First Impressions

Today is my father’s birthday! Happy birthday, Dad! Since you enjoy good quotes and memorable sentences, this post is right up your alley.

Back in the day, sentences like this were all the rage:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only. From A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

Don’t get me wrong. That’s an incredible sentence. It ranked number 9 on American Book Review’s list of “100 Best First Lines from Novels.” But with shorter attention spans these days, sentences like the above aren’t as much of a draw. See, there’s a reason why Twitter posts have a 280-character limit. (Though that used to be 140, so maybe things are changing? Anyway, Dickens’ quote is 611 characters with spaces.)

Why am I harping on first sentences? Because we’re told that a reader needs to be interested from the first sentence of a book. As I read in this article, “How to start a novel: First sentences, first paragraphs” (which you can find here):

When starting a novel, you have one goal: To create an inviting entry point into your story.

And your first sentence is that entry point, beckoning a reader to draw near. But it needs to hook the reader. An article by Jeff Vasishta entitled, “Opening Lines: The Most Important Part of Your Story” (written for the Institute for Writers) describes it this way:

A newspaper headline serves one purpose–to make you want to read the article beneath it. The opening sentence in a novel tries to do something similar. It should make you want to read the second sentence.

And the next, according to Mr. Vasishta.

One of my favorite first sentences in a novel comes from Three Times Lucky, a middle grade novel by Sheila Turnage:

Trouble cruised into Tupelo Landing at exactly seven minutes past noon on Wednesday, the third of June, flashing a gold badge and driving a Chevy Impala the color of dirt.

It has verve.

Olive the Ostrich and Babette the Owl have verve though they are not sentences.

It made such a good first impression, I had to read the second sentence, and then the first page. That being good as well, I finished the book.

What about you? What was the last sentence that really drew you into a book? Do you have a favorite first sentence to share in the comments below? If you’ve written a book, how many sentences did you go through before you landed on the sentence that starts your book?

Birthday image from sodahead.com. Photos by L. Marie.

Fantastic Four

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The “fantastic four” as perhaps you’ve never seen them. They’re willing to fight crime. But I’m not sure how effective they will be at it.

When I asked a friend the other day for advice on my WIP, she reminded me of the rule of three. What’s that? Wikipedia says:

The rule of three or power of three is a writing principle that suggests that things that come in threes are inherently funnier, more satisfying, or more effective than other numbers of things.

Perhaps that accounts for the large volume of trilogies out there. And nursery rhymes, folktales, films, and books like:

• “The Three Little Pigs”
• “Three Billy Goats Gruff”
• “Three Blind Mice”
• “Goldilocks and the Three Bears”
• The Three Investigators series

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The Three Musketeers (Dumas)
Three Times Lucky (Turnage)
Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace One School at a Time (Mortenson)

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Three the Hard Way (1974 film)
¡Three Amigos! (1986 film)

But I think we’ve all been disappointed by a trilogy or two at some point, haven’t we? Maybe the first two books or movies were good. Yet the disappointment we felt at the close of the third—the crucial one—made us wish we’d never started the series in the first place.

Still, I’ve enjoyed stories with the rule of three firmly in place. Aladdin had three wishes. Macbeth consulted three witches. Cerberus had three heads. Three princes set out on a quest to free an enchanted princess.

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Um, this does not count as the rule of 3. But it’s fun all the same.

Though I appreciate the rule of three, I’m partial to the number four for a number of reasons. As a kid, I read the Fantastic Four comic books. (Yes, I’m looking forward to the reboot of the movie franchise.) I was born in the fourth month. I enjoyed The Sign of Four by Arthur Conan Doyle. A four-book series of mine was published ages ago. (Now out of print. That’s the downside of publishing, kids. Stay in school. Don’t do drugs.) The character Four (below left) in the Divergent series by Veronica Roth is hot. And though we usually associate three ghosts with Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, he actually talked to four ghosts, if you count Jacob Marley. But Dickens followed the rule of three with the Ghosts of Christmases Past, Present, and Future.

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Yet as fantastic as four is, I can’t say I’ve deliberately put four of anything in a book with the view of making it funnier or more satisfactory. I’m hesitant to do so unless I’m certain that what I’ve added is organic to the story, and not just a plot device. Because that’s the thing about rules sometimes, isn’t it? Sometimes, they’re just gimmicks that get in the way.

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Here’s where I confess that I’m toying with the idea of adding a fourth main character  to a young adult novel I started last year. I had hopes of making it work with three perspectives. The rule of three, you see. Months ago, I put that project down in favor of the one I’m working on now. But a fourth character’s perspective keeps coming to mind, one begging to be explored. Who knows? Four might be the charm.

Do you follow a rule in your writing? If so, how has a writing rule enhanced your story?

In honor of four, here’s “The Four-Legged Zoo”—a Schoolhouse Rock video:

Christmas Carol scene from iam2.org. Book covers from Goodreads. Number 4 from raggedglories.blogspot.com. Rules of Anime 3 from gabriellevalentine.synthasite.com. Fantastic Four comic from comicmegastore.com. “Fantastic four” photo by L. Marie.

Now, That’s Classic

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve consumed quite a few costume dramas, some of which are lengthy BBC productions like

Little Dorrit (2008)
Bleak House (2005)
Emma (1996)
Pride & Prejudice (2005)
Northanger Abbey (2007)

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You don’t have to be an English major to know that all are adaptations of classic novels by Charles Dickens (the first two) and Jane Austen (the last three). (Though I confess to having read all of the above when I was an undergraduate English/writing major.) I have another waiting in the wings—North and South, an adaptation of a novel by Elizabeth Gaskell, starring a pre-Thorin Oakenshield Richard Armitage. Whenever I’ve mentioned North and South to others, most of the people I talked to assumed I meant an adaptation of a book of the same title by an American author, John Jakes. No, I mean this:

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I see the gleam in your eyes, oh fans of the 1995 Pride and Prejudice—the six-hour A & E production featuring Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy and Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth Bennet. I have that as well.

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I experienced a bit of culture shock as I dragged myself out of nineteenth-century Britain back to the U.S. in 2014. Though I’ve seen all of these adaptations more than once, they still have the power to captivate. And my goodness, Andrew Davies has been quite the busy bee, having penned three of them, with the exception of Emma, the screenplay of which was written by Douglas McGrath, and Pride and Prejudice (2005), which was written by Deborah Moggach. However, he wrote the script for the six-hour version of Pride and Prejudice and tons of other productions.

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Andrew Davies

Every once in awhile, I get a hankering for ’em. Such works are pure escapist fiction for me, each with its share of joy and sorrow—some more heavily weighted on one side or the other, with a touch of romance in all. Even the tragic aspects are vastly entertaining, thanks to villains I love to despise and plucky heroes (male and female alike) who bear up mightily in pressure-cooker circumstances.

Some might view aspects of these stories as too black and white, particularly those of Dickens, who was fond of populating his novels with loathsome people like Mr. Tulkinghorn and Mr. Smallweed in Bleak House or Rigaud in Little Dorrit, characters without a single redeeming quality. And Jane’s books include their share of unpleasant people as well, like Caroline Bingley (and her sister Louisa) in Pride and Prejudice, Mr. and Mrs. Elton in Emma, and Lady Catherine de Bourgh (Pride and Prejudice). On the other side of the coin are Esther Summerson (Bleak House) and Jane Bennet (Pride and Prejudice)—characters who might be deemed too saintly or perfect. But with each side of the social divide so sharply delineated, black and white characters help emphasize the dichotomy.

While paragons like Esther Summerson and Jane Bennet don’t really draw me again and again to the books in which they reside, I can appreciate the parts they play and how different they are from other characters skillfully devised by Dickens and Austen, characters like the obsequious and ridiculous Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice or the equally ridiculous Mr. Guppy in Bleak House. (With a name like Guppy, a character can’t help being ridiculous.)

I wish my novel had a place for a character like Collins or Guppy. But both characters were painted with such broad comic brushstrokes that I fear neither would work with my other characters. Not that all lack a streak of ridiculousness. They come from me after all. 😀

Though some classic novels are avoided now because of the lack of diversity and outright racism in some (though not in the above novels), I still turn to the list above or their adaptations whenever I need a master class in character development and plotting. But mostly, I dive into them when I can’t afford to take a journey, but would like to get away from it all to a world where problems and plotlines are all neatly wrapped up in a reasonable amount of time.

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Gratuitous stuffed animal photo—my lion and his friend the dolphin

Pride and Prejudice movie poster from movieposter.com. Little Dorrit poster from cinemagia.ro. Northanger Abbey cover from movieberry.com. Emma from fanpop.com. Andrew Davies from BBC.com.

All Roads Lead to . . .

crossroadI worked with a guy who should have had his own version of Six Degrees of Separation. Every time I’d mention someone, he either knew that person or knew someone connected to that person. So, if I ever grew angry with my co-worker and wanted to vent, I had no one to talk to about him, because he’d eventually hear about it. I don’t dare mention his name, because you might know him.

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A six-degrees of separation flowchart

Know someone like that? If you read Malcolm Gladwell’s nonfiction book, The Tipping Point, you know about connectors—people who have an innate ability to connect people to other people. (Read this if you want to know more about connectors.)

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I am probably the only connection-impaired person in a family of connectors. I’m usually the person who goes, “I saw What’s-his-name the other day. You know. He’s married to What’s-her-face.”

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This is me, sort of. Actually, it’s Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice (2005). But I relate to the posture of standing alone, or at least standing in the wind trying to recall someone’s name.

Connectors know lots of people. My older brother was one of the most popular people at our high school. He’s always naming people he heard from recently. (To which I usually reply, “Oh yeah. I sorta remember him,” knowing that I’m drawing a blank.) My younger brother was popular at his university. Do you know how difficult it is to be popular at a university which boasts tens of thousands of people? His birthday parties are usually populated by at least 40 of his closest friends. Now, I’ve known my younger brother all of his life, but at a recent party he threw, there were people who came that I did not know.

My dad knows tons of people. My mom always manages to connect to people who know everyone. My parents are used to the connecting way of life, because they’re from large families with a combined total of over twenty siblings (though, sadly, several are dead now). My in-laws also know everyone. I remember being in a mall in Houston with my sister-in-law, only to have her run into someone she knew. (We don’t live in Texas by the way. You know you’re a connector when you bump into people you know while traveling.)

Many bloggers are connectors: Andra Watkins; Jill Weatherholt; K. L. Schwengel; Charles Yallowitz; Marylin Warner; Laura Sibson; Sharon Van Zandt; Lyn Miller-Lachmann; the Brickhousechick; T. K. MorinCeline Jeanjean; Mishka Jenkins; Sandra Nickel—just to name a few. And I have several classmates (besides Laura, Lyn, and Sandra, and Sharon) who are born connectors. Whenever I want to inquire about agents, publishers, marketing, or anything else, I head straight to them for advice.

We look to the connectors in our lives, especially when we need to network, don’t we? It’s nice to know someone who knows someone else trustworthy. Connectors seem to love to match you with people they know. Need your car fixed? They know the perfect place to take your little Yugo. (Remember those?) Need your roof fixed? They know the people you should avoid calling. The only awkward thing about some connectors is that they think they know your taste when sometimes they don’t. Like when I was blindsided at a dinner by a well-meaning connector who tried to match me up with someone who also did not understand that this was a matchmaking meal. Talk about awkward, especially since we had no interest in each other.

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A Yugo

Authors are the ultimate connectors in a way. If you’re a fan of Charles Dickens, you know that in many of his books, he often reveals hidden connections between his characters. Then he adds a connector to connect the dots. Don’t believe me? Read Bleak House or see BBC’s adaptation of it. I won’t spoil the mystery for you.

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The challenge for an author comes with connecting characters in a noncontrived way—and by that I mean beyond shock value. Oh, I know. There’s something fun about the “Luke, I am your father” announcements. Have you explored the connections between your characters in ways that might surprise or delight a reader (or a viewer)? I’m reminded of a movie, Whisper of the Heart, written by Hayao Miyazaki, in which the main character, Shizuku, checks out library books and constantly finds the name of another character on the checkout cards. (This movie was made in the 90s, so checkout cards were used then.) He becomes an important connector for her. Knowing your characters’ back stories really helps. I’ve been a bit lazy in regard to back story with some of my characters. Some seem too isolated ala the Lizzie Bennet photo above. I’m trying to rectify that by providing more connecting points (i.e., interactions with friends, family, acquaintances, and enemies).

Connectors are a reminder of the richness of being in a community. I’m grateful for the threads like connectors that link us together.

Who are the connectors in your life?

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Gratuitous chicken photo

Crossroads photo from amersrour.blog.com. Six degrees diagram from commons.wikimedia.org. Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Bennet image from pinterest.com. Yugo and chicken photos from Wikipedia. Book cover from Goodreads.

The Name Game

name-tag-600Maybe at some point you’ve heard “The Name Game,” a song released in 1964 by Shirley Ellis. The song has a certain rhyme scheme, as Wikipedia details:

Using the name Katie as an example, the song follows this pattern:
Katie, Katie, bo-batie,
Banana-fana fo-fatie
Fee-Fi-mo-matie
Katie! . . .
If the name starts with a vowel or vowel sound, the “b” “f” or “m” is inserted in front of the name. And if the name starts with a b, f, or m, that sound simply is not repeated.

Why am I bringing this up? Because I’ve always been fascinated by character names and the thought process behind their choice. As I read a work of fiction I ask: Did the author employ a carefully thought out system? Or, were the names simply chosen off the top of the author’s head or designed to be variations on existing names, sort of like the rhyme scheme of “The Name Game”?

I love choosing names for my characters. Because I’m writing high fantasy and including some of the creatures found in the mythology of Western cultures, I tend to use Western names. Once I come up with a name possibility, I check its meaning. I can think of few things more embarrassing than to learn that the name I carefully chose for my hero means “banana” or even “coward,” unless that name helps show the character’s emotional arc somehow. I also consider the mood I want to convey in the story. Writers like J. K. Rowling and Charles Dickens chose names that helped show mood in their books. So for my book, if the mood is tense or dark, I shouldn’t choose a character name that will undercut the tension (i.e., a name that means “cheerful chipmunk”), unless I’m trying to be ironic.

twilight-coverIf you read the Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer (and if you hated it, please don’t scoff; this is not a review of the series), you’ll note Meyer’s choice of old-fashioned names—a decision that inspired a naming trend among babies. Since her vampire characters were born in an earlier century, choosing contemporary names for them like Britney, Jayden, or Zuri would have seemed jarring.

Back in my days of writing parodies, I didn’t give much thought to name origins. I just used the first goofy name that came to mind. Ever make up a name you thought sounded cool or beautiful, but that later comes across as silly or even pretentious? I made up names for my own amusement, names like Leaferella or Concretola. I know you’re impressed with my naming finesse. Want me to come up with names for the characters in your book? I’ll understand if you don’t. Perhaps you’ll be relieved to know that I’ve given more thought to names these days.

Silly names can work if you’re writing a book with a high level of humor. But humor is a tricky beast. Not everyone gets the joke. And if you picked a name for the sake of a laugh without careful thought, you run the risk of the chosen name being perceived as on par with “Katie, bo-batie.” In other words, something slipshod. If you want to be taken seriously as a writer, give serious thoughts to character names.

clipboard-iconHere are some naming strategy suggestions, which probably go without saying, but I’ll add them anyway:
• Check the phone book or a baby name book, then check online for the etymology of selected names.
• Keep a list of names that strike your fancy. You might be able to plug those names into a story someday. Case in point: a friend told me the story of someone who bullied her in the fifth grade. I wound up using that person’s name in a story.
• Pay attention to the names of people within the age level you’re writing about. Avoid names that sound overly dated. For example, you won’t find a ton of teens named Egbert these days (but see the next point). Beware overuse though. If you see a dozen young adult novels with a main character named Connor, you might not want to go that route if you want your young adult novel to stand out.
• Consider the cyclical nature of names. Names that sound trendy now might seem dated in a few years, whereas names that went out of style might be in vogue.
• Try to avoid clichés if you can. For example: naming a poodle in your story Fifi.
• Avoid stereotypes while choosing ethnic names. (This point alone is worth its own post.) Take time to research the culture as you choose names.
• Don’t forget the Mary Sue Litmus Test. The first question deals with names.

Great posts on checking names:
http://www.writersdigest.com/online-editor/the-7-rules-of-picking-names-for-fictional-characters
http://www.wow-womenonwriting.com/25-How2-CharacterNames.html
http://www.babynames.com/character-names.php

What’s your strategy for choosing names?

Name tag from mashable.com. Clipboard from freepsdfile.com.

Recalled to Life

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“Buried how long?”

The answer was always the same. “Almost eighteen years.”
“You had abandoned all hope of being dug out?”
“Long ago.”
“You knew that you were recalled to life?”
“They tell me so.”
“I hope you care to live?”
“I can’t say.” 
(11)

If you don’t like book spoilers, you might say, “Fiddle-dee-dee,” and skip this post. It includes a spoiler for A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens—at least the first part of the book.

Last chance to depart before I launch into the rest of the post. . . .

If you’re still here, there’s a method to my madness, so please bear with me.

In Dickens’s saga of life before and during the French Revolution, the lines you read at the beginning of the post are an imagined conversation between Mr. Jarvis Lorry, an English banker, and Monsieur Manette, a former prisoner of the Bastille. But at this point in the narrative, this bit of dialogue is very mysterious. Recalled to life? What could that mean? Abandoned all hope? Isn’t that reminiscent of a sign hanging on the gate of hell in Inferno, the first part of The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri? The allusion to the sign is appropriate, given the circumstances of this story.

Imagine being an innocent person placed in a dank prison and completely forgotten about for eighteen years. That was Monsieur Manette’s plight. Now imagine being freed from prison and reminded that your life isn’t as limited and dark and miserable as evil could shape it. That’s what being “recalled to life” means in this book. Mr. Lorry’s task was to remind Monsieur Manette of what life he still had with a daughter who’d believed him dead.

Monsieur Manette—Doctor Manette, actually—was a broken man, dashed on the rocks of discouragement due to the cover up of a crime which led to his long imprisonment. He’d even forgotten the sound of his own name. But after his release from prison, his life began to change once he reconnected with his family and his identity.

I won’t get into all of the ins and outs of the terrible crime and how Dr. Manette was caught up in the evil of others’ making. You can discover those as you read the book. But the phrase recalled to life resonated with me, hence this post.

Every day, when we open our eyes at the start of the day, we’re recalled to life. For some of us, maybe we don’t want to be recalled to the same old circumstances—the same old limited life. If you’re like me (and I hope you aren’t), you tend to focus on the negative—what others (including yourself) have told you might be “true” of your life: that you’re a failure who will never accomplish anything worthwhile. That you’ll always be broke or tired or miserable or hungry or thwarted or second-best or rejected or washed-up or ____________ (fill in the blank with whatever that little voice tells you; you know the one). Sentiments like that are as much a prison as the Bastille.

Maybe like me—like Dr. Manette—you need to be recalled to life—to the truths that bring life to you. What’s true about you?

You’ve got an imagination.
You’re one of a kind.
You’re a masterpiece.
You’ve got a second chance or a third or a fourth.
You’ve got skills.
You’ve got a story to tell.
You’re not hopeless.
You’re not defeated.

Right? Now go out and live that truth. Live like someone recalled to life. Because you are.

Like Mr. Lorry, I ask, “I hope you care to live?”

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Dickens, Charles. A Tale of Two Cities. New York: Bantam Classic Edition, 1981. First published in 1859.

Gerbera daisy from bhg.com.

How Much Is Too Much?

This post was sparked by a conversation on Jane Eyre that I had recently with the awesome Laura Sibson. (You remember Laura from this post and of course her blog? Thought so.)

As an undergraduate, I was a writing major, part of the English lit program.

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So, I’m used to books with long passages like this one from Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

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Masterful stuff, and reminiscent of Ecclesiastes 3 in the Bible. Dickens provides a window into the age. But would a paragraph like this fly in a book written nowadays?

Many writers struggle over how much description to include in their narratives. Enough to help a reader picture a scene or a character, and understand said character’s motivation, surely, but not so much that the pacing suffers, and a reader loses interest. As Nancy Lamb, author of The Writer’s Guide to Crafting Stories for Children, states, “Too much detail can destroy your story” (202).

Janet Burroway, Elizabeth Stuckey-French, and Ned Stuckey-French, authors of Writing Fiction also aver, “The points to be made here are two, and they are both important. The first is that the writer must deal in sense detail. The second is that these must be details ‘that matter’” (23).

Details that evoke the senses and are important to the story. Okay, got it. But how much is too much?

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“Yer askin’ me? How should I know?”

Back in the day, when letters were exchanged and months would pass between visits of relatives and friends, long, descriptive paragraphs in books, particularly Dickens’s serialized works, were savored. But in this age of instant communication through email, phone texts, Tweets, etc., we’re used to short sound bites. And some of the hustle and bustle of our busy days leaves us with little leisure time for lingering over long passages of description. Or so I’ve been told by a few teens who claim to have been “forced” to read the classics.

As a fantasy writer, I’m torn on the matter. After all, world building is paramount in fantasy. And world building requires a certain amount of exposition.

As I reread books like Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Ring and The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There (Catherynne Valente), I revel over the gorgeous descriptions, some of which are tucked within long passages.

Tolkien waxes eloquent on the setting, because in his books, setting is as important as the characters. In Valente’s book, the second of her series, the setting at times literally is a character, as voracious towns and marketplaces scoop up unwary travelers to populate their streets.

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Tolkien’s book debuted almost 60 years old. Valente’s book, however, debuted last year, but has the style of a classic adventure story. Valente, like Tolkien, lingers lovingly over descriptions.

As I struggled with the question of how much description is too much, Laura had this to say:

I agree with you that the Internet and the television and instant everything has an impact on our pace and, as a result, the way we experience literature and the way we write it. But I’m not sure it’s all due to electronics impeding our attentions. I think it’s a style choice and also a bit of fashion. If you think about Raymond Carver and before him, Hemingway, there have been writers who were purposefully spare. I think (though I’m no scholar) that in Carver’s time, that spare in your face approach was sort of all the rage.

Wow. I had forgotten about Hemingway and his sparse prose. And I confess I didn’t know about poet and short story author Raymond Carver until I Googled him. (I know. For shame.) Markus Zusak, author of The Book Thief and I Am the Messenger, also has a sparse, but brilliant style that packs a punch.

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When it comes to description, I’m probably somewhere between sparse and fulsome. That’s because I usually have a reluctant reader in mind—a byproduct of my textbook writing days when I worked on ancillary material for reluctant and ESL readers. I wouldn’t want a reader to approach something I’ve written and whine, “Oh, this is sooooo boring.” But I also want to be adequately descriptive.

What’re your thoughts on the matter? Do you like to write long passages of description or linger over them in books? Do you have favorite books with lengthy descriptions? Please comment and share!

Burroway, Janet, Elizabeth Stuckey-French, and Ned Stuckey-French. Writing Fiction. Boston: Longman/Pearson, 2003, 2007, 2011. Print.

Lamb, Nancy. The Writer’s Guide to Crafting Stories for Children. Cincinnati, OH: Writer’s Digest Books, 2001. Print.

Confused baby from therealkenjones.wordpress.com. Authors photo from tuition.com.hk.