Tag Archives: Description

Saturday Writers Group: Pacing, Detail, and Dreams

31 Jul

You know I’ve been writing a lot of book reviews when this meeting was 28-June and I’m just writing about it now. I realize I could just not tell you these things, but we might as well be honest with each other, right? I think so. The weekend writers’ group I’ve joined got together and helped me go through a story I’ve been struggling with one more time. While we talked, I took away a few other nuggets of information that I want to explore here with you.

The first was pacing as it pertains to dialogue in particular. A story that’s pure dialogue is boring (unless done purposefully) because there’s no movement. Consequentially, a story that’s all movement where the characters don’t speak can be dull because we’re stuck inside one character’s head. There’s a way to pace dialogue and action to stay away from both. I found a passage from the but I’m reading, The Creation of Eve by Lynn Cullen.

“The seedpods were quite interesting,” said the King. “They are said to be quite nutritious, though they do look a little off-putting.”
I gazed at the shriveled brown stalks
“What is the name of the ridiculous weed?” asked Dona Juana.
The King patted the Queen’s neck as she turned to look. “I believe,” he said, “they call it ‘maize'” (254).

I think this is a great example because it helps the reader see that though the conversation is between the King and his sister, Dona Juana, there are other people around; people who are moving and interacting with what’s going on, even though they’re not talking. We have our narrator, Sofi, who is gazing at the stalks, and the Queen, who is walking with her husband and curiously turning around. Without the action in this scene, we have only a conversation between siblings and the other characters are ignored. With only action, we can’t sense the tense silence the Queen and Sofi are keeping (if I’d expanded this, you would see how tense it is! But I’ll leave some mystery so you read it.).

The next thing we talked about was the balance of detail and brevity in flash fiction. I brought a piece that was originally limited to 1000 words and ended up being closer to 700. A few people recommended adding details about what the two characters looked like or description of the setting, but I wonder if that’s too much for a 700 word piece. So I ask you, Reader; What’s a good balance of brevity and description in flash fiction? Have you read any pieces that you think show a good example? I’m tending to lean toward less description myself, but I tend to do that in all my writing, be it flash or novel length. I’ll be interested to see what you all think.

The final think we talked about was basing a piece on a dream. I think there are several ways to do this, and I have my preferences. I think inspiration for fiction from dreams can be really good. I know several authors who were inspired to write their pieces based on something strange from a dream. Nothing wrong with that. I think our subconscious can give us images that we feel a need to share with the world.

However, I see a limitation to this. The piece that comes from a dream needs to make sense. I don’t like when writers re-tell their dream, either in prose or poetry. To me, you need to be answer a writers question of why something is a certain way or if it represents anything. The answer ‘That’s how it was in my dream’ isn’t enough for me. What’s your opinion on pieces based on dreams?

Until next time, Reader, write on.

You can follow me on Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

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Novel Girls: Comfort Zone and Fantasy

3 Jul

My Novel Girl friends probably thought I forgot about this post. Nope! I just ran out of time to write it so it’s only now going up. We met waaaay back on June 5th. Yes, we’ve met since then. I’ll get to that later.

I shared the first half of a piece I wrote back in February that I’ve shared with one person but really not touched since. My main character is a man named Mitchell who sees a girl he used to know from school and plucks up the courage to go talk to her. He’s a shy guy and remembers her as a quiet girl, but it still makes him nervous to go see her. However, he seems to find his balls really quickly and asks her out on a date. This took Nicole and Katherine aback because it seemed like a really sudden change and it wasn’t well motivated. I’ll have to look at either giving him more balls early on or making him more nervous throughout.

Katherine brought us a piece that will begin a longer story to get our initial reactions. From the portion we read, it was hard to tell if the book was fantasy or not because it had several elements grounded in this world. We talked about ways she could introduce fantastical elements to the story up front. She could show some supernatural powers, describe the setting’s place in the fantastical world, etc. Depending on how outlandish a fantastical world is, there are tons of different ways to do this. The problem is conveying what you have in your head to your readers. It can be hard to get the image on paper the way you want it to look. Which makes me think; maybe it’s okay if you don’t. Part of the magic of reading is being able to create by yourself what the world will look like in detail. There’s a line between enough and not enough. What are some books you thought gave too much detail and what are some that gave too much? Do fantasy books lend themselves to more detail than contemporary books to convey the setting?

Nicole‘s piece was a little different from other things we’ve read from her. We talked a lot about how it can be refreshing to get out of your comfort zone and write something that’s a stretch. Sometimes really good things can come from it. We did an exercise at a writing group once where we all had to name our least favorite genre or the one we didn’t like to read, and then write our first prompt in that style. I think really good pieces like Nicole’s can grow out of exercises like that.

By the time you read this, we’ll have already had another Novel Girls meeting, so be ready for another one of these posts… eventually!

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

Novel Girls: Consistency, Emotions, and Showing

3 Apr

Even though we’re missing Sonia more than we can take, the Novel Girls are venturing onward. We met last Thursday after almost a month apart and it was so good to see these girls again. We met at Nicole‘s new apartment for a change of scenery and to meet her cutie cat, even though he didn’t seem to like me very much.

The three things we decided to talk about are all running together in my mind, so I’ll try to separate them as best I can. We read the last section of my novel (yay!) and there was one thing that really bothered Katherine. My female protagonist is a pretty head strong character and an independent thinker but in the last two pages, someone says something about her that makes her seem very weak. I hadn’t noticed it until Katherine pointed it out and I’ll need to rework a few things to fix it. We talked about when there are one or two lines in a story that can completely change someone’s opinion of the character and how strong/weak they are. I made a similar comment about Nicole’s scene, in which her intelligent and sophisticated character was attacked and didn’t do much to defend herself. Nicole explained why this happened to us, but we needed to see it in the text because not everyone eats pizza with the author.

This is the joy of beta readers. They can see the lines (like in mine) that change their opinion of a character and they can find points (like in Nicole’s) where a character’s motivation needs to be clarified. Many times, motivations can be explained through the emotions a character is feeling. If a character is scared, he or she is more likely to act defensively instead of aggressively. When the author is able to show the emotion of a character, it’s less likely that their motivations will need to be explained and the reader will be able to sympathize more no matter what because they are inside the character’s head. I’ll tend to recommend this if there are long passages of dialogue that don’t have much as far as tags or time to delve emotionally into the character.

Our last point is almost opposite to this advice and it’s getting out of a character’s head a little bit. In a first person point of view, it’s tempting for the narrator to remain slightly anonymous and undefined. Unless the character is looking in a mirror, why would they describe themselves physically? This can be frustrating for the reader, who wants to be able to picture the person whose head he’s inside. Katherine’s narrator went through a strange change to her physical appearance and it was hard at times for us to picture what she looked like as the story progressed. Sometimes it is good to get out of the head of the narrator so the reader can get a whole picture.

This is a little shorter than some of my other Novel Girls posts, but I think we discussed some really important points. I’m curious how my next re-write will go now that I have all of the things we’ve talked about in my mind. I hope to come out with a better product because of it.

Until next time, write on.

Novel Girls: Emotion, Implication, and New Adults

15 Oct

The Novel Girls are at it again! This time around, Nicole came over and we each went through a new chapter. My husband is a little sick and he stayed on the couch, contributing his two cents whenever he could (annoying English majors).

The first thing I want to address is emotion-driven conversations. I have a very critical and emotional conversations between two of my characters in the scene Nicole reviewed today. I concentrated so much on what was said that the first part of the conversation is mainly dialogue. In the second part, I add in some action and reaction. Nicole’s suggestion was to add in some action because the emotion of the dialogue was lost without descriptive reaction. She thought the scene was rushed and needed to be slowed down with some action because it’s very crucial to the plot.

The second thing we talked about is when something is implied in the text.  Some authors will allude to a fact as a part of foreshadowing and some authors will allude to something so that they don’t have to say it outright. This is a very tricky area between being obvious enough and being too obvious. I think the best way to get through this is to have people read your manuscript.  If several people (in your target age range) pick up on what you’re implying, then you’re good to go.  If more than one are left hanging, then you may need to come on stronger.

The last thing we discussed is something dear to our hearts: books. To be specific, books that we as 20-somethings can relate to. Nicole’s WIP is about college-age woman and my NaNo WIP is going to focus on a woman in her mid-twenties. With books like Fangirl getting so much attention, we wondered where books about 20-somethings were before? Part of this is the emerging New Adult genre. When I did my two-hit Google research, I saw a lot of mixed feelings on the genre. Before I read about it, I defined New Adult as books written for (mostly) women in their 20s and 30s who like the simplicity of YA writing but want content more geared toward themselves. This genre sits precariously between YA, contemporary literature, erotica, and romance novels. That’s a lot to balance!

One of my hits was an article from the Huffington Post that went out to defend the New Adult novel. I happen to agree that this is a wonderful genre and that it is very different from the aforementioned genres. I’ll take a second to explain my reasons:

  • YA: While the writing style might be similar, characters will be older in age, probably 19-29 or so, and will be experiencing things teenagers don’t.  The content can be more sexually explicit and contain a lot about coming of age alone in the real world (not finding yourself in high school with your parents around).
  • Contemporary Literature: The themes in a lot of main-stream literature is much more complex than the theme of a New Adult novel would be.  The simplified theme is what makes New Adult stand out and appealing to people who previously read YA.
  • Erotica: The purpose of erotica is purely for what its name implies; erotic.  New Adult does tend to have more sexually explicit scenes, but unlike erotica, they serve to move the plot forward and are not the end-all of the piece.
  • Romance Novels: This genre focuses on the romantic relationships between (normally) a man and woman.  While this is a common theme in New Adult, many New Adult novels are more ‘coming of age’ or ‘finding myself’ novels that may or may not have romantic relationships involved.

I hope this explains what I believe are the biggest differences in the New Adult genre.  It’s a genre I think is going to stay relatively small due to the low number of readers in that age group (many of them being college age or with young children).

Reader, what are your thoughts on the New Adult genre?  Do you like it? Write it? Read it? Was my writing advice helpful this week?  Leave a comment and let me know!

Novel Girls: Reaction and Editing

24 Sep

This edition of Novel Girls is well overdue!  I left town for the weekend right after Nicole and I last met and only now am finding the time to type it up.  We had our regular get-together and went over chapters from each of our stories.  I love how much we are able to encourage each other to keep writing and to keep editing!  I owe everything to these girls for keeping me going.  Our biggest piece of advice was on reaction of characters, which helps to lend itself to believable dialogue and pacing.

Let’s say my character receives a big piece of news, that her grandma is very sick.  The raw dialogue (no tags) might to something like this.

“Your grandma is very ill”
“Is it serious?”
“It will probably kill her.”
“How long, doctor?”
“It’s hard to say.  At most a year.”
“Thank you, doctor.  We’ll fight this to the end.”

Does this read as believable dialogue?  Not to me, it doesn’t!  The character’s transition from “It will probably kill her” to “How long” covers a range of emotions that a normal human would experience.  It’s what goes between the lines, the tags, description, and injected emotion that make this believable dialogue.  So, I try to use the five sense to brighten up the scene (some are more applicable than others).

  • Sight: Sight is a big one for this scene!  How does the character look when she receives the news from the doctor?  Is there a tear?  A trembling lip perhaps?  And the doctor: is he sympathetic or straight-faced?  And the setting of course; is the grandma there, her heart-rate monitor clicking away?  Is the character at home and is receiving a phone call?  All of these sights make the scene richer and more believable.
  • Touch: This helps us set the scene and the spatial relations.  Does the doctor touch her shoulder reassuringly?  Does the character run her fingers over her sick grandma’s knuckles?  All of these things are part of human reaction.
  • Sound: The beep of the heart rate monitor, the tone the doctor uses, the sobs of the character.  (I’m getting really excited here, I’m trying not to end every sentence with an exclamation point.)
  • Smell: Ever hospital I’ve ever been to has smelled like urine.  I have to imagine that this one would.
  • Taste: Ok, not really applicable here.

So let’s get down to it, shall we?  Combining sensory description, we take a Hemingway-eque conversation and add on some Hawtorn-ian description to come up with something perfectly in the middle.

The doctor sat down at the chair across from me.  We were both listening to the steady beep of her heart rate monitor and her raspy breath.  He didn’t surprise me when he said “Your grandma is very ill.”
I reach out and touch her hand, running my thumb over her white knuckles.  Her skin feels like tissue paper, so thin I could break it.  “Is it serious?”  I’m afraid to hear the answer and breath slowly to keep myself from sobbing.
He responds gently.  “It will probably kill her.”
I let the emotion run through me, shaking me from my very core to my fingertips.  He reaches out and grabs my forearm.  It’s good to have something solid when everything is changing so quickly.
“How long, doctor?”  I can only think about the number of times we’ll have to come back to this moment; the slow beep of machinery and the smell of stale urine on over-washed sheets.
“It’s hard to say.”  He pauses, face contorted as he tries to figure out how close I am to breaking down.  “At most a year.”
He lets me cry for a minute and hands me a tissue that is truthfully no better than thin cardboard.  I use it to wipe my eyes, black streaks of eye liner coming away and undoubtedly staining my face.  “Thank you, doctor.  We’ll fight this to the end.”  He squeezes my arm reassuringly and walks out of the room to let me figure out how to tell grandma she’s dying.

I don’t know about you, reader, but I’m a much bigger fan of the later.  The words between the dialogue show that the character is reacting with more than just her words and gives a better flow from one sentence to the next.

The other thing I wanted to talk about in this post is self-editing.  This is a little different from most other posts about how to self edit and is rather about how to stop self editing.  I can’t stop doing it!  This weekend, my husband decided to finally bite the bullet and read my manuscript.  We decided this would be best accomplished in the car on the way to Iowa out loud.  We only got through two chapters.

The frustration was that I kept stopping him, asking him to make a note about a sentence that didn’t sound right or somewhere that needed more description or a passage that needed to be completely re-written in general.  He got so frustrated from the break in the flow that he stopped.

Readers, I need to know if I’m alone in this!  Do you self-edit every time you hear/read your own writing?  Is there a way to get past this or is it a good thing?  Is being able to recognize my flaws a gift?  Please let me a comment and let me know how you deal with self editing!

Book Club Reflection: Grand River and Joy by Susan Messer

10 Sep

One of my ‘themed’ posts I want to do is a reflection of what information was covered in my bi-weekly (usually) book club meetings.  I’ll still post reviews of the books as I finish them, but I’ll also take notes during my meetings and summarize what the group thought of the book.  I hope to close with some things I learned about being an engaging writer from listening to everyone.

So for this month, there’s not the advantage of a book review to go back to before reading this reflection.  As I always will, I’ll direct you to Goodreads.

Grand River and Joy by Susan Messer

Short synopsis: Harry Levine lives in Detroit and owns a shoe wholesaler at the intersection of Grand River Avenue and Joy Road (hense the title).  He and his fellow Jewish neighbors are starting to think about leaving Messerthe city for the more comfortable suburbs.  Slowly, his neighborhood empties and the blacks start to move in.  Tensions are high and the setting is prime for the 1967 Detroit Race Riots.  Based on the history of the riots, Messer spins a tale of tested relationships and what it means to be a good friend.

Discussion:
To preface these discussions, please remember that I live in Detroit.  There were several members of the group who were alive during the riots and have vivid memories of what happened during those few tense days.  (For anyone unfamiliar with the Detroit Riots, Wikipedia is always good for a short summary.)

Messer uses one-word titles for her chapters with the exception of the chapter about the riots themselves.  She titled that one “Riot/Rebellion.”  We discussed why this one deserved two words.  (I cheated since I’d already read an interview with the author where she was asked this exact question.)  We got he answer ‘right’ in that Messer realized the Riots were not riots to everyone; many of the blacks living in Detroit saw the events as a rebellion against a police force that at many times was oppressive toward the black populace.  The majority of officers in Detroit were white while the whites were no longer a majority of the city.  The non-black population (mostly white Christians and Jews) felt that the blacks were rebelling against a force that in their opinion was keeping everyone safe and the city in good order.  Messer has two major characters, one white and one black, who would have viewed the events in two different ways and having the Riot/Rebellion title reflects that.

Harry Levine’s business is saved from ransacking by a message scrawled above his doorway.  (You’ll have to excuse me for not remembering the exact words, our club moderator took the copies back!)  To me, this was reminiscent of the plagues in Egypt and how those who had the message written above their doors were spared.  The other members of my group talked about instances they remembered from the riots when similar messages were scrawled across storefronts.  Those who would lend on credit or who cared about their neighborhood were spared; women would stand in front of stores to tell looters to pass them by.  The houses of policemen were marked not to avoid trouble, but to respect those who kept the peace (I’m not sure if this was during the riots or more of a modern-time-comment).

One of the most touching scenes in the book is when Harry sits down with his tenant and pseudo-employee Curtis in the basement of the store, waiting for the plumber to open so he can come fix their boiler.  It was right before the riots and showed how the two men, who physically appear so differently, are so alike.  They both complained about their children not listening to them, being cold, the state of the city, etc.  They were both uncomfortable talking to someone so different from themselves at first but with the help of alcohol and a long night, they realized they were saying the exact same thing, only in different ways.  My group reflected on how being comfortable around someone with a different background is something one learns early in life and if it’s not learned early, it’s hard to overcome.  A woman reflected on how a school group from only an hour outside of the city had come to Detroit for a field trip and felt like they were seeing animals in the zoo when a school group of black children passed them by.

Harry’s wife, Ruth, is the second narrator of the book.  Her main conflict centers around the community Woman’s Jewish group.  She has been asked to give a presentation on whether it is best to stay in the city or move to the suburbs.  She’s conflicted on what to say because the group will come up with an official recommendation and Ruth’s not sure what she thinks.  She likes living in the city but sees it slowly falling apart.  In the end, she really doesn’t say anything.  I posed the question as to who the recommendation was aimed toward.  Would it be a city wide proclamation?  A fellow reader pointed out that the woman’s group was looking for validation; is it okay to leave?  Is everyone else going to come, too?  If the club recommended leaving, they could all leave their guilt behind.  In the end, Ruth decided to leave because the riots destroyed all her hope of the city being regenerated and a good place to raise a family.

There was a minor character who really touched me.  I think he was an angel.  He appeared the first time in a flashback Harry had.  He remembered a black man who had found him playing hookey from work and taken him to the Detroit Institute of Art so he could see Diego Rivera paint the Detroit Industry murals.  I’m a huge fan of these murals and every time I see them, I’m completely moved.  (Side note, if you’re ever in Detroit, it’s my #1 recommendation.)  This man helps him see the beauty of life, race, and the city.  In one of the last scenes during the riots, a suspiciously similar character guides Harry to a synagog where he finds peace praying in a shul with other men.  I think the character was guiding Harry through his rough times and helping him find the peace and beauty of the city.

It’s ironic to note that Grand River and Joy is not in the best of neighborhoods now.  The setting Messer painted was quite clean, orderly, and high-class.  No longer.

Of the three people sitting around me, two recommend the book to others, one did not.  I give it four out of five stars.

As a writer, I listened closely to what others said about Messer’s writing style.  We were disappointed at times by a lack of description.  There were scenes that she built up to and then skipped over, leaving the reader wanting more than was there.  Her lack of description made some of the characters feel flat.  We connected well with the book, but wonder if much of that was because of the setting so close to home and (for some) personal memories of the events taking place.  I think I would be more likely to recommend this book to other Detroiters than to someone from outside the city.  It might read as more fiction to someone who isn’t familiar with Detroit’s past.
Writers takeaway: Make your characters relatable and detailed, don’t fall short of a scene you’ve built up to, make your setting tangible to those who are unfamiliar with it (especially a struggle in science fiction).  Techniques: repeating secondary characters who carry a consistent message across scenes, touching upon real history to make a personal connection with readers.

Novel Girls: Voice, Description, and Motivation

7 Sep

I’ve been fortunate enough to find a group of other females around my age who are also aspiring writers.  Because we’re all working on long-form fiction, we decided to call ourselves the Novel Girls.  (It’s a novel idea, HAH!)

We try to meet weekly on Thursdays to have dinner and critique each other’s work.  There are four of us, NJ, KK, and SG.  SG’s been on an extended business trip for the last six weeks, so it was just NJ, KK and I last night.

There were three main writing points we went over last night that I wanted to note here, either for my later reference or to help another writer.

  1. Distinctive voice: KK shared a great piece with us last night that rotated between three settings and four characters.  The opening scene was a female character and she used some wonderful description, internal dialogue, and flashback to give the character a very distinctive internal voice.  The next time we saw this character, she was in a scene with three other people and her voice was a little lost in all the action.  The other characters were busy having a conversation and this female was standing by, listening.  It almost seemed to me like KK had rushed through writing that part because she didn’t give the character the distinctive voice she’d worked so hard to give her in the first scene.  This helped me remember that my characters have personalities and will react to everything around them.  It’s important to be sure this personality shines through in every scene and that they have an appropriate reaction to the things they hear and see. even if they’re not narrating that scene.
  2. There’s a limit to what one line of description can show: NJ shared a piece that started with two female co-workers at the end of the day, getting ready to leave for work.  NJ described one as having a large shoe collection that matched her outfits each day and the other as having a wrinkled business suit.  A few lines later, she wrote that unlike the first, the second character didn’t care about her appearance.  This one took me a second to process because to me, a business suit with wrinkles at the end of the day didn’t imply slovenliness.  With one or two lines more of description, the character could be more developed, come across as a careless dresser, and it might not even be necessary to say she didn’t care about her appearance.  This made me realize that my character’s clothes aren’t even described very much in my text and that how a character dresses can tell a lot about them.  (For reference, my book takes place in 1920s Chicago.)  I recently was invited by an acquaintance to visit her grandmother’s old house, where she still has some of the clothing worn in the late 20s and early 30s.  I hope that after seeing these clothes, I can find a way to show my character’s personalities through their simple clothing choices and be a little less ‘show-y’ and more ‘tell-y.’
  3. Character motivation needs to be strong, even if the character isn’t speaking: I have a scene where my male protagonist is trying to evade a female character he doesn’t like AND the scene is narrated by my female protagonist (confused a bit?).  KK’s comment was that she didn’t understand why the male protagonist was doing what he was doing; she couldn’t find his motivation!  Our ultimate decision was that I should switch the order of a few scenes, but it made me realize that in scenes where the non-narrating character needs some motivation, it takes a lot of attention to detail to make sure that motivation is clear.  It could be done with dialogue, description, etc., but it needs to be there.

 

I’m not sure if this helps anyone else, but it sure helps me to think through it!  What’s some advice you can share about writing?  Maybe it will help me with my next critique group!  Please leave a comment and share.