Beginning Workshop #2

Today’s workshop comes from S.E. Sinkhorn. Let’s just dive right in!

Two hours before I learned my father had been found dead by the side of the lake, I sat on my favorite park bench and sketched an eye. A beak. A crest. The pages of my book were bronze in the autumn sunlight.

Like the bronze image. The first sentence packs a punch but is perhaps too long to really focus us. The writer throws a lot of information into that one and I don’t know where to really look. Good tension, though, but could it be more specific? “Found dead” is vague. Murdered? Found dead by his own hand?

No indication the hopeful lantern I’d kept burning inside me for four years had gone out. Only feathers attached to skin fused to muscle stitched to bone. My pencil didn’t even twitch as my entire world shifted. I just couldn’t feel it yet.

“Hopeful lantern” sounds very lovely, but is vague. Does this refer to the dad? Or another hopeful lantern about something else? Be more specific, as it’s too ethereal now.  I like the idea of something happening that’s huge, but the character not knowing it yet. This does tell us, though, that she’s relating this story from some future vantage point and I wonder how far back she’s looking…I’m wondering why birds are so important.

So I continued as I always did, enjoying my small patch of life between the lifeless brown buildings, and waited for my brother to meet me. The L-train’s sooty air was a distant backdrop. For a moment, I could pretend to be somewhere else. Someone else.

Not sure about “the L-train’s sooty air was a distant backdrop,” there’s something off to me about it. Maybe something like “a cloud of soot rose from a passing L-train” or something. Air being a backdrop stopped me. I was probably also thinking of the L train subway that runs from Manhattan to Brooklyn, which doesn’t emit soot. 🙂 Maybe it’s also because I don’t quite know the time setting. The fashion details below hint at like turn of the 20th century, but “lifeless brown buildings” seems too reminiscent of mid-20th century urban architecture. The idea of a city being lifeless is also a bit modern in tone.

The moment didn’t last long.

Heavy footfalls clacked their way up the path toward me, startling the cardinals I’d been drawing into a flurry of red wings. A pair of expensive leather boots filled their place in my field of vision. I sighed and snapped my sketchbook closed. My gaze followed the boots up to find their owner clad in the height of Parisian fashion, down to her ebony-colored walking gown and gloves trimmed with pearl buttons. An emerald and gold choker winked at me from her pale neck, clashing horribly with the black.

This description really doesn’t work for me. It gives the character’s eyeballs a video camera feel. They are zooming and panning in on parts, not the whole. That’s a very cinematic description but I’d rather see the whole picture than just boots, then ankles, then gown, etc. It’s fragmented and uses a visual technique that doesn’t carry across well on page as opposed to screen. I want to see Mirabelle as much more whole when we first meet her. We also get no interiority. I can tell the two girls don’t like one another, but a thought or a reaction to this girl showing up could add another layer. I’m also not crazy about footfalls clacking. It’s a sound, and the writer is giving it almost a physical presence which it just doesn’t have.

“Hello, Mirabelle,” I said.

Her smile curved like a scythe as she brushed a cinnamon curl behind her ear. A set of parasols twitched behind her, attached to the day’s pair of sycophantic companions.

“Clara, darling. Playing with your friends again?” Mirabelle said. I imagined her circling me like a pack dog.

The antagonism between Mirabelle and Clara is thick here, but overwritten. We get the scythe image, then circling, then dog. The writer is working a little too hard to make sure we GET IT. No need to be overwrought. The line about “sycophantic companions” is great but it also sounds really modern-sarcasm to me. Like, I’d imagine Daria saying something like that (yeah, that’s right, I just pulled “Daria” out of my hat), so it adds to my confusion about time period and period voice.

“I was enjoying the company of creatures I didn’t have to bully or buy, yes,” I said.

One of the other girls gasped in exaggerated offense, but Mirabelle scarcely batted an eye. “Oh, my dear, you must do better than that. Sharpen your tongue for my father’s gala this evening, for I expect far wittier repertoire.”

I bit the inside of my cheek and didn’t respond.

I’m getting much more authentic period voice in the dialogue. It’s still catty, sure, but the syntax is more stylized than the prose/descriptions. Like the bully/buy line.

Mirabelle put her hand to her chest and painted her face with a near-convincing expression of concern. “But you must have received an invitation! All of Chicago’s finest will be there. Surely it’s been long enough since your father walked out that the scandal has died down.”

A slow eruption of nervous laughter swelled behind her. There’s never anything quite like having an audience to one’s humiliation. Familiar heat began to creep up my neck.

“There’s never anything quite like having an audience to one’s humiliation” is great period voice, and it’s also great interiority. The dialogue is a bit for the reader’s benefit (a way to introduce the father detail) and it reminds us of the opening, but I might let it stay. (My objection would be that characters who know one another this well don’t usually repeat such basic biographical details in conversation…it’s not organic.)

“I’ve no interest in attending your father’s garish parties. If you’re quite finished, I’m meeting my brother at four o’clock, and I’ll take your leave.” I stood and walked past the she-wolf and her lapdogs.

When I was a few steps away, she called, “Perhaps your mother might like to attend. She could finally admit her infidelity and beg a proposal from whoever sired your sister. It would be the highlight of the evening.”

Working too hard again on the “she-wolf and her lapdogs” line. Also, this clashes with the similar-yet-different “pack dog” image earlier. Love the last diss! It’s so catty it reminds me of THE LUXE series.

Overall, some strong writing, but the first two paragraphs don’t match the rest. There’s some tension there, but I don’t know if it’s specific enough or, yet, how it relates. I hope she finds out about the dead body soon. The period was also confusing. The character’s sarcasm and observations struck me as very modern, but the style of dress and some of the dialogue was obviously period. For historical, if this is indeed historical, this is a crucial voice issue to nail.

Beginning Workshop #1

The first beginning workshop comes from O’Dell Hutchinson for a WIP called “The Weeping.” Without further ado, here is my feedback on O’Dell’s beginning!

It was hot. The acrid smell of smoke filled her lungs, singeing them with every breath. Her head was spinning. She could hear people screaming. A man with a deep, booming, voice was yelling, telling everyone to stay calm and move toward the exit.

“It was hot” could be a first line to anything. A breezy summer beach read. A Southern gothic. It’s a fire, of course it’s hot. I’m looking for a first line with a little more bang here. There’s also a passive voice issue.

“Phillip?” she choked out.

“Phillip!” she screamed again.

The dialogue tags are overwritten here. We don’t know who Phillip is, also. Maybe some context.

Had he managed to get out? Was he searching for her? When the smoke started billowing on to the stage, everyone scattered, knocking her to the ground. It barely took any time at all for the smoke to take over, and the screaming to start. She pulled herself up and walked to what she thought was stage left. There was an exit backstage. If she could just get to the exit.

The writer does a great job of starting in action. We also get some interiority about Phillip here, which is good. But I’m missing a lot of context, ie: who is Phillip, how did the fire start, etc.

She pulled the skirt of her costume over her nose to help block the smoke, but it wasn’t working. The air around her swirled in misty curtains of black and grey. She couldn’t see where she was going. Her eyes stung and it took everything she had to keep them open. She tripped over something. Was it a set piece? A body? She couldn’t tell; the smoke was too thick.

Now we lose the interiority. What if it was a body? What thoughts would cross her mind? Does she think about dying? What does it feel like to not be able to breathe? There’s action and a very visceral setting but I’m not quite feeling what I would imagine it feels like to be in a hot, hot fire yet.

She inched her way toward what she thought would be the exit. She closed her eyes and followed the screams of the terrified people scrambling to get out of the theatre. They seemed to be coming from everywhere.

Multiple mentions of screaming already, getting redundant. Also, screaming people are usually terrified, so there some overstating of the obvious.

There was a sudden burst of heat in front of her. Unbearable heat. She took a step back, away from the flames that were closing in on her. She was afraid of falling off the stage and into the orchestra pit, so she got down on her hands and knees and crawled. She pulled herself forward with one hand, the other clutching her dress to her nose.

Not getting a true burst. The narrative voice is even-handed and calm and the sentences are long…not exactly what you’d expect during a scene that describes someone fleeing for their life. Check out the post on mimetic writing

The screams had faded and now seemed to be coming from outside. They were mixed with the sound of sirens. She felt a touch of relief. The firemen were here. They would put out the fire. They would save her.

Again, the interiority and almost nonchalance of the narrative voice don’t add up to a lot of tension for me. If I was about to be rescued from an inferno, I wouldn’t exactly feel just “a touch of relief.” By now, also, I invite you to note that we haven’t learned a single thing about this character other than she does theatre and she’s currently in a fire. There have been no characterizing details that reveal her to us as a person.

Something cracked and was followed by a loud crashing sound. The stage shook beneath her as whatever it was hit the floor. She started to panic again. The building was coming down. She quickly crawled forward, feeling her way around the stage, doing her best to maneuver around set pieces and fallen props.

Throughout the piece, we also have some play-by-play narration that is contributing to the passive voice. We don’t need every single movement described here.

The stage lights above her started to pop, sparkling through the smoke as they briefly lit up before shattering. It was as if she were being photographed by a swarm of photographers. Paparrazi documenting the every move of an eighteen-year-old girl as she fought for her life. She felt a sharp pain shoot up through her hand as she crawled over shards of glass from the broken bulbs.

An interesting image that fits in well with the performer part of the story so far.

There was another crack, this time directly above her. She looked up in time to see a beam, lit with flames, falling toward her. She tried to roll out of the way, but it caught her ankle, trapping her as it ignited her petticoat. She let out one more cry for help as the flames danced up her legs. She tried to move, but the beam held fast. She was going to die. The heat enveloped her and she did the only thing she could do. She wept.

The thoughts, memories, and prayers going through her head at this point would be extremely telling in terms of character. Not giving us interiority here is a huge missed opportunity.

Overall, there are some definite strengths: starts with action, a visceral scene with lots of tension. But there is also room for growth: we need a lot more about the character, we need interiority, we need some more action in the writing voice itself, and less static description. It’s not that the writer isn’t describing action–there’s a lot of stuff going on–but it’s the style of the description that’s passive and a bit flat.

I hope that seeing how I think about this beginning as I read it will help you look at your own beginnings and your own writing craft. I look forward to posting more beginnings this week and next!

How to Describe Emotion Without Physical Clichés

Many writers get tripped up on how to describe emotion without physical clichés. I understand why they use physical emotion clichés, though. In an effort to dodge the “show, don’t tell” bullet, a lot of writers have taken the external route in conveying the emotions of their character. As I’ve said before, there’s Bad Telling and there’s Good Telling when you’re creating a character through interiority in writing.

how to describe emotion, how to express feelings in words, physical emotion cliches, physical cliches in writing, how to write emotion, writing character emotion, character writing, creative writing, fiction writing
How to express feelings in words: Hearts and stomachs and butterflies and releasing breaths you didn’t know you were holding… So many physical clichés!

Bad telling deals with you just stating a fact about your character and then taking all the fun out of reading for your audience. Good telling involves using story context and, more importantly, interiority, to paint a three-dimensional picture where you make your reader feel like a savvy part of the story experience, but you don’t exclude them from participating, either.

An Example of Bad Telling in Action

Here’s an example of how to describe emotion via Bad Telling:

It was the last night of the play. Moxie felt sad as she lined up for the final curtain call. There would be no more stolen moments with Tobin. No more excuses for her to look at him as he performed the role of Hamlet. Just like the real Shakespearean Hamlet and Ophelia were doomed, so was Moxie’s crush. Tears sprung to her eyes. She didn’t know what she’d ever do tomorrow night without all this.

How to Apply Interiority to Telling

Here’s an example of how to describe emotion via Good Telling, using the principles of interiority:

The heavy red curtain cut them off from the audience and the lights. Moxie stood, feeling heavy and rooted to the stage, and looked around, her eyes adjusting to the darkness as the clapping started in the house. This was it. The last curtain call. The last time she’d teeter on the brink of insanity as Ophelia. The last time she’d peek out from the wings and watch the audience nod along and mouth the words as Tobin, with a deep, slow breath, launched into the “To be or not to be” soliloquy. The last time she’d get to tape the fake blood packet into his vest backstage, right before he went off to his fateful last duel scene. Moxie snapped to attention as the curtain swung up again. Tobin materialized beside her and grabbed her hand. The last time for that, too. When would she ever have such a perfect excuse again? The audience beyond the footlights, clapping and shouting, blurred, and she threw on her most dazzling smile, blinking away the tears.

Now, whether you think the sample itself is “good” or not, this is clearly an improved example of how to express feelings in words. You got more insight into Moxie’s character, into the context of her situation, and into the specifics of her emotions with the second example than you did with the Bad Telling snippet.

An Example of Physical Emotion Clichés

Let me introduce you, then, to another version of how to describe emotion via Bad Telling: Physical Telling.

The drape lowered on the scene, giving Tobin enough time, Moxie knew, to get out of his royal casket and join the rest of the cast for curtain call. She wiped at her eyes, hoping she wasn’t smearing her make-up. Her heart hammered, but it wasn’t the rush of finishing the show. Not this time. She hugged herself, her arms crossed tight. Tobin jogged up, fixing her with a dazzling smile. He tilted his head. There was a twinkle in his eye, something she couldn’t quite read. She relaxed her arms. Her hand grabbed his. The curtain swung up again and she felt a flush creeping up her cheeks.

Now. This is more subtle. There’s nothing technically wrong with this sample. Some might even find it well-written. Well, this is my blog, and you come here to hear what I have to say about stuff. And I am sick of Physical Telling. Over it. If you disagree, another blog is just a click away. (Don’t worry, this isn’t just a rant…I will also explain my reasoning.)

Why Physical Emotion Clichés Are Lazy Writing

First, the above is full of physical clichés. “She wiped at her eyes” isn’t telling per se, but it is such a cliché gesture for “Alert! Alert! Moxie is crying! Get it?!” that it might as well be telling. If I was to go on an actual stage and wipe my eyes to convey that my character is sad, or check my watch and tap my foot to convey impatience, a director would yell at me for being way too obvious. Instead of a director, you have me to yell at you.

Per my earlier post about describing emotions in writing, you’ll also know that what hearts, mouths, lungs, stomachs, and hearts do on the page is also, more often than not, a cliché. Hearts hammering, guts rumbling, smiles half-creeping up faces, eyes twinkling, all of that. Ugh. So if we can’t “show” a character tapping their foot with impatience, maybe we can tell the reader that their stomach is tightening in anticipation of being late. Maybe that will be better!

How to Describe Emotion in Fiction

Wrong. Because someone was once told “show, don’t tell,” and then was told “don’t use cliché gestures,” they have now started telling readers about the status of their main characters’ internal organs. Awesome! Except I’m not a doctor with a chart. I don’t care about the status of each little hunk of tissue on your main character’s body.

It’s when a writer starts telling me about guts and hearts and lungs and eyes that I most frequently highlight that section and write, “Interiority instead!” in my notes. Put that on a notecard and tape it to your monitor if you have this problem: Interiority instead!

This brings me to another specific subset of Physical Telling (dig deeper into this topic by reading my post on showing vs telling in writing). It’s when writers realize that stomach- and heart-status is cliché, so they think that the answer to “how to express feelings in words” is to move on to looks and gazes and twinkles of eyes and other body language cues.

Romantic Moments Are a Minefield for Physical Clichés

People writing anything with a romantic connection, listen up! Moments where you have your two romantic interests together are prime offenders in this vein. How do you convey chemistry without describing eyes lighting up and blushes and tilts of the head? I don’t know. You’re the writer. But don’t resort to the tired old fallbacks.

Why are we so good at these descriptions? Think about where we see them (key word here: see). That’s right. We’re visual creatures. When we watch movies or TV or interact with other human beings, these looks and tilts and subtle shifts in body language are glaringly clear. “Ah, he’s tipping his head ever so slightly when he talks to the girl he likes, that must mean he likes her, too…squeeee!”

A Picture Is Worth a Thousand Words

But what works well on the screen doesn’t always translate to the page. Those looks that we’re so good and so hardwired to interpret when we see them don’t necessarily convey the same information when we read them. Sometimes things are hard to read when we’re reading, yeah? Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words, and we don’t have that kind of currency when we’re approaching how to express feelings in words.

Some things work on the page, others not so much. And the page is not a physical realm. Sure, some writing can be very visceral, and we can describe lots of action, but I don’t personally believe that the seat of emotion – as it is conveyed in writing – lives in the physical body of your characters. I’m always a fan of “interiority instead!” and of mixing the character’s inner life (and not their organs’ inner life) with what’s going on, plot-wise.

This is just one way to convey emotion. I happen to think it’s the right way. But, as such, I’m thrilled to start the conversation about Physical Telling and how it relates to “show, don’t tell.” What are your thoughts? Taps foot, checks watch, tilts head and glares.

ETA: JH’s point well-taken, I’ve added to the example of Bad Telling. Thanks, JH!

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What is Interiority?

What is interiority, you ask? I answer! This question about interiority in writing came to me from Janelle months ago. Now I want to get right into it:

Is there really a difference between telling (vs. showing) and internal monologue that states how someone is feeling? Isn’t saying something like, “The way she tapped her clipboard made me nervous,” actually telling? If so, is it acceptable to do that in YA as long as you don’t go overboard, making sure you’re using a variety of techniques to get the character’s reaction across throughout a story, rather than always stating the emotion?

My critique partners (whom I love and trust) are telling me at certain points in my novel that they need to know more about what my MC is feeling. I thought I was showing it already with action & dialogue responses, but it doesn’t seem to be enough; however, I’m terrified to make the dreaded mistake of telling when I should be showing. I’m hoping you can help solidify this very blurry line for me.

interiority in writing, what is interiority
How to create a complex character and build emotion via interiority in writing.

This is a really tough line to draw and, honestly, I can’t exactly define the difference between good and bad telling. (Here’s a guest post by one of my readers about how to write fiction that also digs into this debate.)

When you’re asking, “what is interiority?” interiority is defined as a character’s thoughts, feelings, and reactions to the situation. It is accomplished in either first or close third person narrative by letting us into the character’s head (it can also be accomplished in omniscient third, where we have access to the heads of many characters, but omniscient third is really hard to pull off well).

The more I think about Good Telling vs. Bad Telling and how it plays in concert with Showing, the more I think that it’s a matter of context. Like, if you’ve done your job well, you’ll know exactly when to use Good Telling to good effect. If we know what is going on in a scene and what the characters want in relationship to one another, the subtext of each scene will be easy to understand and you free yourself up to play a lot with your character’s interiority. (I talk about the show, don’t tell rule all the time.)

What is Interiority in Writing

In terms of interiority, I am always begging writers for more interiority, and less Bad Telling, and less Physical Telling (which we will get into next week and which I do admit to using once in my rewritten examples below). But I think for writers unused to writing good interiority, you can cross the line over to telling every once in a while and we won’t really notice it that much or fault you. It’s when interiority is missing that telling becomes a problem.

One of my most frequent comments on manuscripts is highlighting a piece of telling and writing “Interiority instead.” I harp mercilessly on all of my clients to include more interiority (clients who read the blog: feel free to chime in and confirm, hehe). What does that look like?

Someone in the comments asked me to rewrite Monday’s examples with Good Telling and Showing. It would depend a lot on context. And what we’ve already established about the characters. Ideally, when you come to each of those lines, you already know what the situation is and who the characters are, so you’d know more or less how they’re reacting to something or what kind of scene they’re in.

What is Interiority: Examples of Good Telling

With the king example (I never defined him as a king when originally writing, he became one in my head and in the second half of the post), you could do something like the following. Keep in mind that I can’t indent on the blog, so there are no tabs to delineate dialogue or new paragraphs.

The new jester took a spin around the royal feast table on his unicycle. New jester, yeah, but same old tricks, thought the king. This was a disappointing opening night for the newly appointed clown, and on the king’s birthday, no less. The jester careened around a corner and aimed himself for the throne, a deranged smile on his face. Only then did the king see the banana creme pie in the Jester’s hand, and how it seemed pointed right for him.
“Happy Birthday, Your Highness!” the jester cried, and let the pie fly.
The king opened his jaw in horror at the realization of what was happening, but, alas, too late. He gasped and sputtered on a mouthful of whipped cream. A squishy explosion, then…silence.
The queen fainted from her chair with a thud. From what the king could see through the mask of oozing custard on his face, the courtiers were frozen, some mid-bite, gaping at him.
A dollop of pie fell onto the king’s brand new birthday jacket. This was not good. No, not good at all. Whatever he did here, he could either be a fool or a ruler. The Jester must’ve realized he’d gone too far, because he hopped off his unicycle immediately dove under the brocade table cloth.
“Well, I never!” the monarch shouted. “You have gone too far!”

I’m trying to give us some context for the situation. And there are some telling moments, like the shaking hands, the jaw dropping, the boredom with the new jester, that it’s the king’s birthday (which we would already know if we were reading this as a scene in a chapter), etc. But I’ve also added some interiority: his thoughts, the realization of his “birthday surprise,” his interpretation of why the jester hides, etc. I think this is a more fleshed out version of the scene with much more showing and interiority than blatant telling.

With the second example, where I’m trying to convey awkwardness and tension, you could do this:

I haven’t seen Sam since last summer. Since the accident. Since I begged Mom and Dad to move us away but could never bring myself to say exactly why. There’s nothing worse than this. He knows I ran away that June, that I begged to switch schools, that I did everything to get away from him. Now he’ll know something else: the money and my parents’ patience ran out and I’m back.
If all goes according to plan, he won’t recognize me. If all goes according to plan
The bell rings and I’m still not to homeroom. What a great way to start my first day back in this hellhole. The classroom’s up ahead. My steps are too loud in the hall, my hand too sweaty on the doorknob, the hinges too loud as I push the door open.
Thirty pairs of eyeballs swivel lazily toward me. The teacher frowns and glances at his clipboard. I want to slip into a seat, any seat, and disappear, except…
Oh god. There’s only one left.
It’s next to Sam.
He looks at me for only a split second; it’s a hazy half-look that gives me a pang of hope. Maybe all the weight I lost will camouflage me. Maybe, to him, I’m just another beanpole kid pushing into homeroom. Then he looks back at me, his eyes narrow.
I’m finished. Just like that.
He knows exactly who I am.

Now, you’ll notice that my examples of Good Telling and Interiority are muuuuch loooonger than my examples of Bad Telling from Monday. This is on purpose. I am trying to flesh out the situation and the characters involved.

How to Use Telling Constructively

Once we know those, we are much more likely to be able to plug into moments of good, constructive telling. Interiority also adds bulk, but I hope you can tell here that this kind of padding isn’t bad. It conveys tension, it reveals character, it defines relationships, and it helps the reader stay grounded in the character as we move forward with plot.

Telling and interiority are probably some of the hardest higher-order writing things to nail (along with character and voice), so these posts are never going to be definitive. They will, however, try and introduce these concepts and get you thinking about them.

Do you struggle with writing fiction characters who are complex and compelling? Struggling with when to tell in writing? Hire me as your manuscript editor for book editing services.

The Oxford Comma

This is a small bit of punctuation nerdery about the Oxford comma. Have you heard of this little guy? No? It’s this (bolded and italicized):

I like my scrambled eggs with lox, cheese, and chives.

oxford comma, serial comma
People tend to have strong feeling about the Oxford comma. Do you use it?

What is the Oxford Comma?

It’s that last comma before the last “and” (or sometimes “or” or “nor”) in a sentence with a list of three or more items. This is a smartypants comma, as it’s also sometimes called the Harvard comma (or the serial comma). And, of course, it has a Wikipedia entry. The big controversy is: Should we use it or shouldn’t we?

Do You Use the Oxford Comma?

I didn’t used to, but now that I have a Master’s degree and am pretty much a huge smartypants, I’ve started using it. (That’s just my theory for why I’ve added it to my writing…I think I started using it consistently about two years ago after seeing it somewhere and wondering, in my paranoid way, whether I’d actually been doing it wrong all these years. Just like I consciously changed the “a” character of my handwriting in middle school after seeing someone doing it differently because I thought I’d been in the wrong for years. Call it a grammar version of “keeping up with the Joneses.”)

There’s no consensus for whether or not you should or shouldn’t use the serial comma in your manuscript, but isn’t it wonderful to be aware of such civilized things and to make such überimportant decisions? Without thinking about commas, we turn into animals. Or cannibals, even! (I’m referring here to a funny comma omission that implicates Rachael Ray on a magazine cover…even though this isn’t an serial comma issue.)

Using commas correctly is only small part of writing good sentences. Follow the link for more advice for honing in on those details that’ll make your writing sparkle.

An exciting novel begins at the sentence level. Hire me as your novel editor and we will engineer great fiction together from the ground up, Oxford commas or not — your call. 😉

Mimetic Writing

Mimetic writing is a literary device that simply means having your writing match the pace of what you’re describing with how you’re describing it. Let’s go into a bit more detail here.

mimetic writing, descriptive writing, creative writing, fiction writing,
This isn’t the vibe you want for a tender, vulnerable moment.

This is a point that I tackled in slightly different terms in my Making Your Writing Exciting at the Sentence Level post from late 2009. I’ve been seeing opportunities for this literary device a lot more recently, and so I wanted to delve into it again.

Mimetic Writing Makes Sense

Writing should strive to be mimetic of the action it’s describing. As with the example of a character being chased in the older post, the short burst sentences portray the feeling of being chased, even as the words describe a chase scene. In the language falling in love example, the long, flowing sentences portray the languor and lush feelings of infatuation, even as they describe it. So while the term feels like a literary device, the idea is really quite simple.

When you’re writing, not only should you strive to match your writing and syntax to what you’re describing, but you should also put yourself in the situation in a physical, emotional, and, above all, logical way. Doing all of this will not only work to make your readers feel like they’re part of the situation on a conscious level, but on a subconscious one as well.

As always, you should strive to make writing work and blend, not stand out or pull the reader out of the story.

Your Level of Description Needs to Make Sense

I’ve been reading a lot of scenes that just don’t make syntax sense or logic sense (more on character logic). For example, I find an action sequence unrealistic if your character stops to describe the scene, the characters, the mood, or any of the action in too much sensory detail. Why? Well, imagine fighting some baddies Matrix-style. As bullets zoom by you, are you really stopping to reflect on a character’s sleek black trench? Or describe the marble hall that’s currently getting blasted to hell? No.

Action and danger spike adrenaline and tunnel your vision and senses. Or they make one persistent detail stand out. How many times have you heard grief-ridden or traumatized people/characters say, “And for some reason, I remember looking out the window and seeing this random kid crossing the street, and that’s all I remember from that time at the hospital when Dad passed.” (Even more advice on writing descriptions.)

You’re only paying attention to the things you need to survive, or sometimes your conscious mind isn’t working at all. So not only does superfluous description during an action sequence seem unnecessary and slow the pacing, I also just don’t buy it. That’s the crux of mimetic writing.

Avoid Generic Descriptions

The inverse is true, too. If your character is paying really careful attention to someone or something, vague description just isn’t going to cut it. If she’s looking into his eyes (is there a bigger cliche?), she most likely wouldn’t find them just “beautiful” or simply “captivating,” but she’d go into detail. This is an easy consideration, and perfectly logical, but it’s just one more small thing for writers to keep in their heads when they’re writing.

Mimetic Writing Means Directing the Spotlight

Whenever we describe something, we draw the reader’s attention to it. This doesn’t just apply to how we describe something, it counts for what we describe, too. We are the story’s curator, using all the tools in our storytelling arsenal to guide the reader through the tale. Mimetic writing — imitating the action of what’s being described — is a subtle way to do just that. Description is another related skill. Lately, I’ve been noticing a lot of description missteps, so this literary device is something to keep in mind.

What you describe and how you describe it are two very important considerations of writing voice. As your freelance book editor, I can help you hone your style so that your work stands out.


Writing Character Description in First Person POV

What’s a great way to accomplish character description in first person POV? I want to talk about something I’ve been noticing a lot: third person-style narration in the first person.

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How does your protagonist describe him or herself? Don’t fall into this common trap when you’re writing a character description.

What to Avoid With Character Description in First Person

Character description in first person POV (and what to avoid) is easier to illustrate than to explain. It goes, for example, like this:

My gaze shifted to the corner of the room. A shadow seemed to move. It hadn’t been there a moment ago. My heartbeat quickened and my pupils contracted with fear. I leaned back against the wall, the muscles in my torso tightening, my mouth drying out, my legs ready to spring into action. With my breath coming in short, shallow gasps, I prepared myself to attack.

Now, this is a subtle one to pick up on, I think. Can you figure out, from this sample, what I might mean? I’m referring to a style of narration that is more commonplace (and appropriate) when writing a character description in the third person.

When you’re writing in the first person, you are immediately inside your character’s head, heart, and body. When you’re in third person, even if you’re in very close third, you’re on the outside of the body, seeing it from a bit of a bird-eye view.

External Character Description

Passages like the one I’ve written above are first person character description (within the body) but seem oddly outside of it. This most often happens with physical descriptions/actions. I fear I’m not making a whole lot of sense, so I will try another approach. Imagine you’re telling an anecdote to your friends.

You’ve got them wrapped around your finger as you’re describing a scene, say, the last time you were thrown a surprise party. When you’re writing a character description about yourself, do you say, “My gaze shifted to the corner and my mouth dropped open to discover Uncle Eddie wearing a party hat”?

That doesn’t sound very natural to me. If I were telling a story to a group of friends at a party, I would say something like “I looked and saw” or, if I’m feeling really fancy, “I glanced over.” When I’m writing character description in first person, it feels oddly distancing to say, about myself, “my gaze shifted.” I also wouldn’t say “my mouth dropped open.” I’m not watching myself on a video tape and narrating what’s happening. “To my shock” or “shockingly” would be more first person-appropriate.

Character Description in Third Person

To further illustrate the differences when you’re writing a character description, let’s put the above passage in the third person:

His gaze shifted to the corner of the room. A shadow seemed to move. It hadn’t been there a moment ago. Jake’s heartbeat quickened and his pupils contracted with fear [I have problems with writers relying too heavily on physical symptoms and gestures to convey emotion, but that’s another post for another day…]. He leaned back against the wall, the muscles in his torso tightening, his mouth drying out, his legs ready to spring into action. With his breath coming in short, shallow gasps, Jake prepared himself to attack.

Now, it’s not a perfect paragraph, and it still has a lot of no-nos in terms of how to describe emotion, but it sounds much more natural in third to my ear because we’re observing the character from the outside.

Sure, we can’t see his muscles tighten or his heartbeat quicken from a true bird-eye view, but the tone of this piece is that of an outside observer. That same tone doesn’t work when you’re writing character description in first person, when the protagonist is talking about their own body.

Writing a Character Description That Sounds Natural

This note about character description in first person is more subtle, but I’ve found myself giving it a lot lately. Sure, it’s probably less fancy to adhere to true first person tone when describing physical events (the boring “I glanced” vs. the sexy “my gaze shifted”) but I think it’s more authentic. On a related note, I’ve also been giving a lot of writers pointers about overwriting, making things more complex than they should be, and showing off. This is one example of prose where I think we should all strive for a bit more simplicity.

Do your character details sound authentic? Are you writing in the right POV? Hire me as your book editor and let’s talk characterization!

How To Write a Book That Sells

Most aspiring writers are trying to figure out how to write a book that sells. Here’s a question from a blog reader that touches on this question:

Would you turn down a story you loved but knew wouldn’t be an easy sell? I’m imagining something literary that for whatever reason didn’t suit the market at this time…

how to write a book that sells, my book didn't sell
I obviously need to love, very deeply, all the books I sell. However, it’s the selling part that matters undeniably in today’s marketplace.

This is a great question and one I wrestle with all the time. It also illustrates how I’ve grown in my thinking as an agent. Unfortunately, I haven’t grown in the direction that some writers will want to hear.

Must Love Books, But…

Here’s a great qualification for someone looking to get into the agenting business: must love books. But a qualification to stay in the agenting business is that they must sell books, too. I’m not saying the two are mutually exclusive, by any means. I obviously need to love, very deeply, all the books I sell. However, it’s the selling part that matters undeniably in today’s marketplace, and I don’t plan to look for another job anytime soon, so I have to build my list accordingly.

Early in my agenting days (and it’s still relatively early, mind), I took on some projects that did tend toward the literary, the quiet, the beautiful. And I’m not going to lie when I say that some of them have turned out to be tough sells. I’ll sidestep a discussion on selling out and how the whole high-concept commercial fiction  world is a travesty and what havoc it’s wreaking on the literature-starved youth of tomorrow and all that blah blah blah here and just mention that I am majorly bummed that these fine, beloved manuscripts of mine are hanging out in “my book didn’t sell” territory. Enough said. The undeniable fact, though, is that it is easier to sell something with a commercial, high-concept premise than something that’s a review-driven award contender or a school and library market darling these days.

How To Write A Book That Sells: Consider Market Viability

Two things. That doesn’t mean I’ll stop trying to sell what I already have that’s in this vein. My love for those books is unwavering. And that doesn’t mean I’ll lower my literary/writing quality standards for the lure of the commercial money-grab. But I do have to think about the sales pitch and market viability as I’m falling for a story. That aspect weighs heavily on my mind as I’m deciding which projects to represent. These days, sales potential is probably the number one thing that separates a beautifully written near miss from a client on my list. So, to answer Siski’s tough question, if I didn’t think I could sell something I loved, I would probably pass and ask to see the writer’s next book. Love can’t be the only consideration anymore. If you want to know how to write a book that sells, you have to consider market viability.

That’s not a bad thing at all. What would you like? An agent who gushes over your work but leaves you in “my book didn’t sell” territory? Or an agent who gushes over your book and then sells it, makes your dreams come true, and turns you into a soon-to-be published author? Sorry to be so callous, but I think you’d best be served by the latter, and that’s who I want to be for my clients.

Wondering how to write a book that sells? When you hire my manuscript editing services, I’ll push you to produce a piece of work that balances emotional resonance with commercial appeal.

Writing Tense in Young Adult

Wondering about writing tense in Young Adult fiction? This post is actually more question than answer, because Lynne did such a great job of summing up the issue and, to be fair, answered most of this question herself. But I wanted to post that process and contribute to it! What’s the issue? Present tense.

writing tense
Present tense lends immediacy to your YA manuscript, letting the reader feel like everything is happening now now now. But is this desirable?

For my WD seminar, every writer got to ask me a question and I was guaranteed to answer it. Roughly a tenth of all the questions were about writing tense or POV. Someone even asked about the tense that should be used in a query letter. What?! I’d never thought about that for a second in my life. I have written about POV a few times before, like in this post about POV in writing. Tense? Not as much. So here we go.

Young Adult Present Tense Is So Hot Right Now

I’ll start with Lynne’s question about young adult present tense:

Lately when I’ve perused the YA section at Barnes & Noble, there seem to be awful lot of new releases written in the present tense. Several have been fabulous and very successful (e.g., Suzanne Collin’s HUNGER GAMES trilogy, Ally Condie’s MATCHED). Others are less well-known, but ten minutes in the YA section and you’ll have an armful. There’s been some buzz about the “trend” of present tense writing. Some authors don’t like the use of present tense and suggest its a fad (see Phillip Pullman’s take in The Guardian).

Others question whether it’s a trend at all, and conclude that in the end, it doesn’t matter because if the writing (in any tense, present included) doesn’t work for you, you can always just put the novel down. (see Laura Miller’s article in Salon). Another article or blog I read recently mentioned the appeal of present tense to young readers is its immediacy; that current teens are so used to a culture where everything happens at breakneck speed that younger readers today aren’t jarred by the use of present tense and may even gravitate toward it.

My question is two-fold: First, do you feel there a trend toward present tense writing (especially in a first person POV) in YA lit right now? Are you seeing more of it in your slush these days? And second, if so, what do you think about it? Do manuscripts written in the present tense intrigue you? Turn you off? Or are you neutral, and just wait to see if the writing lives up to the challenge? And are editors seeking books in present tense or are they wary of them?

In the end, I would think it all comes down to the story and more than anything, the quality of the writing. Present tense presents different challenges than past tense, and the immediately of the tense can be exhausting for the reader. Also, the stream of consciousness filter can be tough, so can the effort not to mix tenses. It’s still not the norm– but is it a trend?

Does The Tense Fit the Book? That’s The Only Consideration

To tell you the truth, I felt lazy with my short answer to such a long question, but so it goes. I think that tense really doesn’t matter as long as the book works. There is a trend of young adult present tense out there right now, for sure. But do I gravitate toward or away from a piece because of present tense writing? No.

Also, I haven’t really heard an editor talk to me about young adult present tense in particular. We talk about story and hook and character. Sometimes POV comes into the picture, but the most I usually hear from editors about POV is a thought on really polarizing POV, like second person direct address (YOU by Charles Benoit is an example of that, and comes up often in discussions). It seems like us literary types should spend more time discussing tense but it really does fade into the background for me when I’m reading, as long as the writing, story, character, and voice are there.

Long story short: I think young adult present tense writing is hot (for the immediacy reasons Lynne mentions, which I also always cite), but it’s not really a consideration for me. I’ve read present tense. I’ve written in present tense. I don’t know if I’ve represented present tense yet. (See? I can’t even remember if my clients’ books are in present tense…although I do know WILDEFIRE has sections of present tense second person direct address, because Karsten Knight is crafty like that…)

Writing tense is very low on my list, in other words, of things I care about when I’m reading/considering. Hope that takes some of the, ahem ahem, tension out of the issue for you all!

Voice is crucial to writing YA but a lot of writers take years to find it. Bring me on your team as a developmental editor for personal, intimate manuscript feedback geared toward the young adult market.

Creative Writing MFA Programs

Should I get an MFA in writing for children? The age-old question! I have been meaning to tackle creative writing MFA programs for longer than I’ve had the blog. Tons of writers have asked me: is it worth it to get an MFA? Does that catch your eye in a query? Is the actual curriculum going to take my writing to the next level?

should i get a creative writing mfa, mfa in writing for children, creative writing mfa, mfa program, writing program, benefits of a writing program, drawbacks of a writing program
Wondering if you should get a MFA in writing for children? Some thoughts from an MFA graduate…

My Experience in Creative Writing MFA Programs: A Caveat

As many of you know, I recently completed my MFA. Before I can speak about the MFA experience in general, I have to speak about my MFA experience, which was not altogether positive. I mean no disrespect to the hard-working directors, professors, advisers, and students at the University of San Francisco. However, I want to be truthful. And the truth is, I often felt like a pariah in my program on two counts: as a children’s writer and as a publishing industry insider.

First, there were a lot of people there (all writing serious adult fiction) who didn’t get children’s books. My first workshop started with someone saying: “Well, I never expected profundity from a children’s manuscript.” (There were a few genre writers in the program who, I think, got a bit of the same snobby treatment because they weren’t writing literary fiction.) Obviously, mine was not an MFA in writing for children, so take this with a grain of salt.

That’s fine, though. There’s a well-known bias against kidlit in adult literary circles and I don’t waste my time defending my profession to people who don’t know what they’re talking about.

Second, though, and more problematic, is that I worked in publishing and concerned myself with ideas of market and audience and sales hooks and all that unsavory business. I can’t help it. As an agent, saleability and hook is just how I think. People were very quick to brand me a corporate sellout. (The battle of business vs. art rages on in creative writing MFA programs, as you can imagine.) More on that later.

While I did have trouble fitting in, for the above reasons, I can say that I found workshop useful and that I met one of my dear mentors through the program. I also either started or finished several manuscripts over the course of the two-year MFA, and improved with each one. How much of this was the program and how much was it my growing experience in agenting and publishing? Hard to say. How much of it was the MFA and how much of it was my own writing habits? Also hard to say.

Are Creative Writing MFA Programs Worth It? It Depends On What You Want Out of It

One of my issues with creative writing MFA programs is that it seems like a lot of students go there and buy the scaffolding to allow themselves to finish a manuscript. I’m the opposite, and ridiculously self-driven. I’d written something like four manuscripts and gotten an agent before entering the program, so I couldn’t relate to the majority of students who seemed to be there to finish a book for the first time in their lives.

A lot of people work well under pressure or deadline, and most of my peers seemed to be paying for the experience of a structured, two-year plan to finish. If you’re having problems executing a book, this might actually be the perfect fit for you: a completed manuscript is the “thesis” of most creative writing MFA programs, it’s a graduation requirement.

Another issue is that the professors and directors treat the MFA as an artistic cocoon. Writers are there to write and think about art and craft (which is great, don’t get me wrong), but the program doesn’t teach the industry or the business…you know, all the stuff that, ideally, happens after you finish your magnum opus.

I think it’s perfectly fair to focus on the gestation of the manuscript during the MFA, but the truth is, the publishing industry exists, and it’s a business. And no matter how much (the majority of) the students rant and rave against traditional publication, I know most of them are interested in actually getting their work published, paid for, and read widely.

Do You Want a Creative Focus or a Practical Focus?

Some creative writing MFA programs are great about informing their students of the ins and outs of the publishing process. Mine was not. Not only is industry talk relegated to one dreary afternoon — the “Life After the MFA” workshop — but it’s actually frowned upon in the classroom and socially. I asked one of my advisers, point blank: “How many of our alums actually get their books published?” She frowned and said: “Not many.”

Nobody is going to pay back their student loans with their contributor’s copies from the Small Time Literary Review (the only payment you get from most journals and magazines), but a lot of MFA students act as if this is the right and noble thing to do. The tortured/starving/pissed-off artisté cliche is alive and well. Lots of MFA alums, even in MFA in writing for children programs, have told me that the exact same vibe exists across the country. There are some more practical programs. If this is your mindset, you’ve been warned, and you’d do well to find one of those.

How Much Support to Expect From An MFA Program

My beef with MFA programs isn’t really what happens during them — all that focus on craft and writing is a beautiful thing — but what happens after. There’s precious little information about publishing to guide your next steps, and not a lot of empathy for those dreaming of publication with a big house. A lot of students in my program actually come back and audit classes after graduation to feel the community of the MFA again, since it’s the first time they’ve had a critique group or felt like a real writer.

The same students who need a MFA program to finish a book are also relying on their MFA program to be their only workshop opportunity, their legitimacy. And that’s an expensive way to learn how to write a manuscript (some advice on how to finish writing a novel here). Last I checked, anyone can form a critique group, it’s just a matter of initiative and a little elbow grease to find the right people. I was in a critique group before and after my creative writing MFA, so the idea of workshop wasn’t totally revolutionary to me, either.

But if MFA programs had to start tallying up their publication stats — much like undergraduate universities advertise their job placement percentages for recent grads — a lot of them would be in trouble. Because for most programs, the stats aren’t good. The truth is, an MFA does not guarantee publication, because nobody and nothing in life (except worldwide celebrity) can guarantee a book deal. So MFA faculty and directors have taken the focus entirely off publication and put it on the writing journey.

If Your Goal is Writing, Go For It. If Your Goal Is Publication, You May Want To Look Elsewhere…

That way, the MFA process itself is fulfilling because there’s not quantifiable end goal. There’s no pressure. I totally get where the MFA programs are coming from with this. But I still think it’s detrimental to the writers, who now have two years of fuzzy writerly feelings and no idea what to do next.

To tell you the whole, honest truth: seeing that you have an MFA in a query letter doesn’t really impress me, unless you went to a really high-profile school. I’ve read the writing coming out of my MFA program and some of the work from second year students wasn’t much better than what I see from rank beginners in my slush. I’m not trying to be mean, at all. But I judge writing professionally, every day, and most of the work I saw wouldn’t pass muster.

I do wonder if I would’ve had the same experience if I’d gone to a program specifically targeted to children’s writers. If I could go back in time, I’d probably apply to Vermont (website). There are other programs that have MFA in writing for children programs. Hamline (website), Simmons (website) and the New School (website) come to mind.

Decide What You Want, Then Decide If a Program Fits

Though, to be honest, I don’t know if I’d get a creative writing MFA if I had it to do all over. I’m not sure the whole experience — the nitty gritty writing mixed with the high-brow attitude — is a fit for me, as a person.

At the end of the day, I think I’ve learned so much more about writing by simply working in the industry than I ever did in the classroom. I also learned a whole lot by reading, and not just the same old short stories that seem to be part of every writing curriculum. I mean reading in my chosen genre, thousands and thousands of books above and beyond what I was assigned, because that’s just what I do.

My approach (work in publishing, become an agent, read thousands of books) isn’t realistic for everyone, but since I started in publishing at the same time that I started my MFA, I can’t tell which influence is really responsible for what I know now. I am a better writer than I was two years ago (in all my spare time — ha!), but I think that came from a wide mix of experiences, not the least of which is putting my butt in the seat and actually, you know, writing.

If I was running my own program — and several agents and I have discussed this fantasy because we get frustrated with the output from today’s MFA programs — I’d run a mix of MFA and MBA, much like suggested in this cheeky little article.

As a freelance novel editor, I have actually been called a “one-woman MFA program.” Kim’s words, not mine. If you’re looking for that comprehensive novel focus without going back to school, hire me.

Copyright © Mary Kole at Kidlit.com