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Lakeshore
An author of no particular popularity

Jay Lake
Date: 2008-04-11 06:18
Subject: [process] Description and setting
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Location:Nuevo Rancho Lake
Mood:thoughtful
Music:house noises
Tags:klog, process, writing
As I've mentioned, I'm currently reading Blue Highways by William Least Heat-Moon Powell's | Amazon ]. A travel memoir of a nationwide roadtrip in the later 1970s, it's a delightful book for a number of reasons. One thing that has struck me is how well Least Heat-Moon describes place. He offers brief, strong descriptions of literally a hundred different variations on USAnian landscapes, from Kentucky's limestone hills to the Arizona desert. This book is highly worth reading just for the craft of that alone.

I go back and forth on description in my own work. Generally, if I want to I can spray on the adjectives like an air compressor with a busted shut-off valve. Sometimes that works. Some stories call for a rococo voice and baroque language. Steampunk works well in that metre. So does New Weird. On the other hand, something spare and taut and emotional may need the briefest of sketches. So consider the difference:
Wind whistled down the raddled canyon, plucking at tortured piñons standing mute testimony to the cruelty of time.
Compared to this:
A southwest wind bore memories of the hot Chihuahuan sand along the spiny twists and turns of the blackrock canyon. It worried the ocotillo, set the cactus spines to rattling like old women at canasta, and forced the jackrabbits to remain snug in their gravel-lined beds. The ancient piñons groaned as they turned on their roots, twisting in the endless dance forced upon them by the cruelty of time.
Sorry, raw feed there, made up on the spot for illustrative purposes. Each serves a purpose, depending on what I might want to be doing in that scene or story.

Least Heat-Moon seems to be a showing me another way to approach description and setting, almost for his own sake. He's writing virtually without plot, and one major point of his book is place. Still, I really like learning from him.

What's setting mean to you? A few brush strokes to bring the characters on stage? Or do you live inside it, as I often do?


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S. Boyd Taylor
User: sboydtaylor
Date: 2008-04-11 13:41 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I always feel a bit uppity answering these, since I'm not published, but I /do/ write, so...

I've experimented with several different ways of doing setting (including skipping it entirely -- not reccommended). In general, writing as in the second example seems to hold my attention better when I read, and it also seems to hold my readers' attention better. But it's hard to be that evocative with a completely normal setting, so I tend to be pulled toward vast desert panoramas (as in your example) or abandoned buildings with their hollow eyes bleak, dark, and hungry against the sky. You know the sort.

That said, there are plenty of stories where you have to be minimalistic or your throw off the emotional pacing. I think the key is something you've already said (basically, you answered your question before you asked it): you must ground your reader to the setting in a way that is most appropriate to the story's natural rhythm.
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S. Boyd Taylor
User: sboydtaylor
Date: 2008-04-11 13:44 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
While you're on this topic:

I'm assuming you've read "The Road" by Cormac McCarthy. If you haven't, do so immediately. (Yes! I'm bossy! ;) )

Also, if you haven't read "All the Pretty Horses", you should read that one too. The difference in style is amazing, and the techniques hidden within are wonderful.
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The Green Knight: Writing
User: green_knight
Date: 2008-04-11 13:46 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:Writing
The problem with the top example is that it is denser than the second - there's hardly a common word in it, and it's a very complex sentense, structurally. The second has more items I can relate to and is more accessible, for all that it is longer.

The problem I have with living inside a setting is that I find it hard to bring it alive to people who *haven't* spent time there. I sometimes catch myself being more precise with a setting I don't know well - because I am exploring it while writing - than with one that is alive for me, because I forget that the reader does not share my familiarity.

As a SF writer, I think that setting is as important as plot or characterisation - it is one of the pillars on which the story rests.
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Brian Dolton
User: tchernabyelo
Date: 2008-04-11 13:50 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I feel very immersed in setting, as a writer. I have clear sets of visual imagery in my head if I'm writing a scene where setting is remotely relevant. I may not picture the whoel thing, but I can picture enough key elements to give a sense of place. I happen to love Chinese landscape painting and the way some styles of that conveys the essence of place, and it's that kind of effect I often go for - giving enough individual elements that the reader can assemble their own picture in far more detail than they've actually been given (this is, of course, word-efficient).

Language is enormously helpful here, as in your examples (even in the shorter one, "pinyon" (sorry, no tildes here) immediately gives a specific sense of place). Certain words form an immediate shorthand. I don't have to describe Chinese architecture in any detail; readers have their own mental subset that you can trigger with a few key words. The danger is when you want to try and convey something different from "the norm" - the moment you use the word "tavern", now, in fantasy, you are saddling yourself with nor just enormous baggage, but enormous cliche baggage. You can still turn this to your advantage, but it's difficult (I have one setting that "looks" at first glance like a standard western-european medieval fantasy world, but there are actually some key cultural differences and elements that, if I have got it right, will come over as all the more shocking when they emerge, because the reader is attuned against them - but the risk is either that it will be seen as cliched and traditional and thus discarded long before the twists emerge, or else that the twists will actually eb undesirable to the reader who WANTS the comfort of tradition).
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(no subject) - (Anonymous)
Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2008-04-11 14:14 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Hahahahahahaha

Hey...wait a minute...
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(no subject) - (Anonymous)
Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2008-04-11 14:45 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
You know I can make that overblown stuff work well in context. We can't all be McCarthy (or Hemingway).
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(no subject) - (Anonymous)
S. Boyd Taylor
User: sboydtaylor
Date: 2008-04-11 18:42 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I really like the paragraph a few pages later, about the ghosts of indians on the old road.
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(no subject) - (Anonymous)
S. Boyd Taylor
User: sboydtaylor
Date: 2008-04-11 23:47 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I had just read The Road, so I was already shocked by the completely different, almost Faulknerian style.

Strangely, the weakest part of All the Pretty Horses, to me, is that first scene with the coffin, because I don't know who the character is. I dunno. Maybe it was just rewritten one too many times. But once he walks outside, things really start flowing nicely.

I mean, there are a few flaws (some needless repetition here and there, his best friend appears out of nowhere, one or two possible anachronisms) but there is also a lot to learn in it, if you choose to dig.
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Elizabeth Coleman
User: criada
Date: 2008-04-11 14:30 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I don't automatically describe things. Old writings of mine are page after page of dialogue. As a result, I've had to force myself to describe things, and as a result, I get the occasional zinger at the price of dragging everything painfully out of myself.

What I want to be able to do is, rather than description being a stage for the characters to move on, to have the characters intrinsically embedded in it. Sometimes, when I walk around I try to feel the landscape around me, get a physical sense of being a part of the buildings and streets I walk through every day.
I intuitively feel all these relationships between myself and physical objects--me and my computer, my fishtank, me and the house I live in with three other people and animals-- I just have trouble translating them into words.

I recently watched Deadwood, which does an amazing job of binding all the characters to the setting (a lawless boom town embedded in the Black Hills gold claims of the 1870s) and to each other so that the town of Deadwood is a living, breathing character all its own. This involves binding the people to each other as well as to the land, like they're internal organs wrapping around the skeleton of the physical setting, bound by the skin of the mystique of the Old West.
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Pam
User: musingaloud
Date: 2008-04-11 15:01 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Looks like I'm the minority. I love beautiful descriptive phrases that throw you into the scenery and allow you to experience it first hand (in your mind of course). That being said, I loved both examples and think both have their places, and it all depends on the style of the entire story. The first is stark and drops you into place. The second lets you take a slow walk and admire the scenery as you go.
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2008-04-11 15:08 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
You're reading them pretty much the way I intended them. The brief one would work well in a short story or a sparsely written novel. The longer one would work in something more leisurely and textured, like a novella or a novel.
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User: ex_paulskem
Date: 2008-04-11 15:14 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
The second loses the image under its own weight. The first *cuts*.
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Cat Hellisen
User: cathellisen
Date: 2008-04-11 16:30 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
And I will go either way - both paint word pictures, but one is tight and snappy, and the other slows you down; makes you look at scenery.

I dunno, I guess it's a pacing issue - I don't know if I could read a whole book in the second style, I'd probably go mad, but the first feels like it would be over too quickly.

But then again, I play this game by ear.

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pjthompson
User: pjthompson
Date: 2008-04-11 19:40 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I loved Blue Highways. I read it years ago, but I still remember passages from it.

I live in place. It's usually another character in my work.
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