For Dan, How to Be Descriptive.

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I don’t offer writing advice. Mostly because I don’t feel like an expert, which I know may seem weird as an author and English teacher. But, largely, that’s because I’m always questioning what I know, which may be fundamental to learning anything. The second, and more broad reason I don’t like to give advice, is because I think the process of writing is different for everyone. So the caveat that always applies is the following: this is what works for me, and it may or may not work for you.

And so, with that said, let me offer some advice 🙂

Recently, following a school visit, I received letters from the students, thanking me for visiting, which was awesome, but also asking for writing advice. One particular student, let’s call him Dan, asked the following:

“How do you write with such description? I just can’t.”

Huh, how to be more descriptive. That’s a knotty question, and one I think is excellent for every writer, regardless of his or her stage in the game. However, I think the question is better framed as “How do I provide just the right amount of description?” For some, like Dan, this may mean more is necessary. For others, possibly less. But for all, it is always about hitting the sweet spot of details for each scene. And every scene has different demands. And every writer has a different way of meeting those demands.

For me, I don’t go for extensive character description. I don’t like to completely paint physical characteristics. I enjoy leaving that up to the reader, because, I feel, it can engage the reader more fully with the story. They have to do a little work, and that’s important. Being involved and not passive is exactly what should be going on in good writing.

Therefore, my focus for detailed description falls to character action and setting. I am a firm believer that seeing what a character does is for more important than how a character looks. And providing a vivid backdrop on which this action takes place is simply necessary.

So, the question is how that is done. My answer: close your eyes and be the character.

When we write, we are not ourselves. Sure, we’re the person in the chair, hammering away at the keyboard, but we are also the girl or the boy, the villain or the hero. We have to be. We must get inside not only their heads, but become them, mind and body.

With your eyes closed, you can envision the scene unfolding, much like a movie. What do you see? What do you hear and feel? Is there anything to be tasted or smelt? It is not that you have to incorporate all of the senses, but it is important that all description not be limited to sight. The word “imagery” can be deceptive. It is truly about all five senses and creating that real-world, 3-D like quality. The reader does not feel distant from the story. The reader is in the story, and to do that means proving just enough detail, exactly as it needs to be, but not too much, nor too little.

Yes, it sounds a lot like a recipe. It is. And that is how you should build your story, ingredient by ingredient, for each scene. Some need more noise, others, touch. If you are living your character’s life, you’ll know intuitively.

Of course I could be blowing smoke, so let’s take a look at Dare Me. The following excerpt is from the first few pages, where Ben is about to perform the first dare.

I turn and look. Nothing but cornstalks and pavement, blue sky and puffy white clouds. Perfection. I focus on that image and the stillness, the quiet. If I don’t, I’ll chicken out. My mind’s already filling with scenarios for how this will end badly. But school starts tomorrow, and I agreed to this, however it goes.

I pull the ski mask over my face and slide out the window.

The wind whips even though Ricky’s only going like thirty miles per hour. I can’t hear what John’s saying. His mouth’s moving, but it’s like being in a dream, all background noise, nothing real. He jacks his thumb into the air, an obvious sign for me to get on the roof. I take a deep breath, steady my elbows, and push myself up.

My feet tingle and my heart hammers, but I keep going. I grab the roof rack and pull and am flat on top. The wind pours over me now, but the space around my face is calm. Unreal.

I would suggest that as a reader you were very much with Ben there, not merely watching him. You felt his anxiety, juxtaposed to the beauty of the day. He’s doing stupid things and you understand his terror as it unfolds against the whipping wind.

So, if that works for you, Dan, and any others, cool. If not, there are excellent books out there like Stephen King’s On Writing and Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. Pick one up and see if the advice there strikes a chord.

If you liked this advice and would like more, please don’t hesitate to ask.

And, as always, keep writing.

 

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Fordian Fun

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By the end of my day presenting to grades 7-12 at Waterford Jr/Sr High School, I was backed into a corner by a mob a middle school students looking for signatures and selfies. “They sold out of books. Sign my arm,” one kid said, and so I did. The bell rang and a teacher told the group they needed to get to class. They didn’t budge. With phones in hand they wanted pictures. They got them, and then I packed up, went home, and collapsed.

Fortunately the drive wasn’t far. I live in the town in which I presented, which boasts a K-12 school for the tight-knit community. To say the day was a success would be a gross understatement. Because as I sat, after hours of presenting, my phone began a slow and steady explosion that would last the rest of the weekend. The students had found me on Twitter, and the teachers and parents, and others in the community, on Facebook. And all were positive:

I was even invited to a local diner 🙂

I cannot express how fantastic it is to receive such swift and positive feedback. I have done a fair amount of presentations, and never has the outpouring of support been so strong.

Maybe it’s because I’m from the town. Possibly it’s because I high-fived every student as he or she walked in. It could be that the kids connected with my message or my writing. I don’t honestly know. It could be simply that I went into this presentation as I always do, with the goal of pouring my heart out, and the kids noticed this. Yes, I have pretty engaging books to read from, and a slick Prezi that accompanies my talk, but I tend to think it’s the willingness to look like this that makes all the difference:

Whatever it was, I cannot say thank you enough to the faculty and staff for inviting me in. And a special thanks to the English department and Mrs. Clinton for doing so much work behind the scenes to make the day a reality.

Thinking back on my own high school experience, I can count on one hand the amount of presenters who came and fired on all cylinders and truly connected with the school and with me. It is my hope that for the students of Waterford, my presentation is one they will remember in such a positive light, because damn did I have fun 🙂

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The Stories We Tell Ourselves

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Writing and being an author is not easy work, and for the majority of us, it isn’t all that lucrative. Certainly not in the way I hear many people talk about it 🙂 In spite of this, I, and so many others, forge on, because it is never solely about the money, and two events occurred recently that underscored what it is truly all about.

I had my eldest daughter with me at her younger sister’s gymnastics class, and she wasn’t too thrilled about it to begin with, but as we settled into the bleachers for viewing, a man came in with his son. He knew someone else there and began a conversation with the woman, while his son played away on his tablet. At one point, this guy started talking about his work, and not in a conversational tone. He was literally standing, straddling a row of bleachers and talking at this “friend” of his.  After discussing bonuses won and how “ridiculous” the amount was, he then said, “I make two-hundred thousand a month.” Everyone, including my daughter, looked around like, This guy!

And so we sat and I watched my daughter flip and fling herself all over the place, while thinking about this guy’s work. It’s in sales and from the way he made it sound, wasn’t overly complicated. There’s clearly a need that his company is fulfilling, and if he was being honest, in a very lucrative way. And as one does when you are a writer, I put myself in his shoes and tried to imagine what his day was like, his life, his motivation, his philosophy, his deep thoughts.

I didn’t like what was there. It was cold and calculated and focused on money alone. I slid closer to my daughter, while the man yammered away, seemingly unaware of his son, the rest of the parents, and even to a degree the woman with whom he was speaking.

Now, all of my observations could be biased and wrong and entirely based on misinformation. Yet, even if I’m wrong about him, there is always That guy, and he manages to make our financial endeavors seems small.

However, earlier in the week, I was out to dinner with my family, and my eldest, who is creative and who writes stories and plays and is careful with her language was acting very much like me at the dinner table, correcting her sister on the use of some word and then watching a pair of adults to “see the similarities,” as she said. Yup, she was doing the author thing, where we stare and use what’s there to make up stories, to read the lives we think we see–exactly what I did with the guy at gymnastics.

So I turned to her and said, “Do you really want to be like me?”

She looked up, shrugged, and as she answered, looked down. “Well, yeah.”

My heart broke a little in that moment. I had only been joking. Because as much as I adore being an author and focusing on things that most people don’t, and may never need to, I still wouldn’t trade it for having my attention saturated with thoughts about finances or sales or the hustle. Apparently, neither will my daughter.

And I love and hate that. There’s only so much room in this world for people like us, the daydreamers and the storytellers, while there seems to be an abundance of space for the rest. Yet, I also know that it’s not the big picture, what the others do, that matters. You will never control that. But we can hold tight to our little lives and their stories, and how focusing on the small details, the nuances, may be the best way to spend them.

At least that’s the story I’m telling myself.