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.

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Less Is (Often) More

In the late 1980s and through the 1990s, I was much involved in local theater, as stage manager, actor, reviewer, PR person, playwright, and all-around flunky. In the years since I’ve drawn heavily on that experience as both writer and editor. Here’s an example, brought to mind by something another editor was wrestling with.

My colleague was editing a novel in which a 20-something character texted to another character a acronym-laden message that my colleague found incomprehensible. She’s not an avid texter, so she asked an online editors’ forum for feedback. Would the acronyms be readily understood by text-savvy readers?

The answer was a nearly unanimous no. Even the avid texters had trouble figuring it out. It didn’t sound like a plausible text either.

What to do, what to do?

One possibility was that the 20-something character was being intentionally obscure. This, however, didn’t seem to be the case. There was general agreement that translating the acronyms into plain English was out of the question. Footnotes are fine in a scholarly work but not so fine in a novel, and working the translation into the text was going to look contrived no matter how gracefully it was done.

Aside: Something like 20 percent of War and Peace is in French. There’s a point to this. Tolstoy is showing us how the French-speaking Russian aristocracy is estranged from the Russian-speaking rest of the country, at a time when the French-speaking Napoleon is threatening Moscow. In the original Russian, Tolstoy provided translations in the footnotes. Translators Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky kept the French (and a smattering of German) in their translation and provided English translations in the footnotes. It worked. I loved it. But I know for a fact that I am not Tolstoy, and you probably aren’t either.

This brought to mind something I learned as an amateur actor who occasionally had to speak with a foreign accent or in an English dialect not my own. My teacher was the late Dr. Louise Gurren, a retired professor of linguistics who’d been an avid theater buff all her life. She was the language consultant on almost every production I worked on, and many more besides.

When we actors went to her to learn to speak southern or English or Russian or Australian, her method went like this: First she’d teach the accent as authentically as possible. Once we had that down, she’d point out that if we spoke that way, the audience would have a hard time understanding what we were saying. So she’d then teach us to “back off” enough so that we sounded authentic but were still comprehensible to a general audience.

Travvy picture

Any excuse for a Travvy picture, right? Travvy loves to jump. Note the retrieve object in his mouth. He’s working hard!

Excruciating accuracy is a must if you’re conducting an experiment or reporting a news story, but on the stage and in fiction it can get in the way.

I suggested to my colleague that a similar approach might serve her client well: In text messages, use enough acronyms and emoticons to sound authentic but not so many that readers are left scratching their heads.

This might apply as well to the research and technical know-how you bring to your story. In my novel in progress, I’m drawing on what I’ve learned training my dog, but I’m not writing a dog-training manual. My goal is to sound like I know what I’m talking about without boring my readers — especially the less dog-obsessed among them — to tears with esoterica that isn’t important to the story.

Less is (often) more. Thank you again, Dr. Gurren.

Point of View

If you go web-surfing or pick up a couple of how-to-write books, you can learn almost everything you need to know — and a great deal more — about point of view (POV).

What you have to figure out for yourself is what works best for whatever you’re working on.

First off, a short lecture: Everything created by humans has a point of view. Even the formal, scholarly stuff that pretends it doesn’t. Even the photographs that are supposedly worth a thousand words because you’re supposedly seeing the real thing, not someone’s possibly inaccurate, incomplete, or biased description of it. What you’re seeing is what the photographer saw and wants you to see. This was true long before Photoshop, and it’s true now.

Visual images have a literal point of view: a place where the viewer is standing, sitting, hovering in space. This affects what you see. You can’t see the dark side of the moon from Earth. You can’t see the backside of whatever the photographer’s showing you the front of. You can’t see what’s above or below, to the right or left of it either.

Here, though, we’re talking about writing, particularly fiction writing.

Fron Cover MockupMy #1 goal for my first novel, The Mud of the Place, was to show how the place I live in works. I live on Martha’s Vineyard. Martha’s Vineyard is in the news a lot, especially in the summer, especially when the president comes to visit. If you see Martha’s Vineyard on the news, you generally see what the reporters see: the summer resort, the quaint tourist attractions, the celebrities. I wanted to show what goes on backstage. The reporters and the summer people rarely see this stuff, and when they see it, they don’t really understand what’s going on.

In short, I wanted to tell stories about people who aren’t considered newsworthy. How to do it?

Mud wanted to be an ensemble piece. So it’s all in third person, with several POV characters. (Yes, I know they all sprang from my first-person mind, but bear with me here.)

Each scene has a single POV. Sometimes an interaction or a conversation can be glimpsed from both sides, but there’s always a scene break where the POV shifts. I learned a lot about each character from seeing him or her through other characters’ eyes. Sometimes a sequence of events remained out-of-focus because the POV character involved didn’t think or say anything about it, and the other POV characters didn’t know what had happened. I liked that a lot.

At one point in my first draft, a non-viewpoint character told my protagonist something my protagonist hadn’t suspected. I didn’t like that so much. In fact, it scared the hell out of me, because I had to drastically overhaul the plot and I was already afraid I’d never finish the thing. But I did, and Mud was much the better for the overhaul. I’d thought I was writing a tragedy. Turns out I was writing a comedy, in which nearly everyone is better off at the end than they were at the beginning.

Moral of story: Non-POV characters have a way of getting their perspectives into the tale. Don’t discount them just because you’re not watching the action through their eyes.

Wolfie talks a lot, but he isn't telling the story.

Wolfie talks a lot, but he isn’t telling the story.

Wolfie, my novel in progress, is set on that same island, but it’s not an ensemble piece. Like Mud, it’s all in third person, but it’s got a tighter focus. At present it’s got two viewpoint characters. One is a woman in her mid-fifties — Shannon from Mud of the Place, if you’ve read novel #1. The other is an 11-year-old girl. The title character is a dog. No scenes are told from his POV, but he’s as essential to the story as the woman and the girl.

The big challenge is the girl. She’s smart and observant, but what’s going on in her family is key, and she can’t see or understand a lot of it. More, she doesn’t have conscious access to some of her own memories. So in first draft her POV sections are being told in third person, present tense. I’m not a big present-tense fan, so this is a challenge. I also have to work out ways to weave this girl’s backstory into the novel. She doesn’t remember a lot of it, and the one character who does isn’t telling.

Come to think of it, the girl isn’t the biggest challenge. The biggest challenge is the character who knows but doesn’t tell. I hate him. I don’t understand how a person could do what he almost certainly did, and is probably going to do again, and still look himself in the mirror. But plenty of people manage, and if/when their monstrosity is revealed, a popular reaction is disbelief. Creating believable villains is hard. I had a couple of villainous characters in Mud of the Place, but I managed to keep them at arm’s length. I can’t do it with this guy.

There’s also a somewhat mysterious fellow hovering in the wings. I know who he is. He’s important. Is he a POV character? I’m not sure yet. A key scene’s coming up that involves him and another non-POV character. One of them has to become a POV character or I’ve got to figure out another way to get that scene into the story.

This is what I love about using just a few viewpoint characters, none of whom has the whole picture. It challenges me as a writer. I have to plumb those characters more deeply than I would otherwise. I have to come up with incidents that will prompt them to say or think things that readers will need to know. Sometimes they say or think things that even I didn’t suspect. That’s how I know I’m tapping into the deep place that the stories worth writing come from.

 

Furry Dog Story

An excerpt from my novel in progress, working title Wolfie, has just been posted to the Writers & Other Animals blog.

Writers & Other Animals features regular guest bloggers, most of whom are writing about animals — especially dogs! While you’re over there, browse the previous posts. You’ll make the acquaintance of some good writers, and probably pick up a few ideas for further reading.

The excerpt, “Close Call,” features both Shannon and Pixel from my first novel, The Mud of the Place. This takes place about 10 years later. Pixel is based on the late, great Rhodry Malamutt and Wolfie (who isn’t named in the story) is based on my Travvy. Trav was born the day after Rhodry died, so the only way I could introduce them to each other was in fiction.

I usually don’t let my writing out in public until it’s pretty close to done. Wolfie is nowhere close to done: I’m maybe 50 pages into a first draft. “Close Call” represents about four of those pages. Since it comes near the beginning, it doesn’t need a lot of explanation, and it’s self-contained enough to stand on its own.

See what you think!

Travvy woos at the waves, Lambert's Cove Beach, January 2014

Travvy woos at the waves, Lambert’s Cove Beach, January 2014

Rhodry and Dis Kitty, Malabar Farm, ca. 2005

Rhodry and Dis Kitty, Malabar Farm, ca. 2005