Lessons from the Fledgling Author: Too Much Hair

I keep reading that I should limit—even severely—the descriptions of my characters. Yesterday, I read a 2001 article in The New York Times by the late author, Elmore Leonard, titled “Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle.” It was from their WRITERS ON WRITING series. Point 8 said, “Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.” It went on to say, “Which Steinbeck covered. In Ernest Hemingway’s ‘Hills Like White Elephants’ what do the ‘American and the girl with him’ look like? ‘She had taken off her hat and put it on the table.’ That’s the only reference to a physical description in the story, and yet we see the couple and know them by their tones of voice, with not one adverb in sight.” I would guess, you might envision these characters as white Americans, as I did.

I understand this concept. It allows the reader to become part of the creation of the story—to become vested in the characters. I think it might be outdated. When we let readers create their own images of our characters, they will more than likely view them as white, and probably with light hair and blue eyes. In American media, we are completely conditioned to do so—even consumers who are not white.

My characters are predominantly brown. They come from mixed places and cultures—much like our own America. I feel it is important to make it clear that my protagonist would not be played by one of the Chris’s—Hemsworth, Evans, Pine, Pratt. I would choose someone like Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman. I do not know how to do this without describing him in vivid detail.

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Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman – Photo: Paste Magazine

In the first scene of “Tishta the Crystal Orb,” Coltan arrives.

“He was a large, muscular man, about the same size as Malcan—but that is where the similarity stopped. His dark walnut hair was neatly cut to just above his shoulders. As he turned, one wavy lock fell over his brow, above expressionless brown eyes. His hand ran up over his head, integrating it into the rest of his hair. He wore a well-tailored black riding coat, and black boots that came halfway up his calves—he looked like a gentleman, out for an evening ride.”

I attempted to do a couple of things here—and maybe it is too descriptive. He is a big guy. Even though he is traveling, he keeps himself neat and clean. But, I also described his wavy, walnut-colored hair and brown eyes. Later, I describe his skin.

An issue one of my early readers had was that I described everyone’s hair in the first two chapters. But that is where I introduced the majority of my main characters, and there are a lot of them—eleven, at least. That was a lot of hair. I have since removed some of those descriptions and put them in later chapters—I still think it is important to note that it is not blond and straight. Well, actually, one of them is currently golden-haired, but I need to make her darker to fit in with the place she is from, as well as make her physically more similar to her cousin, who is another one of travelers.

Even Malcan and Brant, the two fairest among the group—with blue eyes—have dark hair. Brant’s is black. Malcan’s is dark auburn.

My lead warrior, Gillan, and her side-kick lover, Toran, are from a place where everyone is what we would call black. Their skin is very dark, their eyes are nearly black, and Gillan’s black hair is softly curled. How can I not describe at least some of that the first couple of times they are introduced?

“Shortly after the sun passed its zenith, Gillan slowed her horse while she removed the cord that bound her black hair. She shook out the curls before retying it.”

In the same scene, I described the boy, Kano. While he is not black, he is… well, I’ll let you read it.

“She was surprised to find a young boy, no more than eight or nine, sitting in a ray of sun.

His clothing, skin, and even his long, straight hair, so nearly matched the color of the russet and tan stones around him, he almost blended in with them. Laying beside him were a quiver of arrows, a bow and a small pack.”

Again, I think it is very important to describe him in this much detail when he is introduced, and not let the reader envision him as a white boy.

Ever since I first pictured my very large warrior, Toran, I have seen Isaiah Mustafa in my mind. If I was casting Tishta as a film, Mustafa would probably be my first choice, although, he is a little old to play my 30-year-old warrior. One night, a couple of years ago, I had the pleasure of eating dinner with Mustafa. Toran embodies a lot of Isaiah—big, handsome, beautiful smile, polite, deep booming voice (not the Old Spice voice).

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Isaiah Mustafa with Michael Rosenbaum at 2015 Echoes of Hope Celebrity Shootout Hockey Game – Photo: Ramona Ridgewell

Interestingly, in all of the early descriptions of Toran, I just discovered I do not describe him beyond how large he is. Now, I wonder if my readers assume he is as dark as Gillan, since they are a couple. And, I wonder if my transposition of Mustafa onto my character made it so I found no need to describe him. Writing about things like this always seem to lead me to some new revelation. I shall undertake an investigation of all descriptions of Toran.

I am interested to know how other writers overcome the assumption of their readers that their characters are white. Let me know in the comments.

Copyright ©2014-17 Ramona Ridgewell. All rights reserved.

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Elizabeth Guizzetti’s “The War Ender’s Apprentice”

The War Enders Apprentice (Chronicles of the Martlet Book 1)The War Enders Apprentice by Elizabeth Guizzetti

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Elizabeth Guizzetti weaves a delightful tale of wars, politics and intrigue across seven worlds in her new novella, “The War Ender’s Apprentice.” Her characters are engaging and nicely portrayed. I was especially taken with Eohan as he tries to figure out how to exist in his new world as apprentice to a War Ender. I went to bed, but couldn’t put the book down until I finished it. I felt like my child self, hiding under my blanket with a flashlight—I kept expecting my mother to come in and tell me it was past my bedtime. A fun, quick read.

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Lessons from the Fledgling Author: Beginning of the End

It has been two great weeks. I am up to nine Beta Readers! Yay! None of them have finished yet, but I am really looking forward to their comments, insights and criticisms.

Two weekends ago, I had the good fortune to be invited by Joe Follansbee to his “Carbon Run” book launch. I had never attended one before, so it was good to see what kinds of things one would expect from such a party. I will be presenting one soon. There were several published authors in attendance. While I did not meet everyone, I was introduced to K C Blackbyrn who recently published her first novel, “Stirring Power.” We had a great discussion about editing, editing, editing.

The best part of the afternoon was reconnecting with Elizabeth Guizzetti, author of “The War Ender’s Apprentice” (new on Kindle), “The Grove,” “Other Systems,” “The Light Side of the Moon,” and “Famine Lands: The carp’s eye.” I know her from Two Hour Transport, where she occasionally reads, and many writing panels she has been on at various conferences around Seattle. Much to my surprise, she offered to read Tishta and provide critical feedback. She followed through during the week. This week, I have been reviewing great feedback to incorporate into the book. I cannot thank her enough.

Some of the feedback from Elizabeth confirmed what I already suspected: the beginning moves too slowly, indicating there are scenes that should be cut; I describe where people are looking far too often; I overuse certain words, like just, up, down, and very, to name a few—for some of the ones Elizabeth pointed out, I have already made edits to cut back on them, but apparently, even what is left is overdone.

More importantly, she pointed out how obvious it was that I did not invest myself in the character who dies. I think I did not want to deal with the grief I knew would come if I let myself love her. One of my new tasks is to write her backstory, and learn to love her. Then, I will be prepared to rewrite her story in Tishta.

Elizabeth also helped me see where my story falls into stereotypical female responses under stress. I have some changes in mind to fix that for some of the things my lead warrior, Gillan, does to respond to her grief. I think this will greatly improve the story and the character.

In the mean time, two more beta readers joined my group. Maybe at least a few of them read the book and give me some feedback. I am hoping to garner more insight into the story and the characters. I gave my readers a deadline of Thanksgiving to return feedback. My plan is still to publish by the  end of the year. It will be a tight schedule to review the feedback and re-edit the book in a month, but I will give it my best shot.

I think this last month away from the book has been a good thing. Hopefully, I will read it with fresh eyes when I again dive into editing. It has been hard not to do this, especially after receiving the feedback from Elizabeth, but I think it is important.

I have been researching how to self edit and publish online. One video by Ellen Brock suggested that, even if you do not write from an outline, it is a good practice to outline your story. She says it will assist in finding the scenes, or even chapters, that do not move the story forward. For every scene, she looks for the Goal, the Conflict and the Outcome. Every scene. I am going through my book to create this now. Fortunately, Scrivener has a synopsis built right into the editor—and they show up as cards in the Corkboard view—so, I am writing these notes in the synopses. I am already finding a lot of scenes where I cannot define the Conflict. I think this technique will be invaluable in discovering the scenes that can be cut, especially from Parts One and Two.

I am really looking forward to this next edit. In the meantime, I have gone through the book to document how far the group travels. My first shot at drawing the world—beyond the rough sketches I needed to try to keep track of them—has shown me places where the world is either too big or too small. I will make adjustments in the story to accommodate a more perfect world. The other part of drawing my world is ensuring the places they do not visit fit in to my vision for the rest of the complete story arc, which is spread out over at least four more books.

In completing this first book, I have been forced to include many of the elements I will need from this story to support the following stories. It has made writing this book take longer, but I believe it will make the entire story arc more consistent, and the following books easier to write.

I should return to doing my book things now.

Copyright ©2014-17 Ramona Ridgewell. All rights reserved.