When I’m writing a first draft, I’m just trying to get the thoughts out there on paper.  General descriptions, key scenes, roughed out conversations.  Stuff like that.  But in the second and third draft (and fourth and fifth….) I start working on things like tone and themes.  That’s where word selection starts to be a very big deal for me.  If you’re writing a horror story and you have a character wearing a ring with a red gem, it matters to the tone as to whether you describe it as “red as rose” or “red as fresh blood” or even “red as a hot ember”.  Each description brings with a different tone.

In SHIP BREAKER by Paolo Bacigalupi, it really stuck out to me how carefully the author must choose each of his words.  When he’s describing Nailer’s crew, most of which are people of color, he describes them in as “black as oil and hard as iron” or “the shade of brown rice” or “tropic skin”.

From this I get much more than a description of characters; I get a feel for the setting and lifestyle.  We’ve already seen the value of oil and iron in the SHIP BREAKER world by the time it’s used in description.  This gives us a sense of how important Pima, Nailer’s best friend and the character given this description, will be.  What’s more, she’s described in terms of the ships they disassemble: iron and oil.  It sets even more tone around this character; she large and strong and powerful, yet somehow wrecked by the age she lives in.

The description of another character as brown rice gives us a hint at the bland diet in this time and place.  And it isn’t two pages later that we get confirmation that the diet for the people on the beach is spare at best and hardly tasty.  The description of a character with tropic skin gives us a sense of the climate where they work.  That is further reinforced by a character who is described as “permanently sunburned and peeling”. The more often you convey the tone of a book, and the number of different and interesting ways you can come at it really does dictate how solid this world will be in the reader’s mind.

Compare this with how the wealth ship-wreck victim, Nita, is described: “smooth and soft, polished and precise”.  Nita is the other main character that’s Nailer’s age and she is also described in terms of a ship.  However, in this case, she’s described like the fine, modern clipper ship that she was traveling on.  In fact, Mr. Bacigalupi draws a direct comparison between Pima, scarred and strong, and Nita, soft and refined.

In my opinion, this book might be just a little too heavy on the description.  There are advantages and drawbacks to writing like this.  The advantage is that the setting and characters are as real as real can be to me.  I feel like I know them.  In my mind’s eye I can see the beach with the broken ships and the white clippers flying by almost too far out to see.  Like I said a post or two back, I’ve never experienced such a visceral setting.  However, again, it slows the pace.

What I will say is this: if you’re a writer who likes to flex your descriptive muscles, you should give this book a look.  Mr. Bacigalupi is a master at including solid paragraphs of description (sometimes longer blocks, too) without losing too much of my interest.  And that’s because each description adds to the tone and feel of the book as a whole.