Glad seasonal tidings and welcome to Death Of 1000 Cuts – making you an awesome writer, one cut at a time.
This week it’s a Mailbag episode. Hope you enjoy! Please remember to share the blog with your friends if you like it, and do have a splendid week of writing and reading.
I just read your latest post and was going to post this question in the comments before deciding it might be more of a mailbag question. I would love to hear your thoughts on better ways to describe strong winds (in reference to the ‘shrill winds howled’) as I am struggling right now with the horrible cliches that always jump to the front of my mind, trying to make me forget that there are any possible alternatives to ‘howling’ or ‘whistled’.
all the best,
Super-great question, Heidi – just one lashing tentacle of the thousand-armed beast that is: ‘How can I stop my writing from being horrible?’ It’s one of the most important questions you can ask yourself, as a writer, because exploring it takes you right to the heart of the difference between writing a synopsis and writing a novel.
Anyone who has tried to write a story who has any sort of critical acumen at all will have experienced the discomfort of trying to transition from idea to text. You have this great scene pictured in your head – let’s say for the sake of argument that it’s a swordfight on the burning gondola of a ruptured zeppelin* – and every time you think of it you get a surge of emotion rising in your chest. Maybe, like me, there’s a certain piece of music that always makes the scene appear, and you feel it, viscerally, and you see these key moments with such clarity and power that you have to write it.
But then you come to writing the scene, and that image, those characters, all that action that exists so perfectly in your head, has to be chunked down into actual ugly words. And you put it off for awhile, because the thought makes you feel cumbersome and anxious. Eventually, you sit down, and you write something like:
All around them, flames burned. The heat was tremendous. Jai felt it pounding through her tunic against the skin of her back. The sabre shifted in her sweaty grip. Wind howled through the shattered windows, feeding the inferno. She could only have a couple of minutes before the gasbag ignited and they plunged towards the ocean in a caul of fire.
And it’s like ungh. Blazing, vital idea turns to… no, not dreadful, but just… now it’s all try-hard melodramatic entry-level schtick. The beauty and the uniqueness and the excitement of your scene just sounds like someone trying desperately to write a book. (because it is)
So look. To deal directly with your example, you have a few tactics you can pick from when dealing with a scene in which you find yourself repeatedly describing the wind in terms of clichés or hackneyed, dead prose. You’ll find this goes for things like pain (which exhausts obvious options rapidly – you say ‘pain spread’, ‘it ached’, ‘agony’ and ‘hurt’ and you’re more or less done) and a character’s experiencing fear (‘their heart raced’, ‘their hands shook’, okay, we’re done here) and all sorts of other activities that are both commonplace and fundamental to key scenes in engaging fiction.
1. Maybe Shut Up About The Wind?
How many times do you need to mention the wind/pain/fear/other? Maybe it’s starting to feel tired because, every time you need some dramatic flavour, your default is ‘oh, I’d better mention the wind is ever so fierce’. I do a similar thing dialogue beats. For a while, every character broke up their dialogue by frowning. My prose was just this undulating hairy ocean of beetled brows. It wasn’t that it was especially criminal on its own – ‘She frowned’ is a simple, two-syllable beat that conveys an ambiguous but suggestive response – but that it became a stylistic tick. Whenever I found myself in a situation where I needed a dialogue beat, I’d have the character frown. It was my go-to move. And so, through repetition, it became awful.
So you will find situations, I’m sure, where you’re mentioning the wind just because you have it in your head that the wind is Something That Must Be Mentioned. This erroneous belief will exhaust your grain silo o’ wind synonyms pretty quickly, and then you’ll render the few you have unreadable through repetition.
Turn your narrative eye upon other things. Elevate other details. Really push yourself to notice other stuff. Fuck the wind.
2. Don’t Describe The Wind, Describe Its Effects
So, wind doesn’t exist, exactly. It’s certainly not a single, discrete object. It’s a cluster of processes, an event. But it’s not even a single event, so much as a name we give to an ongoing dynamic.
Wow. That is one wanky paragraph.
But the thing is, it’s hard to imagine wind. Because we never see it. What we see is, for example, a yew tree thrashing, shedding leaves, its branches bending back elastically. Or we see an empty Doritos packet skating along the wet pavement for a few yards, stopping, then lifting its muzzle like a stray mongel and scraping on a little farther. These examples are overwritten but you get my point.
Neither sentence contains the word ‘wind’ or its synonyms, or any form of ‘the air rushed’. Simply describe objects in the world acting in certain ways and your reader will infer the agency of wind.
3. Keep A Weather Diary
This involves the most work, and it’s therefore potentially the most fruitful.
Each day, look out your window and write two sentences about the weather. Do this for a month. If you manage that, try to push it through a whole year, so you get the full suite of seasons.
Most great prose arises from research. Close observation is a form of research. Watch the weather. Sounds like a ballache, but can actually be hugely meditative and ultimately compelling. The more you watch, the finer your vision will become. Two sentences a day. That’s it. Slowly, you’ll amass a little storehouse (I accidentally wrote ‘storyhouse’ there – a cheeky spot of parapraxis) of unusual weather ideas you can plunder when it comes to writing your scenes in high wind, in driving rain, in sunshine after rain, in snow, in drizzle, in fog, etc etc.
And that’s the shit that will help you solve the case.
*Although it might as easily be a difficult confrontation with an estranged father, a 5am walk through the foggy backstreets of Prague, an accident on the production line in a Toyota factory in 1960s Japan, three post-human consciousnesses skating through our Sun’s corona as it goes supernova, a komodo dragon gnawing through power cables and plunging a shanty town into darkness just as a young couple conceive, a tender kiss between two schoolfriends grown old in the nursing home, the angry destruction of a tenor saxophone by lump hammer, spelunking, or the creator of a clockwork peacock automaton climbing into a church belltower and hanging himself. The problem is universal.
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