The other day I went to look up the quote about angel food cake from the end of To Kill a Mockingbird. In the search results, I saw a bunch of study-aid/cliffs-notes style sites addressing the question, “What does the angel food cake symbolize?”
The passage in question is this, when the sheriff is explaining to Atticus why he won’t tell the town what Boo Radley did:
I never heard tell that it’s against the law for a citizen to do his utmost to prevent a crime from being committed, which is exactly what he did, but maybe you’ll say it’s my duty to tell the town all about it and not hush it up. Know what’d happen then? All the ladies in Maycomb includin’ my wife’d be knocking on his door bringing angel food cakes.
This isn’t technically wrong, but it’s way too fancy for my taste. Saying that’s “symbolism” is really over-thinking matters. It’s no more a symbol than any other gift is.
I always hated this “what does [x] symbolize?” question, and I think that nine times out of ten, it’s just a subtle way of asking “Did you actually read the book?”
Well, in English Lit class, that’s something the teachers have to establish, so it’s hard to blame them for asking it. But I wish they could find a different way to do it, because symbolism is an actual thing in literature–but it’s not near as commonplace as English classes would lead you to believe.
True symbolism is subtle, and you have to be alert to notice it. The angel food cake in Mockingbird doesn’t “symbolize” compassion, it’s just an instance of it. Any five-year-old kid could tell you that bringing somebody a cake means you want to show your appreciation for them.
Actually, this is not a bad test for deciding whether something is literary symbolism. If a kid could immediately tell you what something “symbolizes” out of context, then it’s not really a symbol.
In Richard Armour’s hilarious satire of literary analysis, The Classics Reclassified, there’s a note on symbolism in Moby Dick (I’m paraphrasing from memory): “The book is full of symbols and allegories. The whale stands for something. The sea stands for something. The reader has to stand for quite a bit, too.” I think this nicely sums up the way most readers feel about books that rely too heavily on symbolism.
Based on this, you’re probably thinking that I hate symbolism. I don’t. I’ve written stories that used symbolism. I just object to the lazy style of literary analysis where everything is a symbol, and a symbol of the most obvious things to boot.
I think we need a better term than “symbolism”. My suggestion is “reinforcement”.
In my opinion, the best use of symbolism in a story is to reinforce the core thematic elements of that story. For example: say you have a story about a guy who goes insane. You might reinforce this by having him look in a cracked mirror that distorts his reflection. It represents his figurative “cracking up” by having him (well, his reflection) literally “crack up”.
That’s just one example. You can use all sorts of things to reinforce a theme—if you write romance, have a rose bush that blooms when the lovers are together and dies when they’re apart. (Yes, I know that’s awfully hackneyed. Now you see why I don’t write romance.)
The point is, all this sort of stuff gets called “symbolism” by authors, literary critics, and academics. But that name is misleading, because it starts artists off thinking about the wrong problem—i.e. “What symbols can I create?”, instead of “How can I reinforce my theme?”
This can lead to pretentious, incoherent art where lots of stuff symbolizes other stuff, but none of it makes much sense or seems meaningful. So instead of asking “What does this symbolize”, lit critics and academics ought to be asking “How does this reinforce the theme?”
…and it reminded me that this is one of my big weak points as a writer. I can’t describe food very well.
Partially, this might be related to my well-documented issues with describing anything. But only partially. If I buckle down and get in the right frame of mind, I can describe a landscape or a building or even a piece of clothing. But food really is the hardest one for me.
Part of it is that I don’t think much about food. My mind pretty much checks out after I ask the following questions about food:
Is it good for me?
What side effects will it have?
How does it taste?
The answer to the last question is either “good” or “bad”. I’m not someone who can write at length about how something tastes. I’m always baffled by people who can describe food or drink in complicated terms.
In all my time writing this blog, I’ve covered quite a few subjects. I think I’ve done three posts about food, and one of those was about Doritos, which barely qualify.
I’m a bit better about having characters in my stories drink stuff. I think that’s because I once wrote a story where a character drinks something with poison in it, and in order to keep that scene from standing out, I had to constantly (it felt like) make references to what people were drinking in other scenes.
There’s a scene in The Directoratewhere two characters have lunch together. That was at the suggestion of a beta reader who specifically complained about people never eating anything. I think I even specified that they ate sandwiches. That’s about as much detail as I could stomach. (pun intended.)
I know plenty of authors who do a great job describing food, though. Two came to mind when I read Lydia’s tweet: food is a key thematic element in Carrie Rubin’sEating Bull, and so she is careful to describe what characters eat, and why. In Sheila Hurst’sOcean Echoes, there are vivid descriptions of the meals that characters eat while on a scientific cruise.
Later, I thought of a couple more examples of the use of food in fiction I’ve read recently: in Mark Paxson’sOne Night in Bridgeport, there’s a running joke (for lack of a better term) that the protagonist keeps craving a cheeseburger. (Mark himself is a skilled cook, as he documents on his blog.) There’s a similar idea in Ben Trube’sSurreality, where the detective is always hankering for a Reuben sandwich.
I’m currently reading Eileen Stephenson’sImperial Passions, and I happened to be reading a chapter in which the characters are having dinner. It occurred to me that it is very important for historical fiction to describe what people are eating, not only by conveying authenticity to the reader, but by helping to describe the structure of the society they live in.
This is why food is a key part of world-building generally. One of the famous questions asked by (good) designers of fantasy worlds is “what do the people here eat?” Because if you can answer that question, you end up answering a lot of other questions about the society you’re creating. When you write historical fiction, that information already exists for you, but you have to research to get it right. (e.g. “in the 1800s, Americans founded cities and towns along bodies of water over which agricultural products could be shipped…” etc.)
So food is a very important part of any story. (Well, any story about biological life, anyway.) I need to do a better job keeping that in mind. But I still don’t see myself writing an extended paragraph about the texture and aroma of a meal anytime soon.
A little while back, I was describing Audrey Driscoll’s The Friendship of Mortals to someone. After I was done, she looked at me and said, “So it’s an H.P. Lovecraft slash fanfiction?”
I was about to argue the point, but then I realized she was right. It is–except that, if you describe it that way, it would lead people to expect something very different than what The Friendship of Mortals actually is. Fanfiction has a reputation for low quality among Serious Writers, and so if you describe something as such, most people will automatically assume it’s bad, or at least amateurish.
Friendship of Mortals is a very well-written, high-quality book–in fact, it’s better than many books from big publishers and well-known authors that I have read. Calling it a Lovecraft fanfic, while perhaps technically accurate, doesn’t begin to describe it.
People often assume that the ideas are the hard part of creating something. I used to assume this too. I think it was when I watched this talk by Chris Avellone that I realized it wasn’t true.
(That’s a fantastic talk, by the way. If you don’t like video games but enjoy writing, just watch this section. If you like games, watch the whole thing.)
This isn’t a new concept–hence the famous Edison quote, “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration”. But it’s hard to grasp until you start making things.
In this regard, ideas are easy to come by–they are like abundant raw materials that require lots of training to know how to use. It’s easy to dream up a concept for a story, or a new invention, or a business model. The hard part is doing the nitty-gritty stuff that makes it work.
This is a longish post, but it makes some important points. Important enough that I want to include an executive summary for those of you too busy to read it all:
There are a lot of petty distractions in day-to-day life. Don’t get obsessed with them. Deal with them, by all means, but don’t ignore your loved ones at their expense.
Writing about an experience is a great way to capture what was most important about it. You will realize things about it that you never would consciously notice otherwise. Writing stuff down, and sharing it with other people, might seem trivial, especially in the age of social media, but don’t underestimate its importance. It’s the most powerful tool we have for preserving who we are and what we care about.
Read on if you want my supporting evidence.
I met my dog Jack on a December day in 2005. My Mom and I were driving on a back country road, and he crossed the street in front of our car. I thought he was a coyote at first. Once we realized he was a dog, we assumed he belonged to someone in the area. When he was still there when we were on the way back, just waiting for someone to pick him up, we realized he’d been abandoned. Mom stopped the car, and I coaxed him in. He was scared, but I think the warmth convinced him to take a chance and get in. It was a snowy, chilly day.
I wasn’t a dog person—or really much of an animal person. But Jack was mostly German shepherd, and I decided I could train him up. Much of that winter, I spent walking him and our basset hound, Bart, around in the woods behind my parents’ house. I wrote this story about that time—I can remember thinking about it while walking with them. I also read Thomas Hardy’s books for the first time around then, and I remember discussing them with my mom while walking with the dogs.
At the time, I didn’t stop to think about any of that stuff—I was mostly focused on studying for the SAT. Walking dogs, reading books, and writing stories were just my leisure time. I had to do well on the SAT in order to get in to college, so it was my main focus.
In retrospect, I realize that what was really important then was the time I spent with my mother, with Jack and Bart, and writing. Those are the things that I’ll remember most, and the ones I’ll wish I could do again. I can’t even remember what I got on the SAT.
I’m not saying tests don’t matter, but they don’t matter near as much as they seem to in the moment. At the time, it was the defining event of my life. Looking back, it was just a hoop to jump through to determine what new series of hoops I would jump through. One way or another, I’d have probably managed to jump through enough hoops to keep going. The world will always give you hoops.
Ever since I can remember, I’ve been hearing about how important adaptability is. It’s the sort of thing people say so much I tune it out. What I only recently figured out is why it’s important: because if you are adaptable, you know you can probably navigate whatever series of hoops life throws at you. Which gives you the confidence not to get so hung up on one particular hoop that it drives you to distraction.
As a teenager, I wasn’t smart enough to understand this. “Adaptability” was a meaningless phrase applied to successful people, like “clutch” is to athletes who win big games or “populist” is to virtually all non-incumbent politicians. It was only later that I realized what it really meant: that you had enough faith in your general abilities that you would never become consumed trying to get one thing right.
There are some things in life that are worth being consumed with getting right, of course. But they’re rarely the ones we actually do become consumed with. When I think about it, for everything that I wish I’d focused on more, I usually realize that at the time, there was some other, vastly less important thing that I was focusing on instead.
I tweeted about Paul Graham’s essay “Life is Short” the other day. What he says in there may seem obvious to many people—as he himself admits, saying “life is short” is a cliché. But the way he describes it, breaks it down into quantifiable shortness, resonated with me. And it resonates more and more with the passage of time, especially the part where he points out all the things that life is too short for, and all of them are things that people easily find themselves focusing on.
Maybe these are lessons everyone has to learn as they get older. Lord knows that if I didn’t appreciate the important things in life, it wasn’t for lack of my elders telling me I should. Maybe it’s inevitable that everyone takes things for granted when they’re young. The world seems like it’s always been a certain way, so the mind instinctively assumes it will continue to be that way. And anecdotes and second-hand information won’t alter the perception that the world is a steady-state—only living long enough to see it change can do that.
But I think it’s only partially innate. Environment and upbringing also play a role, in the sense that when you’re young, you get told a lot about what you “should” be doing. In fact, some of the same people who told me to appreciate things also told me to focus on getting ready for college and a career.
And this is probably good, on balance. Children need to be made to do certain things, or else they’ll make bad choices. If you had left ten-year-old me to my own devices, I would have done nothing except eat candy and play video games.
16-year-old me was getting closer to striking the right balance. Thanks to my (his? our?) parents, he was splitting his time between what he needed to do to prepare to earn a living and what he truly liked to do. The only problem was, he didn’t fully appreciate the importance of having the freedom to do the latter.
Looking back, I wish I’d been blogging then. I could have documented everything I did at the time, rather than waiting and reporting it now, when it’s just a grainy recollection from long-term storage. Writing about your experiences forces you to get to the heart of what they really mean to you, and it reveals things you noticed without even consciously realizing it. Not to mention that it allows you to share a moment with other people, which—for me, anyway—somehow makes it more consequential. Maybe you’ve never had a dog, or a chance to hike in the woods. But now you’ve at least heard about it from somebody who did.
Again, this is something that wouldn’t seem important to a teenager, but when you write about something, you’re effectively making your experience live on, letting other people in on a moment they otherwise would never experience.
I forgot to mention one other thing I did as a teenager (longtime readers know it already): listened to lots of Gilbert and Sullivan. I had all the 1950s D’Oyly Carte recordings of the Savoy Operas. In fact, Jack was named after Jack Point, the ill-fated jester in The Yeomen of the Guard. Martyn Green played him in those recordings, and in the 1953 film, The Story of Gilbert and Sullivan:
I read Green’s autobiography as a teenager. It’s funny–here was a man semi-famous in the 1940s and ‘50s for playing characters written in the late 1800s, and I was reading his memoir in the early 2000s.
And—as absolutely weird as I know this sounds—I feel like I knew the guy. He died in 1975, but I still listen to his voice and read his words. This is why I like history generally—there is something awesome, in the most profound sense of the word, about the way learning history lets the past live on. I’m not much for belief in the supernatural, but it’s the rational equivalent of being a medium: you channel the thoughts of long-dead minds.
I have two major points to make in writing this essay. One is the same as the point of Graham’s essay: to tell you to savor the things—and especially the people and animals–that matter the most in your life. Someday they’ll be gone, and you’ll wish you’d spent more time with them, instead of worrying about ephemeral things.
The second point is both a means of savoring and of commemorating: write about the things you care about. Your family, your friends, your pets… write it down in some form. It can even be fictionalized, if you want. Alter names and places if it makes you feel more comfortable, as long as it keeps the core feeling of your experience. Ideally, write for some audience besides yourself, just because that will force you recall the experience as best you can. And by sharing it, it allows it to endure.
Most older people probably already grasp this. I’m really writing this for younger people, teenagers like I was, who don’t understand why they need to appreciate life. Well, I can’t make you appreciate it, any more than the adults around me could when I was your age. But I think I can help you savor it, and keep it for later. So maybe one day, you can look back and revisit it. And, even better, you can share it with people who weren’t there, and they can get a sense of who you are, and what you care about.
My dog Jack died today. I am writing this in his memory, and also in the hope that it will encourage people not to make the same mistakes I did. There’s no way to not miss someone you care about after they die, but you can make sure that you got everything you could out of knowing them, and to make it count for something.
Write about the stuff you care about. Record it to share with people who couldn’t experience it with you. It’s not the same as getting to relive your happiest moments again and again, but it’s the closest thing we’ve got.
[I recently read The Friendship of Mortalsby Audrey Driscoll, the first installment in her Herbert West series. I absolutely loved it, and sent Ms. Driscoll a few questions about the book, her other works, and her thoughts on writing in general, which she kindly and thoughtfully answered. One note: there are a few minor spoilers for the first book below. Enjoy!]
BG: What was it about Lovecraft’s original Herbert West story that first inspired you to write this series?
AD: I was aware of the story for years before I was able to track down a copy. Its reputation as HPL’s worst story intrigued me. How bad could it be? After I read it, I found myself wondering why Herbert West is so interested in reanimating corpses, especially considering how badly his attempts turn out. HPL calls him a totally rational type, but some of his activities, especially in the later chapters, seem pretty irrational. In other words, I thought Herbert was interesting enough to need a backstory, so I wrote one, incorporating other elements from Lovecraft – the Necronomicon, Miskatonic University, Arkham, Kingsport, and a few others. Not Cthulhu, though.
BG: How did you manage to write the romance scenes and still keep in the Lovecraftian style? Were there any other sources that you looked to for inspiration on that, or to help with writing the early 20th-century setting in general?
AD: As you know, since you’ve read both HPL’s original story and my book, both are narrated by Herbert West’s friend and accomplice. Lovecraft doesn’t give him a name, but I called him Charles Milburn. I pictured him as a lonely, middle-aged librarian (and I’ll just add here that I worked as a librarian for 35 years), telling the story many years later. His somewhat obsessive, confessional style was perfect for the tale, as though the time has come to tell his long-kept secrets, and he can’t wait to pour them out. The romance element lent itself well to this, because Charles’s affair with Alma must be kept secret from their colleagues, and Charles’s romantic impulses toward Herbert are pretty much unacknowledged by him. Once I discovered/decided that Herbert was gay, I read quite a few works by and about gay writers, which helped me to shape the characters.
BG: There are lots of themes in The Friendship of Mortals, but the main one seems to be the narrator’s romanticism vs. West’s materialism. Did you consciously want to explore this conflict, or did it arise organically in telling the story? And do you think the reader should come away favoring one viewpoint or the other, or is it more of a “in the eye of the beholder” sort of thing?
AD: West’s materialism was emphasized by Lovecraft in his original story, so I must have organically decided to make my narrator, Charles Milburn, a Romantic. A certain amount of conflict developed naturally after that, which was a good thing. And since Herbert undergoes a transformation analogous to the process of alchemy, I suppose I expect the reader to follow along and experience that along with him.
BG: There are a few passages in the book that have to do with music. Can you talk a little about how music influences your writing? Do you listen to music while you write?
AD: Yes, definitely! I actually worked some pieces of music I listened to at the time, such as J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations and the Allegri Miserere, into the plot of The Friendship of Mortals. Another CD I listened to during that writing was The Mask and the Mirror by Loreena McKennitt. Her setting of “The Dark Night of the Soul” by St. John of the Cross had a profound influence on the novel, sending it in a direction I certainly never intended.
The most musically-influenced of my works is a literary novel entitled Winter Journeys, about Franz Schubert’s song cycle, Winterreise. It’s not historical; the action takes place in the years of its writing, the winter of 2007-2008. I haven’t published it myself as yet, because I still have an idea I might try to get it traditionally published. But I’ve been so taken up with publishing the Herbert West books and writing my current work in progress that I no longer have the mindset necessary for submitting to publishers.
BG: What other authors, besides Lovecraft, have influenced or inspired you?
AD: Stephen King, of course. Both his novels and On Writing, which inspired me to start actually writing, instead of thinking I couldn’t possibly. Peter Straub as well; his approach to horror is more subtle than King’s. The most elegant horror story I’ve ever read, though, is Algernon Blackwood’s “The Willows.” Nothing I’ve written even comes close. Otherwise, among the authors whose works I hold dear are Mary Renault, Elizabeth Goudge, Mervyn Peake and J.R.R. Tolkien. And Leo Tolstoy. And the garden writer Henry Mitchell, whose style I found most appealing.
BG: Besides your literary work, you also blog about gardening. Are there similarities between the two activities? Any gardening wisdom that helps you in writing?
AD: Well, there’s nothing fictional about gardening. It’s as real as can be. That helps to reset my perspective. It’s done outdoors, which means I spend time away from the desk and computer, and it’s physical. Digging up tree roots is extremely physical. So is pruning, especially huge old climbing roses and prickly hollies. I have the scars to prove it. Noticing, observing, and visualizing are necessary in gardening, and are helpful habits for writers to cultivate as well.
BG: Would you be willing to discuss any new literary project(s) that you have in the works?
AD: I have just finished the first draft of a novel which is a sort of sequel to the Herbert West Series. It features a descendant of Herbert’s (and you have to read the entire series to see how that comes about!) The title is She Who Comes Forth. It’s set in Luxor, Egypt and the Theban Necropolis in the autumn of 1962. It will come forth, I hope, later this year.
BG: What has surprised you most about writing/publishing? Was it easier or harder than you expected when you first started?
AD: When I started writing The Friendship of Mortals in November 2000, I was blown away by the experience. That book pretty much wrote itself. I was obsessed with it. The obsession lasted through 2005 and three more books, although each one took longer to finish than its predecessor. Of course, I was trying to get traditionally published during those years, which introduced an element of harsh reality. Maybe that slowed me down. In 2010, I discovered self-publishing via Smashwords and eventually Amazon, and began my blog. I was taken up with those activities for the next seven years, so didn’t start writing another novel until 2017. A year later, I’m still at the raw first draft stage. Of course, I do my own editing and my own formatting — even for print, which is more challenging than ebook formatting. Altogether, though, I like the degree of control I have over the look and feel of my finished books. And as an indie, I can take whatever approach I like to marketing, as long as I adjust my expectations accordingly.
BG: Any advice that you would like to pass on to other aspiring authors?
AD: Writing and publishing are two completely different, although related, operations. Writers should ask themselves why they write, and what they expect from that process. Same for publishing. What constitutes success in each area? Each author has their own answers to these questions.
How much time, effort and money are they prepared to spend in writing and bringing their works to the world’s attention? It is possible to publish well with relatively little monetary expenditure, but that means doing a lot of it oneself. I wouldn’t encourage anyone to go into debt as a first-time self-publisher. Indie authors are a huge market for products and services; there are many hands ready to take one’s money, and not all of them are helping hands. Like so many other endeavours, self-publishing might be summed up this way: good, fast, cheap; pick two.
Writing is a solitary activity, even when done in coffee shops, but it’s immensely helpful to be part of a writing community. The internet is a good place to meet and communicate with other writers, both trad- and self-pubbed. I recommend finding a niche there. WordPress has dozens, if not hundreds, of writers’ blogs. Not every piece of writing/publishing advice you see is relevant or useful, so it helps to exercise one’s critical thinking abilities, and to keep asking the questions I mentioned earlier.
Thank you very much for the thought-provoking questions, Berthold. And for giving me space on your blog.
BG: It was my pleasure! Thank you for your thoughtful answers, and for writing such wonderful books.
At long last, here is the novel I’ve been talking about for the last few months. I started writing this back in August, and polished off the first draft some time in October. I’ve wanted to do a Space Opera/Science-Fantasy military adventure for some years now, because those were the sorts of books, movies, and games I liked best as a kid and teenager. Some elements of this story have been kicking around in my head since I was 12 years old. (Others, of course, are as old as science fiction itself.)
It’s definitely slower-paced than The Start of theMajestic World—there’s a lot of backstory, world-building and political machinations in this one, but I enjoyed being able to set the scene a little more compared to the deliberately vague setting of Majestic World.
I wrote several posts about my process as I was working on this book:
–Here you can read my concerns about how there is one scene and character who is similar to one in Majestic World, and why I decided it’s OK.
–Here you can read my musings on “Mary Sues”, whether my protagonist is one, and why they are so popular.
–Here is where I addressed whether it had enough words, too many words, or not enough words.
–Here is where I considered whether it was funny enough
On most of these questions, I decided that what I was doing was probably right, or at least that any other approach I could think of wouldn’t have been as good. That’s not to say that another author might not have been able to tell the story better, but only that I didn’t know how to tell the story any better. Your mileage may vary.
[I want to reexamine a topic I first wrote about here—I’ve given it some more thought, and come up with a few new points.]
When you look for writing advice, sooner or later you see tips like “Avoid lengthy descriptions” and “Cut all unnecessary words.” (These are two of Elmore Leonard’s rules of writing, but lots of other people have said similar things.)
Well, I’m here to tell you that having fewer words isn’t always better. And sometimes, it’s worthwhile to describe characters and things in detail.
I know this because I once believed these nuggets of advice wholeheartedly. I think I subconsciously always thought wordy descriptions were for pretentious twits who wanted to sound fancy. Reading this advice just validated what I already wanted to believe.
It wasn’t until I started writing fiction and my readers started asking “Why don’t you describe stuff?” that I began to think I was mistaken. (It took embarrassingly long for me to become willing to admit this.)
I started thinking about the work of other writers I regularly read. Did they describe stuff? Well, yes, they did. Did they always use the minimum number of words needed to say what they wanted to say? Not really.
Here’s the opening paragraph from H.P. Lovecraft’s classic horror tale, The Call of Cthulhu:
“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”
This could be much more simply rendered as:
“It’s better not to know some things.”
Same point, fewer and shorter words. Must be better, right?
Here’s another example, this from P.G. Wodehouse’s Right Ho, Jeeves:
“Contenting myself, accordingly, with a gesture of loving sympathy, I left the room. Whether she did or did not throw a handsomely bound volume of the Works of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, at me, I am not in a position to say. I had seen it lying on the table beside her, and as I closed the door I remember receiving the impression that some blunt instrument had crashed against the woodwork, but I was feeling too pre-occupied to note and observe.”
He could have just written:
“I left the room, and I think she threw a large book at me, but I was pre-occupied with other matters.”
Much shorter! And yet… that doesn’t seem as good, does it? It’s still funny, but Wodehouse’s more thorough description is more amusing.
As for description: we can argue over how much is too much—it’s true that you don’t want a multi-paragraph description of somebody’s eye color. But few people would even think of writing that in the first place
Readers want to form a coherent picture in their mind’s eye, and reading physical characteristics helps them to remember people and things; just as when you meet someone in real life, you tend to remember them by certain physical attributes. Anyone who has ever read Harry Potter can instantly tell you what color Ron Weasley’s hair is.
Another good example of why it’s sometimes worthwhile to dwell on descriptions is the opening of John Kennedy Toole’s Pulitzer-winning novel A Confederacy of Dunces:
“A green hunting cap squeezed the top of the fleshy balloon of a head. The green earflaps, full of large ears and uncut hair and the fine bristles that grew in the ears themselves, stuck out on either side like turn signals indicating two directions at once. Full, pursed lips protruded beneath the bushy black moustache and, at their corners, sank into little folds filled with disapproval and potato chip crumbs. In the shadow under the green visor of the cap Ignatius J. Reilly’s supercilious blue and yellow eyes looked down upon the other people waiting under the clock at the D.H. Holmes department store, studying the crowd of people for signs of bad taste in dress.”
This is some pretty detailed description, but it does more than just tell us what Reilly looks like. It also gives us an idea of his personality. From this point on, we have an impression of him to file away and call up whenever his name appears on the page. The cap, the moustache, the oddly –colored eyes—all these things paint a vivid picture of the character.
Could you trim this down a bit? Sure. Just say:
“A mustachioed man in a green hunting cap looked around disapprovingly at the crowd.”
But that doesn’t linger long enough to make an impression in the reader’s mind. They’ve passed it before their brains are even fully engaged, and as a result, have formed no mental picture of the character.
To be clear: I’m not saying I favor describing every detail you can think of. In horror especially, there are some things you should leave to the reader’s imagination. But you don’t want to leave too much, or else you don’t have a book. You just have a very sophisticated outline. Many of my early stories fall into this trap.
So, why do legendary writers like Leonard say to avoid lengthy passages and detailed descriptions, when that isn’t what readers want? Even more confusing: why do many authors preach that while not practicing it?
My guess is that a skilled writer becomes so adept at translating their vision to the page that it ceases to feel like description at all. The descriptive passages, the dialogue, and the action scenes are all so woven together it becomes difficult to separate one piece from the whole.
Moreover, this is also the reader’s impression of good writing. Well-written description doesn’t even register as separate from dialogue or plot—it’s all part of the world that the reader becomes immersed in.
Note the all-important qualifier “well-written”. If your description is badly-written, you’re in trouble. But that’s true of anything in any book. And if someone asks for advice on writing, saying “write well” seems like a useless thing to tell them. The question is, how do you write well?
The answer is not to minimize description and word counts. I think the real answer is something like “Make the description integral to the overall story”. As in the example from Dunces, you want your descriptive passages to be tied in with the characters and the world.
In other words, don’t just tell the reader that “This jerk had light-brown hair and glasses”. Tell them that “The sandy-haired man peered at him through his spectacles, as though he were some type of revolting insect.”
This tells the reader both how the character looks and how he behaves, allowing them to quickly make a mental note:
Brown-haired glasses guy = jerk
This is what readers want—the ability to quickly and easily understand characters, places and things.
Most days, it’s a real struggle for me to get started on writing even a paragraph in one of my stories. Once in a great while, I’ll be struck by some inspiration and then it’s just a matter of getting the words down as fast as I can, but that’s rare. The more normal case is something like this:
I need to write something where X happens.
[Write a word or two]
Huh, I wonder what’s going on in the news.
[Half hour later, force myself to write another sentence or two]
Are there any good videos on YouTube?
I have to consciously force myself to stay on task and write something down. If I manage to do that, most of the time I hate what I’m writing up until I finish, at which point it starts to seem possibly decent. But the whole time I’m doing it, I feel like I’m doing lousy work, and moreover, it takes all my willpower to even do that.
Why is this? Writing is supposed to be what I like doing. No one is forcing me to do it—it’s what I want to do. But then why am I strongly tempted to avoid doing it, like it’s a job or something?
At first, I thought maybe I was just a lazy bum. But I follow lots of hard-working writers on Twitter, and they frequently report this same problem. I even did a poll of my followers, and while the sample was small, 100% reported they procrastinated:
Question for writers: do you often find yourself procrastinating when you want/ought to be writing?
So, it’s not just me being lazy. Other writers face this problem too.
The simple and obvious explanation is that writing is active. You have to consciously do something to make it happen. Whereas reading the news or watching cat videos is passive—you just find your way to the site and put your mind on cruise control.
But this doesn’t totally explain it. One of the ways I procrastinate is by playing video games. And that’s not passive; I still have to press buttons and make decisions to get the outcome I want in the game. Yet it’s far easier for me to play a game of FTL or computer chess than it is to write. I don’t have to will myself to play a game.
My next-door neighbor has had all kinds of hobbies over the years I’ve known him, from shooting guns to building model airplanes to mixing drinks to, yes, playing video games. And he doesn’t seem to need a huge amount of willpower to make himself work at any of his hobbies. Why is my hobby different?
Part of the problem is that I’ll write something down and then think, “Well, that’s not any good”. This feels unsatisfying. And at some level, I think procrastination is a defense mechanism. Skimming the sports headlines may not yield much satisfaction, but at least it won’t be as disappointing as writing something imperfect.
But why should that be disappointing? After all, no one else is going to judge me by the first draft. No one else will even know it existed unless I show it to them. So why am I bothered if it’s not right the first time? I don’t get discouraged if I don’t win a video game right away. On the contrary, losing a game just makes me want to try again.
Writing, unlike other activities, is more closely associated with having an audience. After all, if you’re just writing for yourself, why bother writing? You know the story already—the only reason to write it down is to communicate it to others.
That’s the heart of the difference: When I play a video game or exercise or any of the other things I do for fun, my only audience is myself. If I’m satisfied with my performance, that’s all I need.
We are trained very early on that writing is different. Writing is what you do when you want to tell other people something. As a result, when you write, you are subconsciously trying to please other people.
Ta-da! This explains the mystery of why writers procrastinate. Procrastination is something you do when you are assigned a task by other people, and writing feels like that because that’s how we’re trained to regard it. It’s the same reason we all procrastinated when our teachers assigned us to write a paper on such-and-such-thing-no-one-cares-about.
Some of the most common advice I’ve seen from successful authors is stuff like “Write for yourself,” “Ignore your inner critic on the first draft” and perhaps the most common, “Lose your fear of writing”.*
This advice always puzzled me. Of course I was writing for myself! Who the hell else would I be writing these weird stories for? And my inner critic? Who’s that? As far as I knew, I didn’t have one. The fear thing seemed the most sensible, although for me, the fear wasn’t so much of writing as it was of publishing.
But now I see what all those famous writers were saying: you think you’re writing for yourself, but you aren’t really. In your unconscious mind, you are still trying to figure out what the readers are going to think of what you wrote. It’s a deeply-rooted habit, probably one that evolution instilled in us—the societies where people could clearly communicate their ideas to one another were the ones that flourished.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t write so that other people can understand you. But the point is, that has to come later. First, you have to treat writing as a personal challenge between you and the part of your mind that wants to stop you from doing it. It’s like working out: you know it’s good for you, and you know you will feel great afterward, but you have to overcome the natural instinct that tells you it’s easier not to do it.
The precise way to do this can vary from person to person. You’ll discover the method that works best for you as you go along.
One exercise that I think can help teach how not to write for an audience is to just try writing stream-of-consciousness. For this post, I deliberately tried an experiment where I turned off my sense-making filter and just spewed forth whatever came to mind. This is what resulted:
Grey window skies empty noises and duahgter nothing al dhpauiw hope thjat move listen coffee righ fjor wdesk need time hope sk
Sitting on a cold day that is grey and deporessing why am I doing this write exercise imagine plains vision skies weird black nebulous
This seems like incoherent babble, but it’s really not all that random. For context: I was sitting at my desk by a window on a cold grey day, drinking coffee. I could hear people outside talking and someone said something about a daughter.
For the second paragraph, the other people shut up, and I started to let my imagination roam, which led to visions of Lovecraftian weird cosmic horror, because that’s my favorite genre, or at least the one I’m most familiar with.
As sloppy and gibberish-filled as that is, you can see my thought process even through all the errors and downright nonsense. Which brings me to my point: as in many other fields, “true randomness” is actually pretty hard to achieve in writing. Your brain will work very hard to force you to make sense. Which is helpful in many other ways, but the problem is that our brains have become so good that they will try to prevent us writing anything less than the perfect sentence on the first try. That part of the brain would much rather procrastinate than risk writing something nonsensical.
This is what all those famous writers mean when they say “Write for yourself” or “Don’t worry about the audience” or “Ignore the inner-critic.” It’s all true, but it’s not specific enough, because when you are tempted to put off writing and procrastinate instead, you don’t realize you’re writing for someone else, or that it’s your inner-critic, or your fear of the audience. It feels like you’re just trying to write something that makes sense, and for some horrible reason, you can’t.
That’s because it doesn’t make perfect sense, and your brain hates that. But it’s okay. You can fix it later. Editors and beta readers will make sure of that.
So my advice is: don’t worry about making sense. In fact, I’ll go even further: actively try to avoid making sense on the first draft. Just put down the most basic, sub-literate version of what you want to convey. You’d be surprised how hard it is to not make sense—your unconscious mind will keep you at least within saluting distance of it most of the time. After that, you can just iterate until your visceral idea has been refined into something your readers can understand.
“They don’t blame you — so long as you’re funny!” –Jack Point, in The Yeomen of the Guard, by W.S. Gilbert.
One of the most interesting beta reader comments on my new novel was “Why don’t you make it funnier?”
This one stuck with me, because I already had a sneaking suspicion that the book was too humorless. Paul Graham’s point about good design sticks in my head: “Good design may not have to be funny, but it’s hard to imagine something that could be called humorless also being good design.”
I’ve struggled with this quite a bit. The book isn’t a comedy by any means—it deals with some very dark subjects. And yet… that doesn’t seem like a valid excuse. For example, racism, murder, and rape are all major elements in the plot of To Kill a Mockingbird, and yet it still has plenty of extremely humorous moments as well.
I read somewhere that a novel is supposed to capture “the totality of life”. If so, then it makes sense that it needs to have both the dark and the light moments—after all, real life has both.
But how do you put humor into a serious story? You can’t just put in a slapstick comedy routine for characters who are struggling with matters of life and death. It would seem out of place.
This is the problem that so-called “comic relief” characters were created to solve. And sometimes, that can work. But it’s easy for it to go wrong, and then you get something like Jar Jar Binks—a character whose antics clash with the main narrative and annoy the audience.
A better route is to have characters who are well-rounded enough to be both funny and serious. And actually, having funny characters is probably helpful in terms of the larger goal of making the reader care about them. Funny characters are more likeable.
One of the complaints I got about The Start of the Majestic Worldwas the lack of banter between the two protagonists. This was because I just generally don’t like banter—it comes across as too forced to me. But I wonder now if this was really about an overall lack of humor in the book. (I did try to make some of the supporting characters entertaining, if not exactly comic.)
It’s tricky to find the right point to insert humor in a non-humor book. At any given moment, the characters are dealing with serious problems, and so there never seems to be any specific point where it makes sense to insert comedy, even though the overall vibe is that the book needs more of it.
Another way is to put humor in the descriptions. The difficulty here is that my book is set in the distant future, and as such requires a fair amount of world-building and information about how the futuristic society works. And it’s tough to give the reader that information, much of which will ultimately be relevant to the plot, and be funny at the same time.
Even more importantly, humor relies on a shared frame of reference, so it’s hard to come up with really funny things to say in a futuristic society. Humor also involves playing with social norms, and when dealing with unfamiliar social norms, it doesn’t seem funny when they get violated. It just seems confusing.
This still doesn’t justify a lack of humor, though. Robert Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke infused their science fiction stories with wit. What it comes down to is being able to write plausibly human and relatable characters in a futuristic and/or alien setting. That’s what I’m trying to do, anyway—write characters with both serious and silly sides to them, and then put them in situations where the different aspects of their personalities can appear.
Sometimes you have story ideas that don’t work out. They seem like brilliant ideas at first, but then they just slowly die. It can take a while to even realize your story has died–I know I’ve kept working on some long after they’ve passed on.