Saturday, February 2, 2013

Some thoughts about "unique descriptions" in story...

Hi, Everyone:
Usually a few times a month, I receive an email from writers who are seeking feedback about a work-in-progress or who are curious about my take on how I put together a story or a novel. I thought it might be helpful to share one of my most recent emailed responses:
From Tim G. to Sherrie S.:
As always, it's great to hear from you, Sherrie. 
Regarding your request for feedback, please keep in mind I’m only a guy with an opinion, as flawed as any other, so please only put as much weight on my thoughts as your intuition suggests is proper. Also, keep in mind I’m not on any bestseller list and don’t seem to be heading for one anytime soonJ

I really did enjoy your story but thought the opening visuals could be improved. Below are two of your early paragraphs and my thoughts regarding a possible different approach. By the way, I’m not at all advocating that you change your story, I’m simply using real examples.

Before I do that, however, I should mention that there are three rules of thumb that I subscribe to:

1.) For someone to learn to write well takes 10,000 hours of practice. You do write well, so either you’re naturally talented or you’ve spent a lot of time writing over the years.

2.) Most fiction writers do not come into their own until their 15th novel (which a few years back meant 15 unpublished novels before one was publishable). In short, you're doing really well compared to a lot of us. Keep up the great work.

3.) No one can tell you how to write a bestseller until they have done it; and most couldn’t even tell you then because the market is fickle and literary stew is hard to replicate. Needless to say, that renders my feedback particularly suspect :-)

Okay, regarding stronger visuals, I like to provide a few “unusual, not generic” details for every scene. I also often embue every new character with a visual and/or personality quirk that makes them stand out.  Readers will fill in the blanks, but if we present them with a sprinkling of memorable details throughout the story, those are the tiny things that make it real and make it stand out. For instance, I did enjoy your extended music/forest analogy at the beginning of your novel. However, you never described any buildings, any people, any colors, not even the color of the cab Lillian was getting into. I had absolutely no sense that Bejing, New York or any of the places were different from any other places. A few words could have made each one stand out brilliantly in comparison to the others.

Here’s one of your early paragraphs:

Moments later, the driver stopped at the hotel, mumbled something in Chinese and crooked his meter so Lillian could see the fare. She paid the man and entered the hotel.

I get what happened, but you failed to differentiate this place or these people. Here’s my off-the-cuff retake:

Moments later, the driver swerved across the rain-swept lanes and slid to a stop at the curb, coming dangerously close to hitting the hotel’s blue awning, which extended from the ten-plus story brick building to the street edge.

“I am honored to deliver you,” the balding driver mumbled in Chinese as he crooked his meter toward Lillian. The bored look on his face suggested what he meant was “You’re here so pay me already.”

Lillian glanced at the missing middle finger on the man’s right hand and wondered if it might have been caused by a military accident or possibly he had overcharged someone from the Triad. She had heard the Chinese mobsters were ruthless. She paid the man, who easily accepted the bills with four digits, and barely had time to close the door before the small blue cab dashed back into traffic.  The hotel had no doorman, but an elderly Chinese beggar greeted her with a rusty tin cup. She normally would have walked past, but the man's wet hair was plastered against his forehead like an aging St. Bernard just back from a difficult swim. She dropped a handful of coins into his can then pushed through one of the double, swinging glass doors.

Obviously, description like this can be time-consuming and slow up a story (possibly a problem with my writing) but you’ll note that one scene is generic while the other is at least a little more memorable. I tend to do that throughout most scenes.

Here’s one of your scenes from shortly after Lillian wakes in the hospital:

The doctor flipped the light switch, illuminating the room and causing Lillian to squint her eyes slightly.

One possible concern might be that you provided only a generic reference to a ceiling fan and bare walls. I have no idea what this room or this man looked like. I might have done something like this:

Lillian saw the doctor’s shadowed arm reach for the wall and heard the mechanical snap of the light switch. Illumination washed over her. The white walls, ceilings, even her white bedding were like an arctic, sunlit landscape. Only the lack of stainless steel and the bright pink curtains hanging over what seemed to be a doorway suggested she was not in an American hospital. She squinted  at the doctor, whose dark hair had light patches of gray at the temples. There were also grays mixed with his thin mustache. Maybe in his late-forties or early-fifties, the man seemed timid, possibly having something to do with the cut on his lower lip and the painful-looking bruise on his right cheek.

Obviously, Sherrie, I’m just riffing with the scene, but when I strive for “unique details” I often find that it adds whole new dimensions to my stories. Again, keep in mind I’m just a guy as full of crap as all the rest. Your project is already impressive, and I'm looking forward to seeing it finished J

‘Hope the comments are of some value.
End email.
Thanks for stopping by, everyone. If you have writing, music or art advice that you'd like to share, email me. I'd be happy to post it as a guest blog!


  1. Nice article, thanks for the information.
    Anna @ sewa mobil jakarta

  2. Thanks so much for stopping by, Anna. 'Hope you are enjoying a wonderful Friday and have a great weekend!


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