Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Dear Author: Please don't do this

by Karen Harrington

You’ve read the passage before.

As he walked into the room, as confident as George Clooney, and looking every bit like his twin brother, he winked at the blonde Paris Hilton look-a-like leaning against the bar.

Actually, my blog post could end right now. Way over here in Dallas, I can hear you retching with disgust at this bad writing. It is also lazy and lacks originality. There are no real descriptions, save confident and blonde.

So I ask you: Does trading on celebrity looks hinder the power of the story? Survey says: Yes. It weakens the writing and it can also date the story. (Of course, it’s hard to imagine a world without George Clooney, and who really wants to, but one day it will be so.)

Apparently, book bloggers are exposing this weak, celebrity short-hand when they find it – and they are finding it in the books of best-selling authors.

I offer into evidence a recent post over at the fab blog My Friend Amy, where the esteemed book blogger ranted about an author’s use of celebrity’s as a short-cut, or shorthand, for character description.

Dozens of her commenters agreed. Don’t do it, authors, they decried. It steals their own imaginative powers. It robs them of forming their own mental picture. It insults their own sensibilities.

For yours truly, I sometimes insert a famous name into the first draft of my manuscript with the intention of fleshing out the character later. Perhaps, after I’ve gotten to know him/her more, I will learn that he is a rabid pen clicker or that she has a thing for toying with her left earring when she’s nervous. But I do not keep the famous name in subsequent drafts for the same reasons these blog readers cited: it breaks the reader's flow from the story.

To be fair, I did trade on one famous name in my debut, Janeology. I used a pop-culture icon to draw a comparison between my protagonist’s looks and those of, Dave, the attorney defending him. My editor kept it because he said it not only worked as a comparison, but also revealed a bit about the self-image of Tom, my protagonist.

It reads:

I noticed a young female juror glance at Dave and smile. It probably didn’t hurt my defense that he was so good-looking. It’s not that I am unattractive. I’m tall, fit, green-eyed and still have all my hair. But cast us together in a movie and Dave Frontella is James Bond and I’m Man in Elevator #2.

So next time we write about how a handsome, self-assured character crosses the room with a sly grin on his face to meet a lithe woman who looks like she never met a bleach bottle she didn’t like – let’s just say that.

On second thought, let’s say something better than that. In fact, I challenge each of you to take this sentence and make it into something altogether unforgettable. The winner will receive my life-long esteem.



Karen Harrington is the author of the psychological suspense novel Janeology. Visit her daily reading and writing blog: http://www.scobberlotch.blogspot.com/


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Anonymous said...

I occasionally do the celebrity thing, and later change it too. It's a tempting shortcut.

Rhonda Leigh Jones said...

This was so interesting, I totally forgot to comment when I read it. I find myself getting tempted by the celebrity shortcut too. (Funny how the same things afflict writers all over!) But actually working out how to describe someone, and make them sound like an individual, instead of a cookie-cutout of someone else, is part of the fun. Good advice.