REDWALL BY BRIAN JACQUES
Where has this book been all my life? I am very thankful to the friend who recommended it to me. It’s the type I love to read, full of action, adventure, and mystery. There’s even a little romance. It’s hard to put down.
Jacques creates a medieval world full of colorful animal characters. Matthias is a small novice mouse at the peaceful Redwall Abbey. But he desires to be brave like the Abbey’s co-founder, Martin the Warrior. When Redwall comes under attack by the rat, Cluny the Scourge, and his army, Matthias goes on a quest to find Martin’s legendary sword which he believes can save the Abbey.
This book has one of the best opening chapters I’ve read. I also like how Jacques describes the battle scenes. He gives enough detail without being gory.
I now have read several books in the series. Each one has kept me up well past the time I should have been asleep. This one remains my favorite.
THE BIG BLUE BOOK
This is the nickname of a novel that changed the way I write. First off, the cover is blue. Second, the spine is two inches thick in hardback. It’s also an unusual read for me because it contains magic, which is not the type of fantasy I like. But an author who can write an 870-page magical fantasy and keep me hanging on every word did something very right. I got goosebumps when I finished it the first time. This is J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.
The plot is rich with many twists and turns as fifteen-year-old Harry, who to this point has reacted to trouble, starts causing it. When the government takes over Harry’s school, he goes underground to teach his classmates how to fight in the coming battle against his enemy, Voldemort. Rowling does a remarkable job of weaving school life—exams, sports, and romance—into the bigger threat of Voldemort’s return to power and the government covering it up.
What impressed me the most about the book was the emotion in it. Rowling beautifully describes everything from the relief of a Saturday off after a disastrous first week of school to the wonders of a first kiss to the horrific depths of grief. I discovered that emotion was what I was missing in my own stories. Since then, my writing has not been the same.
WATERSHIP DOWNBY RICHARD ADAMS
I have loved this novel ever since I was assigned to read it in high school. In all the times I’ve read it since then, it has not disappointed, the hallmark of a great book. Filled with action and adventure, it’s about a group of young male rabbits who, led by Hazel, leave their home and make a perilous journey to Watership Down to start their own warren. Their troubles don’t stop once they’ve arrived. The only way the new warren can grow is for them to find female rabbits. That results in a vicious battle with another warren on Watership Down.
Hazel is one of my favorite heroes. He’s courageous, compassionate, and smart. He uses the various talents of different rabbits to accomplish a goal. His leadership earns him the suffix “rah” added to his name, which denotes a chief rabbit. Nevertheless, Hazel-rah is not infallible. When he goes against the advice of his prophetic brother, his deed cripples him, just as the warren faces its greatest threat.
The book has some lengthy descriptions, but Adams does an amazing job of creating the rabbit world, including their own terminology and folk hero. The novel was so real that I was shocked to learn it was classified as a fantasy. After all, it is about rabbits. I highly recommend it.
DIAMONDS OF THE NARRATOR
“The peasant girl watched the raindrops drip off the tree leaf. She cupped her hands to catch the falling diamonds that sparkled in the sunlight.”
Is anything wrong with the above example? Assuming the scene is in the peasant girl’s point of view, why would she compare the raindrops to diamonds? She has probably never seen a diamond. She might compare the raindrops to stars, something she is familiar with.
On the other hand, what if the scene is in the point of view of a princess watching her from a carriage? The princess might compare the raindrops to diamonds.
When using descriptions, keep in mind whose point of view you are in. A peasant girl has a different view of the world than a princess. The imagery you choose gives insight into the narrator’s character.
A SHEEP OR A ROCK?
Comparisons are a useful way to create imagery in a story. My friend considers a well-written novel to be full of metaphors. In the book Word Painting: A Guide to Writing More Descriptively, Rebecca McClanahan states, “An effective metaphor or simile is significantwhen it calls forth an image that reinforces the overall description.”
Beware of mixing your metaphors. For example: “The fluffy sheep grazed in the pasture, a black rock in knee-deep grass.”
Wait. Rocks are solid and unmoving. The sheep is soft and in motion. Which image am I suppose picture in my mind?
Every word you choose is important. They should work together to create one solid image to immerse your readers into your world.
My weakest part of writing is descriptions. I’ll rather write dialogue and get to the action. But meager images shortchange my readers by not putting them into the story. Several years ago, author Cecil Murphy gave me this advice. He told me to write down the descriptions I found in the books I read. By doing so, I will get a feel for how to do them.
This technique has improved my ability to describe, though it’s still a challenge for me. As an added bonus, I now have notebooks filled with these passages. I read a page before I write to get me into author mode. If you are having trouble with descriptions, give this method a try.
Characters don’t exist in a vacuum. You must describe them, the world they live, and the atmosphere that surrounds them. So, how much description do you need to put in your book? The short answer is enough to make your readers feel a part of the story, but not so much that it causes them to stop reading, roll their eyes, and skip to the next section of dialogue.
Today, pictures are everywhere. Most readers will already have an image of what you are trying to describe. They have imaginations. You don’t need to go into excessive detail unless it is an important element of the story. Even then, be careful. I once read a novel which used a lengthy paragraph to describe a tiger, an essential character of the book. Every single hair was mentioned. I like tigers, but I got bored in the middle of it.
Don’t get carried away with your descriptions. Just make sure you include enough to anchor your readers in your story’s world.
BACK TO THE FIRST RULE
The more you read, the more you get the feel for how a story is structured. An exercise I learned in a workshop was to pick up a book you’ve read and open it to the middle. There should be a major turning point in the story. I’ve often found it to be true, no matter if the book was about 200 pages or 870 pages.
Think about your favorite books. Where are the turning points? When do they occur? Open one up and see if there is a major one in the middle. Doing this helps you to know where to put them in your own story. No wonder the first rule of writing is “read, read, read.”
WHERE ARE YOU GOING?
To me, plot is the road map of your story. It’s how to get from point A to point B to point C, and so on. Therefore, it’s helpful to have a general idea of how you want the story to go. Write it down. Keep it where you can see it, so you won’t get off track.
In editing my novel, I noticed that I could have a romantic mess between my heroine and these three men in her life. She could be forced to marry one and secretly in love with her best friend’s betrothed, while the last one tries to get her attention because he’s in love with her. But I’m not writing a romance. It’s not the purpose of the book. It’s about her pleasing her father when others think she’s crazy to do so.
In writing, nothing is set in stone. You may change your mind in the middle of the book, or your characters may change it for you. But knowing where you want the story to go helps with plotting, like a map helps get you to your destination.
THE TORTURE CHAMBER
Novelist Angela Hunt once said, “Take a character and torture him for 300 pages.”
When I consider Hunt’s words, I think of Harry Potter. He dealt with the everyday challenges of growing up: schoolwork, competitions, and relationships. But he also had an evil villain who vowed to kill him, which greatly complicated his life. Throughout the series, Harry faced one obstacle after another, both physical and emotional, in his efforts to stop Voldemort. They increased in difficulty until Harry is left with one heartbreaking decision.
I’ve noticed in my own stories that I love putting my favorite characters into dangerous situations, including hanging off the side of a cliff. I can imagine one telling me, “You don’t like me very much, do you?”
Don’t make life easy for your characters. That’s boring. Readers want to see them overcome their situations. The more you throw at them, the richer your story.