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White chairs, green terraces

A few weeks back, one of you excellent people recommended George Saunders’s book on reading and writing, A Swim In A Pond In The Rain. I bought it and I’m enjoying it muchly.

In the back of the book, Saunders produces this little exercise. He lists five translations of the same sentence from a Russian author, Isaac Babel. Here they are:

  1. In verdure-hidden walks, wicker chairs gleamed whitely.
  2. Wicker chairs, gleaming white, lined paths overhung with foliage.
  3. White wicker chairs glittered in walks covered with foliage.
  4. Wicker armchairs dazzled white along green-shrouded promenades.
  5. In leafy avenues white wicker chairs gleamed.

Same sentence, five versions.

Now think about them. Which do you like the best? Which the least? And why? Why do you like the ones you like? Why dislike the ones you dislike?

And suppose you were writing that sentence, not relying on the services of a translator, what would you write?

Now, neither Saunders nor I have actually read the Russian original, but that doesn’t really matter for the purposes of this exercise. Here are the ingredients we need you to toss together:

  • Chairs, made of wicker and coloured white
  • A path or paths
  • Trees or bushes overhanging the paths
  • Sunshine (implied, I think, in the glittering / gleaming verbs)
  • A contrast between white / green, shade / bright

We’re all friends here and this isn’t an exam, so you don’t get extra marks for accuracy. Trees, shrubs or bushes? Mention the wicker, yes or no? Path, walk or terrace? I honestly don’t care.

Along with those ingredients, we also have a constraint, namely that Isaac Babel didn’t give this little micro-scene a ton of attention in his text. The longest of our translations runs to just under ten words, so I’d suggest that we set ten words as an upper limit for our own endeavours.

OK? So have a go. Have a think about the sentences above, then write out your own version of it. I’ll do the same myself. Meanwhile, we’ll have a short intermission.

** Tea and biscuits are served **

** A chamber music quartet plays Debussy **

** Writers suck the ends of their pencils and scribble quietly **

** A cat stalks through the room and mutters, “Jeez, Writers!” in darkly accented cattish. **

Right.

OK, so which sentence did I like? Well, none of them, really. Some of them felt overly compact and almost cryptic, like a crossword puzzle clue or someone forced to pay for text by the letter:

In verdure-hidden walks, wicker chairs gleamed whitely.

“Verdure-hidden” is strained as an adjective. The adverb, “whitely”, is even worse. And “gleamed” is a perfectly fine verb in most contexts, but the hopeless adverb pretty much murders it here.

Much better are the versions that just say, plainly and accurately, what’s going on:

Wicker chairs, gleaming white, lined paths overhung with foliage.

White wicker chairs glittered in walks covered with foliage.

Take the first sentence of that pair. It tells us there are chairs. They’re wicker. They’re a bright white. They’re lining paths. Those paths are overhung with foliage.

Boom. Nice and easy. Totally clear.

The second of those two sentences attempts the same plainness, but does so less successfully. “In walks” sounds a bit odd, for one thing. The chairs are surely on a path, not in one. And “covered with foliage” has a sort of Palm Sunday feel – fronds laid upon the ground underfoot. The word “overhung” is surely more precise here.

Anyhow, that’s the first part of our challenge. We have decided we like clarity, accuracy and plainness. (And yes, sometimes we want a sentence that detonates like a firecracker. But not here. This is a one-line description in a story that’s hurrying on to more important things.)

So what did you come up with? Please tell me – just drop your versions into the comments below, along with any comments you have on the exercise.

Here’s what I produced, my first version:

White wicker chairs, bright white, lined gravel paths, overhung with foliage.

That takes the version I liked the best but inserts “bright” for the slightly more forced “gleaming”. (Forced to my ear, that is; your tastes may differ.) And I popped in the word “gravel”, I think because the sentence feels like it needs shaking out and loosening up.

In fact, if you really wanted to get the bright / shady distinction going here, I think you’d do so by giving one sentence to each thought:

A row of wicker chairs stood bright and white in the sunshine. Behind them, the paths, heavily overhung with foliage stretched away, dim, green, remote.

The real key to getting a version like that right will be to hit exactly the right note in the final word. I went for “remote”, but there’d be something better there, depending on the context. Enchanted? Inaccessible? Alluring? I don’t know, but that final word will be the clincher.

On the other hand, you will by now be hurling broken biscuits at the Debussy quartet and yelling: you said only ten words!

And OK, I did. And also – I’ve not been quite straight with you, because I don’t actually write like that last pair of sentences anyway.

The frustration we had with the five original sentences were that they all used verbs (gleamed, dazzled, glittered) that really wanted to be adjectives. The fact is the chairs weren’t really doing anything. (That’s why the verb “lined” was the pick of the bunch.) And personally, I think, descriptions sometimes work most powerfully when you simply present the ingredients to the reader. So if I had a sentence like this in one of my Fiona Griffiths novels, I’d have handled it something like this:

White chairs. Green-shaded paths. A luminous quiet.

That’s only seven words (eight, if you don’t count that cheaty hyphen), but I’ve given myself room for a whole new thought, the luminous quiet.

It’s perfectly true that I haven’t explained how the chairs relate to the paths – but who cares? Not me.

It’s also true that this feels like - and is - a sort of flat-pack description. You have all the parts to hand, but the task of assembly is all yours. Again, that would be a problem for plenty of novels and novelists, but my (somewhat bold) solution is just a shrug and another ‘don’t care.’

If you want to see how my technique feels in an actual novel, here’s my “description” of Fiona’s journey through Wales in This Thing of Darkness:

Trawsfynydd, Dolgellau.

Llanbrynmair, Llanidloes. [These are Welsh placenames, in case you thought you’d just fallen into a different language.]

Low hills, green valleys.

Grey farmhouses and sheep-studded fields.

Bridges.

Rivers flowing fast under alders. Trout-coloured water breaking over rocks.

Near Llanwrthwl, I stop for fuel.

And look: we started out thinking about a descriptive sentence, and we seem to have ended up in a place where sentences have almost entirely collapsed into their raw materials. That word “bridges” does triple service here as a word, as a sentence, and as a paragraph. To put it mildly, that is not a normal way to write – and I use it not just because it’s a solution to the puzzle of how to write elegant, yet compact descriptions, but because the jerky, dissociated prose style reveals something crucial about my narrator’s jerky and dissociated consciousness.

But that last point leads us to one more thought – this too borrowed from Saunders – before we finish:

We started out simply by thinking about how to fit our various ingredients into the confines of one short sentence. We encountered some fairly technical obstacles (the failure of whitely as an adverb, for example), and those obstacles pushed us to consider a longer version of the description – a two-sentence one, that worked hard on the light / shade distinction.

But in doing that, we came to sense that we couldn’t quite nail down our description until we knew more about the story itself. So did those paths want to be “dim, green, remote” or “dim, green, inaccessible”? Or something else?

Descriptions are never neutral. They always act as a bridge between the world-of-the-novel, the story and the experiencing character. That’s why my descriptive writing in the Fiona novels often collapses down to a set of raw materials: because the experiencing character undergoes those collapses in herself.

In the example I just quoted above, you can feel the hand of Story playing its part as well. Fiona doesn’t yet know it, but she’s about to be abducted by bad guys and put in a place where the looseness and freedom of “rivers flowing fast under alders” will just be a lost and scrambled memory.

So what started out as a simple exercise in writing technique – a ten word sentence: that’s all we asked! – has ended up us:

  1. A simple exercise in writing technique
  2. A window into the experiencing character
  3. An opportunity for story to creep in
  4. A statement about how we want to approach the entire book

That’s why writing is hard. And that’s why writing is fun. And that’s why I urge you to be utterly pedantic about every sentence you write. That obsessive, repeated scrutiny is the route to better writers and better books.

Oh yes, and I still don’t really like ANY of the versions of that sentence I’ve presented in this email. If they were in my first draft text, I’d edit again before I’d let the manuscript out in public.

Did you do better? I hope you did. Let's see your offerings in the comments below.

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Comments (116)
    • Jeez, this has been popular. Here's my go.

      Leafy paths hide wicker chairs of the whitest white.

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      • Pretty late to the party, but here’s my effort…

        Chairs lined the path, white amid green shadow.

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        • Hi Jimmy,

          I like "leafy paths". But doesn't "whitest white" contradict "hide"? Don't you need to replace it with a word or phase which suggests at least a glimpse of white?

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          • You're right, Janet. I think I'd like to replace 'hide' with 'protect'.

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          • That's really nice, Jimmy, and now the description invites some enticing questions. Protect from what? from whom? how? A possible storyline!

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            • Whitegreen sunshade wickerpath.

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