Contest judges are trained to look at things an editor might find important, right?
Hook, opening, dialogue, characterization, timing, setting. A great hook won’t
save hokey, overdone characters or thin, ‘I could read my newspaper through ‘em’ characters.
We talked about that a few Ruthy posts back, and how important it is to flesh out those characters, make ‘em real, not only your hero/heroine but the supporting cast as well. So vital to a well-layered story.
And we’ve talked about dialogue, keeping it sharp, to the point, having each character’s dialogue reflect the person, avoiding talking heads (now that doesn’t mean two people can’t have a conversation. You know that, right? It just means the back-and-forth needs to have a point, a purpose, not be a page filler to gain 10,000 words because that’s what the publisher requires.)
Let’s talk setting. I think setting is huge, but maybe that’s me and the kind of books I like to read and write. I’m sure some of my favorite authors would get smacked by erstwhile contest judges for having ‘purple prose’.
Sheesh. Since when did the use of adjectival phrases become purple prose???? I don’t even pretend to know what purple prose is, but that’s probably because the concept annoys me a little. Where would Emily Dickinson be in today’s contests? Jane Austen? Charles Dickens???? You can’t get much prosier than our favorite nineteenth century British novelist, now can you?
All right, I can hear you all the way up here in WNY, you’re saying: ‘But Ruthy, you snarky tyrant, we’re not writing Dickensonian prose, we’re writing romance! Boy meets girl, boy likes girl, girl likes boy, problems pop up, girl dumps boy, boy hops on white charger (or climbs in torch red Thunderbird, dual cams) goes after girl, she meets him halfway, voila! They fall in love and live happily ever after. Period. Done. End of story.’
You’re right, of course, but the depth of your story comes through like tiny points of light that build the pixel image on a 50-inch plasma screen. Good storytelling needs each one of those tiny glimmers to shine its brightest, otherwise the story falls short of wonderful and ends up ‘good’. Or ‘okay’.
I’m borrowing this from Lisa Wingate’s “Over the Moon at the Big Lizard Diner”:
“I took out a biscuit. It was warm and soft in my hands, the scent comforting in a way I couldn’t explain. It tasted impossibly good, and I realized I was starving. Taking another bite, I chewed slowly, savoring, relaxing, falling into the rhythm of clinking pans, the low hum of voices, and the rich, golden warmth of sunlight streaming in the window. The sounds conjured images of my mother, working in the kitchen years ago…”
I love a strong setting, words that evoke a full-bodied image of place and time, phrases that tie characters and setting together. It’s like a little kids’ jigsaw puzzle, you know, the twenty-four piece kind. Because the pieces are big, one missing piece sticks out like a sore thumb. It doesn’t matter that twenty-three pieces have found their assigned and oh-so-perfect spots. Nosireee Bub.
What your eye is drawn to is that one missing piece, that open space, empty and yawning, staring blankly at you despite the twenty-three pieces surrounding it.
Writing is like that. Fall down on one piece, one aspect, and you’ve snipped a vital thread of what could be a great story.
What would soup be without the salt? Or broth? Sure you’ve got to have veggies and meat, maybe noodles or rice, possibly a handful of barley tossed in for old-time flavor.
But leave out the salt or the broth and you don’t have soup. You’ve got something, but it ain’t gonna ever be called soup, and it’s probably not gonna be a family favorite. Two basics that set the tone for your finished product. That’s how I see ‘setting’. It’s writer-style soup base. Too much spice and you give people indigestion. Too bland and your story makes ‘em yawn, wondering what’s for dessert.
Whaddya think? Are your settings to-die-for wonderful or do they need work? Go ahead and tell me here, let us save you a buck or two so you can polish, polish, polish before you enter the huge foray of spring contests.
Ruthy (Who really IS a tyrant, just so you know)