My Happy Place

I haven’t been to Monterey for more than three years now, but I’m dreaming of it lately, and I hope to get back to visit soon. Monterey is the place in the world that feels most like home to me. It’s the place where I feel most like myself and where I feel most inspired to write. I want to talk to you about Monterey because it has contributed so much to the way I write. I credit my time in Monterey County for my passion for place in my writing. I’m wondering whether there is a place in your life that helped to create the writer you are, too.

Visiting Cannery Row always spirits me back in time, not only in my own life, but in the lives of my ancestors and others who were drawn to this place, like John Steinbeck. You don’t grow up in the Salinas Valley without having at least a little something in common with Steinbeck. My family emigrated to Monterey County from Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl, just like the characters Steinbeck wrote about in The Grapes of Wrath.

My grandmother Rubye never read a Steinbeck novel, but she came to California from Oklahoma as a child, and the language was in her bones. She once wrote this in her journal: “My first schooling I ever remember was in Moss Landing, California, and we lived in a very little house and our bedroom went out over the water. When the tide came in, it was so very cold and we would watch [the ocean] down through the big cracks in the floor. The little house was back behind Johnny’s Fruit Stand. My father and brothers, Grover and Peck, picked apricots, and my mother and sister Pete cut them to dry in a shed. … After the jobs ended, we put our mattresses, pots and pans on top of two old, open touring cars and headed back to Oklahoma.”

Eventually, my grandparents moved to California permanently. My mother went to high school in King City, where Steinbeck’s East of Eden is set, and I was born there. As children, my siblings and I visited both sets of grandparents in Soledad, the setting for Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. We played on the banks of the Salinas River, just beneath the Soledad overpass, in the same spot where George and Lennie have their last talk.

Salinas High School, where John Steinbeck graduated in 1919, and
where my girlfriends and I hung out to meet boys in the 1970s.

 

I read my first Steinbeck books in junior high, The Pearl and The Red Pony. I went to North Salinas High School. Steinbeck went to Salinas High–they were our rivals in football, but we drove slowly past the school when we cruised Main Street, or we hung out on its grassy lawn if we were on foot. I was a young mom when the film version of my favorite Steinbeck novel, Cannery Row, premiered in Salinas, complete with red carpet, flashing cameras, and Hollywood movie stars.

Someday, I hope to spend a month writing in John Steinbeck’s Writer’s Studio or Cottage, both of which are available to rent on Airbnb. It is one of a handful of things on my bucket list.

“Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream,” Steinbeck wrote. “Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses. Its inhabitants are, as the man once said, ‘whores, pimps, gamblers and sons of bitches,’ by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, ‘Saints and angels and martyrs and holy men,’ and he would have meant the same thing.” (The opening paragraph of Cannery Row by John Steinbeck (1945).)

Cannery Row is my favorite Steinbeck novel not only because of the story, which stands alone, but because I am intrigued by the very real characters behind the story, including Cannery Row itself. Cannery Row is more than a setting. It became the title of the book for a good reason–it easily takes its place next to Doc as one of the main characters in the novel. Steinbeck was passionate about place, too.

John Steinbeck’s Writer’s Studio in Pacific Grove, California

 

Steinbeck was also passionate about people and marine biology. The character of Doc is based on Steinbeck’s real-life friend, Ed “Doc” Ricketts, a marine biologist. The friendship and marine science work of Steinbeck and Ricketts are well-represented today at the Monterey Bay Aquarium and throughout Cannery Row.

“And it is a strange thing that most of the feeling we call religious, most of the mystical outcrying which is one of the most prized and used and desired reactions of our species, is really the understanding and the attempt to say that man is related to the whole thing, related inextricably to all reality, known and unknowable … that all things are one thing and that one thing is all things–plankton, a shimmering phosphorescence on the sea and the spinning planets and an expanding universe, all bound together by the elastic string of time. It is advisable to look from the tide pool to the stars and then back to the tide pool again.” (From The Log from the Sea of Cortez by John Steinbeck (1951).)

Steinbeck incorporated all the things he was passionate about into his writing. Those things make his writing transcendent and evocative. Capturing a sense of place in your writing is just one way of adding texture and layers to your stories. Pay attention to the ways your favorite writers incorporate place and setting into their stories. Think about the places you love, and take a crack at describing them in such exquisite detail that you give your readers the gift of experiencing them, too.

The Benefits of Typing

California Typewriter is a 2016 documentary about typewriters, named for a typewriter repair and servicing shop in Berkeley, California, that went out of business just before the pandemic. In the documentary, you’ll see people shopping for typewriters, servicing typewriters, and fixing typewriters. You’ll see Tom Hanks’ collection of typewriters. You’ll see John Mayer writing songs on his typewriter and Sam Shepard writing plays on his. By the time you finish watching, you’ll long for a typewriter to call your own.

I recommend watching the documentary–it’s a wonderful exploration of the mystique and whimsy of typewriters. With the loss of typewriters as a mainstream writing implement, we’ve lost other things as well. But I wanted to share with you two sets of clips from the documentary because they go to the benefits of typing versus keyboarding for a writer.

This clip in particular is valuable for writers–John Mayer discusses the ways typing has transformed his songwriting process, in part by preventing him from editing as he writes:

I also love this clip of Sam Shepard discussing his reasons for using a typewriter. An actor, playwright, poet, and short story writer, Shepard has been one of my favorite writers for close to forty years. I named my blog, “The Write Stuff,” in honor of the first movie I saw him in. In this clip, he talks about the way typing is more artistic than keyboarding–picture the splash of ink on the page. I love that he also validates an old writing saw we hear often, which is to stop writing while you’re hot and save something for the next day. From Shepard’s mouth, it becomes more gospel than cliché:

You can read more about the documentary at its website, californiatypewritermovie.com. The documentary is available for purchase, but it is also streaming on Peacock and, I’m sure, other streaming services. It has a 100% Tomatometer score on Rotten Tomatoes and an 83% audience score. You can also read about the closure of California Typewriter in Berkeleyside: Berkeley’s California Typewriter, star of documentary, closes shop.

5 Great Keyboard Getaways

So, I’m aware of the fact that I often seem to be advising writers not to write. But it only seems that way–all the things I encourage you to do as a writer will ultimately feed your writing, even if that means taking a break from writing so your subconscious brain can do its share of the work. Still writing.

Today, I want to share five ideas for writing that get you away from your computer screen and keyboard.

  1.  Take a walk. Or listen to music. Or paint a picture. Or take some nature photographs. I give this kind of advice so often, you probably already guessed it, so I may as well list it first and get it out of the way. I used to be such a hard taskmaster when it came to my own writing. I didn’t give myself a chance to take advantage of all the subconscious writing tools my brain has to offer. And my writing suffered for it. My subconscious brain is much more creative than I am. These days, when I’m stuck, I don’t try to force it. I set the writing aside and take a walk. I’ve had great mentors in my life who’ve taught me that taking a walk or engaging in other creative endeavors or doing a mindless activity like washing the dishes is writing. Our brains need time to work out those plot twists and mind-blowing story endings, without the stress and pressure that stifles creativity. When I am working too hard and not taking breaks, I notice it now. The writing isn’t as good, and it doesn’t come as easily.
  2. Write the Old-Fashioned Way. Grab a notebook and a pencil and outline your novel or scene or story on paper. Do it away from your computer and your desk–sit in the comfy chair in your reading nook, or better yet, sit outside in the sunshine. This is a great way to brainstorm too. Not sure how your story is going to end? Brainstorm many possible endings in a stream-of-consciousness way. You may be surprised with the brilliant ideas that come out of nowhere. Not sure what your character wants? Write a character sketch. If you dare, start writing your story or novel by hand. In a 2020 study, professor Audrey van der Meer of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology found that “the brain … is much more active when writing by hand than when typing on a keyboard.” She writes that: “The use of pen and paper gives the brain more ‘hooks’ to hang your memories on. Writing by hand creates much more activity in the sensorimotor parts of the brain. A lot of senses are activated by pressing the pen on paper, seeing the letters you write and hearing the sound you make while writing.” (Why writing by hand makes kids smarter.) You might also consider printing out your keyboarded pages for reading or editing.
  3. Use Print Research Materials. Twyla Tharp suggests that artists have a box or some sort of container for each project they are working on. I love this idea and am just beginning to use it. This means that, instead of bookmarking all my research materials on the computer (although I’m doing that too), I’m printing some of the materials out so that I can read them in a more relaxed (and creatively productive) way, with a highlighter and a pen nearby. Then I toss them in the project box so they’re available when I need them. Depending on your research needs, consider visiting the library and checking out books to read for your research, instead of spending all that time on the internet which, for me, ultimately has me going down a rabbit hole that has nothing to do with what I’m working on.
  4. Try Dictating Your Work. Consider writing your book (or parts of it) by dictating the words into a recording device. Our ideas begin in our minds, and like handwriting, speaking them out loud has its benefits, especially for writing dialogue. It activates different parts of the brain, stimulates spontaneous thought and ideas, and increases creativity. Try dictating hands-free while driving a long distance, gardening, or doing chores around the house, then listen back later and see what you’ve come up with. Another idea: read your printed pages aloud, or better yet, record yourself reading them and then listen back.
  5. Use a Typewriter. Like handwriting, typing offers benefits the computer keyboard doesn’t. Author Natalie Goldberg advises that “[W]riting is really a physical activity.” In Writing Down the Bones, she writes, “I have found that when I am writing something emotional, I must write it the first time directly with hand on paper. Handwriting is more connected to the movement of the heart. Yet, when I tell stories, I go straight to the typewriter.” Many writers swear by the typewriter. John Mayer says it keeps him from editing himself when he’s writing a song. Sam Shepard says it’s more creatively satisfying, feeling the key hit the page and seeing the ink sink into the paper. I’ll go into more detail about typewriting next week.

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.

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.

Ways of Writing

In my teens, I thought writing was agony. I read The Bell Jar and emptied my broken heart into reams of bad, hand-scrawled poetry about the boys who didn’t love me back.

In my twenties, I thought writing was detached, hard-rock glamour. It meant jeans and a band T-shirt, dark shades to block out my bright future, a cigarette in one hand, a bottle of beer in the other. I etched my brilliant words into the page letter by letter, with forceful taps on my typewriter’s keys.

In my thirties, I learned better. Writing was a lot of hard work. It meant sitting at the keyboard of my newfangled home computer, forcing the words until they came, then rearranging them until they didn’t make me sick. I wrote this way for twenty-five or so years.

If writing was hard work, then it couldn’t be fun or play, right? A very wise woman, my first fiction mentor at UC Riverside’s Palm Desert Low-Residency MFA, taught me that, as with most things, the truth lies somewhere in between.

I studied with Mary Yukari Waters for a year; it was a life-changing year. Mary and all the professors I worked with taught me so much about writing. But Mary also taught me so many things about living a creative life.

Mary taught me that writing a piece of fiction is a marathon, not a sprint. It requires persistence and patience. It requires pacing yourself and giving yourself time and space to breathe. Yes, writing involves work, but it shouldn’t be work. Not completely anyway. The physical act of trying to get the ideas from your brain to the page can be frustrating and difficult and stressful, but creativity shouldn’t be any of those things. Mary taught me that creativity withers and dies in a stressful environment. It runs away when pressed too hard.

“The best time to plan a book is while you’re doing the dishes.” –Agatha Christie

I’m a list person. I once sent Mary a first draft of a story I wasn’t yet proud of. I loved the idea, but in execution, I knew it needed a lot more work, and I wanted her to know that I knew that. With the draft, I included a list of all the things I saw wrong with the story and all the things I planned to do to improve it. I still have the handwritten note she gave me–it went something like this: “How can you write like this? This list gives me anxiety–I can only imagine what it is doing to you.”

What I learned from Mary is that writing takes many forms. It isn’t only the time we spend writing. It’s the time we spend thinking about writing, maybe while we’re doing the dishes or taking a walk. It’s the time we don’t spend thinking about writing too, when we’re doing something else entirely, and seemingly out of nowhere, the answer comes. Because while we are washing dishes or taking walks or watching movies or putting puzzles together, or even while we are sleeping, our subconscious brains continue to work on our stories.

What a relief it was to learn that. I came into my MFA program with revision anxiety. I tend to be driven, anxious, stressed out. I’ve been called a workaholic. A therapist once told me that, somewhere, somehow, I’d come away with the idea that being an adult is not supposed to be fun. I work a lot. I don’t say that as a humble brag because I think my need to work so hard grows out of a lack of confidence rather than the reverse. I work hard in part because I feel like I need to in order to be considered a person of worth and value. I need permission to take breaks, and when left to my own devices, I don’t give myself that permission. Now I was being told by Mary that, not only was it okay to go easier on myself and to take breaks, it was necessary.

Life-changing advice, right? Breathe it in, enjoy a cup of coffee, and go for a long walk.

“[I]f you sit with a problem long enough, the decision makes itself. The rational brain is overrated. It seems to me that the truest decisions, in life and in art, happen on a visceral, almost subconscious level. It’s like the needle of a compass: at first it swings wildly over the surface, but eventually a deeper magnetism asserts itself and the needle finds its place.” –Mary Yukari Waters, “After the Happy Ending.”

Here’s Mary’s full essay in The Rumpus about writing … and not writing:

The Sunday Rumpus Essay: After the Happy Ending

And here’s a video on creativity and the subconscious brain recommended by Mary:

WRITER TIP: Build downtime into your schedule every single day. Take breaks away from your keyboard. Get plenty of fresh air, sunshine, and sleep. Engage in activities that feed your creative soul: painting, gardening, playing the guitar. Go for a walk, a hike, a run. Go into the backyard and play fetch with your dog. Take the kids to the park. Do a chore that doesn’t require brainpower: wash the dishes, wash the car, take the garden hose to your patio furniture. Being overly busy crushes creativity–your subconscious brain can’t help you write if it’s constantly occupied thinking about your mile-long to-do list or your taxes or brainstorming your grocery list.

 

Buy a Dictionary

My dad would be the first to admit he wasn’t great at spelling. You’d never know it to read anything he ever wrote. At home, we had a Webster’s dictionary and a full set of the Encyclopædia Britannica. But that wasn’t good enough—my dad carried a pocket dictionary with him wherever he went. If he had any doubt about a word’s spelling or meaning, he looked it up. He sat at his desk or at our dining room table, writing in long hand with an open dictionary beside him. It was tedious, and it meant everything was more difficult and took longer for him than it did for someone else. The fact that it mattered so much to him made an impression on me. He took pride in his work, and it made me proud of him.

Growing up, if my siblings and I didn’t know how to spell a word or didn’t know a word’s meaning, my dad insisted we look it up in the dictionary. It’s a tradition I carried on with my own children and now my grandchildren. When you have to make an effort to do the learning, it sticks.

Today, we have the luxury of spellchecking programs and all sorts of other writing tools. I suggest you familiarize yourself with them and make use of the ones that work for you. But I also suggest you don’t rely on them to the exclusion of your own judgment. It’s easy to become complacent these days and to think it doesn’t matter–we have computers to check our spelling and grammar and punctuation for us. But computers aren’t always accurate, and nothing beats the empowered feeling of finding the answers yourself. So buy a dictionary or subscribe to Merriam-Webster online. Become a student of words, and make sure the words in your manuscript are spelled and used correctly. If spelling or vocabulary don’t come easily, you can make a game or a project of it. Buy a word-a-day calendar or subscribe to Merriam-Webster Word of the Day. Pick up a cheap, old dictionary from a thrift shop and learn a new word every day. Consider brushing up on grammar and punctuation too. Dreyer’s English is a great place to start, also available in a day-to-day calendar and a game called Stet!

Why should I worry about it? you may ask. I’m a writer, an artist, a creative person. My editor will fix all that.

Yes, you are a creative person, and you shouldn’t worry about such things while you’re writing and rewriting and revising your first drafts. Your focus at that point should be on telling your story. Don’t let worries about spelling, grammar, and punctuation, or worries about any little details, distract you.

And yes, your editor will fix all that if need be. Any serious writer is going to work with one or more editors through the process of developmental edits, line edits, and copyedits. This especially holds true if you are a self-publishing author or don’t have an agent or publisher to vet your work. Your editorial team will help you get your manuscript in the best shape possible for your desired goal, whether that’s publication or querying agents, and that includes catching and correcting errors in spelling, punctuation, and grammar.

So take comfort in the fact your editor will have your back in the end. But take control of your own destiny too. After you’ve finished with your manuscript, and before you send it off, run spellcheck and make an editorial pass of your own. Read your manuscript out loud, word by word, to catch errors. Or have MS Word’s “Read Aloud” feature read it to you. Presenting your editor with a manuscript that’s in the best possible shape will often save you money on editing costs. Plus, the more work you put into your manuscript, the better each subsequent revision will be. How can this help but result in a better book in the end, whether you’re self-publishing your book or sending the manuscript to an agent or a traditional or hybrid publisher? You don’t want your readers distracted by mistakes—you want them caught up in your story, and errors in spelling, grammar, or punctuation are a surefire way to pull them out of it.

WRITER TIP: No matter where you’re sending your work, whether it’s to an agent, a publisher, a direct publishing company, or an editor, send them your best work. Once your manuscript is ready to send out, get it even more ready. Sweat the small stuff: put a little time and effort into making sure words are spelled and used correctly, and make sure punctuation and grammar are up to snuff. It makes a big difference, and it will put you ahead of the game.
Woman sitting cozy on her bed in a sweater and socks, with her tablet, a mug of milk, and cookies.

Writing from Prompts

A half dozen Christmases ago, my daughter Melissa gave me a book called 642 Things to Write About. At the time, I had never used writing prompts, except once during a dark November when I was seriously stuck and in danger of falling far short of my NaNoWriMo word count. The prompt I used then was one from @NaNoWordSprints. 26,000+ Twitter followers and I were prompted to write a scene in which we got our main characters out of a sticky situation. I went with it, but I expected the scene I wrote from the prompt to help me reach a word count and nothing more. I didn’t expect the words to actually make it into my finished novel. That didn’t feel good, but I was desperate.

I was never a fan of using writing prompts. I’m not sure why. I guess using them seemed fake to me. Canned. Like a science term paper—writing a bunch of words I wasn’t really feeling, about a topic which had been pre-selected for me, because I had to. And it seemed wasteful of my writing time. Like I was carelessly tossing away words I would never use—words that had no personal meaning behind them and that would never amount to anything.

To my surprise, though, the @NaNoWordSprints writing prompt did help. I wrote for the allotted 10-15 minutes, and I ended up with a fun and pivotal scene that set my novel in a new direction. Voila! By writing about getting my main character out of a sticky situation, my main character and I and my plot—we were all unstuck. Because the pressure was off, I just wrote, and I had fun with it. Because I was having fun with it, my creativity was unleashed. It’s crazy to think that as many as 26,000 other people had also written scenes from that prompt, each of them unique.

With that one positive experience in mind, I read through the prompts in the book my daughter gave me. I began to see the value in using writing prompts, not only to spark my imagination, but to unearth stories which were already buried inside me, waiting to be told.

The first time I opened the book, this prompt jumped out at me, on the very first page: “A house plant is dying. Tell it why it needs to live.” I was surprised to realize I had a story for this prompt. The prompt sparked two memories: a memory about the dozens of houseplants my father entrusted to me (a serial plant murderess) after my green-thumbed mother died, and a memory about the one plant my father kept—a stubborn zebra plant with which he had a love/hate relationship.

I’d never thought of either of these two experiences as anything to write about. But thanks to my daughter’s thoughtful gift, I wrote about them from that prompt. As I wrote, I realized there were stories in these experiences, stories which I might never have written, stories about motherhood and grief and the difficulty of letting go. Over several years and many revisions, that prompt eventually became an essay which will be published in Persimmon Tree magazine in 2022.

The lesson here, I suppose, is to take inspiration wherever you find it, or wherever you can get it, or sometimes, wherever you might least imagine it to be.

WRITER TIP: Writing prompts don’t have to be textual, they can be visual as well, or both, like the 10 years worth of writing prompts Luke Neff, an Oregon high school teacher, posted on his Tumblr blog: WritingPrompts.tumblr.com. You can get your own copy of 642 Things to Write About (as well as many other great craft and prompt books) at the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto.