Monday, May 19, 2014

Death by Description (#amwriting)

Goodness. We all know that every scene has to move your story forward by either developing plot or character. But I didn't realize how important that concept is until I read two very different books - it's literally a crucial part of keeping the reader reading.

Have you ever opened a book you really wanted to love only to find yourself drowning in description? You plug in those earphones good and tight, set out for the garden with your favorite shovel in hand, and wouldn't you know it: the crime thriller you hoped to enjoy while hilling the potatoes turns into a boring recitation of what kind of watch the main character's niece is wearing, the brand of espresso machine in the office, where to find the various types of coffee in the cupboard, and musings by the main character about how grateful she is to find a male assistant with fashion sense who selects appropriate clothes for her day. All sprinkled with back-story details that knock the reader (me) right out of the current story.

A crime novel by a big bestselling author with no murder, kidnapping, or any kind of violence in the first CD-and-a-half of the audio book. *yawn* All I know at this point is that someone is missing. Maybe on purpose, maybe not. Maybe it has something to do with dinosaur bones. I don't care. I'm just grateful I borrowed the book from the library rather than buying it.

Thankfully, relief was at hand. After turning off the CDs and finishing with the potatoes, I opened The Last Detective by Robert Crais. Yeowza. We start off with Joe Pike facing a brown bear up in the Alaskan wilderness. Pike is struggling to recover from gunshot wounds and is uncertain about how to reclaim his emotional serenity. Then BAM! we're at Elvis Cole's house and within the first five pages, his girlfriend's son (who Cole is babysitting) goes missing. From that point on, the book is bare bones on description and it absolutely blazes. I cared so much about the spunky kidnapped kid, who snatched him, and why they might've done it that I had to put the book in another room so I wouldn't burn dinner.

A crime novel by a big bestselling author with kidnapping, relationship stress, a manipulative ex-husband, and a nasty revenge scheme going back decades all in the first few chapters. Roughly equivalent to one audio CD. I was breathless from trying to help find the kid! This is the reason I read - I want to care, I want my heart to pound as the plot thickens, I want to have to turn that next page at the peril of a stovetop fire.

What was the difference between the two books? Pace. Detail. And character development. Crais laid down a plot that moves and trusted his readers to get the Cole / Pike back-story with only a few details. His characters (other than Cole and Pike) are sketches. I can barely describe them, but I know the role they played in the whole nasty affair. Maybe the first author was easing into her story and all the details would eventually matter. I think it's more likely that she was finding the story as she wrote and didn't take the time to go back and edit out the unimportant descriptions. I don't know. I stopped caring. And then I stopped reading.

It's a risk every writer faces - falling in love with our words to the point that we lose the reader, or not being diligent enough to ensure we rip out what doesn't matter.

What about you? How much detail is too much, how little is too little? Does your preference vary based on genre, or are you a patient reader no matter the level of description?


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Thursday, May 1, 2014

The Five Best Things About a Backed Up Septic Tank (If You're A #Writer)

Yes, this post is written from personal experience. I won't disturb you with the details, but suffice it to say that I had the opportunity to call the guy who pumps out septic tanks last weekend. I didn't call him to chat, but to plead for his presence, immediately, at our humble abode, at almost any cost.

How could there be five 'best' things about a backed up septic tank? Fundamentally, it's impossible. But hey, these things happen and I take my lessons where I find them, so here are the five best things I learned from my epic septic fail:

1) Writers aren't known for their athletic prowess (unless they happen to be a sports star having their memoirs ghost-written), but a backed up septic tank gets you up out of your chair and your heart pumping at aerobic (no pun intended) speeds. In a hurry. My sprint to the bathroom when I heard the toilet burping, then to the phone book to look up the septic guy's number when I saw water seeping where water has no business seeping, then to the cell phone to punch in that number, should've won a few awards for speed and agility.

2) Writers tend to shy away from interactions with real people. Imaginary people are no problem. It's just those who live in the real world with whom we struggle. A backed up septic tank turns that problem on its head. You get to wheedle and whinge your way into a visit from the septic guy at 4:30 on a Friday afternoon. Your bargaining skills shine, involving the trade of vast sums of hard cash in exchange for the arrival of that magnificent tanker truck that makes the seeping water stop.

3) Finding the backed up septic tank improves your physical stamina, because you have to bang a piece of rebar into the ground to find the tank, then dig the dang tank out to find the lid. (Actually, you dig both tanks out - since the septic guy is here, he might as well pump out both, right?) In our neck of the woods, digging out the septic tank involved a shovel, a post-hole digger, and a little soaking from a water hose due to the cement-like quality of the clay that covers it.

4) You realize that you really can hide a body in a septic tank. (I've often wondered whether one of my characters could use a septic tank for a body dump. What? Doesn't everybody?) Granted, it might take a little dismemberment and ensuring your character's septic tank is big enough to hold a full sized human body (at 500 gallons, ours could comfortably hold two each), but you really could dispose of a body in a septic tank and it would be some time before anybody was the wiser. 

If ever.

5) You get great story ideas when the septic tank backs up because the septic guy turns out to have a heart for the disposal of bodies and, once he realizes you're the chick who writes those horrific crime novels, regales you with tales of local people who (rumor has it) got away with murder and how they (rumor has it) disposed of the bodies. Extremely insightful, and a little scary when you think about your neighbors and what they might get up to.

There you have it. A Friday night septic disaster turned into physical, mental, and plot benefit. Will one of my characters dump a body or find a body in a septic tank? It's a distinct possibility. Keep reading to discover how it all unfolds.
(An added benefit of a backed up septic tank? You score big points with your husband, who has to go off to a gig and leaves you to deal with the septic tragedy on your own. He comes home to perfectly functioning drainage and remembers just how lucky he was to have snagged you in the first place. I'm thinking about a trip to a nice sugary beach, where the drinks come with little umbrellas. Work it, ladies. Those septic tanks only back up every so often.)

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