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But for a few days after reading the post, I found myself stymied in my writing. I could see what Steinhaus was saying, and I agreed with her that John Green’s work was amazing, his descriptions reflecting his command of language. I felt like, if I need to write like John Green, well, I might as well give up. I mean come on, John Green! He’s a master of craft, and more adept than most anybody at creating just that kind of description Steinhaus quoted above. And he doesnt’ just spit out one or two gems like that per book – he creates whole books written like that.
I’ve been known to describe a knotted stomach, a racing heart, or sweaty palms and such. I asked myself, “Am I a lazy writer?” If one relies on physical – or what I prefer to call sensory description – does that imply poor or lazy writing?
Fortunately, another voice from the writing world came across my vision a few days after I read the Steinhaus post. I’ve recently taken up the calling of reading the Game of Thrones. George R.R. Martin had me hooked just a few pages into the first of his tomes. When I came across an ode to Game of Thrones cookbook, my curiosity was piqued.
This is a lengthy quote from the Introduction to the cookbook, but stick with me. It will all become clear in the end. Here is what George R.R. Martin said in the Introduction to A Feast of Ice and Fire: The Official Game of Thrones Companion Cookbook:
|George R.R. Martin, Photo by Karolina Webb|
When I read this quote from George R.R. Martin, I was immediately thrust in my mind back to the Steinhaus article. Now, Ms. Steinhaus is not arguing that there should be no physical description, but she is expressing a preference for what I’ll call rational descriptions for feelings. You may also call it cerebral. The writer takes a visceral feeling, like Miles’ lust, and uses language to describe it in a way that requires your brain to get involved to puzzle it out. “. . .there were never fewer than three layers between us, but the possibilities kept me up half the night.” The readers needs to noodle on this to ferret out what John Green means. I refer to this as cerebral writing.
And I’m not sure there could be a larger contrast to this type of writing than George R.R. Martin. If John Green is cerebral, then George R.R. Martin is visceral. Here are a few examples of George R.R. Martin’s descriptions from A Game of Thrones (Book 1):
“Bran’s heart was thumping in his chest as he pushed through a waist-high drift to his brothers’ side.
Half-buried in bloodstained snow, a huge dark shape slumped in death. Ice had formed in its shaggy grey fur, and the faint smell of corruption clung to it like a woman’s perfume.”
. . .
“Dread coiled within her like a snake, but she forced herself to smile at this man she loved, this man who put no faith in signs.”
These are but a few examples, culled from the first chapter of the first book in the Game of Thrones (GoT) series, but I think you can see the marked difference in descriptive language each author uses. The GoT is high fantasy. Martin relies on the senses to pull readers into his fictional world. He describes in detail the smells, sights, sounds, and tastes of his fictional world. But he also describes the internal visceral feelings and sensations of his characters. “Bran’s heart was thumping in his chest. . .” We all know what that feels like. No need to use cerebral description here. This author wants to put you in Bran’s shoes; he wants you to feel that way Bran feels. Sometimes a simple, to the point “heart thumping in his chest” is the best way to do that.
I would hardly call Martin a “lazy” writer. The man can consistently maintain no less than a dozen different “voices” throughout his 700+ page books!
I would argue that both of these writers, John Green and George R.R. Martin, are masters of their genre and masters of craft. They have two diametrically opposed writing styles, but both work.
As I compared these two writers and prepared this post, it reminded me of how we must not get bogged down in didactic truisms, quoted from all corners by those who claim to know the “truth”. It also reminded me that we can learn from all kinds of writers. The best writing teachers, in my opinion, are the ones who recommend that you read – a lot – in all kinds of genres and styles. Then, as you sift through it all and allow it to percolate in you, your own style will emerge. Maybe you’re a “cerebral” writer like Green. Or perhaps a more visceral writer like Martin. Or maybe you’re a little bit of both.
Write what is in you to write, and write it the way that you prefer.
If you’re a writer, sound off in the comments and tell me what you think about this.