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Fiction Friday: Three Different Types of Description (and exercise)

April 10, 2014

This week, I had the enormous pleasure of leading my first session with the Young Writer’s Club in Lynn Valley. It was a lively session filled with talent young writers from ages 11-17. We started our session with some writing prompts, and then I led them to an exercise on description, which I borrowed from a fun book I discovered in San Francisco, called Don’t Forget to Write! from the group at 826 Valencia street. This exercise was on description (and I’ve modified it slightly).

I started the exercise describing the three different types of description:

  1. Not-so-great: These are those descriptions that could be better. They’re fine in a first draft, but when it comes time to share your work with others, you should consider reworking them. They fall under one or two categories:
    1. Clichés: These are phrases you’ve heard so many times, they’ve lost their value as dscriptions, such as: She ate like a bird. He looked like he’d seen a ghost. He was as strong as an ox. It was as hard as a diamond. For more information on clichés, read my post on them.
    2. Clunky/Awkward: These are descriptions that the reader cannot follow: Her hair looked like mashed turnips, only brown. His car was like a caterpillar crossed with a Great white shark.
  2. Useful: This is description that is plain but necessary. Like the name suggests, these types of descriptions are useful. They help the reader experience the story more fully: Her face was long and oval. He had orange hair and green eyes.
  3. Golden: According to the authors of Don’t Forget to Write (page 3), “this is a detail, description, or analogy that is singular, is completely original, and makes the subject unforgettable: She tapped her fingernail rhythmically on her large teeth as she watched her husband count the change in his man-purse.”  This detail is golden because it speaks volumes about both characters. It should also be noted that golden description can even come about from plain words if they add specificity.

Exercise:

For the exercise, I passed around sheets of paper, each one with an individual item on them that the students were asked to describe as best they could. They were to write a description and then pass it along. After several rounds, I asked them to hand their papers in to me, and I also asked their permission to post some of them anonymously.

Young Writer Contributions:

Here are some of the wonderful descriptions they came up with:

For… “The look in someone’s eyes who’s just seen a car accident.”

Her eyes were wide, round and hollow, with a broken quality to them. Like empty, chipped teacups left out in the rain.

~

A jarred, glassy look settled on her face as she watched the perimedics rush to the cars.

For… “A beach on a sunny day.”

The lazy mood caused by the golden sun and the warm breeze rolled in with the lapping waves.

~

Everything was melting, the sand, the tides, and even the sun.

For… “A blind person (man or woman) walking down a hall.”

He walked cautiously down the hallway, fingers feeling the braille of the walls.

~

All the heads turned towards the woman, and the once lively halls fell silent. Her slumped back and cane were an oddity.

For… “The look on a man’s face whose son has died in a war.”

His face crumpled like paper in a fire, and his eyes leaked quiet tears.

~

Tears welled up in the old man’s eyes, his shoulders heaving as he doubled over.

~

His face concealed the now empty hole inside him. He laughed. He smiled. But his eyes were grey and still.

For… “The sound and smellof rain in a Vancouver winter.” 

A symphony of faint patters filled my ears, while the cold filled my bones. The Vancouver special.

~

The smell of car exhaust was erased by the winds. The taste of Vancouver arrived with the rain. Welcome to my city.

~

The fresh, clean scent of the rain was lingering on a clear winter morning. She could hear the clanking of the large raindrops on the metal rooftop.

~

Little children’s feet ran across the window pane.

For… “The sound and smell of rain after a long drought.”

Emily’s eyes were filled with happy tears as the rain fell silently onto her half-dead plant, rescuing it from Hades.

~

He ran out onto the cracked desert ground to feel the rain on his outstretched arms. The smell reminded him of new life, and the dead silence of the desert was replaced by joy.

~

Wet life drizzled everywhere.

~

The dry battle was won.

 

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Thank you, readers for letting me share this with you. I look forward to working with these young writers next month. Thank you Maggie Bolitho for trusting me to look after this group that you put your heart into for so long.

And for those of you who’d like to do this exercise at home or with your own writing group, you can download the prompts here: Best Description Exercise_mini.

If you’d like to write one of your own, please do so in the comments. If’ you’ve got a favorite, share that as well. I’d love to hear from you.

How to Read Like a Writer

April 6, 2014

When I first went back to school to study creative writing, one of the most important things the teacher emphasized was reading. At the time, I wasn’t reading or writing as much as I’d wanted, so I figured I’d give one a try to see if it helped the other.

The teacher was right: Reading is one of the best ways you, as a writer, can improve your craft, but how you read is as important as what you read.

Instead of writing a blog post this month, I opted to try a different medium and make it into a movie. I hope you enjoy it.

Fiction Fridays: The Throughline

March 20, 2014

I love to read. Or, rather, I love to be caught up in a story that’s so good I can’t put my book down. As a writer, I’m always editing and working with words,  so it’s difficult sometimes to find a book that will do that for me. Sometimes, the words get in the way: either they’re too sloppy or or they’re too well-crafted. But is it really about the words?

We’ve all read books where the writing is sloppy. However, what’s sloppy to one reader can be grand to another–if the story works. I recently tried reading a book that went to the other extreme. The writer was simply trying too hard. Every word was edited and selected to be fresh and new, to pop off the page and hit the reader with its uniqueness and innovation. As a result, I couldn’t find the story for all the eyeball kicks.

Again, it’s a matter of taste. Critics and literati look for different things when they read. What grabs me, though, is the story. It’s what takes us to a new level. Most bestselling books don’t sell for their prose, but for the stories they tell.

For me, this comes down to the throughline.

What is a Throughline?

Writer’s Digest describes the throughline as “the driving force of the book”:

The throughline creates the forward momentum that makes the story absorbing and the protagonist spring to life. Some writers think of the throughline as the embodiment of the main character’s conscious desire. The character knows what he wants and knows that he wants it. This personal hunger, shared by the viewer, drives the story and shapes the narrative.

Author Chuck Wendig describes it as follows:

The throughline is an invisible thread that binds your story together. It comprises those elements that are critical to the very heart of your tale — these elements needn’t be the same for every story you tell but should remain the same throughout a given story.

I see the throughline is the path the reader follows through the story. As an author, you must follow that path as you write the story. It may get covered in vines or brambles, so you must also prune it during your editing process. If the path becomes too sparse, the story can get a little dull, so feel free to add some plants, animals, and adventures along the way. You may even add obstacles. It doesn’t have to be a superhighway, because that would make it a little too obvious. It can be a path of breadcrumbs or a rope climb up a cliff, but it has to be clear where the character is headed to get to his or her goal. If the throughline is not clear, the story is lost.

There’s plenty of great advice on writing a good throughline (including the two sites I’ve already referred to above). The best advice I have to offer you is to read. Find a story that hooks you and read it. Then ask yourself why it hooked you. Review the story again to see how the writer led you through the path of the character’s desire or wanting and then made you wait for it, all the while letting you know it was there. It’s a craft, and it can be learned. And there’s nothing like reading a good novel and then re-reading it to see what made it work for you. For me, it’s one of the best things about being an author.

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Are Angels Immortal or Do They Just Use Really Good Moisturizer? (Winged Wednesdays)

March 11, 2014

PSome people believe that angels are immortal beings, or beings that can live forever. If you do a Google search, you’ll find pages of results.  I don’t know about you, but I sometimes picture them having bodies that stay eternally young (and beautiful), but that might just be me projecting my own wishes onto them. Others might see their immortality as meaning they’re virtually indestructible, supernatural beings, with superpowers of their own, like the ancient gods and goddesses. But are either of these scenarios really true?

Furthermore,  what are angels made of? According to some, they’re pure spirits made by God. Well, we’ve been told our own spirits (or souls) are immortal too, so surely a being that is made entirely of soul would be immortal too–wouldn’t it?

But can’t souls be affected, or weakened by trauma or abuse? Some claim that Psalm 82 in the bible claims that God is telling the angels that they “shall die like men, And fall like one of the princes.”

It also says that angels can “fall” (and that’s been documented a few times). Surely, a fall is a type of weakening. Perhaps it’s a type of death itself. If one angel can fall, then surely it’s able to change states. Maybe it still lives, but it changes somehow. If the presence of God grants the soul “eternal life”, what does being in the presence of evil do? (I think we have enough PTSD sufferers in the world who know how destructive evil can be.) So, a soul may not be indestructible. It can be injured in some way.

And then you have to look at what we mean by immortal. According to wikipedia, it’s the ability to live forever. It’s  a capability. I’m sure my body is technically capable of running a marathon, but have I ever done one? No.

So there’s a huge difference between a capability and an actuality.

According to some scientists, human beings themselves may be able to achieve immortality in the first few decades of the 21st century. So we, too, can become immortal. When you consider human immortality being achievable in the next 20 years, I’m sure it doesn’t mean indestructible.

So, all that being said, I can imagine that angels have the potential to live forever, without destruction or decay, whether they’re made entirely of soul (as they are in my book, The Watcher), or whether they have a human form, made of flesh. But, apparently, so do we.

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Fiction Friday: Feature – Year of Mistaken Discoveries by Eileen Cook

February 20, 2014

I know I’ve not been blogging much lately, but I have a special treat today. Eileen Cook’s new book: Year of Mistaken Discoveries is coming out on February 25, and I wanted to make sure you knew about it.  Eileen is not only one of my favorite authors, but I’m also fortunate enough to be able to call her a friend. Here’s a bit about her new book!

Year of Mistaken Discoveries Cover

Book Summary:

Friendship is a bond stronger than secrets in this novel from the author of The Almost Truth and Unraveling Isobel.

As first graders, Avery and Nora bonded over a special trait they shared—they were both adopted.

Years later, Avery is smart, popular, and on the cheerleading squad, while Nora spends her time on the fringes of school society, wearing black, reading esoteric poetry, and listening to obscure music. They never interact…until the night Nora approaches Avery at a party, saying it’s urgent. She tells Avery that she thought she found her birth mom—but it turned out to be a cruel lie. Avery feels for Nora, but returns to her friends at the party.

Then Avery learns that Nora overdosed on pills. Left to cope with Nora’s loss and questioning her own actions, Avery decides to honor her friend by launching a search for her own birth mother. Aided by Brody, a friend of Nora’s who is also looking for a way to respect Nora’s legacy, Avery embarks on an emotional quest. But what she’s really seeking might go far deeper than just genetics…

What Others Are Saying:

“Cook combines friendship drama, boy troubles, romance, family conflict, and college application stress with a protagonist trying to understand who she really is in the wake of tragedy.” Publisher’s Weekly

“Cook delves into some interesting questions about what is really important in life as well as the challenges associated with self-discovery and determining how far you’ll go to get what you want.”  Booklist

“An insightful, entertaining exploration of the impact of a suicide” Kirkus

“Eileen Cook returns with Year of Mistaken Discoveries, a romantic tragi-comedy from the perspective of the most popular–often most hated–girl in high school: the cheerleader… Year of Mistaken Discoveries is provoking, fast-paced entertainment, and Cook successfully tackles some tough issues with a very light touch.” Readerly- The National Reading Campaign.

“Given the choice between contemporary and paranormal YA, I will almost always pick contemporary and Eileen Cook is the perfect example of why.”  Nerdy Book Club- Kelly’s Top 15 Books for 2014

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Add it on Goodreads

Preorder it on Amazon, Kobo, Chapters/Indigo.

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