Wednesday, July 17, 2013

White room syndrome: Where the hell am I?

THANKS to the 'Like a Virgin' contestants & judges for giving feedback on my entry, and I'm happy to say, I made it to the second round! Updated entries go live on July 23rd, and winners are announced July 26th.

Okay, now back to the nerdy post...

When I read, or write, I like to see where everyone is, and keep an eye on what’s going on around the characters.

Nothing gets on my nerves faster than ‘white room syndrome’, when there is almost no description of anything. I get... turned around, confused, irritated. The thing is though, you don't need huge info-dumps of description, you just need carefully inserted tidbits.

So, another look at the scene from last time, yes, I’m sure this feels repetitive, but we really only focused on body language last time, and now I want to open this up to the wider notion of ‘description’, or observation... but first, a reminder from an earlier post:

The thing about choosing strong words, is that it overlaps with voice and description. How a character views the world is going to impact the words he/she uses, and the importance he/she puts on things.

Jay, who is an artist, is very quick to notice visual information, but is less quick to pick up on other sensory information. His frame of reference is going to gravitate towards art-related terminology, anatomy, light/shadow, etc. He is also arrogant, and entitled, so his focus is self-centered, and his actions self-serving. He can be very manipulative when it comes to getting what he wants.

I also mentioned that you should keep in mind things like emotional/physical/psychological state, how the character views the other people in the room, what his/her goals/desires are, etc.

(Small aside, since I don’t want to write another post: everything I’ve said also holds true for writing dialogue, and ensuring each character’s voice sounds unique)

So now, here’s the scene again:

Kell pauses at the doorway, one hand lingering on the frame. Only her eyes move, sharp, careful, absorbing everything.
Finally, she steps across the threshold. “You weren’t kidding.”
“No.” The word doesn’t come out as firm as I wanted it to. Maybe because I was holding my breath.
She glides through the mess, the stacks of oil pallets, the boxes full of smaller boxes, full of unmixed paint, oil, plaster, and turpentine. She doesn’t hesitate, she doesn’t shy away from the precariously balanced piles, she turns and moves with confidence, like in the couple seconds she looked over the room, she memorized the placement of every bolt of fallen canvas and protruding frame.
It’s not logical, but she does it. I pull the door closed, gently.
“Where do I sit?”
I fumble forward, bang my knee, stub a toe, but I get to the canvas. I heft the green three-legged stool over my head so I can maneuver it over to the window without knocking anything over. The afternoon light is still good, enough to sketch by, anyway.
She runs once finger over the seat. “Retro.”
My face gets hot. “It’s... it was my grandmother’s piano stool.”
“Ah, that’s why it’s so short.”
She doesn’t sit, she doesn’t flop, she alights. That’s it. That’s the movement I want to capture. That effortless grace she can’t hide with ripped Ed Hardy shirts and faded pink dreadlocks. But I’m not Pollock, I don’t capture movement, I want light. Her light.
I pull the canvas from my easel and prop a large two-foot-by-three-foot newsprint sketchbook in its place. The old mug with charcoal is on my left, and I grab a piece without my eyes leaving Kell. I don’t want to waste a moment of looking at her.
She sits still, but awkwardly. Her hands squished between her knees, palms pressed together inside the sleeves of her butterfly print hoodie, shoulders drawn inward. Her chin is up, eyes bright and defiant, an odd juxtaposition with her closed-up body language. She’s not looking at me, but at the door. She’s motionless, but you can almost see the desire to move slowly building up inside.
The light on her skin is deep amber, the same color as the flecks in her green irises, and the shadowed areas rich coffee with cream. The lines of her eyes are exotic, almond shaped, though it might be the heavy black makeup that’s making a connection to Egyptian kole. 
Almond, maybe that’s actually the color of the flecks in her eyes, not amber. More red in the mix than yellow. No, too much red. Hard to tell in this light. Later, next time, I’ll get closer.
Her roots are espresso dark, the hot-pink pink faded to the flush ripeness of a peony. There are no highlights or shadows. Light gets tangled in her dreadlocks, Escher-maze knots of intertwining color and light. A Japanese woodblock print of a tatami mat, Van Gogh’s haystacks, an entire season of fields in Carl Schaefer’s ‘Ontario Farmhouse’. Repetition of pattern, but not uniform. Not consistent. How to bring out the texture with minimal detail, to not lose the blurred light?
Hoodie, always in a damn hoodie, or long sleeved layered shirts. 
Hard to see, can’t get the shape of her body lines. Subtle curves, no straight lines. Breasts? There, small. Fits with the lithe muscle and low BMI.
Ten, no, maybe twelve pages already. Hands work fast, breath shallow. The familiar ache of desperation to sketch quickly, to capture everything before she moves.
A memory flits through my head, sketching robins on the grass. Pause, hop, then the whip-quick dive of their beak into the lawn to snatch a worm. Pause, wings flip out, legs bend, and an instant later, in flight.
One second to note and render the pose, maybe two. Fast, work faster to catch it before it’s gone.
Then there’s a double-fisted bang at my door. 
I jump.
I breathe.
I wasn’t breathing until now. Not enough. I’m lightheaded. Blink, breathe. Eyes are dry. Hands, still moving?
“Jay, X-Box!”
Damn it. It’s Donovan.

Most of the description I used should make sense, right? He’s an artist, he’s going to break her down into anatomy, what he can see, colors he knows, lines, shapes, shadow and light. The deeper his concentration, the less ‘person’ he sees, merely the sum of parts he’s reproducing in every stroke of charcoal on paper. 

I also wanted to ‘paint’ an image of his workroom in as few words as possible, rather than have thick paragraphs detailing everything in there, and how it was set up.

The robin wasn’t only a vehicle to highlight Jay’s fear, and give me a way to describe Kell’s body language without being too repetitive, the robin also gives history (he’s been sketching/drawing for a long time, and in much more informal settings, possibly for fun, rather that for ‘art/work’), it also introduces the idea of how difficult it is to capture/reproduce a moving target/model.

In life drawing classes, it’s normal to do 2, 5, 10, 20 minute poses, where it’s expected the artist will include a fair amount of detail, but it’s also normal to do 30 second, 10 second, and even 2 second poses to train the eye, hand, etc. to move faster, to be more accurate, to break down/replicate from a glance, rather than a prolonged study.

Like flash fiction forces you to use words efficiently.

From experience, I can also tell you that, when doing 2 second poses, you pretty much stop breathing you’re concentrating so hard. Everything falls away, you go into a trance. After a five+ minute stretch of 2 second poses, when we’d break, I’d be lightheaded, I’d see spots, or be unable to focus. Often I’d need to walk, or shut my eyes for a minute.

Every speck of your energy goes into focusing, and you get disoriented when jolted out of it.

You, as the reader, tell me. Was I able to convey that in the scene through the description?

So, what about your characters? What are they passionate about, what are they obsessive about? How does that change their perception, what they notice, and what flies by, unobserved? If your character is into music, he/she would probably notice/think in sound, rather than visually, so what would their ‘memory’ of the robin on the grass be? What aspects of that same scene would lock into their head for 5, 10, 20 years?

See how a single image, a robin, can serve multiple purposes? 40 words about a robin. That’s a lot to pack into very few words. I’m making use of many techniques to push subtext, and by using so few words, it’s actually stronger because you can return to it, again and again, without it feeling like an info-dump.

To spin a basketball on your finger, you only need to touch it a couple times to keep it there, to keep it moving. The better you are, the more it looks completely effortless.

You can get a lot of impact out of a few words, if you choose them carefully, and specifically because they suit your characters.


  1. This is a tough situation for me. I think you hit the nail on the head (or pretty close) for Jay's character in your description. The thing is, reading about all those colors is a little tiresome. Take that however you want.

    To answer your first question: yes and no. You certainly get a sense of Jay becoming light-headed through the rapid description as you go on, but I'm not sure that he could be thinking all of those things if he is concentrating as hard as you say he is.

    Typically I'm writing flash fiction, so everything is boiled down to the barest essentials. My POV tends to be so limited that while my characters may be scanning an entire room, the only things noted are the important ones. Unless a robin is integral to the story, it's a waste of words to mention it (in my case). Even in my longer works I try to make any details serve multiple purposes.

    I have a very sharp style and write mostly speculative fiction, while you write dark literary-bent tales, so we're bound to have differences in how we approach writing.

    1. To reiterate, this IS first-draft material, so it will obviously be edited/trimmed, plus I picked this scene as an example because there is a lot more description than normal, especially description that is clearly 'personal' to Jay, as a character. This is also not a flash fiction piece, which, of course, would have less in the way of description.

      Again, I'm not saying, "write like this!"... everyone has different styles, and different preferences, and different genres tend to expect more/less description.

  2. I congratulated you on my blog comments, but in case you missed it, CONGRATS! I'm keeping my fingers crossed for you. I personally love details in settings, i want a picture painted, if you will, to help me to really immerse myself in the story.


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