Writing a Monster into Existence

dragon.jpg

[Editor’s Note]

The QE household has prepared itself for the onslaught of sugar-craving children.  I figured today (Halloween) would be a great day to repost an older blog about monsters to free me up for pumpkin carving and other fun things.  Since writing this post, I purchased Cryptozoology A to Z, by Loren Coleman and Jerome Clark (thanks to a suggestion offered by Dillon, over at From Rad to Dad). It’s a very organized glimpse into the monsters of all shapes and sizes.

While I love reading most genres, few things give me more pleasure than reading about monsters chowing down on unfortunate locals.  It can be zombies, aliens, rodents of unusual size,  or anything else you can think of.  I enjoy it even more when the writer creates a new beast for me to add to my bestiary archives.

I‘m currently working with a couple writers who both have monsters in their books.  The human chomping freaks are terrifying and enjoyable to learn about.  One issue we have been sorting out together is how they can describe the monsters clearly.

This lack of description becomes a larger issue when you have spawned a new breed of monster.  When you say dragon, I know what you are talking about.  At the very least, I have an idea of what you are talking about.  But if you go springing an ancient force hell bent on sucking out my eyes and using my spine as a fiddle bow, then I need to some details.

writing monsters.jpgI recently snagged Philip Athans’ book, Writing Monsters, to help me find some creative solutions to provide.  By recently, I mean it came in the mail yesterday.  I sat down to read with a highlighter in hand and a notepad ready to jot down ideas.  My plan was to pull all the pertinent information from the book and compile a list the writers could use to beef up their monster description.  I hit page eight, and bang, there was a goldmine.

Athan had created a template called, “The Monster Creation Form.”  I’m not going to reproduce that simple, but genius, form here.  I think that level of borrowing would border on copyright infringement.  It did get me thinking about a similar form I used to play with a lot – a Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) character sheet.  I’ve done a blog post on character sheets before, which has examples.  You can check that out here.  If your monster is quasi-human, you might be able to use one of the templates I provided there.

monster manual.jpgI also ordered the D&D Monster Manual (the version I linked).  I could remember a younger version of me flipping through one of these and marveling at both the written descriptions, variety, and artwork.  I figured the older version of me could use another point of reference.

After the euphoria of my Amazon impulse buy wore off, I began searching for D&D type templates to build monsters.  After some internet scouring I ended up right back here on WordPress.  I found a blogger, OldDungeonMaster, who has a literary ton of great D&D related materials.  One such item was a monster sheet for a Cranium Rat.  You can look at the image below.  I also linked this image to his/her page so you check out the rest their content (for you aspiring D&D players and Dungeon Masters).

cranium_ratI combined some elements from the monster sheet above, and some elements from Writing Monsters, and created my own Bestiary of Destiny.  You can use this template to sketch out your monster and assign elements.  While I’m no artist, I sometimes find even a crude drawing helps me better understand how something looks.  It helps pull the description out of the creative whirlpool in my head and give it shape.

Bestiary of Destiny

If you click the image it will send you to my Flickr page where I uploaded this image in higher resolution.  Print it in landscape and have some fun.  As with anything I create for the blog, it’s free to share and use for whatever nefarious purpose you have in mind.

 

Many times when I talk to writers about description, they know all the answers.  I’ll say something like, “It was great when Zolgorg the Mighty ate that guy.  What does Zolgorg look like when he eats someone?  Does he tear them in two and go into a blood frenzy, or does he carefully quarter them?”  Usually the writer will launch into a five minute description-fest explaining the ordeal in fine detail.

griffin.jpgWhen they wrote the scene, the information was clear in their head, it just didn’t make it onto the page.  In my own writing, having visual references (like character sheets and templates) reminds me to include those descriptions.  I make sure to stick the papers up on the wall in front of me, or somewhere I can see them.  This way when the time comes for juicy description, a glance at those papers zeroes me in on important descriptive elements.

If you are having issues being consistent with description, or generating a clear picture of what your monster should look like, I encourage you to try this tool.  Worst case scenario is you have a crudely drawn picture, but a clearer mental one.

 

Oftheunicorn.jpgThat’s it for today.  I hope you found some useful tools to create your own monsters here.  I’m sure as I continue reading through Writing Monsters some more nuggets of information will accumulate.  You can look forward to some posts about flesh chewing chinchillas and what not.

Do any of you have effective ways to create new and terrifying monsters?  Or know of good books on crafting monsters?  If you are willing to share I would love to hear about it.  Until tomorrow, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp!

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Writing Description: Finding the Sweet Spot

A while ago (as this is a repost) I read an article by fellow WordPress maverick Raeanne G. Roy regarding the fine line we walk when deciding just how much description to provide the reader.  Her original post is located here.  I tossed my humble two cents into the comments box and went on with my day.

description meme.jpgThat evening I sat down at the appointed hour and began my own writing, and wouldn’t you know it, I couldn’t stop thinking about description.  Suddenly, the wasteland renegades I write about were sporting sweaters with patches and rips and buttons, but not just any buttons, buttons made of bone, but not just any bone, the bone from a forgotten slave from a forgotten land.  I realized it was happening —gave myself a quick facepalm—then beat on the backspace for a few minutes.

With this in mind, I decided it wouldn’t hurt if I tossed some information into the blogosphere regarding description.  Then I could watch it float away like wasteland confetti.  Coincidentally, this confetti is not made of colorful bits of plastic, but actually the brittle, delicate pages from an old book. Not just any book, the good book. That’s right! Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style.  A first edition—the inside cover still faintly bearing the worn signature of…uh…erm…on with the blog!

As usual, I thought I would provide some examples from legit authors to steer us in the right direction.

Chuck Wendig provides some great (and often hilarious) nuggets of information regarding description in his book, The Kick-Ass Writer.  I earmarked this excerpt in particular:

“When Betty Crocker first started selling mixes, they were super-easy to make. Packet of powder, add water, and bake.  But they didn’t sell – in part because they were too easy.  It felt like a cheat.  So Crocker chose to leave out the egg – meaning, a housewife had to add an egg, an extra step.  And bam!  They sold like a sonofabitch.  The lesson is that your audience wants to work.  When they work, they feel invested. Hand them a pickaxe, a pith helmet.  Don’t give them all parts of the description – let them fill in details with their imagination.  Let them add the egg” (p. 95).

The Kick-Ass Writer

A collection of phrases and quotes from the book, The Kick-Ass Writer, written by Chuck Wendig.  I wrote a post about this book here

The takeaway here is to not spoon feed the reader description (unless that description is made out of Betty Crocker cupcake mix).

Stephen King in his book On Writing discusses description.  He states, “For me, good description usually consists of a few well-chosen details that will stand for everything else.  In most cases, these details will be the first ones that come to mind” (p. 175).  While this a small excerpt of a larger explanation, what King seems to be driving at is this:  when you sit down to write those first details you see in your minds eye are usually the strongest ones.

Those first sparks are the bones of your description, and often times, they can support the muscle and meat that make up the scene.  The mistake I tend to make is I worry those bones are too feeble. So the black revolver in the hand of anonymous bad guy #3, becomes a pearl handled, laser engraved, .44 caliber, black and silver hand-cannon with a laser sight duct taped to the barrel.  I shall resist!

So these two examples are basically saying, “take it easy with too much description,” but what exactly is too much description?  There are more than a few schools of thought out there.  Let’s talk about a couple.

80s montage.jpg

*cue montage music*

One is that you focus on describing people, places, and things that will reinforce the actions and emotions of your characters as they move through your story and shy away from stuff that is just, well, stuff.  The danger here is the reader can catch on.  If every building is a building, except for the one you spend a paragraph describing—they know something is about to go down in that building.  This can be a good and this can be bad.  It’s obviously an issue if you are trying to catch them off guard.  If your book is an 80s movie, sudden and uncharacteristic description of anything cues the montage music and lets the reader know the big boss battle is coming.

The other school of thought is you simply describe things instinctively.  Let your minds eye be the judge as to what is important at first.  When you come back through with the editing pen of fury (or doom), you can subtract or add.  By letting your creative side assign importance to the mundane you might stumble onto something more.

Example. The curtains were light blue.  Two pages later, when the protagonist pulls them open to look out the window, he realizes they are actually hospital linens.  Cool.  In my wasteland story, people re-purpose items all the time.  Maybe a doctor lived in the house, maybe there are meds stashed away behind the bookcase, maybe he’s down in the basement cutting someone to pieces while everyone is upstairs sleeping unaware?  This organic description while writing allows for the story to gain its own life outside of any rigid outline you have preordained.  As long as it doesn’t veer you too far off track, I think you’ll be all right.

different viewpoints.jpg

What do you see?

Lastly and most importantly, does the description enhance the reader’s understanding of the people and events happening in the story?  Delicious tidbits of description scattered throughout tell us a lot about the characters and world we are reading about, and saves us from beating people over the head with paragraphs of background information.  If one person observes a rifle of some kind, that tells us something about the person.  If another observes the same rifle, and concludes it’s a lightweight, 5.56, air-cooled, gas operated, magazine-fed assault rifle, with a rotating bolt, we can draw some pretty obvious conclusions about that character’s background without typing anything else.

Renni Browne and Dave King in their book Self-Editing for Fiction Writers explain:

“…if you allow your readers to get to know your characters gradually, each reader will interpret them in his or her own way, thus getting a deeper sense of who your characters are than you could ever convey in a summary.  Allowing your readers this sort of leeway in understanding your characters enables you to reach a wider audience – and reach it far more effectively – than would defining your characters before we get to know them or analyzing them afterward” (p. 26).

question markWell, I’ve scratched the surface with this post about description.  It’s a giant beast requiring many knives to bring down.  I would love to hear your two cents/insights regarding description and what you feel is vital to the story.  Until tomorrow, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp!

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A Setting Writing Checklist

A Refined ListMost writers I work with tend to blend outlines and instinctive writing together.  There are exceptions.  Some are renegade mavericks who wander into the jungle with a machete and hack away a path.  Others spend months plotting all the paths, sub-paths, and hidden passageways before they type a word.

Regardless of the method, when the sky parts and heavenly light blasts down on the freshly minted manuscript, most writers are going to need to address descriptive setting elements.  The method I employ is starting at the chapter and working my way in toward the sentence.  

I’ve talked about setting before in the past.  We’ve hammered the following topics:

glasses-icon.jpg

This image was created by Jess Tahbonemah and is the property of M.L.S. Weech.  Any use without his permission is prohibited. 

Let’s take a day and merge the concepts together into a step-by-step checklist. 

Step 1: Think big by addressing setting on the chapter level.  This is where the article I wrote on anchoring the reader might come in handy.  Make sure when the chapter opened you took a sentence or two to address when and where the character(s) are.  If you aren’t writing in 1st person, you might need to clue the reader into who is present.

There are methods you can employ which could preclude you from having to clue readers into who is present.  M.L.S. Weech, Robert Jordan, and many other authors utilize chapter icons.  These icons offer a visual cue to the reader as to who will be present in the chapter.  The glasses icon I added is one of Weech’s, and you can check out more of his Caught icons here.  While this method is a great tool, you’ll notice most authors who do this also anchor the reader in each chapter with their words.  It’s a double whammy! 

Smell the Napalm

Step 2: Isolate the character(s) in the chapter and determine from which POV the setting is being viewed from.  From what I’ve gathered, writers who pump out large, daily word counts struggle with this the most.  This is because they can sit down and write more than one chapter in a session.  Their mind latches onto a single way of thinking (POV), and despite the change in character, the setting description will bleed over.  This is perhaps the easiest way to bamboozle a reader. 

I can think of many times where I was reading a passage and assumed the description and setting information was coming from Character X.  It wasn’t until I got to a character name that I realized it was coming from Character Y.  It’s important to switch descriptive gears when we switch characters.  Mindful consistency is going to be key.  It is important to consider how the characters’ arcs will impact their view of their world at any given time.  Even the most optimistic character is going to look at a flower and want to stomp on it every now and then.

jetpack.jpgStep 3: Think scene by scene.  Within the chapter there can be multiple scenes.  These are typically indicated by a shift in place, action, or perspective.  The writer usually accomplishes this by pulling in or out with description.  Each one of these shifts is an opportunity to provide a couple sentences, or even a few words, to indicate setting and how the character perceives it.

Consider the article listed above about stitching transitions into setting.  This is especially useful when analyzing how your character moves scene to scene.  Your creations may walk, run, drive, jetpack, or teleport to different locations within the chapter.  Look to see if there will be value added by injecting setting details into those transitions.  

crystal ball.jpgStep 4: Go inside scenes and address paragraphs and sentences.  This is where the real work starts to happen.  This is also where self-study and understanding of your genre will come into play.  It’s the dreaded show versus tell, devil in the details tedium.  

As the writer, you likely have all the answers.  Try your best to think like the reader and look for areas where they will have questions.  These are some of the most common questions I ask writers: Where are they?  How did they get here?  What does this look like?  How does he/she feel about this?  

Be mindful of these “constants.”

Constant 1: Think about where you are in the book.  Setting information has a cumulative effect.  If you’ve done a solid job building up, setting can be less about “stuff” and more about how people view “stuff.”  In essence, setting can become more emotional and less physical.

Constant 2: Show versus tell is something that I tend to address at the scene level.  Again, I don’t advocate the use of one or the other universally.  The article I linked offers a tool to gauge intensity within a scene and this can help determine the amount of showing or telling you need to do.  It’s not foolproof, but it’s something to consider.

Types of Conflict

Constant 3: For areas of the book that are conflict driven, consider if the setting is running against the characters. More often than not, you want the setting to act as a barrier to character goals.  Sure, you can toss down a yellow brick road to help them find their way, but make sure it is loaded with poisonous flowers and wicked witches.

Constant 4: Look for those “ly” adverbs and decide whether they should live or die. I’m not in the business of adverb annihilation, but if the adverb is being used as a crutch where a few words of insightful information could have been added, it’s time to reappraise.

Constant 5: Make sure to inject sensory details throughout.  You can refer to the article I linked at the beginning for more info on this subject if you require it. 

question-markThat’s it for today!  I wanted to take a day to compile our examination of setting into a larger tool.  I hope you found some of this information useful.  For my own study, I’m curious about what elements of setting, if any, you struggle with.  In revision, is there a certain method you employ to address this?  Do you have a checklist of sorts?  I’d love to talk about it and advance my own knowledge.  Until tomorrow, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp! 

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Description: Tools from the Apothecary

apothecary.JPGWriters are literary apothecaries.  We scour books of all types, and extract strange components, only to shelve them in our mental storehouse for use later.  We pull from those dusty shelves various ingredients to suit our nefarious purposes.  Even the word, “apothecary,” derives from Greek and means a repository or storehouse.

It’s from this growing collection of ingredients we begin experimentation. A newt eye here and a butterfly wing there.  We take the parts and pieces that intrigue us, and stuff those into our mental crafting satchels as we chuckle under our breath.

Then, often in the dimly lit confines of our secret lairs (writing nooks), we start combining those ingredients.  We grind, and slice, and extract the juices, combining them into a strange smelling slurry.  Then we apply open flame.

alchemis.jpgSometimes there is a puff of acrid smoke and we are blinded for days.  But every now and then, a miracle happens.  The components dissolve and merge together.  They glow blue, then purple, then all color fizzles away leaving a glimmering clear liquid.  By the gods of dusty vials, you’ve made a potion!  Not just any potion.  A potion that can change the way a person looks at the world.

When it comes to the apothecary’s craft, the details are important.  Life and death even.  Consider the newt eye and butterfly wing I mentioned above.  That’s not nearly enough description for the mad creator of potent potions.  What kind of newt or butterfly?  How must the parts be rendered?  Whole, sliced, mashed, distilled?  These details are vital.  Ignore them, and see your eyebrows burned from your face in a puff of fiery black smoke.

For the purposes of this next section, you have taken on an apprentice apothecary.  Congratulations.  The wide-eyed juvenile will likely be a useful pawn, I mean assistant, in your quest for rare ingredients.

apothecary recipe.jpgThe apprentice will dutifully follow your instructions in hopes of acquiring the skills you have gathered over the years.  Unless we have a dark sense of humor, we must provide detailed description to our apprentice.  Lest they themselves be turned into a newt – which may not be entirely a waste.  Newts are slimy and hard to find.  Perhaps if a steady string of apprentices came through our stock of…er…back to the blog!

Your apprentice must acquire the feather of a crested river griffin for a flying potion.  Being the all-knowledgeable maestro you are, you know just where one of the glorious feathered beasts sits and watches the river.  You turn to you apprentice and say…

“Find the feather by following the river to a tall evergreen tree.  Search the base of this tree.”

Or, “Find the feather by following the river until there is a sharp bend.  You will see a towering evergreen tree.  Search around the base of this tree.”

Or perhaps, “Find the feather by following the river until there is a sharp bend.  You will see a towering evergreen tree, taller than all the others.  There should be bones around it.  Search around the base of this tree.”

griffin.jpgYou go with number three.  Your apprentice nods absently and scurries away leaving the door wide open behind him.  With a heavy frown you close the door with your mind, after all, you mixed a telekinetic potion into your chai tea latte earlier – delicious!  As the door swings closed, you begin humming the Imperial March (if I want the apothecary to know about Star Wars…he/she knows about Star Wars).

A few hours pass and you begin to wonder if you need a new apprentice.  Then the half-wit stumbles through the door.  His chest is ripped open and is bleeding all over your perfectly clean oak floorboard.  Unacceptable!  You do a spin move, douse him with healing elixir, and smile as the slimy green fluid worms its way into the cuts crossing the young fools chest.  They close with a hiss.

Perhaps it was exhaustion, perhaps it was something more, but your apprentice falls to the floor with a thud and passes out.  You look at the vial you just upended on him.  In your scribbled handwriting you see, Healing Elixir/Eternal Sleep.  Why did you even make that potion?  Oh yeah, wicked witch special order – this is what was left over.

You smack your forehead and lean down to inspect your fallen minion.  His right hand is wrapped around something.  You peel the clenched fingers apart and what do you see?

crow.pngA crows feather?  Bloody hell!  What went wrong?

Well, for one, you forgot to mention what a griffin feather looks like.  Don’t be sad you mighty apothecary friends of mine, and don’t spike my chai tea latte with Eternal Sleep.  We all do this.

In fact, when I wrote this blog I did it unintentionally.  After I had written the three potential descriptions, I looked at them and realized the mistake.  I said, “Dude, you wrote useless description about the setting, but didn’t even mention what the feather would look like.”  After a brief moment of self-loathing, I ran with it.

There are two points here.  First, sometimes in the mad rush to point our apprentices (characters) down the path (through our story) we provide description that is inherently useless, while somehow forgetting the most important pieces.

A Writer Faces Self-Doubt

Is this bad writing?  It can be if we don’t take the time to do solid reviews/re-writes and really consider the worth of the words.  Strive to ensure the description you are providing adds value to the story.  Or like me, you will be writing yourself out of holes with varying levels of success.

Secondly, don’t get down on yourself when you write.  I screwed up in this blog initially, but went with what was written.  For me, it was fun to write myself out of a hole and use my mistake as a, “what not to do,” point.  Your writing should be fun too.  The more you enjoy the process, the more it will reward you with unexpected twists and turns.

That’s it for today.  I need to drink a caffeine concoction now.  Until tomorrow, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp!

Copyright Info (final)

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