Start at the Beginning

Today’s message is a simple one: start writing your story.

Worrying too long and too hard about how to start a story can make a writer freeze up. Stop worrying. Stop overthinking. Start writing.

There’s a difference between a work’s beginning and starting to work. –Twyla Tharp

I mean, it matters immensely how you start. But also, it doesn’t matter at all how you start.

It doesn’t matter because that you start writing is the most important thing, and it doesn’t matter because, no matter how you begin your story, there’s a good chance you’ve got it wrong. The beginning of your story is probably going to be awful. Get comfortable with that. Make peace with that. Learn to soak in that.

It’s a blessing you won’t realize how dreadful your beginning is until you finish your first draft and come back to the beginning to revise. That’s okay. You’ll fix it in rewrites. For now, get your story down on the page. And then steel yourself. It’s going to be bad. Or at the very least, not good.

My own experience is that once a story has been written, one has to cross out the beginning and the end. It is there that we authors do most of our lying. –Anton Chekhov

Around this time last year, I sent my mentor, Tod Goldberg, the first 118 pages of a novel I’d started. Halfway down page 58, Tod told me. That’s where my story started. Halfway. Down. Page. 58. The first 57.5 pages had to go.

That is an extreme example that I won’t go into. I’ll save it for another time. Suffice it to say, I made a lot of mistakes. But you don’t have to repeat them. It doesn’t have to be that bad.

Don’t really start just any old place. Keep the following things in mind and try to start in the right place to save yourself some effort and some tears down the road:

  1. The best place to start is generally in medias res–in the middle of things. Start in the thick of the action. Immediately engage your readers and pull them into your story.
  2. Along those same lines, avoid “throat clearing,” that tendency we have to start a story with lengthy, boring backstory and descriptions of characters and places. If you need to write all that for yourself, to get into the story, by all means do. Then ruthlessly delete it from your next draft.
  3. Once you’ve gotten a full draft down on paper, go back and spend a lot of time perfecting that beginning. Write a killer opening paragraph–you’ll be amazed at the details, descriptions, and backstory you can sneak into an interesting and engaging opening paragraph when you put the work in. Your opening paragraph can do so much heavy lifting if you’ll only let it. But it has to be engaging to read all the same.
  4. Spend even more time crafting an opening line that takes a reader’s breath away. Try this one, the opening line from Jill Alexander Essbaum’s novel Hausfrau: “Anna was a good wife, mostly.” Six words. So good the publisher put it on the book cover. How often does that happen? Or this one, the opening line from Tod Goldberg’s Gangsterland: “When Sal Cupertine was going to kill a guy, he’d walk right up and shoot him in the back of the head.” Sold! Any reader worth their library card has to keep reading. As a writer, that’s your job–give your readers a reason to keep reading.
  5. Get a friend you trust to tell you where your story starts. My friend Jackie DesForges is the story beginning whisperer. She instinctively knows where a story should start. When her friends can’t kill their own darlings, she will happily kill them for us.

“Cut this. And this. And this.” Slash slash slash. “Your story starts here.” –story whisperer Jackie DesForges

WRITER TIP: Start writing your story. Start in the middle of the action. If you’re not sure where that is, then start at the beginning and work your way toward it. Once you get there, cut out all the stuff that is not it.

A Handful of Writers & Their Pastimes

Feature art and image courtesy of Christopher Wiley.

Leo Tolstoy played chess. Madeleine L’Engle played the piano. Jane Austen played cards. Mark Twain was into scrapbooking and inventing–he combined these two hobbies to invent the scrapbook with adhesive pages.

This week, I want to encourage you to get away from your desk and out of the house. All writing and no living makes for some dull fiction. Hobbies, outside interests, physical activity–all these things will make you a better writer. Some of the best hobbies for writers include reading, traveling, photography, and people watching. Any of these activities will expand your ideas about the world and help you to see the world and the people in it from a different perspective. They will also fill your mental arsenal with images, sounds, and smells.

I’ve lately been fascinated with asking my writer friends what they do when they aren’t writing, and the results both surprised and delighted me. I got a few more responses in recent weeks, so here’s an encore post–five more writers and their other interests. I hope these inspire you to take some risks, take a break from writing, and seek out more fun in your own life.

Linda Romano: Writer, Cyclist & Runner:

Writer Linda Romano escaping her desk for a bike ride.

Observing the environment stimulates my creative process and helps me focus. When an idea feels important, instead of relying on memory, I try to jot it down somewhere. If not in a small notebook that I keep in my car, then texts or emailed notes to my phone. The phone has become an easy way to talk to myself!

Biking, running, and most outdoor activities have kept me sane over the years from events that occurred early in my childhood. I was fortunate to grow up in the beginning of Title IX when sports for girls were more available. It became an opportunity to engage in a community activity with a sense of comradeship, especially with other girls and women. Since then, I have learned to use physical activity as an escape to reengage my mind on new thoughts and avoid mental tailspins. More recently it has been an opportunity to engage with people of all ages. When I return to my desk and write, it feels like a fresh start. A sentence can take on a new form. A new idea may be triggered that wasn’t present earlier. Even a walk around the block can make a difference.

When she isn’t taking a spin around Northern California, writer and engineer Linda Romano is hard at work on her memoir.

Joe Garrity: Writer, Director & Improviser:

I got into improv, trepidatiously, as a writer first. Previously I had considered improv a sport only for professional actors, capital P Performers. I learned through watching many live shows during a semester in New York what a wide range of people took part in the practice: introverts, extroverts, listeners, talkers, leaders, followers. And I learned that none of these attributes actually belonged to anyone forever. We each contained multitudes. Shortly after college I stepped into my first improv course, a night class held at the Berkeley YWCA with retirees and computer programmers. I was terrified but slowly became acclimated to the central idea: courting terror. Disarming it. Practicing equanimity. Through one class, into another, from a theater in San Francisco to one in New York, I followed a winding path toward a friendlier relationship with my imagination. It became easier to reserve judgement, to honor feeling, to sit in uncertainty. To really laugh. Now I find myself in Los Angeles, studying at The Groundlings theater just down the street from me, where so many of my heroes have trained. I’m right where I want to be, in a scene I couldn’t have written.

Joe Garrity is a writer, director, and editor originally from the San Francisco Bay Area. He wrote, directed, and starred in the award-winning short film Twinsburg. Joe is directing Sunday Night at Jane’s by playwright Emily Powers for this year’s Hollywood Fringe Festival. Tickets go on sale May 1st.

Christopher Wiley: Writer & Artist

Art and photography by Christopher Wiley.

Sensory experiences spark inspiration for me. Creating art becomes tactile, visual and problem-solving encounters for my brain. It is relaxation, a brief vacation from the assemblages of words on a blank page. It encourages uninhibited mind wandering that allows me to tap into unfiltered thoughts, ideas and feelings. Art also makes good practice for experimentation. I’d say that my art is craft-oriented, relying on mostly found objects and materials. Discovering and using found things for art projects gets me to see these discarded objects in a new way. Putting unusual or unlikely objects together in the physical world is a great exercise for expanding a writer’s mind. It cultivates my writer’s third eye that urges me to see—and express—the world clearly and creatively.

Art and photography by Christopher Wiley.

Christopher Wiley’s short play Irreversible Binomials recently premiered at The Post Theatre Company at Long Island University. Several of his poems recently appeared in Bending Genres and Peculiar.

Lindsay Jamieson Gallagher: Writer, Pianist & Snowboarder:

Playing the piano provides a perfect break when I’m writing. I mainly play the same few pieces (occasionally I learn something new, and an old favorite drops off the rotation), so practicing has an immediate effect; I can hear myself improve. Unlike with writing, I know the notes, so I can change the tone, the pace, the emotion. That resets my brain.

I can’t do this as often, but I also love to snowboard. How else can one access a snow-covered Narnian forest? On snowy tree days, I’m through the wardrobe, which will never stop being my ultimate fantasy. Also, when I’m in extreme terrain, which I prefer, I am one hundred percent in the moment. I’m a chronic overthinker, so the sudden silence in my brain is a tremendous relief. Sometimes this happens when I write, but not as frequently; danger forces the switch. I tend to have lots of ideas after I access that (underused) portion of my brain. And more optimism. At the top of a giant mountain, there’s no past (regrets) and no future (worries)—there’s only that rock and that cliff and that tree.

Lindsay Jamieson Gallagher‘s short story “Family Map” recently appeared in Kelp Journal.

Mick Guinn: Writer, Recording Artist, Gardener, Cyclist, Polymath ….

I was told recently (by a professional who should know) that my curse is I’m a polymath, which has nothing to do with math, which is good because I’m just “okay” at math, unless it’s financial woe math where I’m wont to articulate and exaggerate in great algebraic detail––which still doesn’t make me good at math––but doesn’t rule out the possibility of polymath. It could just be my ADHD. However, if the polymath diagnosis is correct, it may explain why my careers and pastimes are strewn all over the place like socks that never made the hamper.

As a recording artist and lyricist of questionable talent, I often unconsciously create wildly rhyming sentences with cadences like dances that call too much attention to themselves. All the while, pining for something more akin to the liquidity of lyrical prose to drop on the page. Most of the time when my butt is bolted to the chair as instructed, weeds call me out of it. The pullable, not smokable, kind.  Gardening’s in a different part of what’s left of my brain, giving the write brain a rest. I’m particularly obsessed with pruning, which feels like editing. Cycling sans earbuds does something similar. That’s when I hear the voices. I used to throw pots for the same unthinking reason. I guess the best pastimes for me are ones that use the unused parts of my brain.  Or the knees I need to take a walk with now.

Mick Guinn is unsurprisingly unpublished at this time, but currently completing work on a 3000-page coming-of-age memoir titled, Based on a True Story, which he hopes still is.

WRITER TIP: How do your outside interests enrich your writing life? Consider not only the direct connections, but indirect benefits. If running is your thing, you don’t have to come back from a run with a full-blown story idea. As Collin Mitchell shared last week, running and other physical activities release endorphins and keep us mentally and physically healthy. Other activities might exercise our right brains or help us keep our mental edge. All these things will make us better writers and will keep us in top writing form for many, many years.

KISS Your Manuscript

KISS: Keep it simple, scribbler.

When I’m working with writers, I ask that manuscripts be submitted to me in Times New Roman typeface, 12-point font, double-spaced, with one-inch margins and a half-inch indentation at each new paragraph. Why? Well, yes, it makes my job easier–help me help you and all that. But most importantly, this is the standard manuscript format that most agents and publishers will ask you to use, and you may as well get used to it.

William Shunn has a great website full of resources for formatting every kind of manuscript: Proper Manuscript Format for Fiction Writers 

Writers often argue against simplicity when it comes to formatting manuscripts. I once had a writer tell me he had to use Lucida Handwriting 11-point font, and that he might be able to give me 1.15 spacing, but he could never give me double spacing. That’s fine. I’m your book coach and your editor–you don’t have to please me. I’ll take it in whatever form you send it to me, then I’ll change it into standard manuscript format before I begin my work. For both our sakes. But an agent or a publisher may not let you off the hook so easily.

I get it. You’re an artist, and you shouldn’t be constrained by standard manuscript format. It interferes with your creativity. I was once a promoter for rock and punk bands, so I know all about artists, and riders demanding multiple packs of Extra Polar Ice chewing gum, and aversions to abiding by the rules. And I’m a writer too, so I know about finding inspiration in places and routines that may seem strange or quirky or eccentric to others.

So listen, while you’re creating, I don’t care if you use Modern Love Grunge typeface in lime green bold and italicized 18-point font, single-spaced, with three-inch margins. I really don’t. I’m all for you doing whatever it takes to get those words on the page. And if you want me to change the formatting for you so you don’t have to witness the carnage, I can do that. We are in this together, and I want to help you and your book succeed.

But when it’s time to send your work out into the world, let’s keep it simple, scribbler. Use simple, standard formatting, and let your story be the thing that shines.

WRITER TIP: Don’t get too attached to the way your manuscript looks. Remember, the formatting of your manuscript is not story. Pretty typeface won’t make a bad story better, and it may obscure a good story and make it unreadable. When you’re ready to submit your work to an agent or a publisher, let go of the fancy formatting that can be distracting, detract from your story, and frustrate readers. Don’t give an agent a reason to put your manuscript down. You’ve put all that hard work into writing your novel. Now’s the time to make it as easy as possible for people to say yes.

Writing and Writing on Running

Please enjoy this guest post by writer and runner Collin Mitchell.

Much has been written about the relationship between running and the successful writing life: there are the obvious comparisons between the slog of marathon training and producing a novel, the way fresh air and exertion clears fog from the brain, and the age-old idea that any kind of pain makes one stronger.

Generally speaking, I have no argument with any of this.

So why write more about running and writing? What else is there to say, really?

Writers, perhaps more than most people, can appreciate the link between mental stimulation and an agile mind. Riding a bike or people-watching at the mall are decent ways to get words on the page—or at least delay them. We all want something (in this case, writing the Great American Novel), yet it’s the path we choose, or are forced to take, that’s the more interesting point of the story.

So, what of the pursuit of writing a novel, or anything, really? John Gardner has said that the primary subjects of fiction are human emotion, values, and beliefs. Is running an embodiment of this idea while also serving as a means by which to write?

By some stroke of fate, running found me. It’s also one of the few things I know how to do as well as eat or go to the bathroom, so I consider myself lucky that something which fell into my lap has proven to be natural to my disposition. The Japanese author Haruki Murakami intimated something similar in his musings on running. Much in his book, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, appeals to me—the workaday approach to running and writing, the satisfaction with boredom. In short, we both need (more like, crave) the empty, benign space running provides. But here, I’d rather reflect on an anecdote that doesn’t describe me at all. Murakami writes:

I didn’t start running because somebody asked me to become a runner. Just like I didn’t become a novelist because someone asked me to. One day, out of the blue, I wanted to write a novel. And one day, out of the blue, I started to run—simply because I wanted to. I’ve always done whatever I felt like doing in life. People may try to stop me, and convince me I’m wrong, but I won’t change.

Each of these traits is a “no” for me. I began running at twenty-five because a friend, who had just finished his first marathon, encouraged me to give it a try. His accomplishment made me jealous in the best way, and I went for it. I’m still running nearly fifteen years later. My writing life had a similar trajectory. After years of avoiding the desire to write, I finally got started after a friend asked me to contribute something for a zine he was putting together. That same friend, (over years, mind you) cajoled me into working with him on a film, then movie scripts, and finally an animated TV pilot that got some attention in a handful of Burbank production offices. And then, after all that, when this same friend got his MFA and connected me with a paid writing gig, it finally occurred to me (boy, am I dense) that I should take myself a little bit more seriously. Unlike Murakami, I specifically don’t do whatever I feel like and almost always, wait for permission to move forward. Of all the things I wish I could change about myself, this is number one.

So what do writing and running and me have to do with each other? Well, we were pushed together, like reluctant kids at a junior high dance. Over the years we’ve found that if we have to be here (read: in life/on earth) we might as well stick together. Like the scrappy outcasts in an ‘80s movie, we’re gonna get through this and hopefully get to the end, with a pizza and a pitcher of Coors Light to celebrate.

Mostly, I don’t know what I want to do with myself on any given day. If I could walk around the neighborhood from sunup to sundown, I would. But this won’t work with my current lifestyle (marriage/kid), so running has to get the job done—it’s more efficient. Similarly, I would love to read all day, but some priggish sense of duty and productivity doesn’t allow me to do that. So, instead, I do something slightly less indolent, and I write. Which means I have to push a lot of inertia aside.

Running gets my feelings in check, and together we wrangle in the aimlessness of living. Anger turns to indifference, or better, empathy. Frustration turns to mild annoyance. With any luck, enthusiasm raises its eager head.

But more than this, running is about remembering who I am. The real me, or the ideal me. The me who can transform an old story idea into something resembling a plot. The me who has the imagination to finally get some lines of dialogue out. The me who cares enough about himself, even if just for an hour, before the endorphins drop, to make something with my time. This is the me who is ten years old again and doesn’t care about what others think or how much money I’ve made or any of those other distractions.

Running makes me familiar with myself again and asks, gently, if I might want to take a step forward, pursue my wants. For a moment, those narrative emotions, values, and beliefs are in stark relief. If I take a moment, and walk through the mental opening a good run provides, I can have a story to call my very own.


Collin Mitchell is a graduate of the UC Riverside Low Residency MFA program and the author of The Faithful, a historical biography of the opera composer, Giuseppe Verdi. He contributes to Publishers Weekly and Los Angeles Review of Books, and he lives in Redlands.

More Writers & Their Pastimes

Feature image courtesy of Mackenzie Kram.

Sylvia Plath kept bees. Madeleine L’Engle played the piano. Flannery O’Connor raised peacocks. Emily Dickinson was an award-winning baker. Franz Kafka collected porn.

I can’t remember what triggered it. I think it may have been a book I was reading, The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp. Whatever it was, I recently began noticing that my writer friends all have really cool hobbies and other creative outlets. I asked them to share how these other pursuits feed their writing. The responses I’ve gotten have been fascinating and enlightening. This is the last of three installments (at least for now) of writers talking about their other interests. Enjoy!

Rodney E. Schmidt: Writer & Hiker:

My writing and pastime activities run on different freeways that never intersect or run parallel. I write paranoid fantasies about Luddites and opportunists who try to shine in a bleak world, while my hobbies consist of me hiking through the mountains or deserts alone. Like I said, binaries. I’ve wandered so miles across this planet, and during that time, I’ve never thought that I needed technology to make my moment any better. Nor has there been a time when I’ve written about a dystopian future filled with nature and solitude. Maybe the dyad keeps the balance in my mind, influencing my plots, placating my fears. In both fiction and reality, I’m allowed to explore. And in both science fiction and nature, forces more significant tower over me. Maybe there’s a bigger connection than I thought.

Rodney E. Schmidt’s short story “Like and Follow” recently appeared in Caustic Frolic.

Paulla Rich Estes: Writer & Nature Enthusiast:

Walking my dog in the woods near my house, I witness the seasonal changes of Maine—the fall colors, winter snows, spring blossoms, and summer growth. But there’s a point on the path, twenty minutes to a half hour in, where something in me shifts. After mentally ticking down my checklist for the day, my brain exhales and I begin to write. Ideas crop up that I voice-text to myself, and I allow nature to help find the book inside me that’s waiting to be written.

Paulla Rich Estes’s essay “Extraction” recently appeared in The Coachella Review.

Writer Paulla Rich Estes and her companion Dinah.

David Olsen: Writer & Surfer

Surfing is an interesting sport. It seems super niche and sort of inaccessible. At least it did to me for years. I started surfing in earnest in my thirties. The ocean’s crushing jaws, great white sharks just beneath the surface—a close friend of mine was even attacked in Marina years ago—made the ocean seem like a counterintuitive place to find solace. But that is exactly what it has become for me. A solace from the land-world. Out beyond the breakers, reality becomes something new, something silent, and something potentially deadly. It is an experience like no other. And it is in this element, this tranquil, glittering reality beyond the breakers, that I feel truly alive. I think everyone needs a space like this, especially creatives. A space where it feels like you can be alone with just your thoughts and connect to the natural world. Sometimes it’s not about the wave riding, it’s just about existing in that realm for as long as you can, before you have to come back to the real world. I am always a little bit disappointed to have to come back. I always want just one more moment, or one more wave.

David Olsen is a writer and the Editor-In-Chief of Kelp Journal. His work has been widely published, including an essay in CrimeReads, “How Surf Noir Changed My Life.”

Mackenzie Kram: Screenwriter, Filmmaker & Aviation Enthusiast:

To me, airplanes represent freedom, creativity, and enlightenment. As a writer, a lot of my stories have been influenced by aviation and airplanes. For example, most of my characters are either flight attendants or in relationships with flight attendants. Teddy Roosevelt once said, “Believe you can and you’re already halfway there.” Connecting the dots with this quote, aviation brings me the spark I need in my writing, allowing me to relate to characters and write screenplays with hints of aviation throughout. My screenplay, Airport Mime Hunt, was partially influenced by my love for airplanes and airports, specifically the Portland International Airport. When faced with writer’s block, or whenever I hit a brick wall in my writing, I go out and plane spot. Sometimes, I even spend all day plane spotting at Palm Springs International Airport or plan my schedule around spotting an inaugural flight (new route or new airline).

Whenever I fly, I try to make trip reports whenever I get a chance, allowing me to use my filmmaking skills while bringing my audience along for the ride. Like writing, I always know what I film, when to film, and where to film, giving me the right cues in making trip reports. Now with my new job as a ramp agent, I get flight benefits, allowing me to spend even more time around airplanes and flight attendants.

The photos on Mackenzie Krams popular Instagram have gotten likes from the airlines (AHA!, Allegiant, Frontier, Sun Country, Swoop, and United). The airplane photos below, as well as the photograph at the top of the post (an Alaska Airlines Jet taxiing at the Palm Springs International Airport for an early morning takeoff) were all taken by Mackenzie Kram.

Two Alaskan Airlines jets at Palm Springs International Airport. Photo credit: Mackenzie Kram

An American Eagle jet and an Alaskan Airlines jet side by side at the Palm Springs International Airport. Photo credit: Mackenzie Kram

A Sun Country jet making a sunset landing.
Photo credit: Mackenzie Kram

Andréa Ferrell Gannon: Writer, Class-Taker & Verb Hunter:

Kill for time for a hobby…. Before being locked in with teens all week, then alone with my memories and manuscript all weekend, I tried painting and improv. Yes, both are useful for stirring writerly juices. The most surefire way to get me writing though is working under great writer-teachers; I’m a big class-taker.

Looking forward for inspiration, since my life will calm down in June, I’m considering a summer job outside of my current field–something somewhere where gobs of different people are. I just want to stare at them!

And learning the new skills for the new job will give me new verbs. I love me some new verbs for revving up the ol’ writing!

Andréa Ferrell Gannon’s opinion piece, “First Came the TikTok School Shooting ‘Challenge.’ Then Came the Fear” recently appeared in the Washington Post.

L.A. Hunt: Writer & Rebel Flaneur

I see the most extraordinary things on my walks through East Hollywood and Silverlake—nature flourishing, life unfolding, time passing. And sure, I walk for health. But mostly, my mind wanders. And to my surprise, a different reason altogether has emerged for why I walk; it’s the time I get to devote to myself. See, I spend most of my days and nights and early mornings and late evenings, and every moment in between, taking care of other people. I am a mother, after all. And a teacher. Two of the most demanding roles on time, effort, and breath. When I breathe at work, it’s out of frustration or under pressure. When I breathe at home, it’s out of worry or from guilt. But on a walk, by myself, my breath is free, easy. Uninhibited. Of course, as a writer, the benefits of walking are incalculable, for obvious reasons. But I don’t walk for my writing anymore, because even that, in a way, is for something else outside of myself. I walk as an act of rebellion now. I am a radical. No one knows this. But on my walks, every breath I take is because I choose to breathe. I can also choose not to breathe which, by the way, is not recommended by any sane medical doctor or person with a brain. But the choice. It’s mine. I breathe in not because, if I don’t, my classroom will fall apart or my family system will break down. I breathe in because I am in the moment, I am a woman who feels every woman before her who didn’t have the choice to breathe or couldn’t breathe or was suffocated. I breathe in because I relish the choice to do so. On my walks, I smile. I laugh. I think. I cry. I sing out loud. I talk to myself. I argue. And I do it all as me without the external expectations of being a mother, a sister, a wife, a teacher, a writer, or a friend. I walk, and I breathe; they’re both free. Or rather, freeing. I know, radical, right?

L.A. Hunts essay “The Tree of Life” recently appeared in GXRL magazine.

East Hollywood and Silverlake as seen on the author’s walks.
Photo credit: L.A. Hunt

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT: For the last few weeks, I’ve been asking my friends who write about the other things they do creatively or just for movement or fun. The first week, writers Amy Reardon, Nicholas Belardes, Anna Reagan, Trey Burnette, Jackie DesForges, and Laurie Rockenbeck talked about the creative pursuits that feed their writing in 6 Writers & Their Pastimes. Last week, we heard from Matt Ellis, Chih Wang, Ioannis Argiris, Sara Grimes, Jaime Parker Stickle, and Ashley Corinne in 6 More Writers & Their Pastimes. Next week, I have a more in-depth dive into the ways running benefits a writer.

6 More Writers & Their Pastimes

Feature image of writer & aerialist Chih Wang courtesy of Brandi Cooper.

I got such a great response to my request for the ways my writer friends’ pastimes inform their writing that I thought I’d share a half dozen more this week … and a half dozen more next week! Here’s part two of writers talking creative pursuits, hobbies, and side hustles.

Ioannis Argiris: Writer & Stigmatophile:

Collecting tattoo imagery is a process that inspires my writing work when I’m capturing a mood. I try to find images to connect to that emotion, like courage (panther head tattoo) or anger (dagger), and I think about how the lines and colors that make up that graphic affect my writing. Seeing so many variations of the images expressed by many wonderful tattoo artists helps me find the words I can try out on the page.

Ioannis Argiriss short story “U-Haul” recently appeared in Kelp Journal. His new zine, encinal nights: speculative stories, features four short stories and will be available in April at local Bay Area bookstores and online.

Chih Wang: Writer, Editor & Aerialist:

My other big thing I love to do is aerial hammock, but I’m not sure if it actually helps my writing. When I’m frustrated and feeling low about the progress with my novel, I can sometimes turn to aerial where my progress is much more obvious. Learning a new skill in a one-hour class reminds me that I can still accomplish things and perhaps that bleeds over to my writing morale.

Chih Wang is a freelance copyeditor and is the copyeditor for Kelp Journal. You can reach her at cywediting.com.

Aerialist Chih Wang. Photography credit: Brandi Cooper.

Sara Grimes: Poet & Stand-Up Comedian:

Cutting my teeth in comedy has been a useful tool for developing my poetic voice. When I am feeling depleted in one area of my creative life, it allows me to pivot to another outlet. I have days when inspiration strikes to write a comedy set. On those days, I may be sitting at a coffee shop, and I can feel my consciousness expand and welcome in thematic material to riff off of. It will often start with one joke or idea, and then my writing acumen will come in handy to develop that into a larger bit woven together thoughtfully. This gets the creative juices flowing, and maybe later that day, I will be walking my dog through a neighborhood on the precipice of spring, and I will be inspired to write a poem about it. Then, I will sit down and apply the same balance of craft and lyric flow to my poetry.  There is a sense of rhythm, movement, and pacing to both forms of art.

In this clip, I think the role of emphasis and syntax in both genres is heightened as well: “QR Codes Are the New Classified Ads”

Sara Grimes’s poem “Isolation” recently appeared in The Dewdrop‘s “Isolation Shorts.”

Jaime Parker Stickle: Writer & Podcast Host:

I started a podcast to be able to sit with other artists once a week and talk about all the things, all the jobs, all the money-making gigs we do and have done in pursuit of our careers as writers (and other artists). It really feeds my work as a writer in so many ways–hearing incredible stories from fellow artists inspires me to keep working and not give up. It honestly aids the way I build characters, especially in my screenwriting. I’m often motivated to write characters that I think the actors I have on the show would play with grace and humor and ease. And that is so exciting to me.

The podcast has become such a passion of mine because of how much fulfillment it provides to me creatively, and it keeps me tethered to a community of artists, where I may otherwise feel isolated as a writer. I know my writing is better because of it.

Jaime Parker Stickle is a writer and the co-host of Make That Paper! Podcast.

Writer and podcast host Jaime Parker Stickle

Matt Ellis: Writer, Musician & Air Wave Wanderer:

One of my favorite MFA lecture moments was when thriller novelist Ivy Pochoda likened plot building to releasing a herd of rabbits to run. Her revelation was both mind-blowing and daunting. I’d written long enough to know that once your characters had their own lives and voices, they could drive the story in new and surprising ways. Easy, right? For a successful career, all you need is to create a vast stable of fully realized characters and keep churning them out like a dungeon master with three bags of dice. Oh … but wait … they also need to be both wholly original and identifiable to your reader simultaneously? Reality check, please.

Like many people, I spend far too much time in my car. While switching off the stereo can invite the creative journey that only bumper-to-bumper boredom can bring, getting lost in those mental excursions can invite real-life danger and drama. My solution—reality podcasts! You want authenticity in your writing, let fact drive your what-if explorations. I don’t find the gold in mining sensational stories or the peaks of meteoric rises. Those are already too well known and lean toward the cliché. I’m obsessed with grassroots. Causes that help me shape different effects.

An unusual This American Life profile of an investigator who identifies unclaimed bodies in Los Angeles led me to some profound questions that became my current manuscript. Another led me to a new raison d’être for a critical character that I had to resurrect and carry for two hundred more pages. Need insights into the moral calculus of high-stakes operations for your geopolitical thriller? Tune into Malcolm Gladwell’s exploration of the WWII fire-bombing campaigns on Tokyo in Revisionist History. Got a crime story about street gangs? The Freakonomics crew will tell you the economic reasons many drug dealers still live at home with their mothers.

I’m not saying poach for your prose, but we can all modify a splice of DNA for our own sequencing. Now put on those sunglasses, adjust the seat, and tune your stereo EQ from rock to talk.

Matt Ellis’s short story “Off the Road” was recently published in Kiss the Witch.

Ashley Corinne: Writer, Singer/Songwriter & TV/Film Aficionado:

When I’m not reading or writing, I’m more than likely watching TV or movies or listening to music.

Music is my very first love. I was a singer and a songwriter before I was anything else, thanks to mornings with Radio Disney’s pop jams, princess movies, and Breakfast with the Beatles on 95.5. There’s nothing quite like the feeling of turning the volume up with your headphones in and pretending you’re in a dramatic music video.

While I don’t do so much songwriting these days, and I only sing alone in the car (like my life depends on it), music is the one thing that keeps my brain from folding in on itself. I’m constantly curating playlists for seasons, moods, and feelings or finding film scores to match my reading mood. I just finished putting together my spring playlist, and I’m rather proud of it.

Once I’m finished dancing around my room and performing Ashley: The World Tour for an imaginary audience, my brain is refreshed and full of new ideas for writing.

Film and TV are my other two vices. I’ve always had obnoxious opinions on them, and I’m shocked to read old Facebook statuses where I raved about bad TV like it was a Monet. I do love bad TV, don’t mistake that, but I love so much more about film than my “guilty pleasure” watching (which I do not ever feel guilty about, btw).

I work for a movie studio (an unexpected life turn), where I’ve worked in both film and television, and it’s completely changed the game for me. I not only obsess over storytelling and hot people on my screen, but I’ve become downright geeky about the production process. Writing, VFX, dailies, color and costume tests, MPA rating processes. It’s exhausting and lovely and somehow still one of the best things to ever happen to me.

Watching movies and television allow me to stay close to what I love about reading and writing: storytelling, character, themes, etc, but I’m still able to keep the two separate. And once I’m done with a new show (or an old one I’ve seen a hundred times), I can see my own work so differently. It lets me see that maybe the direction or tone I had started with isn’t actually where the story needs to go.

Ashley Corinne’s essay My Brain Is in a Supermassive Black Hole: A Twilight Reread recently appeared in GXRL.

Writer Ashley Corinne enjoys music, TV & film, and coffee shops.

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT: Last week, writers Amy Reardon, Nicholas Belardes, Anna Reagan, Trey Burnette, Jackie DesForges, and Laurie Rockenbeck talked about the creative pursuits that feed their writing. Read all about it here: 6 Writers & Their Pastimes. What things do you do to keep the creative juices flowing?

6 Writers & Their Pastimes

Feature image “Morning Star” courtesy of Trey Burnette.

I’ve been fascinated lately with the way our creative interests and hobbies play into or support our writing. Nearly all of my writer friends have other interests. Some are creative, some are just for fun, some are more grounding. I asked a half dozen writers to tell me about their other creative or just-for-fun pursuits and to discuss how those things inform their writing.

Amy Reardon: Writer, Dancer & Erasure Poet:

“I make erasure poetry to entertain myself and my friends because I find it relaxing and empowering to pull out a deeper agenda within a text. I attend ballet class because it gives me so much pleasure to be in this group of retired ballerinas for whom it is easy and natural to move beautifully. I love being in the room with the music and the barre and the teacher. I’m often the worst one there–and I am learning the language and the moves so it’s humbling and overwhelming, and I have to concentrate so hard–all feelings I put myself in intentionally to inform my writing. But mostly it’s just the beauty. Bodies doing ballet are about the most beautiful thing I can imagine.”

Amy Reardons essay “Stuck” recently appeared in The Believer.

Nicholas Belardes: Writer, Birder & Photographer:

“Nature trails. Birds. Animal life. Behaviors. Birding informs my fiction writing daily. Everything from the jewel of a Summer Tanager to a coyote gulping down a poor bunny. These moments sneak into my stories, help me illuminate how beautiful and dangerous the world can be. My sci-fi story ‘Sky Seekers’ in El Porvenir, Ya! was inspired by what AI birding could be in the far distant future.”

Nicholas Belardess short story “Sky Seekers” is in the Chicano science fiction anthology El Porvenir, Ya!

Summer Tanager, Pismo Beach Campground. Photography credit: Nicholas Belardes.

Anna Reagan: Writer, Reality TV Expert & Celebrity/Pop Culture Queen:

“My Reality TV pleasure brings me a sense of community with people. Instagram, Reddit, friends, etc. Like with the women in my squad, we had such a good time discussing Love is Blind. After and during the pandemic, I’ve come to realize that I need the escape of reality TV and the drama of people I don’t even know on TikTok. It’s fun and it doesn’t affect me directly. I’ve always loved people and their stories, and though people deem it trashy, I love it!

“I think for Real Housewives in particular there can be very complicated issues at hand and human drama—especially how we react to things—is on display. Dissecting with friends and seeing what the internet has to say is really fun and can lead to really interesting conversations. There’s of course the element of some of it being contrived. Some housewives are AMAZING at stirring the pot and Bravo fans will joke that those housewives themselves are producers when we know they want to keep their jobs. There’s also the phenomenon of the second season housewife who totally changes in various ways to respond to their debut season, which can be fascinating. I could go on, clearly.

“For celebrity culture it’s the same but different. Growing up in LA and being around big names, I’ve had a front row seat to how these people act. For instance I went to school with a now B-list actor’s daughter and the daughter of perhaps the most famous living director. And the director’s daughter was incredibly down to earth while the actor’s daughter made a huge display of ordering take-out for lunch everyday—which is expensive—AND had a town car pick her up. So I learned a lot about how people in Hollywood display their insecurities. So celebrity gossip is sometimes like gossip about people I know. But then I’m also a nosy bitch.

“And I just can’t be out of the loop about any cultural phenomenon. I’m too interested in the general discourse. I am getting better at being okay with not being in the loop with everything. I’ve stayed away from Euphoria because it seems anxiety producing. Progress.”

Anna Reagans essay “Dear Kobe Bryant: A Threnody: Wake Up. Grind. Repeat. Become Better.” recently appeared in Public Seminar.

Trey Burnette: Writer & Photographer:

“Writing is very cognitive and sedentary, as opposed to photography, which is very instinctual and active. While my artistry and emotion come through my mind with writing, my creativity with photography comes through my body. First through my eyes, and then by a reactive feeling in my body. There is less time to think with photography, one must act on impulse, or miss the shot. Photography is not done sitting at a desk – one stands, sits, squats, climbs, and lies on objects to get the right shot. Both mediums compliment the other; after one is physical and instinctive with photography, there is space for the meditative and heady practice of writing. Photography clears my mind and puts me in the moment. It gives me the space I need to subconsciously process my writing and then return with a fresh view. Writing helps a photographer think about story. Photography helps the writer listen to their instincts.”

Trey Burnettes essay “September 1” recently appeared in Cheat River Review.

“Morning Star” – Photography credit: Trey Burnette

Jackie DesForges: Writer, Artist & Poet:

“For me, being creative has always been about play, to an extent. Trying things and having fun and pushing myself intellectually in an environment where nothing is at stake and where no one else gets a say in what I am doing. Writing used to be like this for me, but now that it is becoming more like work (which, of course, was the goal and I am grateful for it), I need other forms of creativity to fill that void of doing shit for shit’s sake. For me right now it’s getting back into visual art (which I did a lot as a child but stopped for about a decade), and writing poetry, which I always thought I hated and was bad at. Turns out I just hadn’t yet found types of poetry that spoke to me. I also find it helpful to be able to switch to another creative project when I get stuck on another. It feels like a productive way to take a step back until I know how to move forward. And since I am usually working on more than one thing at a time, each of the projects end up having hints of each other.”

Jackie DesForgess essay “How to Build an Artist” recently appeared in Air/Light.

Laurie Rockenbeck: Writer & Fiber Artist:

“I could go on for hours about fiber arts. Planning a knitted piece is a lot like planning a story. Instead of words, the story of a fabric is told in color and fiber. The process uses complimentary parts of the brain that feed my need to create. Knitting uses a different but equally creative part of my brain.  Sometimes when I am stuck on a scene, I’ll pick up the needles to put myself into a different mode.  This change in focus often unlocks a fix.”

Laurie Rockenbeck is a Seattle crime fiction writer hard at work on her next novel. She also makes the best quince liqueur I’ve ever tasted.

One of Laurie Rockenbeck’s fun current projects–a gnome every month in 2022.

Author Laurie Rockenbeck shows off one of her many knitting projects.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

WRITER TIP: Scientific studies have shown that having creative interests and hobbies outside of writing will make you a better writer. Hobbies are good for people in general–they support physical health and emotional well-being. For writers, they have added benefits: they get us up and away from our desks; stimulate different centers in our brains; provide us with opportunities to observe people and the world around us; and inspire us creatively. One of my favorite short story writers, Flannery O’Connor, wrote: “I know a good many fiction writers who paint, not because they’re any good at painting, but because it helps their writing. It forces them to look at things.”

Write Hard

I’ve been reading about writing, editing, and creativity lately, and a theme that keeps popping up is the amount of time and hard work it takes to acquire natural born writing talent.

We’ve all read stories of “overnight success”–talented actors, writers, musicians, who seemingly burst onto the scene out of nowhere. What we don’t hear about are the years of hard work these overnight successes put into honing their craft, not to mention the innumerable instances of rejection. When it comes to overnight success, what it boils down to is this: when their moment to shine arrived, they were well-prepared. They were ready.

In her book The Creative Habit, dancer/choreographer Twyla Tharp discusses the phenomenon of the overnight success: “It is the perennial debate, born in the Romantic era, between the beliefs that all creative acts are born of (a) some transcendent, inexplicable Dionysian act of inspiration, a kiss from God on your brow that allows you to give the world The Magic Flute, or (b) hard work. … I come down on the side of hard work.”

Take Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, for example, widely accepted as a genius whose talent and skill came fully-formed and naturally to him at birth. That’s what this excerpt from Mozart’s Wikipedia page would have us believe anyway: “Mozart showed prodigious ability from his earliest childhood. Already competent on keyboard and violin, he composed from the age of five … .”

The thing is, we are all born with a talent, and often more than one talent. Part of the difference between someone born with musical talent who succeeds, and someone born with the same talent who does not succeed, is the luck of the draw. What the legends about Mozart often fail to mention is the family Mozart was born into. There was a clavier in the house, among other instruments. Mozart’s father, Leopold Mozart, was a talented musician in his own right–he was a violin virtuoso and even has his own Wikipedia page. He was a composer, played several instruments, and made his living as (get this) a music teacher. He noticed his son Wolfgang had musical talent when the child was a toddler, and he had the skills and the time to nurture that talent.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791 at age six

I mean, yes, Mozart wrote his first music compositions when he was four or five years old, but so what? I wrote and performed my first poems at the age of six and wrote a complete book series at the age of nine. The question for both of us is this: yes, but how good were they? Tharp notes that, “Even Mozart, with all his innate gifts, his passion for music, and his father’s devoted tutelage, needed to get twenty-four youthful symphonies under his belt before he composed something enduring with number twenty-five.” Okay, now I don’t feel so bad that my book series about two frog brothers never found a publisher.

The other difference besides luck, I firmly believe, is hard work. Talent and luck without hard work are candles in the wind, in my opinion–weak, fragile, likely to burn out. This was true even of Mozart, who had everything going for him. “Nobody worked harder than Mozart,” Tharp writes. “By the time he was twenty-eight years old, his hands were deformed because of all the hours he had spent practicing, performing, and gripping a quill pen to compose.”

Mozart acknowledged this himself. In a letter to a friend, he wrote: “People err who think my art comes easily to me. I assure you, dear friend, nobody has devoted so much time and thought to composition as I. There is not a famous master whose music I have not industriously studied through many times.”

I thought of these things recently, when I watched the movie King Richard, about the father of tennis greats Venus and Serena Williams. As the story tells it, Richard Williams and Oracene Price had two daughters with the intention of raising them from birth to be tennis greats. Both Williams and Price became tennis coaches in order to coach their daughters. They instilled a tremendous work ethic in their daughters, and the Williams family worked hard together and made many sacrifices, each and every day, to achieve their dreams.

Tennis stars Venus Williams and Serena Williams

I can extend this example to Will Smith, too, the actor who played Richard Williams in the film. I once heard actor Penn Badgley (You; Gossip Girl) respond to an aspiring actor who asked him how to break into acting. I wish I could find the exact quote or the clip–if I’m able to, I’ll add it here and share it on Twitter. It was so good. But basically, his response was to keep acting, to keep working at it. To practice. He pointed out that attorneys go to seven years of college before they can practice law, and doctors go to eight years of college and then several years of residency before they are fully licensed to practice medicine. Acting is a career choice, he said, and actors have to put in those same years of study and practice.

Anyway, my point is, Will Smith had been acting for 12 years before he received his first Academy Award nomination for Ali in 2002. That’s 12 years from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air to greatness, and he was actually acting even before that, in music videos for “Parents Just Don’t Understand” and “Summertime” in 1989 and 1991. Smith was nominated for an Academy Award again in 2007 for The Pursuit of Happyness, and he was nominated this year for King Richard. Perhaps this is the year he will win. If so, it won’t have come out of nowhere. It will have come after nearly 25 years of hard work, commitment, and tenacity.

Actor Will Smith. Photography credit: Lorenzo Agius

 

If hard work = genius, then practice = excellence.

When I was a student in UC Riverside’s Palm Desert MFA program, I had the incredible good fortune to work on my short stories with Mary Yukari Waters for a year. Waters is an award-winning writer, the author of The Laws of Evening and The Favorites, and an exceptional human being. She’s won an O’Henry Award and a Pushcart Prize for her writing, and her own stories have been in Best American Short Stories … three times. When I struggled to get my words onto the page in the same brilliant way they came to me in my head, Waters explained not only the importance of practice, but its significance.

Consider this: Babies spend their first three years learning to talk. They begin making sounds at around six months. By the age of nine months they can understand a few words and begin to experiment with making many sounds. From around their first birthday to the age of 18 months, they learn to say a few words. By the age of two, they can string short phrases of two to three words together. By the age of three, they have a rapidly expanding vocabulary and begin to string short sentences together.

Although babies can only speak a few words at the age of 12-18 months, they can understand many more words–around 25 according to experts. Although they can’t speak sentences until around the age of three, they can understand them and respond to them. Last night, my granddaughter Louise, who is ten months old today, was trilling her tongue and saying, “ma-ma-ma-ma-ma” and “ba-ba-ba-ba-ba” and “da-da-da-da-da” on repeat. She was practicing. She can’t say the words, but she uses sign language to signal when she wants to “eat,” when she wants “more,” and when she’s “all done.” No, she can’t say the words, but she understands the words and their meanings. It’s all in her head, although she can’t articulate it in speech yet.

It’s the same with writing, Waters explained. When it comes to writing, we are like babies, with ideas in our heads, but without the ability to articulate them. The words are in our heads much sooner than we’re able to express them fully on the page. We are baby writers, and with practice, the words we write will more and more closely resemble the ideas we picture in our minds. It takes practice to get them from our brains and into our writing.

Mary Yukari Waters, author of The Laws of Evening and The Favorites

For a writer, perhaps nowhere does the hard work of writing show up more than in a writer’s devotion to rewriting. Revision. Self-editing. Hard work. In her book The Artful Edit, Susan Bell recalls: “There is a saying: Genius is perseverance.” Discussing F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece The Great Gatsby, she writes with admiration about the intense work Fitzgerald put into the novel. She calls the novel “a tour de force of revision,” and she means that as a compliment of the highest order. Commenting on the words critics use to describe the novel, she concludes: “Careful, sound, carefully written; hard effort; wrote and rewrote, artfully contrived not improvised; structure, discipline: all these terms refer, however obliquely, not to the initial act of inspiration, but to willful editing.”

The bottom line is, excellence in writing (or in anything) is more a matter of hard work than innate talent. If you’re struggling with imposter syndrome after reading your contemporary literary heroes’ latest work, like I am, think about what it took for them to get there. You have those same tools at your disposal–hard work, dedication, persistence, perhaps a stubborn streak and a thick skin. Excellence and genius and mastery reside in you, too. Add hard work and practice, shake well, and pour it onto the page.

WRITER TIP: Perhaps no one acknowledges the need for practice more than golfers. Ben Hogan and Gary Player are generally considered to be among the greatest golfers of all time. “Every day you don’t practice you’re one day further from being good,” Hogan said. Player put it this way: “The more I practice, the luckier I get.” Keep in mind that what we call genius is made up mostly of hard work, daily practice, and stick-to-it-iveness. Remember the old joke: How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice.

 

Characterization: More Than a Pretty Face

Last week, I discussed character descriptions that are almost entirely physical–they are focused on the character’s appearance. While they are good descriptions, they can be a missed opportunity. I’m a big fan of using character descriptions strategically, not only to describe the way a character looks, but to give us some insight into the character. So, I thought I’d go a bit broader this week and share a half dozen examples of character descriptions that go beyond the superficial appearance of a character.

Notice the different techniques the authors use to effectively reveal their characters’ personalities, struggles, flaws, and pasts. Also notice how much these descriptions accomplish, often in very few words. These descriptions take the writers’ characters from good to great.

JAZZ BY TONI MORRISON: VIOLET

“I know that woman. She used to live with a flock of birds on Lenox Avenue. Know her husband, too. He fell for an eighteen-year-old girl with one of those deepdown, spooky loves that made him so sad and happy he shot her just to keep the feeling going. When the woman, her name is Violet, went to the funeral to see the girl and to cut her dead face they threw her to the floor and out of the church. She ran, then, through all that snow, and when she got back to her apartment she took the birds from their cages and set them out the windows to freeze or fly, including the parrot that said, ‘I love you.'”

Photograph by Kevin Berne, Marin Theatre Company. From Marin Theatre Company’s 2019 production of Jazz. L-R: Dezi Solèy as Dorcas; C. Kelly Wright as Violet.

Thoughts: Here, Morrison introduces us to a character, Violet, and she does so without telling us what Violet looks like at all. She tells us a story about Violet’s past, and she does so in an interesting way. It’s not exposition; it’s a story from perhaps the most significant and traumatic day in Violet’s life. This makes it a small but fiercely engaging story in its own right, folded into and crucial to the bigger story. This powerful little story tells us more about Violet than a physical description ever could. Morrison deftly accomplishes characterization through the use of compelling backstory.

THE GREAT GATSBY BY F. SCOTT FITZGERALD:
JAY GATSBY AND DAISY BUCHANAN

If you’ve read The Artful Edit (and I suggest you do), you’ll know that F. Scott Fitzgerald spent a lot of time rewriting and revising The Great Gatsby until he got every detail just right. This kind of excellence isn’t a stroke of luck or innate talent–it’s achieved with a lot of hard work and perseverance.

Here is one of protagonist Nick’s descriptions of Gatsby’s smile from The Great Gatsby:

“He smiled understandingly–much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced–or seemed to face–the whole eternal world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just as far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself, and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey.”

Now, consider this oh-so-brief description of Daisy from the same novel:

“Her face was sad and lovely with bright things in it, bright eyes and a bright passionate mouth.”

Thoughts: Neither of these character descriptions tell us what the characters look like. Not really. We aren’t told how Gatsby’s smile looks, whether he has a crooked mouth, laugh lines, thin lips, or shiny teeth. Instead, we learn how Gatsby’s smile makes people feel. As a reader, I feel the generosity of Gatsby’s smile–he’s one of those people who can make every person in a room feel like the only person in the room. He makes people feel seen. I get it. I can relate it to my own experiences.

And rather than learning what color Daisy’s eyes are or what color her lips are painted or what color her hair is, we learn that her face is “sad” and “lovely” and full of “bright things”–again, we come away with a feeling about Daisy and who she is.

Still, despite the lack of colorful adjectives, I find these descriptions quite visual–they invoke an image and a feeling. Here, Fitzgerald accomplishes characterization with the use of emotion.

JANE EYRE BY CHARLOTTE BRONTË: BLANCHE INGRAM

“Miss Ingram was a mark beneath jealousy: she was too inferior to excite feeling. Pardon the seeming paradox; I mean what I say. She was very showy, but she was not genuine; she had a fine person, many brilliant attainments, but her mind was poor, her heart barren by nature; nothing bloomed spontaneously on that soil; no unforced natural fruit delighted by its freshness. She was not good; she was not original; she used to repeat sounding phrases from books; she never offered, nor had, an opinion of her own. She advocated a high tone of sentiment, but she did not know the sensations of sympathy and pity; tenderness and truth were not in her.”

Thoughts: This first-person description may, on its surface, seem more tell than show, but every line is thought-provoking and delves deeply into who this character is in a way that is not only interesting, but surprising and even shocking. Brontë’s use of metaphor is brilliant. This is the first-person protagonist/ narrator’s perspective–Jane Eyre is recounting her observations about Miss Ingram. So, as with all first-person narration, this passage not only tells us something about Miss Ingram, but it tells us something about the protagonist, Jane Eyre, too, and the thought it takes to consider that is engaging for readers. Also, how reliable is this description considering the inevitable bias of a first-person narrator? These added elements make the passage deeply layered.

“GOOD COUNTRY PEOPLE” BY FLANNERY O’CONNOR:
MRS. FREEMAN

“Besides the neutral expression that she wore when she was alone, Mrs. Freeman had two others, forward and reverse, that she used for all her human dealings. Her forward expression was steady and driving like the advance of a heavy truck. Her eyes never swerved to left or right but turned as the story turned as if they followed a yellow line down the center of it.”

Thoughts: Wow, right? Who needs a physical description of Mrs. Freeman. This description of her facial expressions tells us all we need to know about this woman’s character and about who this determined or stubborn woman is. Again, this is a brilliant use of metaphor–we picture Mrs. Freeman as a strong and immovable semi-truck.

“THE ROYAL CALIFORNIAN” BY TOD GOLDBERG: SHANE

“‘I need a place near a karaoke bar, if possible.’ He had a hustle he liked to do where he’d bet people that he could make them cry and then he’d bust out ‘Brick’ by Ben Folds Five and every girl who ever had an abortion would be in a puddle. It didn’t make him proud, but he had bills to pay.”

Thoughts: This passage is from the first short story in Goldberg’s 2021 collection, The Low Desert, which was just released in paperback. Here, the protagonist, Shane, is a karaoke DJ making a telephone reservation at a hotel, and he asks for “a place near a karaoke bar.” Then we hear why this is important to him, and we learn a great deal about Shane in just a few lines: he’s a hustler, he manipulates people with music, he’s not necessarily proud of it.

In addition to what we can learn about characterization from this story, it’s a masterclass in point of view too. “The Royal Californian” is written in such a close third-person point of view that it almost feels like first person. We are deeply inside Shane’s head as we read–this is exactly where you want your readers to be. Remember that, with first person, everything the narrator says or thinks or feels can help characterize them. Even if they are talking about someone else, we are getting some level of insight into who the narrator is. Here, Goldberg accomplishes the same thing with a skillful close third, which is remarkable.

TO THE LIGHTHOUSE BY VIRGINIA WOOLF:
CHARLES TANSLEY

“He was such a miserable specimen, the children said, all humps and hollows. He couldn’t play cricket; he poked; he shuffled. He was a sarcastic brute, Andrew said. They knew what he liked best–to be for ever walking up and down, up and down, with Mr. Ramsay, saying who had won this, who had won that, who was a ‘first rate man’ at Latin verses, who was ‘brilliant but I think fundamentally unsound,’ who was undoubtedly the ‘ablest fellow in Balliol’ ….”

Thoughts: What I love about this particular description of Mr. Ramsey’s friend Charles Tansley is that the third person narrator (here, Mrs. Ramsey) curates it–she gathers it like intel and compiles it like a dossier–all from information given to her by those around her rather than her own observations. Instead of telling readers about his appearance, Mrs. Ramsey relates a physically-adjacent description from the point of view of her children (“miserable,” “couldn’t play cricket,” “he poked” and “shuffled). The first two lines invoke an excellent visual image–we can see his bent, sickly body in our minds. Mrs. Ramsey’s oldest son, Andrew, contributes that Tansley is “a sarcastic brute.” Now we see him as broken-bodied, unhealthy, and ill-tempered. The characterization is then fully fleshed out through Tansley’s actions, specifically, the things he talks about on his walks with Mr. Ramsey. Although we haven’t really been told what Tansley looks like, readers now have a full picture of this character, inside and out.

WRITER TIP: Last week, I suggested you study the ways characters are described in your favorite novels. Also pay special attention to the ways your favorite authors describe characters beyond physical appearance. Skilled writers use backstory, action, dialogue, emotion, thoughts, metaphor, and many other literary devices to create vivid and engaging characters. Consider too how your story’s point of view plays into characterizing your protagonist, your narrator, and the other characters in your story.

Characterization: Lessons from Twilight

I recently binged all the Twilight movies–I’d never watched them before, but I was intrigued/tricked into watching them by my friend Ashley Corinne–she recently wrote a Twilight re-read series for GXRL magazine. Ashley compared her experience reading the books now, as an adult, to reading them then, as a teenager. It felt like a crash I both wanted to avoid and didn’t want to miss.

After watching the movies, which were more entertaining than I’d expected, I was interested to see how the descriptions of the characters in the books stacked up to the actors who’d been cast in the film roles. But I also wanted to see how effectively the descriptions were written. As a book coach who works with YA authors, Stephenie Meyer’s books felt like a missing part of my education. What drew people in to the Twilight saga, arguably the most popular YA series ever?

For the most part, the books are written in first person, which is common in YA, so these are 17-year-old Bella’s observations about herself and the people she encounters. All of these descriptions are taken from the first book in the series, Twilight (2005).

BELLA’S DESCRIPTION OF HERSELF

“Physically, I’d never fit in anywhere. I should be tan, sporty, blond—a volleyball player, or a cheerleader, perhaps—all the things that go with living in the valley of the sun. Instead, I was ivory-skinned, without even the excuse of blue eyes or red hair, despite the constant sunshine. I had always been slender, but soft somehow, obviously not an athlete. … My skin could be pretty—it was very clear, almost translucent-looking—but it all depended on color. I had no color here.”

MY TAKE: What I noticed about this description is that it’s all physical. We don’t get much insight into Bella as a person here. The phrase “I’d never fit in anywhere” is too common a trope to be especially effective in my opinion–many YA protagonists struggle with feeling different and not fitting in. I’d have liked to have seen more show versus tell–why doesn’t Bella fit in anywhere? For me, the fact that she’s an unathletic, ivory-skinned girl from Phoenix, Arizona, isn’t enough.

What we do get though is some tension, which is great, and we get it through physical description, which is unique. This girl who didn’t fit in “in the valley of the sun” has ivory skin, “despite the constant sunshine” in Phoenix. Her skin is “almost translucent” and she has “no color.” Her physical description is almost that of a vampire. Readers are drawn in here because, in this new place, Forks, Washington, she is about to meet a group of pale-skinned vampires. Will Bella finally fit in? Is this where she was always meant to be?

BELLA’S DESCRIPTION OF JACOB BLACK

“He looked fourteen, maybe fifteen, and had long, glossy black hair pulled back with a rubber band at the nape of his neck. His skin was beautiful, silky and russet-colored; his eyes were dark, set deep above the high planes of his cheekbones. He still had just a hint of childish roundness left around his chin. Altogether, a very pretty face. … He flashed a brilliant smile.”

MY TAKE: A purely physical description with zero characterization. We learn what Jacob looks like, but nothing more. Jacob is a member of the Quileute tribe and lives on a reservation outside of Forks. Jacob is described in a stereotypical way. The descriptions of Jacob’s hair as “long,” “glossy,” “black,” and “pulled back with a rubber band at the nape of his neck,” his eyes as deep-set, his cheekbones as high, and his skin as russet (reddish brown) invoke a fixed, partial, and inadequate image of an American Indian character. The fact that his description is only physical in this passage and provides absolutely no characterization of Jacob as a person, coupled with the stereotypical physical description, make this passage problematic in my opinion.

BELLA’S DESCRIPTION OF EDWARD CULLEN

“[Edward Cullen] was lanky, less bulky, with untidy, bronze-colored hair. He was more boyish than the others. … [H]is face was absurdly handsome. … His hair was dripping wet, disheveled—even so, he looked like he’d just finished shooting a commercial for hair gel. His dazzling face was friendly, open, a slight smile on his flawless lips. But his eyes were careful.”

MY TAKE: I like this description. We get a little more insight into Edward’s personality. We perhaps know more about him than we know about Bella at this point, through Bella’s description of him as “boyish,” her description of his face as “friendly” and “open,” and her description of his eyes as “careful.” I try to keep a lid on too many adverbs and adjectives, but I think the use of “absurdly” works here–it invokes an image. And I love the description of Edward’s hair. It’s visual, and I can picture him as a dark, brooding, James Dean-type character.

BELLA’S DESCRIPTION OF CHARLIE SWAN

“He smiled back, his brown eyes crinkling around the edges. When Charlie smiled, it was easier to see why he and my mother had jumped too quickly into an early marriage. Most of the young romantic he’d been in those days had faded before I’d known him, as the curly brown hair—the same color, if not the same texture, as mine—had dwindled, slowly revealing more and more of the shiny skin of his forehead. But when he smiled I could see a little of the man who had run away with Renée when she was just two years older than I was now.”

MY TAKE: This description of Bella’s father is my favorite character description in Twilight. We learn not only what Charlie looks like, but who he is. And bonus, we get some backstory too, cleverly folded into this description rather than in pure exposition. In one short paragraph, we find out that Bella’s dad is a romantic who smiles a lot (thus the crinkles around the edges of his eyes). And we learn that he and Bella’s mom “jumped too quickly into an early marriage,” and that he and Bella’s mom had run away together when he was not much older than Bella. Note that anytime we get a character description from Bella’s point of view, we get some inadvertent characterization of Bella too. Here, we get a hint as to why Bella might not be so into the idea of marriage.

Overall, I found the initial descriptions of each character to be straightforward, physical descriptions. I’m sure the characters are developed in other ways throughout the novels, but for purposes of this discussion, these descriptions provide good examples of what to do and what not to do in your own writing. Readers want to engage with your characters deeply and to get inside your point-of-view characters’ heads, so keep in mind that physical descriptions of your characters are opportunities to tell us more than what your character looks like.

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVING CHARACTER DESCRIPTIONS

  • Readers want to get inside your characters’ heads and live vicariously through their experiences. Mix physical descriptions with information that gives readers insight not only into what your characters look like, but who they are.
  • Show us who your characters are versus simply telling us. In fact, physical descriptions aren’t always needed. Readers often like to imagine the way characters look. If you include physical descriptions, make sure they count.
  • Get creative with physical descriptions so readers can visualize the characters, e.g., Bella’s description of Edward’s hair–“he looked like he’d just finished shooting a commercial for hair gel”–gives us an immediate image.
  • Don’t confine your descriptions to a single, introductory paragraph as each character is introduced. Sprinkle your descriptions throughout your book, in places where the characteristics you are describing are most relevant to the story.
  • Your narrative isn’t the only place to include character descriptions or information–try getting important character information across in dialogue too. Just make sure it makes sense, flows naturally in the context of the dialogue, and moves the narrative forward.
  • When writing characters outside your own experience, do your homework. Write a fully-fleshed-out and individual character, not a stereotype.
WRITER TIP: Every good writer is a good reader too. Pay close attention to the ways character descriptions are written and incorporated into the narrative in your favorite books. Susan Bell’s The Artful Edit includes a great discussion on this topic. She uses examples from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby to teach characterization done right.