Missed Part One of this Mini-Workshop? You can find it here.
- Describing Sunsets:
This is another common trap. But to me, it can fall into two extremes; too much, or too little. The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes (which you can order from Amazon here or here) deals with the former in the opening paragraph of the chapter that deals with this topic by saying:
“Readers need description in the stories they read to visualize settings and people – really ‘get into’ the action. But sometimes writers get too carried away and go too far in trying to provide such descriptions; they stop too often to describe such things as sunsets, thinking that pretty prose is an end in itself – and forgetting that when they stop to describe something at length, the story movement also stops.”
But here’s where I need to translate into Romance writing terms. The book is right, the reader does need those descriptions; things like settings and surroundings and description of inanimate objects are all small things – they’re icing. A few lines sprinkled here and there can be enough; particularly if you’ve picked a setting that is ‘known’ to the majority of readers. Little obscure details they might not know are wonderful, don’t get me wrong – but they shouldn’t take up paragraph after paragraph or page after page. However, when it comes to the people in a romance novel - and this goes doubly for the hero in my opinion – we do need to take time and some of the word-count to ladle it on a little thicker. In romance writing it’s known as INDULGING THE READER. Why more with the hero than the heroine? Because you want your reader to fall in love with this guy at the same time as your heroine. You want your reader to like and empathize with your heroine as if she’s walking in her shoes, so your reader should see the hero through her eyes. Now this is true of the heroine too because unless she’s looking at herself in a mirror or describing the way she’s applying make-up or styling her hair; we need the hero’s POV to tell us what she looks like, which partly explains why we’re likely to get a ‘simpler’ physical description of the heroine. When you’re writing a male POV, you have to think like a man and it's a rare one (in my experience) who waxes lyrical.
Lets look at my February 2009 romance for example - Manhattan Boss, Diamond Proposal - where the hero, Quinn, gives us our first description of the heroine, Clare – from his POV;
“If he’d been a romanticist of any kind he’d have said Clare moved like a ballerina. She certainly had a ballerina’s body; fine-boned and slender – a few more curves maybe, not that she ever dressed to flaunt them or that Quinn had ever looked closely enough to confirm their presence.
But since Quinn Cassidy had graduated with honours from the school of hard knocks he was somewhat lacking in anything remotely resembling romanticism. So if forced to use a word to describe the way she moved it would quite simply be; ‘feminine’.”
Then compare it to some of the ways Clare describes Quinn;
“The bottle swayed back and forth while startlingly blue eyes examined each of their faces in turn; a smile flirting with the corners of his mouth…”
“There was group laughter before Quinn continued in the rumbling, husky edged voice that made most women smile dumbly at him…” “Another Quinn-ism; he could say the most outrageous things, smile that wicked smile of his, and he always got away with it. He was that guy a girl’s mother warned her about; the devil in disguise.
And when the disguise consisted of six foot one of lean muscle and enough testosterone to make every single woman under the age of sixty do a double take…”
Quinn’s description of Clare is from the first chapter. Clare’s descriptions of Quinn from the second. Can you see the difference? Now I’m not saying that as the story progresses, Quinn’s descriptions of Clare don’t change some, but then that’s because he’s falling in love with her – he’s looking at her from a much more sexual/romantic POV as he starts noticing her more and his feelings change. But Clare, even though she doesn’t ‘see him’ as a potential partner at the beginning, is more than aware of how he looks, embellishes the descriptions of him and recognizes him as an incredibly sexy man. A female reader will understand that, because we do that don’t we? Even if we’re married and settled down we can still appreciate the likes of Christian Bale and George Clooney and Hugh Jackman and think YUM. Which is EXACTLY what your reader should think about your hero from the get go, yet without paragraph after paragraph of description. So in a romance novel, there’s a slight exception to the rule when it comes to the people. But in general, and as The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes says: “Fiction is movement. Description is static.”
It then adds: “…to describe something in detail, you have to stop the action. But without the action, the description has no meaning.
Therefore, whenever you try to inflict on your readers a detailed description, your story stops. And readers are interested in the story – the movement – not your fine prose.
Does this mean you should have no description in your story? Of course not. Description must be worked in carefully, in bits and pieces, to keep your reader seeing, hearing and feeling your story world. But please note the language here: it must be worked in, a bit at a time, not shovelled in by the page.”
Basically as I’ve said before – sprinkled, not ladled on - and when the book talks about seeing, hearing and feeling we’re entering into the territory we in the romance writing community know as the FIVE SENSES; sight, sound, touch, taste and scent. Every romance novel has them. Touch is particularly important in a love scene for example and I don’t think you need me to explain why! But they’re all there. Sight tells us about the most obvious physical attraction and what's happening around them, sound tells us about the tone of their voices and ambient noise, touch – like I said, needs no explanation – taste is right up there with touch, and scent recognition is the most basic instinctual attractions of male to female and vice versa before we again add it to creating the scene that surrounds them. All five senses are immediately associated with the characters who are the focus of the story. It's through them the author paints a picture in the mind of the reader...
Not, as I've mentioned, that you can’t use them elsewhere to help with descriptions of their surroundings and environment or the things they’re doing or eating or any number of a few dozen other things. But in these situations the sprinkling of detail is lower because the central focus of the story is the ROMANCE and therefore everything that isn’t immediately attached to the two central characters is icing.
But descriptions like those sunsets can go beyond the ‘physical’. As the book says:
“Beginning writers sometimes make the mistake of stopping everything while they describe a characters thoughts or feelings.”
It does then say: “Of course you should and must look into your characters head and heart. And some of your insight must be given the reader, so she can know about the character, sympathize with the character, identify with the action. But in good fiction – even at novel length – such descriptions of the characters state of mind and emotion are usually relatively brief. The accomplished writer will tell (describe) a little, and demonstrate (show in action) a lot.”
Again I’ve bolded what I consider to be the most important part in romance writing terms. But here’s where a little more translation is required; we have to look into your characters head and heart in a romance because it’s all about the EMOTIONAL JOURNEY. And how can we show that without delving under the surface - sometimes in detail? What I’m going to say is that, in this case, in romance writing terms the book is almost right. What it still comes down to is the SHOW NOT TELL. The question then becomes how do we do that? The book supplies us with a list;
“In this regard you may want to think about your fiction writing delivery systems. There are different ways to deliver your information to your reader. They have characteristic speeds:
• Exposition. This is the slowest of all. It’s the straight giving of factual information. Nothing whatsoever is happening. You’re giving the reader data – biographical data, forensic data, sociological data, whatever. Some of this has to go in your story, but there’s no story movement while you’re putting in your encyclopaedia info.
• Description. Almost as slow. Again, some is necessary. But watch it.
• Narrative. Here we have characters onstage in the story ‘now’, and their actions, give-and-take, are presented moment by moment, with no summary and nothing left out. This is like a stage play, and much of your story will be in this form, as we’ll discuss in a later section. This kind of storytelling goes very swiftly and provides continuous movement.
• Dialogue. Story people talking. Very little action or interior thought. Like a fast-moving tennis match, back and forth, point and counterpoint. When the story people are under stress and talk in short bursts, this is tremendously fast and forward-moving.
• Dramatic Summary. The fastest form of all. Here you have dramatic stuff happening, but instead of playing it out moment by moment, as in narrative, you choose to add even more speed by summarizing it. In this mode, a car chase or argument that might require six pages of narrative might be condensed into a single, light-speed paragraph.”
All of these are used in a romance novel, demonstrating once again how much the basic rules of fiction writing can cross genre boundaries. If you don’t believe me, go pick up a random book from your shelf and read a few pages or a chapter. Have a look at it from a reader’s POV and then from a writer’s POV. The reader should be carried along from page to page by the story, because remember; the STORY COMES FIRST. The writer should have made that journey from page to page smoother by having the right amounts of all the things on this list. There should be very small amounts of exposition, a sprinkling of description, a small amount of narrative, and equal amounts of dialogue and dramatic summary. In a faster paced segment like a love scene or when there's an argument there may be slightly different proportions of the last two, very little narrative and description (apart from some of the five senses) and no exposition at all. But the proportions should still run low to high the way this list does. Best way to check if you’re doing it right with your own manuscript? Well that's where our next task comes in...
Task Four: Print off a few pages and get yourself five different colours of highlighter pen, colouring pencil, marker or felt tip then highlight what you consider each part of your writing to be. Got too much of the slower moving colours and you know you need to do some editing…
- Real People:
I found this chapter of the book fascinating I have to say. Because we’re frequently told in romance writing that the heroine in particular should be realistic (point me to where the men exist in real life please!). The Romance Line of Harlequin Mills and Boon even used to carry the tagline: It could happen to you. But the book is right. This is fantasy regardless of how many recognizable traits, emotions and characteristics we may find in the heroine or to a lesser extent – the hero. This is where the critics get it wrong when they say readers of romance are unable to differentiate between fantasy and real life. They are. In very simplistic terms we skip over the basics of having them go to the bathroom or pass wind or scratch themselves or change a tampon. Readers know that stuff happens in real life. If they want that level of reality they can assume those things still happen without the writer having to put it on the page. But it’s not just as simple as that. What we do as romance writers is knock off the rougher edges of everyday life and dig deeper into the fantasy element. Put in plain terms; we romanticize. Because a romance novel is ESCAPISM. And yes, at times that requires your reader suspend belief, even when we give them a Happily Ever After, because we all know that falling in love and getting married is one journey – staying married and in love is another. So with that in mind we approach the subject of not using real people in your story.
The most obvious interpretation is that real people might sue – there’s a disclaimer inside every single romance novel, work of fiction and even at the end of films dealing with this; even if the characters are vampires or werewolves or three hundred years in the future or past. It’s why sometimes romance writers will be asked to change names. For example: In one of my books I’d inadvertently given the hero the name of a well known actor (I put it down to a blonde moment) but thankfully my editor caught it and we changed his surname. A problem easily solved. But even if you base your characters on people you have to be careful. Remember, if you know them, they know you, and if you sell your story and word spreads they might read your book, recognize themselves, and be less than happy about it. Mind you – if they’re married to a gorgeous billionaire and are head over heels in love then lucky them! But you get the point. There may be a kernel of an idea in something that happened to someone in real life, but the characters in your book and the world around them will be so different from that initial source that it will be obvious the story came from your imagination.
What The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes says is just as important in a romance novel as it is in any form of fiction;
“One of the toughest jobs we ask of our readers is to see the characters vividly and sympathize with them. Consider: all your readers have to go by are some symbols printed on a sheet of paper. From these symbols, readers must recognize letters of the alphabet, make the letters into words, link the meanings into sentences. From that point, readers must make an even more amazing leap or intuition of some kind: they must use their own imagination to picture – physically and emotionally – a person inside their own head. And then they must believe this imagined person is somehow real – and even care about him.”
This is where the ‘real’ part comes in. Not that the characters exist in real life or that there aren't characteristics or stories from real life people that may spark your imagination, but that your characters become real in the readers mind. In a romance novel we do this by focussing on COMMON UNIVERSAL TRAITS - the emotions that cross world-wide boundaries of creed, religion and society. We don’t just have to make these people seem real, we have to make them seem real to women readers all over the world from different cultures, reading in different languages; women of all ages, in different circumstances, with differing opinions and beliefs in what constitutes a good love story and a Happily Ever After. Tall order, huh? It’s why as a writer you can never please all the readers all the time, and it’s why series romance exists – because that way readers know they’re going to get what they want, or pretty darn close to it. Which again comes down to READER EXPECTATION. So the publisher has helped make it easier for them and for us, now all we have to do is make the characters as vivid as possible for the reader and make them care enough to read all the way through from start to finish. If we make it on to their keeper shelf then all the better!
The book says; “…fiction characters are not just different than life. They’re better. Bigger. Brighter. More understandable. Nicer or meaner. Prettier or uglier. And ultimately more fascinating.”
What it goes on to say - and couldn't be more right about - is that they also make complete sense. Something people rarely do 100% of the time in real life. The reader of a romance novel doesn’t want a sudden change of mind with no explanation. There has to be a path of logic they can follow. This is why preparation is so important. Your reader doesn’t have to know all the background information of your characters, she doesn’t need to know a chapter worth of back-story dump at the beginning, but the writer does. They do, because they need to know exactly how their characters will react in a given situation. It has to make sense, be consistent, there has to be CONTINUITY to their thoughts, emotions, actions and reactions. It’s a linear process. They don’t change their mind unless we’re clearly shown the process that makes them change their mind. Something we don’t get in real life unless they sit down and explain the whole story to us or we’re able to step inside their heads (something millions of women wish they could do with a man!). In a romance novel we, the writers, do exactly that: We take the reader in to the story and let them step inside our characters heads so that it makes sense. The emotions and thought processes of our characters will make sense because they’re common universal traits. If they feel grief it’s understood, because everyone experiences grief or loss at some point. If they feel nervous it’s understood, because who hasn’t experienced that at some point? The same goes for happiness and unease and embarrassment and fear. They’re all human emotions, and we’re all human. So long as why the characters are feeling these things makes sense, then the reader can empathize and draw on their own personal experience to add to the text on the page. When you think about it, the reader does a lot of the work. It’s our job as writers to make it as simple as possible for them without resorting to clichés. The art lies in showing them the characters are feeling these things without telling them.
So for example; ‘Sally was nervous’ would describe how she's feeling, but in fictional terms it wouldn’t be enough. We have to take the symptoms of nervousness in real life and exaggerate them in the fictional world. Sally’s palms could be clammy, her pulse could be racing, she could be shifting her weight from one foot to the other, maybe she’s unable to look the hero in the eye for long – her gaze flickering around the room – she could have the constant need to keep tucking a strand of hair behind her ear, even if it’s already there (a personal favourite of mine as it happens). Maybe she’s stammering or avoiding the subject when she speaks: A half dozen things to describe one emotion. Her characteristics are exaggerated to make the point when in real life we might only see half of them. But put them all together and even without having to say the words ‘Sally was nervous’, we’ve already conveyed her state of mind. It’s an exaggerated version of ‘show not tell’. Add inner POV to explain why she’s there and what it is that’s making her nervous and your reader can form a vivid mental picture…
Task Five: Have a look at a romance novel from the line/category you’re aiming for. How did the author deal with descriptions? How much of the page did it take up? Did it add to the story or slow down the action? Does it give you a vivid mental image? Then look at your own work during the editing process (once you’ve TOLD THE STORY) and aim a more critical eye at it. Ask the same questions. Look at it as if you don’t know everything and anything there is to know about these characters. Have you spent too much time on descriptions? How much of your word count did it take up? Where could you cut back and where could you add a little more?
- CHECK BACK LATER TODAY for more of this 'mini-workshop' and remember to LET ME KNOW if you're Blogging something for those of us Not At Nationals so I can add a link to today's posts! Got questions about anything in the Blog then just ask in the comments and I'll do my best to answer them ;)
(You can now Move on to Part Three of this Mini-Workshop here.)