Into the Dreaming Imaginative Fiction from Author, Reviewer, and Writing Coach Christine Amsden

Writing 101: Description

To celebrate the launch of my new editing venture, I’m writing a new series of blog posts that take us back to basics. These are the fundamentals of writing, the things you need to know before you’re ready to publish.

DESCRIPTION

For many new writers, and even some experienced writers, description is the bane of their existence. I’m afraid that our English teachers in school didn’t help when they encouraged us to spend a thousand words describing the ceiling. They meant well, and the exercise is not without merit, but seriously, who wants to read a thousand words about the ceiling?

Well, I don’t know … Is it the Sistine Chapel? Are there blood stains on it? Is a ghost floating around up there? Is the ceiling not actually there at all? Has there been a sudden reversal of ground and sky?

What I’m getting at is the key to description. The key to many aspects of writing, for that matter.

RELEVANCE

Description is challenging to new authors for a variety of reasons. For me, it was the fact that I thought it was utterly boring and usually skimmed through it in the books I read, so I wasn’t that thrilled about writing it into my own books. I’m not at all alone in that attitude. For others, for authors who love the art of turning pictures into words, the challenge is wordiness, pacing, and inflicting boredom on readers. Description is something that tends to turn authors into minimalists or maximalists, and you can get some heated debate over which approach is “right” and which is “wrong.”

There is no right. There is no wrong. There is only personal taste and relevance.

In other words, as long as what you are describing is meaningful to your story in some way, then it is up to you, the author, to tell us just enough or to truly create a canvas of words. The risk you run with the “just enough” approach is that the reader will fill in details that you leave out from his/her own experience. The risk you run with the “canvas” approach is that some readers will skim those paragraphs. As a mature writer, I tend to try to split the difference, to aim for the middle, but always with a keen focus on the relevance of every word I write.

As an editor, your personal preference is my top priority, but I will guide you with the concept of relevance in mind. For wordy writers, this means that I might steer you away from describing every last item in a room that turns out to have no bearing on either character or plot. For minimalists, this might mean that I ask you to add description of important people, places, or things that I have trouble imagining without some guidance.

Concerns over quantity of description should always take a backseat to the quality of description. I’m sure you’ve heard the advice to bring in your five senses, and that’s true. You should absolutely do that. But the best description does more than share sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and touches.

The best descriptive sentences move the story.

Wait … doesn’t description slow the story down or even stop it while you provide some relevant scene setting? Sadly, the answer to that question is often yes. This is why I skimmed so much of it as a child and why it took so many years for me to appreciate the wonderful power of a descriptive sentence to do more than one thing, to be more than superficial. Because the truth is, description can do more than BE relevant, it can ADD relevance.

Let me give you an example:

The green chair stood high-backed and proud in a ray of afternoon sunlight that slanted in through a large picture window.

This sentence does a lot to show you the scene. It even does it in the active voice, avoiding being and other passive phrasing. You now know something about the chair, and even what time of day it is. But is that all this sentence can do? Is there any other way in which that moment can mean more? Do more?

Lisa’s favorite green chair stood high-backed and proud in a ray of afternoon sunlight that slanted in through a large picture window.

Hmmm … I changed “the” to “Lisa’s favorite” and look what happened …. now you know something about a character too! What else can we do?

Lisa’s favorite green chair, faded and worn from decades of use and abuse, stood high-backed and proud in a ray of afternoon sunlight that slanted in through a large picture window.

Okay, now we have a bit of history … the history of Lisa and the chair. But I feel like we can take it one step further, to really connect this chair to this person and more, to whatever story is happening around her. Even assuming that I care about Lisa in some way, based on whatever has come before now in the story, right now the chair is nothing more than a prop in her environment.

Lisa’s favorite green chair, faded and worn from decades of use and abuse, stood high-backed and proud in a ray of afternoon sunlight that slanted in through a large picture window. What would happen to that chair tomorrow, when she left her home forever to live out her days in a nursing home? Would one of her kids take it, or would they throw it away like some useless relic that had lived beyond its usefulness?

Now, finally, we have description connected to story, interwoven so tightly that either one without the other would be incomplete. That chair is more than a chair now, it is a symbol of Lisa’s own fears about her future. If you chose, you could go room by room, showing more memories and deepening that emotional bond between Lisa and everything she’s leaving behind. It’s not absolutely necessary, because you’ve already said a lot, but you could. The bigger point is that you make magic happen when your words do double or even triple duty.

Good description stems from relevance; great description creates relevance.

Finish the Story Grand Opening Special: FREE First Chapter Edit

This week is the Grand Opening of Finish the Story.

I’ll be working alongside Claire Ashgrove and Dennis Young, two fantastic fellow authors/editors, to offer a greater variety of services than I could on my own. We are a full-service editing company, which means we strive to help you prepare for publication no matter where you are in the process. We include services such as book fixing, for books that need a little doctoring before they’re ready for editing, and formatting, for authors who are ready to publish. Our package rates bundle services to keep the costs down, and give you access to more than one editor through the different phases of editing to ensure that your finished product is as error-free as possible.

All genres of fiction welcome! Non-fiction and memoirs welcome!

Give us a try! Now through the end of March, send us your first chapter (up to 5,000 words) and get a FREE, no-obligation developmental-style edit.

Learn more at Finish the Story

Free Ebook Today Only!!!

It’s Read an Ebook Week, and that means free books! Twilight Times is offering Cassie Scot: ParaNormal Detective, the first book in the Cassie Scot Quartet, completely free for one day only! No catch! Just click the link to the file type you need …

Download Cassie Scot in .mobi (kindle friendly) format

Download Cassie Scot in .epub format

Open Cassie Scot in .pdf format

If you like the book, don’t forget to check out the other books in the series …

 

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Lemony Snicket Season 1

Image result for lemony snicket netflix

Finally, a Netflix original show that is not only great entertainment for me, but great to watch with the whole family! The Series of Unfortunate Events is based on the bestselling books, which I have not read. But I don’t feel like I missed anything by going straight to the cinematic adaptation. These shows were riveting.

First, I have to recognize the fantastic cast. Neil Patrick Harris as Count Olaf is simply meant to be, but he does not carry the show on his own. The child actors, Malina Weissman and Louis Hynes, were brilliant, and not even just for their ages. I hope to see these two in a lot more in the future. Patrick Warburton as the title character and narrator, Lemony Snicket himself, delivers a wonderful deadpan with hints of real emotion beneath. And on and on. Most of the acting here is overacting, but done to perfection.

Now on to the story: I’ve never sat down to watch a show and been told right off the bat not to watch. Brilliant reverse psychology! The story is intentionally far-fetched and the general tone is, in fact, one of despair. Yet there are moments of levity and somehow the absurdity strikes just the right chord.

This series was just a bit intense for my 8-year-old, thought I suspect she’ll watch it again and enjoy it. My 11-year-old was a bit iffy for the first 2 episodes, but then demanded that we binge-watch the rest in a single weekend. My 8-year-old is prone to being a bit oversensitive and she tends to like shows better the second time she watches them, so my guess is that most 8-year-olds would be okay with this. Just know your kid. I wouldn’t recommend this for children much younger than 8.

Netflix Original: The Magicians (Season 1)

Short review: Never mind, my feelings are too complicated for a short review.

Long review:

I didn’t like this show at first. In fact, I’m not entirely sure why I watched past the first few episodes. My husband suggested that the show had a good premise and, much like with Charmed or Heroes, I kept watching in hopes of seeing that premise fulfilled. Maybe. But in the meantime I found myself hating most of the main characters and feeling a definite drag to the first half or more of the 13 episodes, waiting for something truly impressive to happen.

I didn’t really start to like the show until about episode 9 (give or take … they’re all blurring together). But something strange happened: I didn’t just start to like the show at that point, I started to REALLY like the show. By the second to last episode I was in love and the finale had me desperate for season 2. Actually, it ended in a really mean place and I want to strangle someone but … never mind. Let’s talk premise.

So, magic school for grad students. It takes the classic magic school concept and grows it up a bit. It was nice to see that magic school is okay to do again now … Harry Potter put a stranglehold on the idea for a long time, convincing writers and fans alike that anything involving magic school had to be derivative of Harry Potter. But Rowling did not invent the concept and there is much, much more to do with it. Like do it with 22-year-olds instead of 12-year-olds.

My first impression was that the show’s creators did this grown up version of magic school so the characters could have lots of sex and I was frankly annoyed by it. And I’m still not convinced that the gratuitous sex was necessary, but I did begin to understand it better as the season wore on. It’s … complicated. I’d really love for someone else to watch this show so I can discuss it, honestly!

But in the end, I realized that the grown up version of magic school was more adult than just the sex. Magic was really dangerous. People really died. A series of children’s books really happened … sort of. They were rather watered down for the kids. The books became symbolic of leaving behind childish magical ideas.

The characters, too, became more sympathetic as the season wore on and we began to understand the better. Every character has a story, and a reason for their behavior. Unfortunately, this does come across initially as very middle school behavior, which enhanced my impression of the shows’ creators as only wanting an excuse to have the characters be very sexual. I sometimes forget that middle school is, after all, a sort of super condensed version of real life and that adults are capable of cattiness and nastiness too. Once the characters developed, I still didn’t love many of them, but I understood.

A few things that I really respected the show for:

1. Not taking the easy way out.
2. Surprising me … more than once.
3. Using our expectations and preconceived notions against us. You could also say that it took some tropes and flipped them around, so that at first you get the impression that you’ve seen this show before and it’s not going to do anything new. Then you realize you’re wrong.
4. An episode containing depictions of suicide ended with a screen showing the phone number for the national suicide prevention phone number.Similarly, an episode containing sexual assault ended with a support line for victims.

Complaints:

1. The world building is weak, even at the end of the season.
2. The passage of time was difficult to follow.
3. It took too long to develop the depth that ultimately made it good.

In conclusion: If you watch this show, know you need to stick with it. Have patience. If you love fantasy, you’ll enjoy this.

Sense8 Christmas Special

After 18 long months of waiting, I got a Sense8 teaser for Christmas!

I love love loved Sense8 Season 1, which I first watched in June of 2015 and subsequently watched several more times (each time coming through with a better/deeper understanding of what I was watching). The show was renewed 2 months later, but Season 2 won’t be available until June of 2017. OH, the waiting! The waiting!

The Christmas special was a surprise move. Given how Season 1 ended — and I won’t say in case you haven’t watched — I felt like Season 2 would need to get off the ground running and I couldn’t imagine how a bonus in-between episode would work. It’s not like Doctor Who, which is very episodic even if it does have season arc. The 12 episodes of season 1 were just the epitome of what binge watching allows TV to do that it could never do before — show a 12-hour movie piecemeal. 🙂

And truth be told, I was not at all wowed by the Christmas special. To the extent that I enjoyed it at all, it was a nostalgic revisit to the world and characters I had grown to love. The cinematography remained impressive, the work that went into creating scenes and situations that swept the globe was still evident and fantastic, but at this point I’m familiar with it. I’ve seen it before. So I needed more.

The big challenge in watching this episode was the treatment of the characters I had grown to love and who, by the end of season 1, had learned who and what they were and had accepted one another’s presence in their lives. After coming together in a big way at the end of season 1, I expected season 2 to begin right away with the threat hovering above all of them. And maybe it will. I really, really hope it will. But this Christmas special showed 8 people mostly getting on with their own individual lives. One even said that she was letting Will worry about the BBG (big bad guy) in a “not my problem” sort of way. That bugged me a lot.

So if everyone but Will (who has no choice) is ignoring the big bad, what are they doing? Why, moving on with their individual lives and pushing forward the threads of their separate stories. Or at least poking them forward. Sun has some trouble in prison. Capheus (played by a new actor — they had some fun with that) is fixing up his Van Damme. Nomi is still in hiding and ducking the FBI. Kala goes through with her marriage and struggles with sex (there being a well hung German in her head). Wolfgang’s actions destabilized Berlin and he had to deal with the consequences. The pictures of Lito did go public and he struggled with the public outcry. Will and Riley are hiding together.

The passage of time was difficult to follow. The high points took place on their birthday, which is August 8. Then tings just sort of slid through Thanksgiving to Christmas and the New Year.

The special did establish a new normal for the Sense8. There was a lot of sentimentalism in their acceptance of one another, and they openly considered themselves family more than once. They enjoyed celebrating high moments such as birthdays and holidays together, making those panoramic scenes a bit sappy but we understand the tone — they’re a true Sense8 now.

A couple of key moments did require the group to work together to save one of their own. It was nice to see that happening fluidly now.

But ultimately, this was exposition — not story. “Here’s what’s been happening while you were away.”

I still have every hope that season 2 will be awesome, and with the exposition out of the way, I have high expectations that early episodes in the season will take off running. There is room for this show to disappoint me or impress me yet. 🙂

True Memoirs of an International Assassin

Austin and I were in the mood for something light this weekend and as if it were planned for us, Netflix released its original movie “True Memoirs of an International Assassin” on Friday.

This movie tells the story of an aspiring novelist working on his first suspense-thriller. Fellow writers, you will particularly enjoy the setup as we catch glimpses of a writer at work. At one point, the characters sit around tapping their feet and checking their watches as the author tries to figure out how the scene will unfold. Loved it!

Then he gets a publishing contract. This part is not realistic, just in case you were wondering, but give it a pass because here’s the setup and it’s really pretty funny: The publisher swore she wouldn’t delete a word and she didn’t. She just added one: “NON” in front of “FICTION” So … this poor schmuck gets kidnapped and carted off to Venezuela where things just keep getting worse.

I really enjoyed this movie. We were even able to watch it while the kids were awake. Note: This movie is not for kids; however, unlike many shows that have unexpected nudity, meaning you have to make sure the kids are behind closed doors and snoring, this was fairly clean. It gave us the opportunity to “chill out” with the kids on chill night — them playing video games while we enjoyed the show.

The laughter wasn’t nonstop, but it was laugh-out-loud funny plenty often enough. I highly recommend.

A Time for Reflection

 

Liberals, Democrats, and Independents: Beware! Now is not the time to charge blindly forward along the same path that led us to where we find ourselves today. Now is the time to STOP and THINK.

Eight years ago, Republicans lost to Barack Obama in a veritable landslide and I distinctly remember hearing Democrats telling them to consider carefully how they got to that point. They did not. Oh, they gave the idea some lip service but ultimately they only gave birth to the “tea party,” a hyper-concentrated version of what they already were. They didn’t learn. They didn’t listen. Then, they nominated Trump and Democrats said, “Surely, this is the end!”
This morning, amidst shock, anger, grief and despair, I see a common theme: It’s time to fight! Now is not the time to mourn, now is not the time to bury our heads in the sand, now is the time to stride forward, ever onward! To save our country from hatred and bigotry.

Whoa! Hold on there. We still haven’t got a clear answer to: WTF happened?

I see plenty of ready answers, especially: The country is swimming in more hateful, ignorant, racist, sexist, deplorable people than we thought.

Maybe it is. But these are still our fellow Americans, part of our system of government run by the people. And calling them hateful, ignorant, racist, sexist, or deplorable is NOT the way to win their hearts. If we learn nothing else from this election cycle, I hope we learn that.

What would happen if we took a moment to listen? Not just to hear and to judge, but to truly try to understand the fears of a nation willing to set aside a hugely qualified candidate in favor of … (leaving out my usual adjectives for the sake of avoiding hypocrisy) Donald Trump?

Among other things, this vote split alarmingly between urban and rural voters. My husband is from rural Arkansas, his family (Trump supporters) still live there, and he has many Facebook friends who share these ideals. Last night, even before it became clear that Clinton would lose, even when it was simply clear that the election would be astoundingly close, we talked about why.

Democrats don’t speak to rural voters, he said. Most of the social programs and changes they want to enact disproportionately benefit city dwellers. And yes, this is partly due to infrastructure problems, but it’s no less true.

Meanwhile, he said, they’re afraid. They already live a life that takes them from paycheck to paycheck, they’re fired up with pride in their own hard work (ie they don’t want handouts), and they’re frankly being talked down to by Democrats. Is it any wonder that when Republicans give them something to fear, that they latch onto it?

I’m still processing all of that and I have no answers for you. Answers are not the point of this post. The point of this post is to implore Democrats to ask the questions.

Some say political discussion is futile, that it can only end in anger, and that no one ever changes their mind. As someone who has changed her mind a great deal over the years, down to some fundamental issues like abortion, gun control, gay rights, taxes, and health care, I know this is false.

But I never. Not once. Ever. Changed my mind when someone insulted me.

Political discussion is, in fact, essential to a free country. But it has to be a discussion, with give and take, with open minds and willing hearts. We have to give one another the benefit of the doubt that being on the opposite side of a political issue does not make someone a bad person.

And I know … believe me I know … that Republicans do it too. But they won. So let’s grow up and figure this thing out the only way anything has ever been figured out: By thinking things through, talking, and listening.

A Dark Day in America

It’s a dark day in America.

Don’t tell me to have faith in Democracy. Don’t try to assure me that we’ve been through hard times before and come through them. Don’t even tell me to breathe.

Today is a dark day in America, and I need some time to mourn.

There are five widely recognized stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. And I haven’t even started on them yet because I’m still in shock. So forgive me if I need more then eight hours, most of them spent trying to sleep and failing due to nightmares, in order to get to a calm place in my mind.

Today is a dark day in America, and I’m afraid.

It’s not even the politics, although that’s scary enough. It’s the nuclear launch codes. It’s our standing within the international community. It’s the fact that there are serious conflicts going on in the world today that need a serious leader to handle them.

Today is a dark day in America, and I’m heartbroken.

I want to be angry with the millions of Americans who chose a pussy-grabbing racist over an e-mail sending slightly left of centrist but I can’t manage that right now. I’m too sad. Who are we? I thought I knew what America was and what it stood for but I woke up this morning and it turns out, I know nothing.

Today is a dark day in America, and I’m afraid.

This time it is about the politics. The last time the Republicans won such sweeping control over the nation, they destabilized our economy and hiked up the national debt. They still espouse the same principles of “trickle down economics” that caused issues during the Bush years. Also, their ability to affect the Supreme Court will leave a stain on justice that we’ll feel for decades to come.

Today is a dark day in America, and I’m embarrassed.

Donald Trump is a buffoon. Let’s not overlook the simple fact that he is an unintelligible moron who can barely string a sentence together. I almost grammar checked the debates — maybe I should have. Listening to him speak is painful, but it will be a hundred times worse going forward because that voice, the voice will represent our nation for the next four years.

Today is a dark day in America, and I’m perplexed.

Why, America? Why!!!! I mean … no. I have no words. There are no words. Just … why?

Today is a dark day in America, and I’m angry.

There. I finally managed it. Anger. I’m angry with the Democrats for allowing such an unelectable person to win the nomination, especially in a year when America was clearly looking for an “anti-establishment” candidate. We had one. His name was Bernie Sanders and in every Trump mock-up poll he wiped the floor with the man. Clinton barely edged out. And while I could choose to be angry with the voters for weighing her dubious e-mail scandal against the load of horse shit that is everything Donald Trump is and has done in his life, the fact remains that there were warning signs. The truth is, Trump was the only candidate against whom Clinton had the slightest chance, AND SHE COULDN’T EVEN MANAGE TO BEAT HIM!!!!! I’m an independent, and this election reminds me why I consider myself to be an independent despite the fact that I largely vote democrat. If the republicans scare me, than the democrats often disgust and disappoint me. This should have been a winnable election.

I’m angry with the news media … for getting it wrong, for projecting such overwhelming false hope, and for their part in ensuring a Clinton nomination in the first place.

I’m REALLY angry with the electoral college system, which is likely (yet again) to produce a president who lost the popular vote.

Today is a dark day in America, and it’s only just beginning.

The next four years are going to be tough. Hopefully, they won’t be earth-shattering or irreplaceable, but they will certainly be tough. I’m not even sure how to have faith in checks and balances right now, since the constitution’s checks didn’t count on the rise of a party system that would supersede these measures. There are no checks. There are no balances. There are only Republicans.

Today is a dark day in America, and I have the right to mourn.

I will do my level best to regain some faith in America over the coming days, weeks, and months, but don’t push me. Don’t push us. A dream died last night. Think about that before you walk into my wake and tell me to just get over it. Join me in mourning if you will, then give me time and space. That’s all I ask.

Galavant Season 1

If you haven’t seen Galavant, then I’m afraid there’s really nothing on TV today I can use for comparison. It’s musical theatre with some funny bits. The first episode had me laughing harder than I have in a good long while.

The first episode got me on audacity and shock, though, and once that had worn off I found little underneath to sustain the concept.

But it’s 8 20-minute shows so if you’ve got a few hours to kill and are bored with the same old same old, give it a try.