Friday, July 24, 2009


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.


Andrew said...

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

This raises a question I've sometimes pondered, which is one of literal precision vs emotional subjective construction. Describing flowers as merely "beautiful" will necessarily invoke very different images in different minds. A "red vase of yellow dahlias" is more literally precise, but will inevitably still invoke differing images, though presumably somewhat less so. But I actually have no idea what a dahlia looks like, so that image of the flowers is probably no more precise for me than if you had just written "yellow flowers".

Unless the species was somehow important, I might write something like "a sunburst of flowers", which implies the yellow as well as pressing associative buttons that the reader will automatically complete. I don't care if they see the same flowers I do, as long as they take away the same feeling I want the flowers to invoke.

Or maybe the species isn't important, but "drooping dahlias" or "half-fallen tulips" gives me a reason to note the flowers, other than that they are there in a more or less Platonic, static state.

But what do I know, I'm not (yet!) published. :)

José Iriarte said...

Thank you for sharing this, Nancy. It's reassuring to know that authors I admire struggle with the same issues as I do. That means my lack of definitive answers won't be what keeps me from ever getting published.

TheOFloinn said...

The shadow book I almost wrote.

That is most excellently said.

+ + +
John Dunning, a mystery novelist [that is, one who writes novels of mystery, rather than a masked writer who surreptitiously... oh, never mind] once said that the trick of description is to "describe the thumb so well that the reader thinks he has seen the entire hand."

He was likely quoting someone else, but the advice stands.

José Iriarte said...

That's awesome, Mike. I'll have to steal it!

bluesman miike Lindner said...

The great (and I do mean great) songwriter Jimmy Webb said, "I wrote over a hundred songs before I realized I could leave things to the listener's imagination."

bluesman miike Lindner said...

The shadow book I almost wrote
It might have been my best
The shadow book I almost wrote
Just might have been my best
But like a child who learns to talk too slow
I keep it close to my breast

Nancy Kress said...

Thank you, Mike -- I never had a song written for me before!