I’ve been thinking a lot about my current work in progress, specifically trying to figure out how much description is enough to build my world and at what point to do readers have their fill and begin skimming? I do not want skimming but neither do I want them wondering what the heck a character looks like?
Every writer weighs how much is too much versus how much is not enough. The late, Elmore Leonard famously said, “think of what you skip reading in a novel: thick paragraphs of prose.” He is right of course. I do, did, will. But I may take his reminder that, “I’ll bet you don’t skip dialogue.” a little bit too seriously.
Readers need to be grounded in a setting but expect not bored with unnecessary detail. How much of a hero’s face, form and physical characteristics are expected for the genre and how do you work in those details so they don’t slow the pace?
I know enough not to drop an entire paragraph of description in a large chunk, like a cinderblock in the middle of a stream of your nice even primrose path. What the heck is a primrose path anyway?
In any case, I’ve been paying special attention to how much description authors write and, more importantly, how and where are the descriptions insert it into their stories. I’m currently a fan of the hit and run style. That’s what I’m calling it. The dialogue is rolling along and then-bam-the writer hits you with a two-sentence extremely concise, telling descriptions so rich that they not only give you a picture in your mind, they make their descriptions do double duty. And then before you realize it, pow, you are back in action or conversation.
Here is a masterful description of setting by Kristan Higgins that conveys not just the place but the purpose and all in two well-crafted sentences:
Manning Academy was the type of prep school that litters New England. Stately brick buildings with the requisite ivy, magnolia and dogwood trees, emerald soccer and lacrosse fields, and a promise that for the cost of a small house, we’d get your kids into the colleges of their choice—Princeton, Harvard, Stanford, Georgetown.
~Kristan Higgins, Too Good to Be True~
Here is a physical description by Susan Elizabeth Phillips from Call Me Irresistible:
Lucy’s elfin features and thick, little girl eyelashes made her look younger than her thirty-one years. She’d grown out her shiny brown hair since her college days and sometimes held it back from her face with an assortment of velvet headbands that Meg wouldn’t be caught dead wearing, just as she’d never have chosen Lucy’s ladylike aqua sheath with its tidy black grosgrain belt.
~ Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Call Me Irresistible~
Author Phillips manages to get a physical description and attire of a secondary character in here with backstory between this character and the heroine and in addition, she relays how the heroine feels about her friend’s choice of wardrobe. I have to sit down, I’m so impressed.
Here is one from Julia Quinn from a novel in three parts The Lady Most Likely by Julia Quinn, Eloisa James and Connie Brockway. Notice how Author Julia Quinn weaves dialogue into her description.
“I told you she looked like Botticelli’s Venus,” her mother said proudly to her father, after a fourth gentleman had commented on the resemblance. And indeed, with her wavy hair, alabaster skin, and sea-green eyes, Gwen did bear a striking resemblance to the goddess as interpreted by the Italian master.
~Julia Quinn, The Lady Most Likely~
In addition to mixing dialogue into her description, Ms. Quinn also makes her description appropriate for the historical period she is writing and for that I tip my Regency bonnet.
All three of these examples highlight different methods of inserting description naturally into the prose. None of these authors overstayed their welcome by rattling on and on over a place or person but all gave critical details with extra value by making their description do double duty. And that is how it’s done!
I had a lovely time in New Jersey last week. I saw many friends and acquaintances in passing with whom I intended to catch up with at some point, but then found myself back at home in my fuzzy slippers and realized I never did see them again. That happens to me more than you would think.
This trip I focused on social media workshops and got a lot of good ideas on blogging. Morgan Dormus, from Forever and Forever Yours, introduced me to many great strategies for book blogs including keeping a journal while writing so I’ll have interesting tidbits for readers. Joyce Lamb, specialist from USA Today’s Happy Ever After blog, had wonderful suggestions on how to contact media and promote my posts. Finally, author Julie Kenner is my new hero for all her sage words on maximizing my social media efforts. I am now anxious to set up my Amazon Associates account.
I came home with a long to-do list and grand ambitions. But it was so nice to put on my snuggly, comfy clothes and get back to writing my story that my media blitz might have to wait a little while longer.
Autumn is one of my most favorite times of the year. The color of the sun through the leaves is not to be believed. And that is to say nothing of the fall bounty of harvest favorites. I’ve been eating fruits and vegetables of every variety. They never taste as good as right now.
I received my contact from Harlequin for the three-book Western historical deal. That makes the deal seem more real. I’ve finished my Western Christmas novella and sent that to my editor. I don’t expect readers will see this story until next fall, but here is a little about the story for you fans.
She’s the wealthy debutant tired of rich, useless men. He’s a saddle bum that fell for her hard. Now Christmas and his orphaned nephews’ welfare make this cowboy desperate enough to do something he’s never done before, admit he needs help.
Before I jump into the next Western Historical, I’m doing so reading of original documents. Specifically George Catlin’s Letters and Notes on the North American Indians. For those of you unfamiliar with Catlin, he was an American painter who traveled widely in the Western United States painting portraits and landscapes of Native Americans in the 1830s. Some of his work can be seen in the Smithsonian and the American Museum of Natural History in New York. I’m also reading about the southwest under Spanish rule. I wonder where these research expeditions will lead me?
I will be in New Jersey this month at the New Jersey Romance Writer’s Conference. I hope to see many of you there.
Writing is not all book signings and fabulous rooftop parties. But sometimes it is. I figure this is the yin to the yang of spending hours in the chair typing away by my lonesome.
This year was my second Book Expo America and this year I was not quite so gob smacked. The Javits Center is filled with books and more books and products related to books and more books. For me it is like Christmas morning. Then add to that celebrity sightings, signings by notable authors and free books! If there is a Nirvana for bookworms, this would be it.
I was asked to sign at the Harlequin booth this year. It’s not really a booth. Don’t think lemonade stand but more like a large open store set in the center of it all. The Harlequin Booth includes all the August releases, a conference room for meetings with buyers, smaller tables for smaller clients and a high central counter for book signings. My editor was there, opening books for me. For me that is a bit like having my boss act as my valet. I had such fun meeting the librarians and booksellers and other publishing professionals who came to the book signing. Those books disappeared very fast.
I was dressed up for the occasion, but was not foolish enough to wear heels. Good thing that, because my pedometer indicated I clocked eight miles that first day. That included exploring the Javits Center and in the evening a party at a lovely venue, a rooftop hotel in midtown with a fabulous view of the Chrysler Building. I spoke with many folks including CEO Donna Hayes and the CFO. There were a few familiar faces as well, fellow authors, some from the same series I write.
I didn’t get much sleep that night and was up and back at BEA on Friday to sign at the Romance Writers of America booth. I sat between Heather Graham and Kristen Callihan. Again the line of readers went by in a blur of smiles and laughs. I got a copy of Kristen’s book WINTERBLAZE which I’m reading now. Great opening!
Afterword it was back to the Harlequin Booth to meet up with my editor for a lovely lunch. Lunch includes some business, some catching up and dessert.
After all my obligations were finished it was time to round up a few free books of my own. I was very good on day one and only picked up one book, an uncorrected proof of Dani Shapiro’s, STILL WRITING, The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life. I’ve started it already and it’s great. On day two I showed no such restraint. I snapped a few photos of Jim Carrey who was signing his children’s book.
I stood in line for Bill Byrson’s new book, ONE SUMMER, and again for T. Colin Campbell’s nutrition book, WHOLE. I gave up only when I could barely lift my bag and was considering starting another. Instead I dragged myself to the curb and discovered no cabs to be had on that Friday afternoon. I aimed for a cross street hoping to catch a cab there. No luck. I considered the twelve block walk to Grand Central stretching out like before me like the Mohave dessert and then considered crying when who should come pedaling around the corner–a bicycle livery.
I’ve never been in one. He pulled over. We haggled, agreed on a price and away we went. It was hot, but the bike ride was better than air conditioning. I have never, ever had a more pleasurable ride or so exciting a one. Dodging cross-town buses on a bike is not for the faint of heart. My Knight in shining armor wore a tee shirt and had calf muscles like steel. He got me to the train.
When I made it home I weighed my book bag—22 pounds.
I was so foot sore that had I been a horse I would have had to shoot myself to put me out of my misery. Makes me glad to get back to spending hours in the chair typing away by my lonesome.