Michaeline: Have You Seen This Dog? Do You Need To?

Puppy

Describe this dog, and you could have won a touristy tchochtke from Tokyo! LOL! (Photo by Michaeline Duskova)

Well, lessons learned all around this week! The contest was a miserable failure, but my thinking about description in fiction feels much more solid.

Failure analysis later. One of the reasons I ran the contest was because I found it very hard to describe my dog. Finally, finally, about Wednesday, I started to get a grasp of the words for him, and then today, I came up with this:

He is a fluffy, scruffy, flop-eared cream-colored mutt, but the kind of cream that has been crawling around in coal mines, with streaks of grey. His eyes have the soulful look of somedog who experienced extreme depression in a past life, and wasn’t expecting too much from this incarnation either. (Fifty words.)

I realized, though, with a description like that, the dog had better be playing the part of the Melancholy Messenger Of The Story. He’d better be super-important, and not just a passing dog on the roadside. I think as writers, there’s this somewhat arrogant or even control-freak kind of thinking where we believe we want to put the images we see in our brains directly into the brains of our readers . . . and the problem is that words and brains don’t work that way.

At a recent teaching seminar, a teacher had us all describe the cartoon she’d given half of us to a partner who had no cartoon. It was a very interesting exercise as a writer, because you could actually see what images your words were putting into the brain of another person. Nobody replicated the cartoon perfectly, although some people got close, and others didn’t. The reader, or the listener, always draws on his/her own experiences and add something to the input they receive.

Instead of trying to implant an image, I think our goal should be to plant a seed, and allow the reader to grow their own image. Does it matter if my dog is cream-colored or yellow? Probably not to the reader. The only power in “cream” is the associations it contains for a richer, mellow way of life, I think. If I’m writing a story that needs a depressed element, then the sad eyes become important, but if the dog is basically a happy dog, then the “sad eyes” bit becomes a confusing description and distracts the reader. He’s just a dog. If I want to immortalize him, the photographs are going to do a much better job than my clumsy words. What’s more important than the dog himself (in a story) is the Idea of The Dog.

So, this ties into why I think the contest failed. The task was in no way an easy one, and perhaps the physical description of the dog is a meaningless one in the fictional context. Maybe no one could imagine his role in a story.

And then, of course, there were the supporting reasons: I didn’t advertise it enough on social media and get the news out on the contest. The prize wasn’t interesting. Perhaps our readers just aren’t that interested in (and may even be a little bit embarrassed at) the idea of competing. And . . . we don’t get a lot of comments on the blog anyway. I have a sneaking, paranoid feeling that there are only five human beings out there actually reading us (aside from the Ladies), and the rest of our followers are some sort of spambots.

Note: this is not a guilt-trip to get people to comment more! Just an observation! Naturally, we want people to engage with the blog at a level they feel comfortable with. I have very warm and fuzzy feelings toward the five human followers we actually have (-:, even if your descriptions are mostly figments of my own descriptive imagination!

Anyway, it was a good trip, a good experience, a good think, and yes, as Jilly said, Rexy-lexy-bexy is well on his way to becoming King of the Farm! He and his sister Nana are doing very well and keeping warm during our cold snap.

If you’ve got any comments about writing contests you’ve entered in, this would be a great place to share them! Especially the fun, successful ones!

8 thoughts on “Michaeline: Have You Seen This Dog? Do You Need To?

  1. I got a lot out of this post. I like how you described the dog with the “sad eyes”. The post triggered thoughts in my mind about when I’m reading a book and even though the writer might not do a good job of description of the H/h I will mentally form a picture in my head without much thought of what I’m doing.

    I also liked this post because you describe how you would describe the dog and I loved the cream colored mutt that had been rolling around in coal dust.

    • I think the big tricky part is the timing of the description. Because, like you said, the reader forms a mental image. And if you suddenly say in chapter two that she’s got curly hair, and you totally envisioned her as a blow-out-straight sort of person, that takes some adjustment — and if you do it enough times, I think the reader can get frustrated about not having a good grasp of the character’s physical description. If it’s important, get it up front.

      (-: I’m not sure if my description would have been a prize-winner, but at least I can describe him now. My kids protested a lot when I called Rex grey; he’s not really brown either, though. Nana would have been a more fun subject, I bet. She’s pretty easy to describe.

  2. I told you I’ve been reading Lois McMaster Bujold’s Chalion books–Rex is my idea of a Dog, the essence of many generations of great dog concentrated in one puppy. He’s seen a lot. That’s why his expression is so serious, and why his eyes and nose look much too old for his cuddly, fluffy body 😉

    • I never thought of Rex that way! But he’s a remarkably dense (in matter, not in brains) sort of dog. You pick him up, and realize there’s more dog there than meets the eye. (-: I like that a lot, that he might be a great Dog. Nana is a great dog, too, but she’s light, like a butterfly.

  3. For the record, I’m not a spambot if that helps? 😉 Nice points on descriptions, will have to think on this in my own WIP which is moving so ssslllooowwwly…

    • LOL! Yay! Six human readers of our blog! You’ve made my day.

      People say that description is something you can go back and put in later, or take out. I find that true to a certain extent. I mean, sometimes, the description is woven in so deeply that taking out a word or two means having to re-write the entire paragraph, page or chapter even. But I find it more likely for me to skip some of the necessary description (and other words that the reader needs to make sense of the story), and fitting them in later can be easy. Or it can be hell — sometimes I know there’s a hole, but I have no clue what I was thinking when I wrote it. I’ve developed coping mechanisms for that (for instance, putting in an approximate phrase and highlighting it so I remember to go back and check that bit later).

      Moving slowly is better than a standstill, though!

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