Posts Tagged ‘tips for writers’

Artful Description

Sunday, November 3rd, 2013

Bookstore browsers often look for white space in books, rather than blocks of solid prose.

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!


Using my eReader as a Writing Tool

Friday, February 22nd, 2013

My Notes & Marks includes notes labeled, ‘too much backstory’ and ‘do I need this scene?’

I have been using my eReader for some time to read stories to me. I really don’t mind the electronic voice if it allows me to experience more novels than I could otherwise squeeze into my crazy schedule. But lately I’ve been using my eReader to help me with my works in progress.

Here’s How:  I email my story as a document to my eReader address and open it as a document.  Then I use the Read Aloud function to listen to my second draft.

Here’s Why: Despite cringing at missing words and incorrect verb tense and a myriad of other minutiae, the Read Aloud function lets me hear some big picture items without getting sidetracked with fixing trivialities

Here’s What:

The False Start – While listening, I can more easily spot where the story or chapter or scene really begins, in other words, where the writing gets interesting. I often unintentionally do some “throat clearing” before I get rolling, especially on a new story as I get to know the setting, characters and conflict.  There can be a pile of backstory in these pages and all of that has to go.  Nobody cares about backstory until they are vested in the characters.  So spotting these information dumps and making a note to myself regarding their elimination helps me create a fast read.

I’m Boring Myself – If my mind wanders or worse still, if I fall asleep while listening, I have a waving red flag that the reader will check out as well. My eReader helps me find those places.

Setting – It’s easier for me to notice when I have too many scenes set in the same location while listening and also to discover places where I have not done enough to help the reader experience the setting.

Weak Openings, Feeble Hooks – Did my opening grab me and do my hooks drag me into the next chapter?

Repeats of Ideas, Backstory or other things – Readers are smart and they have very good memories, so once is enough.

Unnatural Dialogue – Hearing the characters helps me see if their conversations sound natural or forced and if the characters have different styles of speech.

Timeline:  It’s always nice to notice if your story has a week has no Wednesday and no weekend or if you have the characters eating second breakfast like hobbits. Listening helps me here as well.

Here’s Help: I mark places that need addressing with the Notes function which does stop the Read Aloud function, so I only use it for big things, which again keeps me from miring in details.  I’m in the middle of such a read right now for a draft of a paranormal romance for Nocturne, but I took a little break to share something that works for me.

Happy writing!