Word Painting – The Fine Art of Writing Descriptively

Word Painting

 

 

This is a reblog from a post I did in 2015, and my, how the years have passed so quickly. After writing four books, I am reblogging, once again, this earlier post. Word Painting, The Fine Art of Writing Descriptively by Rebecca McClanahan (an excerpt from Writer’s Digest, January 2015) Here are four secrets to keep in mind as you breathe life into your characters through description. I did purchase this exemplary book, and I would still keep it on my writing desk today, had not a writer friend borrowed it…three years ago. I hope it comes back home…someday soon. I hope you find Rebecca McClanahan’s non-fiction as helpful as I have when writing description for my characters.

  1. Description that relies solely on physical attributes too often turns into what Janet Burroway calls the “all-points bulletin.”

It reads something like this: “My father is a tall, middle-aged man of average build. He has green eyes and brown hair and usually wears khakis and oxford shirts.”

This description is so mundane, it barely qualifies as an “all-points bulletin.” Can you imagine the police searching for this suspect? No identifying marks, no scars or tattoos, nothing to distinguish him. He appears as a cardboard cutout rather than as a living, breathing character. Yes, the details are accurate, but they don’t call forth vivid images. We can barely make out this character’s form; how can we be expected to remember him?

When we describe a character, factual information alone is not sufficient, no matter how accurate it might be. The details must appeal to our senses. Phrases that merely label (like tall, middle-aged, and average) bring no clear image to our minds. Since most people form their first impression of someone through visual clues, it makes sense to describe our characters using visual images. Green eyes is a beginning, but it doesn’t go far enough. Are they pale green or dark green? Even a simple adjective can strengthen a detail. If the adjective also suggests a metaphor—forest green, pea green, or emerald green—the reader not only begins to make associations (positive or negative) but also visualizes in her mind’s eye the vehicle of the metaphor—forest trees, peas, or glittering gems.

  1. The problem with intensifying an image only by adjectives is that adjectives encourage cliché.

It’s hard to think of adjective descriptors that haven’t been overused: bulging or ropy muscles, clean-cut good looks, frizzy hair. If you use an adjective to describe a physical attribute, make sure that the phrase is not only accurate and sensory but also fresh. In her short story “Flowering Judas,” Katherine Anne Porter describes Braggioni’s singing voice as a “furry, mournful voice” that takes the high notes “in a prolonged painful squeal.” Often the easiest way to avoid an adjective-based cliché is to free the phrase entirely from its adjective modifier. For example, rather than describing her eyes merely as “hazel,” Emily Dickinson remarked that they were “the color of the sherry the guests leave in the glasses.”

  1. Strengthen physical descriptions by making details more specific.

In my earlier “all-points bulletin” example, the description of the father’s hair might be improved with a detail such as “a military buzz-cut, prickly to the touch” or “the aging hippie’s last chance—a long ponytail striated with gray.” Either of these descriptions would paint a stronger picture than the bland phrase brown hair. In the same way, his oxford shirt could become “a white oxford button-down that he’d steam-pleated just minutes before” or “the same style of baby blue oxford he’d worn since prep school, rolled carelessly at the elbows.” These descriptions not only bring forth images, they also suggest the background and the personality of the father.

  1. Select physical details carefully, choosing only those that create the strongest, most revealing impression.

One well-chosen physical trait, item of clothing, or idiosyncratic mannerism can reveal character more effectively than a dozen random images. This applies to characters in nonfiction as well as fiction. When I write about my grandmother, I usually focus on her strong, jutting chin—not only because it was her most dominant feature but also because it suggests her stubbornness and determination. When I write about Uncle Leland, I describe the wandering eye that gave him a perpetually distracted look, as if only his body was present. His spirit, it seemed, had already left on some journey he’d glimpsed peripherally, a place the rest of us were unable to see.

As you describe real-life characters, zero in on distinguishing characteristics that reveal personality: gnarled, arthritic hands always busy at some task; a habit of covering her mouth each time a giggle rises up; a lopsided swagger as he makes his way to the horse barn; the scent of coconut suntan oil, cigarettes, and leather each time she sashays past your chair.

Note: As a writer, I found all of Rebecca McClanahan’s descriptive suggestions really adaptive to almost any genre. I hope you do too. 

 

 

BOOK REVIEW: CATLING’S BANE

Catling’s Bane, Book 1 of the Rose Shield series, offers the reader an amazing journey into a world so believable that the characters seem to come alive on the page. This beautifully written science-fiction pulled me into a world that glitters with luminosity. The author reveals this world with descriptions so vivid, so rich in detail, that we forget completely, that it is a fictional world.

It is a civilization very different than our own, yet still, very much the same, with problems of great poverty, injustice, and cruelty, with one exception. There are strange powers of influence, powers that control someone’s intent, beliefs, and thoughts. The poor live their lives in a caste system, while the wealthy and powerful live like royalty, and all others live by hook or by crook.

Yet, even for the wealthy, life becomes a perilous journey, because every word, ever thought, may not be their own.  There are those, however, within this system, who have courageous hearts, make great sacrifices, and if they can escape the Influencers, they may have the opportunity to change their world where everyone can speak their own thoughts and live their lives as they choose to be.

I was completely captured within this incredible world, created by the author, D. Wallace Peach. 5 stars

A Book Review: Sam, A Shaggy Dog Story

“Entertaining humans for cheese is a bit daft really, but cheese is cheese!” Wise words from Sam: a smart, talented, handsome, and very entertaining Collie, who, in my opinion, is the spitting image of Lassie.

Author, Sally Cronin writes through the eyes of her beloved Collie, Sam. It is a poignant, funny, and oh so entertaining story about life with Sam.

Sam tells us about his life and what it is like growing up dog. I couldn’t help but fall head over heels in love with Sam! And so will you! 

Sam is very literate, he did narrate this book, after all. Sam’s memoir: Sam: A Shaggy Dog Story, is a truly incredible life story of his life as a Collie. He narrates poignantly about his first memories of being a puppy, his incredible curiosity of the world around him, as well as his travels, mishaps, and friendships, and about his great of love of cheese and sausages.

Yet, most important in his life is his great love for Sally and David, his adopted family. Sam also had a fan club of sorts; he was friendly with cats, such as Henry, an Irish feral ginger and white cat, a Spanish marmalade cat, named Mollie, and let me not forget his very favorite toy, when he was a mere tadpole, a stuffed toy lamb, named Larry.

Sam, the intellectual that he was, studied human behavior extensively. He learned to speak Cat, English, and even a little Spanish. Sam was also quite good at humming a tune or two with Sally and David, on many of their family travels. Quite an accomplishment!  However, there was a certain rationale behind his thinking…cheese and sausages. If he could entertain Sally and David’s friends, by speaking English, he would be given more cheese by their guests. One could say that Sam was an accomplished entrepreneur!

As a reader of Sam’s story I laughed, I sometimes cried, and I fell totally in love with Sam, who was loved, beyond measure, by Sally and David, his adoptive parents. This is a wonderful memoir that will make you smile, laugh, and even shed a tear, but mostly you will feel a sense of great joy for a life well lived. 5 Stars.

 

The Heart Stone Chronicles: The Swamp Fairy, by Author Colleen M. Chesebro

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This mystical story is bound to capture your heart. Abigale Forester is only fourteen years old, recently orphaned, and has been sent to live with her Aunt Magnolia Forester, a woman she has never met, and is now her legal Guardian. Abigale was born with mystical gifts, inherited from her mother, along with a few hundred acres of swamp land that has been handed down for generations in her family.

This is no ordinary swamp. It is a place where mystical things happens, another realm, that is critical for the safety of mankind. Abigale has no idea what this has to do with her, but she will soon find out. In the meantime, a corrupt, greedy, and wealthy man as plans of his own to destroy the swamp and possibly Abigale and her aunt, as a form of revenge.

Danger is everywhere for Abigale as she tries to adjust to her new life. When the truth about the swamp legacy is revealed to her, Abigale is forced to make a decision about the swamp legacy and her choice is a dangerous one.

I highly recommend this mystical mystery that is so well written, by author Colleen M. Chesebro, that the story itself almost leaps off of the pages, right into your reality. It is that good. 5 Stars!

 

Techniques for Masterful Writing

A Summary of K.M. Weiland’s  “Write Like a Master”

I posted this in 2014 and I realized it was definitely worth posting again! I keep coming back to K.M.’s 10 factors that are simple to remember and key elements in any writing, be it fiction or non-fiction.

My summary of K.M. Weiland’s excellent article presented in Writer’s Digest, Work Book: Exercises and Tips for Honing Specific Aspects of Your Writing presents the key points of her exceptional article. It is especially for writers penning their first novel, but also for seasoned writers to again remember a classic, Jane Eyre, a novel that was ahead of its time, by Charlotte Brontë.  Often, reading classics, as most of us do, gives us fresh insight to dramatic storytelling par excellence, and can improve our own writing skills. K.M. Weiland gives us 10 distinct techniques for dramatic masterful writing.

  1. Hook: Start in the middle of some type of interaction within environment, statement, or internal angst to provoke reader curiosity.
  1. Characteristic Moment: Reveal/show a personality trait of the Protagonist.
  1. Setting Description of Scene: Start broadly, and then zoom in.
  1. Symbolism: Small details set story’s tone and foreshadows its course.
  1. The World Protagonist Inhabits: demonstrate character’s interior and exterior world.
  1. Back Story: Intersperse with dialogue, don’t dump back story in long paragraphs in chapter 1.
  1. The Premise of Story: Present the Dramatic Question early on, involving the moral foundation, the impetus that drives the story forward.
  1. Physical Actions: The physical movements of characters interspersed throughout dialogue increases depth of character traits.
  1. Protagonist’s Belief: Once Dramatic Question is identified, writer presents obstacles for protagonist until she/he can relinquish belief/misconception and meet deepest needs.

10.Extraordinary Factor: What makes the Protagonist important? How at odds is protagonist in his/her world with others that creates friction, tension, and thus the central conflict of story premise.

***see Writer’s Digest, October 2014 edition, for full article.

 

THE IMITATION GAME: Learning How to Be a Copy Cat!

THE IMITATION GAME: Learning How to Be a Copycat!

In Writer’s Digest magazine this month, I was stopped in my tracks, when I saw this article by Karen Krumpak. I thought…What?

But then reading on, I realized that this is what artists do all the time. The apprentice artists are required to copy their “Master’s work” in paintings, watercolor, and pastels. Okay, I thought, but how is copying, word for word, another author’s work going to help me? And is this a good idea? In my effort to understand this “Game”, I read on.

And, I then discovered that this is a practice game to improve writing skills. Great, I thought, I am hooked! It was a relief though, to know I wouldn’t be the only copycat. I was in good company: Jack London, Benjamin Franklin, and Hunter S. Thompson (I honestly don’t know who this man is or was.)

Next step: Learning to Copycat or rather finding a writer I love and want to copy, but, as I found out, this is not as easy as pie…it takes work! Work?? More work??

Okay…I am Game! (pun intended)

Ms. Karen Krumpak, the author of this article, states that “You will learn to have your own Voice and your own Distinctive Style!”  This sounded like magic to me, as I imagined my own Strong voice, and my own Distinctive style!

Or, would I be, “The New Copycat Killer of Words?” (secretly, I wondered if I would finally learn to properly use punctuation, and even learn how to use italics with confidence.) I have a secret love for italics—don’t ask me why, I don’t know. Italics are very pretty to look at, aren’t they?

The first thing is to sort through your personal library for a writer that you would love to imitate.  So, several hours later….I finally made a decision!

I chose a book with 870 pages: THE MISTS OF AVALON.  I figured that after 870 pages…I would really have my own Strong voice and my own Distinctive style! This would be the “Cat’s Meow” (Pun intended)!

This choice was perfect for me with my love of legends, fantasy, fairytales, and most of all, the Magic of Morgan Le Fay, in other words; the magic of a legends, and the magical saga of all the women behind King Arthur’s Throne. Ah Ha!  This is true…there are always women standing behind a man’s throne! (Just to be sure he didn’t forget anything. We women are so helpful.)

Next step: Learn how to be a Sherlock Holmes, but where is my Watson? Well, as Karen Krumpak states, “forcing yourself to impersonate another writer takes off the pressure of writing? Really? What pressure?

Soon, I am told, I will start reading like a writer. But, I do that already…maybe. Normally, I just read, for the pleasure of it. But, if I must, I will.

Soon, states Ms. Krumpak, I will learn to stretch my skills and improve my technique. This better work…if it doesn’t, well, I will have enjoyed immensely, re-reading The Mists of Avalon, just like a real writer reads a book. Good to know!

 

A Review: French on English – A Guide to Writing Better Essays


A Review of French on English – A Guide to Writing Better Essays 

 by author Charles F. French

French on English – A Guide to Writing Better Essays,  is an essential tool for writing, that you will keep on your desk, as I do, for easy reference when writing a resume, a college essay or thesis, a commentary on your blog, or a fiction or non-fiction book.  This well-thought-out little book, reveals in simple and easy steps, ways to make almost any written work error free. An added plus is Dr. Charles F. French’s free online companion site for French on EnglishA Guide to Writing Better Essays.

Charles F. French, author of French on English – A Guide to Writing Better Essays, earned his PhD in English Literature from Lehigh University.  He has been teaching writing courses in composition for more than twenty-five years at Lehigh University, Bethlehem, PA, and at Muhlenberg College Wescoe School of Continuing Education, Allentown, PA.

Dr. French’s essential reference book on writing skills, French on English—A Guide to Writing Better Essays,  includes examples of often forgotten English grammar rules that we learned in high school. He also included in simple and easy steps, how to create that first draft of a college essay or that novel many of us are hoping to write. Another important feature, is learning to create perfect citations that when improperly written, will cause a great paper to be marked down, one that should have been an A+ paper in college.

Another key feature for me when I am writing a first draft of a novel is that moment that finds me in fear of developing Writer’s Block. Dr. French has brilliantly included, in his spectacular reference book, a section entitled, ‘Brainstorming Ideas’ using the technique of ‘Free Writing’ that breaks through the dreaded Writer’s Block.

I know that you will find, French of English—A Guide to Writing Better Essays, an essential writing tool, and you will want to keep it on your desk for easy access, as I do. It is truly a treasure trove for essential error free writing!