Mark Terry

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

A Writing Lesson From John Ramsey Miller

November 28, 2006
I'm reading John Ramsey Miller's first published novel, THE LAST FAMILY, and I hit this paragraph:

Aaron watched the men out of the corner of his eye as he sorted the mail. The larger of the two had jet-black hair, a high forehead, and eyes the color of topsoil. The other was five seven or so and looked to Aaron to be wound up tight as a truck spring. They were physically different as a dime and a dollar, but they could have grown up sucking at the same hind tit for all the real difference there was between them. They were tough characters, no question about that, and IRS serious.

Now, let me say that this probably would not work in a typical Mark Terry novel. Too much for my relatively spare style, although there are things there that I need to be reminded of from time to time. And I don't want to belabor things much, so let me just point out a few things that I noticed and you can think about them when you do your own writing.

1. This is told from Aaron's point of view, and pretty much in his voice, too. He's an old-timer in the Montana mountains who runs a general store.

2. The paragraph is a descriptor, but begins with a sentence of action.

3. Although there is basic physical description--jet black hair, high forehead and five seven--those are practically wasted. But eyes the color of topsoil? I love that. Of course, topsoil has a lot of different colors, doesn't it? It could be rich peet black or earthy brown or if you're from Georgia even rusty red. It doesn't matter. The reader automatically knows something about this character from that choice of words.

4. The important description is "wound up as tight as a truck spring" and "IRS serious." Everything else is superfluous. In my books I might be better just going with that, but John's got a much more lush style than I do.

5. And think about this, because this is maybe the most important thing here. Since this is from Aaron's POV, how much does this paragraph tell us about the two characters he's describing and how much does it tell us about Aaron (who is a relatively minor character)???

Oh, and by the way, the book is pretty damned good so far.

Best,
Mark Terry

2 Comments:

Anonymous spyscribbler said...

Thanks, Mark!

I've really been trying to learn from those better than me, lately. (I'm doing Neil Gaiman on my blog this week.) Sometimes it's hard to dissect what's done, especially since when we do it, we often don't know what we're doing to the reader, LOL.

2:03 PM  
Blogger Ron Estrada said...

It's the old rule of description, isn't it? You pick something that stands out, just like in real life. I may not remember the color of a woman's eyes ten seconds after meeting her, but I'll remember the way her hair curled under her chin like a fish hook. Not the best description, but it's how I'll remember her. That's what I shoot for in my descriptions. No one looks at a guy, unless you're a cop, and thinks, "He's about 5'-7". You look and pick something out. "He looked like a kid who'd come out of the womb looking for shit." Immediately Bob Probert pops into mind. Anyway, that's my newbie two-cents.

9:21 AM  

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