I'm deep in edits, trying to rework a story that is the first in a related set of Regency-set stories, so I'm a little harried this week. I don't have any new, brilliant words of wisdom. I'm just trying to keep my head above water. Mostly because, editing is NOT my friend. When I edit something, I tend to make it worse instead of better. Sometimes it's because I'm trying to make it something it is not. For example, "increase the sensuality". Well, if the story did not have that focus to begin with because it is not relevant, than just trying to shove it in is not going to suddenly make it 100% better and sell it to some editor 1/3 my age. I am so freaking sick of the whole subject of sensuality and the erotic trends in the market that I've basically stopped taking classes in writing or listening to any other writers because I really don't care.
What is this emphasis over one small, paltry aspect of the story?
And it's not that my stories don't sometimes include those elements if the characters "go there". In fact, I have one manuscript which I've hesitated to show to anyone, like my agent, because it starts out with "one of those scenes". Right in the very beginning. First chapter. Page one. But it was where the character was at the time. It is not the central focus of the story. It just happened.
Anyway, enough about that. It's a pet peeve of mine because I'm so sick of listening to everyone babble on about it, but it's like any other element of writing. You include what is necessary for the story and that's pretty much all there is to it.
So…whatever. I have discovered, though, that trying to trim down my already fairly lean-and-mean writing is not good either.
Brief descriptions for main characters does not cut the mustard. In fact, I've learned that the best way to create a cardboard character is to throw in a couple of lines about their physical appearance and move on with the story. It ends up sounding like a laundry list or wanted poster. What you really need to do is write a long paragraph that isn't so much a description as it is what the other character thinks about the one described. This means, basically, that there really are some rules:
- You can't describe your heroine until you are in the hero's (or some other character's) viewpoint. Because otherwise, you've got the heroine describing herself—which is never a good thing unless it's something like: she's in some store's dressing room trying on a dress and she can't get the zipper closed because she's gained about ten pounds over the Thanksgiving holidays. But for God's sake, don't have her stare in the mirror and itemize her hair, eyes and complexion. There is NOTHING worse than a mirror scene. It's lazy writing and it stinks. Never have a character describe himself or herself. Never, ever include a line like: She threw a lock of her golden hair over her shoulder. Just whose point of view is that in, anyway?
- Unless this is literary fiction, you—the author—can't just describe the characters, either. You can't play God for a few minutes and stare down at your characters and describe them to the reader. Unless you're a member of Monty Python and are being funny.
- So…one character has to describe the other. If it's your hero describing the heroine, he has to do it in his own words. Not in some poetic drivel, unless he's a poet. And don't use words like beautiful. It has no meaning—the word has lost its power due to overuse and just general malaise. Are her features perfect like Grace Kelly? Or does she have the exotic sensuality of Gene Tierney with her pouting mouth and hint of an overbite. That overbite has made millions of men lose it—and it's the kind of thing your hero should and would notice. Men often have a fixation with mouths because—okay, we're not going to go there… Anyway, more often than not, it's the small things that one person might consider an imperfection that drives another person insane with lust. A big nose on a man; an overbite on a woman; heavy-lidded, sleepy eyes. Whatever. But the thing to note is that it's not a description, per se, but the character's reaction to these attributes. What is it about the heroine that the hero really notices? What conclusions does he draw because of what he sees or smells? Is she a sloppy, rumpled dresser? Does he find it indescribably erotic that she's a mess, smells of warm, salty flesh, and looks like she just fell out of bed? Or…you tell me.
The best descriptions build up a picture from the opinions and reactions of the point-of-view character. The character doing the describing.
Yeah, it's a pain in the patootie. It means you have to think about it. You have to think about what the heroine sees, feels, and reacts to when she sees the hero. You have to use her words—not your words.
In essence, the author has to step out of the way and let the characters do the describing, reacting, and feeling. In fact, the author often needs to just step out of the way and let the characters tell the story.
It's not that easy to do.