Thursday, January 5, 2012

Writing Tip---Are You An Over-Describer?

I wish I could describe to you how amazing and wonderful it's been to get rid of two grocery bags full of paper. Paper that I'd been hanging onto for years, for no apparent reason.

You see, I have two corners of my bedroom that have paper piles in them. And it is one of my goals for this year to get rid of all of that. It overwhelms me to look at all of it, (because there's a lot) so I've been following Flylady's advice of doing it fifteen minutes at a time. So every day, I get out a pile of it and go through it for fifteen minutes. And mostly, throw it away while wondering why I kept it in the first place. I certainly didn't need it, but obviously at one time thought I might, so I held onto all that clutter.

I was thinking about how I'm actually the opposite in my reading and writing habits. I really don't like over-description and "clutter words" at all and go out of my way to avoid it, (unlike my cluttery paper room). As a former reporter, (I almost wrote reformed there, haha!) economy of words is a big deal. When you only have two inches to get the story across, you learn quickly to cut down on any flowery words and get to the point. And my books have kind of followed the same thing, but of course I've gone back to add layers and description to fill in my blanks so to speak, and overcome my habit of being too stark in my writing.

As a reader I must say when I come across over-description I roll my eyes and try to skip that part. You know what I'm talking about, things like, "The emerald green eyes crackled with anger, staring daggers over my fast-fluttering heart." First of all, can anyone tell me why characters with green eyes can't have something other than emerald eyes? (My eyes are green and I have to admit I was a teeny bit proud of that until I got told they were more of a swamp green. That humbled me.) And how can eyes crackle with anger? I think I'd freak out if someone's eyes started crackling and I witnessed it. (I imagine it sort of like the Emperor's eyes when he's got Luke on the floor and is electrocuting him with his laser stare in Return of the Jedi, maybe?) But, you get my point. It's the over-description that weighs the writing down and takes you out of the story.

As a reader, there's really nothing you can do about over-description. As a writer, however you can be on the lookout for a few telltale signs.

1. If you've used a list to describe something---you might be an over-describer. She was a fair-haired girl, a little plump, with short stubby legs, and thick-rimmed glasses. Laundry lists like that are always a sign that you are telling your stories instead of showing it. Delete and be more subtle.

2. If you have an entire page of setting description with nothing else---you might be an over-describer. Giving your reader setting details is important, but you have to sprinkle it in among your dialogue and characters. Balance is the key.

3. This one sort of goes along with the last one. If you've described everything down to the cracks in the sidewalk---you might be an over-describer. Pick and choose the details that you are describing. Your reader generally doesn't need to know every tiny thing (unless it's pertinent to the plot). I once heard the advice that everything that you include in your book, each character, each scene, each snippet of dialogue, should all be a thread in your plot, something pertinent that furthers your story. If it doesn't, then delete it.

4. If you have a lot of "ly" verbs, you might be an over-describer. "She talked angrily to her fetchingly handsome beau", "she said firmly to herself as she lovingly stroked the achingly beautiful flower," "he slammed his hand down forcefully." You get the picture.

The key to description is subtlety and pertinence. I know you've all heard it said that a novel is like a beautiful painting, the shades of light and dark, the layers of effort and realistic portrayal evident. But nothing extraneous is included, each image, each background piece adds to the enjoyment of the painting.

So, just like I'm throwing out papers that I don't need, but thought I might one day, throw out the extra stuff. You don't need it no matter how much you think you do. Don't be an over-describer. Make your words count.

9 comments:

Debra Erfert said...

LOL! You are doing what I did at the beginning of last year. I made a promise to myself--without it being a nasty resolution--that I would get rid of all the excess paperwork that had gathered, well, everywhere. I never threw anything way, really. Those ads that came in the mail might be needed sometime in the future, after all. Or, what if my Jeep needed that oil change from the dealership even though I take it down to the Quik-e-lube for less than their "special offer"?

There were bags and boxes of opened envelopes, of banks statements, of thank-you cards, of receipts, of trash mail, of--of junk that I set aside on the counter until they turned into stacks, until I placed them into bags with the promise I'd go through them and rip up anything that had the potential of identity theft on them. But . . . I always had something else to do. Finally, last year I made that goal. I didn't take the 15 minute task time like you are doing, Julie. I hunkered down and plowed through the dirty paperwork until my hands were black, my back was killing me, and my shredder overheated in protest.

Throughout this past year I've kept my promise. As the mail comes in, I immediately tear up the junk mail, and file the bank statements, and coerce my husband into dealing with his mail as quickly as possible. I am glad to say I don't have even the smallest of piles anymore. My counters and tabletop can be seen without unnecessary clutter, and I can tell you, after you are finished, you will have a feeling of freedom--and extra square footage, too.

I'm reading one of those "over-describers" right now. I laughed out loud when you wrote "Her emerald green eyes crackled with anger, staring like daggers over my fast-fluttering heart." I swear, you took that line from this Regency I'm reading. I, too, have green eyes. Not emerald. In fact, they're very dark green, and they've never crackled, even when I'm very angry and I'd like to throw daggers at--well, never mind at whom.

I don't describe enough. That is one area in which I'm deficit. You've given me some great pointers today. Thanks.

Janice Sperry said...

My emerald green eyes have never crackled. Lovingly sparkled with achingly beautiful beauty? Yes.

How do you know if there is too much description? If you forget what is happening while the author pauses to describe the drop dead gorgeous man with bulging biceps and ice-cold eyes that look into your soul with a power you've never felt before.

Flylady rocks. I used the 15 min a day thing to clean out my basement. The area that was deemed the major dumping ground had to be cleared so we could put in another bedroom. It's amazing what you can do in 15 min.

Jordan McCollum said...

I don't have green eyes. Poor me. (My daughter does, though. Actually, I think they might be more hazel. And interestingly, in Russian, the word for hazel eyes is "swamp-colored." So there you go, Julie. Was the person who told you this of Russian descent? ;)

You know what else is funny? When you said "over-describer," the first person who leapt to my mind, a man who "never met a detail he didn't like," was also a reporter. A famous one, too. I wouldn't hesitate to name him, but I've only read one of his books and that was co-written, so I don't really know, I've just heard.

Jon Spell said...

If you want over-description, I don't think you can beat that one chapter in the Princess Bride where they describe packing all the luggage. [SKIM]

Tracy Krauss said...

Excellent tips on keeping it meaningful. I also like the 15 minute idea - it probably works for a lot of jobs that one avoids ...

Primarymary said...

My blue eyes don't crackle woith anger but they do turn emerald green when I'm extremely angry.
As a reader I usually don't keep reading if there is too much over description.
My grandmother's friend wrote a novel in the 70s. She spent the 1st 5 pages ddescribing the tree outside the window. I never got past the 1st chapter.

Melanie Goldmund said...

I used to think I was an underdescriber, but then I got my review of my 2010 Christmas story from LDS Publisher, and she mentioned that it was so heavy on description that it slowed the story down. On the other hand, my characters, especially the main one, hadn't been developed well enough. So perhaps I am a mal-describer. Not Mal as in Malcolm Reynolds from Firefly, nice though that would be, but mal as in wrong, concentrating on the things that weren't necessary snd leaving out other things that were obviously more vital. Ah, well, live and write and learn, as they say.

Debra Erfert said...

I love, love, loooove Firefly, Melanie.

Brittany said...

I'm starting to edit and think I definitely fit into the over describer catagory.

BTW, did you ever get the reply I sent you to the last email you sent me?