Sunday, January 26, 2014

Description in Writing

A friend of mine, Carol Tomany, blogged recently about being a "food voyeur."  Well, about her husband being one, anyway.  She talked about him walking through the grocery store, staring at the lamb chops--fresh, not frozen!--and raw oysters and sashimi-grade tuna.  In her picture, she displayed luscious red cherry tomatoes, each ready to burst open with sweet-tart creamy goodness inside your mouth, in a linguini dish with clams. 

Ahh, food porn.

"Food can be quite sexy!" she exclaims at the end, and I find myself breathlessly nodding, mind swept away to my own hours spent in grocery stores.  I've been known to walk up and down the meat aisle three or four times, examining the cuts with each pass.  There's just something about the differences in texture, in marbling, in grain, that makes each different package of pork or beef call out to me:  "Buy me!  Eat me!" they seem to say.  The fish aisle is the same: you know, in your foodie's heart of hearts, that the inhabitants of each different section of the seafood counter has a subtly different flavor and feel in your mouth. 

Not that I'm prejudiced, mind you.  I do the same thing in the fresh veggie aisle.  There's nothing like a pyramid-shaped stack of bell peppers to get me thinking about cutting off their waxy green, red, orange, or yellow tops, stuffing them with goodies like fragrant jasmine rice (or a more earthy long-grain variety, whichever) and well-seasoned ground meat and then baking them in a tangy tomato sauce. 

Apparently I'm not alone.  I mean, yeah, there's also Carol's husband as described in her blog post, a guy I've never met but would obviously have an instant connection with.  But a brief interaction with the sages at tells me that "food voyeur" is a much more common--um, ailment? condition? preference?--than I would've thought.  Man--in the general, genderless sense--can be a visual creature, which is why I've often shared those grocery store aisles with other people.  Oh, we've ignored each other, each hiding in our own little world behind a mask of disinterest, but when you pass the same woman for the third time in front of the same porterhouses, there's no denying the attraction.  No, not to each other.  To food.

What does this have to do with writing, you ask?  No, really--you should ask; otherwise I'll drool over my keyboard all day.  God forbid, in fact, that they ever invent scratch and taste computer monitors, or I'll never get any work done. 

*ahem*  Writing.  Write.  Right.

So as writers we try to describe what needs describing, and only what needs describing, as fully as it needs describing, and not one word more.  Right?  I mean, I once read the first chapter of a book that went from describing a boxing match to describing a lovemaking scene in an office--I kid you not--and it spent several paragraphs in the latter--um, scene--describing the leather couch being used as a stage for the action, more or less.  I couldn't tell you what the second chapter contained, because I didn't read that far.  But all along, while pressing myself to finish the first chapter, I kept asking: why do I care about the leather couch? 

But I've done it, myself.  In the earlier editions of my first book, it started in the kitchen.  I went to great prosaic lengths to make sure the reader knew how much care and diligence the wife, soon to be known as a "protagonist," was using in creation of the family's yummy breakfast sandwiches and lunches, a matter that led to her surprise when her husband, soon to be a supporting character, turned her efforts down for a simple cup of coffee.  I thought it was a rippin' way to start a story.

I was wrong, of course.  That bit has been toned down substantially.  What you'll see now if you read Cataclysm is that the book actually starts where it should: the cataclysm.  It spends a whole lot less time in the kitchen after, though to be honest I can't bring myself to reduce the number of times I talk about my all time favorite vegetable: fried okra.  Sorry, folks, but it's important.  It's crunchy on the outside, and inside it's packed not only with flavor but also with little seed pods that pop open in--.

Oh, right.  Focus, sorry. 

Now, to a foodie, the descriptions of food make a lot of sense.  To others, they don't.  Okay, fine, many say, the heroes ate lunch.  Skip over what they ate and get to the fighting with the ogres.  If you must describe something, talk about how the female fighter's plate mail was formed so nicely and snugly about her ample bosom. 

(more on the so-called "boob plate" later)

It all boils down, it would seem, to a slight modification to an oft-repeated maxim regarding the writing process.  People--writers, would-be-writers, those who have no desire at all to write but want to sound smart about it anyway--say, all the time, "write what you want to read."  Yeah, no.  I mean, sure, write what you want to read; if you don't want to read what you've written, it'll be really hard for anyone else to want to read it either.  But once you've cleared that overall hurdle, keep your general readers in mind while you write for them.  Are you writing for the Food Network?  If so, then talking about the lusciously creamy mozzarella layered between the tart tomato slices and earthy basil leaves the heroes had for lunch is probably a good thing, but if your audience is the wider readership of, say, fantasy, then keep your descriptiveness within the bounds of what those readers have come to expect.


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