How To Describe Characters Like A Boss

Jasmine had an hourglass figure and blonde hair. She was beautiful. She had smooth, flawless skin and big, baby blue eyes that were a window to her soul. She stood in the doorframe like a model.

Yuck yuck yuck yuck yuck. Blech. That has got to be the most disgusting, shallow character introduction I have ever written because that, my fellow scribes, is an example of everything you should not do if you want to describe characters like a boss.

The above paragraph showcases what I consider to be the five venial sins of writing description. I call them venial because while it is very easy to lean on these tactics as a crutch, you are not doomed to a fiery pit where all bad writers go for using them. Hark, the Stellular Scribe sings, for I bring you glad tidings! There is hope after all, so long as you refrain from the following:


1. Describing Inactively

 

Jasmine had an hourglass figure and blonde hair.

Even if your sole goal is to write a piece without narrative or plot, simply slapping on any ol’ description out of context won’t give an accurate portrayal of the character. Remember, describing looks should serve to enhance the reader’s image of the physical, mental, and practical aspects of the character. A character isn’t her appearance. A character is active and engaged in the story. The way the above sentence sits, Jasmine seems like more of a storefront display than an actual person.

Also, hourglass figure is a horrid cliché and it should be discarded immediately.

Solution: Describe Actively

Jasmine twisted her blonde hair with a lazy finger. Her free hand rested in the curve between her hip and ribcage.


2. Writing Vaguely

 

She was beautiful.

There’s nothing wrong with calling a character beautiful or ugly or old or young. But that’s only in the subjective sense — perhaps when another character is describing her or she is being observed on the basis of beauty alone. Here in this introduction of her character, “beautiful” is too general. A bird can be beautiful. A couch can be beautiful. What determines her beauty?

Solution: Write Specifically

She looked at him much like an artist critiquing a student’s painting — with an air of impressment, but mostly fond amusement at his folly. There was something stunning about the way she studied him.

(Ha! Bet you didn’t see that one coming. Remember, physical characterizations don’t reveal everything.)


3. Overstuffing Adjectives

 

She had smooth, flawless skin and big, baby blue eyes that were a window to her soul.

You’re introducing a character. Not playing thesaurus bingo. Tacking on adjective after adjective can make the description feel forced and unrealistic, and it will quickly cause the reader to lose interest. You are no longer writing about a person — you are writing a laundry list.

In the end, you’ve got to pick the most important traits and stick with them. In our example, describing Jasmine’s “eyes” makes much more contextual sense than informing the reader on her “smooth, flawless skin.”

Solution: Less is More

It was as if her eyes, sheer as sea smoke, revealed her every judgement.


4. Abusing Clichés

 

She had an hourglass figure […].

She had […] eyes that were a window to her soul.

Clichés are the devil. Ok. Maybe they’re not that bad, but it can begin to feel like torture for a reader to read the same recycled, thrown-up, washed-out descriptions over and over and over again.

Solution: Avoid Clichés At All Costs.

That’s right. Just don’t even touch them. Not. A. One.


5. Characterizing Flatly

 

She stood in the doorframe like a model.

And we’re back to describing a storefront display. Try to reveal some emotion in your descriptions. These are people you’re writing about, and most people aren’t very hard to read. Everyone reveals emotion in some way or another.

Solution: Characterize Emotionally

She leaned against the doorframe almost like a model posing for a magazine cover shoot — but somehow, she looked effortless. Completely unaware of her own natural grace. Bored, even.


And thus we go from

Jasmine had an hourglass figure and blonde hair. She was beautiful. She had smooth, flawless skin and big, baby blue eyes that were a window to her soul. She stood in the doorframe like a model.

to

Jasmine twisted her blonde hair with a lazy finger. Her free hand rested in the curve between her hip and ribcage. She looked at him much like an artist critiquing a student’s painting — with an air of impressment, but mostly fond amusement at his folly. There was something stunning about the way she studied him. It was as if her eyes, sheer as sea smoke, revealed her every judgement. She leaned against the doorframe almost like a model posing for a magazine cover shoot — but somehow, she looked effortless. Completely unaware of her own natural grace. Bored, even.

Voila! Now we have a character who the reader can care about, someone he will want to know more about.


Go forth and spread the good news, dear scribes — so that everyone can describe characters like a boss!

© 2016 Stellular Scribe

We Must Be Like Song Writers

I’m a bit of an instrumental music junkie, but as a writer, I can’t help but admire a song with really well written lyrics.

There’s more to writing than simply finding the right words for the right context. A well crafted paragraph must contain fluidity, musicality, melody. The sound a word makes must be taken into account when judging how it will flow in your sentence; the syllables and consonance and assonance are subconsciously noted when listening to a beautiful word. I’ve heard it said that the most aesthetically pleasing phrase in the English language is not “love” or “compassion” or “mother” — it’s “cellar door.”

Say it out loud now, without attaching any context or meaning to it. Cellar door.

Of course, we can’t disregard connotation when writing a piece of fiction or non-fiction, so we must be like song writers  — deliberate in our meaning, yet fluent in our presentation.

I’ll throw to the wind an old favorite of mine.

Like faithful oxen through the chalk,
With dragging tails of history walk.
We soon confuse the compass and the cross.
Carefully and cursively we fill our traveling diaries with loss.

The above are lyrics from “History Book,” a song by the (now broken up) band Dry the River. It’s a song about young lovers growing up and carrying the past with them.

Let’s take it apart, shall we?

The Technical: The very first line — Like faithful oxen through the chalk — is iambic tetrameter with consonance on the repeated th– and f- sounds. The second line — With dragging tails of history walk. — follows near suit. We soon confuse the compass and the cross. Carefully and cursively we fill our traveling diaries with loss. — these lines are ripe with alliteration, repeated s- and c- consonants, careful stressing of syllables, and all around listening pleasure. Seriously. Listen to the lead singer open with these lines, and your ears will melt down your neck.

The Connotation: The image of oxen dragging tails through chalk as they migrate for days upon days is a powerful one. Like faithful oxen, the lead singer croons, because he and his lover are akin to those ancient, nomadic beasts. They have travelled far; they have learned much in the ways of love and individuality and life. They have gone on so long, that they can’t tell the difference between the compass and the cross. What is guiding them anymore? Religion or their own intuitions?

I’m not saying you have to make everything a symbol (please don’t do that) or fling alliteration about all willy-nilly (the absolute worst), but writing and thinking like a song writer can help you feel present in your work. By weighing sound and subject, you can tell a story while setting a melody.

© 2016 Stellular Scribe

How To Avoid Being A Jealous Writer

Artistic envy is easier than ever in this digital age. As writers, we naturally gravitate towards other creatives online to follow their work. At first it’s all good and inspiring, but after a few book promotions here, a blog blast there, it doesn’t take much to feel jealous.

I’ve experienced it myself: feelings of inadequacy and insecurity, that I’m never doing enough, that I can never compete. The world is filled with brilliant writers who have worked hard and found tremendous luck, and sometimes I wonder why I can’t just slip into success like them.

The problem is magnified when the object of envy is a close friend. You love them. You want to support them. But you feel sick to your stomach after reading the tenth Facebook post about their good fortune. You want to simultaneously congratulate them and shrink into a hole when they write something spectacular.

I’m not perfect. I still find myself thinking, “Why do you even try?” But I’ve managed to lessen the bite of the green-eyed monster by taking the following steps:

  1. Accept that we’re all brutal on the inside. To ourselves. To others. And it’s ok to feel crummy. It’s ok to admit it to yourself. Because if you acknowledge your jealousy, you acknowledge that everyone has feelings of self-doubt and resentment sometimes. Chances are, that exact person who you’re envious of is just as insecure as you.
  2. *slaps you upside the head* Now pull yourself together! Jealousy won’t get you any further than a blank page and a case of qualms! Life is too short and your creativity too expansive to keep wondering “what if?” and “why try?” *pats you on the shoulder* There, now. Sorry I had to get curt there. Shall we go on?
  3. Recognize your accomplishments. Maybe that’s writing a few sentences a day; maybe it’s getting published in a magazine. Rejoice in yourself and what you have done, because dang it, you’ve worked hard and you should love yourself and your passions first and foremost.
  4. Realize that the object of your jealousy got there for a reason. More often than not, it’s because they worked hard and put in the time and learned the business. Sometimes people get lucky; I get that. It’s an unpredictable industry. But if you accept that they deserve their success, then it’ll be much easier for you to congratulate them and figure out the steps you can take to achieve your own goals.
  5. Set goals for yourself. Maybe you want to query at least one agent a week or write one thousand words a day. Small or large, giving yourself something to look forward to will help keep your mind off feelings of uncertainty and inferiority. It’ll give you something to feel proud of!
  6. Think about why you’re jealous and put it into perspective. Is it because someone you know got a big-name, six figure book deal? There’s a difference between working for an art and throwing your art to the wind and hoping it lands on a publisher who is in a good mood. It is in no way an indication of your talent or worth if you do not have those same opportunities. What it really comes down to is what makes you happy: making art or raking in the profit?
  7. If need be, remove yourself. Hide someone’s feed on Facebook. Take a break from their blog for a week. If you like them and you’re jealous, take a break. If you don’t like them and you’re jealous, remove them entirely. Blocking someone is never the best solution, but it can help if feelings of personal inadequacy are impossible to shake off.
  8. Wish other writers well. This is the hardest part, but it’s arguably the most important. Without each other, our art goes nowhere. It speaks to no one. Think about a time someone complimented your work and how you felt. Think about how you would feel if you accomplished something that you cared about and poured your heart into, and were only received with jealous eyes. Support other writers, because one day they may be the ones wishing you well.

Happy writing!

© 2016 Stellular Scribe

Image: “Writer’s Block” by Drew Coffman

Should Great Writers Steal?

You’ve probably heard the famous quote “good artists borrow, great artists steal” (commonly attributed to Pablo Picasso, but most likely originating from T.S. Eliot).

Before you sound the alarms, there is a world of difference between creatively copying and blatantly plagiarizing. Plagiarism, at least in the context of writing, is the act of taking another person’s work, word-for-word, and passing it off as one’s own. It is never acceptable, excusable, or, in the simplest of terms, ok.

What I like to call “creatively copying” would probably make more sense if I used the analogy of walking down an art museum hallway. You’re surrounded on all sides by splendidly crafted paintings of every era, of every classical artist. Clearly, these are all masterpieces. Then, just as you think you’ve seen it all, something catches your eye, something that stands out from the rest. For you, it might be the extraordinary pointillism in Georges Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte or that singular, swirling gold moon in Vincent Van Gogh’s The Starry Night.

1024px-Van_Gogh_-_Starry_Night_-_Google_Art_Project

You find an element that speaks to you, and from there are inspired to create your own pointillistic piece or painting themed around that luminous, eternal moon.

I believe that the same principle applies to writing.

For example, I first read George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones three years ago. As I read, I kept coming across small, striking descriptions that arrested me with how vividly they popped off the page into my mental image of the story. Every time I found one of these extraordinary wordings I would dog-ear the page, and by the time I got to the middle of the book I realized that there were just too many gems to continue damaging the paper. So I started to write them down.

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This is just a small sample from my collection of descriptions.

What did I do with these phrases? Many remained untouched, isolated from their original sentences in the crumpled pages of my notebook. But I always kept them in the back of my mind, and as I was writing my novel I would suddenly remember the perfect pair of words for the perfect situation. I wouldn’t copy them directly, of course. “A reptile stare” became “a reptilian glare.” “Pale moon face” became “sunken, moon-shaped cheeks.” “Frog-faced” became “frog-like lips.”

I used the same technique for the rest of The Song of Ice and Fire series, and for many other books that stuck with me: Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind, Nicola Griffith’s Hild. They were just bite-sized, beautiful phrases, but one by one, they helped me to learn to look for remarkable qualities in simple descriptions.

I’m a firm believer that great writers must be great readers. And, by nature, a writer who reads is a writer who steals.

© 2016 Stellular Scribe

The Art of Bleeding Words

hemingway typewriterSometimes, writers get so caught up in the three Ps of prose (prepping, plotting, and plumping)* that they use outlines and character sheets and thesauruses as crutches for creativity. Don’t get me wrong — I’ll be the first to advocate for a little outside assistance when it comes to laying out your story and sparking inspiration. It’s good to do research, to have resources on hand, to feel confident in what you write.

But often, the best way to write free from reservations is to just go for it without fearing run-on sentences or flat adjectives or continuity. I think Ernest Hemingway said it best:

There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.

In less eloquent terms: spew out word vomit.

Find a comfortable space. Listen to some music or hone into the natural noise around you. Take a deep breath. Ready your typewriter (or writing hand or laptop or other device). And write. Don’t look at a thesaurus. Don’t go googling every little thing that pops in your head. Trust your instincts, and write.

You should never write to fill space. Write to fill your thoughts.


*prepping — worldbuilding, character development, establishing setting
  plotting — outlining, structuring of rising and falling events
  plumping — syntax, description, and other word magic.


© 2016 Stellular Scribe
If you’re interested in my illustrations; get this design on a t-shirt or other product at Redbubble! Thanks.:)

If Writing Is Selfish, Then I Am Scrooge

please work god.png

I’m sure by now most writers have heard the worn-thin saying that anyone who puts pen to paper is a selfish creature. It was George Orwell who said:

All writers are vain, selfish and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives lies a mystery. Writing a book is a long, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.

I suppose that when I first read Orwell’s “Why I Write,” I was reluctant to attach myself to any of those harsh adjectives. I wasn’t vain. I certainly wasn’t selfish. Heck, I was the neurotic opposite of lazy. Writing wasn’t a struggle; it was a pleasure. I was, as far as I knew, devoid of demons.

When I think back on it, when I first absorbed Orwell’s long-echoed advice (or rather, observations), I wasn’t doing much writing myself. I said I was a writer, and I loved writing — but I hadn’t yet attached myself to a project I was passionate about or truly committed my free time to improving my craft. When I started to write more and actually develop characters and worlds and plot lines that I cared about, that quote meant something completely different to me.

Writing was a selfish act, I realized. I was selfish. I was the Scrooge of my own, blocked-off world, a world that I thought worth investing precious time into.

When we write, we pour our hearts into something that, at first, only exists to us. By simply believing that what we write matters, we indulge in egotism. When we write for ourselves, we are self-indulgent. When we write for others, we are vain. When we are vain, we run the risk of creating self-inserts — and after all, aren’t self-inserts selfish?

At first, it was an unsettling notion.

But then I thought about what the word “selfish” actually meant, and it didn’t seem so callous and narrow-minded. Merriam-Webster defines it as

concerned excessively or exclusively with oneself :  seeking or concentrating on one’s own advantage, pleasure, or well-being without regard for others.

Isn’t it a good thing to care about yourself? Isn’t seeking to improve your mind and pursue your passions what you should always be doing? Writing “without regard for others” might seem harsh, but really, all it means is to do what you want without worrying about what others think. Write the story that you want to write, not the one that you think will sell or be critically acclaimed.

I, for one, am proud to be a Scrooge if it means doing what I love unapologetically. 

 © 2016 Stellular Scribe
If you’re interested in my illustrations; get this design on a t-shirt or other product at Redbubble! Thanks. 🙂

 

Writing: The Early Bird

ideas wake me

I feel like we hear a lot about the writer who works into the dead of night, scraping out word after sleep-deprived word until the morning light creeps through her window.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m guilty of the stereotype. It is currently 1 a.m. as I am writing this and I haven’t even eaten dinner yet.

But I think there’s a lot to be said for the proactive early bird, who wakes ready to write. I think — and this is shocking, coming from me, the ultimate night owl — that they might actually have a brilliant thing going for them.

I don’t need an alarm clock. My ideas wake me.
— Ray Bradbury

I am an incredibly unpleasant person in the morning, so of course it was a good idea for me to try out this waking-up-at-a-reasonable-hour-and-actually-being-productive thing. Yeah…maybe not. The first day I snoozed through the alarm and had barely enough time to get myself ready for school, let alone make time to write. The second day was the same. And the third. And the fourth. And the — you know what? Let’s just skip ahead a week.

Finally, finally, I forced myself out of bed at the bright and beautiful hour of 5 a.m. On a Saturday. Ugh.

I had a plan that I was determined to stick with. No coffee. No food. No checking my phone. No email or social media. No distracting, click-bait websites. No leaving my room. And absolutely no rolling back into bed.

That last one was the toughest.

I moved to my desk, drank the glass of water I had placed there the night before, and opened my notebook. That’s right; I went at it the old-fashioned way. Ol’ pen to paper, the hearty handwritten word. At first I found it foreign, trying to process my waking thoughts onto a physical page.

I wrote random thoughts, micro observations, pieces of half-remembered dreams and broken poems. Honestly, it felt like word vomit.

But then I settled into something tangible, an almost-narrative that was unlike anything I had written at night. I can’t even describe what made it distinctive. It just felt different.

I felt clear-headed, my words felt clean-cut, my writing felt straightforward and on task. I still had the dark blanket of night to block out any unwanted senses, but I also had the unhindered mind of someone who had just gotten her full eight hours and was ready to seize the day.

There’s something about waking up and writing without letting the stress of the day sink in yet that makes you hyper-aware of your thoughts. You become conscientious of what you have not yet started, thorough with what you have already begun. When you write at night, the day’s strain has already piled on top of you, and you write with it bearing on your back. And while this can allow for incredibly creative, inspired, and meaningful works, it’s not the same as waking and writing with nothing but the raw, original word.

So, what have I learned from this? Will I change my night-writing ways? Eh…probably not. I mean, the time’s now 1:30 a.m. — so there goes that prospect. But I do think everyone should at least give it a try, and I want to carry with me the concept of waking up with ideas rather than irritabilities. I enjoyed this little experiment. And now I’m going to sleep.

© 2016 Stellular Scribe
If you’re interested in my illustrations; get this design on a t-shirt or another product at Redbubble! Thanks. 🙂