Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Notes from the white room

I received a very useful rejection for a short story recently, which pointed out that my tale suffered from “white room syndrome”, ie the action could be taking place anywhere – or nowhere – due to the lack of detail of the setting. As often happens, once I became aware of it, I started seeing it everywhere – in stories I was critiquing for others, in the book I’m revising, even in published novels. (If you’ve ever read The Partner by John Grisham, you’ll know what I mean. It’s a fast-paced thriller with very little description of any kind.)

By coincidence, I was working on the lesson that covers settings in the course I’m doing, How to Revise Your Novel by Holly Lisle, when I got this rejection. For each setting, I had to fill in a page which included, among other things, listing what elements of the setting I had described in the scene. Before this exercise I would have said my settings were well described. My main characters, after all, are artists, so visuals are important to them. They notice details of colour and lighting. Or do they? Hmmm. Hope their favourite colour is white.

Yep, page after page came up empty. A “table”, not described, would be the only object mentioned in a scene set in a dining room, for instance. Yet in my head I had seen the tablecloth, the cutlery, the subdued lighting, everything. But none of it had made it into the story. I could draw you the floor plan of whole houses in this novel, but no one could ever guess it from what I’ve written. Not that I’d want to bore readers with floor plans, of course! I don’t even look at maps in fantasy novels. But I need to find a happy medium between the “nothing to see here” style of a John Grisham and the “five pages to describe the butcher’s shop window” of AS Byatt. (I love AS Byatt. But she has the skill to get away with it. I don’t.)

It’s interesting, though, isn’t it, how much work readers will do to flesh out a writer’s creation. I built pictures in my head while reading The Partner, despite the lack of description. Grisham said “courtroom” and my mind supplied the wood panelling, the rows of hard bench seats, the gowns and wigs, courtesy of all those Hollywood courtrooms I’ve seen. In fact the reason I read the Grisham book was that I’d heard he deliberately wrote very sparsely. He started off writing down the bones of his story, thinking to flesh it out later with descriptions and details. Eventually he decided to leave all that out, since people normally skipped over it anyway. I think he put it as “leaving out the boring bits”.

While I certainly wouldn’t condemn all description as “boring bits”, I know what he means. No one wants the story held up for big lumps of setting or long descriptions of what people are wearing or eating. I like descriptions in small, easily digested amounts – little “telling details” that individualise a character or place.

Probably it depends, too, on genre. Small details can play large roles in crime fiction. Descriptions of exotic alien places and customs are half the fun in fantasy and science fiction. I don’t read much romance, but I imagine loving descriptions of the hero and heroine’s charms could be a feature there.

What do you reckon? How much is too much, or not enough? And do you think the magical Goldilocks amount varies by genre?

Saturday, 15 May 2010

And the Housewife of the Year Award goes to ...

… someone else. Look, I freely admit I’m not the world’s greatest housewife. Life’s too short to spend your time picking up all the kids’ toys and belongings scattered through the house, when as soon as they come home from school they’re only going to re-scatter them. And there are so many other things to squeeze into every day. Some of them are necessities like washing, shopping, cooking. Others are more fun, like dropping into the local patchwork shop to buy cotton and coming home with a few extra things.

You can see I’ve been replenishing my stock of hot pink fabric after Drama Duck decimated it for her owl.

I needed the cotton because I ran out two-thirds of the way through quilting butterflies all over that quilt that’s been hanging over the railing in my foyer so long. I’m practising my free-motion quilting and the butterflies are gradually improving. It will be so nice to be able to pack that quilt away!

But about that Housewife of the Year award. I changed the sheets on Baby Duck’s bed, so for a change the bed was made when he came home from school. He stopped dead in the doorway of his room and turned a look of surprise on me.

“Mum! Are we having visitors today??”


He’s come out with some pearlers lately. Another one was when I was driving him home from school on Friday and we were discussing the movie Monsters Inc. He couldn’t remember the name of one of the monsters so I supplied it.

“That’s really good that you remembered, Mum,” he said in tones of great admiration. “Usually old people forget everything.”

And he wonders why I laugh at him so often.

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Owl babies

Do you know the picture book Owl Babies, by Martin Waddell? So cute! Three little owl babies, Sarah, Percy and baby Bill, wake up alone and wonder where their Owl Mother is. Sarah and Percy discuss the problem but all Bill can say, on nearly every page, is “I want my mommy!”

Now we have our own owl babies. I saw the cutest toy owl on the front cover of a quilting magazine recently. Once I’d dragged the ducklings all around the patchwork shop in search of the perfect fabric for its wings, Demon Duck was quick to announce that she was going to make an owl too. Then of course Drama Duck had to get in on the act as well. So our house was a hive of industry over the recent long weekend.

This is Drama Duck’s owl. She’d have to be Sarah, wouldn’t she? Very girly! I wonder if you can guess what Drama Duck’s favourite colour is?

Demon Duck’s owl is Bill. He’s very striking, isn’t he? I love how appropriate the moon and star fabric of his wings is for a nocturnal creature.

Which leaves Percy for me. He’s red and blue to match our lounge room, where he’s perched on my red velvet chair, looking very comfortable.

I feel the urge to sew lately, to surround myself with bright coloured fabrics. I’ve been reading lots of quilting blogs and drooling over the gorgeous creations. Have a look at all the beautiful things on Quiltsalott, for instance. Or what about this divine quilt? Baby Duck would love it. Unfortunately his mother is so slow it’d probably be finished by the time he was 38. Maybe if I start now it’ll be ready for the grandkids!

So you may see some more quilts here in the future. I’ve had an almost-completed one hanging over the railing in my foyer so long it’s starting to bug even me. The problem is that I like doing the patchwork, seeing the design come together – but I hate quilting the damn thing and finishing it off. Hence a cupboard bulging with UFOs (UnFinished Objects). Bad Marina, no biscuit! Must. Do. Better.

But at least I have three finished owl babies to admire!