Tuesday, April 30, 2013

How to Turn an Editor’s Head the Wrong Way

I’ve already mentioned (Apr. 3, 2013 blog post) the harm plantations of dialogue tags can cause when allowed to infest our work, so here’s to moving on to another standout.

Wardrobe reports. I see this even in work published by well-known houses (but not by your better authors). A wardrobe report is when you introduce a character and immediately describe their clothing in the form of a report. It’s also done with facial features, bone structure, etc.

 I can’t help but think of a police report when I read these descriptive paragraphs.

Not always, but often you can spot an upcoming wardrobe report when you see the word “wore.” She wore, he wore—these are a dead giveaway to an author’s newbie ranking and a boring way to introduce a character’s style of dress.

Celia’s face showed anguish that betrayed her attire: a long yellow gown flaring out below her knees, a diamond brooch beneath the left spaghetti strap, and silver shoes, probably a Prada knockoff. Over her shoulder she wore a chiffon scarf that you could see right through. (Hello – all chiffon is sheer.)

Although the paragraph above gives a clear picture of what Celia looks like, it’s not as interesting as it could be if the same details came out during some action on Celia’s part. Readers like movement. Unless you just walked into a room where a spotlight is shining down on someone who is standing completely still (in which case it would make sense to focus solely on the looks, because that’s the purpose of the spotlight), you will want to know what’s going on with this person, regardless of how they are dressed. Yes, the attire adds to your overall assessment of the character, but not as much as it would when viewing the same articles of clothing delivered in prose with some action.

Celia’s gaze darted from one face to another, her glimmering yellow gown swaying above silver Prada knockoffs with each delicate step. She stopped in the foyer, her brows furrowing. Her hand flew to the diamond brooch pinned beneath a spaghetti strap, and her mouth formed a perfect O. She adjusted the chiffon scarf around her shoulders, a timid smile struggling on her lips.

While not perfect, the second version gives a stronger sense of what Celia is feeling and yet doesn’t rob us of any details about her clothing. This paragraph is more interesting because there’s movement in it. She is doing something – taking delicate steps, stopping in the foyer, furrowing her brows, touching her brooch and trying to put on a smile.

Unless your characters are standing on a lighted runway, or in a situation where readers expect to stop and stare in awe, don’t give a wardrobe report. Give us action, no matter how minor. Action doesn’t have to be swinging from a rope and landing in a burning building. Action can be tiptoeing to a bed made up with blankets to match the character’s bunny-patterned pajamas. As long as it’s action, you can’t go wrong. You’ll keep readers watching if you keep your character doing something.

Go through your writing and watch for the word “wore.” Rewrite the description without that nasty word. Play around a bit and see if you can come up with a better way to give readers an experience of what the character is doing or feeling while you dress them up in stylish or tattered clothing. I’ll bet you’ll like your new descriptions.



Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Cupcakes and Good-wife Impressions

For my husband’s birthday, I made cupcakes for him to take to work. I haven’t made cupcakes in years, and I forgot what a pain they could be.
All I wanted was to be a good wife, make my husband proud, and maybe acquire some suck-up points in case I’d need them some day. I thought cupcakes would be easy with the aid of canned frosting and cake mixes to yield 48 cupcakes. All I had to do to earn a halo in domestic wonder is combine the cake mix, water, oil and eggs, then bake and frost.
First, it took a while to find our electric beaters and dust them off. Next, I had forgotten the old rule of NOT cracking the eggs on the side of the bowl, so that you don't lose eggshells in the batter. I spent quite a while chasing miniature pieces of shell, which somehow got buried in the cake mix. (Sh-h! Our secret–they got baked.)
To date, I’ve received no reports of anyone choking.
After the egg-shell chase, I turned on the beaters and everything went fine until it was time to get the beaters off to lick them before washing them. I couldn't figure out how to get them out of the mixer thing. So, I brought up the beaters out of the batter and pressed the button I assumed would shut them off. It didn’t. It turned the miniature machine on high, which decorated my microwave and cupboards with whips of chocolate.
I cleaned up the mess and moved on to spoon batter into the little paper cups lining the tins. For some reason, the paper cups kept tilting topsy-turvy in the tin or floating out every time I tried to drop batter into them. I finally got them filled, but not without dripping over the center of the tin.
Then, because each cup was only supposed to be two-thirds full of batter, and all of mine looked uneven, I had to take some batter out of the fuller cups and add to the not-so-full ones. I was really worried whether or not I measured correctly and if I’d turn out the full 48 cupcakes, especially with all the finger licking going on while trying to even out the batter.
Baking was the easiest part. The oven took care of it all by itself. And because I did not remember the rule about the egg shells, I thought ahead about what rules there might be to frosting. Luckily, tips are given on the box, which advised to let the cake(s) cool first.
I patiently waited for each little cupcake to cool off to guarantee that they’d frost well–I wanted to impress my husband. I've never been good at frosting, so I tried very hard to make sure I glazed all the way around the edges, not just the center of the cakes. I was proud, even though I couldn’t manage pretty swirls in the frosting and my cupcakes looked like the work of a three-year-old.
I ran out of frosting when I still had about five naked cupcakes to go. So, I had to take frosting off one cupcake and put it on another. This step took me about a half an hour for the first 24 cupcakes. I had the other 24 already baked and ready to be frosted with a different flavor of frosting, but after finishing the first 24, and with the whole cupcake-making becoming so mentally exhausting, I decided to take a break.
In the meantime, my husband came home and offered to frost the rest of the cupcakes. He did it in five minutes and had a third of the can of frosting left. None of his cupcakes had bare spots showing, and his frosted swirls looked bakery-made, artistic and smooth. Interesting.
I will never make cupcakes again. No matter whose birthday it is or no matter whom I want to impress. Mike cupcake days are over.