Literary Tips: Description

Description in writing means you’re trying to show your readers how something is in a physical, tangible, or visceral way. While I write, I flip between describing too much and not describing enough. Some scenes will be filled with too much literary painting of a location, and others leave me wondering where on earth my characters talk, stand, and exist. I have a few tips for how I try to describe, since I know my weaknesses: I go overboard or I don’t go far enough at all. These tips are designed for fellow writers who can’t find a balance between the two!

As always, remember the voice and style you’re writing in. Some of these tips won’t be recommended depending on your style. If you’re writing, say, a clinical sci-fi story, then toning down on metaphor and simile will be more aligned to your story’s voice.

Anyway, here are my tips for writing description if you struggle to find a balance!

General

Consider senses (sight, sound, smell, feel, taste, size/scale/magnitude, balance, time)

Sensory details make a scene more visceral. The classic five senses are great for putting characters and the setting in reality. However, there are more senses to consider! I personally like to use senses in time and scale for my setting. I’ll describe how big things are in relation to each other, like the character, or how time feels when it’s passing or not passing. Using a sense of warmth and chill is one of my tactics for describing characters—though I tread carefully with that, since it may turn cliche very quickly.

Characters

Pick one physical trait as a first impression for readers and other characters.

One stand-out feature often packs a bigger punch than multiple features to describe a character’s appearance. If I focus on a detail while giving a broad picture image of a character, while I’m reading, I can somehow imagine the character more easily. Think of a stand-out feature of someone you know well or care about. It doesn’t necessarily define their image, but it’s memorable. You want to write memorable characters.

Try to “package” their appearance, instead of cataloguing all of their features.

Find descriptors that do multiple things at once instead of listing out an excessive amount of them. Lists are great, but too many descriptions at once will overwhelm a reader. This goes along with picking one stand-out trait. When you package a character using fewer words, you give the reader broad strokes and impressions of the character. A woman with a dark complexion on a slim build who has green eyes framed by thick, bushy eyebrows that nearly touched her temples—this kind of description packages a character’s appearance better than saying “She had dark brown skin, black hair, with slim limbs and a tall frame, while her emerald eyes sat under thick, bushy eyebrows.” This latter description is more of a catalogue. They both say the same thing (dark hair and skin, slim figure, green eyes, thick eyebrows), but proportionally, they focus on different aspects. I will emphasise one thing here, though: be aware of stereotypes, particularly bigoted ones. A flamboyant gay man is a stereotype. A sassy black woman is a stereotype. Be aware of them, particularly if you’re writing characters with identities and ethnicities different than yours.

Show one physical quirk that expresses one emotion.

This tip is very specific. I like to pick one quirk, habit, or behaviour that shows a character’s emotion. This is where people watching helps me make a mental database of quirks! Some people twirl their hair when they’re thinking. When I’m incredibly focused, I nibble on my dead cuticles. For the same emotion, my boyfriend chews at his fingernails. When I’m anxious, I rub my thumb against the side of one of my fingers, or I click my fingernails together (if they’re long). There are cliche body language gestures for certain emotions (such as chewing on your nails), but if you watch people mindfully, you’ll notice that they have unique gestures. It helps to people watch the same person often, or even yourself, to come up with these quirks.

Setting

Avoid “white room syndrome” by describing the setting near the beginning of a new scene/chapter.

“White room syndrome” is when your characters exist in a state of nothingness while they talk or act. They may be moving around or interacting with each other, but they lack an environment. I always picture a floor-less, wall-less room with the characters standing on nothing. Like the scene in The Matrix before Neo and Trinity gear up at the climax. Or, for more examples, the “White Void Room” shown often in film and television. I avoid this by writing a bit of setting description near the beginning of the scene, to set the stage.

Use your POV character to describe the location.

What would they notice? What interests them? What stands out or doesn’t stand out to them? Just like you and your friends, you’ll notice different details when looking at or experiencing something.

Worldbuilding

Aim for nuances and mood.

This tip is similar to the character packaging one. Instead of cataloguing all the surroundings and environment, try to create an atmospheric mood with a few details. A rainy day on a forested hill has a mood. A mix of conifer and broadleaf trees, illuminated by beams of sun above the character… that also has a mood. What doesn’t have a mood? “I walked into the forest, noting the pine and broadleaf trees swaying, and climbed the hill, travelling deeper.” There’s no quality of light, weather, or environment to overlay the entire image.

Avoid dumping information on the reader in order to show as much as possible of your world.

This tip goes for characters as well, but I emphasise it for setting. Since I write fantasy, it’s also my primary reading genre. Fantasy writers want to convey their created or altered world in as much detail as possible to their readers. Perhaps it’s an insecurity of ours, and we don’t think the place is “real” enough and we overdo the description. Or perhaps the world is our primary interest in the story and we’re just too dang excited about it to stop describing it. Regardless, too much at once will disconnect the reader from the story. We learn about the world naturally by learning slowly as we grow up, as we visit new places, as we research different countries. Small details add up over time and readers can more easily remember bite-size chunks to form the world in their mind as they read.


Hopefully you can take away something useful from this post! What are some of your weaknesses when it comes to description? What about your strengths?

How To Take A Break From Your Writing

Before you take a break from your writing, you should first and foremost recognise that you need a break. We can’t be at 100% all the time. Engines need to be refuelled. Pencils need to be sharpened. Insert any analogy or metaphor you’d like; the fact of the matter is that we need breaks from everything we do. Creative projects are no different from taking a vacation from your job, going to sleep at the end of the day, or resting when you’re sick.

You might need a break if you experience any of these:

  • getting distracted easily from your project
  • becoming frustrated at your writing or writing progress
  • embarking on line edits prematurely
  • finding yourself doing other things, whether it’s work, school, family, hobbies, instead of writing
  • “burnout” of any kind

How To Take A Break

Look to the future to see when you might be busy.

It’s hard to focus on creative projects, especially writing, if you’re travelling, swamped with work, handling family issues, or doing a lot with your time that you can’t delegate to someone or address later. Whenever I’m pressed for time and energy, my creative projects and hobbies fall to the wayside. I can plan for breaks from my writing if I look ahead at my schedule. You might end up being too preoccupied with life to feel guilty for not writing on top of it—this is the benefit of planning a break from your writing. You’re going according to plan!

Assess your mental and emotional well-being: could you use a break?

My writing burnout manifests through worsened mental health. I get distracted, frustrated, and tired more easily and quickly. Writing is a lot of mental and emotional work! If you’re feeling less than your best, you should take a break. If your manuscript also feels like it’s dragging you down, or you’re doubting yourself and value as a writer, you should take a break.

Are you at a major transition in your writing? (Between drafts, embarking on revising, etc.)

Authors commonly leave their manuscripts for a few weeks before they revise. This is a break from the writing project! They’ve completed one phase of it (drafting) and are transitioning into another phase (revising). Revision itself has multiple phases. I’m a hardcore advocate for taking time away from your writing when you’re in-between major milestones in completing the project. You become saturated by your work and it’s hard to step back any other way. I like taking breaks after drafts (first draft, second draft, etc.) and before revisions. Doing so gives me the chance to clear my head of the story and meet it again with a fresher perspective. I also have the chance to research, tweak my outline, prepare for the next draft or revision, and do the admin side of writing. It’s a lot less fun than the act of writing, which is why I do it when I’m not focusing on the creative aspect!

Prepare For A Break

Set a place in your writing for you to return to.

A concrete space to pick up your work will make the break easier to come out of. Pick a place, such as at the beginning of an act or a new draft, for you to begin your break—and then return to.

Aim for a duration timeline and a finishing deadline.

This is why you need to look at your future schedule and plans! You can work around the stress of life’s demands. You can pick a day after the stress has subsided for you to return to your writing. This is also a great way to schedule out how long your break will be.

Gather your tools for your return: inspiration, motivation, review of your writing, etc.

It’s harder to pick up something than it is to set it down, especially when it’s a creative project like a book. While you have the time and energy now, compile anything that gets you into the zone or flow of your writing. For me, I use music playlists, moodboards, character worksheets, and an outline. Having these materials at the ready when you’re ready makes the break appear seamless, or at the very least more natural.

My Recent Writing Break

I took a five/six week break from my writing before I started revisions. I was aiming for less than eight weeks, and I knew I’d be moving at the end of April. I work quickly with edits and revisions (it’s part of why I offer editing services!), so I knew I could squeeze in revisions before I needed to start packing.

This break from my manuscript was forced on me, in a way, since I couldn’t continue writing the novel after I finished it. I could have picked up and started a new project, but I assessed my situation and health: this is my first complete novel, my mental health needed some TLC, and I’m a serial polygamist with my writing. With this manuscript, I decided to prioritise finishing one project before starting another.

If I hadn’t had the break in between drafting and revising, I would’ve dived blindly into edits. I’m enjoying the process right now, and that’s because I took the time to prepare for the break and how to return to it.

Writing Resource Roundup: Motivation

The last little bit of my novel was a huge drag to write. I don’t know what it was, but it seemed to take me forever to get the last few scenes written. I felt discouraged and unmotivated after I finished the draft, and was then required to leave it alone before revisions. So, I went on the search for encouragement, motivation, and uplifting words for my writing.

Here are 6 posts that spoke to me on the different kinds of motivation a writer needs!

Encouragement for Those Who Want to Get Back Into Writing by Mary from Verily Merrily Mary

This short and sweet post was so helpful to me when I came across it earlier this month! It’s exactly the motivation and reassurance I needed to read while I embarked on my hiatus from writing.

To the Writer Who Wants to Write But Life is a Little Too Much in the Way by K.M. Updike from The Quiet Writer’s Desk

…yes, you’ve grown up, and yes, you’ve changed, and this means that a bazillion more ways just opened up for you to be a writer.

This wonderfully written open letter talks to a writer with a busy life who still wants to partake in their passion. I absolutely loved this article, since it’s written to someone the author knows. I absolutely recommend it to any writer who also has full-time commitments. It’s so uplifting!

Dear Discouraged Writer: You’re Going to Make It by Meghan at The Lady In Read

This post, also an open letter, is so personal and aimed toward the writers with day jobs. It’s incredibly uplifting and relatable to hear the same “What if?” questions from another writer.

The Writers Block: Motivation To Write #1 by Beth Barany from Writer’s Fun Zone

By understanding why and how our internal “monsters” inhibit our passion, we can then galvanize our writing in new ways.

This step-by-step article asks questions and shares tips to help you maintain the love of writing, as well as overcome writer’s block. This was a wonderful, methodical approach to writing, writer’s block, and motivation.

How To Let Go Of The Pressure To Be Perfect from Writer’s Relief

This quick read has some great, simple tips for combatting your perfectionism. This is perfect for writers who are drafting or revising!

Psyched to Write! – Overcoming the Transition Barrier by T. James Moore from Writer’s Relief

Perhaps the most important thing to recognize in navigating transitions is that a lot of our hesitation is based on fear.

This is the best piece I read as I prepare to edit my work. Transitioning in any capacity is difficult, but it’s also one of the forms of writer’s block that I know I struggle with.

Are there any blog posts or articles out there that help motivate you as a writer, or even motivate you more generally?

What I Wish I Knew About Drafting

2 weeks ago, I finished a rewrite of my novel. It wasn’t the first story I had drafted. Before 2013, there were at least 5 started and written to 10-25K word counts. It wasn’t even my first story idea. But it was the most I’d written on one project, and it was also the most complete draft of any story I’ve written. It’s a little different that way.

Before I started drafting that 3rd rewrite, I wish I had known—and I mean really known—a few things about drafting a novel. Nobody tells you how to draft a novel. Everyone has tips, or methods that work for them, or things they do without consciously doing them. But there is no one way to draft a novel.

However, there are a few things I wish I had known before I started drafting my novel. I’ve realised them now and I have hopes for the next draft! Though that story will be written entirely differently to THE PILGRIMAGE, I hope what I’ve learned will be helpful and relevant. Here’s what I learned about drafting.

The longer it takes to finish, the more variation in quality.

THE PILGRIMAGE started in the middle of 2013 and I finished it at the end of February 2017. I had undergone a few revisions, and the most recent draft was done from mid-2015 to now. The longer it takes you to finish the draft, the more obvious your growth as a writer will be within the draft. There was a reason I had restarted after writing 30K in one week in 2013. By the time I returned to the project 2 years later, I had learned more and improved my skills (and social awareness). Now, with the full draft done, I’m acutely aware of the differences between the scenes written in 2015 and the scenes written in 2017.

Next draft’s hope: I want to do a fast-draft of my next story so the variation in quality is less obvious when I revise.

It’s better to finish a full, terrible draft than to stop halfway and re-start.

Technically, I’ve written a few novels. But have I written them to a complete draft? *bitter laughing* No. No, THE PILGRIMAGE is the first story that has a draft that is workable for revisions. To me, a story is “full” when the characters have gone from point A to point Z—from start to finish—and the word count is almost passable. A 30K draft of a high fantasy novel doesn’t count as “full” from my fingers. I’d need at least 70K and a beginning, middle, and end. Even if the story is terrible, incohesive, stereotypical, cliched, and awful, I’d rather have it be a full picture instead of a shamble of sketches. This is why outlining was helpful for the finished draft this time.

Next draft’s hope: I want to finish a complete draft before I revise in any form, and I’ll do that with the help of an outline.

Don’t look back at your writing.

I’m prey to editing as I go, so reading scenes or lines I’ve already written is detrimental to my drafting. If I need to re-orient myself in the story, I’ll read the last few lines of the previous scene. Luckily, I didn’t review my work a lot for this draft. I was aware of this bad habit of mine years ago.

Next draft’s hope: I want to maintain my ignorance to already written scenes.

Outlines can change… and the organisation of an outline needs to accommodate that.

I knew going into the draft (and all of my outlined stories) that outlines and plans can change. The problem was that I didn’t take that into account when I outlined and organised my scenes. THE PILGRIMAGE has so many scrapped scenes and re-numbered scenes in my outline because I needed the scenes. But it ended up messy: I had quarter, half, and three-quarter scenes, and then no scenes from, say, 25 – 31. For the next time, I won’t be labelling my scenes purely by number. I’m going to use an “Act 1, Scene 1.1” approach of some kind. I’ll write up a blog post on this in the future!

Next draft’s hope: I want my outline to be more flexible in terms of its organisation and labelling.

Drafting is entirely different from reading, editing, and outlining.

I didn’t quite get out of the headspace of a reader, editor, or plotter. I kept thinking about my outlines and revisions while I was drafting and it messed me up. I would take a lot of time to finish a scene. I would get hung up on word choice. I would compare my outlined scene against the scene that flowed from my writing session. If there were discrepancies, my insecurity as a writer would creep in.

Next draft’s hope: I want to focus on telling the story rather than perfecting or reading it.

I don’t know when I’ll start the next project draft, but I’m looking forward to it!

Literary Tips: Weaving Plot, Character, and Setting

If you’re like me and you’ve written your novel, you know who your characters are, what the conflict is, and where everything takes place. But that’s probably because you’ve spent so much time thinking about them. You know your protagonist’s quirks. You know the name of the taxi driver in chapter 7. You know tons of little details about your world and its weather. You’re fathoms deep in your story, and we often scale back on the details we write while drafting to avoid over-exposition.

But have you, also like me, overlooked why you need to weave the characters, plot, and setting together?

Let’s take a step out of stories and look at the real world. We live in places and have experiences that impact who we are. If you grew up where I did, you’d know a bit of French and read it on all your product packaging. If you grew up with my life, you’d have experiences that changed you and your behaviour.

In real life, and as it should be in stories, people can’t be separated from their surroundings and their struggles.

Whether or not your story revolves around character or conflict, the three main aspects of your story (except theme, but that’s a post for another day) are character, setting, and plot. Your story will improve if you can weave them together.

Weaving these three together means thinking about how they interact with one another. There is a push and a pull between them all. They need to work harmoniously. Doing so will create a strong net that will catch your story. You’ll have fewer plot holes if you can justify why problems happen to your character in the setting, and how all three play with each other.

Here are some questions to help you figure out if you’re weaving the plot, character, and setting. These questions are intended to be asked for a scene or chapter, but are also incredibly useful with the broad-spectrum view of your story.

  • How does your character act in the setting?
  • How does setting impact your character?
  • Why does the conflict take place in this setting?
  • Why does your character stay in or leave the setting?
  • What will the plot and conflict change about your character?
  • What can your character do to influence the conflict and plot?

If you can’t remember the specific questions or want a simpler way to remember them, there are three question words to ask about your character/conflict/setting pairings: how, what, and why. How do the two aspects work together? What do they do to each other? Why are they together?

Weaving together the three main aspects of your writing will make your writing feel more connected. You won’t feel like your characters are placed in a random location and have things happening to them. When you weave the people in with the places and plot, you justify what happens to whom, wherever they are.

For your convenience, I’ve also made a simplified triangular relationship chart for this concept!

Self-Editing Tips: Developmental Edits

A book, latte, and pen on a wooden table with text overlay reading Self-Editing Tips: Developmental Edits

So, I recently finished a rewrite of THE PILGRIMAGE. This is the draft I’ll be revising in a few weeks, and I figured I’d share some self-editing tips, both for my own reference and for yours! In case you didn’t know, I edit stories. I’ve learned a lot through editing other people’s stories, as well as tons of workshopping in my university program.

When you first start revising a book, you must start with developmental edits.

Developmental edits are concerned with the skeletal issues with your story: plot, character, and structure. (Theme is also included, but that can be tweaked through every stage of edits.)

Here are some of my tips for doing your own developmental edits!

Do a cold read-through and make notes.

Before you even start revising the story, read through it and make notes on plot, character, and structure. Don’t do any edits yet—instead, see where you have plot holes, where the conflict lessens, and how much you’ve characterised your cast.

Pin down your story as either plot-driven or character-driven.

Knowing the priorities for your story will help immensely. A plot or action-based story will necessitate different focuses than one based on the characters. To figure out which one your story is, ask yourself the question, “What is my protagonist’s goal?” If it’s something personal, your story is character-driven. If it’s something external, your story is plot/action-driven. For example, if the goal is “Successfully navigate high school,” then it’s personal: it deals with just the protagonist. But if the goal is, “Successfully save high school from demons,” your story relies on action. Character and action will both be important, but at this stage, you need to figure out which one will help you plot out the conflict.

Consider beta readers or critique partners.

Feedback from outside sources is invaluable for revising your story. You know the story in a way that’s completely different to your peers: there’s more in your head than on the page. I highly recommend taking on a few beta readers and critique partners to help give you opinions on character, plot, worldbuilding, stakes, conflict, etc. Sensitivity readers are also recommended. They look for specific problematic content that you can’t experience in your identity.

Resist the line edits!

Developmental edits are for the big picture. Who cares about your typos or sentence structure right now? It’s hard to avoid tweaking details in order to feel like you’re making progress to the finished draft. However, you must consider the broad strokes of your story before you look at the finer, smaller elements.

Breathe.

You can get through this. Your story was drafted over a period of time where you were inevitably growing. You need to remember that you changed as you wrote the story, and you’re working to get it to the best quality you can in the present.

Look into editing resources.

Other writers have written about their processes, and it’s always helpful to find more information on how to do it!

KM Weiland has a wonderful 15-step self-editing process she uses for her fiction.

“How to Self Edit Your Novel” from Fantasy Scroll has suggestions for your self-editing (and has a differing point of view to my list, with their first suggestion being typo fixing!), and also includes more resources and references.

Now Novel has a handy infographic for self-editing.

The book Self-Editing for Fiction Writers has been highly recommended to me. It’s on my TBR!

And finally…
Contact your editor.

If you have hired an editor to help with your project—which I also recommend—keep in touch with them while you work on your edits. I strongly recommend hiring an editor. Beta readers and critique partners are helpful, but they often look at your story through a reader’s point of view. While this is helpful, experienced editors have a more intimate knowledge of craft and the skills to impart that knowledge to you.

I wish you the best of luck in self-editing and making it through developmental edits! It can feel like your story is a pile of trash and has lots of problems, but you can fix them and make your story the greatest it can be. (I’ll have to remind myself of this when I get to my own novel in a few weeks… *gulp*)

#WIPjoy Day 28

A desert at sunset with a text overly that reads WIPjoy Day 28

Welcome to #WIPjoy! This week is done in roleplay, and I’ll be responding from the perspective of my characters!

Day 28: What are you self-conscious about?

Zephyr: I’m always self-conscious, and that makes me self-conscious.

Dwyn: Definitely my lack of a career.

Imani: I wish I knew more about the rest of the world.

Gabriel: I’d rather not talk about it, but if I have to, my chest bothers me.

Harlow: I hate the awful haircut Dwyn gave me.

#WIPjoy Day 27

A desert at sunset with a text overly that reads WIPjoy Day 27

Welcome to #WIPjoy! This week is done in roleplay, and I’ll be responding from the perspective of my characters!

Day 27: Do you sympathise with (or relate to) the antagonist?

Zephyr: No, I don’t sympathise or relate with her, at all.

Dwyn: I want to rip the rest of her hair out.

Imani: We don’t know each other, but from what I’ve heard… I doubt we would find any common ground.

Gabriel: Absolutely not.

Harlow: Zephyr and I do not get along well, but I think we have some similarities. The biggest difference between us? I use my potential to the fullest, whereas he does the bare minimum—and somehow gets to be put above the rest of us.

#WIPjoy Day 26

A desert at sunset with a text overly that reads WIPjoy Day 26

Welcome to #WIPjoy! This week is done in roleplay, and I’ll be responding from the perspective of my characters!

Day 26: Tell us about where you live.

Zephyr: I lived in an apartment complex with my dad and sister. It was busy and dusty.

Dwyn: My brother and I lived with our dad in the capital, and there was—or, is, I suppose, since it’s still there—a huge lake that makes us very lucky. Living in the desert isn’t the most resourceful.

Imani: I used to live in a small, secluded village.

Gabriel: My hometown was over the mountain, but it’s probably gone by now—I lived in a crowded town, and then in the ruins of a city for a while.

Harlow: While at the Academy, I lived in the capital, but my family lives in one of the government districts farther west. It’s a lot nicer there.

#WIPjoy Day 25

A desert at sunset with a text overly that reads WIPjoy Day 25

Welcome to #WIPjoy! This week is done in roleplay, and I’ll be responding from the perspective of my characters!

Day 25: A line you were proud to say.

Zephyr: “Dwyn, now isn’t the time for me to console you.” As much as I love my sister, she doesn’t have the best timing.

Dwyn: More than a line, since I went on a diatribe to Zephyr, but I’ll shorten it up for this: “Do you have any idea how lonely it is? … When you have no co-workers and your ship’s captain is a bombshell who wouldn’t give a girl anything more than a friendly hug? I have no friends, Zeph. I only have you now.”

Imani: “Do you regularly let all of the children swarm on one, like wolves on a weakened animal?”

Gabriel: “You can’t have me, in whatever context you mean.”

Harlow: “Because you’re not worthy. You don’t deserve the magic from this mountain.” We all should know by now who I said that to.