Booky Noise V: The Little Black Dress
Is it the prom syndrome? You remember yours don't you? How you ended up with a hideous dress and a Star Trek alien-woman hairdo? (To refresh your prom nightmare memories, check out one of my favorite websites: Ugly Dresses.)
Hang in there, I'm going somewhere with this, I promise.
There's something about dressing up that just confounds some women. They start out okay with a little black dress.But then they want to pile on every button and bow, every geegaw and doodad, every bijou and piece of bling they own. I've seen this phenomenon at ballets, at weddings, even the Edgar banquet. I know I'm picking on the women here, but men have it easy when it comes to formal wear; you have to try really hard to mess up a tux. But women? Some of them just don't know when to leave well enough alone.
So it is with some writers when it comes to description. (See? I told you I'd get to the point eventually.) Description is one of the most potent tools in the writer's narrative toolbox. It can set a mood, signpost a sense of place, and render characters into flesh and blood. Description has the indispensible function of letting the reader sense -- see, hear, smell, feel and taste -- what it going on in your story. If your description is truly compelling, it can made a reader believe in things that are otherwise incredible. (Think of what Stephen King does with "Salem's Lot." By making his mythical Maine town come alive through description, we are willing to suspend disbelief when the vampires start showing up.)
Unless you're Elmore Leonard, you are going to have to learn to write effective description. Speaking of Stephen King, I'll let him tell you why (in his book "On Writing"):
"Description begins with visualization of what it is you want the reader to experience. It ends with your translating what you see in your mind into words on the page. It is far from easy. We've all heard someone say, 'Man, it was so great (or horrible/ strange /funny)...I just can't describe it!' If you want to be a successful writer, you must be able to describe it, and in a way that will cause your reader to prickle with recognition. If you can do this well, you will be paid for your labors. If you can't, you're going to collect a lot of rejection slips."Why do so many beginning writers have problems with description? I think it's because they don't know how much description to use. Some don't use enough. But usually, they have way too much. Description is narrative and narrative disrupts action. So a little goes a long way.
Which brings us back to the little black dress. When description is working well, it is concise and evocative. It also concentrates on a few well-chosen specific details that imply a host of other unspecific details. When Holly Golightly got dressed to go visit Uncle Sally in prison, she didn't junk up her Givenchy with jewelry. Just a great hat, gloves and sunglasses, my dears:
When you describe something, you have to resist the urge to gild the lily. Find one great image and set it off by itself. Description must be spare, clean and edited for its greatest impact. If you overdo it, you end up with something like this:
And here's a couple for the guys out there: This is the look you're going for -- basic black with two well-chosen accessories (Ray-Bans and big guns):
This, on the other hand, is a bit overwrought:
So how do you find your happy medium? How do you know when you've gone too far or haven't gone far enough? There are no easy answers. Description is hard to write! But here are a couple tips I've gathered over the years:
Don't generalize: Try to avoid abstractions. Be concrete in your descriptions. Instead of saying someone played a board game, say it's Monopoly. Instead of a "bad smell" use the specific "like sour milk." But again, don't reach too hard or you look silly.
Don't forget to compare and contrast: The secret to originality is the ability to see relationships. If you're describing something green, it's your job to come up with something fresher than "grass." Here's one of my faves from Steinbeck: "The customers were folded over their coffee cups like ferns." But again, don't strain it or you just sound pretentious.
Don't lean on adjectives: Just lining up a string of modifiers is lazy writing. (ie tall, dark and handsome). Try to find one vibrant adjective rather than several weak ones. But again, don't strain or reach for the Thesaurus. Sometimes a lawn is just a lawn...not a "verdant sward."
Don't use cliches: It's easy to slip into tired, flabby words. If you want to say something is white, you can't use "white as snow." It's not yours! Neither is "thin as a rail, sick at heart, hard as a rock" or even "overcome with grief." Time has eroded all those. It's your job to find new ways of making your reader experience your fictional world.
Yeah, it's tough to dress your writing for success. But don't despair. Description is one of the things that you can get better at. Believe me, I know. I used to lard my paragraphs with lovingly crafted images that dammit, were going to stay in there because I worked so hard on them! But then my sister told me one day that I was -- ahem -- dressing to impress. I had made every writer's biggest mistake: I had fallen in love with the sound of my own voice and was trying to be "writerly."
Finding your style -- be it writing or fashion -- is a lifelong process. When I went to my prom, I looked like a cross between Scarlett O'Hara and a Kabuki dancer. Through practice, I look a little better these days. Likewise, in my writing, I have learned what to leave off, what to cut out, so that now, when someone reads my stuff they aren't dazzled by my bling; they are experiencing my story.
Here is Stephen King again: "Description is a learned skill, one of the reasons why you cannot succeed unless you read a lot and write a lot. It is not a question of how-to, you see; it is also a question of how much to. Reading will help you answer how much, and only reams of writing will help you with the how. You can only learn by doing. "
Hey, if she can go from this:
So can you.
And now, let's move on to our new Book Noise Workshop submission. This one comes in from "J" who would like your input on the opening to her book:
The day is warm with the smells of cut grass from Bertram Beal’s riding mower. On the shell road leading to the house, a baby water moccasin sprawls like a torn fanbelt. A horse bangs his water pail in the stable. And in Mrs. St. Clair’s abandoned hothouse, its windows ironed opaque by the Gulf sun, the horticultural inmates left behind press their searching hands against the windows, trying to get out. The thought could keep you up all night.
Billy Junior’s widow sits in her aunt’s Taurus on the road outside. The air conditioner is broken and blows only hot air. Jenny St. Clair peers through the passenger-side window at the tangle of trees and the octagonal house beyond; from here, the house looks like a yellow and white wedding cake. Jenny touches the rosary beads hanging from the rearview as the drone of the lawn mower comes in through the open window. She wonders if the rosary beads ever work.
The hot air in the car finally propels her out of the Taurus and onto the verge, where she stands still and pale, her arms crossing and uncrossing as she strains for glimpses of the life she once had.
It has taken her weeks to get to this point.