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Cried But Did The Thing Anyway – Writing Descriptions, Part 2B – People (Non-Narrators)

cbdtta_tinyCried But Did The Thing Anyway is blog by Maria Stanislav, writer of relative truth and speculative fiction, nightowl extraordinaire, and rock music aficionado. You can read the whole damn thing here, or check out select pieces, like Why Perfectionism Is Bad, Why Breaks Are Important, and Why The Hell Am I Doing This Writing Thing, Anyway.

make a post she promised the week before? Well, you’d better hold on to your hats, non-believers, for here it comes:

Writing Descriptions, Part 2B: Describing People Who Are Not Your Narrator

(Psst. I talk about Describing Narrators here, and also about Describing Places is over here.)

As with all descriptions, it is important that this one comes naturally. What are the circumstances in which your narrator delivers the description? Are they chatting to their friend, describing a guy they met yesterday? Are they being saved from drowning by a member of the rescue services? The time and space in which the description happens defines its delivery. So does the mental state of your narrator. And, to a degree, the importance of the person they are describing. And how familiar they are with that person. And… Tell you what, let me try and take it in points.

1) First of all, see what I said about describing the narrator, and use as appropriate. Those points still apply.

2) Mental state of Narrator.
When your narrator encounters another character you need to describe, put yourself in the narrator’s shoes. How are they feeling? Is Narrator happy and more likely to comment on something they like about Character’s appearance? Is Narrator so nervous and/or focused on the task at hand that they won’t remember anything about Character’s looks after they’re done interacting with them, because everything is a blur? Or is Narrator so annoyed that any mannerism of Character, whether innocuous or genuinely irksome, is going to earn a scathing remark?


A scathing remark would’ve been a nicer alternative, perhaps.


3) Relationship with Character.
Similarly to the point above, the way Narrator feels about Character will color their perception and description of them. Remember that your narrator doesn’t have to be 100% reliable – in fact, they are highly unlikely to be, because no-one is. Depending on Narrator’s perception of Character, the description doesn’t need to be objective, it doesn’t even have to be NICE. As a writer, you’re telling a story through your narrator’s eyes, and you are delivering more than facts – you are delivering feelings. Think of someone you like, and describe the way they look, they talk, they smile. Then think of someone you strongly dislike, and note what images they bring to your mind, instead. With that in mind, pull up a photograph of a random person, and try describing them in positive terms, then in negative ones. You’ll be surprised how easily ‘sparkly blue eyes’ can become ‘a cold, icy blue’, how quickly the same haircut and clothes can move from pretentious to stylish, how the same smile can be ‘warm, lighting up the entire room’ or ‘plastic, not touching the eyes’.

For a simple, yet very effective, example of descriptions with a positive and negative twist (not to mention a good example of patriarchy at work), check out this Pantene commercial below.

4) Absolute vs relative terms.
As humans, we rarely describe things and people in absolute, objective terms – unless that is required by the circumstances (police report, medical history, witness statement, etc.). Even if you know you are six feet tall, when you meet a person of about your height, you will think of them as ‘person of about your height’ first, ‘six-feet tall person’ second. (On the other hand, if your narrator is shorter or taller than average, they are more likely to comment on other people’s height relative to their own, with possible exaggeration – especially if they have additional feelings about their height. Imagine a 6’5 guy, who is insecure about being taller than everyone else, liking someone shorter, and always describing them as petite – even if, objectively, they are, let’s say, 5’11.)

5) Details and highlights.
When you get too carried away painting loose watercolors of your characters, you face a danger of them having zero memorability in the end. This is where you can play with details. And by that, I don’t mean you writing a detailed description of someone – but instead, pick out one or two specific details, things that are very particular for someone you’re describing – whether it’s a part of their appearance, a mannerism, an item they have, an article of clothing, etc.

Right this moment, I thought back to a crime/romance story I read ages ago, and tried to remember what Lidiya, the female lead looked like. The first things that came to mind were the details that the male lead noticed about her, or, more specifically, her hands. “Lots of rings, but no manicures. Or is that a special kind of manicures that looks like no manicures?”. From elsewhere in the book, I remember she had dark hair. And here she is, in my head.

By the way, here’s some wisdom on appearances courtesy of Moist von Lipwig, a master con artist and a beloved character from Going Postal by the recently-deceased and even more beloved Sir Terry Pratchett:

“People had difficulty describing him. He was . . . he was ‘about’. He was about twenty, or about thirty. On Watch reports across the continent he was anywhere between, oh, about six feet two inches and five feet nine inches tall, hair all shades from mid-brown to blond, and his lack of distinguishing features included his entire face. He was about . . . average. What people remembered was the furniture, things like spectacles and moustaches, so he always carried a selection of both. They remembered names and mannerisms, too. He had hundreds of those. ”

A rather perfect Moist von Lipwig cosplay by Savvy-Eh of deviantArt

A rather perfect Moist von Lipwig cosplay by Savvy-Eh of deviantArt

6) Time and space.
Our brain doesn’t take in every detail about someone’s appearance right away. In fact, the first thing it tends to do upon noticing someone is paint the already-mentioned loose watercolor of them – just as the reader’s brain will do when they read your description. The longer we spend looking at someone, the more details we’ll notice, and we will do so gradually.

For an example of a masterful use of time and space to pace a description, I’ll refer you to a scene from Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell, a book I read and loved to pieced recently. In the scene I have in mind, the main character, Cath, rushes to a hospital where her sister has been taken for an emergency. In the waiting room, she runs into her long-estranged mother, who Cath hasn’t seen for over ten years. You’d expect a deluge of description at this point – but the first thing Cath describes Laura, the mother, as is “a blond woman.”

Half a page later, after Cath answers the doctor’s questions and has some room to breathe, sit back and watch her mother again, Laura becomes “this upset blond woman with tired eyes and really expensive jeans”. They exchange a few words, and then Cath comments (to herself) about Laura’s haircut and the clothes she’s wearing. And on the next page, after Laura says something that upsets Cath, Cath looks at her again – and now a deluge of description comes crashing in. But it’s not the woman she’s seeing right now that Cath is describing, but rather, her mother as she remembers her.

It was like looking at nobody at all.

And then it was like looking at the person you expected to be comforting you when you woke up from a nightmare.

[…] …she could see her mom, in perfect focus, sitting on the other side of their dining room table. She was laughing at something that Wren had said – so Wren kept saying it, and their mom kept laughing. She laughed through her nose. Her hair was dark, and she tucked Sharpies into her ponytail, and she could draw anything. A flower. A seahorse. A unicorn. And when she was irritated, she snapped at them. Snapped her fingers. Snap, snap, snap, while she was talking on the phone. Stern eyebrows, bared teeth. “Shhh.” She was in the bedroom with their dad, shouting. She was at the zoo, helping Wren chase a peacock. She was rolling out dough for gingerbread cookies. She was on the phone, snapping. She was in the bedroom, yelling. She was standing on the porch, pushing Cath’s hair behind her ears again and again, stroking her cheek with a long, flat thumb, and making promises she wasn’t going to keep.

I brought this scene up to demonstrate pacing, but now that it’s sitting in front of me, I realize that it’s a perfect example for every point I’ve made before. The mental state of the narrator. The relationship and history she has with her mother. The prevalence of details and mannerisms over any simple physical descriptions.

It’s not a description you give to the police when filling out a missing person report. It’s not a description you give when a therapist asks about your mother. It’s not even a way to answer a friend’s casual question of, ‘what’s your mom like?’

It’s a description that’s intensely personal, that doesn’t paint the reader a picture as much as it puts the reader INTO it, letting them not so much see the person, but experience them. Them, and everything that comes with them – the history, the hopes, the laughter, the lies, the loss, and the gingerbread cookies. And that’s what makes it so brilliant, I think. If I can say anything in summary, it would be this.

When given choice: tell the reader what someone looks like, or mention that they liked to stick Sharpies in their ponytail… go for the Sharpies.

This book. Read it.

Also, this book. Read it.


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Filed under Books and Writing, Cried But Did The Thing Anyway

Cried But Did The Thing Anyway – Writing Descriptions, Part 2A – People, Specifically Narrators

cbdtta_tinyCried But Did The Thing Anyway is blog by Maria Stanislav, writer of relative truth and speculative fiction, nightowl extraordinaire, and rock music aficionado. You can read the whole damn thing here, or check out select pieces, like Why Perfectionism Is Bad, Why Breaks Are Important, and Why The Hell Am I Doing This Writing Thing, Anyway.

Le Gasp! Can it be? Is this fickle Stanislav character going to, for the first time in forever, keep her promise and make a post she promised the week before? Well, you’d better hold on to your hats, non-believers, for here it comes:

Writing Descriptions, Part 2: Describing People!

(Psst. Part 1 – Describing Places is over here.)

I honestly don’t know whether describing characters is easier or trickier than describing settings, but the main problem is essentially the same. On one hand, you want to immerse the reader in your world and make sure they get an accurate picture of the people you dreamed up (most of this post is applicable to fiction more than non-fiction/journalism). On the other, you don’t want to bore people with paragraphs about eyes like limpid pools of blue, do you?

But du-u-ude, wasn’t it YOU who said, just the other week, that people are WAY more important than backdrops? So why can’t I tell the people EVERY DETAIL about my beloved protags, antags, deuterags and tritags? And their little dog, too?

I answer. Because (in this instance) you’re a writer of fiction in prose. Not a witness making a statement for facial composition. Not a concept designer for a video game. Not even a comic book writer, who might want to give their artist highly detailed character description. But a STORYTELLER. And while, like I indeed said, people are more important than backdrops, things they did, said, changed, broke, killed, felt, accepted, refused, failed or saved will, in turn, always be more important than the color of their hair and the shape of their shoes.

But du-u-ude, I’ve put So Much Freakin Thought in the appearance, style, and mannerisms of my characters

And none of that thought will go to waste, I promise you. Are you familiar with the iceberg theory? According to Ernest Hemingway, only a fraction of your knowledge about your characters (narrator included) will make it to the page, but it’s the unseen part, the underwater part, the facts that stay in your mind and in your notes, that give your writing bulk and make characters feel real.

The Iceberg Theory: TL;DR (Pic lifted from Veronica Sicoe)

The Iceberg Theory: TL;DR
(Pic lifted from Veronica Sicoe)

Now, let’s get down to brass tacks and see what we can do to put that iceberg tip on the page with some grace. I want to start with, arguably, the trickiest trick of them all.

Describing the narrator

Describing the narrator is a right pain in the butt, particularly when you’re writing first-person or third-person-limited (which, written well, is basically first-person with changed pronouns). If you have to ask why, ask yourself – how often do you find yourself describing yourself while telling someone a story about what happened to you? Do you say, ‘I’m five foot ten, with dark brown hair reaching down to my waist’ when you meet a friend for coffee? Do you remark on the shape of your eyes when telling your spouse about your day? Do you describe your every outfit in minute detail when talking to your therapist?
(If your answer is ‘yes’ – damn, how do you manage to still have any friends at all? please accept my congratulations, you are surrounded by wonderful, loving, PATIENT people.)

Think back to the times when you did go out of your way to describe your appearance in a conversation…

I had the most amazing prom dress – pale peach, with black lace around the shoulders. And the shoes, oh god, the days I spent looking for those black heels, it was like every shop in town signed a pact to stop stocking anything above size six.

He’d been at Mike’s for ten minutes or less so far, and he spent every one of those minutes regretting the fact that he hadn’t stopped to change. In a room full of jeans, jerseys, and tank tops, his suit and tie made him look – and feel – like a high school chaperone.

“I’m sorry,” the casting director told me with a sympathetic smile. “We’re currently looking for a blonde weather girl, and our stylist doesn’t do wigs.”
I walked out of the studio, cursing to myself and wishing to go back in time three days, so I could tell my hairdresser where she could stuff her suggestions of ‘a lovely brunette shade that’d really freshen me up.’

None of the above paragraphs are The New York Times bestseller material, but they all share the same thing – a focus on appearance that is, in the given situation, relevant for discussion. The first narrator is excited about a special occasion; the second is forced to notice his outfit because of the stark contrast with his surroundings; and for the third one, a new hair color just cost her a job opportunity.

Note that even with the description-with-relevance, we only get to find out small snippets of information about each narrator. The first one wears shoes size 7 or bigger (which, possibly, makes her pretty tall). The second one works in an office – maybe; if we read further, we could find out he came to Mike’s straight from a job interview or other formal function that required a suit and tie. The third narrator is a natural blonde who recently dyed her hair dark.

Is any of that enough to paint a portrait? No. But there is enough for a loose watercolor. Tall girl excited about a prom. Man in a suit at a party. Freshly-dark-haired young woman looking for a job on TV. And, speaking as a reader, I can tell you that even if you describe your narrator in great detail right off the bat, it’s the watercolor the readers will be following through the book, filling in the blanks with your help or without.

Consider this. In the first chapter of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, the main character called Shadow is introduced as follows: “Shadow had done three years in prison. He was big enough and looked don’t-fuck-with-me enough that his biggest problem was killing time. So he kept himself in shape, and taught himself coin tricks, and thought a lot about how much he loved his wife.” Later in the chapter, we find out he’s thirty-two years old. Throughout the rest of the book, we can glean more about his appearance, but for starters, this watercolor is all we have. And it works.

So, here are things to keep in mind when describing your narrator:
1) Keep it simple, keep it real.
Your narrator is a living, breathing person – or they should read like that, at least. So if you want a description, have them describe themselves in terms of real things that they experience. Let them enjoy some parts of their looks and despise some others, let them hate the shape of their fingernails but revel in the thickness of their eyebrows. And unless you are purposefully writing them as an insufferable narcissist, stay away from ANY poetic descriptions of the self. (Getting lyrical about clothes is allowed on very special occasions, like proms, weddings, Miss Universe pageants, and any other situations where the outfit is A Big Deal.)

That means no eyes like the summer sky, but yes to eyes with smudged makeup, yes to eyes bloodshot after an all-nighter studying, yes to eyes that everyone thinks is blue but are actually green behind the contact lenses worn all but 24/7 (because her sister had blue eyes, and everyone liked her better). No hair like a stream of honey. But yes to hair like a crow’s nest following a rough night, yes to hair that eats combs, yes to hair that straightens itself out after an hour and to hair that turns into a frizz ball after five seconds in the rain.

If you're my writer, I'd rather you didn't.

If you’re my writer, I’d rather you didn’t.

2) Use mirrors sparingly.
The oldest trick in the book is to pitch your narrator against a mirror and have them recite a run-down of their looks. They’re observing themselves, so it’s a perfect excuse to describe everything they’re seeing, right? Yeah… no. That is not to say you can’t do that. You can, but you have to be careful. Remember that we tend to only describe things that are different, unusual, somehow special.

Is this the first time your narrator sees their own reflection in a mirror, as opposed to the surface of a pond, so they marvel at how much clearer the image is? Is this the day they’re having their bandages removed after (restorative? purely cosmetic? identity-changing?) plastic surgery, and note how their feature have changed/improved/been restored to the way they remember them? Have they been imprisoned/unconscious/unaware for a while and looking in the mirror feels just weird because they realize this is the first time in months they’re seeing their own face? (Used that one myself; guilty as charged.)

The Man in the Iron Mask used the mirror trick acceptably, though.

The Man in the Iron Mask used the mirror trick acceptably, though.

3) Change is good. So is contrast.
Change in your narrator’s appearance – whether positive or negative for them – is good news for you as writer, because it’s a very valid excuse to comment on it. New hair color or haircut; clothes that don’t fit well because of gained/lost weight, growth spurt, injury, pregnancy; a new job or a new climate that requires a dressing style different from what they’re used to… use your imagination, that’s literally your job.

Contrast is also a good excuse to point things out, as seen in the case of Mr Awkward Suit At A Party, earlier in this article. Anything out of place is noticeable. Your own self being out of place is noticeable – sometimes, acutely so. Whether your narrator is pleased to be the smartest dresser in the joint, or feels they are sticking out like a sore thumb, or is the only person in the room under the age of 50, or is wondering why everyone else is wearing heels.


4) The more you take something for granted, the less often you’ll mention it
Some things you just take for granted or assume to be general knowledge. For example, if you’re writing a scene set in a place called New York, you will expect your readers to assume you mean New York City, the place with the Central Park and the Statue of Liberty, as opposed to, for example, New York, Kentucky or New York, Lincolnshire.

With this in mind, and taking the rest of my ideas into account, here’s your homework for this part of the post.

Think of five to ten different ways to let the reader know the name and sex of a first-person narrator. Post a few of them in the comments if you like.

Ponder that while staying tuned for the conclusion of this three-post series:

Describing other people – click here to read!

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Filed under Books and Writing, Cried But Did The Thing Anyway

Cried But Did The Thing Anyway – Writing Descriptions, Part 1 – Places

cbdtta_tinyCried But Did The Thing Anyway is a frequently-autobiographical series of blog posts that I publish every week or so, where art reflects life reflects coffee reflects insomnia reflects obsession reflects existential dread reflects art. I also tend to mention Gerard Way a lot, because he is my muse (in fact, here’s an essay about one of the songs from his latest album, Hesitant Alien).

This week I want to talk about writing descriptions. Specifically, descriptions of places.

I know, I know. I said I was going to write about character-driven writing. But the more I thought about it, the more I came to the conclusion that no one says it better than the inimitable Chuck Wendig:

“Plot does not poop out characters. Characters poop out plot.” (Read more of his post on Organic Story Architecture here. Seriously. It’s very good. Go read it, and then come back to this post.)

You know I HAD to.

You know I HAD to.

So, descriptions. The bit you tend to skip when you’re reading, because oh my GODS, who has the time to read two pages of lyrical waxage about the beauty of the Grand Canyon, when you’re more interested in knowing whether the dude abseiling it got to the bottom in one piece?

…Actually, I think I just summarized most of my personal problems with setting descriptions in fiction in that one paragraph. Well done, me. Now, let’s take it in parts.

Disclaimer: everything that follows is my personal opinion, and is to be taken with a shaker of salt. I strongly believe that there are no such things as writing DOs and DON’Ts (that big scary professional writers like to arrange in lists), and that you really can get away with anything if you do it with enough confidence, as recommended by Neil Gaiman (a big professional writer who writes horror but isn’t scary).

Description Issue N1: Attention Span.

Most of the books we consider the classics were written for an audience that bears very little resemblance to a 21st century human living in a reasonably developed part of the world. So there is nothing surprising about the fact that a person living in the era where world-changing information can be communicated in 140 characters is likely to skip descriptive walls of text 20-30 times that size. You can roll your eyes at that fact and bemoan the lack of attention span of the contemporary human – or you can accept the fact that engaging a modern-day reader is a high-stake game, so you’d do well to up yours. (As in, your game. Your writing game. UP IT.)

Description Issue N2: Imagination.

This is another time- and information-relevant factor. A reader in the 19th century Europe might have no idea what a jungle looks like, and could have seen it in a drawing, at best. A reader in the 21st century has seen hundreds of photographs, and hours upon hours of movie and/or video game footage depicting jungles, rain forests, monsoon forests, tropical forests – you name it. Lengthy descriptions are no longer required to, well, describe the setting, because a few chosen key words will summon the right imagery just as well.


Description Issue N3: Priorities.

Unless you’re writing a travel guide, chances are that your reader cares more about WHAT happens in the story rather than WHERE it happens. They’ll be more interested in what your protagonist does than in the color of their boots. No backdrop, no costume, no prop will be as important as the story and the people in it.


Does this mean that we as writers don’t need to describe anything at all? Does this mean we can get away with saying ‘she found herself in a desert’ or ‘Frodo and Sam got lost in a swamp’?

Of course not. (Especially that second one. You’ll get sued for plagiarism.) And then there’s the issue of unearthly and magical landscapes to consider, too – because how can our readers imagine something they haven’t seen? But don’t rub your hands in glee, fantasy/sci-fi lot. The reader will be as likely to skim your detailed account of the chilling beauty of the time vortex as to glance over three paragraphs’ worth of New York’s urban landscape.

Uh... Sorry, wrong swamp.

Uh… Sorry, wrong swamp.

So, how do you make the buggers soak in the atmosphere?

Once again, the clues are in the question itself. It’s all about the atmosphere, and the soaking in. Let me elaborate.

Repeat disclaimer: the ideas below are ones that work for me, so if you personally enjoy reading and writing page after page of Lovecraftian descriptions – don’t let me stop you. Just be warned that in this day and age, the only one who can still get away with Lovecraftian descriptions is Neil Gaiman – see his short story I, Cthulhu, Or What’s A Tentacle-Faced Thing Like Me Doing In A Sunken City Like This (Latitude 47° 9’ S, Longitude 126° 43’ W)?

Description Idea N1: Atmosphere – You’ve Got Five Senses. Use ‘Em.

When making business presentations, people are encouraged to engage as many senses as possible – which is why a slide show containing nothing but text is not a visual aid, but a visual anesthetic, guaranteed to lull the audience into a meeting-induced coma. Surely you want to treat your readers better than this?

Don’t just tell them what things looked and sounded like. If the reader is following your characters into a swamp, make them smell the marsh gas and the sickly sweetness of rot, let them feel the squelch of mud under their shoes, make them want to spit when a midge gets caught in someone’s mouth. If your story is about a brave astronaut on the volcanic surface of the Io, bring the readers along and let them feel the deathly heat even through the space suit (and make them worry if the suit, despite the tech’s assurances, is strong enough). Turn the lack of smell and taste into a thing, too – let your astronaut point out that they expect to smell smoke and brimstone every time they take a breath of the clean air from the oxygen tanks in their suit.

Put yourself in the scene and describe what you’re experiencing. That way, your readers will experience it, too.

"Actually, being able to smell anything through this suit would be highly dangerous, because it would indicate loss of its structural integrity."

“Actually, being able to smell anything through this suit would be highly dangerous, because it would indicate loss of its structural integrity.”

Description Idea N2: …But Not All Five At Once.

Unless your situation calls for an ‘all senses screaming at once, pure-white oblivion at the heart of a star’ type of description (and, for the love of everything, do not use passages like that to describe orgasms), there is only so much information we can take in at once. Sure, we’ve got five senses – but some always take the front stage, and we are likely to comment on them first.

Here’s a simple exercise. Through a twist of plot and your dastardly writer mind, your narrator, still dressed in summer clothes, finds themselves in a frozen waste. What is the first thing they are likely to comment on:
A) The majesty of the aurora borealis;
B) The endless whiteness of the wind-swept plains;
C) The sharp smell of snow;
D) The fact that IT’S FREAKING COLD;
E) The nearby yeti that’s about to make a healthy lunch of Protagonist Sashimi.

If you answered A, B, or C, you may need to think again. If your answer is D, I can see your point, but remember that the body is clever enough to prioritize danger of immediate death (i.e. by yeti) above danger of slow(er) death (i.e. by hypothermia).

"I'll wait here while you describe the exact shape and texture of icicles in my cave. Take your time, supper."

“I’ll wait here while you describe the exact shape and texture of icicles in my cave. Take your time, supper.”


Once your protagonist has escaped the monster (or, as the case may be, has been put on ice to save for later), they may comment on the cold and, hey, maybe even throw in a few descriptions of the place they’re in. If you follow your characters around and watch them experience the world, you can describe any setting in great detail without a single wall of text.

This leads nicely into my next point:

Description Idea N3: Ask Your Protagonist.

In the very likely case that you’re telling your story from a third-person limited or first-person POV, your narrating voice needs to stay in character. What does your protagonist like? What do they pay attention to first? Are they more likely to marvel at nature, technology, books, music, fancy cars, architecture, other people? Are they enjoying the setting they are in? An extrovert will find a room full of people a great playground, while an introvert might describe the same room as a gauntlet or even anxiety-attack-fuel. Someone will treat a snow day as an opportunity to build a fort, while for another it’s a case of ‘10 more inches of the damn white @@!!”** fell today‘.

If your narrator met Jack Frost, would they play in the snow or run for the nearest fireplace?

If your narrator met Jack Frost, would they play in the snow or run for the nearest fireplace?

Needless to say, these little tips and tricks barely scratch the surface of describing settings in fiction. But if I could boil everything I said above down to one piece of advice, it would be this:

Remember that as a writer, you’re letting your readers view the world through your characters’ eyes. Don’t describe things as YOU would describe them – describe them as your narrator would.
(Unless, you know, you’re writing omniscient or journalistic. Then describe them as YOU would. Without boring the pants off everyone.)

Tune in next week, for Writing Descriptions – Part 2: People!



Filed under Books and Writing, Cried But Did The Thing Anyway

Cried But Did The Thing Anyway – Double Drat That Draft!

cbdtta_tinyCried But Did The Thing Anyway is a series of blogs posted on a roughly weekly basis about various challenges faced by one Maria Stanislav, struggling writer, underpaid translator, and chronic volunteer. If you’ve got nothing better to do with your time, you can read the whole damn thing here, or check out a few choice pieces, like Why Self-Care Is Important, or Why Making Art Means Being Vulnerable.

song_coverAlso, have you heard, that my comic, A Song For My Brother, is now available on Etsy, including a wonderfully affordable digital version?

Check out the free preview here. It’s pretty awesome.


Guess what, this week I’m actually going to talk about writing.

Yeah, what the big text above says. I’ve been meaning to talk about some practical aspect of writing for a while now, but have been consistently stopped by a voice in my head that said – hey, before you make posts dispensing invaluable writing advice, how about you, y’know, WRITE something? The voice of reason can be a downright bitch.

It’s true, though. Short of a recent short story, a fanfic one-shot, and a short comic book, I haven’t written anything since October 2014. I think it was the realization of exactly how long it’s been since I touched my novel that made me buckle up and face the monster I’ve been avoiding all this time. The moleskine in which I write my first draft.

It went something like this.


For the rest of this post to make sense, I suppose I should talk a little about my process.

When I write short stories, it’s anybody’s guess whether I’m going to type straight to the screen, or write in a notebook, or scribble on a McDonald’s tray liner (true story). For novels, though, I’ve developed a process that works for me.

Draft 1.0

First, I write the words in a Moleskine. Specifically, a Plain Large Moleskine Notebook (192 pages, slightly bigger than A5, soft black cover, unruled acid-free paper the shade of parchment). So far, I’ve been using two of those per novel – and since I’m currently on book two in a six-book series, if you ever want to give me a gift, you know what to do.

Also, since I’ve taken a tangent into stationery, I’ll talk about pens, too. As particular as I am about my writing notebook, I’m entirely unfussed about pens, my only requirement being a rubber grip. At this time, my favorite is the black ballpoint Zebra Z-Grip, which sits very comfortably in my hand, and is very budget-friendly, at roughly 50p / pen.

So, basically, that’s it for the first draft – black ballpoint, Moleskine, and wherever I land my butt. Which, more often than not, is Starbucks. (Yes; I am THAT writer. Commence the abuse of my pretentious self.)


Draft 1.5

Ah, this is where things get interesting. Traditionally, once I was done writing for the day, or when I reached the end of a chapter, I would take my handwritten draft 1.0 and type it up, creating a draft 1.5 of sorts. I wouldn’t be editing per se – but cleaning up what I’d put on the paper, rolling some dialogue around in my mouth to see if it sounded natural, fixing the most glaring problems. Then, and only then would I proceed to write the next bit of the story.

Draft 2.0

This is a draft that happens when the body of the novel has been written (1.0) AND typed up as I go along (1.5). That’s when I go back to the beginning, and start revising. This is also the stage where I involve the most trusted of my beta readers. Any real rewriting of pieces of the novel happens at this stage.


Draft 3.0

This draft is basically a proofread of Draft 2.0. By now, most of the kinks in the manuscript have been ironed out, and it only needs a polish. At the end of this is the product I am ready to show to people.

Drafts 4.0 – ∞

The existence and number of those depends entirely on the work of agents (if any) and the publishers’ editors. Once I’ve had some experience with those, I’ll be sure to tell you.


So what’s the deal this time, eh?

I’ve always been aware that the very existence of my Draft 1.5 was a violation of the so-called ‘golden rules’ – that is, never stop while writing the first draft. Let it be bad, as long as it exists. Don’t stop to fix it, or you’ll lose momentum. Etcetera, etcetera.

This was something I’ve never been able to do. I once took part in NaNoWriMo, and finished around 20k words – but those were words I’ve written down AND then typed up, cleaning as I went along. To go on writing without making sure that my recent work was making sense was unthinkable.

And yet, I decided to try. When I started my second novel, I plunged ahead with my first draft without looking back. Writing on paper has always been a great way to build momentum for me, since the permanence of ink on the page stopped me from spending an hour revising each paragraph. Now, I was going to harness that momentum, and drive straight into a full first draft without all that pesky type-as-you-go business.

Two weeks later, I was ten thousand words in, I had completed the first section of the novel, and was prepared to start on the second, where I was going to introduce a second major POV character. And that was where I crashed. The momentum of the ‘first draft, no looking back’ principle has turned into a downhill dash, that moment when you realize your body is moving too fast for your feet to keep up, and you’re going to trip in three, two, one… trip, slip, CRASH.


Three more weeks after that, I tried picking myself up, and even wrote another thousand words or so – but my heart wasn’t in the story anymore. Other parts of life weren’t making things easy, either, and I did the only thing I could do at the time – let go. For longer than I planned. Because every time I thought of coming back, I imagined the mountain of draft that needed sorting and cleaning before I could move any further in the story. I thought of how messy that draft must be, of how little sense it must make, of how much work it’s going to take before I can start WRITING again, rather than cleaning.

Well, I finally picked up my Moleskine again, today, and typed up the first chapter written in it (which, upon reflection, is likely to be split into two). And guess what?

My first draft wasn’t that bad.

Obviously, it has all the expected problems of being the first chapter written before the rest of the book. It’s a curious combination of over-explanation of some things and under-exposition of others. It lacks descriptions because the first major scene is happening in a place described close to the end of the previous novel, so I have to constantly remind myself that a reminder of where the characters are would be a useful thing. Its mood is all over the place, but that is a thing that might end up being a feature rather than a bug, considering the mental state of my narrator.

But is it a chunk of text I am going to shake my head at, scrap, and start all over again? No. I expect nothing in this 10k-word section is going to fall into that category (nothing longer than a paragraph, anyway).

Because, and I’m going to sound extremely vain, I am unable to do something that writers are commonly encouraged to do – write crappy first drafts. My first drafts can be rough, messy, overly wordy and under-exposed. But they will not have plot holes. They will not have inconsistent characterization. They will not lead me into a dead end. Why?

Three words. Character-driven stories.

As a writer, I’m not a deity, but rather, a journalist. I peek over my characters’ shoulders, and scribble down what they do, what they say, what they think. I’m not writing a story – I’m telling my account of the events observed. If you tell someone the story of how you and your crush went on a date, there can’t be a plot hole in there – and if there seems to be one, then you’re simply omitting something, or lying altogether. When you’re trying to figure your way out of a problem, there’s never such thing as a dead end, because one way or another, you end up doing something – even if that means being stuck and waiting for something to happen that would charge the situation, for better or worse.

That is why, I feel, I can’t write low-quality first drafts. That is also why I need to frequently go back and make sure that I wrote things down the way they happened – because writing anything else would be a lie. (I have the feeling that character-driven writing is going to be my next week’s topic.)

So, at the end of the day…

Today, picking up my Moleskine again, after long, too long a time, I learned a valuable lesson about writing. And that is, you have to make your own rules. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. If I need to spend longer on my first draft, to achieve peace of mind by virtue of my weird-ass Draft 1.5, before continuing on with the story – then that’s what I’m going to do. Anyone in disagreement with my method can – and should – go their own way and write their own way. I’ve found mine, for the time being.


P.S. In a wonderful feat of happenstance, Neil Gaiman answered a follower’s question on Tumblr today:

ahalffinishedbook asked: Do you believe in rules that dictate how someone should write structure, plot, etc.? I’m a student and I often question the books we read that claim there are writing “cans and can’ts” as though they are black and white. My classmates think I’m naive to take them with a grain of salt. If possible, I’d like to know your opinion. (P.S. I like your 8 rules much more. They are motivational. Thank you.)

Neil Gaiman: 
No, I don’t believe that there are rules. Or at least, if there are, they are huge and simple. For example:Write clearly and understandably about people you (and we) can care about, and keep us caring about them to the end.…is probably a rule. But perhaps we don’t have to care about the people in the story — the fun of the story might be the way it’s told, or something just as unlikely.

The nearest I’ve come to a rule is, keep the reader turning the pages and don’t let them feel cheated a the end.

Oh, and Write as best you can, though. And maybe a little better.

P.P.S. The eight rules the reader is referring to are Neil Gaiman’s 8 Rules of Writing. #3 and #8 are my personal favorites.

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Cried But Did The Thing Anyway – Let’s Say Your House Is On Fire…

cbdtta_tiny[Click here for other posts in the series Cried But Did The Thing Anyway – Life of a Freelance Writer]
…And You Can Only Save What You Can Run With

If you’re part of a Western culture, you probably own way too much stuff. If you’re Slavic, you don’t necessarily own too much, but you definitely never throw anything away, endlessly downcycling and saving things for rainy days. You can imagine how dangerous being a product of these two cultures can be.

The first time I became truly aware of the amount of STUFF in my life was when I had to move from Ukraine to the UK, a few years ago. There was no container, no truck, not even the trunk of a regular car – only two people’s worth of airline luggage allowance. I knew I wasn’t going to fit twenty-odd years’ worth of things into two suitcases that my spouse and I could take on the plane, but I sure did my best.



It took me the best part of two weeks to go through everything in my only-slighter-bigger-than-studio apartment. Stuff got donated to charity (bags and bags of clothes and toys), dropped off at libraries (some of the books and textbooks), given to friends (jewelry and miscellanea) and offered for collection on the ground floor of my apartment block (heaps of stationery). Not to mention at least a hundred pounds of scrap paper dropped off at a local recycling center, a small mountain of defunct hardware lugged to the only place that would take it (recycling is a pain in Ukraine if you’re not a company), and I’m pretty sure I’d remember more things given time.

After all that, I, predictably, still couldn’t bring everything that I wanted to hang on to, leaving a few shelves and boxes and a suitcase or two sitting and waiting for me to come back for them. Coming back has been an issue, so most of them are still sitting there. But the truth is, if I could click my fingers right now, and have anything from my old home teleported to me? I’d ask for my wedding dress (for sentimental value), my bridesmaid’s dress from a friend’s wedding (because it’s an awesome evening gown), and the books I still haven’t brought over. Whatever else I left behind… actually, I can’t even remember what else I DID leave behind.

Drawing by Luckyskittle of DeviantArt

Living Out of a Suitcase – drawing by Luckyskittle of DeviantArt

I’m glad that my move across the continent happened relatively early in my life. Not only because when you’re in your mid-twenties and in the middle of your 9-to-5-goes-goth-punk-alternative transition, sleeping on the floor can be cool (and not too much of a health hazard). But also because once you’ve learned to live out of a suitcase/backpack, you learn to appreciate the freedom that a minimalist lifestyle gives you, and become reluctant to clutter your life up again.

That is not to say that I’m not attached to my possessions. In fact, I love them an awful lot – which is why I’m highly reluctant to acquire new ones. Unless we’re talking about books or music, of course. And certain DVD box sets (can the extended edition of all the Hobbit movies be out already, so it can sit next to my LotR set?). But clothes, shoes, and similar consumer goods? Before I buy a new one, I’m going to love to death the ones I have already.


This is not my wedding finger. Sadly.

Fun fact: I recently retired a ring that I bought in 2009. Not because it broke, but because I literally wore it down until the silver plating rubbed off, and the metal underneath wore so thin it was cutting into my skin. The replacement for it is a black widow spider ring, silver throughout, and if it lasts, I’ll happily be buried with it before I replace it.

Now, back to the title of this post. That was the question I went around asking some people in my circle, after watching a family member fight a losing battle with physics and airline luggage restrictions. (And vowing to be even more frugal in my purchases as I did so.)

So, here we go. These are my friends’ and family’s answers to my question of:

…Say your house is on fire, and you can only save what you can run with. What would you bring, assuming that people and pets are safe?

rosie_avvieRosie Narnen, psychologist and writer:
“Passport, my favorite ring, and my favorite book.”



emmibat_avvieEmmi Bat, comic book artist:
“My laptop, gloves signed by My Chemical Romance, and my copy of the comic Something Perfect signed by Becky Cloonan.”

mooncorebunny_avvieMooncore Bunny, programmer and game engineer:
“My computer and USB memory sticks with backups.”
(Please note that the computer in question is a desktop. But memory sticks will fit into a pocket, so it might just work.)

jemma_avvieJemma, microbiology student and ukulele lover:
“My ukulele Neil, my laptop, my box with comics, and my keepsake box.”
(Keeping all memorabilia in one place – definitely a good idea.)

oksana_avvieOksana Gutsalenko, interior designer and freelancer:
“Any cash on hand, jewelry, tablet, cellphone, some clothes if I can grab them.”


natasha_avvie Natalia Kyrylova, banker and soft toy creator:
“Old photographs, and my passport.”


olga_avvieOlga Varnava, small businessman and translator:
“Any important documents, and the external hard drive with photographs. Laptop if I get the chance.”


gleb_avvieGleb Chebotko, small businessman and IT specialist:
“Documents, warm clothes if it’s cold outside. All my important data is always backed up in the cloud.”
(Gotta love a smartass IT dude.)

moonlitmeda_avvieMoonlitMeda, mathematician and crochet enthusiast:
“My bag of yarn, my tablet, and the Caesium Scarlett plushie [pictured]. (Then I might burn to death while trying to decide what to grab from my bookshelf).”


Caesium Scarlet, CS to friends.


So, in summary, it looks like people, when pressured to pick possessions to save, choose things from the following four categories:
– valuables;
– paperwork;
– data / physical products of our work or art;
– items of sentimental value.

While my sample isn’t exactly a statistician’s paradise (everyone above fits in the 20-30 age bracket, ±2 years, and comes from an income level equivalent to middle-middle-class), you’ll see that people on my list come from different professions, including business, art, and technology. Some answers were geared towards practical items more than others (people who said they’d bring warm clothes, IDs, other documents that would be a PITA to get reissued). But you’ll note that only one person above didn’t include any items of sentimental value, memorabilia or photographs in their list – and he did so by disclaiming that his data is already backed up!

It seems to me that whether we like surrounding ourselves with a lot of stuff or pick a more minimalist lifestyle, our priorities tend to land in similar places when the chips are down and houses are on fire. And that is – tokens of our experiences. Reminders of places we went to, of people we’ve met. Items that, whether one of a kind or generic to start with, were made unique by the experiences they shared together with us. The closest that possessions can come to being our friends.

Which brings me right back to why I don’t want to own too many things. Because the ones I already own – I love them too damn much.

P.S. You’re probably wondering what I would take out of a burning house. Don’t worry, I’m not leaving you hanging. Here’s all I would bring.


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