For November, and NaNoWriMo month for many of my fellow writers, I thought it would be appropriate to review a book that covers an important part of writing craft – description. There aren’t many books out there about this topic and indeed it would be a challenge to cover the subject in a way that didn’t sound just a little bit crazy. This book does an admirable job.
About the book:
In ten chapters McClanahan discusses different ways to approach the art of turning mundane descriptions into word paintings that grab the reader’s attention and helps feel part of the world they’re reading about. She explores using the different senses, how descrioption can help the reader understand character and setting, and using figurative language and metaphor. The book is thorough, insightful, and includes plenty of examples to help teach.
For me, the book was an excellent reminder of how much power lies in the perfect description. An evocative piece of description has the power to transport the reader to another place and time where they feel they are living within the pages and seeing and feeling the story through the eyes of the characters. A poor piece of description can do the opposite, pull the reader out of the story, confuse them, and make it hard to understand what is going on in the story.
Perhaps the most useful advice gleaned from the book is the importance of anchoring description deeply into the point of view of the person experiencing it. If the character is a baker, we want to feel the grit of the flour that has collected on the backs of his hands and reminisce of better times as we smell the comforting aroma of fresh bread.
Another thing that McClanahan does well is find hundreds of different examples to help solidify what she is trying to teach. Some of these are remarkable pieces of description that indeed transported me into the world of the scene. When I read them, it made me want to be able to do the same with my own writing.
I recommend this to writers who feel they have the basics covered and are looking for a way to improve. This book is wonderful to help see different angles that can be taken in a passage of description and helps break writers out of old familiar patterns. It also shows how description doesn’t have to be long to be powerful.
I would not recommend this to brand new writers. While it’s full of important information, it’s also overwhelming with just how many possibilities there are in any given line of description. The best time to read this would be when a writer feels they have established their voice and are looking for ways to improve and deepen it.
I give this book 3 stars.
Psst! Jodi here. Did you enjoy today’s review? Did it help you decide if this book was for you? Cool, eh?
Guess what? You can do the same for me. If you’ve read any of my books, head on over to Amazon, Goodreads, or the book site of your choice and leave me a review.
It doesn’t have to be big and long like this one – a few sentences is perfect! Thanks in advance!
Last week my friend and all together interesting guy, Dennis Morrison, came to the Oquirrh Writers Chapter meeting (part of the League of Utah Writers) to educate about the history of tarot cards and also teach about how they can be used to help guide decision making and give insights into one’s life.
I’ve always been fascinated by the idea that someone’s future could be glimpsed at through reading the cards or by the lines on their palms. Clues to success could be hiding in the stars, in the careful study of numbers, or even in tossing the dice. Teenage me checked out books from the library about palm reading. Grade school me made origami fortune tellers and played MASH, the paper fortune telling game.
My friends and I would spend hours goofing off with the different possibilities of our futures, as if writing it out on a piece of paper would actually change anything. Thinking back, playing with these different possibilities was important. How do you work toward a goal or dream, if you haven’t made one? I’d always be excited when MASH told me I’d be a doctor and was annoyed if I got secretary. Down the road, I ended up working in the medical field, albeit, not as a doctor. It seems the truth wasn’t hiding in the paper, but in my own interests. The paper only helped reinforce it.
All through those years of playing with different future divining mediums, I’d never had the chance to learn about tarot. My experience was limited to what was shown on movies, and heaven knows that’s never a good gauge of anything.
Dennis taught how tarot cards began as a simple card game, much like UNO or SkipBo. Over the centuries, the art on the cards evolved and the usage changed. The practice of using the cards to guide decisions or give insight grew as a natural result of them being in use for so long.
As writers and creatives, we discussed how the cards might be used to help guide our characters choices or what might happen in the stories we are working on. The beauty of tarot cards, is that each one is an evocative piece of art. Any randomly chosen card will introduce an idea or an emotion for the writer to consider, and often one that the writer might not have otherwise considered. We were encouraged to take a metaphorical view of the cards and allow our own experiences adapt the image to something relating to our own experiences.
Part of the presentation included a change to choose one card for ourselves and explore what it might mean in our current situation. This was done by having each one of us scan through the deck for an image that grabbed our attention more than the others.
I chose the Hierophant, one of the major arcana. The imagery of a man coming out of the shadows holding an orb struck a cord with me. There are scary things behind him, but they don’t seem to bother him. He’s a priest which means he stands as an advisor and has knowledge to help guide people along their path.
As Dennis explained the attributes of this card, it made more and more sense why the image resonated with my current situation. I’m at a huge turning point in my writing career going from traditional publishing to independent. I’m stepping away from one way of doing things and onto another path.While it’s scary to be the one in control of my future, it’s also liberating.
In the end, I learned much more than I expected. While the card I selected didn’t change the reality I’m in, it helped me think about my situation in a new light and allowed me to consider different angles I hadn’t thought of before.
A huge thanks to Dennis for sharing his knowledge and insights with both myself and my group of writers. I know I came away feeling like I not only learned something new, but having a better understanding of the philosophy behind it as well.
And now I want to get a tarot deck of my own…
Have you ever had an experience with fortune telling or tarot? Share it with me in the comments!
Thank you dear reader for stopping by! If you’d like to be notified of future posts here at JodiLMilner.com, be sure to ‘subscribe’ using the handy links. Or, even better, sign up to be part of my mailing list.
Magic and Science? It’s my dream come true! When it comes to magic there are two distinct teams. One team cheers for hard magic systems, such as what’s found in Brandon Sanderson’s books, where there are clear rules and limitations. The opposing team cheers for soft or undefined magic, such as what’s found in The Lord of the Rings, where there are no limitations and those who use it are shrouded in mystery. Which team will win? Easy – the team you like the best!
Today we welcome my favorite mad scientist author and board game enthusiast to the blog. Ryan Decaria is going to try to win points for Team Hard Magic in his article about magic systems and mad science. Cue the lightning! Muah ah ah!
The Magic System Mad Science Experiment
by Ryan Decaria
My mantra when writing science fiction and fantasy worlds is to treat magic like a science and to treat science like magic.
I’m gonna let that sink in for a minute.
Magic comes in two varieties: magic systems with rules and undefined magic. Brandon Sanderson is famous for the former in his Cosmere novels. Gandalf in the Lord of the Rings is a great example of the later. Who knows what powerful spell he’s going to come up with next. Still, in either methodology, magic can be seen as a part of that world’s natural laws.
Like any other natural force, magic can be studied, classified, and theorized about. The scientific method can be applied, because the cause and effects can be scrutinized. I’m going to say it again. Treat magic in your story as a science field of that world.
Now, your characters will probably not be scientist studying that magic (cept how cool is that), so they won’t necessarily care to use science or science terminology when wielding magic. I don’t think about gravity or how my internal combustion engine gets me to work. I just drive.
I came up with a great litmus test for your fantasy’s magic system. Let’s call it the Mad Scientist Experiment. For your magic system, imagine a mad scientist character living in your world who is trying to use the magic in new way by combining aspects or segments of your magic in unnatural ways. This can be the Frankenstein scientist, driven by the desire to create, the Doc Brown scientist, eccentric but good-hearted, or the nefarious scientist like Doctor Poison from Wonder Woman.
Does your magic have enough meat for them to operate? Can they create life? Can they seek immortality? What are the costs? What are their methods.
If you can’t answer any of these questions, perhaps you haven’t given your magic system enough depth. Answering these questions, might give your magic system a needed boost.
Here are some examples of great mad scientists in epic fantasy with mild spoilers:
Saruman from Lord of the Rings
Focused on industry at the expense of the natural world
Breed a new species of orc
Created great forges and explosives
Became obsessed with power
Ex-maester Qyburn of A Song of Ice and Fire
Anatomical experimentation on still-living people.
Excellent surgeon or a Torture Technician
Created a Frankenstein-like creature
The Lord Ruler in Mistborn (spoilers in this one get a little meatier)
Found a way to gain immortality
Created new races and the inquisitors
Changed the natural laws of the planet
Combined two kinds of magic to great effect
But what about science fiction?
There are two kinds of science fiction: One cares about how the science works and the other cares about how the science affects the world.
In the first, science knowledge is at a premium, and you better get it right. In the latter, the science just works and no one is questioning why. Take hyperspace in Star Wars or transporters in Star Trek. The more you dig into the science, the more preposterous they sound, so you don’t dig into the science. You avoid the science because it just works and your story is about what that technology does to society and to people.
You treat it like magic.
I love the term handwavium because it describes the science in terms of magic. Handwavium is what powers unrealistic or impossible technology, such as faster-than-light travel, teleportation, and artificial gravity.
In conclusion, to create a rich and deep magic system, imagine how a scientist would study the magic and how a mad scientist would exploit it. You might discover a few plot points and a couple of awesome characters along the way.
Remember my mantra:
When writing science fiction and fantasy worlds, treat magic like a science and science like magic.
About today’s guest:
Ryan Decaria was raised on science fiction and fantasy novels and 80’s adventure movies. On rainy days, he sulks on the window, sill waiting for a treasure map, an alien buddy, and his own luck dragon. Ryan is the author of Devil in the Microscope and its soon to be release sequel, We Shall Be Monsters. He is also the host of the Meeple Nation podcast where he discusses the board game world. You can find him at madsciencefiction.com musing about how mad science uses the best bits of science fiction and fantasy at the same time.
When “science-fair-geek” Anika goes to live with her scientist father in a town built around his mysterious genetics laboratory, she is determined to prove herself worthy of his legacy. But all preconceptions about her new life are thrown out the window when Anika discovers her father is a megalomaniac living in a town populated entirely by mad scientists. Now Anika will have to navigate her way through a high school filled with vindictive evil geniuses, deadly science projects, and unspeakable human experimentation. Relying on her wits, scientific know-how, and talented allies, Anika fights for her very life, and the lives of her new friends. Will Anika have to become like her mad scientist father in order to save the day?
Thank you dear reader for stopping by! If you’d like to be notified of future posts here at JodiLMilner.com, be sure to ‘subscribe’ using the handy links. Or, even better, sign up to be part of my mailing list.
Probably one of the most frustrating thing I hear about fantasy authors is the belief that we make everything up. We come up with a world, stick people in it, add a touch of magic, and voila! Fantasy story. The end.
The truth is, we actually do a fair amount of research. Precise details can bring a sense of realism to our fantastical worlds and often we take vital cues from already existing cultures and beliefs.
Today, Amy Beatty wants to discuss just that – the importance of research in all writing, including fantasy.
All fiction is a shared daydream. Whether a story’s setting
is modern day Chicago, Paris during the Second World War, Edo period Japan, or
a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, the writer invites readers to enter
a world that is different in some ways from their own—a mentally constructed
And the number one rule for the fiction writer is:
Don’t break the daydream.
Imagine signing up for a much-needed vacation to an exotic retreat, where you’re sure to meet fascinating new people and participate in thrilling adventures. You buy the ticket, board the plane, and make friends with the person in the seat next to you. With a roar of engines and a stomach-clenching lurch, the plane takes off, climbing into the sky. A flight attendant wheels her cart of goodies down the aisle in your direction. Delicious smells fill the cabin—it’s not just peanuts this time! Your mouth waters in anticipation.
Abruptly, everything erupts in a flash of static and disappears.
“Sorry,” says some broom-wielding dude in the corner. “I tripped over the cord. Also, your mother-in-law is coming over, and your kid is wearing your underwear on his head again.”
Boom. There you are, dumped straight back into your own reality without so much as a by-your-leave.
That’s what it’s like when the author breaks the daydream
for a reader.
And that’s why good research is so important for writers—the
daydream is only fun when it’s convincing and immersive. Details make all the
difference. But a writer can only write
about what the writer knows about.
So, a mystery writer might study police procedure, a romance
writer might study relationship psychology, a writer of realistic historical
fiction might scour old almanacs for historic farming practices, and a fantasy
writer . . .
Wait. Fantasy writers don’t have to do research, do they?
They can just make everything up. It’s fantasy, after all; anything could happen.
But when something happens in a fantasy story that breaks
the established rules of its fantasy reality, it jolts the reader in the same
way as when a realistic story breaks the established rules of the real world.
As a result, researching for fantasy is, in some ways,
actually more complicated than researching for realistic fiction.
For realistic fiction, an author only needs to do enough
research to determine whether a specific technology (for example) really does
(or did historically) indeed exist in the time and place in which the story is
set. For fantasy, however, the writer must determine whether it’s plausible that the technology in
question could exist in the time and place of the story, given the context of everything else that has already been established about
the world of the story.
For example, some technologies can only be developed after the
technologies used to make their component parts have been invented. Are all the
necessary component technologies present in the world? Also, if a technology is
being utilized in one aspect of a society, it will almost certainly show up in
others. A civilization that uses steam-powered tanks to achieve world
domination will be more convincing if it also employs steam powered water pumps
and agricultural equipment.
One fantasy book I read used specific ethnic groups and
place-names to indicate that the setting was an alternate version of early
medieval Europe. Then, in the middle of the story, the characters casually sat
down to a dinner that included turkey and potatoes. For me, this broke the
daydream because both of these items originate in the New World, which would
not yet have been discovered at the time in which the story was set.
This could have been fixed in one of two ways. First, the
author could have mentioned in passing at some point before the meal that a new
land had been discovered across the sea (placing it earlier in the fictional
history than it occurred in real history). Alternately, and probably more
appropriately for this story, the author could have simply substituted similar
foods that would have been available in the time and place the author had
chosen, such as goose and turnips. But as it was, the discrepancy between the
established milieu and the items that didn’t fit that milieu was jarring, and
it took me a while to get back into the story.
By contrast, in another book, set in an alternate version of
modern-day London, a wizard and his apprentice toss a hand grenade into the
basement of a suburban home in order to eliminate vampires who have taken up
residence. The author’s careful description of the label on the grenade is a
potent detail that not only raises the tension and augments the sense of
immersion, but also helps convince the reader that if the author got the details
right on the hand grenades, he’s probably also right about the vampires.
An author who is striving for a realistic setting for a
story needs to make sure that what happens in the story conforms to the reality
with which the reader is familiar.
Likewise, an author who works toward a plausible fantasy
setting needs first to convey to the reader the parameters of the story’s
virtual reality, and then the author is under the same obligation to make the
story conform with that established reality.
In either case, a lot of research can be necessary. Because
the number one rule for the fiction writer is:
Don’t break the daydream.
Amy Beatty grew up in the wilds of Yellowstone National Park
as part of an experiment in crossing the genes of a respected research
biologist with those of a grammar aficionado. She spent her summers making
forts under the sagebrush with her friends and catching garter snakes by the
creek to populate elaborate sandbox villages—or holed up in her bunk bed
exploring the exotic worlds hidden between the covers of books.
She currently lives in Utah with her husband and their two
delightfully unconventional children. For fun, she likes to cut big pieces of
cloth into small pieces of cloth and then sew them together again. Several of
her quilt projects have been exhibited in juried shows at a local art museum.
Edrik, son of the murdered Drake regent, never gained his
dragon magic and cannot shapeshift into his dragon form. Unfit to marry his
love, the Princess Lissara, Edrik embarks on a dangerous mission to prove
himself worthy. He seeks Lissara’s missing father, the dragon king, before an
enemy usurps the throne.
Unfortunately, the search for the king brings Edrik to a
dungeon located in human territory. Inside the prison, Edrik discovers the
missing king, whose captors are unaware of his true identity. Edrik must rely
on a grubby young dungeon keeper to help them escape without disclosing that
his companion is the dragon king. But the dungeon keeper has a secret identity
as well, one that will change Edrik’s destiny forever.
Be sure to check out the Fantasy and Sci-fi Reader’s Lounge Feb 6-9th where dozens of YA authors will be sharing about their work and giving away books and prizes. Yours truly will be featured on Feb 7th from 11-12am EST (9-10am MST)
Thanks for joining us today! If you’d like to be notified of future posts, be sure to ‘subscribe’ using the handy links.
Magic, the final frontier, these are the voyages of… Wait a minute, wrong franchise. But seriously, let’s talk about the different kinds of magic that appear in Stonebearer’s Betrayal.
In the world of Roshnii, a choice few are born with magic in them. Despite the historians efforts to link it to lineage, it appears at random. Those blessed, or some believe cursed, with the magic are fated to live abnormally long lives and die violent deaths. This magic is formally known as the power of the Khandashii.
To earn the title of Stonebearer one must survive training and pass through the fires of testing. A proper Stonebearer has the right to carry a motherstone which allows them to more accurately use their powers to manipulate the world.
There are those born with the power who escape the attention of the towers are referred to as wielders. They are considered highly dangerous. Most don’t survive long, as the magic kills those who can’t control it.
The magic is granted by the Stonemother and she chooses those she believes are destined to have it, for good or for ill. She shows her mercy by keeping the magic dormant until a child is strong enough to command it. The longer a child lives without it manifesting, the stronger their magic is. Those who have used the power for decades develop markings along their arms, necks, and backs.
The magic is divided into five abilities. Each of these abilities has it’s own order and headmaster. While a Stonebearer in theory can work each ability to some degree, they have a natural affinity toward one far stronger than the rest. This determines what order they belong to.
The magic manipulates the physical nature of the world through a series of symbols and glyphs. The energy needed for the magic to perform a task is taken from the Stonebearer and if they use too much, it can kill them. Using an ability they don’t have an affinity for requires a prohibitive amount of energy.
The Five Orders
Travelers – can manipulate the location of objects, including themselves, and instantly move them up to the distance they can walk in a day. They enable communication over long distances and are also excellent spies, especially when pared with a seeker.
Guardians – can alter the physical strength of an object, making it either stronger or weaker. They are tasked with keeping the peace and most train to be expert fighters.
Seekers – can locate both items and knowledge in the immediate area. They are responsible for documenting the history of the world and also keeping track of magic powered artifacts. Some can see glimpses into the future.
Benders – can change the nature of an object by manipulating its particles into new formations. While it is strictly prohibited, some can even change how people think and act.
Healers – can repair what is broken and restore what has been corrupted. Most will formally train to heal people and become town and village doctors.
Katira, the main character of Stonebearer’s Betrayal, begins the story believing the magic is nothing more than a legend, a story told to children at festivals, or to scare them in to staying in their beds. She discovers, much to her horror, that the magic is indeed real when one of those storybook monsters attacks her. The world is not as it seems, it has never been. If she is to survive, she must fight against those who want to use her as a pawn in a much larger game between a dangerous demon and the entire society of Stonebearers.
You can get your own copy at all major online book retailers.
One of the toughest parts of the writing process is getting started on a new project. While the easiest way to overcome white page paralysis is to embrace the “crappy first draft” idea there are other options. Today’s writing exercise comes from WritingExercises.co.uk where you can find hundreds of prompt generators, randomizers, and all other sorts of golden nuggets.
Take three nouns and freewrite
The beauty of this exercise is that it allows the brain to make abstract connections between three unrelated objects which often generates fresh characters, places, and stories.
Freewriting is best with a timer and an atmosphere free of distractions. I prefer 15 minute chunks. It’s long enough to form a few concrete ideas and begin running with them. Often it feels like nothing but drivel comes from the exercise until I go back and read what’s there and find a few gems that I can use.
We’ve come around back to writer Wednesday once more and today we are talking about using rites and rituals in fiction. When I say rites and rituals, I’m referring to any choreographed set of actions performed by several people that is meant to add importance to an event. For the sake of this post we will use the term “ceremony” to include all rites and rituals and related events. These events include formal religious rites and public occasions such as awards, weddings, anniversaries, coronations, and funerals.
Some ceremonies are simple. For example the Japanese Tea Ceremony is performed by one host and is meant to show respect for the honored guests through a demonstration of grace and good etiquette. This isn’t to say that is is easy, the ceremony takes years to learn and a lifetime to master.
Large ceremonies can require hundreds of well-trained individuals to do their part. The success of the ceremony depends on how well each person can perform their part. A coronation, especially when it is also meant to be a display of power, is a perfect example of ceremony on a massive scale. There is a military presence in dress uniform, a religious order also in ceremonial dress, the members of government, and the people of the country. They all have specific roles to play, symbolic gestures or actions to perform, and often a prescribed set of words to say.
Including ceremony in your fiction, when and if the story calls for it, will do several awesome things for the story itself. First, it deepens and broadens the world where the story takes place. If there is a ceremony, then it must mean that the world has a deep rich history. It makes everything that much more real.
Second, a ceremony transforms a scene into a formal event and brings with it deeper and more poignant emotional notes. It forces the reader to read closely and think about symbolism and ideas in a more abstract way, which draws them deeply into the story.
Lastly, a great ceremony will bring a sense of awe and wonder. Everything from the costuming to the venue itself is eye candy. The characters will have plenty to react to and their reactions become the readers experience. There should be beauty and mystery paired with decorum and a sense of importance.
The Southern Oracles of Neverending Story
A fictional ceremony should contain some, if not all of these elements:
Central focus – this might be a person, object, or goal. All participants in the ceremony are either physically or mentally centered on this item. Everything that happens returns to this item.
Ceremonial dress – clothing, or lack there of, is hugely important to most ceremonies. Be sure to describe it! Think graduations and weddings, there are the robes, the white dress, the robes of the clergy, the stoles and caps of the doctorates.
Unique venue – Special events call for special places and this place will reflect the needs of the ceremony. Weddings take place in churches or specially prepared outdoor locations. Award ceremonies use special halls and public meeting areas.
Prescribed Actions – Perhaps one the key elements of a ceremony is the repetition of the same actions each time. These actions depend of the needs of the ceremony and may include dance, song, chants, specific routes to walk, repeated words and phrases.
Sound – Much of this is part of the prescribed actions, but it bears repeating. Will your ceremony use music, drums, clapping, or stomping? Take time to consider the ambiance. If it is a solemn ceremony it will be quieter, if it is a celebration it will be louder. Sometimes the most noted feature of a ceremony is the silence that is maintained.
How will you use ceremonial rites and rituals in your writing? What are your favorite fictional ceremonies? Share in the comments!
For more inspiration, check out some of these unique ceremonies:
If Ace Rimmer can ride a random alligator then it must be ok, right?
It’s writing Wednesday and yet another chance to inundate the webverse with more unsolicited writing advice. Woo Hoo!
Today’s topic is about keeping it real when it comes to plotting a story. I’m sure we’ve all seen or read at least one story where something happens that’s hopefully exciting or at least vaguely interesting, but has nothing to do with the story. Jack M. Bickham refers to this as “dropping alligators through the transom.”
Unless your story is about mutant alligators taking over an office building, there is probably no good reason for it to happen.
I can hear the argument already.”This scene was kinda dull so I thought adding killer bees would add a bit more interest.”
Ahem… If your scene was dull, and you knew it was dull, why is it even in your story? Just sayin’
The point that I’m trying to make is that all story elements need to make sense. Being super cool isn’t a good enough reason to add something new. It has to feel like it belongs. David Farland also talks about this in different terms. He says that the story needs to be honest to itself. This doesn’t mean it has to be true, a good piece of fiction weaves together a multitude of realistic elements in new and intriguing ways.
Not sure if you are guilty or not? This is where having another critical set of eyes check over your story can be a life saver. As writers we can get blind to our own work. The story is so alive in our head that it’s hard to see when we might have added something that doesn’t make sense.
So, what happens if we have dropped the proverbial alligator? Relax. It’s not the end of the world. One of two things might have happened. The first is when you have added something that totally works in your world, but you’ve neglected to build your world enough to make it feel natural to the reader. The fix is to add a few more passages during the early chapters of the book, or scenes of the story, that make your alligator fit.
The other thing that might have happened is a bit tougher to fix without removing the offending element entirely. This is when something has been added to spice things up, but it feels like it doesn’t belong with the story.
Say you have a space captain that needs to land his failing craft before it explodes. It’s taken a hit from a Xabulon warship and is being pulled into the planet’s gravity. While wresting the controls, the second-in-command has an allergic reaction that swells his throat shut.
We have two big problems. Saving the second-in-command and landing the ship safely. If the allergic reaction has something to do with the enemy that they are facing then by all means use it and slam your readers with a super dramatic scene. However, if it doesn’t, it feel like it’s coming from nowhere and might just serve to confuse or worse take focus away from the real problem.
There is one place where random elements work well, and that’s with humor. This is where introducing the delightfully unexpected can pay off. That said, there are limits. Too much and it comes across as goofy or silly. Ace Rimmer, seen in the picture above, is a character in the BBC space comedy Red Dwarf. His entire character revolves around the absurd and unlikely, like riding an alligator to escape an exploding airplane. It’s silly and not at all logical and that’s what makes it fun.
Whatever you end up doing, Mind your alligators and Happy Writing!
If your writing isn’t as fresh as this orange you better read this.
It’s writing Wednesday and today we are going to talk about writing fresh. Each writing conference I attend teaches me something new and sometimes these lessons profoundly change the way I think about writing. At this month’s LDStorymakers writing conference one of the most influential lessons I took to heart was also one of the simplest.
This idea was discussed by several presenters including the evening keynote Martine Leavitt. She spoke about her writing journey and how at times her life was so hectic that often her writing goal for the day was to write one perfect sentence that had never been written before.
Margie Lawson shared the same idea in her deep editing intensive workshops. She added ideas about how to use enhanced description and literary devices to keep the writing alive and also to make a greater emotional impact.
Both spoke at length about creating ideas and thoughts that hadn’t been seen before, about writing fresh.
The best way to learn about it is to try it. Let’s take a bland example and see if we can freshen it up a bit.
“Blake faced the gate and waited for the guard to let him through. He hated this place. It was ugly and smelled. If it wasn’t for the old crone, he wouldn’t bother coming. Somewhere in her addled head, she held the last clue to the resting place of his father.”
This example doesn’t let us feel what Blake is feeling, it simply tells us he hates the place. We know why he’s there, he is seeking his father’s body, but we don’t really care. Descriptions are minimal. We know he thinks the old crone is crazy, but that’s about it.
Let’s take the phrase “He hated the place” and let it sing. This seems like a perfect place to add a splash of backstory.
“Blake faced the gate and waited for the guard to let him through. The king’s dungeon brought back memories of dark nights in a cell not knowing whether he would live to see the sun. It was ugly and smelled. If it wasn’t for the old crone, he wouldn’t bother coming. Somewhere in her addled head, she held the last clue to the resting place of his father.”
Now the phrase “It was ugly and smelled” feels even more awkward and out of place. Not to mention that it gives the reader nothing to imagine. Let’s fix that. I think an alliteration would be nice here.
“Blake faced the gate and waited for the guard to let him through. The king’s dungeon brought back memories of dark nights in a cell not knowing whether he would live to see the sun. The smell of sweat and suffering oozed from the iron grates set in the ground. If it wasn’t for the old crone, he wouldn’t bother coming. Somewhere in her addled head, she held the last clue to the resting place of his father.”
I’m not crazy about the first sentence. If this was the opening page of a book I’d want it to have a stronger hook. It should instantly make the reader start asking questions. I think the best way to handle this is to mix up some of the ideas of the first two sentences. Also, this would be a good place to add some sort of internal reaction.
“Blake faced the gate that led to the king’s dungeon and waited for the guard to let him through. The sight made him shiver and brought back memories of dark nights in a cell not knowing whether he would live to see the sun. The smell of sweat and suffering oozed from the iron grates set in the ground. If it wasn’t for the old crone, he wouldn’t bother coming. Somewhere in her addled head, she held the last clue to the resting place of his father.”
Only thirty-six words were added to change the somewhat dry original text to something far more interesting. Is it the most perfect example of adding fresh ideas? Nope. I’m not perfect and I pulled this example from the air. You could probably do much better.
If you were to edit this text how would you have done it? What would you change first? What would you add? Let’s talk about it in the comments!
It’s Writer Wednesday here and today we will tackle a mini grammar concept – the difference between then and than. These writing themed posts used to be the weekly mainstay of my other blog, My Literary Quest, but will now be hosted here and reblogged there.
Comic Originally posted at The Oatmeal as part of the “Ten Words you need to Stop Misspelling” infographic
Then can be used as three different parts of speech, which is probably why it gets mixed up so often with than. The main use of then is as an adverb, specifically to situate an action in time. For example, she attended English class and then went to lunch. It’s also part of the if … then construction –If you clean your room, then I will tell you my secret.
Then can also be used as a noun meaning that time. (e.g., “I wanted to scream, but then was not the time.” To me this sounds a bit clunky and dated, but it’s a valid use.
The last use of then is as an adjective, meaning at that time. This usage is the most awkward of all, but I have seen it used at times. Her then apartment was full of ants.
Of note – both of the last two uses of then are passive voice. If you catch yourself using them in fiction you might want to carefully consider if that’s your best option.
Everyone still following along? Great! Moving on to than.
Than is a conjunction used for making a comparison. That is it. That is it’s only use. In fact, than is so unique that you can’t swap it out of a sentence. (e.g., “She’d rather have butter than cream cheese.”)
Pop quiz! Write down your answers and see how you do.
There is nothing better (then/than) choosing to “like” this post.
If you can breathe, (then/than) you can share this blog with a friend.
The (then/than) Prime Minister of the UK would like this blog because it talks about Doctor Who from time to time.
Read the post first, (then/than) leave a brilliant comment.
I personally would rather be eating chocolate (then/than) taking a silly grammar quiz.
If you would like to go sneak some chocolate (then/than) go do it, I won’t judge.
Here are the answers:
1. than 2. then 3. then 4. then 5. than 6. then
Get all six right? Woohoo! You are a grammar ninja! Didn’t? It’s ok, try and try again!