Monday, May 5, 2008

Grace & Descriptive Prose

Reader at BookstoreSeneca said, "Wherever there is a human being, there is an opportunity for a kindness." New York Times bestselling author Stella Cameron exempliflies that truism in her interactions with her fans. It was very much in evidence at the book talk by her and Jayne Ann Krenz on Saturday. Stella and Jayne were both so at ease with each other and with talking in front of a 'standing room only' crowd, that people started throwing out questions and commenting on their comments, leading to a fun and informative discussion for both readers and writers.

Out of this conversation came the fact how Stella is good at descriptions. I asked her how she manages to keep the energy built up in the preceding dialogue moving forward through the descriptive passage that follows. I sometimes find my descriptions falling flat, not due to info-dumping, but lacking the vitality of the dialogue. This is especially evident in scenes with high action and drama.

Her advice was to write shorter narrative passages with a few choice details and to not break up crucial dialogue components, such as a question and an answer, with a description in between them. Use exposition in a variety of way so that those paragraphs aren't always doing the same. To wit, have it be a punctuation to dialogue, layers in the scene, mirrors or heightens/sharpens the experience, gives a deeper insight into the mind of the POV character, or acts as a breather for the reader.

In a tense scene, the details have to be spare and all narrowly focused on the action. Look for the rhythm, Stella said. This reminded me of a talk with the poet Edward Hirsch on Titlepage TV, about how "poems have an intensity of feeling because [the format] is so compressed." So, perhaps that can be true of descriptions, too? I asked Stella.

FromOldBooksOrgShe picked up Black Sheep by Georgette Heyer and read this to me: A little before eight o'lcock, at the close of a damp autumn day, a post-chaise entered Bath, on the London Road, and presently drew up outside a house in Sydney Place. It was a hired vehicle, but it was drawn by four horses, and there was nothing in the appearance of the lady, who occupied it, to suggest that a private chaise, with her postilions, would have been rather beyond her touch.

You can all see the scene, can't you? The prose moves smartly to the clip-clop of the horses. You know the lady's whereabouts, her wealth, and her consequence. And, of course, the weather.

I could not thank Stella enough for her graciousness and for making the time to give a local aspiring writer a workshop in five minutes, when I might've expected her to be more occupied connecting with readers and selling them her books. I rushed home to our home library to find more examples of good descriptive paragraphs.

Desk and Old BooksFrom the book the former editor for The New Yorker, Daniel Menaker, called "the most perfect book," Pride and Prejudice: Mrs. Bennet was perfectly satisfied; and quitted the house under delightful persuasion that, allowing for the necessary preparations of settlements, new carriages and wedding clothes, she should undoubtedly see her daughter settled at Netherfield, in the course of three or four months. Of having another daughter married to Mr. Collins, she though with equal certainty, and with considerable, though not equal, pleasure.

By the master writer Jo Beverley, from her RITA-winning Devilish: Then she'd teased that dangerous kiss. Their kiss. Still, he'd remained in control. Not seriously threatened. Until tonight. Unique. Shattering. Forbidden.

From the sensation of the year, Joanna Bourne's The Spymaster's Lady: The door opened, and Grey came in. He had come to her, here in the bastion of his enemies. He wore the authority of his office and the controlled deadliness of a soldier. He had never looked more menacing.

From Connie Brockway's most marvelous Skinny Dipping: Little will-o'-the-wisps of steam rose from the water around her, and the soothing, rhythmic plop of the water dripping fromt he faucet lulled her into a pleasant state of inertia. Her natural state, she reminded herself.

From Tanya Michaels's Harlequin American Romance Trouble in Tennessee: She was calling him a coward? His temper boiled, at war with the banked but still-heated urge to touch her again. Proving his self-control, he kept his tone civil.

It seems as if I could write mega bytes of sample paragraphs, all from my own home library. Some re-reading is in serious order here. For a while "write, write, write" was my only motto; now I need to add "read more to write better" to my regimen. It almost seems as if I need to keep the reading and the writing well-balanced for the good words to issue forth from my mind.

Over to you: As a reader, what is the one advice you could not do without? Which writer would you say has had a profound influence on your writing and/or you as a writer?


Diane Gaston said...

Great blog, Keira!! Thanks for sharing your mini-lesson with the rest of us.

The best advice I ever received was "Show not Tell" and with that to go directly into the character's mind.

"He thought about how heavenly it would be to kiss her" becomes "How heaveny it would be to kiss her."

Anna Campbell said...

Hiya Keira! Great blog. And wasn't that passage from the Heyer masterly?

As you say, it's all in the rhythm. Perhaps I should try to write using the rhythm method ;-)

One piece of advice that I love is "Start at the point of change." I read a lot of contest entries and many of them REALLY start the story three chapters in or whatever. Get the reader involved in the characters' dilemmas and then feed in the backstory. And often you'll find all that backstory is completely unnecessary anyway. Or that's been my experience. Something that could take 20 pages in a first chapter becomes a throwaway line of dialogue in chapter three and the readers don't miss it.

Christine Wells said...

Hi Keira, what a thoughtful post.

Description has always been tough for me to write because it's what I tend to skip over when I'm reading in a hurry, as I usually am these days. Dialogue, on the other hand, has always come relatively easily.

However, I find that if I see the description through a character's eyes, rather than just in a vacuum, I will be far more interested in it. That doesn't just mean saying 'she saw x y and z' but if you colour the description with the character's opinion of the scene, it will usually hold interest.

Another great way to use description is using it as a metaphor. Loretta Chase does that wonderfully when she describes Dartmoor as a metaphor for Dain in Lord of Scoundrels and her Egyptian setting in Mr. Impossible seeps into every aspect of the novel.

Best advice for me was Donald Maass's 'make it bigger, make it worse'. I tend not to like torturing my characters, so this is good for me to keep in mind.

Santa said...

Show don't tell is the best advice I've been given. That is not to say it's been the easiest to follow but I am getting better at it.

I've also learned not to put so much backstory into my first chapters but to get to the meat of the story. This has been a lot easier to do. It meant saying goodbye to some great scenes but what's replaced them is so much better.

Great digs you've got here, Keira. I've enjoyed lurking quite a bit and will strive to poke my head in a bit more.

Keira Soleore said...

Diane: thank you for that very effective lesson. It took me a bit to realize that no every tag needs to be mentioned the way it's done in nonfiction writing.

Foanna: Snork. I'd like you to please report back on the success (or not) of the rhythm method. Love the "start at the point of change." To add to that would be "start where the action is," wouldn't it? Your storytelling skills are so honed that you can actually look at a contest entry and know what the real story might be and where it really begins.

Anna Sugden said...

Another great post, Keira!

I think we, as romance writers, are blessed by the generosity of so many within our world. I benefit regularly from so many authors and writers, my Bandita buddies, my Writers at Play buddies, my cp's and yes, even contest judges!

The two most influential big names were Tess Gerritsen - who taught me to take a situation and make it worse and worse! - and Susan Mallery - who taught me about dialogue and pacing. These two goddesses were responsible for my writing taking the step-change which earned me my two GH finals.

And I'd never have even decided to give my writing a go without the encouragement from Jean Brashear and Merline Lovelace.

Keira Soleore said...

((Santa)) dear, great to see you here. Like you, Diane mentioned the "Show, don't tell" advice. I received that advice in my nonfiction writing classes, too. It doesn't matter whether you're writing fiction or reporting fact. You still need to take the reader to the place where your story in unfolding.

Keira Soleore said...

Christine: What a quick way to get to the particulars if you go to deep POV.

V.Anna and Christine: Both of you talk about making things much, much worse for your characters, before they get better. This is great advice for me. I'd started a Regency story last year, but it was ho-hum. Not much at stake for the hero or the heroine. Somehow large stakes like in mythological tales were easier to write with the medieval stories; Regencies are more difficult that way.

Christine: Loretta Chase is one of those few masters of fiction. She does such a masterful job at it that even when I sit down pencil in hand to analyze, I get sucked into her story and end up reading pages instead of analyzing a couple paragraphs. Happens without fail every time.

V.Anna: You have amazing writers believing in you and mentoring you. I'm not surprised though, because your hockey hunks (HH) need their stories in ink for others to have and to hold, er, read.

Erin said...

Great examples Keira. I've had a couple who greatly influenced me. Stella, in that she's the one who introduced me to RWA. She's also the one who told me that if the book isn't working, maybe you need to write a different book. Okay, I'm paraphrasing, but it's still true.
Others include Gerri Russell (her perseverence alone!) and Sherrilyn Kenyon (her ability to create such deeply loved/hated characters, then turn them on their ear).

jo robertson said...

Great topic, Keira, and such good advice from Stella C.!

I think the best advice for me has been to write every day. Simple, huh, but soooo true, and I think we writers, especially those of us who only have self-imposed deadlines, often are guilty of putting off daily writing in lieu of life's pressing problems LOL.

Susan Seyfarth said...

Hi, Keira! What a great topic today. I'm with Anna--that paragraph from Heyer is a wonder. They make it look so EASY, don't they? Those published writers? *sigh*

As for me, I think the writer who influenced me most when I was really developing my voice & style was Jenny Crusie. She always says, "Start where the trouble starts." And man, she's strict about it. No wiggle room. No prologues or anything. Plus she makes outrage so funny, & that's no easy feat.

Oh, & Susan Elizabeth Phillips for the way she can completely & utterly humiliate her characters then redeem them. For straight up emotion, I always turn to SEP.

Keira Soleore said...

Erin, welcome, welcome. Good to see you here. Sherrilyn Kenyon really knows how to take big stories and make them bigger and take alpha heroes and torture them. Her stories of redemption are fabulous. I admire her dedication to her readers. I also admire her dedication to her vocation, art, and craft.

Jo: Oh my goodness. You've nailed the bottom line for me. If I fall off the wagon, getting on is much harder; so, it's easier to stay on and write every day at the same time for just as long.

Susan: The reason you're not one of those accomplished published writers, is because the edtiors are not awake enough to notice the gems that are your manuscripts. They need more coffee in their systems in order for one lucky editor to snap them all up.

Ah, SEP. She's such a gentle person when you meet her, but boy, can she do horrific things to her characters. :) She and Lisa Kleypas do great bad boy heroes.

Susan: Did you do Jenny's year-long craft class?

Susan Seyfarth said...

Hi, Keira--

I didn't do the craft class, sadly. I just found it too big & overwhelming. The entire cherry universe is like that for me. But I'm easily daunted. :-)

But hey I meant to say--I love your new look for the blog! It's beautiful! Did you do it yourself?

Keira Soleore said...

Susan, thanks much for your kind comments. Yes, I've been coding it up bit by bit as I learn more about various encoding systems for web pages. The newest thing is the social bookmarking buttons at the bottom of each post.

The Cherries are huge, aren't they? A very social, very vocal, and very supportive group. As a mom with a young kid, I can definitely understand how groups can get overwhelming when you aren't able to devote a major part of your life to them.

Caren Crane said...

Keira, what a wonderful post! I think deep POV was a huge lightbulb moment for me. Well, after GMC, of course. But the real change was an explanation I heard of rooting interests. I had heard a billion times that your protags need to be "sympathetic", but what I consider sympathetic and what a reader does may be completely different.

I found the concept of "rooting interests" - things that make you root for a character (even a bad guy) - easier to understand and implement. It has taken the razor-sharp edge off a heroine of mine. I love her acerbity, but apparently other people find her a bit much. Kind of like me, I guess.

Since I can't keep "me" from bleeding into my stories, I have to try to show the soft, gooey center more often. Or at least make people understand why I - I mean she - is such a big old be-otch. *g*

Loved the Heyer! And I totally agree about Loretta Chase. I am reading "Lord Perfect" right now!

lacey kaye said...

Caren, that's something I've been working on lately, too -- getting past my (limiting) view of the world to add in a little something for everyone. Keep us posted!

Trish Milburn said...

I think the advice that I think of most often when working is:

1. Show, Don't Tell, like Diane said
2. To trust myself and my instincts as the writer of the story

Cassondra said...

Jo said:
I think the best advice for me has been to write every day. Simple, huh, but soooo true, and I think we writers, especially those of us who only have self-imposed deadlines, often are guilty of putting off daily writing in lieu of life's pressing problems

OMG. Jo this is so THE WORD! It's a muscle, and I get SO lazy.

Keira, wonderful blog. Good advice: Hmmmm. Two people I guess, stand out above all others in the advice that took me from mundane to marketable.

1) Dianna Snell, who said, "Never stop putting your pages in front of them. NEVER."

2) Anna DeStefano, who told me that my heroine standing around drinking coffee, feeling sorry for herself was not a "scene." She said that if something was not definitely different for the character at the end of the scene than it was at the beginning, the scene has no purpose.

I applied these two, and POW. There was my GH final. If I would apply Jo's advice and put my butt in the chair and hands on the keyboard as a priority every day, I suspect my results would be even better. ;0)

It's funny how we're all hearing much the same advice from all sorts of voices, but we have to be at the right "place" and "time" in our writing to actually hear and apply it.

Keira Soleore said...

Caren: You know you're a marshmallow at heart. You write a kick-ass heroine (yay!), but she, like you, are tenderhearted. :)

I love the term rooting interests, because there really has to be a multi-layered reason or many reasons that draw in different readers and make them care to continue reading.

Tonight, I was at a book-signing (more on that in my next blog), and Judith Laik (a marvelous writer) and I got talking about contests. She said how she's read entries where people send in first chapters that are really pro-pro-prologues, that don't feature the main character, or that have the character die at the end. Um. Rooting interests. Yeah!

Keira Soleore said...

Trish: I'm so glad you trusted in yourself to continue writing. It takes a lot of courage, dedication, and belief. Brava! I have yours and Foanna call stories saved to read over, every time I want to quit, every time I want to go back to bed in those pre-dawn writing times, every time it hurts. I tell myself: Only when I have written for one and a half times as long as you have persevered, then do I have the permission to whine.

Keira Soleore said...

Lace, you goddess, thank you! How come you weren't at Bellevue tonight???

Cassondra: I had a huge laugh over Anna DeStefano dismissal of the scenelet. But what a zinger of an advice. Either something good or something bad had to happen to the heroine. She couldn't just vegetate through the scene. :)

Jo's advice has an acronym: B.I.C.H.O.K. If you like it, visit Ninth Moon.

You're absolutely right. When the advice comes at the right time and by the right person and after it has already been said a few times that have percolated for a while, then suddenly the idea is accessible and implementable.

Keira Soleore said...

It's been fabulous to see such fabulous comments coming in. Thank you, Risky, Maven, Banditas, and Eastsider for stopping by to make this so much fun. Looking forward to reading more comments by folks stopping by the rest of the week.