Too Much Information — Fix excessive description in your writing

Hi author friends,

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TMI? 5 Ways to Fix Excessive Description
Too Much Information — Fix excessive description in your writing

Previously, we talked about how descriptive writing is a crucial aspect of creating a book that absorbs, enthrals and entertains your reader…

But what happens when descriptive writing goes too far?

You know what it’s like – how often have you read a book by a novice that contains seemingly endless run-on sentences so packed full of description and simile it almost becomes a parody of itself?

Or a book that had a great hook, great characters and some thrilling action… but seemed to strangely drag during scene transitions or quieter moments?

More often than not, that’s the writer taking description into needlessly intricate territory.

And that can be just as bad for your book as under-describing can. On one end of the scale, there’s uninvolving. On the other there’s boring, or borderline impenetrable prose.

Here are 5 ways to temper yourself when it comes to description and find the right balance between evocative prose and satisfying pacing.

Limit Your Senses

As mentioned last time, a good way to strengthen your description is to include sensory information about the scene. What are the smells? What is there to see? Are there any background noises, or perhaps things in the air such as rain, mist or ash?

If you find you tend to run away with your description because you’re checking items off of this list, try limiting yourself to just two or three senses. Does the setting for that scene still build itself successfully from the page?

If the answer is yes, then that’s all you need.

Use Your Characters

Instead of directly describing some aspects of your scene, why not take the chance to shift those elements into dialogue?

Have your characters point something out – react to something you would have otherwise described in the narration. This helps break up your prose and add a dynamic element to the scene – and it’s also a great way to sneak in a few character beats such as fears, dislikes or just all-round observation skills.

Avoid piling similes together

Piling a bunch of similes in one after the other is a sure-fire sign of an amateur writer. In trying to be descriptive, every little thing is compared to something else – but the imagery quickly feels forced, repetitious and off-putting. It takes the reader out of the story, instead of immersing them in it.

Taken to extreme levels, this kind of descriptive repetition becomes comedic – and if that’s not what you’re going for (lampooning bad writing, say), you should bring it under control.

Limit your use of similes – not everything needs to paired up with flowery description. Sometimes, a chair is just a chair.

Leave Room for Your Reader

Give the reader room for their own imagination. If you’re describing the sunset over a beach shoreline, your readers will likely understand how that looks – whether from personal experience or exposure in film, etc. They’re perfectly capable of picturing it, so there’s no need to go overboard with your layering of color, for example.

Think about whether your reader is likely able to place themselves automatically in certain situations or places by drawing from common experience. Those things generally don’t need much attention – a fork is a fork; you don’t need to describe every prong.

If there’s something odd about an otherwise standard situation, draw attention to that part specifically after letting the reader build up their own standard view.

On the other hand, if you’ve developed and designed your own intricate bio-mechanical alien beastie, say, then you’ll want to get deeper in there to draw an accurate mind’s eye representation of it.

Think of What’s Important

If you feel a certain passage is verging on over-description, take a look at your scene and decide on what’s actually important.

First, look at what specifically applies to your character – what catches their eye in this surrounding? What can they smell? What can they hear? Focus the experience on them alone and you may find that’s all you actually need to create a believable space while keeping your story moving.

Your impressive-but-completely-unnecessary paragraph on the odd-looking stain on the wall at the far left corner of the room is just bogging you down if it isn’t a genuine plot point.

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How to plot a series: 8 steps – Now Novel

Hi writer friends,

I’m making good progress re writing my published novel. Have sent the first twenty chapters to my writing coach. The final twelve are progressing well. 

Along came this blog by Now Novel, expanding my attention to the series this novel is a part of. Wow! 

Big ideas to process as I proceed; with the final book in mind. Thank you Now Novel.

 Happy writing, Glennis

 How to plot a series: 8 steps

Plotting just one novel is challenging, never mind plotting a multi-book arc. Having structure and a plan helps. Here’s how to plot a series in 8, structured steps:

Step 1: Find your ‘Central Idea’

Step 2: Brainstorm key plot points for each book in your series

Step 3: List ideas for the end-goal your series leads towards

Step 4: Decide on the setting scope of your series: time and place

Step 5: Create summaries of successful series’ plot structure for insights

Step 6: Brainstorm central characters and relationships that make readers long for each book

Step 7: Create an outline of your series’ main events and themes

Step 8: Choose a starting point and strenghten arcs between books later

Let’s explore each of these steps deeper:

1. Finding your ‘Central Idea’

Every great series grew from the kernel of an idea. J.K. Rowling, for example, famously said that the idea for her wildly successful Harry Potter series formed while stuck on a delayed train between Manchester and King’s Cross, London in 1990. She plotted the 7 books of the series over the next 5 years – a massive commitment that paid off.

You might summarize Rowling’s central idea thus:

‘A seemingly ordinary boy, Harry Potter, orphaned and raised by his mean aunt and uncle, discovers he has magical abilities and is invited to attend a school for wizards. As a student and increasingly able wizard he forms deep friendships (and enmities), and must eventually face his parents’ killer.’

This central idea has plenty of room for expansion across multiple books. It has room for backstory about how Harry was orphaned. The adventures, magical discoveries, friends and foes he finds at his magical school. The overarching looming confrontation with his parents’ killer.

To take another example of a series idea, C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia series from the 1950’s could be summarised thus:

‘A mythical lion builds alternate worlds that earth-born children accidentally discover. Yet through their discovery, they also introduce evil but with the help of the lion Aslan, subsequent generations safeguard Narnia from malevolent forces that wreak destruction in their quest for power.’

Both these famous examples of fantasy series have central ideas that leave whole worlds to be discovered. Both launch characters into unknown environments, challenges and conflicts that intrigue us in their potential for obstacles and character development.

Sign up and use Now Novel’s Idea Finder to find or fine-tune your series ideas

2. Brainstorming key plot points for each book in your series

A challenge when tackling a large-scale project such as how to plot a series is getting lost in detail. It’s hard to see the big picture if there isn’t one yet. That’s why it’s a good idea to draft and sketch an outline of key plot points.

For example, here’s a summary of key plot events [spoilers alert] in the first four novels of C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia series [in Harper Collins’ chronological reading order, not the original publishing order]:

[Book 1 – a prequel published 5 years after Book 2] The Magician’s Nephew (1955): First encounter with the world of Narnia. Children Polly and Diggory (who is grown up and hosting the child protagonists in Book 2) are transported to another world. This happens when Digory’s uncle tricks Polly into trying on a magical ring that allows one-way teleportation, forcing Digory to go after her.

The children end up in a magical wood containing pools that are portals to other worlds. Entering one of the pools leads to an encounter with a witch queen, Jadis. Jadis killed every living creature in her world in battle by speaking ‘the Deplorable Word’. She follows them back into another pool, where they encounter Aslan, a mythical lion, who sings the land of Narnia into being. Jadis attacks Aslan and flees into his world, and Aslan tasks Digory with protecting the world from Jadis for having brought her there.

[Book 2] The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950): The four Pevensie siblings are evacuated to the countryside at the outbreak of World War II. They stay in now-older Digory Kirke’s house and discover a portal to another world at the back of a wardrobe while playing hide and seek. Here they encounter the White Witch aka Jadis, who holds the world in eternal winter. Eventually, they undo her enchantment and become kings and queens of Narnia, starting a Golden Age.

[Book 3] The Horse and His Boy (1954): During the Pevensie siblings’ reign over Narnia, a boy named Shasta is sold as a slave in the land of Calormen. In a stable he encounter a talking horse that was captured from Narnia named Bree, and together they plan their escape to Narnia and freedom. They meet another pair of escapees, Aravis, a local woman who is fleeing an arranged marriage and her talking horse and travel together.

Shasta overhears a Calormene plan to kidnap Queen Susan (one of the children of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, now grown up and a ruler of Narnia), so that she can be forced into a marriage with the leader of Calormen’s son. On the party’s travels, an encounter with a lion (that later turns out to be Aslan) frightens them into outrunning the antagonist’s pursuing cavalrymen. Shasta reaches Narnia’s neighbouring country, Archenland, in time to warn both of the Calormene invasion, giving them a chance to prepare and be victorious.

[Book 4] Prince Caspian: The Return to Narnia (1951): The story takes place during the Pevensie siblings’ second trip to the mythical land of Narnia.

They return because Prince Caspian blows a horn left behind by one of the siblings, Susan, a horn enchanted to summon help in an hour of need. While they have been on earth, in their mortal world, 1,300 years have passed in Narnia, and their former castle lies in ruins (time passes faster in Narnia). Caspian has fled into Narnia’s woods to escape his uncle, Miraz, who has usurped the throne, and the children help him save Narnia from tyrannical rule.

The key plot points from the first four novels in Lewis’ series show important features of series plotting:

There is continuity between the series’ plot points: Lewis weaves the events of individual books into each other, creating history and folklore for his fictional world. Characters age and their roles and tasks alter (Digory, for example, develops from being a courageous young protagonist to being a secondary part, the avuncular host to the children protagonists of Book 2). Aslan, the lion, is the one main character who appears through all 7 books, a God-like benevolent figure who guides the protagonists through peril.

There are key themes that echo across the books: Courage vs fear, creation vs destruction, the need to restore order when malevolent individuals gain power and the collective suffers.

The world builds from the start: First, in The Magician’s Nephew, it is a new world. Then it becomes a winter vault under Jadis’ rule and then we see (in The Horse and his Boy) it’s multiple peoples and cultures. It develops its own horrors (a slave trade, kidnap marriages) and wonders (talking horses and other magic).

Take time (remember Rowling’s 5 years of toil) to plan how individual books’ plot lines will ripple out through your series. Think how each book can add extra detail, conflicts and resolutions to your fictional world. Even the setting of a series such as a detective or thriller series should evolve, presenting new challenges. After all, think of how our technology or global politics have shifted and changed in the last 30 years alone.

3. Listing ideas for your series’ end-goal

Each book will ideally reach a smaller goal within your series broader arc. Yet unfinished business keeps readers coming back for more.

For example, by the end of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (UK title), the first book in Rowling’s series, Harry has had his first major (yet inconclusive) confrontation with the arch villain, Lord Voldemort.

In the first novel of James Patterson’s Alex Cross series, the titular protagonist’s final encounter with the antagonist implies future peril. The killer bribes a prison guard to leave a message threatening Cross and his family on the protagonist’s windshield outside the facility.

While each book might bring confrontations (or, in the case of romance, romantic union) to a head, in a strong series there are lingering questions subsequent books will answer.

In learning how to plot a series, try end-weighting your planning for each book, brainstorming what minor conclusion each book might come to. You don’t have to stick with your first idea, but it’s a start. For example,

we could imagine alternate endings to Rowling’s first book such as:

Incriminating evidence makes it look as though Harry created a dangerous situation at his school, when it was really Lord Voldemort’s handiwork. The book ends on his suspension as the Ministry of Magic investigates

Harry’s friend Hermione overhears an ominous conversation between two teachers who the main characters thought they could trust, throwing into doubt much of their behaviour throughout the preceding story

Introducing questions and unknowns about your characters’ future (and what readers think they know about your world) will leave readers hungry to follow more of your series.

If you can already see this far ahead, list ideas for your series’ end-goal. In Harry Potter, it’s the final Voldemort vs Harry showdown. In Narnia, it’s the restoration of good leadership and freedom to Aslan’s parallel world. Make the end-goal of your series one that is sure to entail conflict, obstacles, journeys and discoveries.

4: Deciding on the setting scope for your series

The entire seven-book arc of your series could take place in the space of 24-hours (like the TV series 24), with each book showing a different character’s overlapping experience of these 24 hours. Or else, you could do like C.S. Lewis and have parallel worlds where time passes at different rates.

Whatever you choose, try to plan the time period of your multi-book arc. This will help you when it comes to creating the historical and cultural backdrop for the events of each individual book. There will be necessary constraints and limitations. If, for example, the first book of your series is set in a realistic 1950 and the second in a realistic 2019, there will be major differences (no internet vs fibre internet, modern medicine vs back then, and so forth).

Understanding the ‘scope’ of your series’ setting helps because:

You will have a finite list of places and time periods you can research for creating detail and authenticity

You can think about the incremental ways these crucial elements of fiction – place and time – change

5: Creating summaries of successful series’ structure

To gain valuable series plotting insights, create your own summaries of your favourite series’ plot structure. Using summaries from Wikipedia or writing websites, jot down, in note form, the core events of each book. Ask yourself questions, such as:

If I look at the series as a whole, what is the individual purpose of this book? (e.g. for The Magician’s Nephew: Introducing the world of Narnia and how and why evil (Jadis the witch) was accidentally introduced to it

Who are the main characters in each book, do they appear as central characters or in cameos elsewhere in the series?

How do the themes of this book relate to others in the series?

Think of additional questions to ask. Creating a summary or two will give you broader insights into how your favourite authors weave individual books’ threads together to create successful series.

C.S. Lewis writing advice | Now Novel

6: Brainstorming central characters and relationships that make each book engrossing

In deciding how to plot a series, taking a character-centric approach is helpful. Characters, after all, are the lifeblood of your story. If we look at C.S. Lewis’ children’s fantasy series, central characters’ roles shift. They go from protagonists to minor, supporting characters. The one main character who appears in all seven books is the lion/creator, Aslan.

Take Harry Potter as an example. We can imagine having Harry as a starting character before sketching out the story. When you write your own series, think about primary and secondary characters in a successful series such as Rowling’s. What roles do they play?

Characters’ relations to Harry include:

Helpful, steadfast friends with interesting, contrasting (often conflicting) personalities. Laid back, slightly lazy Ron and energetic, academic star Hermione

Characters who give Harry the psychological wounds that inform his struggles. His bullying aunt and uncle, or the main villain

Enemies. Voldemort’s supporters, sadistic teachers, envious school bullies (Draco and his goons) and moe

Neutral characters who are also detailed. The owner of the wand shop, for example, or the minor characters who fill Hogwarts’ halls (students such as Lavender Brown and Parvati Patil)

When you brainstorm characters for plotting a series, think about what function they will serve in narrative terms. Will they help or hinder your protagonist, or are they neutral characters who serve basic, once-off story functions?

Read this guide to making character relationships real to making each connection between members of your series’ cast count.
7. Creating an outline of your series’ main events and themes

This is a process you ideally complete before you start drafting. If you have pantsed your way through the first book or two, it’s also a productive process when revising. An outline will help you see where the plot gets thin or forced.

Try to write a one-page synopsis for each book. Or even condense it into a paragraph or two (as in the C.S. Lewis examples above). What are its core events, conflicts, character goals and plot twists? Print and lay these synopses out side by side. Are there any holes? Is there enough cohesion across the entire breadth of your series?

Once you know themes your budding series already tackles, outline ways you could develop them in the next books.

For example, knowing Harry’s mean aunt and uncle after reading Book 1, we could plan plot details for Book 2:

Harry is due to return home for the holidays, but an incident involving magic (his aunt and uncle forbade him using magic in their presence) means he’s forced to stay at Hermione’s house.’

This change of setting alone could present plenty to explore. For example, Hermione’s more inclusive home situation. This plot point could create dramatic contrast with the difficult of Harry’s home life, increasing our empathy for him as the series advances.

Think about lines of continuity such as this, how you can extend and develop your characters’ backstory and ongoing development.

8: Choosing a starting point and working in connective threads later

If you want to write a multi-novel arc, don’t agonise over how to plot a series. As we see with C.S. Lewis, you could start at any point and later write a prequel. Tolkien didn’t intend The Lord of the Rings as a series but as a single volume. You can work out the connective tissue between books when you are further along in the drafting process, too. Whatever method you choose, make sure your series has continuity. Make sure it has development, a diverse cast of characters and intriguing scenarios.

How to write backstory – 5 tips from Now Novel

Hello author friends,

When this blog arrived in my mailbox, After reading it, I had to share it. 


My debut novel, The Fortune Seekers, begins with prologue and backstory. The theme of the story, (in 1860s) is historic, and largely unheard of by the general public. Backstory in this format seemed appropriate for this novice writer to use.


 It wasn’t the best decision I am told: hence the rewrite I am almost through. Perhaps this blog may benefit you as well. 

Happy days, Glennis

How to write backstory but not bog down your book:      thank you to NowNovel for this blog.

Telling character backstory is sometimes necessary to show why your character has a specific motivation or mindset. Yet it’s important to learn how to write backstory that will not bog your novel down in constant harking back to prior events that occurred before the present time of your narrative.

 Read 5 tips for using backstory better:

1: Choose what to explain using backstory and what to leave a mystery.

2: Only use backstory for characters to explain behaviour and plot developments.

3: Find how to write backstory without leaving your story’s present time.

4: Know when to tell backstory and when to show it.

5: Use narrative devices such as a prologue or beginning in medias res to get backstory out the way.

Let’s unpack each of these points. First, what is backstory exactly?

Defining Backstory

Backstory definitionIn fiction, backstory refers to the events that precede the narrative frame of the story itself. In a novel that shows bitter rivalry between sisters to ascend a kingdom’s throne, for example, the backstory could describe the origins of this strife in their father’s favouritism (this is the premise of Shakespeare’s King Lear).

The Oxford Dictionary defines backstory simply: it is ‘a history or background created for a fictional character’. Because backstory shows cause and effect it makes a story richer and more fascinating. Yet too much hopping back and forth to explain origins can become tiresome.

Choosing what to include as backstory wisely is key:

1. Choose what to explain as backstory and what to leave a mystery

Not every detail about every character’s past has to be explained. Using backstory effectively means using it for a purpose. You can use backstory to:

Explain your characters’ psychologies; the origins of their behaviour and the forces influencing their decisions

Increase suspense: Past events that precede and influence your narrative can create expectations of future developments

Strengthen the reader’s emotional connection to your characters – their private histories can foster empathy and understanding

J.K. Rowling uses backstory effectively in her Harry Potter series, as a prime example. Rowling gradually reveals more and more about Harry’s late parents. This leads the reader to care and empathise with Harry. The details about his parents that emerge over time create affect and a fuller sense of the enormity of his loss. These details lead readers to invest emotionally in Harry’s quest to conquer their killer.

Like Rowling, choose details for backstory that increase affect and investment in story outcomes. It helps to ask questions about your character’s past life. If a character has a troubled past with addiction, for example, show the defining event that led them to either spiral down or seek help and get on the path to recovery.

2: Only use backstory for characters to explain behaviour and plot developments

E.M. Forster said ‘only connect’. This is essential when it comes to writing backstory. Make sure that any incident that occurs before the main narrative events of your story is relevant and illustrative. If your character has quit their job before the story starts, it only makes sense to mention this in passing or devote a flashback scene to this event if it is significant. Does it create a specific fear or motivation that will prove important to your character’s choices and development? If not, rather focus on details that do.

For example, if your character meets the romantic partner of their dreams and self-sabotages, the reader wants to know what motivates this behaviour.

Sometimes we fill first drafts with backstory because of a lack of story direction. We’re simply not sure where we want the story to go. This is why creating a plot outline helps. This is a scenario where backstory could be helpful. You don’t need to write a flashback to reveal this information:

3: Find how to write backstory without leaving your story’s present time

Your story can get bogged down quickly when you constantly leap back in time to show formative moments for characters. You don’t need to tell every bit of backstory using flashbacks. For the example above (a character who self-sabotages at the first sign of potential romance), you can also share backstory in present time narration.

For example, your character might;

Open up to their love interest in a pivotal scene where they reveal mutual uncertainties or explain troubling preceding actions to each other

Speak to a close friend about relationship fears, bringing up a past event that explains their hesitance

Sharing backstory via dialogue and conversation is a useful way to avoid too many dizzying flights back and forward in narrative time.

Another way to make sure your backstory isn’t too disruptive is to simply tell backstory rather than show it when appropriate:

4. Know when to tell backstory and when to show it

backstory – how to explain characters’ pastsYou may have read or been told ‘show, don’t tell’ many times. This advice is useful on one hand. Showing the reader a scene and immersing the reader in your characters’ experience makes your fictional world more vivid and real. Yet sometimes, telling is very necessary. It’s easier to cover important backstory without having to resort to a flashback if you simply put it in passing narration.

Here’s an example:

Frostbitten days like this took her back to the year she turned fifteen, when her mom had been in and out of hospital all winter and snowmen lined the neighbourhood, watching and waiting for something simultaneously inevitable and impossible.

In a single paragraph, you can tell something pivotal and affecting about your character’s past that contextualizes their present, without taking your novel out of its current time-frame.

5. Use narrative devices such as a prologue or beginning in medias res

Some backstory explains specific character actions or motivations. Other backstory explains the narrative trajectory of your novel as a whole.
For the latter type of backstory, a succinct prologue is an effective option for recounting what came before the main events of your story. A prologue can give a brief history that will help avoid messy retelling that interrupts the core action of your story.
Alternatively, you can begin your story in medias res (in the middle of the action). Trust that the reader can withstand a little uncertainty as you gradually reveal how your main characters got to this state of affairs.
Are you struggling to create character sketches and backstories? Use the Now Novel idea finder to prompt ideas or share your backstory ideas for feedback from the Now Novel community.

11 Secrets to Writing Effective Character DescriptionBy: Rachel Scheller | January 14, 2015

Hi author friends,

I’ve slipped another guest blog in this week as it continues my study of descriptive writing.  

Happy writing everyone, Glennis

The following is an excerpt from the revised edition of Word Painting by Rebecca McClannahan. Thanks to writersdigest for posting.

The characters in our stories, songs, poems, and essays embody our writing. They are our words made flesh. Sometimes they even speak for us, carrying much of the burden of plot, theme, mood, idea, and emotion. But they do not exist until we describe them on the page. Until we anchor them with words, they drift, bodiless and ethereal. They weigh nothing; they have no voice. Once we’ve written the first words—“Belinda Beatrice,” perhaps, or “the dark-eyed salesman in the back of the room,” or simply “the girl”—our characters begin to take form. Soon they’ll be more than mere names. They’ll put on jeans or rubber hip boots, light thin cigarettes or thick cigars; they’ll stutter or shout, buy a townhouse on the Upper East Side or a studio in the Village; they’ll marry for life or survive a series of happy affairs; they’ll beat their children or embrace them. What they become, on the page, is up to us.
Here are 11 secrets to keep in mind as you breathe life into your characters through description.

1. Description that relies solely on physical attributes too often turns into what Janet Burroway calls the “all-points bulletin.”

It reads something like this: “My father is a tall, middle-aged man of average build. He has green eyes and brown hair and usually wears khakis and oxford shirts.”

This description is so mundane, it barely qualifies as an “all-points bulletin.” Can you imagine the police searching for this suspect? No identifying marks, no scars or tattoos, nothing to distinguish him. He appears as a cardboard cutout rather than as a living, breathing character. Yes, the details are accurate, but they don’t call forth vivid images. We can barely make out this character’s form; how can we be expected to remember him?
When we describe a character, factual information alone is not sufficient, no matter how accurate it might be. The details must appeal to our senses. Phrases that merely label (like tall, middle-aged, and average) bring no clear image to our minds. Since most people form their first impression of someone through visual clues, it makes sense to describe our characters using visual images. Green eyes is a beginning, but it doesn’t go far enough. Are they pale green or dark green? Even a simple adjective can strengthen a detail. If the adjective also suggests a metaphor—forest green, pea green, or emerald green—the reader not only begins to make associations (positive or negative) but also visualizes in her mind’s eye the vehicle of the metaphor—forest trees, peas, or glittering gems.

2. The problem with intensifying an image only by adjectives is that adjectives encourage cliché.

It’s hard to think of adjective descriptors that haven’t been overused: bulging or ropy muscles, clean-cut good looks, frizzy hair. If you use an adjective to describe a physical attribute, make sure that the phrase is not only accurate and sensory but also fresh. In her short story “Flowering Judas,” Katherine Anne Porter describes Braggioni’s singing voice as a “furry, mournful voice” that takes the high notes “in a prolonged painful squeal.” Often the easiest way to avoid an adjective-based cliché is to free the phrase entirely from its adjective modifier. For example, rather than describing her eyes merely as “hazel,” Emily Dickinson remarked that they were “the color of the sherry the guests leave in the glasses.”

3. Strengthen physical descriptions by making details more specific.

In my earlier “all-points bulletin” example, the description of the father’s hair might be improved with a detail such as “a military buzz-cut, prickly to the touch” or “the aging hippie’s last chance—a long ponytail striated with gray.” Either of these descriptions would paint a stronger picture than the bland phrase brown hair. In the same way, his oxford shirt could become “a white oxford button-down that he’d steam-pleated just minutes before” or “the same style of baby blue oxford he’d worn since prep school, rolled carelessly at the elbows.” These descriptions not only bring forth images, they also suggest the background and the personality of the father.

4. Select physical details carefully, choosing only those that create the strongest, most revealing impression.

One well-chosen physical trait, item of clothing, or idiosyncratic mannerism can reveal character more effectively than a dozen random images. This applies to characters in nonfiction as well as fiction. When I write about my grandmother, I usually focus on her strong, jutting chin—not only because it was her most dominant feature but also because it suggests her stubbornness and determination. When I write about Uncle Leland, I describe the wandering eye that gave him a perpetually distracted look, as if only his body was present. His spirit, it seemed, had already left on some journey he’d glimpsed peripherally, a place the rest of us were unable to see. As you describe real-life characters, zero in on distinguishing characteristics that reveal personality: gnarled, arthritic hands always busy at some task; a habit of covering her mouth each time a giggle rises up; a lopsided swagger as he makes his way to the horse barn; the scent of coconut suntan oil, cigarettes, and leather each time she sashays past your chair.

5. A character’s immediate surroundings can provide the backdrop for the sensory and significant details that shape the description of the character himself.

If your character doesn’t yet have a job, a hobby, a place to live, or a place to wander, you might need to supply these things. Once your character is situated comfortably, he may relax enough to reveal his secrets. On the other hand, you might purposely make your character uncomfortable—that is, put him in an environment where he definitely doesn’t fit, just to see how he’ll respond. Let’s say you’ve written several descriptions of an elderly woman working in the kitchen, yet she hasn’t begun to ripen into the three-dimensional character you know she could become. Try putting her at a gay bar on a Saturday night, or in a tattoo parlor, or (if you’re up for a little time travel) at Appomattox, serving her famous buttermilk biscuits to Grant and Lee.

6. In describing a character’s surroundings, you don’t have to limit yourself to a character’s present life.

Early environments shape fictional characters as well as flesh-and-blood people. In Flaubert’s description of Emma Bovary’s adolescent years in the convent, he foreshadows the woman she will become, a woman who moves through life in a romantic malaise, dreaming of faraway lands and loves. We learn about Madame Bovary through concrete, sensory descriptions of the place that formed her. In addition, Flaubert describes the book that held her attention during mass and the images that she particularly loved—a sick lamb, a pierced heart.

Living among those white-faced women with their rosaries and copper crosses, never getting away from the stuffy schoolroom atmosphere, she gradually succumbed to the mystic languor exhaled by the perfumes of the altar, the coolness of the holy-water fonts and the radiance of the tapers. Instead of following the Mass, she used to gaze at the azure-bordered religious drawings in her book. She loved the sick lamb, the Sacred Heart pierced with sharp arrows, and poor Jesus falling beneath His cross.

7. Characters reveal their inner lives—their preoccupations, values, lifestyles, likes and dislikes, fears and aspirations—by the objects that fill their hands, houses, offices, cars, suitcases, grocery carts, and dreams.

In the opening scenes of the film The Big Chill, we’re introduced to the main characters by watching them unpack the bags they’ve brought for a weekend trip to a mutual friend’s funeral. One character has packed enough pills to stock a drugstore; another has packed a calculator; still another, several packages of condoms. Before a word is spoken—even before we know anyone’s name—we catch glimpses of the characters’ lives through the objects that define them.

What items would your character pack for a weekend away? What would she use for luggage? A leather valise with a gold monogram on the handle? An old accordion case with decals from every theme park she’s visited? A duffel bag? Make a list of everything your character would pack: a “Save the Whales” T-shirt; a white cotton nursing bra, size 36D; a breast pump; a Mickey Mouse alarm clock; a photograph of her husband rocking a child to sleep; a can of Mace; three Hershey bars.

8. Description doesn’t have to be direct to be effective.

Techniques abound for describing a character indirectly, for instance, through the objects that fill her world. Create a grocery list for your character—or two or three, depending on who’s coming for dinner. Show us the character’s credit card bill or the itemized deductions on her income tax forms. Let your character host a garage sale and watch her squirm while neighbors and strangers rifle through her stuff. Which items is she practically giving away? What has she overpriced, secretly hoping no one will buy it? Write your character’s Last Will and Testament. Which niece gets the Steinway? Who gets the lake cottage—the stepson or the daughter? If your main characters are divorcing, how will they divide their assets? Which one will fight hardest to keep the dog?

9. To make characters believable to readers, set them in motion.

The earlier “all-points bulletin” description of the father failed not only because the details were mundane and the prose stilted; it also suffered from lack of movement. To enlarge the description, imagine that same father in a particular setting—not just in the house but also sitting in the brown recliner. Then, because setting implies time as well as place, choose a particular time in which to place him. The time may be bound by the clock (six o’clock, sunrise, early afternoon) or bound only by the father’s personal history (after the divorce, the day he lost his job, two weeks before his sixtieth birthday).

Then set the father in motion. Again, be as specific as possible. “Reading the newspaper” is a start, but it does little more than label a generic activity. In order for readers to enter the fictional dream, the activity must be shown. Often this means breaking a large, generic activity into smaller, more particular parts: “scowling at the Dow Jones averages,” perhaps, or “skimming the used-car ads” or “wiping his ink-stained fingers on the monogrammed handkerchief.” Besides providing visual images for the reader, specific and representative actions also suggest the personality of the character, his habits and desires, and even the emotional life hidden beneath the physical details.

10. Verbs are the foot soldiers of action-based description.

However, we don’t need to confine our use of verbs to the actions a character performs. Well-placed verbs can sharpen almost any physical description of a character. In the following passage from Marilynne Robinson’s novel Housekeeping, verbs enliven the description even when the grandmother isn’t in motion.

… in the last years she continued to settle and began to shrink. Her mouth bowed forward and her brow sloped back, and her skull shone pink and speckled within a mere haze of hair, which hovered about her head like the remembered shape of an altered thing. She looked as if the nimbus of humanity were fading away and she were turning monkey. Tendrils grew from her eyebrows and coarse white hairs sprouted on her lip and chin. When she put on an old dress the bosom hung empty and the hem swept the floor. Old hats fell down over her eyes. Sometimes she put her hand over her mouth and laughed, her eyes closed and her shoulder shaking.

Notice the strong verbs Robinson uses throughout the description. The mouth “bowed” forward; the brow “sloped” back; the hair “hovered,” then “sprouted”; the hem “swept” the floor; hats “fell” down over her eyes. Even when the grandmother’s body is at rest, the description pulses with activity. And when the grandmother finally does move—putting a hand over her mouth, closing her eyes, laughing until her shoulders shake—we visualize her in our mind’s eye because the actions are concrete and specific. They are what the playwright David Mamet calls “actable actions.” Opening a window is an actable action, as is slamming a door. “Coming to terms with himself” or “understanding that he’s been wrong all along” are not actable actions. This distinction between nonactable and actable actions echoes our earlier distinction between showing and telling. For the most part, a character’s movements must be rendered concretely—that is, shown—before the reader can participate in the fictional dream.

Actable actions are important elements in many fiction and nonfiction scenes that include dialogue. In some cases, actions, along with environmental clues, are even more important to character development than the words the characters speak. Writers of effective dialogue include pauses, voice inflections, repetitions, gestures, and other details to suggest the psychological and emotional subtext of a scene. Journalists and other nonfiction writers do the same. Let’s say you’ve just interviewed your cousin about his military service during the Vietnam War. You have a transcript of the interview, based on audio or video recordings, but you also took notes about what else was going on in that room. As you write, include nonverbal clues as well as your cousin’s actual words. When you asked him about his tour of duty, did he look out the window, light another cigarette, and change the subject? Was it a stormy afternoon? What song was playing on the radio? If his ancient dog was asleep on your cousin’s lap, did he stroke the dog as he spoke? When the phone rang, did your cousin ignore it or jump up to answer it, looking relieved for the interruption? Including details such as these will deepen your character description.
11. We don’t always have to use concrete, sensory details to describe our characters, and we aren’t limited to describing actable actions.

The novels of Milan Kundera use little outward description of characters or their actions. Kundera is more concerned with a character’s interior landscape, with what he calls a character’s “existential problem,” than with sensory description of person or action. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Tomas’s body is not described at all, since the idea of body does not constitute Tomas’s internal dilemma. Teresa’s body is described in physical, concrete terms (though not with the degree of detail most novelists would employ) only because her body represents one of her existential preoccupations. For Kundera, a novel is more a meditation on ideas and the private world of the mind than a realistic depiction of characters. Reading Kundera, I always feel that I’m living inside the characters rather than watching them move, bodily, through the world.

With writers like Kundera, we learn about characters through the themes and obsessions of their inner lives, their “existential problems” as depicted primarily through dreams, visions, memories, and thoughts. Other writers probe characters’ inner lives through what characters see through their eyes. A writer who describes what a character sees also reveals, in part, a character’s inner drama. In The Madness of a Seduced Woman, Susan Fromberg Schaeffer describes a farm through the eyes of the novel’s main character, Agnes, who has just fallen in love and is anticipating her first sexual encounter, which she simultaneously longs for and fears.

… and I saw how the smooth, white curve of the snow as it lay on the ground was like the curve of a woman’s body, and I saw how the farm was like the body of a woman which lay down under the sun and under the freezing snow and perpetually and relentlessly produced uncountable swarms of living things, all born with mouths open and cries rising from them into the air, long-boned muzzles opening … as if they would swallow the world whole …

Later in the book, when Agnes’s sexual relationship has led to pregnancy, then to a life-threatening abortion, she describes the farm in quite different terms.

It was August, high summer, but there was something definite and curiously insubstantial in the air. … In the fields near me, the cattle were untroubled, their jaws grinding the last of the grass, their large, fat tongues drinking the clear brook water. But there was something in the air, a sad note the weather played upon the instrument of the bone-stretched skin. … In October, the leaves would be off the trees; the fallen leaves would be beaten flat by heavy rains and the first fall of snow. The bony ledges of the earth would begin to show, the earth’s skeleton shedding its unnecessary flesh.

By describing the farm through Agnes’s eyes, Schaeffer not only shows us Agnes’s inner landscape—her ongoing obsession with sex and pregnancy—but also demonstrates a turning point in Agnes’s view of sexuality. In the first passage, which depicts a farm in winter, Agnes sees images of beginnings and births. The earth is curved and full like a woman’s fleshy body. In the second scene, described as occurring in “high summer,” images of death prevail. Agnes’s mind jumps ahead to autumn, to dying leaves and heavy rains, a time when the earth, no longer curved in a womanly shape, is little more than a skeleton, having shed the flesh it no longer needs.

How to describe eyes in a story – 7 tips from Now Novel

How to describe eyes in a story: 7 simple tipsHi author friends,

Eyes . . ., 

Can you read a person by their eyes? I’m sure you can, as they are another piece of body language that can speak volumes about what is happening to a person. As a writer, I am learning to put what I see and understand in mynovels.. This helpful blog by NowNovel gives helpful tips in doing so. Enjoy, 


Learning how to describe eyes in a story without resorting to cliché helps set your writing apart from amateurish fiction. Many beginning authors over-rely on eye descriptions and eye colour to create an impression of their characters. Here are 7 tips for talking about your characters’ eyes creatively:

1. Avoid fixating on eye colour.

2. Make characters’ eyes a source of contrast or incongruity.

3. Use eye description to support story development.

4. Describe the eye area rather than just eye colour.

5. Think about how eyes can communicate psychological states.

6. Read examples of great eye descriptions from literature.

7. Move beyond learning how to describe eyes in a story.
Let’s unpack these points a little:

1. Avoid fixating on eye colour

How to describe characters – image of an eye


The colour of a person’s eyes doesn’t tell us whether they are kind or cruel, an optimist or a pessimist. Often aspiring authors focus on the eyes more than anything else when describing characters. While this is a feature we notice (especially if a person has unusual, striking eyes), there are many other interesting facial features.

As an exercise, practice describing a character’s face. Describe their mouth, nose, brow, chin and ears. Find a simile or metaphor for each (e.g. ‘His mouth was a tight red knot.’)

One way to make eye description more interesting is to make characters’ eyes stand out in relation to character traits or other features:

2. Make characters’ eyes a source of contrast or incongruity

People’s appearances are often full of strange juxtapositions and contrasts. The man with the big, ruddy face might have small, delicate hands. One way to describe characters’ eyes effectively is to use them to create contrast. For example, a character who has a nervous temperament could have an intense, penetrating stare that one wouldn’t expect, given their nervous or avoidant behaviour.

3. Use eye description to support story development

One reason descriptions of novel characters’ eyes sometimes reads as cliché is because authors describe eyes apropos of nothing. ‘She smiled and looked across at him with her grey-green eyes’ reads a little awkwardly because the character’s eye colour is not particularly relevant. Drawing attention to it almost detracts from the key action here – the momentary connection between two characters.

However, you can use eye description effectively at key points of character development. For example, if a character witnesses a horrific scene, their eyes might seem vacant or otherwise haunted to passersby. In Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, when the protagonist Raskolnikov comes to see an elderly pawnbroker at an unusual time, unarranged, Dostoevksy describes the pawnbroker’s eyes to reflect the changed conditions of their interaction and the woman’s awareness of this:

‘The door was as before opened a tiny crack, and again two sharp and suspicious eyes stared at him out of the darkness.’ (Crime and Punishment, Chapter 7)

Use adjectives that describe how a character’s eyes look to support the tone and mood of a scene, drawing attention to story developments, as Dostoevsky does. Yet don’t over-rely on adjectives to create character impressions. Let actions and words speak too.

4. Describe the eye area rather than just eye colour

To avoid clichéd eye descriptions, instead of describing colour describe the eye area. For example, if there are bags underneath a character’s eyes this conveys tiredness and/or anxiety. Eyes that are swollen, puffy or ringed with red indicate recent emotional distress. Narrowed eyes indicate hostility or suspicion. Half-closed eyes indicate drowsiness.

When you get down to it, there are countless ways to describe eyes that show emotion and psychological state in addition to appearance. Make your eye descriptions do more work for your story.

5. Think about how eyes can communicate psychological states

To follow on from the above point, think about how your eye descriptions create impressions about your characters’ temperaments and psychologies. For example, a character who blinks often might be a little nervous. On the other hand, a character who rolls her eyes often could be the cynical, ‘so over it right now’ teen.

The important thing is not to overdo eye descriptions. If a character performs an eye movement such as rolling her eyes a few times it conveys her sarcastic nature. Yet if she does this every page, it can stale quickly. Use your discretion.

6. Read examples of great eye descriptions from literature

Drawing of a character’s eye by Marigona Toma

Drawing of eye by Marigona Toma. Source:

It’s useful to keep a separate journal for character descriptions you love. That way, whenever you are trying to describe a character, you can page through effective descriptions and remind yourself what works.

Famous books are peppered with great eye descriptions. For example, in Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky creates a suitably suspenseful and creepy tone when Raskolnikov’s family come to visit him at his lodgings and are watched suspiciously by the landlady as they enter:

‘[W]hen they reached the landlady’s door on the fourth storey, they noticed that her door was a tiny crack open and that two keen black eyes were watching them from the darkness within.’

The description is simple yet effective. The adjective ‘keen’ comes before the colour ‘black’, as it should, being the more descriptive and informative of the two.

Although it’s not effective to simply describe eye colour alone, many successful authors do describe eye colour – even improbable colours as J.K. Rowling does when she describes the villain of Harry Potter, Lord Voldemort:

‘[His face was] whiter than a skull, with wide, livid scarlet eyes and a nose that was as flat as a snake’s with slits for nostrils’.

Rowling, like Dostoevsky, places the most important, emotion-conveying descriptor first. Even though Voldemort’s eyes are ‘scarlet’, a non-standard eye colour, they are first described as ‘livid’, conveying immense anger appropriate to a villain.

7. Move beyond learning how to describe eyes in a story

To truly describe characters brilliantly, describe aspects of your character that are most relevant to a given scene. For example, if a character is fleeing the scene of a crime, their eye colour is scarcely relevant here. But describing their body language (as they attempt to slip past passersby unnoticed) or breathing can heighten tension.

As important as it is to know how to describe eyes in a story without using cliché, it’s even more important to have rounded character description skills.

Join Now Novel to create detailed character sketches using our guided prompts. Get helpful feedback on your character descriptions from your online writing community.

Describing hands: 6 ways to make characters real

Hi author friends.

What does this photo tell you about this hand? Have you noticed the information a hand can pass on? 

Not just the weak handshake person, or the finger cruncher . . ., I mean how the hand looks.


Thanks again to NowNovel for this informative blog.

Describing hands is useful for showing characters’ psychological traits and personality, age and more. 

Many amateur writers stop at describing eye colour or how characters say their dialogue. Yet there are many different physical details you can use to show a character’s nature. Read examples that show how to describe hands in such a way that your writing is rich and detailed:

1. Learn how to describe hands to show characters’ background.

One purpose for describing hands is to tell readers about a characters’ background or vocation. If your protagonist is a chef in a fast-paced restaurant, for example, they might have a battle scar or two – a burn from a hot grill. Background you can draw attention to using hand description includes:

Work history (a manual labourer, for example, may have calloused hands from hard work)

Traumatic past events (for example, a character has a scar on his forefinger because his younger brother attacked him with a box-cutter in a major argument when they were kids)

Consider this example of hand description from John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939), showing the protagonist’s background as a low-income farm worker:

‘His hands were hard, with broad fingers and nails as thick and ridged as little clam shells. The space between thumb and forefinger and the hams of his hands were shiny with callus.’
Steinbeck’s description makes it clear his character is accustomed to hard, physically-exacting work. This descriptive detail sets the tone for his character’s grueling journey.

2. Use words to describe hands that reveal personality

Like describing a character’s face (from ‘sallow’ to ‘gaunt’ to ‘youthful’), there are many words to describe hands that can help to flesh out your characters’ personalities.

For example, you could say:

‘He had impossibly enormous hands – his over-enthusiastic handshakes could definitely snap your wrist in two if you had weak bones.’

The size of the character’s hands conveys his strength. The hypothetical handshake goes further, implying the character is also an outgoing, enthusiastic person.

Think of other personalities, as an exercise, and try to describe hands to match each type. For example, characters who are:

Cunning.               Kind.                  Cruel.              Promiscuous

This is a useful exercise for picturing your characters down to the finest details. A character who is cunning might have small, crafty hands, while a character who is kind might have large, generous hands.

3. Describe your characters’ hand gestures

Movement and gesture makes characters animated, giving them life on the page. Describing hand signals and gestures is a useful way to show characters’ moods and intentions, or to amplify what they communicate to each other.

A sarcastic and negative teenage character, for example, might sometimes air quote for irony. Example:

“Don’t go in there. Mom’s having her ‘me time’,” Jen wiggled two-finger peace signs into air quotes. “Ever since she got back from that yoga retreat she thinks she’s Gandhi or something.”

Other hand gestures include:

Signs of aggression and conflict (showing the middle finger, drawing the finger across the throat)

Gestures that show personality (for example, a character who clicks their fingers whenever they say something sassy)

Hand gestures that are a character’s unique quirks (e.g. a character drums the tips of their fingers together in Mr-Burns-from-The-Simpsons-like rapture whenever they talk about food they love)

The important thing with describing hands is not to overdo it. When you introduce a character, a hand gesture could add punch. But like every device, if you use this element on every page it will start to irritate and lose its effect.

4. Learn from great authors: Read great hand description examples

Describing hands is something the great authors do well. Like in John Steinbeck’s example above, good description adds authenticating detail, making characters feel like flesh and blood.

Here, in Fahrenheit 451 (1953), Ray Bradbury describes the art of doing things by hand as something that imbues actions with spirit and enduring significance:

‘Everyone must leave something behind when he dies, my grandfather said. A child or a book or a painting or a house or a wall built or a pair of shoes made. Or a garden planted. Something your hand touched some way so your soul has somewhere to go when you die, and when people look at that tree or that flower you planted, you’re there.’

This captures something of the intimacy of hands (and the intimacy between grandfather and grandson), as does this quote by Barbara Kingsolver:
‘The friend who holds your hand and says the wrong thing is made of dearer stuff than the one who stays away.’
Think of the truth in this. Say, for example, you write a scene where one character tells another something that is painful to hear but important. For example, that the other is on a self-destructive path and alienating their closest friends. Having the truth-telling character reach out and take the other’s hand, or place a hand on their shoulder, creates intimacy and a sense of trust. It shows your character’s attempt to soften hard but necessary words.
Describing hands in metaphorical terms is also an effective way to show your characters’ feelings, hopes and failures. For example, read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s metaphor involving hands. Here, in The Beautiful and the Damned (1922), the protagonist Anthony Patch tells Dot, the woman he is having an extra-marital affair with, his feelings:
‘Things are sweeter when they’re lost. I know–because once I wanted something and got it. It was the only thing I ever wanted badly, Dot, and when I got it it turned to dust in my hand.’

Because Anthony is heir to his grandfather’s fortune, he is stifled by his own sense of impending wealth, becoming stuck in insubstantial pursuits (partying and drinking) and he struggles to find a vocation. Thus the metaphor of everything turning to dust in Anthony’s hands effectively shows the character’s inability to grasp a meaningful life, his inability to shape and control his own fortunes for the time being.

5. Show characters’ age by describing their hands

People’s hands also reveal their age. An older character might have wrinkled hands, scattered with lines and sun spots, while younger hands could be plumper, softer.

Of course, characters’ hands can also be incongruous with their biological age. For example, a young person who’s had a life of hard manual labour could be described thus:

‘Her hands were those of a much older woman, jabbed and poked as they were by needles in the dim light of the workshop where she tailored the clothing of investment bankers and opera-goers, often through the night until the morning risers wheeled their rattling bins onto the street.’
Are your characters’ hands fitting for their age, or do they show something telling in their contrast?

For example, an older, more privileged person might have younger hands due to having done little labour (or because they have an expensive beauty regimen). Think about what details such as these tell the reader about your characters.

Words to Describe Hands | Now Novel

6. Use characters’ hands to show their emotional states

The physical appearance and movements of characters’ hands reveal plenty about their emotional state. Beware clichéd hand gestures, however. For example, hand-wringing to show anxiety or distress. How many people do you know who actually wring their hands when distraught?

This may be a tic people do exhibit, but try choose descriptions that aren’t stock phrases (‘she wrung her hands in dismay’). If you do use a similar gesture, think about how you can estrange it from the cliché and make it fresh again, by adding your own detail. For example:

‘She pinched her index finger, all the way to the tip and back down again, as though she was checking and double-checking for a kink or break, while she listened, brow creased, to the unsettling news.’

Other ways describing hands can show your character’s emotional state include:

Bitten nails – indicating an anxious temperament or habitual stress-coping mechanisms

Cracking knuckles – this tic can indicate either being absent-mindedly deep in thought or simmering, suppressed aggression

Drumming fingers on a surface – this could indicate impatience, restlessness or boredom

Including descriptions of what your characters do with their hands will add extra colour and specificity to your description. Remember to balance this type of description with others, so that your characters aren’t all hands. The key to good style is balancing the elements of writing – action, narration, description and more – so that nothing begins to read as the author’s pet technique or crutch.

Ready to improve your characters? Join Now Novel and get helpful feedback on character description or brainstorm details for your characters using our helpful prompts and guides.

How Long Should Novel Chapters Be?

Hi author friends,

I’m up to chapter eighteen of my re edited novel; going great, now getting readability percentages in the nineties (before submitting to autocrit I sat in the seventies and low eighties).  It occurred to me, how long should each chapter be? Thanks to Writers Digest, I found the answer. Hoping it assists you . . . Glennis

How Long Should Novel Chapters Be?
By: Brian A. Klems | March 3, 2015

Q: When I’m dividing my manuscript into chapters, how long should each chapter be? Are there any requirements on length? –Anonymous
There are no hard-and-fast rules on how long or short a chapter needs to be. It could be three pages. It could be 22. It could be 40. You shouldn’t set manuscript guidelines for yourself on chapter length. Each chapter in your book tells a mini-story that forwards your overall plot. [Like this quote? Click here to Tweet and share it!] Chapters should be just long enough to serve a purpose and, once that purpose is served, cut off so a new chapter (or mini-story) can begin.
I’ve often thought of chapters as acts in TV shows. When a TV show finishes Act 1 (which almost always happens just after something significant is revealed or an important question is raised), it goes to commercial break. Ditto for Act 2, 3, 4 and so forth. Look for your chapters to have those similar elements. When you find those “commercial breaks,” end your chapter and start a new one. In other words, let your content dictate your chapter length, not the other way around.

Got it? I sure have . . . Thanks Mark, 


Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer’s Digest and author of the popular gift book Oh Boy, You’re Having a Girl: A Dad’s Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.

Follow Brian on Twitter: @BrianKlem