In my writing class last semester, I wrote a scene.  My two main characters were in a car.  I wrote “He put the radio on.  80’s rock.”  I received feedback when I presented the scene in class- six people asked me specifically what song was playing on the radio.

Last week, my classmate wrote a scene.  The scene specifically named a Duran Duran song.  She got criticism that naming the song was too specific, that the reader needed to google the song to understand why it was important.

Two people critiqued, and given contradictory information.  What does a writer do?

I spoke last week about my difficulty with organically writing description into my story.  I’m still confused and working in description limbo, but I am starting to come up with my own sort of description bible.  Remember:  I am not a published author.  I don’t know anything.  This are some of my thoughts as I work out my novel.

Description should add to a scene, not detract from it.  In the scene I wrote in the car, I’m sticking with the generic 80’s rock works in the scene because it’s a general setting.  These are people who grew up in the 80’s and this type of music is comforting.  They are also the kind of people who listened to rock music as opposed to jazz.  Generic works.

In my friends story, the scene was a little more specific: the song had special meaning to the two characters in the scene, which is why she named it and had a line of lyrics.  I think in that case, specific was necessary.

If you are using a detail, make sure it is helping the reader set the scene.

If you are moving a platter across the table, ask yourself if giving description to the platter adds or detracts.  If the platter is antique, and shows a particular part of a character, than talk about it.  If the rest of the scene is what’s important, how many words should go into talking about this platter?  Don’t add words that don’t add to the overall story.  If it doesn’t matter, it will bore the majority of readers.

Which brings me to my next point:  everyone has an opinion.  Two people will critique something and come up with contradictory opinions.  As a writer, go with what your instinct is telling you.  You know what you are trying to do.  And I don’t mean blindly listen to the person who agrees with you, I mean really think about what you are trying to get across with your words, and if the words make sense to your vision.

Don’t laundry list.  Seriously.  “She went to the black, modern, metal cabinet and took out a thick hot pink mug that she bought on sale at Macy’s last year.”  Do you need all the adjectives?  Maybe.  Are there other ways to convey the same information that are more lyrical and less in your face?  definitely.

Some people are just more descriptive than others.  Some people write long, languorous, fully loaded sentences and it works beautifully with what they are trying to accomplish.  That’s great- for that writer.  It might not be good for another writer.  Know your strength and work with it.  Accept your weakness and try to  get around it.

I struggled on Monday when I tried to rewrite an early chapter in my book.  It’s the first time the reader is seeing the neighborhood in which my character lives.  I know I need to give it texture and physicality.  I was struggling adding the details organically.  I was getting caught up in describing the place, and forgetting that this scene was important.  the purpose of the scene was to show conflict between the main character and her three friends- she is doing something they don’t understand, but I was writing paragraphs about what the neighborhood looked like, and it was a waste of energy because it wasn’t moving the scene forward.  It was detracting from the importance of the scene.

In writing class last night, my teacher said something that made a lot of sense.  (Who knew- teachers say important things)  He said sometimes three of four words can be more impactful than a paragraph, that it’s just a matter of choosing the right three or four words.

Then, when I came home from writing class, my daughter was finishing up an AP Language and composition assignment.  She began to tell me about the part she was about to do. The question asked how the syntax of a particular sentence made the sentence stronger and more meaningful.  (they were asking about a David Forster Wallace essay)  And I realized that the way I structure a sentence is actually really important.  (who knew- sometimes your teen can teach you something)

So when I rewrite the horrible scene, I am going to remember these two things.  I’m going to pay attention to how I describe the setting without getting bogged down by it.  I need to remember that the setting is texture, but it’s not the story.

I will figure out how to write description.

Or I will throw the laptop out of the window.

 

 

70 thoughts on “Can You Describe That?

  1. I enjoyed this and good to be reminded how you are always learning and from different, maybe unexpected places. I also completely get your desire to throw your lap top out of the window!

    This post also reminded me of that famous quote by Chekhov: ‘Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.’

    I really should get some lessons on creative writing and do the group thing, trouble is I always worry people will be critical and I’ll just get all defensive and angry!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I am really glad I decided to take some writing classes. And honestly, the critique process is really not bad. Classmates are actually really helpful, because they see things that you totally miss. It’s nice to have another set of eyes on your work. Love the Chekhov quote cause it’s so true. Use what’s important otherwise it’s useless!

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Two things I was taught are these: 1) Every word should move the story along, including description, and 2) Trust your reader. I think that covers everything, whether there are specific lyrics or “they were listening to 80s music.”

    Liked by 5 people

  3. I also understand you wanting to toss the laptop, mine is giving me fits this morning not recognizing my email server and I had to send an essay I wrote using my iPad instead! 😡

    Liked by 1 person

  4. YES! You’ve got it! As a retired writing teacher, (who still tutors and writes curriculum), you totally get what teachers are trying to make students understand. The first step is to help them add detail because usually beginning writers are way too vague. THEY know what’s in their head but the reader doesn’t have a clue. Therefore, you have to make your students elaborate. Once they get used to doing that, you then get them to prioritize their words. The next step is to take out superfluous details but leave in the details that are precise, clear, concise, and have bang for their buck. It is a process.
    And, that’s why you are confused. And that is why a professor will instruct one student to add the details to a type of plate and another not to. It depends on the surrounding words in the sentence or paragraph. Is the reader left confused or is more information needed? OR is the reader bogged down with too many details? In order for you to understand, imagine that details are like diamonds. (The right placement and amount is what makes them precious and tasteful rather than gaudy. ) It is all a process to get just the right product. Once you do your words will shine brightly!

    Here is a good example of how instructors vary in how to write. I remember being a finalist in a Florida Romance writers contest for a prologue I wrote several years ago. There were four New York Times award winning authors judging the finalists.
    One was a mystery writer, one a romance writer , once wrote historical fiction, one wrote legal fiction.

    They used the 5 finalists (moi included) as examples. They passed around our prologues, everyone in the class read them and then the authors critiqued our work.
    Backstory – the novel prologue of mine I submitted was a time travel paranormal romance. The protagonist was a tormented young man from the past who went out riding on the anniversary of his wife’s death and got stuck in a deadly thunder storm and struck by lightening. ( Which instead of killing him transported him to the future – our present.) The reactions were interesting. The historical writer LOVED the detail of his 18th century wardrobe, the mystery writer was intrigued and adored the surprise of how he was zapped into the future as the way I wrote it was unexpected, the romance writer was also a horse woman in real life, and commented how realistic my take on the riding was and how the way he held onto the reigns was so realistic because that was exactly what happens when you ride in a storm. So she was sucked into the drama because of my realistic facts, and the legal thriller writer didn’t get it all. So 3 out of the four liked my details, but liked different details, and the legal writer, who was a real attorney, didn’t get my flowery way of writing at all. Then the authors disagreed with each other. (Mind you each of these women were all best selling authors. But they wrote different types of fiction and each had a style of their own.)
    So the class and the authors fought over my prologue. The women in the audience were Romance fans and loved it as I knew they would since it was a time travel romance. Mind you, Nobody knew it was mine but me until they finally asked if the writer was in the room. And I fessed up. I told them I had no idea about riding a horse, had never ridden in my life that my experience as an actress gave me practice in theater and an understanding that to portray a three dimensional character you had to make every action real. And I acted out the scene before I wrote it so I knew how to pretend to ride a horse, hold the reigns, that in fear my grip would tighten etc. and after doing all that, looking in the mirror and pretending… I wrote the scene. The romance writer was amazed because she said I described the movement of the horse and riding so perfectly. I was as surprised as she was. The costumes I looked up and researched, but the scene right before the hero jumps on his horse was written because as an actress I had worn 18th century garb and knew the fee and stride of someone walking in that type of clothing and so I wrote it into the scene. The storms I knew first hand because I had gotten stuck in a thunderstorms daily living in south Florida and I went on how I came to write my details. And they all thought my approach was pretty neat. The one person who I didn’t click with was the legal thriller writer. We were on two different wavelengths. She didn’t get the whole thing. It was out of her scope of understanding and thus the historical novelist had a big fight with her. It was a riot to watch them go at it. Anyhow, after a two hour class, the group voted on their favorite prologue and I won.

    But, my point in this story is simple. Different writers and teachers critique your work differently. As a teacher I cringe when I see incorrect grammar.That stops me dead in my tracks. I will put down a novel if I come across more than one grammar error. It means it was edited badly. (And too many self published books are badly edited.)
    I personally LOVE details, but then again I love historical novels, so just like I adore the eloquence of Shakespeare, I love expressive details. My home exudes warmth as opposed to stark clean modern surfaces. But neither is right or wrong. It depends on one’s style of writing. Learn how to write everything but keep your own style!!!!
    A good writer learns to write a million ways and then decides how to find his or her own personal style.You already have a good sense of what is right for you.

    A BFF from college (we acted together) was a journalist and wrote for local Miami newspapers for years and is now on the NYT best seller list writing about unsolved crimes. Her style of writing is much like writing a newspaper piece. She isn’t about the detail just the facts. Her writing is going to be different from a historical novelist. Learn and try new things. The more you write, the more you will find your best writing style. I would say you are a great student and actively taking everything you are learning in and becoming a proficient writer. So far you are getting an A from me!!! Bravo!

    Liked by 3 people

      1. That’s the only way to do it. And some days you’ll be more passionate than others in you,r work. But, we can really learn from others. I may have mentioned that the best workshop I ever attended was about dialogue and dialect. The authors ALL said to read everything aloud after writing it. If it doesn’t flow naturally then rewrite it. I took that info and used it personally but also as a teacher. Students reading aloud their writing do create better work. One day at a time is a great plan.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. I was happy to read about your process of writing. I once thought I might try writing a novel, but I know I don’t have the temperament for it. Your computer troubles resonate with almost everyone! What about throwing pencils out of the window instead? It would be less expensive.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Details are so important. I’m in a class with a woman who sets up all her beautifully written pieces with incredible details. She isn’t that specific, but with a few carefully chosen words, she sets the scene. Instead of my boyfriend’s car, it’s his blue Saab. It’s what draws us in every time – and yes, I wish I could write like her. What I’m learning is that some people are better at details than others, and I need to get better at it. Good luck. I know you’ll do it.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks! I know you will too, because you are already amazing! I really have to learn which details are really necessary. The problem is that I don’t love reading description, I’m a dialogue girl, so I really need to learn how to do it stealthily

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I think cultural details can be crucial and also incomprehensible if you don’t know that culture. To me, yeah, 80s rock is different than 80s New Wave or jazz or any other kind of music since I grew up with it, but if someone put the name of some modern performer or rap guy, I might not even know what the person does, so maybe mentioning the music and then adding details that let the reader in on it can help. The 80s rock ‘with its soaring lead guitar and throbbing powerchords’ might so it for someone–and if they don’t know what that is, they can look up powerchordsor listen to 80s rock on youtube and get it that way. I forget that some people are younger than I am and sometimes have no idea of things I take for granted as party of my personal history–

    Liked by 2 people

      1. Agreed. It reminds me of the song Hey Nineteen by Steely Dan, where the guy, who was maybe 35 at the time, laments that the young chick he is trying to pick up doesn’t even know who Aretha Franklin is.

        Liked by 1 person

  8. Very good advice. I like how description should move the scene forward. I thought of you today when I was getting my oil changed. The snow is melting so it’s sloppy outside. As I was writing I was listening to how different people’s shoes squeaked as they walked across the linoleum floor. It was quite amusing. I never realized everyone’s squeak was different.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Love this. You’re so receptive to learning! One thing I do for direction is read my favorite writers and see what THEY do. And yes, writing groups can think too hard about certain things and give conflicting advice. I agree with you: go with your gut! Keep on writing!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I think you’re quite right about the music descriptions. If the song has relevance to the story, then it needs naming (or at least describing in some way to explain the relevance), but if it is more of a ‘mood’, then you only need to mention that mood / genre.

    Like

  11. Man, after Lesley’s Prologue on Writing (plus all the other fantastic comments on here) I have nothing to add.
    Thank you for the bit about details helping your characters. That gives me more direction in my writing.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. My advice would be to ignore the advice of others as often as possible! Just write the descriptions that feel natural to you. You have the actual scene in your mind, so you can see just exactly what you are describing. When you have written the passage, read it over with an eye for whether or not that general scene is described. I think too many details make a story boring, as a reader, I want just enough to pull me into the story. And since it’s your story, you get to decide what those details are. My guess is you will do just fine following your intuition.
    PS: Personally, if I had to stop reading a book in order to Google something, I would be beyond annoyed! I believe it is the writer’s responsibility to tell me the big stuff, and I don’t sweat the small stuff!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I could never google something when I was in the middle of a fiction book!! I know. When the guy said that in class I was perplexed! But thanks for the words of wisdom (I was going to say advice but….) I think the writer has to make a call with what fits with their novel

      Liked by 1 person

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