Resources for Writing Descriptions

I would answer No to both poll questions.  I find writing descriptions tedious, that they slow me down when what I really want to do is get on with the action.  When I’m reading, I often skip through descriptions.  When editing, I enjoy refining a piece of dialogue to get it just right for the character’s voice and, at the same time, to move the story on.  However, even I recognise – oh so reluctantly – that writing is much more effective when readers are shown how characters spoke, any hand movements, facial expressions and how they held their bodies, but, here I am, half way through a novel of characters who are all raising their eyebrows and rolling their eyes (or so it seemed to me).  If you are an editor or publisher, please stop reading now.  The Novel won’t be like it when it reaches you. 

I have found some resources to help writing descriptions.  I came across Descriptionari – a website where other writers post their favourite descriptions – accidentally.  To be honest, at first, it felt like cheating, like one of those pay-for-GCSE-essay sites, but it isn’t because what fits the Descriptionari writer’s context doesn’t fit yours.  Yet, it is so helpful to be able to analyse what other writers have written in similar situations.   I also find the Macmillan Dictionary Online Thesaurus  to be better than other thesauruses as it includes related words too.

Inevitably, I have also discovered, on the internet, many many articles saying, in so many words, ‘Don’t do descriptions’… and then told you how to do them.  These demotivated me.  As I put my computer down and picked up my book, wondering why all other writers could do descriptions and I couldn’t, I realised that the biggest resource of all was staring at me in the face.

Coincidentally, when I was doing a bit of clearing up at home, I found a copy of The Forsyte Saga by John Galsworthy (actually awarded to my father as a school prize in the 1930s).  As this book was falling to bits, I downloaded it on to my Kindle and I’m still reading it.  I know what you’re going to say, Dear Reader, that nobody reads The Forsyte Saga, but those people who watch the box-set are missing some of the most vivid word descriptions ever, of characters,  how they move, how they look, how they speak, how they react without speaking.

Soames looked very real, sitting square yet almost elegant with the clipped moustache on his pale face, and a tooth showing where a lip was lifted in a fixed smile. 

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Oh What a Bad Blogger?

I’m being a bad blogger again.  I missed last week and, the way things are going, I’m going to miss this week as well, and, in seven days’ time, I’m going on holiday to Tenerife for a week.  So, here goes.  I’m exhausted, having just cleared out the garage today, and, as I’m typing, my cat is standing on my lap, pummeling it.  And the television is on; one and only husband has to watch The News.

So, have I been posting loads of book reviews on my other blog, Dear Reader?  No, I need to write about three reviews, one for Instant Apostle (which I will do tomorrow, honestly) and a couple for books I read a few weeks ago (whoops!)

Afternoon Tea at The Belmont Hotel, Leicester
Afternoon Tea at The Belmont Hotel, Leicester

Yesterday, I went to Leicester, to see some friends from school, many of whom I hadn’t seen for a very long time.  It was absolutely amazing to see them.  We picked up as if the intervening years hadn’t happened.  Who would have thought us lot of tearaways,  our school uniform skirts bunched up under our school belts and school hats folded into four, rim cut off and mutilated in every conceivable way, would be eating anything so ladylike as afternoon tea?  But we did, and it was very nice.  Afterwards, having put flowers on my parents’ grave, I wandered into town and took a look at the Clock Tower, and Leicester Market.  Years ago (not telling you how many), I sourced the material for my wedding dress in Leicester Market, from a stall called ‘Geoff the Pirate’.  £10, it cost.

Clock Tower, Leicester
Clock Tower, Leicester

I have been doing some writing over the last couple of weeks.  I even managed to write on the train up to Leicester and back.  I’m getting good at writing on trains.  I  don’t seem to be distracted by endless announcements, although other people’s conversations are more difficult to cut out.  I’ve been plodding away at The Novel.  Editing is such hard work.  Getting anything down, as per the Nano philosophy, is the easy bit.  Putting it right – no reps, punctuation correct, using the right phrase, the one that says just what you want it to, making sure you involve all the senses – all this is much harder… but, just when you think you’re there,  you think of an alternative – and much better –  way of writing the scene.  Next day, when you look at the alternative scene again, you see how that could be improved by editing… and so on.

The problem is I don’t seem to be able to see the minutiae until I start  what is really proofreading; this is all upside down, I know.  I should be getting the big picture right and then cross ts and dot is.  I’m sure that a proper writer would be able envisage his/her story much better and save himself/herself time.  Next time, I will do it differently.  (Says she.)

Now, I’m logging off.  I’m exhausted.

Pet Peeves In Reading, Writing and Editing

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IWSG badge

Today is the first Wednesday of the month, and it’s Insecure Writers’ Support Group day!  We are asked to write about our pet peeves in reading, writing and editing, so please allow me to have a really good moan.

Peeve 1 – Reading

I review – more or less – everything I read on my Dear Reader blog and it peeves me that no one reads my reviews.  It’s not as if no-one reads book reviews online because many other book reviewers blogs do attract interest, so, in an open and non-peevish way, I’m asking you, my fellow bloggers, what could be improved?  (This Dear Reader blog text here is a link, if you wouldn’t mind checking it out.)

Peeve 2 – Writing

No time.  (The really helpful and supportive Facebook friends who read the Facebook post generated by my last post on this blog will have heard all this before.).  The last time I did any proper writing, that is, of my novel, was on a train to Newcastle and back, on 8 July.  In the meantime, I’ve been working, seeing friends and looking after family.  Moreover, on Sunday, one-and-only-husband and I go on holiday to Ireland for ten days.  I love to see my friends and family, because, as I’ve said before, I’m not all writer, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.  It’s just that there aren’t enough hours in the day.  Another blogger (not known to me personally) has given up her day-job, but she, unlike me, is an established womag writer.   Dare I take the plunge?  No.  Could I partly take the plunge?  I’m plucking up courage.

Peeve 3 – Writing and Editing

Author's Cat Sitting by BookcaseMy cat is old, very timid and very loving.  She likes to sit on my knee, between me and the computer.   Actually, she prefers to stand on my knee between me and my computer, so I find myself stretching my arms around her head (one end) and tail (other end) to reach the keyboard and looking over her back to see the screen.  This is distracting when writing.  It also makes editing more difficult, because she sits on the touchpad; my computer is surprising responsive to her paws and bottom, highlighting and deleting whole passages at whim (her whim).

Generally, I am feeling very insecure about my writing at the moment.  A few weeks ago, I saw a flyer for the Mslexia novel comp; the deadline is in mid-September and, if shortlisted, I would have to have the whole thing completed by mid-November.  When I was on a roll, writing on trains to and from Newcastle, this sounded just about do-able, but, now, I know, it’s not.  Ditto, any possibility that I might do Nano again.  At this moment, I feel that The Novel and I are becoming shipwrecked.

In Train-ing

Can you write in public?

According to myth,  J K Rowling wrote the first ‘Harry Potter’ in a cafe, because she was a single mother and ‘too poor’ to afford to pay for heating in her home.  J K, didn’t you  end up shelling out more on coffee than you would’ve done on electricity/gas/oil, or whatever your heating ran on?   But I know how comfortable you get to feel in a coffee shop.  It’s the smell – of coffee -and the background buzz of conversation, of strangers who won’t ask you to do something, find something or switch on the television.

For NanoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) (which happens every November), Nano writers, mostly strangers to each other,  meet together in public and private places, not to socialise, but to write, all together, in silence.  I did that one Saturday afternoon, in a building whose purpose I never fathomed, two years ago, in Colchester.

Could you write on a train?  My friend, Wendy H Jones (of DI Shona McKenzie fame) writes on the train; as she lives in Scotland, she uses trains a lot, and has five Shona McKenzie books, plus several others, to show for it.  This last weekend I travelled to Newcastle, and back, by train, for the Association of Christian Writers Writers’ Day.  The speaker was David Robinson, of Searchlight Theatre, a comedic writer, and the Day was really informative and helpful – more about this on the ACW blog, when it’s my turn this coming Thursday.

I’m moving ahead of myself.  I had to get to Newcastle: it was four hours on a train heading north on Friday and five hours heading back south on Saturday.  So, having packed my smaller – old – computer into my overnight-acceptable-on-a-Ryanair-cabin case, I set it up on the railway carriage table in front of me.  Virgin Trains do support people who want to use computers, by providing three-point sockets beside every double seat, and also free wifi (although this worked only on my iPhone, not on my laptop).  Unfortunately, Dear Reader, the table in front of me was about the size of a child’s desk, and four of us – all women – sitting at it.  And there was me attempting to write one of the most complex chapters of The Novel, including an emotional love scene, with lots of groping and kissing.  I’m sure the woman sitting next to me was reading my page in Word.  I’d like to think that, in a few years’ time, she’ll count herself privileged to have observed a blockbuster in the making.  My friends, who had already arrived in Newcastle and were enjoying a curry, sent me Facebook Messenger texts about Girls on the Train, but, as I had to point out, that’s already been done.  Titles aren’t copyright, though.  Mm.

But, Dear Reader, I wrote.  I did second drafts of two chapters.  Away from home, and family wanting me to do things, I was able to concentrate, even  though the computer was feeling its age and I did wonder whether my work would get itself properly on to Dropbox.  (It did.)

Bringing a Little Sunshine, ACW competition
Attrib Christian Writer

One of the reasons for my going to the Writers Day was to launch the new ACW comp for comedic writing.  All you need to do is to write a sketch of (maximum) thousand words or a comic poem of (maximum) twenty-four lines, on the theme Bringing a Little Sunshine. The winning entry will appear in a future edition of Christian Writer (subject to possible editing). In addition, there’s a first prize of a £25 book token and a £10 book token for second prize.  Deadline 11 September 2017.   More information on the comps page of the ACW website.  So next time you find yourself in train-ing, don’t go off the rails.  Get writing for our competition.

What is one valuable lesson you’ve learned since you started writing?

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First Wednesday of the month and time for the Insecure Writers’ Support Group.

The most valuable lesson I’ve learned is that I need to have contact with other writers.  For years I hid myself away in my spare bedroom, writing to my own specifications and user requirements.   When I ‘came out’, by posting my work on an online writing site, I was gobsmacked by the sort of feedback I received, some of it obvious stuff and other things that had never occurred to me.  You see, I’ve never studied literature or taken the MA in creative writing, so there were enormous gaps in my skills and knowledge, which I am gradually filling with support from my fellow writers through:

  • online writing sites
  • writing groups (some online and some face-to-face)
  • subbing my work
  • entering writing competitions
  • blogging
  • reading writing magazines and online articles
  •  being with members of the (British) Association of Christian Writers.

I’m still no expert but I’m sure I know a great deal more about the craft of writing and the way the publishing industry works than when I was tapping away in my spare bedroom.  It’s taking me a very long time to get where I want to be, where I thought I was.   I want to finish my novel and get it published.  It’s a long haul.  It always was a long haul but it no longer seems impossible.

How Computers Affect Your Writing Style

Have you considered how computers affect your writing style?

I’m not talking about Word’s Autocorrect. Were corrected to We’re is very annoying, but can be proofread out, as can which instead of witch.   I believe computers affect how we construct sentences and paragraphs and the way in which we set down our stories.

When I first started writing, I wrote on lined A4, made a very few edits, then typed it on my cheap and wonky electric typewriter.  (No,  that’s not true.  Much of my juvenile writing was left – exactly as it was –  in red Sylvine notebooks.)  I always used to write in pencil, and, in my latter handwriting days, do a lot of rubbing out, until I got things right, but making corrections on a manuscript, on which I’d written on every narrow line, would have been well nigh impossible.  Those of us who visit museums will have seen initial manuscripts of some classic writers (eg the Brontes), with lots of little

Publisher's galley
Galley. Attrib Wikimedia.

corrections written above the text and in margins.  I recall, my father who wrote geography textbooks, in the 1960s and 1970s, being given long galleys (like a till roll only wider), and him making – very minor – correction marks in the margins.

During the same era, Claire Rayner was rattling off doctor and nurse stories straight on to the typewriter, presumably with no editing at all.  When Dickens wrote his great novels, he published a chapter in Household Words every week, then wrote the next chapter during the proceeding week.  No wonder some of his plot lines – particularly The Old Curiousity Shop – meandered.   I understand from my publisher friend that many writers still prefer to write by hand, and use the typing-up as a first edit, although, she said, it doesn’t work for her.  Nowadays I always type.  I like the clean page, clean, that is of all errors and alterations.  Typing comes easily, probably because I learned to touch-type as a new graduate.  (My father didn’t believe I’d ever get a job otherwise.)

Old computer, Microsoft PC, about 1995.
Old computer (attrib Flickr)

When we got our first desktop computer in 1996 (cost £1400, running the very first version of Windows 95 – wow, cutting edge stuff!), suddenly it was possible to cut and paste sentences around the page… and paragraphs… to move scenes from one chapter to another.  You could make those little changes with the backspace delete key, no need for the editor’s hieroglyphics – and we could make them over and over again.  We could alter the names of characters using find and replace , even change point-of-view (although I recommend care on this one.)

And how we edit!   I must have made a hundred edits just on this post.   Increasingly it’s become expected of us that every word on our page is perfect, adds something to character and progresses the plot.  You couldn’t demand that of someone writing by hand and having their work typed by a professional typist.  No wonder it’s taking me so long to write The Novel.  I’m the worst.  Whenever I open the document for my current chapter, I read what I’ve written and spend up to an hour making edits.  I suspect some are more pertinent than others.  How much is a story improved by ‘Marya says’, not ‘says Marya’?  I suspect that, to a large extent, I’m wasting my time, improving things that don’t matter very much… because I can.

I’ve more to say on this, but I’m leaving this topic for now, as I’ve rabbited on enough.

 

Nothing to Say

What does a blogger say when nothing in particular has happened all week?

Am I supposed to conjure up two or three paragraphs of five hundred or so boring words of nothing?  Well, I’m not going to.

Things did happen, of course.   I’ve invigilated exams and taught two web design classes, attended my Christian Studies class, and, most important of all, my son and girlfriend have been here this weekend and today my husband directed all the music for three services at St Edmundsbury Cathedral.  But not writing things.

That’s 96 words, so I’ll shut up now.

Bad Blogger Blogs Late Because She’s Been on Writers’ Weekend

View of Scargill House, Yorkshire.
View of Scargill House, Yorkshire. Attrib Lucy Mills.

If other people keep telling you that something’s gobsmackingly amazing, what’s your reaction?  Me, I don’t respond well to hype and end to want to debunk whatever it is.  However, last weekend I went to the Association of Christian Writers’ Weekend at Scargill House, Yorkshire, which all my ACW writer friends said was… er… gobsmackingly amazing… and I can report, Dear Reader, that it was everything everybody said it was.

View from Scargill House, Yorkshire
View from Scargill House, Yorkshire. My photo.

Before I arrived, I didn’t know what to expect from the Scargill weekend.  The theme was ‘Dodging the Gatekeepers’ and it was led by Adrian and Bridget Plass, well-known as inspirational speakers.   Theologian and poet, Andrew Knowles, was also presenting, a lovely, funny, self-deprecating former canon theological of Chelmsford Cathedral, wearing shorts and t-shirt.  The ‘Gatekeepers’, I learned, are people and things which discourage us from writing, the unacknowledged audience whom we are forever trying to please: for instance, parents, siblings, spouses, teachers, members of your writing group.  To dodge these Gatekeepers, according to Adrian Plass, we have to acknowledge ‘the elephant in the living room’ and not allow them to set boundaries for us, particularly boundaries of respectability, whereby we feel safe and can deliver half-truths or half-solutions.  We must be true to ourselves.  We are asked if we would go to the pub with Jesus if he invited us and, tongue in cheek, told a story about a straitlaced lady from a strict church who refused because she didn’t drink alcohol.  Everything had a Christian emphasis, so I suppose the weekend wouldn’t appeal to everyone.

Rosemary knitting.
Rosemary knitting.  (Don’t I look awful in this photo?)  Attrib Helen Murray.

It wasn’t just the presentations and writing exercises, of course, that made the weekend.  Do want to know about the brooding Yorkshire Dales outside?  About the friends I spent time with and the new friends I made?  About the walk we took in the fells on Saturday afternoon?  Nightly story-time with story-teller, Amy Robinson.  Or how I knitted (part of) a square for the neo-natal unit at Bradford Infirmary (really addictive, Dear Reader)?  Never have I spent so much time talking to writers about writers.  They even made me feel like a proper writer.

We Shall Not Be Moved

“How unspeakably lucky I am to possess you.  I shall think of you, you, you and nothing else, tomorrow, next day, and Sunday and Monday, and every day and hour and moment!”*

Does this do anything for you?  Me, neither.  Nor did do anything for Vita Sackville-West, to whom it was written. The writer was Vita’s lover, Rosamund Grosvenor, whom she dumped almost immediately afterwards.

Plutchik's Wheel of EmotionsFor me, writing emotion is the most difficult thing.  (Maybe this is the reason why I have had no success in womag writing.)  According to Robert Plutchik’s theory, there are seven emotions:  fear; anger; sadness; joy; disgust; surprise; trust; anticipation.  Aristotle listed some different ones, so did Darwin.  The writer feeling emotion as he/she is writing is not enough to make the reader feel, because the reader isn’t the writer and is not touched off by the same things.  So, you go through the motions of using all the senses (sight, sound, feel, smell and taste).  You use tropes.  You extrapolate from your own experience.  …And it still falls flat.  What about this, though?

“I arrived her yesterday [Duntreath Castle]… Do you remember the peacocks stalking round the house in the small hours of the morning uttering penetrating but unmusical cries, the gorgeous flaming sunsets that set the hills a-kindling for all the world like cabuchon rubies?  Do you remember the staid and stolid girl – a remote connection of mine – whose birthday we celebrated at a place called Lennox Castle?…”*

Do you feel the energy?  Do you feel the rhythm as every sentence is begun with the words ‘Do you remember…’?  The writer is rapping out quick rhythmical questions, each one starting with the words ‘Do you remember…’   She also is making a pitch for Vita, but, not bothering with abstract protestations of love, she is setting out challenges, by calling up specific shared memories.   This is Violet Keppel, who will replace Rosamund in Vita’s affections.

Emotion is a funny thing.  I’m furious that a sixteen-year-old posh girl, at the beginning of the twentieth century, can write emotion better than I.

So what advice can you give me?

*From ‘A Portrait of a Marriage’, by Nigel Nicolson (George Weidenfield and Nicolson Limited, 1973)

Why We Have To Keep Writing and Carry On

Yesterday (Sunday, 28 May 2017) I had a story (‘Tomatoes and Their Part in Brexit’) published on Alfie Dog Fiction.  Don’t you just hate people who start  off blog posts like this?  I’ll move on… straightaway… although, you’ve got to admit that, in my case, this sort of thing is rare.

I don’t have much to say writing-wise.  Last week, for all of us in the UK, has been Manchester week.  My connection with the city is that I was at university in Manchester in the 1970s, about a mile from Victoria Station, (below the site of the Arena where the terrorist attack happened).  I recognise many of the placenames mentioned in the News:  Deansgate, St Ann’s Square, Didsbury, Whalley Range.  I lived in Fallowfield, where the bomber had his bomb-making factory.  I have good memories of Manchester.

Although I’m hurt and angry, I was not so poleaxed by the Manchester bombing that I was unable to do anything else last week.  I went to work.  It’s high season for exams, so I was invigilating GCSE, Functional Skills and every sort of vocational qualification.  On Tuesday, I took part in, and minuted, a PCC (Parochial Church Council) meeting.  Yesterday, on Sunday, we had an amazing day, attending my granddaughter’s Christening, with friends and family.  Today, I replanted my tomato plants and sewed more seeds – lettuce, radish, marigolds, poppies, echinacea.  The weather has been glorious, hot for the first time this year.  I got on with life, ordinary things, the insignificant things.  Or are they insignificant?

Keep Calm and Carry On Mug (attrib to Flickr)
Keep Calm and Carry On Mug (attrib to Flickr)

We’re all fed up with seeing ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ on mugs, tea towels, t-shirts and everything else, but that’s what people in Manchester are doing, with enormous dignity, showing love, bravery and solidarity.  Actually, I didn’t expect anything else.  We’ve had terrorists in the UK before.  In July 2005, on the occasion of the Seven/Seven attacks, my husband rang me at work at quarter to nine in the morning, saying, “I’m okay.”  “Yes, darling.  Why wouldn’t you be, darling,” I replied, not knowing the news.  A few minutes later,  ambulances, sirens shrieking, would charge out of Colchester, down the A12 to London.  A decade previously, we had the IRA, and before that, the Blitz.

Our hospitality has been abused.  We believe in democracy, freedom of speech and thought, fairness and supporting people who are down on their luck.  We believe that primary school girls should be allowed to go to a gig to hero-worship a big girl.  Keep calm and carry on suddenly has real meaning.  Keep calm and carry on writing what we believe in, because we live in a liberal democracy and we can.