Friday, May 15, 2015

Contrarianism and Congratulations (Self- and Otherwise)

By Art Taylor

Yesterday, Alan Orloff offered the post "Down with Description" in response to this week's question: "What's easiest and hardest to write: action, description, dialogue, or something else?"

Ironically perhaps, description is the thing I most enjoy writing—though that's not to insist that it's the thing my readers might most enjoy reading. Elmore Leonard's writing rules have persisted in popular culture for some very basic reasons. But as a short story writer, I have to point out that there may be a difference in descriptive passages in a novel versus in a story. Leonard wrote that "you don't want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill"—and that's likely good advice. But in a short story, where there's little room for excess at all, everything has to serve more than one purpose. Description isn't just description; it's also character or plot or theme or some combination of those folded into what looks on the surface like scene setting.

I had the great fortune a few weeks ago of being one of the first authors to contribute to B.K. Stevens' new blog "The First Two Pages," in which authors reflect on craft choices in the opening passages of their novels or short stories, and I ended up doing a big of reflecting on a long descriptive passage at the start of my story "The Odds Are Against Us"—with my own nod to Leonard's words. Here's an excerpt from my commentary on Stevens' blog—discussing how a description of the bar provides a portrait of both the bartender Terry and of the narrator, who's not only his current patron but also a friend:

Throughout the story, I wanted Terry to seem not just earnest but genuine in his friendship—guileless, generous, handing across that perfectly mixed gimlet with pride. I recognize (oh, how I do) that the long description of the bar is likely too much for a short story. Why not just sketch out the scene quickly? Why all that description? Isn’t this the very thing that Elmore Leonard’s Rule #9 warned all of us not to do? But I wasn’t intending to so much sketch out the place as to explain something fuller about Terry himself: more about that pride (“Murphy’s oil”), that attention to detail of his (“wiping everything clean, dusting and polishing the glasses, checking the fittings on the taps), the desire to create a sense of hominess (“some coal… on a winter's night”). I also intended the description to echo in a different way the whole idea of what’s real and what’s not (and maybe what’s lasting and what’s momentary): “The bar was old school—not the slick mahogany and fresh brass and fancy martinis of some of those steakhouses that were cropping up downtown, trying to look like somebody. No, this was the real deal.” I hope there’s also a hint that experience has left scars, and that those experiences and those scars have a realness and a weight and a persistence too: “Black walnut bar top dinged and scratched over the years. Parts of it so sticky from spilt beer and liquor that they could hardly be cleaned….”

The full column can be found here.

In short, I love to write a detailed description—but I also try to have such passages serve a number of purposes.

As for what's hardest to write...well, that could be any of it at one time or another. I struggle at each stage of the process sometimes—inevitably. These days, I feel like I'm struggling with all of them.

In other news, I want to say how thrilled I am to have won the Agatha Award two weeks back for the short story I've been talking about here and how thrilled I am that both "The Odds Are Against Us" and my fellow Criminal Minds panelist Paul D. Marks' story "Howling at the Moon" have been named as finalists for this year's Anthony Awards, to be presented at Bouchercon 2015 in Raleigh, NC. (All the finalists can be found here, along with links to each of our stories.) Paul already gave a shout-out about this news in his column last Friday, but just wanted to add my congratulations to him here as well.


Paul D. Marks said...

Art, I agree with you that description should work on more than one level. But I find myself missing description in a lot of present day writing, even if it’s only working on one level, that of setting the scene, tone or mood (or is that three levels?). So many people would say, “Joe walked into a bar” and pretty much expect the reader to fill in the rest. I’m not saying description (or backstory) should go on for 300 pages like in some novels of the 1800s – I exaggerate, but not by much. But a little more would be welcomed these days, at least by me.

And thank you for the congratultions re: the Anthony. Believe me, it was totally unexpected, but very cool. And I’m in good company!

Art Taylor said...

Thanks, Paul! And I agree. In my first writing group in the MFA program, a friend always insisted on some description of place, of a person, of whatever--where so many of us just jumped into dialogue or action without regard to the rest of it. I think he was right. It's all about balance, though, as you're suggesting.

Paul D. Marks said...

I come from a screenwriting background where there's almost no description and what there is is very utilitarian. So for me it's a luxury I like to sink my teeth into at least somewhat. Though I know that today everything has to be more focused on action and plot and moving the plot forward.

Also, it took me some to be able to write description at all. And people said my early attempts at novels or short stories read too much like screenplays. And I'm still working on improving it.

Susan C Shea said...

The key point, and you made it perfectly, is that description has to perform several functions. I think it's equally important in the long form - the novel - as in the short story. It gives us clues about character, about plot, about the environment that will influence the story. I don't enjoy novels that skimp on description (I like Trollope, which gives you a clue about my tastes!) because I feel the story is flat without that contextual material. I'm heading over to read the blog now - sounds like a great idea for a blog.

RJ Harlick said...

I love writing description too, Art, and agree that it has to be integrated into the story so that it almost becomes a character in itself. Congratulations to both you and Paul for your Anthony nominations.