Category Archives: Learning To Write

On Criticism and Online Fiction

I’m not sure if this is even a trend, but I’m beginning to think that online criticism follows rules and social norms that aren’t obvious in traditional, offline book criticism. This may not be a good thing. I’ve been actively looking around the blogosphere for the past couple of weeks, and I have to conclude that nobody criticizes via comments anymore. Consider: online works – be it novel, short story or photostream – are very rarely criticized on the creator’s own turf. I have yet to see a full blown review of a person’s writing on said person’s writing blog, nor have I seen a full-blown review of a blook (by a reader) on the blook’s actual site.

I believe the main reason for this to be that people now attribute ownership to a creator’s online channel. They don’t criticize you on your blog the same way they won’t comment on your (bad) taste when they’re visiting you at your home. Two photographers I follow – Olivia Bee and lightsongs receive  praise – and only praise – every time they release a photo on their Flickr photostream, and I must say that it gets pretty annoying after two or three months, to scroll down and see a whole heap of amazing! piled upon them – upload after upload after upload.

There’s also the possibility that these people filter out their comments, and only approve the positive ones – but I don’t believe that to be the case. I wonder, though – how likely is a reader to post a negative review in an overwhelmingly positive comment thread? A creator’s loyal community is the best defense against trolls, but it also a deterrent from negative commentary on the creator’s work. And – if this is true, and it’s true for all creators – then wouldn’t the Internet be the ideal home for the narcissistic writer?

Note that this trend doesn’t seem to apply to Novelr, nor to any of the non-fiction idea blogs you have out there. People have no problems with arguing against ideas they don’t agree with. It’s the fiction – the creative work – that suffers from this dearth of online critique, and this means that the writers who blog for improvement aren’t likely to find it … not unless they ask for it, and ask for it regularly. There is one exception, however, on the Internet: writing forums and communities not clustered around the writer are good places to ask for writing feedback. Which means, then, that the trick to getting C&C isn’t to ask for opinions from the community clustered around your blook, but to ask for it at other places – neutral ones – where people do not feel that they’re intruding on your digital turf.

Wednesday, 1 April, 2009

A Note On The Month-Long Absence

I think I owe everyone both an explanation and an apology at the month-long absence I took in-between the last two posts. I was working, for starters, and I had only nights to come back home and go online and do proper, web-fiction related work. But the real reason for not blogging at Novelr was because I was struggling with a couple of things that I’d like to share with you today, for luck. The short of it was that I was sick and tired of writing, and for awhile I was adrift in the sea of ideas that Novelr comes across for a day-to-day basis. But consider, for a moment, the fact that I think of myself as a fiction writer, and consider too the immutable reality that Novelr (and all of blogging) is an inherently non-fiction job. This might not seem like a major problem, not at first glance, but think awhile and you’ll realize that non-fiction is not the other side of the writing coin; it is a very attractive escape, especially for the fiction writer suffering from major writer’s block.

When I first started writing, I reasoned that the blank page was a beautiful thing; an invention that gave the outside world the inner workings of my head. I could give a gift of imagination - my imagination – to others; to allow them a smell of the flowers planted outside the palace of Samarkand, to give them a taste of stolen cloud, taken from underneath a flying monkey God. And indeed that was the ideal that I strove for, that little imagined place where both writer and reader could meet; not over ideas, but over stories and shared experiences.

But then take non-fiction, where you’re still writing, and you’re still using the same tools of the craft, but you’re not actually telling any story. I find that non-fiction is often a weaker substitute for fiction, in the same way some people may chew gum to make up for an addiction to nicotene; or watch porn to make up for a lack of human love. Writing essays and blog posts are easier; they’re instant gratification to the slow-release pleasure of writing a novel; they make you feel as if you’re still engaged in the act of writing, with one crucial difference: you’re not actually doing any storytelling. And we all know how much harder storytelling really is, compared to the direct, non-fiction electricity of ideas from head to hand. This could be one reason why so many novelists turn to essays in their downtime, between books. It could also be one reason why I’d been writing so little fiction over the past 6 months. And it was true, and it was painful – the crux of the matter was that between Novelr and my blog I didn’t feel any need to ease myself into the hard grind of crafting and telling a good story. And that was sad indeed.

I wonder now if writers like Malcolm Gladwell and Seth Godin write non-fiction because they believe in this lie. Or if they’d examined themselves as fiction writers, found themselves wanting, and settled for the still-respectable, instantly-gratifying joy of non-fiction. Because to me it suddenly seemed that if you were not writing fiction you weren’t partaking of the most powerful thing writing had on offer: the ability to take yourself out of time, to live beyond your years in the curls of your letters and the ozone of your paragraphs. I believe now that stories last forever; that only ideas grow old and die. And what I was doing, I found, was that I was writing so much non-fiction that I was putting aside almost nothing of myself for the timeless craft of the fiction writer.

So what made me come back? Two things, I suppose. The first was a 43 folders podcast, How To (…) Turbocharge your blog with Credibility!, a punchy, inspiring chat between two old-time bloggers that reminded me of everything I had started out to do when I first launched Novelr. But that’s personal, and you aren’t likely to identify with me on my reasons. It’s the solution to my second problem that I find worthy of sharing: I decided that no matter how much work I was going to do on Novelr, or how many essays I wrote for myself, I would always, always set aside some time for wrtiting fiction.

And the thought of this – the very idea of it – made me instantly happier. I’m sorry for the hiatus. But I’m back now, and writing again. Thank you for sticking with me.

N.B.: Have any of you struggled with this? Or has fiction/non-fiction been your one and only calling? I’m interested to know if anyone’s had similar doubts, and similar blocks. Drop me a line in the comments section; I’d be delighted to hear from you.

Saturday, 16 August, 2008

Vonnegut: How To Write With Style

Kurt Vonnegut This article orginally appeared in Palm Sunday (New York, Dial Press 1999) from pages 65 to 72, 9 years before Vonnegut’s death. I thought I’d share it here.

Newspaper reporters and technical writers are trained to reveal almost nothing about themselves in their writings. This makes them freaks in the world of writers, since almost all of the other ink-stained wretches in that world reveal a lot about themselves to readers. We call these revelations, accidental and intentional, elements of style.

These revelations tell us as readers what sort of person it is with whom we are spending time. Does the writer sound ignorant or informed, stupid or bright, crooked or honest, humorless or playful– ? And on and on.

Why should you examine your writing style with the idea of improving it? Do so as a mark of respect for your readers, whatever you’re writing. If you scribble your thoughts any which way, your readers will surely feel that you care nothing about them. They will mark you down as an egomaniac or a chowderhead — or, worse, they will stop reading you.

The most damning revelation you can make about yourself is that you do not know what is interesting and what is not. Don’t you yourself like or dislike writers mainly for what they choose to show you or make you think about? Did you ever admire an emptyheaded writer for his or her mastery of the language? No.

So your own winning style must begin with ideas in your head.

1. Find a subject you care about

Find a subject you care about and which you in your heart feel others should care about. It is this genuine caring, and not your games with language, which will be the most compelling and seductive element in your style.

I am not urging you to write a novel, by the way — although I would not be sorry if you wrote one, provided you genuinely cared about something. A petition to the mayor about a pothole in front of your house or a love letter to the girl next door will do.

2. Do not ramble, though

I won’t ramble on about that.

3. Keep it simple

As for your use of language: Remember that two great masters of language, William Shakespeare and James Joyce, wrote sentences which were almost childlike when their subjects were most profound. “To be or not to be?” asks Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The longest word is three letters long. Joyce, when he was frisky, could put together a sentence as intricate and as glittering as a necklace for Cleopatra, but my favorite sentence in his short story “Eveline” is this one: “She was tired.” At that point in the story, no other words could break the heart of a reader as those three words do.

Simplicity of language is not only reputable, but perhaps even sacred. The Bible opens with a sentence well within the writing skills of a lively fourteen-year-old: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.”

Tuesday, 3 June, 2008

Before You Begin Writing Online Fiction (An Introduction)

In this guest post Gavin Williams covers the basics of online fiction for beginners to the medium. Read on to find out more about him.

Coloured Pens In a RowHey, have you heard? Online fiction is the future!

Okay, maybe not. Online publishing is a non-traditional route for writers, and an emerging art form. Novelr’s creator, Eli, has asked me to share some of my experience as an online writer and reader with the Novelr community, in the interests of helping others who are hoping to start writing, and to facilitate the growth of the online book community.

Who am I? Glad you asked. My name is Gavin Williams, and I currently write “No Man an Island” and “The Surprising Life and Death of Diggory Franklin.” I read a lot of online fiction, and have a background in literature. A lifelong reader, I have a lot of interest in the future of the medium, and I think online writing will be a big part of that. It’s not the whole future, but it’s an intriguing facet.

Traditional publishing and online publishing are two very different mediums, even though their core material is the same: text. The written word. However, the way their text is presented, and the way their audiences interact with these two mediums, make them very different. We’re going to walk through those differences, in the interest of highlighting the strengths of online publishing, and educating writers in how to use these strengths to their benefit.

Part One: The Delivery

Traditional fiction comes to us in paperback and hardcover editions, on paper, usually in a bookstore. I love buying a new book (or getting an old favourite from a library) and then curling up in a chair and reading for hours. It’s a unique experience, as you get comfortable and let your imagination interact with the words on the page to create a world. It’s irreplaceable.

So, why should you read online then? Well, it’s got advantages too. A traditional writer might publish one or two books a year. You wait and wait for it to come, and that’s if you know about it ahead of time. Stephen King spent thirty years on the Dark Tower series, beginning it in college and ending it as a grandfather. J.K. Rowling started her seven book Harry Potter series in 1995, so it took about a decade to write seven novels.

But online fiction can be published every day, you don’t have to wait years or decades. It doles out its story one chapter at a time, but it’s immediate. This immediacy gives readers new material to look forward to, and can connect them deeply with a story while they wait for the next day’s instalment.

Charles Dickens wrote serial fiction, published in newspapers. It was greatly anticipated by the British audience, and connected people as they all eagerly awaited his continuing story. It gave them something to talk about and look forward to.

Online writers can create that same kind of excitement, by having a new chapter up for their waiting audience on a frequent basis. This suits online audiences quite well, as they will read episodes of their favourite stories during work breaks, or in-between checking their email. Short, intriguing chapters are ideal for the casual reader.

Monday, 2 June, 2008

How To Write Long Sentences

keyboardWhen I first started writing on the Internet I owed a lot to Poynter Institutes’s 50 Tools That Can Improve Your Writing guide. The whole list was sadly taken down from the web to be sold as a book so I do suppose it’s lost forever, unless someone can figure out how to view the cached versions of the site. But back to the topic at hand: The Long Sentence. One of the first lessons I learnt from the Poynter guide was how to get long sentences right – how not to write one, how they work, and how to keep meaning clear even if your sentence is a paragraph long. Let’s start by comparing two long sentences:

A career that is spent primarily in the back office for troubleshooting for the benefit of the department can be detrimental to your advancement.

And this gem by Dave Eggers,

I fly past the smaller shops, past the men drinking wine on the benches, past the old men playing dominoes, past the restaurants and the Arabs selling clothes and rugs and shoes, past the twins my age, Ahok and Awach Ugieth, two very kind and hardworking girls carrying bundles of kindling on their heads, Hello, Hello, we say, and finally I step into the darkness of my father’s stores, completely out of breath.

Now the second example is a lot longer than the first, and yet it just seems to work. Why does it work? Why does it flow logically and not collapse inward?

Simple. It branches to the right. Branching to the right is a very important part of a good long sentence, and it is very easy to pull off – all you have to do is to put the subject and the verb as early on in the sentence as possible. It acts as an anchor and prevents the sentence from drifting out of control.

In the second sentence ‘I’ and ‘fly’ are placed at the start, and the rest of the sentence branches out from it. It prevents the sentence from spiraling out of control. In the first sentence, however, a whole chunk of text is placed between ‘career’ (the subject) and ‘can be’ (the verb). Result? An unreadable sentence.

Keeping a strong subject and verb together is a simple rule that should be applied to all forms of sentences when you’re writing to be clear. It helps give shape and direction to your text, particularly if it’s placed at the very front. But putting the verb at the end isn’t a completely evil thing to do – writers do it all the time when they’re trying to create suspense, or when they’re building tension for the reader. This works if it’s done well. Just use it carefully.

There’s one last aspect to the long sentence that I must include before I close: you might not need to write long. I believe that there are three possible remedies when a writer frequently loses you with the long sentence:

  1. The writer needs to learn how to write good long sentences
  2. The writer should stick to short and snappy
  3. The writer should stop squeezing in every imaginable detail into his/her prose

And the third is more often than not the problem. Know when to stop with your details. And fear not the long sentence.

Thursday, 24 April, 2008

Good Writers, Bad Storytellers

315994_half_1.jpgI was reminded today that good writing isn’t everything. It was four in the afternoon and I was stuck at a turning point in one of my manuscripts, and it hit me that everything I’d done to improve my writing did not matter then and there. I could have just as easily messed up the entire project by tackling the scene the wrong way, even if I did write it beautifully. This wasn’t a matter of description or style or clarity of thought – it was something more. It was story.

Story is that extra something we writers don’t really understand. Take a stroll through any bookstore today and you’ll find writing titles jumping out at you: The Elements of Style, for instance. Or On Writing, that highly popular craft manual by Mr King. But pause for awhile and note that Mr King didn’t write a book called On Storytelling. Nobody has, in fact – I’m still looking for solid works on storytelling alone.

What I’ve realized is that writing is actually the easy part of the craft. The other part – the harder one – is the ability to create a mind-blowing good tale. And that isn’t something that can be captured in a book – I’ve yet to see manuals entitled How To Write Like Steinbeck, or Where To Find Story Ideas. Things like that fall from the sky, or they don’t fall at all.

I read an article last year by a writer turned editor complaining about how hard it was to filter short stories for a collection. She quickly identified two kinds of submissions – the first was by a good storyteller with bad writing (which she could work on), and the other was by the writer who could write beautifully but had nothing to say. The first needed a lot of polishing; the second, however, was impossible to work with. These 2nd category stories were beautiful on the outside, but in the end the aforementioned editor found them to be empty. Rotten apples. Hollow cores.

So I took a break from my manuscript today. I didn’t know how to go on from that turning point – the possibilities were just endless. But that’s not the point here. The point here is that I’m thankful for the storytelling department. For my storytelling department. There are people out there who can’t pull a good yarn even if it was staring them in the face, good writing or not. And I know my writing’s not perfect, but I’m working on it.

I’m just thankful I’ve got something to say.

Tuesday, 25 March, 2008

Internet Criticism: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

A Graffiti ProtesterAnybody creating on the Internet will have to face their audience sooner or later. This is particularly true if you’re using a blog – and yes, most of us do, whether we’re artists, writers, or musicians.

Now the problem with all this is that writing and feedback simply don’t mix. Writing is best done alone, with a cup of coffee at your favourite desk, and a cat curled up at your feet. I look for feedback only after I’m done with a story – and even then I have to be careful who I ask. I have five friends whom I ask for feedback. Each of them gives me a specific type of criticism – some I go to for their clarity, and others I go to just to gauge their reactions (these people are my Average Joe testbeds). I’m sure all of you have your own teams of feedbackers – these people may consist of your professors, your spouse, or your bestest friends. And these people are people you trust.

Now imagine an online situation, where you blook your story and this unknown dude comes up and says: “hey I like your story but can you please do this: *insert*” Or he comes up and he tells you how to improve your writing. The second is okay – hey, we’re all learning, aren’t we? – but the first is downright horrible. And the worst kind is the one that comes up and tells you: “I absolutely love your story. The way you handled this blah scene was amazing, and the way you construct your blah blew me away!”

The effect of all of this is to paint the writer into a corner. All writers have egos, and all bloggers have bigger egos than writers. We only take criticism from the people we know and we trust, and this applies to life as it does to writing. The first kind of comment distracts you from your story, the second kind annoys your ego (if that’s inflated this is a bad thing for said reader) and the third risks you doing something other than storytelling (like – I don’t know – showing off?).

On top of all of this is the simple fact that Internet criticism is propelled by the lowest common denominator. Youtube comments, for instance, are at monkey level. And blogs attract like comments: thinking blogs attract thinking discussion, self-help blogs have this ethos of helpfulness about its commenting section, and blogs that diss celebrities have equally mean feedback.

So what does this mean for us? How can we write and not be detracted by all the chatter coming back?

My solution is, unfortunately, multi-pronged. I would suggest finishing the whole damned story offline, edit it, bounce it off your circle of feedbackers and then blook it, and I would think this the best way to do blog fiction (feedback can come at the end of the story, at a comments page). But not everyone follows this model. Some of us come to blooking because we want to create never-ending novels, and another attraction to the medium of blog fiction is the flighty feeling of cooking up a story under heat of reader anticipation.

Saturday, 2 February, 2008

Purple Prose: Not A Problem

Purple and yellow asterA few weeks back I learnt the term ‘Purple Prose’. Never heard of it? Don’t worry. It’s strictly the domain of writing geeks, and now that you have we welcome you into the fold.

What exactly is purple prose? I find Wikipedia’s and Deb Stover’s explanations lacking (hell, I’m not going to reference something that confuses me), so I’ll just keep things simple.

Purple prose is prose that makes you wince.

There. One simple concept. It’s stilted prose; overcooked prose; writing that tries too hard and reads like a deflated gasbag. Following the excellent rule of showing and not telling:

The magnanimous attractive beauty of this voluptuous red rose in front of me, coupled by the intoxicating smell it emanated, pulled me closer to this divine entity. Its supple body, along with its delicate and tender appearance made me apprehensive towards feeling it. This was the first time I had encountered this monarch of flowers.

Ouch.

I was worried about writing purple prose for a bit. I reread every passage I penned, scribbled in the margins hurried notes and frightened question marks, and then it got so bad I didn’t touch my manuscripts for a week.

It took about that long for me to realize purple prose was not a problem.

In fact, it shouldn’t be a problem: it’s very, very easy to prevent it. While writing, any and all purple prose can be prevented by saying exactly what comes to mind.

Notice I did not say ‘write short’. Also notice I did not say ‘stop using descriptive passages and start taking adverbial shortcuts.’ The rule to prevent purple prose is so bloody easy I had to hit myself on the head for wasting a week:

Say exactly what you mean to say.

If I want to say they had sex, I say they had sex. I don’t go out of my way to say they consummated their relationship with vigorous bonding in between sheets. If there’s a sandstorm in my story I say exactly that, not ‘swirling twirling maelstrom of dust particles’.

This rule is in some ways related to KISS (Keep It Simple, Silly!), but not to the extent where everyone writes in simple, understated Hemingway style. If you want to write beautiful descriptions say things with words you actually use, not words you copy out of a thesaurus.

It became a lot easier for me to write again once I had this in mind. Purple prose is really just a fancy name for something I had recognized long before, but couldn’t place. I was relieved when I realized this. And I could write again.

Thursday, 29 November, 2007

Letting A Story Write Itself

Stories sometimes just drop out of the sky. Or do they?There is a paragraph in Stephen King’s On Writing that hit me about the head like a frying pan. In it he talks about his writing process: how he transforms an idea he has for a story into an actual book.

The situation comes first. The characters – always flat and unfeatured, to begin with – come next. Once these things are fixed in my mind, I begin to narrate. I often have an idea of what the outcome may be, but I have never demanded of a set of characters that they do things my way. On the contrary, I want them to do things their way. In some instances, the outcome is what I visualized. In most, however, it’s something I never expected. For a suspense novelist, this is a great thing. I am, after all, not just the novel’s creator but its first reader. And if I’m not able to guess with any accuracy how the damned thing is going to turn out, even with my inside knowledge of coming events, I can be pretty sure of keeping the reader in a state of page-turning anxiety. And why worry about the ending anyway? Why be such a control freak? Sooner or later every story comes out somewhere.

King makes it seem so easy: why ever should you have to ‘be enslaved to the tyranny of the outline and the notebook filled with “Character Notes”?’ And I must admit, it does make writing sound fun. But after giving it a try and thinking about the possibilities of this technique – I have to say that the differences in story and plot really depend on what kind of writer you are, and what kind of stories you write.

Story

Story is what King advocates: he starts off with an idea, and instead of pulling up his sleeves and pushing characters around, he sits back and just ‘write what happens’. He alleges this is more organic and inspired, and some pretty complex books of his have come out of this style of writing (Doleres Claiborne). To his credit his arguments do make plenty of sense – and he throws in a caveat: “… each of the novels summarized above was smoothed out and detailed by the editorial process, of course, but most of the elements existed to begin with …”

Story works where there is a situational premise (Richard’s Undead Flowers, for instance: what happens if there are the undead and the living live together, side by side, in a village?). And I believe story also works when you’re writing a blook … for the reasons King gave, as well as its suitability to the medium.

Saturday, 14 July, 2007

I Will Tell This Story In _ Hours

The concept of a story within a set period of time has always interested me. Readers know how many chapters there are going to be: rather than keeping them guessing on how long before the story is concluded they have a sense of urgency as the events in the story unfold.

Take 24 (the TV series) as an example. The concept is pretty simple to grasp: each episode is 1 hour (of a day), and 24 makes up the entire season. This makes for pretty interesting plotting: you have the end in sight, now what is going to happen within those 24 hours?
24
Another example of this is Life Of Pi. Early on in the novel Yann Martel tells us he would give us Pi’s amazing story in exactly 100 chapters. As the book went on I found myself wanting the book to last longer, and I used the chapters as a yardstick for how much story there was left.

This has an interesting effect. In 24 the characters are plunged into a crisis, and the writers throw complication after complication at them. In writing, set periods coupled with non-stop hurdles prove for very interesting stories. When your characters are in deep, deep trouble readers are probably wondering how you’re going to get them out again … which is very good if you’re writing with a need of holding the reader’s attention.

Like, for instance, the computer screen.

I wonder how far I can push this concept – really short storytelling in … 25 chapters? Should be interesting, don’t you think?

Tuesday, 3 July, 2007

Writing Action

action.jpgWriting action has always been my favourite part of working on a manuscript. It’s those scenes in between (before and after the climax, gasp!) that I abhor – and probably would still have to work on.

So let me admit my guilt here: I use my action scenes as a way to tempt me into completing the ‘boring parts’. Ironic, then, that the boring parts are more important – characters come to life there, and if any emotional connection is to be made it’ll have to be made over the course of the first few chapters.

But action is easy. It is direct, fast, fun and hard hitting. I enjoy watching my friends reading action I’d written: their pupils dilate, and their body posture changes perceptively.

Let’s start with a snippet from the climax of Silence Of The Lambs:

Catherine Martin was keening again.

Wait here? Wait forever? Maybe he’s gone. He can’t be sure no backup’s coming. Yes he can. But soon I’ll be missed. Tonight. The stairs are in the direction of the screams. Solve it now.

She moved, quietly, her shoulder barely brushing the wall, brushing it too lightly for sound, one hand extended ahead, the gun at waist level, close to her in the confined hallway. Out into the workroom now. Feel the space opening up. Open room. In the crouch in the open room, arms out, both hands on the gun. You know exactly where the gun is, it’s just below eye level. Stop, listen. Head and body and arms turning together like a turret. Stop, listen.

So what can we take from this?

Thomas Harris makes good use of the short sentence – it captures the heat and confusion of the situation Clarice Starling is in, and it conveys strong panic. It hooks you, keeps you reading; the type of writing that brings you to the edge of your seat.

What else does Harris use? Look at the way he repeats stop, listen. It’s done tastefully, in a way that resembles gasping or panting – very human responses to a high tension environment. He also incorporates Starling’s thoughts into the narrative – the 2nd paragraph is basically a monologue that segues into action, and is far less intrusive then a “Is he still here?” she thought, breathing heavily kind of description.

Blooks cannot afford much dreamy prose – something has to happen to slice the monotony of the narrative. Anything to get the reader’s attention – and action is one of them.

Want emotional connection or character development in your blook? How about wrapping your action around that? So the boring parts won’t be so boring, and the exciting parts are almost everywhere.

And by segueing the two together – gosh, what a ride that’ll be!

Friday, 18 May, 2007

Don’t Describe Your Characters?

puppy loveI’m going to stop now and tell you outright that I’m a handsome fella, and I’ve broken many hearts and will continue to do so for the good part of the next 50 years. My hair is black and my eyes hazel brown, and a sight to see for many a mile, especially if you’re walking in a desolate wasteland.

Chances are good you don’t believe me at the moment. Even if you do … you’d be waiting for me to prove it to you, to break your heart, and to show you how dazzling I can be.

Well, no. I can’t prove it to you since all that was a lie.

But the above description makes a point I would like to share today: everytime I describe a character I create an expectation – a raised eyebrow that awaits proof of my statement. If I call Mr Green a ‘despicable, unagreeable old geezer, prone to fits of uncontrollable rage and quick to change his mind on any subject’ I’ll have a lot to cover, and most of it through actions and words and monologues.

It has been personal habit really, this reluctance to describe character attributes. Early on I found my character development to be limited – I just didn’t have the skill to paint real people onto the pages of my book. I know there are quite a few novelists who pull this off without batting an eyelid – Tolstoy’s War And Peace has believable characters, a true accomplishment when you realize the novel spans 900 plus pages and is littered with a hundred member cast.

So what did I do? I covered. I kept character descriptions to just the physical attributes, letting the reader pick up on how the character thought and moved and ticked throughout the course of the novel. It worked, and in the meantime I practised furiously the art of bringing my characters to life.

Now there are limitations to this technique, and I’m the first to admit that. If you have a huge cast of characters (and a relatively short plot) there just isn’t enough time to develop each and every one of them. And if it’s flash fiction or short stories don’t bother. You’re better off describing the character, since discrepancies aren’t likely to occur and you don’t need to aim for an emotional connection for such a small piece.

kevinbook_1.jpgWant an example of this? I’ve just finished We Need To Talk About Kevin, a novel about the aftermath of a high school killing. In the series of letters that make up the book we grow to intimately understand Kevin – why he did what he did, what motivates him, how he grew up the way he did despite all the love his parents had for him.

We don’t develop this understanding because of a torrent of descriptions; rather Lionel Shriver gives example after example of what Kevin does, and slowly we piece together the person he is. It is an amazing book, with a powerful way of studying a character, stripping him down layer by layer, motivation by motivation.

You never love Kevin. You hate him. But you understand why he does the things he does, why he thinks the way he thinks.

You get under his skin, and you get under the skin of his mother. It’s not a comfortable place to be.

See the power of excluding descriptions? Some call it showing and not telling, but the best way to understand would be to dissect a 468 page, award winning example for yourself. Read it.