• Welcome, dear friend.

    A word. Any word. Even the word, “word.”

    Whew…and just like that, all that heart-stopping, white-sick terror of the blank page is gone.

    They say a lot of things about writing, some of it good, a lot of it junk, and most of it, who am I to say. But one of the good things they say is to start a blog. And there’s loads of reasons they’re right: to flex the muscles, increase the habit, build the audience, connect.

    And so here we are. Or here you are (I’m not actually here, you know. I’d like to tell you I’m off doing very romantic, authory things, like drinking black coffee in a little hotel room where the original depression-era paper is peeling off the walls as I litter a waste basket with real, crumpled paper.

    I’m probably scrolling Instagram).

    But you’re not. You’re here. And there are no words, even from this wanna-be author, that can express how much that means to me.

    Thank you for coming. Time is no superfluous thing, and I promise I will do my damndest to make it worth your while–with the writer’s journey, sneak peaks of an upcoming novel, book reviews, cover inspiration, author interviews, and whatever else I can conjure up.

    Rock n roll,

    -C


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  • When to Shut Up and When to Talk: The Key to Character Description

    I’ve been thinking a lot about my main character lately.

    I’m writing a novel. Did I tell you that? And it has a main character, and I’ve been thinking a lot about him lately.

    Mostly, how much to say about him. Not his internal state, of course, or else we’d have no novel. It’s his external state that’s besting me. Not that I can’t pin it down. I know every inch of him like I crafted him from marble myself. I wonder, though, how much of this to share with the reader.

    The Going Theories on Fictional Character Descriptions

    I’ve heard you shouldn’t over-describe your characters. You rob your reader of the chance to insert their own imagination, and most importantly, to connect. (Unsolicited opinion: I’m convinced this is how Twilight made it big. Bella was literally a stick of playdough that any angsty 14 year old girl could see as herself). A nosy woman in a café a with a pointed chin, prickled lips, mousey brown hair, protruding collar bones and stubby eyelashes is exactly that. A nosy woman in a café with brown hair and a bad listening habit might be your stepmother, or your office mate, or that mom who rubs you the wrong way at the PA meetings. One is just a figure (well-described, albeit). The other has your emotional interest, possibly even investment.

    But I long to tell you about my main character. I can see his fingers down to the knots of his knuckles, and I wish so badly for you to see them, too.

    So what’s the answer? As usual, I turned to the greats for help. And you know what I found? Character descriptions from uber-famous books that ran the gamut, from dripping with detail to a passing wisp of description. Let’s take a look. We’ll start with the soggier descriptions. I was surprised to find some of them to be my favorites:

    Detailed Character Descriptions from Famous Novels

    1. Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Douglas Adams

    “He was not conspicuously tall, his features were striking but not conspicuously handsome. His hair was wiry and gingerish and brushed backward from the temples. His skin seemed to be pulled backward from the nose. There was something very slightly odd about him, but it was difficult to say what it was. Perhaps it was that his eyes didn’t seem to blink often enough and when you talked to him for any length of time your eyes began involuntarily to water on his behalf. Perhaps it was that he smiled slightly too broadly and gave people the unnerving impression that he was about to go for their neck.”

    2. Dune, Frank Herbert:
    “Through the door came two Sardukar herding a girl-child who appeared to be about four years old. She wore a black aba, the hood thrown back to reveal the attachments of a stillsuit hanging free at her throat. Her eyes were Fremen blue, staring out of a soft, round face. She appeared completely unafraid and there was a look to her stare that made the Baron feel uneasy for no reason he could explain.”

    3. The Black Cauldron, Lloyd Alexander:

    “He was most fifty, and he looked it. His hair was long and tangled and greasy, and hung down, and you could see his eyes shining through like he was behind vines. It was all black, no gray; so was his long, mixed-up whiskers. There warn’t no color in his face, where his face showed; it was white; not like another man’s white, but a white to make a body sick, a white to make a body’s flesh crawl – a tree-toad white, a fish-belly white. As for his clothes – just rags, that was all. He had one ankle resting on t’other knee; the boot on that foot was busted, and two of his toes stuck through, and he worked them now and then. His hat was laying on the floor – an old black slouch with the top caved in, like a lid.”

    4. Bleak House, Charles Dickens:

    “He [Old Mr. Turveydrop] was a fat old gentleman with a false complexion, false teeth, false whiskers, and a wig. He had a fur collar, and he had a padded breast to his coat, which only wanted a star or a broad blue ribbon to be complete. He was pinched in, and swelled out, and got up, and strapped down, as much as he could possibly bear.”

    Now let’s take a look at some examples of famous character descriptions that don’t hit you over the head.

    Sparse Character Descriptions from Famous Novels

    1. Everything is Illuminated, Jonathan Safran Foer

    “He did not look like anything special at all.”

    2. The Great Gatsby, Scott F. Fitzgerald:

    He smiled understandingly — much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced — or seemed to face — the whole eternal world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor.”

    3. The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver:

    “Mama Bekwa Tataba stood watching us—a little jet-black woman. Her elbows stuck out
    like wings, and a huge white enameled tub occupied the space above her head, somewhat

    miraculously holding steady while her head moved in quick jerks to the right and left.”

    4. James Lee Burke, Neon Rain:

    “His khaki sleeves were rolled over his sunburned arms, and he had the flat green eyes and heavy facial features of north Louisiana hill people. He smelled faintly of dried sweat, Red Man, and talcum powder.”

    5. A Drink Before the War, Dennis Lehane:

    “Sterling Mulkern was a florid, beefy man, the kind who carried weight like a weapon, not a liability. He had a shock of stiff white hair you could land a DC-10 on and a handshake that stopped just short of inducing paralysis.”

    So where does all that leave us?

    I’m afraid in the hazy world of “it depends.” I know, it’s my least favorite answer on the internet, too. But don’t lose heart, because we’re actually going to break down what it depends on and what route to take when.

    When Detailed Character Descriptions are Right for You

    You might notice a majority of first bunch share the literary genre of science fiction. Full disclosure: that was not on purpose. I think with science fiction, your readers are accustomed to heavier descriptions because you can’t have a sci-fi novel without world building. And you can’t have world building without a hefty amount of detail. The same is true for period pieces. If you’re writing about a time when writing in general was lengthier (i.e. Dickins), again, your readers are likely on board for this level of wordiness.

    A more detailed description also works when the character being described is a more minor character. This is because background characters don’t require an emotional investment on our part as the reader. Let’s say the author is trying to describe his main character’s apprehension as she walks down Skid Row alone at night. Delving into the grim appearance of a resident who stops her helps to build tension and shines a light on her trepid internal state. Which leads to me to our next instance:

    When the detail indicates more than the physical. Like all the words on your page, their sole function is always to drive the plot forward. The same is true of character details. A character having blue eyes isn’t necessarily important. However, if you happen to be Frank Hebert writing Dune, and you mention a young character’s eyes are Fremen blue (the planet’s native race), with an unafraid stare that makes a grown man nervous– now you’re talking.

    IN SUMMATION: Writing lengthy character descriptions work when:

    -It’s befitting of your genre.

    -It’s reserved for background characters as a way of creating atmosphere.

    -You drive the plot forward by showing the significance of the physical, versus telling about what it is.

    When Sparse Character Descriptions are Right for You

    While I’m intrigued by the longer descriptions in the first block, I’m deeply moved by Jonathan Safran Foer’s, “He did not look like anything special at all.” It makes me heart lurch. (Disclosure: this is from one of my all time favorite novels and every human being should put whatever trash they’re reading down and buy “Everything is Illuminated.” Now.) I think that minimal descriptions like this work when the few words used tell us more about who the character is than what he looks like. “He had blue eyes and light brown hair,” is just as many words, but somehow says a lot less, doesn’t it?

    Of course, all your main characters can’t be walking eraser marks. Eventually, we’ll have to tell our readers enough that they can form for themselves a picture of our heroes and villains. One great way to do this is to reveal a few signature characteristics outright, and unfurl the rest as the reader makes her way through your text. This usually involves a few trademark visuals that define our character. For Harry Potter, it’s unruly black hair, green eyes, and a peculiar scar. For Theo Decker of The Goldfinch, it’s light brown eyes and horn-rimmed glasses. Slowly, we find out smaller bits as the books continue: we learn that Theo is actually quite handsome, and that Harry is particularly scrawny. Instead of dumping a list of descriptive traits on us from the get go, the authors give us small nuggets along the way, allowing us to weave the details into the characters we’ve already envisioned for ourselves.

    Last, these brief descriptions work because so often they say more about the nature of the character. Take this description from “A Drink Before War.”

    “Sterling Mulkern was a florid, beefy man, the kind who carried weight like a weapon, not a liability. He had a shock of stiff white hair you could land a DC-10 on and a handshake that stopped just short of inducing paralysis.”

    We might not know Sterling’s eye color or the shape of his nose, but I’ll be damned if we don’t have a crystal clear feeling about him as a man. I can feel the crushing weight of his handshake. I can feel the threat of violence in his stature. And I can see a man like that. Heck, most of us know a man like that, making the story that much more personal and our investment that much more likely.

    IN SUMMATION: Writing sparse character descriptions work when:

    -You choose words wisely, picking ones that evoke deeper feeling.

    -You sprinkle fitting attributes along your story as you go.

    -Your visceral description insinuates more about the kind of person you’re describing, as opposed to just what they look like.

    What’s Your Natural Tendency Tend to Be?

    I’d love to know: what do you gravitate towards in your own writing or reading? Do you think there’s a set way that’s best? Share it with me in the comments–I’d love to hear your opinion.


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  • One Writer’s Gentle Reminder About the Muse to Another

    You’re standing next to the punch bowl, wondering who ever thought the paper straw was ever a good idea as you pull a bit of soggy cardboard from your teeth.

    That’s when she walks in–and she’s absolutely dazzling. Her silken hair is perfectly swept. Her wardrobe is all one-of a kind (vintage pieces she can’t for the life of her remember where from). The air seems to expand around her; you can smell her floral perfume from your place next to the bowl of Beach Breeze. “At last,” you sigh.

    The muse has arrived.

    Of course she was three hours late. That you know. She hadn’t even rsvp’d, leaving you to wonder if one pimento cheese ball was really enough for 18 people. 17? Sure. But 18 was a gamble. Last time she didn’t rsvp, she never showed, and you were left wondering whether or not to save two tablespoons worth of the soggy orange goo in a tupperware.

    And then there are all the parties she’s not at. That you don’t know. The ones, like your previous soiree, that waited and waited for her arrival, the club soda turning flat with every passing minute. There are hundreds strung across the city, all holding their breath as she walks through your door. Of course she told them she’d come. She always says she’ll come in that light-hearted sort of way that leaves you wondering if it’s true when you meet her on the street.

    The reality is, she can’t be depended on. Its not her fault (mostly), its just her nature. In truth, it feels a little unfair to pin the hopes and dreams of your own endeavors in her lovely hair. It was you who decided to throw the party, not her. This is your responsibility alone.

    So roll up your sleeves. Toss the paper straw and get your feet to the dance floor, where the real work of any good party happens. Que the music, get in the zone, and get going.

    There’s work to do.

    Rock n roll,

    -C


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  • My Baby Turned One Today: What I’ve Learned in One Sentence

    A lot, but mostly: human beings can do incredibly, incredibly hard things–especially with love in their heart and a willingness to see what is beautiful.

    Whatever you’re working on, however hard it may be, you can do it.


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  • What Any Writer Can Learn from Holy Week

    A Look at the Passion for Writing

    I was sitting on a plane, yellow highlighter at the ready, when I read one of the most influential book lines of my life. You know the kind: the ones you keep coming back to, the ones whose pages flop right open when settled on a desk. The ones that make you need to be a writer.

    It was Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, a true cult classic and one of my favorite books ever written (I’m sure this is far from the last time we’ll talk about it). My highlighter was ready because that’s the kind of book HOL is. Swimming around in her pages is like seashell hunting after a storm. Gems abide.

    Somewhere halfway through, Danielewski writes:

    “Passion has little to do with euphoria and everything to do with patience. It is not about feeling good. It is about endurance. Like patience, passion comes from the same Latin root: pati. It does not mean to flow with exuberance. It means to suffer.”

    ― Mark Z. Danielewski, House of Leaves

    I’m a Christian. Did I mention that?

    I’m probably not supposed to.

    Oh well. Can we still be friends? I hope with the most earnest of hopes that we still can. I promise not to throw Bibles at you, or stop you in the mall and ask if you’d go to hell if the floor opened up right there and swallowed us both and all the beige cardigans in Coldwater Creek with one big sooty bellow. In fact, I’ve got a pretty poo-poo view of overtly Christian art (more on that, later). But it is very much a part of who I am, and how I interpret the world, which is in the short of it, what writing really is.

    And so when Danielewski expounded on passion, I couldn’t help but think of The Passion. I don’t think I ever knew it meant suffering until that moment (so much for all that pricey Catholic school education). It made me think a couple of things. And seeing as its Holy Week, it seemed worthwhile to share them:

    1. It reinforced to me just how much Christ’s crucifixion embodies the broader relationship between God and Israel. I’ve heard it said once that Israel (as in, “God’s people”) is pretty much just a toxic boyfriend that the good girlfriend keeps taking back even when he’s a total doucher for the millionth time. And while it’s really funny, it’s even more true. God loves his people. The Bible is ripe with terminology to try to get us to understand just how much. They’re referred to as his bride, his children, beloved, the list goes on. Despite so much love, Israel goes on to break God’s heart over and over again. She turns her back on him completely. He suffers her unreciprocated love. He waits patiently. He suffers, watching her in her ruin. But he also endures. And by enduring, His passion for his people is ready the moment we decide to turn back around.
    2. It reminded me how much the craft of writing (or any craft), really is about suffering. There’s a reason, however melodramatic, that Hemingway said the only thing necessary to write was a willingness to sit down at the typewriter and bleed. Any writer, published or not, knows how much of writing is to suffer as opposed to flow with exuberance. Writing is difficult. Writing is lonely. Writing is confidence-shaking, identity-crushing, ego-bruising. It is rarely euphoric. Sometimes, but only sometimes.

    It is, however, a love that endures. It can mistreat us, reject us, embarrass us, even cast us out completely. And when it does, which it undoubtedly will, and the inky wet dust has settled, there we will be: arms open wide and passion abounding.


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  • Four Biggest Lies We Use to Keep From Writing

    The Biggest Lies All Writers Believe

    Note, that’s biggest lies, dear friend. Please don’t think for a moment that this in any way limits the list down to a mere four. If that were the case, we’d have a lot more books. I’m merely honing in on the ones I’ve heard, and muttered, the most.

    If you don’t see your lie on this list, please, by no means should you feel excluded. Your lie is just as big and harry and scaly as the rest of them. May he live, and die, on your own personal version of this list.

    People believe lies for all kinds of reasons. For politicians, it’s easier than questioning the foundations we’ve built our worlds on. For lovers, it’s easier than boxing up a life made together. For flat earthers…I’ll be honest I have no idea what’s in it for the flat earthers. And for writers, if they just believe the lie hard enough, grimace it down into their bones, then maybe they’ll neve have to start.

    And then maybe they’ll never have to fail.

    And the world will never get to find out the biggest lie of all: that we have no talent at all, and no real worth. We’re pond scum. Just a BigFatPhony in normal people clothes.

    Which of course is all a bunch of crap. But I’ll be damned if we don’t each bury our heads in that pile of crap more than we’d like to admit.

    Which is why today we’re pulling those lies up at the root. Unearthing the truth that lies beneath, so the next time they come tip-toeing up in all their dripping, sewery deceit, you’re armed to the hilt with the facts. Let’s look at what they are.

    LIE #1: THERE’S NO ROOM FOR ME AT THE TABLE

    THE TRUTH:

    Ah, the old “No Room” lie. It was the lovely writer Hannah Brencher who put words to this insecurity for me. I’ve heard it from so many writers in one utterance or another. Who the heck am I to write? There’s enough greats, already. Who am I to think I could sit among them?

    You’re exactly who we need. Imagine if Steven King decided the 60s had already delivered the greatest horror people could ever ask for. What if C.S. Lewis decided no fantasy could best Tolkien’s 1937 publication of the Hobbit? Or if Tolkien decided nothing could compete with Lewis’ Chronicles and that continuing the story of the Ring was moot (I’d probably have been a lot cooler in high school but that’s neither here nor there). What if Jane Austen had decided there were already plenty of published female authors in her time…

    Jokes aside, it’s a mentality that would drive the rumination of the world to a grinding halt if we all adopted it. The great Steven Pressfield sums it up in a few perfect sentences better than I ever could with a scroll of words.

    “You shame the angels who watch over you and you spite the Almighty, who created you and only you with your unique gifts, for the sole purpose of nudging the human race one millimeter farther along its path back to God.”

    -Steven Pressfield, The War of Art

    LIE #2: I HAVE NOTHING TO SAY

    THE TRUTH:

    Surely you have something to say. What did you have for breakfast? There, you just had something to say. Now, perhaps it’s true that not everything you have to say is worth publishing. After all, unless it’s Lembas Bread or the blood of virgin or something, your morning meal isn’t a riveting experience that drives a plot forward.

    If you feel you must write but have nothing to say, to me it means one thing: you haven’t been practicing. The ability to write, to have words flow down from your fingertips onto the page, isn’t one that’s gifted to us by the gods in vaporous moments of inspiration. It comes from work. Writing is more muscle than muse, if you ask me. The less you work it, the more it atrophies. Until it feels like you can’t even lift a pen to put it to paper.

    So write. Even if it’s stupid. Even if it ends up in the trash and your own mother would find it ghastly. Write. Eventually, you’ll stop wondering if you have something to say. You’ll already be saying it.

    LIE #3: I DON’T HAVE THE TIME

    THE TRUTH:

    This one goes for more than writers, but I’d argue it’s especially untrue for us. I believe it when they say people make time for what they want, whether it’s turning off our brains by scrolling Instagram, working out, quality hangs with our spouse, you name it. And that’s ok. But the reality is– the time is there. It’s simply being utilized somewhere other than writing.

    Of course, it’s easy for anyone to say, “You can always make time if you want it.” It’s not lost of me that bills exist, and work is necessary (for some of us, for double shifts and at multiple jobs). I’m in no way saying this is equally easy for everyone.

    But I do believe the time is there, however fractional.

    Typically if you haven’t started because you feel strapped by the clock, it means something will have to go in order to make room for writing. Our time typically falls into five big buckets for a healthy life, and I’d argue you really only have the time to do three well. They are:

    1. Work 2. Family 3. Community (friends, church, volunteerism, etc.) 4. Physical Wellbeing 5. Personal Growth

    It means that as we barter time throughout life, some of these buckets will fall to the back of the line. And that’s ok. To me, the most important thing is to do so intentionally. It’s a conversation that must be had with yourself and/or your family as you embark on your new endeavor. For example, “I know that to write my book, so I’ll need to spend the evenings writing. I want to spend time with me boyfriend, so that means my workout regime isn’t going to look the same.” Or, “If I’m going to leave my full time job one day to write, I’ve got to start building an audience. I need to tell my boss I’ll no longer be answering emails on the weekend when I’m off.” This way when things begin to shift, you’re not left feeling like you’re dropping the ball. This was the plan; this is the associated growing pain. Keep moving forward.

    Thought I forgot to drop the hammer about why this especially applies to writers? No way, kimosabe!

    As a writer, you can bring your craft absolutely anywhere. This is even more true now than ever. If George Patton could manage to jot a few notes down on the battlefield, you can save some ideas in your phone while waiting in line to buy cotton balls.

    LIE #4: I DON’T HAVE A CREATIVELY INSPIRING SPACE

    THE TRUTH

    This one is especially easy to tell yourself if you, like I, take a lot away from your physical environment. The right environment (usually replete with bad lighting, the dull chink of glassware, dark walls, and creaking wood floors) can ignite in us that other-worldly calling that says, “This is what I’m supposed to do with my life.” And a bad one can just as quickly snuff it out. For years I told myself that meant I would start writing when I had the right set up– one worthy of a real writer, something that looked straight out of a Harry Potter common room. Then I’d get serious. Until then, I’d only write when I felt motivated by the environment around me.

    Because that happens to us so often.

    The truth is if the muscle is strong, you can write wherever you damn well find yourself. This goes back to the practice part, and the absolute hog-shit that is the idea of the striking muse. Does she sometimes grace us? Of course. Should we wait on her arrival to get this party started? Never.

    The next time you start believing that you need to be immersed in beauty to write, remember this: Steve King wrote in the washroom of his trailer once his kids had gone to sleep, working from a typewriter he balanced on his lap. John Cheever wrote in the maid’s room in the his apartment’s basement. Faulker wrote As I Lay Dying during the night shift at a power plant. I know, dreamy.

    Don’t wait for aesthetic gold. Make any environment the right environment by carrying your well-practiced craft with you wherever you go.

    What Should a Writer do with all that Truth?

    Whatever the lie, its ultimate purpose is to stop us from doing what we must do. And what we must do is write. The next time you find yourself believing one of these big four, force your brain back to the truth of it. Cling to it like gospel. Write it out and stick it under your keyboard if you need.

    If you’re sitting here saying, “None of those are the reasons I don’t write,” I want you to do two things for me.

    1. Tell me your reason in the comments.
    2. Play the devil’s advocate and search out a truth that can decimate your reason. Feeling like it’s hopeless and there is no underlying truth to counter your reason? That’s why I want you to tell me in the comments. We will sort a game plan out together. It’s one of my favorite things to do. Hit me with your best shot.

    Rock n Roll,

    -C


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