Exercise the Second: “Uh, it’s a room”
But that’s not enough, not when we need our description to carry so much weight. (Character, Conflict, and Setting) Lucky for us, Mary Robinette Kowal has an excellent exercise for constructing efficient descriptive passages.
I first found this exercise in the same podcast we used last time, so here’s the link again. She discusses the exercise at 16:19.
Her website also has instructions, but the podcast has a third part to the exercise which we will be including because it looked difficult and awful.
She frames this exercise with the excellent analogy of a student learning to draw. When you learn to draw, it’s common to do a “study” of certain things you wish to grok. Hands or noses or this one renaissance dude who did a whole painting full of roly-poly flying angel babies so he’d have practiced when it came time to add the quintessential angel baby to a larger work.
(Disclaimer: I may have misremembered an experience at the St. Louis Art Museum or mixed up a memory with a Netflix documentary, but someone was practicing angel babies. Therefore: MRK’s analogy holds.)
The Basic Premise:
The idea is to write a description of a room three times with each iteration attempting to capture more than the last in terms of character and conflict.
We’ll start with the rambling results of a 30 minute free write and, with the power of deliberate editing, construct two more drafts that reveal all three of our writing triumvirate: Character, Conflict, and Setting.
PART I: Pure Setting – 30 Minutes
“Write for thirty minutes. Time it. Describe everything in the room around you using all five senses, if possible.”
Thirty minutes. About one room? Mary, you seem like a really cool person, but right now, we are not friends.
Or maybe we’re really good friends, like the kind you can count on to tell you if that neon puke colored shirt you want to buy makes you look like a traffic cone splattered with road kill.
I really like that shirt, Mary. But putting it back on the rack is good for me. Like this exercise, I’ll do it, but I won’t like it.
And, in the interest of noncompliance (how else could I maintain my rebellious rep?), I’m not using a real life room. I could describe the cluttered dining room table that I’ve commandeered as a giant desk, or the wilty jungle of tomato plants I’ve neglected to water. But I fear that in doing the exercise about the real life room I frequently occupy, I may reveal too much about the character of Meg which is dangerous lest you figure me out and tie a location to the person promoting these painful writing exercises. (Grr. Practice is hard. Pitchforks.)
I will be describing a made-up room in a log cabin at the base of a hill surrounded by human-eating Death Unicorns. The very same cabin the tragic protagonist of my current project is holed up in at the story’s start.
So here’s my deal.
I don’t tend to think about setting unless made to. “It’s a cabin. She’s in it.” Sure, some tactically relevant details pop up, (The walls are thick like a fortress! Great for keeping man-eating Death Unicorns at bay.) but I assume everyone’s brain has the equivalent of a google image search for most basic settings.
It’s a castle. You get it. I’m in a canoe. Yup. They live in a small house on Main in a small town in Maine. Cthulhu Maine or Stephen King Maine? There’s lots of fog and the camera is slightly desaturated. Uh, not helping.
I will, possibly, start to add description (because I have been told to) and a booming voice in my mind interrupts. “THEY KNOW WHAT A CABIN IS, MEG. THIS BOOK IS NOT FOR NEWLY BORN HUMANS.”
Very true, voice. Solid input. Skip.
But this is about putting my old habits aside. I’ve set a timer, taken a few minutes to visualize my not real cabin room, and will keep my butt in this chair until the little owl says I can leave.
“The bed’s frame had come apart easily enough. Its boards reinforced the thick log door, nails pulled from the bed’s frame now held it in place in various diagonal lines across the door frame.”
“The air in the log cabin was thick with moisture evaporating off the dew outside and the smoke rolling over from the decrepit fireplace.”
“I’m at four minutes and I seriously have no idea what else to describe. I’ve gone through all five senses.”
“It’s a damned cabin.”
“The foot long metal spire had grown out the top of one of their heads years ago, turned black, twisted, and gained length as the beast aged. This one Bek had ripped from the large female’s skull with the tip of a shovel.”
So this is the the ‘highlights’ version. I had 1,300ish words when the owl finally released me from its talons. You can see the slow deterioration of my psyche.
PART II: The Lens of the Character – 1 Paragraph
“Rewrite the description but this time from a specific character’s POV. Choose a character with an easily identifiable profession, one that would inform which aspects of the room they would notice first, less or not at all.”
Another rule for this one is I can’t explicitly disclose the character’s profession in the lines. The reader must be able to guess what they do for a living based on which aspects of the setting they notice and how they notice it.
Mary Robinette Kowal has a great quote to summarize this that I will reference again in our journey of description mastery. “Focus indicates thought.”
With this in mind, I’ll pare down my rambling description from above and add Bek’s focus. I’m going to cheat for the purposes of this post and spoil her profession for you. She’s a guard. (She used to be an adventurer…)
That isn’t a common profession in a modern setting. (This is part of the reason I find general writing prompts difficult to apply to writing sci-fi and fantasy. More on that in a future post.) So we’ll see if I can make this obvious?
I’m going to start by making a bullet list of things I think Bek would find relevant. (The defensiveness of the walls, the convenient height of the window, her stash of deadly weapons) I’ll pick out some sentences/ideas from the larger draft and condense those down.
Defensible. That was why she’d picked it. The cabin’s construction offered a sturdy if small shelter, a fortress against anything on the other side of the foot thick log walls. It’s lone vulnerability, the window, sat in the logs cut at sternum height with plenty of width to thrust a spear through. Bek clutched one of her weapons in her right hand and turned, counting the two spares leaning against the barricaded door for the fourth time.
Done. Not nearly so bad, but I don’t mind hacking prose down. (Long winded writers everywhere weep!)
Now we’ll add our third layer, like the cheese on a sad, three-layer-only bean dip. This is the part mentioned in the podcast, but not on the website version of the exercise. I can only hope Mary Robinette Kowal saw that this was excruciating after giving it as a prompt in the podcast and later edited the website to be more merciful.
PART III: Emotional State (Conflict? Close Enough) – 3 Sentences
“You should be able to let us know their emotional state, their occupation and what the room looks like in three sentences.”
Suuuuuuuure. I was just getting over that 30 minutes of straight description you asked me to write, Mary. I put back the hot pink camo leggings. Can’t I at least keep this pair of bedazzled mom jeans? No?
Okay, the condensed version:
The window in front of her would serve as a bottleneck, the small room’s only vulnerable spot. She’d wait, holed up surrounded by the thick log walls and barricaded door, her spear at the ready. She let her toe tap against the dirt floor, and her thumb against the smooth wood of the spear’s shaft.
Did we apply our tenets?
- Do prompts, even if they are scary or seem lame – Uh yeah. I think we get a gold star for this one. We’re such troopers.
- Get our descriptive prose to convey three things: Character, Conflict, and Setting – This exercise is the one that inspired this rule. It’s an excellent explanation of what we’re hoping to achieve here. Check.
- Practice mindful practice – Quick, Robin, to the write up! (below)
When that timer went off, I’d written 1,317 words including three or five complete sentences about where I was in the timer and how I could not possibly think of anything else to describe in a one room cabin.
I ended up going on narrative tangents as I described things. These may prove useful later if I decide to explore those various directions in the draft, but I couldn’t keep on track for thirty minutes of pure description. Other ideas kept crawling in.
I think, for me personally, twenty minutes would have been less painful and still managed to pull plenty of description out of my brain and on the page, but I concede, this was good for me.
This part was far less daunting. I went through, picked out some ideas I thought best represented “she guards things” and rewrote them. That being said, this step was easy for me, most likely because I already had a couple pages of drafted description to pick details from.
Bonus notes from Abby: “Would you have had as much success with Part II if you hadn’t first completed Part I? By opening your brain to everything in the room, later when you add in focus, you’ll have plenty of possibilities to choose from.”
She’s exactly right, I think. While I did not enjoying doing the first part, the reason the second two parts went so smoothly is largely because I’d surrendered to the authority of the owl timer in the first.
This part was, by far, my favorite of the three. My only issue was that I wanted more than three sentences. I ended up writing a lot of clauses in order to get in all the information I thought was relevant. This isn’t an issue for an actual draft. Needing an extral sentence or two won’t hurt anything as I apply this exercise to large pieces, which I will be doing.
So while thirty minutes of straight “brainstorming” was a bit painful, I’m happy with not only the results of the exercise, but also of the narrative bits I wrote down as tangents. I’ve got some neat threads to follow for the bigger draft, and a new tool in my kit for picking out which aspects of a setting are relevant and require describing. (Hint: Does it portray character and conflict? If yes, put it in.)
Next time, we’ll be doing not one, but 21 Prompts! We’ll look at how to brainstorm descriptive ideas and come to terms with tossing some of our ideas out. (I know, all your ideas are precious and awesome. [Disclaimer: They aren’t. We will slaughter them without mercy.]) It’ll be the equivalent of cooking a whole pot of pasta and only eating the one, but the most bestest, noodle.