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.

Tasteful Butchery Well Done

Different writers seem to favor different parts of the writing process.  For some, it’s the brainstorming of ideas.  For others, it’s getting that first draft down.  A lot of writers, though, seem to shrink from the editing/rewriting part of the process.

As I continue my writing journey, I find myself having the most fun when editing or rewriting.  At that stage, I feel like the initial pressure to produce something is gone and the creative give and take with the manuscript can begin.

When I’m short on writing time, as I have been for the past several months while hubby is laid off, I keep the writing bug alive by reading books and blogs about writing.  In fact, I start each workday by reading through the blogs I follow and hitting a few of the freshly pressed for the day.  Right now, I’m reading Writers on Writing.  It’s a collection of  New York Times essays written by famous writers.  I’ll admit, there’s an awful lot of self-indulgent crap in there, but something I read this morning struck me as brilliant.  Author Paul West had this to say:

“I stay up long enough, usually, to correct what I’ve written, and on occasion to carve it up, then go to bed with that elated shiver of tasteful butchery well done.”

Tasteful butchery well done.  The whole book was worth that one quote.

I can chalk up my struggles with the WIP to stress and being overworked for months; but even in the midst of the turmoil, I’ve managed to give the story some structure.  I love the search for and discovery of ideas, the playful dialogue, and getting the first draft down, even though it’s tough right now.  But the part where I get to sit on my porch with a typed draft in front of me, red pen in hand, and smooth out the rough patches–that’s when I feel most like a writer.

Don’t be afraid of or dread rewriting and editing.  Savor it.  This is where we go beyond being overgrown kids with wild imaginations.  This is where we become writers.

Tasteful butchers, all.

Hey! That’s writing, too!

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With the exception of Sherlock Holmes, I’ve never been a big fan of mysteries. I prefer to watch them, rather than read them. I love the late Jeremy Brett’s version of Sherlock and was instantly hooked by Benedict  Cumberbatch’s modern version.

I have to stop here for a second and say that “Benedict Cumberbatch” is the most wonderful name I’ve ever heard. It just screams to be the name of a character in a children’s book.

How I managed to write a mystery for children is, well, a mystery.  It was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever had to write, and I had no training for it.  Somehow, I pulled it off.  Now that I’m working on a sequel, I realize how little I know about the genre.

I went on the internet and Googled a couple of articles about writing mysteries.  Adult mysteries almost always seem to involve a corpse, so I have to adapt the advice to my target audience.  All in all, I didn’t do a bad job with the first story.  I managed to hit on most of the plot points necessary for a mystery.  Still, I recognize that I have mystery storytelling shortcomings to deal with.

So what’s a writer with no money and very little time to do? I picked up a couple of Raymond Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe mysteries.  Chandler had a way with words and unique phrases that forever defined the hard-boiled detective character.  I’m not terribly impressed by his plots, though.  Not much to see there.  With Sherlock Holmes, the mysteries are also pretty simple.  In fact, to my eye, none of the mysteries I’ve been watching and reading have been very mysterious at all.  The most entertaining part about them is the lead detective character.

A big favorite among mystery writers is the “fish out of water” or “accidental” detective.  These characters seem to be primarily older females with no police training at all.  A few do seem to be mystery writers, however.  Lately, I’ve been watching “Murder, She Wrote” on TV.  It ran on American TV for years and starred Angela Lansbury as Jessica Fletcher, a mystery writer who can’t walk three feet without stumbling upon a dead body.  Honestly, if I were her friend or relative, I’d steer clear of her.  People around her tend to end up dead or accused of murder.  But Jessica is always there to help the clueless local police find the real culprit.  I am learning a few things, though.  Red herrings, subtle clues, multiple suspects and motives, etc.

Everything I’m learning right now is helping my story.  I’ve accumulated quite a few pages of notes about possible plot twists, characters, and settings. I’m not ready to sit down and get to the “once upon a time” part of getting the actual story on paper, but everything I’m doing now is a part of the writing.  The trick is not to let the research become a substitute for the storytelling.

How I Got My Writing Groove Back

That nasty cold that’s been going around finally found me. Since I’m unlikely to come up with a new post this week, I’m reblogging this one from last February. It was the second one I posted, so most of you will have missed it the first time around.

Storyteller

I was always supposed to be a writer, at least that’s what my teachers said.  I was pretty good at it.  Report, essay, poem?  No problem.  Character sketch?  Boy, do I know some characters.  But college was out of the question for me.  It wasn’t just the money; I needed to get away from home.  Things there were difficult.  So, I joined the Army instead (bad idea-I made a lousy soldier), married John six weeks after our first date (great idea for more than thirty years now), and had two boys.  Over the years, I helped write or edit reports for the military, a couple of private investigators (arson, mostly), and have spent the last ten years transcribing and editing medical reports.  Dry, boring, soul-crushing work.  If you’re looking to scrape the creativity off a storyteller’s tongue, technical writing is the tool to use.  The rules can be a little crazy.  One…

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Writing Process Blog Tour–Tag, I’m It!

Writing Process Blog Tour—Tag, I’m It!

Many thanks to K.A. Doore (http://kadoore.wordpress.com) for inviting me to participate in my first blog tour.  K.A. is a novelist who is currently working on a story that involves “…camels, lesbian romance, a city in the sky, sand demons, and vast amounts of the undead.”  Be sure to check out her blog.

What am I currently working on?

I write for children and usually have more than one story going at a time.  I’ve just finished a story about a pint-sized Philip Marlowe who solves mysteries at his elementary school.  I’ve written the main character, Winthrop, as a boy who is small for his age but not lacking in self-confidence.  I wanted to create a character kids could look up to, not just identify with.  I’m in the tortuous beginning phases of a story about an old lady whose habit of collecting things is about to be her undoing.  An alligator is scheduled to make an appearance, but I haven’t squeezed him into the story yet.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Here’s where I’m sure to get myself into trouble with potential publishers and agents.  There is always a moral to my stories, though I try not to clobber anyone over the head with it.  Morals seem to be out of fashion.  I often use rhyme and talking animals, both of which will send my manuscripts to the circular file at a lot of publishing houses, if their submission guidelines are to be believed.  I would invite them to introduce themselves to a five-year-old child sometime.  I also insist that my stories have a plot, regardless of how simple the plot is.  I feel a picture book should carry a child through an actual story with a beginning, middle, and end, and not just be a series of cutesy scenes involving one character (usually based on a TV show).  My stories are nothing like those written by the latest celebrity-who-woke-up-one-day-and-decided-to-be-a-writer in that I actually write the stories myself.  That all sounds a little harsh.  Sorry.  Rough week.

Why do I write what I write?

I grew up in an apartment in Brooklyn—eight people stuffed into a two-bedroom apartment that overlooked the back alleys.  It was a bit of a pressure cooker.  I used to sit in a corner for hours with a stack of books and try to disappear.  I felt safe inside a book.  Growing up in a busy city where a trip to the park couldn’t be made without an adult, I learned to make do and stretch my imagination where I was.  Picture books helped me do that and I’ve loved them ever since.  As an adult, I found that crazy ideas would just pop into my head, so I figured I should either be a writer or run for office.

How does my writing process work?

I’m something of a weekend warrior when it comes to writing.  I’ve never been the type who could write in 15-minute pockets of time during the day.  I really need to sit and ruminate when I write, so I’m limited to one day a week right now because of the day job.  Of course, that doesn’t stop my brain from working on a story at other times; but those aren’t sit-down writing sessions.

I usually start out with a general idea for a story (a word or phrase that has popped into my head), come up with a main character, and do a light outline of the plot.  I give the character a name and a few personality traits.  I do the same for minor characters.  With picture books and early readers, you have to keep the plot simple; but if you cheat, a kid will pick up on it in a New York minute. The words have to be carefully selected because a young child’s vocabulary is very limited, but I don’t hesitate to use “bigger” words if the context of the story helps them figure out what they mean.  In other words, I don’t dumb things down.  If I’m using rhyme, I generally only use it for the dialogue.  If I could be said to have a style, I guess that would be it.  I write the rhyming dialogue first, and then flesh out the story from there.  I’ve only written one story that was completely in rhyme (I Don’t Like the Monster Under My Bed–see my “stories” category).  Examples of my rhyming dialogue stories are When the Poor Man Danced and Wombat Wings.  In other stories, like The Cow Tipping Kangaroo of Kangaroo Valley, there is no rhyme at all, just a pissed off kangaroo and a clueless rancher.  Once I think a story is finished, I put it away in a folder for a while and give it a fresh look weeks later.  I need that distance to get perspective on what’s really good and what needs the red pen treatment.  I think I actually enjoy the rewrites more than the first draft.  I don’t yet have an agent or a publisher, but I’m hopeful.

Tag!

Next up is Dawne Webber.  Dawne (http://dawnewebber.wordpress.com) is a novelist and homeschooling mom extraordinaire!