Describe or Not
One thing that happened immediately following the landing of a publisher was the tendency of other aspiring writers to ask for my advice on writing. It was overnight. Suddenly I went from being one of the countless anonymous aspiring writers in the world to a seasoned expert. Really? Me? Granted, that kind of occurrence is like a hot stone massage for the ego, but I still have trouble with being an “expert” in writing. Oh yes, my point . . . One of the most frequent questions I get is also what I’ve found to be one of the hottest arguments in literature: description or flow?
When I first wrote The Apocalypse Mechanism (which is to be released summer 2012 from Winter Goose Publishing), and began letting people read it, it got mixed reviews. Okay, part of that was because it was a rough, unpolished first novel, but what I started noticing was an expansive gap between what people loved about it and also absolutely hated about it. And that’s about the same exact aspect of the book—description. That story is HEAVILY descriptive in places, and some hated that. Others sang the praises of such use of “beautiful, balletic language.” So while I was seizing on the floor and gnawing my tongue off, I had the first and most important of epiphanies as a writer. Art is subjective. Not everyone digs that smug little grin Mona Lisa has plastered all over her little Renaissance face. I realized that not everyone is going to like my work, but for every person that disliked, there were at least two that liked, and that became enough for me.
Some people like the flow and pace of a good action novel. Perhaps they have a good enough imagination that they don’t need things described to the last molecule. Or maybe they like to read as long as it’s somewhat mindless. But others enjoy a Stephen King of Steinbeck novel where they can go to be immersed in a world unlike their own. They want to feel drawn into a story of vividly-painted environments through which an often more artistic plot flows. So even in my epiphany about art and subjectivity, I still struggled with which way to go. That was until I met another writer (a very talented and knowledgeable writer) who informed me that my style is actually a unique hybrid of descriptive literary fiction, and a flow more like the classic action/suspense novel. And so now when someone asks me which direction to go, this is what I tell them: do both!
There is a time for flow and time for description. My currently released novel, The Twenty-Nine (Winter Goose Publishing 2011), is over four hundred pages long, yet many describe it as a quick read. How can that be? You have to let the parts that need to flow . . . well . . . flow, and attach it with chunks and clumps of meaty, juicy description (is it just me, or does anyone else have an urge for fried chicken now?). Opponents of description are often so adamant about it that one would almost believe they would have your novel read like a “Dick and Jane” book. You MUST have description, especially in the places where you’re describing something that the average reader either has never seen or hasn’t seen many times. For fantasy and sci-fi authors, that is a license to kill all readers with description.
Sure, you can overdo description. The reader doesn’t need to know every article of clothing your character is wearing—just the most interesting things. The reader doesn’t need to know what the sound of footsteps sounds like. Most of us have heard them before. If the footsteps sounded like the man had a limp, and that’s important to your crime novel, describe it. John Updike was a proponent of allowing the reader creative freedom of imagination. So if your character sits beneath a tree, sometimes you can allow the reader to imagine the tree in his or her imagination. But let’s say you want to really specify that it’s winter without telling us, “It was winter . . .” Description becomes what your college creative writing professor used to preach to you about “showing”, rather than “telling”. Instead of telling me it’s winter, I want you to show me it’s winter—paint the picture. Tell of “the bare, skeletal remnants of a once proud and majestic oak, underneath which “the character seeks, in vain, shelter from the life-draining chill of the highland breeze.”
In short, I always advise aspiring writers to describe where it counts—where it’s needed, where it “shows”, and where it paints the picture that will immerse the reader. Use beautiful language. Be a wordsmith, or what Stephen King calls a “prose stylist”. But in places where you need to transition to the next thing, or where the action is picking up, the reader doesn’t want to have to wade through the mud of needless description. Keep the story moving so the reader can get to your next masterfully-crafted chunk of literary artwork.