Descriptive Detail in Novel Writing

Details, details, the bane of so many would-be authors. How much is enough? How much is too much? In my work with fiction writers, I’ve encountered those who underdescribe and those who overdescribe. More typically, though, it’s quality not quantity that’s the biggest problem.

There are two primary purposes for descriptions in novels: (1) to provide imagery; (2) to provide characterization. I will discuss these two primary purposes in two separate articles. A third article will discuss how to integrate details into a narrative in a manner that feels organic as opposed to heavy-handed.

Readers need something to picture in order to become immersed in the dream world you create for them. Vivid images help to provide a sense of realism. Part of a writer’s job is to sketch out a setting so readers can quickly and easily imagine the scene. If there’s not enough to picture, the reader will feel like a blind person stumbling around in the dark. Imagine a novel with all dialogue and no description. What you’d actually have is a script. And, in fact, many novice writers do write “novels” that read more like scripts.

In one case, when I called a writer’s attention to lack of description in her historical novel set in the Old West, she resisted, saying she didn’t care that much about the physical setting or what the characters were doing (how they prepared their food or their wagons, etc.)—she cared about the character interactions, the emotional part of the story. But the problem is that readers won’t engage emotionally in the story unless it feels real to them. And a big part of what makes it feel real are those descriptive details.

Also, in a historical setting, it’s just plain interesting for readers to get to see how people accomplished things before technology took over everyday life. That intellectual engagement is part of what makes for a good reading experience. After my client put in a little more work (including some research) and added details about how the village looked and how pioneers found food during their journeys through the wilderness, etc., her narrative read so much more smoothly, felt more real, and held readers’ attention even during the less dramatic moments in the story.

Ah, but too much detail, especially about trivial things, will overwhelm the reader and make her feel she’s wasting time wading through annoying verbiage to get to the story. What I typically see is too much mundane detail (“The mustachioed, bald-headed guy at the deli counter grinned as he carefully sliced the Boarshead turkey and then forcefully diced an underripe tomato, all the while whistling an off-key rendition of ….”  Okay, okay, get to the point!)

Yes, the reader needs something to picture. But here’s an important rule of thumb: readers don’t need a whole lot of help. They just need a few basic details and their imaginations will fill in the rest. If you present too many specific details of colors, fabrics, landscaping, etc., you will turn off readers and they will skip right over your glorious nouns and adjectives—or worse, just stop reading and pick up a different book. It’s fine to say, “She drove up to a modest two-story gray clapboard house surrounded by neatly trimmed bushes.” This gives a sense that the house is not opulent but not a slum either. Don’t describe the shutters, the individual plantings, the flagstaff walk, the birdbath in the front yard—unless there really is something remarkable at the site. You want to paint a general picture and move on. On the other hand, the presence of a birdbath, several squirrel feeders, and a giant doghouse might be important if you want to indicate that the resident of the house loves animals—which may be relevant to the story or an important part of the characterization.

I’ll talk about characterization in a separate post.

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7 Narrative Mistakes That Will Make an Agent Pass Right Over Your Manuscript

Agents are inundated with submissions. Technology has made it easy for people to write and then submit what they’ve written to agents (or directly to publishing houses), hopeful their work will be recognized as a gem.

But there’s an enormous mismatch between the number of people who think they have a publishable book and the number of books that are considered publishable by industry professionals. Authors needs to be realistic. For one thing, they need to know that agents reject about 97% of the manuscripts submitted to them.

The weeding-out process is—like human life in olden times—nasty, brutish, and short. Many manuscripts are rejected at the first sign of amateurism, often right on the first page. This may seem unfair. Shouldn’t the book be judged according to whether or not it tells a good story? No, today’s publishing standards demand that a novel have both a great story and be expertly written. Agents and editors don’t have much time or patience for working with authors on writing basics. They will pass on the book if they feel it is not up to professional standards.

Below is my list of the top 7 writing mistakes I typically see in the first chapter (often on the first page) of a manuscript that tell me an author is unpolished and will need some help with narrative basics.

Use of clichés. When I see a phrase like “It was hot enough to fry an egg on the sidewalk” on page 1, I am unlikely to ever make it to page 2.

Point-of-view confusion. If Jack is “feeling” excited and “thinking” about seeing Jane, and then in the very next sentence is being described through Jane’s eyes, I know the writer is not solidly anchored in a point-of-view and probably doesn’t understand its importance.

Tense inconsistency. If the narration switches back and forth from past to present, I know the author is not in control of the story. Similarly, if the writer doesn’t know when to use the past perfect, I’m wary.

An abundance of mundane details. When I see long sections of description that seem to have no purpose in terms of story or character, I conclude the writer doesn’t understand that details must have a purpose or at least be interesting.

Small talk. When an author includes dialogue that consists of “Hello, how are you?” “I’m fine, how are you?” and that sort of meaningless interaction, I know there is a lack of understanding about the essence of dialogue.

Introduction of character with full name and complete physical description. Polished writers are able to find gradual, graceful ways to work in the necessary details. I won’t get past the first paragraph if I see that sort of information dump.

Use of verbs other than “speaking” verbs to connote speech. Speaking verbs include the words said, uttered, murmured, whispered, shouted, and the like. Other (non-speaking) verbs that amateur writers often use to connote speech are sighed, groused, complained, admonished, cautioned, etc. Polished writers generally stick with speaking verbs and avoid unnecessary attributions throughout dialogue as much as possible. (See my earlier blog post titled “Don’t Aver It, Opine It, or Intone It, Just Say It!: Dialogue Tips.”)

Before you send out your manuscript, check for these 7 deadly narrative sins. If you are committing any of them, re-edit your work. If you’re not sure whether or not you are committing them, considering paying a professional editor for a critique, even if it’s just on one chapter. You may save yourself a lot of time and heartache.


What Do I Do with My Finished Manuscript?

So, you’ve finished your book, you’ve had it critiqued by a professional, tweaked and road-tested, inspected and corrected, line-edited and copy-edited and proofread. You’re satisfied that it’s as good as it’s going to get, and you think it’s…well…pretty great. (Yay, you!)

I would imagine your thoughts are running something like this:

  • Am I likely to find a publisher?
  • Do I need an agent first?
  • How likely am I to even get an agent to read my book?
  • If I can’t find a publisher or an agent, should I give up or dare I self-publish?
  • If I self-publish, do I have any chance of selling the book to anyone besides friends and family?

These are THE questions!

Every situation is unique, but I’ll offer some guidelines to help you get your thoughts together.

Are you likely to find a publisher?

It depends on your genre, how professionally written and edited your book is, and whether you have marketing savvy that you can demonstrate.

Sit down and write out an elevator speech that quickly describes what’s amazing about your book. In two sentences or less, state why someone will want to read it. If you come up with a very compelling statement, you may have a shot at finding a publisher and/or an agent. Also, ask yourself who is the audience for your book and how you will locate that audience. If those questions have quick, easy, and specific answers, then that is an additional factor in your favor.

Truthfully, it is not easy for a novice writer without a marketing platform or an established fan base to find a publisher. On the other hand, certain genres (like romance and mystery) attract fans who are insatiable readers. Publishers are always looking for something new and good to offer in those categories. The combination of a well-edited, taut, engaging novel and an author with proven media-savvy will impress publishers who need content.

Do you need an agent?

If you want to try the top-tier publishers, yes, absolutely, you will need an agent. If you zero in on small publishers or university presses, you are often invited to submit your manuscript without one. However, realize that your book will be part of a very tall slush pile tended to by a small staff with not enough time to give each book much attention. Judgments are made very quickly.

How likely are you to get an agent to read your book and consider representing you?

Truthfully, it’s a long shot. Agents reject about 97% of submissions. The ones I know look mostly at manuscripts that are recommended to them by established writers or esteemed colleagues. Agents are inundated with submissions, and there are only so many hours in a day. If you have something of value to offer them, sometimes it does work out. But be prepared for the very real possibility that it will not.

If you happen to have a good relationship with a published author who respects your work, ask him or her to introduce you to an agent. That’s the most effective route. It’s best if you have some sort of personal connection to the agent that will allow you to stand out in the crowd.

Should you self-publish?

Why not? I would think that if you went to all the trouble of writing a book, you should get it out there one way or another. You owe it to yourself. Self-publishing is no longer routinely derided as mere vanity. It’s now seen as a legitimate entrepreneurial undertaking, if done right. And mainstream publishers are increasingly looking to self-published books (the ones that sell, that is) as a source of proven value. Just go into it with realistic expectations. Don’t get ripped off by an exploitive POD press. Do your homework. And hire your own editors (that’s essential!). (I will post something on this issue another day.)

Don’t expect to sell thousands of copies of your book unless you are a super-savvy marketing whiz and/or have written on a niche topic that lends itself to a pretty straightforward marketing plan. A typical literary novel about a suburban family in a rural town in Utah will be much harder to market than a mystery or a romance set in San Francisco that features zombies.

If your book is really good and appeals to others, and if you are savvy and persistent about marketing it, you might be able to sell several thousand copies. And if you do, there’s always the possibility that a publisher will pick it up.

So darn many ifs and so much to think about. But all for the love of writing!


Querying an Agent

If your goal is to be published by a major house and you don’t have a personal connection to one, then you need an agent. A well-connected agent knows and regularly lunches with most of the New York City editors and can quickly get your book a hearing from the ones most likely to be interested in a book like yours. He or she knows who likes what sorts of books, who is looking for what particular topics to round out a list, etc. Agents are much-appreciated middlemen—editors trust them not to waste their time with unsuitable offerings.

Most top agents choose their author-clients through referrals from already established writers or other people in the business. Still, numerous submissions come in daily over the transom. Because they are so inundated with query letters, agents peruse them as quickly as possible and make snap judgments. Typically, the more experienced agents have an intern or young associate whose job it is to look through the “slush pile” (nowadays sometimes just a figure of speech as so many queries are sent electronically).

What might get your query letter noticed in this large “pile”?

1. A great hook. Obviously, there is no magic formula for creating a hook that will apply to every writer. Yours may grow out of your personal situation (“I wrote this book from prison with the help of fellow prisoners and guards”). Or, more likely, it will come from the story itself, perhaps its unusual setting (Mars in the year 2050) or its startling juxtaposition of characters (a British princess who leaves her husband for a Pakistani cab driver). If your plot is ordinary, then try to offer some insight from the book or an amazingly well worded passage that will establish the power of your writing.

2. Stellar writing. The letter must sound thoroughly professional and the writing should be more than just competent—it should stand out as intelligent, engaging, and creative.

3. Literary awards. Your having won awards, even if they are modest ones, shows that others have seen quality in your book. It also shows you have the wherewithal and the energy to submit your book to contests.

4. Marketing savvy. It helps if you show familiarity with marketing issues. For instance, you should know in what section of the bookstore your book belongs and into which of Amazon’s categories it will fit. The most saleable books treat topics for which there are fan groups or interest groups that can easily be made aware of the book. Compare your book to similars and state why readers of those books will find yours appealing. Can you show a familiarity with the blogosphere? Do you have a presence on book review sites? Anything you can say to show that you have a commercial orientation is very helpful.

5. Author platform. Show that you have at least the beginnings of an author platform. Do you have a small fan base already beyond family and friends? Can you boast of a great Website with a good deal of traffic? Do you do any public speaking to groups that would have an interest in your book?

What will make agents skip right over your query letter at a glance?

  • If you don’t address the agent by name
  • If your query is clearly part of a mass mailing
  • If you don’t follow the submission specifications on the agent’s Web site
  • If you claim to have a bestseller
  • If you come across as unprofessional, through mistakes in your letter or by displaying naïveté in your approach to the book business.

Good luck!


Don’t Aver It, Opine It, or Intone It, Just Say It!: Dialogue Tips

Novelists work hard to create edgy or witty or snappy or simply realistic-sounding dialogue. But even when that goal is achieved, awkward mechanics can make these passages sound stilted and amateurish.

 Many writers seem to feel that continually writing said after a character has spoken is boring and monotonous. To remedy this “problem,” they resort to alternative speaking verbs such as averred, opined, stated, uttered. But the result is the creation of a new problem to solve a nonproblem. Those rather formal words stick out like sore thumbs, attracting the reader’s attention to the words themselves rather than what the characters are saying.

Writers, don’t fret about frequent use of said. It won’t come across as repetitive (unless you use it after almost every spoken phrase in a section of dialogue). The reader’s brain takes in the words in quotation marks and skips over the word said. But if you call attention to the speaking verb by reaching for vocabulary words, then the reader will be distracted from the story—never a good thing.

Another temptation is to use words that are not speaking verbs, as in the following examples:

  • “I guess you’re not the great chef you thought you were,” I gloated.
  • “You always give me a hard time,” she griped.

To gloat is to “observe or think about something with triumphant and often malicious satisfaction, gratification, or delight” according to Merriam-Webster. Gloat does not connote speech. Neither does gripe.

 Instead, try something like:

  • “I guess you’re not the great chef you thought you were.” I tried to suppress my smile. It wasn’t like me to gloat, but I couldn’t help myself.
  • “You always give me a hard time,” she said, whipping her hand in front of my face in a fake slap.

See the difference? The narrated thought that follows the statement makes it clear that the narrator has just spoken, so there is actually no need for said or any other speaking verb. The narrated thought in the first example communicates the gloating. The description of the hand motion communicates the idea that the speaker is displeased (griping).

I also often see “she teased” “he joked” “she lied,” “he bragged,” etc.

Stick to speaking verbs. Good alternatives to said include whispered, shouted, murmured, hissed—where appropriate, of course. If you want to communicate that a character is joking, laughing, lying, or whatever, accomplish that in some other way.

Wherever possible, make the identity of the speaker apparent from context and avoid speaking verbs altogether. When there are only two characters in the scene, it’s often clear who’s speaking. If not, you might describe the character’s demeanor immediately after his or her remark. A narrated comment directly following a character’s quoted words (without a paragraph break) visually indicates that it is the subject of the comment who has just spoken.

For example:

“Get out of my way!” Reggie pushed the tall woman aside.

There’s no need to add Reggie said, since it’s clear here that Reggie (the subject of the narrated comment) is the one who said “Get out of my way!”

Another way to make it clear who is speaking without resorting to said is to have the speaker address the partner in conversation by name now and again, as long as it comes across as natural.

Example:

“Eoman, you can’t be serious.”

“I’ve never been more serious in my life, Nicole.”

Rarely, if ever, use adverbs to modify said. Excessive use of adverbs comes across as amateurish—the writer is resorting to telling rather than showing. For instance, avoid a phrase like “she said nervously.” Communicate the nervousness in some other way—through her body movements, her choice of words, or a narrated thought. For instance:

“When can we…I mean…how do we…at what point do we…get started?” She wiped her clammy hands on her jeans.

 Such issues of mechanics may not be as important as story arc, great characters, good pacing, etc., but these touches are what make a read feel smooth and seamless. If the reader can get lost in your story and not feel slapped every now and then by the heavy hand of the writer, your story will work its magic.