JM Williams

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Writing Tip: Earthiness


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Recently my friend–who also happens to be my current editor–gave me a good bit of advice.

It started when he said something along the lines of “I’m not a wizard, so how am I going to understand what this character is going through?”

Anyone who had been writing fiction for a while knows that you have to hook you’re reader, you have to connect them to the story and the characters. It’s a common sense idea. For me though, I always thought part of the connection was the exoticism of the characters.

Part of the fun is learning what it’s like to be a wizard, getting into the shoes of someone completely different than me. But no one is completely different from anyone else. You might even argue we have more in common than not. I have more in common with Ellen Ripley than those little shifts of gender and technological advancement.

That, then, is another angle, that of common human experience (a bit harder when you’re writing about elves or Klingons, but not as much as you would think). They way things feel–or smell, or sound–is relatively similar for all people. The feel of cold, soft snow in the hand; the sound of rustling leaves; the putrid smell of vomit, these are all things that everyone can understand. That is what he called “earthy” writing.

I will admit, this is not something that comes easy for me. My writing is visual and centered on action. People tell me I am a very descriptive writer. I see a scene in my head and I try to describe the movements and flow of it as well as possible. For me, movement even trumps setting and character description.

Movement can be so revealing and descriptive on its own. When describing a character’s features, I am reluctant to just jump in with the description. I usually connect it to movement; a hand passing through the hair sets me up to describe the hair and the face of the character. Had I been born a richer man, maybe I would have gotten into film.

Most of my stories start with a visual scene, rather than a plot or character idea. The latter gets built on as I go. Movement and action is what paces my stories. But this style, of course, has its costs.

I’ve certainly gotten better about developing deep character and complex plots, but I still find myself drawn to the action. I find my characters getting deeper as the writing process progresses, particularly in revision and in the writing of side stories. I have written several stories set in the world of my upcoming book, each one has advanced my understanding of that setting and deepened characters.

The newest tool in my box now is “earthiness.” It is now front and center in my mind–what are the experiences here that are common between character and reader? The simple sights and sounds.

My friend even suggested to start my stories with more earthiness, for a greater hook. Along those lines, I started my most recent story by describing my main character’s trouble with snow, it blows in his face; it gets under his boots; it’s cold, wet and annoying. It’s something that anyone who has been in a snow storm can intimately understand.

The next task, as I start revising my manuscript for In the Valley of Magic, is to consider the earthiness of every scene. I feel like I already have a cast of strong, likable characters–of course I think so, they are mine.

The next step is finding those shared experiences that can help bridge the gap between different worlds.

(For editing services, check out WriteWorks.)

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