Tag Archives: description

Capturing Emotions on Paper: storyteller or spiritual guide?

Dear Daughter returned to us from speech camp.  I think her week-long hiatus from home was the hardest on our geriatric black lab.  You see, Kallie and DD have a special bond.  They share suckers (yep, Kallie knows how to lick them), sandwiches (tiny nibbles that would make a tea party hostess proud) and even bites of ice cream off a spoon (okay, eccentric bond may be the better description of their relationship.) 

Picture 11:45 on Saturday night.  Car doors slam and DD stumbles in under her bags.  Her first stop is the laundry room. 

Mere words cannot capture the reunion between the two.  Kallie’s tail wagging woke the dead as it banged against the wall, and her tongue dried out from licking DD.  Apparently she had to fit an entire week’s worth of affection into 37 seconds.  She followed DD out of the laundry room where she eyed her with more devotion than I have for my own DH (and I love him more than the day we married!)

When I reached down to pet her, Kallie’s entire body trembled.  Tiny shivers that tingled my hand and made goosebumps travel up my arm.  As DD hit the top of the stairs, Kallie nearly sprinted (quite the feat for an old lady with  one good leg) and followed DD to bed–a green quilt covering a cozy mattress next to her BFF.

Now, I can’t say for certain that Kallie was happy to see DD, yet we’re guilty of saying these things all the time.  It is human nature to apply our own emotions, experiences and interpretations onto others.  We see something and presume we can relate how other individuals feel or what motivates them, because–well, because that’s how we feel and therefore, it must be right.  Right?

Yet, there are all kinds of wrong with making assumptions–especially if we are writing a novel.  In fact, one of the hardest things for writers to do is maintain a solid POV during emotional scenes.

We tend to attach telling words:

  • He shook his head in defeat and refused to look me in the eye. 
  • She looked at me with hunger in her eyes. 
  • He draped his arm over my shoulder to protect me from the laughter.

Yep, these are all examples of applying the POV character’s perceptions onto another character.  It happens easily and often goes unnoticed even after numerous edits.  The outcome, however, is a lessened sense of connection to the main characters and the unfolding events.

Alternatives:

  • His chin drooped toward his chest.  He shook his head slowly, once to each side, and refused to meet my eyes. 
  • Her eyes sparked, nearly burning me as they traveled up my body. They lingered on my bare chest longer than necessary.
  • He draped his arm over my shoulder, protecting me from the laughter behind us.

Sometimes I think the term storyteller is wrong.  As writers, we should strive to do more than tell readers our story.  We should resist the urge to provide an emotional roadmap to our readers, complete with rest stops along the way. 

  • Defeat Drop Off.  Proceed with caution. 
  • Sizzling Springs Ahead.
  • Motivation Mountain.  In case you missed the clues from chapter 17. 

Are you a story “teller”, or do you allow your characters and readers the freedom to experience emotions and motives as they unfold?  How can we, as writers, successfully guide our readers to the right conclusion without drawing an emotional roadmap for them to follow?

Curious minds want to know?

 

 

Reading Style Impacts Writing–at least for me.

Like all things in life, I’ve come to realize there is more than one way to skin a cat read a book.  Not that I ever…okay, yeah I have, but that’s a whole ‘nother story.

I tend to read from first page to last page.  I skip description and passages of serious character introspection.  Don’t shoot me, but it’s true.  I think I read this way because my imagination is quite stubborn and requires very little outside direction.

Tell me there’s a garden and I immediately picture the entire thing, laid out and ready for use.  If the ornamental, miniature, purple-flowering hedge bush is integral to the story, drop it in there.  And nothing more.  When you do this, my brain files away the item that was special enough to be mentioned. 

When you fill in the garden with every single plant, every scent, every color and every texture, I’m guaranteed to skip over your words.  Then if there’s something important in the midst of all that detail, I’ll miss it and won’t be happy at the end of the book when the ornamental, miniature, purple-flowering hedge bush was the source of the poison. 

Why?  Because, in my mind, it got lost.  My attention, that is, not the bush.  That was always there waiting to be used during the “ah ha” moment. 

Ironically, Eldest just informed me he likes when authors fill in the voids of his imagination.  “I love when everything is described so I can see what people look like and what, exactly, is happening.”

He would hate me as a writer.  I don’t describe much at all.  Case in point, in my YA (that I just finished editing last night, go me!)  I barely describe my MC at all.  She has blonde hair–unlike her parents–and her eyes are the color of the sky just before it snows.  That’s it. 

Pretty ambiguous.  Yet, I visualize her perfectly.  Likewise, none of my critters have complained that they don’t know what she looks like.  Because of this, I assume they, too, have also visualized her based on her actions, emotions and carefully placed commentary along the way.

For instance, she pulls her hair back into a pony tail when she doesn’t have time to shower in chapter 2.  Her hair can be anywhere from a sleek, chin-length bob to a butt-brushing cascade of curls.  I never say. 

Personally, I don’t care–at least until they cast her for a movie.  My readers can see my MC any way they want to envision her.  She can have wide, child-bearing hips or be super slim.  Her skin can be pale as cream that rises to the top of the milk, mahogany brown or any shade in between.  It really doesn’t matter to me. 

Except the eyes and hair.  Those two details come into play waaaaaay at the end of the book.  Which is why I took the time to describe them.

Why do I hate long passages of inner musing?  Because I like to read between the lines.  I like to feel so connected to a character that I intuitively “get” them and why they do things.  When I am told, again and again, what the MC is thinking, deciding or feeling, I get bored with him.  He becomes less three-dimensional and morphs into a teacher. 

It’s as if the author is telling me to pay attention.  “Now, get ready, here comes something important.”  and “Oh yeah, in case you didn’t get it the last time around, here’s what is really happening now.”

And the villainous explanation at the end, when the MC is tied to the railroad tracks with a 9mm gun pointed at her head?  Those I skip on principle.  If a writer didn’t show me motives and opportunities along the way, I have no interest in getting them in dialogue just to wrap up the ending.

Because of my cosmic dislikes when I read, I’m uber careful not to pen them into my own novels. 

How about you?  How do your reading likes and dislikes affect the way you write?  Can writers become too stubborn in this mindset?  If so, how?

Curious minds want to know.

Spot Cleaning:carpets and manuscripts

When things get old, they shed and begin to smell.  Their body oils change and they start to drool.

No, I’m not talking about the folks in the nursing home.  I’m talking about my aging black lab.  The one who languishes at the end of the couch, making a gray nest of hair, oil and dirt on our cream carpet.

For the record, I never put in the white carpet.  It was here when we moved in.  It should have been the first thing to go.  Now we are waiting for the dog and the kids to go hopefully to different places before we spend the money on new floor covering. 

Just like writing.

On a rough draft, we put in white carpet because it’s pretty.  We fill our rooms up with children and dogs.  And, as in real life, these things can muck up our manuscripts.  They have a way of shedding, dragging in dirt, drooling and leaving juice-spilled Rorschachs on the carpet.

Just yesterday I spot cleaned Geriatric Dog’s gray, end-of-the-couch nest and an apple juice drawing.  I don’t cry anymore when I walk by the living room.  I am also spot cleaning my manuscript. 

WHAT IS SPOT CLEANING?

  • Taking out unnecessary words like “that”, “just” and “like”.
  • Replacing dialogue tags with action tags.  “Don’t drink your juice on the carpet,” I said with a sigh and grabbed my rag to mop up the mess.  “Don’t drink your juice on the carpet.”  I grabbed my rag to mop up the mess.
  • Cutting down on descriptive strings.  The grumpy, over-worked, tired writer scrubbed the oily, hair-filled, dog-spot until it disappeared.   The over-worked writer scrubbed the dog-spot until it disappeared.
  • Discarding be-verbs.  I will be kicking the dog out of her nest.   I will kick the dog out of her nest. 
  • Taking out echoes.  My dog is old.  My dog sheds a lot.  My dog is dirty and my dog gets the carpet dirty when she lays on it.   My dog is old and dirty.  The carpet gets filthy when she sheds.
  • Eradicate over-active ly’s.  Our geriatric lab gingerly walks to the end of the couch so she can slumber blissfully.  Our geriatric lab hobbles to the end of the couch for her blissful slumber.

These simple tips can tidy up a manuscript as easily as spraying Oxy Clean on a graying dog-spot.  Most of it can be done via find and replace in a Word document, while the rest can be scrubbed out on a subsequent read-through. 

What other issues can be spot cleaned from a manuscript?

The Case for Little Description

My DH doesn’t read fiction.  Since we’ve been together, he’s read four novels.  All to appease me.  While on vacation, he started another book.  So, you may be thinking, almost five books in 24 years doesn’t exactly make him a literary expert.  However, his incredible insight the other day makes him the perfect voice of reason for less is more in description.

On our way up north he, at the wheel and me riding shotgun with my nose in a book, says, “You know the crazy thing about reading?”

“Hmmmmmm.”

“When I started reading Insert Last Novel Title Here, I could picture the house perfectly.”

My ears perked up and I set aside my Latest Novel.  “How so?”

DH went on to explain that as he read, he saw the inside of the living room right down to the color on the walls.  The Dear Author had not given him this information in paragraphs of detail.  Instead, he had simply written that the bodies were found in the living room next to the couch and in front of the fireplace.  He also walked DH up the stairs to the little girls’ room.  Not through ornate words and adjective cluttered sentence, but rather one step at a time via emotions and actions. 

DA allowed DH to fill in the blanks.  In his mind, DH was there, in the house with the characters.  He was invested in the atmosphere because of the LACK of description.

I prodded him to continue.  “A bar, for example, should be a bar.  With a certain kind of music.  Smokey or not, light or dim.  That’s enough information for me to know exactly what kind of place it is.”

Dim and smokey.  Immediately I was transported into every Legion bar that I’ve ever seen.  Admittedly that’s not a lot, but I knew that DH and I would end up in the same bar.

Bon Jovi blaring through the juke box elicits a whole different atmosphere.  A place with ceramic floors, a younger crowd and plastic glasses filled with cheap beer tapped from the keg.  Oh yeah, and a few older, haven’t-left-the-80’s, mulletted men sitting alone in corner booths oggling the Gen Xer’s in their tight jeans and tighter tank tops.

Country music wafting through the air along with thin streams of smoke puts me in a place with wooden floors and the stale scent of beer, surrounded by scruffy men and poofy-haired, cleavaged women. 

I don’t know where you would end up with those simple descriptions, but the point is, it would be your bar.  You would be there, smelling the smoke, feeling the sticky counter, gazing out of a blue haze at the characters. 

If the bar was described ad nauseum, we would all end up in the same exact place.  However, we would feel like spectators, not participants. 

When I write, I seldom describe anything with more than a sentence or two.  And most of what I write is slipped in during conversation or action.  I do this because reading long passages that don’t allow me to create my own setting is boring.  I have been known to skip pages at a time to avoid being told every little detail.

How do you feel about description in novels?  Are you in favor of detailed passages that put your readers exactly where you want them, or do you prefer to let them wander through the story in a place slightly different than you envisioned?  Does it matter?

When you read, do you enjoy making the story your own or do you crave to see exactly what the author saw when writing?

Without a Paddle

I rock.  At least in my house where I hold the dubious title of Bop It Queen.  I’m also the reigning Scrabble Champion (DH actually marked the calendar the ONE time he beat me) and a pretty mean contender when it comes to Trivial Pursuit.

Give me a basketball, however, and I’ll stand on the free-throw line for two years before sinking a shot.  Celebrity trivia will trip me up every time and I stink at Rock, Paper, Scissors.  I’ve had to pick the kids up in the cold and dark so often after losing that I just grab for the keys instead of debating my “move”.

We all have strengths and weaknesses, and it’s a good thing to know what they are.  Especially for a writer.  If we fail to properly assess our techniques, we will find ourselves

Up Submission Creek without a PADDLE.

PLOT: Even the most rudimentary writing needs a plot.  The story must go somewhere, or there is no purpose.  Not for our MC, not for our story and certainly not for our readers.  The Encyclopaedia Brittanica states that plot is ” …the structure of interrelated actions…” 

James Scott Bell writes about his LOCK system in regards to a satisfying plot.  Lead Character.  Objective.  Confrontation and Knock Out.  These same components have been summarized in many different ways, but in essence they all mean the same thing.  A reader wants to be transported from Real Life into a story that has conflict, a climax and a resolution. 

AUDIENCE: Writer, know thy audience.  After hanging out on writing forums for a year and engaging face to face with other writers and their work, I have learned that we often fail to understand who we are writing for.  I have seen YA’s written with picture book themes and manuscripts for adventure-seeking men obviously penned by women. 

Each age group and genre has vastly different expectations.  As a rule, men do not want to read touchy feely dialogue and teens no longer care about talking bunnies in search of their mommies.  Not sure what you’re writing?  Check out Anne R. Allen’s Blog .  Once you know your audience, read a couple dozen books to get familiar with the style and language they seem to like.

DEVELOPMENT as in Character: Flat Stanley is an awesome book.  Yet most writers should strive hard to make their characters anything but flat.  To keep our readers invested, we need characters they care about.  Lynn Price tells how.   

DIALOGUE: Kill me now if your characters hold actual conversations.  Readers DO NOT want “Hello.”  “How are you today?”  “Good.”  “Great.”  “So…it’s cold outside.  Did you get the driveway shoveled?” 

Repeat after me.  “Ninety percent of what we say in life is really boring.”

The key to great dialogue is imparting character, not information.  It moves the story forward.  Don’t make your characters talk the same.  Likewise, don’t let them all have quirky speech patterns.  Keep in mind things like age, sex and genre when writing.  For a giggle, read here.

LANGUAGE: This goes hand in hand with dialogue and audience.  Write for your readers, not at them.  Don’t condescend and don’t use big words you yourself had to look up.  Both of these will kill a reader’s love for you faster than dumping your spouse for the waitress on your tenth anniversary. 

Sentence length and structure, as well as paragraph development, belong in this category.  Don’t confuse your audience with poorly constructed writing and Harvard words.  Rather, gently stretch their skills.  Teach, don’t preach.

EXPOSITION: AKA, back story.  If you have never heard of an information dump, now is the time to learn that agents, editors and the reading public despise this technique.  Why?  Read for yourself.

So how does one provide necessary information?  Artfully, I suppose.  I should be able to show you it is cold, the wind is blowing and a storm is moving in without telling you.  An example: 

She shivered and zipped her jacket against the wind.  Her tears froze on her cheeks as she screamed at the snow-filled sky. 

I have no sympathy for the villian explaining his evil plot to the tied up victim.  I’ve had an entire novel to show my villian’s motives through action, character development and dialogue.  He had forty-seven chapters to visit his mom’s grave, sift through his old diary, threaten his shrink for saying the wrong thing and generally act unstable in certain situations.  If I haven’t managed to convey the message by chapter forty-eight, my book shouldn’t be in your hands. 

If you’ve made it this far up Submission Creek with only one paddle, I’ll throw you another one to make your trip a little easier.

SETTING: Description of characters and places often comes in the form of exposition.  A good writer can bypass this tendency by choosing his words carefully.  Adverbs and adjectives do not create setting, nor do they qualify as good descriptors.  In fact, they can detract from our writing significantly. 

Not sure what I mean?  Robert K. Lewis will explain.

So there you have it.  Two paddles to help you navigate the publishing waters.  Plot, Audience, Development, Dialogue, Language, Exposition and Setting.  The key to making it work, however, is knowing how to use them. 

What are your writing strengths?  Do you consiously tackle your weaknesses?  If so, how?

~happy canoeing!