Thursday, December 1, 2011

The ABC's of Middle Grade: E is for Embellish

Embellish. It's a pretty word as it floats off the tongue, a verb meaning to make fancier by decorating, exaggerating (such as saying "I've told you a million times"), or . . . adding details to a story to create more interest and excitement. The last part is the part I'd like to focus on--the adding details part.

Well-written stories balance detail with action; they flow flawlessly between these two things. So, how do I know when I've embellished enough? How do I know when I've embellished too much? It's a fine line, and one I struggle seeing in my own writing.

Is it just me, or do you struggle with this too? I've heard published authors say they've cut hundreds of pages from their stories while they're revising. Joanne Fritz heard Richard Peck say (and I'm indirectly quoting him here) when he thinks he's cut everything he can, he then cuts twenty more words--because you can always cut twenty more words. I found that fascinating.

We all know that embellishing is key to story-telling, but (and here comes my impossible question this week) how do you know when you've achieved the right balance of detail and action? In other words, how do you know when embellishing is not adding interest or excitement to your story?

13 comments:

  1. That IS a tricky balance. I'd say, partly, anyway, it has to do with what details you're embellishing and are they going to fit in later, too, or not?

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  2. I use two guidelines: Is the embellishing I'm doing in my MC's POV? Is she really noticing these things? And after I've put the book away to cool so I can read it fresh (sort of, anyway), I look for pacing problems, which are often caused by over-embellishment.

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  3. I've always been told I needed more description (too much action) so I guess my writing so far lacks embellishment. It's something I only get to do when revising and finding the same balance you seek would be great.
    Marcia does have a good point too. I've never asked myself that question before.

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  4. @Marcia - I use the MC POV idea, too. Like seeing it on a movie screen from her perspective.

    I have the same issue as akoss - I tend not to
    embellish enough in my prose. This stems from years of screenwriting, where you only write dialogue and action. Anything but very brief description is a no-no.

    The three novels I have written have all grown in the rewrites.

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  5. That's a hard question. I think it's important to add enough details about the character and setting to make your story rich. I use word count as a guide to if I'm being too wordy and it's often scenes and unnecessary words that get cut not the details that make the story deeper.

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  6. Mmmmmm. I'm loving these tips like I love dark chocolate melting in my mouth.

    Marcia, I need to learn to sit in my MC's head more, so your point is SUPER for me right now. One of my 'if onlies' on this MS is this: If only I were writing in first person . . . (but the story just doesn't write out of me that way) so sitting in his head is what I need to do instead.

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  7. That's a really hard question, and part of me wants to say that you can NEVER embellish too much--but I know that's not true. I'm just a natural overembellisher. My real answer? I have my husband read it and tell me honestly how much is too much!

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  8. I shy away from too much detail. A habit I picked up from screenwriting and I can't seem to shake.

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  9. What an awesome question! It's tough to find a balance, it's sort of like magic though when you do. I guess I'd start by saying any words on the page have to have a purpose for the story or the character. If it's description it should be through the character's eyes.

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  10. I hadn't heard that Richard Peck quote before, but someone told me once that on your final pass you should find another ten words a page to cut, and though I don't always manage it, I find it an incredibly useful trick -- it makes sure I really go as far as I can.

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  11. @Barbara - I don't write in first person either, and it takes a talented writer to be able to pull me into a 1st person story.

    That's kind of why I use the "movie screen" method. We can only see and hear what is on screen, like in the movies, and are always separate from the character (voyeurs). Just make the camera POV that of the protags.

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  12. Oh good word. I think trying to write picture books helps with embellishment because every word counts and there are so many things we as writers want to describe that are really for the illustrator to illustrate. Sometimes I worry I don't embellish enough in my MG and YA manuscripts.

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  13. This is definitely a hard thing for me too. I tend to not put in enough detail and have to add more during revisions. Sitting in my MC POV is a great idea I plan to try. Thanks for the post!

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