Archive for the ‘Romance Novels’ Category

Precise But Distracting

Thursday, March 18th, 2010

I’ve recently noticed an odd trend in mass-market fiction–a tendency toward distractingly precise description. Believing that lively words will necessarily enliven their prose, some authors are liberally sprinkling their writing with words that are, admittedly, precise but that are also misleading to the reader. These words sometimes have the wrong connotations, or they simply offer far too much distracting detail.

At Beaumont Hardy, I fully support authors’ efforts to create vivid descriptions for their readers. However, description cannot exist for its own sake. It must serve the larger purpose of enhancing both plot and character. When description becomes so specific that it pulls the reader from the story, it may be time for an edit.

The following sentences illustrate the kind of precision I believe distracts a reader, instead of enlivening the story.

1. Fear scraped at her insides.

I see variations of this sentence in many current thrillers. “Scraped” is a wonderfully descriptive word, but it doesn’t seem particularly relevant to fear or to its effects. Does fear really scrape? I argue that a reader will stop to wonder what internal scraping feels like and whether this scraping is more characteristic of something other than fear–like a corrosive acid. This kind of reader distraction can destroy any plot suspense the author hopes to create.

2. His gaze collided with hers.

The notion of a collision is effective, in certain narrative situations, but it seems unrelated to the actual process of making eye contact. Readers all recognize the power of eye contact and the shock of an unexpected gaze. However, readers might have trouble imagining one look colliding with another one. Once again, readers are pulled from the story into irrelevant thoughts about ricocheting lines of sight and violently clashing eye contact–not what the writer wants at a moment of interpersonal tension.

3. The little girl launched herself into her mother’s arms.

“Launch” is an excellent descriptive verb, and it can clearly describe various actions. However, in this particular sentence, it conveys an action the writer might not have intended. Instead of suggesting a warm maternal moment, the word “launch” suggests the sudden movement of a projectile or the violent motion of a lion encountering an injured gazelle. It also connotes a long-distance leap more characteristic of a cheetah or an Olympic athlete than a little girl. Because of its violently athletic connotations, the precision of the term leads, I think, to more distraction than it does description.

4. The maiden gnawed at her muffin nervously.

Like launching, gnawing has very precise connotations, many of them rodent-related. Using the word “gnaw” to describe the relatively pleasant actions of a nice young woman seems incongruous and confusing. The reader may struggle with images of vermin, momentarily forgetting the trajectory of the story or the personality of the character.

5. “Get in the car,” the gentleman snarled.

Snarling is a very precise activity and one usually attributed to beasts of prey. When an author uses a word like “snarled,” instead of a more ordinary word like “said,” he or she must acknowledge the connotations of the word and consider whether these connotations are appropriate. In the case of the snarling gentleman, the author risks the temporary distraction of a reader who envisions werewolves or lions, instead of the fully human hero.

Accurate description is an art that I wholeheartedly support at Beaumont Hardy Editing. However, I recommend whittling away the kind of description that makes the wrong connotations and only serves to distract the reader.

If you have any concerns about your own descriptive passages and would like an expert opinion about them, please send them to me. I look forward to hearing from you.

Romance Lives

Monday, November 16th, 2009

sunReaders have always used literature to escape the grim reality of their lives, and escapism continues to influence publishing during these slow economic times. In true escapist fashion, romance literature thrives when the markets are at their worst. Romance editors report strong sales in their genre, and romance publishers continue to expand their various imprints.

All of this is good news for writers of romance. The market for their books is strong, and writers have plenty of places to sell their work. Of course, no matter how strong the romance market is or how badly acquisitions editors want new manuscripts, hopeful writers still need to submit their strongest and most polished work. At Beaumont Hardy, I help romance writers streamline their plots and perfect their submissions.

The following is an unedited portion of a romance novel. Immediately after it is the same passage, after editing. After both is the same passage with my editing comments.

“You’re holding it the wrong way!” a voice bellowed from somewhere behind Sloane, and she dropped the ice ax with a clatter to the floor. Sloane whirled around to spot a very tall man looming in the shadows of the storehouse. “You can get hurt like that,” he said softly, then stiffening again as though he had made himself angry.

The tension of the day suddenly settled heavily on Sloane, and she spun around angrily to face the man fully. “That’s why I’m here, Mr Vaughn–I assume it’s Mr. Vaughn, world-class ice-climbing champ?” She interrupted herself, glaring at the man who had stepped into the light and who looked even taller when he walked into the light again. “You did get my message, didn’t you?” She shot the man her most piercing stare.

The man nodded uncertainly. “You’re the reporter, I thought? You’re doing the Everest thing?” His eyes were a startling blue that reminded Sloane of the sky above the Himalayas.

“It’s not a thing. It’s an article,” Sloane spat reproachfully.

“And I’m leading your group of reporters up the mountain,” the man said, sneering as he said the word “reporters.”

“Yes, and for the duration of the trip, you report to me,” Sloane added. “I’m in charge. None of that renegade stuff you’re famous for. We’re all getting back from this trip alive.” She looked at the man triumphantly.

“You can be in charge,” the man said, smiling and folding his arms infuriatingly. “As soon as you learn how to use an ice ax.”

After editing, the passage reads as follows.

“You’re holding it the wrong way!” someone bellowed from behind Sloane. She dropped the ice ax, and it clattered to the floor. Sloane whirled around and saw a very tall man looming in the shadows of the storehouse. “You can get hurt like that,” he said softly. After he spoke, he seemed to stiffen again, as though speaking had made him angry.

The tension of the day suddenly settled on Sloane, and she stared the man straight in the face. “That’s why I’m here, Mr Vaughn–I assume it’s Mr. Vaughn, world-class ice-climbing champ?” She interrupted herself, glaring at the man, who looked even taller, now that he had stepped into the light. “You did get my message, didn’t you?” She shot the man her most piercing stare.

The man nodded uncertainly. “You’re the reporter, right?” His eyes were a startling blue that reminded Sloane of the sky above the Himalayas. “You’re doing the Everest thing?”

“It’s not a thing. It’s an article,” Sloane spat reproachfully.

“And I’m leading your group of reporters up the mountain,” Vaughn said, sneering as he said the word “reporters.”

“Yes, and for the duration of the trip, you report to me,” Sloane added. “I’m in charge. None of that renegade stuff you’re famous for. We’re all getting back from this trip alive.” She looked at Vaughn triumphantly.

“You can be in charge,” Vaughn said, smiling and folding his arms infuriatingly. “As soon as you learn how to use an ice ax.”

The following is the same passage with my editing marks. My additions are underlined. My comments are in brackets and italicized.

“You’re holding it the wrong way!” a voice someone [A person, and not a voice, bellows.] bellowed from somewhere behind Sloane,. and sShe dropped the ice ax, and it with a clattered to the floor. [“To the floor” is misplaced in the original sentence.] Sloane whirled around to spot and saw [Although “to spot” is correct, I think that “whirled around” is so descriptive that “saw” is a quiet complement to it. The “to” in “to spot” also suggests that Sloane purposely whirled around in order to spot the man, an idea I don’t think you mean.] a very tall man looming in the shadows of the storehouse. “You can get hurt like that,” he said softly,. After he spoke, he seemed to then stiffening again, as though he had made himself speaking had made him angry. [In the original sentence, “then stiffening again” is somewhat awkward. I moved that idea into a separate sentence to highlight it for the reader and to clarify some of the syntax.]

The tension of the day suddenly settled heavily [One adverb is sufficient.] on Sloane, and she spun around angrily to face the man fully stared the man straight in the face. [Sloane already whirled around in the previous paragraph.] “That’s why I’m here, Mr Vaughn–I assume it’s Mr. Vaughn, world-class ice-climbing champ?” She interrupted herself, glaring at the man, who looked even taller, now that he had stepped into the light and who looked even taller when he walked into the light again. “You did get my message, didn’t you?” She shot the man her most piercing stare.

The man nodded uncertainly. “You’re the reporter, I thought right? [The “I thought” construction feels less like actual speech than does the word “right.”] His eyes were a startling blue that reminded Sloane of the sky above the Himalayas. You’re doing the Everest thing?” His eyes were a startling blue that reminded Sloane of the sky above the Himalayas. [Ending his section with “Everest thing” leads more clearly to Sloane’s next comment.]

“It’s not a thing. It’s an article,” Sloane spat reproachfully.

“And I’m leading your group of reporters up the mountain,” the man Vaughn [I think using Vaughn’s name works better here, now that Sloane has introduced it to the reader.] said, sneering as he said the word “reporters.” [I like the sneering part.]

“Yes, and for the duration of the trip, you report to me,” Sloane added. “I’m in charge. None of that renegade stuff you’re famous for. We’re all getting back from this trip alive.” She looked at Vaughn triumphantly. [Is “triumphantly” the right word here?]

“You can be in charge,” the man Vaughn said, smiling and folding his arms infuriatingly. “As soon as you learn how to use an ice ax.” [This is a good ending to this interaction.]

Thanks for reading! Please send me your comments. I would love to hear from you.

Go, NaNoWriMo

Monday, October 19th, 2009

trees2It’s that time of year again. The leaves are turning, wool sweaters are appealing again, and writers everywhere wonder whether to do NaNoWriMo. Each November, the NaNoWriMo organization encourages aspiring writers to celebrate its National Novel Writing Month and pen a 50,000-word novel between November 1 and 30. Word count (or its equivalent page length) is the only goal of NaNoWriMo; the quality of the resulting novel is immaterial.

In the decade of its existence, NaNoWriMo has become both remarkably popular and intriguingly controversial. The NaNoWriMo website indicates that almost 120,000 writers participated in NaNoWriMo 2008. Among them were 12,683 NaNoWriMo winners–those who successfully reached the 50,000-word goal by the November 30 deadline. NaNoWriMo’s detractors take issue with the organization’s definition of “winning.” They criticize NaNoWriMo for encouraging people to write merely for the sake of putting 50,000 words to paper and accuse the project of contributing both to the proliferation of bad writing and to the underappreciation of the novel as a true art form. NaNoWriMo, critics say, encourages to write those who otherwise have no interest in writing. NaNoWriMo’s emphasis on sheer word quantity leaves no room for genius.

I support the NaNoWriMo project, not for its success in generating enormous quantities of “finished” text, but for its success in generating sizable rough drafts, ready for editing. At Beaumont Hardy, I have long encouraged the writing of what I call the “terrible rough draft“–a piece of writing that exists solely for the purpose of productive subsequent editing. In the case of NaNoWriMo, I argue that the 50,000 words are merely one triumphant stop on a longer continuum that will involve a massive edit, another draft and, perhaps, several later edits. These edits and drafts, time-consuming though they may be, tend to become more and more engrossing, as authors refine their ideas, familiarize themselves with their characters, and feel the fullness of their own plots.

NaNoWriMo, I think, should not be an end in itself. Instead, it should be the first stage of a writer’s long and productive relationship with a rough draft. I salute those who choose to do NaNoWriMo this year and wish them happy editing of the 50,000 words they write.

Learning from the Rough Draft, Part 2

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2009

My last two postings have focused on the value of a complete first draft—one that records the writer’s every fleeting thought during the writing process. The first-draft-writing period is not the time for whittling away text and paring down ideas. That winnowing process will happen later, during an edit. The first draft should be filled with glorious excess—all possible characters, descriptions and ideas—because some of these will be good enough to survive until the final draft.

The following is an unedited description from a rough draft. Its author wrote a longer Regency romance, from which I extracted this paragraph. Below the description is the same passage with bracketed, italicized and underlined editorial comments to indicate the author’s thought process in a later edit of the rough draft.

Something about the room—maybe its scent—made Drusilla think of wealth. She had known wealth like that before, back when she was secretary to the Viscount. At that time/in those days she had perched on a velvet chair in front of a carved, inlaid walnut desk, her plume poised over the thick parchment as she waited for the words to flow from the Viscount’s honeyed lips. She would smell the thick, perfumed air exhaled by the hothouse peonies on the exquisite Turkish side tables. The Viscount’s footsteps thudded dully/sounded thick and soft on the hand-tied/hand-knotted wool rugs that ran the full length of the room. His letter opener gleamed in the sunlight that spilled creamily over his wooden desk. The Viscount paced like a sleek panther among his solid objects/in his expensive jungle/in his wood-paneled jungle.

Drusilla Now, Drusilla looked around the chamber in which she found herself./Now, Drusilla found herself in the chamber of the Duke of Ashton. Filled with French furniture and marble appointments, it exuded the air of wealth she had first noticed. However, the chamber lacked the sense of danger—albeit, mother-of-pearl-inlaid danger—she had known in the Viscount’s quarters.

The following is the same passage with the author’s bracketed thoughts.

Something about the room—maybe its scent—made Drusilla think of wealth. [Change this sentence to “The fragrant room made Drusilla think of wealth.”] She had known wealth like that before, [Change to “She had known that kind of wealth.”] back when she was secretary to the Viscount. [Cut the word “back” before “when she was secretary.”] At that time/in those days [Keep “In those days.”] she had perched on a velvet chair [Change “chair” to “stool.”] in front of a carved, inlaid [Cut “inlaid.”] walnut desk, her plume poised over the thick parchment as she waited for the words to flow from the Viscount’s honeyed lips [Change “words to flow from the Viscount’s honeyed lips” to “the Viscount’s dictation”]. She would smell the thick, perfumed air exhaled by the hothouse peonies on the exquisite Turkish side tables. [Change this sentence from passive to active: “As the Viscount spoke, the peonies on the Turkish side tables exhaled their hothouse perfume.” ] The Viscount’s footsteps thudded dully/sounded thick and soft [Would the adjectives “thick” and “soft” ever apply to the dashing Viscount? Change this description to “footsteps thudded heavily.”]on the hand-tied/hand-knotted [“hand knotted”] wool rugs [“carpets,” not “rugs”] that ran the full length of the room. His letter opener gleamed in [What about “seemed to slice through?”] the sunlight that spilled creamily over his wooden desk. The Viscount paced like a sleek panther among his solid objects/in his expensive jungle/in his wood-paneled jungle [“in his wood-paneled jungle”].

Drusilla Now, Drusilla looked around the chamber in which she found herself./ Now, Drusilla found herself in the chamber of the Duke of Ashton. [Change to “Now, Drusilla found herself in the Baron’s private office.” The Viscount should have the higher peerage rank.] Filled with French furniture and marble appointments, it exuded the air of wealth she had first noticed [Change to “an air of wealth that had, at first, reminded her of the Viscount”]. However, [Change “However” to “She realized now that.”] the chamber lacked the sense of danger—albeit, [Cut the comma.]mother-of-pearl-inlaid danger—she had known in the Viscount’s quarters.

After this first edit, the draft reads something like the following. (The story will go through more edits before its final draft.)

The fragrant room made Drusilla think of wealth. She had known that kind of wealth when she was secretary to the Viscount. In those days, she had perched on a velvet stool in front of a carved walnut desk, her plume poised over the thick parchment as she waited for the Viscount’s dictation. As the Viscount spoke, the peonies on the Turkish side tables exhaled their hothouse perfume. The Viscount’s footsteps thudded heavily on the hand-knotted wool carpets that ran the full length of the room. His letter opener seemed to slice through the sunlight that spilled creamily over his wooden desk. The Viscount paced like a sleek panther in his wood-paneled jungle.

Now, Drusilla found herself in the Baron’s private study. Filled with French furniture and marble appointments, it exuded an air of wealth that had, at first, reminded her of the Viscount. She realized now that the room lacked the sense of danger—albeit mother-of-pearl-inlaid danger—she had known in the Viscount’s quarters.

Please send me your thoughts and comments about this rough draft. I would love to hear from you.

Emotion: How Much is Too Much?

Wednesday, June 17th, 2009

When describing a scene of extreme anguish or emotion, many writers want to convey every nuance of feeling directly to the reader. This attempt at literal emotional transcription can sometimes result in an overabundance of adverbs and adjectives—wordiness, in general. Often, the best way to convey extreme emotion is to under-describe it, taking the old “less-is-more” adage to heart.

The following is an unedited piece of text that tends to shroud the emotion in unnecessary wording. Below the unedited version is my edit of the same text. My editorial comments are at the bottom of this post.

“I never wanted to marry you,” Maurice said blandly, buttering his toast as though he hadn’t dropped an earth-shattering bomb on me, destroying everything I once held dear in my life.

“What?” I said quietly, not really sure how to react. This was the worst comment anyone had ever made to me, and I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry or tear my hair out in desperation. The room seemed to get smaller, and I had trouble filling my lungs with air. I felt like I was on the verge of fainting, but I also felt like a surge of electricity had shot through me and like I was suddenly bursting with rage or shock. I wanted to throw dishes at Maurice or sit quietly and sob.

“You heard me,” he said—arrogantly, I thought. “Never once did I really want to marry you.” He folded his napkin meticulously and put it neatly by his plate, lining up his fork as well.

I thought he must be joking. I looked around frantically for a calendar, thinking it must be April Fool’s Day. My head was spinning, and I wasn’t able to focus.

“So why did you—marry me?” I asked foolishly. I couldn’t think of anything more logical to say.

Maurice stood up from the table, quietly smoothing the hair over his temples. He always worried that his hair stuck out around his ears. He really was vain, I thought to myself. I felt my insides go cold and then hot, and I thought I would be sick. We had been married for eleven years, and I had thought we were blissfully happy—well, not blissfully, but happy.

“I thought we were happy,” I said, knowing how hollow those words must sound and feeling my throat close over them as I uttered them.

“Maybe you were,” he said chillingly. “I have to go to work,” he added, advancing toward the door as though it were any other day.

After editing, the passage reads as follows:

“I never wanted to marry you,” Maurice said blandly, buttering his toast.

“What?” I was not really sure how to react. The room seemed to get smaller, and I had trouble filling my lungs with air.

“You heard me,” he said. “Never once did I really want to marry you.” He folded his napkin and put it by his plate, lining up his fork as well.

I thought he must be joking. “So why did you—marry me?” I asked foolishly.

Maurice stood up from the table, quietly smoothing the hair over his temples. He always worried that his hair stuck out around his ears.

“I thought we were happy,” I said, knowing how hollow those words must sound and feeling my throat close over them as I uttered them.

“Maybe you were,” he said. “I have to go to work,” he added, as though it were any other day.

Here is the passage with my editing marks visible. My comments to the author are in brackets and italicized. The portions I cut appear with a strike-through, and the portions I added are underlined. (In a normal Word document with “Track Changes,” my editing marks are in red, and my comments are in their own separate section, not inserted into the text.)

“I never wanted to marry you,” Maurice said blandly, buttering his toast as though he hadn’t dropped an earth-shattering bomb on me, destroying everything I once held dear in my life. [The word “blandly” and Maurice’s act of buttering his toast sufficiently indicate that he is acting as though nothing has happened. The reader will understand that his comment is earth-shattering without the narrator having to mention this fact.]

“What?” I said quietly, was not really sure how to react. [Could the narrator say something other than “What”? If she made a slightly more irrelevant comment, you could show the reader her uncertainty. I eliminated “said” to avoid repeating it.] This was the worst comment anyone had ever made to me, and I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry or tear my hair out in desperation. The room seemed to get smaller, and I had trouble filling my lungs with air. I felt like I was on the verge of fainting, but I also felt like a surge of electricity had shot through me and like I was suddenly bursting with rage or shock. I wanted to throw dishes at Maurice or sit quietly and sob. [Your descriptions of this moment are very vivid, but using fewer of them gives the moment more impact. The sentence about the room getting smaller seems to encompass the ideas of the others and very graphically demonstrates the narrator’s emotion.]

“You heard me,” he said—arrogantly, I thought. [The adverb is unnecessary. Maurice’s spare language sufficiently indicates his arrogance and emotional distance. In addition, the narrator seems too upset to be able to assess Maurice’s true emotions.] “Never once did I really want to marry you.” He folded his napkin meticulously and put it neatly by his plate, lining up his fork as well. [The adverbs are colorful, but your pared-down words convey Maurice’s cold emotion very well.]

I thought he must be joking. I looked around frantically for a calendar, thinking it must be April Fool’s Day. My head was spinning, and I wasn’t able to focus. [Would the narrator really look for a calendar at this moment? Saying “I thought he must be joking” in the next sentence is sufficient, I think, to convey her sense of unreality.]

I thought he must be joking. “So why did you—marry me?” I asked foolishly. I couldn’t think of anything more logical to say. [“Foolishly” is sufficient to show that the narrator wishes she could think of something better to say.]

Maurice stood up from the table, quietly smoothing the hair over his temples. He always worried that his hair stuck out around his ears. He really was vain, I thought to myself. I felt my insides go cold and then hot, and I thought I would be sick. We had been married for eleven years, and I had thought we were blissfully happy—well, not blissfully, but happy. [“He really was vain” is not particularly necessary. The reader will see Maurice’s vanity when he stands smoothing his hair at this moment of great crisis.]

“I thought we were happy,” I said, knowing how hollow those words must sound and feeling my throat close over them as I uttered them.

“Maybe you were,” he said chillingly. [“Chillingly” feels unnecessary. Maurice’s unfeeling sentence is enough to convey this idea.] “I have to go to work,” he added, advancing toward the door as though it were any other day.

[Please send me your comments about this Sample Edit. To submit your own work for a free edit–and inclusion in a posting on this blog–please write to me at jane@beaumonthardy.com.]