Saturday, October 10, 2009

Learning from writing contests - description

From 8/23/06:

I’m one of those weird people who like to judge writing contests. For some reason it thrills me to find a diamond amongst the entries, and there are some contest entrants who not only get a high score from me, but get comments like “send this manuscript to a publisher NOW,” with lots of exclamation marks. I love those. Then there are the not-so-exciting ones, the ones that have promise if some work’s put into them. Then there are the ones…well, the ones I’m staring at and wondering what the hell is going on, because I can’t make heads or tails of them. Luckily the latter are rare, because then I have to try to find some diplomatic way of saying, “this is SO not going to work. Ever.” I hate to squash anyone’s hopes, and the truth is it’s possible for someone to work hard enough so that they go from dreadful to delightful.

Mostly what I get are the middling ones that need a bit of oomph, some craft improvement, such as sticking to a character’s point of view (POV), or starting at a different point in the story. Those are easy fixes. The harder ones are when the character doesn’t act sensibly, such as going out into treacherous terrain when she’s been told not to by wiser and more experienced heads. There has to be some major, major justification for acting in such a risky manner to convince me. Otherwise, I end up thinking that character is TSTL (i.e., Too Stupid to Live).

What’s interesting is that with every contest I judge, a craft problem stands out prominently amongst the entries. It’s good for me: when I identify what it is, figuring out how to fix them hones my own writing.

This time, it’s description. The group of entries—with the exception of one or two--I recently judged had some problems with that aspect of craft. A couple didn’t have enough to place me securely in the writer’s story world (my own problem, when I’m writing a hurried first draft), a few had some strange ones (a hero with multi-colored, multi-faceted eyes, for example. And he was not a Jeff Goldblum look-alike in a fly costume), and then there were some that were way over the top and placed in the story willy-nilly.

In my humble opinion, there is such a thing as judicious description. We’re told in writing workshops to use all five senses when describing something, but people seem to think this means using Every Sense Every Single Time. As a reader, I don’t want sensory overload. I want concrete imagery. I want the description to mean something to the characters, reflect an emotion, or reveal something about the character and his/her POV. I want the description to be essential to the scene, and do more than just describe.

I think the key is to understand that description resides in the character. It is almost always from the character’s viewpoint that his or her environment is described. Most of us view our world with emotional or mental filters, from a framework of prejudice. I use that word purposely: we rarely think outside our box of conservative or liberal, rural or urban, northeasterner or southwesterner. We view the world from our life’s context, and we react to that world in the way we do because of that context. The same is so with our characters.

As a result, when a character is feeling depressed but has a naturally practical and optimistic nature, she has a certain response to her environment. If it’s sunny outside, the description—from her viewpoint—would be something like this:

Sarah awoke early in the morning and resented the bright sunlight that streamed into her bedroom. Pulling the bedcovers over her head, she tried to block out the light so that she could wallow in her gloom from the night before. It was useless. The bed had a soft sheet and a thin cotton blanket fit for hot August nights; instead of looking at a grey dim mattress and thinking grey dim thoughts, the pretty golden glow on the white sheets made her think of spring daffodils.

Pushing aside the bed covers, she sighed, and could not help a wry smile at her own actions. There was no sense in hiding under bedsheets from the world; it was stuffy and confining under there. The sunbeams pouring through the windows into her pastel-painted bedroom conspired to banish all thoughts of last night’s failure, and lured her into imagining a day of exploration instead.

Note that not once do I state that she’s depressed. Instead, I say she’s resentful of the sunshine, wants to block out the light, and was intending to think dim grey thoughts. All of that contrasts with what’s in her environment: a sunny August morning. Because she’s naturally optimistic, the light makes her think of spring daffodils, which is not a depressing image. And because she’s practical, she’s realistic about the fact that it’s stuffy under bedclothes and therefore not a useful place to be.

The description integrates with who Sarah is. She reacts to her environment according to her nature and the way she’s taught to be. At the same time, I’ve let the reader know what her room looks like filtered through Sarah’s attitudes and character. I didn’t use all five senses in the description, just two: sight and touch. To have put in more would have bogged down the narrative, and even made it more emotional than I wanted it to be (I wanted the mood to be fairly light). I also used metaphors and personification: sunbeams are inanimate objects and don’t have motivation, so can’t conspire. However, it’s a legitimate literary device that makes the description interact with the character.

This achieves more than just describing a place. It also shows characterization, mood, and pushes forward the scene because the character not just perceives her environment, but acts on it, and is changed by it.

Characters, like ourselves, are not separate from their environment. They are in it, part of it, and react to it in some way. I think what might help is to take some time, go somewhere, and take note of what you see, hear, feel, etc. around you. Don’t judge it, take it in and see what emotions come up, what thoughts are evoked, what mood you’re in and how it influences the way you feel about your environment. Try it, and see what comes out in your writing.