Friday, March 19, 2010

Writing rules

An early criticism of my novel (yes there was one - more than one, but we won't go there) was that there wasn't enough character description - the reader felt like she couldn't 'see' my main character clearly, and that I should include more physical description to bring her to life.

Harrumph, I thought. Sophie Kinsella, author of the popular Shopaholic series, purposely didn't write a description of her central character, Becky Bloomwood.

In a recent interview she said she deliberately never described what Becky looked like, partly because she wanted everyone to relate to her and partly because when she's writing, she's not looking at her, she's looking through her eyes at the world, and didn't think in real-life anyone would ever look look in a mirror and say, "Wow, my shoulder-length, blonde-streaked, shiny hair looks fab today!" though she might say "Wow, my hair looks fab today!"

(As an aside, it's been a long time since I looked in a mirror and said, "Wow, my hair looks fab today!" I'm well overdue for a trim. My daughter tells me it's turned to 'wisp' again. That never happens in novels.)

In another book - the chilling but deeply impressive The Mother's Tale by Camilla Noli - the main character doesn't even have a name, never mind a description. And yet ...

I didn't realise until I read that interview with Sophie Kinsella that Becky Bloomwood didn't have a description, because I'd pictured her so clearly in my mind - I had to go back and check, and it wasn't until I was reading the author notes at the end of The Mother's Tale that the lack of a name even registered. Which taught me something.

I'm thick.

No, it wasn't that.

To break the rules, you have to be experienced enough to carry it off so the reader doesn't notice. My reader noticed.


And no, since you ask. I haven't heard from Lovely Agent yet. I'm sticking with the old adage 'no news is good news' until I hear otherwise.


Sherri said...

That's interesting, Karen.
I had also heard that too much character description was a bad thing as it didn't allow the reader to form their own picture. I suppose it's finding a balance between too much and not enough and managing to do it in a show-y rather than a tell-y way.
Ah, the 'rules' of writing - dontcha just love them?

Deborah Carr (Debs) said...

I was so surprised when I saw the interview with Sophie K saying she hadn't described Becky Bloomwood, because, like you, I had such a clear picture of her in my mind.

Keeping everything crossed that you hear good news from lovely agent soon.

Kerry said...

Oh, hope you hear from the agent's London Book Fair soon too!

Yes I always read that a pet peeve is that protagonist in a mirror description! :)


P.s. I'm sure your hair is lovely with not a wisp in sight!

Teresa Ashby said...

Interesting post, Karen.
I also hope you hear from Lovely Agent soon.
And I just want to say I think Molly looks very fetching in her scarf.

Colette McCormick said...

Molly is looking gorgeous in her scarf.
Here's hoping that you hear from Lovely Agent soon and that they have good news.

Anonymous said...

While we're on the subject of rules and rule breaking, I feel I have to say that I'm thoroughly enjoying Stephen King's Under the Dome at the moment. I eventually realised after about 350 pages (the whole book is well over 800 pages), that he's head-jumping all over the place - even within paragraphs.

If it took me that long to realise, then he's obviously broken the "stick to one viewpoint" rule very successfully. Oh well, I suppose in about another hundred years we'll be as good as he is.

Better make that two hundred years.

Suzanne Ross Jones said...

Fingers crossed for good news from Lovely Agent soon.


Jan Jones said...

You want to be careful with those pesky wisps. I needed TWO INCHES off to even my wisps out a couple of weeks ago.

broken biro said...

I go for days without looking in a mirror and the only time I get annoyed when there isn't a character description is if it's important to the story... I'd be irritated to discover that Zaphod Beeblebrox had TWO heads half way through HHGTTG

Jenny Beattie said...

I was reading Past Imperfect by Julian Fellowes a couple of weeks ago which I hugely enjoyed. At the end I turned to the book club questions where it mentioned that the narrator hadn't been named! I was stunned; I hadn't noticed and I felt a really crap reader. However, given your post, I'm going to choose to believe your philosoph: To break the rules, you have to be experienced enough to carry it off so the reader doesn't notice.

Thank you Karen.

Lorna F said...

I actually find writing physical character description a pain - either you stick them in front of a mirror, as you say, or you find yourself mired in the cliches of ice-blue eyes and strong jaws. Comfortingly, there are loads of good stories where we end up with a crystal-clear picture of the character in our minds and only later realise the writer used such methods as speech, mannerisms, etc - look at Jane Austen, my dear! We all know what her characters look like, don't we? We all feel indignant if the wrong actor is cast in the latest TV adaptation! And yet Jane's physical descriptions are pretty sketchy.
All agents, however lovely (and I'm sure yours is) take forever to respond. This is the voice of experience talking! I'm sure you'll hear good things in the end, Karen! x

Amanda said...

Excellent post, Karen! I remember my tutor saying you have to obey the rules when first starting out, and as you get experienced you can start breaking them!

Fingers and toes crossed you will hear VERY soon! x

Sheila Norton said...

Like you, Karen, I've been pulled up for not describing my characters' physical appearances enough, and asked by the editor to feed more description into the novel - and that wasn't when I was starting out, it was after the publication of several novels.I must say it doesn't really occur to me to describe them, as I tend to think people will imagine them the way they want to - unless it's important to the plot that the heroine has long blonde hair and her mother is short and dumpy etc. But I'm now having to make more effort to weave some description in; doing so without the contrived use of mirrors etc is quite tricky especially as my novels are written in the first person, and the sort of person who waffles on to herself about the way she looks isn't the sort of heroine I want! Just another challenge ...!

Jen said...

breaking the writerly rules always reminds me of Les Dawson's utterly awful piano playing - I don't think it occurred to the audience that, to place those fabulously wrong notes exactly where they'd have most comedy value, he actually had to be able to play perfectly to start with.

So I guess it's similar - once we're perfect writers, we can tweak and twiddle for our own ends and the reader will be none the wiser!

DAB said...

Ahhh, but rememeber m'dear 8 out of 10 cats love Whiskers! God, I'm talking in riddles again ;-)

Lydia said...

I always find too much character description contrived - or at least it feels contrived when I do it! I recently read Chris Jones' "Happy Birthday" and realised that she had completely physically summed up the heroine in one half pargraph on page one - quite a feat when you think about it! (I should ever be half as good!) I'm also of the leave-it-to-reader-to-imagine school, but maybe you're right: we all have to become better writers to be able to break the description rule.
Ah, well... back to the drawing board AGAIN! :)

Pat Posner said...

Fingers crossed for good news from agent very soon


Denise said...

That horrible D word. It's definitely the thing I struggle most with, and unfortunately the bit I least want to practice. I love descriptions that sum people up just by a few actions, but I'm rubbish at those too. Sob.

Hope the lovely agent brings you lovely news.

Michelle said...

This is an interesting one. I have begun combing through my MS for liberal use of adverbs, telling not showing etc but wondered about how much description you give of a character as you want the reader to have their own picture...often why movies can be a let down. I thin sometimes a feature of a character can be a useful tool to convey emotional or personality traits?

HelenMWalters said...

I frequently forget to give any description of my characters at all, as you - ahem - know ... I have to really make myself do it. And it is so much harder, as Olivia said, when you're writing in first person.

Anna Scott Graham said...

Great post! The rules are meant to be fiddled with, once we get to a point where we've gotten the proper tools.

Sometimes those tools are pinched, sure, but eventually we're owning them outright.

btw, I think Molly looks great in that scarf!

Francine Howarth said...


Good luck with agent!

As for character description, short of preening in mirror how else can character from 1st person POV describe self to a reader, and who in hell would do more than check overall appearance other than exceptionally vain individual?

In short, a reader will rely on secondary character description in 3rd PPOV, (or not as maybe the case of picky "professional" reader), but again why in hell does description have to be "more" detailed than overall brief impression!?

In any case, imagination is left wanting if every damn aspect of a character's visage is splattered on the page!

My pet hate is that over-used word "rueful". Too many in one novel and it's like a persistant fly under your nose!!!


Leigh Russell said...

If you're writing from a character's view point it's difficult to describe them without using some clumsy contrivance, like a mirror.
How much detail you give about your characters is a matter of opinion - you don't have to agree with others' views. I welcome criticims where I feel it is justified and constructive. How else can I improve my writing? But I wouldn't follow suggestions blindly.
I was advised to develop my protagonist in CUT SHORT. I became so interested in my villain, I wrote far too much about him, and not nearly enough about my detective. As my editor pointed out, the detective is my main character who my readers will follow through the series, so I was advised to develop her. Made sense to me!
Sorry - my first visit here and I'm rambling on...
Only remains to wish you luck with your agent. Just having an agent is brilliant!

Frances Garrood said...

Hi Karen - just passing by. And I very rarely describe my characters. Much better to leave it to the readers' imagination. After all, did Jane Austen every describe hers?

♥ Boomer ♥ said...

Balance is so tricky. I feel certain that you will hear something great very soon, though!!!!

Fran Hill said...

Have enjoyed reading through your posts about your journey towards blockbusterdom.

Karen said...

bernadette - I want to be at the stage where I can break the rules and get away with it!

debs - I know, me too! And there was such a big debate about Isla Fisher playing her in the movie, because fans thought she 'didn't look anything like Becky'!!

kerry - I think the ship has sailed as far as LBF is concerned! I shall have my hair trimmed as consolation :o)

teresa ashby - She doesn't normally like being dressed up, but rather liked my daughter's scarf!

colette - She does look a bit glam! Still waiting, though agent has asked for biography and photo which may or may not be a good sign :o)

captain black - It does take real skill to do something like that and have the reader not notice - I can only dream of having such talent :o)

suzanne - Thank you! She's asked for bio and photo, so I'm hoping that's a good thing :o) (Wish I'd had my hair trimmed now!)

jan jones - I think I need even more off than that - so easy when it's long to keep tying it back, then you suddenly realise it's down to your waist :oO

brokenbiro - Yes, I guess if the character's all warty and hump-backed in a way that's defined their whole personality, it would only be sensible to mention it at some point!

jj beattie - Ooh, how clever! I do like it when a writer manages to surprise like that :o)

lorna f - Good advice, thank you :o)

I've managed to get round the character description by having other character's refer to it in the end - and by likening her to Kate Winslet!

amanda - I wonder if I'll ever get to that stage of breaking them successfully?! I think it's a long way off yet :o)

olivia ryan - It is a bit of a challenge. Mine is first person too and it's incredibly hard not to resort to the looking in a mirror type of description. I got my main character to compare herself to her best friend a bit, which helped!

spiralskies - I loved Les Dawson, bless him. And for years (I was only likkle) I thought he was a genuinely bad piano player. As for tweaking and twiddling, I do far too much of that as it is!

tommo - We fed our dog whiskas once, borrowed from next door when we ran out of dog food, and she loved it!

lydia - It's a real skill being able to sum up a character so quickly - one I clearly need to acquire!

pat posner - Thank you! She's asked for a bio and photo, so I'm hoping that's a positive sign :o)

denise - I had to laugh at that, I'm sorry! I'm sure you're better than you think, but yes the pesky Ds are a pain :o)

michelle - That's good point about using personality traits to build up a picture of a character, and that's what I'd rather do to be honest :o)

helenmhunt - Lol! It's good to get the dialogue and the bones of the story down at least. You can always go back and add physical descriptions later :o)

anna - Exactly! I think I still have a few tools missing from my toolbox :o))

francine - I suppose it depends how skilled you are at creating a 'brief impression.' I think I've got better, but still have to work at it especially in first person :o)

leigh - Thank you for dropping by :o) You're right actually, some of it is subjective and I'd rather have too little physical description than too much! Looking forward to reading your crime series.

frances garrood - Thanks for popping in! You're right now I come to think of it - Jane Austen was a bit sketchy in that department and got away with it :o)

boomer - I do hope so, thank you :o)

fran - Why thank you - do drop in whenever you feel like it :o) I'm not sure about 'blockbusterdom' but a girl can dream!