Sunday Exercise: Just a paragraph, but oh, what a paragraph!

Have you ever read a passage of a story and just stopped to enjoy what the writer did? How the writer shared their world view in such an economical way? or how they created a world without using fancy terms?

Happens all the time, yes?

great short stories of the mastersWell, I keep this book on my desk, which I browse at will — and sometimes all I’m seeking is a brief connection with another writer’s style. (Sometimes, I don’t even finish the full short story, though I probably shouldn’t admit it. Yes, I know: bad McKenna, go stand in the corner and read the full story.)

But I wanted to share this opening paragraph from a James Joyce short story, called “Araby.” I was so taken by the beauty of what he did, that I stopped reading the story just to enjoy the passage.  Which is when I decided to do an imitation of it  (click here for my explanation of what imitation is — and is not).

Just look at what he did:

North Richmond Street, being blind, was a quiet street except at the hour when the Christian Brothers’ School set the boys free. An uninhabited house of two storeys stood at the blind end, detached from its neighbours in a square ground. The other houses of the street, conscious of decent lives within them, gazed at one another with brown, imperturbable faces.

Take a moment to re-read his passage before continuing on here.  Now read my rewrite, which was written to MEAN the same.

North Richmond was a blind street, quiet except at the hour when the Christian Brother’s School let out. An empty house of two storeys stood at the blind end, separate from its neighbours in a square lot. The other houses of the street contained decent lives within them, and they sat opposite each other.

What do you notice about the difference in the feel of the first passage v. the second passage?

Don’t they both paint the same image?  What is it that Joyce does that my rewritten passage does not?

Go ahead … leave a comment!

I’m going to imitate the passage, and I’ll post my imitation in the comments.


Friday: Imagery Exercise—What is Tone in Writing?

One of the more frequent writing questions I get is “What is tone in writing?” It’s rarely defined, never mind taught. However, as I mentioned before, Nancy Dean in her textbook, “VOICE LESSONS: Classroom Activities to Teach Diction, Detail, Imagery, Syntax, and Tone,” created my absolutely favorite definition of tone in writing:

“Tone is the expression of attitude. It is the writer’s (or narrator’s) implied attitude towards his subject and audience….tone is the hallmark of the writer’s personality.”

For example, as a reader what do you perceive to be the implied attitude of a person who writes “Vibram shoes are phat” versus the person who writes “Vibram shoes are fat.”

Which of these narrators probably loves running?  Yeah, I agree: the phat narrator.

One of my mother’s favorite sayings as I was growing up was “It’s not WHAT you said, it’s HOW you said it.”  She was obviously trying to teach her very tone-deaf daughter that tone of voice makes a difference. In one tone of voice, something may be humorous; in another tone of voice, the same words become an insult.

In the movie, Good Will Hunting, Will Hunting’s psychiatrist (played by Robin Williams) tells him “Not your fault” — ten times!  A colleague pointed out to me that Robin Williams uses a slightly different tone—same words, different tone of voice—each of those ten times until it finally reached into Will Hunting’s psyche, and Will was able to release all the pent up anger about being abused as a foster child.

If you’ve never seen it, it’s a great scene! (GRrrrrrr! I hate those commercials stuck on the front of YouTube clips!)

Tone in writing is your implied attitude.

So let’s look at your implied attitude towards the following photograph. The important part of this exercise is to NEVER SAY how you feel about it. Let your description carry your attitude. I’ll respond with “this is how you really feel about this subject.”  As a bonus, you should comment on the other writers’ exercises, about how you perceive their attitude about the same photo.

Create a better tone for your writing
What is your implied attitude?


(Click on the photo to get a larger size, if you wish to examine the details.  I mean, is that really a building perched on the ridge?)

Write in JOY!

McKenna Donovan



Friday: Imagery Exercise—When words desert you…

Have you ever seen that animated little stick guy on You Tube, where he’s pounding his fingers, then his head on a keyboard and does so until the blood starts to splay?  Warning: it’s a bit graphic, but it’s also very evocative of how hard it sometimes feels to “get it right” on the page.

Sometimes it’s easy to write a description; sometimes it’s next to impossible.

We can feel what we want to say, but we can’t just bloody say it.

If you’ve ever had one of those ‘stick-guy moments,’ maybe it’ll help to step back for a moment and look at your descriptions in a slightly different way.

Most of us try to write an image—a description of a person, place, or thing—as if it were a painting, a still life of parts making up a whole.  That’s not necessarily a problem, but always approaching an image as if it were a still life can make us short-sighted with what we write. As I wrote in an earlier Imagery Friday post, one way to look at the image is as a figurative description (rather than a literal one).

There is a third way, though. If the literal or figurative descriptions aren’t working for you for a specific instance, think of your image as movement that you wish to create. A reader’s eye might be going left-to-right, but their mind’s eye is following the tracks of your character.

As they read, readers’ minds are seeking movement.

For example, let’s say you mention snow-covered Alps.  The reader’s mind will form the image of jagged peaks, snow piled high in shades of grey and white, possibly with a meadow nestled in the midst. But it lacks movement. Their mind’s eye is jogging in place, waiting for you, the author, to provide them with something they can engage with.

Since they’re forming images, you can direct their attention along a specific part of the image—in other words, you can provide movement, even in a still landscape.  The best example of making a still landscape move can be found it F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.

And so it happened that on a warm windy evening I drove over to East Egg to see two old friends whom I scarcely knew at all. Their house was even more elaborate than I expected, a cheerful red and white Georgian Colonial mansion overlooking the bay. The lawn started at the beach and ran toward the front door for a quarter of a mile,  jumping over sun-dials and brick walls and burning gardens—finally when it reached the house drifting up the side in bright vines as though from the momentum of its run.

Now lawns don’t really start, run, jump, and drift, but our eyes do.  As readers, we’re totally unaware that nothing is happening, because we’re following some intriguing movement.

So in this Imagery Friday exercise, look for movement in the photo featured below.  On purpose, the photo has few features. This isn’t about literal or figurative descriptions. In this exercise, your description should pinpoint how you want your reader’s eye to move along your image.

The desert
Where’s the movement?

Please post your description in the comments. Don’t be shy! It’s a great place to learn the wide range of possibilities. I’ll provide feedback for each comment posted. Post two, if you wish!

Write in JOY,

McKenna Donovan



Friday: Imagery Exercise—Literal v. Figurative Descriptions

Some of the best descriptions I’ve read — including some of the responses to the previous #ImageryFriday exercises! — are not literal descriptions that paint a picture, but figurative, which evoke an emotional response.

So the question becomes when is it best to use literal descriptions and when to use figurative ones?

There are no hard-and-fast rules, of course, but here’s one simple way to look at descriptive passages:

Literal descriptions work best when you need to direct the readers’ eyes to a specific point;

Figurative descriptions work best when you need to evoke an emotional response from the reader.

Literal descriptions

…allow you to point out a specific something, especially if it’s something out of kilter with the norm: an elegant model in an evening gown with a skinned knee; a hummingbird with all-white wings but a ruby throat; a mansion with a sparkling koi pond but a tarnished brass knocker on the front door; a barefoot, dirty child in a poor alley wearing one shiny tap shoe.  The possibilities are endless, when you keep selection in mind.

This also allows the reader to draw their own judgments, which often causes them to delve deeply into their own experiences to find the emotion that your description evokes.  This can be truly powerful, but it has one danger: what the reader reaches for might not be what you intended.  So use literal descriptions to “paint” a picture.  Literal descriptions are your sketch pad.

Figurative descriptions…

…allow you to look for ways to present the emotion beneath the image. What does the image remind you of, and how can you tap into that?  Is a group of water lilies really like a menorah? Is an old house necessarily a sad, abandoned thing? Or does it resonate with the happiness it knew for decades before the prairie swallowed it?

A figurative description also sets a tone.  Yeah, I had the same reaction to “tone” in writing. What the heck is that, and could I get published without knowing what “tone” was?  Well, you can’t get away from tone; it’s there, whether or not you’re aware of it.

A few years ago I ran across the best description of “tone” I’ve ever heard.  In Nancy Dean’s “VOICE LESSONS: Classroom Activities to Teach Diction, Detail, Imagery, Syntax, and Tone,” she says:

“Tone is the expression of attitude. It is the writer’s (or narrator’s) implied attitude toward his subject and audience.”

It’s your IMPLIED ATTITUDE about your subject.  In other words, how you choose to describe something on the page also creates an image of YOU for your reader.  (We’ll be doing a series of exercises on “tone” come spring of 2013.)

Playing with tone is actually quite fun, and it quickly becomes second nature when you’re writing/drafting. One entire lesson of my free e-course, “8 Simple Ways to Add Depth to your Writing,” is devoted to tone in writing. Subscribe to my newsletter and you’ll start that free e-course today.




For today’s exercise, write your description as figurative, okay?  You can write a literal description first if you wish to sharpen your eye, but end up writing the figurative description.

Study the feature image (below), and tap into the emotion it creates within you. Try to present the image to your reader in terms that evoke that same emotion for the reader. We want to hear your implied attitude!

Storytelling is all about emotion, and imagery is where we pull the reader into our stories.

Please post your description!  I know you’re coming here (blog stats don’t lie), but not leaving a comment.  I’d love to hear your descriptions!  C’mon out and play!

Imagery Friday, Abandoned House
Imagery Friday: Abandoned House


Now forgive me, but after staring at this photo, I need to stick my head in a trough of water!


P.S. Click on the tag “Imagery Friday” below my name to get a list of past “Friday Imagery” exercises. The comments remain open, and I’ll be delighted to comment upon any work presented!

Your writing is important to me.

Write in JOY!

McKenna Donovan




Friday: Imagery Exercise — The Christmas Factor

I hope you’ve been enjoying our Imagery Friday exercises. If you’re here for the first time, you might want to read the first post in this Imagery Friday series to gain a perspective on how this highly important exercise enriches our writing.  (The link opens in a new tab or window, so it’s easier for you to return here when you’re done.)

So far, we’ve seen that whatever we are writing, it must bring an image to mind. An image is at the simplest level of a story.  Since all writing is about imagery, great writing focuses on selection of detail. This not only brings the image into vivid focus for the reader, but also guides them into making emotional commitments to your imagery. The trick isn’t to show the image, but to guide the reader into what the image means. We’ve also looked at imagery as a function of emotion, such that familiar emotions can be evoked by unusual images.

Today’s image brought some interesting thoughts to mind.  First, here’s our image for this week:

This is a York street at night during the Christmas holiday season. You’ll be describing this for your exercise today, but let’s talk about “the Christmas Factor” first.

The Christmas Factor and Imagery

There are some happenings so evocative of life (or death), that just by using a few words, you elicit the entire spectrum of emotions. If you set a story in New York City at Christmas, you have a “leg up” on the emotions of your readers—especially those who live in the city. They’ll already have strong feelings, and even if you describe only one or two things, the reader will include in their reading experience what they love about Christmas. The Christmas Factor, however, can be a dual-edged sword: while Christmas might evoke family and lights and laughter for you, there are those for whom Christmas is a negative: it’s sheer grit and depression and disappointment.  All of that reader’s feelings of disappointment and anger are brought forth just by your setting.

Can you think of other Christmas Factor settings?  How about Easter/Passover? a graveside funeral? a ceremony of any sort in which a person is honored for valiance, heroism, distinguished service, etc.? The Christmas Factor applies to any ceremony or occasion in which rituals and expectations are shared by a large segment of the population.

When you use a Christmas Factor in your story, focus becomes even more important. You speak of a table laden with food, the family sitting around salivating to dig in, so what do you focus on? (You can briefly mention certain elements of the scene, but we’re talking about where you FOCUS the reader.)  So what do you focus the reader on? The turkey?  Maybe if part of it looks gnawed on. The family? Maybe if there’s a child’s crayon drawing at an empty chair. Maybe if the toddler in a high chair is missing one shoe, which shows off the toddler’s mismatched socks? Maybe the guinea pig in its rolling ball pinned in place by Uncle Herman, whose expression was one of distaste.  Set enough of the expected image—the table, the family, the music in the background, the aromas—then find the unusual, the different. Find that which means something to your story beyond the Christmas table setting.

In the photo above, I included a large size, because I want you to examine the photo for the details. In a photo like this, it’s easy to see what you expect, rather than what is truly there.  Take a moment to study it, maybe even divide it visually into quarters and inspect each quarter.  Then begin to build your description. Don’t be surprised if this takes you a fair amount of time. If you’re doing it right, you can’t do this one quickly.

What struck me about this photo?  Hmm, is it cheating to tell you now?  Nah, guess not … do you notice the many, many tiny lights along the street, but also notice that the stars in the night sky are missing? It’s as if the stars in the sky that epitomize Christmas have been drowned out by the commercial lights.  No, I’m not a cynic, but that was a forcible impression for me.

How about you?

Write in JOY,




Friday: Imagery Exercise—Selection, selection, selection

Everything is an image. If you don’t believe me, read Stephen King’s article, “Imagery and the Third Eye,” about how his writing is all about imagery—

…it is the imagery that makes the book “stand out” somehow; to come alive; to glow with its own light.” —Stephen King

As writers, we are taught to think of stories as character, plot, dialogue, setting, etc. These are, of course, essential, but at its deepest and simplest level, a great story is nothing more than a series of images, and what is a movie but a series of images, yes?  Stories with great emotional appeal happen when the writer can…

 focus the reader’s attention upon a specific image or part of an image.

It’s a magic act.  “Watch where I ask you to watch, so I can amaze you with my sleight-of-hand.” It is our job, as writers, to select where our reader is focused, and through creating that focus, we seize the emotions of our readers.   The most unforgettable series of images for me comes from the West Wing episode, In Excelsis Deo.  The images?

  • A homeless Korean War vet, curled up on a park bench, dead
  • A business card, left in Toby’s donated-to-Goodwill coat
  • Toby, Mrs. Landingham (who had just confided that she had lost her sons in Vietnam on Christmas Eve), and the homeless vet’s also-homeless brother at the cemetery for the burial
  • Their startled reaction when the first volley of the 21-gun salute was fired.

Throughout the episode, there was this image of Toby—walking energetically, alive with purpose—wearing this beautiful, tan, full-length coat. The contrast between his new coat (worn with energy and purpose) and the old coat (wrapped around a dead Korean War vet) was emotional for me. The writers of this episode, Aaron Sorkin and Rick Cleveland, were highly selective about each image in each scene, and the culmination of these images was an incredibly emotional experience for viewers.

So it’s all about imagery, but more than that: it’s about SELECTION of imagery.

Imagery is about selection!

It’s your job, as a writer, to provide selection, so the reader’s focus is always under your control.  We’ve all heard the “less is more” adage when it comes to many things—cooking and writing come immediately to mind. When there is too much detail, the reader’s mind is confused: What’s important? What should I remember for the duration of this story?

In his article, Stephen King said, “To describe everything is to supply a photograph in words; to indicate the points which seem the most vivid and important to you, the writer, is to allow the reader to flesh out your sketch into a portrait.” [My emphasis]

So yes, selection, selection, selection.

Today’s exercise is about selection.  The image below is a complex one, a photograph by a dear friend with a great eye for beauty in the smallest places: David Coyote. Your task is to evaluate the entire image, then decide what you wish to describe—that which feels significant to you, that one piece of the photograph you wish to convey to your reader, and allow them to imagine the rest.

Write your description and post it in the comments section.

Write your description to give an impression of the whole, but a focus on a part.

Truly lovely photograph, isn’t it?  Now think of your character standing at this pond, looking down at this image. What would your character focus on?

Fun questions, aren’t they! I’m looking forward to seeing what you select and how you present the image in words!






To view all “Imagery Friday” exercises, click HERE.

Friday: Imagery Exercise—Character, as Seen in the Face

Imagery Friday is about keeping our writing hands limber, so we leave our readers with vivid, unique, and very telling images.  For me, strong images are a beacon of great writing. We’ve all read them: a phrase, a brief passage, even a paragraph that catches our imagination and moves us there, wherever the writer’s “there” happens to be. It can be in the past; it can be present day; it can be futuristic; it can be a world of figment and fantasy.

And it doesn’t need to be a scavenger hunt through the thesaurus. Notice in the passages below how the vocabulary is very simple.

If you’ve been here before for our Imagery Friday, welcome back!  If this is your first time, you might want to read the first post of this series (this link opens in a new window or tab, so you can easily return here), to gain a perspective on imagery and detail.

Let me share a few favorite passages with you, before we work on today’s exercise. (I’ll be asking you soon for your favorite passages.)

“But the trouble was there already in the room. It settled over me in a formless way, like fog; no colour, neither dark nor light, no smell, no sound; just a clenching tension of pain and the fear of death…the sheet scraped under my nails.” Mary Stewart, Touch Not the Cat.

“…furred and shifting shadows…” Mary Stewart, Touch Not the Cat

“…when it moved, it cut the air with a brittle sound. It reminded me of the quiet that settles on the coldest days in winter when it hurts to breathe and everything is still.” Patrick Rothfuss, Name of the Wind.

“His voice was old and tired around the edges, but at its center it was patient.” Patrick Rothfuss, Name of the Wind.

and one more:

“…the question that is at the back of your throat, choking the blood to your brain, ringing in your ears over and over as you put it to yourself…”  The voice of Death, in Meet Joe Black.

Obviously, great passages are not limited to books.  I shall never forget the final lines of An Unfinished Life, where Morgan Freeman’s character says:

“I got so high, Einar, I could see where the blue turns to black. From up there, you could see all there is. And it looked like there was a reason for everything.”

Beautiful lines, yes? I’ve always wanted to write a short story with the title, “Where The Blue Turns to Black.” One of these days, maybe…

Today’s exercise centers on the face of an old person. I’ve chosen two photos—one man, one woman—and you may choose your image to describe.

When describing faces, the trick isn’t to show the lines, but what the lines MEAN.

Sit with your choice of photo for a while, and let the feeling of it settle into your heart. It’s not just about what you SEE, but how does it make you feel? What memories, pleasant or otherwise, does it bring to your mind that you feel are important to share with your readers?




And the second face:


Note: Click on the face you wish to view, and the full-sized image will appear in a new tab or window.

Copy your description to the comments section of this post. Be sure that it’s obvious that you’re describing the man or the woman! I’m looking forward to seeing what you have done with these very different faces!

(To get a list of all the imagery exercises, click HERE.)

Write in JOY!




Friday: Imagery Exercise—Underwater Hotel!

Welcome back to our Imagery Friday!  If you’re here for the first time, you might want to read our first post about imagery HERE. It’s brief, but fun (and opens in a new tab or window so you don’t lose this page).  When you’re done, come back here for today’s exercise. You’re also welcome to click on “imagery friday” in the Tags section just under my photo. This will bring up a list of all Friday exercises relating to imagery.


Dubai, United Arab Emirates, has emerged as a center of modern architecture that stretches the imagination.

Today’s exercise is about the imagery produced by a hotel, and what a hotel it will be!  Below, I’ve included two images, but it is the second image that we should focus on for our exercise on imagery. The reason I’m using such an unusual image is to ask you to examine how images of unfamiliar or strange places can heighten familiar emotions. They can refresh our senses, which lingers in our minds and hearts longer than the absolute familiar.

Writing is about leaving your reader with an unshakable image, of course. And while it’s easy to describe something literally, it’s far richer to explore your imagery in terms of the unfamiliar.  Language is rich in  metaphor and simile for that very reason: these figures of speech allow you to allude to feelings and functions that deepen the imagery you’re creating.  (My course, Impact of Style II: Our Figurative Language, provides clear explanations of figures of speech as well as practical, hands-on exercises to familiarize the student with each one.)

EXERCISE: Today, you should write TWO descriptions (both of the second photo):

  1. first, a literal description, of what you see;
  2. second, a description that extends your imagery by using comparison to NON-WATER-BASED things.

Once you’ve written your imagery descriptions, post both of them in the comments section of this post. I’ll respond to each description, with observations of what works well, and what might need a tweak.

So with no further ado … here are your photos:

Dubai Underwater Hotel, view from the air

Dubai Hotel of the Near Future














Isn’t that mind-blowing?


Dubai, Underwater  Hotel, view from your room…

Imagery for Writers
Underwater Hotel Room











Can’t you just imagine?!


Remember to post your descriptions—both of them (the literal description, and the figurative description) about the second photo—in the comments section of this post!

Write in JOY!




Friday: Imagery Exercise—Trillium: How much detail is too much?

For many years, I loved Harlequin Romances (Intrigue sub-genre), but most particularly any Regency by Georgette Heyer. Why? Because the great romances are rich in character, and I read (and write) for character.

But let me confess: I always skim descriptions of clothes. I mean, for crying out loud, get on with it, yes?  I want to see what the character does.

And yet there are readers who devour those descriptions, whose eyes want to see each rope of pearls, each complex setting of gems in the diadem, each fluted and scalloped border of lace—(already my eyes are glazing over.  Sorry.)

The point isn’t my taste, though. It’s about knowing YOUR readers, yes?

  • Do your readers demand every piece of flitter and glitter? or do they want to know the character underneath the clothes? or both?
  • Is their interest piqued by architecture and furniture? or landscape or cityscape?

Only you can determine that.  Just as there are things you love to write, there will always be readers who would love to read what you write.

Whatever we write, it must bring to mind an image.

Two things happen when we read:

  1. We see imagery, and
  2. we hear sound (more on this in a future blog post).

Ready to expand the richness of your imagery? 

Then come here each Friday for a new image, which you can examine carefully, then post your description in the comments. The more people who post their description, the richer our skills become. I shall respond to each description with comments about what works well, and what might need a bit of work.  Don’t worry. I’m known for being gentle.  (Still shy? Then click here for an example of one of my reviews.)

Keep in mind that using words to portray images is actually quite a tricky thing. While there is no right or wrong way to do it, there are ways that produce a higher rate of reader interest. The point is to know what ONE THING you wish to focus your reader’s attention on, i.e., what one IMAGE or SENSE do you want to create in your reader’s mind? In other words, do you want them to see contrast of light and dark? or straight lines or fluted edges? dark, somber color or a glimpse of starkness? Do you want them to feel at ease or tense? repulsed or attracted?

The most successful imagery is that which leaves behind the image, but no real sense of the words used.

For example, I love the following description of a man’s voice from Mary Stewart’s This Rough Magic, but I can NEVER remember the precise wording. All I remember is the FEEL of the man’s voice.

“It was like acid spilling over a polished surface, to show the stripped wood, coarse and ugly. There had been splashes of the same corrosive this afternoon (282)”.


You already know that great writing is about practice, yes?  Deliberate, intentional practice. And great imagery is about more than just color; it’s about texture, form, and non-conformities of things. It’s about comparison.  The richest writing compares one thing to another—a voice to acid over a polished surface—and this only becomes second nature when we practice it every day. (In January 2013, I shall be writing a post about creating comparisons—like to like, like to unlike.)

Look carefully at the photo of the trillium I posted above. In the rain forest of Washington State, where I took this photo, it’s a common sight. So common, indeed, that most natives of Washington’s rain forest no longer SEE the miracle of this flower. Wherever there is abundant dampness, there is the trillium. Despite its abundance in the Olympic rain forest, it’s not a common flower for readers. So study this photo for a bit, and ask yourself “What strikes me about this photo?”  Is it shape? color? contrast? Spend a few moments writing ABOUT the trillium, in terms of what strikes you about it.

THEN, and only then, should you try to describe it in writing for a reader.  Remember, you must know what ONE THING, what one shape or color or texture,  you wish the reader to use to form their image.


Write a description of the trillium featured at the top of this page. Post your  description in the comments section. And no, don’t be shy! We learn from each other, and it’s fun to see the many ways in which this image can be described to our readers. (Note: click on the photo for an enlarged version of it in a new tab or window.)

Have fun with this one!  I’ll post mine in a few days. DO NOT BE SHY!  POST!

Write in JOY!