"Wherever men have lived there is a story to be told." Henry David Thoreau

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Too Much Description?

One of my followers had a question: At what point does description become too much?

It is definitely a balancing act when determining how much description one needs or should include. I try to intersperse description throughout a scene and prefer to only use a few paragraphs at a time before breaking it up. Also, if your description has some element of "action" (as in the examples for the sense of sight), the reader will cruise through it without being bogged down. But, again, you have to use your instincts to find the appropriate place so it won't sound as if you just threw it in there, and also so it won't slow the action. Pacing is important, as is rhythm. Fiction, like poetry, has a rhythm.

A friend of mine used to say that "not all our words are pearls." This is something we need to remember and be heavy with the edit. Only include what is necessary to the scene and to the story, and tighten it as much as possible, choosing one strong word that will replace several weak words. Nowadays, readers won't tolerate lengthy descriptions. We live in a fast-paced world and they want their fiction fast-paced as well. As for Tolkien, I don't read much fantasy, but the genre is about "world building" and therefore lengthier descriptions are not only accepted, but expected.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Sense of Sight

A writer uses a visual description most frequently when painting a word picture. If done well, this will draw a reader into your fictional world immediately and make him feel as if he's right there with your characters, seeing what they see with his own eyes. As a writer, you must decide what is important to the scene and to the book itself. There are engaging and subtle ways to write a visual description. Here are a couple I'd like to share:

From Pasadena by David Ebershoff:

"The road cut through dormant pea fields and lettuce farms and a patch of shallots, passing an avocado orchard and a lemon grove protected by eucalyptus windbreak. It climbed a scrub-oak terrain burned gold in autumn where at hillcrest a rattler stretched belly-up in the sun. Thin, shabby utility poles stood across the fields like a line outside a poorhouse, and upon the drooping wires sat a family of garbage-fed gulls."

From The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón:

"A blue-tinted gloom obscured the sinuous contours of a marble staircase and a gallery of frescoes peopled with angels and fabulous creatures. We followed our host through a palatial corridor and arrived at a sprawling round hall, a virtual basilica of shadows spiraling up under a high glass dome, its dimness pierced by shafts of light that stabbed from above. A labyrinth of passageways and crammed bookshelves rose from base to pinnacle like a beehive woven with tunnels, steps, platforms, and bridges that presaged an immense library of seemingly impossible geometry."

I think the sense of sight works extremely well in these two examples because the authors used strong, well-chosen words for their descriptions and wove them together in a way that produced a clear image. They have also used an active voice that breathes life into the work, rather than a passive voice that might have left the descriptions stagnant and dull.

The second most used of our senses (at least in our writing) is sound. We'll take a look at that one next time.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Hone the Five Senses to Improve Your Writing

As writers, we mostly use the sense of sight in our descriptions, but we can enrich our stories by consciously using the other four senses as well. Finding just the right place to insert this information can be tricky, but one good way is to "show" it through the viewpoint of a character; i.e., through their five senses rather than putting it in a lengthy narrative that slows the action and causes the reader to tune out.

All of us are more attuned to our surroundings when we step out of our own environment and see something for the first time. Remember what it was like to be a child when you noticed everything around you and it was all a wonder to behold? You were so fascinated by everything and you had so many questions about life and the world. If that was too long ago to recollect ☺ then watch your children and grandchildren as they encounter the world around them. If you see the world again through their inquisitive eyes, you'll find your own senses sharpened.

Try this exercise: The next time you leave the house, even if it's only to go to the grocery store, plug your senses into your surroundings (turn off your Blackberry, your IPod, and leave your laptop at home). Then make yourself look around you as if you've just stepped off the bus (or the spaceship) into a strange town (or onto a new planet). You'll be surprised at everything you take for granted and everything that you've grown so accustomed to that you have blocked it all from your mind. When you later sit at the computer to paint your word pictures, allow your imagination to connect to your newly attuned senses and you will more effectively draw your reader into your story.

Coming up: Some examples of how the five senses have been successfully incorporated into published works.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Everybody Has a Story

We all have a story, but does it take someone else to see it? This weekend my husband and I were at our summer ranch beginning the labor-intensive job of repairing fences after the winter snows have done their usual damage. It's a job that has to be done before we can turn the cattle out to graze for the next six months. It's a job that will see us well into summer before we can say we're done for the year.

My grandfather homesteaded the ranch in 1915. While I work hammering staples and clipping wire in the silence of this back country, I have plenty of time to think about him, and of those who came before him and those who came after him. I know their stories, or at least what little bit has been passed down. None of my ancestors kept journals or wrote diaries that I'm aware of. Maybe it was all they could do just to survive. And maybe, like the rest of us, they might have thought there was nothing spectacular enough about their lives to put to paper.

Being a writer and a lover of history, I've written what I know of some of them. I have a sense of obligation to do this so their stories won't be forgotten. I suppose a person needs a curious mind to take on the job of compiling family history, but I've discovered that the more I learn about a person, the more questions I ask. It's a little like plotting a novel or solving a mystery.

I am quite fascinated by my great-grandmother, Margaret, who, at the age of 29 and single, left England and sailed to the United States by herself. No other members of her family came with her. From there she traveled by train to Utah where she was met by my great-grandfather. Apparently this marriage was pre-arranged for they wed shortly afterward. He was twenty-five years her senior and together they had five children, one who died in infancy. When my great-grandfather died, she took her children and moved from Utah to homestead in Idaho. None of the children were married, but they were at least old enough to help her. My grandfather was about 18 at the time. Clearly an independent woman, my great-grandmother did not remarry, and seven years before she died at the age of 66, she received her Certificate of Naturalization.

Life wasn't easy in the 1800s, and homesteading 160 acres without a husband definitely wasn't. At least she had two strong sons and two daughters to help her, and, I suspect, some good neighbors. But little wonder she didn't write about her life. She was too busy living it. Her story is an interesting one, but I wish she would have told even a small portion of it in her own words. So many questions arise about why she made the choices she did--she certainly wasn't afraid to uproot herself and start a new life in a strange land. She did it twice, a true pioneer. But I doubt she thought of herself that way.

At least our great-grandchildren won't have any trouble documenting our lives. Every move we make nowadays is followed by a paper trail and thousands of photographs. Our ancestors will be able to google our names and everything we did in our lifetime will be there. Everything. Even this blog and the silly little comments we've put on Facebook and Twitter will be archived somewhere in cyberspace.

Yes, we all have a story. What will yours be? Will it take someone else to see it? Someone else to write it?