Incredible Edibles: 18 ways to use food to illustrate character

In the universe of Show Not Tell, food in all its guises is a magnificent ally.

Exc1In Singled Out my protagonist, Brenda, is a woman who loves her food. The way she indulges shows the reader what kind of a woman she is. To her, food is a sensual as well as a sensory experience. Another character is as dry and stale as the desiccated breakfast he chomps his way through, in the opening pages. Yet later in the story his own personal awakening is reflected in the way he begins to enjoy unfamiliar and exotic meals.

Food is a wonderful medium through which to illustrate aspects of a character’s personality. Food can food reflect what kind of a person they are, what mood they’re in, what attitudes they hold, how self-disciplined or spontaneous they are and other facets of their temperament and lifestyle; it can also reveal the ways they change or develop as a story unfolds.

Here are a few ideas on the way food – the shopping for it, cooking of it, eating of it, and attitudes that surround it – can help flesh out your characters:

  1. Where do they shop – Are they upscale or down-market? Is it important to them that they buy from certain shops or outlets? Are they Waitrose or Lidl; down the market or Harrods Food Hall; superstore or independent; farm shop or gas station; deli chic or corner shop?
  2. What do they buy – Is quality important to them? Do they care what they put in their body? Is their body a temple, or a tavern? Do they choose ready meals or organic ingredients, value ranges, own-brand or premium; vegetables or cake, brown rice or oven chips?
  3. How do they buy – Do they buy in bulk and stuff the freezer or shop for fresh food every day? Do they dash a trolley round the supermarket, shop online for home delivery, order vegetable boxes and specialist products or raid the discount bins? Do they pick their own, or grow their own? Or do they neglect nutrition and grab what’s closest when hunger strikes?
  4. What do they drink – Is alcohol important to them? Are they light or heavy drinkers? Does every meeting or event have to have an alcoholic component? Is their style Armagnac or alcopop, cocktail or Cava, prestige or plonk, mass-market cider or micro-brewed beer, spirits or spritzers, juices, smoothies or squash, tap water or bottled, fizzy or flat? Do they have a favourite tipple (shaken, not stirred…)?
  5. Where do they eat out – Michelin starred or McDonald’s, identikit chain or quirky cafeteria? Pizzeria, curry house or Chinese? Gastropub or burger bar? Trendy street food or shrink-wrap sandwich?
  6. What food aromas excite them – beef dripping on barbecue coals, sizzling onions slathered on a burger, or juiced wheatgrass and freshly-peeled citrus fruit? Candyfloss (cotton-candy to my American friends) and toffee apples, or home-made apple pie?
  7. How do they eat at home – Are they sociable diners or secret eaters? Do they pick or binge? Would they be at ease or ashamed if other people knew what or how they ate? Do they prefer dinner parties and conversation or lap trays and the TV, formality or fridge pickings, bone china or bowl food? Does food feature in the bedroom? Do they wake in the night and need to eat?
  8. What do they cook – everything or nothing? Do they follow recipes to the letter or throw in a bit of this, a bit of that? Are they spontaneous when ingredients run out, experienced enough to knock up a meal in a few minutes? Or do they cringe at the thought of warming up a tin of soup? Do they bake? Are they a candidate for Masterchef or a poke-and-ping merchant? Does cooking energise or depress them?
  9. What food principles do they have – Are they fashionable or faddy? Do beliefs (religious or otherwise) define their diet? Are they raw, vegetarian, vegan, fruitarian, kosher, halal or organic? Do they avoid GM, minimise food-miles? Are they cutting out sugar, reducing salt, getting their five-a-day? Are they on a weight-loss diet? At all these things, are they succeeding, or failing? How does that make them feel?
  10. What’s their kitchen like – Is it immaculate and well-equipped, or sparse and chaotic? Are the cupboards crammed with ingredients and choice, or empty? Are things fresh, or past their sell-by dates? What stands out – shine or grime? What’s the most important implement – a food processor, a juicer, a pasta-maker, or a tin-opener?
  11. What food allergies/intolerances/dislikes do they have – Nuts, lactose, dairy, shellfish, wheat, gluten, alliums? Do they have genuine digestive problems or are they faddy or picky, or attention-seeking?
  12. How do they eat – Restrained or indulgent, gastronome or greedy, baby bites, prim and proper or chomps and gulps, knife and fork or finger-lickin’?   Do they have any distasteful food habits – talking with their mouth full, sawing at their food, slurping or guzzling? Are they indifferent to, or repelled by bad eating habits in others?
  13. How do they breakfast – Full English fry-up or Bran Flakes and skim milk, donuts and Danish pastries or a cereal bar and a piece of fruit? Sit-down, desk-bound, or on-the-run? Variety-is-the-spice, or same-old-same-old every day?
  14. How do they regard food – Is it their friend or foe, life-enhancing or destructive, necessary fuel or tantalising taste temptation? Does it make them strong, or weak? Are they excited by mealtimes or inconvenienced by the intrusion? Are they a picky person, a food fanatic or a comfort eater? Do they have to eat, or do they forget to eat?
  15. What tastes/textures do they favour – Sweet or savoury, soft or crunchy, lean or creamy, mild or spicy, healthy or hedonistic, hot or cold, slow-cooked or fast-food?
  16. What do they eat – Are they rare or well-done, low-fat or deep-fried, naked or drenched in sauce? Do they love food that others despise… snails or sweetbreads, blue steak or horsemeat? Do they try anything, or stick to what they know?
  17. What’s their beverage of choice – Tea or coffee, green, fruit infusion or builders, latte, cappuccino or espresso, full-fat or skinny, sweetened, or sweet enough? Is there a ritual or a habit?
  18. And lastly… What might they choose for their very last meal?…

Are you trying to be a good writer?

… I mean, are you really… TRYING?…

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You know what it’s like when you’ve got an early start the next morning? Say, you’re going on holiday and need to be at the airport before dawn. You don’t want to be late and you need to be wide awake, so what do you do? You go to bed early. You squeeze your eyes tight shut even though it’s still light outside and you try to sleep. But every muscle in your body is rebelling against your attempts to relax. Your taut shoulders ache, your pulse races; you can’t get tomorrow’s to-do list out of your mind; you notice every little ring, ping and ding going on around you, the sounds of other people, engaged and connected – having fun whilst you try to sleep. The harder you try to sleep, the worse it gets.

If only you could get out of your own way.

It’s the same when you’re writing, as I learned – the hard way – when I began trying to write fiction. I’ve written business communications for my clients for decades. I know about syntax and language and I have a fair to middling mental thesaurus; so I knew I could throw sentences together. But writing fiction is a world apart from business communications. So I went on a few courses and I read books on how to write. Then I began to try to write fiction.

That’s when I learned that the harder you try, the more dreadful your writing gets.

To write, you need to stop trying and get out of your own way. Writing is communicating – and we’ve all done this since the moment we were born. We’ve learned how to use language to excite, to persuade, to apologise, to love… Stories too are nothing new to us. Stories have been the life-blood of societies and civilizations since time began.

We just need to relax and let them out.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for learning the techniques of story-arc, plotting, character development, pace and tension, show-not-tell and so-on. There’s plenty to learn and those who take the time to learn it will find their writing gets more compelling.

What I’m talking about is when you’re trying to put the very best words you can down on the paper; you’re looking up words you don’t know so you can include them; you’re taking a concise moment and working it to the point of exhaustion; you don’t appreciate the simple power of your own ideas, so you overdress them. In your efforts to show what a clever, intelligent writer you are, you embellish your sentences beyond the point of decency. It’s like dressing Amal Clooney using Dame Edna Everage’s wardrobe. Somewhere things have gone horribly wrong.

If you fear your writing may be in Dame Edna territory, here are three stylistic bloopers to look out for. If you spot these in your own writing, it probably means you’re trying too hard. I’m embarrassed to say, these examples are all my own, from early drafts of Singled Out:

Purple prose:

  • …In that moment she reached into his world-weary heart and lit a flame.
  • Her compliance, at once submissive and potent, raised his hopes and heightened his desires.

Ugh… just, ugh.

Overworked reflection:

  • Why had she brought this up? Why could she never resist prodding away at things? … It seemed distinctly possible that something untoward might have happened; but if it had… There was nothing to be gained from letting this idea gain traction; it would only frighten … blah blah…

And this is an edited version of the angsty original. I cringe… I cringe. In most instances, one or two notes of self-reflection are quite sufficient. Then, just get out of the way.

Overblown writing:

  • …She appreciated his overpowering physical form from a womanly perspective.
  • The more she struggled against the quicksand of niggling worries, the further it dragged her down.
  • The sun began its languid descent towards the gently undulating hills…

Classic ‘clever-arse writer’ syndrome. When I rediscovered these clunkers I nearly had to go find a sick-bag. Learn to recognise when you’re puffing up your sentences like this. If they make it into print, you may never forgive yourself.

I was fortunate to be mentored for a few months by the author of several respected novels. She worked over my early draft, ripping into the purple prose, angsty reflection and overblown turns of phrase – amongst many other things. I pared my writing down and down again and I learned to head these pompous clangers off at the pass.

Good writing comes from the heart. You don’t have to try and make it better. Invariably those purple moments detract from the power of your story. They ruffle the reader and interrupt the flow. Except for one or two notably pretentious literary writers, being a novelist isn’t about showing the world how clever you are.

You have to learn to let-go, relax and get out of your own way – and let your story do the hard work.

*** This post first appeared as a guest post on the Blondewritemore blog. ***

“Thought Verbs” – Another side of “Show not Tell”

Thought Verbs Show Not TellAuthor and Journalist Chuck Palahniuk wrote this essay on “Thought Verbs” just over a year ago. It has been reposted many times, but, like me, you may have missed it. I recently came across it via a link which led to another link and another – you know how the internet works. It is excellent advice, for every writer seeking to master the “Show not Tell” challenge.

The link to what I believe is the original article is here, and the full piece is reproduced below, with every credit to the original essayist, Chuck Palahniuk.

In six seconds, you’ll hate me.

But in six months, you’ll be a better writer.

From this point forward – at least for the next half year – you may not use “thought” verbs.  These include:  Thinks, Knows, Understands, Realizes, Believes, Wants, Remembers, Imagines, Desires, and a hundred others you love to use.

The list should also include:  Loves and Hates.

And it should include:  Is and Has, but we’ll get to those, later.

Until some time around Christmas, you can’t write:  Kenny wondered if Monica didn’t like him going out at night…”

Thinking is abstract.  Knowing and believing are intangible.  Your story will always be stronger if you just show the physical actions and details of your characters and allow your reader to do the thinking and knowing.  And loving and hating.

Instead, you’ll have to Un-pack that to something like:  “The mornings after Kenny had stayed out, beyond the last bus, until he’d had to bum a ride or pay for a cab and got home to find Monica faking sleep, faking because she never slept that quiet, those mornings, she’d only put her own cup of coffee in the microwave.  Never his.”

Instead of characters knowing anything, you must now present the details that allow the reader to know them.  Instead of a character wanting something, you must now describe the thing so that the reader wants it.

Instead of saying:  “Adam knew Gwen liked him.”

You’ll have to say:  “Between classes, Gwen was always leaned on his locker when he’d go to open it.  She’d roll her eyes and shove off with one foot, leaving a black-heel mark on the painted metal, but she also left the smell of her perfume.  The combination lock would still be warm from her ass.  And the next break, Gwen would be leaned there, again.”

In short, no more short-cuts.  Only specific sensory detail: action, smell, taste, sound, and feeling.

Typically, writers use these “thought” verbs at the beginning of a paragraph  (In this form, you can call them “Thesis Statements” and I’ll rail against those, later)  In a way, they state the intention of the paragraph.  And what follows, illustrates them.

For example:

“Brenda knew she’d never make the deadline.  Traffic was backed up from the bridge, past the first eight or nine exits.  Her cell phone battery was dead.  At home, the dogs would need to go out, or there would be a mess to clean up.  Plus, she’d promised to water the plants for her neighbor…”

Do you see how the opening “thesis statement” steals the thunder of what follows?  Don’t do it.

If nothing else, cut the opening sentence and place it after all the others.  Better yet, transplant it and change it to:  Brenda would never make the deadline.

Thinking is abstract.  Knowing and believing are intangible.  Your story will always be stronger if you just show the physical actions and details of your characters and allow your reader to do the thinking and knowing.  And loving and hating.

Don’t tell your reader:  “Lisa hated Tom.”

Instead, make your case like a lawyer in court, detail by detail.  Present each piece of evidence.  For example:

“During role call, in the breath after the teacher said Tom’s name, in that moment before he could answer, right then, Lisa would whisper-shout: ‘Butt Wipe,” just as Tom was saying, ‘Here’.”

One of the most-common mistakes that beginning writers make is leaving their characters alone.  Writing, you may be alone.  Reading, your audience may be alone.  But your character should spend very, very little time alone.  Because a solitary character starts thinking or worrying or wondering.

For example:  Waiting for the bus, Mark started to worry about how long the trip would take..”

A better break-down might be:  “The schedule said the bus would come by at noon, but Mark’s watch said it was already 11:57.  You could see all the way down the road, as far as the Mall, and not see a bus.  No doubt, the driver was parked at the turn-around, the far end of the line, taking a nap.  The driver was kicked back, asleep, and Mark was going to be late.  Or worse, the driver was drinking, and he’d pull up drunk and charge Mark seventy-five cents for death in a fiery traffic accident…”

A character alone must lapse into fantasy or memory, but even then you can’t use “thought” verbs or any of their abstract relatives.

Oh, and you can just forget about using the verbs forget and remember.

No more transitions such as:  “Wanda remember how Nelson used to brush her hair.”

Instead:  “Back in their sophomore year, Nelson used to brush her hair with smooth, long strokes of his hand.”

Again, Un-pack.  Don’t take short-cuts.

Better yet, get your character with another character, fast.  Get them together and get the action started.  Let their actions and words show their thoughts.  You — stay out of  their heads.

And while you’re avoiding “thought” verbs, be very wary about using the bland verbs “is” and “have.”

One of the most-common mistakes that beginning writers make is leaving their characters alone.

For example:

“Ann’s eyes are blue.”

“Ann has blue eyes.”

Versus:

“Ann coughed and waved one hand past her face, clearing the cigarette smoke from her eyes, blue eyes, before she smiled…”

Instead of bland “is” and “has” statements, try burying your details of what a character has or is, in actions or gestures.  At its most basic, this is showing your story instead of telling it.

And forever after, once you’ve learned to Un-pack your characters, you’ll hate the lazy writer who settles for:  “Jim sat beside the telephone, wondering why Amanda didn’t call.”

Please.  For now, hate me all you want, but don’t use “thought” verbs.  After Christmas, go crazy, but I’d bet money you won’t.

Author: Chuck Palahniuk (Aug 13)

Rise and Shine

scissors-editI have committed one of the cardinal sins of novel-writing.  It’s a trap which many neophyte novelists fall into, although when first I fell into it, I wasn’t aware of this.

My story begins with not just one, but two characters waking up.

Actually, that’s not entirely true.  My story begins with a prologue – albeit a short one, at around 350 words. But guess what? That’s another cardinal sin.

Never start your story with a prologue.  Or someone waking up.

I’m busted.

I wonder if these faux-pas explain the steady trickle of rejection emails. Each one is perfectly courteous and proclaims, using remarkably similar wording, that the agent in question does not feel passionate enough about my novel, to invest the time and effort required to launch a debut.  I understand. In a world where countless hopeful authors are chasing a finite and modest number of agents, my novel is not standing out.

But I wonder, is this because it has a prologue?  Is it because it starts with someone waking up?  Are those agents I’ve approached so far not getting past those two cardinal sins?  I don’t know whether they’re even reading beyond those first few pages.  Maybe, by the time my two characters have exited their respective hotel rooms and met in the corridor, I’ve already lost them.

For every rule there are exceptions.  One could list dozens of novels which begin with a prologue.  I’m reading one at the moment in fact, Dominion by C J Sansom.  I’ll bet there are dozens of novels which begin with a waking-up moment too. But if you’re a first-timer, a would-be, a novice… you break the rules at your peril.

You might argue I’m being naive, or misguided and put it down to my lack of experience, but I believe the wakey-uppy moment in Singled Out is important.  The reader learns things about both characters in those first few pages, including the roots of their respective frailties.  But perhaps it would go down better if I found a way to impart those essential attributes later in the narrative.

I want to keep the prologue, I’m afraid, but it’s so short I can’t believe that this alone would prompt the casting-aside of my manuscript. But if I get rid of the wake-up call and the early-riser breakfast, would it make Singled Out more buoyant?  Would this be enough to make it rise above the slush pile?

I don’t know if that’s the answer, whether it will bring agents flocking to my door (or popping up in my inbox at least). But I’m beginning to think, if I don’t try it, I might never know.

I just can’t find the words

2014-02-04 11.06.23I write blog posts for my marketing clients. Taking one client as an example, I keep a schedule going forward about 2 months, identifying topics for two posts a week.  I keep a few gaps in the schedule for more up-to-the-minute items, but in general I know several weeks in advance what I’m writing about, and when.  This means I can get ahead of myself if I’m going to be away or expect to be extra-busy on other matters.

Each post takes on average up to one hour to get written, re-written, checked and posted.  Some are longer, some shorter. Sometimes there’s a little research involved, such as when I’m writing about an industry related topic about which I need to mug-up in a hurry. For some I need to chase up background from the company or interview staff – usually by phone or Skype. But that’s about as tricky as it gets.

So I keep on top of it, posts on Mondays and Thursdays, unless there’s a good reason to shift days.  This week’s Monday post for example, went out today, as it was a promotion for the company’s Facebook page and it seemed worth tying this into Facebook’s 10th birthday celebrations.

It’s not just about getting paid for my work. Cliché I know, but I value my clients – they enable me to live like I do, with enough time to write for pleasure alongside earning my living.  So it matters to me that they think I’m doing a good job for them.  I work hard at being interesting, relevant, varied, witty and informative in the blogs I write for them.  I want my clients to receive positive feedback on my posts from their clients and associates.

But here’s my dilemma: Why doesn’t it work the same way when it’s personal? Why can’t I bang out my own personal ‘A Writer’s Notepad’ blog posts as efficiently, professionally and dependably as I can manage my clients’ posts?

Why is it easier to write for someone else, than to write for me?  What makes it different? Why do I agonise for days over one post or another?  Why do I start writing on one topic, then abandon it for another, then go back to the first, then … go and make a cup of coffee? I can’t seem to settle. I write and write, and I just can’t get it right.

My own from-the-heart, writerly missives cause me endless frustration.  What topic to pick? What to say? How to make it interesting? Should it be humorous or deep-and-meaningful? How personal or intimate should I be – or not? Then I need to get the words right – I am a writer, after all, and so the last thing I need is to bsha ou psots flilled wit miscakes.

So I’ve hit on an idea – just for this week.  I have a few (admittedly cryptic) blog post headlines for you to choose from.  These are all partially written – some more partially than others. Whichever gets the most votes, come what may, I will post next.

You get to choose, and here’s the choice:

 

The poll is open for one week from today. Meanwhile, just in case, I’m going to try and pull every one of these partial posts into some kind of shape.

PS:  Just by accident this morning I found out that if I press the Ctrl key whilst scrolling the wheel on my mouse, it zooms the text on my page in and out. How cool is that? And how come I never knew this before?

Show Not Tell

2013-12-04 11.56.49Which version would grab your attention?

This:

As she entered the restaurant he was surprised to see her.  He felt guilty that he’d been caught on a date with another woman, especially one he didn’t fancy.  He feared his marriage could be over.

Or this:

As she entered the restaurant, pain prickled behind his eyes like a thousand tiny needles. What was she doing here? She was supposed to be miles away, tied up in meetings, entertaining clients; not sweeping, refined and elegant, through the sort of scruffy bistro they would never visit together,  to catch him with his pants down.  Or as good as. 

As the wrecking ball of his betrayal surged towards him, the woman across the table – what was her name? – yabbered on and on like a drumming bunny, blistering his ears.  He could see the chewed food between her teeth as she talked and her knife and fork screeched against the cheap crockery like fingernails on a chalkboard.  She wasn’t pretty or chic.  There was no subtlety in the satin bow that peeked out between grotesquely inflated breasts, nor the scrape of her grimy toes probing and poking at his ankles beneath the table.  He realised he neither wanted nor needed the sex that was palpably on offer.

He pleaded with the napkin on his lap for inspiration; he needed a credible explanation.  What possible reason could he have for being seated at a table dressed with a paper sheet and a dribbling candle in a bottle, with a woman whose name he couldn’t even recall?  All the while, his wife, his beautiful, intelligent, sophisticated wife, glided towards them, her eyes wide, lips taut, the hint of blood flaming across her décolletage. 

His heart rattled beneath his breastbone. This time there was no wriggling out of it.  The demise of his marriage was knocking on the door.

“Don’t tell me the moon is shining, show me the glint of light on broken glass” Anton Chekhov

Synopsis Crisis

Synopsis crisis 1Today I began the task of writing the synopsis for my now completed manuscript.

I’ve read books, articles and many, many blog posts on how to write a synopsis.  I know it’s more about what you leave out than what you put in.  I know how long it should be… um… between 1 and 5 sides of A4, depending on whose advice you take.  I know that it needs to not be a blow-by-blow account of what happens next, and next, and next.  I know it needs to be about character, inciting incidents, conflict, tension and emotional progression; and it needs to show that I know how to plot – and how to write too.

All that, it’s all very well.  I get it.  And I’m an intelligent woman (don’t argue…) with a good grasp of the English language and an intimate knowledge of the subject of this synopsis.  So what could possibly go wrong?

Well… I sat in front of my PC this morning and the words that spewed on to the page were a confused, desperate ramble around my plot.  Tangled, like a plate of angel hair pasta, a mass of fragile threads jostled for attention.  But there was no sauce and it was all very, very claggy and dry.

One thing was abundantly clear about Draft Number One; if I were reading it, I wouldn’t be reaching for those first three chapters.

At least I know it’s crap; self-awareness is a strength, I tell myself. But it’s only a first draft, so I’m not going to get discouraged.  No, really.  I’m not.  I’m going to print it out in double spacing with big margins.  I’ll scribble on it and chew it over for a few days, and perhaps the right way to tackle it will surface (maybe around 4:00 in the morning).

I know there are things that need to be worked out. Whilst my timeline is a snug single week in the life of my characters there are intricacies in how those characters’ stories weave together, impact my protagonist and move the plot forward.  I’m going to have to decide which of these need space in the synopsis, and which do not – there isn’t room for them all.  Then there’s my ‘big reveal’ scene, an intense mental battle between two characters. At the moment, it is dispatched in a single line.  I may only have 500 words to play with, but I feel it deserves more than that.  Or maybe I’d just like to think that because I bled all over the carpet for weeks writing that darned scene, I’m going to force anyone who reads my synopsis to appreciate the time and effort it took.  I don’t know.

I’m sure I’ll get there – I’m a writer and a marketer after all, so I should be able to cope with a synopsis. Right?  I just said I’d give you a feel for what’s happening in my head now the book is written and the selling game begins.

So here you have it – synopsis crisis, day one.