Some Thoughts on Descriptions

Descriptions generally get a bad rap.  When you say something has a lot of description, people assume you mean it’s boring.  And to some people, maybe it’s true that any description is a boring description.  But since it’s a necessary part of any story, we writers can only hope that there are ways to make description interesting to our readers.

There are a few things that really draw me in when it comes to descriptive passages:

  • A character’s voice if it’s first person – how they perceive the environment gives me clues, not only about their environment, but about the characters themselves, about their psychology, and about what they may do next based on that perception.  I want to know if my guesses about them are right or not, so I read on.
  • If it’s third person, a character’s thoughts and feelings and reactions, as they’re revealed throughout the passage, for the same reasons listed above, will also keep me hooked.
  • Truly evocative language – avoidance of clichés, avoidance of overly flowery prose, metaphors that really help me place myself in the scene, and not forgetting that there are senses other than sight.
  • Description that mingles with hints about conflict or change.  A fleeting  sense of the past or a glimpse of tension that might mean trouble in the future.
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5 Tips on Dialogue

  1. If you haven’t heard yet, dialogue tags – he said’s and she said’s – are best kept minimal.  Use other methods of making it clear who’s talking:  distinct speech patterns, word choices, accents, etc.; gestures or actions; dialogue that only one character would say (you know the blunt one is the one who made the rude comment, the peacemaker character is the one apologizing for it, and the stranger is the one reacting, for example).
  2. Make it realistic.  I don’t care how dramatic it sounds, if it’s something no one would say in real life, don’t have someone say it in your book.  If it sounds like something out of a cheesy movie when you read it out loud to yourself, you need to rewrite it, unless you have a drama queen (or king) on your hands in the form of a character, in which case other characters need to roll their eyes so your readers don’t have to.
  3. Even in fantasy, science fiction, historical fiction, etc., bear the above in mind.  Yes, people speak differently at different time periods or imaginary representations of different time periods.  Regardless, stilted dialogue is a turn-off to most readers, and it’s all the more important to make it sound natural, even if the word choice is more formal or more slang-ridden than what you’d get in a mainstream novel.  Fantasy with cornball dialogue is a particular annoyance of mine, referred to as “forsoothly fantasy”, because it makes me embarrassed to associate any of my own work with the genre.  Don’t ruin it for me, okay?  I want to be proud of what I write.
  4. Always read your dialogue aloud to yourself at some point in your writing process.  Even if you have to mutter it under your breath because you write in a library or a coffee shop, you need to check out how your dialogue sounds.  You’ll catch phrases that no one would really say, sentences that are too long or complex for dialogue, dialogue that’s slipping into narration and needs to be broken up with interruptions or needs to be more conversationally phrased…all kinds of things that can slip by unnoticed if you’ve never read your dialogue aloud.
  5. Never forget that you can skim over the boring parts of an exchange between characters.  Yes, in real life, we greet and ask, “How are you,” back and forth a couple times and ask about basic stuff like the weather and so on to get a conversation started.  In a book, you can just say, They exchanged greetings, bantering about the heat of the summer before Bob finally said, “So, what’s the news on this ‘Rest Stop Killer?'” or whatever.  See, right to the point, and you got a little detail in there as well.

Action!

Action scenes used to be the hardest thing for me to write.  I think partly I had trouble with them because I tend to work stories out visually first, almost daydreaming my scenes before or while I write them.  When the action is high, though, there’s too much happening too fast to write a play-by-play the same way I would with, say, a scene of dialogue between just two characters.  Bad enough to write a dialogue scene including six or seven people, which can get just as jumbled and messy as any climactic battle!

Over the years, though, I’ve gotten very comfortable with writing action sequences.  I still get anxious when I’m coming up on one, worrying if I’ll pull it off or if it’ll be a worthy payoff after a big lead-up – but once I get into the action, it’s almost always smooth sailing.

So how do you control the chaos of an action scene well enough to let the reader follow clearly what’s happening, but keep the feeling of chaos and speed?

Some of the things I try to do –

  • Keep your sentences simple and on the short side.  It doesn’t have to be Hemingway, but it just makes sense that it’s easier for people to keep up with complex action if your sentences are easy to follow.
  • Make your details count.  In fight-or-flight mode, our senses are heightened, but we also orient toward and lock onto the source of threat.  It’s built into our systems.  So with that in mind, are your characters going to notice the beautiful old oak trees in the background, or the tendons of an enemy’s arm clenching as he prepares to lunge forward with a knife?  Maybe there’s a vivid blur of green behind them, giving a sense of the lush forest surroundings, but a ‘vivid blur of green’ gives a lot more of a sense of (a) motion, speed, (b) heightened senses, and (c) the irrelevance of the world beyond the immediate confrontation.
  • Make your details COUNT.  Cliche details won’t get you anywhere with readers.  They’re already filling in stuff about the character’s heart pounding in her ears, because they’ve read it a million times.  So assume they know the character’s heart is pounding.  Great.  You get a freebie.  Now come up with something more personal, more telling, and use that as your detail.
  • If too much happens at once, let it be a little confusing.  Let the character or the narration describe the disorientation of being in that moment, but keep it in that moment.  You can explain what happened later.
  • Don’t spoil your action by telling every little step blow-by-blow.  Action scenes would be pretty boring if I had to read through every thrust and parry of a swordfight.  Give the highlights, the turning points, the moments of terror and the moments of hope, the instant the stakes get higher, and the moment of triumph or defeat.  Everything else is irrelevant, like having a vital exchange of dialogue interspersed with an unrelated conversation about so-and-so’s cute new shoes floating over from the next table.  Sure, maybe it would be there in real life, but that doesn’t mean it should be there in fiction.

Repetition & Context

This is my 100th post on this blog.  Happy milestone, blog!

And my content sort of goes along with milestones, or at least perspective shifts.  I’ve always admired writers who can repeat a phrase or an image throughout a piece, and have a fresh impact and a new meaning each time.  Well, I admire writers who pull it off.  When it’s overdone or ineffective, it’s just annoying and feels like the writer is trying too hard.

But I love it when the context alters or colors the meaning of a repetition.  Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. is one fine example, particularly in Slaughterhouse 5, with the phrase, “So it goes,” with its often-depressing, sometimes-funny, frequently-both-at-the-same-time effects.  Chuck Palahniuk employs repeat phrases with transformational meanings in every book I’ve read by him, good examples being Invisible Monsters and Lullabye, as well as his best-known Fight Club.

It’s a technique often used in song lyrics, with the words of the chorus shifting tone based around the context of each verse, but the absolute masters of such lyrical games, in my opinion, are a pop band, actually.  Barenaked Ladies (none of whom are women, incidentally) have used plays on repetition throughout their discography, but the song that first comes to mind for me is Tonight is the Night I Fell Asleep at the Wheel, which opens with the words:

Driving home to be with you
The highway’s dividing, the city’s in view
As usual, I’m almost on time
You’re the last thing that’s on my mind

As song lyrics go, this is also a telling and subtle characterization of a narrator and his attitude about his relationship, by the way.  Anyway, the rest of the song details his subsequent death on the highway, and after a few hints here and there within the death scene regarding things unsaid, the song closes with a multiple repetition of the line “You’re the last thing on my mind.”  And it means something completely different now.  I love it.  We’ve gone from simple self-absorbancy to existential finality in less than 3 minutes.  Beautiful.

Anyway, it’s a weapon to wield carefully, and probably only after enough training that you won’t hurt yourself with it, but when it works, it’s dynamite.

On Writing a Synopsis

It’s Wednesday – marketing day!  When you start sending query letters out to agents and publishers, you’ll find that you need to write at least one version of a synopsis to include either in the query itself, or as a follow-up to your introductory letter, if you’ve peaked anyone’s interest.

First off, I’ll explain why I wrote three versions of my synopsis.  I have one version (I call it the “blurb version”) that’s a one-paragraph summary of the setup, much like the “blurb” on the back of a book you’d read to decide if you want to buy it.  That’s what I put in the query letter itself, to (hopefully) catch the agent’s interest.  Then I have a full, straight-up point-for-point synopsis that summarizes the entire book and its ending, which I wrote mainly for reference, to keep myself straight on what order things happened in when I was writing my third synopsis.  The third synopsis is the one I give to agents who ask me for one – it’s in the style of the book itself, to give a taste of the voice, tone, and character of the novel.

What surprised me about writing the “blurb” synopsis was that I didn’t find it particularly difficult.  I expected it to be agony.  Instead, it was kind of fun and it flowed easily for me.  Yes, I chose my words carefully and considered the gravity of this being, most likely, my one and only paragraph with which to hook an agent, but it really didn’t seem that hard to write.  On reflection, I realized that my time working as a supervisor in a bookstore had served me well in this endeavor.

See, we used to write up a certain number of staff recommendations every week, with a little summary of what the book/movie/album we had picked was all about and why it was good.  I loved writing those summaries because it gave me a chance to share a little of my passion for good stories with anybody who took the time to read my recommendations – plus, it gave me a rare opportunity to work at my desk, but that’s beside the point.  Anyway, I think it stood me in good stead to write those blurbs for other people’s books.  It was great practise at making the most of a limited space in which to show and generate enthusiasm for a particular story.

So, although it’s Marketing Wednesday and not Exercise Friday, I give you Marketing Exercise Wednesday, and recommend that you practise writing exciting blurbs for your favorite books every now and then, as a warm-up to writing a synopsis for your very own novel.  It’s been a good tool for me!

Hearts on Sleeves

Fridays are now dedicated to writing exercises and other fun stuff related to the creative process, because, let’s face it, Fridays are supposed to be fun.  Also, fun stuff is easier to come up with than real content, so this gives me a break at the end of the week.  Ha!

In writing the Erica Flynn novel, I realized that I rely almost entirely on physically based reaction for conveying my characters’ feelings.  “My heart thundered…” or “I felt myself flush…” or “I stood up shakily…” etc.  Now, I think it’s good to lock emotion into a character’s body, because we DO have physical side effects to our feelings.  It can be a good way to show a character’s own particular manifestation of an emotion, too – does she have a really strong grip because she constantly clenches her fists?  Then anger is probably more than just a momentary feeling for her; it’s part of who she is.  Does the character glare at other people when he’s mad, or look down at his hands?  One of those tells me he’s aggressive (or at least confident!) and the other says he’s a guy who bottles stuff up and/or feels powerless for some reason or another.

There are a few problems with relying solely on physically based “tells” to convey your characters’ feelings, though.  One, in the case of my novel, was that my characters were dead.  Since part of the setup was the removal of the physical aspect of their emotions, I couldn’t use my own favorite tool.  That’s what made me realize how much I used it.

Another problem is that it’s very easy to fall into cliché stuff about hearts pounding and the hair on the back of someone’s neck standing up and so on.  Okay, so it’s something we all experience at one time or another and that’s WHY it’s a cliché, but a reader will skim over a phrase like that and get as much emotional impact from it as if you’d just left the line blank.  I know I’ve caught some lame clichés like this in my writing, and had to work out a more original take to fix it.

The other problem, in my case, is simply that I lean on this particular tool so much that I’m baffled when I’m confronted with being unable to use it.  Pushing past that for the Erica Flynn novel has been great for me as a writer, because the whole book was like a writing exercise to stretch my conveying-of-emotional-reaction muscle.

So my writing exercise for my beloved blog readers is this:  write a scene or a story in which emotions run high, but only one indication of each character’s internal, physical sensation of his/her emotion is given.  See how you can work around it!

Titles

As you may have noticed, I don’t even have a working title yet for my NaNoWriMo novel.  Titles are not my strong suit.  I hate coming up with titles.  How else can I say this?  Inventing titles for my books is harder for me than writing a book.

So much hinges on a title, for one thing.  It’s the first impression a critiquer, editor, agent, or reader gets of your book.  It’s your first chance at getting in a narrative hook and getting people interested.  It’s like deciding what to wear to your job interview – you want it to represent you and your work, but you also want it to have some pizzazz and professionalism.  Job interviews aren’t my forte, either.

Nevertheless, titles are a necessary evil of writing – if for no other reason than that you need to call your book something while you’re talking to your friends and relatives and writer’s groups about it, especially if you have more than one book.  Or, you know, if you’re a poet and don’t want to call all your poems “untitled”, thus confusing everyone, including yourself, on a regular basis.

Sometime I may try the dart board method of naming a book – just pin random words to a corkboard, throw a couple darts (preferably in a not entirely sober state), and name the book whatever gets hit.  Until I have a corkboard, darts, and booze at my immediate disposal, however, I have to try other methods.

In instances of successful titling, I’ve written out lists of brainstormed title ideas and agonized over which one to use until finally I decided I liked one best.  Or, in the case of The Life and Death (But Mostly the Death) of Erica Flynn, I used what was originally the title for the first chapter (chapter titles don’t scare me so much, so they’re easy to think of (go figure)) and pilfered it for the book title.  Then I renamed the first chapter.  Song lyrics are a good go-to for phrases that may or may not be made into good titles, although be careful about copyright issues on that.

And really, why am I posting advice on this?  I suck at this.  Why don’t you guys give me some advice?  Because I can’t for the life of me think of a decent working title for my upcoming NaNo novel.  Right now it’s Book One of The Trilogy.  Yep.  That’s some creative titling work right there.

Clearly, this is weighing on my mind.

Breaking Open the Moment

One of my poet friends, Ernie O’Dell, introduced me to the phrase, “breaking open the moment,” some years ago at a Green River Writer’s Retreat.  I don’t know if it came from elsewhere first, or if it’s an Ernie original, but it certainly has been an excellent exercise in my prose writing, although it was brought up in application to poetry at the workshop.

As I understand it, the point of the exercise is to really dig for the most evocative sensory details present within a scene or a poem – and not just the visual aspects of what occurs, but keeping in mind all the senses.  Mention tactile sensations, scents, sounds, tastes.  Don’t just put in the first or most obvious thing that comes to mind. 

Your characters are on a beach?  Of course there’s going to be the sound of waves and the taste of salt on the air.  But what else?  Is there another taste in the air, maybe a flavor of iron from the seaweed?  How does wet sand smell?  Are there gulls nearby – aren’t they making noise?  Is there a lot of wind?  Grit in the wind from all the sand?  Shells underfoot – how many?  Are they broken and sharp, or weathered smooth?  Are other people making noise – kids playing, a boombox, conversations held loud enough to be heard over the sound of the surf and the wind?  Waves crash coming in, yeah, we all know that.  The water makes a different sound going back out, especially on a beach with a lot of shells – you can hear them rattle as the water pulls away, weird little suction sounds, the hiss of the sand shifting. 

Just to give an example.  That’s the idea behind breaking open a moment.  Just keep going with it.  You don’t have to include everything you come up with in your finished scene, but you can cut through the boring clichés and find some distinctive, original details to work with. 

Nothing kills a reader’s attention like a plain vanilla description full of phrases they’ve read a million times.  Most readers want to feel like they’re really in the book, like they’re there with the characters, and you can’t do that if you don’t give them any sense of the atmosphere, the feel and taste and smell and sound and imagery of the scene.  Do you want to watch a movie where every scene takes place in front of a whitewashed backdrop?  Where there’s no ambient sound?  No extras, even in scenes that should have extras, or where all the extras are the same height, race, weight, hair color, and all dressed the same?  Unless that’s some kind of commentary or we’re dealing with a new kind of zombie in this movie, that just sounds like a total lack of atmosphere to me.

Put your reader there, inside the story world.  Give them things to latch onto that will spark their imaginations – readers will fill a lot in for themselves if you provide a few really stellar, evocative details to get them started.

Naming Characters

Coming up with names for characters is one of those weird little difficulties that really stumps me some days.  Sometimes, a name just pops into my head without any trouble at all (Beda Kirn, one of the characters in my upcoming NaNoWriMo fantasy novel, for example) but if a name doesn’t occur to me right off the bat, it’s often a struggle, and frequently the process involves a lot of search-and-replace work later, when I realize I don’t like the name or it doesn’t suit the character.

The big things to avoid with character names are:  names that are too long or too difficult, multiple characters with names that start with the same letter, characters with very similar names or types of names (don’t name one person Brad and another person Brant, but it can also be confusing to have a Joe and a Bob simply because they’re both very common, down-home, one-syllable names.)

Personally, I also agonize over things like how the first and last name sound together, and if the character goes by a nickname rather than a full name, how both the nickname and the full name sound with the last name.  Sometimes it sounds weird when you have a one-syllable first name with a one-syllable surname, other times it comes out fine.  Maybe I think about this too much, but I can’t seem to help it.

As far as coming up with names goes, the best tool I have ever been given as a writer is a baby name book.  Baby name books are available at any bookstore and most grocery store checkout lanes.  Information varies from one to another, but generally, they’ll give you the name, origin (Anglo-Saxon, Native American, Hebrew, etc.), meaning, and nicknames and derivatives.  Some books have indexes with recommendations for how to come up with first and middle names that sound good together.  Some have lots of foreign names, others are very all-American and focus on the trendiest names of the moment.  Foreign names or derivatives are excellent fodder for the historical novel or fantasy writer.  The hip stuff is great for modern literature, thrillers or mysteries, romances, or young adult writers.

Last names, for me, are always the hardest.  Sometimes I’ll use the phone book to find random last names to choose from, but sometimes I feel like a weird stalker doing that.  Sometimes I use authors’, artists’, musicians’, or actors’ last names, but never if they have a distinctive surname.  Erica Flynn, of my current novel, got her last name from Errol Flynn, which seemed appropriate when the book got around to the bit with swords in.  This week, a friend of mine suggested gravestones as a place to find names – which works for both first and last names.

I do, also, really pay attention to the connotations of my characters’ names.  I’m not going to name a badass female character Daisy Mifkins or Amy Darling, unless I’m intentionally aiming for irony.  I’m probably not going to name a suave, urbane male character Hank Smith, either, or a tough guy Alfred Eddleton.

There’s a writing exercise where you’re supposed to write the same scene twice, but in one version you primarily use words with hard letter sounds like k, t, z, and v, and in the other primarily use words with soft letters such as l, j, r, and h.  I’ve done the exercise, and it really does make a big difference in how the scene reads.  The same holds true with names.  Primarily hard letters conjure up the expectation of toughness, primarily soft letters and names that end in ie or y sound meeker or even diminutive.

A Rant About Dialogue Tags

Currently, I’m going through The Life & Death (But Mostly the Death) of Erica Flynn, working on polishing up the (hopefully) final draft.  One of my missions is to tighten up the writing and trim the word count a bit–it stands at 105,000 words in its third draft.  To make it more concise, I’m cutting unnecessary or generic words and phrases wherever I find them.  In the first six chapters (it’s forty-something total) I’ve already cut a thousand words.  A thousand unnecessary or generic words?!?  How did I let that happen?!

Some of the generics that I over-used are “at the moment,” “just”, “kind of”, “sort of”, and “sometimes.”  Qualifiers.  Things that weaken the words around them.  Now, in some cases, I kept these words and phrases in the text.  The reason being, children, that Erica is a first person narrator, and consequently I have to keep the voice and style of the narration in keeping with her casual personality.  It’s conversational, so the narrative almost becomes dialogue.  I’m trying to keep enough of that in to maintain that tone without wasting the readers’ time or undermining the strength of what’s being conveyed.

The main culprit of word waste, however, is dialogue tags.  Dialogue tags!  Fie on ye!

He saids and she saids are killers of scenes.  They drag at the dialogue they’re attached to, weighing it down.  They’re repetitious and often distracting, especially if they come after every line.  Every writer who’s ever been critiqued knows to try to work around them wherever possible.  You put in actions and gestures instead.  Facial expressions.  Tone of voice.  Use word choice and such to make it obvious who is speaking which lines even without tags.

I’m not generally bad about putting tags in where I don’t need to, but damn, have I caught a lot of them in the first six chapters of my book!  O editor, edit thyself!  The worst thing is, I even put in all that other stuff – action, gesture, expression, etc – to clearly indicate the speaker and then put the dialogue tags in anyway!!!  So now I’m hacking them out again, and looking over it afterward, it reads so. much. better.

Learn, children, from my mistake.  Do not do everything right to avoid overuse of dialogue tagging and then tag the damn dialogue anyway.  You will save yourself hours of tedium by avoiding the fate that I have brought upon myself this day.