Friday, August 21, 2009

Adding Description to Your Novel

Morgan Mandel writes mysteries, romances, and even has a dog book in the works. Her latest release is the romantic suspense, Killer Career, published by Choice One Publishing Co. Morgan’s still available back list includes Girl of My Dreams, a romantic comedy about the misadventures of a reality show contestant, and Two Wrongs, a romantic suspense involving wrongful imprisonment.

In addition to her website, Morgan blogs every day at her own blog and contributes to three other co-op blogs: Acme Authors Link, Make Mine Mystery, and The Blood-Red Pencil. She stays very busy and still has time to come by today to talk to us about description in novels.

Please help me welcome Morgan Mandel.

How to Add Description to Your Novel

One answer is to hire a great editor like Helen Ginger. In my edits, Helen pointed out various areas of Killer Career that were lacking in description. She was right. I knew what everything looked like, but the average reader wouldn’t. It was my job to pass along what was clearly in my mind onto the printed page.

I knew the basics, but while going through my edits, I learned how to put them to use. Here, I’ll share some of what I already knew and what I learned.

Description comes in many forms. When you slip into a character’s point of view, what that character notices is what you want the reader to be able to see. Here are a few areas where you can add description to enrich a novel:

Time of day - Is it sunrise, sunset, or maybe high noon? Is it night, with a half moon, a sliver or full moon? Can you see the stars or are clouds hiding them? Is there a fog in the morning? If so, is it covering a lake, or maybe a highway? Does it cause an accident?

Seasons of the year – Using the Seasons and the Holidays with their trappings is a great way to show the passage of time, but keep in mind your story’s setting. A character could long for a good old-fashioned Christmas while stuck somewhere dry and warm, instead what’s considered traditional. In an Illinois winter at six in the morning and six at night it’s dark, yet at the same times in the summer, it’s light.

Places where your characters live – Especially the first time, it’s important for the reader to get a grasp of what the character’s home looks like. It doesn’t have to be much. Just hints here and there about such things as tastes in furniture, like modern or country. Are there knickknacks on the wall or on end tables or shelves? Is the house pristine? You can use the sense of smell to describe cleaning agents or garbage that needs to be taken out. My busy character in Killer Career wasn’t overly concerned about keeping her house immaculate, so it wasn’t unusual that she hung clothes on a door knob and didn’t always make up her bed.

Places your characters visit – In the first scene of Killer Career, my character attended a mystery conference. Not only did I need to indicate in some way how many people were there, I also needed to show where they were in the room. The sound of silverware clanking and the interruption of a waitress making her rounds added to the authenticity of the scene.

What the characters look like – This includes such physical characteristics as eye and hair color. It can also mean hair style or lack of hair, skin color and/or blemishes, an accent or stutter. Does a character have dandruff? Bad breath? Is sweat dotting the forehead, maybe staining under the arms or between the shoulder blades? Do the clothes bulge because the character is overweight and doesn’t know how to hide it? Is the character tall or short? You can also describe a character’s walk. It could be fast, as with a young and impatient person, or it could be slow and halting, because it’s hard to move when the bones and joints are aching from old age.

There are so many other ways to add description to a novel. I hope some of my hints will help you when it’s time to add yours.

Thanks for hosting me today, Helen, and also, thanks for your wonderful help in getting my romantic suspense, Killer Career, up to speed.

My next stop is on Saturday, August 22, at Murder by 4, http://www.murderby4.blogspot.com, hosted by Marta Stephens. My topic is moving your plot forward.

Don’t forget the comment contest. You could start by telling us more ways to add description to a novel, or maybe one of them mentioned is already your favorite. The rules and prize list for the contest are at: http://morganmandel.blogspot.com/2009/08/prize-for-blog-book-tour.html

Thank you Mogan!

Before you all zip to the Comments section, let me add that Killer Career is available at major distributors such as Ingram, at Amazon.com, Bn.com, Target.com, Mobipocket.com, and by order at Bookstores. Here's a brief description of Killer Career:
Changing jobs could be a killer when Julie McGuire latches onto her sexy psychotic mentor, despite the warnings of her best friend and law partner, Dade Donovan. To save herself and Dade, she must face her greatest fear: claustrophobia.
Don't forget: Leave a comment to enter the contest!
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43 comments:

  1. Thanks so much for hosting me today, Helen. Also, thanks for doing such a great job editing Killer Career.

    Morgan Mandel
    http://morganmandel.blogspot.com
    http://www.morganmandel.com

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  2. Great tips for adding descriptions to our WIPs, Morgan! Like you, I've sometimes had a setting so firmly in my head that I think I've shared it with my readers...and I hadn't. I like little bits and pieces of descriptive setting, like you mentioned. Too much and I tend to skim over it as a reader. Too little and I don't know where I am.

    Elizabeth
    Mystery Writing is Murder

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  3. I definitely am a skimmer also when a book gets bogged down with too much description. I like to use my imagination.

    Morgan Mandel
    http://morganmandel.blogspot.com
    http://www.morganmandel.com

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  4. Great stuff, Morgan! I tend to add more description the second time through a story. I probably struggle with surroundings most out of your list.

    L. Diane Wolfe “Spunk On A Stick”
    www.circleoffriendsbooks.blogspot.com
    www.spunkonastick.net
    www.thecircleoffriends.net

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  5. Because I also tend to gracefully glide my eyes over long descriptions, I tend to forget to add even essential ones into my writing and I usually rectify that in the editing phase.

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  6. Thanks for the excellent tips, Morgan. I tend to get so wrapped up in telling the story, I forget to add the bits and pieces that make the reader feel part of it. I should have the five senses tattooed on the back of my hand to I'd see them when I type.

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  7. Thanks Morgan. This is so helpful, since I'm inching towards writing a novel. I'm a pretty spare writer and when reading, I do skip over lengthy descriptions. It's a fine line, isn't it? Not too much, but enough.
    Karen

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  8. Hi Morgan! I finished reading last night..."Killer Career" was a great read. The perfect combination of romance and suspense. (Nice job with those descriptions!)

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  9. Hi Morgan,
    How you present these descriptions is also important. You're probably better off weaving in bits of description as you go along rather than presenting big blocks of it, which might stop the reader in her tracks.

    Good ideas as always.

    Bob Sanchez
    http://bobsanchez1.blogspot.com

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  10. You're so right about how helpful a skilled editor can be. Commas and periods are important, but, the real skill lies in the nuance of the craft. That’s where an editor can help you shine. I’m thinking Helen’s one of the best.

    I’m doing some revision right now. These pointers will help, some I’d consider, but others, (Yikes.) I’d not.

    Best Regards, Galen
    Imagineering Fiction Blog

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  11. Sounds like I'm not the only one who struggles with adding descriptions. That's encouraging to know. There are writers who find description comes natural to them, but that's not me.

    I agree it's better to get the basic story down first and then go back and add the nice touches that ground the reader.

    I just have to remember next time around so I can do it myself without my editor having to point out where to do it.

    I'm glad you liked the book, Debra.

    Morgan Mandel
    http://morganmandel.blogspot.com
    http://www.morganmandel.com

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  12. What great advice!!! I've definitely had that comment before. I tend to jump right into scenes without describing what is going on around the character. I'm working on it, though!

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  13. I love writing descriptions in small doses. I think we're all in agreement that a little goes a long way!

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  14. I love writing descriptions in small doses. I think we're all in agreement that a little goes a long way!

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  15. I agree. Too much description and you feel overwhelmed. Too little and you feel lost. Although there are a couple of authors who do tons of description and it works. Lee Child is one I think of off hand.

    Thank you so much for stopping by today Morgan - and for being such an easy author to work with!

    Helen
    Straight From Hel

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  16. It's true there are some authors who do lovely descriptions and I can forget that's what I'm reading and just go with the flow. There aren't too many of them around that fit that description for me. Everyone's taste is different.

    Morgan Mandel
    http://morganmandel.blogspot.com
    http://www.morganmandel.com

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  17. I often find my first drafts are very short on description. But then I have to be careful to make the description show the character, or I just end up with nice passages that I wouldn't bother reading, so why write them.

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  18. What a wonderful insightful post! Descriptions are like the spice in a stew - too few and it's bland, too many and you can't stomach it. Getting it right is the trick, but finding the correct balance of seasonings is only learned by experience.

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  19. These are all good ideas, Morgan. The only thing I can think to add is sprinkling in tidbits about what someone eats can also help describe a character's personality.

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  20. Those nice passages that we hate to give up. Those go in a separate folder, maybe find their ways into other novels, or else languish.

    Morgan Mandel

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  21. Elspeth and Jane, you must be hungry. You're both mentioning food!

    Good thing I just got back from lunch. I like the seasonings analogy. Also, about remembering to add food descriptions.

    Chocolate chip cookies also play a role in Killer Career.

    Morgan Mandel
    http://morganmandel.blogspot.com
    http://www.morganmandel.com

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  22. I'm one of those readers who like a lot of description... even more than fast plotting really. I hate reading a book and ending with no clear image of the main characters. Or the setting. In a series, it'll keep me from reading the next book.

    Great stop, you two! This is a nice tour so far, Morgan. Don't forget your permalinks, and remind me to add your schedule page to the BBT blog later.

    Don't miss Morgan's week of How to Self-Publish advice coming up at the Blood-Red Pencil next week.

    Dani
    http://bloodredpencil.blogspot.com

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  23. Helen, it's wonderful to visit your blog! :)

    Morgan, I've been enjoying your blog tour. Congrats, again!

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  24. Good post, Morgan, and I'm glad you mentioned that it is good to use the character's POV to describe a room. As opposed to: She entered a room filled with papers, dirty clothes and assorted trash. We could write: Sarah stepped into the room and tripped over the pile of dirty clothes in the doorway.... adding the rest of the description as she experiences the room.

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  25. We heard from the other side - Dani is a person who likes a lot of description. There's something for everyone in books.

    I'll be posting the permalinks she mentioned at http://morganmandel.blogspot.com on Sunday with my recap so far. They will cover all the tour spots I've been to up until then. After the Blood-Red Pencil series, which starts on Monday, I'll post those permalinks also.

    That way, people can check ones they missed, or go back to any they found helpful.

    Morgan Mandel

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  26. I'm glad you're all enjoying the post and hope you picked up a few pointers.

    Morgan Mandel

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  27. Congratulations! Your blog has been nominated for a 2009 BBAW Award. If you wouldn't mind sending me your email address, I'll drop you a note about it.

    Thanks.

    Sheri
    BBAW Awards Committee
    anovelmenagerie@aol.com

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  28. What a fun day this has been. Thank you so much, Morgan, for talking us through descriptions.

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  29. I had a great time, too, Helen. I'll stop in later on in case there are any night owls.

    Morgan Mandel
    http://morganmandel.blogspot.com

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  30. Great post, and not just saying this because of the number of comments. Describing characters are important early on. I use characters from the big screen or TV sometimes to help describe a character in my stories.

    Case in point: I modeled a particular character after Jack Black, especially his character in Shallow Hal. He's short, funny, a bit of a (non-threatening but immature) pervert, but people eventually come around to liking him because he's an overall good guy who will help just about anyone in need.

    Stephen Tremp
    http://www.stephentremp.blogspot.com/

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  31. TV characters work well as models for book characters, as Stephen mentions. Some writers like to cut photos from magazines and place them nearby as inspiration.

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  32. I love the idea of have actual physical photos of your characters there while you're writing. Get pointers, Morgan!

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  33. Good tips Morgan,

    I thought of two to add. Some of your hungry fans mentioned using food to get know your character - what does he or she like to eat. Regional foods and their flavors and also help with place. BBQ comes to mind. In Texas, BBQ generally means anything you cook on a grill, often combined with a spicy (hot) sauce. In NC, BBQ is pork and if you order a BBQ sandwich, it is likely to arrive with coleslaw between the meat the the bun. The sauce is vinegar based. when I was growing up in PA, BBQ was a sloppy joe type sandwich. I don't know if this was just my house or typical of PA. If been to other parts of the country where BBQ is a dry rub or a thick, sweet (brown sugar or molases) sauce.

    My other thought on the topic concerned the sense of touch - and not just with hands. Walking on the cobblestone streets of Europe feels very different from trudging through knee-deep snow over soft ground.

    I started Killer Career after work yesterday and would not have put it down if I had not promised to meet a friend down town last night.

    thanks for a great read,

    Charlotte

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  34. Lauri,
    I wanted to have something eye catching for my back cover of Killer Career, so I went a step further than the norm and put small photos of my main characters on the back cover with a blurb from each point of view.

    Morgan Mandel
    http://morganmandel.blogspot.com
    http://www.morganmandel.com

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  35. Char,
    You have some great ideas about regional foods, also about using the sense of touch, even for sidewalks.

    I'm so glad you're enjoying Killer Career. What author doesn't like to hear something like that?

    Morgan Mandel
    http://morganmandel.blogspot.com
    http://www.morganmandel.com

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  36. Great post. "Seeing" through your character's eyes is so important, and also using the five senses. Avoid big "chunks" of description--the reader tends to skip over those.

    Heidi

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  37. I love the idea of using subtle description like the smell of garbage or cleaning agents to indicate clues about whether the character is messy or a perfectionist. It's so much better to show that than state it.

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  38. Great tips Morgan! Description is one of my major weaknesses. I hate to write it and I tend to skip it when I read it too. Time to face my demon and add some more descriptions in future.

    Bargain with the Devil

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  39. As a reader depending on the author or the story i skim decriptions tho sometimes i like a little bit of alot all just depends on the book or the style

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  40. While your tips are sound, I wonder if they might lead to infodumping by some writers. We're constantly urged to not give a lot of descriptions and overwhelm a reader, but subtlely insert details.

    Also, not to sound ungrateful, I'd have liked to have seen examples from your work(s) on how you included the description(s) vs. what you'd written in the first place (if possible, without embarrassing yourself).

    Congrats on your third book! I'm hoping that my first one will be picked up.

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  41. Hi danceluvr. I totally agree with not doing infodump. Descriptions, back story, thoughts, all can be sprinkled in where they are part of the story, not a stop to the story.

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  42. Nice post Miss Mandel. Its a good thing that you have shared on this topic. I like the way you create your characters.

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  43. Since my descriptions are so sparse to begin with, I don't worry about info dumps.
    At one time I freelanced for the Daily Herald newspaper and got used to writing without adding much description.

    Like Enid mentions, I have a tendency to skim or skip descriptions if they are too long.

    Morgan Mandel
    http://morganmandel.blogspot.com

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