"It's impossible to discourage the real writers; they don't give a damn what you say." Sinclair Lewis

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Good Descriptions

by Sue Anne Hodge

Being a very visual person, good description is something I cherish in the different books I read. If the author can make me see the scene fully in my mind, I'm hooked. Description sounds simple but it's tricky to get right. Too little leaves the reader floundering, too much buries him or her in details. Good description lets the reader see the scene ... great description pulls the reader right smack into the action. One of the first short stories I read from Stephen King still sticks in my mind: "The guy's name was Snodgrass ... he had a tight little potbelly encased in a good suit that was getting a little shiny in the seat. He was a salesman and he kept his display bag close to him, like a pet dog that had settled down to sleep." Can you picture that man, a little down on his luck, passing time until his next appointment? I can see the color and texture of the guy's suit, see the worn soles of his dusty shoes, feel the weight along with every detail of that display case nestled next to those shoes.

Description begins in the writer's imagination, but should finish in the reader's. So how does a writer go about succeeding at getting into the reader's head and letting said reader experience the story? There are articles, books, workshops and more that can help, but the best way I've found is to read, read, read, then write, write, and write some more. I have a folder titled Unblocking Passages. Whenever I read an inspiring passage, sentence, or word, I enter it along with the name of the book and author into that folder. Before sticky notes, my favorite books had folded corners. The more folds the better the book. I rely on my Unblocking Passages to act like jumper cables for sluggish creative juices, or, at the very least, give me a shove to keep me going along my novel's path.

The key to good description begins with clear seeing and ends with clear writing, the kind of writing that employs fresh images and simple vocabulary to get one's point across. Some of my favorite description comes from the hardboiled-detective fiction of the forties and fifties: "I lit a cigarette that tasted like a plumber's handkerchief." (Raymond Chandler.)

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Creativity Challenge--A Week without Reading

by Karen Finnigan

Don’t tell any first-grade teacher this concept exists (more important, don’t breathe a word of it to the students). But I recently completed an enforced week of no reading. It came out of an adult class I’m helping to lead: we are working our way through Julia Cameron’s bestselling book, The Artist’s Way (Tarcher/Putnam, 2002). The exercises have been affirmative, inspirational and aimed at freeing up the creative child inside each of us (Example: “List ten things you used to dream of doing.”) I never saw the exercise on reading deprivation coming until I happened on it in Chapter 4. “Stop reading,” it said in effect. Deny yourself reading for an entire week. Listen to the silence inside your own head.

The author had to be kidding, I thought. I’m not giving up my newspaper! I’m especially not giving up my stack of novels. At times I read three at a time. As a writer, the privilege of reading was divinely ordained, wasn’t it? How could I function without it? And that was the general reaction of our class. No way, most of them said. We’d rather walk the plank or languish on a desert island without water than give up reading. Ms. Cameron also suggested giving up TV, puzzle books, magazines, whatever busy work wastes your time. The rationale: over consumption of other people’s words may block your own inspiration. The hope: Get your nose out of other people’s writing, and make room in your subconscious for your own stories to come out. This was a radical concept, and my heart clenched in fear. Fear of change. Yet, as leader of the class, I felt duty-bound to set an example. So I allowed myself to try it--but on my own terms and without copping a purist attitude. After all, I was still allowed to read my textbook, so this wasn’t cold turkey.
Here’s how it went:

Day 1-The first day I got up and did not allow myself to check the news on the computer. I browsed the headlines in the paper only (no over reading of obituaries). Withdrawal from reading made my blood pressure go up a bit, so I wrote in my journal until I relaxed. At bedtime I looked at my bedside stack of books and sighed. I thought about the novel I’d been reading as I went to sleep. Six more days to go.

Day 2--Sipped coffee and sulked over the crossword puzzle I wouldn’t let myself do. Stared at the glass, at the dogs, the cracks in the patio. Wrote in my journal about the view outside my window.

Day 3-- Caught myself reading the label on the cereal box. Picked up Newsweek out of habit, looked at the cover story, then tossed it down. Stared out the window at snowflakes, birds and water dripping off trees. I returned to my journal and a blog idea spilled out. Maybe, I mused, I could kick my habit of over reading, or to be more precise, my habit of reading to procrastinate from writing.

Day 4--Wrote in journal, typed up blog idea, brainstormed characters. Never turned on the TV. Threw Newsweek in the recycle pile. I felt very good and thought about the next story I wanted to write.

Day 5--Resisted the urge to read my old emails. No cluttering of the brain. Instead, I gave my novel a final edit and mailed a query.

Day 6--A new story idea drifted out of my subconscious. Realize I continue to feel good. Maybe I don’t need to finish reading that novel on my nightstand, not in one gulp anyway. My own ideas are popping up, begging to be written down.

Day 7--I woke up with a new ending for my book. Wrote all day. Ecstatic.

Two weeks later, I still try not to turn on the television. I limit bedtime reading to a chapter each night. I have several ideas spread around me. I feel creativity flowing like it hasn’t in a long time. I read emails and blogs, but for a limited duration. The key, like so much in life, is moderation. Thank you, Ms. Cameron, for giving me a needed jolt of self-discipline.