Wonderbook Description Exercise

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SPoots

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Hey all, not sure if this is the right place to put this but wanted to get a bit of feedback on an exercise.
I recently decided to take myself back to writing school with Wonderbook. Just did a description exercise consisting of three steps:
1) choose a topic and find four distinct pieces of writing about it.
2) take bits of those and put them together into a piece of descriptive writing, changing as little from the original text as possible.
3) re-write it yourself from the point of view of a character / narrator.

I chose The Golden Temple in Japan.

Since my descriptive writing is something I want to work on, I'd like to know what people think and whether or not exercises like this are useful or just a waste of time.

Thanks


Golden Pavilion Description Exercise

“Though, occasionally, I saw the real Golden Temple in photographs or textbooks, it was the image of the golden temple as Father had described it to me that dominated my heart. Father had never told me that the real Golden Temple was shining in gold, or anything of the sort; yet, according to Father, there was nothing on this earth so beautiful as the Golden Temple. Moreover, the very characters with which the name of the temple was written and the very sound of the word imparted some fabulous quality to the Golden Temple that was engraved on my heart.” - Yukio Mishima, The Temple of The Golden Pavilion


“Be it capped by snow in winter or set against a lush green background in summer, nothing is as symbolic of Kyoto as Kinkaku-ji's golden reflection shimmering across the rippled surface of the pond before it. Not even the crowds of tourists — and they come by the thousands — can detract from Kinkaku-ji's undoubted splendor. The current gold leaf-coated reconstruction was unveiled in 1955, five years after the 14th-century original was torched by one of the temple's monks.” – Kyoto, ten things to do


“The estate was originally constructed as a retirement pavilion by the shōgun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu in 1397, it was turned into a Zen temple after Yoshimitsus death in 1408. During the Onin war (1467-77) the buildings and garden of Rokuon-ji faced the same fate as many other temples in Kyōto – they were completely destroyed by fire. Fortunately the pavilion survived the fire and the rest of the garden was restored. In 1950 the pavilion was burnt down by a young novice monk and needed to be rebuild in 1955. It was rebuilt very close to the original, although more parts of the pavilion received a leaf gold coating on the inside and outside.” – Japanese Gardens


“There are ten small islands contained within the pond that are representative of the isles of Japan. Near the pavilion, there are four stones in a straight line in the pond that are representative of sailboats anchored at night that travel to a heavenly place – a direct reference to the Isle of Eternal Life in Chinese mythology. To the north of Kinkaku-ji Temple, there is a miniature waterfall called Ryumon waterfall. In the midst of the waterfall, there is a stone called the carp stone, which is a direct reference to a Chinese legend in which a carp is struggling to swim upstream. Symbolism between the site and famous locations of Chinese and Japanese mythology reinforce the significance of the temple and create a spiritual connotation between the architecture and mythology in the minds of those visiting that ultimately creates an otherworldly experience.” – Wealth as the Ability to Experience Life




Putting It Together


Though, occasionally, I saw the real Golden Temple in photographs or textbooks, it was the image of the golden temple as Father had described it to me that dominated my heart. Constructed as a retirement pavilion, later turned into a Zen temple, the buildings and garden faced the same fate as many other temples in Kyōto – they were completely destroyed by fire. This gold leaf-coated reconstruction was unveiled five years after the original was torched by one of the temple's monks.

Ten small islands contained within its pond represent the Isles of Japan. Near the pavilion lie four stones in a straight line, sailboats, anchored at night, which travel to a heavenly place. Symbolism creates a spiritual connotation between the architecture and mythology in the minds of those visiting that ultimately forms its otherworldly experience. Not even the crowds of tourists — and they come by the thousands — can detract from Kinkaku-ji's undoubted splendor.

Be it capped by snow in winter or set against a lush green background in summer, nothing is as symbolic of Kyoto as Kinkaku-ji's golden reflection shimmering across the rippled surface of the pond before it. Father had never told me that the real Golden Temple was shining in gold, or anything of the sort; yet, according to Father, there was nothing on this earth so beautiful.



The Golden Temple


Though I occasionally saw the Golden Temple in photographs, it was the way that my father described it to me that dominated my imagination. When he returned from Japan, he told me the history of a place that, by its very nature, was a paradox. First built as a luxurious retirement home, while beyond its walls the peasantry starved, it then became a temple dedicated to Zen Buddhism, teaching the spurning of worldly things. Constructed as a place of great beauty, an enduring symbol of Japan’s heritage, it is nonetheless rather young, having been reduced to ash by one of its own monks in the 50’s. Now, this place that had been established as an island, separate from the people, is filled each year with wave upon wave of visitors. Yet, as I stood there before it, no longer a boy hearing his father’s stories, not even the crowds of tourists could detract from Kinkaku-ji's undoubted splendour.

Be it capped by snow in winter or set against a lush green background in summer, nothing is as symbolic of Kyoto as Kinkaku-ji's golden reflection shimmering across the rippled surface of the pond before it. Ten small islands contained within its pond represent the Isles of Japan. Near the pavilion lie four stones in a straight line, sailboats, anchored at night, which travel to a heavenly place. The gardens are filled with symbolism, turning my mind towards stories of other worlds, a spiritual joining of architecture and myth. Father had never told me that the real Golden Temple was shining in gold, or anything of the sort; yet, according to Father, there was nothing on this earth so beautiful.
 

The Judge

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If you find exercises useful, then they're useful! If you're enjoying them, too, then carry on and don't worry what other people think.

However, having said that, I'm not sure that simply re-writing what other writers have said about something is necessarily the best way to learn to write description for yourself, unless you're actively looking at how they're doing it, their word choices, imagery etc. I also wonder if here you've perhaps made a mistake in the originals you've chosen which seem more concerned with history than actual physical description.

The piece you've produced at the end tells me at length that the temple is beautiful, but frankly I'm not seeing it for myself in what you've written. There's a lake which reflects the temple, which might have gold upon it -- or which simply looks golden in the light, I'm not sure -- and there are islands and stones in the lake. That's all you've actually described, so I've no idea what the temple actually looks like, eg as to size or architectural style, or even the broader setting apart from the lake. The piece is fine as a kind of travelogue, for those of us who are interested in history, but I'm not sure that's what you need to be practising when it comes to description in novels.

I'm a very plain writer when it comes to description -- I can't do the lyrical stuff that someone like Phyrebrat can do, so I content myself with broad brush strokes, giving an impression of the important things about the scene, and using language and imagery appropriate for the POV character. I don't have a particularly good visual imagination, either, so I hunt out images that are similar to what I want and then I describe what I can see.

By all means carry on with these exercises, but also have a look in Workshop as I'm sure there are threads with description exercises there. You can always start another one if you wanted. Post an image -- preferably one you've taken yourself or which is copyright free, or perhaps just link to a photo somewhere else on Chrons -- and briefly describe it, and see how other members describe it in their turn, then analyse what does or doesn't work for you. Also think about what kind of descriptive style you're aiming to achieve, which might hang on what kind of books you want to write -- the description in an Iris Murdoch novel is going to be very different from one written by Jasper Fforde.
 

Brian G Turner

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The thing is, you mentioned this as an exercise in descriptive prose - but really it's more a piece of rewritten history, than the experience of something that takes us there and puts us before it. I'm sure Wonderbook mentions somewhere about using different sensory experiences to help being something to life - perhaps that's what's missing?
 

millymollymo

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Hi SPoots.
Wonderbook is a beautiful book. I congratulate you on your choice of writerly advice.
I've never been into the Workshop forums here - we all work differently! I think exercises are important no matter how far on you are in the writing process, and many established writers hit walls and exercise their way around them.
My first question is WHY did you choose this exercise, to avoid writing over descriptive pieces? Improve your skill?
Moving on from that, you've pretty much written non-fiction. I've seen worse on travel sites.

If you are doing this for genre fiction then make something magical happen, don't just bring in a gun (as they say) where's the tech? The dragon? The "Speak 'friend' and enter." things readers expect from the genre.

Re-approach step 3 and I think you'll bring this to life for a character.
When you re-write ask yourself:Why are we there? Why are you interested in the temple or maybe why was your father obsessed by it? Are you searching for something he lost? Walking in his footsteps to reconnect? If so why? How does it make the character feel?
Try and include the answers within the prose, see if it helps.
 
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