Crowd of lego people

Practising fiction-craft: describing people

Last week I wrote about writing not to produce a finished work, but simply to practise an element of the writing craft, like an artist drawing hands over and over until they get the hang of it.

As I said then, I’d never tried anything like that before. In the past, the whole idea would have felt anathema – both to my own perfectionist brain and to my understanding of how I was “supposed” to write. But the idea of writing purely to practise the craft fits well with my new “write every day and don’t get too hung up on it” approach, so I wanted to try it out.

So for the last week, I’ve been practising describing people.

Painting word-portraits

Character description is an element my writing tends to lack.At best, my characters might get a single broad body-shape descriptor – “lanky”, “solidly-built”, etc. Or they might not be described at all. No one in my stories has distinctive facial features, wears notable clothes, or has interesting hair or tattoos or piercings (in distinct contrast from the people in my actual life). Historically, the pictures of characters that I’ve built in my head were vague to nonexistent, and it shows in how I write them.

It’s possible there is advice out there on how to practice descriptive writing. Being me, I just plunged in without seeking any of it.

My first attempt at the written equivalent of drawing hands was to simply raid magazines for photos of differentpeople, and for each one to write a short paragraph describing them in as much detail as I could.

I had limited success with that. I could describe what I was seeing, sure, but a lot of my descriptions felt utilitarian and boring.

She seemed lopsided: thin leggings clung to her legs while her upper half was so bundled up it was hard to make out any features. Her windbreaker was long enough to half-cover her hands, while her neck and face were wrapped around and around by a thick, black scarf right up to her ears.

There’s some nice writing there, I guess, but why do I care how this person is dressed?

Plagiarising for fun and profit learnings

Next I turned to a technique recommended on one of my writing podcasts many months ago (alas, I’ve forgotten which one): finding authors who do this well, and copying them word for word.

Copying out the works of other authors is, as it turns out, a time-honoured tradition practised by writers from Jack London to Robert Louis Stevenson. Still, when I first heard about it my reaction was horrified – in my mindset of all writing must be working towards something publishable, it felt like a shocking waste of time.

But the more I’ve thought about it, the more sense it makes as a learning technique. There’s only so much I can gain through reading alone; the exact words and sentences slip through my head and leave only impressions behind. To improve my practical skills, I need to to not just read great books, but study them. I need to go back and analyse the elements that appeal to me: what’s being done there and how, and why does it work as well as it does?

So I’ve been combing through M. R. Carey and Becky Chambers, finding passages where the descriptive writing particularly grabbed me, and writing them out word for word.And it turns out that yes, copying other people’s writing really does help me get a feel for what it is they’re doing, and how to do it myself.

Invoking personality

The biggest thing I noticed from copying out Carey’s and Chambers’s descriptive passages was how strong an impression I got not just of a character’s appearance, but of their personality and/or role in the story. To try that out for myself, I switched to writing descriptions not of random people in photographs, but of characters I actually knew (in this case, from Steven Universe).

Right away, the difference in my writing – and my thinking – was profound. Using familiar characters, I could practise describing them in ways that gave readers a first impression of their most fundamental elements. I found myself asking: which aspects of this character’s look, their clothes, their habitual expressions or behaviours, best exemplify the personality I want to convey?

Thinking this way, my descriptions became less literal, more flavourful: they included fewer specific elements of a character, but focused on creating an impression that went beyond the obvious.They also became much more dynamic, focused as much on a character’s movements, changing expressions, and mode of speech as on static elements like hair colour.

Shep’s solid frame was softened by thick tracksuit pants and a loose T-shirt, just as their broad face was softened by kind eyes and a mellow smile. Their voice when they spoke was warm, wrapping around me like a blanket.

Creating characters

Finally, I’ve begun carrying a notepad around (again – one of those writerly habits I never seem to retain) and jotting down descriptions of people I see or speak to at work – trying to capture impressions of people I don’t have whole episodes to get to know.

Her hair was silver, but the short shock of it and the electricity in her unlined face rendered her age impossible to guess.

Again, I’m trying to give each description a sense of who the person is, not just what they look like. I’m not aiming for accuracy – my interactions are brief enough that I have no idea how true to life my impressions are – but I am trying to convey something interesting enough that it would draw a reader in, if the person being described was a character in one of my stories.

And hey, maybe some of them will be.

Do you have your own methods for “drawing hands”, a.k.a. practising the craft of writing? I’d love to hear about them in the comments.

Image by Eak K. from Pixabay
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A writer working on a whole mess of papers

Writing – in defence of practice

Listening to the most recent episode of Originality, one of my favourite writing podcasts, I was struck by something Aleen and Tempest pointed out that I really hadn’t thought about before: that writing is the only art form where creators are not expected to practice.

More than that, in writing it’s easy for the very idea of practise is seen as a form of failure.

Continue reading “Writing – in defence of practice”

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A mobile phone lies face-up on a table, with an image of a race track on the screen. A tiny, three-dimensional athlete crouched on top of the phone at the starting line of the race.

Forget habit tracking – ADHD brains need habit-rewarding apps

I’m pleased to report that my efforts to write a minimum of 200 words every day continue strong. I haven’t managed to write every single day, but I have managed to be forgiving of my slips, and to pick up where I left off after only a day or two. And that in itself is a big deal for me.

Still, I’m aware that like all habits I try to develop, the hardest part will be keeping myself motivated when I’ve been doing this long enough that the novelty factor of “I’m actually writing nearly every day!” wears off.

Continue reading “Forget habit tracking – ADHD brains need habit-rewarding apps”

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A lone walker at the base of a mountain range

Writing experiment #3: using metaphor

This is the third and final instalment of my posts about new writing techniques I tried out on my latest story, ‘Leaving Dreamland’. In posts one and two, the experiments I talked about were purely technical, and while there is room for refinement I am largely happy with how they turned out.

The final experiment I tried concerns what I think of as the art of writing – language, story structure, the nebulous stuff that goes into a story, rather than the method one use to write that story. And of the three techniques I tried, this is the one that left me the most ambivalent about the result.

The technique? Inserting metaphor into my writing.

The joy of metaphor

I’m not at all ambivalent about the desirability of metaphor in writing. A metaphor casually inserted yet perfectly evocative is a thing that fills me with wonder every time I encounter it – from Seanan McGuire’s description of condensation writing the secrets of the universe” on the inside of a submarine in ‘Each to Each’ to the many, many well-turned metaphors I’ve lately been admiring in M. R. Carey’s tautly brilliant book, The Girl With All The Gifts:

A weight of guilt you haul around with you like the moon hauls the ocean”

In an age of rust, she comes up stainless steel”

some things become true simply by being spoken. When she said to the little girl ‘I’m here for you’, the architecture of her mind, her definition of herself, shifted and reconfigured around that statement.”

So I know well how I love a good metaphor – but how to transform that delight as a reader into facility for metaphor as a writer?

But where are my metaphors?

Looking back at my writing to date – and this blog is just as good an example as my fiction – I’m painfully aware that I just don’t tend to think in metaphor.

Oh, I love a good analogy when I can come up with one – ten months later I’m still tickled by the idea ofhallucinatory tapirs. But that kind of analogy is something created for the specific purpose of explaining a phenomenon that’s hard to comprehend – a comparison I can describe and explore at length to make sure it is fully understood.

But when it comes to describing the familiar, I find that my default state is very literal-minded. And yet those are the metaphors I most delight in: simple phrases or sentences that capture the essence of a person/thing/situation in a way that makes immediate sense even as it casts its subject in an entirely unexpected light. When I read that anger crossed someone’s face “like sparks struck from grey stone” (Carey again), it tells me as much about the face as the anger, while skilfully dancing past such well-worn descriptors as stoic or indeed stony-faced.

How is is that I notice and admire this kind of thing so intensely in the writing of others, yet my own writing is so barren of metaphor?

Wax on, wax off

It’s easy for me to throw that question out as a lament. But now that I’ve gotten that out of my system, the most obvious answer is: because I’ve never practised writing that way. I’ve never even thought to.

I’m lucky that some aspects of fiction-writing seem to come naturally to me, but like any skill there are plenty of others that I can only achieve through hard work and dedication to pushing myself up the learning curve. Somehow it had just never occurred to me that metaphor was one of them.

When I came to revise the first draft of ‘Leaving Dreamland’, one particular description stood out to me as just… not that interesting. It provided useful information about the setting, but as it stood it was drying factual, totally lacking in emotional resonance.

And out of some patient corner of my subconscious, the thought reached out and grabbed me to try rewriting this passage as something more metaphorical. Up until that point, for all my admiration of others’ skill with metaphor, it had somehow never occurred to me to deliberately try to write my own.

Just keep climbing

So how did it work out? Like I said at the top, I’m ambivalent about the result.

I like my rewrite much better than the straight description, but I feel strongly that I am still at the base of this particular mountain. My suspicion is that when I’ve had a few months – or maybe a few years – to hone my metaphors, I’ll look back at this first attempt as uncomfortably amateur.

I still submitted the story, though. If I hold off submitting my fiction until I have every skill down completely perfectly – well, I’ll never submit anything at all.

Image by Marjon Besteman-Horn from Pixabay
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Two hands working with a lump of clay

Writing experiment #2: setting word count goals

Following on from last week’s post, the second technique I tried out in writing my latest story might sound strange for someone trying to “embrace my inner pantser”. For the first time, I tried breaking my story down into sections with individual word count goals.

Divide and conquer

I was inspired to try this approach by one of my current favourite writing podcasts, Start With This, from the creators of Welcome to Night Vale.

Several times now, Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor have described how, when they planned out the Night Vale novels, they assigned each chapter a desired word count and then divided up that number to assign each element within the chapter its own word count goal. In doing this, they took the daunting work of writing a 100,000-word novel and broke it down into a set of small, far less intimidating tasks.

As it happens, breaking big, overwhelming tasks down into smaller, more manageable steps is already a common recommendation for ADHD brains. So as soon as I heard about this idea I was interested. But the technique as implemented by the Night Vale creators entirely contradicts my current pantsing focus – I don’t want to spend that much time planning out my story structure in advance instead of getting on with writing it.

Luckily, I stumbled upon my own way to make use of it: in editing.

Too many words

The anthology I was writing for stipulated a word limit of 6,000. So inevitably, the first draft of my story came in closer to 8,000 words.

I always go over-limit on my first drafts, and figuring out where to wield the scalpel can be a torturous process. But this time, inspired by Start With This, I decided to try something new.

First I broke the story down into its component sections: not just scenes, but sub-sections within scenes, each of which felt to me like a separate element that had its own purpose in the story. For instance, a single scene might start off with a descriptive element setting up a new problem, move on to an action sequence where the protagonist tries to solve the problem, and finish with a cliffhanger as an even greater problem is revealed.

For each of these sections, I made a note of the current word count. Then I looked at the purpose of each section and how many words I was spending on it, and tried to identify sections that felt bloated. Finally I made a second list, this time of each section’s word count goal.

Finding shape in the clay

The Night Vale creators talk about how, with experience, you can get a feel for the right sort of word count for different kinds of story elements. Even though I don’t yet have that kind of experience, I think I have a decent sense of some basic “rules”: action sequences should be short and punchy, as should scene-setting and background information – to avoid info-dumping – while moments of reflection and character development, solo or in conversation, should be longer and more drawn-out to give the reader time to reflect in turn.

Starting out, my shortest section was 100 words and my longest section 1,200 words. After editing, the two longest sections remaining were each around 800 words.

Once I had made a commitment to reducing the sections that felt too long for what they meant to achieve, I found it much easier to get out the scalpel. I no longer felt like I was facing cutting 2,000 words out of my story – rather, I was cutting 50 words out of this section, 150 words out of that one.

More than that, having stopped to think about what each story element was there for, I found it far easier to identify which sentences and side-tracks least served that element’s purpose. I was able to cut with confidence, carving away the excess to better reveal the shape of my story.

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay
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A jubmle of letters on wooden cubes

Writing experiment #1: writing out of order

In my last post I talked about using three new (for me) techniques in writing my latest story, ‘Leaving Dreamland’. The first, and probably the single most useful, was letting go of the need to write in a linear fashion.

I’ve always written stories from A to B. Without really thinking about it, I’ve always assumed that was how you were “supposed” to write them – in the same order you would read them.

As part of that, I never started writing until I had a firm idea in my head of the story structure – which events I was going to depict in writing, and the order in which they would happen. While writing, I might jump back and add something I only thought of later, or leave a note for myself on something to add when I get further along, but when I sat down at the keyboard, my focus would be, OK, what happens next? And if I had an idea for a moment or scene that didn’t obviously fit into the story structure as I envisaged it, I usually discarded it unwritten.

But this time, as part of my general commitment to writing every day and trying in general to be more fast and loose with my writing (emphasis on fast), I decided to embrace my inner pantser, write whatever came to mind, and worry about structure later.

Continue reading “Writing experiment #1: writing out of order”

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Last week’s score: stories 1, blog posts nil

Welp, even with my new fast-and-loose approach to blogging, last week got a bit much for me. I guess I’ll just have to make two posts this week to make up for it!

Apart from work busyness and getting sick last week, my third (and far more interesting) reason for not blogging was that I was up to my eyeballs in story feedback and editing, culminating in the submission last Thursday of my latest story, ‘Leaving Dreamland’, to the Rebuilding Tomorrow anthology. Cross your fingers, cross your toes, cross your eyes for me.

Whether I make it into the anthology or not, it does feel auspicious to have kicked off the new decade by completing and submitting my first fiction project before the end of January. I don’t want to read too much into this (gotta be kind to myself), but it’s a good start.

Even better, especially given how long it’s been between stories, is that I actually feel like I’ve grown as a writer rather than stagnating or, worse, going backwards. I took three new approaches to my writing for ‘Leaving Dreamland’, and I’m very happy with two of them and at least halfway happy with the third.

That growth hasn’t come from nowhere – hell, if the key to becoming a better writer was not to write then I’d be a bestseller by now! But even though I haven’t been writing, I’ve been regularly tuning into several great writing podcasts. It was both satisfying and deeply relieving to find, as I wrote ‘Leaving Dreamland’, that some of their advice and ideas have stuck with me.

Over my next few blog posts (which I am writing and uploading right now, because I hear having a buffer is a great way to not miss a week any time your week doesn’t go to plan…), I’ll talk about the three things I tried for the first time on this story, and how and why they worked for me as a writer.

Until next time!

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Writing update – running out of time!

Just a quick update this week – but I’m still blogging, no ball-dropping this early into my new commitment!

The main reason for the rushed blog post is that I’m writing like a demon trying to finish my submission for Rebuilding Tomorrow before submissions close at the end of January. I’ve been working on and off on this story concept since, argh, October? – but at a glacial speed that’s been typical of my 2019 writing output.

At the start of January, with less than a month left before the deadline, I finally started pushing myself to work harder on finishing this story, even though I still wasn’t really feeling excited about writing (not just writing this, but writing anything). And as usually happens, once I started actually pushing through the hard bedrock, I finally began striking gold – gleams of understanding where the story was going, nuggets of actually solid characterisation and theme, the stuff I have to find to get excited about a story.

Which is all just another way of saying, if I want to write I can’t wait for inspiration to strike. I have to write my way to inspiration.

So, having achieved inspiration with all of two weeks to get the job done, right now I’m as focused as my wandering mind can be on getting this story actually drafted, edited, beta read, further edited, and submitted in the next… eight days (meep).

Just as well my ADHD brain responds best to high-stress situations, right…?

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A view from Hirta island in the St Kilda archipelago

Think you know St Kilda? Well…

This week my story research led me on a quest to find out about the mysterious Saint Kilda, origin of the Melbourne suburb of St Kilda, only to discover that no such saint ever existed.

The Australian St Kilda, it turns out, is named after a ship, the Lady of St Kilda. This ship, in turn, was named after an archipelago in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. And the Scottish archipelago was named after… a mistake.

Continue reading “Think you know St Kilda? Well…”

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A distant thunderstorm looming over a quiet ocean

New Year’s thoughts 2020

It’s that time of year when people are taking stock – of the year (and decade) that has been, and of their goals for the year (and decade) to come.

I am singularly bad at both of these.

It’s hard enough for my butterfly brain to retain enough detail and sense of time for me to confidently tell you what I did yesterday, let alone in the last year. And I’ve come to mistrust personal goals, because when I’m excited by a shiny new hobby or technique I set myself dozens of them and then achieve few to none as my interest wanes or moves on.

Often I let the turning of the new year go by without even trying. But this year, for whatever reason, it feels important. So here goes: three significant events from 2019, and three aspirations for 2020.

Continue reading “New Year’s thoughts 2020”

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