Monday, September 29, 2008
I've grown up and learned a few things--writing is more like chaining myself to my chair and having the willpower not to check email or visit my friend's blogs. And the muse? I think my muse is busy flirting with somebody else's muse because she has never once been helpful. There's a reason why my muse never gets any credit on the acknowledgement page of my novels.
But worse than the harsh reality of writing is the harsh reality of publishing. I never once imagined that this art form I am so in love with would equate to me having to become a SALESMAN.
Yet here I am.
I went to a pitch session last week with Kevin Wasden (my fav artist) for a project we collaborated on. My legs felt like water, my pulse raced, and the editor had strategically placed himself in front of the window so he was a dark shadow against the bright light of day. I felt like I was facing down a mob boss.
In just a few minutes, I had to give him the perfect pitch--the one that would entice him to ASK for MORE. I had to become a salesman.
I hate selling. It's so crass to consider literature as a product to peddle. And I wonder, is it worth it, especially for people who aren't usually as well-spoken as they are well written?
Yes. Meeting face to face with an editor or agent personalizes you to them. If they like you they will WANT to like your manuscript too. They will want to give you a chance to prove you're worth your weight in words.
First things first, the words you will use in a pitch are not the words you would see on a book flap. You don't want vague danglings of description in your pitch, you want to be brief and concise. Get to the point and do it fast (this is my biggest flaw, I have no ability at brevity).
But I started thinking of my novels as products that needed to be sold. It helped me to understand what exactly I wanted to accomplish at a pitch session. In my younger years, I dreamed of being a high powered advertising executive riding the subway and wearing a black power suit. I put that dream back to use when I realized I needed to sell my own product. Give yourself three to five sentences in which to describe your book. Keep it quick and to the point. Don't tangent on minor characters or minor plots. You need to give them something they can take back to their marketing team and SELL.
Be prepared. My husband has spent a lot of time in an acting career. He never goes to an audition unprepared. This means he records himself doing his monologue and then listens to it while he's driving. He practices everywhere he goes over and over and over until he has it down perfect. Your pitch needs to be like that. You need to be able to smile, say hello, and give your pitch with ease. Practice it. Time yourself so you know how long it takes. Be prepared, so when you meet that favorite agent, you aren't stuttering. Part of being prepared at an actual pitch session is being comfortable talking a bit about you as an author--give your ideas, your vision, prove you can go the distance and deliver. You have to genuinely believe that what you have is what they want.
Whenever someone starts a conversation with the words, "I really don't know what I'm doing and don't have anything to say, I take them at face value and automatically tune them out. If you don't believe in you, don't expect me to.
Know what category your book falls in. Do not say, "Well it's a mystery sort of romance, with some action adventure thrown in. It all takes place in a fantasy world, but with science fiction technology." You have to know where this book sits on a shelf in a bookstore. As in advertising, if a company walks in with a new product, the ad company needs to know who they are going to market it to in order to be able to run a successful campaign. If you were going to walk into a bookstore right now, in what section would you look for your book? What similar books are out there? Why is yours different and therefore worthy of notice?
Know who you're pitching to. If an agent comes to your conference, and they only agent for bodice ripping romances, they may not be the best person for your picture book. Don't waste your time or theirs. Familiarize yourself with what clients the agent has, or what books the publisher has recently produced. Yes, this does sound a little like sucking up, but what it means is that you were clever enough to do your own research. It means you are professional enough to do your homework. It means you're worth working with.
Don't defend yourself. I kid you not, I was standing outside the door of a hotel room once during pitch sessions and I honestly heard an author tell the editor she was pitching to that he had no clue what he was doing. I may be wrong, but that may not be the best way to get a contract. I'm still staggered by the absurdity of not taking the advice of a trained professional simply because you're feeling a little bruised and prideful.
Don't gossip, backbite, or act like a fool. The writing industry is a small community. You never know who knows who. Play nice in the sandbox, remember the golden rule, and don't monopolize an agent or editor's time.
I am giving this advice because I am preparing to go to New York where I will be doing a lot of pitching. This little blog is a good refresher course for me too. May we find favor with the kings and queens of ink and paper.
Critique Archive 0017:
It was getting late. The shadows were deepening in the corners of his room and an oppressive heat hung in the air of the little attic of Darny Switch. He'd just finished his day of cleaning up other people's messes, and had come home to be yelled at by Mrs. Whippet for forgetting to pick up her laundry.
It had not been a good day. He plopped down on his bed and started reading the latest Harry Potter book. It had just come out and he had been waiting forever for his turn to check it out of the local library.
He opened the new cover and got a whiff of that lovely new book smell. It was still there. The pages crackled as he turned the first one. He loved the Harry Potter stories. He felt alive when he read them and lost in a world that was so entertaining and seemed so real. He had dreamed of living in such a world. Of walking down the halls of Hogworts. But the thing he most liked about the stories was that it was his story too. He had no parents, and had been left with people who didn't want him. But stories of high adventure don't happen to real boys. Stories like that are made up by great minds.
Real life was what Darny was living. He looked up at his closet door. Sometimes it would creak as he lay in bed. He would shut the door and still he swore he could hear it open as he lay there in the dark. He would close his eyes and will himself to fall asleep. He thought if he opened them, he would see something standing there and he had no magic spells to make it disappear. He was terrified of being alone up in his hot room, but he had no choice and no one felt sorry for him.
Friday, September 26, 2008
This blog installment is part of a killer campaign organized by Maria Zannini. Today several fellow authors will be blogging about booksignings, the good, the bad, and the ugly. To find out what other authors are saying today about booksignings, jump over to Maria's killer campaign post.
Here's my take:
In this era of internet marketing, booksignings are not necessarily as important as they used to be. Or are they?
When you read about new books coming out by bestselling authors, you can click on their websites and see a list of booksignings they have scheduled. But it seems that they are becoming fewer in number.
Over the years, I’ve had great booksignings and not-so-great ones. You just never know if it’s the weather, the local rival football game, American Idol finals, etc. that keep people home.
So whether you choose to do them or not, I have lots of tips.
1. Bring something to hand out. This breaks the ice and allows you to introduce yourself. I’ve handed out bookmarks or author cards, by saying very simply, “Have you heard about my book. It’s about _____________ ______________ ______________.” That’s the ten second approach. The customer will take the bookmark (98% of the time) and read it when you’re no longer staring at them.
2. Have your table near the front door, or near the register. This will allow you to either 1) greet each person as they come in, or 2) chat with the people standing in line. Ideally, it’s nice for a store employee to stand with you and introduce you to customers. Oh yeah, don’t EVEN plan on sitting. Stand, walk around, approach people.
3. A candy dish? I usually eat more than anyone else, and it doesn’t seem to help my sales. Of course, if you are writing for kids, you will get more attention from them. But if you bring a treat for the store employees . . . now that might make a difference.
4. Back to the store employees—it’s what a booksigning is all about. Surprised? Your job as an author is to get to know the employees, find out what they like to read. In essence, ask THEM questions. This makes them your new friend, and you can bet that the next day when they’re working a long shift, they’ll be recommending you left and right. Even if they haven’t read your book yet.
5. If the store isn’t going to provide posters or fliers about your booksigning, then drop by a couple weeks in advance (or mail) and provide them yourself. All of my books have been released in the fall, and I’ve found that I see just as much store traffic during a Friday lunch hour than I do a Saturday afternoon (yeah, it’s the football games). You might consult with the store manager about a good day and time.
6. Back to bookmarks. I like them because I can get a cover jpeg, a couple of endorsements, and my website all on the bookmark. Then with the store manager’s permission, I’ll walk around the store and slip my bookmark in other books that are similar to mine. Hmmm. The advertising that continues long after you’re gone.
7. Try an attention-getter at your table. Hold a drawing or bring an article of interest that goes with your book. Writing about a Mayan mystery? Bring a look-a-like ancient Mayan sword. Have a romance? One friend had a magnetic bulletin board and the customer gets to pick a number off of the board. Depending on what it says, the customer gets a candy bar, etc . . .
8. When you chat with a customer, keep your book pitch very brief. You can tell by their eye contact if they’re interested beyond the 10 second pitch. Then turn the tables and ask them, “So, what kind of books do you like to read?” Suddenly they perk up and chances are, they’ll make their way back to your table, or purchase your book on their next store visit.
9. NEWSLETTER SIGN-UPS. Yes, there’s a reason it’s in all caps. A NY Times Bestselling author told me this should be my #1 strategy. Both on your website, and at a booksigning, you should be capturing emails. Offer a newsletter sign-up sheet. Then promote it by saying you include reviews, recipes, other author interviews, or giveaway contests. And of course, your list won’t be shared with anyone. As long as they don’t unsubscribe from your list, you’ll have them part of your target audience for life. One last thing on newsletters. Don’t send anything out more than once a month, quarterly is best. You don’t want to be annoying, but you don’t want to be forgotten either.
10. Be patient. It wasn’t until my third book came out that I had people showing up to my booksignings to meet me specifically. These were mostly people that signed up for my newsletter at an earlier booksigning or on my website. They ended up buying a book, liking it, and wanting to come back for another.
Wednesday, September 24, 2008
Imagine a story that leads, slowly and inevitably, toward the final climactic battle. The tension is building. The stakes are high. The bad guys are on their way.
The battle arrives.
Your protagonist takes a back seat and watches most of it. He's worried and afraid, but not really participating.
That is, until a critical moment, when all might be lost. The hero steps in, knowing he might well die as he acts to save the day.
In the end, the battle is won.
But the reader then learns that the action the hero took was not only unnecessary to the victory, but actually made the winning side worse off and victory harder to come by.
Feel a bit cheated? Thought so.
When you put together a story, you're making a silent contract with your readers. Their obligation is to suspend their disbelief enough to give you a chance to tell a great story.
Your obligation as the writer is to do your best to carry out a story that's satisfying. That doesn't mean every reader will like your work. Hardly. But it does mean that you can't promise to give your readers one thing going in and then deliver something else.
It means that if you're building up to a climactic battle, the battle should be, well, climactic.
It means that your hero or heroine should be in the thick of things, taking part, and not on the sidelines observing and reacting.
It means that if the hero is willing to sacrifice everything, including his very life, his sacrifice needs to make a difference, have some significance to the story.
Now if your story is of the Thomas Hardy variety, your reader will know to expect a dark story with tragedy in it. So if the hero's sacrifice means nothing, that might actually work. But if you've done your part right, your reader will know pretty early on not to expect a Disney ending.
The battle example above is from an actual book that's part of a series, from a book several into the series. The author had made a very clear contract with the reader on what to expect with the previous books.
This ending wasn't what the writer had promised previously. Instead, I, at least, finished the book with a sense of disappointment and unease. Of irritation that I'd been brought through hundreds of pages for this.
The traditional hero story is one where the hero prevails, makes a difference, grows, and returns triumphant. If you're going to break those expectations, that's fine. Just be sure your readers know that going in.
For example, if you're calling your book a romance, then the hero and heroine must get together in the end. (If they don't get together, again, that's fine. That's a legitimate storyline. But you shouldn't call it a romance.)
If you're calling your novel a mystery, then the murderer better be revealed before the last page. (If the detective ends up being the last victim and the reader closes the cover without knowing his identity, you haven't written a mystery.)
As Chekov reportedly said, if you show a gun on the mantel in Act I, it had better go off before the end of Act III.
Don't want anyone getting shot? Don't put the gun on the mantel.
Don't build up to a big fight if you're going to let it fizzle out before it gets started. Don't have your hero observe the climax; make him participate. Don't set up a huge issue that your hero will face . . . but then have it turn out to be nothing after all.
Know what you're promising your readers and don't cheat them.
You want them buying your next book, not throwing this one against the wall in frustration.
Tuesday, September 23, 2008
by Heather Moore
I've been waiting a long time to share the story of how I met Diana Spechler, author of Who by Fire (Harper Perennial).
I met Diana at the BEA Expo in Los Angeles this past May. Her book looked interesting so I stood in her line and ended up talking to her for a couple of minutes. Since I spent time living in Jerusalem, I was especially intrigued by this novel that partially takes place in Jerusalem. And of course, I was interested in how she came up with her story idea and her road to publishing with a major NY publisher.
So without further delay, I'd like to welcome Diana to our blog:
Me: Diana, you’ve been published in Glimmer Train Stories, Moment, and Lilith. What compelled you to start writing a novel?
Diana: Who By Fire actually started as a short story that I wrote during my last semester of graduate school and published in the Greensboro Review in 2003. It was told from Bits’ point of view, and after writing it, I was curious about her brother, Ash. I wrote something from his point of view, then returned to hers, then went back to his, and so on. At first, I wasn’t really sure what I was doing. I couldn’t imagine that I was writing a novel. That was something that other people did, people who…you know…knew how to write novels. I was just making my characters have a conversation. Like a puppet show. It became a novel, of course, but I still write short stories, too. I love short stories.
Me: Have you always wanted to be a writer?
Diana: Yes. I think that when I was eight, I used to tell people I wanted to be a marine biologist, but I doubt I really knew what that was, since I still don’t exactly know what it is. I mean, I know it’s a scientist who studies animals that live in the water, but what exactly would that entail? It sounds complicated. I’ve been writing since I could pick up a pencil. It is really the only thing I’ve ever loved to do (not counting things that aren’t jobs—like drinking good wine or going swimming).
Me: I loved the premise of the story as soon as you told me about it. Having lived in Jerusalem for a couple of years, I was excited to read your book. Where did your ideas first come from in writing this book?
Diana: I studied at Hebrew University for a semester during college. I also spent a summer in Israel when I was seventeen. Of course, I got to know the texture of the country during those trips, which has enabled me to write about it, but the idea for the novel really came from the short story I wrote about Bits and Ash (it was called Close to Lebanon), which sort of came from thin air. Set in Boston, the story takes place over a two-day period while Bits is waiting to hear from Ash after a suicide bombing. I guess the topic was on my mind because my brother had recently gone on a Birthright Israel trip. He was there during a particularly bad time, and I was worried about him, and I guess that’s what planted the seed.
Me: Tell us how you found your agent and the process from submission to acceptance.
Diana: Nothing makes me starry-eyed like talking about my agent. She’s the best. Her name is Kate Lee and she was recently ranked the twenty-first most powerful woman in New York, but I would rank her higher. I was lucky because one of my friends, the very talented author Cristina Henriquez, is Kate’s client. She read an early draft of my novel and offered to recommend me to Kate. I was thrilled because Cristina’s experience with Kate had been so positive, so I knew that if she accepted my novel, I would be in very good hands. When she signed me, I felt like my life was changing. I went to a bar that night to play pool and celebrate. In fact, my life was changing, but the process was slow. Kate had a lot of editing/rewriting suggestions, and then there was a lot of talking with various editors, getting feedback from them, rewriting again, and on and on and on. By the time Harper Perennial bought the novel, Kate and I had been working together for more than a year and a half.
Me: Your writing style seems so effortless. Do you go through several drafts? Describe your writing process.
Diana: Thank you, Heather! Bless you! I could use many words to describe my writing process, but “effortless” would never be one of them. Yes, I write a lot of drafts. I know some people use outlines. I’ve never done that. I just draft and draft and draft. Who By Fire has existed in countless manifestations. In early drafts, there was no plot. Of course, that was a problem. Plot often comes last for me, but until I find a plot, I’m terrified and frustrated. I always think, “What if this is just a plotless, pointless piece of crap?” But then when I do find the plot, I think, “That’s so obvious. Why didn’t I know it from the beginning?” Another integral part of my process is feedback from my readers. I have several writer buddies with whom I regularly exchange work. I don’t know what I would do without them.
Me: The characters in your book are very likeable, and their flaws make them easy to relate to. Did you pattern your characters after yourself or people that you know?
Diana: Yes and no. I think I inhabit all of my characters to some extent. But they’re usually composites. There are pieces of lots of people I know or have known or have met and pieces that are completely invented. For example, in Who By Fire, Ellie and Ben met in Jerusalem in the 1970s. My parents also met in Jerusalem in the 1970s, but they’re nothing like Ellie and Ben. I’ve just always found it incredibly beautiful and romantic that my parents met in Israel; I liked incorporating that detail into the novel.
Me: You write the whole book in first person, present tense. Is this your natural writing style or did you do it just for this book?
Diana: I don’t think I ever toyed with third person on this project, but at one time, all of Bits’ chapters were written in the past tense. (Changing that was tedious, to say the least.) In general, I like first person because of the sense of intimacy it creates. Whenever I start writing in third person, I have to ask myself what exactly I’m shying away from. Sometimes I let myself write in third person if the intimacy of first is daunting to the point of paralyzing me; after all, it’s better to write something than to write nothing. For some reason, I think my sentences are prettier when I use third person, but there’s an immediacy and an openness that only first person can create.
Me: In the “Conversation with Diana Spechler” at the end of the book, you mention some strange coincidences in what you wrote in your book to actual events that happened later. One of them is that your own brother decided to move to Israel to study Orthodox Judaism (when that’s exactly what the main character’s brother, Asher, did in Who by Fire). So . . . is he still on that path?
Diana: No. Not really. He is more religious than I am—keeps kosher, observes more holidays—but religion is not the focal point of his life right now. Which is not to say he’s plummeted into a life of sin or anything (whatever that would mean). He’s a lawyer in Texas who advocates for kids with disabilities. Quite an amazing, benevolent guy, my little brother.
Me: What advice do you have for other writers?
Diana: Write as much as you can. Read a lot. Try to eliminate as many distractions as possible. Don’t let yourself judge people; it’s more useful to step back, observe, and try to get a kick out of how weird people are.
Me: Tell us about the book you are writing now.
Diana: I’m writing a novel based on my experience working at a weight-loss camp for kids in the mountains of North Carolina.
Me: Thanks for the interview, Diana. Best of luck with your new release!
You can find out more about Diana's book on her website.
Tuesday, September 16, 2008
Writing is sometimes a thankless job with no reward. We spin words on thousands of pages that no one but our moms have read; we mail off queries and get back rejections. We smile over gritted teeth when our friends get contracts, and try to remember that we love our friends, and we're really happy for them. It's hard to stay motivated
If you want a child to do something—to get a chore done—I’ve heard that reward is the greatest tool. If that doesn't work you can try taking away privileges or punishment to motivate the child.
But what happens if you want an *adult* to do something. What happens when you want *yourself* to do something?
I am not easily motivated. As an adult I am no longer swayed by enticements of candy or cookies. I can get those things if I want them--anytime I want them. I'm an adult. That's the perk of being an adult.
And I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that I should up the reward. Okay fine, if I get my book written, I'll get to go on an exotic trip to Tahiti. Except, I know what my checking account contains (or doesn't contain, as the case may be . . . hello? I'm an author . . .). So I have to be responsible. That's the non-perk of being an adult.
Motivating someone who already knows what they can and can't do is a tough proposition. But I still think it can be done with a few tips to make it easier.
- Self Control--It's necessary to use good self control to make sure your motivating factors are really motivating. With kids, it's easy to reward or withhold a reward when they do the things they do. You put the cookies up on the higher shelf. You lock up the x-box and hide the key. But when we are self governed it's a little harder. We know where the keys are, and we can reach that high shelf with very little effort. Being honest with yourself and refraining from partaking of an unearned reward will make the reward that much sweeter when you genuinely earn it.
- Set a daily goal, a weekly goal, a monthly goal, and a final goal. And reward yourself at special milestones. So let's say every fifty pages, you get a manicure, or a massage, or you get a movie night. It makes the journey of writing a little sweeter. I know that our very own Annette Lyon uses chocolate as a motivator. When she finished a daily goal she rewarded herself with a little bit of the really good chocolate. We're not talking Hershey's here. Were talking real CHOCOLATE.
- Make the final goal something a little bigger. Most of us cannot afford a trip to Tahiti, but maybe you can get play tickets or a weekend getaway to somewhere close by, or season tickets to whatever your favorite sport is. I reward myself with books. When I finish writing a novel, I allow myself to read. I allow myself to read five to ten books in between each novel I write. This makes it so much easier for me not to get distracted in other people's stories and provides me something to work for. I will buy a book (or several books) that I REALLY want to read and put them up on my desk where I have to look at them, knowing I cannot crack their spines until I am done.
- Make submission goals as well as writing goals. It's great to get a book written, but if you don't submit it to anyone . . . so what? You can't exactly make a goal that states, "I will be published by June." You can't control the publishers and agents. So keep your goals within the realm of things you can control. Set goals for submitting: I will query five different agencies every week for the next six months.
- Make networking goals. Attending writer's conferences provides you further education and builds friendships with people who understand what you're going through. Make a goal to attend one major conference a year and to maybe attend several smaller ones to help you stay at the top of your game. Make a goal to meet with at least two agents or editors at every conference you attend. Gather business cards.
I have to be honest, as far as rewards go, writing for me *is* the reward. If I don't write, I find myself stuck in depression I can't readily get out of. If I obtain my daily writing goal, I find satisfaction in every other aspect in my life. I love writing. It makes me happy. I can't think of a better reward than that.
So reward yourself and write. You totally deserve it.
Monday, September 15, 2008
This past weekend, Josi and I attended the League of Utah Writers Round-up Conference. It was a lot of fun and we took tons of notes! So prepare yourselves . . . The most amazing thing I heard was about perseverence. The authors who were there presenting talked about how important it is to get feedback on your work, then to submit . . . and keep submitting! It is hard to break into the publishing world, but it's very possible.
And of course, I always recommend writers, beginners or experts, to attend Writer's Conferences. Networking is just as important as learning to better your craft. One of the presenters (Elizabeth Lyon) talked about how writing is an art form. But it's unique in the fact that we don't have a visual display like an artist. In fact, not many people will see it unless it becomes published. She said that if you have something that you aren't able to get published, then consider having a POD book (point on demand) printed. That way, you will still have your piece of art accessible. Something to think about.
Maybe I'll re-edit those dusty manuscripts and put them in art form :)
Oh yeah, and Josi had a new book come out last week, Her Good Name. It's a great suspense novel based on identity theft. It's silly not to mention this on our writing and editing blog. Congrats Josi!
Tuesday, September 9, 2008
With a grumbling sort of growl, he gave into peer pressure and scurried over the lawn to walk with me. "The sign says stay off the grass!" He waved his arms wildly around as though I failed to notice I was doing the exact opposite.
"I'm an artist," I said. "I pen my own rules." And with that, continued on my merry way to class. We were still late, even with the short cut over the lawn.
Writers, dancers, artists, musicians--we're kind of an arrogant lot--moody, tempermental, we expect things to go our way simply because we're artists. We think outside the box and expect to be able to walk outside the box too.
Recently a book came out that caused quite a stir. It was literary (word 'literary' said with a slight accent as you lift your nose in condescension). The publisher sent out many review copies to various active reviewers and then threw a tantrum when the reviews came pouring in--most of them negative.
I've heard it a lot, "Don't you people understand art?"
Well, maybe . . . maybe not. I know what I like. I know what kind of music I want to listen to, what kind of paintings I want to look at and hang in my house, what kind of books I like to read. If your art doesn't fit with my tastes that doesn't mean it isn't art, but it doesn't mean I have bad taste either. It just means that our minds didn't meet. Big deal, right?
Well it is a big deal if you're an author looking to make a few dollars on your work--at least enough money to pay for your paper and ink.
I totally get wanting to push boundaries and wanting to be unique, but you have to ask yourself one vital question, "Who am I writing this for?" If your goal is to sell books, then you need to have an audience in mind. It sounds base and crass to consider peddling your art like that, but even the most brilliant artist needs to eat.
Commercialism really isn't evil. What good is a really artsy book that no one wants to read?
Readers expect certain things from every genre. In romance, the guy MUST get the girl. In mystery, you MUST discover who the murderer is before he strikes that final time. Rules . . . even for the artist.
Who is your audience and are you writing the best book you can for them? And if your audience is not the mainstream, be smart and don't send review copies out to mainstream reviewers. If you didn't write for them, then they aren't likely to appreciate your product and will end up hurting sales more than helping. And if you find yourself writing a book with a particular audience in mind, but the book you're writing will betray that audience by going places that audience doesn't want to go, you might want to look at a few signs like "stay off the grass."
There may be a more profound message there.
Tuesday, September 2, 2008
Once again I'm inspired for my post by A Conversation on the Writing Life by Julia Cameron and Natalie Goldberg.
This time the topic could be called, “show, don’t tell,” but to me (and especially the early writer me), “specificity” describes it so much better.
I can’t remember how many times I’d get the comment that I was telling instead of showing, and I’d want to scream, “I thought I was showing!”
Showing has several elements, but specificity is one of my favorites. The gist is to take a general noun (such as a car) and tell us more. Make us see it.
Is it a VW Bug? Is it a little red Toyota truck with rusted wheel wells? Is it a sleek, black Jaguar? A yellow Jeep with fuzzy, pink dice hanging from the mirror?
The more specific you are, the more clearly readers will see the “movie” in your head—and be drawn into your imaginary world.
If I say I walked into a yard with beautiful, fragrant flowers, you might have a certain image in mind. But it’s probably pretty vague, and the picture in your head is going to be very different than the one in mine.
What if instead I say that I walked under a arch of pink climbing roses and then past a hedge of violet-colored lilacs, and that a vase along the winding gravel path was full of yellow irises?
Ah, now we’re picturing the same thing. And it’s a lot more specific and memorable than plain old “flowers.”
So the girl in your book isn’t just a girl. She’s a six-year-old red-head with pigtails and a smattering of freckles across her cheeks—and a black eye.
The man isn’t tall—he has to duck to get through the doorway.
The woman isn’t tired—instead, her eyes open and close heavily, her gait is slow and measured, and she rubs her eyes with her fingertips.
Granted, you can take specificity too far. You don’t want to describe each and every passing character and landscape in total detail, resulting in what’s often called, “purple prose.” (You know, the kind of thing where a sunset lasts two pages and you’re ready to scream at the author to get on with it already!)
But in general, writers tend to err on the side of being too vague.
Think about J. K. Rowling’s first description of Snape’s classroom. Yes, we know it’s a dungeon, so it’s obviously dim and dank. She doesn’t go on much about that. Instead she drops in a creepy detail about jars on the shelves that hold floating dead things. She doesn’t need to include much more than that. We get the picture, and we want out of the classroom as much as Harry does.
Take a piece of your work and circle every noun and every adjective. Look them one at a time. Is there a way to make them more specific? Can you focus your mental “movie” a bit more and give the reader something that’ll convey your world to them more clearly?
In general, two or three details when introducing a new major character or location are plenty, provided you’ve picked good, solid ones that can represent the rest of the person or place.
Now I’ll head to my kitchen, where I’ll open a dark alder wood cupboard for a glass, and then I’ll take out the Winder Farms chocolate milk from the stainless-steel fridge. Mmm. Good.
(Can you see it?)