Do the Doing: An Actor Writes

This seems related to my recent post about details. Using her experience as an actress, the author writes: “Actors spend years honing their craft; good actors know this includes getting out of the way in a performance so people can become immersed in the story on stage, not the actor’s impressive craft on display.” I think something similar is true for writers.

BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog

A guest post from Cecile Callan:

“I’m noticing a pattern in your work, and it’s a problem,” my mentor said.

I was near the end of my third term of my fiction MFA when she put her finger on something happening in my writing whenever emotions grew strong. To show an intense scene’s rage, anger, or grief, I’d throw in more adjectives and adverbs, believing more description would create more emotion and show I really meant it. Only it had the opposite effect. Instead of getting across intensity, my frantic, overly dramatic writing pushed readers away by taking them out of the scene.

“But it feels that intense,” I argued.

“It’s not your job to feel it, it’s your job to make your readers feel it,” she replied.

I remembered, then, something I’d learned decades before, working as an actress. In rehearsal for The Cherry Orchard, the director had…

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Bogged Down in Detail

Almost three years ago, in “Details, Details,” I noted, “Whether you write fiction or nonfiction, poetry or plays, details help bring your stories to life. (They can also weigh your story down. We can talk about that some other time.)”

“Some other time” has finally arrived, and strange but true, this is a book I’m reading for pleasure, not a manuscript I’m critiquing or editing. After its publication in 2008, it become a New York Times best-seller and an Oprah Book Club selection. All of which suggests that it was pretty well edited and very well liked, or at least that a lot of people bought it.

I’m actually liking it myself: I’m about two-thirds of the way through and I plan to keep going. But still — the details!

At first I was impressed. Truth to tell, I still am. A rain-washed street, the noises each stair in an old farmhouse makes as a boy walks down them, an old tractor engine rumbling to life — all these and many more sights and sounds are exquisitely observed and vividly described.

Especially impressive to me is the detail devoted to the raising and training of dogs. I know enough about dogs and dog training to recognize the author’s expertise. The title character is my novel in progress is a dog; his behavior and training play a significant role in the story. My own treatment of the subject suddenly seemed pale and rushed by comparison. Maybe I should put in more details?

At some point, though, the exquisitely observed and vividly described objects and interactions began to slow me down. Even the parts about dogs. Get on with it, I’d think. I can visualize in detail the peeling paint and the rusty latch — what’s happening on the other side of the door?

With an ebook or an old-fashioned print book, I could have skimmed past the in-depth descriptions and gotten on with the story, but I’m listening to this novel on CDs as I run errands in my car. With an audiobook you can’t skip ahead with any precision. So I listen even when I’m itching to fast-forward.

I wondered if the author was also a poet. In poetry image and detail are in the foreground. They’re meant to be savored. They’re important in fiction and memoir too, but if you spend too much time savoring the imagery and detail in a 580-page (or 18-CD) novel, you’ll never get through it. As far as I can tell, this author isn’t also a poet.

Interestingly enough, despite his minute attention to small details, the author skates right over some of the big ones, like how does a 14-year-old who’s never been away from home manage to survive for weeks in the very deep forest?

Naturally, being an editor by trade, I wonder what I would have said if this book had come to me as an unpublished manuscript for critiquing. I would have been impressed as hell by the writing, but I’m pretty sure I would have flagged numerous places where the narrative bogged down or where stitches got dropped and weren’t picked up again. Obviously the book did spectacularly well in its current form — and, as usual, I don’t know what it looked like, or how long it was, when it was first submitted to agent or publisher.

I intend to keep reading, or listening, to the end, so neither the wealth of detail nor the dropped stitches nor the long meandering detour away from (what I think is) the main narrative has stopped me. The importance of dogs to the story is a big motivator for me, and I’m intrigued by the brief glimpses of magical-realist techniques in the author’s style. When I finish, I’ll read some reviews and comments to see what other readers had to say.

The book, by the way, is The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, by David Wroblewski.

Those Pesky Details

Once upon a time I copyedited a novel set in 19th-century New England that had cranberries being shipped to market in May.

Uh — no.

cranberries

Cranberries

I grew up in Massachusetts and have lived here most of my life. When fresh cranberries reach the market in early to mid fall, I stock my freezer with them because they aren’t available earlier in the year. That’s true in the 21st century, it was true in the late 20th (which was when I copyedited this novel), and it was surely true in the 19th, when transportation, storage, and other technologies were a good deal less sophisticated than they are today.

That’s known in the trade as a “good catch”: I caught something that the author, the book’s editor, and everyone who had already read the manuscript missed. Copyeditors are always catching things that everyone else missed, but this was an especially good one. That’s why I remember it more than 15 years later. (Tellingly, I can’t for the life of me remember the title of the novel or the name of its author.)

We copyeditors quite justifiably pat ourselves on the back for these catches and crow about the best ones to our colleagues.

Readers crow about them too when they find what they consider a glaring error in a published book. “Where was the copyeditor?” they cry. “Where was the proofreader?” This is often followed by a lament about how publishing, the English language, and/or western civilization is going to hell in a handbasket.

Well, if there are several glaring errors in a book, coupled with infelicities of spelling, usage, and style, it may be that it wasn’t properly copyedited or proofread at all. But errors do crop up in even the most conscientiously written, edited, and proofread works. The overwhelming majority of them, thank heavens, are minor.

Think of how many factual details go into any book-length work, fiction or nonfiction. Pity the poor author, who must focus on the whole forest while remaining acutely aware of each tree in the forest, each branch on each tree, each twig on each branch, each bud on each twig. Say you’re an expert in a particular sort of bud. Chances are good that you’ll eventually catch the author out — “No, no, no! Those buds never appear before May in the Upper Midwest!” — but chances are even better that most readers won’t notice. It won’t, and shouldn’t, undermine the credibility of the work.

Unless, of course, the work is about trees in the Upper Midwest. Then you may have a case.

swans on the Mill Pond

There’s a lot more to Martha’s Vineyard than swans on the Mill Pond, but we’ve got that too.

I live on Martha’s Vineyard, a place that is so often misrepresented in both fiction and nonfiction that much of my own writing is devoted to countering those misrepresentations. At the same time, I know that some errors are more significant than others. I don’t care (too much) if someone has a ferry sailing from Vineyard Haven at 5:15 instead of 5:00. Recently, though, I reviewed a book that got some of the geography wrong and misspelled several names that could have been verified without much trouble. Editor fail, I thought.

I do get really, really angry when someone assumes that what they’ve seen on the news is the whole truth and nothing but; that everyone here is wealthy when our median income is one of the state’s lowest.

“Write what you know” is a truism quoted ad nauseam, but I don’t mind it when it’s accompanied by its obvious corollary: “And if you don’t know it now, do your research.

This is why I was so impressed when I was contacted a couple of months ago by a writer whose novel in progress was partly set on the Vineyard. Could he ask me a few questions? Ask away, said I.

His questions were the sort that would only be asked by someone who had at least a passing acquaintance with the place. The larger world wouldn’t notice if he got these things wrong, but many Vineyarders would. I was thrilled to be asked and impressed that he cared enough to get it right. I answered as thoughtfully as I could. (Note to anyone who’s writing about Martha’s Vineyard: Contact me. I’m not kidding. If I can’t answer your questions, I can probably put you in touch with someone who can.)

This has inspired me. If I didn’t mind answering this writer’s questions — hell, no! I’m glad to be asked! — other people won’t mind answering mine. I’m not going to get all the details right, and even if I do, some people are going to disagree with me. But if I get out there and ask the questions, I’m probably going to meet some cool people and get into interesting conversations.

It’s all good.

Details, Details

“The devil’s in the details” — or is it God that’s in the details? God and the devil are always mixing themselves up, but that’s a post for another time, another blog. What matters is that details are important.

For writers, they’re crucial. Whether you write fiction or nonfiction, poetry or plays, details help bring your stories to life. (They can also weigh your story down. We can talk about that some other time.)

Where do details come from? They’re all around you. All you have to do is pay attention.

Four buses in waiting at the West Tisbury School

Four buses in waiting at the West Tisbury School

I was reminded of this yesterday when I posted “Little Changes” to my other blog, From the Seasonally Occupied Territories. On our walks, my dog and I often follow a trail that skirts the school bus parking lot at the nearby elementary school. Last year four buses parked there. They went away for the summer, but when school resumed earlier this month, there were again four buses in the parking lot.

124 signFrom a distance they looked like the same four buses — not only do school buses look alike, big, long, and bright yellow, but they look a lot like they did when I was a kid back in the Pleistocene. But they weren’t the same buses. Each bus has a number. Last year the regulars were 121, 123, 124, and 117H. This year 124 is back, but with different companions: 125, 126, and 116H.

Close-up of the 116H bus

Close-up of the 116H bus

Finally I got curious about the H. What made 116H and 117H different from their buddies? This wasn’t obvious from a distance either, so I looked more closely.

116H seats fewer kids than the non-H buses — because it leaves room for a wheelchair and has a wheelchair entrance at the back. The H, it seems, stands for “Handy Bus” (so it says on the side of the bus), and “Handy” is probably shorthand for “handicap access.”

Back in the Pleistocene, the school buses in my town weren’t accessible by wheelchair. By noticing the details, I learned something about school buses. Will this ever come up in my writing? (Other than this blog, I mean.) Probably not, but who knows? If I ever write a murder mystery, maybe a school bus will have been seen at the scene of the future crime. Maybe some alert soul will have noticed the number.

Too much detail can obscure the main point.

Too much detail can obscure the main point.

Details often sprout into images, similes, and metaphors. Images, similes, and metaphors aren’t scary when they grow organically from your own experience. If you mess around in a garden, for instance, your mind is almost certainly linking what your eyes see, your hands feel, and your nose smells to other things in your life. When I look at my little garden, sometimes I think about making pesto or eating cherry tomatoes, but other times I think, What a mess! I can’t see what’s going on here.

Which is what I sometimes think when I’m revising and come to a passage that’s drowning in detail. Pruning is good, both for prose and for shrubs.

I often think in generalities and abstractions, but when I describe my thoughts to someone else, I almost always reach for concrete images to illustrate them. No surprise there: most useful generalizations are firmly grounded in specifics. In the spring of 1970, I was a freshman at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. Here’s a story from that time, as recounted several decades later:

Lauinger Library opened toward the end of my freshman year, about a month before the Kent State shootings shut the campus down. Within a very few weeks footpaths had appeared across the green lawn fronting the library, one leading from the main gate, the other from the corner of Healy Hall where foot traffic from several dorms and classroom buildings converged. Imagine a terrestrial ice cream cone, with the traffic circle standing in for one scoop of your favorite flavor and the tip at the library’s front door. While war raged in Southeast Asia and anti-war movements fought it across the United States and around the world, university officials battled the entire student body over the right way to walk to the library. The officials contended that we should follow the existing asphalt walkway around the perimeter of the lawn. Our footsteps, in their hundreds, then thousands and tens of thousands, countered that the shortest distance between two points was a straight line.

Our footsteps carried the day. Officialdom conceded, and the foot-beaten paths were enshrined in asphalt.

“The shortest distance between two points is a straight line”: Well, duh — everybody knows that. But the truism doesn’t stick in my mind the way that story has all these years. It taught me to pay attention to something that just about all of us tend to forget: footsteps matter.

Footsteps, come to think of it, are like details. Pay attention to them. They’re important.