June 19


Deliberate Writing Practice: Day Ten


The introduction to this series is here.

The overall idea is simple: one quick writing exercise a day for several days.

As always, post the results in a comment below, or, if you prefer, email them to me (at daniel wallace at gmail).

Day Ten: Write the Unwritable

GLOUCESTER, MA—Admitting that he has “absolutely no idea how other authors do it,” novelist Edward Milligan, 46, told reporters Tuesday that he’s just no good at all when it comes to describing people’s hands in his writing.

“I’m fine with most details, but for some reason hands completely and utterly elude me,” said Milligan, who recently described a character’s hands as “dangling around like big, meaty spiders.” “I’ll often create an entirely fleshed-out character, and write easily at length about their face, their personality, their voice, their hopes, dreams, and desires, but then I try to describe their damn hands and it ruins the whole story.”

The Onion — Frustrated Novelist No Good At Describing Hands

Some things, prose depicts very easily.

It seems easy to describe someone’s thoughts. It seems easy to describe what a place looks like. It seems easy to present someone’s dialogue.

But other things are genuinely hard. And it’s not just hands. Many kinetic, corporal experiences seem tough to depict in a full, sensual, “there” way.

This is probably why sex is famously so easy to get wrong. But it’s also about much smaller, briefer human experiences. As others have remarked — describing the feeling of meeting someone’s eye when that person refuses to look away is hard to do in words.

So let’s try it out, for a challenge.

This exercise is simple, in theory.

Write out a full, detailed description, in one or two sentences, avoiding not just cliches and purple prose, but also merely referential prose (“he fell and hurt his foot”), as though the moment were happening to a character from in your own work in progress or intended story, of two or three of the following:

  1. Walking down a flight of stairs and slipping one step, with the feeling of suddenly flying.
  2. Swinging a hand and unexpectedly touching someone else’s, someone who you should not be touching.
  3. Saying something in a tone of gentle adminition or warning to a friend in a public and having that friend, in response, stare at you in unexpected anger.
  4. Continue to stare at someone even though you know you shouldn’t.


Deliberate writing practice, the body, the onion

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  • “Adam’s legs danced and graced themselves with the motion of the circling bike pedals as the wheels of his bike circled on the hard street, and his eyes were like a stabibilized camera as he gazed at a beautiful blond woman in a red dress walking by leisurely, with her beautiful feet in those red high-heeled shoes. As he looked, he heard the sound of a car almost coming to him, and he turned his gaze away from the woman, whom he should not have seen at the moment, and he turned the bike away from ramming into the front bumper of the car and continued to ride on, his legs circling with a more fiery intensity in order to keep himself on the straight road.”

      • Does that mean all the “following” (1-4) was done in my writing, in one way or another, or that I should have done all in one, and didn’t do so?

        I think it’s probably the first sentiment I’m thinking of

        • The first. You seemed to use them all in the same sequence, which went above and beyond 🙂

          • Thanks. So based on the comments I’ve made in the threads of deliberate practice, how do you think I’ve done so far.

            And what could I improve on as I continue to write.

            I’m working on and off on a futurist-realist novel, that will have some relevant in our turbulent political times, yet I have little experience writing (good) fiction.

            I’ve sometimes thought of postponing it until I have spent time improving little by little. Then there’s the voice that tells me “look kid the first novel might not be perfect but there’s the chance that it might be great, with some work and reference to one’s own gradually growing literary knowledge; so write the book, freely”

            What do you think I should do about that? I have a sort of a plan, as it’s in three parts (the novel), and may go on and off, since it will cover quite a bit (since it’s a wide ranging political novel after all). I sometimes doubt my own skills at creating pleasing fiction, for easy reading is damn hard writing.

            What words of encouragement you do have for me?

          • Hi Jacobus, the first thing I would say is try to write and finish that book. Maybe it will be good, maybe it won’t, but you probably won’t learn anything from an unwritten project. You figure out so much just from completing a draft and showing it to friends. In five or ten years’ time, you will never wish you had spent less time writing. It’s hard work, definitely, but that’s why a successful novel is so admired, and why it’s so much fun (well, mostly fun) to try to get better.

            In terms of feedback from the exercises: one thing I would advise is to try to use more sensory, visually-specific language. Sometimes your responses use words that mean something as written language, but mean little for generating an image in the reader’s mind. I’m going to stop this comment here, but come back with a specific example.

          • For instance, you use a fair number of words to describe the woman in your “write the unwritable” response: “as he gazed at a beautiful blond woman in a red dress walking by leisurely,” but I would say that I don’t quite see the woman, despite the description. “Beautiful” is one of those words that means a lot as a term of reference (when it is being used to refer to something that everyone knows — “Is your beautiful friend coming tonight?”) but it is less useful as a description in fiction, because it contains no specific information. One option is to make the narrator more of a character, so he (or she) is willing to talk directly to the reader, explain how this woman looks. Another is to get closer to what the character sees: “she reminded him of his teacher in ninth grade, the amazing Miss…” or “a dress — red — blonde curls — he glanced — the bike swerved…” The third is perhaps the trickiest: to really describe the woman so that the reader sees her.

            How does that sound?

  • melissaremark says:

    Feeling more than seeing the confined space, Bernadette takes one stair at a time as a toddler does. She has the thought of making her way down on her bottom, but just as she moves to try it, her footfall catches only air. She drops for a fraction of a second, but the sensation is like dying.

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