The facts of (writing) life
Most people know what the so-called oldest profession is, but writing is often called the loneliest profession. Why? Because for most writers it's something they do alone, hour upon hour, day after day. Writing is also something that very few people except another writer will understand why you want to do. And even fewer people care if you write or not.
Contrary to popular belief, most writers aren't rich and will probably never be. Good writing, even great writing, does not always bring a ton of money... at least not in the lifetime of a writer. And, while writers may write exciting or adventurous stories, most don't live exciting or adventurous lives... unless you think figuring out how to pay next month's rent is exciting. This isn't saying that writers are geeks -- at least not all of them -- or that they haven't had exciting experiences, or haven't lived some of the lives or been in some of the situations they write about. But writing about those adventures is usually done in a quiet, relatively safe, and not very exciting place.
Many writers, even those with a few published books, don't make a living from writing, though this is often because they choose to live in a style that their writing alone can't support... which is usually above the poverty level in Haiti. But most writers' hourly wage, if they ever dared to figure it out, would make an average burger-flipper laugh.
Sound pretty dull? Maybe wack or nerdy? Probably not profitable, and something only a loser would do? Sometimes writing seems like all the above. So why write? Only you can answer that question, but for many writers it's something they feel they have to do whether they like it or not. And, lame as it may sound, there's something good about creating something instead of just making a living from what is basically the buying and selling of others. I've cashed a lot of "real" paychecks earned from my time and sweat, but I still get a much higher feeling of accomplishment when I cash a check that I earned from writing... however small it usually is.
I get a few emails and letters every week from new writers, showing me stories or parts of their novels and asking advice about how to write, what to write about, and how to get their writing published. This site has been up since 1997, and in all that time I've only seen a few stories that I would call bad writing. And even some of those weren't hopeless if the writer had wanted to put some effort into learning how to write better.
Not surprisingly, the natural talent of very young writers usually shines the brightest, and it saddens me to know that many of these natural storytellers will either not go on to develop their talent, or will become discouraged by rejections and give up writing. When I was about five, a friend of mine always knew when a phone was about to ring, but his mother scolded him, saying "Nice little boys don't do that!" so he finally lost his talent. Same concept applies to writing.
As with any natural talent, whether it's an aptitude for playing an instrument, a knack for painting or drawing, premonition, or the ability to tell a good story, your talent alone is not enough. Your natural skills have to be developed through practice... which equals WORK.
Developing your natural talent for writing a good saleable story (novels are stories too) is no different from developing any natural aptitude, skill or inclination; you seek advice from professionals and experts, you check out other people's styles and imitate those you like.
And most of all you practice.
As you might guess, I don't have time to write a detailed critique to everyone who sends me samples of their work -- unless you want to pay me (see the Ghost Writing page) -- so I hope this page will give you some basic advice about how to develop your own writing skills.
Probably the best advice I can give any writer is to READ. Read until your eyes go blurry and your head is stuffed with all kinds of things you never thought you'd want to know.
Knowledge is power
Knowledge is the only true power in the world... and, yes, it can be used for good or for evil. And, except for your body, it's the only thing you really own. If you've got knowledge you can do just about anything and survive just about anything. (And the best way to survive the ghetto is to get smart enough to get your ass out.) Knowledge is better than money because with knowledge you can always make money in some way. But ignorant folk are always poor and usually stay that way.
In the U.S., being poor and ignorant leaves you with better than a 50-50 chance that you'll end up in prison before age 25. And If you're black and ignorant, you're probably in prison already.
There is nothing cool or "bad" about being locked in a cage and treated like an animal... an ignorant monkey. If you believe that getting locked in a cage is some sort of black passing rite to manhood ("everybody has to do time sometime") then you're an ignorant monkey. The concept that wasting months or years of your life in a white man's prison is some sort of black ritual, isn't a black thing, it's a white thing. It's also a white thing to play wankster games and feed on or kill your Brothers and Sisters. If you weren't an ignorant monkey, then you'd ask yourself who really benefits by locking up black boys, or teaching them it's "cool, bad and manly" to kill each other?
Who benefits? Those with the knowledge to prey on the ignorant, and the best way to protect yourself is with the knowledge to know it.
Especially in a culture where privatized prisons make money.
Anyway, back to writing.
Develop your natural writing skills... and READ!
Black History and current black issues are important to know, but don't restrict your reading to only these things. And don't limit your reading to only black authors. To be a good writer you have to know a little about a lot. Also, by reading many different writers, you will gradually develop your own writing style.
Imitating your favorite author is normal; in fact it's how most successful writers got started. But it does reveal that a new writer is still a little wet; and just as in most professions, whether trades, sports, music or film, very few people in the writing business have time to deal with a wet one.
A new writer may have tons of natural talent that shines through his or her rough or imitative style -- hardly a week goes by that I don't see an example of this -- but editors don't have time to help a new author develop their skills. Most editors are not writing mentors or teachers, they are business people, and their jobs are to chose books and stories that will make money for their publishing house or magazine.
The general attitude of many editors who encounter a gifted new author who hasn't yet polished their writing to a saleable degree is basically the same as a band leader or a film director when a talented but unpolished young musician or actor comes in for an audition... "nice, kid, come back when you've learned a little more."
There are many definitions of "writer." Can you call yourself a writer on the real and not be published? Sure. There are lots of really great writers who aren't published yet, and probably just as many who will never be published, just as there are many great painters who will never be recognized, and many great sports players who will never be professionals. In many cases, these great natural writers will never be published because they either won't work hard enough polishing their writing to a saleable degree, and/or they won't put enough effort into trying to get their writing published.
Just as if you were a poor kid in rural Mississippi with a great natural talent for playing the guitar, the odds are that you're never going to be a professional musician and get paid for playing if all you do is sit on your porch and play for yourself and your friends. The chance that some big-time music promoter is going to break down in his Lex in front of your house and be captivated by your music is pretty damn slim.
Yet, many great unpublished writers seem to think that some big-time book editor or literary agent is somehow going to stumble across their novel or story... these days on the internet. Sure, it could happen, but you'd have better luck playing Russian Roulette with five chambers loaded and hoping to live long enough to get published.
Just like that Mississippi boy, you're going to have to get off your ass, call attention to yourself, and show off your talent. You will probably be treated like shit by a few people, and have lots of doors slammed in your face; but if you keep on trying and keep getting better at what you do, then sooner or later you'll land your first paying gig... sell a story.
No one is going to know how great your writing is if your story or novel is only shared with friends and family... except your friends and family. You're going to have start sending your work to publishers and/or literary agents; and you'll probably get a lot of rejections. But if you keep on writing and getting better at it, and keep sending your writing out, then sooner or later you will be published.
Don't be scared of rejections
Many new writers have a fear of rejection -- which like being an aspiring airplane pilot who's afraid of flying -- and this keeps them from sending their work to agents or publishers. (Just as it keeps many young black people from going out into the white world and building a good life.) But writing is a business, and rejections are just a part of that business. Most rejections are based upon editorial taste... meaning the personal likes and dislikes of an editor. I've had many books rejected by white female editors just because they don't like stories about young black males.
Or maybe about young black males who don't act like ignorant monkeys.
If it makes you feel any better, Dr. Suess's first book, To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street, was supposedly rejected forty-seven times before an editor bought it.
Editors keep their jobs by choosing books and stories that sell, which makes money for their publishing house or magazine; and if an editor has been successful by choosing only certain types of stories, then he or she probably won't take a chance on publishing something different.
Unfortunately, black books and stories are often "something different." But that's just another part of the writing business, and you have to accept it.
You should never take rejections personally... it was your book or story that was rejected (for whatever reasons) not you.
If your work hasn't been rejected yet there are only two reasons: one, you haven't sent any of it out, or, two, you've been exceptionally lucky... so far.
Practice = work
Most young people are very creative. For example, the cartoons that many young people draw are excellent. But the difference between a cool cartoon on a school binder or tagged on an alley wall, and the work of a professional cartoonist in a magazine, or as animation on a movie screen, is that the professional cartoonist has to draw his or her characters in many different poses and situations, and from many different angles and perspectives, not just the one or two poses that he or she likes to draw.
And, he or she must draw every day whether they feel like drawing or not.
The same concept applies to professional writing. That inspired story you wrote in an hour, or the first chapter of a novel; the idea that came to you in a dream or in a moment on the street; the scene, the situation, the protest, the picture, that demanded to be written -- the story that was fun to write or felt right to write -- is only the beginning of a long and sometimes painful process if you want to see that story or novel between covers and on a book store shelf.
Rewrite, revise, and polish
There are a few successful authors who claim that they never do a rewrite, revise or polish their work. I think that's bullshit. Maybe I'm not as good as they are -- or claim they are -- but I've never written anything that wasn't improved by rewriting, revising and polishing. I can still read one of my most published stories and see how changing a word here and there, adding or deleting a sentence or a paragraph, could make it better.
Sometimes rewriting, revising and polishing can be fun, but often it isn't. It's WORK... a four-letter word. Just like a professional cartoonist who polishes his drawings, polishing your writing is something that you might not like to do, yet it must be done.
You should think of your inspired story or novel chapter as a first draft. It probably felt really good when you wrote it; maybe it got you an "A" in English, and all your friends liked it: but if you hope to get it published, or go from a ten-page first-chapter to a 300-page novel, then there's a lot of hard work ahead, and at least some of it won't be fun.
How to go about rewriting, revising and polishing your work is something you have to find out for yourself. It's helpful to ask how other writers do it; but eventually you'll discover what works best for you. My own way is to read over the beginning of a story, or the start of a new novel chapter from yesterday, polishing as I go along, and let this polishing flow into today's new writing.
Some authors write their whole story or novel all the way through with the first inspiration and then begin at the beginning to rewrite, revise and polish it all over again. But, no matter how you do your rewriting, you will always find that fresh words, descriptions, ideas, scenes, characters and perspectives come to mind and improve the story.
Go into almost any bookstore -- yes, even if you're black you can actually go into many bookstores and look at books -- and you'll find lots of books about how to write and how to get your writing published. And some of those books were actually written by authors who published more than just that book. Most offer good advice -- at least no worse than what's on this page -- though some will claim to give you all the tricks you need to "write to sell."
But, what works for one person may not work for another. The best advice I can give you about these kinds of books is to read a lot of them so you'll get many different opinions and perspectives.
Tricks are for kids
Don't pay much attention to "writing tricks." The trouble with so-called writing tricks is that most editors already know them, and will see them in your work. A few editors may even know which "how to write" book you got those tricks from. A book of writing-to-sell tricks is a lot like those infomercials on TV where somebody who supposedly made a million dollars selling self-cleaning cat-boxes wants to show how you, yes YOU, can do it, to.
For a price, of course.
There's a big difference between writing-tricks and good writing. About the only real trick a black writer can use to sell his or her book is to tell the white folks what they want to hear about us -- a trick the white folks never wise up to -- but I assume you have higher standards than that.
Follow the form
But, about the only real trick to sell your writing (besides writing a good story) is to use the right form when shaping your story. Form is one of the writing rules you're going to have to follow whether you like it or not.
Besides, if you need tricks to sell your work, you're not much of a writer anyhow.
Obviously I can't go into much detail of how to write in the space of a web page: all I can do is give you some basic advice.
The basic form for a short story or novel is that you have an interesting character (or characters) and your character is faced with a problem. The problem can be anything... something as simple as buying new jeans, right on up to confronting death. It's up to you, the writer, to make your character and his or her problem interesting enough that someone wants to read about them.
Creating an interesting character in an interesting situation that people would want to read about is not a writing trick, it's a necessity.
Let's say your character is a 13-year-old boy named Terrel. Having Terrel get drive-byed on his way to school would catch most readers' (and editors') attentions no matter what color they were.
But, stories don't have to be life-and-death, dirty, dark, or violent to be interesting. For example, just finding the right jeans when Terrel doesn't have much money, or having Terrel venturing out of the 'hood to some uptown whitebread mall for his jeans -- or venturing into the hood from the middle-class 'burbs to score a pair of genuine G jeans -- could be just as interesting to read about as Terrel in a life-threatening situation. And, what if Terrel wanted those jeans, not for himself, but as a Christmas present for his little brother? (Christmas stories are often in demand.)
You start your story by introducing your character and his problem to your readers. Some writers describe their characters and settings in detail -- Terrel's room, his building, his house, his neighborhood, how he looks and dresses. For example, how would you describe the picture above? How much detail would you use in describing it? And, what does the picture tell your readers about Terrel? Not just the obvious things -- what he looks like, how he dresses -- but also the small and subtle things -- the little background details that show his personality and what he likes?
Some writers keep description and detail to a minimum. That's a matter of style, but most readers want to know what a character looks like.
You present Terrel's problem at the beginning of the story -- set the stage -- and Terrel fights or struggles in some way to overcome or solve his problem.
If Terrel has just been drive-byed, his problem might be to find out who did it, why they did it, and make sure it won't happen again.
If Terrel wants to score a new pair of jeans, either for himself or for his little brother, his problem might be anything from how to get the money to how to get into that whitebread mall past a racist security guard.
Or, Terrel's problem could be how does a middle-class boy from the 'burbs survive in the 'hood long enough to score those jeans and come home alive.
Terrel's struggle to overcome his problem builds your readers' interest and adds tension and excitement to the story. If you write well, it keeps your reader reading to see what happens next. Will Terrel discover who drive-byed him? And if so, what can he do about it?
Will Terrel from the 'hood be able to outsmart the racist security guard and get into the mall? Will he be chased by the guard? Will he get the jeans?
What about middle-class Terrel? What kind of problem, or problems, does he have to overcome in the 'hood to score the jeans?
Finally, in the end, Terrel either solves his problem and wins... he finds out who did the roll-up and successfully deals with it.
Or, Terrel outsmarts the racist security guard and scores his jeans... maybe after an exciting chase through the mall.
Or, suburban Terrel comes home alive from the 'hood with his jeans after being chased by wankstas. Etc.
Comedy or tragedy?
This, by the way, makes the story a "comedy." A story doesn't have to be funny to be a comedy. A comedy is where your character overcomes his problem and has a happy ending.
On the other hand, the problem might be too big or powerful for Terrel to overcome. ...Terrel gets capped while trying to find out who drive-byed him.
Or, the racist security guard catches Terrel and frames him for boosting a pair of jeans.
Or, suburban Terrel gets put on his back in the 'hood and his jeans are jacked.
This would make the story a "tragedy." Romeo and Juliet is a tradegy... they both died. They didn't overcome their problem.
Of course, Terrel doesn't have to die, get a beat-down, or go to jail for the story to be a tragedy: he just doesn't manage to solve his problem.
So, that's the basic form or rule for writing a story... interesting character, interesting problem, does Terrel solve his problem or not?
Also remember that no matter how well you write, or what you write about, there will always be some people who won't want to read it or won't like it if they do. Likewise, no matter how good your story or novel is, there will always be some editors who will reject it. Even the most successful and bestselling authors have books and stories rejected. This is another reason why you shouldn't let rejections discourage you.
Story or novel?
It's hard to define the difference between a short story -- which can be pretty long sometimes, such as Dreamtime Story and Children Of Death on this site -- and a novel; but usually a short story is about one character and one main problem. A cast of thousands is usually reserved for novels.
There's no rule about how long a short story can be -- though at 100 pages it may become a novelette or novella -- but very long short stories don't sell well these days because there's no market for them. Most magazines and short story books (anthologies) only want stories that are around twenty to thirty manuscript pages.
(See the Submitting Your Writing page to find out what a manuscript page is all about.)
Sometimes a short story idea pops into your mind all complete from beginning to end and can be written down in an hour or two -- the first draft, anyhow -- but a novel usually takes lots of time and thinking to work out; and sometimes you don't even know where it's going until you get there.
Several of my novels, including Way Past Cool, began as short stories and just kept growing, while a few of my novel ideas became short stories because I couldn't think of enough material to build a novel... though another writer might have. Some writers say they can tell the difference between a short story and a novel idea before sitting down to write it.
Maybe they really can.
Point of view (POV)
An important thing to consider is from what point of view you're going to tell your story. Many young writers start out with the "I" point of view... like, "How I Spent My Summer Vacation."
This is the easiest way to write for a lot of young people... your character tells the story to the reader. For example, here is Terrel telling his story:
I woke up and shoved off my blankets. Outside it was warm and sunny. I could hear birds singing in the park. But I felt like shit 'cause I got real drunk last night.
This may be the easiest way to tell a story for many young writers, but using the "I" point of view has a lot of limitations and some disadvantages. For one thing, if it isn't done right it gets boring pretty fast, unless Terrel is really good at expressing himself and describing his surroundings. And, unless you have Terrel checking himself in a mirror...
I checked myself in the bathroom mirror; my eyes were a little red.
...It's hard to tell your reader what he looks like. For example, if Terrel is handsome and muscular, or chubby and cute, he might sound full of himself by describing himself. I've seen many "I" point of view stories that were very well written... except the part in which the narrator tried to describe him or her self.
Also, since 13-year-old Terrel is telling the story, he can't use words and descriptions that a person of his age, environment, and life-experience wouldn't use. This is called CONTEXT and basically means that you keep everything believable within whatever world you are writing about... yes, even fantasy stories have context.
Of course, even if you're writing a realistic story, some readers, due to their own life-experience -- or lack of same -- may not find it believable. For example, an editor found it "hard to swallow" that a 13-year-old boy could make a two-hour bus trip by himself, no doubt because in her own (obviously sheltered) world that wouldn't happen. But, there's nothing you can do about ignorant people who refuse to believe in any world but their own... or ignorant editors either.
Also with the "I" point of view, nothing can be going on in the story that Terrel isn't there to see, hear, smell, feel, touch, think about or describe. Terrel might hear what sounds like a car cruising his hood, but he can't know that it's full of wankstas waiting to pop him until he goes out and gets drive-byed.
If Terrel is telling his story, then your reader can only know what Terrel sees, hears, feels, smells, etc. And these things can only be described in Terrel's own words... the words of a 13-year-old boy. And your readers can't know what Terrel is thinking unless he tells them.
Probably the biggest disadvantage for a new writer using the "I" point of view is that it looks like a story written by a beginning writer.
Another way to tell a story is sometimes called the narrator point of view. In this style you, the writer, are like God... you know all, see all, hear all, past, present and future. And you tell the story instead of Terrel...
It was a warm sunny morning in West Oakland. Birds were singing in the park. Terrel woke up and shoved off his blankets. He was a wiry, chocolate-brown boy of thirteen, with big, puppylike hands and feet and a normally cheerful smile. But he didn't feel much like smiling today. He'd gotten really drunk last night and his head hurt like hell.
As God, you, the narrator, know everything about Terrel, his neighborhood, his friends, and everything that's going on around him, including things he doesn't know. You also know what he's thinking...
Two goddamn forties of O.E.! thought Terrel. I'm never gonna do that shit again!
You can say things like...
Out on the street, a black Camaro rounded the corner. Inside were six bangers from over East. They seemed to be trolling for somebody.
Most books and stories are written from this narrator point of view. It's often more interesting to a reader than the "I" point of view, and it gives you, the writer, a lot more room to move. For one thing, you don't have to restrict your vocabulary and descriptive powers to those of a 13-year-old boy.
There are several other points of view to write from, but my favorite is sometimes called "stream-of-consciousness." I think it combines the best of both the "I" and "the narrator" points of view.
Like the "I" point of view, stream-of-consciousness storytelling is limited to what your character (or characters) sees, hears, smells, tastes, thinks, etc. Terrel still can't know that black Camaro is packed with bangers trolling for him until they do the roll-up. But Terrel isn't telling the story through his own voice; instead, you, the narrator, are telling it, and now we know what Terrel is thinking without him having to tell us as if he was taliking.
In the stream-of-consciousness point of view, the same scene might go something like this...
Terrel woke up and shoved off his blankets. Outside it was warm and sunny. He could hear birds singing in the park. Birds! The hell were they good for? Why didn't they just shut the fuck up! His head hurt as he rolled from the bed and padded into the bathroom. Two goddamn forties of O.E. last night on an empty stomach! His eyes were red when he checked himself in the mirror, seeing a wiry, chocolate-brown boy of thirteen with big, puppylike hands and feet.
Get the idea? Not only can you, the narrator, tell the story, but Terrel can also tell it by thinking...
Birds! The hell were they good for? Why didn't they just shut the fuck up!
A few writers switch points of view during their stories. While this can sometimes make a story more interesting, it more often confuses and annoys readers, and usually there is no good reason to do it.
English is a good language to write in because there are usually a lot of words that can be used to describe the same thing but in different ways. Using the right words can make your reader feel the way you'd like them to feel about whatever you're describing. For instance, you could call a dog a "pup" or a "pooch" if you wanted your reader to like the canine, or you could call it a "cur" or a "mongrel" if you didn't. It's important to choose the right words to describe a character, setting, or action, and also to set the mood you want your reader to feel.
Which of these two sentences puts a stronger, clearer, and more vivid picture in your mind of being attacked by a junkyard dog at night?
A large dog that did not appear to be very friendly, and was moving very fast, appeared unexpectedly in the inadequate light.
A snarling Doberman burst from the darkness!
Duh? But you might be surprised at how many examples I see of writers choosing the wrong words... words that don't create pictures, aren't strong enough or are inappropriate for the mood or action, don't fit the context of the story, are too verbose (meaning there are too many words) or are as flat as a three-day-old beer. Action scenes, such as being attacked by a dog, are usually best written in short, simple sentences where every word counts. Using short sentences also gives the impression that things are happening fast.
For example, the short, simple sentence above tells your reader that the dog is snarling, therefore not friendly. It's a Doberman, which most people know is a large dog with a reputation for being aggressive. It burst from the darkness, therefore it was obviously moving very fast and appeared unexpectedly.
In this sentence every word contributed to creating a picture, setting a mood and describing what happened. Not only did every word count, but they were the right words to use in this context.
Likewise, anybody with legs that work can "walk" down a street. But walk doesn't tell your reader much except the character isn't running. If the character is happy, he or she might stroll or strut. An energetic character might stride. A character on a mission could march. If the character is unhappy he or she might shuffle or trudge. A nasty character might slink. A spooky character might creep. Any of these words would tell your reader more about your character and his or her mood than simply saying they walked.
Often, just choosing the right words for the context of a story can make a lot of difference in what your reader feels about a character or sees in a scene without your having to describe it in detail.
The words you choose should help create the mood you want your reader to feel. Not many people "skip" to a funeral -- unless it's for someone they hated -- and a "gray, rainy day," even though a stereotype, sets a more appropriate mood for a sad funeral than a "bright, sunny afternoon."
On the other hand, characters don't always have to "leap" from their seats or "burst" into a room... sometimes they can just get up or come in. That depends on what you want your reader to see or feel about whatever mood or situation you character is in. For example, if your character is eagerly waiting for someone, then he or she might "leap" from their seat to answer the door. If not, they might simply get up.
Strong language is not always necessary, and if overdone it starts to look stupid or becomes like the story of the boy who cried wolf.
You could say that strong language is like the F-word. If used at the the right time it MAKES A FUCKING POINT!
But if some fucked-up fucker uses it all the fucking time it becomes fucking meaningless.
That's not what I meant
I know you believe you understand what you think I said but I'm not sure you realize that what you heard was not what I meant.
Which meaning is clearer?
Some writers say they never rewrite, revise or polish their work.
Some writers claim they never rewrite, revise or polish their work.
Of course to a lot of people, "say" may mean the same thing as "claim," but saying that a writer claims they never rewrite, revise or polish will make more of your readers suspect that writer is lying (as most such people are). ...If that's what you meant.
Naturally, not everyone is going to see or feel what you'd like them to, because words often mean different things to different people, and some people may not know what a certain word means or may think it means something else. This is also true of character names. If a reader has had a bad experience with someone named George, they're probably not going to like your hero George no matter how good he is. There's nothing you can do about names, but you will usually have more success at making your reader see and feel what you'd like them to and realizing what you meant by keeping your words within the context of your story. It also helps to imagine your audience... the types and ages of the people you're writing your story for.
Show, don't tell
One of the things new writers often hear (besides "only write about what you know," which is bullshit, by the way) is "show, don't tell." How many times have you read something like this...?
Jerod found himself becoming annoyed with his friends. What did they do besides sit there on the steps every day and smoke? His annoyance grew until it became anger, and he raised his voice to a loud and disgusted tone.
This is a narrator telling. The reader is told that Jerod gets pissed at his homies for doing nothing but smoke their youth away, and then the reader is told how Jerod expresses his feelings. To "show" how Jerod feels and reacts, the same scene could be written like this...
Jerod looked up to see Devon, Drae and Terry in their usual place on the building's front steps in a haze of their usual smoke. "You stupid shits!" he suddenly yelled. "You ain't goin' nowhere! You'll never be nothin'! You'll be sittin' there on your asses when you're forty!"
Of course some telling is necessary, but showing is usually more interesting to read. Many times you'll find that you can get your point across faster and better by showing. For example, instead of telling your reader how a character named Bilal felt... "Bilal felt uncertain about what to say next," you could simply have him say, "Um..."
Below is an excerpt from my novel, The Bridge. Hopefully it shows how using the right words can create an atmosphere without the writer (in this case me) telling the reader what to see and how to feel. The POV is Bilal's stream-of-consciousness; there are descriptions, dialog, and hopefully the right words to give the reader the images and impressions I wanted to give. Telling and description set the scenes, but what do you learn about Bilal and his situation that I didn't tell you?
From The Bridge
The school looked like the school in The Birds. It was two shabby stories of weathered white boards and stood in a weedy yellow field. To the right were rusty monkey-bars and other ancient iron things too dangerous for Oakland parks... even parks where kids were capped. To the left was a crumbling basketball court with leaning poles and netless hoops. Behind was a dusty baseball diamond, a wooden backstop and rickety bleachers. A faded scoreboard across the field displayed the face of a snarling raccoon done in bootlegged Disney style. RUST RACCOONS was painted above, and the mascot's name was, naturally, Rusty.
Boys were playing flag football while a coach who looked like a wannbe Rambo -- but way too old to play the part -- was yelling infantile curses at them. The boys were mostly middle-school age, one team shirts, the other skins, and all pouring sweat in the blazing sun. Their shirts were the color of old life-jackets, their shorts as green as the grass should have been... Freddie Kruger colors. Most of the dudes were white but tanned as if they lost their shirts a lot, and several were factory brown, but nobody seemed to be black. More than a few were chubby or fat; and a pair of copper-colored boys with long black hair almost down to their waists were the fattest dudes he'd ever seen with bellies that almost reached their knees and chests like wobbling water-balloons. They were waddling slowly around a track in the usual pointless purgatory for the sin of being too fat to fight other kids in a surrogate war. ...At least Bilal assumed they were boys because they didn’t have shirts.
A girl's class played on a basketball court with a coach who looked like Godzilla’s mom and sounded about the same. The girls were white or brown like the boys, and more than a few were super-size. But, except for the sweating P.E. classes, a rusty rack of bicycles, a few dirt-bikes and ATVs, and pickups and cars in a weedy lot, the school looked as dead as the town.
Bilal came up the cracked sidewalk across a withered yellow lawn. The underarms of his shirt were soaked, and sweat was trickling down his face. A porcelain plaque above the doors said THEODORE RUST MEMORIAL SCHOOL 1923, which seemed to explain the name of the town and everything rusty about it. The brass door handles were half worn away from being grasped by a million small hands, and the hinges made a Munsters sound.
It felt hotter inside than out in the sun. There was no guard or weapons detector. The air smelled of dust, old wood and kid sweat. A hall ran the length of the building, and sun glared in through open back doors revealing a glimpse of the copper fat boys who seemed to be eating candy bars as they ponderously waddled along. ...They had to be boys or else this place was really strange!
The hall was higher than it was wide. Its walls were painted a nasty green like demon puke in The Exorcist, and lined with dented lockers, canned-pea green like Army Jeeps... at least what paint remained. The classroom door windows had wire in their glass like cop interrogation rooms, and their old-fashioned numbers were painted in gold. Dusty light fixtures like bowls of milk dangled on chains from the ceiling, but none were on and the hall was dark except for the patch of sun at the end like a light at the end of a tunnel.
To the right was a three-faucet drinking fountain, chipped, yellowed, and streaked with rust. To the left was a staircase, its treads worn in hollows. Beyond the stairs were vending machines with candy bars, chips, Hostess fruit pies, cookies, Popsicles and Coke... the newest-looking things in the house. The usual stuff was tacked to the walls; little-kid drawings in waterpaint, most with Halloween themes, and anti-alcohol, drug, tobacco, gang, and obesity warnings.
There were two posters for DARE. McGruff advised, “Take A Bite Out Of Crime,” and a skinny cartoon kid was telling a fat one, “It's Cool To Be A Loser!”
There was another poster of a stereotypical cartoon bully, a big fat kid with a pit-bullish face. His belly hung out of a black T-shirt with a skull and crossbones on the front, but his arms were around two smaller boys as if they were homies in Leave It To Beaver. The poster said STOP SCHOOL BULLYING, but didn't explain how that could be done.
Bilal considered the Coke machine but went to the drinking fountain instead. On the wall above were a few pencil scrawls -- Tad eats boogers, Swaggart sucks, Marie is a retard, and Goat Boy loves Satan... whatever that meant -- but nothing that looked like a gang tag.
The water was warm and tasted like tin but at least it was wet and eased his thirst. He splashed a handful on his face and dried it with his shirt. Up the hall a little way was a sign on chains that said OFFICE.
From behind closed doors came the murmur of kids and the usual boring drone of teachers. He wondered if anyone else was black besides himself and his cousin, but the wire glass windows were frosty white so he couldn’t see into the rooms. The only other sound was a clatter of computer keys that came from the open office door. He stopped by a case of cheap tin trophies. All were tarnished and covered with dust, and many were projects for spiders. The newest was from a baseball game eleven years ago. If it was cool to be a loser, the Rust Raccoons were freezerburn.
He wondered if he should wait and register on Monday; meet his cousins, check out his new crib. But, that would mean walking back to town, and it didn't seem smart to be cruising around, young, black, and toting steel in a place of majority white. He tugged up his pack and entered the office.
The ceiling was high like the hallway, and bowls of milk dangled from chains. A fat pink woman who might have been fifty sat behind an Army-green desk that matched a row of file cabinets. Her computer was an ancient Mac, its keyboard as yellow as zombie teeth. A sign on the desk said Mrs. Wicket, though someone had messed with the T so it looked more like a D.
A black iron fan rattled papers, but didn't make the air any cooler. The woman peered up over steel half-glasses, and the look on her face, mostly surprise, seemed to confirm Bilal’s suspicion that black kids were rare as rust wasn’t in Rust. She probably would have looked annoyed, bothered by any other kid, but seemed a little uncertain. Her eyes flicked to a purse on her desk.
"Um," said Bilal and tried Devon’s smile, though his voice went white as snow again. "I need to register. For eighth grade.”
Again the woman looked surprised, but then recovered and frowned. "You can't register yourself!” she snapped like he’d asked to piss on the floor. “Your parents or guardian have to do it!”
Bilal pulled out an envelope. "I'm supposed to give this to the principal.”
The woman eyed him curiously, realized that, morphed back to a frown, studied the letter suspiciously, then glanced at a door behind her: PRINCIPAL was painted in gold across its frosted window.
"Give it to me. ...Sit down over there." She pointed to a wooden bench where a million little squirming butts had probably waited for punishment. The world seemed full of nasty benches and people with attitudes at desks.
The woman took the envelope as if it might be anthrax. She got to her feet, hesitated, then put her purse in a drawer. Then she knocked on the principal's door, waited a moment and finally went in, leaving it open a little.
Bilal was tired but stayed on his feet. He glanced at a fly-speckled clock on the wall, surprised to see it was almost 2:30. That triggered a growl in his stomach... he should have bought a burger. At least a candy bar.
More posters hung on the demon-puke walls, including the blubbery bully and friends. He noticed a dusty painting of a big fat man in an old-fashioned suit who looked like Uncle Fester. On the frame was a tarnished brass tag: Theodore Wormington Rust.
A minute later the woman returned looking more curious than ever. "Go in," she said, stepping aside as if Bilal might be catching.
The principal's office was even hotter; demon-puke green with a milk-bowl light and reeking of old tobacco smoke. Another antique iron fan rattled papers like dead autumn leaves but only blew the heat around. Two tall windows were open, the sunlight filtered through rust-colored shades and giving the room a moldy glow. From outside came the squeals of girls and the roars of the coach cursing boys. A bony white man who looked like the preacher in Poltergeist II sat behind another green desk. His face was skullish with long gleaming teeth behind lips that didn't seem able to close, and his white dress shirt looked old and yellowed like something dug up from a crypt... or maybe it was only the light.
He was tightening his tie as Bilal came in, his hands like twitching corpse's claws. On his desk was a butt-filled ashtray, and a haze of smoke still hung in the air despite the rattling fan. He studied Bilal from deep-set eyes that looked like empty holes. It was hard for a skull to look curious -- or much of anything else -- but this one didn't look happy. The bony hands gripped Bilal’s letter, open on the desktop. A hollow voice said, "Close the door, Mr. ...Taimur. Did I pronounce that correctly?”
“Yea... yes, sir,” said Bilal.
A skeletal finger pointed. "Please sit down. You may take off your pack if you wish. My name is Mr. Skelly.”
Bilal wondered if the man was joking but then decided he wasn't. "Hi. Thanks." His voice came out white but he couldn't stop it. He closed the door behind him, glimpsing the woman who looked disappointed, then shrugged off his pack and sat down on a chair that felt like a torture device.
Mr. Skelly regarded the letter, then cleared his throat with a death-rattle sound. "I've already gotten an email from the principal of your former school. He said you've been a good student." The empty eye-sockets scanned Bilal as if trying to X-ray his oversize clothes. “Though your grades in physical-fitness leave a lot to be desired. I would have thought you were obese. Still, I’m impressed by your other grades... though your school may have lower standards than mine.” He looked a little uncomfortable... pretty hard for a skull to do. “You've been in trouble with the law?”
"No, sir," said Bilal. "I got in trouble because of the law." He smiled like Devon again. "I tried to take a bite out of crime, but it bit me back.”
The skull didn't look amused. "I hope you don't have an attitude problem.”
Bilal wasn’t sure how to answer that. “I’m hoping to go to college.”
"...Good," said the skull, though seeming surprised. "What are you planning to study?”
"Horror movie filmography. I wanna do FX.”
"Special Effects. Like ghosts an'... monsters." Bilal had almost said skeletons, and Mr. Skelly was his own FX.
"...Interesting," said the skull. "I’m pleased to hear you have goals. So many young people today just drift through life like...”
“Ghosts in a graveyard?” suggested Bilal before he thought about it.
"...An interesting simile... do you know what a simile is?”
"A metaphor with 'like' in front.”
“Very good. So you realize the importance of studying hard and applying yourself. Thinking about your future. ...And staying out of trouble.”
Mr. Skelly opened a drawer and took out a big brown envelope. "Your transfer came a few days ago, but I must say this is unusual. At least in this school district. We don't have these kinds of... problems... here. And we certainly don't want them.”
"I didn't want them myself," said Bilal.
The skull seemed to listen for attitude, then maybe decide it hadn't heard any. "Your principal didn’t give any details about the nature of your... problem. But I understand the police were involved?”
"Yes, sir," said Bilal. "But I'm not supposed to talk about it. I guess you could call OPD.”
"Who?" asked Mr. Skelly.
"Oakland Police Department. Maybe Detective Thorne.”
"I have." The skull looked annoyed. "He wasn’t very helpful. But, I assume it's for your safety. In other words, you’ve been a victim?”
Bilal frowned but nodded.
The skull looked uncomfortable again. “You’re a Muslim?” he asked, pronouncing it moose-lem.
“...Sorta,” said Bilal.
“What do you mean?”
“...Well...” Bilal said carefully. “Are you a Christian, sir?”
The skull pondered that for a moment. “I do believe in a... higher power, though I don't believe it lives in a church or requires a priest... a third-party to find it. But I thought your religion was... a bit more strict.”
Bilal smiled. “Like, ‘Anyone who works on the Sabbath must be put to death’?”
The skull looked startled. “Is that in the Koran?”
“No, the Bible. But maybe it’s a metaphor."
Those are the basics