Sunday, September 2, 2012

The Devil is In The Details

A few months ago, while messing around on Amazon in search of some new material for my Kindle, I stumbled across what looked to be an intriguing little ditty about people mysteriously dying in a neighborhood.  I’m always up for a good suspense novel, so I downloaded it and dug in.

Well, I was pretty shocked by what I read.  And I don’t mean because it was such a delicious, twisty story that I couldn’t put down; it was because the writing was what I would have expected from a 12-year old, not an adult claiming to be a professional writer – and who’s charging money to boot.  This was a self-published piece, so I know some people say you have to make some allowances. 

There’s allowances and then there’s just turning a blind eye.

If anything, you have to elevate your game even more to overcome that “self-published” stigma of poor quality and amateurish writing (and frankly, calling the writing “amateurish” is being kind).  None of the characters were described beyond such shallow terms as “hot,” “good-looking,” or “disgusting.”  There was hardly any dialogue and a mountain of redundancies.  Not to mention typos galore, poor vocabulary and atrocious grammar.

In reading this particular book, so many of the BASICS were missing, I had to wonder if the author 1) had ever read a professionally published book; 2) asked anyone to read the manuscript for them before publishing it. 

While much of the writing that populates popular fiction is, shall we say, subjective (*cough*, “Fifty Shades of Grey” *cough, cough*), the truth is, besides the aforementioned basics of good grammar, syntax and vocabulary, there are some standard conventions we as readers should expect to see in a book and as writers, we should all be adhering to, such as: 

1.     Describe What The Characters Look Like
It’s not enough to say your character is “beautiful” or “handsome” or “ugly” or “impressive looking.”  WHY are they beautiful, handsome, ugly or impressive looking?  Are they tall, short, fat, have acne, thinning hair, or a neck littered with moles? Describing what people look like adds depth and richness to the characterizations.  

In “Gone With the Wind,” Margaret Mitchell gets right to it on page one when describing Scarlett O’Hara: “Her eyes were pale green without a touch of hazel…magnolia-white skin…her new green flowered-muslin dress…set off to perfection the seventeen-inch waist…and breasts well-matured for her sixteen years.” 

It’s even more interesting when you give them a flaw – like make your protagonist beautiful, but give her slightly crooked teeth or a limp or one green eye and one brown.  It’s not necessary to describe a character to within an inch of their life – in fact it’s distracting to do so – but give the reader SOMETHING to hang their hat on. 

2.     Make them Talk
Years ago, I read a book that contained a line of dialogue so awful, I still remember it to this day.  Two characters were talking about TV shows, when one asked the other, “Did you ever watch Show X?  It was a short-lived TV show that ran on CBS.”

Come on, now.  Who says “short-lived” in everyday life? (and mind you, this was a traditionally published book, which just goes to show bad writing isn't limited to the self-published). It would have been more realistic to say something like, “Do you remember Show X from a few years ago?  It wasn’t on for that long.”  Or even, “Did you ever watch Show X? It came out a few years ago, but it was only on for a couple of episodes.”

Admittedly, dialogue is tough.  It serves a multitude of purposes; it develops your characters, moves the story forward and provides conflict.  And it has to sound realistic.  Big job.

Elmore Leonard is considered a master at writing dialogue, winning praise for the whip-smart, snappy banter between his characters.  In a recent profile of Leonard, the “L.A. Times Magazine” says his dialogue twists, snaps and curls in the actors' mouths."   

Granted, we’re not all going to be able to do what Elmore Leonard does, but we can at least shoot to make our characters sound realistic.  Listen to conversations around you and take note of the cadence and the tone.  Also, have the dialogue count for something.  Don’t just say your characters had a nice dinner.  What did they talk about during dinner?  What plot points can you drop into that conversation? 

3.     Describe Everything Else
Similar to character descriptions, this one sometimes gets the shaft.  Giving a little bit of description as to what a room looks like or what something tastes, sounds or smells like, such as the crunch of sand between bare feet as the salty sea air washes over…you get the point. Using the five senses to paint a picture brings the story to life.

Sometimes, this can go overboard.  I read a suspense book years ago where the author described each and every meal the characters ate in excruciating detail.  This wasn’t a cookbook or book where one of the characters was in the food industry.  The overdone descriptions about food added nothing to the plot and just distracted from the story.  

Setting the scene anchors the characters, yet moves them and the plot forward.  Consider this vivid description from “The Firm,” of a crappy car:

“The ancient Mazda hatchback with three hubcaps and a badly cracked windshield hung in the gutter…with three job offers on the table, a new car was four months away.”

The description of this car really highlights the precarious financial situation Mitch McDeere and his wife, Abby, are in.  Sure, you can say, they’re poor and have a stack of bills and you kind of get the picture.  But giving this one little detail fleshes out the predicament while serving as a subtle, yet far-reaching plot point; when Mitch goes to work for the Firm, they’re gifted with a brand new BMW, which is one of a series of traps that sets them up to be sucked into the Firm’s nefarious Web.  Small detail.  Big payoff.

I never read that book I downloaded.  I gave up about 20% in before I skimmed through to the end before deleting it out of my Kindle altogether.  I can forgive a lot of things, such as occasionally stilted dialogue, the odd typo here and there, excessive exposition (if it’s interesting at least.  If it takes a character ten pages to walk into a room, I’m outta there), plot holes (seriously, if anyone can tell me what the motive for murder was in the otherwise highly-entertaining, “S is for Silence,” by Sue Grafton, I’m listening) convoluted plots – even paper-thin plots – if the writing at least is solid.  I can’t, however, suffer through bad grammar, limited vocabulary, and mangled syntax.  I do need there to be some meat on the bones of the characters, some descriptions, some dialogue.

Isn’t that what a story’s all about?

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