Word Painting – The Fine Art of Writing Descriptively by Rebecca McClanahan

There are a zillion “how-to write” articles swirling in the ethers. Once in a while one appears in my in-box that resonates. This article on writing descriptively about characters is an excellent reference.

Karen Dowdall

Word Painting

Here are 11 secrets to keep in mind as you breathe life into your characters through description that Rebecca finds to be very important in writing descriptively.

  1. Description that relies solely on physical attributes too often turns into what Janet Burroway calls the “all-points bulletin.”

When we describe a character, factual information alone is not sufficient, no matter how accurate it might be. The details must appeal to our senses. Phrases that merely label (like tall, middle-aged, and average) bring no clear image to our minds. Since most people form their first impression of someone through visual clues, it makes sense to describe our characters using visual images. Green eyes is a beginning, but it doesn’t go far enough. Are they pale green or dark green? Even a simple adjective can strengthen a detail. If the adjective also suggests a metaphor—forest green, pea green, or 

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The Mystery of Grace. Charles de Lint

Grace is blessed with multiple meanings in Charles de Lint’s 2009 urban fantasy novel, The Mystery of Grace. She is an idea and also a woman. This strong beautiful tattooed deva is at once kind, charming, thoughtful, and at ease around a classic car. (She grew up rebuilding hotrods with her Abuelo and works wonders at Sanchez Motors). She loves rockabilly and surf guitar. She is virtuous in her own way and both gives and receives divine assistance. She is also dead and therefore, seeking grace early in the story.

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In this 2010 interview with Charles de Lint, the author says that the book is about appreciating the moment, not waiting and missing opportunities. For life is short. You never know when you will vanish from this world and reappear in another unknown place. I agree with the author, but I also found this book to be about Faith (with a capital F). And Fear. The fear of what happens after we die permeates this book and it is only through Faith that the characters can stop waiting and walk through the mist into the unknown. Grace Quintero wears her life tattooed on her body. On her shoulder is Grace’s namesake, Our Lady of Altagracia. It is her faith in love and los santos that sees her through the limbo state (about two years in human time). But how does she end up there?

This story is set in the American Southwest. Ironically, Grace goes to buy cigarettes at Luna’s and gets shot twice in the chest by a junkie. “It’s not the cough that carries you off, it’s the coffin they carry you off in,” my mother, Grace, used to quip. Grace Quintero dies and wakes up in a parallel world. Her apartment at the Alverson Arms, in the small desert town of Santo del Vado Viejo still exists, but she is imprisoned with several other lost souls within a two-three block radius. Some have been there for decades as this limbo world seems to have been created in August 1965, and everyone who dies in proximity to the Alverson Arms lands here.

After making friends with the locals, Grace learns the rules. They don’t need to eat or sleep, but they can. Some end up comatose (sleepers). Henry, who lives at the Solina Library says: “if you don’t keep yourself busy, it all goes away. First your memories, then the desire to do anything, finally whatever it is that makes you who you are” (65). Going into the misty boundaries at the edges of the Alverson world also affects memories, and going back to the real world can be traumatic. Yes. Grace can go back to her home, but only twice a year, on Samhain and Beltane. And no one will recognize her.

On her first visit home, Grace meets artist John Burns and it’s love at first sight. They spend the night together but at dawn, she disappears, leaving John lonely and confused. Their relationship is only a flutter of what this book is about, so I won’t call it paranormal romance (though John is human and Grace a ghost.) This book, like all de Lint’s books, runs deep, crosses genres, and defies labels.

Norm, a distant cousin of shaman Ramon Morago, is the only one who can see Grace when she returns twice a year and he keeps telling her to “find her path.” Norm is Kikimi, and a kind of funky spiritual advisor to the lost girl caught in limbo. Morago and the Kikimi people are the subject of de Lint’s latest novel, The Wind in his Heart—my review here). Norm sees dead people and must use prayers and sacred smudge (sage) to keep the spirits at bay. Once they know you can see them, they keep harassing you. They’re lonely and want to talk. A shaman can choose but Norm doesn’t have a filter. He must pretend not to see them; otherwise, they drive him to drink.

What happens when we die? Will we be reunited with our ancestors? With those we love? Do heaven and hell exist? Or do we go into a kind of limbo to await our next incarnation? The Mystery of Grace inspires us to question our belief in God and the afterlife.

As always, de Lint, weaves a sensual tapestry of landscape, music, love, and culture. I am dazzled by his creativity, his brilliance, and his daring. Into this story, de Lint pours the tale of Juan—Juan can capture a bruja (witch) and turn her magic back on her “because the priest Juan Diego was the first to see Our Lady of Guadalupe” (197). Why does Grace needs to know about Juan? That is a question best left unanswered.

I leave you with a quote by Alice Hoffman.

Charles de Lint is the modern master of urban fantasy. Folktale, myth, fairy tale, dreams, urban legend—all of it adds up to pure magic in de Lint’s vivid, original world.

 

Crafting a Short Story

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22204_Regan_DevineFor several years, I taught English in high school. I’m not a short story writer, though I did write one for a contest last year. I like a larger canvas that I can sink inside. But, what follows is one of the lessons I used to share with my students on how to write a short story. Much of it came from my own amazing high school English teacher, Regan Devine. Is that a great name for a character or what? He’s real and here he is.

How to Write a Short Story

Writing is a craft. Like most crafts it looks easy, but in reality it requires hard work and practice. Manifestos are written on the subject. This is just a wee primer to get you started.

The Bones: A particular character in a particular place at a particular time is beset with a problem or conflict that he or she must resolve. Keep it simple: essential characters (no more than three) in a single setting over a short span of time. Here’s some sage advice:
o Put a man up a tree
o Give him a problem or maybe several, each one worse than the last
o Help him find a way down

Structure: Beginning, Middle, End

I. Beginning

Start with a situation: a man is in a tree. Do not give backstory unless it is necessary. Use a narrative hook. Make your reader ask question(s). How did he get up there? Will he get down? How?

Start as close to the inciting incident (first crisis) as you can. This incident or problem shakes him out of his ordinary world. Problems/conflict can result from nature/environment, humans, or something in his own mind.

II. Middle/Main Conflict

The man struggles as you build tension and suspense by “raising the stakes”. If he succeeds in solving one problem, give him a worse one. Someone is throwing stones, threatening him, or shooting at him, a wild animal waits at the foot of the tree, a tsunami is on the horizon, a hurricane is blowing all around him, he is injured, he is starving to death, he must get down by a certain time or his friend or lover or kids will die. Allow the character a moment to rest and reflect in between crises. Build to a climax.

III. End/Resolution

He gets down, saves himself or whoever was in danger (resolves his problem) and has somehow changed. Or maybe he doesn’t get down and dies trying. Some stories have unhappy endings.

Everything Else

Central Theme or Guiding Light: You must have a reason or point for telling this story, a message or thread of meaning that runs through from beginning to end. Stick to it.

Characterization: Make your reader care about what happens to your character. Reveal one key characteristic in your main character and challenge or change it via conflict. Subtly show this characteristic, rather than tell it. Character is revealed through action (how he acts and reacts), tone and attitude (how he thinks about things), language and imagery (how he speaks).

Point-of-View: You can either write in first person (I came, I saw, I conquered) or in third person limited omniscient (she came, she saw, she turned around and left). The trick with viewpoints is to remember that your character only knows certain things, and we see only through his eyes. You, the writer, know much more. Let your character discover and show things through his actions. Don’t give information your character would not know. Also, only write in one viewpoint, don’t shift.

Pacing: short sentences and paragraphs create speed for fast paced stories. Longer wordy sentences slow things down for a breath of reflection.

Vivid Imagery: Paint a vivid picture by appealing to the five senses. What does the character see, smell, hear, taste, and touch? You want to bring your reader into the non-ordinary world of the character.

Words: Use precise, concrete, accurate detail. Do not use passive boring verbs like: is, was, has, get, take, watch, went. Use particular verbs to convey action and attitude. Avoid using adverbs (anything ending in ly). Instead of “she walked slowly” say “she ambled” or “she strolled” or “she staggered”. This is the time to use your thesaurus sparingly.

Dialogue: There are rules.
o Every time you have a new speaker begin a new paragraph.
o Enclose everything the speaker says in quotation marks.
o Use dialect and grammar to reveal character.
o Break up dialect with bits of action.
o Where the quotation is interrupted by some action or to identify a speaker, do it at a natural pause and enclose each part. “I won’t go,” Jesse said, “unless you go with me.”
o If a quotation extends for more than one paragraph do not close it at the end of the first paragraph, but open the next with quotation marks.
o Put the comma, period, question mark, or em dashes INSIDE quotation marks.
o Use an em dash (two dashes—) when the speaker is interrupted or cut off
o Put colons, semi-colons OUTSIDE quotation marks.

“Sorcha?”
“Yeah. Who’s this?”
“It’s me.”
“Mitch? Why are you whispering? Are you okay? What’s that noise?”
“Look, I need help. I’m stuck up a tree and—”
“How’d you—?”
“Will you just listen?” I hissed. I knew I should have called John, even if Sorcha was my new girlfriend. “Look. I climbed up a tree at the Hellerman place to rescue my mother’s stupid kitten but I can’t get down.”
“Sorry? What did you say? I’m just doing my nails and I dropped my phone.”
I began again. “I climbed up—”
The growling escalated as the dogs clawed hunks of bark from the tree trunk below me.
“Mitch? What’s happening? What’s that noise? Where are you?”
“Dobermans … mean Dobermans.” I heard nothing—no reaction. “Sorcha? Are you there?” I stared at the black screen on my cell phone. “Damn,” I growled, and hurled it at the dogs.

Topics:

“I don’t know what to write about. My life is boring. I’ve got nothing to say.” This is a common block for writers. The truth is, you have scads of stuff to write about. Our lives are composed of interwoven stories. Some people say write what you know. (That’s a cliche, by the way.) Sometimes this works, but you can also write what you don’t know—what you can only imagine. This is the beauty of Fiction and what Imagination is for. We read and write to leave our ordinary world along with the character, to go to exotic locales and experience through story things we never could in reality. I say: write what intrigues you.

Write about places you’re curious about. Create quirky characters and drop them into unusual situations. Ultimately, we humans have similar wants and needs—love, friendship, comfort, safety, joy, adventure, and to go home in the end.

Finally, write in a genre you love to read. If you’re into science fiction, fantasy, romance, drama, mystery, history, write a story of that type. If you’re hooked on your story, chances are other people will be too.

Revision: To Look Again

o Type your story.

o Run a spelling and grammar check.

o Do a general edit for rhythm, pacing, and errors. When you do this read your story out loud. Have someone else read your story out loud.

o Then complete a line-by-line edit where you weed out: adverbs, clichés, errors, repeating images or actions, too much dialogue or description.

How to Format a Book-sized PDF on a MAC

Indie publishing is an adventure. It also comes with a steep learning curve and can cause all manner of frustration and back-aches as you sit at the computer for hours cursing and sighing, and occasionally cheering when you finally get something right. I’ve become tenacious and OCD about publishing, and I crowed last night when I finally got it.

One of the tasks that seems to give writers the most trouble is preparing their finished manuscript for upload to the distributer (CreateSpace, IngramSpark, etc). I don’t usually publish how-to posts, but as I’ve been learning, I’ve encountered so many people having the same issues, I thought I’d try and simplify the process with a few key moves.

First of all, this is for writers using a Mac. The basic question I googled the past few days was this: how do I save a pdf copy in book size on a Mac? This is what I figured out after reading a zillion threads written by frustrated Mac users. I discovered that Macs are built to do this, so you don’t need to buy Acrobat software. You just need to know how to do it.

A Word About Formatting Ebooks

Ebooks and print books need two completely different formats. Kindle Direct Publishing provides an excellent guide for formatting and uploading your ebook to Amazon. Just follow along and you’ll be successful. (Although one glitch I have discovered  is that when you use a MAC, you have to save the final Word doc as a Web Page, Filtered in order to get an HTML file for upload. Otherwise, any photos don’t appear when you proof it online.) Another format you will need to upload is ePub for Kobo, I-books, etc.) I publish through IngramSpark so I upload the ePub version on their site. You can download Calibre for free (thanks Sionnach for this tip) and convert several formats in a snap. But print books are a whole different process.

Formatting Print Books

To Sleep With Stones_eCover_Final _small_

So. Print books. First of all, the formatting is different. You want your book to be visually appealing, error-free, and set up professionally using Word styles. You have to pay every time you upload a new edition to IngramSpark, so try to get it right. (Right now, they’re offering free revisions until May 31 and a new title upload for free until June 30.)

I’m preparing to release the Hollystone Mysteries as a trilogy within the next year, so I’m setting up my own formatting guide using Word styles so they’re all consistent. The last few weeks, I’ve been re-editing book two. I decided to change the book size from 6″ x 9″ to 5.5″ x 8.5″ because I thought it might look and feel better. After editing and formatting, it grew from 276 pages to 310 pages and that meant the trim size would be off for my existing cover. My cover designer, Kat McCarthy at Aeternum Designs, graciously resized the cover for me. Thanks Kat. It took a lot of finagling to get the most white space as possible without going over those 310 pages. Last night I was still playing with this—even changing words here and there to make it fit. As I said…OCD.

When I thought I had it perfect, I drove down to Staples with my Word file on a flash drive because they said they could convert it to the size I needed in a couple of minutes. However, once it was up on their screen, my fancy font that matches my cover (Celtic Garamond Pro) didn’t show up. I’d used it for the title page, drop caps, and headings, so I was ready to scream! “Bring us a PDF and we can re-size it for you no problem,” she said. So I drove home and hunkered down at the desk again. While I was giving it one more appraisal, I noticed that on page 6 the scene break icon and the page number were not centred correctly. (This is where the OCD kicks in). I discovered that the footer style was set to “normal” which meant it had a .25 indent and that was throwing off the centring. I fixed that and played with the white space some more. Then I put it up on the big screen.

Suddenly, I noticed that the first four pages (section 1) were actually appearing in book-size; whereas the rest of the book was still showing with the text in book-size but on 8.5″ x 11″ paper. This is the problem people are screaming about on the threads. So I went back in and tried one last time. Hallelujah!  This, in three steps, is what I discovered over the last three days.

How to Save a Book-sized PDF on a MAC

  1. Go to File—Page Setup. Set the desired size (5.5 x 8.5) formatted for any printer. Make sure everything in Word is perfect. Check all styles to be sure everything is centred correctly. Check paragraph format—watch for first line indents that need to be removed that will affect the centring).
  2. Go to top screen menu: Format—Document. Check all margins and “apply to whole document”— If  just “this section” is ticked, it won’t work. (This was the clincher!) And you have to do this every time because it defaults. Even making this demo pdf of my first chapter, I found errors and had to resize the doc.
  3. Go to File—Print and in the bottom left click on “pdf” and choose “save to pdf”

This should save the document in the book size you are expecting and look exactly like the interior of your book. Here’s the saved PDF of the front pages and first chapter of To Sleep with Stones so you can see what I mean about fonts and text and white space.

Stones chapter 1

Good luck on your Indie publishing journey. If you get stuck or have any questions, contact me or leave a comment and I’ll try to help you as best I can.

with all good wishes,

Wendy

 

 

 

 

Stephen King as Mentor

Reading Stephen King’s 1991 article “The Symbolic Language of Dreams” blissed out my writer’s spirit–that seed deep in my soul that ruptures occasionally when watered with shivering truth. This phenomenon occurs too rarely and signalled that the man had something to tell me.

UnknownStephen King

 

salems-lotI remember reading Salem’s Lot in the late 1970s. It was the book that turned me off horror. Not because it was bad—because it was mesmerizingly sinister. We were living in rural southern Ontario at the time, and my husband, a musician, was on the road three weeks out of four. Our farm, set well back from the road, was a staggering breath away from Salem Road and a friend of mine dug graves less than a mile up that road at Salem Cemetery.

And so, I closed King’s books. Ironically, I’ve watched movie versions of his books over the years: Misery, Hearts in Atlantis, Carrie, Stand by Me, The Green Mile, Dolores Claiborne; and I love Haven so much I’m ready to relocate clear across the country.

But books are different. Perhaps because the images emerge from our own imagination. Words perch at your fingertips, thirsting for a stream of blood; an opening where absorbed through the flesh and synapse, they can become real.

My current Hollystone Mysteries series features some sinister vampires, so I opened the cover of Salem’s Lot and began again.

And what did I learn from the Master?
pacing: keep the reader in a slow pant so by the time you hit the climax they’re craving it like a drug
detail: slow it all down by painting graphic pictures with your words
heroes are not always leading men. In Salem’s Lot, the unlikely four who take on Barlow the vampire are: an elderly English teacher, a young novelist, a doctor, and a twelve-year-old boy who makes models of monsters.
allow your eccentric beliefs to emerge and flourish. The following dialogue from Salem’s Lot reflects a personal belief that nonhuman objects can take on the emotions of human’s actions and certain people who are sensitively tuned can feel it. I concur with the narrator in this passage; not that he hallucinated the whole thing, but that houses and landscapes absorb emotions that can manifest with the right catalyst.

“Probably I was so keyed up that I hallucinated the whole thing. On the other hand, there may be some truth in that idea that houses absorb the emotions that are spent in them, that they hold a kind of… dry charge. Perhaps the right personality, that of an imaginative boy, for instance, could act as a catalyst on that dry charge, and cause it to produce an active manifestation of … of something. I’m not talking about ghosts, precisely. I’m talking about a kind of psychic television in three dimensions. Perhaps even something alive. A monster, if you like” (42).

 

Memories of Nootka Lighthouse

Four years ago, I was working as a relief lighthouse keeper for the Canadian Coast Guard. I’d taken a year off teaching to explore and destress and try something new.

Between March 27 and May 23, I stayed at Nootka and recorded my adventures, and misadventures, in a journal and a blog. This was my house for eight weeks.

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I’ve been thinking about that time a lot lately. This summer, I am planning to take the Uchuck III day cruise from Gold River to Friendly Cove, so I can walk those beaches and trails once again. I had hoped to visit with Mark, the lighthouse keeper I worked with at that time, but apparently Mark and Joanne retired last September. So, all I can say is “Congratulations!” from afar.

People often ask me what I did there. This video and article written and recorded last August with Mark and Joanne brings it all back to me. It is a beautiful landscape, rife with history—some of which is tragic—and I feel blessed that I was able to spend some quality time there.

This is my post from April 22, 2014.

And this is the pebble beach—one of my favourite places in the world. I can’t wait to walk here again this summer.

 

 

 

Books & More Books

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@irondogbooks

When I saw this funky bookshop on Twitter yesterday, I decided to find it. As if by magic (which no doubt it was) I discovered Iron Dog Books parked in front of Moody Ales this afternoon. They were there supporting AJ Devlin. Jeremy and I have done a couple of readings together so I’d come to congratulate him on the launch of Cobra Clutch and buy a signed copy. The place was packed–Sunday afternoon in the Brewery District of Port Moody–a successful launch for AJ Devlin and Cobra Clutch! #cobraclutch

AJ

@ajdevlinauthor

Cobra Clutch is a fast-paced, hard-hitting debut novel by AJ Devlin that has an unstoppable combo: a signature move of raucous humour with a super finisher of gritty realism.

And here’s a great endorsement from Sam Wiebe: “In this fast-paced, energetic debut, Devlin ingeniously merges the worlds of pro wrestling and private eyes into a breakneck adventure that will leave readers breathless. Intense and cinematic.”

That’s no surprise since AJ earned a Master of Fine Arts in Screenwriting from the American Film Institute, and gave Hollywood a shot before moving back home to Port Moody.

After visiting Moody Ales, I had to check out the bookmobile. I grew up with a bookmobile in small-town Ontario. Perhaps, that’s why I was thrilled to see Iron Dog Books. It’s an innovative enterprise. Here is their Twitter description:

Itinerant Indigenous bookseller perched atop Burnaby Mtn. selling new & used books. Hours: Tues & Thurs 9am-6pm @ Cornerstone Town Square (Simon Fraser University) 

Hilary told me that Saturdays this summer, they will be parked at the Port Moody Museum beside Rocky Point Park. It’s a small intimate space, so she’s choosy about her stock. Their mission is to bring books to places that don’t have used book stores. So, come by and browse for some great finds on her shelves. You never know who you might run into. And if the temperature ever starts to rise, there are four craft breweries right across the street, home-crafted ice cream in the park, and a funky new shuttle bus coming in July that will  link Inlet Centre, Rocky Point Park and Moody Centre.

Port Moody, you rock!