Writing Process – When to Describe Characters in Detail

From personal experience and discussing this with other readers, it used to kind of bemuse me how much people hate detailed physical descriptions of characters. I’ve not been able to pinpoint why, but upon taking this into consideration, I’ve noticed many (but not all) of the best novels I’ve read don’t rely heavily on what a character looks like. It’s usually kept to simple descriptions or notable features, say for instance if they have piercing blue eyes or are unusually thin, but their every freckle and hair won’t be described in detail. It’s just enough to fuel an image for the reader, who will make what they will of what the author’s given them. Not all readers, but many readers, will feel a bit stripped of the chance to stretch their imagination if you describe literally everything about a characters and leave nothing to be visualized on their own. Continue reading “Writing Process – When to Describe Characters in Detail”

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Writing Process – Comparisons

One of my much-abused quotes, because of how appropriate it is for about anything, is the Theodore Roosevelt quote, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” Not only does it describe the culture of social media with the accuracy of a five-inch syringe, it also describes the nature of writing with an equal lack of mercy.

I mostly write these for those just getting on their legs, as I’ve been. Anyone who’s authored for awhile will know, too, that to actively compare yourself with the work of others while you’re in the midst of a project is the worst idea you can get. It often can’t be helped if you’re a reader, but you must try to, even if that entails taking a hiatus from books. This kind of comparison is responsible for things like the time one writes and re-writes the same paragraph multiple times, while not getting any more of the book done at all, besides that one piece.

Technical comparisons, on the other hand, can be an excellent tool and a way to better habituate writing every day. What do I mean by that?
Well, breaking up your writing into fragments and measuring them is one example. Quantity over quality, despite what you’ll hear, is best for a first draft. This is not the case with revisions, but if you give yourself plenty of material to work with, you can gradually prune away the garbage and poor metaphors for a tighter, polished draft. Best not to worry about that bridge until you get there, though. For the beginning, just concentrate on the journey and getting it all down on paper. Continue reading “Writing Process – Comparisons”

Writing Process – The First Chapter

I will, to the hour of my death, stand by the belief that the hardest part of writing any book, of any genre, is the very first thing you have to write. There’s a volume of quotes about this issue said by authors and public speakers throughout the years, and with reason. I’ve been toying around with a trio of novels in the time when I’m not working on cleaning up and publishing what poetry I’ve finished, and I’ll just level with you.

There is absolutely NO guaranteed way to make the first chapter easy on yourself. It’s going to be doubtful, aggravating and you’ll likely have more drafts of that chapter than any other in the book. Unless, that is, you just have years of experience under your belt already, but even then, a lot of highly-regarded writers still get “brain farts” when it comes to beginning a new project.

Something I’ve tried, and it seems, for some reason I can’t quite configure into an explanation, to make the first chapter flow easier is writing it down by hand. Isn’t that strange? For some reason, it’s easy to type out the rest of the story but the first chapter benefits from a sketchy draft on paper. You can try it if you want, see if it works for you. It’s not much to write, in any case, if it doesn’t work out. Everyone goes about the process in different (and often very eccentric) ways. I have tried and gleaned little else that helps, even having plenty of inspiration and reading about writing and reading books. None of that seems to mollify the beast that is Chapter One, at least not for myself.

Musings on Dreams and Classic Monsters

Dracula movie poster Style F.jpg

This is peculiar and specific, but it’s something I’ve noticed with hearing people’s dreams, what they often have nightmares about. I’ve noticed there’s always a certain monster that’s prevalent to that particular person’s nightmares. It’s usually a classic one, like vampires or werewolves, I think because there’s a form of those in most cultures, and a lot of this century’s generations have grown up around horror movies. Even if they never watched them, they saw horror movies everywhere in posters and references, and now online. Vampires seem to be really common. I have had some insane dreams that I recall having some kind of vampire before.

Everyone has their individual classic monster. My personal one is actually zombies. If there’s a threat or presence I recognize in a dream, it’s often zombies or mummy-like humans. No clue why. I don’t recall ever being scared of zombies. Mummies, yes, at least as a kid. But it’s more frequently zombies, and I used to think zombies were like an ideal beauty standard or something.

Okay, maybe not that far, but I did love the way zombies looked. Continue reading “Musings on Dreams and Classic Monsters”

Thoughts on What Holds Us Back

Completionism, procrastination and lack of confidence, I can tell you right now are the unholy triad of offenders that keep us from achieving more. The last one is not as much of a worry for me as the first two, but a lack of confidence in a particular project can damper it to the point where it stays in hiatus hell for a long time. Until a couple of months ago, that’s where most of my writing was.

I don’t have any clear-cut, good advice that works for every individual when it comes to completionism and procrastination, as they are much, much trickier to overcome. The former is responsible for the hiatus on posting my artwork, because I’ve been set in this mindset that I realize is absolutely the stupidest, that I need to finish every piece I’ve begun before I can post any of it because it should all be posted together.
Yes, it is ridiculous, but when you are a perfectionist these little things will drive you mad while nobody else notices! It’s the key reason I wanted to redo those chapbooks so badly, because I can’t stand to have anything that seems unfinished or flawed. Even though they weren’t – to me they could have more and better content, so that’s what they’re getting.

Procrastination is a matter of breaking habits, namely avoidance and laziness. Procrastination is kind of like a very persistent and needy phantom that clings to you whenever you have the time and need to work. Like I said, I have no advice for this, it’s just something you’re going to have to decide to stop when you’ve had enough of it. No motivation in the world is going to work if you don’t really want to change. Some personal ambition grown from your own heart is necessary.
What I find squashes the want to procrastinate quicker than anything is thinking of what you won’t have in the years to come if you don’t do it while you can. You may miss your opportunity to write anything if you don’t seize them while they’re there. I have finished more in this month than the entirety of last fall and winter by keeping this in mind, so if it helps. It’s probably not too healthy to panic under time, but considering how little there is in our lives does make one want to live for more, I believe.

Writing a Book in a Month

Some methods to write a book in a month without losing your mind. Maybe just a smidge of the prefrontal cortex, but not the whole brain. These are just some of my working habits and tips that I’ve been perfecting recently during my personal attempts to accomplish THE NOVEL. Of course you can alter them as needed, but hopefully these ideas may help to encourage you with your goals.
This type of self-challenge is best for novellas, average length novels, or compilations. Epics and doorstoppers, I would not attempt in a month unless you genuinely are some sort of linguistic masochist who never sleeps or eats at all.

The golden key to completing any piece of writing is persistence. A book written in a month will probably not be very great, honestly, but you will at least have a complete book, which there will be plenty of time afterward to revise. Worry more about getting from beginning to end, with anything you need to guide you – checklists and outlines to mark your progress, word counters, even reading your freshly written chapters to your friends as you go. You have to want that book to exist, and whatever helps to keep that emotion rolling, do it. Don’t get caught up in the chaos of details until the editing stage. You can also hire professional editors and proofreaders to do this for you, but it is best to at least redo your book once by yourself, with great carefulness. Continue reading “Writing a Book in a Month”

Inspirations From the Void

Or at least it seems they come from a mystery universe somewhere out there where we can never reach. What is the strangest place you’ve been at the time inspiration hits? Some of the most unexpected things I’ve gleaned a poem from, that I can think of, are the novel Dune, a suspicious insect I didn’t know the name of struggling between two windowpanes, a historic photo of a cannibal, and a haunted house themed level in a video game.

Well, Dune isn’t so oddball. I’m willing to bet there’s more writing out there based on Dune than you’d reckon there was. I know that there is a concept album on it, anyway.

One of my favourites is a poem called “Lorenzo” that showed up in my recent book Loverboy. It’s an agonized, romantic piece that came out of the first time I heard Liszt’s “Liebestraume Notturno No. 3”. “Lorenzo” was a rare exception for me – I don’t normally love my poetry pieces as much as I love that one, and I have to wonder if Liszt was more fond of that particular song than usual?
Either way, I’ve never been able to write anything else with “Liebestraume” as a background, it just doesn’t work for me now like it did to begin. So strange how it all unfolds then diminishes, to never happen again.

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Poem – “Don’t Worry”

Don’t Worry

Someday we will unfurl like a rosebud does
Don’t worry, we won’t be trapped much longer
Petals or perhaps butterflies on the wind,
Not these pitiful, fetal things we are today
Don’t worry, we will bloom when we’re ready to

© S. M. Shuford 2018
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The Spine of a Poem

The routes are innumerable – while themes all begin at the same boulevard, they branch off into thousands and thousands of directions with completely different destinations. The initial paths are easy, so have in mind which one you would like to take.

I generally use the same basic skeletons of a poem. This is not their format or rhyme scheme, mind you, but what they are at the heart. Just to consider, the five essential sorts I prefer to use are as such:

Artistic – It’s free game. Experimental and surrealist poetry tends to automatically fit here. You draw an image without art supplies, using only your words. Art for the mind rather than the eyes.

Emotional – Broad term, yes, but it’s a vital core to poetry (like it or not). It’s not exactly like artistic or personal poetry as it may be inspired by things you have no connection with or are not nourishing to the heart – it is raw thoughts completely naked from interpretation. My personal favourites are the worst emotions, which in my opinion form the best poems.

Story – It tells a story or could be interpreted as a story. I prefer the latter, as it lets the reader make what they will. A story conformed to a poem is a lot different from a story in a novel. It’s condensed into its own little globe, and in a way is a more concentrated power because it doesn’t have time to grow comfortably outward. It also has the ability to be more wild than a novel’s story because it’s not as limited by what makes strict, non-metaphorical sense.

Experience – Ones based strictly on memory and experience, siphoned out through the raw feelings and thoughts of that time, or altered into something stronger. These range from maudlin to psychotic to beloved, and every corner in-between. These are the most individual ones a poet can write, and they will become their signature even if they don’t intend that.

Nightmare – I haven’t a better word for this sort of poem. A subset of artistic / surreal poetry and personal poetry, a nightmarish poem is more psychological and resonates on a far more discomforting level with the reader. Probably the best example that would be familiar to most is Poe’s “The Raven” – which contains elements of fantastical horror but with a very primal and real sense of dread and death.

These examples are purposefully vague and broad bases, so literally anything can be built upon them. While “winging it” is actually not a bad idea for writing a poem, it’s also good to keep in mind what you want to make from a raw platform. One might be more fitting for an idea you want to convey than a different one would, so it doesn’t hurt to switch its skin around just to test it out.

Keep in mind though, that if you have poems in mind for a compilation, all types can be used but they should be relatively fitting together. Kind of like ornaments on a Christmas tree – completely different in looks and sizes but they compliment each other in purpose.

-S. M., May 2018

Flavours of an Artistic Phrase

Might be glaringly obvious, but I have a borderline-fetishistic obsession with poetry, as well as promoting it. I always try to encourage others to cross the unknowable shore that is painting through words, which is what I feel poetry accomplishes and encompasses. I am especially passionate about indie and budding debuts of poetry, and I honestly think it’s criminal that more don’t take the initiative to write and read them.

In the next few weeks I want to explore what makes a poem – what composes its genetics – in hopes maybe someone will find inspiration through this. The format is not what is important, as you can invent your own easily. The meat, flesh and soul of a poem is its meaning – even if its meaning is complete surrealist chaos, this makes it as significant as if it were a conventional romantic piece.

I want to dissect the building blocks of a compilation, what you can do to draw together a book of poetry into an entity that people will want to have engraved into their minds. Themes, genre, stylizing, production, and most importantly of all – not losing that sense of raw creation. The schedule’s not set, but a new piece on writing poetry will be here at least every other day for the remainder of May. It’s more of a complex rumination than it is advice, but perhaps it will inspire new directions of thought.

-S. M., May 2018

Characterization – The Golden Core of a Novel

Good characterization I believe makes or breaks the novel – it can either be the novel’s thriving soul or its black hole into oblivion. Earlier this week I finally began the construction of the first full novel I’ve attempted in a long, long time, not previously having the opportunity (or desire) to do so before, and ended up churning out 40 pages’ worth solely of character development.

This might sound like overkill, but a lot of it is choppy and haphazard, since it’s only for my use – it’s really not as much writing as it appears. Most importantly, I can say that I fully know all of the characters – their habits, their hair colours, probably even their shoe size. I can now rattle off what each would do when faced with any situation. Being able to do this is the key to unlocking a novel whose cast will stand out in the minds of readers!

Any sketching, pre-writing and development notes you feel like you should take, do it. Characterization is so vital and time that goes towards it is valuable. If you end up writing a hundred pages or more of character development, that’s a chunk of your novel already done. All that’s left is to translate it into action and meld the characters with their story, which will now be so much simpler since you’ve grown accustomed to the characters – their mannerisms, speech and inner machinations will be pretty much a second skin.

A few tips that will might help to keep a character and a novel succinct and coordinated:

  • In-depth and intricate details aren’t usually necessary on minor characters. If they only show up in one instance, we don’t need to know a textbook’s worth of history about them. Or even a large footnote’s worth, for that matter.
  • It is good, however, to have a small excess bit of information about every notable character, in case the need-to-know arrives naturally in the story – for example, their general appearance and a bit about their personality or what their role is. But remember that not all of this has the show up in the final product. If characters or notes you find interesting end up not being mentioned in-novel, you can always post them as trivia, or give that character their own short story later.
  • Remember – characters are part of the plot, not clots. If you’re not directly inspired to, definitely do not feel like you need to shoehorn in a character solely to be a romantic interest. It’s always obvious and it (almost) always docks points from a book’s review. Romantic interests need to have a fluidity in the story that matches the rest of the cast. Just being pretty is not enough.
  • Write characters who appeal to you. If they bore you or if you feel a tinge of lackluster in your mind just thinking about them, maybe rework them. It’s likely they will bore the audience as well if their own creator doesn’t even like them.
  • On that point, don’t be ashamed or afraid to write a character of a darker or more sinister nature. You would be surprised at how a vicious antagonist or anti-hero can earn a book its place in literature.

Hopefully these will help you on your writing journey as well. Writing, especially in the early stages, can be extremely trial-and-error with spans of tedium, but moreso they are like an experiment in a lab – the more you are versed in what you’re working with, the better the results will be.

[S. M., April 2018]