I have recently come across this very curious realization, while editing 2nd draft of Rosehead and reading every day, such books as Discworld series and The Cuckoo's Calling and The Ocean at the End of the Lane, as well as honestly trying to read a few indie books (just poked around on Amazon, reading first pages to see if the stories would grab me). One of my pet peeves is excessive descriptions, and most of my editing consists of cutting these, but what I discovered, with glee and glum, is that those indie writers whose books I tried reading suffer from the same! There is this incessant need to describe everything that happens, and, on top of it, this tendency to use same words within a paragraph, instead of varying the vocabulary. But when I read the above mentioned books, even The Cuckoo's Calling's descriptions (and there were many of them) didn't feel excessive. So I was like, WTF? What's the deal here? I think I got what the deal is, this week. I say, I think I got it, because I hope I did, maybe I'm totally wrong, but I have applied it to my editing and it seems to be working, so I will share here with you.
Cut descriptions, replace with commentary. So I'm probably not being very clear by what I mean with this word, commentary, but I will try my best to explain. What I mean is, it's one thing describing the facts about what is happening, how did the scene look, smelled, sounded, etc, and it's a completely another thing commenting on it, as in, injecting into it your own opinion, so suddenly the sky doesn't just look blue, it looks blue like the sea, or a forgotten memory blue, or blue that's the color of your neighbor's undies. You see where I'm going with this, right? When you just say blue, and you can also say cobalt and whatever other word you find in a thesaurus, it's just a fact, it's boring, and when there is a lot of it, OMG, it's double-boring (yeah, I know, I needed to cut out more of water descriptions from Siren Suicides, oh well, I learned my lesson). Anyway, this is part of this meat that people love about writers, it's that style, or that tempo, or that characteristic way of writing that we fall in love with and come back to, to read more and more. When you read your own draft and go through descriptions, ask yourself a question, do I really need it here? If you doubt it even for a fraction of a second, cut it. I'm serious, cut it. Make it gone. But if you want to keep it, consider switching to commentary and injecting your own opinion, within the tone of your book (like, you wouldn't call a car blue like your neighbor's panties if it's a YA book, right?).
Whenever you can, comment, comment, comment. I guess this is what makes writers writers. We have this ability to take stuff in, process it, and then spit it out in the form of the stories. Those stories become ours, and because we have to visualize the stories, along with action and dialogue, we have description, to show the reader how everything looks and feels. We can be very literal about it, but nobody wants to read literal stuff, that's what dictionaries are for, or boring text books. Stories, short stories, or long stories like novels, are meant to be interesting, enthralling, enlightening. And how to do that? Well, by creating this alternate world, of course. And how to do that? Oh, simple, make it yours, inject yourself into it, and that means, show the reader how you see that world. This is separate from plots and character development and all that other smart literary stuff, by the way. This is purely about painting the world, about descriptions. For example, I just got done reading The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman, and I'm in love with his descriptions. Why? They have his flavor. He describes sudden sinking into water as if one stumbled into the pool backwards, experiencing that feeling of surprise. What exactly is this? Commentary. You could describe the facts, as in, his clothes got wet, his skin felt cold, water gurgled in his ears. That's boring and long (another problem with descriptions, namely, their overwhelming length, stems from this). But with one commentary you can make us feel how it feels, and it's not boring and not long and awesome.
Cut out repetitive words from descriptions. I don't know if this is just me, but I noticed it in other indie books too. For whatever reason we tend to use same words in one paragraph, as in, "The trees swayed in the wind." Imagine you have a character waiting under those trees, you might say, "She swayed in the wind, waiting." I'm not kidding, I've seen it over and over and over again. Why do we do this? No idea. But when editing, I am now watching closely for these guys and make sure to replace them with similar words in meaning, or even restructure sentences altogether to avoid repetitions. For example, this is my favorite, "She stood up." You can only say "stood up" so many times, so you can say "she straightened" or "she got to her feet" or other variations. I'm curious, do you have the same problem? I find that I mostly do this in my descriptions, struggling with common verbs that are used a lot, just picking one word and milking it until it becomes annoying because I have used it so much.
Keep them short, stupid. Okay, this is more of a reminder for myself. I have stolen this from "keep it simple, stupid" phrase, but it's true. You don't need long descriptions, unless they are paramount to the story. Short and simple beats long and complicated. You don't even need some amazing vocabulary. All you need is, your own commentary in it, something that rings true for you. Because if it rings true for you, it will ring true for your reader. Think of it this way, instead of showing the reader the scene, make the reader feel the scene. It's kind of like going a layer deeper underneath the famous rule of "show don't tell", it's like "make them feel, don't just show". You of course need to apply the usual 5 senses in all descriptions, like seeing and hearing and smelling and tasting and touching, but now you know how to pick between them (I mean, you can't keep describing everything with all 5 senses, otherwise your book will be one endless description). Make a strong commentary in the description, make it connect in the reader's mind with a strong emotion. Maybe it's the way the sound sounds? Or the way taste tastes? Or the way smell smells? For example, you can say, "his room smelled like cigarettes and stale beer and unwashed laundry" (see how long this is?), or you can say, "his room smelled like a cheap motel". Boom. It makes you feel it, doesn't it? It makes me feel it too, ewww, I think I even smell it now.
Well, this is the highlight of my epiphany. Whaddya think? Have similar experiences?