Tag Archives: Too Much Description

Snares in the Depths #amwriting

Something lurks in the depths of the Word Pond that is our story, snares waiting to drown the unwary author.

An early trap is confusion: At first, we don’t know what to do with commas. Some frustrated authors will decide to do without them altogether.

This decision leads to chaos and an unreadable manuscript.

I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating:

Commas are to clauses what traffic signals are to streets. They govern the flow of traffic, although, in the case of sentences, the traffic is comprised of words, not cars.

  • Commas follow introductory words and clauses. Instead, they took a left turn.
  • Commas set off “asides.” Her sister, Sara, brought coffee.
  • Commas separate words in lists: We bought apples, oranges, and papayas for the salad.
  • Commas join two complete sentences, and once joined, they form one longer sentence. When used too freely, linked clauses can create run-on sentences.
  • Commas frequently precede conjunctions, but only when linking complete clauses. When connecting a dependent clause to a complete clause, don’t insert a comma. “I intended to go back to London but found myself here instead.”

Another early snare the new author must avoid is the long-winded sentence. How often do you link several clauses together with the word and? Conjunctions are the gateway to run-on sentence hell.

If you are deliberate in your use of conjunctions, em dashes, and hyphens, you will also use fewer commas. Craft your prose but use grammatical common sense. Brevity usually strengthens prose.

Another trap waiting for the unwary is descriptive TMItoo much information.

Don’t waste words describing every insignificant change of expression and mood. Consider this hot mess of fifty-one words that make no sense:

Eleanor looked at Gerard with concern. His voice changed so much in the telling of the story as his emotions came to the surface that it still seemed so raw, as if Timmy’s death had happened only days ago. In addition, his expressions also changed and his current one was akin to despair.

That waste of ink could be cut down to fourteen (14) words that convey the important parts of the sentence: Gerard’s raw despair concerned Eleanor, seeming as if Timmy’s death had happened only days before.

Using too many words mingled with catchphrases and acronyms to express simple concepts is a common requirement of corporate emails and documents for project managers. If you are coming from that environment, you must learn to write a lean narrative. Readers don’t want fluffy, meaningless prose littered with clichés and obscure words in their literature.

What does “Kill your darlings” really mean? All it means is don’t write self-indulgent drivel.

We all fall in love with our characters. Why make the point that people fall over themselves drooling at the beauty of the protagonist? Why make that point in every other paragraph? Is it that important to the narrative?

If it isn’t important to that scene, don’t include it. Gerard’s handsome visage and grace should be mentioned occasionally, but only where his god-like magnetism and charisma impacts the story.

Really–in real life, how often does that happen? However, if Gerard’s looks and charisma cause trouble wherever he goes, then it becomes a key part of the action and can be used to set up other scenes.

We write because we love words, but simplicity is usually best. Consider this morsel of “yuck.”

Delicious sounds captivated their eardrums.

Please, just say it sounded amazing. If music touches the protagonist’s soul, it’s good to say so.

We want to convey the fact the music was beautiful, and we don’t want to be boring. However, when we get too artful we are at risk of creating awkward visuals.

Odors and sounds are part of the background, the atmosphere of the piece, and while they need to be there, we don’t want them to be obtrusive, in-your-face.

This is an instance of prose working better when it isn’t fancy.

I hope these thoughts help get your writing week started.

Now, go! Write like the wind!

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Elements of the story: showing the mood

My Writing LifeMost of us, if you are reading this blog, are writers who love to read for pleasure. We each enjoy different sorts of books, but all our favorite reading has one thing in common: the story, whether fictional or true, moves us in some deeper way, making us think about it long after the final page has been read.

In order for the reader to be moved by a story, his imagination must have been completely engaged in the work. Thus, the writer must perform a tightly controlled balancing act, walking the fine line between giving too much description and not enough.

As writers we are constantly admonished to show, not tell. This can be taken to extreme, and the result is a boring, unimaginative walk-though of a character’s most minute expressions. For example:

Gordon’s brow furrowed, and his eyes narrowed. His eyebrows nearly met in the middle. His lips turned down at the corners. He screamed, “You bloody idiot.”

Well, duh. Pick one, and let the reader imagine the rest.

Gordon appeared angry.

That doesn’t do it either. That is simply telling the reader Gordon was upset, rather than showing it. Perhaps Gordon’s face darkened and his voice was harsh. Or, Gordon’s eyes narrowed. “You bloody idiot!” 

If your character is angry, please don’t have them hiss their dialogue. People do not snort, hiss, or spit dialogue, no matter how angry they are unless they are a snake or a camel.

The writing world has several good handbooks on showing emotions, and these two are  in my library:

It’s good if you have bought a book on this subject and are using it to help show what is going on in  your character’s minds rather than telling it. But use some common sense. If there are fifteen ways to show dejection, please don’t use them all to describe one moment. Simply have your character sit slumped, or refuse to engage the others.

Readers don’t want to be told in minute detail what to imagine. They will put your boring book down and walk away with only one regret–that they bought it in the first place.

I’ve put together a little cheat sheet for showing emotions. Be sparing–show just enough to keep your readers engaged and the story moving along. If you provide a good framework and allow the reader’s imagination to do the rest, you will engage the reader. That, my friends, is priceless.

Cheat sheet for showing emotion and mood

Cheat sheet for showing emotion and mood

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The 2nd Draft—Part 2, The Last 5 Hurdles

CC_No_06_A_Tale_of_Two_CitiesIn your first draft, the rough draft, you have the basic story down. Once it is finished, and you have let it rest in a dark closet, out of sight and out of mind for a month or more, only then will you pull it out and feel fired up about it once again.

This is where we’ll mend those plot-holes and narrative gaffes that we couldn’t see when we were in the throes of the writing frenzy.

The previous post covered items one through five, and can be found here: Part 1, The First 5 Speedbumps.

So now, we continue working on the second draft of our manuscript, with roadblocks six through ten:

  1. Too Much Description (my own particular bugaboo–I love words)

Take this quote from the ‘A Tale of Two Cities,’ the classic novel by Charles Dickens:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way–in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”

Though it is beautiful writing, and in my opinion, perfect–it would never fly today. In prose as in clothing, fashions come and go, even in fiction. Readers once liked flowery description and even demanded them. People took the time to read a story, and were in love with words. And while some readers, like me, still love this style of poetic description, most readers aren’t so patient. It is sad, but modern editors and publishers don’t want to see this sort of work in their submissions pile.

One of the things that is drummed into us in our writing forums and groups, is that modern readers have no attention span and want action from the first page, the first paragraph. They want it from the first word and they don’t want pretty and descriptive prose unless they are into literature as opposed to modern action-adventure style novels. Therefore, go easy on the descriptions. Use them sparingly as if you were seasoning a good meal. A little bit goes a long way if you are writing modern genre fiction.

The wrong way to slip  in a lengthy description is to use a phrase like: “He felt his eyes roll over his host’s attire”  and then follow it with a paragraph describing the host.

That unfortunately phrased line is from an indie book that I am trying with all my heart to read right now in order to review it, but I’m not sure I can finish it, if this is what I have to look forward to. The thing is, I write goofy stuff like that in my first drafts, too. I try to eliminate them in the second, because if I don’t catch them first, my editors will beat me with them! So for the sake of my bruised ego, I try to slip descriptions in less obvious ways, with no clumsy lead in that announces a lengthy exposition is forthcoming.

Descriptions must be part of the background, so the reader doesn’t notice them, and the second draft is where you weed out narrative boo-boos.

Easter_Bunny_Postcard_19077. Head Hopping (Oh yeah–guilty as charged!)

I love that term! It makes me think of the Easter Bunny! However, head hopping creates confusion. One important rule of good novel technique is to restrict each scene to one character’s point of view (POV). This strategy puts the reader in the character’s skin for a more immersive experience.

For me, writing love scenes is particularly tricky. First you are in her head making sure you have all that down, and then you are in his head, and –oh, the agony of whiplash!

Few things are more distracting for the reader than being in Adam’s head for the first paragraph and then being suddenly yanked into Eve’s head two paragraphs later.

In our first draft when we are just getting the story down we are all guilty of this, and so it is very important when we are working on the second draft that we are mindful of whose head we are supposed to be in, and we must make sure we stay there.

Head hopping turns a book into a tennis match. In each story, there are times when we write from different character’s point of view, but it’s important to remember to shift that POV only at the beginning of a new scene or chapter, and here in the second draft is where we make sure that is done properly.

This is a particularly difficult thing for me, because I want to write EVERY character’s POV all the time!

In the “The Mists of Avalon” Marion Zimmer Bradley handles that POV switch perfectly. One chapter is told from Morgaine’s point of view in the first person as the narrator, and in the next chapter  the author tells the story using the third person omniscient voice.

 

hook-movie-poster-1991-10101960168. A Slow Beginning (I’m sorry! I’ll never do it again!)

We are always told that good novels, even those not considered suspense, should begin with a clear dramatic hook, a story problem big enough to entangle the main character and promise struggle from the opening pages to the ending’s resolution.

Sometimes beginning writers spend too many opening pages or chapters showing normal life and wait too long to start the story. In some ways this is how info dumps happen.

My very first novel that I started writing in 1993 began with an info dump that went on for the entire first chapter. I had no understanding of the importance of beginning with an intriguing, active first page, and sustaining the rhythm of conflict-resolution-conflict throughout the novel.  This was a bad habit I carried though many of my novels until I was fortunate enough to fall in with a good writing group. Dramatic hooks are good and need to be plentiful, particularly at the ends of scenes and chapters.

 

Ulysses9. Long Speeches

Sometimes beginning novelists have characters speak in lo-o-o-o-o-ng stretches, seemingly without pausing for a breath. James Joyce in his novel,  Ulysses, enters the head of Molly, in the final chapter spewing an internal dialogue that runs on for more than 24,000 words with only ONE punctuation mark. The final paragraph of the book goes like this:

“…I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes. “

I don’t know about you, but I couldn’t take too much of Ulysses in college no matter how often our young, rather arrogant professor assured us that a thorough understanding of this book would educate our literary palates.

We are constantly admonished that it is crucial to keep paragraphs short and eliminate long character speeches, in order to keep the attention of your readers. Many gurus who are hosting writing seminars these days seem to have a poor opinion of our readers, implying they have limited intellects. I disagree wholeheartedly–I believe modern readers are extremely savvy and intellectual, but they are pressed for time and we have created an entertainment culture that delivers instant gratification, and now readers expect it too.

There is a rhythm to storytelling—each scene leads to a new struggle for the protagonist, to  either an accomplishment or loss of some kind, and then to new goals, always building toward the completion of the core challenge facing the characters.

Some writing coaches have likened this technique to how a skater moves across the ice. Push—glide. Push—glide.

 


10. A Novel Lacking Overall Direction

Successful novels must present several important ingredients:

  1. A beginning with a bang, some major action or conflict
  2. Characters readers care about, people who immediately strike a chord with the reader.
  3. A big problem that needs fixing, and only your hero can do this.
  4. A conflict-riddled struggle that nearly defeats your hero.
  5. The successful conclusion to the conflict that  winds everything up, even if it is supposed to be the first book in a series.
  6. An ending that leaves the reader glad they read the novel, and wondering what happened afterward.

you've been warnedBeginning novelists often fail to do the necessary pre-planning to make these ingredients work together. They think they can just plunk into the chair and start writing—and a wonderful novel will magically appear. Some seasoned authors may write this way, as James Patterson seems able to do,  but most of us can’t, and it shows clearly when the reader downloads the book.

Good, strong, characters must have incremental goals that complement the story, and the story must move along with conflict, drama, action, and emotion.

Once we have completed the second draft, we set the manuscript aside for several more months and work on something else. Then, after once again gaining a bit of perspective on it, we begin the process of rewriting and formatting it for submission to an editor. We use these same guidelines when we make our final revisions before sending it off to our prospective editor, because despite our best efforts, we have missed a lot of rather obvious bloopers, and I’m not just talking about typos.

You will find that when the editor has her hands on your precious manuscript, that is when the real work begins.

 

 

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