Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Writerly Stuff and a Brief Rant

Man am I glad to holidays are behind us. Not that I am Scrooge or anything, but I'm ready to get back to normal. Normal? Is there even such a thing when you really get down to it?

A writing post is coming but first a short rant. WARNING : This could turn into a very long post but the rant should be short lived.

I'm trying to buy my wife a new car. One that will be a bit more dependable as the Ford Expedition she currently drives is getting way on up there in miles. Not to mention it cost more to keep it full of gas than it does to feed a pack of fat guys at Red Lobster.

Now correct me if I'm wrong but the term salesman has the word SALE right there in it. So shouldn't that be the primary function of these peoples job, to sale? Not to act like pompous jackass's. Not to tell me what I need instead of what I want. Not to antagonize me with their smug attitudes until I'm ready to yank the camel hair coat of his back and strangle him with the sleeves.

Okay rant over. Time to segue into the writing aspect of this post.

So many of you know the novel I am writing is titled Plundered Booty. Dang near every character in the book either works at a car dealership or is married to someone that does. Until my recent car buying venture I worried that I'd make too many of the salesmen despicable. I thought maybe the whole thing was a bit too over the top of the sleaze factor of these individuals. Now I'm thinking I might have to add in more derelict behavior.

Speaking of characters. How do y'all feel about physical descriptions? For the most part, I'm not a huge believer in detailed physical descriptions. Sure if you protagonist is missing an ear or has one leg cut off at the knee you might wanna mention it, but a reader is going to form their own mental image fairly quickly so unless there is a huge or highly relevant feature I say stick to the basics and then move in.

Stay with me follow the rambling. I hope to make sense in the end.

I recently finished a novel a pretty good novel in fact but ... the author waited until a hundred or so pages to tell me the female protag was blonde. By that time I already had her pictured as a brunette so when he finally got around to describing her his words clashed with my imagined image. It wasn't a huge deal but it did make me stop reading and start puzzling over why I thought she was brunette. I even went back to see if he'd screwed up and changed his description. This is just one minor example but the most recent one I can think of.

Here is my list of Do and Don'ts when it comes to describing your characters.

Do describe them as early as possible, Before your reader has formulated a bunch of notions on their own.

Don't have them look at themselves in the mirror and then describe themselves. That my friends screams LAZY writer.

Do give your reader enough to form a mental image. It is hard to relate to anything you've never seen or heard so give the reader enough to build that image.

Don't mention every last detail. Yes, detail adds character but hearing about the mole on their neck, the scar on their chin that they got when they were six by tripping over the pot full of geraniums on their granny's front porch,and the ringsize of their big toe is jsut a bit much. It's all in the dosage and relevancy.

Don't fall back into telling while giving description. Frank is fat.

Do show. The plaid fabric stretched tight across Frank's beer gut had me longing for a pair of safety glasses. At any moment those buttons were liable to go, and the with the force of his lard behind them those suckers could put out an eye.

Do use words that fit your tone and scene, just like you would any other time. Writing a contemporary romance? You don't want to say ... Her lips were as red as the skin beneath a freshly peeled scab. That doesn't conjure romantic thoughts. Her painted red lips parted just enough for me to feel her warm breath on my neck. At least that has a bit of action to it and it adds to the mood.

Don't jar the reader out of your scene. Slapping the dust from his jeans he stepped down out of the stage coach and smiled. His teeth gleamed like a chrome bumper. That's bad for several reasons but chances are if you're writing a scene that has a stage coach in it mention car parts is a very bad idea.

I think I'm rambling so I'm gonna stop now but since many of you are much more accomplished writers than me how about adding a few dos and don'ts in the comments.

And being writers some of you might be interested in this contest. It is affiliated with the conference of my local writers group. It is a good chance to get some feedback. the first round is judged by published authors and the finals are judged by either a literary agent or an acquiring editor. I know of several projects that have sold via this contest and I have had an agent read a full as a result. The entry fee ($20) goes towards acquiring speakers and funding the conference.

I'd love seeing some of you at the conference this coming June but at the very least I expect to hear some of y'alls names announced at the awards ceremony.

This is why I don't really like to do these writing craft p[sots anymore. I have a head full of things I want to get down but when I'm done and read back through what I said it seems like asinine, sophomoric gibberish. Maybe that says more about me than I'm willing to admit.

18 comments:

Jenster said...

Very good advice! Thank you!!

Good luck with the whole car buying thing. I don't envy you!

Oh. And HAPPY 2008!!

Monnik said...

Travis I think this is great advice! I'm a relative newbie to writing, though.

I agree with you on descriptions. I think *some* description is good, but not down to every last detail.

Thanks for the tips! And do what I did with the car. Buy it online. Go to the dealership only to pick it up. I test drove a friend's and knew I liked it. Worked like a charm.

Mom In Scrubs said...

As far as I can tell your advice is right on. Especially the early descriptions part.

We just bought a car. We tried a local dealer but they were such total asses that we went back to the one we usually buy from (about an hour away). Even at the place I like, I still don't like car salesman.
Too Smarmy. (love that word!)
Yep, the smarm-factor is off the charts.

angel, jr. said...

I would love to write something worth reading. I've tried on various occasions to start several different "novels", only to get a few paragraphs or few pages done.

Good luck with buying the new car!!

Ello said...

Freshly picked scab huh? ONly a fellow picker would know how red that really is!

Good tips! I have to agree on the early character description. It always drives me crazy when I don't get any hint of a character til well into the book.

And good luck on the whole new car thing! That is a real pain in the booty!

deborah elliott-upton said...

Isn't it funny how things we are thinking end up on someone else's blog? I turned in my column (for tomorrow's post at www.criminalbrief.com)this morning and now when I am reading your blog, I find we both used the same rather uncommonly used word. Good luck with the car chase. I'm hunting a new computer AND printer. Everything's dying at once. SIGH.

Adriann said...

Thanks for sharing... I haven't ventured into fiction yet, but your post make me want to at least try to describe a character. I love the humor that you use in your writing. I always laugh out loud!

Have a Happy New Year!!!!

Angie said...

LOL! Actually, I like the "freshly picked scab" image. I could see using that for a woman the reader is meant to hate. :D

Someone else whose blog I read is having similar buying problems, except he's looking for a new graphics card. I think you both make similar points, though, about how the people trying to sell you something should be trying to sell you the thing, and not confusing you or pissing you off. Check it out: http://www.shamusyoung.com/twentysidedtale/?p=1477 Shamus is pretty funny, so even if you're not into graphics cards, you'll probably enjoy it. (I'll bet you have a toaster, so that'll work out.)

Re: the descriptions, yes, definitely agree -- early and minimal. Too many writers think they have to reel off hair color, eye color, height, build, and if it's a woman then the size of her boobs. [eyeroll] I can do without any of those things, if the writer chooses a few significant or telling details.

Another tip, especially for romance writers: Don't have your main character bemoaning some horribly ugly feature, which the reader sees is actually quite attractive. For example, more than once I've seen a heroine in a historical romance bewailing the fact that she has this grotesquely huge bosom, when willowy slenderness is "fashionable." And of course, the reader knows right away that the hero is going to be a breast man and have his eyes pop out of his head when he first sees her in a low-cut ballgown.

But seriously, it's like having a guy in a book moaning about how awful it is that his muscles bulge too much, or a character of either gender bewailing the fact that they're burdened with all these piles and piles of vulgar money, etc. It sounds like it's trying to be sly and clever, but it just makes me eyeroll.

Angie

Sherry said...

I think car salesmen get everything they deserve!! I'm sure there are some good ones out there..just like lawyers.

Love the advice on character development...I do like to know what a character looks like, personality..but do it briefly and no repetition please!! I'm with you...I form my own visuals and it's the #1 reason I hate to see a good book turned into a film...my visual never matches the actors that are chosen.

Merry Jelinek said...

I tend to like a bit of description with the characters... though only a bit and I agree with you, it has to be early. Also, when I see a character in a mirror, window reflection, lake or pool of water, or in a photo on Grandma's mantle, I will most likely stop reading.

Oh, and I like 'smarmy' too, good word for a car salesman... the only thing I like about buying a car is getting one over on them... it rarely happens, but it's lovely when it does... still, you know you only bought the damn thing for a little more than it's worth, rather than three times what you should have paid... ughhh...

Nan Higginson said...

When you start being a bag-o-wind, we'll let you know. Great tips - reminders, all, but it's good to hear them.

I'm skimpy on physical descriptions, too. Maybe it's from paying more attention to personalities - - -

Speaking of personalities, I don't particularly like actors and actresses being mentioned as near-twins to the looks of the female protag, or any other character for that part.

Happy 2008

Penelope said...

Just did the car buying thing. My advice to you is to research online and then go into the dealership and tell THEM exactly what you are willing to pay, no ifs, ands, or buts. If you have a trade-- same thing.

Car dealerships are like stepping back in time fifty years. Car sales is a male dominated field. They don't take woman particularly seriously as consumers, at least in my experience anyway (is this a Texas thing-- I don't know). That and I noticed this time around that a good number of them smoke-- go figure.

-- Karen

alex keto said...

Stephen King in his book "On Writing" had some good stuff on physical descriptions. He said avoid the police blotter approach of height weight and hair color and go for something that hints at character.
"He walked with his head lowered like a bull etc etc etc."
Or something along those lines

RoxRocks said...

I had to read that twice to find the rant.

Travis, I need to teach you how to REALLY RANT! LOL!

I hope you find a car/car salesman who will respect you. :)

Bernita said...

Just excellent examples, Travis, and excellent points.

Stacy said...

I don't like car salesmen. They either hit on me or treat me like I'm six. I do like the guy who sold me my Sentra though. Even if I stopped in that dealer's auto shop years later, he'd remember my name and he'd remember my poor mother who I had dragged car shopping with me.

I love your guidelines on description. I agree with every last one of them. I don't care much if a character is physically described or not, but it does really bother me when the description comes too late.

Charles Gramlich said...

I think the advice is very good and I tend to do most of this myself. I like to descirbe a character up front and then only touch briefly on it later.

I think, though, that different genres require different amounts of description. The more exotic the setting or genre, the more character description you need. In my opinion.

Bubblewench said...

Very interesting insight. You're right too.