pause. I'm a descriptive writer. Lyrical, immersive, setting-as-character writing is what I love, and do, best. I love to read and write prose that sings off the page, so vivid that I'm not just visualizing the scene, I'm there.

And aren't adjectives synonymous with "description"?

The answer, as you've probably guessed, is "Yes, but no." Adjectives can be great. Think about adjectives like sizzle or protruberant or hushed. Each of those words packs a punch in just a few syllables, conjuring up just the right image or feeling in your mind as you read them. Strong adjectives (and it's important that they're strong!) are, without a doubt, a vital tool in a descriptive writer's toolbox.

Still, when you're striving for immersively descriptive prose, adjectives are merely the tip of the iceberg. Much of the time, adjectives function only at the surface layer: they do an adequate job of telling the reader what to picture, but they don't grip him by the lapels and drag them right into your book. And often, having too many adjectives—especially if they're clustered all together in one sentence or paragraph—can actually pull the reader out of your story instead of taking her deeper.

Descriptive writing is made up of many things: adjectives and adverbs, of course, but also sensory awareness, metaphor and objective correlative (sort of an extended metaphor), and a character's reactions to and relationships with the world around her. Ideally, your descriptions should be a balance of all of these things. The best descriptive writing is also unique: It's putting words together on the sentence level so that instead of skimming over the page, your reader shivers and is pulled further in to the story. You want her to see the comet fall, to feel the frisson of tension across his skin, instead of just noting that those things happened and then moving on.

In talking about this recently on Twitter, I used this example:

"The mood in the room was tense."

This tells us, obviously, what the atmosphere of the room was, but it doesn't give us a lot more than that. We're already reading on to the next line.

Adding another adjective doesn't do much for it, either; if told "The mood in the room was tense and edgy," we still aren't necessarily feeling that tension curling into our own bones.

On the other hand, if we read: "The room held its breath, the walls themselves pulled as tight as strings"—which of those examples did you feel the most? Which resonated most deeply inside of you, and made your breath catch in your throat, just the way the protagonist's breath ought to be catching right about now?

In that instance, I was able to pull in metaphor to describe the mood of that room in a way that was just different enough to (hopefully) make you feel it much more deeply than you did when I simply said that the room was "tense" or "edgy." This sort of example becomes even more powerful when paired with other tools of descriptive writing—and, in my opinion, it's one of the crucial sentence-level things that takes a good story and makes it a transformative one. Many current award-winning novelists, like Maggie Stiefvater and Shannon Hale, are true masters of this, and reading their books and others can be a great way to pick apart techniques for use in your own writing.

Over the next couple of posts, I'm going to be breaking these ideas down into more digestible chunks and sharing blogs on metaphor, objective correlative, relationship-based description, and sensory awareness. I'll try to pull in lots of examples and writing exercises as well, since I know that's how I personally learn best. So pick up that pen (or keyboard) and join me for the ride!

Part 1: Relationship-Based Description
Part 2: Building Strong Metaphors
Part 3: Describing Emotion Through Objective Correlatives
Part 4: Adding Sensory Details

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

the holy midnight work

Canning peaches with Kate

It's hot here in the darkness; damp hair clings to the back of my neck, my clothes feel oppressive and close. The baby pressed against me is warm, a tiny sun who heats the room as we pace the floorboards, bouncing without pause. He arches his back and whimpers, miserable and restless, his nose stuffy and his hands twitchy.

He's not mine, of course. His mama sleeps a few rooms away, and I am only the fill-in, the relief effort. Still, the deep parts of my body remember this, the feel of a baby held just so, pulled tight against me to soothe the restive kicking, the way his arms keep jerking a few minutes after he's finally fallen asleep, his body fighting even after the battle is lost.

It's still in the house: only the two of us are up and moving, locked into our little dance. Iron & Wine plays quietly in the background. My thoughts are slow and centered. I am present in this midnight moment in a way I'm so often not in the sunlit busy ones.

Sometimes it sneaks up on me, this unexpected holiness. Sometimes, in the in and out sandwich-making shoe-finding swing-pushing minutiae of mothering, I forget what mothering really means: Holding another soul in my arms, being the buffer between her and the world as she learns to navigate everything from the proper use of a toilet to the complex and overwhelming universe of her own emotions.

Sometimes I'm so overwhelmed myself that I can't feel the holiness at all—but still, it's there, creeping up on quiet baby-bouncing nights to remind me that oh, this work is deep and wide and sanctifying.

There is much to mothering: to mother is to teach, to discipline, to do strings of endless physical laundrydishescleaning tasks that extend into eternity. But I think, in these quiet hallowed moments where morning is closer than midnight, that really mothering comes down to this: being there open-armed, ready to hold space for the sick baby who can't sleep, the panicked preschooler who can't stop sobbing. Holding them here in the darkness, the warmth of their skin on ours. Whispering over and over: It will be okay. It will be okay.

Finally, as Elizabeth Mitchell croons to the gentle hum and wail of a harmonica, the baby in my arms falls into sleep, his mouth soft and slack, his breathing loud and congested. I sink into the couch, let my own eyes close.

I don't often feel the holiness in this work that is motherhood, I think as the stillness enfolds me. I don't always see it.

Still, it's always there.