The Blog of John Hewitt

Six Quick Tips for Writing Descriptions

  • Close your eyes and try to recreate the image in your head.
  • Remember that people have five senses. Don’t just rely on visual description.
  • Adjectives should describe, not evaluate. Describing skin as smooth or tan is better than describing it as pretty or perfect.
  • Don’t over-describe things. A description should enhance the story, not drag it to a stop.
  • Don’t describe things that don’t matter. If you spend a paragraph discussing a minor character’s mustache-grooming ritual, it had better be important to your story.
  • Draw your descriptions from real-life memories.

Six Quick Tips For Starting Your Story

  • Start with the scene you’ve been visualizing the most.
  • Get to the action. Don’t worry about introducing your characters. You can always go back and do that later when you’ve been working with them for a while.
  • Accept the fact that you aren’t going to get everything right the first time. Keep moving forward.
  • If you can’t think of a first sentence, start by stating a character’s problem. Billy hated bats.
  • If you don’t like what you started with, try something new. Don’t erase what you have, just move on.
  • Relax.

There is no right way to write a novel

The first, best, and most important thing to learn about writing a novel is that there is no one way to do it. Novels have been written in a thousand different ways. One person’s style and approach can be radically different than another person’s and yet still produce a good novel. There are people who plot out every detail before they start writing. Some novelists start with an outline that can stretch for several pages. One writer might write down each possible scene on an index card. Another writer might spend all of his preparation time creating elaborate backgrounds for the characters. Another writer might just start writing, with no idea in advance of where the novel is going and how it will get there. None of these writers would be wrong. Each approach can result in an excellent novel.

Some writers fret over every single word of the first draft. Their choices are so careful and exact that second and third drafts look almost exactly the same as the first. Some writers just tear through their first draft as quickly as possible, unconcerned with the possible messes they have created and sure that they will fix every problem when they start editing. The end result of this process may look almost nothing like the original. Again, neither writer is correct or incorrect. Different styles work. Different approaches work for different people.

If you are looking at writing for Nanowrimo, however, there are some approaches that may be more advantageous. For example, because you must create your first draft in a single month, sweating over every single word of the first draft is probably not a good idea. That approach may work well when you have six months or longer to produce a draft, but it is virtually impossible to be that exacting and produce a 50,000 word or longer draft in a single month.

Writing off the top of your head also has its pitfalls. If you attempt this, at the hurried pace of Nanowrimo, and you could find yourself unable to generate sufficient action or creating character arcs or plots that go nowhere. It can lead to a lot of frustration down the line. While the rules of the process are that you need to write the draft during the month of November, there is no reason why you can’t prepare as thoroughly as possible before you reach the start date. You can create a detailed outline, an in-depth character study, research any subjects you plan to write about and create descriptions of the real or imagined places that will be the settings for the action.

You can prepare as thoroughly or as lightly for the process as you want, but I for one want to take advantage of the advance time so that I can be as ready to write come 12:01 November first as possible.

Deciding on a Narrative Voice

There are many ways to tell a story and you will need to choose which one will work best for your novel. Here is a quick rundown of the basic narrative points-of-view.

Third Person

A third person narrative tells the story from a perspective outside of any one particular character. It discusses the events from a slightly removed position. “Billy went to the store to get beer.” Some of the decisions involved with third person include whether or not the narrator has access to the character’s thoughts or merely their actions, and whether or not the narrator has a point of view about the actions happening in the story. Finally, there is the decision of whether or not to follow more than one character. A narrative can be in the third person, but still only focus on the actions of a single character.

First Person

First person is told from the perspective of a character within the story, usually the lead character but sometimes a peripheral character that happens to know most of the events either through observation, participation or through someone else telling them what happened. “I went to the store to get beer.” It is also possible to have multiple first-person narratives, with the perspective shifting by chapter or by scene from one storyteller to another.

Reliable or Unreliable Narrators

In first person narratives, the character sees everything from their own point of view. This means that they cannot know what happens unless they observe it or are told it, and the way they observe the story may be pretty close to the facts or skewed by their own perceptions. A story narrated by a pathological liar or a child, for example, may not accurately reflect the reality of what is going around them. Third person narrators are usually not unreliable, but it is possible to do this as well.

What Are Your Needs?

Choosing which type of narrator to have can be difficult. You want the narrator that is going to best reflect the needs and goals of your story. A story with twenty different characters, for example, may need a third person narrator simply because a single character within the story may not be able to observe or even be told all of the things that occur. A first person narrator, however, generally adds a level of immediacy to the story, and the fact that they are seeing what happens from the character’s perspective may increase the reader’s feeling of connection to the story.

Once you choose a voice though, especially if you are trying to work quickly for a deadline like Nanowrimo, you need to stick with your first choice. Changing the narrative voice requires a great deal of editing and can take quite a lot of time.