Description Conundrum

Today’s blog raises a question I don’t have an answer for: How much description is too much, and how little description is too little?

 When I write, I tend to be spare in regard to description. I think it’s largely due to the fact that when I read, I prefer to use my imagination to visualize a character’s appearance and dress. Also, I don’t like reading a story that pauses the action to give lengthy descriptions unless those descriptions are vital to the plot. In some stories the setting plays such a vital part that it must be described in detail. In all stories some sense of place is necessary, but the amount of description needed to provide that sense of place varies according to the type of story it is.

cover artIn my book Seduction of the Scepter, I set the novel in a fictitious country, but I located that country in our world in a specific historical time and in a specific region of the world: eastern Europe in the mid 1700s. Although using a fictitious country allowed me latitude to invent the political system and certain customs, those had to at least fit into the time period. Although I used no actual historical events or personages, I researched the styles of dress and hair, the popular foods, the music and dance, the religious and social customs of the era and drew on that research to make the story believable. When Lara, my protagonist, attended a ball, I had to describe the ball gowns worn by the women and the formal dress of the men in a manner consistent with the time and general setting. What was served at a court banquet had to be courses and dishes that would be available and popular in Europe in that time period. So I used more complete descriptions than I tend to use in novels set in wholly fictitious worlds. Also, since the novel is in first person, told entirely through journal entries written by Lara, giving detailed description in her journal is consistent with her character, which also required including more description than I normally do.

 In my Arucadi novels, which are set in a wholly imaginary world, I needed a good bit of description of place to give the reader indication in the early novels (Mistress of the Wind, Bringers of Magic, A Mix of Magics) that the world is not medieval but is at the start of the industrial age, with trains, hand-operated sewing machines (important to the plot), bicycles, but as yet no cars and certainly no airplanes. The conflict between magic and machines is vital to the plot, especially in the first two novels. In A Perilous Power, set in the same world but in a later time period, the technology is more advanced. Buses provide transportation in towns, and cars are starting to appear in the large cities but are still unknown in rural areas. A School for Sorcery, When the Beast Ravens, and Bryte’s Ascent are set in a slightly later period, approximately equivalent to the 1920s in America, with cars, telephones, and electricity more commonplace. However, unlike our world, air travel is still unknown in Arucadi. In these novels, all told in third person, while I describe settings in some detail, I am more spare in describing dress and personal appearance. Possibly too much so. When A Perilous Power was going through the editing process, framedhcmy editor asked me for a description the cover artist could use in depicting Trevor, my protagonist. Only at that point did I realize I had never described Trevor, though I had described his best friend and sidekick, Les, and other characters to at least some degree. I had to go back to the manuscript and include Trevor’s physical description before complying with my editor’s request. Even then I didn’t describe clothing in much detail, which may be why the cover artist of the hard cover book depicted Trevor in modern jeans and shirt instead of clothing appropriate to a period equivalent to our late 19th century. (The cover artist for the later appearing paperback got the clothing right.)

 One of my beta readers for The Twisted Towers, the novel I have currently nearly ready for publication, has said I need more physical description of places, people, and apparel. I probably do, but the novel is already quite long, and I’m loath to add much more to it. So I’m back to the question with which I started this blog: How much description is too much, and how little description is too little?

 Like the Arucadi novels, the new novel, a stand-alone epic fantasy, is set in an early industrial period in which recently invented “horseless carriages” run on steam engines, and electricity provides lighting in public buildings and the homes of the wealthy, but is still not available to the lower classes. The setting is the capital city of a country added by conquest to an extensive empire. The plot involves a commoner citizen of that conquered nation who weds the crown prince of the empire but is so resented by the imperial nobility that her marriage is in danger, her hope of helping her people is thwarted, and assassination attempts threaten her life. Clearly, the reader needs a sense of place and of the general time period, but how much physical description of characters and clothing is needed? The novel has a large cast of characters, and I go into the viewpoints of seven of the leading characters. How detailed would you readers want the descriptions of the physical appearance and dress of these and other characters?

 I’d like to hear the opinions of readers and of writers as to the extent and type of description you prefer. What characteristics must be included, and what can be left to the reader’s imagination? Please share your thoughts.

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Grammar Still Matters

In this age of social media, when people post everything from what they ate at their most recent meal to political and social commentary, often in haste and with little regard to spelling and grammar, we may well conclude that grammar no longer matters. Some errors occur with such frequency that people no longer regard them as errors but as accepted usage. Language is constantly changing. Is this true of grammar as well?

Certainly some grammatical errors have become so commonplace that they have replaced the correct forms at least in speech and in informal writing such as what we see in email and on the many social media sites. Have those of us who are bothered by incorrect grammar reduced to throwing up our hands in surrender? Have the incorrect forms become the norm?

I don’t know the answer to that question with regard to casual writing, but I do say emphatically that to writers, grammar still matters. Or at least, it should. Professional writers should and generally do still care about grammar. Professional publishing houses have editors and proofreaders who correct errors. Many conscientious self-published authors pay editors to check their work and remove errors of spelling, capitalization, punctuation, and usage or have their work vetted by beta readers who, though their primary purpose is judging the content, also catch many errors in the course of their reading. I was so fortunate to have an excellent editor for my books published by Tor. He was quick to make me aware of anything I was careless about. For example, like so many, I did not distinguish between the words anxious and eager. I had written something about the boys in A Perilous Power being anxious to reach the city of Port-of-Lords. My editor asked whether I meant they were worried about possibly not reaching it. If so, anxious would be correct, but he suspected that what I meant was that they were eager to reach Port-of-Lords. I agreed that that was what I meant, and since then I am careful to use the two words correctly. I also recall that a short story I submitted to George Scithers, who was a wonderful editor but is, alas, no longer with us, was rejected but was returned to me with editorial corrections. I have always considered myself a good speller, but, to my embarrassment I had misspelled the word minuscule as miniscule. That is a common spelling error, but not one I will ever make again. I’m sure I have made and will make others, and I never take offense when these are pointed out to me. Rather, I’m grateful, because I want my work to appear as professional as possible.

Errors of word usage and spelling can creep into any writer’s work, but they should never abound in a work. Writers should know and use the correct forms of the verbs lay and lie, for example. A writer may use the incorrect forms of these verbs in dialog, to indicate that the speaker is grammatically challenged, but never in narrative or in dialog when the speaker is a well-educated person. No writer should confuse its and it’s, an error I just saw used repeatedly in an article in a publication put out by a professional organization. A writer should never misuse the case of a pronoun by writing something like between him and I, yet just recently I came across this sentence, I needed to clear up the misunderstanding that had arisen between my father and I.

An error that I see frequently is in the use of the word whomever. The forms whom and whomever are probably on their way out, at least in speech and in informal writing. Few readers would notice the use of who or whoever where whom or whomever would be grammatically correct. For that reason, I would advise anyone unsure of when to use whom or whomever to stick with who and whoever under all circumstances. This is especially true when trying to use whomever in a clause used as a direct object or object of a preposition. This sentence illustrates a frequent error: The prize will be awarded to whomever answers the next question correctly. Here whomever is incorrect because the object of the preposition to is not whomever, but the entire clause that follows it. The subject of that clause is, correctly, whoever. Compare these two sentences:

The prize will be awarded to whoever answers the next question correctly.

The prize will be awarded to whomever the judges choose.

In the second sentence, the object of the preposition to is again the entire clause, whomever the judges choose, but in this case whomever is correct because it is the direct object of the verb choose. If you understand this distinction, great! But if you are confused, unless you are doing formal or academic writing, just use whoever in either sentence, and very few readers will realize that the word should be whomever.

For a more detailed discussion of this topic and clarification on many other often confused words, I recommend the book Common Errors in English Usage, by Paul Brians.

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On Writing Across Genres

Cross-genre works have become increasingly popular in recent years. They’ve always been around; they aren’t a new phenomenon. However, in the past it often proved difficult to get a cross-genre work published. That was not due to any fault in the work but rather to the simple fact that bookstores didn’t like them because they didn’t know where to shelve them. Should a mystery with fantasy elements be shelved with mysteries or with fantasy? How about a book that combined a sports story with science fiction? Or a literary work that had a science fictional setting? I remember when I was trying to find the fifth and final book in Doris Lessing’s Canopus in Argos Archives. I went into a large bookstore and asked for it. “It’s science fiction,” I said, trying to be helpful, as the clerk didn’t seem to be familiar with the work. He shook his head. “Doris Lessing doesn’t write science fiction,” he informed me. “She’s a literary writer.” Well, yes, she was a literary writer, and the five books in the Canopus in Argos Archives are literary science fiction. So bookstores, I found, generally shelved the series with literary works, not with science fiction, making it difficult for science fiction readers to discover her work, though of course many have. 

Now that books are so frequently purchased on line, the shelving of them is nMurdergoroundo longer a major concern. Cross-genre works have advantages. They are a way of drawing in new readers. An example is a book I recently reviewed: Murder Go Round, by Carol J. Perry. It is a mystery and appeals to avid mystery readers. But its paranormal aspects may encourage mystery readers to try other works of urban fantasy, while at the same time they draw in fantasy readers like me.

 

When I tell people I write fantasy novels, I frequently get the response, “Oh, I don’t read fantasy.” But many do read historical novels. So I tell them about my novel Seduction of the Scepter, in cover artwhich the fantasy element consists of the story being set in a fictitious eastern European country with a political system of my invention, and the main character, a noblewoman, occasionally mentally receives a thought from someone nearby. She cannot control this ability, does not want it, and it mostly just upsets her, because she can’t be certain whose thought she’s received and rarely knows why that thought has come to her. But the novel is set in a definite historical period, the mid-1700s. It isn’t historical in the sense of dealing with actual historical events or personages, but it is historical in the broader sense of reflecting the customs, mores, and outlook of that era. Calling it cross-genre may be a bit of a stretch, but I have had many readers tell me they really enjoyed it despite not being fantasy readers. And as historical fantasy is a subgenre of fantasy, fantasy readers have no problem with it except perhaps for those who may have wanted more fantastic elements in it.

 My book When the Beast Ravens is out and out fantasy, but it is also a murder mystery. My novel Deathright is a time travel story. Time travel is generally considered science fiction, but it can also be used in fantasy, and I have done so in that novel. Beast RavensMany science fiction writers have mixed a bit of fantasy in with science fiction, some very successfully, and others less so. And of course there’s paranormal romance, a very popular subgenre of fantasy, loved by both fantasy readers and romance readers. So writers, if you want to mix genres, go for it! If you do it well, it can enrich your novel and attract more readers.

Find my books on my Amazon page.

 

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On Letting Go

In my previous blog I wrote about books so enjoyable that you don’t want them to end. Now I must confess that writers sometimes feel that way about a book they are writing. We tend to fall in love with our characters and with the story. It’s not that we think it so wonderful, but that because we love the characters and the story we’ve put them into, we want it to be our very best work. Sometimes we complete a manuscript but can’t leave it alone. We want to do more character development, put in more details, maybe add another plot twist. Or maybe we wonder whether we’ve made a situation clear enough. Will the reader understand what we mean here? Does this part need to be better explained?

Even when a book gets sent off to an editor and proofs returned for checking, it’s easy to spot places where the writing can be improved. This is not a matter of correcting an error but of wanting to elaborate a bit here or maybe take some words out there because now you see that the sentence is better, stronger without them. They aren’t wrong, just not needed. And after a book is published, I suspect that many of us, in looking over the finished work, wish we could change something, do a bit of rewriting here and there to make the book better. I know I’m guilty of these feelings, and I suspect I’m not the only author to have them.

I’m sure I’m not the only writer who finds it hard to let a manuscript go. Maybe there are ways I can improve on it. Are there parts I could make clearer? Could I add details to make the writing more vivid?

cover artMaybe I could. Maybe I should. But more likely I shouldn’t. If I’m sending the book to a publisher, my editor will let me know if something isn’t clear and needs some amplification, or, more likely, that something is unnecessary and needs to be removed. When my editor for Seduction of the Scepter marked a large portion of dialog for removal, I objected strenuously. It was a dialog between my protagonist and her instructor regarding the political necessity of arranged marriages in the rather complex political situation in her country. “That information is essential to the plot,” I argued. “It makes clear to the reader what my protagonist must come to accept.” But the editor was adamant, assuring me that the removed material was not necessary, that the reader would understand the situation perfectly well without it. And of course she was absolutely right. Most likely had the material been included, the reader would have skipped over it anyway to get to more interesting material.

This morning I awoke well before the time I needed to get up, and I lay there thinking about my completed manuscript of The Twisted Towers. The towers of the title each correspond to one of the five major gods of Selveen, a country that has been conquered and made a part of an empire where the Selveen gods are not recognized. But the Selveen people continue to worship their gods in underground shrines devoted to them. In addition to the five major gods, three minor gods are mentioned in the story, two only cursorily while the third plays a larger role. My thoughts turned to the minor gods. Of course there are more than three minor gods, but I haven’t mentioned any others. Perhaps I should add a couple of brief mentions, just enough to make the reader aware that other minor gods occupy the Selveen pantheon. I have a character who is very familiar with the Lower Level passages onto which the shrines open. Why not have her comment to another character whom she’s leading through those passages, “This small shrine that we’re passing honors Munji, goddess of thought. I rarely see worshippers come there now. It seems the Selveen people have no use for thought in these difficult times.” With that short bit of dialog, I could introduce a fourth minor god and also make a statement about the condition of the Selveen people. A simple fix. And in another place I could introduce Ligassi, goddess of marriage. I have a scene in which a distraught princess, alone in her garden, shreds the petals of roses as she ponders her unhappy marriage. I could have her reminded later that roses are sacred to Ligassi and have her fear that in shredding them she has offended the goddess, and her marriage is surely doomed. Both wonderful ideas, I concluded. But later, in the bright light of day, I realized that these additions, brief though they would be, are not needed. They contribute nothing new to the plot. They simply represent my reluctance to leave the world I’ve created and the characters to whom I’ve given life.

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As an author who is currently publishing my own novels, I must guard against that tendency to embellish my work with unneeded fribbles and frills. And I must pay close heed to comments from those who read my novel in manuscript form before its publication. If they point out a section that is too long, too wordy, or simply isn’t needed, I know I must be willing to revise and cut—no matter how much it hurts. And then I must let go of my manuscript and send it out, warts and all, to make its own way in the world.

[Check out Seduction of the Scepter. Find it on amazon.com]

 

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A Book I Couldn’t Put Down

cover artRecently I had the gratifying experience of having a friend read one of my books and being told that she found it hard to put down and that when she finished it, she couldn’t stop thinking about it. She asked whether I’d be writing a sequel to it. I told her that I would not do a sequel; the book is strictly a stand-alone. The book in question is my novel Seduction of the Scepter. I had recommended it to her, knowing she isn’t a fantasy reader and hoping she would enjoy it, as it has few fantasy elements. Of course I was delighted when she told me she’d loved the book, and that it had left her wanting more.

I could identify with that feeling, as I had just finished reading a trilogy plus a related novella, all included in a doorstop of a book. I had purchased the book, wanting to familiarize myself with the writing of an author new to me. The book was The Inheritance Trilogy, by N. K. Jemison, who was to be the featured author at the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts. The trilogy’s three novels ate The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, The Broken Kingdoms, and the Kingdom of Gods. The novella is The Awakened Kingdom. My plan was to read the first novel, put the book aside and read something else, then go back and read the second novel, put it aside again to read a different type of book, and return eventually to read the third novel. The plan failed. I so loved the first novel that when I reached the end, I immediately started on the second. And then the third. And then the novella.

 Inheritance Trilogy

I could easily have followed my original plan. Each of the novels in the trilogy was complete in itself—no cliff-hanger endings. Each had a first person narrator/protagonist, but not the same protagonist; the narrator was different in each. So what made this set of novels so compelling? The stories are highly original—no hackneyed plots here. The characters draw the reader in and invite her to share their adventures. The world building is exquisite, and the beautifully crafted stories move along swiftly, holding the reader’s interest through every page, every paragraph. The novels are filled with wonder, with joy and with despair. They deal with eternal themes in new and different ways, leaving the reader with much to think about, to ponder, and to gather new insights from.

 I’ve praised the novels and novella that make up The Inheritance Trilogy, but I’ve told you nothing about the plots. If you enjoy fantasy and relish good writing, and you may well have already discovered this gifted author and savored her work. But if you are unfamiliar with her work, please get the book, read the trilogy, and experience for yourself the thrill of discovering new worlds and the wonderful and varied beings that people them. 

 

 

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Your Opinion, Please

As an author I fully understand the value of reviews and greatly appreciate readers who take the time to write a thoughtful review of one of my books. Whether the review praises the work or finds fault with it, whether it points out strengths and weaknesses or merely deals in generalities, whether the reviewer enjoyed the book or hated it, I can learn from the review and derive encouragement even from a bad review, knowing that the reviewer cared enough to read the book and write and post comments about it. Only a review that has nothing constructive to say is hurtful. If a reviewer says something like, “Don’t waste your time on this,” or, “I found this book totally disappointing,” and gives no reason for that opinion, it does not tell me how to improve my work. I only know that I failed to meet that reader’s expectations. I don’t know why. That kind of a review not only doesn’t help the author; neither does it give a potential reader any real guidance. We all have different tastes, and what one reader hates another might love. Giving specific reasons for the stated opinion tells a would-be reader whether he or she might react in the same way, whether favorably or unfavorably.

 I have posted glowing reviews of books and I have posted reviews of books that were generally good but left me in some way unsatisfied. I have tried to be honest and specific. There have been some occasions when I have had to tell an author who requested that review that I could not write a favorable review and would prefer to express my opinion privately to the author. Those (and they have been few) are cases in which I knew the author, the author had asked for a review, and I felt obligated to explain why I preferred not to give one. In other cases in which I found serious problems with a book, I have simply not reviewed it unless I could offer constructive suggestions as to how it could be improved. I have never reviewed a book I did not finish reading, regardless of my opinion of it. Haven’t you had the experience of beginning a book, finding it hard to get into, and perhaps setting it aside for a while with the intention of returning to it later? And perhaps you never do get back to the book and complete reading it. In that case, you should not review it. I’ve had the experience of returning to a book after putting it aside, continuing to read, and thinking, “Oh, so that’s what the author was doing. Now I understand.” And after completing the book, I find I can give it a positive review.

 I know that readers, like writers, are busy people. Some readers probably never think about reviewing a book even when they’ve enjoyed it. It’s easier not to bother, and to leave it to other readers to write reviews. Readers, please consider that by taking time to write a review saying that you enjoyed the book and the reason you did, you may encourage that writer. You may make their day. And if you write a review in which you state that the book wasn’t what you expected and disappointed you, and then you go on to explain why, the writer may see your point and because of your input may take care to do a better job on the next book.

 I have books that need reviews, and so I appeal to my readers—please, if you read the book, write a review for Amazon or Goodreads or both. I value your opinions. And I do learn from them. Haven’t read any? Pick one and give it a try.

Were House (an urban fantasy)  Deathright (a mythic fantasy) To the Far Side of the Forest (a fantasy for teens, aimed especially at the middle school age)

 

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An Invitation

I admit it—I love time travel stories. I’ve even written one. My latest book, Deathright, isn’t just a time travel story, but time travel is definitely a big part of it.front cover

It was that love of time travel stories that led me to buy Nathan Van Coops’ first book, In Times Like These. I also liked that the book is set in the city I’ve lived in for many years—St. Petersburg, Florida. None of that would have mattered, however, if the book hadn’t been any good. But it was better than good. I found it excellent. A great read!

So of course I had to have Nathan’s second book, The Chronothon. By this time I knew that Nathan was writing a trilogy. And I knew I’d want the third book when it became available. Especially after I read The Chronothon. Imagine a marathon run through time. That’s what The Chronothon is about. The race through time is supposed to be a challenging but fun event, but it quickly turns deadly, a race not for a prize but for survival. After reading it, I hated the thought of having to wait months for the third book.Day After Never, The - Nathan Van Coops

When Nathan put out a call for beta readers for the third book, The Day After Never (and isn’t that a great title?), I eagerly volunteered, knowing that if chosen, I’d get to read the novel before its release to the general public. I did serve as a beta reader and felt honored to do so. And I want to tell my readers and anyone else who’ll listen that Nathan did it again! He came out with a book that has nonstop adventure, philosophical speculation about life and death, a look at what can happen if we continue to abuse our planet as well as how to keep it from happening, romance, and a collection of marvelously developed characters that you’ll remember long after putting the book down.

I’m thrilled to have been able to read the book ahead of publication. But the book is now about to be released, and on July 12th Nathan Van Coops is throwing a launch party—right here online. And everyone is invited. So stop by and see what all the excitement is about. I’ll be there along with other authors; there will be prizes, and best of all, you can find out more about and purchase Nathan’s books.

Here’s the link to click on to see what it’s all about. YOU ARE INVITED! I hope to see you at the party. https://www.facebook.com/events/1719072161698790/

 

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