Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Stephen King Tells Me How to Write Description

Subtitle: Sometimes the Voices in My Head Are Helpful

Stephen King at a USO event.
(Photo credit to The USO)

This week I did some critiquing for a wonderful fantasy story, and reading her descriptions got me wondering about the Essence of Description.

Doing all this critiquing, writing, and analyzing description may have driven me just a smideony bit crazy. My brain felt like it was going to implode. Or explode. I think it could have gone either way, really.

(Photo credit to Shaheen Lakhan)

I struggle with description. I use too little. In my opinion, this story I was critiquing had a little too much but that might just be my personal preferences at play. It was some really good description, whether it needed to be trimmed down or not.

So while I was racking my brain for some good guidelines on description, I remembered that Stephen King had some advice in his book On Writing. On Writing is one of those books you hear about over and over again if you’re a writer, and for good reason. It’s entertaining. It’s got great advice, and that advice is coming from Stephen freaking King. The man’s sold millions of books. He’s obviously doing something right.

Can you believe these? They're from a 16th century medical text on brain surgery!
(Photo credit to Shaheen Lakhan)

And, so, with my brain on the verge of, uh, self-combustion (let's go with that), it decided to do a little interview with Mr. Stephen King himself. (All quotes are from On Writing. Bibliography below.)

Me: So, what does description mean to you, Mr. Stephen King, writer of great acclaim and yet tangible figment of my imagination?

Description is what makes the reader a sensory participant in the story. Good description is a learned skill, one of the prime reasons why you cannot succeed unless you read a lot and write a lot.

(Photo credit to Skamelone)

Me: Okay, well, that’s good to know, but can I get a little more detail?

Thin description leaves the reader feeling bewildered and nearsighted. Over description buries him or her in details and images. The trick is to find a happy medium.

Me: Yeah, some trick. Wish I knew it. Got anything else, Mr. King?

I’m not particularly keen on writing which exhaustively describes the physical characteristics of the people in the story and what they’re wearing (I find wardrobe inventory particularly irritating; if I want to read descriptions of clothes, I can always get a J. Crew catalogue).

Me: Got it. No J. Crew catalogues. I’m guessing the Gap’s out too. Good. I hate writing description anyway. But what should I include?

I think locale and texture are much more important to the reader’s sense of actually being in the story than any physical description of the players. Nor do I think that physical description should be a shortcut to character. So spare me, if you please, the hero’s sharply intelligent blue eyes and outthrust determined chin.

Me: Sure. Locale and texture. Yeah. That’s not actually all that helpful. I’m not sure you’re understanding the question, Mr. King. What should I include?

… good description usually consists of a few well chosen details that will stand for everything else. In most cases, these details will be the first ones that come to mind.

Me: Cool. That’s a start. Can you give an example?

One of my favorite restaurants in New York is the steakhouse Palm Too on Second Avenue. . . . Before beginning to write, I’ll take a moment to call up an image of the place, drawing from my memory and filling my mind’s eye . . . The first four things which come to my mind when I think of Palm Too are:
(a) the darkness of the bar and the contrasting brightness of the backbar mirror, which catches and reflects light from the street;
(b) the sawdust on the floor;
(c) the funky cartoon caricatures on the walls;
(d) the smells of cooking steak and fish.
The Palm Restaurant, NYC
(Photo credit to Jennifer Martinez)
And a link to Palm Too's site.

Me: Those are some pretty cool details. I think you might have a talent for this, Mr. King. Can you show me how that’d work in a story?

King: Sure. Just let me whip something together as we speak because I am a masterful writer and you are but a mere peon.

Me: What the hell?

King: I didn’t say anything.

Me: Oh, never mind. It must have been the voices in my head. Carry on. You were going to give us an example paragraph.

     The cab pulled up in front of Palm Too at quarter to four on a bright summer afternoon. Billy paid the driver, stepped out onto the sidewalk, and took a quick look around for Martin. Not in sight. Satisfied, Billy went inside.
     After the hot clarity of Second Avenue, Palm Too was as dark as a cave. The backbar mirror picked up some of the street-glare and glimmered in the gloom like a mirage. For a moment it was all Billy could see, and then his eyes began to adjust. There were a few solitary drinkers at the bar. Beyond them, the maître d’, his tie undone and his shirt cuffs rolled back to show his hairy wrists, was talking with the bartender. There was still sawdust sprinkled on the floor, Billy noted, as if this were a twenties speakeasy instead of a millennium eatery where you couldn’t smoke, let alone spit a gob of tobacco between your feet. And the cartoons dancing across the walls—gossip-column caricatures of downtown political hustlers, newsmen who had long since retired or drunk themselves to death, celebrities you couldn’t quite recognize—still gambolled all the way to the ceiling. The air was redolent of steak and fried onions. All of it the same as it ever was.
     The maître d’ stepped forward. “Can I help you, sir? We don’t open for dinner until six, but the bar—”
     “I’m looking for Richie Martin,” Billy said.

Me: Damn, you are good at this. That’s a great description, and it’s woven into the plot seamlessly. You didn’t take a break from your book to describe the bar. You wove it right into the character’s actions. That’s amazing!

King: Yeah. I know.
(Note: I’m pretty sure this was the Mr. King in my head, and not the real, live Stephen King.)

Just because its a little creepy and a little cool.
(Photo credit to Monsieur J.)

Bibliography (b/c that's how I roll)

King, Stephen. On Writing. New York: Scribner, 2000.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Slytherin Scarf Devours Husband

Once upon a Tuesday night
A bleary blogger yawned and said,
"I am too tired to to be witty. I will crochet a second Slytherin scarf instead."

And so her Wednesday blog post withered into a pitiful poem
And a picture of a Slytherin scarf devouring her devious husband
(Don't let the hat hoodwink you. Her husband is deceptive indeed.)

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Writing Process Blog Tour: More Fun Than It Sounds, I Promise

The beautiful and talented Jenny Kaczorowski (I like to suck up to people who are nice to me; she's also the author of fun YA Contemporary The Art of Falling) tagged me for the Writing Process Blog Tour, which sounds rather clinical and not very fun, but I enjoyed reading her post, so it's obviously much more fun than it sounds (as per my title).

This is me.
Once upon a time, I took a whole series of weird photos and am using them for my blog.
They entertain me, and I like to think others mildly enjoy them as well.
Please, don't disillusion me.

1) What am I working on?

I'm writing the first(ish) draft of a YA sci-fi that I am desperately trying to pull back from the Dystopian pitfall (b/c I love Dystopian and there's something very fascinating about a society on the verge of collapse, but as Authoress pointed out, they're a hard sell in publishing these days. So I figure anything I can do to make my novel a little different will help it in the long run.)

(Photo credit to Don)

It's setting is a sort of sci-fi Narnia with robotic talking animals and mutant type forest dwellers. Although right now most of the action takes place in the military run city (which is modeled on the Dredd-esque mega cities).

2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?

(Photo credit to Andreas Levers)

Ugh. I hate comparing my work to others. Plus, it's really hard because you always have some commonalities (you know, like things that make you part of a genre) but somewhere deep down you want to think of your own work as uniquely yours.

This is also the hardest part of a query letter for me. I write desperate emails to my CP's asking what on earth they think I can compare my work to (without sounding like a pretentious little twerp.)

I like to think my works are different because I consciously use a variety of influences, include diversity, and avoid stereotypes (at least those are my goals).

(Photo credit to Antonio Cinotti)

Some of my influences include older sci-fi books. For example, in a MG book I wrote, one character's powers were based on the Reverend Mothers of Dune.

And did you know that people make "movies" that record the entire storyline of video games? Here's Bioshock Infinite - if you wanna spend 3.5 hrs. I was watching some of these before starting work on my latest book.

I try to keep my influences varied to make something that's just a little bit different.

3) Why do I write what I do?

I write YA (and MG) partially because it's what I love to read. And, like Jenny said, the teenage years (and childhood years) play a huge role in determining the adult you will become. You make a lot of choices and learn a lot in those years, and because of that, characters of the YA/MG age are just fascinating to write about.

(Photo credit to cishore)

Honestly, typical adults are boring. Kids are the ones with the active imaginations who believe that anything is possible.

And I write fantasy/sci-fi because in those worlds, anything truly is possible. If I can imagine it, I can write it.

4) How does my writing process work?

Lately it's been a pain in the butt!

For some reason, with brain storming, I like the act of physically writing stuff down. My house has pieces of paper filled with my writing scattered throughout it (I'm not the neatest person). I write down ideas I have about the characters and the world and the plot.

Once I've gotten enough ideas gathered together, I start outlining something. My outlining skills aren't the greatest because for the last two books, I wrote a half a first draft (say 30,000 words). At that point, I thought to myself, "This is kinda boring. I'm not doing my ideas any justice." Then I abandoned the project. A few months later, with the idea still nagging at my brain, I wrote a new (and much better) outline and then I started writing the book again from scratch.

This is not a very efficient way of writing, but it does help pare things down to essential plot.

The Tagging Part

Now I'm supposed to tag other writers to take part in this blog tour, but I'm limited in writerly friends, and the ones I have are rather busy, so I make no promises. But here are thevery enjoyable blogs of two of these writerly types:

Jillian Karger - Her Blog is titled "Velocirapter Hands" which is pretty darn cool. And perhaps a little frightening if you're XKCD. (He actually has a large number of Velociraptor-fearing comics, but I linked to a nice, simple starter point). And now for her bio:

Jillian Karger majored in English and minored in Dramatic Literature: a silly and wonderful mishmash of acting, film, and theater history. She once wrote a persuasive essay about the fact (yes, fact) that Fight Club is the best movie in all existence. Jillian has been writing novels since she was fourteen and is sure she'll keep doing it whether someone pays her for them or not. But the money part would be nice.

This is Abe Lincoln on a Velociraptor!
(Photo credit to Andrew Becraft)

Miriam Joy - a multi-talented British writer, who also happens to actually fit into the YA demographic due to age (not that this has stopped any of the rest of us from reading YA)

She's actually from London, where I would like to visit one day.
(Photo credit to Doug Wheller)

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Mockingjay: A Review of Sorts

I think my subtitle for this post ought to be:

Building Character By Killing Off Other Characters

This gorgeous photo was from Teri Orda.

I came late to the Hunger Games phenomenon.

I was early to the Harry Potter craze. I worked at a library in high school and always scoped out the new kids' books (especially fantasy) as they were coming in. Harry caught my eye, and I really enjoyed it, but I had absolutely no idea what it would turn into. I watched it unfold, and, honestly, I was amazed. But I always had that un-influenced first opinion to know I enjoyed the book without all the hype. I mean I would have enjoyed them no matter what, but that fact made me happy (because deep down I'm obviously some sort of annoyingly smug Hipster).

By the time I finally picked up the first Hunger Games book, the movie was about to come out, and I'd been hearing about it for ages. I thought, "A book about kids who kill each other? No thanks." But eventually I realized I couldn't escape it, and I really ought to give it a try. With all the hype surrounding it, I figured that it wouldn't live up to expectation. And there was the whole "kids who kill each other" thing.

Well, I loved it.

So I decided to try something new: read each book in the year its movie was coming out. By the time a movie comes out, if I'm interested in the series, I've usually read it all years before the movies and I either don’t remember any of the book's details or that book has blurred in with the subsequent books and I can't remember what actually happened in which book.

I read one book per year. The Hunger Games two years ago and Catching Fire last year. Watching each movie after only reading its book and not beyond was a fun experience. I appreciated each movie without the slightest clue of what would happen after the film ended. There's something weirdly fun about that.

Last week, I finally picked up Mockingjay, read it through, closed the book, and thought, "This lady is a genius."

Warning: Spoilers will ensue!

Photo by Kendra Miller.

What really struck me was how incredibly well Collins used her characters. She played us along, getting us attached, and when the moment was right, picked off exactly the right character to tug at our heartstrings. And, just as importantly, she kept the right characters alive.

First, obviously, came Rue. Rue's death showed what it really meant to be in a world with the Hunger Games. Rue set the precedent. (To be honest, Rue made me cry.)

In Mockingjay, there was a war going on. People die in war. I was glad Collins didn't kill off Haymitch just because we'd grown attached to him, but I will say that Finnick's death was the one death that seemed a little pointless. Somewhat logical given the war, and I could see him wanting to be an active participant, but it was the one death that was sad but didn't really tug at me, so it felt a little wasted. Plus I felt really sad for crazy Annie, especially because I'd think this would turn her crazy again.

But everything else was brilliant. It all came back to Prim for Katniss. Prim's name being called was what set her on the Mockingjay path, and Prim's death was the one that could break her.


Prim's death made the entire ending come together. Thanks to that death, Alma Coin had to be taken out and our fledgeling democracy got a better president (although I did think Peeta might end up being president for a while). Thanks to that death, the love triangle was resolved in a completely believable way. Without it, I don't see how Katniss could have chosen so that her choice wouldn’t have felt like some sort of pity prize. I was also glad that Collins didn't take the easy way out and kill off one of the love interests. That would have felt a little lacking in resolution too.

It's funny. Despite all the bloodshed, there was really only one important death per book: Rue's, Cinna's, and Prim's. While I really liked Cinna, I will say that his death felt the least pivotal of the three, and his book felt the weakest as well (although it was necessary to further the plot).

Anyway, I closed my book and realized just how brilliantly Collins had played all of the characters at her disposal (or perhaps referring to them as chess pieces would seem more accurate).

I'm glad I finally gave in and read them all.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The Peachiest Pairings. According to Me.

I spent a little while asking around about people's favorite couples. I wanted to sit down and look at a list so that I could analyze what made these pairs work because I want to write couples who people really enjoy. I did a few Google searches, and I wracked my brains. I did not limit myself to romantic pairings. Among other things, there's a sibling set on this list, and it's not a Game of Thrones set of siblings. Get your minds out of the gutters, people.

For me, I've realized that a history together and a sense of humor are two key factors. I've also noticed I have a thing for contentious couples.

There was an incredibly sweet and personal Reddit post about how you feel about the person you love. It's worth a read. It was written in response to a woman who doesn't feel like she's attractive, and the poster explains that how no matter how she sees herself, the person who loves her will see her differently (better).

I also happen to have an undying paranoia about copyright violation, which is why each pair is represented by my very own stick figures rather than by famous images of the couples in question. Sorry if the image isn't always the best, but, hey, at least they're my very own. Also, both my scanner and my camera died, so ingenuity was used and quality was sacrificed.

Best Couples of All Time: A List by Sarah Hipple

One of the most famous couples of all time. Ms. Sass and Mr. Stick-up-the-ass:
Lizzie Bennet and Mr. Darcy are a predictable favorite of mine. I’m among the millions who can’t resist them. Sadly, my eraser created a bit of a gray smudge that I couldn't get rid of. Fortunately, Lizzie's too busy stomping off to notice.

A man known for his sweaters. A woman known for her smarts:
Heathcliff and Claire Huxtable. With their sense of humor and crazy family, the Huxtables are incredibly endearing. They're great parents too. Oh, and in case you were wondering, those blue and green squiggles are meant to be a Cosby Sweater. Squint your eyes. You might see it.

That Blue Hair. That Yellow Skin.
Homer and Marge Simpson. I saw them on someone else’s list, and that’s when it struck me: their family is occasionally dysfunctional, but this couple really cares about each other even after years of marriage and three kids. That's amazing.

Whistle, Click. Worry, worry.
R2-D2 and C-3PO. A friend mentioned this pair, and, you know, despite the fact that one’s a paranoid worrier and the other one doesn’t speak English, I love them.

The Liar and the Saint:
Olivia Carsington and the Earle of Lisle are from Last Night’s Scandal by Loretta Chase. Yep, an out and out romance novel (and not of the classic variety). Some people scorn the things, but I’m addicted to couples who’ve known each other for years, and this one was perfect for me. Not for the kiddies, though.

Mischief and Magic:
Fred and George Weasley are two of my husband’s favorite characters of all time. I’m pretty certain my husband would classify the death of Fred Weasley as one of the most tragic events of the last century. My husband deals with it by living in denial. I believe I once mentioned that the book in our house claims that it was a little known Weasley brother named “Sam” who died. I've got to admit, they are pretty darn awesome.

Imagination and Tuna:
Calvin and Hobbes are another pair included b/c of my husband's love for them, and I can’t blame him. This cartoon is genius, and these two are the best of friends, even if one is imaginary.

Song and Dance:
I have a weak spot for the adorable Kurt and Blaine. I may not follow Glee these days, but this couple was really sweet. And would break out into song for little to no reason. I'm still not completely sure if that's a pro or a con.

Class and Cary
Tracy Lord and C.K. Dexter Haven. Cary Grant is gorgeous and funny. So is Katherine Hepburn. It's been ages since I've had a chance to watch The Philadelphia Story, so I hope I'm not misremembering how great they were together. As for the plot: this is another pair who've known each other forever. They even went through a divorce. Watch the movie.

Sarah and Nigel (I'm reading; Nigel's on the computer:)
This list is highly personalized and subjective, so you know what? I'm including me and my husband because we are my own personal favorite couple. I'd hope that everybody's relationship is their own favorite relationship. Plus, that rounds out the list to 10 couples. Perfect harmony is achieved.

Let me know who your favorite couples are. I'm sure they're different from mine. Within Harry Potter alone, I had three different couples mentioned, and I only asked four people!