Conniption over Description

 

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When I write dialogue for my YA novel, I love thinking up what characters will say.

And as for action, I could create scenes all day. (Well, maybe not all day.)

But description? I seem to avoid it like the plague. Because for me, it’s the hardest thing to get right. How much should I add? How little? Too much is boring. Not enough and the reader can’t be there with the characters in the scene.

It also feels as though the pressure is on to create the best descriptive sentence I can.

Or to try and make up the best simile. Such as….“Elderly American ladies leaning on their canes listed toward me like towers of Pisa.” — Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov

When I see lots of descriptive prose in a novel, (also called “narrative lumps” – I thought that phrase was funny), I tend to skim or skip onward to the dialogue and action, because I like forward movement, and I want things to happen.

For this particular novel, the description needs to come from the mind of a thirteen–year-old boy. What would he notice? How would he describe his surroundings?

Off to the internet for help.

Some tactics I picked up:

I need to fit the description to the type of story. Luckily, my novel is action-oriented and too much description would get in the way of the pacing.

I should use bits of description in combination with the action. That way, I’ll blend it into the story.

Here’s some good advice on how to describe people from Carve Magazine.

I should keep in mind the five senses. Most writers rely on sight and sound. I should also describe smell and touch and taste

I like to study how the masters do it. A few examples…

“Off in the west a humpbacked moon lay stranded, colorless as a jellyfish. The air, utterly still, carried a fragrance of wood smoke mixed with the sweetness of mown grass that rose from the lawn.” Wallace Stegner, The Spectator Bird

“Behind a scarred littered table a man with a fierce roach of iron gray hair peered at us over steel spectacles.” William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury

“In our bedroom there are about twenty small glass prisms hung with fishing line from one of the exposed beams; they catch the morning light and we stare at them like a cat eyeing catnip help above its head.” Ann Beattie, “The Burning House”

And lastly, I loved every single thing about Elmore Leonard’s writing tips. Especially, “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”

The above is photo from a recent trip to Argentina. I should try and describe it here, but I don’t want to!

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Matthew Bruccoli On Writers and Writing

searchI interviewed Matthew Bruccoli in 2006 in Columbia, South Carolina for a biannual literary journal I edited and published.  He was my writing mentor and my neighbor. Read on to find out his strong opinions on all things literary! (This is a condensed version of the interview.)

Matthew Bruccoli was a bookman.  He wrote or edited over 60 books on Fitzgerald, Hemingway, O’Hara, Cozzens and Wolfe. But before all the scholarship, there was a teen-aged boy with a copy of The Portable F. Scott Fitzgerald. According to Bruccoli, “If ever a book changed a man’s life, that book changed this man’s life, which is how literature works.” From that point on, a literary obsession began, and 12,000 Fitzgerald items later, the Matthew J. and Arlyn Bruccoli Collection of F. Scott Fitzgerald is now housed at the University of South Carolina and is available to students, scholars and the public.

Lord: I read somewhere that the first time you heard Fitzgerald, you were riding with your parents along the Merritt Parkway from Connecticut to New York when a dramatization of one of his works came on the radio.

Bruccoli: The first time I heard Fitzgerald’s name was on a radio broadcast on a Sunday afternoon. It was “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz.” The next day, Monday, I went to my high-school library to find anything by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Nothing. 1949. Nothing. It took me about a week to find a copy ofThe Great Gatsby, and it ruined my life.

Lord. Ruined it or made it?

Bruccoli: I’ve spent going on 60 years reading, rereading, collecting, researching, publishing, editing, and writing about F. Scott Fitzgerald. Consequently, I’ve squandered my life in English Departments and with the book-dopes who are in charge of university libraries. The son of a bitch ruined my life. But he compensated by giving me his daughter. Scottie was the pay-off. Becoming Scottie’s collaborator and friend in 1969-70 was just what I needed to stimulate my work, my commitment.

Lord: What more can you tell me about her?

Bruccoli: She had the best manners of anyone I’d ever known.

Lord: How old was she when her father died?

Bruccoli: Her father died in 1940, and she was born in 1921. So she was 19.

Lord: What was their relationship like?

Bruccoli: Before her mother became hospitalized in 1930, she had what was apparently as nice a life as a child could have, because her parents always saw to it that she had good nannies. When her mother, the tragic Zelda, became institutionalized in 1930, everything changed. Also, at that point her father’s drinking became worse, and she was old enough to realize her father was an alcoholic. Although she never complained and had no self-pity, her teens must have been appalling until she went off to college and had a good time at Vassar.

Lord: What an honor it must have been to know her.  Speaking of her father, I love this quote by Raymond Chandler about Fitgerald’s writing: “He had one of the rarest qualities in all literature…the word is charm—charm as Keats would have used it. Who has it today? It’s not a matter of pretty writing or clear style. It’s a kind of subdued magic, controlled and exquisite, the sort of thing you get from good string quartets.”

Bruccoli: I would have used the word warmth instead of charm;but yes, there’s one of the great stylists, Raymond Chandler, recognizing what only another great writer can recognize: the quality of the miraculous in Fitzgerald’s writing.

Lord: I remember you once talked to me about the different voices writers had, and you said Fitzgerald makes love to the reader.

Bruccoli: That’s right. Fitzgerald woos the reader. Hemingway threatens the reader. Fitzgerald says love me, reader. I want you to love me because I love you. Hemingway says if you don’t like my book, you’re a pansy and I’m going to beat the hell out of you.

Lord: What about Faulkner? What would his voice be?

Bruccoli: I don’t understand Faulkner. I’m a Yankee. When I read Faulkner, I think he’s conning the Yankees.

Lord: I, myself, am very intimidated by Faulkner, but I’m curious what you find difficult in his writing?

Bruccoli: Well, the writing is self-indulgent. If you’re Faulkner, you can get away with it. Hemingway, who resented Faulkner, said that he, Hemingway, could always tell the exact point at which Faulkner had had one drink too many when he was writing.

Lord: That’s funny, but Hemingway was a bit of a drinker himself, was he not?

Bruccoli: With negligible exceptions, every great America writer in the 20th century was an alcoholic. What is the connection between alcoholism and literary creativity? There’s got to be one. Too many cases for it to be sheer peradventure.

Lord: Was Thomas Wolfe an alcoholic?

Bruccoli: Thomas Wolfe was a drunk. Fitzgerald was a drunk. Hemingway was a drunk. John O’Hara was a drunk. Raymond Chandler was a drunk. Dashiell Hammet was a drunk. Sinclair Lewis was a drunk…. The others were steady drinkers.

Lord: But, at one point, didn’t O’Hara quit drinking?

Bruccoli: He quit drinking in 1954 and never took another drink.

Lord: Did his writing style change?

Bruccoli: His writing did not suffer. He wrote Ten North Frederick sober. He wrote Imagine Kissing Pete sober.

Lord: How did O’Hara get his job as a writer?

Bruccoli: Before there were creative-writing programs and creative writing degrees, most—if not most, then many—young ambitious writers started off as reporters. John O’Hara, Ernest Hemingway. Fitzgerald tried to get a job as a reporter, but he couldn’t get one.

Lord: I read a statement by the writer Louis Begley, saying that, “In his fiction, O’Hara never showed off and never allowed an effect of style to call attention to the writing and distract the reader from the narrative.” Would you agree with that?

Bruccoli: Yeah. You read Fitzgerald and you can’t escape from Fitzgerald’s style. But O’Hara wrote in an unostentatious, non-idiosyncratic style. O’Hara wrote to Steinbeck that “Fitzgerald was a better writer than all of us put together. Just words writing.” But nobody did what O’Hara did as well as he did it. O’Hara’s material is what defines O’Hara’s fiction.  And his marvelous control of detail. Much better than Fitzgerald’s. Fitzgerald is often unreliable with facts. Fitzgerald was a gloriously gifted storyteller as well as a brilliant stylist. Begley is right in saying that O’Hara’s style doesn’t call attention to itself.

Lord: So, O’Hara was well known for his New Yorker stories and Fitzgerald for his Saturday Evening Post stories.

Bruccoli: During his lifetime, Fitzgerald was best known as a Post writer. Not as the author of The Great Gatsby. Not as the author of Tender is the Night. Most of Fitzgerald’s 160 stories were published in the Post. Fitzgerald gave the Post what they wanted, and they paid him a peak of $4000 a story. When Fitzgerald got $4000 a story that would be damn near $40,000 a story today.

Lord: Times have changed.

Bruccoli: I remember, for example, hearing Kurt Vonnegut say that when he was starting out as a writer after World War II, if he could sell two short stories a year to mass-circulation magazines, that was enough to support him. Not well, but enough to put food on the table while he was working on novels.

Lord: We haven’t talked about any female writers. I’ll throw out the name, Eudora Welty.

Bruccoli: I met Miss Welty. Greatly respected her.

Lord: How do you think women have fared in the literary world?

Bruccoli: Women writers have had it harder than men. Male writers don’t get pregnant. The odds, which are high against any writer, were higher for women writers. I’m pleased that in the past ten, maybe twenty years, more and more women writers are being published, and are being well published, because they deserve a break.

Lord: So do you think one can be taught how to write?

Bruccoli: Once upon a time, even in my life-time, creative writing courses were regarded with suspicion, and creative- writing degrees were unheard of. When I was at Yale, we had two opportunities to study so-called creative writing. There was a course called “Daily Themes” in which students wrote five papers a week. The other was a writing course taught by Robert Penn Warren, which I took. Except that it wasn’t a course in writing. We talked about literature. I remember a discussion we had–that is to say, he talked and we listened–on Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King. You were also expected to hand in short stories; and maybe he read them, and maybe he didn’t. I don’t think Mr. Warren felt that he could teach writing, but we had a wonderful time. And there were no lies. There were no cons. There were no false expectations. There were no promises. “Take my course and you’ll be a successful writer.” “Take my course and you’ll be published.” There was none of that.

Lord: What do you think of the all the creative writing programs that have cropped up since you were at Yale?

Bruccoli: I think they are often unintentionally, inadvertently cruel.

Lord: How so?

Bruccoli: They generate impossible hopes and expectations in wannabe writers. A good writer, a very good writer is a miracle. For all the people who write, try to write, want to write or think of themselves as writers, only a small percentage actually have the ability to write well. Of that percentage, a tiny percentage have the determination, the courage, the ambition, and in some cases, the ruthlessness, to succeed. Being a writer is a great, great crap shoot.

Lord: You once said that, “The writings that turn out to be literature are frequently ignored or savaged at the time of their initial publication.”

Bruccoli: When you and I are sitting here fifty years from today, we will be talking about great authors with worldwide reputations it would not occur to us, now, today, to identify as giants of literature.

Lord: That’s a good positive way to end. I like that.

Bruccoli: Well, that’s good, because the tape’s over.