Monday, February 28, 2011

Get something at stake - writing tip

We turned down a manuscript for a historical romance recently that was very well written. It had great images and the author knew grammar. She wrote in clear, easy-to-understand English, and had the ability to make the reader see everything she described. All that, as it turned out, was too much of a good thing, because she described every single thing the character saw.

Every thing.

She described the clothes, the jewels, the horse-drawn carriages, the wild wind-swept moors with a fast horse under her...the scullery, the latrines, the horse manure in the stables.

The problem was, despite her ability, that she followed her character everywhere -- yes, even into the bathroom -- but never once got inside that character's thoughts and feelings. She SHOWED us everything without picking a single detail that would reveal character, and she never "told" us what the character was like, or what she wanted.

The heroine had conversations with other characters about the weather, the tapestries, the Duke's coat of arms. But they never talked about anything important, like what the heroine wanted, or what her problems might be.

Now we didn't read the whole book, of course, only the usual sample. But in that sample the author followed the character around in her daily routine from the moment she woke, until she climbed into her satin-sheeted bed and sank gratefully into the feather mattress.

Showing and imagery detail are important, but they should be there for a reason. The description of Cinderella's ball gown was only important because we knew she usually wore soot-stained rags. It was there for contrast and had a reason.

If a scene is included in the story, it should be because something interesting, or important, or both is happening in it. If the story is a historical romance, it should start when the heroine meets her one true love and include an obstacle that stands in the way of their future happiness.

It should not start with her getting out of bed, using the chamber pot, eating bannocks, reading by the fire, being fitted for her ball-gown, having dinner in the great hall, riding on the moor, OR dancing the night away with a lot of different people none of whom stirred in her (or us) the slightest interest.

Nothing was at stake. In a good story, something is at stake all the time.

Now this author has plenty of writing talent, but she still needs to develop her storytelling skills. I just sent the usual stock rejection, "we regret" and so on. As a former teacher, I wanted to give her advice on what needs work, but writing advice from a potential publisher is rarely appreciated, so I elected not to explain why.

Should I have explained? What do you think I should have told her?


  1. It would be great for a publisher to explain exactly what is wrong with a book and how to fix it, but to hope for that would be unrealistic. Clearly most editors are too busy and underpaid to give out free writing lessons.
    Having said that, I know I really appreciate any crumbs an editor may be careless enough to drop. Once I sent a story to The New Yorker and on the printed rejection slip, some reader had written: "Very nice. Try us again." Tossing in a hundred dollar bill wouldn't have made that note any sweeter.
    As to the description, I was recently rereading Chandler's The Big Sleep. I marvelled at Philip Marlowe's detailed descriptions of everything he saw, but I could almost hear the author explaining: "Of course he cven give a detailed description of a man he can only see through a crack in the door. He's a trained detective! What do you expect?
    Personally I try not to add or describe anything that isn't directly concerned with the job at hand.
    Sometimes (in traffic for instance) I'll say "Look at the crazy way that guy's driving," and my son will say, "It not a guy; it's a woman." I cleverly retort: "What difference does that make?"
    In other words, if a description doesn't make any difference to a story, it's probably better to omit it.
    Wow, if I don't shut up I'll have to add chapter headings to this.

  2. Chapter Two: I still laugh at one of my early attempts at novel writint. The reader and I approached a restaurant. I forget now how many pages this may have taken, but I described this faded jewel from the seventies in excruiciating detail, down to the brown and orange décor, the hanging fiberglass lighting, the ficus plants and so on and on.
    One day as I looked at my work I broke out laughing. I thought, my God, eveybody knows what a dated coffee shop looks like. So I cut out the whole thing and described the joint in one sentence.
    The end.