Over the past few years, I've been struggling mightily with descriptions in my writing and leisure-time reading. I couldn't figure out why I dropped so many books during the first few pages or at the latest, by the third chapter. Then I had this long, long business trip to San Antonio and read two books back-to-back and figured it out. Okay, I tried to read the first book, couldn't take it and by the third chapter I dropped it, and with a heavy heart and large sigh, I went into a bookstore at the airport and bought a safe bet: a book by a male author.
So sue me.
I know. Who would have thunk it? Me, a U.S. citizen and female author, admitting that there are only two groups of authors I can be almost sure will not make me drop the book by the third chapter: British authors and male authors. Don't get me wrong, there are some U.S. authors who are female that I can be relatively sure will write a story that gets a grip on me and won't let go...but if it's an author unknown to me...I get damp palms when I pick up a book--particularly a suspense--by a female author. I know very few that I will be able to finish.
However, this is purely subjective. What I am going to so reflects my personal taste, if not reflective of my own personal problems. However, I did get some insight into descriptive styles which is interesting, at least to me. I recommend that authors and readers pay attention since it will enable them to determine which books they will like or what style they prefer to pursue. I should also say that the descriptive style I don't care for is the most popular style in fiction today so that is something to think about, too. Particularly if you are an author with any sort of ambition to be on the NY Times Bestsellers list.
Basically, it boils down to point of view (POV) issues and poetic descriptions. For me, if I'm reading something in the hero's POV and he's just met the heroine who is fabulously good-looking, he is more likely to wonder: hmmm, I wonder if I can get into her pants and if she's good in bed. He is not likely to think: hmmm, what a lovely maiden with teeth like pearls and eyes that shimmer like the night over the ocean.
I don't know of any men, even poets, who are going to think something like the latter statement unless they are actually sitting down to write poetry (gag). (Sorry, I'm not much into poetic poetry--I'm more into smartass, clever, snarky poetry.)
Didn't I warn you that this was my own personal opinion? There is nothing, absolutely nothing wrong with you if you prefer the more poetic version (well, perhaps not my poetic version--which is admittedly bad). That is the vastly more popular style in fiction.
So let me give you some actual, concrete examples (and please forgive me, authors, if you recognize your work--I'm sorry and groveling at your feet).
(This example isn't too, too poetic, but is shows two of the issues that made me stop reading the book. I'll point them out.)
Carly's eyes widened as she looked at the ancient door. The holes between the slats were big enough for her to step right through. Dan might not be the most outgoing man she'd ever met, but he'd kept her from a nasty fall.
"Used to be the town icehouse," he said, opening the cellar door. "During Prohibition it was the local speakeasy. Now it's the archive for the paper. They cut another entrance to the first floor around the corner, but this way is easier to get to the basement."
She looked up at him with hazel eyes that flashed gold in the unshielded overhead light. "Thank you."
Okay. Eyes that flashed gold? Whatever. But just whose POV is this, anyway? It started out in Carly's POV. Is she seeing her eyes flashing gold or did we just jump POV to good old Dan? And does that sound like something a man would be thinking? Maybe--I don't know, but...well, okay, I don't know but it doesn't feel right to me and it irritates me. That sort of thing will make me stop reading. It did make me stop reading.
So this had two flaws for me. First, when you are in a character's POV, she is not going to be thinking things like: She glanced up at him with melting, deep blue eyes. If the heroine is thinking that way, then I really don't want to read anything more about that character unless it is that she is hacked to pieces in the next scene.
Second, is the man--specifically this character Dan--really going to be thinking those thoughts? Not if he's the guy I think he is. I mean, look at that bit of dialog: short, choppy and to the point. So that description of her that follows just doesn't sound like him. And that is the biggest flaw for me with so many writers. Authors write descriptions that are supposedly in a character's POV, but it is not how that character would really be reacting or thinking. At least, to me.
I don't know what to call the "other" style. I associate it with male writers, a few women writers, and British writers (who seem to avoid inflicting poetic descriptions on their readers--or at least when they do--the character is thinking in a way that sounds like they might actually, really, think that way). You know, that previous sentence sort of sounds bad and U.S.-centric, so I apologize.
Here is another passage, by a male author. You'll see what I mean.
The photograph was a black-and-white glossy, eight-by-ten, framed and glassed. It was a Hollywood-style glamour shot that I associate with film stars from the 1930's and '40s. Full length, professional lighting.
Marlissa Dorn wore a black gown that accentuated how she would look if a man were lucky enough to see her naked: long legs, sensual symmetry of hips, breasts full and firm enough to resume their natural curvature once free of the garment's constraints.
The gown was black but glittered with sequins. She stood with hip canted to one side, her opposite hand held at eye level, a cigarette between her fingers. The woman was leaning against a black grand piano as if taking a break from performing.
I glanced at Chestra and studied her face for a moment as she sat at the piano and continued to play. I returned my attention to the photo.
Marlissa's cigarette was freshly lit. The smoke formed a lucent arc with the same curvilinear contour as her hips and breasts. She was staring through cigarette smoke at the camera, her hair combed full and glossy to her shoulder, head tilted in a way that emphasized the intensity of her gaze and the dimensions of her perfect face.
Her eyes were shadowed, I noticed. It added an exotic, smoldering effect.
Note that this is written in first person and it is entirely within keeping with the character's (the hero's) POV, attitude and style of talking. This was an interesting book for me because the author managed to pull off writing parts of it in third person POV when other characters, notably the bad guy, were the POV character, and first person POV when the hero was the POV character in the chapter. It was smooth and the characters always stayed in character. When they described something, it was described as that character really would think or describe it.
You can be poetic if your character is poetic, but the problem for me, particularly with popular suspense novels, is that the descriptions "thought" by characters do not seem to be "in character". It's like the author is putting words into their mouth (or head). And the words are always so...smarmy--at least to me.
Like I said, this is all purely subjective. If you like the first example--I think that's great and you are in very good company. It is currently the most popular style and is heavily used by top authors including luminaries like Allison Brennan, Nora Roberts (aka J.D. Robb) and James Patterson. Now, who wouldn't like to have their success and write like them? That's why I've made a point of saying this is purely subjective.
On the other hand, there are solid writers who use the plain style, including oddly enough, Georgette Heyer. She has fantastic descriptions but if you read them, they actually use very plain language and are always in the "voice" of the character doing the describing. Other authors? The writing team of Jennifer Crusie and Bob Mayer. Randy Wayne White. Charles Todd. Lindsay Davis. Sue Grafton. Lauren Henderson in MY LURID PAST has one of the most amazingly erotic almost-have-sex scenes I've read in a long time and although I didn't particularly care for the ending (is it really a happy ending when the heroine drags the hero down to the level of taking drugs so they can do so together really a happy ending?) the writing is superb.
So you can see, the actual styles cut across gender lines to some extent, but I would say that for the most part, romantic suspense written by women will use more poetic language, particularly in describing the heroine. Mysteries tend not to use the poetic style. Suspense and crime fiction written by men tend not to use the poetic style.
If you are writing, I strongly urge you to consider which style you prefer and hone your skills. If you're a reader, it pays to know what irritates you so you can avoid buying books you will never finish. There is no right or wrong. There is only subjective taste.
And of course there is the fact that the plain style is obviously the only correct choice because it is the one I prefer. ;-)