Friday, March 20, 2015

Writing Good Descriptions Without Overdoing It

 by Elva Cobb Martin  

An agent once rejected a novel of mine and told me it was "too wordy." When I asked her to define that, she said, "Too much description." That conversation has caused me to examine my descriptions.

Have you ever felt like a thesaurus? Do you come up with three great phrases or words to describe something and just write in all three instead of zeroing in on the one or two that's best? I have to admit I've been guilty, especially when describing southern mansions and gardens. I love descriptions and the old novels full of them but have to learn to make changes today.

Here's a sample from my romantic suspense novel, Summer of Deception, set on a Charleston plantation.The revision follows:

Rachel suppressed a flutter of disquiet and entered. She let her baggage slip to the floor as she gazed at the elegant entrance hall revealed by a huge chandelier. The housekeeper motioned her to come, and Rachel grabbed her handbag and followed. A delightful fragrance wafted up from roses on a side table and lifted Rachel’s spirits. They turned past a curving staircase and stepped down onto the brick flooring of an enclosed patio. Their footsteps echoed in the quietness until they stopped at a large oak door across the room.
          The housekeeper soon returned and gestured for Rachel to follow. They proceeded past a curving staircase and stepped down into an enclosed patio area dotted with plants and wicker. Their footsteps echoed across polished brick to a door. 

An editor has told me to cut this novel 20,000 words. Whew. I am trying.

Recently, I rediscovered that a neat, succinct way to describe something is with similes. Remember similes are part of figurative language that expresses or implies comparisons between different ideas or objects. Similes usually begin with like or as. But you have to watch cliches and use fresh language.

Consider this by a struggling writer: 

As I try to write, my head aches, my fingers stiffen and I can think of nothing to say.

As I try to write, my mind is like a blank slab of black asphalt.

As I've studied this, I've discovered some writers who are masters of fresh similes. Award-winning mystery author Carolyn Hart is one of them. Here are some of her similes that capture my attention.

  • To drive away the dark thoughts that hung over her like the miasma above a swamp, she unpacked, then sat down and wrote down the bewildering occurrences of this strange day.                    
  • His hand was as limp as a cooked cabbage.  (I love this one.)

  • Sheriff Moore smiled but his eyes were as hard as agates.
Now here are some from other famous people:

  1. We force children's growth as if they were chicks in a poultry factory. (Arnold Toynbee)
  2. When he tried to think of the future he was like some blundering insect that tries, again and again, to climb up the smooth side of a bowl into which it has fallen.  (Robert Penn Warren)
  3. To hold America in one's thoughts is like holding a love letter in one's    hand--it has such special meaning. (E. B. White)
Do you have some special similes to share?  Would love to hear from you.
Thank you for stopping by.

Elva Cobb Martin