Writing Kindling #11

Writer’s block may seem like a terminal illness, but sometimes the smallest of sparks can “kindle” your craft. Today we have the digital painting “Salar de Uyuni” by fromsky.

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“Salar de Uyuni” by fromsky

Ask yourself: Who are they? Where are they? What are they feeling? What are they about to do? Write about who they are, what situation they are in, and what they will do next. It can be a poem, short story, long fiction, anything — let the kindling commence!

I’d love to hear what you come up with. Feel free to share your writing in the comments!

Music Remembers

Baseem split the cherry between his fingers. Red juice stained the grooves of his thumb and dripped off the end of his fingernail. He rubbed the pads of his fingers together, mashing the berry into a raw, bloody pulp. When he was finished, he flicked the mangled remains off the side of the deck and held his hand up for me to see.

Ya amar, do you hear it?” he asked.

My flute felt cold between my fingers, and I lowered it to my lap. “Hear? Don’t you mean see?

“No, hear. I have wondered if you can hear it too, the way I can. If when you press your lips to your reed and blow you can hear the colors, or at least imagine them before they erupt like spitting embers from your instrument.” He rotated his wrist in front of his face, studying the red seeping down his palm. “When you played the friscalleto, I heard this precise shade. Cherry red. Like the wine we acquired from Donnalucata. Like the poppies that covered the hills beyond the beach. Like the fire that —”

I turned my head away, and I hated myself for the bitterness that glassed my eyes. “I hear no colors, signore. I am afraid that the visual arts are not my area of expertise.”

“Ah, but music is the highest of all visual arts,” Baseem said, his eyes smiling. “You know better than anyone, Ludovica, that music remembers. Music is memory. And what is memory if not visual?” He crossed the deck towards me, taking heavy, deliberate steps with the heels of his boots. “There is an aching in your compositions. A red. A remembrance. You must hear it.”

Mama’s ribbon. Papà’s steamed crab. Cosima’s rosary beads. Orazio’s blood.

I flooded my face of expression.


An excerpt from a work-in-progress.

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

Godspeed and Gunfire

Bang.

“Godspeed and gunfire, my friend,” he says, wiping his wet hands down the front of his shirt. “Or is it…hellfire? Hell, does it matter? There’s no hope for us now, so if the devil smites us so be it.”

He gives you a sideways look, his hooded eyes bright and provoking. “You don’t honestly believe in that crap, do you? In hell? The devil?” His eyebrows lift as he tucks the pistol into his suspenders. “Oh, look at your face. You do. God damn, then this must be awkward. Sorry — gosh damn.

You think of something to say. You can’t. Everything’s still fuzzy.

Shit.” He only now seems to realize the mess on the front of his shirt. “This is a new shirt. Freshly pressed, too. Think this can come out? Always heard cold salt water did the trick. Anyway — I wouldn’t worry about all that eternal damnation stuff if I were you. You know what they say: hell’s a party.”

You don’t know who says that.

He’s rambling now, in that off-center, manic way of his. “Hell’s one hell of a time. It’s where all the fun people are at. And if not, hell is empty and all the devils are here. So it can’t be too bad.” He shakes his leg out, like a dog, and turns away, away from you, away from the mess. “Godspeed and gunfire,” he whispers, moving a hand through his unkempt hair. “Bang, bang, bang.”

You reach after him. He can’t be like this. Not now.

He twists on his heels, and you are suddenly reminded of just how tall he is, how impressive and sharp-edged and outlined by shadows. “What? You’re not going cold on me, are you? Remember, you wanted this too. This isn’t all on me. If I’m going, I’m dragging you down into hell with me. Godspeed my fucking foot. You signed off on that pipe dream the second you came to me, eyes bleary, acting all broken and shit. Oh, help me. God, help me. It needs to end. Make it end. Well, Hallelujah, you got what you wanted. It ended at the end of my pistol, and now all I’ve got is a stained shirt to show for it.”

This isn’t what you wanted. This isn’t what you agreed to. This is ugly and wrong.

His eyeteeth glisten when he smiles. “If you think about it, I’m kind of like your guardian angel. What’s the prayer? Ever this day, be at my side, to light and guard, to rule and guide. Well, here I am. At your side. To light — ” His suspenders snap against his chest as he extracts his gun. “– and guard –” He lifts the pistol, index finger rubbing the trigger, teasing it. He laughs. “To rule –” The gun is now in front of him, pointing at his own face. “– and guide.”

He turns the pistol directly on you.

“Godspeed and gunfire, my friend. I hear hell’s a party.”

Bang.

© 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.

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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