You see, the first novel she ever wrote, A VOW TO CHERISH, was not only fought over by three publishers, but it was made into a television movie that aired in 200 major markets in September 1999 and again in December 2004. Now Deb claimed at the time that this is the exception rather than the rule (uh, yeah), but it simply underscores what a gifted writer this lady is. And honestly, if she wasn't so darn nice, I would still be ticked off. But instead, I am proud to be both her friend and a fan.
Deb is currently at work on her eighteenth novel. Her books have won the RITA Award, the HOLT Medallion, National Readers' Choice Award and Silver Angel from Excellence in Media. Deborah's first novel, A Vow to Cherish, inspired the World Wide Pictures film of the same title and won a Silver Angel, a bronze Omni Award and a Gold Special Jury Award at the WorldFest Houston International Film Festival. It is now available on video and on DVD in seven languages. Her newest books are the Clayburn Novels from Howard Books/Simon & Schuster, including Remember to Forget, a 2008 Christy Award finalist. Deb serves on the advisory board of American Christian Fiction Writers. She and her husband, Ken Raney, have four children and enjoy small-town life in Kansas.
Without further ado, I give you Deb Raney ...
Words are amazing things. With a unique combination of a hundred or so characters arranged into words, I can build a set as surely as a Broadway stage crew. A string of carefully chosen words can say so much more than what is actually there on the paper. Consider this sentence:
Charles James Stanford IV brushed a freshly manicured hand over the sleek mahogany desktop and depressed the blinking intercom button.
With twenty words, I’ve not only shown you the obvious—well-manicured hand, nice desk, intercom—but I’ve also implied everything those images symbolize—a man wealthy enough and vain enough to afford and desire manicures; a ritzy office; a secretary on the other end of the intercom. Ol’ CJ’s multiple names and numeral tell us that he is someone important—or at least would like us to think he is.
By extrapolating, we could deduce more: that the office is located in a large city, probably in an upscale section of town, that his office is large (doesn’t a mahogany desk just sound imposing? And there’s that intercom system.) We could assume that Mr. Stanford is a tad extravagant since he’s sprung for a fancy desk…and maybe a bit self-absorbed, since he takes time for manicures.
But there’s even more. Our man isn’t jabbing or punching the buttons on the intercom, but merely depressing them. He’s a cool, calm, collected character. We can feel fairly certain that when he picks up that phone, he’ll handle with aplomb whatever news is waiting on the other end.
Now, consider an almost identical scene—man at desk—that sets an entirely different stage with the exact same number of words:
Shorty Stanford shoved aside a jumble of coffee-stained newspapers, raked his palm over the splintered desktop and grabbed the phone.
First, the obvious: we’ve got a messy, splintered desk and a man who has to answer his own telephone. A man named Shorty isn’t usually putting on airs. And we might wonder about his workload, since he obviously has time to drink coffee over the newspaper. But our Shorty is anything but calm. He’s shoving and raking and grabbing. We can almost see the sweat beading on his forehead.
A few simple words can create a vivid backdrop for each scene in your novel. Think of your novel as a play. Have you forced your readers to sit in the back row of the theater watching an early rehearsal? The stage is empty, the lights dim. Backcloths and scrims are rolled up. The actors wear no costumes or makeup, and their hands and eyes are restrained by the scripts. We may get the gist of the story, and even be enthralled with the dialogue if it’s well delivered. But something’s missing.
Oh, what a difference if instead, we invite our readers to front row seats on opening night. Backdrops are beautifully painted and props are in place, our actors are in full costume and makeup, with their hands and eyes free to clarify and embellish the dialogue. The sound and lighting have been carefully orchestrated to set the mood and to spotlight the players’ best assets. Now we’re not just hearing the story, we are experiencing it.
Using this metaphor of novel as play, you can improve your manuscript exponentially by simply reworking the first paragraph or two of every chapter to set the stage as vividly in the reader’s mind as if he were watching a scene from a smash hit on Broadway.
Choose your words with care—especially those first words that will serve as a backdrop for your scene. If you make every syllable significant the payoff will be great. Because once you’ve set the stage properly, without changing another word, every paragraph that follows will be more vibrant, more emotional, more real, because the reader carries those first impressions with him throughout the scene.
Here’s to writing a novel that will bring down the house!