Thursday, April 23, 2015

What Brush Do You Prefer?

My editor recently returned her edits for Deadly Production, my next Mapleton mystery. It's the fourth book in the series, and she said this was the cleanest manuscript of all the books she'd edited for me. But, she did have one overall comment.

She said, "It reads like a sequel." Of course, we both know it is, but she suggested more details, both about Mapleton and the locals. Before I plunged in and added details, I needed to look at the first three books to make sure I wasn't changing things around. Putting the mayor's office on the wrong floor, or moving other buildings, for example. Or taking a tall, skinny character and making him short and fat, or white when he was African American in another book.

You know what I found? Very little. Most of my character descriptions throughout the entire series were painted with very broad brush strokes. A few words here and there, but I never stopped to give a full-blown description.

Ozzie is the cook at Daily Bread and appears off and on in most of the books. This is all the description I had for him:

He checked the counter, where Ozzie, whose broad girth and extra chins attested to enjoying his own cooking. … Ozzie plunked a mug in front of him and filled it with hot, black coffee, a shade or two darker than his skin.

For Gordon, the hero of all the books, there's almost nothing. In book 1, Megan, a female lead, notices his eyes:

Somewhere between blue and green, the color of Aspen Lake after it rained. (And, because she's a woman, she'll notice things in a more 'picturesque' fashion than Gordon, the cop, does).

Later, she's describing a man she saw to Gordon.

"I remember noticing the Florida plates, assumed he was a retiree. Maybe because he was bald, but that's silly. Guys can go bald at almost any age."

Gordon rubbed the top of his head, thankful he wasn't one of them.

Here, the reader can see that Gordon does have a full head of hair, and that he's a bit vain about it as well.

Laurie, Gordon's admin, has been in all four books, and all we know about her is that she worked for Gordon's predecessor for over a decade before Gordon became Chief, she's very efficient, and she has a daughter.

I admit to my lack of physical descriptions of my characters in my mysteries. I prefer to show their personalities. For example, Ed Solomon, one of the best cops on Gordon's staff, is never described, yet we know that as well as being a good cop, he has a wife and kids, he's a good father, and he has a sense of humor.

At other times, there are specific bits of description, but I like to include a little more about the character along with the physical traits.

Detective Colfax, who's a semi-regular, is introduced as follows:

Mid-forties. Average height, beginnings of a paunch, but his relaxed stance was deceptively casual. Steel-blue eyes grabbed every detail. Soft-spoken, but people did what he said, no questions asked, Gordon knew, after working with him earlier.

I think Michael Connelly said in all his Harry Bosch books, he had a total of about 80 words of description. John Sandford said he summarizes Lucas Davenport as "tall, black hair, a scar on his cheek and a clothes horse." There's something to be said for letting readers fill in the details. Lee Child's descriptions of Jack Reacher weren't extensive, but they were enough to have fans in an uproar when Tom Cruise was cast to play the 250 pound, 6-4 man with hands the size of hams.

(My romantic suspense books are another story, but there's no room to go into that today.) One final point. My editor edited the first three Mapleton books as well, and this is the first time she's mentioned wanting more description.

What about you? Do you like broad brush strokes or a lot of detail?

Terry Odell is the author of numerous romantic suspense novels, mystery novels, as well as contemporary romance short stories. Most of her books are available in both print and digital formats. She’s the author of the Blackthorne, Inc. series, steamy romantic suspense novels featuring a team of covert ops specialists, the Pine Hills Police series, set in a small Oregon town, and the Mapleton Mystery series, featuring a reluctant police chief in a small Colorado town. To see all her books, visit her website. You can also find her at her blog, Terry's Place, as well as follow her on Twitter, or visit her Facebook page.

20 comments :

  1. I like to read (and write) prose that uses the broad brush. For writers, it's often a harder tool to wield since you don't want your characters to be ciphers, but you certainly don't want them to be caricatures (which often happens with too detailed descriptions). I prefer to shade in one telling detail and let the reader's imagination fill out the rest.

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    1. One of the reasons so many romance covers have heroes with their heads cut off is because readers want to fill in their own images of what the hero looks like. (Plus, art departments don't always pay attention to the author's descriptions, so cover images can be totally opposed to what the author says the character looks like.)

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  2. I need enough to get a sense of who the character is. Otherwise, they are talking heads. I was (briefly) an aspiring portrait artist. I notice features and skin shades and symmetry and overall composition. I guess it is a matter of just how impressionist you like your paintings. I think the way people dress and talk and move about illustrate their personalities. I like details done cleverly rather than clumsily.

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  3. I need enough to get a sense of who the character is. Otherwise, they are talking heads. I was (briefly) an aspiring portrait artist. I notice features and skin shades and symmetry and overall composition. I guess it is a matter of just how impressionist you like your paintings. I think the way people dress and talk and move about illustrate their personalities. I like details done cleverly rather than clumsily.

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    1. I think the high points, the distinctive characteristics, will allow readers to distinguish characters. I know two authors who stop to describe every new character or setting, and I find myself skimming. If that lace-trimmed, red-and-white polka dot blouse is important enough to mention, there'd better be a good reason. Almost like Chekov's gun.

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  4. Too much description is tedious and adds nothing to the story and like you, Terry, I skip over it.

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    1. As with everything, finding the proper balance is critical. Give your readers enough to see/feel/sense the characters and setting without boring them. Yet, I know there are readers who love long passages of detailed description. I'm just not one of them.

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  5. I'd be a 'broad brusher', Terry ... I prefer letting dialog help fill in the details ... that's kinda my jam. BTW, anyone see that 60 Minutes story about the guy who a created a fictional college basketball team that has evolved over the past forty years ... in vivid detail ... all in his head? Wow ... blew me away.

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    1. I saw that. I thought he was geniusly creepy. Maybe creepy is the wrong word. Just strange.

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  6. Chris - no I didn't see that one. Sounds amazing. And yes, other characters can reveal description in dialogue. I prefer that method over author intrusion.

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  7. As both a reader and writer, when it comes to appearance I prefer just a telling detail or two, as you've demonstrated with the terrific examples in your post, Terry. That gives me just enough to latch onto so my imagination can fill in the rest.

    Jane Austen never described what Elizabeth Bennett looked like, except that Mr. Darcy said she had "fine eyes" and her mother considered her second in beauty to her sister Jane. Yet those of us who love Pride and Prejudice seem to know what Elizabeth looked like, don't we?

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    1. I remember Diane Gabaldon saying (a long, long time ago) that she didn't want to think about what actors would play her characters because she wanted her readers to envision them any way they liked. Kudos to the casting people for keeping the characters within the realm of reader imaginations (thus avoiding the Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher outbursts).

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  8. You know, I love series novels, but I hate the recaps from book-to-book. I'm finding I like a prologue better. I know most readers probably don't. But I'm still moodling what to do in the book I'm writing now.

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    1. And that's yet a whole 'nother can of worms. How much back story you need in a series, and when to work it in. Michael Connelly said he made the decision when he realized he was writing a series, and it was, "The other books are all out there. The readers can find them."

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  9. There's one famous writer who describes every character, including what they're wearing, as soon as s/he is introduced. It might be James Lee Burke, or it might be John Sanford. Or neither, but it's really annoying and takes me right out of the story. I do describe my characters but not all at once. I dribble the description in as the story progresses. Interestingly, I just created a book trailer (my next blog) with photos of my characters. One reader wrote that she doesn't like pictures of the characters, but that I nailed every one of them by picking the perfect photos.

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  10. Jonathan Kellerman does it with people. Nevada Barr does (did? I haven't read her in a while) it with setting. And, a lot depends on whether it's the character's POV or the author feeling obligated to add description.

    Good that you and your reader shared the same vision for your characters. I know at least one author who can't start a book without a picture of her character in front of her.

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  11. Typically, I prefer minimal physical description unless it is important to the story -- which sometimes it is.

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    1. Anything important to the story needs to be there. It's figuring out what is and what isn't that's the tricky part!

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  12. Robert B. Parker always describes his characters and what they are wearing. I find it a bit tedious in his otherwise excellent novels. On the other hand, I was told that Earle Stanley Gardner never described Perry Mason in any of the novels.

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    1. If the character is the sort to notice things, then I can accept it, as long as what they're noticing remains in character for them. Cops and PIs have to be observant, so as long as the descriptions are short and fit the way the character would see things, I'll go along, but if it's too much detail, I hit the skim button.

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

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