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This Writing Life: Description and Practice

22 October, 2010

[Note: this post might be a little bit disjointed, as it’s the result of several different ideas that have been floating around in my head recently.]

Over on Writer Beware recently, there was a post about the need for writers to practice their craft in a deliberate manner. My initial reaction to the idea behind the post was something like, “Practice? How can you practice writing other than by just getting on with it?” As I read the post though, and as I thought about it more carefully, I began to see that writers certainly can practice. Of course, producing short stories or novels or anything in between certainly is practice, but there are ways to be a lot more deliberate and focussed than that. You can focus on your pacing or dialogue, generation of ideas or characterisation. (I’d suggest reading the whole post if you haven’t already, as I don’t want to go much more into it here.)

Not surprisingly, I began to think about my own writing and where I need to improve. I think my dialogue is generally good, as is my ability to organise all the different strands of a novel. I feel I’ve recently improved my methods of coming up with ideas, which is partly down to practice (although I didn’t realise I was practising at the time). And then I came to description.

There was a time, back when I started writing, when I would have said description was my greatest strength. However, as I’ve pared down my writing style – there’s something about teenage writers and florid, overblown prose, isn’t there? – I’ve found that a lot of my description has simply vanished. I use the same words over and over again, then can’t think of alternatives when I’m editing. Alternatively, I want to describe something but can’t work out where to put it in the scene without slowing the pace of the action. Interestingly, I think my descriptions in short stories, when I’m writing much more slowly, are better, but I’m struggling to bring that across to novels.

So, I’ve established that I need to practice description and I’m pleased to report that I’ve made a start. Interestingly, I’ve found that two of the books I’ve picked up recently – quite unconsciously, I should add – are ones that I admire for their descriptions. I’m not sure if I gravitated towards these books because I’ve been thinking about my own failings, or if it’s simple coincidence. Either way, I thought I’d share a couple of extracts, to show what I’m using for inspiration in my own practice.

The first comes from The Drowning City by Amanda Downum. I’m actually reading this for the second time and using it as inspiration for my own novel-in-progress. (As an aside, The Drowning City was actually published about a year after I finished the first draft of my own novel, but I can see enough similarities between them to be inspired to finish my own edits. It’s a reminder of how good my novel could be, if I work hard enough.) I love the way Downum describes Symir and how she integrates lucious descriptions into the action. Just take a look at this:

Sunlight spilled like honey over their shoulders, gilding the water and gleaming on domes and tiliting spires. Buildings crowded together, walls of cream and ocher stone, pale blues and dusty pinks, balconies nearly touching over narrow alleys and waterways. Bronze chimes flashed from eaves and lintels. Vines trailed from rooftop gardens, dripping leaves and orange blossoms onto the water. Birds perched in potted trees and on steep green- and grey-tiled roofs.

My initial reaction to that paragraph is something along the lines of “Mmmm.” That’s the sort of description I feel I can wallow in, like… Eh. After everything I’ve just written, I’m not going to try to describe it. It’s brilliant though and it conjures an image of the city with only a few lines, yet provides a powerful sense of place, something that Downum contines throughout the novel, without being obtrusive.

The other writer I want to mention is Alan Garner. I’ve just started reading The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and have been reminded just how wonderful Garner’s writing is. Again, here’s a brief snippet of description relating to place:

Once over the ridge, they found themselves in a dell, bracken and boulder filled, and edged with rocks, in which were cracks, and fissures, and small caves; and before them a high-vaulted beech wood marched steeply down into the dusk. The air was still and heavy, as though waiting for thunder; the only sound the concentrated whine of mosquitoes; and the thick sweet smell of bracken and flies was everywhere.

Now, Garner employs a very different style and is describing an entirely different landscape, but his words beautifully conjure up the scene and remind me of all the similar places I’ve visited (the book is set in England and more specifically Cheshire, for those who don’t know). I should also add that I find Garner creates unease more effectively than any other writer I’ve read. I still find Elidor to be one of the creepiest, most unnerving books I own, despite it being aimed at children and only a couple of hundred pages long.

I realise this post is starting to get a bit long, so I’ll wrap up here. What I’m getting at is that writers really do need to practice, just as any other artists and craftsmen do, and as we practice, we need to seek out the writers who have already accomplished what we’re aiming towards.

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