Monday, January 27, 2020

How To Write Great Descriptions

By Katharina Gerlach

How To Write Great Descriptions

I’m a bilingual author from Germany and I learned many things the hard way. One of my biggest obstacles was (and still is to some extent) my tendency to write lean. I do not much care for lush descriptions. Why use 20 words if 5 will suffice? The reason is quite simple:

Reading is the only known way of thought transfer. Sure, it’s a buggy process but it works if (yes, if) the author knows the difference between show and tell, and description plays a major role there.

As a child, I loved the books of an author who lived in the middle of the 19th century. His stories were adventurous and had deep meaning. However, I skipped whole pages due to big blocks of descriptions. I wanted the action to keep moving. So when I began writing in earnest, I left out descriptions wherever possible.  Either extreme is wrong. 

In a blogpost on this site in October, Rayne Hall has already given you some pointers at how you can make your descriptions more engaging. Use your scene character’s POV to your advantage.  You can reveal or hide facts you’ll need in later chapters by mixing them into well thought out descriptions. You can also use description to characterize your POV character or characters the POV character interacts with. 

Example: “How I hated the smell of his car. The scent of cold cigarettes, french fries, and stale beer made me gag, but I had no choice. If I wanted life to continue, I had to sit in his grimy VW bug where a mass of mingled rubbish had overtaken the backseat. There were scientific papers, sheet music, food, empty beer bottles, some records and even a guitar with ripped strings and a coating that must surely be a century’s worth of grime.”

Right here, the description is only there to set the scene, the reader thinks. But later on, when the young detective discovers that all murder victims have been strangled with a guitar string, this scene gets a whole new layer of importance.

The key to great description is the use of specific details. Rayne Hall has already shown how different the perceptions of your characters should be, depending on their jobs, their hobbies, and life experiences. But even with that foundation, the choice of detail is crucial. 

Why does the architect notice this house rather than the one next to it? Does he really notice the whole house or is it the contrast of the blooming geranium in the cracked pot against the once yellow sandstone that symbolizes the district's downfall to him?

It is also important to keep in mind, what the POV character is doing in the scene you’re trying to describe. Naturally, a thief fleeing from the police will not notice how lovingly cared for the garden looks that he’s passing through. He’ll only be on the lookout for the gate or a place where he can jump the fence or a hiding place. While an old widow visiting her late husband’s grave might point out to him in minute detail what has changed on the neighboring graves since her last visit.

Description should also use all senses if possible. Our normal modus operandi is sight, which is why most of our descriptions center around things we see. But we’ve also got smell, hearing, feel, and taste (which is pretty hard to put into story but not impossible). And some people claim to have a sixth sense, perception.

A final consideration is your genre. Description can be used very well to set the tone of your novel. Description in a gritty detective story will focus on different elements in the scenes and a different, more chopped up writing style than a chick-lit story with its fluffy, feel-good descriptions. The genre also determines the amount of descriptions you need. 

Readers of Romance expect a lot of sensual descriptions mingled with strong emotions whereas Horror works with the unseen in complex settings. A heavily tech-oriented SciFi story will need more expository description (beware the pitfall here) than a coming of age story set in the real world.

Make your descriptions as varied as you can, because description is what makes your stories become a movie in the readers’ minds. Skimp on it, and your stories will fall flat no matter how engaging the characters and how intriguing the plot. Put in too much, and the reader will skip paragraphs or even whole pages.

Play Along:
Describe your room twice. The first time, pretend to be a mother fetching laundry from her son’s/daughter’s room. And second, pretend to be an alien that crashed through the window of this room, so this is the first glimpse of humanity it gets. Keep it under 100 words.
Feel free to post, and I’ll do my best to comment.

Monday, January 20, 2020

Ten Tips for Handling Bad Book Reviews

Bad reviews! Any writer with a published book gets crappy reviews. How do we deal with them? Here are ten tips:

1 – Refrain from responding
As much as you might want to respond, either politely or with harsh words, don’t do it. Once you’ve left a comment or sent out a Tweet or posted to Facebook, your negative response will be out there for all to see forever. You might get a few fans to rally to your cause, but most will view you as the villain, not the reviewer. Even if you later delete it, the damage is done. Sending an email is a bad idea as well. So refrain from adding fuel to the fire and keep your grumblings private.

2 – Know that it’s part of the process
Guess what? We all get negative reviews. It goes with the territory. Remember, you created art. Art is subjective and not everyone will like your book. You can’t please everyone. (And if you do, then you really didn’t say anything of value.) Shake it off and move on.

3 – Laugh about it
What are you going to do—cry? Might as well laugh about it! Often a bad review is just as poorly written. So turn the tables and have a good chuckle about it.

4 – Remember they add validity to good reviews
What do you think when a book has nothing but five star reviews? You start to wonder, don’t you? Friends and family of the author? Paid reviews? A couple bad reviews means some readers were honest—which means the rest of the good reviews are probably honest as well. Plus sometimes people want to know if the book is really that bad and they read it!

5 – Look for constructive criticism
Often two and three star reviews will offer constructive criticism. Look for it. Is there any validity to what they said? Can you see areas where you can improve or issues you need to address? (Several reviewers didn’t like the fact there were no women in my first book. I listened and made sure there were several women in the next one, including a female main character. That book garnered better reviews than the first.) Learn from the bad reviews and write a better book next time.

6 – Don’t focus on the negative
We tend to focus on the negative. We can have a hundred great reviews and one bad one. Which gets our attention? The bad one! Who cares? When doing averages, what do they always do? They drop the top numbers and the bottom numbers. So ignore that bad review and don’t even factor it into the equation.

7 – It’s just one person’s opinion
Everybody has an opinion. And they are just that—opinions, not facts. So one person didn’t like your book? Big deal! Out of millions of readers, that’s not even a drop in the bucket. (Unless all of your reviews are bad!)

8 – Don’t let it stop you
Yes, putting a book out there is scary. It’s a creative endeavor, which makes it a little more personal. We can’t take it personal though. We have to believe in ourselves and not let bad reviews stop us. Have you ever encountered a jerk at your work? Did it cause you to give up and stop working forever? No! So don’t let a negative review from someone you’ve never met stop you.

9 – Write the next book
This is the best thing you can do! Just hunker down and write your next book. Show those naysayers that you are a great writer. Take your experience from the previous book and pour it into the next one. Besides, you’ll be so busy writing, you won’t have time to worry about bad reviews.

10 – Kill off the reviewer in your next book
If all else fails, then just put that reviewer into your book as a murder victim or monster that is slayed by the hero!

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” – Teddy Roosevelt

How do you handle bad reviews?

Monday, January 13, 2020

4 Tips For Creating Villains

Sacha Black 
4 Tips For Creating Villains

Everyone knows that a hero is the most important character in a novel… Or are they? It’s actually a common misconception because at the heart of all stories is change, aka the emotional arc the hero moves through. From ‘flawed person unable to defeat their obstacles’ to ‘heroic champion at the end of the book’, having overcome their issues. And driving that change is conflict, and who creates conflict…?

The villain.

That’s why the villain is JUST as important as the hero. It’s also why I spend as much time crafting my villain as I do crafting my hero. So here are four tips to creating sinister villains.

1.      Why is Everything

Humans do things for a reason, often because of past experiences and the emotional wounds we’ve gathered. For example, losing a limb or a loved one dying. These events actually shape our brain chemistry and change the way we see the world. They cement the way we make decisions meaning rational thought can plausibly leave a villain and they can do something immoral because that’s what experience has taught them.
The Lion King is a great example of this. The King, Mufasa, has a brother called Scar who grew up in his shadow, always second best. As a result, Scar becomes bitter and jealous. In his mind, he deserves the crown. Therefore, anything he does to get it is reasonable. His jealousy is the reason why there’s conflict, and that conflict over the crown drives the story.
2.      Positivity is King

It might sound odd to ask you to give your villain a positive trait, but positivity for villains leads to believability. Just like having a perfect hero is off putting (because no one is perfect in real life) having a purely evil villain is also unbelievable. In a villain’s mind, they’re the hero of their story, they don’t think they’re evil, so chances are, there’s something redeemable about them.

You could show them caring for a sibling or family member, or show them loving a pet. You could even turn their negative trait into a positive one temporarily. Showing some positivity will breed a much more complex villain who’s an awful lot more believable than one who’s 100% nasty.

3.      Make Your Villain Unbeatable

A story with a hero who gets it easy is boring. Nothing is a challenge, the obstacles fall away. That’s not going to grip your readers. What grips them is relating to your hero’s emotional journey and the trials and tribulations he faces. That means he needs to work hard for his win. He needs to defeat a huge villain shaped barrier that seems, for 85% of your novel, like it’s totally insurmountable.
How do you make the villain seem undefeatable?
Make your villain an expert at something — if your villain is an expert in amassing huge armies, your hero is going to struggle to gather a rabble of misfits big enough to defeat him. A good tip here is to link to your hero’s character arc to your main villain-barrier. For example, Thor from the Marvel universe movies is (at the start) arrogant and selfish. So his father curses Thor’s magical hammer—the only hammer that’s able to defeat the villain. Until Thor can change and prove himself worthy of the power the hammer wields, he’s royally screwed. Once he changes, he gets the hammer back and can defeat the villain.
4.      Consider a Twist
Once you’ve finished the first book in a series you could play a wild card and consider a villain redemption arc for the next book in your series.

A character arc defines the change a character goes through during your story. Typically, a villain will spend the entire plot descending into villainy, where eventually they’re defeated. But a villain on the path to redemption goes the other way, they climb their way out of villainy to redeem themselves.

A word of caution though:

It takes time. Just as a hero takes an entire novel to overcome her flaw, it will take some time for a villain to make this monumental change. Don’t let them yo-yo between good and evil — the change needs to build slowly throughout your story.

Foreshadowing is vital. Readers don’t like to be cheated. You need to drop breadcrumbs throughout your story to let your reader know subconsciously that the villain is going to change, otherwise, they’ll feel cheated. Foreshadowing is subtle and often doesn’t take a lot — the occasional soft glance from the villain, a nicely spoken sentence, an action that is ‘good’ rather than evil. Tiny clues are key here.

Like hero like villain. Don’t make it easy for your villain to change. Just like it’s hard for the hero to overcome her flaw, it should be hard for a villain to overcome his. A quick way to make it harder for the villain to redeem himself is to catch him between two of his values. For example, while this character isn’t a villain, it still illustrates the point: Ned Stark in Game of Thrones values loyalty and wisdom – his wisdom tells him if he helps his King it will inevitably lead to his death, and yet, his loyalty forces him to help the King anyway.

Don’t let your villain become a wuss. Villains are villains for a reason. Keep them authentic by retaining some of their sharper personality edges. Just because their actions are good doesn’t mean the whole of them will be.

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Tweeting In The New Year With Insecure Writer's Support Group!

New date. New month. New Year. Same great group ready to motivate and inspire. It’s time for the next posting of the Insecure Writer’s Support Group! Time to release our fears to the world – or offer encouragement to those who are feeling neurotic. If you’d like to join us, click on the tab above and sign up. We post the first Wednesday of every month. We encourage everyone to visit at least a dozen new blogs and leave a comment. Your words might be the encouragement someone needs.

The awesome co-hosts for the January 8 posting of the IWSG are T. Powell Coltrin, Victoria Marie Lees, Stephen Tremp, Renee Scattergood, and J.H. Moncrieff!

January 8 question: What started you on your writing journey? Was it a particular book, movie, story, or series? Was it a teacher/coach/spouse/friend/parent? Did you just "know" suddenly you wanted to write?

The next #IWSGPit is only one week away. We hope you have those pitches polished and ready to go. It is a great chance to get discovered. We have had authors get picked up by publishers from our past pitches. This year it could be you. Don't miss out. Full details can be found here.


Can you believe a new year has begun already? And it is a nice 2020. That has to make one's OCD happy. Just saying. And best of all, everyone has a whole extra day to write. That means another few thousand words, right? Or is it just another day to watch cute cat videos on YouTube?

With each new year comes goals and challenges that we set for ourselves. Is there any you have set for yourself this year? Did you meet the goals you set for yourself last year? Whether you did or not, what did you learn?

And here is a great way to begin 2020.
Cover reveal for the next IWSG Anthology!

Voyagers: The Third Ghost
An Insecure Writer’s Support Group Anthology

Journey into the past…

Will the third ghost be found before fires take more lives? Can everyone be warned before Pompeii is buried again? What happens if a blizzard traps a family in East Germany? Will the Firebird help Soviet sisters outwit evil during WWII? And sneaking off to see the first aeroplane – what could go wrong?

Ten authors explore the past, sending their young protagonists on harrowing adventures. Featuring the talents of Yvonne Ventresca, Katharina Gerlach, Roland Clarke, Sherry Ellis, Rebecca M. Douglass, Bish Denham, Charles Kowalski, Louise MacBeath Barbour, Beth Anderson Schuck, and L.T. Ward.

Hand-picked by a panel of agents, authors, and editors, these ten tales will take readers on a voyage of wonder into history. Get ready for an exciting ride!

Available May 5, 2020
$13.95 USA, 6x9 Trade paperback, 168 pages, Freedom Fox Press
Juvenile Fiction: Historical (JUV016000) / Action & Adventure (JUV001000) / Fantasy & Magic (JUV037000)
Print ISBN 9781939844729 eBook ISBN 9781939844736
Order through Ingram, Follett Library Resources, or publisher direct
$4.99 EBook available in all formats

Are you ready for the next #IWSGPit? Have you gotten any interest or feedback during past pitches? Any new goals or challenges that you have set for yourself in 2020? Do you see the extra day as a help? How would you answer today's question? What do you think of the cover for the next IWSG Anthology?