I am the first to admit that I am not good with description. My first drafts are often like scripts with dialogue and character action but very little setting description. In the past, I’ve struggled to force myself to include the description as I’m writing, and it always slowed me down. Sometimes it scuttled my efforts completely. Then I had the chance to speak with Guy Gavriel Kay during a reading at the Eden Mills Writers’ Festival (I think this was 2000, but I honestly don’t remember).
Mr. Kay spoke of his technique of adding details in second and subsequent drafts. This made total sense, but I didn’t adopt it at first. I’m an impatient guy, and I wanted everything that needed to be in the story in the first draft.
But Mr. Kay was not the only writer who uses this technique, and it became apparent to me that I could get a first draft finished faster by focusing on the aspects of the story that came easiest to me. I generally have to go through five or six drafts – even after the story is “completed” – before my writing is ready to share. It made sense to use those various passes to add texture.
Basically, the idea is to push through and get a story done. Once that is done, I generally leave a story or chapter to sit for a couple of weeks. This divorces me from the story somewhat and helps – but does not totally alleviate – the problems of knowing what I want to say but not getting it onto the page. Getting away from the story helps me to come to it fresh and see it with eyes closer to those of a reader.
During that first edit – which I always do with printed copies, as I still have issues editing my own work on a screen – I make notes of where description should go. When I am finished making corrections, I go to those areas noted as lacking detail and include what description I think is necessary. Rinse, repeat, until you think it’s ready to share. That doesn’t mean ready for primetime, it means ready for eyes other than yours to poke holes in it.
Trust me, critiquers will absolutely help to point out areas in which the sense of place is lacking, and that means you need to put something in there, some level of description.
And try to avoid the problem of putting in too much description.
Hey, no one ever said this was going to be easy.
You can learn more about Guy Gavriel Kay here.
You can learn more about the Eden Mills Writers’ Festival here.