Thursday, February 28, 2013

Much Ado About Nothing

Here’s a paragraph from a book I’m currently reading:

“Martinez had been standing under somber skies for what seemed hours. He wore parade mourning dress, with cape and brocade and epaulets and jackboots, and a tall black leather shako atop his head. Service colors were reversed in mourning garb, so instead of green tunic and trousers with silver buttons and braid, the tunic and trousers were the white of mourning, with green collar, cuffs, braid buttons, and brocade. The cape was white and lined with green, and weighted at the corners to preserve its line.”

The next paragraph is much the same. And this is on page 150 of the book. This is well after you might expect some exciting things to be happening. You would have been disappointed.  I ‘almost’ put the book down after reading this paragraph. I read it to Lana and we had a moment of head shaking over it.

My first thoughts upon reading this paragraph were:

1. Who the **** cares?  :  Not me.

2. What does this have to do with the storyline? : Nothing

3. Does it have anything to do with character building?  :  Nothing. By this time the character is established.

4. Does it have anything to do with world building?  : Perhaps a tiny bit but we already know by page 150 what a stuffy and pretentious world this is anyway.

5. Is this deliberate padding because the writer wanted this to be a trilogy (it is) and needed to increase the word count? : Because there’s quite a bit of this sort of thing throughout the book, I’m certain of it.

Had this been the only such slow paragraph in the book I wouldn’t really have been bothered. I probably wouldn’t even have noticed. But this was just one of the more egregious examples. I actually like description, but I like it to ‘go’ somewhere. I like it to at least have an impact on world building.

I will probably come off sounding sexist, but had I read this paragraph cold, without any context, I would have suspected it was written by a woman. It was not. (I can only wish the book had been written by Leigh Brackett or C. L. Moore; we wouldn’t be 1 page into it without some heavy duty coolness, much less 150 pages.)  In fact, the male writer who created it is one I’ve read before and enjoyed. That’s why I’m still with the book. And, there is some good stuff in the book. I like the characters. The writing is perfectly professional. From what the back cover blurb said and what I’ve read so far in the book, I’m curious about what’s going to happen when the shit hits the fan, so to speak.  But man, let it hit the fan a little earlier.

In fact, I think I’m gonna type that up and hang it over my desk.  “Let the shit hit the fan early and often.” What do you think?


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Excessive description for no reason whatsoever bores me. Especially when it comes to clothing. And that sample you posted was all about the telling.

Charles Gramlich said...

Alex, indeed, ad nauseam.

Deka Black said...

Alex said the same i was thinking. Is like the wordsmith needed to relieve some sort of cloth-related stress.

Tom Doolan said...

This is the kind of thing that prevents me from reading GRR Martin and his ilk. The story and characters and world may be wonderful, but the manner in which it is presented to me makes a huge impact. I know I am odd in that I much prefer shorter, more straight-forward works. But this kind of thing pushes me past my limits.

Unknown said...

I think it was Kurt Vonnegut Jnr who said that writers should not waste the reader’s time and think in terms of what they would listen to, or words to that effect. But he didn’t always follow his own advice. The truth is you have a small amount of time to hook the reader. But there are many worms you can dangle on the end of the hook Charles, having said that I think it’s time for you to move onto the next one.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I almost always find it a mistake to discuss dress or a physical description too much unless it plays into the plot. I know the author probably saw a picture of the costume he wanted his hero to wear, but we don't need to know about. He may but we don't.

Charles Gramlich said...

Deka, lol. Yeah, maybe he's got a fetish.

Tom, me too. I want the meat on the bones, not the garnish around the edge of the plate.

Richard, that particular worm didn't work well for me. But it may not have been meant that way. I'm almost done with the book, although I'm scanning sections. Soon I'll be reading another.

Patti, know more than you tell is one of the ways writers talk about that. I like that idea. This was definitely overkill.

sage said...

"somber skies?" Heck, the skies are going to soon be weeping, not with rain but out of boredom.

Adventuresfantastic said...

Sadly, the literary descendents of Brackett, Moore, Kuttner, Howard, Lamb,and Beaumont are few and far between.

Rick Robinson said...

My first thought was "Where the hell is the editor? What's he or she doing, because it's apparently NOT editing this book!" I'd be tempted to put the book down on page 30 with that beauty, let along slogging through 100 plus pages of it.

Cloudia said...

Glad you were wisely bored by this clogged gambit!

ALOHA from Honolulu
Comfort Spiral
~ > < } } ( ° > <3
> < } } ( ° >
> < 3 3 3 ( ' >

G. B. Miller said...

After reading your description of the book, that particular paragraph was much ado about nothing.

I believe as a writer, you have to straddle a very fine line when it comes to a throwaway description.

If you write too much about a throwaway scene like that, you run the risk of turning off the reader.

But if you do it properly, you can have something interesting happen to you, like the reader searching you out on Facebook and asking you about a very small two to three sentence scene.

And the next thing you know, you pick up a fan/facebook friend/someone who is willing to link up your book on their website.

laughingwolf said...

best said:

“I try to leave out the parts that people skip.”

~Elmore Leonard

Chris said...

I've really grown to loathe gratuitous description, especially as it relates to characters. If there is a particular trait that is critical to the character, fine . . . but leave the actual image to the reader. Drives me nuts.

Charles Gramlich said...

Sage, absolutely. At least somber was the best word in that mess.

Keith, Brackett and Moore and certainly Howard could cram all kinds of beauty and action into a paragraph that long.

RkR, I actually did put it down earlier in the book. I was planning on quitting it but ended up reading a little more. Now I'm just about finished, although I scanned quite a few sections.

Cloudia, It was rather boggling of the mind to read.

G. B., I'm sure there are folks who appreciate that kind of scene, look at it like a well constructed little jewel. And it is well written, if not exactly my cup of tea.

Laughingwolf, indeed. And that's exactly the right way to do it.

Chris, I agree. I like a quick sketch, a few highlights, and leave the rest to the reader for sure.

BernardL said...

It's fill, my friend, fill. :)

Adventuresfantastic said...

Chris, your comment made me think of something that happened to me at a writer's workshop at Armadillocon a few years ago. I had submitted a story but had left physical descriptions of some of the characters, especially the viewpoint character, sketchy. Part of this was because of length limitations, but also because I tend to subscribe to the "let the reader fill in some of the details" school of writing. All of the women in the group, including the two female instructors, ripped me for that, saying they wanted to know what these people looked like. At the risk of sounding sexist (not my intention at all), this made me wonder if there isn't a slight gender bias in how much description is too much as opposed to not enough. It seems to me that, in general, more women care about what the character is wearing than men do, while men are more likely to prefer skipping any detail that doesn't progress the action.

Riot Kitty said...

Your analysis cracked me up! I totally agree. That much irrelevant detail is good if you have insomnia. When I worked in newspapers, we had an editor who said, "Always use your GAS meter - as in, who gives a shit?"

Ty said...

My #1 rule for writing genre fiction: Let shit hit the fan in chapter 1. It might not be the shit of the whole story, but for at least one character (minor or major), it likely will be.

After that, things can slow down a little as the story is fleshed out.

Another rule I've tried to live by for my genre fiction is one that's not exactly appropriate for prose writing, but it's an idea that keeps me going. When Shane Black wrote the original screenplay for Lethal Weapon, he had a goal of having an action scene every 10 minutes. Watch the movie and you'll see it pretty much follows that pattern. While such a pattern is not possible in prose fiction, I strive for something similar, at least an action scene every 3 to 4 chapters (unless the chapters are running long, in which case an action scene might happen every other chapter).

Charles Gramlich said...

Bernard, absolutely. If he were getting paid by the word it would be amazing!

Keith, I probably unconsciously have that same thought too because my first reaction to the piece that I quoted was thinking it looked like it had been written by a woman, at least some of the women writers I've read.

Riot Kitty, I'm gonna remember that. This one ranked high on that meter.

Ty, I've tried experimenting in my last few books with doing 2 or 3 short chapters of non stop action, then interspersing a longer chapter of character development. Going from bad to worse in the first sequence, then pulling back. Not sure how well readers are responding to it. I may do something different in Wraith, which I'm working on now.

Erik Donald France said...

I don't mind this too much. First, trying to place the time and place. Sounds Napoleonic, given the name, Spanish or Mexican or otherwise Latin American. Unless a West Point type place, between about 1795 and 1860.

A movie would take care of it visually in an instant, as in Ridley Scott's Duellists, which I thought was great.

Golden Eagle said...

I'm often guilty of slipping in padding like this when I write. It doesn't help the story at all, that's for sure!

Aimlesswriter said...

I skim parts like that and if there are too many in the book I usually just put it down. Maybe the writer liked the guys outfit so much he wanted to share the beauty?
I often don't write enough description thinking does anyone really care if his shirt is blue? Give me the action!
Early and often...good thing to remember.

Vesper said...

In fact, I think I’m gonna type that up and hang it over my desk. “Let the shit hit the fan early and often.”

This is just perfect advice! I think I'll do the same! LOL

The quote makes me think of people who like to hear themselves speak. This writer seems to like seeing himself write... words for the sake of words, maybe to show off, or, maybe, as you said, just filling...

Charles Gramlich said...

Erik, yes, one big advantage seeing has over reading.

Golden Eagle, I do see it in my own writing but I try to cut it out. Pointing out things like this on the blog helps remind me that I can fall into this sort of thing too.

Aimless, although the point he's making might be interesting, it seems he could have dealt with it in no more than a sentence. It was the listing of things that got me, I think.

Vesper, I wonder sometimes if I err on the other side of this coin, but I suppose one can never be sure how much is too much or too little.

eric1313 said...

Better than late and erratic.

the walking man said...

Why in the world does a trilogy have to come a specific word count or over, 250,000 words total or whatever? I wonder if a writer actually sees the padding or are they simply thinking word count word count on to the next book, I have a contract to fill...*shrug* Sorry Charles if it bores me when i do read i have to find something else and at 150 pages I am bored then I know I have wasted time on the first 149.

Charles Gramlich said...

eric1313, indeed. :)

Mark, I sometimes subject myself to such things because I figure I can learn something, even if part of me is bored. Almost just an intellectual exercise, I guess.

Prashant C. Trikannad said...

Charles, I'd be shaking my head over a paragraph like that too but I wonder if it is supposed to make sense in the context of the chapter it appears in. Or, as hinted, was the writer merely trying to add more pages to a book that probably wasn't going far?

SzélsőFa said...

soaking the story in description, for the sake of poetic prose is one of the things i often do.
you remember i blogged about the need of drama in my writing so i know the feeling you describe here.

pardon me, and with much respect to the author you like anyway, this expert did not seem to have any lyric value to it. it was just added for word count. that is a totally different story.
i just don't see the point. and i understand if you are disappointed.

SzélsőFa said...

and Vesper nailed it, too :)

Greg said...

great slogan! i like it.

Charles Gramlich said...

Prashant, the chapter was about the funeral of an emperor so the passage certainly fitted in there. I just really don't think it was needed, but it wasn't really wrong, just excessive to me.

Szelsofa, indeed, if the prose had been poetical or musical I would have forgiven it. I love that kind of writing.

Greg, thankee! :)