Monday, April 18, 2011

Scenes, Descriptions and POV

What I'm reading: Snake Skin by C.J. Lyons, Wicked Becomes You, by Meredith Duran

Want to win 21 mystery books? Check the Deals and Steals tab.

One of the "perks" to getting the rights back to a previously published book, especially one you wrote years ago—and ever more especially, your very first published book—is that you can make changes. I've already talked—at length—about updating the book to make it more current. But what about just making a better book?

So, as I await getting the rights back to my first book, I'm working on improving it. I've gone back and looked at some early drafts, and parts I cut before submitting. The first draft of the book was 143,000 words long. The published version: just under 90,000. So there were a LOT of cuts.

I went back to some very early drafts. One scene showed my hero and heroine in a restaurant. In my efforts to paint clear pictures for readers, I'd spent several paragraphs on the waiter coming to the table, taking orders, and the usual "mundane" stuff that accompanies eating out.

I was tempted to include some of that scene. After all, aren't we supposed to include descriptions, involve the senses, and make things realistic for the reader? And I thought I'd done a halfway decent job, trying to Show, not Tell.

This was what I had (and I've not edited it at all—it's here for content only; this was written in 2003, so be kind with your thoughts.)

A young blonde waiter stepped to their table, lit the standard restaurant candle-in-a-jar and asked to take their drink orders.

Randy raised his eyebrow at Sarah.

"I'll have a glass of your house white, please," she said to the waiter.

"Club soda for me," Randy said.

The youth plopped a menu in front of each of them and walked away.

"Guess the new trainees work the slow nights," Sarah said. "I haven't been here in a couple of months. Do you know what's good?"

"Me? No, I don't think I've been here in a long time, either." He picked up his menu.

Sarah perused the offerings and closed her menu. "I'll try the salmon. They're supposed to do seafood very well here. I hope there's not a trainee in the kitchen, too."

Randy rewarded her with a small smile. "I'm going to stay away from fish. I'll have chicken tarragon."

The waiter returned with their drinks and they placed their food orders. "Thank you," he said as he picked up their menus.

"I can't understand why anyone would get his tongue pierced," Sarah said after he'd left.

Randy shook his head. "Neither can I."

Now, it's not humiliatingly awful, and with a little tweaking, could probably be slipped back into the scene. Except for one detail.

POV! No, I don't mean I've head-hopped. The scene is in Sarah's POV, and we're in her head. Or are we? What's not on the page is the setup—Randy has just been through a very emotional experience, and Sarah's been trying to help him through it. On top of that, she's dealing with business crises at her shop, and Randy is the officer on her case. In other words, they're both dealing with problems, and are emotionally distraught.

This is probably not a time they'd be noticing restaurant details, especially since there's nothing "non-restaurant-experience" going on. (I think in an even earlier draft, I'd spent more time with the wait staff—showed them being greeted, led to their table, had someone fill the water glasses, tell them, "Your server will be right with you," and described everyone in what for me is considerable detail, down to tats and piercings as well as hair and eye color. Not to mention filling in all the time where the waiter returns with drinks and takes their food orders, etc.) You get the picture.

It was unnecessary to show them entering the restaurant, Randy checking out the basketball game on the TV above the bar, making a point of wanting a booth in the back, etc., etc. Description has to be true to the character AND to the specifics of the scene. Randy is a cop—normally, he's very observant. But, 1) the scene is in Sarah's POV, and 2) given their emotional states, neither would be noticing all these little details.

Now, if you're writing shallow POV, then it's a different matter to step back and show lots of details. But I don't. To me, that's distancing. And, especially in an emotional scene, I want to be down deep inside the characters' heads. Needless to say, I didn't go back and flesh out the scene as it was published. I left it alone. There's enough "show" without going into too much detail. At least I think so.

A bored-looking waiter hovered by the table. "Getcha something to drink?"

"A glass of white wine for me," Sarah said. She looked up at Randy, who was staring at the table.

"Club soda," he said without raising his eyes.

"Gotcha. Be right back," the waiter said. He plopped two menus on the table and shuffled away.

Randy buried himself behind his menu, and Sarah studied hers without speaking.

Tomorrow, my guest is Jenyfer Matthews. She's recently returned from Egypt (not by choice) and has some very interesting things to share. And, she's giving away an advance reader copy of her next book. I'll continue with more about descriptions and POV on Wednesday. Make sure you come back.


Vonnie Davis said...

Interesting post. I don't think our work is ever as good as we think it is at the time. At least mine isn't. I have a couple manuscripts residing in my laptop that should pay rent. They're lousy tenants. And I thought they were perfect at the time. You've shown us how to edit and make a scene shine. Thanks.

Terry Odell said...

Vonnie, you're very welcome. I have to remind myself that the book wasn't "Bad" when it was first published, that I'm trying to make it better.

Anonymous said...

Terry you have a good topic, a great post, and some interesting examples. I have 2 books published. My 1st book has been published 2 times. The 1st ePublisher went out of business and I didn't have to ask for my rights back, they sent the letter to me, no problems. My 2nd publisher made it a paperback and has done OK. My problem is I tend to write 1st person present tense. My 2nd book was released as an eBook and has been out since July. In the early 70's I worked as a newspaper photojournalist. I learned how to pack a lot of info in as few words as possible. I was going to college during this time and also took a few courses in journalism. Now fast forward, I started writing novel length stories in '03 and found my training as a reporter to be a great asset. I could describe secnes, and describe things with out going overboard. One thing I did learn was that when you describe things or scenes, you slow down the pace. In describing things, you can often get too much detail. In your example, Sarah ordered a glass of your house white, Not bad. I learned to use internal & external dialogue to help describe scenes as well. Example: Our waiter pulls a chair away from this filthy table and says" Your chair Madame." I pause for a moment trying to decide if I should actually sit in the dirty chair or just turn around and leave.
Something else I learned was unnessary descriptions. If in the world you story takes place in has cars as a regular means of transportation, you don't need to describe how a car works or the process of starting the car. You just say the character starts the car. I find an easy way to find and correct such things is to read your work out loud. If it doesn't sound right then it needs some editing. My editor had 2 golden rules. 1. Keep it short and sweet. 2. Boring does not sell so don't bore me, make every story or article you turn in interesting, even the obituaries.
I hope this helps
G W Pickle

Terry Odell said...

Thanks, GW. When I started writing, I hated dealing with descriptions, since I tend to skim over them in my reading if they're too detailed, so mine were either nonexistent or 'straight to the point.' I did have to learn more about what kind of details to include.

Misty Dietz said...

Consider the emotional state of the POV character....Great angle to come at this topic Terry. I've never thought about it quite like that before. :)

Terry Odell said...

Misty - always glad to give folks something new to think about, whether or not they agree. :-)