Putting on my editor hat today, because something that I take for granted turned out to be a lesson folks occasionally forget.
I was talking to Fabulous Publisher Babe™ last night about one of the projects I am currently editing. (Hint: I always have SOMETHING in process these days, with various timelines across Boundary Shock Quarterly, Blaze Ward Presents, side projects for friends, or larger one-off things.)
I had gotten about halfway through a story and found myself bored. That’s NEVER a good sign in your editor. Means you messed up somewhere.
I described the story as mechanical. That’s as opposed to emotional, so let me break it down into clearer details.
In this case, we had a really interesting idea for a story. Truly out there, which are the best kind of things, because that means that the writer wasn’t going for low hanging fruit. Wasn’t playing it safe.
At the same time, they were just giving me thesaurus lists of adjectives and adverbs as descriptive details. Dry. Mechanical.
Setting is more than just a description of the scene as you enter the room. To be effective, it has to have emotion behind it. Feeling. Setting is the character’s opinion of what they see, rather than just the catalog.
You don’t tell me that the walls were a yellow. Tell me that they were the color of that mustard that grandma used on sandwiches she made for you when you were a kid. The kind you always looked forward to and missed now because it wasn’t the same with someone else making them.
The barn isn’t red. It is a scarlet troll, perched on the hill over a valley full of cattle like a shepherd tending his flock, poised to charge out against a wolf.
Gimme emotions. Gimme impressions. Show me a side of the character watching the scene, rather than just dig out the big words to describe it. I want to know about the person experiencing the impressions as well.
For a lot of newer writers, they don’t hear that lesson often enough. They think that having more adjectives automatically makes it a better story, but that only works to a certain extent. Eventually, I need to know what you think of the thing you see.
The bottle of apple juice from the fridge isn’t refreshing, it is the nectar of the gods, pressed and distilled down to recharge your soul for the coming afternoon of battle with the hay bales. It is a sweet sip of pure electricity, bringing you back from the dead after a morning of Sisyphusian toils. (The yardwork is never done, you just drive the monsters back for a time, until you have to do it all over again.)
The grass isn’t green, it is a field of emerald soldiers creeping stealthfully forward to reclaim the garden and plant a flag of conquest among the spinach.
Again, this is me with my editor hat on. I don’t always write like that, but that’s because those sorts of details also serve to slow the story-telling down some. To draw you in and drag you to the bottom of the lake, holding you under water until you have no choice but to keep reading until you come out on the other side.
A wise mentor has more than once reminded me that the opening five hundred words of any story (and sometimes every chapter) should be all setting. All impressions of the scene, with sensory details that establish how the character feels. It isn’t a hot day. It is that last day of summer before you have to start school again tomorrow when you were a kid, and you were going to suck every drop of fun out of it that you possibly could before Mom yelled at the kids to come eat dinner.
In those first five hundred words, you should maybe include a sentence or two of plot, just to whet the reader’s appetite more than anything. After that, you transition to the action, always remembering that opening details are good, but you shouldn’t slow walk to the story.
You have the opening paragraph to catch their eye. The opening page to draw them in and hit them with all the feels.
That long, and no longer, because if you let an editor escape, they might just toss you onto the rejection pile and move on to the next story. We read a lot of stuff, and are always looking for a reason to not finish a story. Hell, that same mentor used to be able to reject a story before he had even gotten it out of the envelope, just because the front page was one giant wall of text, paragraphs six or ten sentences long. Slow and laborious to read. Boring.
As a writer, your job is to craft tight prose, but it must evoke an emotional response from the reader, or you have failed. Simple as that. Grab them and pull them under water quickly. Never let them escape.
That will give you a story that will be memorable.