Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Dialogue vs Description

What's a good balance between dialogue and description in novels? (Note: Description here refers to all non-dialogue.) One of my insecurities as a writer is that I write too much dialogue and am light on description. I have a cut-to-the-chase style of writing. I picked it up from writing screenplays before transitioning to books. In scripts, it's suggested that you never have more than 3 lines of description at a time. It's a well-known fact that people in Hollywood don't like to read. Blocks of description turns them off. Also, scripts are used more as a blueprint for the director and actor. Description tells them what's happening, but they will use their own interpretation to create the tone and feel.

I am incapable of writing long passages of description. That's why I like YA. Kids like having a good mix of white space on the page. They feel they aren't reading a textbook that way. Do you ever cringe when you turn a page and it's a block of description? I sometimes do. When I read, I want description that's long enough to just give me a sense of what's going on. I don't need painstaking detail about physical description, a play-by-play of the characters' thoughts, or a journalistic recounting of backstory. Make it succinct; my mind will fill in the rest. I always think to that scene in Pleasantville when the kids discover blank books. Reese Witherspoon vaguely describes what a book is about, and the pages fill in with text. I would rather reveal information via dialogue.

On the same token, I don't like dialogue that goes on and on. Writing dialogue is fun, but it also needs to have a point. It must move the story along. I tire of scenes with dialogue that goes nowhere. Pulp Fiction is a famously talky script, but it's all leading somewhere. Characters don't talk just for the sake of talking. Long stretches of dialogue reveal character and explore the movie's theme: what does it take to be a righteous man?

Recently, I read The Giver by Lois Lowry and loved it. I devoured it in two days. It's an award-winning book, and I was surprised at how dialogue-driven it was. Most of the description are action lines. As I kept reading, I realized that the writing style echoed the colorless, emotionless world of the story. Still, I got a very clear sense of the main character and place. When Lowry does switch to more description in the end, they are short and sweet. They tell us where we are and what Jonas is doing. She did an amazing job at conveying so much in a few lines.

Which do you tend to write more of: dialogue or description/action?

Thursday, March 8, 2012

In Defense of Katy Perry...and Revising

This week, two famous women reinforced two important facts for me:

1) I have a new article posted at In Our Words Blog. ch ch check it out!

In Defense of Katy Perry

When doing my research for this article, I discovered that Perry's been kicking around since 2001, but she didn't hit it big with "I Kissed a Girl" until 2008. In that time, she was signed and dropped by two record labels. She recorded an album with one of the biggest music producers, which then got shelved. So people may not be a fan of her music, but nobody can claim she doesn't work hard. She's been at it for 11 years! It just goes to show that there is no such thing as an overnight success. Everyone pays his/her dues.

2) On Tuesday night, I went to a book signing and reading from author Carol Anshaw for her new novel Carry the One. The book sounds amazing -- and they served cupcakes! During the Q&A, I asked her if she is a plotter or a pantser. I called it a fly-by-the-seats-of-your-pantser, in case she wasn't up to date on the lingo. She said she does do outlines, but she mostly considers herself a Reviser. Before my question, someone else had asked how long it took her to write the book. She said she spent as much time revising as she did actually writing. Anshaw is a big proponent of revising, and it's nice knowing that great books don't just fall out of the sky. Aspiring author, published author. Doesn't matter. Everyone revises.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Update: Revisions, AWP, Books, and Remembering Your Nose

Happy Friday!

I'm looking forward to the weekend. The AWP (Association of Writers Programs) conference is going on in Chicago through Sunday. Professors, students, and alumni of MFA writing programs are flocking to the city to mix and mingle. There are a slew of readings happening in bookstores, coffee shops, and bars. I went to a poetry reading on Wednesday night. To be honest, poetry is not my forte, but I still enjoyed being around other writers. I'm planning to go a fiction reading sometime this weekend. Since we spend so much of our time alone staring at a screen, it's nice to meet other pale, socially awkward writers in person. Their schedule can be found here.

I've also been revising every single day this week. I'm not hitting my chapter-per-day goal, but I'm still proud of myself for keeping up this daily pace. I thought I would dread revisions, but I quite enjoy having a base to go off of.

In my descriptions, I've been adding more sensory images, especially smell. We take smell for granted, opting to use visual and tactile description. But people have a strong attachment to their sense of smell. You can evoke a feeling or memory or setting quickly and effectively with sense of smell. You see, the sense of smell is our only sense that's connected directly to our brain, making them more vivid. The sensations don't have to be transmitted and translated like they do with the other four senses. That's why when I smell Cool Water on a guy, I'm instantly taken back to 7th grade sitting in front of this kid Jason who poured it on. Whereas if I see an old picture of him, it would take a little more thinking to picture the classroom. Try to intersperse some olfactory descriptions into your WIP. If you have a minor character, maybe you don't want to spend time describing his/her appearance, giving your reader yet another person to remember. Instead, describe how they smell and distringuish said character immediately.

In book news, I lent my copy of Small Town Sinners to a friend who's a youth minister. She loved it! She really appreciated how the protagonist questions her faith, how organic her development felt, and how the book doesn't put down religion. She's going to recommend it to her kids. I love when people love books I recommend. It's like a job well done...I'm currently reading Stephen McCauley's The Object of My Affection. Yes, I'm breaking my rule about reading the book after seeing the movie. And yes, I keep picturing Jennifer Aniston as the main character, even though in the book she is very different and not as glamourous. But I am enjoying the novel, especially its datedness. (It was written in 1985) The main characters are debating whether to invest in an answering machine. At least it's not a pay phone.

 How is your writing coming along? Any fun weekend plans?