Michaeline: Description: Part Two


Description can be a spark that sets off fireworks in the body. (Positive discharge, via Wikimedia Commons)

Description can be a spark that sets off fireworks in the body. (Positive discharge, via Wikimedia Commons)

One thing you should know about me: I enjoy being a devil’s advocate. I am proud that I have an open mind and that I try to look on all sides of an issue. I like sitting on the fence. And this causes me a lot of problems as a writer, because instead of “picking a lane”, I tend to wander around and check out too many things. But at least it produces a blog post for today.

So, anyway, last week I told you how I found Jane Austen to have rather sparse description, and she’s super-famous, so it must be all right, right? This week, I’m going to turn around and look at the descriptions that appear in one of my other favorite books, A Civil Campaign by Lois McMaster Bujold. (link is to sample chapters from the publisher, Baen Books)

A Civil Campaign is the 13th book in the Vorkosigan series, and our hero, Miles Vorkosigan, is courting a woman for the very first time. In past books, his romantic adventures have followed established sci fi tropes: women fall for him, and he sees all the mutual benefits that could result for falling for them, and generally does. They court him, and he’s really quite easy and cuddly. True blue, he never dumps them, but they do tend to go on to bigger and better things. They never go on to marry him and settle on his home planet, Barrayar.

So, A Civil Campaign is really the closest thing to a romance novel in the Vorkosigan series. The male is courting. The female has “a terrible, terrible problem” (in the words of Kat’s video yesterday, although in Ekaterin’s case, it’s PTSD from her former marriage to a guy who seemed to have borderline personality disorder). The more Miles pushes, the more it makes her problem worse – she doesn’t want to go back to that terrible place again. However, they are both very attracted to each other, as well as having a great deal of respect for each other – Miles is a Count (hee-hee, not a duke, but close enough), and Ekaterin saved a third of the empire in the previous book.

The thing is, the descriptions in A Civil Campaign are some of the most vivid, lingering sorts of descriptions that I’ve ever read.

  • The clothes (particularly Ekaterin’s aunt’s dress in Chapter One, “a dark rose dress with a light rose bolero, embroidered with green vines in the manner of her home District”)
  • The food (fans will remember a Ma Kosti lunch: a pastry “with thick cream and glazed fruit like jewels” crowns the first meal of the book)
  • The gardens (particularly the soil and the butter bug manure – rich, earthy and fertile)
  • The cats (a signal of sensuality in Bujold’s books, but also gentle humor, as when a “determined-looking half-grown black-and-white kitten hauled itself up over the side (of the table), tiny claws like pitons, and made for Vorkosigan’s plate”), and
  • The characters themselves are described in detail.

I want to come back to the character detail next week, and the part it plays in the first chapter, but why, of all her books, does A Civil Campaign leave such beautiful word pictures in my mind? I think it’s the romance. A good romance hits you in the gut, and spreads out through your body in delightful phosphorescent fizzies coursing through your bloodstream. And maybe, to help give readers that very visceral sensation when it’s important, a good writer will remind the reader at every turn that she or he has a body that receives pleasure and pain and sensations ranging the gamut thereof.

Reminding the readers of their physical bodies makes the physical impact of being in love that much more vivid.

I was suddenly struck this morning by a memory of Tampopo (link: IMDb), a Japanese movie I watched at least 25 years ago. In my memory, it was mostly a ramen/cowboy western set in Japan with a sweet, sweet romance at its core. Interspersed between the scenes of this story were the outrageously sensual scenes between a gangster and his girlfriend – naked bodies, rich and delicious food, stories of forests and hunting wild boar, sweat. Such an odd juxtaposition, and somewhat uncomfortable at times, but while I have forgotten the plots and images of a hundred movies that I’ve seen since, I still remember that one.

Description is a way to remind the reader that he or she also has a body. Done well, it can bring the reader’s body into the process of reading and imagining, offering a different dimension than just brain power alone. The reader experiences the book, instead of just observing the action.

Description invokes the whole sensory experience. (Via Wikimedia Commons)

Description invokes the whole sensory experience. (Via Wikimedia Commons)

The big question I have after thinking about all this is: when do authors do it? We see the finished product. Do they over-write, and then cut all that luscious detail down to manageable bites? Or do they get the bones down, and then add layer upon layer to the details and the experience in successive drafts? I rarely have time to lose myself in lush detail in my first drafts. Maybe I should enjoy that part of the process more. What do you do?

Special Fourth of July bonus for the Americans and people who don’t mind appropriating a bit of culture for fun: This passage of A Civil Campaign always reminds me of the USA, and Independence Day enthusiasms.

One of the secondary couples, Emperor Gregor and the Komarran heiress Laisa Toscane, are getting married, and a very important driver of the plot is their wedding planning. During one of the interminable (for the characters – highly entertaining and informative for the readers) planning sessions, we overhear this:

Lady Alys glowered at her flimsy, and added, “Fireworks.”

Miles blinked, then realized this wasn’t a prediction of the probable result of the clash in social views between his Betan mother and his Barrayaran aunt, but rather, the last – thank God – item on today’s agenda.

“Yes!” said Gregor, smiling eagerly. All the Barrayarans round the table, including Lady Alys, perked up at this. An inherent cultural passion for things that went boom, perhaps.

(-: Hope you get a chance to indulge in your inherent cultural passion for things that go boom today, in whatever way most pleases you!



After finishing my blog post, I checked my mail and found a link to this: Lois is self-publishing a new novella in the World of the Five Gods called “Penric’s Demon.” She posted the cover on her Goodread’s blog, here. https://www.goodreads.com/author_blog_posts/8652525-penric-e-cover-sneak-peek

No specific release date yet, as far as I know, but it’s coming soon! E-pub is a lot faster than trad-pub, after all. (-: Wouldn’t it be cool if I could announce it next week when I talk about Miles?

Update to the update: Bujold mentioned on the LMB mailing list that “Penric’s Demon” might be ready some time next week . . . fingers crossed, schedule clearing commences. http://lists.herald.co.uk/pipermail/lois-bujold/2015-July/172506.html


8 thoughts on “Michaeline: Description: Part Two

  1. Michaeline, I like that idea of description giving “readers that very visceral sensation.” I tend to think of description as that annoying stuff I have to add in that readers are probably going to skip anyway, but maybe thinking of it in the visceral sensation way will help change that midset.

    My first drafts are all about getting the story down, so if there are going to be “layers of lush details” they will be added in successive editing passes. There are very few things that I can really “see” on my first pass, so trying to add details at that point would just bog me down.

    • I have this horrible suspicion that most readers really like a detailed description that sets them in a story. And, it’s really hard for me to fake something like that, since I tend to skim over far too much of that stuff.

      I keep flashing back to Leonard Elmore’s advice: skip the stuff that people skim over. But, is it that “people” skim over it, or is it just impatient me?

  2. There’s description, and then there’s description. If all coloratura was similar to “fruit like jewels,” and the determined kitten climbing the table, I’d probably like it better. What bores me about description is when I read a book and I can hear some critique partner yelling offstage “Use all five senses!” and you get this catalog of “he smelled of citrus and something that was all man,” and “the sun burned as hot as fire,” and “she tasted salt in the air,” and the like. Sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell, coming right up! for every new element.

    • Ha! What Kay said. And on the subject of Hero Scents, Ilona Andrews put a link on her blog (www.ilona-andrews.com) to Larissa Brown’s page What Does Your Hero Smell Like? (www.herosmellslike.com). There’s a box for you to type in the ingredients of your hero’s unique man-scent 🙂

      Ilona’s post showed why even that tired old formula works if you do it right. She said her husband smells like pancakes and honor. Nice. Curran, her Beast Lord hero, smells like ski jackets and wreckage. That made me smile, because if you’ve read the Kate Daniels books, you’d know it’s perfect.

      • (-: I like that. The cliches that Kay points out are pretty horrible (although sometimes I smell citrusy without any citrus, and sometimes I smell like Chinese food from a Thai-owned restaurant without any take-out).

        My husband smells of Nivea and milk, and a hundred mornings of being woken up with a stubbly kiss accompanied by those smells.

        So, anyway, I tried the widget. My hero smells like ale and Scotland (no, he doesn’t), and his son smells like ink and valor (well, that’s more like the hero!). *I* smell like campfires and passion, LOL.

        Just keep plugging stuff in until you get something good and true, I guess. Pendric, by the way, smells of peanut butter and the sea, while PENRIC (proper smelling, er, proper spelling) smells of thunderstorms and immensity.

        Oh, Jilly, I’m going to waste a lot of time on that site (-:.

  3. Pingback: Michaeline: Wedding Dance – Eight Ladies Writing

  4. Pingback: Michaeline: Lois McMaster Bujold Answers Three (Okay, Four) Questions about the Writing Process – Eight Ladies Writing

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