Monthly Archives: August 2014

Tough Writing–On the Spectrum of Writing Styles: Part 2

(Continued from Tough Writing: Part 1)

To look at another example of the declarative sentences that typify the style called “tough”:

“In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterwards the road bare and white except for the leaves.”
–Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms (1929)

The driving beat of these sentences builds a picture in the reader’s mind of armies marching, marching, their boots pounding the road, raising the dust. There’s a definite note of desperation in this passage, a starkness that is far more effective than having the narrator crying out, or shouting at the troops, or otherwise showing his emotions.

As Professor Brooks Landon describes the “tough” style, the speaker/narrator/protagonist says only what he can see or directly experience, stating information without processing it. This style introduces the reader to a mind (a character’s mind) that is unreflective, almost anesthetized, or so focused on one purpose that it simply refuses to think about anything else or consider alternate points of view.

I’ve come to realize that, on a spectrum of writing styles ranging from “tough” at one extreme to “demonstrative” at the other, I fall nearer the tough end. The circumstances of her early life have made my Waterspell girl, Carin, a self-contained, rather stoic kind of person. She’s quick to act. And in a situation that calls for action, she wants to be all business. The time for “getting in touch with her feelings” comes later. She may be afraid, but only after the fact. She doesn’t take time during the event to dwell on her fear — which is a trait that some of my fellow writers see as a fault.

I, however, see it as an authentic character trait, because it’s my trait, a strong element in my makeup since childhood. I act first and think — or feel — later.

For example, when I was in college a bullet exploded through the wall of my apartment six inches to the left of my shoulder. My initial reaction was to fling open my front door and go storming out to confront the shooter. That was stupid, of course. For all I knew, that bullet through my wall was the prelude to a full-bore gun battle. But the shooter emerged from next-door at the same time I stepped outside, and his face was white. As I shouted at him — “What the hell are you doing? You could have killed me!” — he stood there looking faint. It had been an accidental discharge. He was cleaning a loaded gun.

I felt nothing of fear at that moment. Only afterward, when I had time to process what had happened, did I realize how close I’d come to catching that bullet. A few inches to the right, and it would have gone through my heart. Then — only then — I collapsed onto my bed and started to shake. After the fact, I knew fear.

That’s my Carin. She takes action, she runs, she fights, she shouts. Or she quietly, deliberately makes her plans and bides her time. Emotions take a backseat. They are a luxury that she has seldom been able to indulge in.

Most of my readers seem to understand her. Occasionally, though, I get feedback urging me to make her a more overtly emotional creature. Sorry. Can’t do it. That’s not who she is. Or who I am.

I go back to the examples I used earlier from Ursula K. Le Guin and Suzanne Collins. When those writers state information and omit emotion, they still provide an emotional undercurrent that gives me a feeling for all the things that are left unsaid:

“If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things.”
Ernest Hemingway

Leave a Comment

Filed under On Writing

Tough Writing–It’s All About Style: Part 1

Should a character’s emotions be often and overtly on display? Some writers think so. I was occasionally urged by my fellow writers and critique partners to make Carin — the somewhat stoic point-of-view character in my Waterspell trilogy — more openly emotional.

But many of the works I love best, like The Tombs of Atuan, the second book in Ursula K. Le Guin‘s Earthsea Cycle, are almost stark of emotion. The bare-bones style lends great power to passages like this:

“The room was higher than it was long, and had no windows. There was a dead smell in it, still and stale. The silent women left her there in the dark.

“She held still, lying just as they had put her. Her eyes were wide open. She lay so for a long time. … The glimmer died from the high cell walls. The little girl, who had no name any more but Arha, the Eaten One, lay on her back looking steadily at the dark.”

–from The Tombs of Atuan, copyright 1970, 1971 by Ursula K. Le Guin

Some might ask, “What is the little girl feeling right now?” But I am perfectly content to extrapolate from what I might be feeling in Arha’s place. I don’t need to have her emotional state — be it fear, desperation, resignation, or something else — laid out for me.

To cite a more contemporary example: Katniss, the admirably self-sufficient protagonist of Suzanne CollinsThe Hunger Games, faces the prospect of almost certain death. She reacts by calmly instructing her mother and sister in how to survive after Katniss is gone:

“… I start telling them all the things they must remember to do, now that I will not be there to do them for them. Prim is not to take any tesserae. They can get by, if they’re careful, on selling Prim’s goat milk and cheese and the small apothecary business my mother now runs for the people in the Seam. Gale will get her the herbs she doesn’t grow herself, but she must be very careful to describe them because he’s not as familiar with them as I am. He’ll also bring them game — he and I made a pact about this a year or so ago — and will probably not ask for compensation, but they should thank him with some kind of trade, like milk or medicine.”

–from The Hunger Games, copyright 2008 by Suzanne Collins

Readers don’t need to see Katniss’ fear. It’s palpable because it’s so carefully submerged under her tightly controlled exterior.

I’ve been watching “Building Great Sentences: Exploring the Writer’s Craft,” a course on DVD from The Teaching Company. Professor Brooks Landon of The University of Iowa talks about the “tough” style of writing:

“Kernel sentences that simply posit information without detail or explanation … state something and then leave it to subsequent sentences to add information …

“This is macho-speak that bluntly posits information without reflecting upon it or elaborating on it, and we find it exactly where we might expect it, as in the opening to David Morrell’s 1972 novel First Blood.

“[These sentences] are characteristic of the style Walker Gibson calls ‘tough,’ a style frequently associated with some of Ernest Hemingway’s best-known fiction. This style is effective when creating characters who act, but don’t think much about what they do.”

–from “Lecture Four: How Sentences Grow,” Building Great Sentences: Exploring the Writer’s Craft, Course Guidebook, copyright 2008 by The Teaching Company

Here is an example that Professor Landon uses in his discussion of the “tough” style of writing:

“His name was Rambo, and he was just some nothing kid for all anybody knew, standing by the pump of a gas station at the outskirts of Madison, Kentucky. He had a long heavy beard, and his hair was hanging down over his ears to his neck, and he had a hand out trying to thumb a ride from a car that was stopped at the pump.”

—from First Blood, copyright 1972 by David Morrell

That opening satisfies me. I see a hint that there’s more to young Rambo than meets the eye — “he was just some nothing kid for all anybody knew” tells me that people don’t really know him, and suggests that he’ll be a hard guy to get to know. That’s fine. I have no need to explore Rambo’s “feelings.” If he shows some emotion later on, it’ll be all the more effective for coming from someone who’s generally unemotional.

(Continues in Part 2 tomorrow …)

Leave a Comment

Filed under On Writing

The Fussy Librarian Recommends Waterspell

I’m excited about this! Waterspell Book 1: The Warlock is featured today, August 9, at The Fussy Librarian, a new website that offers personalized ebook recommendations.

You choose from 40 genres and indicate your preferences about content (the level of profanity or sex you want, etc.) and then the computers work their magic. It’s pretty cool, and easy to sign up for the daily emails — check it out!

For more details, please see my earlier post about The Fussy Librarian’s recommendations.

Grab a Bargain: Waterspell on Sale

As someone who has regularly paid $15 or more for a book, I think the standard ebook price of $2.99 is a STEAL. At that price, a reader can have all three books of the Waterspell trilogy for under $10.

aia_buttonBut market forces seem to be driving ebook prices down to a mere 99 cents — the cost of a three-minute song. As I’ve said before, I have resisted offering my trilogy for such a paltry sum, lest people mistakenly believe that the quality is poor (it isn’t) or that I’m not proud of my work (I am). I spent 16 years writing Waterspell, and what I produced is the best writing of which I am capable. The reviews (excerpted below) would seem to bear out my belief that the trilogy is well worth $10.

As an experiment, however, I’ve dropped the price to 99 cents per book to coincide with The Fussy Librarian‘s recommendation.

So get ’em while they’re cheap! Or even cheaper than usual.

What People Say: Reviews of Waterspell

“What a brilliant and unforgettable story! I devoured this book … literally consumed by the originality and depth Deborah brings to her characters. She provides a strong balance between action, adventure, fantasy, and romance and Carin’s combination of pride and vulnerability make her a fabulous character! Quite frankly, I am just astounded by the emotions this book stirred in me. It is simply extraordinary.” Feifei Le

“Once I started I only stopped to eat, sleep, and do those tasks that I could not put aside. It was imaginative, entertaining, and much more than just a delightful read. The main characters came alive on the pages and the book kept me guessing about what would happen next. Waterspell is a trilogy that I will highly recommend.” —Patrick M.

“This was an extremely well written fantasy story …  [it] flows well with a very readable style that holds your interest throughout. The world building is solid and intriguing, the magical aspects well drawn and versatile and characterisation is energetic so that you are immediately invested in their future. The ending with its wonderful cliffhanger will ensure that you read on … All in all a marvellous addition to the fantasy genre and I would recommend it for lovers of magical mystical tales.” Liz Wilkins

“I was hooked instantly when I started reading [Waterspell Book 1] The Warlock. I willingly gave up sleep and honestly could not wait to get up to read more of this book. I’m reading the whole series, and I absolutely am loving it.” Sarah @​ Amazon

“If you like epic fantasy that sweeps you to amazing, immersive worlds and while following intriguing characters, be sure to add this series to your to-read list.” Once Upon a YA Book

“Grabbed my attention and kept it. It’s a truly unique book. This is a series not to miss.” Tahlia Newland

“… a fabulous trilogy that should be read by every fantasy reader who would like something a little different. The author cleverly creates tension without resorting to the battles, complex political intrigue and predictable structure favoured by many in the traditional fantasy genre. I give it 5 stars without hesitation.” Tahlia Newland

And there’s more! Additional reviews at

I am deeply grateful to all the wonderful reviewers who have responded so warmly to my work. Thank you all, so very much. And thank you, Fussy Librarian, for the recommendation!

Leave a Comment

Filed under Uncategorized