A periodic column written by award-winnning New York editor Michael Seidman
Occasional Thoughts from the Editorial Side
by Michael Seidman
What is it youre trying to accomplish with your writing? To entertain me? But you dont know me, or any of the others who call themselves me or I; you can only hope that you know us, know the readers (and agents and editors are readers, after all) well enough generally that you dont have to worry about the specific. You have to be everyman (which isnt a sexist comment, but a phrase. Thats all, a phrase), you have to entertain yourself first, then. You have to satisfy yourself. Not lie to yourself but honestly and truly satisfy yourself. You have to write better than you can.
And it can be done but well talk about that later.
This is where we ended once, so it is where we shall begin now.
How does one write better? Weve had hints; heres something solid: at a conference at which I was speaking once upon a manuscript or two ago, one of the contests was for sensual writing. Thats cool; I love sensual writing: Helen Dunmores `1996 novel, Talking to the Dead, is perhaps the most sensuous story Ive ever read. But the phrase isnt about sex scenes or love scenes; it is about engaging the senses, as many of them as possible in the course of your story. Not all at once, but a couple at a time. It is about the senses-all of them.
Think of descriptions of meals that youve read; then read John Lanchesters The Debt to Pleasure. See if you can still find a copy of a novel titled, Parfüm. Then make a Diane Ackermans A Natural History of the Senses a permanent part of your writing library.
Why keep on about this? Consider: how do you experience the world around you? Not intellectually; we translate what we sense and then the intellect comes into play, translating, making things contextual: making comparisons. What does something sound like, look like? I recently bought a new melon, something called a Sprite. The taste is like honeydew; the texture is crisper, like biting into a small piece of coconut. Describe the taste of a kiwi fruit .
And we are aware of subtle differences: Red isnt simply redit may be cardinal or scarlet or brick. (Even shadows may have different shades.) Is loud simply annoying or painful, a babys cry on a long flight or an air hammer under your window? Weve all heard (or unfortunately may have used) the phrase: smooth as a babys bottom. (Ah, the simile; a way to feel what we want the reader to sense.) What else is smooth? Is the smoothness of yogurt different? Yes, because it entails, automatically, yet another sense: taste. It comes together, eventually.
Too often, as I read manuscripts, I stumble across a paragraph or two of description-several times. It isnt in any context at all: Im told the dimensions of a room, the furnishings. Sentence after dull sentence of facts, of items. I dont experience them as the character might (and generally, the character isnt experiencing them either, simply reporting on them. Or, worse, the author is, leaving the character pacing in my imagination, waiting to return to the action). Or we grind to a halt as a character is described, in detail.
But stop to think about it for a moment. When you meet someone for the first time, do you see everything about them at once? It is the same with a room or anything else: we sense in bits and pieces. (And women and men see and sense things differently.) I might notice a French manicure if a woman extends her hand to me; if shes sitting at a table, one hand in her lap, the other holding a glass to her lips, I might (probably wont) notice. Why, then, would I do something unreasonable like talking about her nails when I cant see them? It doesnt take a Vulcan to see the illogic in that.
There are unimportant details, but not many, not if theyre kept in context and not if theyre revealed through action. Let the reader know about a mans cologne through another characters reaction to it: leave it all to the character. Those details make a difference: they add to the central character, the one experiencing the sense and they tell us something about that which is being described: they create a third dimension.
Make me see and hear and feel what your characters are and youll have gone a long way toward making me want to acquire publication rights.
Other articles for Authorlink by Michael Seidman:
Stet #1, Occasional Thoughts From the Editorial Side
About Michael Seidman
MICHAEL SEIDMAN is an editorial consultant working with individuals and publishers. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.