Saturday, February 25, 2012

How Much Description is too Much?

I don't honestly know how much description is too much.  But I do know that every author has strengths and weaknesses. I know that the business of writing is filled with distinct individuals. I know that some authors can use massive blocks of description effectively and others cannot. It really depends on the author.

I know what I expect as a reader and reviewer though. I know that what separates the excellent writer from the good one is the drive for improvement. The excellent writers are never content with their writing. They constantly strive to provide the reader with better work and this is what the reader and reviewer want.

In the area of writing description there is always room for improvement. But there is also a basic reality to what the reader expects. Now, granted, the reader is an individual as well and some may be more tolerant than others, but here is the basic reality: The reader expects description to put them into the story, but not distract from it.

Some authors have their strong point in dialogue and action. Others have their strong point in description. Two authors whose strength is in description are T.A. Barron and Stephen Lawhead. They are masters at it. But both of their styles are wildly different.

T.A. Barron tends to have lengthier description sections and more often, but his language is so magnificent and easy to read that the reader hardly notices the absence of dialogue for a few pages.

Stephen Lawhead is a more balanced writer between dialogue and description, but he does have a strength is description. He is able to  describe a scene vividly using unexpected details that successfully cast an image into the mind of his reader.

These two authors represent what I  expect as a reader and reviewer. They use description effectively and are able to keep the reader's mind in the plot and run of the story. Scenes in writing are much like scenes in plays. The set (description) is in the background. It enhances, sets-up, and frames the scene, but it does not distract from the actors (characters.) This is what the reader expects from a writer in regards to description.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Writing of Characters

When I read a book I always consider it an adventure I have chosen to go on. I look to the author and say, "guide me." And guiding me is all I expect the author to do. I expect to be shown the story that is the adventure, but I want to see and understand some things on my own. Authors should not be tedious tour guides. We, the readers, have a lust for the juicy parts of the adventure and it is what we expect to get. We want to experience some things on our own. We have imagination too.

This week I plan to write about what the reader expects from a writer. I have some authority is this subject since I am an avid reader and honest, sometimes brutally, book reviewer. Today's post concerns characters. Particularly what the reader expects in regards to how the author presents characters to the reader through dialogue.

Museums are a useful illustration for how readers should see characters. A typical museum display contains a small plaque that tells about the display. These plaques allow the reader to see more into the aspects of the display than the tour guide point out. Writing characters works the same way.

You can tell your reader a few of the prominent details about a character, but they do not want to be bored by every little detail. Some good details that you can give the reader safely are the eye color and the height. You could even say a character is handsome or beautiful, but you must allow the reader to imagine what they believe the character looks like overall. This aspect makes the character, especially the main protagonist, more personal and encourages the reader to care for them. 

One thing that we rarely obtain from a museum is how the people in the displays lived and acted. We cannot understand the full character of someone just by looking at physical appearance. You see, if you look at a mummy in a coffin…I mean sarcophagus…you would not say, “He’s a funny fella.”

The only way you could possibly know the character/personality of whoever that mummy was would be to don a lab coat, construct a time machine, and travel back in time to ancient Egypt. Then, if you don’t get stuck in a desert or killed by nomads, you have to find out who that mummy was when he lived. In all likelihood it will be some pharaoh and you would never get to him. Even if you did find the man-before-the-mummy, you would have to get close to him and follow him around before you ever truly got to know him.

Reflecting on the past illustration, our job as writers is to spare the reader from having to do anything remotely similar to that. We can grant them immediate access into the most personal recesses of a character’s life. We do this through dialogue. No reader is going to want to be told that Jason argued with his wife and left her. The reader wants to hear the argument, see the pain, and watch as Jason leaves. Now if the main protagonist was Jason’s wife, and the reader had already developed a love for her, imagine how deeply emotional that scene would be.

It is also easier to discover a character’s past through dialogue and it is infinitely less boring. I’m not suggesting that a character details everything about his past to someone he just met, but the author could let a little slip and then allow the reader to fill in some minor details based on what they already know about the character.

These have been speculations with Joshua A. Spotts, tune in next time…

Friday, February 17, 2012

Research in Fantasy Writing

How important do you imagine research to be? I know how important I feel it is. Very. I know some people, who will remain nameless, who believe that research is a waste of time for short story writing or fantasy novels. There is nothing farther from the truth.

 Recently I wrote a short story for a competition. It had to be based on the Titanic. I wanted my work to look professional. I wanted it to be flawless. I spent several hours one night over Christmas break just reading information about the Titanic. By the time I was done with the research I was able to sit down and write my entire story in a single sitting. It actually made the writing easier since I knew more than enough details about the Titanic and its crew. Also, for once in a rare time, I was satisfied with my work.

By common sense research is necessary for things like Magazine article writing, modern or historical based novels, and research papers (duh!) But the one fact that must never be overlooked in research's necessity in fantasy writing.

Research for fantasy writing often takes a different twist than research for the things I've listed above. In fact it even defies the common conception of research.

Fantasy research involves studying people, which is fun, analyzing their conversations, developing characters from their faults, all that fun stuff. Fantasy must have believable characters that the reader can attach to. This is achieved by the research into real people.

Fantasy research also involves studying the world around you. The fantasy writer needs to be able to describe new things straight from his imagination. Thus the fantasy writer needs to study their surrounding and be able to describe them. How else, if the writer cannot do that, can the writer describe something no one has ever seen before?

Finally, fantasy research involves bookstores. Find out what has been written before.  Know what fantasy ideas are original. People always enjoy a fresh, brand new fantasy.  Also find out what trends are selling. I am not advising you to write a Twilight novel, but you can create something original along the same line of a selling book trend. It just takes some work and some research.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Foolish Fly

There is nothing more annoying to Cook than that one fly. I know it is a different one each day, but she insists it is the same one. She calls it the "demon fly." It has been her adversary for this past month and, in the fact that it hinders her work, it is our adversary. Papa doesn't like his meals to be late. Tonight he commanded that she spend the next ignoring the fly.

I chuckled, but he glared at me. Let me tell you, I shut my trap real quick. When Papa means business he means business and no longer. Period. When dinner was over I volunteered to help Cook kill the fly. She was hesitant. I managed to convince her that, with patience, we could kill the annoyance.

I put a dab of honey on the counter, grabbed the fly-swatter, and waited. I could hear Cook's heavy breathing beside me. I wondered if she would have enough patience for this. It turns out she did not.
As soon as the fly landed and started to eye the honey she left out with a rolling pin and tried to smash it. The fly darted away and hovered inches from her face, mocking her.

This continued for about three hours. The haughty fly grew more and more confident and ever the more obnoxious. Cook seemed to have steam coming from her ears. I sent her off into the next room. I had the fly right where I wanted it, right there in its overbearing self-confidence.  It landed and looked at me. I waited. It buzzed toward me and buzzed back to the honey. I almost laughed. It was trying to intimidate me! I stayed still.

It soon grew bored of its game and, in its pride, it landed and began to eat from the drop of honey. Oh, foolish fly! I rushed forward, bringing the fly-swatter down. The last thing the haughty fly saw was that pile of honey. It had fallen for my trap. Patience was victorious over speed once again.

The End 

Flies are the most obnoxious antagonists ever. There are certain people who are just as obnoxious. They are arrogant, they mock us, then they fall. No one likes these people. But only the patient people can ever tolerate or defeat them.

These obnoxious antagonists can be used rather effectively in short stories. The reader knows how irritating these type of people can be and therefore they connect more with the protagonist. Not every villain in a story should be brilliant, some need to be those obnoxious people that we all struggle against.

Friday, February 10, 2012

The Beatitudes of Writers

Some would say that this modern age has thrown out the old writer, the one who signed books and interacted with people, and replaced them with a breed of instantly published e-book writers who lurk at their computers and loiter on the internet. I disagree entirely.

There are certain qualities writers need that are necessary for success, even perhaps survival, in the publishing marketplace. Many writers possess these qualities, some do not, others have yet to emerge from their shells. I have compiled a list of beatitudes for writers. I hope they help you.

1. Writers need to understand people and interact with them on a regular basis. Our readers are our lifeblood. Our characters are people. So why shouldn't we strive to understand (though this is hard at times) and communicate with people. The better we know how people act, the more believable characters we can make. The more we communicate, the better our dialogue is.

It is true that in this age the internet has arisen as the dominant method of communication. This does effect writers and allows us an easy method of communication with editors and agents and each other, but we must not forget how to communicate with people face to face. Think about it.

Say, for example, that you create a wonderful story, cultivate a loyal, online tribe, but never interact with people apart from a small circle, and a publisher notices you. They e-mail you and offers you a chance to pitch the book to their editor-in-chief. Now, you go out there, your knees shake, you are uncomfortable and pale. The editor stares at you and waits patiently. Then, because of your lack of face-to-face capabilities, you fail the pitch. This is a disaster.

So remember dear friends, even though the internet provides us with boundless marketing and networking capabilities, we must never abandon face-to-face interaction. I understand that many of you are dedicated and must be at your computer, but would it hurt to take a break, get a haircut, and just talk casually with the barber? Those guys are limitless sources of material too!

2. Writers should, specifically, interact with their readers. In the past this was through book signings (which are still done) and even letter correspondence. In this modern age of ours this quality of a writer has gone up in its necessity. Our readers are online now. They are on our website and blogs. They expect interaction and you should give it to them. This beatitude is easier to possess today than it ever was. Twitter is a prime example; short, quick responses to short, quick questions or comments. Then (KABAM!) the reader feels valued.

3. Writers should know their manners. This can be used in context to both the above beatitudes. When working with editors and agents, the editors expect and deserve respect. They are the gatekeepers. When publishing an e-book, be respectful and polite to the reader. When talking with an agent, be respectful and they will respect you. A lot of the senior members of this writing community grew up with manners and they are impressed by members of the younger generation who use it.

4. Writers should give the readers their best. Nothing more needs to be said on this beatitude. It is a rule and a quality that should not need explanation.

Dearest reader, I realize that there are some aspects in attribute/beatitude #1 that have not been thoroughly explored, but I do not believe blogs should be overly long. I do hope that these beatitudes (or behaviors) are ones you will apply to yourself. They are the ones I try to live by.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The Quadruple S

I cross myself and spit to one side whenever a fellow Professional Writing major mentions Silent Snow, Secret Snow. It is a joking action that I thought up with my friend Nathan Sturgis. I should probably explain myself.

Silent Snow, Secret Snow is a superb short story created by Conrad Aiken. We are studying it in my Professional Writing class. My teacher, Doctor Hensley, adores the story; and for good reasons! The short story concerns a child named Paul Hasleman and how the people in his life, who should be uplifting him and causing him to bloom forth in his dreams, are pushing him back into a little, cold, protected seed. They want him to be normal. Paul, in reaction, develops a protective screening of snow that only he knows about. It separates him from the world.

It is an utterly frightening reality check on how we treat others, particularly children. Silent Snow, Secret Snow reveals the awesome influence adults have over children, especially those in adolescence, when they're developing their interests and going through changes. I am the older brother of several young siblings. I understand how little children look to their elders for guidance. I also understand what it is to have a dream and to have it suppressed. This story frightens me because I can put myself in Paul's shoes and, what is worse, I can see my little siblings in Paul's shoes. I know they aren't there in real life, but I can see the possibility and it horrifies me.

I apologize for rambling on up there in the last paragraph. I do believe you understand the power of this story though. It is a fantastic read. It is a literary masterpiece. But, above both these things, it is more powerful when read aloud. It seems as if it it designed to be read aloud. You can actually hear the whirlwind and the snowstorm in the reader's voice. This is due to the 's' and 'ch' sounds that are woven together in a miraculous symphony of alliterative prose.  Everything in that short story is placed there on purpose. No color, no reference is out of place. Nothing is without meaning. I highly recommend reading this short story, both out loud and silently.

But, on a negative side, and to explain why I cross myself and spit at the story's mention, it does get tedious when we are analyzing it day after day. It is enlightening and I am sure it is teaching us something. But I believe that some short stories are meant to be enjoyed and not over-analyzed. The story had more impact on me when Doctor Hensley read it aloud than it did when we started analyzing it. But the analysis has brought out many aspects I would never have seen. I stand rather half and half about this "Quadruple S short story," as I have called it. I am appreciative of the analysis for the fact that it helps me see how to write better.

Also, it is a little frightening and could be self-defeating to compare one's own writing to such a masterpiece, but I feel that, for me, it has motivated me to writer better. It has motivated me and I tell myself that, "if a guy with a weird name like Conrad Aiken can create a masterpiece, a guy with a rather normal name like Joshua A. Spotts can create a masterpiece as well!"

Friday, February 3, 2012

Noisy Blogging

In a household with children, noise is an ever present reality. That is, except for nap-times. The noisy bloggers of the internet world are like this. Link-dropping noisy bloggers are like this. They drop their blog link on sites and trumpet it perpetually, but the blog is filled with noise. The only time they are quiet is when they have not posted something new.

In these blogs there is rarely any focus. There is rarely any kernels of precise interest or profound knowledge. Have you ever tried to understand what a two-year-old is saying when they are excited? You understand only a few eligible "words" out of the slew of noise which could be called "communication." Indeed, they are trying to communicate; trying and failing.

I am not saying that writing that way can not develop into better writing. After all, haven't we advanced from our two-year-old method of communicating to the sophisticated (in comparison) communication we use on a day to day basis? But how did we get to this point? We got here because our parents coached us in our communication. They taught us manners. They suffered through our "terrible twos." They made us go to school. Yes, admit it, sometimes you didn't want to go.

So, in the same way, before trying to express an idea to the internet world of users, the writer should educate themselves and strive to write clearly, precisely, and without noise. We, as fellow writers, should guide our fellow writers to better communication. I know, my friends, that I enjoy feedback. If someone takes offense then they deserve to dwell in that pit.

Onward, fellows, to the second part of this blog! What is "noise" in a blog? Noise is found in a blog that has no set purpose. This blog's content tends to waver, to flutter from one snippet to another. This can be okay, if done right. Noise consists of poor writing. Noise consists of uninteresting blog foundations. Noise can even exist in blogs with a poor background and poor site structure. For example: A bland, white and black webpage with the generic set up and no personal information on the author.

We, as good writers, should avoid these things in our blogs. Make all your content interesting, write clearly, and have an interesting web design. Also, make the blog personal. Add a thorough profile and a nice picture. Make your writing personal. Blog readers are interested in your blog because they are interested in what you have to say. So, for the universal reputation of blogging, say it without noise.

Joshua A. Spotts

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