Tis the Season for Holiday Words of Wisdom

One of my favorite times of year is almost here—the stretch of days from Christmas Eve through New Year’s Day. Here in the Pacific Northwest, we can have rain, frost,  snow, even clear and sunny weather. A special time of year to spend with friends and family. Today it’s my good fortune to share past holiday-themed insight and advice from members of our Kill Zone Blog family.

First, Jordan Dane provides “Holiday Food for thought on character conflicts, with great advice on finding and deepening those conflicts. Then, P.J. Parrish asks if your “Book is a Christmas Sweater” in the description department, and discusses how to dress your writing for success. Finally, Debbie Burke gives “Five New Year’s Techniques On Avoiding Butt-in-Chair Syndrome” from 2018.

I encourage you to check out the full posts for each (date linked below) and comment on them. I hope they provide an inspiring basis for discussion today.

What does your character want and why can’t they have it? Conflict is vital to creating memorable characters. No conflict(s), no story. I can’t emphasize this enough. If there is a common mistake many aspiring authors make, it’s not having enough conflict to keep a story flowing through to the end that will drive the characters and keep their story interesting.

Your EXTERNAL CONFLICT might be the villain or the insurmountable situation, but the most unforgettable characters will also contend with their own flaws or biases (INTERNAL CONFLICTS) or demons, so they have a journey toward self-discovery. If you have a hero who is in conflict with a villain, while he’s battling his own demons, then think about creating a heroine who has opposing conflicts where one of them must lose in order to be together. Conflicts are best when layered and made more complicated.

Find your characters’ greatest weaknesses or fears—their internal conflicts—and demand they deal with it. Torture them. It’s legal. Rubbing their nose in it generally comes from the influences of the external conflict—the plot. The one-two punch of the external and internal conflicts adds depth to your character. Make him/her suffer, then ramp up the stakes and the tension. It’s all about drama!

Add Depth to Each Character—Give them a journey
• With any journey comes baggage. Be generous. Load on the baggage. Give them a weakness that they’ll have to face head-on by the climax of the book.

  • Make them vulnerable by giving them an Achilles Heel. Even the darkest street thug or a fearless young girl with magical powers should have a weakness that may get them killed and certainly makes them more human and relatable.
  • Whether you are writing one book or a series, have a story arc for your character’s journey that spans the series. Will they find peace or love, or some version of a normal life? Will they let someone else into their lives or will they be content to live alone? Will a villain have a chance at redemption? Do what makes sense for your character, but realize that their emotional issues will cloud their judgment and affect how they deal with confrontations. By the end of a book, they should learn something.

Use Character Flaws as Handicaps
• Challenge yourself as an author by picking flaws that will make your character stand out and that aren’t easy to write about. Sometimes that means you have to dig deep in your own head to imagine things you don’t want to think about, but tap into your empathy for another human being. You might surprise yourself.

  • Stay true to the flaws and biases you give your characters. Don’t present them to the reader then have the actions of the character contradict those handicaps. Be consistent. If they have strong enough issues, these won’t be fixed by the end of the book. Find a way to deal with them.

Jordan Dane—December 6, 2018

So how do you find your happy medium? How do you know when you’ve gone too far or haven’t gone far enough? How do you resist gilding the lily? There are no easy answers but here are a few things to think about:

Don’t generalize: Try to avoid abstractions. Be concrete in your descriptions. Instead of saying someone played a board game, say it’s Monopoly. Instead of a “bad smell” use the specific “like sour milk.” But again, don’t reach too hard or you look silly.

Don’t forget to compare and contrast. The secret to originality is the ability to see relationships. If you’re describing something green, it’s your job to come up with something fresher than “grass.” Here’s one of my faves from Steinbeck: “The customers were folded over their coffee cups like ferns.” And come to think of it, Alice’s description of Calvin Coolidge as “looking like he was weaned on a pickle” is pretty good. But again, don’t strain for originality or you just sound pretentious.

Don’t lean on adjectives: Just lining up a string of modifiers is lazy writing. (ie tall, dark and handsome). Try to find one vibrant adjective rather than several weak ones. But again, don’t strain or reach for the Thesaurus. Sometimes a lawn is just a lawn…not a “verdant sward.”

Don’t use cliches: It’s easy to slip into tired, flabby words. If you want to say something is white, you can’t use “white as snow.” It’s not yours! Neither is “thin as a rail, sick at heart, hard as a rock” or even “overcome with grief.” Time has eroded all those. It’s your job to find new ways of making your reader experience your fictional world.

Yeah, it’s tough to dress your writing for success. But don’t despair. Description is one of the things that you can get better at. Believe me, I know. I used to lard my paragraphs with lovingly crafted images that dammit, were going to stay in there because I worked so hard on them. But then my sister told me one day that I was — ahem — dressing to impress. I made every writer’s biggest mistake: I fell in love with the sound of my own voice and was trying to be “writerly.”

Finding your style — be it writing or fashion — is a lifelong process. When I went to my prom, I looked like a cross between Scarlett O’Hara and a Kabuki dancer. Through practice, I look a little better these days. Likewise, in my writing, I have learned what to leave off, what to cut out. In fact, I have gone too far with my WIP so my critique group friends tell me I am now underwriting and they are advising me to add more description.

P.J. Parrish—December 17, 2013



Do you have 20/20/20 vision? No, that’s not a typo, but rather an exercise suggested by eye doctors to counteract eyestrain and blurry vision from too much screen time.

Every 20 minutes, look away from your screen to an object at least 20 feet away and focus on it for at least 20 seconds.

For more eye exercises, check out:  http://www.allaboutvision.com/cvs/irritated.htm

 And finally, my favorite exercise…

Go for a walk 

When you take your dog for a walk, she knows what she’s supposed to do. The writer’s brain can be trained and reinforced with praise the same way you train your pooch. As you move muscles and increase blood flow, your brain expels waste.

I confess during walks I’ve left many hot, steaming piles along the pathway. The best part is, unlike the dog, I don’t need a baggie to pick them up!

Once waste thoughts are cleared out, there’s room for new ideas and solutions to bubble up from the subconscious (Check out Jim Bell’s classic post about “the boys in the basement”).

Start training your brain with a small problem: let’s say you’re seeking a particular word that’s eluding you, despite searching the thesaurus. Go for a short walk and let the brain relax. After a few minutes of exercise and fresh air, the elusive word often pops up from the subconscious.

Give yourself a pat on the head and praise, “Good brain!” 

A Milk Bone is optional, your choice.

 Pretty soon, the subconscious learns that when you take a walk, it’s expected to perform, just like Fifi. While it sniffs the bushes and chases a squirrel, it’s also learning to deliver fresh ideas and solutions. The more you positively reinforce the subconscious for its results, the better and more frequently it comes up with solutions.

Walking works for me 100% of the time because my brain is conditioned. If I’m stumped about what a character should do next, or if the plot gets lost down a rabbit hole, I take a spin around the neighborhood. Before long, the uncertain character now knows her next move; or the rabbit hole has led to an unexpected escape route. I can’t wait to rush back to the keyboard eager to implement the solutions my subconscious offered up.

Debbie Burke—January 25, 2018


There you have it– putting conflict into your characters’ lives, avoiding your description becoming the literary equivalent of a Christmas sweater, and techniques to avoid the physical consequences of “butt-in-chair” time.

  1. What’s your sure fire way to put more conflict into your characters’s lives?
  2. How do you find the description “happy medium?”
  3. What physical challenges does butt-in-chair time pose for you? How do you mitigate any challenge?

This is my final post of 2022. I wish everyone a wonderful Holiday Season and all the best in 2023.

This entry was posted in #writetips, conflict, Debbie Burke, Description, Jordan Dane, PJ Parrish, Writing by Dale Ivan Smith. Bookmark the permalink.

About Dale Ivan Smith

Dale Ivan Smith is a retired librarian turned full-time author. He started out writing fantasy and science fiction, including his five-book Empowered series, and has stories in the High Moon, Street Spells, and Underground anthologies, and his collection, Rules Concerning Earthlight. He's now following his passion for cozy mysteries and working on the Meg Booker Librarian Mysteries series, beginning with A Shush Before Dying and Book Drop Dead.

16 thoughts on “Tis the Season for Holiday Words of Wisdom

  1. Thanks for compiling these, Dale.

    1. For brainstorming conflicts, inner and outer, the Thesauri from Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi are great. The Negative Trait and Emotional Wound titles are apt here.

    2. Overwrite descriptions that matter. Use a blank text doc. Go wild. Push the envelope. Then wait half an hour and edit it down to the really good stuff…which is often just one word or sentence.

    3. I often Stew, Brew, and Do. Think hard about a knotty problem or scene. Or the ending. Then take a walk to a coffee house, down a shot of espresso, and start writing. It’s minor Balzacian…only don’t overdo it. The poor fellow drank up to 50 cups of mud a day and died because of it!

    • Thanks, Jim. And thanks for mentioning the Thesauri from Ackerman and Puglisi here–they are incredibly useful. Your tip for overwriting description and then editing down after a half-hour pause is something I’m going to do. Finally, “Stew, Brew and Do” is an excellent approach. It’s too easy to stall out when trying to deal with a plot problem etc.

      Have a wonderful holiday season!

  2. Thanks for the shout-out, Dale! I’m honored to be included in the excellent company of Jordan and Kris.

    Found a new trick to counteract butt-in-chair syndrome. My left hip gets cranky so I put a tennis ball under that cheek and roll around. Hurts so good.

    Merry Christmas and good writing in 2023, Dale!

    • You’re welcome, Debbie! You provided very helpful advice and techniques on something that’s too easy for us to neglect. I’ve heard of the tennis ball trick–glad it’s helping!

      Merry Christmas and good writing to you in 2023 as well!

  3. All good tips. Especially appreciate the timely reminder about looking away from your screen periodically. I was just having a stern talk with myself about this very subject because I haven’t been doing it lately. And annoyingly, even though I’ve lived in the desert for over 25 years, all of a sudden I’m having problems with dry eyes so I need to be more intential about taking care of “my own two eyeballs” as Hoss Cartwright would say. 😎

    Thanks for pulling these together, Dale.

    • You’re welcome, BK. I love being able to share anew great posts from the KZB archives.

      I have the same challenge with my eyes and not looking away or blinking, which leads to dry eye. In my case, can also lead to double-vision. Definitely worth the time for the eye break.

  4. Thanks, Dale. Happy Chanukkah, Merry Christmas, and Happy New Year to you and to everyone on both sides of the screen at TKZ!

  5. Excellent collection of posts, Dale.

    1. Infusing more conflict: Since I write fantasy, I’m constantly asking, “What’s the most unexpected thing that could happen next?”

    2. Finding the “happy medium” description: Good luck. If you use beta readers, you will find a wide preference for the amount of description desired. Sometimes, if I get several comments on a particular description, I let the majority rule.

    3. Mitigating the complications of butt-in-chair syndrome: I found that when I left a day job and began writing full-time, my legs gradually became weaker. I’ve found that I need to spend time on my NordicTrack daily instead of 4 or 5 times a week. And I must add that Debbie’s description of walking and leaving “hot, steaming piles along the pathway” has filled my brain with images of a horseback ride on a cold frosty morning. That comment should have gone into Kris’s discussion of description. I’m going to have to sleep before I can get those piles out of my creative space.

    Seriously, thanks, Dale for the wonderful job you are doing here at TKZ.
    And Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to everyone!

    • Thank you so much, Steve.

      A description happy medium is indeed difficult to achieve. Years ago I took a couple of fiction writing classes from Nancy Kress, an award-winning science fiction author and former Writer’s Digest Columnist. Nancy pointed out this problem of dialing the description right–basically, you will never please every reader in this department. Instead, pick your happy medium and aim to make your description for the readers who enjoy that happy medium, accepting that there will be those who feel that you’ve underwritten or that you’ve overwritten.

      I also find daily exercise a necessity. My wife and I take a twenty minute walk before breakfast, and then do either a yoga class (via YouTube) or Zumba (alternating depending upon the day of the week). I add in weight lifting 2-3 times a week, including some lunges and squats for my legs.

      Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you and your family, Steve!

      • It does my heart good to hear about people being proactive about exercise. it’s so easy to set aside because we don’t like it or we get busy or whatever (talking to myself too), but we don’t truly understand how critically important movement and exercise is, especially as we age.

        So KUDOS!

  6. Ho do you put more conflict into your story?
    Making the hero and villain polar opposites helps. I avoid “nice” beginner words, like beautiful, delicious, wonderful, that reduce opportunities for conflict and foreshadow terminal boredom.

    How much description is enough?
    The minimum: enough to pull the reader into the scene―one or two elements that characterize the locale: the river, a willow tree, the shadows beneath it, zooming in on what the MC sees, in the order he sees it. If the MC has been there before, I need only a tag: “…the place he met Paloma, beside the willow tree.”
    The maximum: two paragraphs.

    How do you handle “writer’s dumpadeedus”?
    I circumambulate the block once a day, and get up every few minutes. I keep snacks in another room, near the scale, not beside the computer. I have eyedrops nearby, plus a mechanical timer to avoid getting lost in the writing.

    Thanks, Dale, and Merry Christmas to you and all, and best wishes for a great 2023!

    • Avoiding “nice beginner words” is a great tip, JG. Helpful tip on description. Sounds like you have a fine system to avoid butt-in-chair-itis.

      Have a very Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

  7. Great selections, Dale.

    I particularly love the analogy of the Christmas sweater to overwrought description! Very appropriate.

    I agree with everyone else that it’s essential to stay active. A walk or jog is as much exercise for the brain as for the muscles.

    Happy Holidays to everyone.

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