Cheerleading for Writers: D – Descriptions

This will be another tale about labelling.

I used to think all descriptions longer than one line were boring. In the books I read, I longed to skip them, at the same time making myself to read them and victimizing myself that I had to do this.

In writing I tried to skip them too. And more than that, an idea formed, I am not able to write descriptions.

Then two things happened. First one was with reading descriptions.

This is what I have written almost two years ago in a blog post called “A discovery about descriptions”.

 

One of the things I used to dislike in books were long descriptions. Even descriptions by such masters as Leo Tolstoy and Jane Austen made me sometimes become quite impatient and my brain thinking, “When will the story continue?”

I am sure this just shows my impatience at those moments, not the lack of virtue of the pieces I read. But still, these experiences made me afraid writing descriptions as soon as I started writing fiction myself.

And then several months ago I have read “The Signature of All Things” by Elizabeth Gilbert and became completely dumbfounded. This book is full of descriptions! And many of them where pages and pages long. How could this be?

Last week I read an article in Writer’s Digest from January 2014 by Elizabeth Sims. The title of the article is “Miscalculations and Missteps”. And there in Section 6 named “The Great Undescribed”, I found the following:

Take a risk and go long. The value of a relatively long description is that it draws your readers deeper into the scene. The worry is that you’ll bore them. But if you do a good job you’ll engross them. Really getting into a description is one of the most fun things you can do as an author. Here’s the trick: Get going on a description with the attitude of discovering, not informing. In this zone, you’re not writing to tell readers stuff you already know – rather, you are writing to discover and experience the scene right alongside them.”

This passage revealed the secret of the SOAT (as Elizabeth Gilbert calls her book), which was hidden for me. SOAT is full of descriptions, but each description is full of discoveries: of love, of own body, of lust, of science, of secrets of universe and its origins and many more. The whole book is continuous discovery. And you can hear this wonder in the voice of the narrator, who mirrors the wonder the main character, Alma Whittaker, experiences through her journey.

The book covers the period of time of more than 50 years! This again goes against the advice I learned: “The shorter the period of time your story takes place the better. Backstory can go further back, but the plot itself should unfold in a short period of time. Otherwise, you will bore the reader.” But SOAT proves this advice completely wrong. It starts with Alma’s birth and finishes with her death.

But even at her death, Alma was discovering. As the Amazon review of SOAT says, Alma is “the insatiably curious“. And I became more and more curious with every sentence I read.

I am very grateful to both Elizabeths (Gilbert and Sims) for lifting my fear from descriptions, for showing me that I can love long descriptions and wish for more, and for giving me a great clue of recognizing a really good one.

And all this led me to a thought which applies to everything: One of the clues to having fun, along with being in the moment, is to be in a constant discovery mode, walking through life “with an open mouth” and being in awe of everything around and inside ourselves.

 

Fast forward to the second half of 2015. By now I was sure there were brilliant descriptions that could captivate me. So I started approaching each book with curiosity to both dialogs and descriptions. But still there was a problem. I didn’t believe I was capable to write good descriptions, not to mention the brilliant ones.

Then one evening I went to a meeting of the writer’s club, I am a part of, here in Aalborg. I didn’t manage to write something complete new for that particular evening, therefore I took with me chapter 1 of a story I started posting on-line shortly before.

This story, which is growing now into a novelette, is called “Nothing is As it Seems”. It came to life after I watched my writing teacher and friend Menna van Praag sharing her one-minute writing class with an idea to develop a story, which starts with the first paragraph of her best-selling book “The House at the End of Hope Street”. You can find the full account of this inspiration here.

So, I sit there in a comfortable arm-chair in a cosy atmosphere of the living room of two of our writing club members and read this first chapter. And as I read it, I realize, The chapter is full of descriptions. And they are good!

I finished reading and looked up with still unprocessed shock of this discovery. I can write good descriptions?!

The feedback from my fellow writers added to the shock. They liked the chapter too. The only correction made was to the way I pronounced the word “wrapped”. My thoughts went wild. Really? Only this? And all the rest is good?

Then I was pointed out the especially good parts of it. And I had to agree. They were good and I liked reading them aloud.

Of course, there are still places I could tweak here and there, and I will do this before sending the whole story to my editor, but this piece is something I wouldn’t be not ashamed to read out loud again.

My advice here to you, dear writer, whether you have problems with descriptions or not, watch out for those labels you give yourself, your writing, your reading abilities, and anything you do. Observe them, lift their edges and peek underneath. You might discover that those labels are long outdated, and might not have been true all along.

At this point I would like to tell you one of my favourite jokes. A man is asked whether he can play a violin. His answer is, “I don’t know. I’ve never tried!”

So approach everything with this attitude. Don’t say, you can’t do something, until you try, and try again. You might discover that you can, that you are very good at it, and that you enjoy doing it.

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Picture: beautiful tulips I got along with purple roses from my mother and my sister at my author talk last week.