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Saturday, April 8

Real Life Diagnostics: Does This Description Feel Like a List?

Critique By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Real Life Diagnostics is a weekly column that studies a snippet of a work in progress for specific issues. Readers are encouraged to send in work with questions, and I diagnose it on the site. It’s part critique, part example, and designed to help the submitter as well as anyone else having a similar problem.

If you're interested in submitting to Real Life Diagnostics, please check out these guidelines.

Submissions currently in the queue: Nine 


Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through June 10.

This week’s questions:

My biggest concern is the next to last paragraph telling about the flowers. Is this too much of a list, or is it too descriptive? Does this show it's a big, expensive gift or is there a better way to express that? Is there a better way to say she quietly gasped?


Market/Genre: Contemporary Romance

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Background: Heather, the office matchmaker and romanticist, is the receptionist at Julia's office and calls to say that a delivery has been dropped off for her.

“You’ve got flowers! Oh, come see how beautiful they are!” Heather bubbled.

“I’ll come get them when things settle down here. Is there a card?”

“I don’t see—oh, here it is. Should I open it?”

“Sure.”

There was a muted ripping sound before Heather said, “It just says ‘Mike.’”

“My ex.” Julia growled. “Why don’t you keep the flowers on your desk?” she managed to say in a normal voice.

“You don’t want them?”

“They’ll look better on your desk than in my trash can.”

“I thought you loved flowers.”

“I do. That’s the problem. He knows just how much I love them.”

When Julia left for lunch she walked past Heather’s desk, telling herself she was just curious. She quietly gasped at the colorful bouquet. Julia agreed with Heather—they were beautiful. The kaleidoscope of colors blended into a striking arrangement. The large vase was full of bright colors: Gerber daisies, red dahlias, orange Alstroemeria, bright yellow sunflowers, purple verbena, coral snapdragons, delicate Queen Ann’s lace, spicy pink stock. The scents mingled to fill the entire waiting room with a pleasant flowery fragrance.

Julia hated that she was such a wimp for flowers. After seeing the bouquet she could only describe as gorgeous, she had to remind herself she was not going to cave in over a few flowers (okay, more than a few, she admitted), no matter how much she loved them. All the more reason they should be on Heather’s desk. Let her romanticize over them.

My Thoughts in Purple:

“You’ve got flowers! Oh, come see how beautiful they are!” Heather [bubbled.] This isn’t a manner of speech, so you wouldn’t use it as a dialogue tag

“I’ll come get them when things settle down here. Is there a card?” It’s odd to me that for someone who loves flowers, she doesn’t get at all excited about getting them. Does she know right away they’re from her ex?

“I don’t see—oh, here it is. Should I open it?”

“Sure.”

There was a muted ripping sound before Heather said, “It just says ‘Mike.’”

“My ex.” Julia [growled.] This also isn’t a manner of speech. Unless you’re trying to say she actually growled here. “Why don’t you keep the flowers on your desk?” she managed to say in a normal voice.

“You don’t want them?”

“They’ll look better on your desk than in my trash can.”

“I thought you loved flowers.”

“I do. That’s the problem. [He knows just how much I love them.”] This feels a little too on the nose to me.

When Julia left for lunch she walked past Heather’s desk, telling herself she was just curious. She [quietly gasped] gasps are usually quiet, so you could probably cut that at the colorful bouquet. Julia agreed with Heather—they were beautiful. [The kaleidoscope of colors blended into a striking arrangement. The large vase was full of bright colors:] These say basically the same thing, so you combine them or cut one—or all, since you go on to show each color Gerber daisies, red dahlias, orange Alstroemeria, bright yellow sunflowers, purple verbena, coral snapdragons, delicate Queen Ann’s lace, spicy pink stock. The scents mingled to fill the entire waiting room with a pleasant flowery fragrance.

[Julia hated that she was such a wimp for flowers. After seeing the bouquet she could only describe as gorgeous, she had to remind herself] feels a little told she was not going to cave in over a few flowers (okay, more than a few, she admitted), no matter how much she loved them. All the more reason they should be on Heather’s desk. Let her romanticize over them.

The questions:

1. My biggest concern is the next to last paragraph telling about the flowers. Is this too much of a list, or is it too descriptive?


They do feel a little list-like, but to someone who loves flowers, knowing all the names does fit her character. I think the issue is more with the preceding sentences that both say “here’s lots of colorful flowers” and then it goes on to specify “lots of colorful flowers.” Perhaps just have her gasp (and she also says they’re colorful here”, think about how beautiful they are, and list them. That would help trim down the paragraph, and eliminate the repeated “colorful” sentences. That’s pretty much the only way the flowers are described, and it’s used multiple times, and with each flower individually.

(Here’s more on describing with color)

2. Does this show it's a big, expensive gift or is there a better way to express that?

This shows a lot of flowers in a large vase, so it really depends on the reader’s knowledge of what flowers cost. There are no specific clues that say this arrangement is anything above and beyond the typical flower delivery. I suspect, when people think “expensive flowers” they think lots of long-stemmed roses, because that’s what’s always used to denote “expensive flowers” in our pop culture (readers chime in here). Maybe orchids, too. But this arrangement doesn’t feel over the top to me, just pretty.

Since Julia knows flowers, she might remark on a rare or expensive flower, or think about how much Mike spent to get X flowers this time of year, or the like. You might specify how many flowers—four dozen is a much bigger deal than a standard bouquet, for example. You could even look up on one of the floral delivery sites and see what their most expensive arrangement is and what it looks like (which you may have done and this is it and I just don’t any better -grin-).

No matter what flowers are described, her reaction is going to say how she feels about it. So if she thinks about how expensive and magnificent this is, readers will get that impression. If she gasps and says, “pretty colorful flowers” that’s the impression they’ll get.

(Here’s more on describing emotions)

3. Is there a better way to say she quietly gasped?

Gasps tend to be quiet, so just saying “she gasped” is fine. If the goal is to show shock, her internalization will do a better job than the volume of her gasp. Saying “she agreed they were beautiful” doesn’t feel like she’s surprised or awed by the flowers. If Mike is sending her expensive flowers, she’d likely have a stronger emotional reaction to both them, and what they represent. I’d suspect seeing how she feels about this on a larger scale is what romance readers are going to be more interested in. Will this help Mike win Julia back? (I’m guessing he’s the love interest of course).

(Here’s more on writing internalization)

You mentioned you trimmed this down a little to fit the word requirements, so it’s possible that some of these things are in the actual text.

Overall, I’d suggest finding ways other than colorful to describe the flowers that also show how Julia feels about getting them. I doubt this snippet is about the flowers, but Mike trying to win her back or apologize or whatever he’s doing. There are a lot of great opportunities to show the emotions of what this all really means, to both Julia and Mike, and that’s what readers will care about and want to see.

Thanks to our brave volunteer for submitting this for me to play with. I hope they–and others–find it helpful. I don’t do a full critique on these, (just as it pertains to the questions) and I encourage you to comment and make suggestions of your own. Just remember that these pieces are works in progress (many by new writers), not polished drafts, so be nice and offer constructive feedback.

6 comments:

  1. This reminds me of the standard lesson for describing how a character looks: it's not good to go too far into specific details and leave out the impression they make as a whole. Forest vs trees-- or flowers.

    On the basic level, you could make it less list-y with a bit more detail about the flowers besides their names (which we may not all recognize) and colors, the way you said "delicate" Queen Anne's lace. Probably not doubling the number of adjectives on each, but playing up how one or two types have a different shape so they peep over the others, or they're a thicker mass that the others are scattered through. Just a little of that could make a stronger impression about the arrangement as a whole, beyond its parts.

    More than that, the flowers should show us as much about Julia looking at them they do themselves-- the same way a realtor always sees a house as property value while a cop counts up the ways someone could sneak in. Is this like bouquets Mike has sent her before, or wildly different? She's trying to keep her guard up when she looks at them, so how is that shaping her reaction? What about the smell, and how that's a direct line to all our emotional memories-- does it bring back good (or bad) times with Mike, or memories apart from him, and is she softened or outraged that her ex is able to touch on those?

    There's a lot you could do here. I think you want to consider just how you want to present Julia in this moment, and how much space to give it to make it fit with the scene.

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  2. I think you're wasting the other character. Why doesn't she tell her about the flowers, not just that flowers arrived. She could say, wow, I haven't ever seen so many different flowers all at one time. And you've got to come look at this vase......

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  3. I really love this passage. Since I know how much flowers cost, I was amazed that an ex would send something like this and I had the feeling that it worked for him. He knows her well and doesn't mind to do what it takes. This passage told me a lot about the characters. You seem to know them well. The only thing that I suggest changing is on-the-nose dialogue. Add some layers, foreshadowing, some lie she is telling herself, something that will make this important scene sound even more essential. Can he really afford this? And I love Janice's comment on how to present flowers. I would have mentioned to arrangement, but this worked for me too. As Janice said, this will work if you write for older women who would know how these flowers actually look like and how much they cost and how they smell too. Good luck.

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  4. I feel a sneeze coming on. LOL. Some people are allergic to smells if you want to go in that direction. (Maybe for the receptionist?)
    This piece shows your love of writing and also a knowledge of flowers. Good luck.

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  5. Lori Atkins' suggestion about making more use of the receptionist character was a good one. Perhaps have the receptionist make a comment about the flowers looking expensive? Even someone like me who doesn't know a great deal about flowers would be able to recognise an expensive bouquet by the appearance. Consider also word choices; e.g. something like "exquisite" suggests money and sophistication. Another thing, I liked the dialogue, particularly “They’ll look better on your desk than in my trash can.” I found that line funny, and it gives a good insight into the MC's personality.

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  6. I think "bubbled" and "growled" are appropriate dialog tags as are grunted, whispered, shouted, screamed, burbled etc etc

    ReplyDelete