Wednesday, March 27, 2013

How to write description

Sometimes before I go to sleep I pick a book from the piles of read books by my bed, open it to a random page and start reading. When I'm not caught up in the plot, it's easier to pay attention to the writing.

Here's a passage that jumped out at me from Lois McMaster Bujold's Captain Vorpatril's Alliance:

And then they were crossing out of the tube into another foyer, and escorted by Christos through a pair of sleek doors clad in fine wood marquetry to a hushed hallway graced with mirrors and fresh flowers. And then into a broad living room backed by wide glass walls taking in a sweeping panorama of the capital, with the sun going down and the dusk rising to turn the city lights to jewels on velvet for as far as the eye could see, under a cloud-banded sky.
It's the kind of paragraph that whizzes past while you're reading, depositing setting information almost subliminally. How does she do this?

The first thing I noticed: there isn't a single instance of the verb "to be."For a passage of description, there is a remarkable amount of action here. The characters are moving through the setting: "crossing into" and "escorted through" "and then into," so the reader is carried with them. But even the inanimate objects don't just sit there. They are "clad," "graced," "backed." The sun goes down, the dusk rises and turns, the eye sees.

The next thing I noticed is how much Bujold doesn't tell us. Do we know whether the room is carpeted? Do we know what color the furniture is? Is there a couch in the living room? Does it matter? She gives us only the most telling details, enough to convey luxury, taste, beauty. The rest we can fill in for ourselves.

It's not so obvious in this particular passage, but the details Bujold chooses are the ones that the POV character would notice. This is Tej seeing the setting, a woman trained in aesthetics who has never been to this residence before but is familiar with luxurious settings. Tej notices that the mirrors and flowers "grace" the hallway; Tej appreciates the beauty of the sunset. If Ivan were narrating, Ivan who is escorting Tej to meet his mother, he would not have seen any of the things Tej did. He might have noticed anything that was different from the last time he was there, but his eyes would have gone first to his mother, not to the view. Description reveals character, can even reveal emotion, by showing what the character sees.

So there you have it: Three Rules for Writing Description:

1.    Use strong verbs that contribute to the atmosphere you want to create.

2.    Only describe the telling details.

3.     Be aware of who is narrating the scene, and describe it through their eyes.

Another thing I noticed about this passage that might not have universal application: if you're writing an action novel, or a novel for young people, you don't want readers to get hung up on description and get bored. This passage is only two sentences long (and the second one isn't even a real sentence). The description all takes place in prepositional phrases. We read prepositional phrases more quickly than main clauses because we know they're less important grammatically. Our eye seeks out subject and predicate and takes in modifying phrases along the way. The structure of Bujold's sentences speeds our absorption of the description. Brilliant.

I suppose this is more a question of pacing than description per se. So how about A Rule About Pacing:

1.    Use grammar to control how your readers make their way through a page.

Easy, right?

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Diana Wynne Jones guest blog and other random stuff

Check out my guest blog on We Be Reading, in which I talk about The Dark Lord of Derkholm and how funny Diana Wynne Jones is. And if you're not already following We Be Reading, Kirsten is filling March with musings and reviews of Diana Wynne Jones, so if you're a fan it's worth joining the conversation, and if you've never read DWJ, you need to check out all the reasons why you should!

If you're looking to while away more time on the internet, I had great fun on this random crime-fighting-buddies generator: They Fight Crime!

There's also a random sentence generator, and Chuck Wendig has a flash fiction challenge using it. You still have time: his deadline is Friday March 15 at noon. Quick, go get a random sentence and write a story using it!

If you've done that and you still have time to kill, Chuck Wendig's latest is a great post about tantric sex--No! It's actually about writing, and how good writing is like tantric sex, not that he would know (nudge, nudge, wink, wink). He makes a great point, and it's something I've noticed about Diana Wynne Jones and Megan Whalen Turner in particular, which is why I so obsessively reread them: writing is all about withholding. Not telling everything.

DWJ and MWT use the fewest words possible to tell their story, so you know that every word is absolutely crucial. There is no skimming through description when reading their books, never any "yada, yada, get to the good part" feelings. Every scene is dramatic and full of conflict; if it doesn't seem like anything important is happening, you reread the scene to see what you missed, because you definitely missed something. And so you read the books in a constant state of frustrated tension: "must find out what's going on." Half the time when I get to the end of one of their books, I have to go back and reread most of it just to figure out what just happened. And I love it.

Sigh. Must go cut out half the words in my WIP.

Monday, March 11, 2013

MMGM: The Ogre Downstairs, by Diana Wynne Jones

Kristen over at We Be Reading is hosting DWJ March, in honour of Diana Wynne Jones, a year after her death. I'm doing a guest post for Kristen tomorrow, but I thought I'd get into the spirit of things myself, especially after reading this book.

I keep finding Diana Wynne Jones books I haven't read, which is wonderful: like finding a $20 bill in the pocket of the coat you haven't worn for a while. I found this one in the library while researching for my guest blog. The Ogre Downstairs was in the middle-grade section beside the Chrestomanci books and Archer's Goon.

It started a little slowly for me. The adventures of a step-family with a magical chemistry set at first seemed a little too episodic and predictable--similar in concept to Half Magic, by Edgar Eager (which I love, btw): kids mess around with magic and something different goes wrong every time. The two sets of kids (Caspar, Johnny and Gwinny from the mom, Malcolm and Douglas from the dad) are obnoxious to each other and their parents, and the omniscient narration skips around a bit, so at first I didn't have any character I was sympathizing with.

But in typical Diana Wynne Jones fashion, the complications multiply exponentially, the characters develop in realistic but quirky ways, and this book is really, really funny. For example, it's not just that the toffee bars come to life; it's that they keep escaping and they love to congregate on the radiators.
"Bring some biscuits when you get the box," said Caspar. "The toffee bars may be hungry too." [hilarious line all by itself]
So Johnny rammed the lid back on and went down to the kitchen, while Caspar collected all the toffee wrappers he could find and made a careful count. It came to nineteen. The thought of catching nineteen nimble toffee bars was a little daunting. [Another sentence that makes me grin every time: the alliteration, the understatement, the juxtaposition of nimble and toffee.] He had only succeeded in catching one by the time Johnny came back with a large cardboard box and a packet of Small Rich Tea Biscuits, and the only reason he caught that one was that Johnny had bitten a piece off it the evening before. It was much slower than the others in consequence, and went with a sort of limp. [This is the kind of thing DWJ is brilliant at: the extra little realistic detail that makes her magic completely believable. And so funny!] 
"Oh, the poor thing!" Johnny said, when Caspar showed him. "I'll never eat another toffee bar again!" He put it tenderly in the cardboard box and made it comfortable with some comics and a small Rich Tea biscuit. [Comics!  For a toffee bar!] It did not want to stay. Crippled as it was, it kept trying to get out, until Caspar thought of putting the box against the radiator. The lame bar seemed to like that. It curled up peacefully and began to look a little sticky.
And that's just the potion that brings things to life. There's also the flying one, the switching places one, the one that turns you different colours, the invisibility one. . . The two halves of the family at first compete to see what they can do with the chemicals, but as they get into deeper and deeper messes they have to help each other out. In the meantime the Ogre (the dad) is getting more and more frustrated with these kids who make so much noise and cause so much trouble. And the consequences end up being very real.

Diana Wynne Jones is brilliant at understanding how children think and behave and how family dynamics work. All her children can be perfectly beastly: they whine, they get jealous, they are cowardly and malicious and selfish. But they are also creative and empathetic and flexible and kind. Siblings both hate and love each other. Parents don't understand kids. Kids make dreadful mistakes. But if there's love in the mix it all comes out okay somehow. The resolution of the complicated mess at the end of The Ogre Downstairs is funny and sweet and quite satisfying.

The Ogre Downstairs is a trip to one of those great candy stores that has crazy candy from everywhere and you can't even decide what you want to spend your allowance on.

For more Marvelous Middle-Grade Monday choices, go to Shannon Messenger's marvelous blog.