Tag Archives: descriptive writing

Snapshots from a novel #4

I’ve been re-reading Peter Temple’s acclaimed The Broken Shore, partly because I wanted to prep for reading his Miles Franklin award-winning Truth. As I understand it, the two books aren’t sequential but some of the characters are shared. Whatever the case, I’ve enjoyed my second reading of The Broken Shore even more than the first.

The descriptive writing is very, very good and takes me back to places I visited and covered as a journalist out west on Victoria’s shipwreck coast. The images of small towns and their residents ring true, as does the daily pain endured by the battered lead detective.

The story begins and ends with this detective senior sergeant and his dogs – a pair of poodles. I can’t remember ever seeing dogs portrayed so vividly. Thanks to Temple, I can imagine their thumping tails, their cavorting through overgrown paddocks and exuberant exploration of puddled creekbeds.

Here’s a sample of the poodle passages:

“… as he put his hand out to the gate, they reached him. Their black curly heads tried to nudge him aside, insisting on entering first, strong black legs pushing. He unlatched the gate, they pushed it open enough to slip in, nose to tail, trotted down the path to the shed door. Both wanted to be first again, stood with tails up, furry scimitars, noses touching at the door jamb.” (p1)

“They walked back the long way, it was clearing now, pale blue islands in the sky, dogs ranging ahead like minesweepers.” (p64)

“… the dogs hunted the cleared area, much taken with the smells released by the mowing…” (p131)

“He fell asleep in the big shabby chair, woke in early light, two dogs nudging him, their tails crossing like furry metronomes.” (p135)

“The dogs bounded back to him, the lovely bouncing run, the ears afloat. They jumped up, put their paws on him and spoke to him.” (p184)

“It was long dark by the time he switched off and saw the torch beam coming down the side of the house, saw the running dogs side by side, heads up, big ears swinging. They were at the vehicle before he could get out. He had to fight their weight to open the door.” (p264)

There’s plenty more, too. I’m not a ‘dog person’ but Temple’s writing just about persuaded me to head down to the Lost Dogs’ Home and find a new friend. Don’t tell the kittens.

How to make judges smile

I started entering writing competitions when I was about 17. The encouragement I got from even the most obscure of commendations helped build my confidence, little by little. It was enough to keep me writing, even when I didn’t seem to be getting anywhere.

After the dust had settled from a competition, I always found it useful to hear what the judges were looking for and what they enjoyed. What gets published in an anthology and what misses out is always fascinating too. (Just don’t get sucked into buying a book on the hope that your work is in it. Unless you have confirmation you’re being published, wait and look at it in a library.)

Anyway, as mentioned previously, I have been judging a secondary school short story competition for several years now. I never meet the winners or their teachers so it is all very impersonal – but if I had the chance to chat with the entrants here are the tips I’d pass on:

1. Proof-read your work for spelling and grammar errors. Spell-check software doesn’t always work (e.g. someone had “delicate” when they meant “delegate”) and is set by default to US English rather than Australian. I’d rather read Aussie English than Bill Gates’ best guess.

2. Reading your work aloud is the best way to check how it will sound to other readers.

3. Strive for unique humour, situations or insights. Taking a character on a journey only to conclude with “it was all a dream” is … yawn … a tired idea. But perhaps the dream changed the character in some way … Perhaps the author has a new spin to put on this old idea.

4. Let your character grow or learn. When you put yourself in the character’s shoes, ask how the events of the story would have changed them.

5. Surprise me. Knock me off balance. (Read Roald Dahl short stories for some classic examples.)

6. Think about descriptive language and be innovative and fresh. “Ice cold”, for instance, is unnecessary; everyone knows that ice is cold. In what other ways could the cold be described? Cold as the footy clubroom showers? Cold as my sister’s glare? Cold as an empty bed. Create an image that works for you and then sell it to your reader.

Get all or even a few of these right and you’ll be a contender!

Oh, and fancy fonts and silly stationery just annoy judges. Stick to something that’s easy on the eye!