Friday, March 25, 2011

Descriptions - What do You See?

Stop and think for a moment - How do you see the world around you, and how do you go about noticing it? Then comes the fun part - how do you translate that into words?

There are several levels of seeing, and remember, you can only see what is in front of your eyeballs, though peripheral vision counts too.

First would be the casual notice. If you're walking down the street, consider all that you notice and why you notice them. You see cars and fellow sidewalk walkers, and you see them primarily because they are moving. On some level you make sure their motion will not intersect with your motion. You notice those objects and people who are not in motion only in so much so you don't run into them. Now tell me, could you describe them? Guys might notice a cool car and therefor be able to describe it, and girls might notice a nice shirt, dress or perhaps hairstyle. This extra interest would be the next level of seeing. So there's this red-hot red Ferrari stuck in traffic, or this woman wearing the shortest skirt you'd ever seen just walked by, or whatever oddity comes to mind, I'm sure you can recall some. Now tell me, what do you hardly notice at all? Do you notice the sidewalk or the street? How about the buildings you're walking by? Could you tell me what shop or building was three away from the one you were headed to? How about parking meters or light poles? What other things clutter the street to your favorite coffee shop. Next time you go, pause a moment and make a list of all the things you see along the way. I'd be surprised if your list was short, and don't cheat by driving there and parking out front - it's not the same. haha

The next level of seeing would be in looking for some place, you might notice differences along the way. Lets say you drove to your home town or neighborhood for the first time in say ten years. After a lifetime of familiar this or that, differences would be glaring. New storefronts, new houses where old ones used to be, empty buildings where something favored used to be. There are different levels here to. You are looking for the familiar and finding them or not, but don't forget all the other things.

The next level, and perhaps the hardest to deal with, is the scrutiny. When you or your character stops for a moment to consider their surroundings carefully. You need to remember that you can only see what is in front of your eyes, and only what is in view. It's tempting to map out the immediate area, and that's fine for use somewhere along the line, but if your character hasn't seen first hand, or heard of some portion on that map, he can't know of it. There might be twenty men hung from the branches of the trees in a picturesque orchard, but if they aren't visible from the house, unless your character takes a stroll down into that orchard or catches a whiff of death and decay on the wind, he's not going to know anything is amiss in it's depths.

Now that I've got you thinking about what and how you see, now comes the fun part - putting it into words. They say a picture is worth a thousand words and that's probably true. Take that stroll to the coffee shop, by the time you devoted say one to five words to each thing you noticed along your walk, you might have near a thousand by the time you reached your destination. And the trip to your home town, since the view and the details are different, still you'd likely have roughly a thousand words chocked up from the time you entered the city limits to the time you reached your old house. Even the scrutiny is the same; how many words would it take to describe the view from your front door?

Descriptions are difficult to handle, especially if you want to avoid the information dump. However, thought can go a long way toward accomplishing that. Small-talk with a friend can too. Be careful with this; endless smalltalk can have your audience walking away bored. Trickle you descriptions in one step at a time. Talk about that one thing only if and when it catches our attention, only if it moves, or if we need to avoid it. Stop to scrutinize your environment only when it applies directly to your plot or to distract you from it for a much needed moment of escape.

Learn to consider your story as a tapestry. There's the warp, the design and color, which would be the main point of your story. Then there is the weft of the tapestry - all the threads that hold the warp together, that would be the environment, the background, all the little details that gives your story its life and reality.

Friday, March 18, 2011

The 'He said', 'She said' Conundrum

I don't pretend to know it all. There are many more knowledgeable writers out there than me, but I'll tell you what I do. It seems to be good enough for the time being. By all means, if you know better, feel free to correct me. It is my dearest wish for us all to learn this skill called writing.

He said, she said, they said, we said - rather than clutter up your page with dialog tags, lets give your reader a little credit. I prefer to keep my tags to one set per page, if at all possible. That's easy enough to do if only two people are talking, but it can get a little complicated if there is more than two people participating in the conversation. There are other ways to clue your reader into who is talking.

Since action is key to keeping your story moving forward, action along with dialog goes a long way towards allowing your readers to see what's happening - part of the 'show don't tell' effort.

For instance:

John sighed hugely and ran his fingers through his hair with rather more force than was necessary to accomplish the task. "Eehh, I don't know. Sounds pretty iffy to me."

With this sample, it wasn't necessary to end the dialog with 'said John' or 'he said'. We already know who is talking and we can see that he is going to need some serious convincing to get him to agree with whatever it is he doesn't like.

I confine action with dialog where the two are closely related. For instance, if John was to glance out the door and notice his secretary filing her nails, I'd probably start a new paragraph stating that information, provided I'd include it at all.

One-sided conversations are interesting. They can be handled in two ways. Since two people are still involved, you can still separate each persons actions into different paragraphs, but sometimes if the non-speaking person isn't doing much, his actions can be included into the speaking persons paragraph.

Here is a sample from one of my stories:

--> “I am truly sorry,” he said as he tucked the heavy blanket around Derrick more warmly. “I thought you must have fallen – that cut on your face.... I would have brought you help that first night had I known. But you’ll be all right soon. That potion will do its work in a few hours. You’ll find what you need outside and to the right a few yards away.” Derrick’s eyes were beginning to close. “Are you listening to me?”

I know, in this sample you don't know who 'he' is, but in the previous paragraph we are clearly told who this is so there is no confusion as to who is talking. Further clarification is given in the following paragraph when Derrick finally speaks.

You can also put your tag in the middle of the sentence, something like this:

--> “Well, hello there,” said Derrick, “and who might you be?”

The sentence will make perfect sense if 'said Derrick' and the accompanying punctuation was left out, but, since no one has been talking for a couple pages, I like to introduce who is speaking even if it really isn't necessary.

And of course, if you begin your dialog paragraph with "I am Tranot.", no tag is necessary at all, even if it is the first thing said.

If you'll notice, the only tags I used in my samples is 'said'. The words 'said', 'asked', and sometimes 'whispered', or 'yelled', and maybe a couple others, is all that is necessary. 'Said' and 'asked' get treated like a comma or period by the brain and is mostly tuned out, though it offers us an identity for who is talking. Such tags as 'whispered' or 'yelled' accent action that should already be in motion unless you're looking to startle someone or introduce a new feeling with what was said.

In my work, 'whispered' usually comes up when someone's very ill or injured, or very much afraid and/or hiding - like this:

--> Protracted moments passed before Derrick could get his throat and mouth organized enough to utter words. “No,” he whispered. Nothing more forceful would come out. “‘M thirsty. H-have some water?”


--> He glanced around at what he could see of the interior, and then he looked at the expectant and hopeful faces of the two people standing there. He backed up, shaking his head. “It’s a trap,” he whispered.


--> Only one man was in the house with Pat, the man with the fist Pat had called Sam. Both of them were asleep in the bedroom. Derrick slipped up to the man’s side of the bed and sealed his mouth shut with a hard hand, whispering his hold person spell at the same time, effectively freezing him in place, but Derrick wanted him awake for this, and his hand had done that. He glanced over at Pat; she slept on undisturbed. “You fear me,” Derrick whispered in Sam’s ear. “I am your worst nightmare. You fear to enter those woods. You fear what might be in those mountains. Don’t you?”

And sometimes it's simply necessary to yell:

--> A man and a woman stepped out of the door; both of them looked to see what delayed their visitor. “You leave him alone,” yelled the man at the door. “You get away from here.”

Here, yelling was necessary since the man he was talking to was half a block away.

Here is another example:

--> Derrick zeroed on the fourth man; it was his bloody fist he saw raising for another strike. “Hold on there!” he yelled and the hand froze.

In this example, it was imperative that Derrick become the center of attention the instant he burst in the door. Without it, the fist would have landed another blow.

You should notice that even though my character yelled, I didn't use an exclamation point. Exclamation points are to be used sparingly if at all. They are an indication of surprise, anger or sudden pain and used in conjunction with something rather inarticulate most of the time.

Now, if there were three or more people talking, the dialog tags might need to be a bit more frequent, then again, if action is included like above, they can still be kept to a minimum.

Remember, we are always in motion, even if only a little. There's eye movement, head movement, or hand movement. Also remember all your players in any given scene. Even if one person doesn't participate in the conversation, he or she is still there following along. He or she would still be in motion and motion attracts attention.

There are all manner of dialog tags, but you don't want to use anything that might resemble an action. Below is a list of tags to avoid. I've used a couple, but I find that most of them would fit much better in the 'showing' part of your paragraph.

A) acknowledged, added, admitted, advised, agreed, announced, answered, approved, argued, asserted, assumed, assured, asked

B) babbled, bargained, began, bellowed, boasted, bragged

C) called, claimed, commanded, commented, complained, cried

D) decided, declared, demanded, denied, described, dictated

E) emphasized, estimated, exclaimed, explained, expressed

G) giggled, grinned, grunted

H) howled

I) indicated, insisted, instructed

L) laughed, lectured, lied

M) mentioned, moaned, mumbled, murmured

N) nagged, noted, notified

O) objected, observed, ordered

P) pleaded, pointed out, prayed, predicted

Q) questioned

R) reassured, related, repeated, replied, responded, requested, restated, revealed, roared

W) scolded, screamed, shouted, shrieked, snapped, sneered, sobbed, spoke, sputtered, stammered, stated, stormed, suggested

T) taunted, thought, told

U) urged, uttered

V) vowed

W) wailed, warned, whispered

Friday, March 11, 2011

Scattered Thoughts, Hidden Future

Have you ever reached a point in your story when you are at a loss of what to do next? Which direction should your character go? Would your character stand and fight or turn and run? Maybe you have more than two decisions to choose between. Maybe you have quite a mess to sort out.

In my book, I hit a point where some sort of plan had to be hashed out about how to enter a town and not give away up front who my characters were. With no disguises available, something else had to be figured out. After getting a seemingly reasonable plan written down, I thought of a better one, so I had my characters discuss their options. Ultimately, they came up with a still better option, all of it written out. At the time, I didn't think much of it, but my editor complimented me on the tactic. He'd never seen the like before and he really liked it. It was the only compliment he gave me, but it meant a lot to me. He never told me he liked or disliked my story; he was merely doing his job. I felt that to win a compliment from him was indeed a win.

With that tiny bit of experience under my belt, I feel free to tell you to do the same. Hash out your options. It's okay to be confused. It happens to everyone at some point in their lives, and what do they do? They examine their options and pick the best one. Who knows they might think of something better along the way.

Of course, you don't want to spend pages and pages hashing out various options. Keep your time-line in mind. How much time do you have to make your decision? My characters had time, not a lot, but enough. If your character has only moments, he may only be able to weigh priorities - his life or that of his love and vow not to go down without a fight. Maybe hide now in order to be able to fight later is the only option, no matter how it rankles, because the alternative is to die now and accomplish nothing. Maybe your character comes to a crossroads and he has to choose which direction to go. Straight forward was the direction he had been going, but what is to the right and what is to the left? Should he explore these options or ignore them? What if he chose wrong and the enemy was able to sneak up behind him?

What would you do? For that is the ultimate question. Invariably, each of our characters is a tiny bit of ourselves; it's what allows us to fill them with life. As we must make decisions every day about what to do tomorrow, your characters must do the same thing. In fiction, these day-to-day decisions are skipped over, but sometimes it's okay to mull them around; it involves your reader in the problems your character worries about, it draws them in and involves your reader in the life of your character.

What problems does your character have to deal with?

Friday, March 4, 2011

February Writing Contest Winner - Whimsicality from Ambitious Writers, Goodreads

The genre choices for February were myth or poetry, and unless I miscounted, there were 21 entries. Whimsicality was the winner by popular vote, with this entry.


Genre: Myth
Rating: T
Word Count: 886
Summary: An English assignment we had to do: create a myth on a natural phenomenon.

How The Ocean Got Its Tides

Once upon a time, not too long ago, there lived a man named Mateo. Mateo was of such stupendous size that a baby could easily fit in one of his hands. He was over seven feet tall with muscles that were the size of melons. Every day, Mateo would demonstrate his strength to all of the townspeople by lifting up a cart several times in a row as if it were no more than a pail of water, or juggling watermelons as if they weighed no more than rubber balls. All of the people in his village were terrified of him. As he made his rounds in the town square, people would whisper and point, “There goes Mateo, the strongest man alive. You wouldn’t want to get him angry!”

Unfortunately, Mateo did get angry. Quite a bit. Especially after several mugs at the local tavern. In these drunken fits, he had twice his usual strength. Mateo could crush a man’s head with one hand. He could throw chairs and tables and people across the whole length of the tavern as easily as you or I would throw a book. Needless to say, eventually nobody went to the tavern with Mateo around anymore. Nobody could stand his terrifying fits of rage.

When Mateo was drunk, not only did he get angry, but he bragged as well. That man could brag all day long and twice as much when he was drunk.

“I fought five mountain bears with my bare hands and won.” “And nobody would say he was lying for fear of his strength. “I climbed Mount Gigantus and wrestled with the god of strength, Higor, himself.”

“Did you win?” somebody brave would ask, timidly though with a trace of sarcasm in their voice. Mateo would scowl. “Of course I did, you fool! I always win. I am the strongest man on earth and in heaven.”

One day Higor, the great god of strength, looked down from Mount Gigantus and grew very angry with Mateo for his lies and his boasts. “I will go down there,” he thought angrily, “and teach that impertinent idiot a lesson. Nobody fools with the god of Strength!” So Higor disguised himself as an old peddler and went down the mountain to Mateo’s village.

Mateo was just coming out of the tavern when an old peddler went up to him, lugging an ancient wooden cart filled with small trinkets and toys. “Pretty things for sale! Pretty things for sale!” he cried out in a wheezing voice.
“Get out of my way, you doddering old man! I have thirty times your strength and I can crush you with one hand. I kill mountain bears with my bare—“

“Are you that Mateo of which everyone talks about and who claims that he defeated the great god Higor in a wrestling match?” the old man asked cunningly.

Mateo puffed out his chest with pride. “It is I,” he said. “Now get out of my way before I make you, you fool!”

The peddler stood still with his grey eyes twinkling. It struck Mateo, in the corner of his mind, that those eyes were strangely young for one so old. “Would you mind wrestling me, if you please, young man?”

Mateo laughed. “Wrestle you! Wrestle a man who is old enough to be my grandfather! Come now, old fool, this is no time for your senile antics. Get out of my way.”

In answer the old man lunged for Mateo’s waist and lifted him, yelling in shock and confusion, clear off the floor. What followed was a wrestling match such as the type nobody in that little village would ever forget. Mateo and the old man fought tooth and nail for three hours straight, by which the two of them were drenched in sweat. The peddler pushed Mateo away and grinned wearily. However, when he spoke, it was a deep, young, resonating sound, not at all the voice of an old peddler.

“Mateo, you truly are the strongest man in the world. Even I in my human form struggle to beat you. But your boasts, lies, and drunken fits have not gone unnoticed, and I will punish you accordingly.” As he spoke he shimmered and grew, changing into his true and godly form. Mateo cowered upon the street, in front of the whole crowd of villagers who were watching. Higor smiled again as he spoke. “However, you have demonstrated great strength. Exceptional strength. So instead of killing you outright, I will give you a less harsh punishment. Every day, you will pull the ocean from its place, letting it expand a few feet before its greater force pulls against you.” Mateo stood, trembling with exhaustion and fear. “Tug-of-war with the sea? Impossible! Even I would die from the strain.”

Higor shook his head. “I will grant you immortality. But this will be both a blessing and a curse, as you will spend all your days fighting against the ocean’s current. This, I think, is an appropriate punishment for one who deemed himself the strongest being on heaven and earth, is it not?”

And that is why, till this day, the ocean has its tide, which ebbs and flows because of Mateo, who pulls and struggles against the most powerful force of nature known to man.