I've said it before, and I'll say it again right now: Good writing is not enough to create a good story. A writer can be technically competent and still put out only "average" or even substandard work. When we look at writing as an art form rather than a business, many of the rules of "good" writing go right out the window because everyone's tastes tend to be just a little bit different.
One example of this is Stephen King. Millions of people really enjoy his work, but I personally find him wordy and far too interested in description, which bogs down the pace of his stories almost to a crawl. This is not to take anything away from Mr. King: God knows the man's sold more books than I ever hope to, and if I only had one hundredth of his fan following I certainly wouldn't need a day job. And I'm sure as hell not trying to put myself anywhere near on his level. But the problem I've had with much of his work is the afore-mentioned description jungle; the basic storylines, in my humble opinion, would be a lot more compelling if there was less emphasis on minutiae such as the pleats in a pair of brown corduroy pants.*
So how do I, as a writer, counter this tendency while still creating a story I believe people will want to read?
Before I can sell the fantasy to anyone else, be it a publisher, a reader, or a reviewer, I first have to sell myself on it. I have to see what the characters see, feel what they feel, and understand how their environment and their background created the people they are. For this reason, I engage in a great deal of play-acting and thought exercises. I work myself into a state where I can fully engage my senses in the world I'm trying to create, whether the setting is Hell, Harlem, or Heaven.
This active imagination of mine comes at a price, as all such things do. I can sometimes get a little carried away with my immersion in the story to the point if the house caught fire, I may not notice until a burning roof beam fell on my head. And maybe not even then! But the tradeoff is that, with an innate understanding of the world I'm creating, I can sift through and decide what details are crucial, what has no consequence, and what absolutely must be included to give the reader a proper sense of being there without spelling things out until the description almost becomes offensive to my reader's intellect.
You see, I believe my readers are possessed of active imaginations in their own right. If they weren't, they wouldn't read MY work. They'd be reading technical manuals or biographies. So I like to give just enough detail to set the scene and let the reader's imagination take over. If I say there are a bunch of bare trees gleaming ghostly gray in the sallow light of a half moon and a cold wind whistling through the gap-toothed maw created by the carved stones studding the ground in the open field just beyond the wrought-iron fence, what am I talking about?
If you said "cemetery" or something similar, you're absolutely correct. Now you've determined the setting and your own imagination is taking over, and I don't need to linger on details unless there's something I think you really, really need to pay attention to. Just a hint for my readers: Anything I mention twice or more is decidedly important, regardless of the story. From this point, the trick is to keep the action moving so the reader doesn't lose interest in what's going on. Whether the characters are about to fall into bed or a trap, I like to layer on just enough description and detail to keep the reader's interest, without burying them in words.
Whether I succeed or fail is up to the reader to judge. But so far, the readers seem to think I do a pretty good job overall!
You didn't think I was going to leave you without an excerpt, did you? My latest release from Noble Romance, "Ancient Magic," is now available. Hopefully, this excerpt will give you a little taste of what I'm talking about. I hope y'all enjoy it!
More than two decades have passed since the Hodans invaded the peaceful kingdom of Jurav. In their zeal for conquest, they have mercilessly rent the Juravian national character asunder, starting with the temples of their gods.
Varath's uncle raised him to one day assume his father's mantle—command warden of the Temple of Noradi, the most beloved goddess of the Juravian pantheon and the deity of heart, hearth, and the fires which burn in both.
Melody would have been High Priestess to Noradi, and her own family has groomed her with equal care against the day when the Hodan hordes will be expelled and she can assume her rightful place as the most powerful figure in the entire nation . . . and as Varath's bride.
When Varath departed to serve in the Hodan army, Melody saw it as an unconscionable betrayal. Now Varath has returned to take his father's place as the sole guardian of a temple where no one dares enter, and he has made overtures to claim the other half of his bequest: Melody herself. But can Melody see past the deceptions and lies his rebellion has forced and learn to love the man who seems to have turned his back on his own people?
Tumbled columns once demarcating a stately courtyard glinted in moonlight, now lay as sad reminders of the glory mere hand spans of years before had been the temple of Noradi. Shattered and broken sections of white stone lay scattered in a rough ring around the now weed-choked, polished flagstones of the broad walkway leading to the steps of the temple's inner sanctum. Beyond the courtyard, the trees of the sacred grove in which the temple was set wove their leaf-crowned branches together. Dense greenery formed a nearly impenetrable screen, which even the keenest eye could not pierce.
Varath grunted and turned away from the courtyard, resting one hand on his broad belt scant inches from the haft of his heavy battle-axe. At the first sign of anything not as it should be, he could draw the axe with deceptive speed, as many a fallen foe had learned in the last, fatal miscalculation of their lives.
How much enemy blood had tempered the finely forged steel of that axe? He'd given up trying to keep count long ago when he'd first joined the Hodan army as an eager young subaltern. The years between had been good ones for a warrior, filled with wine, song, and women, punctuated with bloody battles and interspersed with moments of utter terror. Varath had distinguished himself in action, decorated to the point where had he troubled to wear only half his baubles, he would have been quite unable to move. And those were the lesser of his awards of merit and valor.
Every one of them served to reinforce a grand deception.
Not that he was ashamed of them; no matter the name of the medal or the provenance, he had earned every last one. Medals and awards of valor were not given to corpses, and each one spoke to his talent for surviving in circumstances where many others had fallen instead.
The deception lay in Varath's own loyalty to the Hodan cause.
He had none.
His outward calm, controlled demeanor gave no hint to the storm of apprehensive thoughts plaguing his mind. Like jackstraws in a tornado, random thoughts skittered past, each one triggering an avalanche of images and memories. Here, the letter he'd sealed carefully and dropped with a villager his uncle had deemed trustworthy came into view. The wax seal he had placed on the missive bore the emblem of his rank in the Hodan military and should have been sufficient to keep the contents safe from prying eyes. Varath had learned the hard way no traveling communication could be guaranteed to remain confidential. As an added precaution, he had carefully encoded the letter, couching the contents in terms intelligible only to a Juravian.
The envelope vanished to be replaced by a painfully clear image of the intended recipient: a young woman with hair the color of moonlight, wearing a deep green gown, staring at him with hurt loathing. After all these years, was it possible she still believed him a traitor?
He turned the thought over like a putrid gem, examining the label from every angle. The bitterest part was, depending on how one viewed his situation, he was exactly what she thought him to be, if not precisely in the way she thought. He played a dangerous game, and he knew if he were discovered, even his exalted rank would not save him from Hodan retribution. Indeed, Brigadier General Varath would certainly pay a much higher price for his betrayal than any man of lesser rank. Imprisonment was still life, no matter how unpleasant; for him, he could only expect a protracted and agonizing death. The Hodans were known for many things. Mercy to traitors was not to be found on the lengthy list.
Shoving aside the bitter thoughts, he let his gaze roam over the ruined façade of the temple front. The huge bronze-sheathed doors, once barriers against the elements had been destroyed in the Hodans' assault and now hung askew, suggesting a gaping, toothless maw. The interior flickered dimly from the brace of torches Varath had lit before coming outside to make his rounds of the perimeter. Even though he was familiar with every stone and crevice of the temple, the place still looked eerie and haunted to him in the torchlight.
As well, it should, traitor, a cold voice whispered in the back of his mind.
Until next time,
*See 'Salem's Lot, by Stephen King.