Via: Daily Prompt – Soil
The cold was bitter, different from New England’s. Outside the city the wind spilled across the sweeping, open land dotted with abandoned farm machinery and old houses buckling in on themselves. You wouldn’t think such houses were habitable, but once in a while there would be a tacked-up sheet in the doorway, or plastic nailed over the windows, and the trace of smoke from a chimney.”
~ Brown, Karen. “The Clairvoyants.” Henry Holt and Co., 2017
I finished reading this book over the weekend. And like most well-written (or poorly written, for that matter) novels throughout my reading experience, it left me with a heightened sense of awareness of that “something-something” to consciously add to in my own work. After all, authors learn by reading the works of other authors. I thought, for this month’s blog hop, I would review some of this novel’s more beautifully written passages to summarize how fiction can be enhanced by adding descriptive imageries that are carefully composed and artfully woven to match the subject of the story [I’ll try my best to titillate without giving away any irrevocable spoilers]:
Relevance. Without a doubt, the prose was the strongest suit in The Clairvoyants. Brown approached its various outdoor and indoor sceneries to set the mood for this novel with poetic gusto, addressing both the mental state of the story’s protagonist, Martha, and the themes that adhered to the overall plot, i.e. an observant and slightly self-absorbed young woman with the ability to “see dead people” and a sense of victimhood towards her entire life, who stumbles upon a potential murder mystery when she is abandoned in a new environment. In fact, the landscape mirrors the one prevailing ethos of every character in the novel, who make a motley group of disturbingly selfish individuals, gravitating towards one another in search of companionship one moment and then forsaking each other the next.
Now, beyond my mother’s profile at the wheel of the car, Route 79 wound alongside green swaths of hills still damp from the recent rain. This was an isolated valley with a poor yearly sunlight allotment and haphazard cell phone reception—another version of a sanatorium, a place my mother could tuck me away, the way you pressed a photograph into the back of a drawer—and be free of me. But I might be free of her, too, and I might find someone else to love me.”
Precision. A bit of mastery in the medium of your writing can go a long way – and, of course, shorten the sentences. Words hold connotations that pose parity even among synonyms. Instead of depending on generic nouns and verbs to describe each action, character, object, or surrounding, knowing specific words to allocate to them will not only contribute to their appropriate portrayal but also provide the reader with a richer sensory experience. Obviously, this means having a strong vocabulary is important but does it also mean you need to swallow the dictionary? If you can, kudos to you; otherwise, do a little extra research on each subject matter you introduce in the story, as Brown has in this novel when labeling architectural attributes.
The house stood on a street of similarly grand old places, each shaded by a tree, their roots disrupting the cement sidewalks in front. Mine was a brick Italianate house with a wide cornice and elaborately carved brackets and window caps. The apartment was up a staircase that once might have been glamorous when the house was still a single-family residence. The place had been advertised as a “studio.” I would be living in one room with a twelve-foot ceiling, a decorative fireplace, and an efficiency-sized stove, sink, and refrigerator—so small they seemed like playhouse furnishings.”
Economy. We all know about the taboo on overusing adjectives and adverbs. Adjectives and adverbs are to be preserved for blurbs, and yet, funnily, that is where authors tend to scrimp thanks to a misguided sense of modesty – but that is a topic for another day. Furthering the argument for precision, knowing specific nouns and verbs is particularly useful when editing redundant descriptors that only serve to weaken and obscure the image you are trying to depict. Consequently, you may also reveal more information about the plot and characters when relinquishing modifiers.
I had thought he wanted me. But when I touched him he took my hands away, like a correcting parent. I was resigned to kissing him, and even that he interrupted with a story about his motorcycle, a Triumph he was eager to ride again in the spring.”
POV. At every turn, it is crucial to ask oneself if the character whose POV is being used to narrate a scene, would actually experience the situation in that manner. For example, cold is a recurring premise in the novel, of which Martha is constantly aware. Other than simply using it to describe the winter that persists throughout the plot or the relationship fostered among the characters (and the wide range of dead people, in retrospect), Brown also associates it with how Martha undergoes the changes in her life or encounters new phenomena, e.g. when she tries martini for the first time.
I admitted I’d never had one, and she insisted I sample hers. She held her glass toward me by its stem, and I took a cautious sip. I said it was like drinking partially melted snow, and she laughed and poured me one, too.”
Pace. While the vivid narration is what I enjoyed most about the novel, the accompanied tangential style also led to its biggest holdback. I could fully understand why, given that the novel was written in first-person and people tend to digress when relating their experiences, Martha would oscillate between her past and present, actions and expositions. In fact, it even added to the mystery. But at one point, this became monotonous when the tempo should have picked up. The mystery began to chase its own tail and Martha’s continued attention to the mundane details of her surrounding seemed unnatural, relatability yielding before consistency, such as while escaping the scene of a supposed murder.
We drove through farmland spread for miles in either direction. Del fiddled with the radio, her hand shaking, and found a station playing Dixieland jazz, and we passed through a landscape distorted by the windshield ice—the wide open space, the few remaining outbuildings of an old farm, their gray, splintery wood darkened by the sleet, jutting like carcasses. “There are bones of families out there,” I said. Spread under layers of soil, compacted in their separateness. The Dixieland band played its tinny hopefulness. We drove this way for a long time until we could see nothing of the land we passed through save an occasional kitchen light in a house set off the road. Then we reached an intersection, a small town, like Milton, with a gas station and a diner, and Del pulled into the diner’s parking lot. After David Pinney died we’d gone on, pretending he hadn’t. I could say we were murderers now. This didn’t happen to other people twice.”
To wit, this novel made me sit up and take notes. My own stories tend to consist more of dialogues and actions than discussions on the setting but I could certainly appreciate the patience with which Brown weighed in the haunting atmosphere in her narrative. It reminded me of something I learned a few months back while attending an online course on writing fiction. There was a lot of emphasis on note taking and journal keeping throughout the syllabus. Until I took the course, I always wondered how writers sit in public places such as cafes and parks while composing tales without becoming distracted by their environments. Turns out they don’t become distracted at all because they are too busy recounting what they witness on their pages and screens.
Finally, a word on the Author Toolbox Blog Hop:
#AuthorToolboxBlogHop is a monthly event, hosted by the gracious Raimey Gallant, featuring various resources and learnings for authors written by authors. It is open to writers at all stages of their careers and the rules of sign-up are available in the overhead link. Also, if you are just interested in connecting with actual authors and see what they have got to say, the sign-up page has a list of participants to direct you to their pages. Happy reading and writing, fellow authors!
#1 by M.L. Keller on July 19, 2017 - 7:32 pm
Thanks for the article. It’s a great reminder for those of us who are “all action” in our writing. lol
#2 by lupa08 on July 20, 2017 - 12:17 am
Thanks for reading and welcome for the reminder ;p Yeah, I think a little patience may give us the opportunity to add more substance in our work.
#3 by JJ Burry on July 19, 2017 - 8:44 pm
Interesting take on setting in our writing. I like how you explained each answer using an excerpt from the novel you read. It gives me quite a bit to think about with regard to how my character describes her surroundings.
#4 by lupa08 on July 20, 2017 - 12:20 am
Thank you for reading. And I hope your characters benefit from the insight 🙂
#5 by raimeygallant on July 19, 2017 - 9:05 pm
A great case study on setting. Ahem, I like my adjectives a little too much, some would say. Okay, so maybe I’ve choked on a dictionary or two. I’ll work on passing them.
#6 by lupa08 on July 20, 2017 - 12:22 am
Haha… Point three is really about replacing them with more concrete words. So all that dictionary consumption may come in handy yet!
#7 by L.M. Durand on July 19, 2017 - 9:41 pm
One thing that I appreciate in a book is that when in a few words, I have a full clear picture of the scene and feel. When the description drags, it drives me insane. Some authors are really good at that and tend to read their books for that exact reason. Not only I enjoy the story, but I learn a great deal on how to describe a scene.
I’m always worried about using too many adjectives or adverbs so I always try to turn this in a visual point. Thanks for sharing this!!
#8 by lupa08 on July 20, 2017 - 12:28 am
Thank you for reading and welcome 🙂
I completely understand what you mean about books containing crisp clear writing. The strength of such narratives is what motivates me to read them cover-to-cover; otherwise, I cheat and scrimp to read mostly the actions and dialogues.
I think authors who have mastered writing good prose are just conscientious editors. They don’t allow sentimentality to hamper the quality of their work.
#9 by Kristina Stanley on July 19, 2017 - 10:55 pm
Love the tips with examples. It’s a great way to illustrate a point and fun to read.
#10 by lupa08 on July 20, 2017 - 12:30 am
Thanks for reading 🙂
Also, it is evidence that I am better at marketing the works of others than my own, haha.
#11 by Erika Beebe on July 20, 2017 - 12:38 am
I really enjoyed your unique post. I liked your vivid examples and your point for each one. I think the overused descriptors get me like when the author described the image then added “like a corrective parent.” Then she kissed home anyway? No way…lol Thank you
#12 by lupa08 on July 20, 2017 - 1:29 am
Haha 😆 I see what you mean. I think she was starving and desperate for affection, especially after her mother left her in this new place to “find” herself. Still, my ego is enormous. I’d kick him out of my bed.
#13 by Victoria Marie Lees on July 20, 2017 - 4:59 am
Thanks for your specific examples. They help us to see what you mean. This is a great post. Thanks for sharing.
This is my first time here. I’ll connect with you online and follow your blog.
Victoria Marie Lees
#14 by lupa08 on July 20, 2017 - 10:21 pm
Thank you for reading and Welcome! 🙂 Glad to have you on the hop and looking forward to reading your posts. I hope the experience provides you with great new perspectives, enjoy!
#15 by emaginette on July 20, 2017 - 5:18 am
I can’t say I write like anyone you quoted, but I’m amazed what lands up on the screen or in a book. The creative juices that flow through the human race blows my mind. And those are only the ones that took the time to put it on paper. 🙂
Anna from elements of emaginette
#16 by lupa08 on July 20, 2017 - 10:24 pm
IKR! I feel grateful every day when I read a good book because it allows me to experience so much more than what I would have otherwise. Authors provide us a window into their souls; what is it, if not their generosity?
#17 by Caroliena Cabada on July 20, 2017 - 6:00 am
All of the excerpts from the novel are excellent. I’ll have to add the book to my TBR pile! Great post breaking down the elements of good description. Thanks for this! 🙂
#18 by lupa08 on July 20, 2017 - 10:26 pm
Thank you! I’m glad you enjoyed it 🙂 And considering the size of my own ever-growing toppling-high TBR pile, both welcome and sorry ;p
#19 by Iola Goulton (@IolaGoulton) on July 20, 2017 - 10:58 am
I’m not usually a fan of description in writing – perhaps because too many authors fall into the trap of too much generic description. Your post and this novel certainly show the value of sparse but effective description. Thanks for sharing!
#20 by lupa08 on July 20, 2017 - 11:47 pm
Thank you for reading 🙂
Well, that’s what makes this blog hop so great! We get to pick up so many new ideas and perspectives from our fellow authors.
#21 by miladyronel on July 20, 2017 - 2:46 pm
I like the tips 🙂 The examples from the book is beautifully written, I have to add it to my TBR.
#22 by lupa08 on July 20, 2017 - 10:27 pm
Thank you for reading! Hope the tips come into use for you. Enjoy the book whenever you get to it 🙂
#23 by Louise Foerster on July 20, 2017 - 8:38 pm
So enjoyed the way that you melded your points with passages from a fascinating book! Gave me a great deal to think about.
#24 by lupa08 on July 20, 2017 - 11:49 pm
Thank you for reading! And I’m glad my post served as a bit of nourishment.
#25 by Louise@DragonspireUK on July 20, 2017 - 10:00 pm
As someone whose description could use some work, this was an informative post. I too spend a lot of time on dialogue and action Dialogue mostly. Apparently, my characters love to talk 🙂
#26 by lupa08 on July 20, 2017 - 10:41 pm
Thank you and welcome 🙂
Well, I love loquacious characters, especially when they are witty. Besides, if it is a trade-off between superb imagery and riveting dialogue, I’d pick dialogue any day. We can skim prose but miss a page of dialogue and you could miss an important detail so having readers pay attention to your dialogue is a plus point.
#27 by Hoda on July 21, 2017 - 1:32 am
This is so helpful. I switch between writing scripts and novels, and when I go back to writing novels sometimes I struggle with writing descriptions. Great post! Thank you so much for sharing this 🙂
#28 by lupa08 on July 21, 2017 - 6:02 am
Thank you for reading! And I’m really glad you found the post useful 😊
#29 by Adam on September 19, 2017 - 7:03 am
Your writing style feels advanced, a challenging reading level, in a good way.
This feels like a scholarly text that might appear as a lecture for an upper level literary class at a college or university.
I can definitely relate to the experience of “once again” finding something in the stories of others that seems lacking in my own.
In some ways I think it’s a never ending cycle that is part of the writing process, the pattern of forgetting and being reminded.
#30 by lupa08 on September 20, 2017 - 4:56 am
Thank you, Adam, I’m glad you found the reading material stimulating 🙂
And, yes, the fact that I experience and learn every day is what makes life worthwhile and I have found blogging to be a great way to keep log.