Cabbages and Kings

A diary by the authors of the Louis Kincaid series

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Location: Fort Lauderdale/Elk Rapids, Florida and Michigan, United States

We are the New York Times bestselling authors of the Louis Kincaid series and other stand alone thrillers. We have taught writing at major conferences for ten years.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Booky Noise V: The Little Black Dress

Help me out here for a moment. What the heck happens to some women when they have to get dressed up to go somewhere fancy? Why do some women -- who by day look stylish and normal -- after six suddenly morph into this:

Is it the prom syndrome? You remember yours don't you? How you ended up with a hideous dress and a Star Trek alien-woman hairdo? (To refresh your prom nightmare memories, check out one of my favorite websites: Ugly Dresses.)

Hang in there, I'm going somewhere with this, I promise.

There's something about dressing up that just confounds some women. They start out okay with a little black dress.But then they want to pile on every button and bow, every geegaw and doodad, every bijou and piece of bling they own. I've seen this phenomenon at ballets, at weddings, even the Edgar banquet. I know I'm picking on the women here, but men have it easy when it comes to formal wear; you have to try really hard to mess up a tux. But women? Some of them just don't know when to leave well enough alone.

So it is with some writers when it comes to description. (See? I told you I'd get to the point eventually.) Description is one of the most potent tools in the writer's narrative toolbox. It can set a mood, signpost a sense of place, and render characters into flesh and blood. Description has the indispensible function of letting the reader sense -- see, hear, smell, feel and taste -- what it going on in your story. If your description is truly compelling, it can made a reader believe in things that are otherwise incredible. (Think of what Stephen King does with "Salem's Lot." By making his mythical Maine town come alive through description, we are willing to suspend disbelief when the vampires start showing up.)

Unless you're Elmore Leonard, you are going to have to learn to write effective description. Speaking of Stephen King, I'll let him tell you why (in his book "On Writing"):

"Description begins with visualization of what it is you want the reader to experience. It ends with your translating what you see in your mind into words on the page. It is far from easy. We've all heard someone say, 'Man, it was so great (or horrible/ strange /funny)...I just can't describe it!' If you want to be a successful writer, you must be able to describe it, and in a way that will cause your reader to prickle with recognition. If you can do this well, you will be paid for your labors. If you can't, you're going to collect a lot of rejection slips."
Why do so many beginning writers have problems with description? I think it's because they don't know how much description to use. Some don't use enough. But usually, they have way too much. Description is narrative and narrative disrupts action. So a little goes a long way.

Which brings us back to the little black dress. When description is working well, it is concise and evocative. It also concentrates on a few well-chosen specific details that imply a host of other unspecific details. When Holly Golightly got dressed to go visit Uncle Sally in prison, she didn't junk up her Givenchy with jewelry. Just a great hat, gloves and sunglasses, my dears:











When you describe something, you have to resist the urge to gild the lily. Find one great image and set it off by itself. Description must be spare, clean and edited for its greatest impact. If you overdo it, you end up with something like this:















And here's a couple for the guys out there: This is the look you're going for -- basic black with two well-chosen accessories (Ray-Bans and big guns):












This, on the other hand, is a bit overwrought:















So how do you find your happy medium? How do you know when you've gone too far or haven't gone far enough? There are no easy answers. Description is hard to write! But here are a couple tips I've gathered over the years:

Don't generalize: Try to avoid abstractions. Be concrete in your descriptions. Instead of saying someone played a board game, say it's Monopoly. Instead of a "bad smell" use the specific "like sour milk." But again, don't reach too hard or you look silly.

Don't forget to compare and contrast: The secret to originality is the ability to see relationships. If you're describing something green, it's your job to come up with something fresher than "grass." Here's one of my faves from Steinbeck: "The customers were folded over their coffee cups like ferns." But again, don't strain it or you just sound pretentious.

Don't lean on adjectives: Just lining up a string of modifiers is lazy writing. (ie tall, dark and handsome). Try to find one vibrant adjective rather than several weak ones. But again, don't strain or reach for the Thesaurus. Sometimes a lawn is just a lawn...not a "verdant sward."

Don't use cliches: It's easy to slip into tired, flabby words. If you want to say something is white, you can't use "white as snow." It's not yours! Neither is "thin as a rail, sick at heart, hard as a rock" or even "overcome with grief." Time has eroded all those. It's your job to find new ways of making your reader experience your fictional world.

Yeah, it's tough to dress your writing for success. But don't despair. Description is one of the things that you can get better at. Believe me, I know. I used to lard my paragraphs with lovingly crafted images that dammit, were going to stay in there because I worked so hard on them! But then my sister told me one day that I was -- ahem -- dressing to impress. I had made every writer's biggest mistake: I had fallen in love with the sound of my own voice and was trying to be "writerly."

Finding your style -- be it writing or fashion -- is a lifelong process. When I went to my prom, I looked like a cross between Scarlett O'Hara and a Kabuki dancer. Through practice, I look a little better these days. Likewise, in my writing, I have learned what to leave off, what to cut out, so that now, when someone reads my stuff they aren't dazzled by my bling; they are experiencing my story.

Here is Stephen King again: "Description is a learned skill, one of the reasons why you cannot succeed unless you read a lot and write a lot. It is not a question of how-to, you see; it is also a question of how much to. Reading will help you answer how much, and only reams of writing will help you with the how. You can only learn by doing. "

Hey, if she can go from this:



















To this:
















So can you.

And now, let's move on to our new Book Noise Workshop submission. This one comes in from "J" who would like your input on the opening to her book:
The day is warm with the smells of cut grass from Bertram Beal’s riding mower. On the shell road leading to the house, a baby water moccasin sprawls like a torn fanbelt. A horse bangs his water pail in the stable. And in Mrs. St. Clair’s abandoned hothouse, its windows ironed opaque by the Gulf sun, the horticultural inmates left behind press their searching hands against the windows, trying to get out. The thought could keep you up all night.

Billy Junior’s widow sits in her aunt’s Taurus on the road outside. The air conditioner is broken and blows only hot air. Jenny St. Clair peers through the passenger-side window at the tangle of trees and the octagonal house beyond; from here, the house looks like a yellow and white wedding cake. Jenny touches the rosary beads hanging from the rearview as the drone of the lawn mower comes in through the open window. She wonders if the rosary beads ever work.

The hot air in the car finally propels her out of the Taurus and onto the verge, where she stands still and pale, her arms crossing and uncrossing as she strains for glimpses of the life she once had.

It has taken her weeks to get to this point.

17 Comments:

Blogger Shannon said...

It’s obvious you have a very good imagination, J. and I see where you are trying to go here…I just don’t think you’re going anywhere quite yet with this opening. Overall I’m left very confused about the situation, and I had to go back and reread a few times to figure out what the point was.

If you must start the story at this scene (which I have a feeling you have a much better starting point in your novel somewhere else, but since this is all I’ve read of it, I’ll make a suggestion from here)
I would open with the last sentence:

Jenny St. Clair stands still and pale, her arms crossing and uncrossing as she strains for glimpses of the life she once had. It has taken her weeks to get to this point.

This way you immediately pose a question in the reader’s head to make them curious enough to read on and find out what happened to Jenny.

And then go into: Mrs. St. Clair’s abandoned hothouse, its windows ironed opaque by the Gulf sun, the horticultural inmates left behind press their searching hands against the windows, trying to get out. The thought could keep you up all night.

I like the general feel of this, but I’m still confused…I have no idea what horticultural inmates are, and I don’t know why the thought of them would keep me up all night. If they are something creepy, show the reader why they are creepy. It’s the whole “show don’t tell” thing.

I like some of your description-- the wedding cake reference for example. This shows even in this very short sample that you are a very capable writer. I would lose the whole lawnmower thing though, it seems unnecessary to the plot. Tell us more about the abandoned hothouse, as this seems like the important part of your story. Focus your talent for description on the main issues, and I think it will keep the story from wandering into places it doesn’t need to go.

Best of luck with this!

9:49 PM  
Anonymous spyscribbler said...

The thought could keep you up all night.

That's a sentence of a character's POV, but we haven't established a person yet, so it's a little jarring.

The second paragraph confused me, and I was unclear whose POV we were in. I think this sentence is your best lead (I edited it a little):

She stood still and pale, straining for glimpses of the life she once had.

Then try launching into your action, with a little less description, but more functional description.

Present tense works sometimes, but it has to have a strong reason. From what I see here so far, I think third person would be more conducive to your voice. Try writing it in third, and see what you think.

I bet you have some good stuff further into your work, but I think you should put it up at the beginning. All your sentences are good, they just don't make sense yet, because we don't have a solid POV to "see through."

Best of luck!

9:50 PM  
Anonymous Tattieheid said...

"What's the hook?" may yet become my mantra, I could even be tempted to have it carved on my gravestone, it would make such a lovely epitaph.:)

There is a lot of beautiful imagery here but it's piled on too thick and contradictions apart, confused me totally.

The first time I read it I thought she was sat in the driveway of her aunts house trying to put off going in and I had to read it a few times to understand that Jenny was a widow revisiting a scene from her married life. I read too fast so that might be my fault and not the writer's.

I think you could create a more effective opening with less information and words. To me it's like you have sketched a strikingly evocative painting with a few brush strokes then spoiled the effect by colouring it in.

I have no idea of the kind of novel this is from the opening, which in itself is not an issue. In order to be drawn in further I need to want to know more about Jenny and her life. I would prefer the interplay between Jenny and the scenery to be sharper and scarier or softer and more hauntingly beautiful with a bit more of her purpose coming through. I think either would work well.

Something like this would work better for me but I would still want a bit more about why she was there.
On the shell road a baby water moccasin sprawls like a torn fan belt. The Gulf heat is merciless. Sitting in her aunt’s car she peers through the open passenger window.

The St Clair house stands in a tangle of trees, visible from the roadside. Yellow and white it reminds her of a octagonal wedding cake. In the abandoned hothouse silhouettes appear against the opaque windows, like inmates trying to escape. The thought makes her shiver and she touches the rosary beads hanging from the rear-view mirror, wondering if they work.

The air conditioner is broken and the heat finally propels her out of the Taurus and onto the verge. Jenny St Clair, pale and trembling, strains for a glimpse of the life she once had. She was Billy Junior’s widow.

It has taken her weeks to find the courage to come here.


Hope it helps.
Tattie.
(For PJ's benefit - I'm male)

11:07 PM  
Blogger Allison Brennan said...

Great post. I needed this. I have two problems with description: One, not enough. I tend to layer in description after the rough draft. Two, repetition. What little description I do have tend to get repetitive. I'm self-editing my April release right now and realized that I have so little setting that I barely know where my characters are!

Gotta love computers. Makes editing SOOO much easier.

2:05 AM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

The day is warm with the smells of cut grass from Bertram Beal’s(character #1) riding mower. On the shell road leading to the house, a baby water moccasin sprawls like a torn fanbelt(fan belt, 2 words). A horse bangs his water pail in the stable(maybe it's just me, but did anyone else get a double entendre from "bang"?). And in Mrs. St. Clair’s(character #2) abandoned hothouse, its windows ironed(this verb ain’t workin’ for me here) opaque by the Gulf sun, the horticultural inmates left behind press their searching hands against the windows, trying to get out(No clue what you’re talking about here.). The thought could keep you up all night(I'm pretty sure it won't. And whose POV is this first graph from?).

Billy Junior’s widow(character #3) sits in her aunt’s(Character #4) Taurus on the road outside. The air conditioner is broken and blows only hot air. Jenny St. Clair(is this Billy Junior’s widow, or character #5) peers through the passenger-side window at the tangle of trees and the octagonal house beyond; from here, the house looks like a yellow and white wedding cake. Jenny touches the rosary beads hanging from the rearview as the drone of the lawn mower comes in through the open window(very awkward sentence). She wonders if the rosary beads ever work.

The hot air in the car finally propels(this verb ain't workin' for me here) her out of the Taurus and onto the verge(?), where she stands still and pale(how does she know she’s pale? POV problem), her arms crossing and uncrossing as she strains for glimpses of the life she once had.

It has taken her weeks to get to this point.


There are some nice images here, but you have verb problems, POV problems, clarity problems, and too many characters introduced in a short space.

Also, this is only a personal preference, but I hate novels written in present tense. I know it can work sometimes, but it takes a really seasoned pro to pull it off.

Keep at it. Just remember that clarity is a writer's #1 responsibility.

4:18 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"J."

Hmm.

I can't help but thinking this is JA Konrath trying to be funny, or Joyce Carol Oates trying to be...

herself. :)

8:35 AM  
Anonymous J Carson Black said...

Yeah, but...

This well and truly sucked. It was the beginning of a book I wrote seven years ago (which never went anywhere) but that's no excuse, because I reworked it *now*, and frankly, I didn't see what is clearly obvious to me once you guys have pointed it out!

I think I'm suffering from "Beginning Anxiety".

Shannon and spyscribbler - those are very good points. Especially starting with Jenny. And you were both right in saying that this may not be the scene to start the book at all.
Spyscribbler, I agree with the idea that writing the rest of the book changes things. I'm wondering how many people write the book and then go back and write a new beginning.

I'm not continuing with this old story, but I'm grateful for your suggestions, because beginnings are particularly hard for me. I've gotten a great deal of perspective by reading the openings here.

10:48 AM  
Anonymous spyscribbler said...

Present tense works sometimes, but it has to have a strong reason. From what I see here so far, I think third person would be more conducive to your voice. Try writing it in third, and see what you think.

Um, er, uh ... genius me, I didn't mean third person. I meant past tense. Good lord. I mean, they sound so much alike, don't they?

I just meant that you have a reflective style in this opening, and the immediacy of present tense doesn't quite match.

Uh, yeah, so, uh, er ... eh-hem.

Good luck! And we all think it's crap. It's usually salvageable into something good!

5:48 PM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

J: It's up to you, of course, but I don't think you should abandon the story just because this opening isn't up to par. If it's something you believe in, write it. A brilliant opening will occur to you along the way.

9:47 AM  
Blogger Mark said...

Boy,
I'm glad J jumped in on this. I truly had a hard time reading this. I think largely because nothing happens.

I can pull out some fine books by fine authors--even excellent commercial authors, like Robert Crais--who start with the weather or a description, but they don't stick with that too long.

Here's the beginning from Robert Crais' "The Last Detective."

The cold Alaskan water pulled at the fishing boats that lined the dock, the boats straining against their moorings to run free with the tide. The water here in the small harbor at Angoon, a fishing village on the western shore of Admiralty Island off southeast Alaska, was steel-black beneath the clouds and dimpled by rain, but was clear even with that, a window beneath the weathered pilings to a world of sunburst starfish as wide as garbage cans, jellyfish the size of basketballs, and barnacles as heavy as a longshoreman's fist. Alaska was like that, so vigorous with life that it could fill a man and lift him and maybe even bring him back from the dead.

A Tlingit Indian named Elliot MacArthur watched as Joe Pike stowed his duffel in a fourteen-foot fiberglass skiff. Pike had rented the skiff from MacArthur, who now nervously toed Pike's rifle case.

***

Okay, why does it work?

Well, partly because he was already a bestselling author. Also, that last line in the first paragraph indicates there's something interesting going on here. And the second paragraph brings in people doing something, and the fact the guy's nervously nudging the guy's rifle opens up a whole load of questions.

But I have a question for people here?

Could Crais have skipped the first paragraph and begun with the second?

Best,
Mark Terry
www.markterrybooks.com

10:58 AM  
Anonymous Tattieheid said...

Hi J,

I agree with Jude, don't rush to give up on it.

Maybe if you treated it like a new draft, tucked it away for a couple of months and then looked at it again you would see it with a clearer eye. The voice you had seven years ago will be different to the one you have now and you may just be having difficulty reconciling the two in a substantial rework.

Thanks for sharing the opening, I'm learning a lot from this process.

2:41 PM  
Anonymous Tattieheid said...

Hi Mark,

He could but I think the opening is better as it is although that first paragraph is an overflowing cornucopia.

He's painting a vivid image of Alaska with just a few words, larger than life with broody undertones but that last sentence ties it into place by introducing an element of inspiration and danger.

He's covered all the key elements needed for a hook, albeit in rather descriptive way. The second paragraph baits the hook and draws us in completely.

I'll need to buy the book, you've got me interested now. :)

I think a new author would get away with that kind of an opening but would probably be forced to prune the first paragraph a bit. I get the impression long sentences and lot's of commas are not so popular with editors these days.

If I was writing that kind of an opening I would try to achieve the same effect with less description and detail in that first paragraph. Evocative imagery can be a good opening as long as it's not overdone and draws the reader in.

3:23 PM  
Blogger Aimless Writer said...

I may not be the best one to comment here as I generally skim over descriptions. I think Shannon was right with moving the end to the beginning. Hook me quick then I'll listen to the description cause I know its leading me somewhere. I liked the "its windows ironed opaque by the Gulf sun." It gave me a good visual. But I was a bit confused on the "Billy Junior's widow sat in her aunt's car". Who did what? Billy? the widow? Who's the aunt? I had to read that line twice.
I wish I could do descriptions half as good as this! I generally want to say, "its a house, you've seen them before, take your best guess!"
You did some very musical descriptions and I liked that but would rather have been deeper into the story before I got to it.

9:51 PM  
Blogger Norma said...

Good writing advice, but I haven't seen a woman dressed up for maybe a decade. They even wear jeans to church and the opera. I've written a hymn about this, "Dress up, dress up for Jesus."

9:29 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

He hit her.
She tumbled backward, grabbing at air to catch herself but she found nothing. Felt nothing but the burn in her jaw and the jarring thump of her tail bone against the linoleum floor.
Crawl.
Crawl. Get away.
The floor was slick with strewn trash, the smell of fried fish and stale beer thick in her nose, everything in the tiny kitchen a dizzying blur of yellow and silver.
Crawl.
He grabbed her ankle, yanking her out from under the table. She screamed. He slammed her face to the floor. Held it there. Silencing her.
He pulled her to feet, holding tight to a fistful of her hair as he walked her to the door. She stumbled, weakened by the throbbing pain in her legs, blinded by bloody pink tears.
The door stuck and it took him three furious jerks to get it open. Frozen air rushed against her face as he pushed her down a step and dragged her across the concrete floor like she was a battered doll with broken joints. When they reached the red Chevy Impala, he shoved her against it.
She dropped to the ground in a shivering heap, holding her breath afraid he would hear her breathe.
He pulled her arm up and snapped a handcuff around her wrist, locking the other cuff around the door handle of the car. He stepped away from her. She didn’t dare look up, focusing on the blood speckles on the hem of his blue uniform pants.
“You’re a damn sorry wife, Alba,” he said.

5:42 PM  
Blogger PJ Parrish said...

Jake,

I waited to weigh in but here we go:

Like always, I tend to agree with much of what others have said. As Shannon said, there is much good in this opening. And the fact that you gave up on it for some reason, well, you know better than we do!

But I still find much to like in this. Imagery is tough because it tests the writer's originality muscles. And I believe you have some really nice images here: the snake, the cake-house. I love those. But as others have noted, when you pile several images on, they lose their luster. Best to pick one great one and let it shine in a simple setting.

And I agree with those who observed that we have a POV problem here. We are all assuming we are in Jenny's POV but there is that one line: "The thought could keep you up all night" that comes out of nowhere -- a disembodied POV that is quite jarring. And it comes BEFORE you establish Jenny -- or anyone -- as your primary POV.

And Jude is right in his observation that you gave us too many characters to digest too early before we even meet the one we are expected to follow. You have to remember that even a tossed-off name like "Mrs. St. Clair" or "Billy Junior" registers in the reader's mind as a character. And once you intro them, it's hard to put them back in the box and make them go away.

Still, there is a vague sense of forboding about this opening that I really like. It is obvious Jenny has memories and issues with this old house.

8:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

People say I immitate SCARLETT O'HARA, since we're both bitches. But I'm as genuine as she was, since we were from the same neck of the Georgia woods, and we both were stars of novels.
I saw MARGARET MITCHELL meet her tragic death on the sidewalk outside the Fox theater in 1949. (The theater in Atlanta where the movie GONE WITH THE WIND had premiered). A taxi hit her as she was crossing the street, looking up at the theater's marquee where her name was displayed prominently. I tried to warm her of the taxi, but she didn't seem to hear me.
www.ruthieblacknaked.blogspot.co

3:52 AM  

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