The limits of description

There are four broad categories of text you can write (exposition, narration, description, and dialogue,) and descriptions are what can give more problems to a fiction or genre writer. To sum up, description isn’t even a good kind of text. We tolerate it because it is required, but the least there is, the better, for reasons I hope will become clear in a moment.

Textual versions of visual phenomena are not good conveyors of information, at least not the kind of information most novice writers believe they should convey (raw visual data.)

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Psychology of writing: word accessibility

You can pick out a skilled painter or draftsman because they keep their eyes on the canvas or paper without having to constantly check every line they draw by comparing it to the model or original image, or having to look up, again and again, pictures of what they have to draw on google images. They trust their instincts and skill, and their lines are precise, and they have developed the necessary muscle memory that allows them to be skillful artists.

All the arts have that, a combination of skill, knowledge, and automatism that baffles the uninitiated. It’s mostly years of experience and practice. Well, I said all the arts, except writing apparently. There doesn’t seem to be a writing equivalent for that process of learning the fundamentals that other arts have, like painting has color, tone, and values, while draftsmanship is mostly line, shadow, and perspective.

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November 17 post: The psychology of writer’s block (¿and bodybuilding?)

“The treatment of writing problems offers a special challenge for clinical psychologists. In few other domains do patients pressure themselves to be so spontaneous, original and perfect.”

Those are the first two sentences from a psychology paper on writer’s block and the generation of creative ideas, by Robert Boice, published in 1983 [1] If I were to write a paper on those subjects, I’d probably start like Harry Frankfurt in his book On Bullshit, with something like:

One of the most salient features of the writer’s subculture is that there is so much bullshit.

This is uniquely relevant to the problem of writer’s block too, of course.

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November 5 post: STELLAR characterization

For today, a writing post.

I’ll show you a trick to help you with indirect characterization. Well, actually, I will tell you why you shouldn’t do that — or not as much as is common nowadays.

If you have spent some time looking up writing guides and the like, you might have come across something called the STEAL method. I don’t know original the source of the ‘method’, I guess people take the acronym very seriously, but it’s relatively popular. Basically, it’s a mnemonic to help you remember some ways to, indirectly, shape a character according to its Speech, Thoughts, Effects (on others,) Actions, and Looks.

It’s not a bad method, but keep in mind that it’s indirect characterization, which is a bit overrated anyway. In fact, indirectness is a common trait in contemporary fiction, and I’d say it’s even a fad, and a harmful one. From the obsession of showing over telling, or deep POV/narrator vs. a freer one, it seems people are terrified of just stating things directly and using their authorial/narrative voice and superpowers. This is direct characterization, and pretty much all telling over showing, with a mostly omniscient narrator who knows things nobody else does:

“Mr. Pricklebotton was a cantankerous old man, bitter of the new world he didn’t understand and longing for a past he misremembered. His only living object of affection was a stray dog he sometimes fed, but not very well. And in the non-living category, he loved all the garbage he had accumulated during his long life, a habit that had gone from amusing pastime to fire and health hazard as he grow older, the trash piled up, and he began to straddle the line between eccentricity and senility.”

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The sneaky “there was” and writing filler & crutches

I was going over a piece I had written when I found this seemingly innocuous sentence: “He talked to them in his crude Japanese and told that there was a group of Chinese civilians, around twenty, that was coming in their direction.” I usually do two or three proofings of the stuff I write, and this is why the second one is so important, to catch stuff like that.

Now, the sentence may not be awful, but it made me cringe a bit because I felt I heard it scream something like “I have been written by an amateur! Come and take a look!” Without much effort, I rewrote it into this:

“He talked to them in his crude Japanese and told them a group of twenty Chinese civilians was coming their way.”

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Could be written better: “Fu Manchu did nothing wrong.”

“There are some who could have lain, chained in that noisome cell, and felt no fear-no dread of what the blackness might hold. I confess that I am not of these. I knew Nayland Smith and I stood in the path of the most stupendous genious who in the world’s history had devoted his intellect to crime. I knew that the enormous wealth of the political group backing Dr. Fu.Manchu rendered him a menace to Europe and America greater than that of the plague. He was scientist trained at a great university -an explorer of nature’s secrets, who had gone further into the unknown, I suppose, than any living man. His mission was to remove all obstacles -human obstacles- from the path of that secret movement which was progressing in the Far East. Smith and I were two such obstacles; and of all horrible devices at his command, I wondered, and my tortured brain refused to leave the subject, by which of them we were doomed to be departed.”

The Mysteries of Dr. Fu Manchu, chapter 14, by Sax Rohmer.

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Could be better written: “My life is perfect, and everything around me sucks.”

If you want to write, you must read a lot is a useful advice. However, like most proclamations with an almost religious vibe, they have a long string of caveats and exceptions which, although commonsensical, cannot be packed along with the original statements without diminishing their gravitas. To put it bluntly, the advice only works if your read good material, and sometimes not even then.

Not only what you read has to be “good,” an adjective that implies value and, therefore, the ability to discriminate (something that terrifies a lot of people,) but relevant to your goal as an artist and your craft. Obviously, you are not going to learn how to write science fiction by reading Victorian romance novels or Nature Poetry (your descriptions of alien landscapes may be awesome, though.)

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