J K Rowling on Writing

On her website, J K Rowling has a page in which she answers the question, “Do you have tips for others trying to write?”

Ms Rowling says, ” I have to say that I can’t stand lists of ‘must do’s’, whether in life or in writing.

I haven’t got ten rules that guarantee success, although I promise I’d share them if I did. The truth is that I found success by stumbling off alone in a direction most people thought was a dead end, breaking all the 1990s shibboleths about children’s books in the process. Male protagonists are unfashionable. Boarding schools are anathema. No kids book should be longer than 45,000 words.

So forget the ‘must do’s’ and concentrate on the ‘you probably won’t get far withouts’, which are:

Reading

This is especially for younger writers. You can’t be a good writer without being a devoted reader. Reading is the best way of analysing what makes a good book. Notice what works and what doesn’t, what you enjoyed and why. At first you’ll probably imitate your favourite writers, but that’s a good way to learn. After a while, you’ll find your own distinctive voice.

Discipline

Moments of pure inspiration are glorious, but most of a writer’s life is, to adapt the old cliché, about perspiration rather than inspiration. Sometimes you have to write even when the muse isn’t cooperating.

Resilience and humility

These go hand-in-hand, because rejection and criticism are part of a writer’s life. Informed feedback is useful and necessary, but some of the greatest writers were rejected multiple times. Being able to pick yourself up and keep going is invaluable if you’re to survive your work being publicly assessed. The harshest critic is often inside your own head. These days I can usually calm that particular critic down by feeding her a biscuit and giving her a break, although in the early days I sometimes had to take a week off before she’d take a more kindly view of the work in progress. Part of the reason there were seven years between having the idea for Philosopher’s Stone and getting it published, was that I kept putting the manuscript away for months at a time, convinced it was rubbish.

Courage

Fear of failure is the saddest reason on earth not to do what you were meant to do. I finally found the courage to start submitting my first book to agents and publishers at a time when I felt a conspicuous failure. Only then did I decide that I was going to try this one thing that I always suspected I could do, and, if it didn’t work out, well, I’d faced worse and survived.

Ultimately, wouldn’t you rather be the person who actually finished the project you’re dreaming about, rather than the one who talks about ‘always having wanted to’?

Independence

By this, I mean resisting the pressure to think you have to follow all the Top Ten Tips religiously, which these days take the form not just of online lists, but of entire books promising to tell you how to write a bestseller/what you MUST do to be published/how to make a million dollars from writing.

I often recommend a website called Writer Beware (https://accrispin.blogspot.com) to new and aspiring writers. It’s a fantastic resource for anyone who’s trying to decide what might be useful, what’s worth paying for and what should be avoided at all costs. Unfortunately, there are all kinds of scams out there that didn’t exist when I started out, especially online.

Ultimately, in writing as in life, your job is to do the best you can, improving your own inherent limitations where possible, learning as much as you can and accepting that perfect works of art are only slightly less rare than perfect human beings. I’ve often taken comfort from Robert Benchley’s words: ‘It took me fifteen years to discover I had no talent for writing, but I couldn’t give it up, because by that time I was too famous.’”

How Not to Lose The Plot

James Gault has an article on the Voice of Literature e-zine in which he discusses the elements of plotting.

James says, “I write mostly political thrillers with a touch of humour, set in the present but sometimes with references to the 19th and 20th centuries. Some of my books are in the Scottish vernacular. Some are really comic novels. They always have references to social issues. I try to offer readers interesting and engrossing characters, and favour relatively complex exciting plots with more than one unexpected twist in them.”

James Gault

He says, “What is a plot? Is it just the series of events that occur in a work of fiction, what we might call the story? Or is it perhaps more specific than that? Words can be hijacked to mean whatever the writer wants, and in this case I am shamelessly going to do that and define a plot in a specific sense.

A plot is a story with certain characteristics. For my definition, I am borrowing from a book called The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker, in which he analyses and classifies the stories of works of fiction from different eras and from poems, plays, novels and films. You may not agree with all his classifications, but he puts his finger on what is perhaps the essential element of a fictional plot: a character is presented with a problem and has to overcome the challenges of solving that problem.

In a way, all fictional stories (and possibly all interesting real life ones) fit this model. The structure is obvious in certain genres: mysteries, thrillers, romance etc. Other genres do not at first sight appear to conform, and these I would call episodic genres. They include biographical novels, sagas, slice of life stories and so on. In these cases, there is no central problem to be solved, but a series of different problems which arise and are resolved.  So they are more a collection of related plots, tied together by a central theme. For me, this kind of book requires much more talent from the writer, who has to find some other narrative drive to pull readers through to the end of the work. 

Of course, the path to coming up with the solution to the main plot problem is normally long and tortuous. Other, smaller problems arise along the way, obstacles are put in the path of the protagonist, attempts to move forward are thwarted and misleading information is presented and misinterpreted with disastrous results. Unexpected plot twists make readers stop and re-evaluate their conclusions so far, and set their imaginations off in new directions. There is often a false ending, where everything seems to be resolved and then some forgotten fact or incident raises its head, plunging the reader back into the problem and looking again for a secure and safe answer, but with heightened suspicion now. Without a good helping of all of these ingredients, no narrative can expect to hold a reader’s attention to the end.

I’m going to risk an oversimplification here. There are other elements to novels, like writing style, atmosphere, accurate details, but I would contend that to be effective, the two main essentials are character and plot. So, for a novel (or play, or film, or TV drama, or narrative poem) to engage its audience. there are two essential  goals the writers must reach:

  • find an interesting and difficult problem for the protagonist to solve
  • create main characters with whom readers can identify as they try to solve the problem.

Achieving these goals may not result in a best seller, but I do not think any success can be achieved without them.”

Review: Me and White Supremacy

I was attracted to this book by a favourable review and by it having been on the Sunday Times bestseller list. It was written by Layla F Saad, “who is a writer, speaker, and podcast host on the topics of race, identity, leadership, personal transformation and social change. As a East African, Arab, British, Black, Muslim woman who was born in and grew up in the UK and currently lives in Qatar, Layla has always sat at a unique intersection of identities from which she us able to draw rich and intriguing perspectives.”

The book cover

You’ll notice the subtitle, “How to Recognise Your Privilege, Combat Racism and Change the World”. Before I opened the book, I didn’t expect to learn a great deal from it, but I do recognise my privilege, having grown up in an environment of private education. And I think it is fair to say that my mother and grandparents were racist. I never accepted my mother’s views, or the views of my Navy colleagues who were white, Southern officers. I felt they were wrong, but I’m sorry to admit that I didn’t ‘call them out’.

Ms Saad’s book is very well organised. After several chapters which lay the groundwork very clearly and well, the book has a chapter-a-day format for four weeks. In each chapter, a particular aspect of white supremacy is described in depth. There is a chapter, for example, on white fragility in which the action is explained, examples are given, when it shows up, why it’s important to understand it, and some searching questions for the reader on his/her experience and understanding of white fragility. The reader is asked to write their answers in a journal. For me the number of actions which make up white supremacy is astonishing. Many of them, like tone policing, I never heard of before, but I could see how each action contributed to the white supremacy structure.

Toward the end of the book, Ms Saad begins to move the reader gradually toward action, with chapters like, You and Your Friends, You and Your Family, You and Your Values, You and Losing Privilege, You and Your Commitments. She lists a number of possible commitments. One, for example, is “I am committed to my lifelong antiracist education by . . .” There is also a section toward the end of the book that deals with how groups should work through the book together.

Probably the best aspect of this book is its persuasiveness. Ms Saad’s tone is friendly, factual, clear and certain. She knows what is wrong and how to correct it. This book will stay with me for the rest of my life. It should be required reading for every sensible white person.

Publishing in a War Zone

There is an article on The Bookseller website if April 8, 2022, written by Kateryna Nosko, a Ukrainian publisher, who describes how colleagues and peers continue to write, publish, sell and salvage their work in the midst of war. At the top of the article is this photograph of an empty Ukrainian stand at an international book fair:

The Ukrainian strand at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair

Ms Nosko says: “It is the 42nd day of the war, and we continue living in the traumatic landscape. Sometimes this landscape shakes even more, such as when we and the whole world witnessed the photos of the Russian crimes in Bucha and Irpin, the Kyiv suburbs. After this, words become powerless. What arrives is a state of numbness. 

In this sense, the Ukrainian stand at the international book fairs manifest this desolation. The organisers say the idea of the empty stand in Bologna shows that Ukraine is at war, and the publishers are saving lives: their own and the ones of their loved ones. Indeed, today such a thing as a trip to an international book fair is blocked. Still, there is a feeling that publishers and cultural agents, who continue working or are already abroad, should turn the empty stalls into a platform for loud Ukrainian voices that represent the contemporary Ukrainian cultural and book publishing sectors. 

Because of the impossibility of talking about war when it unfolds in one’s country, images with short captions seem helpful. A week ago, a comic strip was released by Borys Filonenko and Danyl Shtangeev called “How to protect yourself and save others when you are a terrorist leader” The comic has 10 pages and resembles an instruction manual. All images are low-quality and grainy, as if from soviet handbooks. Filonenko wrote the text in an hour and a half after seeing the stage during a concert rally in Moscow’s Luzhniki where Putin spoke on 18th March. The scene resembled a cage and became a key element of the comic. The work took a week in total, but only because there is not enough time for making a comic nowadays. While the authors were working, the missiles fell on Western Ukraine: Lviv, Lutsk, Rivne, Khmelnytskyi. Shtangeev’s mother called him for the first time in two weeks, but the call was only eight seconds long as she was in Rubizhne, right on the frontline. During this time, the Mykolaiv Regional State Administration, where some people were staying, was bombed and destroyed. Our friends – artists from Mariupol – from whom we’d heard almost nothing since the beginning of the war were finally found.

Meanwhile, with help our publishing team has managed to rescue some book stock from Kyiv and Kharkiv. In particular, we rescued copies of art book KYIV by Sergiy Maidukov, by an artist who often creates illustrations for the New Yorker. He likes to draw from life in the city, but now it isn’t easy to manage. On the streets of Kyiv, as soon as you get a camera or a tablet out, the Territorial Defense comes up to you to identify who you are and why you are recording. This is necessary to determine whether you are working as a saboteur or enemy reporter.

Our office, where some of the books by Sergiy Maidukov are stored, is located in the Kyiv historical city centre, in Podil, on the right bank of the river. On a regular day before the war, we would put a key from our office in our pocket, and we would take the number of books needed for delivery and bring them to the post office – a straightforward set of actions. During the war, all of this doesn’t seem as clear anymore. Firstly, only one team member remained in Kyiv – our designer Dima Frolov. However, he didn’t have a key. Apart from a neighbour on the left bank, no one did. This made the task even more difficult since the bridges are blocked, and those that remain open are dangerous to cross. Still, this hadn’t stopped Frolov from going to the left bank, spending three hours in traffic while all the block-posts checked the documents and the car tank several times. The next day he managed to send the books to Western Ukraine. 

When we published KYIV by Sergiy Maidukov last year, Maidukov said that the book was his declaration of love for Kyiv.

Several days ago, the Russians were pushed away from the Kyiv region. So, Kyiv citizens are gradually returning to the capital, even though the government says there is a significant death threat. The people are coming anyway, a remarkable testament to their love for Kyiv.

Summing up this story about the evacuation, I want to say that when the books finally arrived in the west of the country, in theory to a “safer place”, that night, not far from the storage where we put them, the missile struck an oil depot. Neighbours’ windows flew out, but no one was injured. A few kilometres from the explosion, the books were also not damaged. I realised that wherever we looked for quiet places, it was still dangerous everywhere. 

Yet, people keep ordering books online, and there are some open bookstores. We, in turn, began to send the orders where delivery allows. However, in my last column here I wrote that we were not planning to deliver the orders yet. We decided to transfer the proceeds from the book sales to two charitable organisations: the Social Adaptation Complex, where adults with mental disabilities live, and Sirius – the biggest dog shelter in Ukraine. 

For the first time during the war, we managed to print a stock in Ukraine. Brave printing staff in Kyiv have finished printing and stitching our new book Conversations about Architecture with Oleg Drozdov and Bohdan Volynsky, which was interrupted by the war starting in February. Unfortunately, the most powerful printing houses are located in Kharkiv, which is in the East of Ukraine, and they cannot operate since the city is constantly under shellfire. Recently, the world-famous Ukrainian poet and writer Sergiy Zhadan came under fire in Kharkiv, which he announced on Facebook. Yet, this hasn’t stopped him from volunteering and going to the city’s most dangerous areas. He writes about Kharkiv nearly every day. One day, he said that Kharkiv residents were cleaning around their houses, raking glass and bricks, because they were used to the cleanness of the city. In the same way, we in the publishing industry, strive to continue doing what we are used to.”

The Ukrainians are amazing!

Review: The System

I heard Robert Reich speak on a subscription program – was it a Guardian program?  And I was impressed enough to order his book, The System: Who Rigged it, How We Fix It.

Robert B Reich is Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkley.  He has served in three national administrations and written sixteen books.  His articles have appeared in top newspapers and journals.  He writes a weekly column for The Guardian and Newsweek.  He lives in Berkeley.

Robert B Reich

This book is about what has gone wrong with the American political system, how it has occurred, and what can be done to recover our democracy.  Professor Reich says there are three major power shifts which have occurred and, together, they have, over the last forty years transformed the United States from a democracy to an oligarchy, where power is concentrated in the hands of an elite group of very wealthy individuals.  The power shift was brought about by corporate raiders who made the shareholder the only stakeholder in publically traded companies.  Previously, the employees, the communities in which they were located, their suppliers and customers were also stakeholders.  This led to a strict focus on profits, resulting in wage stagnation, loss of union power, off-shoring of production, and, in turn, to tremendous increases in CEO compensation.  CEO’s gained tremendous wealth and power.  So, Professor Reich says that the first power shift was from stakeholder capitalism to shareholder capitalism, and the second was a shift in bargaining power from large unions to large corporations.  And the third shift was unleashing the financial sector (Wall Street) from laws regulation.  This meant huge financial rewards for CEO’s, hedge funds, derivatives traders, and others.  With vast financial resources available to few people, and with the Supreme Court’s ruling on political campaign finance, it became possible for this limited pool of powerful people to ‘bribe’ politicians with huge contributions to obtain the laws, regulations and taxation they wanted.  The top ten percent of Americans became richer, the bottom ninety percent became poorer, with lower quality education, health care and basic infrastructure.  Professor Reich argues that it is possible for the ninety percent to act in concert to change the system.

In the book, Professor Reich singles out Jamie Dimon, the CEO of JPMorgan, the huge bank, as an example of an individual who uses his power to change the system.  He and many other specific examples populate this book with a host of convincing evidence.  A multi-page appendix lists the sources of the evidence.  There is also much evidence of the wage, benefits, health care and educational erosion for the ninety percent, including personal examples.  The book is written with considerable emotion and conviction.

As accurate and convincing as the book is, I have two minor criticisms of it.  It is often repetitive, making the same point repeatedly.  It is also not organized like a legal brief, the points are all there, but they tend to get somewhat tangled.  Perhaps these ‘faults’ were intentional on the part of the author and his publisher.  They intended this book to be an emotional tirade.  If so, it is very convincing.

 

What Is Literary Talent?

On September 10, 2020, Writer’s Digest ran a reprint of a 1925 article written by Thomas H Uzzell, the former fiction editor of Colliers Weekly and author of Narrative Technique.  He also wrote The Technique of the Novel – a Handbook on the Craft of the Long Narrative, Grandee Jim: A Novel of Action, Romance and History in Old Santa Fe, and was the editor of Short Story Hits.  I was unable to fine a picture of Mr Uzzell, who said:

“Just before I sat down to write this article, a young woman came to me saying she wanted help in writing short stories. I asked her how much writing she had done, and her answer was, “None,” and she had been wanting to write for eight years! A hopeless case. People who want to write, write; they don’t think about it. They may write very badly because they are too subjective and have no idea of an audience and know nothing about technique, but—they will write something. Their interest gives them the energy needed to get the writing done.

On the intensity and the endurance of a person’s interest in his writing does his success hang more utterly than on any other single factor. Love of the medium and love of the deed or want of that love make or break 95 out of every 100 aspirants. Where that love is, you find something as deep as life itself. How much writing have you already done? The answer to this question will offer the best solution I know as to how much writing you are going to do.

Legions of people with literary ambitions who get nowhere are more pre-occupied with the thought of why they would like to success than with the thought of how they are going to win success. They want to “win fame,” “earn some money,” to “fulfill ambition,” “make their friends proud of them;” and, alas, too many of them have turned to fiction after failing at everything else they have tried, as the one thing within their slender powers.

Desire for money or fame are not at all inconsistent with a genuine literary purpose; they are generally incentives to energetic action; but if the action is not the putting of ideas in the shape of words on paper, all resolutions will come to nothing.

One of the commonest errors with regard to this desire to write is the mistaking of a love of reading for a talent for writing. Once he realizes that the easier a book is to read the more painful the labor that produced it, the person with this “book-lover” complex becomes discouraged. His interest was not in self-expression, but in being “literary.”

A handicap even greater than this “book-lover complex” is that caused by some pathological inhibition, some nervous disorder which prevents the writer from comprehending the conduct of normal human beings. His writings express not life as it is, but some suppressed personal desires. This psychopathologic problem of writers is too wide and intricate a subject to be more than touched on here.

The highest mark of genuine writing talent is an interest in the art so deep that copy in quantity is produced. Jack London was fond of quoting his favorite author, Conrad, as follows: “An artist is a man of action.” Action for the literary artists is writing.

Nearly every student writer postpones too long the hour of beginning. He hopes for the beautifully finished plot, the perfect word, the high inspiration. The art of writing is a well-developed habit under constant control. Years of writing are necessary for practically every aspirant to develop this habit effectively enough to release his message to the world. For the average student a million words are needed for this training in habit only.

Whether or not you should write is a question you must decide for yourself. It is both a moral and a literary problem. Most of us do the things we want to do, and writing is no exception. If you have an interest in writing you are writing; if you haven’t you are not, and that is just about all there is to it—on the moral side. If, however, you have been writing persistently without attaining satisfactory results, you may well seek expert advice as to the things which may be hindering you. Such advice can only direct and guide your energies which in themselves are your main asset.

If it were possible to give a “formula for literary success,” such analyses of writers’ assets as I have made would lead me to say that, in the case of the average writer of second and third-rate popular stories we would find that his success depended

60 percent on sheer industry or energy,

10 percent on personality,

30 percent on technical skill.

The writer who produces a bestseller or wins national fame for the high quality of his art owes his success, we would find,

45 percent to sheer industry,

45 percent to personality,

10 percent to technique.

If I am even approximately right in my analysis, the factor of energy or industry plays a larger role in literary talent than is generally supposed. It is also my belief that beyond a certain point, when sufficient energy is allowed, a writer succeeds in his work in exact proportion to the depth and richness of his personality. This last factor is the variable one. It is the only true inspiration. It is that gift which may most truly be said to be born in us, and the possession of which may be said to rest in the laps of the gods and, as one disappointed writer I know says, “The gods sometimes stand up!””

I certainly agree with Mr Uzzell that ‘love of the craft’ is essential to literary success, but I don’t see ‘love of the craft’ as being literary talent.  I think one has to have Love of the Craft and Technique/Skill in about equal measure.  I also agree that personality enters into the equation, as well, in the from of Creativity, Imagination, Intelligence, and a Sense of Freedom.

Review: Lucifer Exposed

I was looking for a book with the title Hostage to the Devil, that I read a long time ago.  It was written by a man who was a priest and a psychiatrist, and it dealt with about five genuine cases of ‘possession’ that he had experienced.  Unfortunately I couldn’t find it, so it must be out of print.  There is a newer book with the same title, but its reviews put me off buying it.  Instead, I bought Lucifer Exposed by Derek Prince (1915-2003), which had many excellent reviews -106 reviews, of which 96% are four or five stars.

Derek Prince’s website says that he was “born in India of British parents. Educated as a scholar of Greek and Latin at Eton College and Cambridge University, England, he held a Fellowship in Ancient and Modern Philosophy at King’s College. He also studied Hebrew and Aramaic, at Cambridge University and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

“While serving with the British army in World War II, he began to study the Bible and experienced a life-changing encounter with Jesus Christ. Out of this encounter he formed two conclusions: first, that Jesus Christ is alive; second, that the Bible is a true, relevant, up-to-date book. These conclusions altered the whole course of his life, which he then devoted to studying and teaching the Bible.”

Derek Prince

Lucifer Exposed uses numerous quotations from the Bible to describe the history, the motivation, the intentions and the actions of the devil.  It describes the devil a a beautiful fallen angel whose fall was caused by his trying to usurp the power of God.  The devil’s power over death was destroyed by the death of God’s son on the cross and his resurrection.  The devil’s reaction had been to try to estrange humanity from God by tempting us into sin, and by destroying the power of the church to disseminate Jesus’ teaching.  The book makes the point that escape from Satan’s clutches cannot be achieved by following the law, because there is always another law we have neglected.  Salvation can only be achieved by faith in Jesus and his teachings.  The book draws a major distinction between citizenship in the World (the temporal, secular place of which the devil is the ruler) and citizenship of Heaven (God’s spiritual world).

This is an excellent piece of Biblical scholarship: well written, thoroughly referenced, and completely logical and believable.  My only comment is that I would have liked to have seen some secular arguments (as well as the religious ones) for the existence of and the extreme hardships caused by the devil.  These hardships are often wrongfully blamed on God’s ‘negligence’.  There is, I think, abundant evidence that most of the World’s hardships are caused by the devil.

 

Review: The Kite Runner

I found a well-used copy of The Kite Runner on the  bookshelves of our Sicilian house just at a time I needed something to read.  How it got there is a bit of a mystery as my wife hasn’t read it.  I guest must have left it.  It is a book, by Khaled Hosseini, that I have wanted to read for some time.

Mr Hosseini was born in Kabul, Afghanistan in 1965 into a privileged family.  His father was a diplomat and his mother a language teacher.  In 1970 the family moved to Tehran, where his father worked at the Afghan embassy.  They returned to Kabul in 1973.  In 1976 they relocated to Paris, but were unable to return to Afghanistan because of the 1978 Saur Revolution and the Soviet invasion.  In 1980 they applied for asylum in the US and settled in San Jose, California, where Mr Hosseini attended high school, Santa Clara University and University of Calfornia, San Diego Medical School.  He practiced medicine until 2005.  The Kite Runner was released in 2003, A Thousand Suns in 2007, And the Mountains Echoed in 2013, and Sea Prayer in 2018.  His novels have sold 55 million copies, globally. He, his wife and two sons live in northern California.

Khaled Hosseini

The Kite Runner is set in Kabul and San Jose, with brief stops in Peshawar, Pakistan beginning in the mid 1960’s.  The central character is a boy, Amir, who lives with his well-to-do father in the best section of Kabul.  They have two low caste servants, Ali, who’s wife deserted him and Hassan, a boy of Amir’s age, who is his best friend.  Amir’s father seems to like Hassan better than Amir, a source of much jealousy for Amir.  Amir witnesses a terrible assault on his friend Hassan, without making an effort to come to his rescue.  Ali and Hassan leave the household when Amir implicates Hassan in a theft.  Amir and his father flee Afghanistan and find asylum in the US.  Years later, after Amir’s father dies, Amir is called to Pakistan by his father’s old friend, Rahim Khan, who tells him that Hassan and his wife have been executed by the Taliban.  Rahim also tells Amir that he and Hassan were half-brothers, and that Hassan and his late wife had an orphaned son.  Amir confronts his lack of courage to rescue the orphan and take him to the US.

This is a splendid book about family: good and bad, strong and weak.  It’s also about how childhood can shape our adult lives.  As one reads, one can’t help wonder if this isn’t a memoir rather than a novel.  One feels transported to the old prosperous Kabul, to the savage, wrecked Kabul after years of war, and the strange life of exile in an Afghan settlement in America.  Mr Hosseini is extremely adept at having the reader feel what the characters are feeling, be it jealousy, love, fear or anger.  I’m glad I found this book.  It’s a compelling story wonderfully told.

Describing a Character More Effectively

An article offering eleven secrets to writers describing characters appeared in the Writer’s Digest on January 14, 2015.   It was written by Rebecca McClanahan, whose website describes her as ‘author, educator, and public speaker specializing in essays and memoir, the craft of writing, and the creative process.’  She has written 10 books.

Rebecca McClanahan

Ms McClanahan says, in part: “The characters in our stories, songs, poems, and essays embody our writing. They are our words made flesh. Sometimes they even speak for us, carrying much of the burden of plot, theme, mood, idea, and emotion. But they do not exist until we describe them on the page. Until we anchor them with words, they drift, bodiless and ethereal. They weigh nothing; they have no voice. Once we’ve written the first words—“Belinda Beatrice,” perhaps, or “the dark-eyed salesman in the back of the room,” or simply “the girl”—our characters begin to take form.

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

It reads something like this: “My father is a tall, middle-aged man of average build. He has green eyes and brown hair and usually wears khakis and oxford shirts.”

This description is so mundane, it barely qualifies as an “all-points bulletin.” Can you imagine the police searching for this suspect? No identifying marks, no scars or tattoos, nothing to distinguish him.

2. The problem with intensifying an image only by adjectives is that adjectives encourage cliché.

It’s hard to think of adjective descriptors that haven’t been overused: bulging or ropy muscles, clean-cut good looks, frizzy hair.

Often the easiest way to avoid an adjective-based cliché is to free the phrase entirely from its adjective modifier. For example, rather than describing her eyes merely as “hazel,” Emily Dickinson remarked that they were “the color of the sherry the guests leave in the glasses.”

3. Strengthen physical descriptions by making details more specific.

In my earlier “all-points bulletin” example, the description of the father’s hair might be improved with a detail such as “a military buzz-cut, prickly to the touch” or “the aging hippie’s last chance—a long ponytail striated with gray.” Either of these descriptions would paint a stronger picture than the bland phrase brown hair.

4. Select physical details carefully, choosing only those that create the strongest, most revealing impression.

One well-chosen physical trait, item of clothing, or idiosyncratic mannerism can reveal character more effectively than a dozen random images. This applies to characters in nonfiction as well as fiction. When I write about my grandmother, I usually focus on her strong, jutting chin—not only because it was her most dominant feature but also because it suggests her stubbornness and determination.

5. A character’s immediate surroundings can provide the backdrop for the sensory and significant details that shape the description of the character himself.

If your character doesn’t yet have a job, a hobby, a place to live, or a place to wander, you might need to supply these things. Once your character is situated comfortably, he may relax enough to reveal his secrets. On the other hand, you might purposely make your character uncomfortable—that is, put him in an environment where he definitely doesn’t fit, just to see how he’ll respond.

6.In describing a character’s surroundings, you don’t have to limit yourself to a character’s present life.

Early environments shape fictional characters as well as flesh-and-blood people. In Flaubert’s description of Emma Bovary’s adolescent years in the convent, he foreshadows the woman she will become, a woman who moves through life in a romantic malaise, dreaming of faraway lands and loves. We learn about Madame Bovary through concrete, sensory descriptions of the place that formed her.

7. Characters reveal their inner lives—their preoccupations, values, lifestyles, likes and dislikes, fears and aspirations—by the objects that fill their hands, houses, offices, cars, suitcases, grocery carts, and dreams.

In the opening scenes of the film The Big Chill, we’re introduced to the main characters by watching them unpack the bags they’ve brought for a weekend trip to a mutual friend’s funeral. One character has packed enough pills to stock a drugstore; another has packed a calculator; still another, several packages of condoms. Before a word is spoken—even before we know anyone’s name—we catch glimpses of the characters’ lives through the objects that define them.

8. Description doesn’t have to be direct to be effective.

Techniques abound for describing a character indirectly, for instance, through the objects that fill her world. Create a grocery list for your character—or two or three, depending on who’s coming for dinner. Show us the character’s credit card bill or the itemized deductions on her income tax forms. Let your character host a garage sale and watch her squirm while neighbors and strangers rifle through her stuff.

9. To make characters believable to readers, set them in motion.

Be as specific as possible. “Reading the newspaper” is a start, but it does little more than label a generic activity. In order for readers to enter the fictional dream, the activity must be shown. Often this means breaking a large, generic activity into smaller, more particular parts: “scowling at the Dow Jones averages,” perhaps, or “skimming the used-car ads” or “wiping his ink-stained fingers on the monogrammed handkerchief.” Besides providing visual images for the reader, specific and representative actions also suggest the personality of the character, his habits and desires, and even the emotional life hidden beneath the physical details.

10. Verbs are the foot soldiers of action-based description.

However, we don’t need to confine our use of verbs to the actions a character performs. Well-placed verbs can sharpen almost any physical description of a character. In the following passage from Marilynne Robinson’s novel Housekeeping, verbs enliven the description even when the grandmother isn’t in motion.

… in the last years she continued to settle and began to shrink. Her mouth bowed forward and her brow sloped back, and her skull shone pink and speckled within a mere haze of hair, which hovered about her head like the remembered shape of an altered thing. She looked as if the nimbus of humanity were fading away and she were turning monkey. Tendrils grew from her eyebrows and coarse white hairs sprouted on her lip and chin. When she put on an old dress the bosom hung empty and the hem swept the floor. Old hats fell down over her eyes. Sometimes she put her hand over her mouth and laughed, her eyes closed and her shoulder shaking.

11. We don’t always have to use concrete, sensory details to describe our characters, and we aren’t limited to describing actable actions.

With writers like Milan Kunera, we learn about characters through the themes and obsessions of their inner lives, their “existential problems” as depicted primarily through dreams, visions, memories, and thoughts. Other writers probe characters’ inner lives through what characters see through their eyes. A writer who describes what a character sees also reveals, in part, a character’s inner drama. In The Madness of a Seduced Woman, Susan Fromberg Schaeffer describes a farm through the eyes of the novel’s main character, Agnes, who has just fallen in love and is anticipating her first sexual encounter, which she simultaneously longs for and fears.

… and I saw how the smooth, white curve of the snow as it lay on the ground was like the curve of a woman’s body, and I saw how the farm was like the body of a woman which lay down under the sun and under the freezing snow and perpetually and relentlessly produced uncountable swarms of living things, all born with mouths open and cries rising from them into the air, long-boned muzzles opening … as if they would swallow the world whole …”

 

Review: Before We Were Yours

I bought a copy of this historical novel written by Lisa Wingate.  Ms Wingate’s long bio reads, in part: “Lisa Wingate is the author of the #1 New York Times bestseller Before We Were Yours, which remained on the bestseller list for fifty-four weeks in hardcover and has sold over 2 million copies. She has penned over thirty novels and coauthored a nonfiction book, Before and After with Judy Christie. Her award-winning works have been selected for state and community One Book reads throughout the country, have been published in over forty languages, and have appeared on bestseller lists worldwide.  Booklist summed up her work by saying, “Lisa Wingate is, quite simply, a master storyteller.”

Lisa Wingate

Before We Were Yours is a historical novel written in two parts.  One part is set along the Mississippi River, near Memphis, in the late 1930’s and early ’40’s.  The second part, in Georgia,  is more contemporary.  The first part centers on a family of ‘river gypsies’ who live in a shanty boat on the river.  The parents are Briny and Queenie Foss; their five children are Rill, the narrator, a girl of twelve and the oldest, Camilla, Lark, Fern and Gabion, a male toddler.  The story begins with Queenie in the throes of giving a difficult birth to twins.  Briny takes her to the hospital in Memphis, leaving the children on the boat in Rill’s care.  All five children are abducted and taken into care by the Tennessee Children’s Home Society, a real abduction and orphanage mill which made an estimated $10 million for it’s real owner, Georgia Tann, and was active from the 1920’s until it was shut down in 1950.  It made a habit of taking children into custody on false premises and placing them in wealthy, childless families.  Most of the first part deals with the hardships faced by the Foss children as they wait for a family to take them away: first Gabion, then Camilla is separated and disappears, then Lark.  Rill and Fern escape from the family that took them in, only to find that Queenie is dead in the childbirth and Briny is mortally crippled with drink.  Rill and Fern return voluntarily to their assigned parents.

The second part is told by Avery, single in her 30’s, who turns out to be the granddaughter of one of Queenie’s twins, who survived, and was also taken in by the Tennessee Children’s Home Society and adopted.  The grandmother, Judy, now in her 70’s and suffering from dementia, is the widow of a Stafford, who are a dynasty of Georgia senators.  Avery is being prepped to run for the Senate, replacing her father, who is ill.  She meets May Crandall, who is in her 90’s and in a nursing home, during a pre-campaign visit to the nursing home.  May, we discover later, is Rill.  Much of the second part is taken up with Avery, being assisted by the grandson of a friend of Judy’s, trying to piece together her family history.

Ms Wingate is clearly a talented writer.  She describes her characters and the life on a shanty boat so clearly that they are real.  She is also a master at keeping the reader turning pages, a one suffers anxiety about what happens next.  The story itself is heart-rendingly captivating.

In my view, though, the novel has its flaws.  In the first part, there are too many chapters, with too much detail, about the hardships the Foss children endured, while they were awaiting adoption.  I think the story would be stronger if it were edited down,  In the second part, there are secondary issues that aren’t well enough developed to stand alongside the children’s story: the effect that disclosure of their real heritage would have on the Stafford name, and Avery’s decision about whom to marry.  There are also too many family events that do not really contribute to character development or the plot.  More rigorous editing would have made this a memorable novel.