Descriptions That Breathe – Bringing Writing to Life

The Dream Thieves

The Dream Thieves

When I write, both in my blog and my novels, I know that my language is straightforward – no deviation between signifier and signified. No real stretch of the imagination necessary to obtain meaning. I gently lead the reader by the hand as they wander through my stories without minimal effort required on their part.

Thinking about it this morning, I’ve decided this is due to three things: My inexperience as a writer of fiction, my background as an analyst and academic, and my constant lack of sleep. Taking those in order, this is how I see it:

1. My inexperience as a writer means I lack confidence and bravery. I over-explain to make sure the reader understands my story, knows what my characters are thinking and feeling. I dread “I don’t get it” and as a result probably get “I don’t feel it.”  Any tendency towards being different is slashed so that I can find acceptance. Any flowery description is deleted as ‘purple prose.’ (The person who edited Baby Blues crossed-out half the similes, saying, for example, “Or just ‘he slept'”)

2. Similarly, my business and academic background have kept my language uncomplex. Actually, that isn’t true of the academic writing: what that did for me was ingrain the passive tense as an acceptable form of language usage. “One could argue that …” is a historian’s stock phrase.

But marketing was all about saying what you meant in easy words. There’s a phrase in marketing, summarised as the acronym KISS – Keep It Simple Stupid. One of my jobs working in Internal Comms was to take complex business documents and ‘translate’ them into briefings for the staff. I was good at seeing through difficult ideas and getting to the essence of the message.

It’s a useful skill as a parent of young children. I am constantly trying to break abstract ideas down into basic language. Unfortunately, nothing kills vocabulary quicker than not using it. Oh, apart from lack of sleep.

3. I can barely remember the colours of the rainbow on fewer than six hours’ continuous sleep and I hardly ever get anything near that these days. I remember at university, when I would pull all-nighters to complete essays: I’d stumble into the communal kitchen at 7 a.m., bleary eyed, and ask my housemates, “What’s another way to say Stalin was pissed off?”

Bereft that I've finished it!

Bereft that I’ve finished it!

Why am I writing this defence of my unsophisticated prose? I finished The Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater last night, and was as blown away as I was by The Raven Boys (and slightly less put out at the ending, having braced myself with the knowledge that it’s a quartet of books.)

Maggie Stiefvater’s writing is beautifully rich. Meanings have to be wrestled from the often dense and opaque prose. Motivations, character’s feelings, and even the basic plot, are often hard to fathom, despite the novel being written in omnipotent third person. It is not a passive read.

What I love most is the way the language is mixed up. I’m struggling to describe it (for all the reasons listed above!) but the closest I can come is to say the descriptions are alive. Just as Death is anthropomorphised in the Terry Pratchett novels, so is everything in The Dream Thieves. It seems appropriate, in a novel where the trees speak Latin and half the characters are psychics, that you can have an “ardently yellow” polo shirt or a “desolate” washing line (pp 7 and 57 respectively. All references taken from the paperback version, UK, 2013.)

Some of the language reminds me of my favourite poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, who was known for stringing words together, like “dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding | Of the rolling level underneath him steady air” (from The Windhover.”). Compare Maggie’s description of one of the characters visiting the family house:

“When Ronan opened the door, the car was immediately filled with the damp-earth, green-walled, mould-stone scent of home.” (p147)

All the senses invoked in one description, without apparent effort. You don’t have to analyse what the character feels, smells, sees, because it’s all there.

For the first time I wish I’d read the book in e-form, as I’m struggling to locate some of my favourite phrases. But here are a few (none of which, I hope, give any story away):

“Adam’s hand glided over her bare elbow. The touch was a whisper in a language she didn’t speak very well.” (p9)

“Gansey’s furiously orange-red ancient Camaro.” (p21)

“Blue Sargent was pretty in a way that was physically painful to him. He was attracted to her like a heart attack.” (p60)

“Then the engine expired … The engine ticked like a dying man’s foot.” (p122)

“Declan looked shocked and poisonous. He was always so alarmed by the truth.” (p411)

“The past was something that had happened to another version of himself, a version that could be lit and hurled away.” (p221)

“Cicadas sang madly from the trees. It was so impossibly summer.” (p340)

“She smiled at him. It was a tiny, secretive thing, like a bird peering from branches.” (p360)

“The crowd, drunk and high and gullible and desirous of wonders, screamed their support.” (p432)

“It was deadly like a cancer. Like radiation.” (p434)

It would be disingenuous to write in Maggie Stiefvater’s style. It is so clearly and unequivocally hers. But reading books like this stretch my vocabulary muscles and build up their strength. They encourage me to be braver and self-censor slightly less. Above all, they transport me to a place where words are everything, reminding me of their power. A place where emotions aren’t described as “her heart thumped like a hammer” (there are a lot of thumping hearts in my prose!)

To read is to learn and to learn is to grow. Bring it on.

10 thoughts on “Descriptions That Breathe – Bringing Writing to Life

  1. Oh, I relate to this so well. I love simplicity because we overcomplicate the world at times. Making truths impossible. But I love the complexity of the universe and how our minds and bodies work. Sometimes my writing is so simple it’s like a kid’s version, a ditty. Then other times, I think I lose my reader in imagery and words that have meaning to me. It’s a difficult balance to strike well. I sometimes look at stats in that way. And comments. Those where there are fewer comments are almost saying, ‘WTF!’ And, quite often, I had a notion of that before hitting ‘publish’. But I just do it anyway. 😉
    As a teacher too I try every way possible to make concepts understandable to young minds while trying to teach them analytical skills. To spoon feed or to leave the investigation to them? A balance again, I think.
    The author you mention has her voice. We all have to do the same. But I don’t think there’s anything ‘wrong’ in trying out and using many. The editor who looked at your work may have rejected Maggie S. So much is subjective in appraisal and preference.
    I’m reading Paulo Coelho’s last book and I admire his simplicity while communicating depth in idea.
    You’ve got me thinking now.
    You’re being hard on yourself although it is great to reflect on these things and seek for what will satisfy ourselves. I’m still very much in that place too.
    She would be delighted with your review.
    I’ll think some more on this.
    Thanks for putting this out here. It’s something we all have to consider. x

    • Thank you so much for this reply. I know what you mean about posts that get no likes or comments although I think (hope!) sometimes it’s just because I blog daily and stuff gets missed. I’ve reblogged before and got more on the second viewing. (Or I’ll write a domestic rant and get a dozen comments – another example of simple sometimes cutting through where complex doesn’t?)
      I’ve only read The Alchemist, which other PC books would you recommend? I’m on a roll for beautiful prose…

      • I’ve thought of that too. I post so many things – way too many at times, I feel. several times a day often. And I think people read the most recent. 😉
        the Alchemist was what got me started on PC a good number of years ago. I ‘made’ all my children read it too. One of them even used it for her school exam on a book she had read recently.
        The one I’m reading just now is called Aleph. It’s amazing because I feel he’s in my head saying things I’ve been thinking about. And it’s great to know that I’m not a loon on my own! 🙂
        Another of his is The Warrior of Light. But, do you know, I never finished that one. Must have been the frame of mind I was in at the time. But I’ll go back to read it.
        Beautiful prose I love. But I do love it when complex ideas are combined and broken down in such a way that I feel I can go, ‘aha, I know just what you mean’.
        He does that so well.
        And he died recently I believe I read. I think Aleph may have been his last book. And so apt.x

  2. You are doing everything you can to get me to read these books aren’t you?! Love the excerpts. 🙂

    I’m one who lets things get a little crazy in my first drafts, (a tight writer I certainly am not!) and have received feedback to that effect.
    Yet, I have this conviction about my fancy wordage–this is what I want to write like, and I’m reluctant to pull back. Reading about books like these, and others (Night Circus comes to mind) only reinforces my suspicions that there might be a home for writing that’s on the sensual side of the spectrum.

    • I agree, I think it’s not bad advice to consider the market if getting an agent / selling hundreds of books is your primary aim. But literature will be richer and reach more people if writers are brave enough to write the books that live within them. Follow Matt Haig on social media, he argues it better than me (he’s very anti-snobbery in literature).

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