Today I will be in a car heading to the Olde City New Blood convention in St. Augustine, Fl so I apologize in advance that I will not be getting back here to any comments until later in the day, possibly in the late evening.
That being said, let’s get into the heart of today’s musing.
I’ve been a descriptive writer from the get. I will tell you exactly what a thing looks like and every moment of its existence as it relates to my story. I’ve always prided myself on it and I work to improve what is already one of my best abilities. I seek out new words, looking to boldly go where no writer has gone before.
I use words like eldritch, corpulent, and etheric. I pair words with things and actions that create a jarring feel to them like oilsheen crackle and I use: “A musty, dry smell of shed skin and tainted venom.” to describe the smell of vampires.
Again, I thought I did a damn fine job of describing things.
Then I read THE ROAD by Cormac McCarthy and learned that I was a child when it comes to description.
“When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him. Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before. Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world. His hand rose and fell softly with each precious breath. He pushed away the plastic tarpaulin and raised himself in the stinking robes and blankets and looked toward the east for any light but there was none. In the dream from which he’d wakened he had wandered in a cave where the child led him by the hand. Their light playing over the wet flowstone walls. Like pilgrims in a fable swallowed up and lost among the inward parts of some granitic beast. Deep stone flues where the water dripped and sang. Tolling in the silence the minutes of the earth and the hours and the days of it and the years without cease. Until they stood in a great stone room where lay a black and ancient lake. And on the far shore a creature that raised its dripping mouth from the rimstone pool and stared into the light with eyes dead white and sightless as the eggs of spiders. It swung its head low over the water as if to take the scent of what it could not see. Crouching there pale and naked and translucent, its alabaster bones cast up in shadow on the rocks behind it. Its bowels, its beating heart. The brain that pulsed in a dull glass bell. It swung its head from side to side and then gave out a low moan and turned and lurched away and loped soundlessly into the dark.”
Cormac McCarthy- THE ROAD
Read that again. I mean damn. That’s how you get to the heart of what a thing is.
I don’t even know what kind of creature this is. In my mind I see a stag, a once great and glorious lord of the forest brought low by an unnameable apocalypse only surviving through the depth and breadth of its own decimated vitality.
But Cormac told me none of that.
So now I consciously try to write like Cormac McCarthy. It would be easy to ape the words, to do a shabby mimicry of them, to pull words and phrases out of his work and rearrange them like a 3-card monte con run by a guy with Parkinson’s disease. I could do that and it would improve my writing.
But I want MORE. I can do better and so can you.
What it is that makes McCarthy’s work resonate so deeply in my soul? What is the magic behind the madness, the word-elixir that I slap my veins for?
Cormac McCarthy doesn’t just tell you what something looks like. In fact, he does that very little. Instead he delves deeper into the object and describes its very nature, using the English language like a sculptor’s hands to carve out the thing’s substance.
He doesn’t tell you what a thing appears to be, he tells you what it is.
By doing this, using metaphor to speak of the nature of things, it tricks the brain of the reader. Because the descriptions move out of the bare physical realm it makes the mind squeeze more from them. It opens pathways in the thought patterns and the reader walks away feeling more connected to the story, feeling like they were a part of it.
He also uses juxtaposition to really give impact to the meaty descriptions. They lay side by side with plain-spoken, nearly simple dialog that he strips down to its barest form. I believe this is why he forgoes speechtags and punctuation. He’s making a clean plate on which to serve us the meal of metaphor.
So how do we get this magic in our own writing?
I can only tell you what I’m doing. It’s working for me but your mileage may vary and, be warned, this will require homework.
I’m concentrating a portion of my personal reading on things that use the language I want to use. Shakespere, The King James Bible, and great works of classic literature. In reading them I am specifically looking for phrases and words that are evocative, that spark my imagination.
I am dedicating another portion to reading poetry. Good poetry from the classic to the modern. I picked up some Poe, Yeats, T. S. Eliot along with selections from Taylor Mali and a book called INTIMATE KISSES which covers the gamut from first attraction to consummated passion in verse. I stumbled upon it at the bookstore and flipped it open to find some really great poetry (and some not so great, admittedly). If nothing else I got the word skinsong out of it and it worked excellently in my WIP (a horror-edged urban fantasy based in the Lovecraft Mythos).
And the last thing I’m doing is really studying the works of descriptive writers. The two main ones are 1) Cormac McCarthy and 2) Robert E. Howard.
Yes, he is the same REH who made Conan. Howard was a helluva writer and he could describe the essense of a thing in a way that you couldn’t ignore. He was indeed a world-class yarn-spinner with a poet’s soul.
I’m not going to the point of diagraming sentences, but I am putting their descriptions under the microscope.
Has it worked?
Hopefully. Here’s a recent sample of something I wrote since beginning this journey.
“Alabaster watched the sackcloth sun fall behind the teeth of Wormwood Ridge, slinking through the radioactive borealis it wore like a shawl. Perfect dark spilled into the gray void, a heavy ink tipped into the pure water she remembered from before the world had broken, water that used to come from bottles and pour free from subterranean pipes of copper. Soon the moon would rise, blood red and angry in the night, shedding moonlight like arterial spray, but the in-between time would be void and empty. Dark time for dark deeds. It wouldn’t last long, but it would last long enough.
Her right hand tightened on the pearl handle of her six-gun.”
COUNTERFIET (available in the HOOKERPUNK anthology from Kerlak later this year)
Y’all have a great weekend!