As I sit writing this, the presidential election is going on. I have no idea of who won, though I do have hopes. By the time you read this, however, all will be known. It will be over.
Perhaps that’s the second most important thing about this whole unending mess. It will be over! Of course, who won is the most important, but at last it will finally be over.
I for one have been sickened and disgusted not only by the rhetoric, but by the pervasiveness of politics. Your phone rings, and it’s more likely than not a robo-call urging you to vote for someone. Political commercials fill the air like a swarm of gnats – and are just about as annoying. Signs proliferate on billboards and lawns like mushrooms. TV’s talking heads keep saying the same things over and over and over.
You’ve probably gathered that I’m tired of this circus (you’re right) and wondering just exactly what does this have to do with writing?
If nothing else, this year’s election brouhaha shows the boredom factor inherent in overkill.
I once read a manuscript written by a woman who loved description. Really truly unbelievably self-indulgently loved description. She described everything, from the heroine’s eyelashes to the main house’s staircase in stultifying detail. And not just once. Every time someone went up or down that dratted staircase she found something else about it to rhapsodize over at adjectival length, but nothing she ever said about it was germane to the plot. Her descriptions weren’t clues, weren’t even especially part of her world-building after the first one or two; if anything, they were more like love letters to the life she wished she lived.
She described practically everything in the book with equally mind-numbing detail. The hero’s car. The heroine’s wardrobe. The garden. The alley. The heroine’s office. The hero’s office. On and on and on, until the manuscript was more like a catalogue sans prices than a novel and I was crying ‘Enough, already!’
Of course, after a very few pages it was obvious that this book was an offense of the worst Mary Sue type, where the author was living the heroine’s life vicariously and projecting herself as the heroine, making the book as much therapy as catalogue. Believing that life is too short to read bad books I wouldn’t have read much past the first chapter had I not been contracted to edit the thing. As it was, I did read the entire sorry mess, and I wrote a 7 page single-spaced critique, but then declined to do a full edit. One only has so much strength and I could foresee having to work with this writer line by painful line and I don’t mean as a line edit. No, thank you!
So do we need description? Yes, of course. We need to know our characters’ world. Historic or modern? Clean or dirty? Antique or cutting edge? Rich or poor? Whatever, because the character’s reaction to their surroundings helps define them as a character.
Conversely, we don’t need to see every nailhead or scratch (unless they are definitely clues) and we certainly don’t need to see the same thing again and again.
Description can be a powerful tool if used properly. Also, in some formats more description is allowed than in others. Noir description is usually spare. Cozy is a little more detailed. Romance loves it. Even in the most fussy of formats I tend to like a certain spareness. This allows me to use my imagination, see what is in my head.
Example – let’s go back to the staircase. You can say it swoops upward in a graceful curve, that the banister is dark with years of careful oiling, that the posts are carved with a wild variety of floral motifs, that the carpet is a genuine Oriental runner, only slightly worn… Got it? You now know the exact kind of staircase I meant, but I am almost positive that if we were able to compare visuals, the staircase you see is different from the one I see. We still have a similar idea of style, status, etc. We don’t really need to know that the posts are carved with acanthus, roses and ivy or that the carpet is pale blue in the Elephant’s Foot pattern or that there is a wainscot which matches the banister.
This vague-but-exact description makes the scene come more alive for the reader because it allows the reader to participate – albeit following the form that you as the writer have created. A wise sage once said ‘Less Is More’ and in description that is very true.
Janis Patterson is a seventh-generation Texan and a third-generation wordsmith who has just taken her first cautious steps into the world of self-publishing. This week she has released THE AVENGING MAID (traditional Regency romance), QUARTET:FOUR SLIGHTLY TWISTED TALES (mystery/supernatural short story anthology), THE DEVIL OF DRAGON HOUSE (traditional Gothic romance) and LACEY (traditional Regency romance), all under the name of Janis Susan May. All are available at Amazon and other major etailers.