When a good description turns into bad writing

Leonid Pasternak - The Passion of creation
I love reading the winning entries for the Bulwer Lytton contest. It’s a contest devoted to writing the worst possible opening sentence of a novel. Deliberately bad writing is not as easy as unconsciously bad writing, in my experience. I’m great at writing badly when I’m not paying attention. But reading deliberately bad writing is not only funny, it’s often useful.

Writers are told to include sensory detail. I’ve had a contest judge ding my writing because in one scene I only included sensory detail from three senses (sight, sound, touch) instead of all five. I don’t think the reader notices or cares whether you use all senses in describing a scene. Writers get so focused on including the sensory details that they miss the reason for including the details in the first place.

One day—though this was no average day, it was gloomy; uncharacteristically forecast for mid-July, yet not extraordinary considering the geographic location, on the northern coast of Germany, where drastic changes in weather are indeed quite common although not so common that they were expected yet common enough to leave no one shocked by the small gathering of clouds above their heads—Linda went on a walk down the street.
— Benjamin Matthes, Founex, Switzerland Dishonorable mention, Bulwer Lytton contest

I’ve read stories where the writers devote a page or more of meticulous description in precise detail, for example a clinical description of the taste, sound, scent of eating an apple. The problem with that? Clinical detail, by its very nature, is detached from all emotion. I don’t need to know what eating an apple is like. I need to know what this character feels about it.

Description is an elegant way to tell the reader how the character views their world. It slips information into the scene subtly, providing details in the background while the main action is going on.

She was the most desired object in the room, not unlike the last deviled egg at an Easter Day potluck.
— Christine Hamilton, Atlanta, Georgia
Dishonorable mention, Bulwer Lytton contest

Description is also a good way to set the tone. If you want your readers to know you’re writing a book that doesn’t take itself too seriously, an opening sentence like the following would definitely work.

The elven city of Losstii faced towering sea cliffs and abutted rolling hills that in the summer were covered with blankets of flowers and in the winter were covered with blankets, because the elves wanted to keep the flowers warm and didn’t know much at all about gardening.
-Kat Russo, Loveland, Colorado
Winner, 2017 Bulwer Lytton contest

Become more creative in 10 minutes a day

George Rodrigue
Benjamin Hardy claims that if you want to become more creative, the last thing you should do is check your email when you get up.

He recommends writing first thing in the morning.

Research confirms the brain, specifically the prefrontal cortex, is most active and readily creative immediately following sleep. Your subconscious mind has been loosely mind-wandering while you slept, making contextual and temporal connections. Creativity, after all, is making connections between different parts of the brain.

Similarly, Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way, advocates getting up the morning and writing 3 pages before you do anything else. (Myself, when I tried this, I grabbed a cup of coffee on my way to sit down with my notebook.) Don’t turn on the television or radio, don’t look at the morning paper, and don’t check your email. Just open the notebook and pour onto the page whatever is in your head for the space of three pages. She has other recommendations to help people become more creative, but the first is always the morning pages.

Note: these people aren’t advocating trying to write a story first thing every morning. They’re not advocating trying to write at all. The idea is just do put down on the page whatever’s in your head, whether it’s coherent or not. Whatever’s in your head when you wake up, write it down. Some people write down their dreams. Some write To Do lists for the day. It doesn’t matter what you write. Just fill three pages without any censoring or editing.

Hardy also recommends spending 10 minutes each evening asking yourself questions about how to accomplish whatever goal you’re working on. Apparently that stimulates the subconscious to work out the problems while you sleep.

Never go to sleep without a request to your subconscious.

— Thomas Edison

I haven’t tried this, but I had good results from writing morning pages.

Janice McLeod found the morning pages an important part of rearranging her whole life. She was stuck in a job that she hated, and she couldn’t see how to do what she really wanted, which was move to Paris. She started with writing the morning pages and trying to figure this out. If you haven’t read Paris LettersI recommend it. Especially if you’re stuck in a job that you feel is sucking the creativity out of you. (Spoiler: she did eventually move to Paris.)

So if you’re stuck, creativity-wise, try writing in a notebook every morning.

The subconscious mind will translate into its physical equivalent, by the most direct and practical method available.

-Napoleon Hill

One word after another


I begin with writing the first sentence—and trusting to Almighty God for the second.
-Laurence Sterne

Sounds so simple when someone else describes the process. I envy people who can sit down and write the first sentence, and then the second, and then the third… People who write linearly, that is. I think they must be very organized mentally and have everything laid out. The characters do what they want, the plot marches along in an orderly fashion.

I did try to write like that.

Clockwork with alarm mechanism, made by Nathaniel Dominy V, 1799 - Winterthur Museum - DSC01610I’ve tried outlining and drawing up character sheets and figuring out everyone’s motivation and then writing it all out in a straight line from beginning to end. And the result was as exciting as cardboard. The plot was predictable as clockwork. The characters weren’t people, they were cardboard cut-outs. Even I found it boring. I shudder to think what anyone else would think of it.

The only way I’ve found that works is to start with an intriguing idea and a likable character. Put the two together and then see where the story goes, let it develop in its own way.

For example, His Forgotten Fiancée, I thought: what would a man do if he woke up with no memory of himself, and a woman walks into the room and tells him they’re engaged? How would he react? I started out with the initial scene, then wrote the ending, then went back and wrote the middle.

With my next book, The English Lieutenant’s Lady, I came across a reference to British spies in the Oregon Territory in 1845. What if one of these spies fell in love with a local woman while on his mission? He couldn’t reveal his real identity, but he wanted to make her his wife. What would he do? I started out with them meeting, then wrote several scenes in the middle, then connected them up with the beginning before writing the ending.

I usually start with the beginning of the story, and I do try to write the next scene and the one after it. But the trouble is, an early scene almost invariably ends up having an impact on one or more later scenes, so I have to write down both the early and the later scenes while they’re fresh in my mind. Then I stuff the later scene into a later chapter to wait for the narrative to catch up with that moment. And those scenes tend to spin off ideas for new scenes that need to happen sometime in the middle of the story. Within a week or two of starting a story, I find myself with several handfuls of disconnected scenes that happen at various points in the story.

The secret of being is a writer is there is no secret. You do it one word at a time and that’s the only way. It’s totally terrifying. But the way you go about becoming a writer is by finding out how your brain works. Everyone’s brain is wired differently. I write in pieces. -Diana Gabaldon

Susanna Kearsley and Diana Gabaldon both write in non-linear, disconnected scenes. They discuss their writing style in this video. I found it very encouraging to know I’m not the only person who works like this!

Being Creative vs. Being Online

Only Connect.
-E.M. Forster, Howard’s End

Every writer is told, repeatedly, that they need to be on social media chatting, promoting, being visible, putting themselves out there.

The trouble is that you can overdo the being visible part. You get used to being on social media all the time. It becomes a habit.

Derek Beres wrote an article on writers need to balance between being online and sneaking off to a hiding place to write. Not just writers, anyone who does anything that required creativity needs to step back from the keyboard/phone from time to time.

What seems to be lost in being “connected” is really irreplaceable time gained to focus on projects. Without that time, he says, you’re in danger of rewiring your neural patterns for distraction.

Actually, I’d say that applies to everyone. Especially at this time of year, when people are rushing around trying to get all their holiday shopping done, writing all their Christmas cards, attending all the holiday parties, doing All The Things.

Once in a while, stop. Unplug. Breathe.