Author Archive

What Can I Tell You? Setting and Description

My creative writing students often ask me how much setting and description stories or novels should have. The answer, of course, is: “It depends.” Some authors’ personal style is to avoid description and setting—in some cases altogether—and that’s a perfectly acceptable choice if it’s done well. Also, the shorter the work is, the less room one typically has for such concerns. In flash fiction, for example (generally but not exclusively defined as stories of 1,000 words or fewer), there is typically little to no description, and minimal setting. However, in longer works, the general trend over recent years has also been toward less description and more action.

Some people even insist that writers begin a novel in the midst of action or dialogue. This isn’t always necessary (and in some cases works terribly), but the sorts of extended descriptions that one might find in a novel written 100 or 200 years ago (or even a few decades ago) is no longer acceptable to most agents, editors, and readers. Take a look at Gone with the Wind, for example. It begins with two and a half pages of description and setting: we learn about Scarlet’s eyebrows and

Hattie McDaniel, star of the movie version of Gone With the Wind, has no time for your nonsense.

Hattie McDaniel, star of the movie version of Gone With the Wind.

breasts and her dress, in some detail. We learn about the hounds and horses and twins. We know it’s late afternoon and the dogwoods are in bloom. We hear about their upbringing, their socioeconomic status, and how their lives compare to those of others in similar areas in the region.

From my modern perspective (the book was published in 1936), it’s far too much. Not just because of length (it’s nothing compared to the vast swaths of setting and description that can be found in some older books—such as in gothic novels, like Ann Radcliffe’s), but because she is telling us a great deal that could easily be shown through her story. Being able to accomplish such showing is a sign of skillful writing. In addition, Mitchell’s approach can be rather dull, and it risks leaving the reader unconvinced by her statements.

That’s not to say that telling (which includes description and setting) is never appropriate. On the contrary, setting is typically essential, if only in brief. The reader must know what era a story is set in and what rules apply there. This level of setting can be expressed in dialogue, of course, as well as in exposition. When Stuart says, “The Yankees may be scared of us, but after the way General Beauregard shelled them out of Fort Sumter the day before yesterday, they’ll have to fight or stand branded as cowards…” Mitchell has told us precisely what the era is—right down to the day.

Casual mentions of technologies (does your character dial a number on a rotary phone? Have a party line? Use a flip phone? A bag phone? A communicator embedded in a device worn on their uniform?), or world events, or even slang, for example, can convey the time and place without the author directly telling us. The primary qualification—and the reason so many authors like to begin with setting—is that the reader needs to know very quickly what the setting is. If one is imagining 2016, for example, but then discovers several pages in that it’s 1816, that reader is confused, distracted, and maybe even angry enough to hurl your book across the room. (Identifying issues like this is a huge benefit of beta readers and writing groups.)

Another consideration in deciding how much to share lies in what your character is likely to be thinking about. One author who is known for his spare use of description is Ernest Hemingway. As a reader, my personal preference is for more description than he offers—particularly because he is writing about a time and (usually) a place that is outside my realm of experience. This wasn’t always the case for the people reading his books right after they were published, which may have been a

This stark image of soldiers walking in the mist nicely expresses how little Hemingway provides in the way of setting and description.

This image nicely expresses how little Hemingway provides in the way of setting and description.

consideration for him–but it’s clearly an aspect of his style, in any case.

With respect to A Farewell to Arms, which is informed by his experiences during World War I, his lack of description is striking. His protagonist, Frederic Henry, is seeing many horrible things, and many places and experiences that were new to him. Description and reflection on what he was seeing would have been natural. Unless, that is, he was sufficiently traumatized that he wanted to avoid thinking about or even acknowledging what was going on around him. It’s clear from his behavior—and from that of his companions (drinking, joking, visiting brothels)—that reflection was the last thing on their minds. So, in context, it makes sense. It’s a natural expression of his character’s experience. Here, too, is a sign of skillful writing.

So, the questions you should ask as a writer include:

  • What does the reader need to know and when?
  • What is the best and most engaging way I can express that information?
  • What would my character be experiencing and expressing (depending on your choices about POV)?
  • What would my narrator be most likely to express and why?
  • And, of course, what is my style as an author—or my style in this story? (Of course, they can differ.)

Most importantly, just keep writing!

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Clichés are the Worst Thing Ever

A cliché is a phrase, plot point, character, etc., that is overused and overfamiliar. Clichés make your writing seem boring, unoriginal, and simplistic—all things that good writers strive to avoid like the plague (see what I did there?) in order to keep readers focused on the story.

It’s fairly common for clichés—especially clichéd phrasing—to sneak into even the best writers’ work. Seeking them out and eliminating them is a normal part of the work of revision, but there are two main difficulties. First, one has to recognize clichés. This is especially problematic for newer or younger writers, because clichés become obvious only through exposure to them over time. The second main difficulty is that they are often invisible, because they make sense—they fit. This means that that finding an effective replacement can also be very hard. (Note: When finding ways to replace clichés, be careful to avoid awkward, confusing, or convoluted phrasing.)cliche

Among the many examples of clichés in phrasing are: dumb as a post, slept like a log, my heart raced, all talk and no action, the grass is greener on the other side, last ditch effort, light as a feather, rain on my parade, reinvent the wheel, cut to the chase, and so, so many more. Here’s a great site with tons of examples: I’m not suggesting these should never be used. In fact, they’re often entirely appropriate in dialogue. But if your writing has too many of these clichés, your work will be seriously weakened. It’s worth the effort of learning to recognize them, and at least reducing the frequency with which you employ them.

Clichéd plot points can be even more difficult to notice, because they depend on you, the writer, being familiar with your genre. You might come up with a brilliant story idea for a murder mystery, for example, but if you haven’t read widely in that genre, you might discover–after you’ve put a lot of time into writing, revising, and submitting—that you’ve used a plot that’s been done and done again, and that seems tired (old hat!) to folks who do know the genre. If you’re committing to writing in a particular genre, it makes sense to read widely in that genre (of course). But in the meantime, find a good writing group or set of friends and associates who you can bounce ideas off of. They can save you a lot of time.

Similarly, it’s easy to fall into character clichés or stereotypes, if you’re not careful. One I wrote into a story myself is the female healer. Once I came to know that genre better, I changed her to a blacksmith, which worked out even better for the story. Subverting reader expectations for characters can make your stories more interesting, in part because you have to work harder to make characters more complex—more three-dimensional.earlybird

There are many great resources for understanding and avoiding story and character clichés. A great general source, though it’s aimed specifically at television, is the website In spite of what their intro screen says, many tropes are, indeed, clichés or stereotypes, and the site is well worth extensive exploration. There are also a number of sites that identify genre-specific clichés to avoid, including, the sci-fi cliché section of the TV Tropes site, and Diana Wynne Jones’ book The Tough Guide to Fantasyland is also worth a read if fantasy is your field.

Now, go learn, and then write, revise, repeat. And don’t forget: tomorrow is a new day, always look on the bright side, and the early bird gets the worm.


Let’s Talk About Your Sphincter

On second thought, let’s not. “Sphincter” is actually number one on my list of words that should never appear in fiction. I’ve noticed that a lot of male writers use this word when writing thrillers. The hero’s sphincter, for example, is often tightening in response to some great fear. Or, worse, someone is either so afraid or so dead that their sphincter relaxes. If you’re lucky, the author will describe in graphic detail what the results are.

Now, I’m no prude—far from it—but, eeewwww! Seriously, there’s a reason we almost never follow characters to the bathroom, in any medium. As the famous child’s book title notes, everyone poops. We also all burp and fart and do other nasty things, but most readers—myself among them—don’t pick up a book hoping to read all about it.

Of course, naming the not-to-be-named can have power—like when Harry Potter insists on calling he-who-must-not-be-named by his name: Voldemort. (I had to get the HP reference in there!). When James Joyce has us follow his main character, Leopold Bloom, to the outhouse in Ulysses, for example, he uses the scene to tell us a great deal about the character. But at the same time, you have to know you’re going to make the reader say “whoa,” step back, and wonder why you, the author, are going there.

And that brings me to “scrotum,” number two on my list of forbidden words. If you’re writing a medical crime story or thriller, for example, and you want to have your evil boyfriend character’s scrotum injured, by all means, go for it. (I read that recently in a story, and it was satisfyingly nasty.) But this word does not ever, ever, ever belong in a sex scene. (Yes, I acknowledge that most rules have exceptions. Please trust me; don’t do it.) From experience as a reader, I say with conviction: this level of description is not sexy. Better to tell me how it feels than to describe in detail what each body part is doing.

I will leave you with my number three forbidden word: aspic. Make of that what you will.

Now: go write something wonderful, with or without a forbidden word or two! But first:  let me know, what words are on your list of forbidden words?

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What’s Your Name, Little Girl?

Naming characters is sometimes easy, sometimes hard, but always very important. I have a nasty habit of coming up with dull names like Jack and Tom. I mean, no offense if that’s your name, but I’ve literally had a half-dozen characters named Jack. It’s not good. This is a bad enough problem for me that I thought I’d write about some of the key rules for character naming.

1. Don’t be dull
It’s OK to have a Jack or a John or a Mike, but not very often. And if you want people to be intrigued by your character (and especially an important one) go with something more creative. The SSA’s website includes a marvelous tool for identifying very common, very uncommon, and era-appropriate names in the US: You can also use search terms like “Hungarian baby names” to get ideas for ethnic names.

Punxsutawney Phil

2. Don’t be confusing

a. Avoid alliteration
Normally I love alliteration, but please, not in character names. Sharon, Shelly, Shirley, Shelby, Sheldon. Put them all in a novel, go for 20 pages, and no one will be able to tell them apart. I realize some people like to give their kids names starting with the same letter, but seriously–it’s confusing for everyone. Stop it. And keep it out of your fiction.

b. Avoid rhyming
This is especially problematic in names of roughly the same length. Stan, Fran. Kelley, Shelley. Terry, Jerry. Alan, Susan, Sharon. Larry, Harry, Mary. Please, don’t go there.

c. Limit foreign names
Paging Leo Tolstoy! Some use of foreign names can be interesting and add nice flavor, but this has the potential to be confusing. I also urge you, if it’s difficult to pronounce the names in your book, include a guide. I read one book with a multitude of Gaelic names that I had no idea what to do with. After stumbling over them all the way through, I found a pronunciation guide at the very end. There was cursing: a lot of it.

d. One name per person
I don’t mean they can’t have a first and last name, just that you don’t want one person being Mrs. Smith, Barbara, Barb, Babs, and Honeybee all in the same story/book. There will be times your character will need to move between professional and personal lives and make a switch, and a term of endearment is fine if it’s totally clear who it’s referring to (but not studmuffin; never, ever use studmuffin), but generally avoid using multiple names for one character–especially the minor ones.

e. ID the gender
Particularly if you’re writing a character whose gender is different from yours, it’s key to ID the gender of that character early on. Unless it’s somehow key to your story to keep us guessing, avoid Alex and Pat and Taylor, and any other name that doesn’t clearly indicate boy/girl, unless you convey it clearly in the story.

3. Don’t be needlessly cruel
I don’t want anyone hunting me down and kicking my ass, so I’m not going to include a list of names you should never inflict on a character without a very good reason, but here are some guidelines: nothing that will cause your character to have his/her ass kicked in the schoolyard; nothing misspelled; nothing based on a product; and nothing they will spend the rest of their lives having to tell people how to spell. (Like Meriah.)

4. Don’t be inappropriate
Make sure your names fit the time, place, planet, and reality in which the characters exist. Naming a vampire slayer Buffy is funny. Naming a reptilian alien from the planet Drego Buffy is just stupid.

And here’s one last rule: don’t spend too much time on naming. You can always go back and change them later. The important thing is: go write!

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Writing Sex Scenes, Part 1: What Do You Know?

My creative writing class ventured into the bedroom (and the living room, and other assorted locations) over the last couple of weeks (on the page, of course), and boy has it been interesting. Overall, I’m impressed. The writing has been quite good, as it has been throughout the semester, and there’s something really brave about writing such scenes for a class. This group is bolder than nearly all of the students in the graduate-level workshops I’ve taken.

It reminded me, though, how very difficult it is to write sex scenes well. One of the key problems is that here, you really can only write what you know. Not necessarily what you’ve done, mind you, but what you can conceive of: what you know is possible. And sex is a subject that people are highly reluctant to discuss, especially in terms of technique. Without discussion, there is less learning, less understanding.

One of the results is that a lot of people are missing out on a lot of fun—but that’s a subject for a different kind of blog. Or, well, mostly. Because learning how to write better sex scenes basically involves learning how to have better sex. And, as a bonus, learning how to talk about it better. So, what you need to do is find resources (books, websites, instructional videos) that talk about how to perform various kinds of sex better. (Note that porn is not a good source for this exercise!) Read, study, think.

Now, if you have someone with whom you can do some additional research, good for you! Get to it. Ask him/her how things feel, what would be better, what else he/she would like to try. Be adventurous. Remember: it’s research. Take your time. Take all day if you need to. And send me a note later to say thank you. 😉

If you don’t have a research partner handy, well, there’s still the Internet. (And friends, of course, if your friends are honest and open and prepared to help you out.) There are a million places to find the answers you seek. Also look for good erotica and see what they’re doing right. What makes your heart beat faster when you read it?

And, just as importantly, what do you dislike? A bad sex scene is not only not sexy (and I don’t mean scenes that are intentionally not sexy—where bad sex is used to make a point about character, say), it can yank you out of the novel to an extent that you may not be willing to venture back in. Some are so atrocious that the Literary Review created the Bad Sex in Fiction Award. Here’s one example, from 2010 award winner The Shape of Her, which includes the line, “Like a lepidopterist mounting a tough-skinned insect with a too blunt pin he screwed himself into her.” Yikes!

And then, of course, you will need to practice writing about these wonderful experiences. Add detail, but not too much. Don’t be too clinical. Don’t use ridiculous romance-novel terms. Don’t be crude unless the characters and situation call for it. Focus more on feel than on parts. And understand that it will take time (and probably more research) to get those scenes just right.

Now: go do some research, and write something sexy!

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When Not to Change

One of the key rules to good story telling is that your character needs to change, grow, evolve over the course of the story. Epiphanies and desperate acts are called for; brave sacrifices are de rigeur, and attaining redemption through new understanding is always apropos. Right? Of course. Just look at almost any writing book.

Fortunately, part of my approach to warping impressionable minds–teaching, that is–involves making sure my students understand that nothing and no one is infallible, and that absolutes are absolutely wrong. For example, I warn them on the first day of class about Meriah’s rule of writing, which is: The only rule that applies to all writers is that no rule applies to all writers.

Of course, there are plenty of good rules to learn about writing, but stories break rules constantly, bless their little hearts. Doing it badly is called a draft in need of revision. Breaking the rules well is called art. And the rule about change is simply nonsense. Particularly in shorter works, characters are sometimes interesting because of the lack of change they experience. A failure to change and grow in response to a change in circumstances or some kind of trauma can be a great and powerful indicator of character, or a sign of a greater underlying issue. It adds depth and tension all by itself. So, don’t ever let yourself be swayed solely by the rules people tell you about writing. Lots of them are great fun to break.

Now, go write–and break some rules!

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