Authorial Intrusion: The Details

How much detail and description do you want in the book you’re reading?  My creative writing students often ask me this. My answer: it depends.

I tell them that the most important criteria is that the narrator (whether in first person or third) needs to be a good guide for the reader. By “good guide” I mean that the narrator should curate the information given to the reader in much the same way that the Louvre might display certain Monet paintings. The rest is up to personal preference, tempered with a healthy dose of expectations for what the reader can absorb.

As a reader, do you want to be brought into a room and receive a run down of every tea cup in the cabinet? I’d argue not, unless perhaps the character is a tea cup collector. Does you need a head-to-toe description of what a character is wearing? Again, I’d argue not. In fact, I would argue that too much of this type of information loses its potency. I’d much rather the narrator focus my attention on one or two important details (Dr. Who’s bow-tie or Mr. Darcy’s morning coat) that define the character, instead of a jumble of words that get lost. For me, less is more.

I’m squarely in the Hemingway camp on this one (but not as far as the McCarthy camp). But maybe you’re in the Diana Gabaldon camp. I understand that her narrator in the Outlander series regales readers with pages and pages of landscape and historical details. My co-worker read one of Gabaldon’s novels in a weekend. When I asked how she managed to finish the 800-page novel in two days, she said, “I skimmed the descriptions until I got to the action.” Hmm.

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I recently finished The Lake Shore Limited, by Sue Miller. I really enjoyed the story and the author’s skill in crafting realistic characters who are flawed but likable. But the narrator’s descriptions of characters handling mundane tasks were overkill for me: getting undressed for bed, standard bathroom routines, preparing a meal. The New York Times book review called it “filler detail.”

As he hung up, he was suddenly aware that the house felt chilly. On his way to the kitchen, he stopped and turned the hall thermostat up. He could hear it trigger the switch, then the faraway roar in the basement. Though he wasn’t hungry, he fixed himself dinner. Pasta. Pasta with olive oil and some tarragon he found in the refrigerator and chopped up. He made himself do this.

These details can be significant, if they are significant for the character. In other words, if the character is somehow defined by them, including these banal details might be important. Otherwise, I don’t need (or honestly want) to know that the character picked up his keys, put on his scarf and coat, turned the doorknob, and went outside. I can assume these things. I can use my imagination. But others may feel they are getting to know the character.

 What do you think? Do you prefer lots of little details? Or would you rather the narrator leave out small acts of everyday routine? 

Have a great weekend, everyone!

 

 

 

 

Why We Read: To Change Our Minds

I’d read Pride and Prejudice twice before—once in high school and once in college. It’s a bit heretical to say this, but I disliked it both times. It offended my burgeoning sense of what it meant to be a woman. In my college class—I’m now appalled by my arrogance—I’d declared that the story was an insult. The main topics are marriage, money, and high society, which really are all sides of the same coin. “All these characters talk about is finding a husband! How is this relevant?”

There is some truth to this. Pride and Prejudice is indeed about finding a suitable husband to secure a good future, and woe be the woman who chooses wrongly. Jane Austen pulls no punches. In the famous first sentence, she tells you what her story is about. Me from the past (as John Green would say) cringes at this sentence.

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

I’d harbored these resentments until last September at the Brooklyn Book Festival when I stumbled on the Jane Austen Society booth. If you want to see how passionate these people are about Austen’s novels, mention that you think her works are insulting to women. (Tip: Don’t do this.)

Those “Janeites” got to me. I began to soften. I received an annotated edition of Pride and Prejudice as a Christmas gift, and I devoured the 700 pages (including annotations) in days.

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The annotations certainly went a long way in shedding light on social customs and taboos of early-19th century England, things Austen’s contemporaries would have understood. The significance of various carriages, the nuances between addressing Miss Elizabeth Bennet and Miss Elizabeth, the fact that propriety dictated a man should not write to a single woman directly—all were made richer by reading this edition. The major plot point I’d thought unrealistic and manipulative—Elizabeth visiting Pemberley and “accidentally” running into Darcy—was commonplace. People often visited grand estates for tours, even when the owner was in residence.

With few exceptions, women in Austen’s day had little opportunity to improve their station in life. They couldn’t own property, couldn’t earn their own income, couldn’t change social class. They used the only agency they had available to them—saying yes or no to marriage. Austen makes sure we understand this by having Elizabeth refuse first Mr. Collins and then wealthy Mr. Darcy. This is her right. It makes her declaration all the more delicious: “I had not known you [Darcy] a month before I felt that you were the last man in the world I could be prevailed upon to marry.”

In Natalia Sylvester’s post about rereading Little Women, she writes, “Who we are inevitably changes how we read the books we love: suddenly I was catching bits of Louisa May Alcott’s feminism I hadn’t noticed as a young reader…”

In rereading Pride and Prejudice all these years later, I can see beyond my original indignation to a deeper understanding of the characters’ motivations. I am open to the idea that this novel is about much more than marriage and social class. Elizabeth Bennet is, in fact, enterprising. She is using the only means of influence available to her, and maybe in that sense she is a role model.

Do you reread stories? Have you ever had a change of heart? 

Other posts in the Why We Read series.

 

Free-for-all Friday

In Rising Strong, Brene Brown discusses an experience that happened to her prior to a speaking engagement. The conference organizers arranged for her to share a hotel room with a woman for whom (how to say this delicately?) cleanliness was not next to godliness. Brene was so grossed out, angry, and insulted that she found herself rehashing the experience for several people. One asked her, “Do you think it’s possible that your roommate was doing the best she could that weekend?”

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It’s a powerful question. In fact the scope of that question changed Brene’s life. And it gave me pause because this simple yes or no question has implications for how we see and respond to the world. This can apply to individuals or groups. How about the guy on the subway who yells at me because I’m not moving fast enough for his liking? Or the co-worker who emails me three times before noon to say that the schedule I provided is unacceptable, even though I’m doing the best can? Are these people just doing the best they can?

Writers: Ask your main character! His or her answer may surprise you.

I’d like to turn this question over to all of you and share more of Brene Brown’s discoveries in comments. What do you think? Are people doing the best they can? 

 

 

 

Nature Calls: Bears

In my continued revamp of the blog, today’s post will be part of a monthly series highlighting wildlife and nature. I hope you find it fun and informative. I’ll be sharing images from some amazing nature photographers. My words are here only to compliment their photos!

This month we’re going to the bears. Why bears? Bears have such a varied life–much more than I would have anticipated. They are part of a delicate ecosystem that needs them. They are considered “keystone” predators—meaning their survival in their natural habitat is critical for the entire biological community, including humans. Here is a peek into the secret lives of bears.

The photos below are shared with the permission of Scott Randall. I think you’ll agree his images present a captivating look at these amazing bears. He took these photos while on trips to Alaska.

Bear Cub Surprise

Scott says this photo was taken in Silver Salmon Creek, Alaska. Mama bear was nearby. Bears weigh about one pound at birth and stay with their mothers for 2-3 years.
©Scott Randall. Used with permission

 

1.Brown, black, and grizzly. (This sounds like a great name for a band!) No matter what we call the bears, they can come in a variety of colors. So, a black bear can be brown in color (or cinnamon, blond, even white).

  • Brown and grizzly. All grizzly bears are brown bears, but not all brown bears are grizzly bears. Grizzly is a subspecies of brown bears.
  • Brown and black. One quick way to distinguish between a brown bear and black bear is in profile. Brown bears have a camel-like hump between their shoulder blades while black bears do not.
  • Brown bears are the most common, but 95 percent of the population lives in Alaska. If you’re in the lower 48 and you encounter a bear, you’re probably eye-to-claw with a black bear.
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Notice the hump between the shoulder blades. That’s a good sign these are brown bears, even though they are nearly blond in color.
©Scott Randall. Used with permission

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Eye on the salmon prize.
©Scott Randall. Used with permission

 

2. Sleep, perchance to dream. Bears can lose about 40 percent of their body weight while hibernating, which is why they have to bulk up in the summer. A bear can consume 90 pounds (40 kg) of food per day to prepare for the long sleep.

  • While hibernating, a bear’s heart rate slows to eight beats per minute.
  • Anyone who has seen a bear eating Snickers bars from a campsite knows that they are omnivores. Depending on their habitat, they will eat grasses, berries, nuts, fruits, honey, and fish. In the Pacific Northwest and Alaska, salmon is a favorite. One of my bucket list trips: bear watching at Katmai National ParkThe short clip below (narrated by David Attenborough) shows grizzly (brown) bears fishing for salmon at Brooks Falls, Katmai. I feel bad for the salmon, but the bears are impressive. 

3. Home on the range. Bears cover a lot of ground. Males stake out a territory of 200-500 square miles (500-1,300 square km) while females maintain a slightly smaller area.

  • One way they mark their turf is by rubbing their scent along trees, but areas overlap and they tend not to enforce boundaries. Otherwise, bears are mostly solitary, coming together to mate or fish when salmon are running.
Bear Claws

What big claws you have! Brown/grizzly bear claws are 2-4 inches long. In other words, their claws are the length of your fingers. Black bear claws are only 1-2 inches long. I wonder how that distinction evolved. Differences in diet, I’m guessing.
©Scott Randall. Used with permission

 

Bears Digging

Bears also enjoy clams. With claws like that, they have no problem opening the shells. 
©Scott Randall. Used with permission

An extra-special thank you to Scott Randall for allowing me to share his photos! Please visit his photo blog for more amazing shots like these.

 

For more information on bears:

Western Wildlife: Bear Outreach

PBS Nature

Have a great weekend, everyone! 

Authorial Intrusion: Remaining Calm

In this first post in a series about writing and editing, I’d like to discuss The End. A lot of authors find it difficult to wrap things up in a way that is satisfying to you, the reader, while staying true to the story and its characters. Tips on how to close a story abound, such as here and here. These are good suggestions, but I’ve learned they only address the symptoms.

The symptoms often appear as technique issues. Maybe the metaphors become less sharp. Or deus ex machina rears its ugly head. Or there are small errors in the progression of time within the story. Or the little gems of character insight disappear and we’re left with plot points—A to B to C to let’s-just-get to Z.

I recently read a novel that didn’t deliver at the end. For most of its 500 pages, The Steady Running of the Hour is a journey narrative in which the young main character, Tristan, searches for a link to his great grandmother in order to claim a sizable inheritance. The characters, setting, and action were enough to make me keep turning the pages, but as Tristan’s deadline approaches, near the end of the novel, things fall apart. He makes decisions that seem out of character. We haven’t witnessed his metamorphosis to the point where these decisions would be understandable.

Tristan’s search leads him to a small cabin in Iceland. He moves toward a tiny room which may hold the key to everything—knowledge, wealth, heritage. He (in first person, mind you) slowly approaches the door, reaches for the doorknob, and… that’s all I can tell you, not because of spoilers, because the author decided not to share what was in the room. Jump scene to another city. I imagine the author would argue that, in the end, it was irrelevant to Tristan what was behind that door. Well, it mattered to me, the reader.

Not all endings can be Casablanca –perfect, but we have to try.

I think what plagued The Steady Running of the Hour is the same thing that plagues most unsatisfying endings—the desire to finish. In other words, the author wants to be finished with this @*$)! book already.  Imagine: You’ve worked on it for months, maybe years, and you’re tired. (So very tired.) You want to move on. Other ideas and projects are beckoning. As an editor, I can usually spot the moment in a manuscript when that feeling has gripped the writer. (It’s much easier to tell in someone else’s manuscript than my own, of course). And it usually begins about three-quarters of the way to the last page.

What’s a writer to do? Two experienced authors have the same advice:

It means being as fascinated with the sentence I’m writing as I am with the concept of being finished.

~ Martha Beck

 

There is a conspiring by the universe to help us find just the right words, just the right plot movement, but only if we remain calm. If we continue to be present with the story.

~Dani Shapiro

 

Remaining calm is key. Remaining calm in the face of a contest submission date. Remaining calm in the face of a self-imposed deadline (I’ll finish this book before my 40th birthday if it’s the last thing I do!) Remaining calm in the face of an agent’s R&R request. Easy to say, I know, but I think if we remain calm the endings will be as strong as the beginnings.

What book or movie endings have you loved? Hated? Loved to hate? 

Have a great weekend!