Sweating the Small Stuff: Writing Details that Count

July 14, 2020 § 9 Comments

Author photo of a white woman with shoulder length black and grey hair, sitting with a laptop. Behind her is water and blue sky.By Jennifer Silva Redmond

Let’s talk about description. Readers need to know what places and settings look like, but if an author goes on too long describing them down to the smallest nail head in the wall, our attention tends to wander, because we care about people, not things—and we like conflict between people most of all.

The biggest problem with description is we usually get too much, too soon. This is true for all exposition (yes, description is expository, since it’s “intended to explain or describe”). In Chapter One, you’d be just fine describing people and places that are going to pertain to Chapter Two or Three. What you don’t need to describe at length are places and people we won’t encounter again in the book; you also needn’t go into detail about a place we don’t visit again until much later. If your grandfather only appears in Chapter One, then some very simple description is fine for him. He’s tall and thin with a wispy gray beard, perhaps, and that is enough. A workplace might be described simply as “a field of uniform white cubicles” if we are not setting a major scene there.

You probably already know to pick specific details rather than generalities. For example, we often label places “run-down,” but what does that mean visually? What is the clue that—in looking at a house or a gas station—would lead you to call it run-down? Pick that specific thing and show us, instead of using the same tired description. When you go back to that location, show us another dirty, worn image: the screen door hanging from one rusty hinge, the peeling, weathered porch-boards, and the bare, weedy lawn to help us to construct a mental image of the place.

And don’t describe your main character from head to toe in the early pages in that adjective-loaded bad-romance-novel way (“her auburn hair tumbled down over the neckline of her green silk shantung sheath, revealing her creamy ivory décolletage”). Instead show a characteristic—a way of dressing, walking, or talking that reveals something key. After all, we do this every day. We see a person ahead of us on the sidewalk, and start assembling pieces of their look, actions, and behavior that let us know whether they’re going to ask for money, pitch us a religion, say hi, or just ignore us. If they act too eager to connect with us, we may take out our phone or refuse to look them in the eye.

When I did the content edit on the manuscript of Fourteen: A Daughter’s Memoir of Adventure, Sailing, and Survival (She Writes Press, Oct 2015) by Leslie Johansen Nack, Chapter One began with her family living on a rundown ranch when Leslie was much younger than the title age. There was great writing there—a lot of good description of the setting of the property and of Leslie and her sisters and her parents. The writing was excellent, but it threw off the structure by focusing on the family’s early life, which is not what the book is about.

I encouraged her to begin much later—in 1973, when she was a preteen—moving quickly to some of the early, troubled sailing scenes with her family on the sailboat they eventually take to the South Seas. The opening pages would then show how her father bonded with her over sailing on day one (his unhealthy attention to his daughter, which eventually drove a wedge between him and her mother, is hinted at) and also let the reader know what sort of book it is (see subtitle). I assured her that she could show some of the early scenes in “flashbacks” later on.

Fourteen includes a dysfunctional, abusive family dynamic that was established early in her life, but the book needed to begin with a truer sense of what the majority of the story entailed: sailing and her strained relationship with her father. Showing the whole family interacting on the boat let the author describe them in visual, active ways that revealed their characters, not just their characteristics. For example, the first sailing scene shows the mom and sister getting seasick and Leslie feeling fine, which results in her father’s approval of her, specifically.

Leslie jumped right back in and went to work on the opening chapters and some other trouble spots—for example, we decided that the book should end when the voyage ended. (The effort she went through in cutting those early chapters and restructuring the manuscript was worth it: Fourteen is the recipient of 5 independent book awards, and the book gets 4.5 stars with 700 ratings on Goodreads.)

We have all heard we must “kill our darlings,” but with description and exposition, it’s hard for authors to know which ones to kill and which to simply move later or sprinkle throughout the book. The best advice I can give is to consider your genre, and refer to the book’s one-paragraph pitch or “log line” and see if every chapter—especially the early ones—support or advance your story line.

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Jennifer Silva Redmond is a freelance editor and publishing consultant, specializing in memoir and nonfiction adventure travel. She has worked on books including The Dining Car by Eric Peterson, Wheels Up: a Novel of Drugs, Cartels and Survival by Jeanine Kitchel, and Soil-Man by Oz Monroe. Find out more about “Jenny Redbug” and her work at jennyredbug.com.

On The Hook

May 28, 2020 § 6 Comments

By Jennifer Silva Redmond

Author photo of a white woman with shoulder length black and grey hair, sitting with a laptop. Behind her is water and blue sky.I was recently asked how writing/publishing has changed in the past decades, especially as it pertains to “hooking” readers. Writer friends mention that they keep rearranging their books’ openings to satisfy those gatekeepers who say every author needs to “get to it” more quickly.

I can only report from my own point of view, as an editor who works in many different genres and whose clients’ books are successful with readers, get excellent reviews, and win awards. In addition to overdoing exposition and description in the first pages and chapters, one of the chief reasons agents and editors pass on otherwise fine manuscripts is the lack of a “hook.”

Yes, today’s writers often hear that they need to hook people on page one, that only action or drama—or laughter, of course—will do that, and that it all has to happen right away! Something must grab readers in the first few pages (often on page one), and keep them reading.

In days of yore, authors could take time to “bait the hook” as it were, to spend pages, often chapters, getting to the crux of what the book was about. (Some of this is because Victorian authors—some of whose works I adore—were paid by the word, so why not go on and on?)

But shorter and quicker is not always better. A big literary surprise in recent years was the success of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, which many people (including some reviewers) found tedious and slow, but which I loved. I think the first line of the book hooked me because it is so mysterious:

While I was still in Amsterdam, I dreamed about my mother for the first time in years.

I kept reading to figure out how that happened and why.

People read books about people, we don’t read novels to learn about ideas and concepts and philosophies, we read to hear about—and perhaps better understand—people. So, a hook needs a character, hopefully your main character, doing something that reveals or illuminates that person to us. Perhaps the character is still living in the “Eden State” of a story—before the inciting incident—but it had best be an active, visual, and somehow exciting one.

What hooks us in almost every case is the same, in my humble opinion: characters doing or saying things that hint at what is lacking in their life (as in the Goldfinch example), or what is so perfect about their life—right before it all comes crashing down. So, if we want to show cruelty in a person, we don’t have to show them hurting someone on page one, but we could show casual cruelty: crushing an insect under their boot heel, or throwing something at their pet.

One of my favorite works of creative nonfiction, Bruce Berger’s Almost An Island, opens with a paragraph that includes the line, “Longer than Florida, longer than Italy, Baja California is an eight hundred-mile dead end” and goes on to describe it as “a shaft of desert surrounded by the substance whose scarcity defines deserts…” But after describing the peninsula’s ever-popular coves and beaches, he concludes with “…my idea of a good day at sea is to lie on a hot rock reading Conrad.” Berger’s opening intrigued me with poetic visuals of the natural world, but it truly hooked me with its humor, letting me know with a personal aside that the book wouldn’t read like homework.

The prologue of Marilyn Woods’ just-released memoir The Orange Woods includes the sentence:

This is not a story about grief or art or making wine or Mother Nature, although all figure prominently throughout. This is the story of a peaceful pastoral paradise where I lived for twenty years.

Those ideas and images are pretty darn irresistible to the right reader, so she didn’t need to manufacture any artificial drama.

Clearly, every genre has “rules” that need to be followed. With genre comes expectation. You can’t write romance and not introduce your main character in a way that tells us why or how she is “looking for love” or definitely not looking for love, which might amount to the same thing. Some genres have to open with a murder, or at least a dead body. But the hook should also relate to a book’s theme or story, in some way, no matter how obscure.

The question to ask yourself is this: What is my book about? If you can “pitch” the book in a sentence or two, you know what it is about. And if you know that, then the opening should be easy to decide on, because it will be a scene that tells us the most clearly who the book is about, and why we should care.

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Jennifer Silva Redmond is a freelance editor and publishing consultant, specializing in memoir and nonfiction adventure travel. She has worked on books including The Dining Car by Eric Peterson, Wheels Up: a Novel of Drugs, Cartels and Survival by Jeanine Kitchel and Soil-Man by Oz Monroe. Find out more about “Jenny Redbug” and her work at jennyredbug.com.

 

 

 

Rebuilding the Essay

April 16, 2020 § 1 Comment

By Jennifer Silva Redmond

I met writer/editor Amy Roost and immediately knew that I wanted to be part of any project she was putting together. We’d connected at the Southern California Writers Conference, where she told me about the idea for an anthology, which would become Fury: Women’s Lived Experiences During the Trump Era. She was also starting a podcast on the same subject, so I came to her studio to tell my story. We’d talked a little bit before about our shared experience of the five stages of grief, beginning on 11/9/16, but it became clear as we talked how much more we had in common; our conversation was wide-ranging, deep, and full of laughter. So I wrote a piece for the anthology, based on my podcast episode, about growing up a hippie kid in Venice in the 1960s with a peace activist mom, and how my own activism had sort of gone dormant in my adulthood, but had resurfaced once Trump was voted in.

Fast forward a few months to when the book, now called “Fury,” was sold to Regal House Publishing’s Pact Press imprint: we contributors were told that the editors felt too many of the pieces were, like mine, focused on the election and the immediate aftermath, rather than being put into a more universal context. Also, the editors wanted stories from a more diverse group of writers, including Latinx women. I was excited to take on that challenge—to write about what the current administration’s immigration policies looked like to me as a Mexican-American woman, and hopefully substitute that for my original essay. Amy couldn’t confirm that the editors would include it, so I had to simply write my truth and see what happened.

I began with a very short biography of growing up in California in a turbulent time, and how I had gotten away from my activist roots until Trump was elected and started demonizing migrants and (the final insult) separating families and putting kids in cages and all of that madness. I used the opening section from the previous essay but I changed it from being strictly about my nuclear family—my mom and my brothers—and brought in my Mexican grandmother. Nena came to Los Angeles from Mexico City as a small child, and her father, Cesar Ulysses Silva, was a philosopher, poet, writer and an activist of sorts; he wrote about being proud to be Mexican in Los Angeles, back when that was not a popular stance.

That cultural pride was passed down to my grandmother, who passed it down to us grandkids—she would say when anyone spoke of things that were Spanish, “We’re from Mexico, we’re not Spaniards, we’re Mexicans.” I focused my essay more on her and my forbears, shifting away from me as a hippie kid and more about me as a Latina. The more I looked back, writing about my feelings and experiences, the more I remembered. I even included the time, just a few years back, when a friend commented that I didn’t need to “bring up” my ethnicity, like it was something I would want to hide—I guess so I could pass for white.

I wrote quite a lot to start with, about 3000 words, then started cutting, keeping my eye on the new point of view. As an editor, I always tell my clients that with memoir (it is true of all writing, but memoir above all) the hard part is not deciding what to put in, but what to leave out. In “Viva La Raza,” a tangent about my grandmother’s name didn’t make the cut. She was named Edmee, but called Nena—“baby”—all her life. We grandkids called her Nena, not knowing the word’s meaning; it was basically the same as “Nana” to us. But the tangent wouldn’t mean much to anyone outside my family, so I cut it and just kept her name, Nena. I also went around in word-circles, trying to explain her wonderful immigrant family, with its songs and dances and parties and passion, before shortening to a “typical” immigrant family. Since every immigrant family is full of talents and brimming with love, one can be typical of them all.

I read the complete essay aloud again, listening for the through line, and trimmed some more, to about 1700 words. Once I’d reworked it to my own satisfaction, the editors at Pact had a couple of edits (including changing Nena to Nana, of course!) and they liked it. “Viva La Raza” made the cut for the final collection in Fury, which I’m extremely proud to be part of. I am particularly happy the book is coming out right now, as we turn to another national election, and I’m looking forward to seeing how it resonates with my “tribe” out there—especially women writers and activists of color. Viva!

*

From Viva La Raza!

Now I get that a lot of Americans are casually racist, in a mostly invisible and unacknowledged way. I’ve been told with a smile, “You don’t look Mexican, so why bring it up?” I even had one dear friend say to me, sincerely, that I wasn’t “really Mexican” so I couldn’t understand what real Mexicans are like. (To top that off, he told me, “California never belonged to Mexico.” I mean, Jesus Cristo, seriously?)

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Jennifer Silva Redmond is a freelance editor and writing instructor. Formerly editor-in-chief at Sunbelt Publications, she is on the staff of the Southern California Writers Conference, teaches at San Diego Writers, Ink. Editor of Sea of Cortez Review, she was prose editor for A Year in Ink Vol 3. Her essays, articles, and fiction have been published in anthologies and national magazines, including Latinos in Lotusland, Books & Buzz, Sail, Cruising World, Science of Mind, and A Year in Ink, Vol 11. She lives in California on a sailboat with her artist-writer-teacher husband, Russel, and their dog, Ready.

“Viva la Raza!” appears in Fury: Women’s Lived Experiences During the Trump Era.

 

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