Writerly Thoughts

This is my first blog ever, and fear of the blank blog is as bad as fear of the blank page. For my blogging life, I intend to post once a week, and I will probably blog mostly about writing, but I don’t know that for sure. I’ll see how it shapes up. If you are reading this, I would welcome a post to tell me what you’re interested in reading from me.

Right now and for a long time to come, I’m working on a new book and having to introduce new characters and thinking in particular about describing them physically. If I try to do this only from my imagination, the result isn’t very interesting. I think about size of features, eye color, hair color. It’s like thinking about houses. If I picture houses mentally, I think, wood or brick or stone or artificial siding, tin roof or shingle, ranch or colonial. But if I drive around and look at houses, I have much more information.

Same with people. Looking at them helps. But I don’t like to stare. So I look at photographs and portrait art. For example, when I wrote The Wish, I wanted the main male character not to be either classically handsome or hideous. I went to my high school yearbook (from yikes! 1964) and paged through it, as I am doing right this minute. And there is so much to say. You – and I – may not want to go into this much detail, but the shape of every upper lip is different, and the space between lip and nose is different. In some faces the width or narrowness of the chin determines the curve of the lips. In other faces, lip shape and chin shape have nothing to do with each other. When I did this for The Wish, I found a boy whose eyebrows met over his nose, forming a unibrow. Now, I went to a huge New York City high school, and I didn’t know this boy or how his eyebrow may have ruined his childhood or not affected it at all. I lifted it off his face and gave it to Jared, and that unibrow helped pull the plot along.

For the new book, I looked at drawings by early sixteenth-century artist Albrecht Durer, and found a profile view of a youngish man with a plump face, uplifted eyebrows under small mounds of flesh, as if he might sprout horns, a flat nose with two bumps, small lips, several descending chins, the topmost of which stuck out almost as far as the tip of his nose. I couldn’t possibly have made him up out of my imagination.

Of course, when you’re looking for physical description, you probably want a face and a body to go with the character. This Durer guy doesn’t have a face I’d give to a poet. It’s a shrewd face. I bet he can add a long string of dollars and cents in his mind. I bet he can size up a person in a second. He could be a merchant or a shady character who lives by his wits.

If you’d like to use this post as a writing exercise, look at photographs and portraits – but not of models and movie stars, no strictly gorgeous people. Find one that interests you. Describe the character that might belong to the body – or go against type and describe a personality that seems accidentally planted there. Write a story about him or her. As I say in my book, Writing Magic, have fun, and save what you write.

  1. I’m studying for my art history final and it is very interesting to imagine the life behind each of these paintings. Albrecht Dürer, however, does not make me think much about a story. Though, looking at someone like Bosch, Carravagio,or Jan Van Eyck does make you think.

  2. It’s an interesting writing exercise, but it also makes be think what is it about how a person looks that defines what they must be (character-wise)? How do we as writers play off of or into a reader’s expectations for what “fits” between a look and a character? I would like to think that one’s “look” doesn’t define the possibilities for who they can be — and yet, I agree with you that we pass these kinds of judgments constantly throughout the day: “she looks annoying, he looks likes like a jazz pianist”, etc. I wonder how these frameworks form in our minds and if we just end up perpetuating something that was planted long ago by some other storyteller — be it books or TV.

    Thanks for the post, Gail, made me think!

  3. Oooh, I’m looking forward to hearing what you have to say about writing generally (I adore your ‘Writing Magic’ book and recommend it as a resource to parents when I teach creative writing to kids). 🙂

  4. Laurie Halse Anderson said to welcome you to to the blogosphere, that’s what I’m doing.

    I feel odd welcoming you to a place that I don’t own, though. Heck, I’m not even paying rent. :=)

  5. I’m here on Laurie’s recommendation, too. Welcome!

    This is a lovely first post. I usually don’t go into two much detail when describing my characters, thinking I should let the readers fill in the blanks, but you’ve made me reconsider.

    Looking forward to your next post.

  6. Great first blog! I’d love to read more along these lines: writing tid-bits. I’ve read several of your books, most recently Dave at Night, which I enjoyed. (Linked here from L.H.A.’s blog as well. Glad she mentioned it!)

  7. I am excited to read anything you have to write! I’ve looked for a blog from you before and have never been able to find it–thank goodness Laurie Halse Anderson had a link to your blog! Welcome!

  8. Thrilled to see you online!

    (We met ages ago at Halfway Down the Stairs bookshop in MI, but you’re not expected to remember that by any stretch of the imagination. Just saying.)

  9. lovely first post. Hope you’ll be writing about your poetry as well.
    It will be fun to continue to see what you are thinking about. Enjoy the blogging. Don’t let the blank computer screen bog you down.

  10. Welcome to the blogosphere, Gail! I enjoyed your first post and look forward to reading more. I loved your ideas and advice in Writing Magic!

    I hope you don’t mind but I posted a brief note about your blog with a link to it from mine.

    Have fun blogging!

  11. Interesting exercise. I collect photographs of streets, clothing, homes, all sorts of things – but have never done it for a character. I might give it a whirl.

  12. Thanks to Kimberly Willis Holt for telling us about your new blog. Usually I’m a quiet lurker at blog sites but I read yours on Sunday night after traveling back from a weekend at my 43rd high school class reunion – our first! Having spent last week studying our graduation pictures feature by feature and not having seen ANY of these girls since June 4,1966 (it’s a long story!) I was fascinated with our 60ish looks – and the stories of what we’ve done and who we’ve been for these past 43 years. As Anna reflected, your post is making me think about appearance and character and expectations. Thanks for the nudge of the writing exercise.

  13. I'm so thrilled to see that you have a blog, Mrs. Levine – especially that you have been faithfully keeping it up! =) I check the library every so often in the hopes that you have written a new book… once it appears you can bet I will snatch it off the shelves and find a comfy chair to read for a few hours! I love your books and think they are fantastic! I hope you live for ages and ages so you can write oodles of books. =)
    -a 17 year old girl

  14. I am so thrilled to see you have a blog. I have been reading your books since… gosh I don't know when i was like in the second grade and ever since you have been like a super star to me! When I got older and could only find you on that harpercollins thing i was so sad. To see you have a blog that I can just click onto and read what you want to say all the time is like a dream come true!

  15. Hello!
    I’m Sinclaire, for Christmas I got your book “Writer to writer” I came to your blog and took a look at the first book, since the first chapter mentions it.
    I just wanted to tell you how much I love the book, I love to write and it’s a great book to help, in my opinion.
    I am just 12 years old, but my friend and I have our own blog/newspaper and we are very excited to use your book to help us.
    Thank you so much!

    • i’m nine, and i read the writer to writer book just a few days ago after asking a librarian if there are any books About writing. “Of course there are,” she said, and writer to writer was one of the many books she gave me to check out, including writing magic. I read writer to writer and you always say, “save what you write.” i would never think of doing that before, because most of my pieces are “I can do better'” ones, but i’v started to now and think it’s a great idea. I get tons of advice from my old writing pieces! thank you SO much!

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