Wordsmith Wednesday–Some More Thoughts about Description

Allegory of the Five Senses

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The more I read, the more I realize the critical role of description–involving all the senses–in the telling of a story. It is through sensory input that we engage in our world. So many of us today rush through life. Always in a hurry, we don’t take the time to notice the beauty of cloud formations, the scent of honey-suckle, the colors of the sunset or the caress of a summer breeze. Sucked into the vortex of Ipods, texting–even blogs–it’s easy to succumb to the inevitability of a life lived vicariously. So, offer your reader the joys he or she may be missing. Invite them to become more aware. This goes whether you write fiction, poetry, creative non-fiction or…you name it.

Here are a few more considerations to bear in mind when writing description:

  • Good description does not have to be flowery, purple prose kind of stuff. Avoid extensive use of hyperbole, adjectives, adverbs. Go for active verbs when you can.
  • Description isn’t only about what you see. Train yourself to become aware of all your senses. Keep notes about your experiences in your writing journal so that you can refer to them for inspiration.
  • Use description to express emotion. It’s that old “show, don’t tell” advice. Become aware of how your body responds when you’re happy, afraid–whatever. Go ahead and jot that down in your journal, too.
  • Don’t be afraid to describe the ugly, the scary, the difficult, the gruesome, even. This is all part of life, isn’t it?
  • Description doesn’t have to be lengthy, rambling. Tighten up your narrative, but make every word count. I’m sure that when reading you, like me, have been guilty of skimming lengthy paragraphs of description that have taken you out of the story line.
  • When writing short fiction, limit description to those things that will contribute to the story line.

Suggestion: to develop your own awareness, get in the habit of journaling each day. Jot down some memories of things you’ve observed. Go beyond the visual. Cultivate awareness.

If you haven’t written anything for this weeks Monday Morning Writing Prompt, I hope you’ll join us. Maybe some of these suggestions will help you.

Reminder–I will be off-line for a few days beginning tomorrow and will do my best to catch up when I get home. With luck, I’ll be able to do my part for MMWP!

(The image is entitled The Allegory of the Five Senses.)

Wordsmith Wednesday–Writing from the Heart

Anthony van Dyck - Cupid and Psyche (1639–40)

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As we approach Valentine’s Day, I’ve noted a number of poems and posts dealing with love. Today, I want to briefly address the subject of writing emotion because most of us as beginning writers have difficulty, whether we write prose or poetry, in expressing strong feelings adequately, but without going overboard.

As a disclaimer, I am not a romance writer and this post will not deal with the sexual or erotic expression of  love but rather the underlying currents of closely related emotion. Today, let’s just focus on love and let’s begin at looking at three types of love. To do that, I’m calling on my poor old memory.

Resorting to Greek, an obvious kind of love that I’ve already named recalls Eros, or erotic love. This is the love that is charged with the energy of sexuality, the love between spouses and lovers. The second is related to Philia.Think of Philadelphia, the City of brotherly love. This refers to the love between family and friends. And finally, there is Agape, the love that comes from higher ideals, that is selfless and beneficient. (Such is the love that those of us who are Christians refer to when asked to love our neighbors and even our enemies–a love, of course, common to all schools of spiritual thought.) These distinctions serve as a reference point when we are writing our characters’ inner thoughts and dialogue. How can we express just the right amount of intensity? Here are a few suggestions:

Avoid purple prose–the overboard, maudlin expression of love. Think of words or expressions that just drip with sentiment–flowery, unrealistic description or dialogue. Has anyone of you ever had a lover tell you, “Your eyes are blue like cornflowers and I fall into them enjoying ecstatic thrills that make my heart-throb” ?

Strive for subtlety. Call upon your own experience and don’t be afraid to ask others for help. Think of words of love you have said or heard. Take notes when reading or watching movies or TV–jot down effective dialogue or descriptions.

Use metaphor or simile with care. This can work but calls for discretion. For example, in the purple prose example above. While “Your eyes are like cornflowers” may be over the top, you can always have the character see a field of cornflowers that reminds him of his loved one.

The nature of poetry is such that there is a bit more room for exaggeration, but even here I suggest evaluating your work using some of the above suggestions. While reviewing poetry for Jingle’s Poetry Potluck, I came across a poem by Bob at NotATameBlog that I believe exemplifies a well-written love poem. Thanks to Bob for allowing me to share his link with you: http://notatameblog.wordpress.com/2011/02/08/my-only-aim/

These are my opinions and if any of you have differing thoughts, I urge you to express it in comments. Also, if you have examples from your own work of either over-expression or effective expression of love, I’d love you to post it. This could be a fun discussion.

Wordsmith Wednesday–“Righting Wrongs”

Woodward’s History of Wales is shown open to t...

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I’m reading the latest issue of “Writers’ Digest.” They have a top ten theme and in the tradition of Letterman, have compiled all kinds of top ten lists for writers, from the ridiculous to the sublime. Pardon the cliché. Because I’ve just begun to read it, I don’t know all that will be covered. How useful is it? So far, not too. I’m guessing that will change as I plow my way through the pages. But, it’s fun. For this week’s discussion, I thought I’d list five “wrongs,” that is, blatant errors, things that can turn off the reader, or writing faux-pas that will dissuade an agent or publisher from looking further.

Two disclaimers:

  • Writers have the right to break rules. It’s your work; you’re the creator. No one can really tell you what to do. (I believe this applies in a particular way to poetry)
  • The opinions I express are mine. They might not apply to the agent you’re querying or your target audience. So, “take what you like and leave the rest,” as they say in 12-Step programs.

Here are my thoughts/opinions:

  1. Purple prose. Purple prose is a term of literary criticism used to describe passages, or sometimes entire literary works, written in prose so overly extravagant, ornate, or flowery as to break the flow and draw attention to itself. Purple prose is sensually evocative beyond the requirements of its context. It also refers to writing that employs certain rhetorical effects such as exaggerated sentiment or pathos in an attempt to manipulate a reader’s response.  (Wikipedia)
  2. Frequent Point-of-View Shifts. Don’t confuse your reader by frequent changes in POV or by shifting POV within a paragraph. I suggest using a space for a scene change or starting a new chapter if you have more than one POV character.
  3. Long rambling paragraphs of description. Sure, John Steinbeck or Jane Austen got away with it. But today’s readers, with their ADHD wants a plot that moves. Don’t neglect description but intersperse it with dialogue or action.
  4. Long blocks of dialogue that give information dumps. See my previous blog on this topic.
  5. All showing. Okay, okay. I know about “Show, don’t tell.” And I espouse the idea wholeheartedly. But….there are times when you need a summary paragraph. Honest. If your novel covers months or years, we don’t need to know everything that’s happened from beginning to end. But we need to know enough to understand how the character got where he is. So, summarize!
  6. Characters who are either completely perfect or totally flawed. You want your reader to sympathize with you protagonist, but in order to identify with him, please give him a flaw or two. On the other hand, your antagonist should have a good trait or two, something that will help us understand him just a bit. Now, if you’re writing about Hitler….I don’t know.
  7. Lack of editing, revision or critique. Don’t send out those query letters yet. Spell check is inadequate. Read your manuscript aloud. Take it to a critique group and/or professional editor. I’ve posted a few articles on revising and editing. You may want to check them out.
  8. Blatant factual errors. Even fiction requires research. If there are too many factual errors, the reader will not be able to suspend disbelief. If you are writing a novel set in Chicago, you better know the place, visit it or research on the Internet. Get someone in the know to check out your facts. If you’re writing a medical thriller, know the basics. Even as a nurse and transplant recipient, I had to do more research on transplantation for “Winter is Past.” And I even ran a few things by my nephrologist.
  9. Obfuscation. I love that word. It’s got class. Basically, it mean anything that confuses the reader. Think of things like frequent flash-backs, too many characters, inconsistent point-of-view, switching from first to third person, too many adjectives and adverbs…you get the idea. Think: clarity and brevity.
  10. Finally and most important: giving up. Whatever you do, don’t say “The heck with it.” Keep on writing. Send out more queries. Try different genres. If you’re called to write, you gotta write or you won’t be happy.