Friday, 18 April 2008

Friday Morning Coffee: The US Cocktail Edition

Hello everyone. Because of the time zones, I decided to go ahead and post tonight. It's almost 9 here, which seems like the perfect time to indulge in a chocolate martini or perhaps a flirtini. Yum!

Anyways, as far as novel racing progress, I'm slowly making my way through the notebook typing. Only 2 more notebooks to go and then the real job of revision begins. One of the major tasks I'm going to have to tackle during revision is incorporating more detail (ie showing and not telling). This got me thinking about how the rest of you work in descriptive details (these could be details for the setting, characters, etc).

I'm constantly left feeling frustrated that the words on the page don't quite evoke the glamorous movie that's been playing in my head. I can see the rooms and characters so clearly but then I'm at a loss for words (other than the usual cliches) to describe them.

How do you transfer the movies in your heads to the page?

Do you manage to show instead of tell in the first draft? Or do you layer in details during several rounds of revision?

And finally what are your tricks for describing a place you've never visited? Without fail, I usually pick a city I'm dying to know more about, write the novel with the help of google, citysearch, flickr, etc, and then go visit the city. Seems like the process should be reversed. ;)

I'm already looking forward to reading your responses in the morning!

PS~~Lately, I've gotten addicted to several lovely interior design blogs. I've posted links to my favorites on my blog. All sorts of stories could be inspired by the pics posted.

PPS~~Here's a link to a flirtini recipe; it's a fruity version of a martini and tres, tres dangerous because it basically tastes like a sweet piece of candy going down so if you're not careful, you can have 3 too many before you know it :)


KeVin K. said...

I usually go for the non-visual detail. Come up with something telling that evokes the feel of a place.

Allen Drury used a line in Advise and Consent to describe early morning in a harbor I wish I could someday legitmately slip into something of my own: "tug boats arguing mournfully with the fog"

My favorite opening line (that I wrote) is from "The Monkey Puzzle Box" in Strange New Worlds V. Tough-guy noir detective Dixon Hill had evidently been slipped a Micky: "I woke up with a mouth full of used armpits." Kinda set the tone for the whole story.

We're a visual culture, shaped by TV and movies. Visuals are good -- but can be too time and space consuming to describe fully. If you can use some other sense to anchor the scene, the visuals can be lightly sketched yet the overal effect remembered as vivid.

Helen Shearer said...

I'm stumped by this question because I don't really know how I write description. I just do it, then I read it over to see if the rhythm of the sentence is right. I don't consciously think about whether or not I have illustrated the film in my head. I just trust that I have.

As a reader I get frustrated by excessive description. I know I'm going straight to hell for this, but I found The Fellowship Of The Ring so tediously descriptive that I didn't finish it. One of these days I'll give it another go. I like the writer to give me basics, then I can come up with my own picture.

Rowan Coleman said...

morning all, I am with Helen on this. Lenghty description, however may beautiful it may be can risk stalling the narrative flow of the book. I tend not to think about description too closely for the first draft as my concern is more about pace, plotting and characterisation so the description just unfolds instinctively as I go. BUT from second drafts onwards I take time to think carefully about the rights words to create the right feeling and so on.

liz fenwick said...

I think the key is too give the bare minium....just enough so the reader knows where you are. I think most of today's readers are aware of most settings - ie even if people haven't been to Paris they know it. I think the one place where this doesn't work would be in fantasy where you are creating a world unknown to a reader.

Also thinking about I try and give setting through my characters eyes - what hits them most be it visual or otherwise......then stop and not detail any more for that particular scene.

Great question btw. What is a flirtini?

ChrisH said...

I'd like two drinks please! Something strong to kick start me and then some either very sugary and sickly or extremely alcholic at the end of the day because today I might actually finish the rewrite of FTT!

Anyway I'm getting beyond myself, description, hmm, agree with what's been said about evoking the spirit of the place rahter than too much physical detail. When in doubt I slap a quick rough draft done and let it simmer. On return it's easier to see which details don't ring true.

Apologies to all for paying so few visits but I think I'm nearly there....

Kate said...

I was having trouble with this issue just yesterday. The 'movie' of how the scene should be was racing through my head but the slow tediousness of writing and describing it kept stalling me.

I agree that creative description ie."tug boats arguing mournfully with the fog" is a lot more effective than just straight out description that tells rather than shows, but for the first draft I think I 'tell' a lot more... mainly as a way to keep the image in my head so that when I go back and edit it I can pare it down and add in all the fancy creative descriptive bits.

As for your other question - I write fantasy, so everywhere that I write about is a place I've never visited. I just make it all up based loosely on places I have visited (or a mix of a couple of places!)

Thanks for your post - I'd never really thought about all this properly and your post has helped crystallise this for me!

('used armpits' - thats so grose! and so effective!!!)

NoviceNovelist said...

I always struggle with description as I'm eager to just tell the story so I don't worry about description in the first draft then come back and see if I have evoked a place/mood etc enough. I think the senses are a great tool for doing this and allow writers like me who aren't naturally descriptive writers to suggest a place/mood with brevity. At least that's what I think I do!

See you in hell Helen S - you're not alone!!! Maybe we can drink flirtinis down there to cool down - they sound fabulous but like Liz I have no idea what they are but I think I want one!

Kate.Kingsley said...

Uggh, coffe please ~ I've had a VERY busy week, and I feel like a zombie! (When i first typed that it read that I'd had a "very busty week" ~ if only!)

"I'm constantly left feeling frustrated that the words on the page don't quite evoke the glamorous movie that's been playing in my head." ~ I recognise this feeling, although with me its not so much in relation to description, but atmosphere. I tend not to write very descriptively (maybe because I instincively feel thats not where my strengths lie), but i do try to evoke certain atmospheric condityions in a scene, and I can't always pull it off. I guess thats the "craft ~ anyone can tell the reader what happened, but making the reader feel it is what lifts writing from 'good' to 'great'.

Busy (but not busty!) weekend ahead too ~ going to have to squeeze the WIP in on sunday pm, I think ~ I've taken on a bit too much recently ~ I never learn :-( . Apologies for being tres lame with the blog catch ups too.

Wishing you all great writing for the forthcoming week

Zinnia Cyclamen said...

Hello, I'm back from my comment holiday and will be round to see you all later. I don't write much description and never try to describe places I haven't been to, most of my settings are fictional English towns which I find easy enough to evoke. I like my martinis classic with an olive and a twist, but sadly 11 am is a bit early for that so I think I'll just have a cup of tea.

Calistro said...

Great question! I wish there was a magic answer because I could do with it. I'm not a fan of READING lengthy passages of description in a novel (Thomas Hardy I'm talking about you!) and I don't particularly enjoy writing it either. Obviously you need some otherwise your characters would exist in a void but I'd rather the reader concentrated on what the characters are saying or doing that the fact they're in a room with sky blue curtains dotted with dancing butterflies (or whatever).

Recently I was writing a scene where one of the characters reacts to some news. I had her "bouncing up and down on the bland, beige carpet". When I read the scene back the bit that really stuck out like a sore thumb was "the bland, beige carpet", it took away from the action. We already know that the character is in a work environment so saying 'carpet' is enough. Must of us have been in an office and we can imagine what the carpet would look like.

So my answer to the question is...I go for minimal description and let the reader fill in the gaps. I'd love to write beautiful evocative prose (I LOVE the harbour description Kev quoted) but I'm not writing the kind of novel that can support descriptive writing like that.

That said if anyone can recommend exercises or books that help/encourage descriptive writing let me know. I still write the odd literary short story that would be helped by some rich description.

Cathy said...

I struggle with description too. I tend to instinctively write too little, so at editing stage I go back and insert appropriate sensory details at spots where it won't slow the narrative flow too much.

Locations I have so far based on towns/countries I am familiar with, as that cuts down the research tremendously.I have a picture of somewhere in my head, like a postcard, as I write.

Fiona said...

I expect this is a well know technique but it's new to me:

Think about the scene and what is going to go on in that scene for a couple of minutes.

Put your favourite relaxing music on - no lyrics.

Do all the deep breathy stuff.

Now, when you're fully relaxed, picture the scene in your head again. Or fall asleep :)

I've actually found it really helpful so might post this on my neglected blog.

What an interesting question and thanks for the links too.

Anonymous said...

For my first draft, I concentrate on one thing and one thing only: Telling the story. All other aspects of making my writing better come in later edits, of which there are many. Showing not telling is just one of these aspects that get applied/improved during the editing process.

This is a method I've adopted after reading "On Writing" by Stephen King. So far it's working quite well for me. Writing a first draft without worrying about all the rules and guidelines frees me to get on with it faster and keep the flow going once I've started.

As for transferring the film in my head onto the written pages: For me that's relatively easy. I use storyboarding techniques. I would recommend it, even if you write from inspirations other than "film in your head".

To write about places I've never been before I research them as much as possible. Obviously if I can visit without too much time and expense then I'd do that. Might be difficult for Europa though (moon of Jupiter). Google and Wikipedia are useful tools for researching whilst maintaining writer's bottom.

I'm really enjoying these questions and the plethora of varied answers on this blog. Please keep 'em coming :o)

B.E. Sanderson said...

Is it Friday already? Ack. Where did the week go?


I write a lot of places I've never visited, but since I've visited a lot of different types of places, I can usually transfer my own knowledge to the new place in question. That and Google usually get me through. (Google satellite maps are the bomb.) I'm not really in a position to travel right now, so I do what I can. For example, my current WIP has the first couple chapters set in an area where my husband used to live, so I've been picking his brain.

Usually with my first draft, I'm like captain black, I concentrate on getting the story out of my head and on paper. In subsequent drafts, I fill wherever needs it. Sometimes while I'm writing the first drafts, I'll leave notes to myself for when I edit - in red, so they stand out.

Anonymous said...

Playing the film in my head is exactly what I do whilst writing. I walk around the house, around the farm, around town and just about everywhere imagining my characters in situations in the place I currently stand. I think too much I know! Perhaps I watch too much t.v. also! The book I am now writing is based around a house similar to the one in which I live so I guess I have made it slightly easier for myself. As most of the plot focuses in and around the house, places haven't really come into it. No doubt they will eventually. I know I will have to visit Edinburgh soon for this very reason. Having only concentrated on short stories in the past I need all the advice I can get in order to get my first draft at least readable. I work from one shortish synopsis (which I typed up in January) with pencil scribble shooting out from every angle. It helps tremendously. Dare say a flirtini would help too!
CJ xx

Juliette M said...

Appletini for me - but then I am Elliot from Scrubs, according to the Lovely Bloke.

Flirtinis are what Carrie and her friends drank on the roof of Samantha's apartment building in the episode 'The Freak Show' of Sex and the City series 2, when Samantha threw the party for the transgendered hookers...

Yes I have been watching way too much SATC since I lost my job.

Anyway, this is going to sound intensely odd, but I suppose most of the places I write about are imaginary. The Faerie Court can look like anything I want. Polly's cottage and the Comic Convention ditto. I tend to make up little villages in Yorkshire or little towns in Gloucestershire because nowhere looks like I need my setting to look.

That aside, in 'Jo' I need to know about New Orleans proper, and my friend Victorian Dan has introduced me to something called Google Earth which is alarmingly wonderful. Wikipedia is helpful as well if I need to know which bars are on which street etc.

I have been told I am showing not telling, even in a first draft, because one of the things I was always told was waffly dialogue doesnt cut it in a story, you need decent description.

I have to admit though I loathe those books where the hero is described as "he looked like a shorter version of Zach Braff" or similar. I don't like to have a famous person linked to the character, it seems lazy to me. I much prefer if he's described as 'having messy dark hair, a slightly large nose, full lips and heavy eyebrows' rather than just saying 'he looks like this famous actor'.

Just my opinion though, some people may prefer the easier link version.

Lane said...

Interesting subject with great responses.
In the first draft my aim was purely to get the story down. Working through the re-write though I can see that description crept in, in bulk in some places and then none at all for several chapters. Like many of you, I don't like reading lengthy descriptive passages (Helen S - you really are not alone!) but I do appreciate being given some sensual direction, intrinsically within the narrative.

As for describing a place I've never visisted, well in the wip that problem doesn't arise. Next time I'll have a few scenes set somewhere exotic which necessitate a real life visit:-)

Right now about this Flirtini .....:-)

Oh and well done ChrisH for being so nearly there with FTT!

Have a good weekend everyone.

L-Plate Author said...

Hi everyone, sorry for my lateness, but life just got in the way!

When I was learning the craft with my previous agent, the first draft she saw she told me there wasn't enough description, guess what, the next draft had too much in it. Then I levelled off.

I tend to do like most of you, get the first draft down and then go back and embellish. But I am pretty crap at the description bits. I think it's because I hate stopping to read long paragaphs of it, so struggle when it comes to keeping mine short and sweet. And it's great when someone describes the coffee shop to me, each person sees it differently, obvious details the same but with lots of added things.

As to places, my first book is an imaginary place but based on a place where I used to work. Likewise with book two, it's the estate that I used to work on. So when I walk along 'Davy Road', no one will know where I am on the estate but me. I tell you what was a bugger though, renaming all the streets. In the end, I gave them all first names, Winston Gardens, Clarence Avenue, Tyler Street. Sounded weird at first but now they all seem to fit.

Have a great week everyone x

wordtryst said...

I'm with Helen Shearer here... "I'm stumped by this question because I don't really know how I write description."

Not on the first draft anyway. I write instinctively. On successive drafts I try to visualize the scene and tweak and discard bits and pieces until I'm fairly satisfied that what I wrote is what I imagined.


I always feel a fraud or as if I am not doing things right with this sort of question as I jsut write. I ahve tried wriitng descriptions intentioanlly but find them rather dry and dull and lackingin conviciton and I find that I jsut have to let teh film in my head dictate the plot as it goes along which can be very annoying if I want to take the opportunity to portray a particular thing only to find my characters refuse to play....mind you of course that may be why I still remain as yet unpublished!!

Sorry for arriving so late its penticost holiday her ein France and I am mothering full time mode, would any oen mind if I finsihed off what is inte h martini pitcher adn for that matter anything else left lurking in botton of barely touched glasses? No? good!!My kiln is on a long firing and I always pae like a caged tiger until its all done and cooled for fear of what may be going on inside!!

Debs said...

Sorry for being so late and thanks for the flirtini.

I tend to simply try to tell the story in my first draft and then make any corrections when I edit.

I have various eclectic bits and pieces around me in the shed, such as pictures, shells, different coloured objects around me in the shed and they inspire me for a feeling that I may need to depict.

I also don't like lengthy descriptions, however beautiful they may make the person/place sound.

Leigh said...

Apologies for lateness. This is a great question!
I really, really try to put myself in the movie rather than just watch it. That way I can draw on the sights, sounds, smells, etc., and even if I don't use all those inputs, the whole big feeling is there.

I put in more and more details as I go along. The first draft is always a bit drab.

I try to visit places if at all possible, although I am aware that this can lead to a look-where-I-went-on-holiday kind of novel. BORING! So, as with drawing on sights, sounds, smells, etc. etc., I try to use the experience to form a bigger picture.

Clare Sudbery said...

Ooh, I'm very late! I can't believe the time has flown so fast, sorry.

I'm not too bad with show not tell, but my proboem is the opposite: I ony ever describe action, and end up with very little descriptive prose - which also means that the settings remain in my head until I force myself to describe them on the page. Same with physical descriptions of people. But this has a lot to do with the fact that I don't like long descriptive prose passages in other people's work. I get very impatient, my attention drifts, and I just want to skip ahead to the action. Similarly, I'm not interested in detailed descriptions of what people look like - I'd rather make up my own versions in my own imagination, and I tend to assume the same of my own readers, but I do ten to stray too far in the opposite diorection.

As for places I haven't visited... I either just make them sketchy - if they're not important to the plot - or, for my last book, I set the whole book (God knows what possessed me to do this) in a place I'd never been to! after I'd written a couple of drafts I finially visited it. I spent a very enjoyable day exploring the whole town and its suburbs (it was only a small town) on foot, and had to revise the ms to fit, but it worked just fine. A few people who know the town wel;l have read the book, and were surprised to learn I'd only been there once. I also read a book about the place, written by a long-standing resident.