Beautiful prose, vivid descriptions, evocative narrative are all phrases used by people I know when they recommend books. They're talking about the way the author describes things. Usually it's the setting. I always think to myself 'I want to write like that'.
I want my writing to evoke that tone of wonder in people's voices. I want to see that look of bliss on someone's face when they're describing one of my books.
I have what I see are two barriers to achieving that. Firstly, I don't write literary fiction. My stories are more concerned with getting my characters from one place to the next, whether it be a literal place or an emotional one. Secondly, while I have a reasonable, occasionally extensive, vocabulary, when used in the books I write, it simply sounds pretentious.
I also believe that most readers are less interested in reading lengthy tracts of perfect prose than they were a century ago. I don't know if it's because our lives are lived at a faster pace, or a more fractured pace, but we seem to spend less time sipping at a book, tasting its myriad flavours, needing instead to devour it so we can stay on track with everything else happening in our lives.
Does that mean we can leave the description out? Can we focus completely on the action or the emotion, and disregard the place? I don't believe so. I think description is still a vital part of a novel with a number of different roles.
Firstly, description gives a sense of reality to a fictional place. It give the reader a way to visualise where the characters are. It helps readers work out how the world in the novel works and what the character's part in that world is. It gives depth to an otherwise two-dimensional concept.
Secondly, description helps the reader learn more about the character by watching them react with the place they're in. It gives the reader a context for all the smaller elements of character they've been gathering as they read and helps them slot it into the character puzzle or plot puzzle they've been building as they read.
Thirdly, description helps slow the pace of the novel when it's needed. Readers need time after an intense battle scene or love scene to take a breath, to come down from the high, to re-evaluate where we are now.
I was going to give you an excerpt from Warrior Pledge, which will be released by Dreamspinner Press on 3 October, but it's in the final stages of edits and I don't have a clean copy to share yet.
Instead I'll share with you a slice of description from the novel I'm working on at the moment. It's the sequel to Warrior Pledge and tentatively titled The Lonely Isles.
The scene shows Fisher (an Exile in Warrior Pledge) arriving at Linspar, the capital of the Lonely Isles.
The briny smell of the sea thickened the closer they came to shore, mixing with the nose-curling odor of dead fish, sweet fruit-bat feces and unwashed humanity. Fisher shifted from foot to foot as the tenders were brought alongside the ship and cargo was unloaded. Finally, with the air still and the sun high and hot, passengers were led down the gangplank and onto the last tender. Fisher sat where he was directed, his gaze never leaving the land they headed toward.
The broad, clipped tones of the Lonely Isles, so similar to those of the Grewin Peninsular, washed over him as the other passengers talked. As he listened, he silently practiced the tones, determined to sound like a local within a week.
Fisher’s breathing quickened as, with one last wooden groan and bump, the boat settled against the jetty. He’d been first on, so he had to wait for the others to disembark before he could. He jostled forward, never allowing more than a few inches between him and the person in front. His first few steps off the boat were stumbling ones as the boards on the jetty refused to move in time with the waves, as the boat had for the three days he’d been aboard. Fisher’s pack bumped against the upper curve of his buttocks as he overtook the other passengers and crew transporting the last of the cargo to the waiting warehouses along the shore.
The boards gave way to sand, and he scrambled up the worn slope to the compacted gravel road that ran parallel to the shore. Across the crowded road was a neat line of faded shops, their awnings up to protect their wares from the noon-day sun. The skies were clear, norrgel-free, but Fisher still felt antsy out in the open. He slipped between two shops, the narrow alley providing both shade and comfort.
Sweat dribbled down his back and he clenched his hands against the desire to hide in one of the garbage bins lining the narrow alley. It wasn’t all about the norrgel. The last time he’d spent more than a few hours under the unending skies, he’d been ten. The catacombs in the desert, no matter how dangerous the people in them might be, never left him feeling as unprotected as an empty sky.
He used to live in the open. There were no catacombs in the icy wastelands, just miles upon miles of undulating plains, green in the spring, brown in summer, and eye-blinding white throughout winter. He could live in the open again. He stared at the strip of sky visible above him. It would be easy if there were no norrgel here. Knowing that didn’t make the edge of panic slide away. Fisher slipped his pack off and rested it atop his feet as he leaned against the rough brick wall. Gradually, the lack of norrgel screeches became less scary and the sounds of sellers hawking their wares and buyers bargaining for the best price brought its own level of comfort. His breathing slowed and he began to separate the smells and noise around him into identifiable actions.
Finally, his mind cleared and he reviewed his plan. Time to go to work. He’d need food he could carry easily and enough of it so he didn’t have to keep stopping and talking to people. The fewer people who noticed him, the better.
He watched and listened, practicing the speech patterns and adjusting his clothing as much as he could so it looked enough like the locals that he’d blend in. Finally, he left his position and matched the pace of the crowds of people wandering through the market-place. He made one pass between the stalls, then doubled back, using the busy groups to camouflage his movements.
The shadows had lengthened by the time Fisher had acquired all he needed. He stopped briefly at a gem merchant but quickly moved on, stepping in front of a large and noisy group of men. He ignored the cry behind him. “Wait! Stop!” He ducked into a nearby alley, swiftly moved to the other end and wound a cream scarf around his head in the local style. A few more seconds saw the food, water bladder and gems moved into a hidden compartment in the bottom of his pack. By the time he left the protection of the buildings, the gem merchant was once again at his stall, more vigilant than he’d been before Fisher had paused there.
E E Montgomery
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