"How do you transition between scene description and live action? I seem to get hung up on that most. Example: I can describe a group of people, the farm that they're on, the entire world this farm exists in, the thoughts that these people are having, and the texture of the air itself with ease; but then I remember that they have something to do in that scene. Even when I know what they're doing, the transition always feels awkward. My brain wants to jump to act II or to find something else to describe."
I've never thought about how I do this, Eric, until you asked me. Brilliant question. It made me flip through my books and through some of my favorite books and think and come to a conclusion that I'm doing transitions subconsciously, without being aware of them. You made me aware of them. Thank you.
Before you read further I must caution you that I'm a strong believer in developing your own writing rules by practicing till you expectorate gobs of blood out of your every orifice, eyes including. Only by doing this over and over and over again will you find that perfect place of knowledge: what to do and how and when. I can only share with you what works for me and what seems to work for other writers (this I've glimpsed in their books). I would also caution you against reading books on writing and following the advice you find there until you develop a thick enough skin where someone else's words won't sway you from your way of doing things. I certainly hope this post won't screw up whatever it is you already do, BECAUSE THAT IS THE ONLY RIGHT WAY OF WRITING FOR YOU.
Having said all of the above, I also believe in telling your story in as few words as possible. You can call me a minimalist. I'm not quite where I want to be with the scarcity of words, but I'm getting there. Description to me only exists when it is absolutely necessary and propels the story forward. If it doesn't do anything for the story, it shouldn't be there, period. However, when I opened my books, I was startled to see how long it took me to get to action. In Siren Suicides, my fist trilogy, I often ramble on for as many as six paragraphs before something actually happens. By contrast to this, in Rosehead shit happens right away, after only one paragraph of description. In Irkadura I have relaxed a bit and it's about two paragraphs that lead to action. In The Badlings I slipped back to three. In the new Siren Suicides Sarah has edited it so that action starts after only one paragraph of description (I'm using these terms and numbers loosely here, as one tends to bleed into another).
Rosehead is my bestselling book to date. It tells you something, doesn't it? People like action. People like story. People skip descriptions to get to the story. If they have to skip too much and too often, they get frustrated and set the book aside.
But don't get too excited here. I flipped through a bunch of my favorite books and discovered that, as I thought, there is no rule. Every writer is different. Haruki Murakami in 1Q84 takes as long as eight to nine paragraphs (two pages) to get to any action at all. Yet I love every word. And J.K. Rowling goes on for about four to five paragraphs in the first Harry Potter before an owl flies by the window and action finally starts. But every word is hilarious, and you want to read more. Stephen King in The Gunslinger does something that I've been doing too (naturally, as he is my idol and I emulate him even when I don't want to). He opens the book with one sentence that is pure action and is the summary of the whole The Dark Tower series. "The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed." Then he goes on to unpack it. Many writers do this. They throw action in your face and once you're hooked, they feed you description while you hardly notice what they're doing it, the bastards. And just when you're fed up with it, they switch back to action (best writers know exactly when to do this). The Slynx by Tatyana Tolstaya opens with action and keeps going until you have to catch your breath. And yet, as different as they are, in every one of these books the voice of the writer was clear, their own. It's the way they tell their stories.
What is your way of telling a story?
Do you jump into the quagmire of some nasty shit happening right away, or do you like to preface it with some atmospheric blabbing that is poetic and colorful? Do you like to philosophize before getting to the point or do you like to shock the reader with some blood splattering from page one? What's your style? Sounds to me like you know EXACTLY WHEN YOU NEED TO TRANSITION. I quote, "but then I remember that they have something to do in that scene." Bingo. That is the spot where you start with the action. It feels awkward not because it's awkward, but because you're unsure. You need validation that you're doing it right. You need someone to hold your hand and tell you, "This is how you do it." Well, I'm holding your hand and telling you, "This is how you do it." However you write it, is the right way. Find your own balance. For that you have to do two very simple things: write a lot and read a lot. By writing a lot you will come to know how you write, and by reading a lot you will come to know how others write. With enough practice you'll be able to compare the two and see what works for you and what doesn't.
I would recommend this little exercise. Read what you wrote aloud to a friend and see if you get embarrassed by one or the other sentence. Where you squirm and are afraid that you're losing your friend's attention, THAT IS WHERE YOU NEED TO STOP DESCRIBING. You'll sense it. You will know exactly what I mean when you do this. And if you want some temporary rule to go by, before you develop your own, don't do more than one paragraph of description. Just limit yourself to one and stick with it and see what happens. If it feels too tight, change it to two. Or maybe it's three, but don't go longer than that. Try scrubbing through your story with this in mind. So what if it will feel stitched haphazardly, your descriptions and your live action? Who cares? You're learning. Finish the damn book and write another one. And another one. And another one. At one point you'll get the knack of it and forget you have ever worried.
I'd go deeper here into bigger issues like the theme of your book and your voice and blah-blah-blah, but I don't think I need to. It will only make you more scared. To hell with all that. Just write. When your gut tells you, "Eric, my man, that's enough prattle about the beautiful farm; nobody gives a fuck," then you know it's time to get some action going. Because if you got bored, your reader will get bored too. You know how I know? You write for yourself, first and foremost. You're the first reader of your story AND YOU HAVE TO CATER TO THAT READER. The rest can eat dung.
I hope this helps, Eric. Good luck with your book! I love you. XOXO