Thursday, June 10, 2010

The visual arts & description

I really don't like lengthy description in novels. Not unless it is important to the story, or it is somewhere entirely new. That's one of the reasons I had trouble getting through Fellowship of the Ring. Tolkien could go on for five pages about the color of the sky, the amount of leaves on the floor and the shadows being cast by the mountains. I loved LOTR anyway, but I knew TRINITY wouldn't be filled with description. My critique partner, Holly, is probably laughing her ass off if she's reading this right now. I've almost been badgering her for writing so much description in her own novel as part of our arrangement; no-gloves-100%-honest-and-brutal critiques. It's been of tremendous, help to be honest. If you're reading this Holly, you're a godsend!

Back to nos moutons.

Too much description isn't really my style. Donald Maass, in his amazing book Writing the Breakout Novel, advocates for as little description as possible unless it helps moving the story forward or to introduce new settings. Provide just enough so the reader can imagine the scene, but not so much that you alienate the reader's imagination. This is what I've been striving for, and I think it worked well.

When I created Toturia, the vast underground megalopolis of the Tutor haven, I had a clear picture in my head. I had good reference material, but it wasn't enough. AFTER I finished the first draft, I began searching for artists to illustrate the city itself. It was a long process: I had to decide on the style (3D, painterly, matte, cartoonish, etc.) and then go through the portfolios of two dozen artists who had postulated for the job after I posted an ad on the conceptart.org forums.

I ended up going with four different artists for four different interpretations of the city. I provided book excerpts, reference material, technical "data sheets" and personal notes. Only one matte painting is done so far (keeping it for later), and the three others should be done by July. The artists will have been working on it on-and-off for three months. This was more for my own enjoyment (and the reader's) than to help me figure out how the city looked like. I've seen the work in progress, and they'll be amazing.

Two months later, I began looking for fashion artists to illustrate the clothes and robes of the city inhabitants and what royalty or military folks would wear when in their city. In the current draft (which I consider complete even without robe descriptions. If I feel it adds to the story, I'll add them later and consult the editor), there is less than ten words worth of description concerning the clothing: I just didn't know exactly how it would look like, and I preferred to give a generic description for the time being.

I ended up going with two artists, who draw in two different styles. One paints digitally, the other with pencil and graphite. Tonight, the latter sent me the first finished sketch (out of five) for which he was hired. It. Is. Awesome.


It took us a while to get there. I'm an anal and perfectionist when it comes to details. I knew what I wanted and I was very precise, which I think he appreciated. Kip is an amazing artist and he is so talented, I feel blessed to be working with him.

Aside the "OMG THIS IS SO COOL!!!" vibe, doing this helps me create a world that feels even more organic and authentic. Describing robes for the sake of describing them just isn't good enough for me. I wanted to see. With my eyes and not just in my head.

For most of the book (I'd say 70%), all the characters wear civilian clothing (aka normal). For the scenes (very important ones) in which the reader has to be immersed in the sci-fi world of the ancient Maya, I wanted something cool, something beautiful, and something believable.

Hence the awesome drawings.

How do you guys handle description?

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