One of the things that I learned from doing the 2nd workshop assignment is something that I already knew, but that I hadn’t revisited. I mean, I guess I thought I’d fixed it, but now I know that I haven’t. The fact is, I’m not very good at describing setting. I fall back too much on details that are generic on the page even though I have a good picture of them in my head.
A few years ago, I tried to refocus on describing places. I took pictures and tried to describe them in words to practice. But I still ran into the fact that I will use a word and assume that it means to everyone what it means to me. It doesn’t. A noun alone is rarely sufficient. I need to consider that I could have readers from all over the world, with experiences that cause their word definitions to differ from mine significantly. A house is not a house is not a house.
I’m going to blame Hemingway for my spare setting descriptions- not the writer himself, but the way that his writing is taught in classes. There was a certain fawning admiration on the part of several instructors in my writing classes for the simplicity of his prose. An emphasis came about that a story should have the fewest words possible to convey what it needed to convey. The problem was, no one taught which words were the necessary ones. It was just – cut! cut! cut!
Too much description would bog the story down.
Less is more.
In a way, I can’t blame instructors of writing for having that attitude. When faced with the prospect of reading 20 student written stories, an emphasis on shorter probably saves their sanity. But it doesn’t do the students much good.
With my backpacking books, I focused less on describing setting in the first couple because I was leaning on my pictures. I didn’t need to place the reader in a setting – that’s what the pictures were for! But starting with The Wild Coast I began to try and use those little black marks on the page to put the reader in a place. A very specific place, with a specific emotion. And I continued that with ICT: Sawtooths, writing the reader into the scene more often than pointing them at the pictures.
So now I need to bring that attitude into my fiction writing. Define the place as the character sees it. Make the reader see what I see in my mind, using the magic of little black marks on a page.