Images vs. Descriptions

I just read this quote about writing character descriptions:

“Learning someone’s age, eye color, or height, in inches or centimeters, is not compelling, which is why we don’t consider drivers’ licenses literature.”  Harley Jane Kozak in Now Write! Mysteries, edited by Sherry Ellis and Laurie Lamson.

Likewise, our character descriptions shouldn’t sound like a crime victim describing their attacker to a police sketch artist.

In Winthrop Risk, Detective–The Mystery of the Missing Hamster (available on Amazon and Kindle), the main character (a boy of about 9 or 10 years old) offers his descriptions of people and situations this way:

“Roger, the class bully.  Ran the playground at Chandler Elementary like a shark in a fishbowl.  Even picked on the little guys in kindergarten.  A bad egg.”

Or, speaking of his teacher, Mrs. Obermeyer:

I clapped the erasers together right next to Mrs. Obermeyer’s desk.  She started to sneeze–squeaky little sneezes that squeezed their way out of a nose that matched her size 12 feet.

We know Winthrop is smaller than the other kids in his class when his friend, Dash, rescues him from Roger.  And we learn that Dash is a strong, confident girl.

“Let him go, Roger!”  It was Dash, and boy, was her nose out of joint.

“You gonna let a girl fight your battles, Risk?”

“A kid my size can’t be too picky, Roger.  Thanks for saving my neck, Dash.”

What does the school playground look like just before the bell rings?

The playground was covered with kids–like ants on a dropped lollipop.

You get the idea.  These are images we’re creating, not mug shots.  And maybe that’s what we should keep in mind.  The old adage that we should show, not tell, can be tough to apply.  We don’t want to give the reader a point by point description that doesn’t serve the plot.  A classic example I’ve noted in the past (see “It’s That Time of Year Again” from 2014) is Washington Irving’s rich description of Ichabod Crane, which not only tells us a lot about his physical appearance but serves to make the Headless Horseman chase scene that much more vivid.  The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is an atmospheric piece that was written at a time when stories were told at a more leisurely pace, and Irving’s little gem is a wonderful example that broke our modern rules for description and  was spot on in having done so.

So, in painting your word picture, broad brush strokes are OK and coloring within the lines isn’t always necessary.

We’re All Still Writing

I just read a wonderful book about writing, “Still Writing–The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life,” (Grove Press) by Dani Shapiro @danijshapiro, so let me start by saying I give it very high marks and strongly recommend it.  This isn’t a book about the fastest way to get an agent or the latest marketing gimmicks.  It’s about writing and being a writer.

What a relief.

I’ve read several books about writing over the years. They serve as a sort of creative boost for me when I can’t seem to get the words out. I feel, in some way, that these books give me permission to want to write.  I wish I could explain that.  I guess I sometimes feel like I’ve walked into the lobby of a private club and I don’t have an ID card to show to the guy at the desk.  I keep expecting the bouncer to show up and tell me I have no business being there.

When I read an interview with a writer, the thing I most want to hear about isn’t how they got their agent or how they got published–I want to hear about their process.  What is their day like?  Do they write at home or in a café?  In pajamas in bed, or dressed and in an office?  Are they outliners or do they write as they go along?  It’s not that I can’t figure out my own writing process (I know very well how my brain works), but I continue to be fascinated by how other writers get the job done.

Other writers.  Did I just include myself in that category?

Confession:  For those who don’t know me, I am a newly self-published children’s author (Winthrop Risk, Detective–The Mystery of the Missing Hamster available on Amazon and Kindle).  Check it out.

I remember years ago when the idea of self-publishing was considered something to be embarrassed about, as if people were sitting in their basements writing porn.  “Vanity publishing” they called it back then, because obviously anyone who thought they knew better than the publishing world had to possess a monstrous ego.  Picture a would-be author spending a small fortune to have their book printed, only to be left with boxes of unsold books stuffed in an attic someplace.  There was no Amazon back then, no Kindle.   It was risky, and I don’t know if anyone was actually successful at it.

The simple truth is that if you can’t get agents or publishers to consider your work (or you just want to bypass them altogether and maintain creative control) and you decide to self-publish, you had better be sure the publishing gatekeepers are wrong.  Very wrong.

The ease of self-publishing has, I understand, cluttered the literary landscape with a lot of badly written or badly edited books.  I guess for some people the desire to be published races past their desire to write and edit well and the result is…unfortunate.  I think I’ve avoided that particular pitfall.  I hope you will, too.

Trying to Prime the Pump

With the first book in the Winthrop Risk Mysteries out, I’ve been trying to get back to writing the second book. I love the main character, Winthrop.  I didn’t want to create a character who starts out afraid of his own shadow and grows to realize how great he really is at the end of the story.  No.  That would make him a pansy and I don’t like pansies.  I wanted a character who, though smaller than the other kids and considered a loser, had great self-confidence and knew exactly who he was from the very first sentence.

Carrying that character forward is really the easy part.  His Chandleresque dialogue is a blast to write and I actually came up with most of that before I had the plot in place for the first book.  There will be a couple of recurring characters.  The difficulty is that while writing a child’s version of a mystery, one can’t introduce any dead bodies, drug dealers, or torrid affairs.  It has to be clean and not too scary.  Some form of theft is OK, as long as the bad guys don’t carry weapons.  I’m working on making the setting creepy by focusing on Winthrop’s school and how it looks at dusk.  My young characters aren’t allowed out to roam the streets after dark on a school night.  The exact nature of the mystery and the motive continue to elude me, though I’ve jotted down several possibilities.

I’m not one to read mysteries.  I will watch the occasional “cozy” mystery on TV and I’m a rabid fan of Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock.  I spent a good part of yesterday watching a few cozy mysteries and the formula is pretty much the same in all of them.  Not a great deal of violence, but a lot of dead bodies.  They all seem to involve someone (usually a woman) who isn’t a detective but always manages to outwit the local police department and solve the mystery before they do.  I picked up another Raymond Chandler book in the Philip Marlowe series for inspiration, and a book about writing mysteries.  Letting the analytical portion of my brain work on one thing allowed the creative portion to spit out the occasional idea, and I kept my pen and notebook handy to catch them before they were forgotten.

I’ve heard it said that some people want to be writers and others want to have written.  Having written, I find myself luxuriating in the feeling of getting back to the blank page, the random notes, and thinking about what comes next.  It’s good to have written, but being a writer is where the fun really is.