Whenever I meet a fiction writer, I usually take one safe step back. Sure to accompany anything I say next with a smile and an amount of uncontroversial chatter, I fail to mention that I, myself, like to write fiction. In fact, I avoid the topic of writing fiction. Writers, particularly writers of fiction, tend to be very defensive about their work. They can take a few spelling errors or a remark of criticism on the grammar, but if you contradict their so-called style then they get very angry indeed.
Being a writer myself, I understand how this works. Don't for a moment think that I'm picking on someone. (I made a comment about stereotypical homeschoolers yesterday and quickly had to remind everyone that I'm a homeschooler myself. Yikes, that was a close one.)
One particularly nasty area is hidden inside schools. When young writers are told how to write their papers, they tend to indignation. After all, they write all the time. What the heck is a "topic sentence" and who needs them? Is there anything to be gained by writing "by the rules"?
My class was recently assigned a paper which could either be descriptive or narrative. These lines cross over, of course, but I focused on descriptive. Someone in my class, we'll call George, wants to write screenplays (isn't that cool?). He's a fiction writer – yeah, I've taken that safe step back a couple of times. When he got his paper back with a grade that was not up to his expectations, he was understandably disappointed. (Just a disclaimer, it wasn't a bad grade, but it wasn't an A+.) I read his paper, and it was good. There wasn't anything really wrong with it, but it perhaps wasn't up to the standard that the textbook chapters set. Since that was the standard that the professor was grading by, it's only fair.
So is there anything to be gained by writing the way the professor wants and not in your "style"? Uh, duh. Yes. Captain Obvious statement of the year. There is always something to be gained in putting your ways aside and learning the ways of others.
Writers struggle with this. George probably struggles with this. My sister, who has published a book, struggles with this. I struggle with this. Everyone struggles with this. Human beings apply labels and titles to themselves and so assume themselves experts in that field. There are exceptions, there are limitations, and there are saints; but generally speaking, this is the case. Scientists are often made fun of for this very reason. Writers suffer from the same problems.
Am I saying that all of George's writing should have more description in it and should sound like the selections in the textbook? I don't know, to be honest with you. Certainly, his writing should improve as he grows wiser and gains experience, but I haven't formed an opinion on whether his writing should include more description or more this or more that. We have all experienced different forms of writing. Austen is different from Tolkien is different from Funke (Dragon Rider, Inkheart, Thief Lord). Writers who write about current times in current places describe things differently than writers who write about past or imaginary times in past or imaginary places. I personally love the spell that is woven when there is extensive painted scenery, but that may not fit a book about a war with terrorists. On the other hand, who knows? What if all books told a story with more illustration? Description makes things a little more interesting, conveys feeling and tone, and fleshes out the scene.
But how to describe so that description does those three things? You have to use metaphor, simile, personification, and strong action verbs. Consider:
- It was chilly.
- The wind and rain chilled her all through.
Which is better? Honestly. The first is fine for conversation or emphasis in a complicated paragraph, but the second tells a story all by itself, doesn't it? I'm even cautiously willing to bet that every writer that reads the latter sentence will feel their imagination kick into gear. (Notice that chilly changed from a predicate subject adjective to an action verb.)
As I say all the time to my siblings, don't be afraid to try new things and learn. Or are you a selfish coward? I know I am, but no one has to know that. I'm going to improve my writing by trying ways which are not my own. I'll outwardly be just as brave as a heroic protagonist, and in doing so, become who I pretend to be.