Thursday, November 15, 2012

Descriptive Language in Fiction: Cerebral vs. Visceral


Recently I came across on article on a blog called YA Stands (a great writing blog, by the way, check it here) titled, “Physical Telling: Action Speaks Louder Than Body Parts!” by Nicole Steinhaus (September 10, 2012). Nicole’s article got my attention. Here’s what she said:

“[W]riters rely too heavily on body parts – specifically the heart, lungs, guts, mouths, eyes, cheeks – to show character reactions/feelings/responses. It’s natural, I suppose, to fall back on the most obvious degree of description (aside from flat-out telling the emotion), but that’s the problem – it’s obvious, it’s easy, and guess what? It’s lazy.”

Wow! When I read that, my heart started to race and I felt a sweat break out on my brow. *wink* 

If Ms. Steinhaus doesn’t want to hear about a character’s physical reaction to stimulus or be told the feelings, what does she want to see on the page? In order to illustrate how writers (in her opinion) should write, she quotes from John Green’s Looking for Alaska:

"Dolores insisted that Alaska and I share the bed, and she slept on the pull-out while the Colonel was out in his tent. I worried he would get cold, but frankly I wasn’t about to give up my bed with Alaska. We had separate blankets, and there were never fewer than three layers between us, but the possibilities kept me up half the night."

Steinhaus goes on to explain that she loves this example because author Green “didn’t fall back on the obvious reaction Miles would be having sleeping next to the girl he loves and can’t have. No doubt Miles’s heart was racing and his breath was rapid, palms sweaty – all those nervous reactions.” She points out that the last line of the quote says more.

I agree with everything Steinhaus said in this brief blog post. She’s absolutely right to point to John Green as the master of this sort of descriptive language. I reviewed The Fault in Our Stars here on my blog and think that John Green has written one of the best YA books ever written – maybe one of the best books ever penned.

But for a few days after reading the post, I found myself stymied in my writing. I could see what Steinhaus was saying, and I agreed with her that John Green's work was amazing, his descriptions reflecting his command of language. I felt like, if I need to write like John Green, well, I might as well give up. I mean come on, John Green! He's a master of craft, and more adept than most anybody at creating just that kind of description Steinhaus quoted above. And he doesnt' just spit out one or two gems like that per book - he creates whole books written like that.

I've been known to describe a knotted stomach, a racing heart, or sweaty palms and such. I asked myself, "Am I a lazy writer?" If one relies on physical - or what I prefer to call sensory description - does that imply poor or lazy writing? 

Fortunately, another voice from the writing world came across my vision a few days after I read the Steinhaus post. I’ve recently taken up the calling of reading the Game of Thrones. George R.R. Martin had me hooked just a few pages into the first of his tomes. When I came across an ode to Game of Thrones cookbook, my curiosity was piqued.
This is a lengthy quote from the Introduction to the cookbook, but stick with me. It will all become clear in the end. Here is what George R.R. Martin said in the Introduction to A Feast of Ice and Fire: The Official Game of Thrones Companion Cookbook:

“It is true that I spend a lot of words in my books describing the meals my characters are eating. More than most writers, I suspect. This does draw a certain amount of criticism from those readers and reviewers who like a brisker pace . . . Whether it is a seventy-seven course wedding banquet or some outlaws sharing salt beef and apples around a campfire; these critics don’t want to hear about it unless it advances the plot.

I bet they eat fast food while they’re typing too.

I have a different outlook on these matters. I write to tell a story, and telling a story is not at all the same as advancing the plot. If the plot was all that mattered, none of us wouldn’t read novels at all. The Cliff Notes would suffice. All you’ll miss is . . . well, everything." (Emphasis added)

Not your slave … George RR Martin
George R.R. Martin, Photo by Karolina Webb
When I read this quote from George R.R. Martin, I was immediately thrust in my mind back to the Steinhaus article. Now, Ms. Steinhaus is not arguing that there should be no physical description, but she is expressing a preference for what I'll call rational descriptions for feelings. You may also call it cerebral. The writer takes a visceral feeling, like Miles' lust, and uses language to describe it in a way that requires your brain to get involved to puzzle it out. ". . .there were never fewer than three layers between us, but the possibilities kept me up half the night." The readers needs to noodle on this  to ferret out what John Green means. I refer to this as cerebral writing.

And I'm not sure there could be a larger contrast to this type of writing than George R.R. Martin. If John Green is cerebral, then George R.R. Martin is visceral. Here are a few examples of George R.R. Martin's descriptions from A Game of Thrones (Book 1):
"Bran's heart was thumping in his chest as he pushed through a waist-high drift to his brothers' side.
Half-buried in bloodstained snow, a huge dark shape slumped in death. Ice had formed in its shaggy grey fur, and the faint smell of corruption clung to it like a woman's perfume."
.      .      .
 "Dread coiled within her like a snake, but she forced herself to smile at this man she loved, this man who put no faith in signs."
These are but a few examples, culled from the first chapter of the first book in the Game of Thrones (GoT) series, but I think you can see the marked difference in descriptive language each author uses. The GoT is high fantasy. Martin relies on the senses to pull readers into his fictional world. He describes in detail the smells, sights, sounds, and tastes of his fictional world. But he also describes the internal visceral feelings and sensations of his characters. "Bran's heart was thumping in his chest. . ." We all know what that feels like. No need to use cerebral description here. This author wants to put you in Bran's shoes; he wants you to feel that way Bran feels. Sometimes a simple, to the point "heart thumping in his chest" is the best way to do that.

I would hardly call Martin a "lazy" writer. The man can consistently maintain no less than a dozen different "voices" throughout his 700+ page books!

I would argue that both of these writers, John Green and George R.R. Martin, are masters of their genre and masters of craft. They have two diametrically opposed writing styles, but both work.

As I compared these two writers and prepared this post, it reminded me of how we must not get bogged down in didactic truisms, quoted from all corners by those who claim to know the "truth". It also reminded me that we can learn from all kinds of writers. The best writing teachers, in my opinion, are the ones who recommend that you read - a lot - in all kinds of genres and styles. Then, as you sift through it all and allow it to percolate in you, your own style will emerge. Maybe you're a "cerebral" writer like Green. Or perhaps a more visceral writer like Martin. Or maybe you're a little bit of both.

Write what is in you to write, and write it the way that you prefer.

What do you think? As a reader, which type of writer do you enjoy reading more - a John Green-type cerebral writer? Or a George R.R. Martin-esque visceral writer? Do you have the patience for description, or do you skim over it? Which author do you prefer to read, John Green or George R.R. Martin?

If you're a writer, sound off in the comments and tell me what you think about this.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

NaNoWriMo Week 1: Ass Cramps, Dark Chocolate & The Stats

Greetings from NaNoWriMo Land (that's Nat'l Novel Writing Month for those who can't read gibberish). Thirty days, 50,000 words.

Last year was my first year as a participant in one of the looniest pledges I've ever signed on for. It was a fool's errand. "Hey, let's try to write 50,000 words in the  same month that you launch your first novel," my subconscious said. I should have bitch-slapped myself, but instead I signed up for the craziness.

But lo and behold, somehow or other I managed to "win" NaNo last year. I banged my fingers on the keyboard until I had pounded out 50,000 words in just thirty days. Okay, truth be told, to get my word count I wrote almost 10,000 words the last day. (Don't try that one at home kids. I couldn't hold a pen in my hand for two days and I swear, a year later, I still have an ass cramp from it.)

Here I sit, a year later, and I did what I swore back then that I would never do again. I signed up for another month of self-punishment, sore shoulders, and self-induced pressure to create a 50,000 word masterpiece in thirty days. Wait, scratch masterpiece. I'm just hoping that most of the time I use complete sentences and that when I go back to read over my draft, I haven't just typed the same word over and over again until the word count says 50,000.

We're at the end of week one and I can say that I'm feeling slightly less like I want to punch myself in the head for signing on to this than I did a week ago. I've not only been able to put butt in chair and write every day (despite some strange happenings that could have been roadblocks), but I'm having fun with the ideas that are flowing. Mind you, I did not say pleased with the writing. The writing is crap so far. But if I learned anything my first year of NaNo, it is this: Don't worry about the writing. Don't focus on crafting beautiful prose. Instead, focus on letting the ideas flow and have fun!

Before November 1 rolled around, I worked the snowflake (as I suggested others try in this post), and I felt good about my plan when I typed the first word just seven days ago. Two days in, I didn't like the feel of what I was producing following my plan, so I melted the snowflake and told the characters to show me their story. That's when things got interesting. I've got some rudimentary pieces, now, of what the novel will become. I'm starting to see the structure that the story is dictating. And as always, my muse is so much wiser than me. The story that's unfolding is much more complex than the one I'd originally planned - and more intriguing. It will be unlike anything that I've done before and I'm enjoying the feel of stretching my writing muscles in this new - sometimes scary- way.

So without further ado, here are my stats for week 1:

15,466 - The number of words typed so far
22 - the number of cans of Diet Coke swilled during week 1
1 - number of trips to the hospital for a surgery on my 10 year old daughter's broken finger
122 - the number of times my daughter called out 'Mom!' over a three-day period while recovering from surgery (Okay, I'm making that number up and it's probably an exaggeration, but it sure felt like that many.)
21 - the number of Hershey's Dark Chocolate kisses eaten during week 1 (Okay, I'm making that number up too. I stop counting after my allotted three each day. Probably safe to assume it's double that ;-)
2 - Number of hours each day, on average, I write to produce my word count.

In conclusion, week one felt good. I've been rewriting/revising two novels for the past 11 months, so I'm enjoying producing completely new material. And so far, I have not allowed the detritus of life (there's always something) to stand in the way of my commitment to myself to get this story told.

Next hurdle on the horizon: Sister-in-law visiting and staying in our house, while her brother (my husband) competes in a 60-mile bike race, leaving me to entertain said sister-in-law. Any suggestions?!

How about you? Are you participating in NaNoWriMo this year? If so, what strategies do you employ to stay true to your commitment and write each day? And please feel free to share any stats you'd like in the comments :-)

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