Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Writing Weaknesses: Description and Setting

I’m trying to pinpoint my writing weaknesses and do something about them. Description and Setting need my attention.  Honestly, I don’t care what a character looks like and would rather there be no description so I can assign my own mental visual. If you tell me the hero is a blond or has red hair, you’ll set me on a path you don’t want me to travel since I much prefer dark brown or black hair on my heroes. Sorry, I have my preferences.  I’m sure you do too.  Of course, if it’s Robert Redford reddish blond, by all means, go for it--but be sure to mention he’s got the RR look about him.

My critique partners usually point out where they’d like to see some description. I wonder why I can’t spot those places myself.  Probably because I’m guilty of skipping that stuff in the books I read, though I do like it in movies. Like when Pelican Brief (the movie) opens, and the camera pans the waterways of Louisiana, the swamps, and brown pelicans fly across the sky.

Do you know any published authors whose setting and description are so sparse it’s jarring? I’d like to read them just to see what I think.

I’ve been reading through the journals my father-in-law kept. He didn’t right lengthy passages. He wrote things like:

Woke up and ate oatmeal. Read Chapter 14 in Jeremiah. Went to Sears to find a part for lawnmower. Walked with neighbor--two miles.  Went to church tonight to hear missionary from India speak.

I was surprised to learn I wanted more. Was the oatmeal lumpy or too milky? Did he nuke it or cook it on the stove? What did he learn from Jeremiah 14--Any insight? What was the missionary’s name? How was he dressed? How many people were there? Was the church full? What was learned?
My mother-in-law left behind her life story--condensed to about twelve single-spaced pages.  She jabbed the facts to paper like someone throwing darts at a board.

 “When the John Doe’s were going to the Ivory Coast in Africa, we got cans and a sealer and met at her house out by LeTourneau and canned all of her cake mixes, etc.”

That’s it. We don’t know John Doe’s wife’s name, what kind of cans, what kind of sealer or anything about the procedure. I think details would be interesting, don’t you?
Funny how reading through my in-laws’ memories have given me a new respect for writers who incorporate (and have mastered) description and setting. 

How do you approach description? Does it make your first draft or do you layer it in when you rewrite? Could your story take place anywhere or does your setting actually mean something? Is description second nature to you? I wish!
Teach me something about description and setting. I want to be a fan.


Charles Gramlich said...

I tend to read for description, myself. Love to read it and write it. Lee Childs tends to skimp on the description, I think. I read one book by him and it was OK but I don't imagine I'll read many more. That said, I do tend to layer in description with each draft. I see the scene in my head and then have to paint it in the story.

LD Masterson said...

I tend to decribe those things I need the reader to see and let imagination fill in the rest. Whether it's too much or too little, I'm never quite sure.

Sylvia Ney said...

My first draft introduces the characters, problems and emotions. The second drafts I look for inconsistencies, and I don't flesh out descriptions until the third pass.

BTW, Robert Redford is the only blond/redhead I have EVER found attractive - what is it about him? ;-)

Jan Rider Newman said...

I'm not a blond-admirer myself, more of a Johnny Depp/Jimmy Smits girl. With the exception of Redford. Great pic. Okay, description & setting. I, too, dislike too much description of characters, but I describe the main characters of my fantasy novel with some specificity because I think it's relevant. Description of settings need to be there to set something -- character, mood, plot points. I can't think of anything I've read and thought the setting wasn't described enough. If I come across something, I'll let you know.

Jess said...

Charles - I've never known anyone who read for description. Interesting. I agree with you about Lee Childs. I've only read one. ;/

LD - If there was only a way to BE SURE! :)

Sylvia- sounds like you write like I do.

Jan - every novel is different. I would think the YA your marketing would need to be heavy with description and setting. I can almost see it as a character in itself.