Once more, I have been reading how-to-write books, and once more, they contradict each other. I swear, it's a wonder anyone ever learns anything useful from these books -- and I include the three I wrote myself.
John Gardner's ON BECOMING A NOVELIST includes a few paragraphs of description from novelist David Rhodes, followed by several pages of analysis of the description, which focuses on the appearance of two old people. Gardner finishes his analysis by saying, "Who wouldn't raptly turn the page and read on?" The trouble is, almost no one I know would read on. The description is fine-tuned, careful, and accurate, but totally static.
Stephen King, on the other hand, advises not describing people at all, but puts great emphasis on descriptions of setting. He advises many details to create "that all-important sense of place," and in his book ON WRITING, gives several examples of this.
Gustav Flaubert said that three details are enough to fix a strong picture in the reader's mind -- if they are the right details.
I am currently rewriting my YA fantasy, with particular attention to description. The basic question (as with anything else in writing) is what to put in and what to leave out. Will this detail create a sharp image in the reader's mind (what Bruce Sterling and William Gibson call "an eyeball kick"?) Is this paragraph of description too boring? Too bizarre? Too short? Too long? Will that detail make the reader see what I see? This latter is why abstracts are bad; "beauty" can mean different things to different people, but a "red vase of yellow dahlias" has a better chance of jumping the gap between my mind and yours. On the other hand, is that vase of dahlias significant in some way, or is it just stage setting? Can I replace it with something that is significant to my character and sets the stage?
I spent much of the morning on these decisions. And I still don't know if I made the right ones. The worst is -- I never will. The other choices I could have made and didn't haunt all writers. The shadow book I almost wrote.