Would you rather be told your eyes are hazel or have them described as "the sherry in the glass, that the guest leaves”?
From that line, we could conclude the narrator or character is fairly wealthy: they drink sherry; they perhaps follow daily rituals, such as having an aperitif or digestif; they entertain in their home. (Or we might know that the sherry eyes belong to Emily Dickinson, but I digress.)
What matters is that description breathes life into characters.
Don’t rely solely on physical attributes.
He had a big nose. Is the nose big because it is broad, bulbous, hooked, or long? The definition of “big” is rather open to personal interpretation. Does it commandeer the face or flow seamlessly with other prominent features? Is the big nose indicative of a snitch, a chef, a snob, a sleuth? A basic description isn’t enough to round out the character. Use adjectives to create a vivid picture for your reader.
Speaking of vivid images, avoid bulging muscles, sad cow eyes, quivering members, and blonde bouncy curls. Keep your wording accurate and sensory. Show me a small child’s eyes hectic with fever and her lank, ropey curls plastered to her cheeks instead of telling me the kid was sick as a dog or under the weather.
Use description to create an impression.
Good characters are multifaceted, but sometimes one physical characteristic or a single article of clothing can say more about who they are than a dozen descriptions. Are the hands with their knobbed joints and thickened skin always busy at a task? If so, maybe they belong to an older character with a hard past whose work ethic is deeply engrained.
Setting and circumstance can also reveal or develop character.
One way to develop a character is to stick them in an uncomfortable or unusual situation. For example, does a bright young university student from a blue-collar background find himself at an awards dinner with peers, faculty, and more forks than he typically uses in a week? This is a great opportunity to show how he acts when he eats, how he responds when directly addressed by the dean, and what he thinks when the sexy tennis captain gives him her famous slow smile.
Air the dirty laundry.
Highlight a character’s backstory through techniques such as flashbacks, dialogue, memories, or foreshadowing to provide valuable insight. In One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez used flashback to give the world one of the most famous opening lines in literature: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” We wonder Buendía’s age, why he is facing execution, and why the memory of ice is so integral to his consciousness.
Show the goods.
If you don’t know Archie Goodwin and Nero Wolfe, you should. Read one of Rex Stout’s classic detective procedurals and you’ll learn how the most obscure or innocuous object can be a murder weapon or clue to the crime. When Archie saunters into a suspect’s home, everything from the cigars smoked to the socks in the drawer show us something about the suspect. A person’s belongings reveal much about them.
Verbs, take 1!
Set your character in motion. Rather than have a father reading the paper, show how he reads the paper. Does he lick his thumb to turn the page? Does he frown at the stocks or laugh at the comics? When your character peruses the job sections, is she scrawling circles around the ads or neatly placing a star beside them? These actions reveal the character’s motives, needs, and personality.
Verbs, take 2!
Verbs can also be used for physical description. For example, a sloping brow, the skirt that swished across the floor, bangs that fall across eyes, the broom that sweeps angrily…these illustrations give a portrait of the character, and you can build on these images to flesh out a scene or personality.
Verbs, take 3!
Sometimes, actions reveal more than words. Does the new mother jump up at the first cry of her baby or does she stay slumped in the chair? Do the clouds darken as the priest performs the last rites? What song is on the radio as the lovers confront one another about a betrayal? What hour is the clock chiming when the beleaguered employee rises from her desk, letter of resignation in hand? Does the protagonist light another cigarette before answering the telephone? Don’t just tell your reader what is happening. Show them.
What lies beneath.
Thoughts and existential crises present the clearest view of a character. Susan Fromberg Schaeffer gives us Agnes in The Madness of a Seduced Woman. Agnes’ inner world changes with the seasons: In winter, longing for her first sexual encounter, she observes the snow-covered hills mimic “the curves of a woman’s body;” after an unwanted pregnancy and dangerous abortion, in autumn that same scenery is “the earth’s skeleton shedding its unnecessary flesh.” Imagery like this can tell the underlying story.
Maintain the reader’s dream
Your readers want to be part of the dream you have for your story. Once in, they want to stay in that dream by falling in love with or despising the characters you’ve brought to life for them through descriptions, setting, circumstances, and imagery.
Thanks to COVID-19, most of us are safely ensconced in our homes. For those who are healthy and now battling interminable boredom, you may also be tapping away at your keyboards, creating your masterpieces. This past month was the perfect time to begin building your author platform via social media, since that’s the most interaction most of us are getting right now, and the vast majority of people are looking to social media for information and distractions.
Although the importance of social media can’t be stressed enough, there are additional ways to build a platform and a following for your work before your book is published.
There are three main points to consider from the beginning.
Your Story: Avoid falling prey to spending so much time trying to develop your platform that you forget to write. Quality writing will always be the determining factor in generating followers as well as securing a publishing contract. Make sure that your story is unique, well-written, and edited.
Your Strengths: Don’t underestimate what you bring to the table just by being you: Your talent, experiences, personality, and ability to execute are all qualities that you need to highlight and build upon for your followers.
Your Target Readers: Know and understand your readers. This means reading books in your genre, following blogs written by those authors, and knowing exactly who you want reading your book. Fantasy, for example, is a very broad category: high/epic, sword and sorcery, dark fantasy, magical realism, young adult, erotic, world building or real life, etc. Know what subsect of this genre you are writing.
Once you know your story, your strengths, and your readers,
it’s time to decide how best to connect with others and push yourself outside
of your comfort zone.
Improve on what you know
While you likely know you can write, what can you do to improve your writing or deepen your understanding of different aspects of your craft?
It is almost always beneficial to join a writing group. Most communities offer these groups and gather at places like the local library or coffee shop. The groups are usually free and feature like-minded individuals sharing their stories and offering peer critique. Members often follow a loosely structured curriculum and the groups may be ongoing with anyone joining at any time, or you may have to wait for the next round of meetings to begin.
A great option is to sign up for actual writing classes. These are offered at community colleges or online and presented by writers themselves, publishers, or organized writing groups. There are a number of options in a wide price range and various levels of commitment on your end. Masterclass features some fabulous authors in a range of genres, including Margaret Atwood, David Baldacci, and Neil Gaiman.
Throughout the year, there are numerous book conferences, writing conferences, and writing retreats. These are a perfect opportunity to meet, mingle, and learn. They range in size, price, and duration and have different focuses and speakers. Many of these events are currently on hold, including my own annual retreat in Newfoundland, because of the coronavirus, but many are also being offered virtually. See what you can find online but also take some time to figure out which ones interest you to attend live in the future.
Becoming a beta reader can be a excellent learning experience as well as an introduction of your name and work to a wider audience. Social media platforms that are specific to writers, such as the #writingcommunity on Twitter, are always on the lookout for readers – and once you join, you can offer your own work up for critique. This is another great way to build connections and learn from others all for free!
Get out there
How are people going to find you? How are they going to know who you are and what you do? How can you establish some “cred”?
If you work, and your book has nothing to do with your job, look into ways of contributing to your workplace. For example, can you write an article related to a topic in your field? Can you contribute to the company blog or news article? Consider researching magazines, blogs, or newspapers that publish in your area of expertise and submitting your work.
There are an abundance of literary forums that range from niche to general that may accept your articles (and some even pay you!). Just make sure you’ve done your research: Invest some time reading the publications you wish to target so you have an understanding of the style they publish. This will also help spark ideas for your own submissions.
After a submission, follow up, although you should be aware of what the publication has indicated as acceptable. In some cases, their submission guidelines clearly state that they will contact you or they will at least indicate the amount of time it may take them to respond. When you do follow up, keep the call or email short, sweet, and to the point. Depending on the circumstances, continue to follow up, particularly if there’s been some interest. I suggest doing this politely yet persistently until you receive a direct “no” or the threat of a restraining order.
Writing contests are another way to continue to hone your craft and maybe even explore new genres. Contests range from community-based to provincial and country-wide. Many magazines and literary groups also offer contests. While they don’t all provide feedback, just committing and going through the submission process is an excellent learning opportunity and a stepping stone if you’ve been too nervous to actually reach out to an agent. Many contests include an entry fee, which is usually reasonable and necessary to cover the costs of prizes, readers, and marketing. Just ensure that the contest sponsor is a legitimate and positive source for printing your work.
A final suggestion here for getting your name out there is to take stock of your circle of friends and acquaintances and see if there’s anyone you can partner with or who may be willing to lend a helping hand.
It all comes down to you
Scoring an agent and publisher usually isn’t about how good your book is, but about the powers-that-be deciding if they think it’s going to sell thousands of copies. While this may sound disheartening, it all begins with you and continues with how dedicated you are to building your platform.
Use this time while the world is still on pause to reflect on how you want your work to be seen and with which outlets you want to be identified.
Your platform is only as useful as it is visible. Be active, be consistent, and I want to add “be safe,” but only as it relates to the pandemic. Otherwise be courageous. Your future readers will thank you for it.
I love turning to the last page of a book to see a picture of the author who wrote what I’m about to read. I want to know what they look like, where they live, even how many children or cats they have. Does she look like my idea of a romance author? (Nope, she looks like my 95 year old grandmother, whom I adore but don’t want to read about sex with!) Does he look like a historical fiction author? (Yes. I like the addition of the black-rimmed glasses – nice touch.)
Am I stereotyping? Yes. But do most of us judge a book by its cover? Yes.
Why does this matter? Most of us need that extra link. We subconsciously connect more deeply with the book in our hands when we feel we have some insight into who wrote it. That connection increases the chance that we’ll buy the book.
I come from a generation that still learned to type, albeit on an actual computer, not a typewriter. We didn’t have laptops. I remember learning what the Internet was and how to use it, and I found it a lot more difficult than the Dewey Decimal System. (You could find me between 800-899.) I had pen pals in different countries and wrote them actual letters with a pen before licking a stamp and making my way to the mailbox.
Technology is now omnipresent, media platforms are constantly growing, and social media can be accessed from something as small as a wristwatch. Authors today have unlimited opportunities to build relationships with their potential readers.
If you want to be traditionally published, it’s no longer enough to just send in a manuscript and hope for the best. Those days are loooong over. If you’d rather go the self-published route, you’re not going to find success just putting your book up on Amazon and waiting for the sales to come in.
You need a platform of your own. Everything you do, both on- and off-line to create a name and identity for yourself as a writer, is part of your platform. It’s about boosting your “brand,” your image, your selling points. It is about making yourself visible to potential readers. It’s about asking yourself a lot of questions. How do you plan to sell your books? What are your professional and personal connections? What outlets are you going to use?
Jane Friedman sums up a platform with this: It’s an ability to sell books because of who you are or who you can reach.
Your platform should be included in your submission package as part of your book proposal. This usually happens when you have been asked for a full manuscript, although some agents request it in their query submission. You might see it called “Author Platform,” “Marketing and Publicity,” or “Author Promotion.” Whatever its name, that agent wants to know what you, the writer, plan on doing to promote your book. They want to know what types of social media you use, how many followers you have, and your level of interaction; basically, where are your face and words being seen?
When you write your platform, it should be maximum five pages, especially for fiction. You need to detail how you are going to promote your book, why readers are going to want to buy it, what your plans are for marketing, and why a publisher should sign you, an unknown. What research have you done? What articles or blogs have you written, what magazines or online journals in your genre have you contributed to? Have you applied to any writing contests? Are you part of a writing group or union? What does your Twitter feed say about you? How have you built up suspense among your following about your book release? What is it about you that’s special or unique? This isn’t just about your book, anymore. It’s about you. It’s personal.
Sally Collins is a proposal writer who worked for HarperCollins. She’s often featured in top writing journals and blogs and is widely respected for her knowledge and experience. After a recent industry event, she reported that she heard one agent say he doesn’t get excited unless an author gets at least 50,000 hits a month on their website. Another agent told her a potential sign-up needs at least 1,000 Twitter followers and 10,000 email subscribers. The agents were probably exaggerating; it takes time and dedication to build these kinds of followers and there are many different approaches to do so to ensure that your followers are qualified and legitimate. But the fact remains (dare I say this?): size matters.
An agent wants to see that you have a plan for building your platform, are in the process of executing it, and are going to do the work to make you a valued partner, which means making the publisher money. They want to see your ideas for bringing your book to the attention of readers. They want clarity.
You might be thinking, “This doesn’t apply to me – I’m going to be rep’d by a traditional publisher and they’ll take care of that for me.” This is, to put it simply, delusional. Publishers don’t take any more risk than they have to with a first-time, unknown writer, and spending their money on marketing you is a risk they Do Not Take. They will do something, usually for the first month of your release. These techniques will include things like trade and online advertising, and advanced copies. But in most cases, after that first month, it’s in your hands. And that’s where your platform comes in. You’re going to want some numbers – followers, fans, email subscribers - to carry you through.
You might be thinking, “I have time. My book won’t be ready for another year. I can start then.” Well, as the poet Andrew Marvell so wisely wrote, “But at my back I always hear/Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near;/And yonder all before us lie/Deserts of vast eternity.”
You might also be thinking, “I’m an introvert. I like the solitude and safety of expressing my ideas alone.” Or maybe, “I’m too old to do this stuff. I refuse.” Maybe you’re a technophobe, unsure of, or dismissive of, using technology’s latest advances to “get out there.” These attitudes need to go. If you’re uncomfortable with technology, there are people you can hire to build you a website, set you up a Facebook or Twitter account, and teach you how to use these things. I can even recommend someone reputable.
You might be thinking, “All of this social media stuff…is there nothing else I can do aside from it?” Yes! (But please don’t discount it – I promise you that it is very influential and important to your platform.) To find out how to build your platform sans social media…you’ll have to read next month’s blog!
This blog’s title could also be “The Art of Writing,” “The Art of Writing Well,” “Steps to Writing Well,” “On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft,” or any of the hundreds of published titles that hold the promise of success within their glossy covers.
But what is the craft of writing? What does that even mean?
I pondered how to write this article. I mean, I was a teacher for nine years and taught literature and creative writing – surely I should be able to come up with something, even if it was just a regurgitated lesson plan. But this topic isn’t something that can be covered in just one blog article. In fact, discussing the craft of writing is a bit like asking the meaning of life – everyone has an opinion and values particular to them. This topic encompasses so many facets, so many areas, and each one deserves its own heading and attention.
Don’t panic! While I could write for days about the craft of writing, I won’t. Instead, what follows is a general overview that conveys some of the essentials to help guide you down the path of writing well.
Know your genre
If you want to write well, you need to read widely, especially, but not exclusively, in your genre. The fact is, you may not even know your genre when you first start writing. Learn the common elements of different genres. For example, there are certain guiding rules for those who write mysteries, one being that the detective must solve the case using rational and scientific methods. No pulling a rabbit out of a hat allowed. Familiarity with similar, well-written books by authors you admire will help ensure that you are following the accepted method that readers rely on. That’s not to say you are limited to only these methods—just use them as a guide from those who may have more experience as you let your own creativity and words flow.
Know your story and plot
Some people are prodigious plotters, going so far as to create character backstories before they start. Others eschew the outline and let their pen or keyboard take them where it will. Whatever method is best for you (and don’t knock one until you’ve tried it), what matters most is that you know what you are writing about, even if you don’t know exactly how the story is going to unfold. One tip to help in this area is to know your story’s main themes before you start and make sure the storyline is consistently presenting them. A theme is not a topic or subject. A theme is the idea you wish to convey about that subject. For example, a subject could be pride. The theme could be that pride can be the downfall of the greatest people. Themes are best when they attempt to convey human experiences and wisdom.
Think about structure
After deciding on your topic and plot, it’s often helpful to decide on the structure. This means deciding on how you want to tell your story. You may have a straightforward, chronological tale à la The Tortoise and the Hare. But maybe you want to use flashbacks, or jumps in time. Perhaps you’re interested in some added complexity by layering in subplots, which are especially intriguing when they complement the main storyline. Multiple character arcs and perspectives (think Star Wars: Phantom Menace) provide depth for your reader to sift through and establish their own meaning of your story.
Is your story told in first person? This technique is great for engaging the reader and really making them connect with the character. Most stories are told in the familiar third person, and if it worked in Harry Potter for J.K. Rowling, you should feel pretty confident using it yourself. Second person narration isn’t very common. It addresses the reader as “you” instead of the first person “I” or third person “he/she/they.” One novel that uses this technique brilliantly, however, is Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller. This technique brings the reader closer to the story: we are the characters in the story. Your novel’s point of view is an integral element of the story and can help convey mood and tone.
Any story your write, in any genre, should have what’s called a narrative or story arc. This refers to the chronological construction of the plot. Typically the arc looks something like a pyramid, made up of the exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. It can be helpful to do more reading on each of these and think about how they might look in your story before you start writing.
Create compelling characters
No one likes bad characters. And by “bad” I don’t mean the villains, I mean the poorly written, flat, static, one dimensional characters. You want your characters to leap off the page and nestle into our hearts and minds the way that Anne Shirley does. Bring your characters to life. One of the easiest ways to do this is through simple details. You don’t need to dwell on their appearance, although Anne’s fiery red hair complements her passionate temperament, but you can use elements of their appearance to build their personality. Would Quasimodo be such a sympathetic character if he were a strapping, handsome young man? No. Other ways to describe your characters are through their actions, words, thoughts, and how other characters respond to them. Make sure that your character is growing and changing throughout the story by means of conflict.
Drum up good dialogue
I have discarded books with perfectly enticing storylines and otherwise well-written narratives because the dialogue sucked and the first page of conversation signaled an amateur scribbler who hadn’t grasped the mechanics of speech. A professional author adroitly uses dialogue to build character, reveal relationships, and propel the plot. You need to be adept at crafting natural-sounding dialogue. Dialogue is hard to write and even harder to write well. One way to improve upon it is to listen to conversations around you and record them. Listen to the nuances, innuendo, rhythm. Don’t be afraid to punctuate your dialogue with ellipses or the em dash to show hesitation, trailing off, or interrupted sentences. These things happen in real life. Novice writers, in particular, need to study dialogue writing.
Find your voice
When I was still teaching, I was lucky enough to connect with Lawrence Hill and invite him as a guest speaker for my classes. One of the things we talked about was prose style and how important it is for each author to establish their own voice. This is easier said than done. We often consciously or unconsciously mimic the writing styles of authors we admire or read often. Hill’s suggestion was to start with small, daily writing tasks that focus strictly on your own observations with the freedom of not having to share this with anyone else. For example, describe a person you know intimately, focusing on appearance and then personality. Just write the thoughts that come immediately into your head when you think of them. The next day, write briefly about a memory you have of an event or occasion. Again, you are using the words that only you have about this time. From here, you can expand into larger paragraphs about situations you’ve experienced. The idea is to keep these writing activities intensely personal and write from your point of view. This will help you to remain authentic and you can then look over your entries to note the types of words and sentence styles that are intrinsic to your own writing style.
Bring your setting to life
Off the top of my head, when I think of the strongest examples of setting or world building in novels, I think immediately of Hogwarts, the Overlook Hotel in The Shining, Oceania in 1984, and 221B Baker Street in Sherlock Holmes. There’s Alice’s Wonderland and even the rabbit-run Efrafa in Watership Down. Sensory imagery brings settings to life. Many novice writers get bogged down with descriptions of setting. Don’t be one of them! Instead, use strong literal and figurative language to show us places and yes, situations. Don’t tell us that London is raining, because when isn’t it? (Sorry, Londoners! I love you and your city!) Show us it’s windy when a character struggles to open and hold on to her umbrella. Convey how it’s cold and wet by her reddened fingers clutched around the umbrella’s shaft, slipping down as she tries to maintain her grip without impaling someone’s eye or sloshing in a puddle. Be creative.
Do the research
Thorough research and accuracy are imperative. You might not like wading through the library stacks for a piece of obscure 11th century Germanic folklore, but that’s why we have Google. Don’t guess facts. If you don’t like to research, hire someone. If that’s not in your budget, consider offering the job to a student in return for providing a recommendation. This is especially true if you’re writing historical fiction. I would love to ask Diana Gabaldon how many hours she spends researching for each of her Outlander books.
Also, don’t fall behind the times. If you’ve decided to dig out a dusty manuscript from your college days, check that the names of people and places haven’t changed. Ensure the dialogue, setting, even actions of your characters are in sync with the timeline of your story. This may also require researching the types of language, fashion, hairstyles, and even appliances or cars of a certain period.
If research and fact-finding are difficult or don’t interest you, you may want to consider writing fantasy.
Get another set of eyes
I may be biased on this next point, but hire an editor. You might have fantastic ideas, you might be able to spin the greatest yarn, but grammar and sentence style are tricky little devils. A professional editor acts as an extra pair of eyes. While learning about grammar and punctuation (two very different things) will undoubtedly help you, if you aren’t trained in these areas, or in how to give a manuscript evaluation or a developmental edit, you’re going to miss things. If Hemingway, a professional journalist and one of the world’s greatest authors, needed an editor (the brilliant Max Perkins)…so do you.
Connect with your readers
Finally, learn as much as you can about writing, but never forget the purpose of writing is to tell a story. Stories that connect with your reader and take them on a journey of emotional or intellectual discovery. Stories that show how we cope with tragedies and rise up on the wings of dreams. Stories that speak of who you are and who you may become. Stories that inspire, terrify, encourage, or teach. Stories that bring a smile to our face and a tear to our eyes. Stories that show us we are all connected somehow in our differences.
While this is by no means an exhaustive exploration on the craft of writing, it is hopefully enough to give you the motivation to sit down, pick up your pen or laptop, and begin sharing that story that’s waiting to be crafted.