Elizabeth: I’m Sensing I Need Some Help Here

visualizeJustine’s post on the five senses yesterday was very timely, as that is a topic that has been on my mind recently. Like several of the other ladies, I entered a few contests this year and, as part of my revision process, I’ve spent the last week or so sifting through the feedback I received from them.

As one would expect, based on the wide range of readers there are out there, the judges’ reactions to the story vary greatly – some love it (like the judge who requested a full), some find it merely tolerable, and the rest fall somewhere in the middle. I can’t do a lot with conflicting feedback where one judge finds the Goal/Motivation/Conflict to be spot on while another finds it “completely lacking”, or where one finds the romantic relationship to be fully developed and believable while another finds it “tepid at best.”

What I can address is the consistent feedback, and what the judges all seem to agree on is that there is a lack of description. Their feedback tended to include comments like these:

“There is not much attention paid to the setting”

“I don’t know what any of your characters look like”

To be fair, I’m a little hazy on what my characters look like too.

As I mentioned here I have a real problem visualizing things when I read. Descriptions of setting and character are the parts I tend to skim over. No surprise then, that when I write, those are the very parts I struggle with and tend to leave out or make as brief as possible. I felt a little better about my lack when I came across the following quote in the lecture notes for the RWA University revision class by Lani Diane Rich that I recently took:

“I’m gonna confess here; description is not my strong suit. It does not come naturally, nor do I enjoy it as a reader.” ~ Lani

Unfortunately, she did not go on to hand out a free-pass to those who aren’t big on description, as I might have hoped. Instead, it was the opposite:

“. . . description is insanely important when you’re writing a novel, and learning how to do it right is imperative.” ~ Lani

While the character exercises I learned from Susan Elizabeth Phillips at last year’s RWA conference and blogged about here have helped me along the descriptive path, and keeping the five senses in mind is a helpful tool, I still have work to do. Here is a brief snippet from a scene where I thought I had included some fairly good description, but one judge specifically flagged as needing more detail. Sigh. (Note: We’ve already met Michael at this point, but Lady Westerly is new to the stage.)

     “Good afternoon, my lord,” Wallace said, accepting Michael’s hat and walking stick the next afternoon. “Lady Westerly is awaiting you upstairs.”

     Michael advanced through the richly appointed entryway with its dark paneling and velvet wall coverings and up the ornate staircase to his great-aunt Gwendolyn’s boudoir, an overwhelming vision of Georgian splendor and questionable taste. A faint hint of incense and tobacco filled the air, scents that always brought her to mind wherever he encountered them. She appeared to have finally given up the powdered wigs she’d favored in years past, but it looked like little else had changed since his childhood visits.

     “My dear Wallingford, so good to see you,” she said from her position on the couch. She lifted her cheek for an obligatory kiss then raised her lorgnettes and looked him over from top to bottom and back again. “Hand some devil. Pleased you appear to have made it back in one piece and unscathed.”

So, as a reader, what additional details would make this passage more vivid for you?

Are there any descriptions that you’ve read recently that you thought were really great or any writers that you could recommend as strong at description?

29 thoughts on “Elizabeth: I’m Sensing I Need Some Help Here

  1. Oooo! I read this as I left the house to walk the dog and spent the entire walk thinking about this. I love this sort of thing when it isn’t my own WIP (don’t we all!). Here are some (okay, lots of) questions I asked myself as I read through this:

    1. Richly appointed entryway. Is it one story or two? Is the staircase to the right? The left? In the middle? Is there a balcony overlooking the entry? What is the floor made of? What color are the walls (you said dark paneling, but what kind of wood)? Is there furniture? What about plasterwork on the walls/ceilings? What color is it? Is there stained glass/pictures in the ceiling? Are there plants? What about columns? Does the house have a particular smell as you walk in? Does it give Michael a certain feeling when he walks in? Do his boots echo? Does the door squeak? How does it sound when it shuts?

    2. Ornate staircase. Is it metal? Wood? Marble? All three? Are there pendant lights hanging above it? Is it straight? Curved? Could one slide down the railing? Is there carpeting on the staircase? Pictures on the wall as you ascend? What does the railing feel like in Michael’s hand? Does he have memories of racing up/down as a child? Do his boots make noise or are they silent?

    3. Georgian splendor and questionable taste. The fact that you’ve labeled it as “Georgian” is good, we kinda know what to expect…lots of neo-classical stuff. For this one, I’d seriously go through some pictures online or in books and try to find a room that equals what you’re going for, then set about describing it. Especially if it’s going to be somewhat gaudy. I’m thinking pics of the Royal Pavilion, Buckingham Palace, or The Wallace Collection, for starters. I’d also take a look at the different furniture pieces in some of these rooms and try to describe them. Did she go for an Egyptian bedroom? Perhaps lots of chinoiserie? Or are there lots of nude male statues of Greek warriors all over the place? As for the incense, can you give it a flavor? Spicy? Vanilla? Cloves? Minty?

    4. She appeared to have given up the powered wigs…so what does her hair look like now? What color is it? How does she have it styled? (If you want to see some great Regency hairstyles, go to Pinterest…there are TONS). She’s on the couch. What sort of couch? A settee? What color is the fabric? Is it gilt? Can you identify the manufacturer/designer (i.e., Robert Adam). As for the aunt, is she fat, ample-bosomed, with plump cheeks, or is she thin, waif-like, with sinewy limbs and a long neck? What color are her eyes? What is she wearing?

    Okay, I’ll stop now. Obviously, you don’t necessarily need to include EVERY detail I’ve questioned here. I’m merely brainstorming.

    A tip (I started doing this and it’s very helpful)…Create a Pinterest account if you haven’t already. Install the little Pinterest app with your browser so when you’re surfing the net and you see a picture you like, you can simply click the Pinterest icon and it’s added to your pins. Within Pinterest, you can create different boards. I have a private one for Three Proposals, where I have pictures of what Nate and Susannah look like, dresses/clothing, locations/rooms, carriages, horses, etc. I labeled everything and put extra notes in some cases.

    I also have a public Pinterest page that’s more of a general collection area for me of anything that I see and like, but am not quite ready to use yet (say, a picture of a ship for Isabelle’s story, or of the Highlands for Payton’s story). I can always drag it into a private board later if I want to.

    When I started doing Margie Lawson’s Immersion-related courses, I became much more aware of my descriptions, both of characters as well as settings. I wouldn’t say her focus is description per se, but amping up whatever you write, and strong description is a good way to do that in some cases.

    Lastly (I know, this is a super-long comment, sorry!!), have you read Mary Buckham’s book on Active Setting? You might give that a spin, too. It’s fantastic and it gives you great ideas on more than just giving setting more oomph.

    I hope you revise this and let us read it!

      • I’ve been thinking about my comment (way too long), but setting IS a great way to include backstory. For example, Michael could think it’d been X years since he’d been there, when his great-uncle was still alive (backstory). Or that he used to slide down the bannister with his sibling, who, as XYZ-important person, would never do that now. Or when mentioning auntie had given up the wig habit, he could think that when she wore them, she was the belle of the haute ton. That sort of thing.

        • That’s a good point Justine. In my last read-through, I noticed I tended to add description as a way to slip in some backstory much more often than just for description’s sake.

    • Justine – thanks for all the great suggestions. You’ve give me some definite food for thought. Regarding Mary Buckham’s book, no I haven’t read that. Off to look it up now.

    • That’s a very detailed break down. I think there are times when that kind of advice on snippets of scene are very helpful. That would be a fun group activity – to get a group of writers together and got through a short passage and dissect and enhance the senses the author has/can use.

  2. THIS scene was tagged as not enough detail? Seems to me you hit a lot of the senses. Actually, you’ve given me enough that I’m tapping into every Regency romance and Regency-era book I’ve ever read. I feel the fluff aura, I smell that wig powder — I am there. Did your judge give any specifics?

    The only complaint I can think of (and this is after long thinking, and it’s not MY complaint, but some imaginary judge-type-person complaint) is that they want you to describe something that sounds completely Regency, but also completely different? Wallace is very butleresque from just those few words. Is it important that he be cross-eyed or have a huge bulbous nose from tippling great-auntie’s enormous supply of sherry? (Meh, seen those before. In a butler, even.)

    I don’t know what I would do differently. I like it a lot as description. And characterization. And historical context for the character.

    Well, anyway, I look forward to seeing other opinions. Description isn’t my forte, either. (Damn, are you SURE they said description? Maybe they thought Auntie needed some prescriptions? That can’t be it.)

    And I am so grateful to all you Ladies who are sharing your contest experiences on these pages. It’s really interesting to see how others see your work, and how different readers can read things so differently.

    • Michaeline – glad the description worked for you. It’s always hard to know what will strike a chord with a reader or not.

      Glad sharing these experiences has been helpful for you. It’s all part of the learning process.

      • I thought about this all last night, which is the mark of a good post and a good comment section (-:.

        As a reader, I don’t mind it when a writer lets me build the world a little bit — or a lot. In fact, it lets me tailor the world to my needs.

        The danger, of course, is when you have to slip in some detail later that contradicts the world I’ve built in my head. Once or twice, cool. But if I’m continually having to revise my notions of the world, I will get frustrated (I think).

        (-: The other danger is that the reader doesn’t pick up on the allusions. “In questionable taste” to me read: “Too many fluffy, pink, lacy ruffles strewn around the room.” I was thinking of 18th century wide skirts, translated to interior decoration. But when Justine mentioned about the naked statues, it clicked into place. Oh, yeah, the GEORGIAN period. When girls would wet down their muslin dresses to show all their charms. I never would have, in a million years, guessed that we’re talking statues with penises. Satyrs. Etc.

        Michael having to avert his gaze from a particularly ripe picture of fauns and nymphs would definitely change the room from a wig-powdered, ruffly boudoir into something . . . else.

        (Oh, and I keep saying wig-powder — I know she doesn’t wear wigs anymore, but without vacuum cleaners, there must have been a bit of violet-scented powder deep in the upholstery that added to the “old lady” scent of the room. Just mentioning that she used to wear wigs gave me that strong, tickly sensation of my nose of scented talcum powder.)

        It’s a tough balance. I actually don’t resent a lot of description, but I will start skimming. I then resent missing some little but important fact buried in a bunch of description.

        • Michaeline – that’s a good point about the danger of too little description causing conflict later on when the picture you’ve built in your head doesn’t match with something the author later includes. Definitely a reason to have at least some key descriptive elements to get both reader and writer on the same page, so to speak.

  3. You’ve got seeing and smelling… With something like a velvet wall… He might run his fingers along it as he walks by… It’s something a kid would find irresitable and an adult remembering a childhood visit might do (how he touches and remembers might be interesting to us later when we see him “touching” as a lover).

    I don’t know what “Georgian splendor” is so it stops me and I go back and get the velvet and big swooping stairs as “it” and go “hmmm”.

    You give absolutely no description of him… You TELL us he is a “handsome devil” but we don’t get to see it & if he’s our main man, this is the first time for him to thrill us.

    There were no sounds…Justine mentioned the squeek of a wooden floor or an echo of boot fall, or if it’s summer, maybe there are birds, bees, or chicadas or something.

    • Thanks for the feedback Penny. Of course, now all I can see is my hero sliding down the banister like he always wanted to do as a child 🙂

      You’re right, “Georgian splendor” is pretty vague. Good area for me to enhance.

      One thing I’ve struggled with how many details to add. What is enough to give the reader a visual, but not enough to cause them to start skimming or to lose the flow of the story?

      • That is the 64 dollar question. And the sad, sad answer is that each reader has her/his own description threshhold.

        I think in general, romances are famous for having more physical descriptions.

        • I would guess that fantasy/science fiction are probably heavier in descriptions than other genres, what with world-building and all. Romances seem to be heavier on the character descriptions over the setting descriptions – at least the romances I’ve read lately. Not sure if that is a general trend or not. All I know is that however much I include, some will think it is too much and some too little. My goal now is to make sure whatever I do include adds value to the story.

  4. My descriptions are also pretty sparse, but my feedback has been pretty inconsistent on that score. A few people miss it, but most say that it’s limited, but enough.

    I read somewhere that the amount of setting description you provide can vary depending on the familiarity of the audience with the setting. And since Regency homes have been well-documnted in the literature, I think a few brushstrokes are all that’s needed. (Likewise with Hell. Images of Hell pervade our culture. A few statactites and a hint of sulfur in the air and I’m good to go. And, honestly, people who want a lot of description probably aren’t my audience. My writing style focuses on dialogue and action, which is what I look for in a novel.)

    Stephen King says, “Description begins in the writer’s imagination but should end in the reader’s.” He recommends picking out one salient feature that represents the whole of the item you’re trying to evoke. I remember a description of the roof of a house in Salem’s Lot: “weather had punched a hole in the roof.” That gave me the entire house.

    What was missing for me from your passage was a physical descrption of Lady Westerly. I have a sense that she’s old and wealthy and a touch eccentric. I’d like to know how big she is. Does she wear full makeup and jewels even in the privacy of her boudoir? Or just a wrapper? So, maybe one or two physical details (and not hair and eyes, please, unless there’s something truly unique about them).

    • Jeanne – good catch on the physical description of Lady Westerly. I’m not sure what she looks like either. She is in her 50s, wealthy, definitely eccentric (in terms of what she’s done in her life time), but I can’t decide if she would be eccentric in dress or not. It doesn’t impact the action of the story, so I haven’t thought much about it.. I know what I will be working on tonight 🙂

      • I see her quite clearly. She looks a lot like Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey. She’s thin, and a former beauty. She cares very much about appearances (re: giving up the wigs, and also calling her nephew a “handsome devil.”). Her hair is gray and in an updo with curls (can’t see it super-well, but I can see it well enough. Her teeth are yellow because she smokes a little pipe when she’s alone, and she’s got smoker’s wrinkles around her lips. She bestows her smiles stingily, and when she does, they are tight, Mona Lisa smiles. There may be something else wrong with her teeth besides tobacco stains.

        She’s wearing a brocade lavender dressing gown, maybe with a gold rope around her waist, and underneath, quite a lot of underclothing (white, maybe with a ruffle at the neckline, which is rather high — wrinkly decollete, you know).

        (-: See, this is what happens when you give a reader free rein in the imagination department.

        Now, if I were writing her, I wouldn’t put any of these details in. Anachronistic (Maggie Smith!), and also, I think it’s more important to see what she does and says than to stop and linger on what she looks like.

        • I enjoyed your free-reign Michaeline. I think you are right about the “cares very much about appearances” though I’d prefer not to think about the yellow teeth 🙂

  5. Only have a minute, but have to say I would love to know more about the appearance of both Wallace and Gwendolyn. Wallace- can you tip me off on how Michael feels toward him? Is Wallace stiff and disapproving, genuinely welcoming, was he fond of Michael as a boy and somehow reveal with that with a hint of warmth? Or is he new to the household and very formal with Michael? Does Michael look up at Wallace’s Lurch-like height, into his eyes, or down at his stocky form? Gwendolyn- is the cheek she offers wrinkled or surprisingly smooth? Is she sharp-eyed or more of a blinker? Most importantly, what is she wearing? Not the technical names for the regency clothing, but something that makes sense to a modern reader who hasn’t done any research- you know, a sensible dress, a gown more appropriate to the ballroom, an outfit strictly appropriate to the occasion?

    • Jennifer – all good questions. The more I think about Wallace, the older he seems to get. I’m thinking older-than-time, bent over, creaky joints, mentally sharp as a tack, and very fond of Michael. Though it would be just like Gwendolyn to have a young, strong, good-looking butler too. After all, she’s not dead yet 🙂

  6. I’m not a massive detail fan either, so this seems like quite a lot of detail to me – I don’t need more within this section, or it will get too cluttered. However, the one thing that might help is that I notice that all of the description is fairly general – you might get more reaction if you had description that was really specific to the POV – i.e. what would Michael actually notice at this moment in time (probably not what Gwendolyn was wearing, unless he is particularly interested in women’s clothes for some reason, and what detail is relevant to the story RIGHT NOW.) As in the SEP exercise you linked to, how can the description add to and move the story forward, rather than just be generic wallpaper.

    Apologies if I’m repeating what other people have said, I’m tired and I feel a bit cross-eyed at the moment, so eyes probably skipping over detail of comments.

    • That’s a great comment Rachel. I wonder what Michael actually would notice at this point in time and what would be relevant to the story right now. Must give that more thought.

    • You make an excellent point, Rachel. It isn’t quantity, but quality. A few well-placed, specific details can add just the right amount of color to a scene without making it a skip-able paragraph. The reason I suggested all those questions to ask is to drive at what IS the most important details, particularly to that POV character? Marble curved staircase is a great detail, but being able to tie that detail into Michael’s childhood is even better. Or having Michael feel that the vaulted ceiling in the entryway doesn’t seem so big to him now that he’s an adult is another.

      I guess the thing is to discover what’s important to that POV character. In Susannah’s case, she had a decent, but relatively humble, upbringing. In one scene, she’s completely blown away by the gold cherubs painted onto the ceiling and trimmed with gold, because it’s the most grotesque display of grandeur to her and something she’s not completely accustomed to.

  7. Personally, I think there should be a lot less description of the hallway and more about Lady Westerly and the room she sits in. Per other’s comments regarding the “ornate staircase,” for example—I not only don’t need to know how it’s ornate, I don’t care if it’s ornate. Delete “ornate”! Just call it the staircase. Get him up there. That’s where the action is. And then—a little bit about what she’s wearing, her face, and how he recognizes what’s in the room because she hasn’t changed it.

    • I’d split the difference, there. I think “Walked up the ornate staircase” is just descriptive enough. A paragraph about the gilt edging and carved cherubs would cause me to start skimming, looking for the next quote mark.

      What look for in an initial introduction to a character is the sort of things I would notice first when being introduced to someone: gender (check!), race (implied by the fact that it’s a Regency Romance), apparent age, coloring (particularly skin and hair), and general body type.

      • I’ve been listening to too much Night Vale lately, but it certainly would be a telling detail if the cherubs were whispering at Michael as he ascended the staircase. (-: No, nope, not in THIS story. No hint here of any of that.

        But I’m very, very tempted to add a cherub-bedecked staircase in a strategic place now to my own story!

  8. Thanks to everyone for your suggestions and insights today. You’ve all given me a great deal to think about and sparked numerous ideas.

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