Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Writing Descriptions

I may have been a bit harsh on The Tudors yesterday. I watched some more, and unless they started cutting out even the teasing beginnings of the sex scenes for OnDemand, it seems like they settled down after the first two episodes. I guess they were trying to attract an audience by showing that history was sexy instead of boring. There was still some racy stuff later on, but it actually applied to the plot instead of like in the first couple of episodes, where it was like, "Whoops! Too much history! Better throw in some nudity, quick!" and it seemed to have nothing to do with anything else in the episode. Sam Neill is rocking my world, even playing the villain (he can be so lovable when he's the good guy, but he's such an awesome villain, too), and I got a kick out of seeing Gabrielle Anwar show up. I'm so used to her from Burn Notice that I kept expecting Fiona to drop Henry with a flying spin kick and then go blow something up. It's been a while since I studied that period of history, and now I want to go read more about it, but I think I'll wait until after I've finished watching this season so I don't get distracted through the whole thing by all the "that didn't happen that way!" thoughts. From what I do remember, I already know there are a lot of liberties taken with history.

Now, for more writing-type stuff, I learned a couple of things about myself at that conference this weekend:

1. I don't write on command. The moment someone in a workshop or seminar says, "Now, take the next five minutes to write a paragraph/25-word description, etc." my brain goes totally blank and not a single word comes to me. I just can't do it. There may be some perfectionism at work there, because I'd want whatever I come up with to be brilliant (after all, I am a published author and I'm supposed to be reasonably good at this), and that totally paralyzes me. Or else it has something to do with writing in a vacuum. I need some sense of context and world, of whose viewpoint I'm in, to write something. I can't write a description of something unless I know who's describing it. Usually, I just scribble for a while and pretend to do it but don't write anything. There are always plenty of people in those workshops who are DYING to read their examples, so I don't have to worry about being called on and not having anything. This one was even more high-pressure because we were supposed to write a description of the person sitting next to us. Ugh. Don't ask me to describe real people who are right next to me! I was so self-conscious, especially because that guy kept glancing at me like he was trying to figure out what I'd say about him.

But what's weird is that in high school I did competitive journalism, where they handed you some paper and a sheet of information, and then in an hour you wrote a feature story, editorial or news story (depending on the event), and that's essentially writing on command. I even won a number of medals doing that. I think there was more context there, though. It wasn't just pulling something out of thin air. And I was never writing about the person sitting next to me.

2. I either have too much or too little imagination to be good at writing description.
It doesn't take much to give me a vivid mental image of something. I went to a session on writing good description, and even the examples that were supposed to be really bad gave me a perfectly clear mental image. It may not have been the same image the author wanted to convey, but that description in a story wouldn't have bothered me at all because I would have seen something quite clear in my head. As a writer, I sometimes have the same bad habit in reverse. The words I write are enough to trigger the perfect image in my head, but because I have not yet developed direct mental transmission capabilities, they may not be enough to convey that image to someone else.

Sometimes, I don't even want too much description. I'd almost rather be told simply that a man is handsome because I can come up with my own version of handsome that works for me. In that case, a vague description is better than a more detailed one, especially if I don't agree with the author about what "handsome" is. I hate it when there's too much description of someone, so that I get a clear picture of someone who totally turns me off, and then I'm supposed to think of him as really hot. That's a big reason I'm not a huge fan of comic books or graphic novels. I want to come up with my own mental images. I don't even much like quasi-realistic depictions of characters on the cover of a book.

I'm also very literal-minded, so often the creative similes and metaphors don't work very well for me. I picture what the description literally says, which is often rather amusing, rather than getting the symbolic allusion. I usually know where they're going with it and what they're trying to say, but the first thing that pops into my head is usually the literal meaning (which is one reason I seldom swear -- the literal meaning of most common obscene phrasings is usually either absolutely ridiculous or incredibly disgusting).

But one thing I carried away from the sessions on clear writing and description I went to was that good description is concrete, and often the simplest words are the most concrete. I think my literal mind can work with that.

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