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Welcome to my Free Words series, where I talk about tips and techniques for writing first drafts. These will appeal to any NaNoWriMo participants out there, but really they go for any first draft. Hopefully, these posts will help you become a word factory, rolling out sentences like a machine!

In today’s post, I’m going to talk about using description to power your writing.

How can description become an engine?

My favorite NaNoWriMo logo: the word factory from 2009 when I wrote the first draft of Unexpected Rain
My favorite NaNoWriMo logo: the word machine from 2009 when I wrote the first draft of Unexpected Rain

Most people will tell you plot is the engine of a story. Likewise, action and dialogue are what we think of when we want the story to move. Intuitively, description is the opposite of that. But I’m not talking about powering the finished product: I’m talking about powering the writer in their quest to drive through that first draft.

Some of the inspiration for this post comes from Twyla Tharp’s book, The Creative Habit, particularly her chapter entitled “Scratching”. To paraphrase won’t do it justice, but in essence, scratching is what Tharp calls any kind of activity that a creative person does to dig through sources of inspiration, to explore the corners of their mind, to scratch out all the possible ideas. She relates a story from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, where author Robert Pirsig describes working with a student having trouble getting started on an essay. Her scope was so broad, she didn’t know where to begin. He narrowed her down to a single town first, then to a street, then to a building, and finally to a single brick in a building. She took his advice and found that by starting with the smallest details (what Tharp calls a “microcell of an idea”), she was able to get a spark and before she knew it, the student had written five thousand words in a sitting.

Tharp talks about scratching mainly as a concept that kicks off the creative process, but it’s also useful when the process has stalled part-way through. When I read the story of the brick, I realized there have been times that I have taken a similar approach with my writing, but I hadn’t put together the power of using this tool intentionally. Now when I’m stuck, like when I just can’t get a scene started, I remember the microcells. I start seeing the scene through the eyes of the point-of-view character and I look for details, even the smallest of details.

Maps and Sketches

Map of Research Station Vulca (from upcoming book, Unclear Skies)
Map of Research Station Vulca (from upcoming book, Unclear Skies)

But sometimes I can’t even see the details, because I can’t get close. I can’t see the room, the street, the spaceport, whatever the locale is. That’s when I take a cue from Jeff VanderMeer’s excellent book on writing, Wonderbook, and I draw a map. Even if the scene takes place entirely in a single room, you can still draw a map: you can place furniture, doorways, windows, sources of light, and even the characters themselves. It won’t take you more than five minutes to sketch something, and the best part is that there’s no pressure because you’re not writing words yet. You’re making a throwaway sketch!

Be as messy as you want - no one will see these sketches! (unless you write a blog post and use them as examples)
Be as messy as you want – no one will see these sketches! (unless you write a blog post and use them as examples)

Sketching is really another form of scratching: it helps you explore without pressure, and gives you a chance to discover things that you wouldn’t if you were starting at a blinking cursor in your word processor. So sketch anything you need in order to get a scene fleshed out: a character, some furniture, a street, a conversation, anything.

All the Senses

Visuals are the most natural thing for many writers to describe when laying out a scene. In fact, if you’re drawing maps and sketches, you’re thinking visually. This is a good thing: you have to paint a picture in the reader’s mind. However, vision is just one of the five senses that words are capable of describing. So as you’re looking over that scene in your mind, close your eyes and listen. What’s the background noise, the soundscape? Is it mechanical? Natural? If there’s not any background noise, the eerie silence is probably worth describing.

So: first visuals, then audio. Congratulations, you’re creating the word form of what we see and hear on TV and in film. Now it’s time to do better with the other more intimate senses.

Feel the temperature, the ground beneath your feet, the air as it moves across your skin – or lack thereof. And then smell, and if possible taste. This is really where you get into scene immersion. If your reader can feel and smell the environment, then they’re using their whole brain. And you the writer are as well! This is how you get into the zone, how words come spilling out of the keyboard like water from a faucet.

Too many words?!

We all know the dangers of too much exposition and too much description in writing. I say, in the first draft put it all in. You can always cut things down later – and probably will!

I think you should have three key goals for getting through your first draft:

  • Write words every day. You gotta be a word machine!
  • Immerse yourself in the story. If you’re not immersed in the characters and the world of the story, your readers won’t be.
  • Maintain momentum. The only way to get through an entire novel is to never stop until it’s done. Momentum is the product of getting words on the page and staying immersed in your world.

Zooming into the microcells helps you do all of these things. If you get your head in the details, you get your head in the story!

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Thanks for reading!

Jason LaPier is the author of Unexpected Rain, an interstellar murder mystery that reviewers have called "unexpectedly unique" and an "homage to past masters". Learn more about this noir SF novel that kicks off a trilogy.

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Jason W. LaPier is a multi-genre writer, delving into science fiction, speculative fiction, horror, slipstream, literary fiction, and surrealism. Originally from Upstate NY, Jason now lives in Portland, OR with his wife and their dachshund. By day, he is a software engineer at Elemental Technologies, where he creates the kinds of virtual worlds that actually do something. He is always in search of the perfect Italian sandwich.

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