Still Learning

I'm on a borrowed computer at the moment because yesterday I tried to update my system software and it failed. Now the darn thing won't even boot. Computers are such a pain. So it means a trip to the repair shop later this morning.

This post is a continuation of my last post about the University of Iowa Writer's Workshop called How Writers Write Fiction. I'm currently taking this free workshop online and it's incredible. Last month, the program had just started and I believe we hadn't even turned in our first assignment yet. It's an 8 week  program and we just completed Lesson 6. I'm really going to miss this class when it's over.

So what makes this course so special compared to the hundreds of other writing courses available online? Aside from the price being right (can't beat free), this workshop teaches from a perspective I rarely see in fiction writing classes. It's focused on creative writing. Isn't all fiction writing creative? It is, of course, but most of us, at least those of us in Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers, are writing commercial genre fiction. There's a slight difference.

The session we just finished is on description. Most people don't think description is a big deal, that it's basically exposition used for setting a scene, less is better than more, and that's partially true. Too much and you can bore your reader, not enough and your narrative becomes thin and underwhelming. So when it comes to description it's important to have balance.

I learned about a new sense in this class, a sixth one to include in my "sensorium." We all know to use sight, sound, taste, touch and smell, but the sixth one is called proprioception. This last sense is the sense of our bodies as we move through space. I'd always taken this sense for granted, but after this last week's session, I'll never forget it. Did you know that we go through life filtering out our sense impressions because they can be too overwhelming for us to get through a typical day? But when we write, we want to hone in on all these senses to help our readers live through our characters and experience the story from a wholly new and different place. Realizing this has made a significant impact on my approach to writing description.

Description needs to create a vividly experienced world for the reader, reveal a characters' psychology and development, and influence the progression of plot. This week's class on writing immersive fiction fired up hundreds of discussions among my classmates and was explored in a video with lectures by 3 award winning literary authors. It was a very enriching experience for me as a writer.

So for this week's assignment, we had to write a thousand-word scene using description that had all the elements a scene needs to propel a plot forward, like tension and conflict. It would seem impossible, but it really isn't. To share an example, here's three paragraphs from the assignment I turned in a couple of days ago:

The door looked like a jaw that creaked open on rusty hinges and it groaned with a widening yawn. I stepped onto the ladder--the attic's tongue--and entered its dark throat that filled my nostrils with a dank scent of mildew. The wooden joists and bare frame of the walls were its teeth. They appeared rotted with decay, but when I tugged the chain attached to a bulb on the ceiling, light chased back the shadows so that I could see the wood wasn't rotten, just discolored with age.

I blinked through a rain of fluttering dust motes that swirled around cardboard boxes of all shapes and colors and sizes. Some boxes were labeled, some were not, some had rips and smashed corners, others appeared almost new. Wide strips of shiny tape sealed them from the elements and I suddenly felt eager to rip them all open, like a child stumbling upon unexpected presents on Christmas morning.

I slid a dusty box out from the center and spun it around so I could read what was etched onto its side with a thick black marker. In capital letters was my dead brother's name: NATHAN.

You can still sign up for this class that has about 2 weeks left. It's free, and though you can't participate in the earlier lessons, you can still read the discussions and view the teaching videos. You can find information about it here.

Do you struggle at writing description? Do you usually skim over passages of description while reading? What makes description interesting and what makes it boring?

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Karen Duvall
Karen Duvall is an award-winning author with 5 published novels and 2 novellas. Harlequin Luna published her Knight’s Curse series in 2011 and 2012, and her post apocalyptic novella, Sun Storm, was released in Luna’s ‘Til The World Ends anthology in January 2013.

Karen lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and four incredibly spoiled pets. Writing under the pen name Cory Dale, she released the first book in a new urban fantasy series, Demon Fare, in December 2014. More about Karen on her website & GoodReads.

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