January 27, 2011

Bits and pieces: Some mini-nuggets from books I like

It’s time for me to conclude my month of blogging, and I couldn’t decide what I wanted for the last wisdom nugget. There were so many possibilities. So I decided to leave you with three snippets, directly quoted from books.
I included the first one because I think one of the main confusions of beginning writers has to do with what they need to dramatize and what they can simply tell the reader about, and going along with that, how much description is necessary or desirable. Here are the succinct definitions and opinions of a man who is both an author and an editor:
Description is a depiction of a locale or person. The Latin root of the word “depiction,” pinger, means “to picture” or to fashion a visual image.
Narrative summary is the recounting of what happens offstage, out of the reader’s sight and hearing, a scene that is told rather than shown.
An immediate scene happens in front of the reader, is visible, and therefore filmable. That’s an important test. If you can’t film a scene, it is not immediate.
“Twentieth-century audiences [the book was written in 1995] now insist on seeing what they are reading. If you examine twentieth-century fiction, you’ll find a dramatic increase in immediate scenes and a corresponding decrease in narrative summary. There has also been a decrease in descriptions of indoor and outdoor places that put the story on hold, making impatient twentieth-century readers start to skip.”
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The second excerpt perfectly captures my pet peeve – use of words other than “said” in dialogue. I have often had difficulty convincing beginning writers that they can use said over and over and it will not get monotonous because readers tune out that word, but they don’t seem to believe me. I especially react to the word “stated,” which to me sounds like someone is giving a legal opinion. Here’s what a very successful mystery novelist has to say about it in her book about writing.
From Write Away, by Elizabeth George (The chapter quoted is on dialogue)
“If subtext enriches dialogue, tag lines and their accompanying modifiers identify dialogue. These are the words that precede, interrupt, or follow the dialogue, indicating who the speaker is.
“Sometimes a writer just starting out thinks that she needs to be especially creative with her tag lines, believing that the repetition of said lacks snap and personality. Actually, said is a little miracle word that no one should abandon. What happens when a writer uses said in a tag line is that the reader’s eye skips right over it. The brain takes in the name of the speaker, while the accompanying verb—providing it’s the verb said—simply gets discarded. To a large extent, so do asked, answered, and replied.
“But this isn’t the case of all those fancier tag lines: snarl, moan, snap, hiss, wail, whine, whimper, shout, groan, sneer, growl, and all the rest of them. These call attention to themselves, and while you might use them judiciously—although, frankly, I discourage you from using them at all—and only when they suit the drama and the content of the scene you’re writing, you must use them with the realization that they will leap out at the reader. The situation is this: When the writing (and of course by that I mean the writer) is really doing its job, the reader will be aware that someone is shouting, snarling, thundering, moaning, or groaning. The scene will build up to it, so the writer doesn’t have to use any obvious words to indicate the manner in which the speaker is speaking.”

* * *
This final book isn’t for everyone, because it’s designed for editors working for a publishing company rather than for an individual writer. However, the author has a list of ground rules for editors, some of which I think are very sensible regardless of the conditions under which you’re working. See below.
·         Be realistic. Don’t shoot for the moon if your author is not astronaut material.
·         Proceed with enthusiasm. If the project doesn’t truly engage your interest, don’t accept the assignment.
·         Leave well enough alone. Focus on resolving problems that stand in the way of a manuscript’s success. Don’t take out your frustrations as an underpublished novelist, scholar or poet by attempting to contribute substantively to the book’s content.
·          Remember the reader. The initial plan should include a readership profile, and collaborators should return to that profile regularly to ask themselves, “Are we still on target?”
·         Be tactful. Know that a book is the closest thing to a child that a human being can produce; don’t say anything about the author’s prose that you wouldn’t say about her toddler.
·         Be candid. That said, don’t allow tact to turn obsequious. Sweeping issues under the rug will only accrue a lump of resentment that will ultimately impede communication.
And that’s it. This concludes my gig as guest blogger on the Editor’s POV. I’ve enjoyed sharing some of my favorite books on writing and editing with you, and I hope what I’ve written has been useful to you in some way. I look forward to following next month’s blogger.


  1. Good snippet choices, Nancy. Sol Stein has noticed a "decrease in descriptions of indoor and outdoor places that put the story on hold, making making impatient twentieth-century readers start to skip."

    In my experience,it isn't all about impatience. Sometimes shorter descriptions can just make for more a better reading experience. For example, shorter descriptions can let readers create their own visualization of a setting, as we do when we listen to a story on the radio.

    Does Sol Stein talk about this too?

  2. I wonder about this idea that readers are impatient with description. After all, Proust and Cather were two great 20th century writers known for their descriptive abilities and they're still widely read. I also see readers eating up travel writing, which is all about description, and environmental writing is equally big. Some writers known for their literary nature books also have written wonderful fiction--I think of Annie Dillard, Barry Lopez, and Peter Mattheisen. I'm reading Ophan Pamuk in part for the fantastic descriptions of Istanbul.

    Can it be so simple, just to eschew description for action? Even mystery writers who specialize in keeping things moving stop for atmospheric descriptions of interiors and exteriors--P.D. James anyone?

    Certainly a lot of apprentice writers could easily delete some descriptive passages, especially when they seem to slow the story. But I think another way of looking at the problem of lagging storytelling from the editor's POV might be to look for ways that the descriptive passages can actually serve the plot and characters, making a novel richer and more evocative of places and times.

  3. I think readers vary a lot in how much description they like, and writers are no different. Stein, the man I quoted, tends to be very definite in his opinions, whatever they are, and he clearly thinks descriptions should be kept to a minimum.

    Personally, I am easily bored by description. When I read an older novel on occasion, I find myself skimming the descriptions and saying "Get to the point" under my breath. But as Barbara points out, not everyone is like me, and description does serve a purpose.