Last week, we picked up some cold cuts at the deli counter at the supermarket. Ham. Turkey breast. A little Swiss cheese. Tasty stuff. The ham was perfect, thin sheets you could almost see through. The turkey, the same, at least when the clerk held up a slice for me to look at an approve. It looked pretty much just exactly perfect. But when we tried to use the turkey to build a sandwich the next day, a funny thing happened: the turkey turned out to be the perfect thickness on one end, and a thin, shreddy mess on the other. Instead of being able to peel up individual slices, you could easily peel up half a slice, and then had to pick through the bits at the other end.
Having run a deli slicer at one point, I think what happens is all in the motion used by the clerk. You can exert more downward at the start of the slice, when your arm is closest to your body. As you push and your arm gets further away from you, you lose downward pressure on the meat, so the back part of the slice is actually thinner than the front half: thus, shreddy meat. Or slices of salami that look like someone’s nibbled a bit off the end.
I’ve noticed (and perhaps I’ve written about this before, I don’t remember) that, in terms of description, my writing is often a lot like those slices of turkey. For whatever reason, I tend to make my writing thick with adjectives and description at the beginning,. I pile it on, descriptions of people with knobby-knuckled hands and hair growing out of their ears, rooms with ankle-deep carpet and pine-scented paneling, deep backyards lit with fireflies at twilight. Whatever. In my RiP, my opening paragraph is five sentences long. Those sentences have enough adjectives for a page. But as I go, the adjectives drop out. Description gets lost in action, dialogue, emotion. The turkey becomes shreddy and thin.
In the case of the RiP, it may be because the passage in question was something I started in my writers’ group, not knowing it was going to be the opening of a 300 plus page manuscript. In general, I tend to ‘slice thick’ on my short stories, I don’t know why. It’s possible that I use description the way musicians will run through scales as a warm up, or that it’s how I find my way into what I’m writing. A lot of the description came out when I ran the manuscript through the Excess Word Removal Machine (pat. pending), but there’s still an awful lot there. I thought it was necessary, but on my latest re-read, it still seems a little overdone.
What I can’t quite tell is if the pattern persists through the rest of it, i.e., if each writing session starts off with the same slavish devotion to description. I don’t think it does. It seems to me that, once I get through that opener, the description become more evenly distributed, and it may well be that it’s because I spend between work sessions thinking about the project, writing it in my head.
In the end, I’m not sure how much of a problem this is, whether it’s real, or just the sort of thing we doubting writers use to torture ourselves. Front-loaded description may or may not be a problem, depending on how loaded it is (and, perhaps, how predictable: George R.R. Martin’s insistence on describing the clothing of every new character in the Game of Thrones epic became annoyingly predictable for me), and how well it serves the story. Maybe there are times where it’s best spread evenly, like uniform slices of cold cuts, and other times where it’s okay to be lumpy and uneven. What do you think?
And now, some music.
Given that it’s almost August, that summer is winding down into the Dog Days, it seems appropriate to throw this little number in from The Who. Amazing that it’s forty years ago. Amazing that Roger and Pete are still on tour (and reportedly quite energetic and sounding well). Watching old Who clips is a reminder of how crazed and chaotic they were, and how powerful: