The quality of your description can make or break your novel when you send it to an agent or publisher (or direct with a reader if you’re self publishing).
Yes, yes we all *know* this … Yet STILL all too often writers do not invest in their description adequately and drop a multitude of clangers that serve only to dissuade agents, publishers or readers from engaging with the story in front of them. So what to do?
Here are my top 8 tips for investing in description and ensuring you CONNECT with whomever is reading:
8. Cut out waffle. No, not those kind of waffles (mmmmm waffles). Where was I? Oh yeah: remember English essays in school? Your teacher would go on at you about exams and bark at you: “Answer the question!” Turns out this is good advice for novelists too. So unleash your inner English Teacher. Imagine him or her standing over your shoulder, demanding you put everything in a simple, effective manner – minus the waffle, flowery descriptions or irrelevant BS. Now read it back. Can you cut even more? Bet you can. GO GO GO.
7. Strip out cliches. A well-placed cliched phrase *can* be worth its weight in gold – IF it reveals something about a character’s worldview, or relates to the plot in some way. If it doesn’t? Yikes, get rid at once! Cliches I read all the time in spec novels: “time flies when you’re having fun” (yargh); “race against time” (yawn) and “learn to love and live again” (PUKE!). Get out that red pen. Use it like a heat seeking missile for cliches: SEEK AND DESTROY.
6. Don’t rely on appearances. Appearances can be deceptive; we all know this. Yet spec novels, just like spec screenplays, will rely on clothes or “look” to define a character or place. LE YAWN. Unlike a screenplay, which is rendered as image, you have lots of lovely words to give us a “feel” (oooh Matron) for the character or place. So think metaphorical, not literal. But …
5. Remember the “here and now” … Don’t go overboard, obviously. Durr. Less is still more, even in a novel. If you can sum something up in a sentence or even a word or two, great. Go for it. Remember to cut that waffle. Also, remember the “here and now”. Yes, timeframe can be more fluid in a novel than a screenplay, but make sure the reader feels “anchored” and can follow the “throughline” from present to past, without confusion. Narrative clarity is still a must.
4. Blowtorch “inverse action”. If you over-describe the little actions, then the big actions end up becoming little … and thus are lost in the mix. I call this “inverse action”: the reader just does not know what is important and what is not. So think very carefully about what you choose to describe. What is significant, what is not? Make sure we know and can follow your intentions; don’t let your reader up blind alleys!
3. Don’t describe “around” events & characters. Remember, the key word is CONNECTION. Everybody wants a good yarn, well told. Readers want to know:
WHO is doing
this leads to
Sounds pretty basic, yeah?
Yet loads of spec novels place events and characters “away” from the reader. Sometimes the problem is technical; a writer will use a sentence construction that describes “around” an event or character, such as the passive voice or the perfective aspect (“had”). Other times, writers are simply too verbose and flowery (so we’re back to point 8 again).
So here, just remember: CUT TO THE CHASE. Be active. Be snappy. Don’t keep the reader at arm’s length, INVOLVE them!
2. Be consistent. I read a lot of spec novels that chop and change character POVs; the first and third person; various tense use; phonetic/correct spelling; sometimes ALL of the above – and more. Yargh. This rarely works. Pick one thing – whatever it is! – and stick with it. Otherwise it reads like a mad mish-mash and again, takes events and characters “away” from the reader.
1. Get rid of all the boring bits. Seriously! A helluva lot of description is simply DULL STUFF. Yet creative writing is “life, with the boring bits cut out” – or should be. Here are the main issues:
- Coffee. I love coffee. Truly, I do. But if I have to read ONE MORE spec novel character’s internal monologue about coffee? I’m taking you all down. Oh and btw, the same applies to Tea, Cappuccinos, Macchiatos, Frappicinos, Babiccinos, OMFGcinos, the works!
- Meals out. Apparently, if you’re aged 21-35 and female? You eat out. Every. Single. Day. And for every single meal!!! For this, I can only blame the likes of FRIENDS and SEX AND THE CITY. Handily, said women will meet all manner of people *because* they go to a particular restaurant or coffee shop (where they usually obsess about coffee 24/7). STOP IT. STOP IT NOW. Your characters can meet people absolutely anywhere – because it’s a novel! Parks, museums, landmarks … They can meet up a tree or on the moon if you like. There are no restrictions. So pick somewhere that’s INTERESTING.
- Getting ready. Just like spec screenwriters, spec novelists appear to have a metaphorical hard-on for characters getting ready for work or for nights out. DUDES. Don’t make me get wicked on your asses. You *know* this one is rubbish.
- Walking/Journeys in general. A journey that involves some sort of conflict for some reason? GOOD. Walking/travelling around aimlessly is NOT good. We clear? GOOD.
- Sitting. Sitting is not active. It’s the opposite of active, in fact. That’s not to say your characters need to be on the go ALL the time, of course not. But having them in various seated positions throughout your story?? Do not pass GO. Do not collect £100. GO STRAIGHT TO STORY JAIL.
Of course, there’s loads of other BORING ways spec novelists describe stuff, but I’m even boring myself just thinking about them.
Anyway, I’m off to drink coffee. An espresso, I think. A long black. Served in a mug, topped up with water and a shot of hazelnut syrup. That dark, rich, velvety aroma invades my senses and makes me think back to that time I was in ‘Nam …
… NO NO NO! Naughty writers: you pollute my MIND! >scream<
You know the drill. Get chopping. Off you go!