Thinking While Writing

Although I finished the challenge of writing 50,000 words in a month, I am still writing, though I’m back to my usual snail pace and my habit of thinking while I write. It’s not so much that I’m reverting to my old ways, but that I’ve written all the easy parts. Now, besides figuring out how to put the book together, I have to write any missing scenes, write the connective tissue that turns isolated scenes into a cohesive story, and write descriptions, which has always been hard for me. I am not fond of long descriptive passages, but I understand the need to anchor a reader to the story with visuals, so I try to describe a scene in as few words as possible. Generally I do this by finding a significant detail — the one thing that will make a scene come alive, such as a green lizard on the ceiling of a hotel room in Thailand or a razor-wire-topped fence hidden in the trees.

All those parts of the story take thought, which means no more writing at break-finger speed. Still, I’ve come away from the experience with a better appreciation for the writing process (though, drat it! It was supposed to be a vision quest, and I had nary a vision.)

The most important lesson I’ve learned from this experience is that by jumping around and writing scenes as I think of them rather than trying to write them chronologically, I can see what I need to include. For example, in my other WIP, the apocalyptic allegory that’s been paused for the past three years while I dealt with life, I need to have my hero preparing for the future. I couldn’t think of all that he would need, but after writing a scene where he assisted at the birth of a baby, I could see he needed something with which to cut the cord. I already had him sharpening a bit of flint, but since these end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it-survivors have no clothes but loincloths, which traditionally do not come equipped with pockets, he pulled the flint out of a pouch. Aha! So now I not only have to have him make the flint, I have to have him carrying it around. He started out working on it in secret and hiding it before returning to the group, no he will have to make a pouch (out of what? and how?) and start carrying the makeshift knife. But why would he go through all that trouble? Perhaps too many people have shown an interest in his activities. Perhaps someone went searching for the knife. Perhaps he just likes knowing it is available if he should need it.

Answering why is a vital part of keeping our writing cohesive. Without character motivation, we end up with a series of happenings that aren’t connected, which means no story. Knowing what the story needs, such as the flint in the pouch, I can go back and figure out why he’d have it, otherwise it seems too coincidental. And to keep from things being coincidental, I have to think, which means writing at a slower pace. At least for a while.

Describing a Winter Scene — Again

The most viewed of all my bloggeries (supposedly that’s the correct name for blog posts) is The Origin of the Grim Reaper. The second most viewed is Describing a Scene in an Interesting Way.  The third is Describing a Character the Easy Way, and the fourth is Describing a Winter Scene. Apparently, writing description is a difficult subject to master. And so is deciding how much or how little to describe.

It seems as if this year we are getting plenty of winter. So, if you want to figure out how to describe a winter scene, don’t think of this a terrible winter but as a marvelous opportunity for learning how to describe a winter scene. The secret  is to find the telling details — the sights, sounds, smell, feel, taste that evoke the entire feeling of the season. Even better is to find that which only you can experience. Icicles dripping from the eaves have been described a zillion times. (A slight exaggeration, but you get the point.) The crystalline aspect of ice-covered trees has probably been described as often. And so has that childhood horror of getting one’s tongue stuck to metal. But what about shadows on the snow?  Rats. That’s been done, too. 

Sitting at a computer and looking out the window is no way to come up with telling details, which is why I can’t think of a single way to describe winter that hasn’t already become a cliché. Winter looks like a Christmas card when looked at from inside, but it can only be experienced (and hence described) by going outside and . . . well, experiencing it.

So, I will leave you all to your chilblained fingers tapping on warm computer keys, and I will brave the elements. But don’t expect me to tell you what I learn. My winter is not your winter. We each have to describe the winter that only we can experience, otherwise there is no reason to describe it at all.

Imploding Lifeless Descriptions

Although I am not a fan of long descriptive passages, or even short ones that add nothing to the story, I do think that setting is important. We readers need to know where we are, and why. We need enough description to get our imaginations flowing, though not so much that we feel the story is the author’s alone; we want to be a participant in the process.

Setting need not be static. It can be a character with its own personality, scars, weaknesses, strengths, emotions, and moods. Like the other characters in the story, we should get to know it little by little, not in big chunks of exposition. And, like the characters, it should change; or at least our perception of it should change.

As I mentioned in my previous post, the space given to description should be in relation to its importance. There is no point in writing a long description of a setting that will disappear from the book before the readers have fixed it in their minds. For one thing, it delays the action unnecessarily; for another, readers won’t forgive the false impression.

For my work in progress, I envisioned a fabulous pet store. It was a standalone building with its own parking lot. The building was in the shape of a U, with the main room across the front and two wings. Because it was once a doctor’s office, there were several little rooms in each wing. My character, Chip, created special habitats in the rooms, like a mini forest for the owl and a large terrarium for the reptiles. In the center of the U was a courtyard that the doctors once used for an outdoor eating area, but Chip had enclosed it with wire mesh, filled it with exotic plants and small trees, and used it as a retreat for the birds and small animals.

As I was designing the store, I encountered several problems: the birds were tropical, and would not have done well outside in Denver’s harsh climate. The terrariums for the reptiles would turn into charnel houses because the creatures would eat each other. But even with the problems, I was loath to implode my store; I spent a lot of time creating it and I thought it was a great idea.

Then I started writing it. To make it more than a lifeless description such as the one here, I had to give it several paragraphs and for what? Within a few short chapters the store would disappear (along with the entire neighborhood). It didn’t make sense to give so much space to something that was obviously unimportant when a plain old store would work just as well and with fewer descriptive words to delay the action. Besides, anything the fabulous store said about Chip was more entertainingly portrayed by his relationship with the animals.

While my setting — Denver in the not too distant future — is important, the store wasn’t. Whatever words I would have wasted on the store, I will spend creating a living, changing, vital setting for Chip to interact with. Because of that interaction, I won’t need long descriptive passages for readers to skim over.

That’s the plan, anyway.

Describing a Winter Scene

One of the most common reasons people come to my blog is to find out how to describe a scene. A subcategory of that is how to describe a winter scene. I can tell you one thing: you do not learn how to describe a winter scene by Googling it. You go outside. Stand still. Observe.

When writing about a place, we have a temptation to describe it all at once, but it’s more effective to begin at a distance, then 100_0876bmove in for the smaller details. So there you are out in the snow and cold. What is the panoramic view? What specifically do you see in the distance? What sounds are coming to you from far away?

Bring your focus in a little closer. Pick out a few details from the middle distance. Now bring your focus in to your immediate area where all your senses come into play.

How do you feel? You are probably shivering because you thought you’d be outside for just a minute and didn’t put on a coat. Make a note of that and whatever else you feel. Touch the ice or snow or slush. Is there anything you can say about it besides its temperature? If not, forget it. Everyone knows what cold feels like.

What do you smell? Taste? Perhaps a low-pressure system is keeping the car exhaust from dissipating and it is so thick you can taste it. Or perhaps the smoke from wood burning stoves is choking you, and you can taste it in the back of your throat.

What do you hear? Cold engines idling? Birds calling? Children laughing? Ice crackling?

Finally, what do you see? Focus on the small details. Are dead leaves or blades of grass poking up through the snow? Are there mice or deer tracks? Is a perfect feather lying at your feet? Is a nest visible in the bare tree branches?

When you have absorbed as much sensory information as you can, you are ready to write the scene. Resist the urge to string together adjectives — too many can diminish the power of your description — and resist the urge to use everything you learned. It is better to pick one or two exceptional details that give an impression of the whole rather than attempting to describe the entire scene. Most readers today do not want to sit through long descriptions. They want to get a quick sense of the place and then move on to the action.

Better yet, couple your description with action; give it movement. Have snow crunching beneath running feet. Have a character dodging around a stalled car. Have the blood of a victim staining winter-dry leaves.

Most importantly, if you can’t think of a single original thing to say about the scene, don’t describe it at all. Why waste your time and your readers’ by telling them what they already know?


Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

Describing a Scene in an Interesting Way

One of the search engine terms somebody used to find my blog was “Describe a Scene in an Interesting Way,” and I thought it would be a great subject for today’s post.

The trap even the most successful writers fall into when describing a scene is to simply list the objects in a room or landscape, and a few adjectives thrown about for color or texture do not make the description any more interesting. Writers often cheat by pretending to see the scene through the character’s eyes, but it still comes down to being nothing more than a list.

We are not children padding our flimsy essays with adjectives and adverbs. We are adults who know that the number of words seattlein a story mean nothing; it’s only what the words mean that counts. And in description, those words must count twice: to give us a feel for the setting, and to give us a feel for the character.

Description by its very nature is static; we need to find ways to make it flow with the story. One way is to have the character interact with the setting: to sit in a mahogany armchair with a faded green cushion; to hear the deep notes of the grandfather clock in the corner; to feel the texture of the oriental carpet underfoot, to smell the old leather bindings of the books. Without ever stepping away from the character, we know what the room looks like, including the parts that were not described.

Another way to describe a scene is to pick one significant item and describe it. Perhaps the dusty lace curtains, or the stains on the ceiling where the roof leaked. Even better would be to show what the curtains or stains mean to the character.

We can also describe a scene by showing contrasts. Yellow is brighter when it is next to purple than when it is next to green. Green is brighter next to red than it is to blue. The color combination with the strongest visual impact is black on yellow. I’m not suggesting that we use color in such a way; these are merely examples of how one thing looks different when it is next to something else. Those dusty lace curtains may be in an otherwise spotless room. Or they might be scrupulously clean in a dusty room. Either way, it says more about the character than just describing the curtains or the room.

Describing scenes by sound rather than sight can give the scene movement. We do not perceive sound as being static. A train whistle in the distance is not always the same pitch, is not always the same volume. Even taste seems more dynamic than sight; for example, the taste of the smoky air on a winter day. And smell is the most evocative of all the senses; perhaps the smell of lilacs makes one think of grandmother’s house.

However we decide to describe our scenes, we need to keep our characters in mind. They and their problems are the story. The scenes need to reflect this, to be a part of it.

When we get to the point where we can suggest our character’s inner conflicts by the way we describe the scene, we will be on our way to mastering our craft.


Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Follow Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.