Writing whine

It’s National Novel Writing Month, but as the congenitally contrary person I am, this will probably be the one month I will get very little novel writing done. I had social plans up the wazoo this month long before it became the month I had to pack and move and unpack at both home and work.

Nevertheless, I’m thinking about writing this morning because the book I grabbed to read on the bus was “The First Five Pages”. Reading lots of self-editing books these days, being in the self-editing stage of my novel and all. So I’m reading the chapter on “Show, don’t Tell”, feeling pretty good about myself because I actually suck at exposition. My writing coach, who spent two years beta-reading the previous draft of my novel, would write in her virtual marginal notes, “You’re great at showing what is going on, but you need a little exposition here. Explain what the *&^%’s going on!” OK, she didn’t curse, but I take poetic license here to get across her frustration.

I’m a very visual/auditory writer. I see the story taking place in my head like it’s on television, or a film, and I write down what I see and hear. Despite all the books I read (and I read plenty growing up and am working hard on having a habit now, too), my mentor was still the boob tube. And the movie screen. And let’s face it, in those mediums exposition comes in tiny bits and pieces in the dialog. Narrators are so passe’.

But you want to know what the really dumb idiot irony is? I suck at descriptive writing, too. You want interesting, natural-sounding dialog? I’m your gal. Fascinating, three-dimensional characters? Come to me. But ask me to describe something in my character’s bedroom, say, her dresser, and I’ll say, “Er… it’s brown. And rectangular.” If I even bother describing it at all or mentioning that there is a dresser in her bedroom, because mostly I forget to describe the environment. I’m so focused on the people and what they’re doing and saying, like any good TV-generation child, I just don’t notice anything else.

But I know other people do notice. They see what’s in front of them on the sidewalk, they stop and smell the roses. I don’t. I’m one of those people who walks down the street so absorbed in her own thoughts she walks into parked cars.

Details escape me. And I don’t know how to focus in on them, much less describe them on paper.

And then when the writing books tell you to leave out the inconsequential detail and focus in on things that are illuminating of plot or character or serve metaphoric purposes, I’m drowning in a sea of “But that’s too hard!” whining. “I got the brown and rectangular part of her dresser so people could visualize her room and that was hard enough, and now you’re telling me it’s irrelevant?”

I know some folks on my friends list are well-read readers, and some are writers, and some are even poets, and therefore a bazillion times better at description than me. What’s the secret?

10 thoughts on “Writing whine

  1. Describing stuff
    Completely get your frustration on doing detailed descriptions.
    Good descriptions require “economy” of words. Kill adverbs.
    Use the best word available. And be succint.
    Examples from my own writing and the editor helping me:
    “Tragic,” he said, flashing his teeth in a quick smile, the cigarette faintly visible between his lips.
    “Tragic,” he said, flashing his teeth in a quick smile as a foot long, arrow-straight, column of smoke rose from his resting right hand into the still air of the room, finally starting to fracture in the already well formed haze at about shoulder level.
    “”Tragic,” he said, flashing his teeth in a quick smile, as a column of smoke rose from his resting right hand into the air of the room, fracturing the already well formed haze.”
    Some exercises to try – to get better at writing descriptions:
    1. Write a few paragraphs describing a room you are in.
    (I did this once describing a friend’s messy apartment and how I’d clean it up).
    2. Go on a walk – then describe your walk to a friend in a letter.
    3. Describe the view from your window
    When you write the descriptions –
    1) attempt to do one without any emotion – just pure description
    2) attempt one that conveys how you feel about what you see
    3) attempt one that would convey how your father or brother or close friend or Angel (or some other character you love) would describe these things, put the description in their voice – what would they pick out and how would they describe it? An artist might focus on the color of leaves and the architecture of buildings for example. While someone lost in their thoughts may only see the car they almost tripped over.
    Try reading a few short stories by writers who excel at description:
    Charles Dickens
    John Steinbeck
    John Updike
    Shirly Jackson (The Haunting of Hill House is an example)
    Ray Bradbury
    Toni Morrison
    Jeanette Wintersen
    Earnest Heminway – is an example of one who does it sparingly
    Garcia Marquez
    I suggest short stories – because it’s faster and you don’t have to invest as much time.
    Good description is something you just have to work at continuously, I think. There are days that I’m great at it and others I could care less. Lately, I’ve been sucking at it.
    Hope that helped.
    Have to run…

  2. Re: Describing stuff
    The adverb bit is easy. It’s objective, count adverbs, get rid of all of them. Bring back only the ones you really need. Same for adjectives. Use a thesaurus with nouns and verbs and eliminate the modifiers all together.
    It’s remembering to do any description in the first place that stumps me. And then if I do remember, making it interesting. I can describe the room I’m in or what I saw on a walk or the view from my window, but it will just be a policeman’s blotter. Dull. Pedantic. Irrelevant.
    So your last bit of advice on adopting certain emotions or points of view when I describe is the best advice. “How would Angel describe it”. That helps because characterization and character voice is a strength of mine.

  3. An unconventional description will always linger with me longer than a plain ‘it looked like….’ I guess that’s why in my own writing I tend to try and create the sense of texture in the scene. Not just visuals, but taste and scent because those are my own interactions with the surroundings. In my roundabout way I’m saying I describe *around* the scene rather than the scene itself.
    And I’m at a very definate standstill in my own project. Over the course of one year and three months I’ve crafted 14,000 words on two characters utterly precisely- each sentence polished and redefined time and time again. When the character arrives, fully formed in my mind, I can take her through to conclusion pretty easily. The problem is, she rarely arrives; forcing her, designing her leaves the narrative stilted and fake, so here I’m sitting, trying to entice this girl into my mind so I can let her flow through the blue biro and thin lined pages and onto the keys of my beloved laptop.
    Someday I’ll get feedback on what I have created.

  4. I just let my characters develop on their own and go where they will
    When I was in my teens and 20’s, I used to sit for hours designing characters. Then I’d try to put them into a story and they fell flat.
    Finally, around age 29, I just invented a bunch of names for characters without knowing anything else about them, and I invented a setting that I didn’t describe a whole lot–“a university”, that was all I really knew–and had no plot whatsoever, and just started writing the story, making it up as I went along.
    I just started thinking, “Hey it would be cool if this character Diane runs into someone she knows in this hallway”, and then I’d write it and find out who it was and how they knew each other. I had no idea where the story was going.
    Ten years later, it’s my novel with a plot and everything. Now I spend hours sweating over the details, but to get the pen moving (or the keys clicking) I had to have no plan and only a few constraints.

  5. Once upon a time I once considered myself a writer but now I think I’m just a dabbler. I just write whatever comes to mind. The Fanged Four Fic was just something fun and interesting that happened to put me on some sort of schedule. I’m very bad at moving things along and keeping things focused. I’m overly decsriptive and wordy. But I like words. I like how just the right ones strung together evoke different things. I want these flat, 2D words to create something almost tangible, like you can almost taste it or smell it.
    I think that last bit of advice that s’kat has about writing a descriptive scene from a character’s p.o.v., would probably be the best exercise or solution.

  6. Embrace your strengths
    and screw your weaknesses! No everybody has to be a descriptive writer – not everyone likes description. I tend to skim that stuff, if a book is described as “lyrical” it’s the kiss of death as far as I’m concerned. You’re writing for me pal! Go to it! I need stuff to read! There are lots of different readers out there, and you’ll never match up to all of them, so go with your strengths, and we’ll find you.

  7. Re: Embrace your strengths
    Well, unfortuneately, you can’t avoid description all together. You gotta have some or you leave your reader out to sea. I just get nervous because I don’t know how little I can get away with and still have a comprehensible story!

  8. Re: Embrace your strengths
    As a reader I can tell you that sparse works well for me. If the characters are strong then my picture of them will influence my image of their surroundings. If a there’s a brown bureau in the room, I’ll have my own idea of the sort of bureau that character X might pick out, so the description would just be the minimum necessary to fill in something what I can’t infer for myself. You as the writer might have a reason for wanting the bureau to be an antique given by a grandmother, or new, or elegant, or a battered remain from college days – but in that case the character or plot is dictating what you need to tell me about it. Just my little thoughts as one of your future readers out there.

  9. Re: Embrace your strengths
    If the characters are strong then my picture of them will influence my image of their surroundings.
    Sound advice. Unless the details are really relevant and/or surprising, most people can fill in the details for themselves and want to do it. Sort of part of what people still read fiction for, instead of seeing TV shows and movies.

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