Monday, September 23, 2013

Blue-bottle Fly: 3 Keys to Writing Knockout Descriptions!

"The first few doors they tried led only into spare bedrooms, as everyone had expected that they would; but soon they came to a very long room full of pictures and there they found a suit of armour; and after that was a room all hung with green, with a harp in one corner; and then came three steps down and five steps up, and then a kind of little upstairs hall and a door that led out on to a balcony, and then a whole series of rooms that led into each other and were lined with books - most of them very old books and some bigger than a Bible in a church. And shortly after that they looked into a room that was quite empty except for one big wardrobe; the sort that has a looking-glass in the door. There was nothing else in the room at all except a dead blue-bottle on the window-sill."

excerpt from The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe
by C. S. Lewis


It's one of the most basic parts of writing, taught to us in elementary school through such mnemonics as "Use all five senses!" and "Adjectives!" (Ironically, when you get older, suddenly the rules change and the latter isn't desirable after all--I've never understood this inconsistency.)

Description is a skill in which a writer can either shine or fade. You absolutely must have it to some extent, unless you're lucky enough to write picture books and can portray most of your description through pictures. Outside that, the rest of us are resigned to thinking of clever new ways to talk about lamps and sofas, or how to originally describe a doctor's waiting room.

Description shouldn't be a chore for either the writer or the reader. If you're bored writing a description, then chances are your reader will be bored with it too. But if you strip away descriptions, your world and your story will feel unfinished, a bare-boned scaffold standing where a complete building should be. It's the description which brings a world to life, whether that world is a vast continent enwreathed in magic and fantastic lore or a simple bedroom in a tiny apartment in Brooklyn.

Here's how you can both enjoy writing descriptions and ensure that your reader will sink into them as contentedly as if they were a bed of down and silk.

The Devil's in the details.

It's easy to go too far. I am perpetually tempted to obsess over every detail in a description, and the result is excruciating, overweight paragraphs like this example:

"The walls were lined with paper depicting tiny rocking horses, but parts of it had been ripped away. The wall beneath was dark red, the color of dried blood. A crib sat in the corner, covered with cobwebs. A mobile hung over it, and the stuffed planets that once spun in a merry orbit now leaked cotton into the crib and smelled of mold. An old Persian rug, its corners nibbled away by rats, spread over the creaking wood planks of the floor, and there was a lump under one corner that I had absolutely no desire to investigate. A dresser sat against the wall to my left, its cherry wood top lined with an inch of dust and the photographs sitting on it, in their tarnished silver frames, had long ago faded, but a few ghostly faces still peered out, their eyes unblinking and their faces grim. There were two chairs, both hard and unreliable-looking, as well as an old toy box painted with hot hair balloons and a single wicker basket filled with dusty yarn. A knitting needle stuck at an angle from one of these, as if it had been stabbed there, the final act of the homicidal Victorian nanny who had haunted these hallways so long ago."

If you ended up skimming most of that, I wouldn't blame you--and this was just a tame example of the kind of overwrought description I'm talking about. Too many details weigh down your story and instead of making a world come to life, it overwhelms your reader and overtakes your narrative. Ever read Moby Dick? It's like that. Maybe those kind of descriptions floated in the 19th century, but not anymore. Readers don't have time for that! 

In the above example, I ended up writing a few descriptions I kind of liked and would keep in the story. This is where I'd go back, cross out two-thirds of the paragraph, and present the reader with two or three crisp details.

The rest I'd leave to the reader's imagination.

I love this quote by Stephen King:

“Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.”

from On Writing, by Stephen King

What makes reading such a personal experience is the reader's imaginative investment in the story. Don't steal that from your audience by giving them every single detail. Going back to the excerpt at the top of this post, I want to point out what Lewis did to make his descriptions so powerful--but so concise.

1. KISS: Keep It Simple, Stupid!

This is what I tell myself every time I catch my descriptions dragging on. Cut back, focus on one to three details and no more.

In his description of the rooms in the Professor's house, Lewis doesn't list every item in every room, thankfully. Instead, he draws out one or two significant details for each: the suit of armor, the harp, the books "bigger than a Bible in church." And last of all, the room with the wardrobe! And a dead blue-bottle fly on the windowsill.

Of course, we all want to know about the titular wardrobe, but I want to talk about the blue-bottle fly. 

Exercise time! Read that last part of Lewis's description, then close your eyes, and imagine the room. Imagine you, like Lucy, have just stumbled through the door and are now looking around, taking it all in: the floor, the ceiling, the walls, the wardrobe, the blue-bottle fly. What does the room smell like? What sort of light is there? What does it make you feel? Now open your eyes.

When I first did this exercise (years before the movie came out!), the room sprang to life in my mind. Light streamed through the window, over the dead fly, and there were dust motes dancing in the beams. The room smelled musty like an old attic, but also like cedar. It would have been easy for Lewis to leave out that last little detail, but by putting it in, the room becomes three-dimensional. It feels old, forgotten. And, cleverly, it draws attention to the wardrobe by teasing your attention away from the wardrobe. It makes the reader say, "Yes, I see the blue-bottle on the windowsill--but let's get back to that wardrobe!" Like when a camera pans across a scene, you spot some important detail, but the camera keeps going--before stopping, reversing, and going back to the thing you saw.

The blue-bottle isn't an idly dropped detail--it's an hors d'oeuvre of the finest quality. It whets the reader's appetite, inviting the reader to invest into the story, to add his or her own details to this room. It says, "Here are the dots--now fill in the lines."

It took less than a sentence for Lewis to entice his readers, to invite them to invent the story alongside him--and that is the magic of reading. A good description doesn't bash the reader over the head with every detail; it says, "Here's a little bit, now you do the rest."

2. Be specific.

Once you focus on a single detail or two, it's time to really make those details pop. It wasn't just a dead fly on the windowsill of that wardrobe room--it was a blue-bottle. Specificity is key in making a detail go from humdrum to unique. That's not a just a tree outside your window--that's a sugar maple. That's not just a car mysteriously parked down the street--that's a '67 Chevy Impala. Make your details count. Make them rich and memorable, not by drawing them out over a paragraph, but by being as specific as you can.

Specificity makes details interesting. This is extremely important and your readers will love you for it. Bland, categorical details like "tree," "car," or "book," feel one-dimensional and monochrome. Fill your world with color and depth by highlighting the uniqueness of your details. The smaller you get, the closer your focus the zoom lens of your writing, the more interesting the details become. Sort of like with an appetizer--serve your guests too much before the meal and they won't want dinner. Give them just enough to make them hungry, just enough to make them want more--and you're golden!

3. Make the details count twice.

Now--this is very important!--make your details work double-time. This is a prime opportunity to show, not tell, some facet of your character or setting. Let's say your MC walks into his best friend's room and sees a stack of magazines in the corner, and that's one of your 1-3 details. Okay, fine. But what kind of magazines are they? This one detail will tell us reams about what kind of person the best friend is. Are they Playboys? Are they New Yorkers? Are they National Geographics? The answer will stick in the reader's mind and help shape their opinion of that character, so choose wisely! 

Don't tell me your villain has tattoos and leave it at that--I want to know exactly what they are and what they mean to him or her. Don't tell me your MC grabbed lunch from the cafeteria--tell me whether she grabbed a vegan sandwich or a plate piled with fried chicken. These details are easy ways to bring characters to life without telling me in bland sentences that she's a vegan with tattoos. Often we mistakenly think that in order to show vs. tell, we have to put all the details in dialogue. Wrong! Here is an even more effective way of "showing," while describing at the same time.


1) READ. Grab three favorite books from your shelf. Find three descriptions in each of them and note what details the author includes and what details he/she leaves up to you.

2) WRITE. Now get out paper. Describe the room you are sitting in, focusing on as many details as you can. Leave nothing out. Detail every piece of furniture, the objects on them, the floor, the walls, the lighting, the smell. Don't hold back.

3) APPLY. Now begin weeding out the excess descriptions that you just recorded. Whittle your sentences down until you have two or three compelling, interesting, specific details about the room that not only give me a clear picture of the room while inviting me to add my own imaginative twist to it--but that also tell me something about you. Next, do the same thing--to your current WIP. 

Remember these three principles of effective descriptions:

1. Keep it simple
2. Be specific
3. Make your details count twice

In the comments, tell me about a detail you read in a story that has stuck with you long afterwards. Why do you think that detail is so memorable?

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Using Pinterest to Boost Blog Traffic

What's that you say? 

A way to finally justify all those countless hours I spend repinning kittens and goulashes and inspirational workout quotes? 

Could it be true?

Dear reader, it is.

Enough fun and games. It's time to start making that Pinterest account start working for you, instead of the other way around.

Pinterest has boomed in the past year. It has grown faster than any other social network in historyLook at this chart:

 That's a lot of numbers which basically say, there's a lot of folks on Pinterest these days, and those folks are spending a lot of time on the website--outmatched only by Facebook (I'll do another post later on how to utilize Facebook for similar purposes). Basically, since it's birth three years ago, Pinterest has exploded into one of the biggest social media networks, taking its place among the top six social sites with Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Google+, and LinkedIn.

Pinterest Advantages

  • Longevity

    • This is one of the most important advantages of promoting your blog through Pinterest. Though the first few hours after posting will win you the most activity, after that, the longevity of your Pin is almost limitless. I've seen Pins for blog posts still circulating years after the post was originally written. And all it takes is one influential Pinner to find it weeks or months later, and your Pin (and thus your blog) could see a huge resurgence in popularity. That will almost never happen on Twitter, where a Tweet promoting your blog post can vanish in a matter of seconds from everyone's feeds. Forever.

  • Images are more eye-catching than text

    • Pinterest is completely centered on sharing and collecting images. This is where you have a chance to really shine and grab people's attention in a way you can't on Twitter and even Google. By creating eye-catching title-images (which I'll explain more below) and filling your blog posts with interesting, quality photos (which are, of course, non-copyright-violating) you can generate huge traffic numbers (interestingly, this will also boost your Google traffic, through their Image search).

  • Analytics

    • This is a relatively new feature offered by Pinterest. If you register as or convert your current account to a business account (at no charge!), you'll have the ability to track what Pins and blog posts are the most repinned, most clicked, and most recent. Previously, these stats had to be tracked through external sites which tracked all of your Pins, not just those related to your blog. Pinterest's new internal analytics now track just the Pins linking back to your blog--which is immensely, hugely, awesomely helpful information!
    • Here's the thingy that shows you all the cool stats on your shiny new Pinterest business account:

  • It's less abrasive than Twitter, Facebook, etc.

    • Let's face it. We all get irritated by people who do nothing but shamelessly promote themselves through social media all the time. While it's perfectly fine to send a few Tweets or post a link on Facebook about your latest blog entry, doing so all day will only cause your following to dwindle. Use these accounts to exchange genuine discussion with your online community--don't use them simply to shove your brand in people's faces. Using Pinterest not only gives you an alternative way to promote, it feels less abrasive and blatant than some of the other social networks. However, you should still keep self-promotion to a minimum (don't Pin a single post more than once); if your content is attractive, quality work that deserves attention, interest and traffic will increase organically--which is the absolute best way for it to happen.

These are only a handful of the advantages Pinterest offers in terms of boosting blog traffic. Now I want to show you a few ways to ensure that you're connecting these two sites effectively.

How To Share Posts on Pinterest

  • Use Image-Based Titling

      • This is extremely important. Notice at the top of this particular blog post, I've placed an image of the post's title, "Using Pinterest to Boost Blog Traffic." Go ahead. Scroll up. Did you see it? Good. The reason you want to do this is because, well, duhPinterest is an image-based site. Titling your post with mere text won't work, because you can't Pin that. You could Pin an image contained in the body of your post, like I could Pin this picture of a cute African pygmy hedgehog:

        • "Shouldn't that do the trick?" you ask. "Can't you just Pin the cute hedgehog and write "Using Pinterest to Boost Blog Traffic" in the description of the Pin? After all, that should boost traffic. The hedgehog is cute, after all, and who could resist that tiny hedgehog face? Well, not many people could, that's true--but I guarantee you many of those people won't care squat about boosting their blog traffic. They'll Repin your hedgehog, delete your description, and write their own--therefore effectively destroying 100% of that Pin's purpose--which is to generate interest in your blog post, not in cute hedgehogs. By making the image you Pin be the title of your post, 100% of the people who Repin it will do so out of interest in your blog's topic. And hey presto! Mission accomplished. 
        • Here are some other title-images I've done:


        •  Remember, this works both ways. A lot of people who reach your blog through Google, Twitter, Facebook, etc., will end up Pinning your posts themselves, either because they're bookmarking it for later reference or because they think your content would be useful and interesting to their own followers (yay for this!) Give them a handy title-image to Pin, and you're certain to keep generating traffic.

      • Make your images eye-catching

        • Sometimes this means going the extra mile to find a great piece of quality clip art (I get mine from either [which is free] or [which is reasonably priced for the most part].) Then, be sure your text is:
          • easy to read
          • brightly colored
          • not too busy
          • not too boring
          • relevant to your post (resist using cute hedgehogs for every title-image; if your post is about books, use a book. If it's about how to play the accordion, use an accordion, etc.)
          • large and easy to spot in a Pinterest feed
          • not written in Comic Sans (for the love of cute hedgehogs, please don't use Comic Sans)

      • Post at a good time of day

        • It's easy to fall into the trap of "Oh my goodness this post will like change the world I need to share it everywhere NOW!" Okay. Easy. Breathe, my friend. Find out when your Pin is most likely to be seen. A recent study shows that Pinterest users are most active between 2pm-4pm and 8pm-1am on weekdays and weekends, with the most activity occurring on Saturday mornings.

      • Hold Pinterest-based contests

        • Contests are a popular and effective way to attract new followers to your blog. By hosting a contest that incorporates Pinterest, your traffic and following can increase wildly. I've held many contests here on my blog, but the most popular by far have been the contests which in some way involved creating or sharing Pins. Pinterest has an amazing snowball effect when it comes to this kind of thing. Be sure your contest loops back to your blog in some way (you might create an image with the title and description of your contest that links back to the post with the instructions on how to enter). Here is a Pinterest board with a lot of fantastic examples of ways to promote your contest on Pinterest. 

      After I began using title-images to promote my blog posts, I saw a surge of blog traffic and a boost to my blog's following. It's even boosted the page views of posts I wrote one or two years ago. Now, when I go into my Blogger analytics, Pinterest is listed as the #1 referring site for my blog. It generates over 1/3 of my blog traffic now, and that number is growing--and to top it off, that 1/3 is traffic I was not getting before I began Pinning title-images. So these are new readers, and my stats are telling me that many of them are coming back and pinning even more of my posts. When I first saw this, my eyes popped! It's truly made a difference in the way I blog, and I hope it can help you too.

      Ultimately, the best thing you can do is be genuine, professional, and consistent. Don't make social networking all about pushing your product/brand/self image. Focus on the people, not the product. Your most loyal fans will come out of genuine interaction, not shameless self-promo.

      Okay, enough preaching! =) 

      You guys are awesome. Thanks for reading! If you have questions or want to share ways you've used Pinterest to promote your blog, please leave a comment! 

      Friday, September 6, 2013

      Female Archetypes We Haven't Talked About: Dark vs. Pale Beauties

      There has been a lot of discussion lately on the subject of female characters, particularly in YA circles, and it brought to my mind two archetypes we often discussed in my college English lit classes--but which I haven't seen mentioned in relation to the current female characters of YA Fiction.

      I'm surprised we don't talk more about the subject of Dark vs. Pale Beauties in YA literature today (or has this discussion been strictly confined to undergrad literary criticism classes? I wouldn't be surprised.) Sure, we talk an awful lot about Strong Female Characters vs. Manic Pixie Dream Girls and a host of other hot, controversial catchphrases--but that of Dark and Pale Beauties is such an interesting dichotomy that I think it would really add to our discussion of female characters in general, especially now, when Female Leads are gaining popularity not only in literature but in film. So if I may, I'll drag out this old topic, dust it off, and try to glean some relevant discussion out of it.

      Basics first. Let's all get on the same page here, in case we're not all Lit-Crit majors. Google is no help at all--search these terms and all it can offer is results on skin color, which is so not what these terms mean. I repeat: THESE TERMS DO NOT REFER TO SKIN TONE. Nor does the term "beauty" here mean the characters are necessarily physically attractive (I think it was originally coined to be more ironic than anything else, indicating the classical idealized female characters often portrayed in pre-20th-century literature).

      So here are some brief definitions:

      Dark Beauty

      Does not mean: dark-haired, dark-skinned, or anything else to do with physical appearance.

      Does mean: A female character who is "experienced," either in worldly matters, sexuality, violence, etc. She is independent, knowledgeable, jaded, often older (than a corresponding pale beauty), with some degree of power or at least semblance of power. She's likely to be strong-natured. She prefers to hide her weaknesses and exert authority over others. Her power is achieved through various means: physical ability, sexuality, manipulation, strength of character, vision, or will. Though she is often perceived to be the more villainous of these two archetypes, this is very often untrue of her. She's "street-smart." She will either disdain or envy the pale beauty, and in some cases seek to either "rescue" her from her innocence or protect her from becoming like herself.

      Some examples of Dark Beauties:

      - Katniss Everdeen (The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins) (though arguably with some Pale characteristics)
      - Isabelle Lightwood (The Mortal Instruments by Cassandra Clare)
      - Genya (Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo)
      - Ridley Duchannes (Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl)
      - Maela (Crewel by Gennifer Albin)
      - Fire (Fire by Kristin Cashore)
      - Katsa (Graceling by Kristin Cashore)
      - Meg (Disney's Hercules)
      - Scarlett O'Hara (Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell)
      - River Song (Doctor Who)

      Pale Beauty

      Does not mean: fair-haired, fair-skinned, or anything else to do with physical appearance

      Does mean: A female character who is primarily naive, inexperienced, sheltered, perhaps idealistic. She is dependent on others, though she may seek to break free and establish her autonomy. She may be a daydreamer, and if often mistaken to be meek and mild, or is pushed to be so. She is the "caged bird," often pressured to remain innocent and childlike. Seen as the embodiment of purity and sweetness, conflict often arises if she attempts to "grow up," or to shed her innocence. Many stories are built around a Pale Beauty attempting and either succeeding or failing to exchange her innocence for experience. Those around her who wish for her to remain pure will often speak for her, thus the Pale Beauty is often depicted without a voice--this does not mean she is weak, but rather that someone is attempting to press her into the Pale Beauty mold (interestingly, often they do so out of love, like the Elinor/Merida relationship in Pixar's Brave). This is the crux of "coming-of-age" stories. She will often either envy, despise, or attempt to emulate the Dark Beauty.


      - Primrose Everdeen (The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins)
      - Elisa (The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson) (though she does evolve as the story progresses)
      - Clary Fray (The Mortal Instruments by Cassandra Clare) (another dynamic character!)
      - Tris (Divergent) (yet another dynamic character--she is an example of a Pale Beauty attempting to exert the Dark Beauty she believes herself to be)
      - Cassia (The Matched Trilogy by Ally Condie)
      - Kathy (Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro)
      - Bitterblue (Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore) (another dynamic character--there are a lot of these in today's YA!)
      - Rapunzel (Disney's Tangled)
      - Christine (The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux)
      - Dorothy Gale (The Wizard of Oz)

      Something I love about current YA fiction is that the lines between these two types of characters are often blurred. I've seen many female characters who are experienced in survival but innocent in love (Katniss) or who might only appear to be innocent Pale Beauties until the story conflict cracks open their shell and releases the Dark Beauty inside. Many times this is the result of the character herself striving to break free of the Pale Beauty archetype (Tris or Bitterblue), but other times this transformation is made reluctantly, and they must be pushed by outside forces to achieve independence and experience (Elisa from The Girl of Fire and Thorns).

      The reason I'm bringing these two archetypes up at all is because I think they shed an interesting and useful light on character development and, since characters drive stories, plot development. While not all female characters fit into these archetypes, they can be useful in discovering the personal motivation and plot line for our girls.

      Is your character a Pale Beauty attempting to break free of her girlhood and establish herself as an autonomous Dark Beauty?
      Does your character wish to remain a Pale Beauty, but is forced by circumstances to put her innocence and purity aside and become a Dark Beauty in order to survive? 
      Is your character a Dark Beauty who has committed some wrong, sacrificing her innocence, and does she seek to somehow redeem herself? Is she envious of the Pale Beauty's purity? 
      Does your story contain both? Do you have a Pale Beauty striving to remain pure while set against a Dark Beauty who strives to either control or destroy her? (Like in the classic Snow White story) 
      Are you taking a story which classically focused on a Pale Beauty and retelling it with the character recast as a Dark Beauty? (This often happens in fairy-tale retellings, such as Cinder by Marissa Meyer).

      There are so many fascinating conflicts that can arise out of the juxtaposition of these stereotypes, whether those stereotypes occur in the same character or whether they arise between two opposite ones. It brings up some intriguing questions:

      Will Pale Beauties always eventually become Dark, or can purity be retained through adulthood? 
      Is there room for both archetypes to exist simultaneously in one character?
      Can a Pale Beauty be strong and independent without sacrificing her innocence?
      What characteristics can be found with both archetypes? 
      What characteristics of these archetypes are true attributes, and which are projected onto the character by others?

      These aren't questions I necessarily have answers to, but I'm fascinated by them and by stories that deal with them. Being conscious of these archetypes and applying them to our characters can help us achieve a strong level of emotional development.

      These archetypes are particularly relevant to Young Adult literature, I feel, because so much of YA is about coming-of-age, the loss of innocence, the quest for autonomy, and the reinvention of one's self. If you look at all of the YA character examples above, you'll find that most of them don't begin and end as the same type of character. Elisa (A Girl of Fire and Thorns), Clary (TMI), and Triss (Divergent) are all prime examples of girls who start out sheltered, innocent, and dependent but who through the course of their stories become independent, experienced characters more in line with the Dark Beauty archetype than the Pale Beauty they started as.

      Something I do not want to suggest is that Dark Beauties are synonymous with "Strong" female characters while Pale Beauties are synonymous with "Weak" ones. That is a different discussion altogether, and though Pale-to-Dark character transformations do often coincide with "weak-to-strong," this isn't always true and these transformations are not mutually requisite. For example, giving Snow White a sword and armor does not turn her from a Pale Beauty to a Dark One, though it does (to some degree) turn her from a weak character to a strong one. She retains her purity and idealism despite becoming strong--which goes to show that a character need not be a Dark Beauty in order to display strength of will and character. Pale Beauties can have these traits, though others may attempt to strip them away.

      Nor do I suggest that either archetype is more or less morally "good" than the other, though the semblance of goodness is attributed more to the Pale Beauty by other characters in her society (whether or not it is true, it is nevertheless inherent in the archetype and can provide an interesting source of drama if you have a Pale Beauty who is not quite as good as everything thinks she is). For example, one of my favorite pairings in pop culture: Galinda and Elphaba from Wicked. Galinda embodies the innocent purity of the Pale Beauty while Elphaba's Dark Beauty-like autonomy earns her the hatred of Oz's populace--yet if you are familiar with their story, you'll know that these archetypes have little bearing on each girl's actual morality (other than to provide delicious irony).

      Pushing these two archetypes to the extreme results in stereotypes and caricatures of the Disney variety, which, though is acceptable to a degree in children's cartoons, is to be avoided in literature. What proves to be far more realistic and interesting is the blends created by these two archetypes rather than the black-and-white contrast of the Good Pale Beauty vs. the Evil Dark Beauty as in, say, Cinderella vs. The Wicked Stepmother.

      Sorry for how ridiculously long this post is! I could probably go on another yard of blog-space before running out of steam on this topic. What I hope you take away from this is a character development tool you can apply to your own writing--particularly the questions I list above, and others like them.

      If you're interested, I have two Pinterest boards dedicated to these two archetypes!
      Dark Beauties Board
      Pale Beauties Board

      In the comments, I'd love to hear your thoughts! 

      • Can you apply these archetypes to any other characters in YA literature? 
      • What are some books you've enjoyed which contain the juxtaposition of the Dark vs. Pale Beauties?
      •  Do you think these archetypes are relevant to YA today?