Thursday, November 02, 2017

NaNoWriMo Day Two!

As you're writing (and revising) your novel, take a look at how you describe things. When you describe something it tells your reader to pay attention.

One of the most common things I see in lackluster writing is describing EVERYTHING, and in a way that doesn't illuminate character.

When your main character enters a room, and you tell me what she sees, I subconsciously think "this is important."When it turns out NOT to be important, the book feels cluttered rather than carefully crafted. And by carefully crafted I mean you make it look utterly natural. (Tough job, but it's yours, sorry!)

Take for example the opening scene in Runner by Patrick Lee
Just after three in the morning, Sam Dryden surrendered the night to insomnia and went running on the boardwalk. Cool humidity clung to him and filtered the lights of El Sedero to his left, the town sliding past like a tanker in the fog. To his right was the Pacific, black and silent as the edge of the world tonight. His footfalls on the old wood came back to him from every part of the darkness.

When you continue reading you'll see that the light, the quiet, and the sound of footfalls all reappear in the story. This is not only lovely writing, we need the information for what comes later.

Description is a powerful tool. Don't waste it on things that don't matter.

While you're writing, you'll put in a lot of things you won't need later. You'll revise them out once you're done and you know what you need.

35 comments:

Timothy Lowe said...

I've read that opening before, and love it. "Like a tanker in the fog" - evocative. Also creating the sense of isolation that's important.

These are great little posts. A nice bit of craft talk before the NaNoers begin their day's writing. Chuck Wendig gives similar advice in his "rules" for writing - he says unless there's something important about the chair, like it's covered in blood, we can just call it a chair.

Cutting the dead wood helps with pacing.

Happy writing, all!

Colin Smith said...

And "important" doesn't necessarily mean important to the plot. It could be important to character, or setting. For example, describing Timothy's chair as a particular brand, or with padding, or done kind of ornate design, might tell you something about the room, the house, and/or the people who live there. But nothing should be throw-away.

Colin Smith said...

*some* kind... Bah! I hate commenting on my phone. But since the day job has blocked Janet's blog, I have no choice. :-/

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Also keep in mind POV. You are describing the character’s perceptions of setting - if it is familiar to the character, he won’t notice trivial junk. It is really tough to do and is taking up most of my revision efforts.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Hey COLIN if, instead of grandma's lace doilies, TIM LOWES chair has wrist wraps on the arms and a heavy duty cable running from it to an electrical socket, I wanna know.

Timothy Lowe said...

If it's a period chair, it says something about the character too. Colin's right - it doesn't have to be drastic to be important.

Kitty said...

Description is a powerful tool. Don't waste it on things that don't matter.

Which is why the 100-wd flash fiction contests are great. Thank you, Janet.

Lennon Faris said...

There's such a fine line. Too much description and I keep getting distracted (because I'm a teensy bit bored); too little and I'm rolling my eyes at the talking heads.

Every time I see "NaNo" I get excited! I've never even participated, and I'm not exactly this year, either. Still the thought is weirdly thrilling.

Steve Stubbs said...

Your system administrator is onto you, Colin. Get to work, son!

I don't know who this Patrick Lee guy is, or if he has an agent, but he ia a damn good writer. Nobody else can make me smile using simile. I love RUNNER and encourage everyone here to buy a copy. It is a great read.

The next Lee book I have on my to-read list is SIGNAL.

Kitty said...

For me, the best book on writing is “Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing.” I also have two copies of Strunk & White, but it’s Leonard’s book I refer to more often. You don’t even need the book because he wrote them for an article in the NYS.

8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
Which Steinbeck covered. In Ernest Hemingway's ''Hills Like White Elephants'' what do the ''American and the girl with him'' look like? ''She had taken off her hat and put it on the table.'' That's the only reference to a physical description in the story, and yet we see the couple and know them by their tones of voice, with not one adverb in sight.

9. Don't go into great detail describing places and things.

10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.


I left out the blurbs he wrote for #9 & #10, but you get the idea.

Kitty said...

Ooops! NYS is supposed to be NYT. My bad.

Colin Smith said...

Lennon: My most recent short story is very dialog light because I wanted to experiment with descriptive narrative. I consider that one of my weaknesses, whereas I tend to be strong with dialog. What better way to improve than write 4,000+ words of descriptive narrative? I think I did okay. It was, at least, a useful exercise.

Julie Weathers said...

Shelby Foote has some of the most beautiful descriptions in Shiloh. In one place he describes the soldiers slogging through the miserable rain with mules and wagons getting mired. Soldiers throwing away belongings they needed because they were too heavy to carry in their exhaustion.

It's a thoroughly wretched group of men and animals stretched out for miles on a ribbon of mud as they make their way toward Shiloh and battle. Then the sun comes out. Steam begins to rise off the soaked men. They cry out, "The sun! The sun!" with such joy you might think it was the second coming.

James Lee Burke has a knack for beautiful description though sometimes I think he goes on a bit too much. I forgive him because I enjoy his stories so much.

Diana Gabaldon discussed description once that was a real eye-opener. In the first example she described in great detail an elegantly dressed little woman. In the second: "She was dressed with a richness that mocked her own beauty; reduced to an ornament on her husband's arm, her small face lost between saffron dyed hennin and the massive silk sweep of pearl crusted blue skirts. The faint click of her fashionable French heels was the only thing hinting at the existence of a live woman within the facade."--Diana Gabaldon.

She cut words and got the same effect, but also added a lot more. Now there's something about the character and her relationship, which was totally lacking in the first example.

Good description isn't easy, but it's worth striving for.

Kathy Joyce said...

Reading Crime Scene by Jonathan and Jesse Kellerman. They described an explosion as, like the building was "bitch-slapped by God." I love that! Steve, last time you recommended Runner, I went out to find it. B&N didn't have it, nor did the library as a book or ebook. Never did order it, but I'll do it today. Thanks for the reminder! Anyone willing to give us a short description of your NaNo book? Happy writing!

Robert Ceres said...

Love this post. In reviewing my cps’ writing this might be the number one mistake that I find. As always, much easier to find these mistakes in other people’s writing!
As to good advice for finding and eliminating, read How Not To Write a Novel by Sandra Newman and Howard Mittelmark

Gayle said...

I am liking the craft inspiration in the morning!

Colin: I also consider description one of my weaknesses. Dialogue and interior monologue both come much more naturally to me. (A supremely dangerous combination lending itself to repetition!)

Especially during NaNo, when I'm writing quickly, I tend to just skip a lot of description (which is often what I do when I'm reading too, actually.) But it's hard to add it in later because it then doesn't feel organic to what's happening on the page. It's definitely something I need to become more comfortable with even if I tend to lean toward less is better or try to include just enough.

Even with my disinclination to write description, as a fantasy novelist, I can't take it down to Hemingway levels, however much I might be tempted! There is too much that needs to be described in fantasy to show the differences between what the readers might know and what the fantastical world is.

The easiest I found description ever was last year's NaNo when I was working on a futuristic fantasy. The setting was so different from what I was used to writing or reading I actually had fun describing things, which is like unheard of for me. ;-) I'm struggling with the setting for my project right now (I always start writing before I figure some stuff out. I can't help it. I want to find out what happens to my characters and how they feel about it!) But I think later in the book when I get to some stuff I have figured out that part will go better.

Sorry, I'm way over 100 words here.

Mister Furkles said...

But...but...I don't want to kill my lovelies.

For an alternative view on Struck and White, see this article by a famous linguist:

www [dot] lel [dot] ed [dot] ac [dot] uk/~gpullum/50years.pdf

Well, don't need to agree with Pullum's view but it is worth being aware of it.

Craig F said...

Yes, description is a powerful tool. A lot of its power comes with timing and the flow of the story. It works really well to give a breather between actions scenes.

Before editing read your whole story out loud, you can muddy the waters of a story by pulling too much as easily as adding in too much. If you can build description like the clank of a roller coaster as it it pulled uphill and top it off with that pause as you look over the front of that coaster and anticipate the wild ride coming. all the better.

Stephen King is the master of this. That three page description of a white flower in the middle of THE STAND threw me a couple of times. I finally figured out how masterful it is as a breath. It is also an analogy and microcosm of the whole story.

Mister Furkles said...

Katherine Kurtz write a wonderful series of historical fantasy novels about magic in medieval times. She is also a founding--or early--member of The Society for Creative Anachronism. She is an expert in medieval art, clothing, architecture, and decoration.

Well, sometimes she goes on at length describing a scene or a character's attire. I recommend to anybody writing fantasy that they read her Deryni series. But you should also note that her excessive descriptions--interesting though they may be--detract from the story.

At a critical moment, building to a climax, you want blood, gore, and violence but you get a page and a half description of a banquet.

Leilani said...

I described my way through the first story I wrote for Nano. I was totally winging it - no idea of any kind of plot or anything, or even what would come out of my keyboard when I sat down in front of it. Whenever I couldn't think of anything to type, I described something. It usually gave me an entry to what was going to happen next. I'm not saying the end result was any good, but it was rather fun, and certainly the oddest way of writing I've ever tried.

Gayle said...

Kathy-- my lack of sleep and copious amounts of caffeine have overcome my natural reluctance to share this morning, so I will bite. And this is probably longer than you wanted. It's the caffeine's fault!

Marla wants to be part of an elite military unit of skyshots who use gravity-defying magical tools and weapons to soar through the air and rain down destruction on enemy forces. Unfortunately, it turns out she has the magic to actually create the weapons--both a death sentence and a prison term. The military will never risk one of their extremely rare skyfalls, who are all destined to die young, in the actual fighting.

The story then follows Marla as she deals with her change in circumstance and **Spoiler Alert!** she also saves the day toward the end. I'm sure it will be very angsty, but she's a go-getter so hopefully won't be too annoying.

I hope this project will be the beginning of a military saga, but with lots of romance. Like Honor Harrington, but in a fantasy setting rather than science fiction. And with more romance. :-) So eventually sprawling, but at the beginning quite focused on my core characters. What can I say? I'm ambitious like that. (I would never mention this in a query letter fyi)

The physical location is based on the American West/Yellowstone region and the characters are essentially Native American with a few exceptions. But that's just my jumping off point. I tend to wander off in whatever direction my whims take me in terms of culture and society, but it all makes sense to me in my head.

Gayle said...

Mister Furkles--I love the Deryni series! I have paperback copies of High Deryni and the Search for Saint Camber. They both have deep creases because I read them so many times.

Unfortunately, I never purchased any more of the original series. I have some of the Childe Morgan in hardcover, but I didn't enjoy those as much.

JEN Garrett said...

Wait we get NaNoWriMo pep talks here, too? This is officially the best writing blog ever.
(No more from me here, got to get back to my project.)

Karen McCoy said...

I am loving these crafting tips--and the examples of excellent writing. I've read RUNNER--but I should give it a second look, methinks...

Kathy Joyce said...

Uuuuummm, I ran afoul of the rules on this once before. We're not supposed to comment on others' work here, and I asked to hear about people's nano stories. So, no critiques or comments. Just, "good luck, go for it!"

Colin Smith said...

Kathy: Probably best to take discussion of specific NaNo projects to the NaNo site. I would encourage NaNoodlers (yes, that's what I'm calling fellow NaNo participants) to provide us with your NaNo name so we can "buddy" you on the NaNo site. From there we can read what your project's about and interact directly via NaNo mail. Sound fair? Please say yes because it took a lot of effort to type this out on my phone!! ;)

Gayle said...

So sorry! I didn't mean to break any rules. You can probably tell I'm really excited. Several of you buddied me already, so thanks for that. :-)

Cecilia Ortiz Luna said...


Colin,

Yes!


To the 2017 Nanoodlers,

My username is Cecilia8888

John Davis Frain said...

Love the morning mini masterclass. Thank you, Janet.

Description plays right into foreshadowing, and I'm reminded of Chekhov's gun.

If you have a pistol hung on the wall in Act 1, it better get fired in Act 2. Otherwise, don't show it there.

As we learn from Janet's comments on the flash fiction winners, what you leave out can be as important as what you leave in.

One day of Nano in the books (yes, pun intended), and I'm still on track. Whew!

John Davis Frain said...

Oh, and also, I have to second Timothy Lowe: "like a tanker in the fog" is so evocative. Talk about creating a picture. That image is precisely why you can hear the footfalls a couple sentences later.

Jealous. But workin' on it.

Jennifer R. Donohue said...

It's funny, rarely am I more aware of the differences in description when I'm trying to write both short and long at the same time.

In my NaNo novel, I haven't even said what the season is yet, just that it's a weekday.

In the short story I want to finish by the 15th, it's pretty important to know that right out of the gate.

Granted, they're also vastly different stories and that kind of setting description suits the narratives differently.

Also, my NaNoWriMo handle is GingerGunlock and I would love to have Reider buddies there!

Her Grace, Heidi, the Duchess of Kneale said...

Before I started this year, I vowed to myself I would play with voice. I'm not happy with my voice and want to enrich it.

Attended an official NaNo Write In on Wednesday night. Sat down and, with the goal of voiciness in mind, cranked out 3K words. Cranking out wordage is a doddle for me. But when I got home and re-read my stuff, I saw my usual dull voice had drifted back in, despite my best efforts.

Spent Thursday morning on a NoNo for NaNo: editing. However, when I was done, I was much happier with my words. Subsequent wordage for the month will go forward not so much with a focus on quantity but quality. If it means I must slow down, then I shall slow down.

Oh, I'll be able to get my 50K in, no problem. Not my first rodeo.

Lesson learned: Focus on your true goal. You don't get a Grade 8 piano player stumbling over a B Major grand scale. It flows under their fingers.

To aid in this, my reading for the month is "Daniel Deronda" by George Eliot. Talk about voice!

Cecilia Ortiz Luna said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Her Grace, Heidi, the Duchess of Kneale said...

Oh, and I'm hkneale for those who want to buddy up.

kdjames.com said...

What I love about this excerpt (and Lee's writing in general) is that it isn't *just* description. He didn't give the lazy description: Sam went out running in the dark and it was cool and humid and foggy, blah blah.

Look at how everything is moving. Sam "surrendered the night to insomnia." Cool humidity "clung to him" and "filtered the lights." Even the town is moving, "sliding past like a tanker." His footfalls "came back to him." By contrast, the Pacific is "black and silent as the edge of the world." But even that makes you feel as if could just tip right over the edge.

He's such a good writer. *sigh*

I want to add to what Janet said in the last paragraph: You'll also put in a lot of things you won't realize until later are somehow exactly what you need. We all have a different process, but I strongly encourage people not to delete anything until that first draft is done and you can see what your subconscious has been up to.