Description in Action

A writing student of mine recently asked me to share some thoughts on writing setting and character descriptions. Here’s what I told her.

In general, less experienced writers tend to make one of two mistakes regarding description; they either write too much of it, or too little. Both can be problems.

With too little description, readers are left feeling disconnected from your prose or, worse yet, confused. Stories with too little description can come off like bland newspaper copy, just a string of facts and events which, compelling as they might be, are unlikely to transport readers into a story or kindle an emotional connection.

When writers include too much description, the prose feels bloated and overly dense. If you’ve ever tried to hike through the woods where there’s no path, you’ll know the sensation. You soon become bogged down in thick underbrush and get stuck. We’ve all read stories that start off by spending five pages describing the countryside, or devote whole paragraphs to listing a character’s physical traits. Not only is that boring, including all those excess descriptions can distract your reader from what’s important in the story.

So how do you achieve the ultimate “Goldilocks” balance of detail and description, not too much and not too little? The goal is always this: include as little description as possible, but make it EFFECTIVE. Try to find one or two details or an analogy that cut through your subject like a bullet. Here’s some homework: pull out five or six of your favorite books and read the first few pages. Most likely, they will include the description of a character (probably the protagonist) and a setting. Examine how this author handles the descriptions. How many words or sentences does she use to describe the character and establish the setting? Is there a word, sentence, or phrase that cuts to the heart of the subject, evoking who that character or what that place is in a way no other description, even one many paragraphs long, ever could? Study those examples, and learn from them. Remember, if you’re looking to get your story published, editors and agents will demand that your protagonist and setting are vividly established as early as possible– ideally in the first paragraph or two, and certainly on the first page.

Now, let’s examine some traits and tricks particular to describing people and settings.

Describing Characters | Here’s the biggest secret to describing characters: don’t describe them. Okay, okay, that’s not completely true. There are a few traits that we need to know, and know right away. How old is the character? What is their defining characteristic? Does he have a port wine mark on his face? Is she albino? Is she 600 pounds? Is he miraculously average looking? These things you might state outright, either in the character’s internal dialogue if you’re writing from his/her point of view, or if not, from the point of view of a character seeing them. But often, we want to examine subtler aspects of a character. The best way to do that, and the biggest key to character description, is to have the character DO something and let their character be revealed through ACTION. Here are two ways of describing the same character:

“She had very large breasts, and always felt embarrassed by them. She felt that they made everyone think of her as a sex object.”

“Only when she leaned down did he notice a seismic shift of flesh beneath her loose-fitting top. When she saw him looking at her, she crossed her arms over her chest and looked away, the color draining form her face.”

See how these two examples contain the same information, but in the second one, the information is revealed IN ACTION? In the first example, the story has stopped for the author to intrude with a comment; in the second example, the character description is imbedded in the action. The story is moving forward, rather than stopping, plus we learn more about the characters and their relationships that we would if we were merely being fed a description by the author. This technique, description in action, is an indispensable hallmark if sophisticated writing.

Describing Settings | The same technique, description in action, can be used for describing setting. See the two examples below:

“The house was abandoned and creepy. Every surface seemed to be caked in dust and cobwebs.”

“Carlos yanked a white cloth off the dining room table and a cloud of dust ghosted up from it, filling his nostrils. He gagged, and his coughs echoed through the abandoned rooms, sending black spiders and sharp-eyed rodents scurrying for cover.”

Notice how both descriptions contain essentially the same information, but the second one is so much more vibrant, and keeps the action moving forward.

Setting is very important in establishing tone. Look around the room you’re sitting in. If you described every single object around you in minute detail, it could probably fill twenty pages. So how to you pick what to describe and how to describe it?

First, consider your character’s point of view. What do they want? What state of mind is she in? If she is suicidal and walks into the kitchen, you might describe the block of kitchen knives. If she is trying to lose weight, you’ll ignore the knives and describe the delicious-looking chocolate cake sitting on the counter. Your character’s focus is your focus.

Second, describing your setting is the perfect place to use word choice to convey your piece’s tone. In the example above, we established in the first example that the setting should be creepy. We’re creating an eerie tone. So notice the word choices I made in the second example:

“Carlos yanked a white cloth off the dining room table and a cloud of dust ghosted up from it, filling his nostrils. He gagged, and his coughs echoed through the abandoned rooms, sending black spiders and sharp-eyed rodents scurrying for cover.”

Now, imagine this is a character exploring an empty house in a happy love story. You might write it like this:

“Carlos yanked a white cloth off the dining room table and a cloud of dust wafted up from it, filling his nostrils. The sound of his sneeze filled the sun-brightened rooms, sending the tiny field mouse that watched him from one corner scurrying for cover.”

The setting and the actions in both passages are very similar, but notice how different word choices and details can turn it into an entirely different world. Also notice that in both examples, because of my careful word choices, the setting is well-established in only two sentences.

For both characters and settings, once they are established it is sometimes necessary to reinforce them in the minds of the reader, but again this should be done in the context of action, and should provide some deepening understanding of character, rather than just repeating what the reader already knows.

You might be wondering, how do I know what details to include, and what word choices to make? Before you can make choices that serve your story, you have to know what the story is. If you’re describing setting, how is your protagonist feeling when they enter that setting? How do you want your reader to feel? For character, ask yourself: who is this person? What do they want? What is most important to them? What is his defining characteristic? Only after answering these questions will you be able to make word choices that create the right tone for the story and illuminate the characters.

Finally, for a reminder of how a little description can go a long way, I suggest you read some Hemingway. He was a master of trusting the reader and allowing her to fill in her own details. Take this sentence:

“The girl and her grandfather walked down the stairs, into the grandfather’s basement.”

This sentence is devoid of description. And yet, a reader left to her own devices will fill in many details. You have either been a little girl or have known one. You have either had a grandfather or known one. And you likely have walked down stairs and into a basement. In the absence of other instruction, a reader will construct a scene from his or her own experience, and sometimes that can be very powerful. My grandfather and his basement have much more emotional resonance for me than any fictional grandfather or fictional basement you could ever construct. So unless you have a compelling reason for making the basement or grandfather in your story specific, why not let my (the reader’s) subconscious do the work? Sometimes this can be an incredibly effective technique, but you must be careful to use it mindfully, so that it doesn’t become simply lazy writing.

Much more could be written on this subject, but that’s all you get for now. Go forth and write some brilliant descriptions! I hope my thoughts will help.

Last Signing Event of the Year

I’ll be autographing books on Saturday the 20th from 11am-1:30pm at the Lansing, MI Barnes and Noble. Come get a signed book for the reader on your list.

Barnes & Noble * Saturday, December 20th * 11am-1:30pm
Book Signing
Lansing Mall
5132 W. Saginaw Hwy 245
Lansing, MI 48917

Many thanks to my readers and all those who have supported my work this year. 2014 has been great, but mark my words: 2015 will be greater still!

New Things Afoot

Where has my dear friend J. Gabriel Gates been, you might ask? Since Shadow Train came out, I’ve heard nary a thing from him except a few tweets.

The answer is: I’ve been doing a lot. I’ve written two teen horror novels, both of which I’m in the process of revising. I’ve nearly completed my MFA in creative writing from Spalding University (I LOVE Spalding, for anyone out there thinking of pursuing a low-residency MFA). I bought a new house and moved. And, most profound of all, my wife and I had twin babies. Everything you’ve heard about twins is true. They are amazing. They are beautiful. They are fun to watch interact. And it requires balls of steel to keep writing when you’re sleep deprived from being awakened twenty times a night. Fortunately, my friends, I have just such balls.

I have no release dates for my new books yet, but stay tuned for updates. If you need a fix in the meantime, or some brilliant books for folks on your Christmas list, I will be doing exactly one book signing this holiday season, and the info is below. Hang in there, friends, good things are on the horizon!

Barnes & Noble * Saturday, December 20th * 11am-3pm
Book Signing
Lansing Mall
5132 W. Saginaw Hwy 245
Lansing, MI 48917

Stone Butch Blues: A Book that Mattered

The autumn of 2005 found me in Hollywood, struggling to find my voice as a not-yet-successful novelist. I had just finished writing a horror novel, The Sleepwalkers, and had embarked on a new dystopian speculative fiction novel in response to the war in Iraq, the reelection of George W. Bush, and what I saw as the eclipsing of democracy in America by corporate power.

I was in the throes of a tumultuous relationship with a talented but troubled young actress, and when I wasn’t writing, I often went film shoots and auditions with her. That September, she was acting in a film which she was to play a butch lesbian—quite a stretch for my ultra-feminine and fashion-conscious girlfriend. To help her prepare for the role, the director gave her a book.

“Read this, and you’ll understand what it’s like to be butch,” she said, handing over a copy of Stone Butch Blues.

My girlfriend, the quintessential Hollywood slacker, skimmed a chapter or two then left the book to gather dust on our coffee table. I, however, picked it up and was instantly mesmerized. Its author, Leslie Feinberg, spins the tale of a woman growing up gay in America in the middle part of the twentieth century. Her parents toss her out at age fourteen for being different, casting her into a life of poverty and loneliness. When she finally finds community in a local gay bar, she finds a measure of happiness until sadistic homophobes in the town—including police—target the bar’s patrons for abuse. In her struggle to make ends meet, she finds a job working in a factory, but when layoffs arise, hers is the first head to roll. Desperate for a job and struggling with her identity, she embarks on hormone therapy, grows a beard, and finds a factory job posing as a man.

Feinberg tells her story with Hemingwayesque simplicity, and the pain, truth and humanity of her words grabbed me like a fishhook. “This book should be required reading for everyone on earth!” I declared when I finished the last page.

Although years before I had helped the Human Rights Campaign gather signatures to make anti-gay violence a hate crime, the gay equality movement hadn’t really begun gathering steam yet. As a heterosexual white male, I simply hadn’t given much thought to what it would be like to be a transgendered person. Feinberg’s writing was so simple and vivid, however, that I couldn’t avoid it. More than that, I that now I felt as if I had actually been a transgendered person. The pain I felt reading her book was as real and as personal as if I had suffered the taunts, the beatings, and long, lonely, hopeless nights myself.

I quickly realized what was missing from the novel on which I had been toiling, and made its protagonist, like Feinberg’s, a strong gay woman, valiant and vibrant but alone in a world in which she did not fit. The novel Blood Zero Sky benefitted greatly from the inspiration, and in 2012 it became my fourth published novel. I owe Leslie Feinberg a debt for that. But far more important than the impact Stone Butch Blues had on my writing, is the befit it had on my soul.

Writing Class for Metro-Detroit Area Writers

Metro Detroit area writers, time is almost up to sign up for a YA fiction writing class taught by yours truly. The class an intimate and focused workshop-style experience and you will get a lot of valuable feedback, both from me and from your fellow classmates. If you’d like to sign up, though, you need to do it fast. Spaces are filling quickly and classes start on Wednesday, October 9th.

Young Adult Fiction with J. Gabriel Gates: Mahany/Meininger Community Center, Room #7, 3500 Marais, Royal Oak, 48073, Wednesdays, October 9, 16, 23, 30, November 6 & 13, 7 pm – 9 pm. Writers of all levels are welcome to attend and explore the myriad genres and styles in the exploding area of YA / teen fiction. Workshop your existing YA manuscript or work-in-progress, or gain the tools and insight necessary to make your first foray into this field of writing a success. A Michigan native and Hollywood screenwriter, J. Gabriel Gates has had five novels published by HCI Books (publishers of the “Chicken Soup for the Soul” series) including teen horror novel The Sleepwalkers and teen urban fantasy / paranormal romance series The Tracks. (Dark Territory, Ghost Crown, and Shadow Train.) His most recent title is the acclaimed dystopian sci-fi thriller Blood Zero Sky. www.jgabrielgates.com REGISTER HERE

In other news, I am hard at work revising my latest novel. It is, of course, awesome – so stay tuned for more info about it!

Long Time No Blog

Hello friends!

My apologies for the delay in updating you all. My life as been even more wonderfully hectic than usual of late. My greatest news is that I got married on August 11th to an extraordinary woman. It turns out that it really does take quite a lot of energy to plan a wedding, but ours was totally worth it – it was perfect, and I am new a happily married man!

On to writing news. I am now halfway through my latest novel, a teen supernatural thriller which is coming along swimmingly. Being at the halfway point is like getting to the top of a mountain – it’s all downhill from here, and once you get to the last fifty pages or so, the book nearly writes itself (if you’re lucky). I’ve also begun pursuing my MFA degree from Spalding University, which has kept me busy as well. It is a wonderful program and I’ve met some great friends and teachers there, including my mentor for this semester, the highly talented and accomplished Leslea Newman. Staying at the lovely and historic Brown Hotel for residencies is also a plus.

Speaking of teachers, I’ll be teaching another workshop through Springfed Arts this fall, so if you’re in the Metro Detroit area and you’re interested in work-shopping your young adult fiction with me, please sign up soon before the slots fill up. Info is below.

Young Adult Fiction with J. Gabriel Gates: Mahany/Meininger Community Center, Room #7, 3500 Marais, Royal Oak, 48073, Wednesdays, October 9, 16, 23, 30, November 6 & 13, 7 pm – 9 pm. Writers of all levels are welcome to attend and explore the myriad genres and styles in the exploding area of YA / teen fiction. Workshop your existing YA manuscript or work-in-progress, or gain the tools and insight necessary to make your first foray into this field of writing a success. A Michigan native and Hollywood screenwriter, J. Gabriel Gates has had five novels published by HCI Books (publishers of the “Chicken Soup for the Soul” series) including teen horror novel The Sleepwalkers and teen urban fantasy / paranormal romance series The Tracks. (Dark Territory, Ghost Crown, and Shadow Train.) His most recent title is the acclaimed dystopian sci-fi thriller Blood Zero Sky. www.jgabrielgates.com REGISTER HERE

Thanks as always for your interest in my life and my work. Happy reading!

Dark Territory FREE on Kindle!

Big news: to celebrate the launch of Shadow Train, The Tracks Book 3, my publisher is giving away copies of Dark Territory, The Tracks Book 1 FREE on Amazon Kindle until July 1st! Please spread the word to anyone who might enjoy a YA tale of kung fu, magic and star-crossed love! But hurry; July 1st will be here faster one of Master Chin’s crescent kicks.

Click here to download Dark Territory now.

Once you’ve read it, please take a moment to rate it on Amazon. Remember, if you enjoy an author’s work, you can always help them by taking a minute to rate or review their work on Amazon, BN.com, or Goodreads.com.

I hope you all have a wonderful summer, and happy reading!

“Shadow Train” Now In Stores

Hi Friends,

So, this is it! Shadow Train, the crowning book in The Tracks series, is now available in stores and online. It’s been a long journey for co-author Charlene and I, and a long wait for our readers, so it feels great to have it out in the world. I apologize that there haven’t been too many blog posts from me lately. Over the last two months I’ve spent time in Louisville, KY, Jamaica, and I traveled to Orlando twice – once to present at the UCF Book Festival and again for the SCBWI June workshop. Things have been crazy, but I’m looking forward to spending some time back at the homestead in Michigan and getting down to business on the new YA horror book I have in the works.

In case you miss me, or if you’d like to have a matching, 1st edition set of The Tracks series – or any of my other books – come and see me at one of my upcoming appearances. More dates will be added soon, so keep checking back to the “Appearances” page on my websites for more updates.

Schuler Books & Music * Saturday, June 15th * 1-5pm
Book Signing
1982 Grand River Ave
Okemos, MI 48864

Barnes & Noble * Saturday, June 22nd * 1-5pm
Book Signing
6800 Eastman Ave.
Midland, MI 48642

Barnes & Noble * Saturday, June 29nd * 1-5pm
Book Signing
9605 Green Oak Village Place
Brighton, MI 48116

Barnes & Noble * Saturday, July 13th * 1-5pm
Book Signing
5701 Beckley Rd.
Battle Creek, MI 49015

Barnes & Noble * Saturday, July 27th * 2-6pm
Book Signing
17111 Haggerty Road
Northville MI 48167

Thank you, as always, for reading my books!

New Writing Class Starts April 10th

If you live in the Detroit area and you’d like to learn writing craft from me in person, I have good news – there’s still time left to sign up for my Springfed Arts class, ‘Writing YA Fiction.’  Click here to register and for more info.

On another note, Charlene and I just turned in the manuscript for The Tracks book 3, Shadow Train.  It’s coming in June, and it’s going to be a barn burner!  If you haven’t read the first two books, Dark Territory and Ghost Crown, it’s time to get on it!

New Writing Class

Good news: I’m teaching another writing class this spring, so if you missed the first one, you get a second chance.  The first class has been a great experience.  The students are talented, the discussions are lively, and it’s really been a good time.  Info for the new class is below.  In the event that you’re not in the Detroit area (or if you prefer working one-on-one,) check out my mentorship program http://jgabrielgates.com/mentorship/

I have several new and exciting projects in the works, including book 3 of The Tracks: Shadow Train, which is slated for release this summer.  Stay tuned!

Young Adult Fiction with J. Gabriel Gates: NEW LOCATION!  Mahany/Meininger Community Center, Room #2, 3500 Marais, Royal Oak, 48073, Wednesdays, April 10, 17, 24, May 1, 8, & 15, 7 pm – 9 pm.  Writers of all levels are welcome to attend and explore the myriad genres and styles in the exploding area of YA / teen fiction.  Workshop your existing YA manuscript or work-in-progress, or gain the tools and insight necessary to make your first foray into this field of writing a success.  A Michigan native and Hollywood screenwriter, J. Gabriel Gates has had four novels published by HCI Books (publishers of the “Chicken Soup for the Soul” series) including teen horror novel The Sleepwalkers and teen urban fantasy / paranormal romance series The Tracks. (Dark Territory, Ghost Crown, and the forthcoming Shadow Train.)  His most recent title is the acclaimed dystopian sci-fi thriller Blood Zero Sky.  www.jgabrielgates.com  REGISTER HERE

J. Gabriel Gates

 

Each class is $110/Springfed members, $160/nonmembers (additional $50 makes you a member for 1 year). Financial aid available. Register before workshops begin. Writing classes are limited to the first 12 people who enroll.

Please fill out the form below and send to:

John D. Lamb, Director-Springfed Arts,

PO Box 304, Royal Oak, MI 48068-0304.

Title of Workshop_________________________________ Fee________

If you are a new or renewing member add membership donation.

Total enclosed_______________________________________________

Name_____________________________________________________

Address___________________________________________________

City_____________________________ State _________Zip_________

Phone & e/mail_____________________________________________

IMPORTANT: MAKE CHECKS PAYABLE TO SPRINGFED ARTS