Welcome to my Free Words series, where I talk about tips and techniques for writing first drafts. These will appeal to any NaNoWriMo participants out there, but really they go for any first draft. Hopefully, these posts will help you become a word factory, rolling out sentences like a machine!

In today’s post, I’m going to talk about using description to power your writing.

How can description become an engine?

My favorite NaNoWriMo logo: the word factory from 2009 when I wrote the first draft of Unexpected Rain
My favorite NaNoWriMo logo: the word machine from 2009 when I wrote the first draft of Unexpected Rain

Most people will tell you plot is the engine of a story. Likewise, action and dialogue are what we think of when we want the story to move. Intuitively, description is the opposite of that. But I’m not talking about powering the finished product: I’m talking about powering the writer in their quest to drive through that first draft.

Some of the inspiration for this post comes from Twyla Tharp’s book, The Creative Habit, particularly her chapter entitled “Scratching”. To paraphrase won’t do it justice, but in essence, scratching is what Tharp calls any kind of activity that a creative person does to dig through sources of inspiration, to explore the corners of their mind, to scratch out all the possible ideas. She relates a story from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, where author Robert Pirsig describes working with a student having trouble getting started on an essay. Her scope was so broad, she didn’t know where to begin. He narrowed her down to a single town first, then to a street, then to a building, and finally to a single brick in a building. She took his advice and found that by starting with the smallest details (what Tharp calls a “microcell of an idea”), she was able to get a spark and before she knew it, the student had written five thousand words in a sitting.

Tharp talks about scratching mainly as a concept that kicks off the creative process, but it’s also useful when the process has stalled part-way through. When I read the story of the brick, I realized there have been times that I have taken a similar approach with my writing, but I hadn’t put together the power of using this tool intentionally. Now when I’m stuck, like when I just can’t get a scene started, I remember the microcells. I start seeing the scene through the eyes of the point-of-view character and I look for details, even the smallest of details.

Maps and Sketches

Map of Research Station Vulca (from upcoming book, Unclear Skies)
Map of Research Station Vulca (from upcoming book, Unclear Skies)

But sometimes I can’t even see the details, because I can’t get close. I can’t see the room, the street, the spaceport, whatever the locale is. That’s when I take a cue from Jeff VanderMeer’s excellent book on writing, Wonderbook, and I draw a map. Even if the scene takes place entirely in a single room, you can still draw a map: you can place furniture, doorways, windows, sources of light, and even the characters themselves. It won’t take you more than five minutes to sketch something, and the best part is that there’s no pressure because you’re not writing words yet. You’re making a throwaway sketch!

Be as messy as you want - no one will see these sketches! (unless you write a blog post and use them as examples)
Be as messy as you want – no one will see these sketches! (unless you write a blog post and use them as examples)

Sketching is really another form of scratching: it helps you explore without pressure, and gives you a chance to discover things that you wouldn’t if you were starting at a blinking cursor in your word processor. So sketch anything you need in order to get a scene fleshed out: a character, some furniture, a street, a conversation, anything.

All the Senses

Visuals are the most natural thing for many writers to describe when laying out a scene. In fact, if you’re drawing maps and sketches, you’re thinking visually. This is a good thing: you have to paint a picture in the reader’s mind. However, vision is just one of the five senses that words are capable of describing. So as you’re looking over that scene in your mind, close your eyes and listen. What’s the background noise, the soundscape? Is it mechanical? Natural? If there’s not any background noise, the eerie silence is probably worth describing.

So: first visuals, then audio. Congratulations, you’re creating the word form of what we see and hear on TV and in film. Now it’s time to do better with the other more intimate senses.

Feel the temperature, the ground beneath your feet, the air as it moves across your skin – or lack thereof. And then smell, and if possible taste. This is really where you get into scene immersion. If your reader can feel and smell the environment, then they’re using their whole brain. And you the writer are as well! This is how you get into the zone, how words come spilling out of the keyboard like water from a faucet.

Too many words?!

We all know the dangers of too much exposition and too much description in writing. I say, in the first draft put it all in. You can always cut things down later – and probably will!

I think you should have three key goals for getting through your first draft:

  • Write words every day. You gotta be a word machine!
  • Immerse yourself in the story. If you’re not immersed in the characters and the world of the story, your readers won’t be.
  • Maintain momentum. The only way to get through an entire novel is to never stop until it’s done. Momentum is the product of getting words on the page and staying immersed in your world.

Zooming into the microcells helps you do all of these things. If you get your head in the details, you get your head in the story!

On Top of Dubai

I’ve played video games my whole life. I mean, I literally played that home version of Pong when I was three years old. Somewhere along the lines, classic arcade games moved over for all kinds of interesting strategy and first-person shooter games, until we were hit with such a deluge of copycat games, it became hard to tell one from another, save the occasional brilliant twist in game mechanics.

On even rarer occasion, a storyline would blow me away. In the last several years, this is happening more and more often. I partly attribute this to the accessibility of game-making tools and the influx of indie developers. But I think there is more to it than that: as video games become more prolific, more mainstream, there arises a challenge to make them unique. To bring them to the level of books and film – to make them art.

Some games are obvious art. Dear Esther comes to mind as one that challenges the notion of even being a game. There are many others that push that same boundary, but I recently discovered one that I had not expected. Not even close.

I’m writing this now somewhat behind the times. Spec Ops: The Line was released in 2012, three years ago. So why should I bother reviewing it now? Well, I guess because I just discovered it, I feel compelled to spread the word in what little way I can. Maybe you’ve already played it. If that’s the case, I hope you’re reading this and want to talk more about it. Because I’m fucking obsessed with it right now.


I’m a huge fan of all the Mad Max movies. I grew up in the 80s, and my introduction to the series was The Road Warrior. It’s one of those movies that I’ve seen too many times to count – up there with Star Wars, Pulp Fiction, and Aliens. Later I went back and watched the first Mad Max and appreciated it for its dark and tense downward spiral. And when I saw Beyond Thunderdome, I accepted the film’s campiness and loved it unconditionally because it extended the story of the wastelands.

So when George Miller announced the plans to release a fourth film, I knew I would see it no matter what. As the opening date drew closer and the previews appeared, I grew intensely hungry, and the morning of the release date, a Thursday, I bought tickets for me and my wife, to ensure we’d get a seat in the theater.

The hype had gotten to my head, it seemed: we arrived at the theater a good 45 minutes in advance to get a seat, and by the time the movie started, it was only one quarter full. This was more in line with my reality: my love for Mad Max is shared by many, but we are a fringe group. The movie blew me away. I couldn’t have been happier when I walked out of the theater, and took comfort that me and the other freaks that love this kind of thing got a film that was at least as good as The Road Warrior. The drive home was … hairy.

Then a weird thing happened. Other people saw the film that weekend. People with less predilection for wasteland violence than I were loving it. Were telling their friends how good it was. Blog posts were dropping into my radar extolling the virtues of this amazing film. People who have never seen The Road Warrior (or as I call them, the Unenlightened) went to see Fury Road and came away praising its glory.

So I took a step back from my fanboyism and looked at Fury Road through the eyes of the Unenlightened. What was it that storyteller George Miller and his team nailed so perfectly to enlighten them? What follows are just a few of the key story elements that I think contributed to the film’s success.

*** Spoilers ahead. ***

Hey sci-fi lovers! It’s been three weeks since the digital release of Unexpected Rain. I hope you’re enjoying it!

Just a quick post to highlight what’s been going on for me in the last three weeks:

Once again, if you haven’t picked up Unexpected Rain yet, the ebook is only $3.99, so give it a shot! Here are a couple of early reviews:

What’s next?

I’m currently working on revisions to the sequel to Unexpected Rain. I can’t share the title just yet, but I can tell you this: I’m really excited to be bringing back Runstom in his unending quest to Do The Right Thing, Jax in his unending quest to Stop Getting Arrested and/or Killed, and last but not least, Dava in her unending quest to Kill Everyone That Breathes Her Air. A lot of people have told me how much they like this character, so I’m here to let them know: there is a whole lot more Dava in this book!

That’s it for now – sign up for the newsletter below if you want to keep up-to-date. Thanks!

My wife and I are huge fans of Futurama. There’s an episode where all the robots in the world rebel (and it turns out everything is a robot in the 31st century), and humans are reduced to living like savages. Fry struggles to open a can with an old-fashioned can-opener, and after snapping it open with his claw, Zoidberg is elated for the opportunity to pitch in. While his ragged companions huddle wretchedly around a campfire, he declares, “I’m having a wonderful time!”