There were several in that same vein - that I have boring sentence structure, that I'm using too much dialogue - and as I mulled over how to group the responses I had received, I realized those are all pacing issues. And pacing - allowing your story to unfold at just the right speed - is one of the hardest things to master. I never get it right in the first draft, and even after three drafts there are usually a handful of scenes that my critique partner tells me are "off."
Description can really drag down your story. And yet your reader wants to be able to see what's going on. What's a writer to do?
Use Specific Nouns and Verbs
In Out with the In Crowd there's a scene where Skylar comes home and her mom is making cookies. I wrote about the heavenly smell of the cookies, how it made Skylar feel to see her mom behaving like a "normal mom," how good the cookies tasted, and so forth.
But you know what my agent said when she read the draft of that scene? WHAT KIND OF COOKIES ARE THEY???
My natural writing style is to shy away from specific nouns and verbs. Know why? Because I'm lazy in a first draft. I'm more focused on getting the scene done than I am on thinking through what kind of cookie Skylar's mom is making, the color of her apron, or how flour dusts the soapstone countertops.
While being specific take more work, it pays off big time. Those specific nouns and verbs are what anchor your reader in the storyworld, and they keep your sentences from getting bogged down with adverbs and adjectives.
This is an excerpt from The Truth About Forever by Sarah Dessen. The main character's mother just had an open house gathering for people interested in the subdivision she runs. This is the opening of the scene directly following. I've used red text to mark where Ms. Dessen gives us specifics:
The last person at the party, a slightly tipsy, very loud man in a golf sweater, left around nine-thirty. My mother locked the door behind him, took off her shoes, and, after kissing my forehead and thanking me, headed off to her office to assemble packets for people who had signed the YES! I WANT MORE INFO sheet she'd had on the front hall table. Contacts were everything, I'd learned. You had to get to people fast, or they'd slip away.
I think the details in this are wonderful. The man isn't drunk, he's slightly tipsy and very loud. The golf sweater makes me picture a completely different type of person than if she had dressed him in a blazer or turtleneck.
I love the mother locking the door behind him, then immediately heading to her office to work. And because this is in the main character's POV, we understand that this is routine, that she knows her mother is going to go assemble those packets, and she even knows why, without being told.
My favorite detail is the YES! I WANT MORE INFO sheet, which I can see sitting there on the front hall table next to a mug full of Bic pens.
And while this doesn't fall under description, it's worth pointing out. Sarah Dessen is a master at this, I think. Those last two lines relate to what she's observing in her mother, but also to the father who died during a time when the main character was supposed to be with him, and also the current turmoil she has with the boyfriend who is about to break up with her. Ms. Dessen isn't just describing what's going on, she's weaving it into the main character's worldview.
By opening her scene with those 2 sentences, Ms. Dessen gives the reader a great overview of what's going on and what it looks like before launching into the action of the scene. And she does it by using specific nouns and specific verbs.
But what if you're writing an action scene? Can you speed up the pace, but still describe the character's surroundings? This passage from Julie Klassen's The Apothecary's Daughter is evidence that you can:
I sprinted across the village green, around the enclosed church-yard, past the Owen's farm, and up the lane to Marlow House. Once there, I darted around the stone garden wall, ducking to keep out of sight as I ran toward the closed garden gate. Fear gripped me, but I had only to imagine Mary, writhing in pain, and I pushed the gate open, wincing at its high-pitched screech. Rushing across the path to the gardener's shed, I threw back the door and grabbed the first spade I saw. Dashing to the cluster of staked peonies - the late Lady Marlow's prized peonies - I swallowed, realizing I had no time to be neat or exacting.
This description of Lily running to an (unfriendly) neighbor's yard in need of a peony syrup to save her dying best friend puts specific verbs - sprinted, darted, gripped, dashing - to work. Lily isn't just running fast or running quickly. She doesn't just open the door, she throws it back.
My favorite part is there at the end, these aren't just peonies. They are staked peonies. Prized peonies. And not just any prized peonies, but the prized peonies of the dead lady of the house.
It's a perfect mix of what's happening and what is going on in Lily's mind, fear for her friend and the knowledge that she was going to get in big trouble for what she did next.
What books or authors come to mind when you think of great descriptions?