I’ve heard lots of criticisms of video games over the years, but Jeff Vogel’s critique that they have too many words is a new one. He makes a strong case against one particular game–Obsidian Entertainment’s Pillars of Eternity. After reading his article, it’s hard to argue against the claim that Pillars is too verbose. The character creation and menu screens are packed with tons of text for the player to wade through.

I’m less sure about whether this is really a trend in gaming generally. After all, Pillars was explicitly designed as a throwback to the beloved text- and lore-heavy Black Isle RPGs. For example, Planescape: Torment has over a million words. Even I tended to ignore some of the esoteric descriptions in Planescape, and I love that game.

Scene from “Planescape: Torment”

Some players really do seem to enjoy the atmosphere of a game rich with background material. It may be true that much of the information is irrelevant to the game’s mechanics, but this is High Fantasy, and one of the things High Fantasy fans look for is a sprawling world filled with many interesting details that don’t all fit into the main narrative.

Using lots of words is indeed a problem, as Vogel says, but not just in games. The High Fantasy trope of giving tons of background information can be traced back to J.R.R. Tolkien. The Pillars of Eternity intro is nothing next to the dense opening chapters of The Fellowship of the Ring. In general, when writing in a genre, you will try to emulate the most successful authors in that genre, so it’s hard to blame Obsidian for looking to the work of Tolkien and his successors for ideas.

I myself have never been a fan of this style. And that’s despite the fact that some of my influences favored verbosity. Take H.P. Lovecraft for example–he was a pioneer in writing horror, but he tended to go overboard with some of his descriptions. I think some of that crept into my own early attempts at writing horror.

It’s much easier to use too many words than to use just the right number. The old line about “writing a long letter because I didn’t have time to write a short one” applies.  It’s easy to waste words, and that dilutes their intended effect.

The economy of any piece of writing is a very important consideration, but few people ever think about it. It wasn’t until I saw the movie Lawrence of Arabia that I really learned to appreciate it.

Think of it this way: whenever you write something, eventually you will have to stop. You only have so many words before you have to hit send, or mail it to the publisher, or whatever. While the supply of words is theoretically infinite, in practice it’s severely limited–by the reader’s attention span if nothing else.

So, you want to maximize the value you get per word. What do I mean by “value”? Well, it’s whatever idea or feeling you are trying to communicate in your writing. If it’s an informational document or a bit of technical description, then you want to be as clear and concise as possible. If you are writing a character who prefers to communicate non-verbally or who is just mysterious, you use few words, and you make them vague and open to interpretation.

Sometimes there is value in deliberately using too many words. The dramatist W.S. Gilbert (another of my favorites) would often have characters say things in as complicated and lengthy a way as possible for comic effect. “Quantity has a quality all its own,” as they say in big organizations.

Vogel is right that the Pillars opening screens are bad at conveying information. They could have communicated the same points more succinctly. But the problem is that in addition to giving the player some information, they are also supposed to be atmospheric. And you usually need more–or at least different–words to create an atmosphere than to just convey information.

It’s a difficult balancing act–the writer(s) must both communicate technical detail about how to actually play the game while also keeping the player immersed in the virtual world in which the story is set. (For an example of a character creation intro that is more integrated with the game and doesn’t bore the player, I recommend Fallout: New Vegas-also by Obsidian.)

The “optimal” number of words is dependent on what the writer is trying to convey, as well as on the medium they are using. Obviously, a screenwriter is going to use fewer words than a novelist to describe the exact same scene, because the screenwriter knows they will have actors and sets that will communicate certain things visually.

To summarize, all writers, regardless of their subject, style or genre, should follow Einstein’s advice: “Everything should be as simple as possible–but no simpler.”

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Carrie Rubin, author of “Eating Bull” and “The Seneca Scourge”

[I recently read the book Eating Bull, by Carrie Rubin. I loved it, and contacted the author.  She very kindly agreed to be interviewed about her work.  Enjoy!]

BG: I’ll start at the beginning: how did you get the idea for “Eating Bull”? Did the idea just come to you one day, did some specific incident suggest it, or…?

CR: A little bit of both. Overweight/obesity is a professional interest of mine. I’ve dealt with it in both a clinical and research setting. Many people assume a large BMI means a lack of willpower, but that’s both inaccurate and unfair. Many other factors come into play, especially our disastrous food environment where processed food, mega-sizes, and sugar-laden junk bombard us wherever we go.

Through fiction, I wanted to bring the issue of the food industry’s role in obesity to light. Plenty of nonfiction books exist on the topic, but with fiction you get an emotional element as well.

As for a specific incident, several years ago a tearful, severely overweight adolescent sat on my exam table and said: “Not a day goes by I don’t know I’m fat, because no one will let me forget it.” That was the catalyst for my teenage protagonist.

BG: The book has three “starring” characters, each of whom represents a different view on the roles of the individual and society in causing obesity. Can you discuss these viewpoints a little, and also how you balanced the amount of page time devoted to each?  Was it difficult to strike that balance?

CR: I wanted to represent three viewpoints, from one extreme to the other, all of which exist in our society:

My secondary protagonist, a social-justice-seeking public health nurse, represents the viewpoint that society plays a huge role in our weight gain and must take responsibility.

My villain, an obsessive-compulsive fitness fanatic, believes obesity is entirely the individual’s fault and takes it upon himself to rid the world of “undisciplined sheep” … in a very bloody way.

My primary hero, an overweight teenager, falls somewhere in between, representing the viewpoint that both the individual and society play a role, but that society must make changes so that it’s easier for the individual to change too.

As for the number of pages devoted to each, I simply shifted to a new viewpoint with each chapter, rotating the characters on a regular basis, each carrying the story forward according to his or her point-of-view.

BG: Regarding the villain of the story, Darwin: He’s really a repulsive and terrifying character, but you also show just enough of a glimpse of his past to make the reader feel a little sorry for him at the same time. He seems genuinely mentally ill, rather than just a caricature of a psycho killer–I loved that. Any observations (or advice) on writing plausible, well-rounded villains?

CR: Villains are tricky to write. They can easily become one-dimensional. Rounding them out into full-fledged characters with likable—or at least relatable—traits is difficult, and I have a ways to go before I master that skill.

Darwin’s pretty despicable, but I tried to create backstory that would explain how he got that way. This proved even trickier considering I hid his identity until the climax. I had to flesh out his character without giving away who he was. That adds an element of mystery to the thriller and hopefully keeps the reader guessing until the end.

BG: I could go on forever about how much I liked the characters in “Eating Bull”. Expanding from just Darwin, what are your techniques on writing characters generally? Apart from the three starring characters, did you also write the supporting cast to reflect the central theme of the novel?

CR: Before I even start my outline, I define my main characters: their likes, dislikes, dreams, goals, mannerisms, etc. Characters drive the plot, so I like to have a firm grasp on them before I start much story planning.

As for the supporting cast, I usually have them in mind before I begin, but they tend to blossom as I go along. In Eating Bull I did indeed write some minor characters to reflect the central theme: the bullying grandfather and classmate, the unsupportive boyfriend who dislikes overweight people, the dietician and fitness coach who guide my main character toward his goal.

Some of the supportive characters heap a world of hurt on my teenage protagonist, but I wanted to reflect real life. In my research for the book, I attended a seminar in which the focus was to highlight the frequent fat-shaming that goes on in our society—including from the healthcare industry—and to shift the onus from weight loss to size acceptance. The tales the speakers told of the shaming they experience on a regular basis, from acquaintances and strangers alike, horrified me. I knew I needed to have my character experience the same thing if I wanted to be honest to the theme.

BG: What is the central message you want readers to take away from “Eating Bull”?

CR: I’ve already touched on that somewhat, but the main takeaway is: weight gain and loss isn’t as simple as calories in minus calories out. There are many other factors in the equation, including hormones, biological determinants, neurochemicals associated with addiction, socialization of food, poverty, food environment, built environments (poor walkability of a city, food deserts, etc.), and yada yada yada.

I could go on and on, but the point is, changes need to be made at all of these levels if we want to see real progress. Expecting the individual to do it alone hasn’t worked too well for us so far. It’s time to up our game.

BG: So, not to spoil anything, but you’ve mentioned you are working on another book. Any hints as to what to expect from it?

CR: I’m often reluctant to discuss my unpublished works (worried I’ll jinx things, perhaps?), but I can tell you my latest completed manuscript is a medical thriller with supernatural elements. There is no shortage of medical thrillers out there, so I like to change things up a bit. It’s pretty much ready to go, and I’ve just completed the first draft of the second in the series. I’d like to write at least three novels with the same recurring characters—maybe more—but each book will be a complete stand-alone.

BG: What other authors have influenced you, either in writing style or in genre/subject matter?

CR: I always get nervous with this question, because I worry I should list a number of literary greats, but that’s not how it is for me. I’m all about the storyteller.

In my teen years, Stephen King was a huge influence on me. More than just be a writer, I wanted to be a storyteller, and to me he’s one of the best. JK Rowling is in that category too—a gifted storyteller—and if I can match a fraction of their skill I’ll be happy.

In terms of writing medical thrillers, Robin Cook was my first influencer, and while his writing might sometimes get panned, he knows how to weave a good tale. I’m easy to please and can overlook a lot. Give me a story I can get lost in and you’ve got me as a fan forever.

Before I go, Berthold, I want to thank you for your support of my novel and for interviewing me on your blog. It’s a pleasure to be here and I enjoyed answering your questions!

BG: My pleasure. Thank you for your thoughtful and informative answers!

[Carrie Rubin is a physician, public health advocate and the author of medical thrillers Eating Bull and The Seneca Scourge. You can find her books here, and also be sure to check out her website and social media pages.]

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She’s a robot.  You get that, right? (Image via IMDb)

So, Ghost in the Shell has been something of a disaster at the box office. Which is too bad, because as I said in my full review, it’s one of the better sci-fi movies I’ve seen in recent years.

A big problem has been heavy criticism of the decision to cast Scarlett Johansson as the main character.  The argument is that they should have gotten a Japanese actress to play the role, since the character is Japanese.

[Warning–I’m about to spoil a few plot points, so proceed with caution.]

But the thing is, the whole premise of the movie is that a sinister robotics corporation took the brain of a woman named Motoko Kusanagi and placed it inside an artificial body. (And re-named her “Mira Killian”.)  We only see Kusanagi’s human body in a brief flashback, and her features are difficult to discern in the scene.  Johansson just plays the artificial machine body in which Kusanagi’s brain is housed.

And this serves a dramatic purpose in the film: in the scene where Kusanagi in her mechanical body is reunited with her mother, the fact that they no longer have any resemblance makes the scene very poignant.  Even though she has her memories back, it underscores that something has been permanently taken away from them by the operation.

In addition, Johansson’s performance throughout the film was fine. So the whole controversy is really misguided–I suspect a lot of the people talking about it didn’t see the movie or even know the plot.

[Plot spoilers abound–but the power of this book is not in its plot, but rather in its atmosphere, so I don’t think it is ruined even if you know what happens.  But, fair warning…]

annihilation_by_jeff_vandermeer
“Annihilation” (Image via Wikipedia)

Annihilation is about a team of scientists–a biologist, a surveyor, a psychologist and an anthropologist–sent to explore a mysterious region called “Area X”.  This place was created by some unexplained disaster called “the Event” many years in the past, and the 11 previous teams sent there have either disappeared or, more disturbingly, returned as mere shells of their former selves.

The biologist narrates the story, beginning with the team’s entrance into Area X.  The main features of the landscape are a lighthouse on the coast and a structure which most of the team calls a “tunnel”, but which the biologist refers to as a “tower”.

Almost immediately, they begin to encounter strange phenomena–eerie moaning sounds at dusk, and then, a strange and disturbing line of writing created seemingly in plant-life on the wall of the tower/tunnel.

Before long, the team begins to distrust one another.  The biologists sees the psychologist hypnotize the others, while remaining impervious to it herself.  The anthropologist is killed in the tower, by what the biologist believes to be a creature writing on the interior of the tower.

It soon becomes apparent that the biologist is not a reliable narrator, as she gradually reveals important details like the fact that her husband was part of the 11th expedition–one of those who returned as a mere shell, before dying of cancer months after returning home.

No one and nothing is entirely reliable in Area X, and this is part of what gives the tale its unnerving atmosphere.  VanderMeer skillfully creates a mood of gnawing dread by introducing this uncertainty.  Other writers would do well to mimic his method of creating fear through implication and speculation rather than through blood and gore.

Eventually, when it appears the psychologist has betrayed them, the biologist makes her way towards the lighthouse on the coast, leaving the surveyor behind at their camp after arguing with her.  At the lighthouse, she finds a strange picture of the lighthouse keeper from before “the Event” and, even more significantly, a huge pile of journals from previous expeditions–far more than the 11 that “officially” were supposed to have taken place.

Finally, she finds her husband’s journal, but does not read it.  She exits the lighthouse and finds the psychologist lying wounded outside.  She has been attacked by the same creature–which the biologist now calls “the Crawler” assumed to be responsible for writing on the wall of the tower.

After a brief exchange, the psychologist dies and the biologist makes her way back to the camp.  Along the way, she encounters the creature responsible for the eerie moaning noise, though she escapes and never actually sees it.  After that, she is shot by the surveyor, but is able to withstand it, apparently due to some infection or other mutation resulting from her time in the tower.

She shoots the surveyor, and then returns to camp to make final preparations to explore the tunnel and find the Crawler.  She reads through the journals she collected from the lighthouse, concluding with her husband’s. His account describes he and his fellow team members seeing their doppelgangers entering the Tower–suggesting that these doppelgangers are the entities that returned from Area X to the outside world.  Most significantly, his journal is largely addressed to the biologist; and is meant to express his feelings for her.

To me, this was the most extraordinary part of the entire book.  While she has at times discussed her relationship with her husband, and how its deterioration ultimately led him to volunteer to go to Area X, her tone has always been cold and detached.  When she reads the journal and realizes that her husband made the journey largely as part of a desire to connect with her, and regrets that she never tried to connect with him in the same way, her tone changes–real emotion comes through.

It’s a surprisingly romantic and touching passage–only a few paragraphs, but very moving.  Like Victor LaValle in his excellent Ballad of Black Tom, VanderMeer has succeeded in imbuing his tale of Lovecraftian cosmic horror with real human emotion–no mean feat, given that the genres creator premised it on the insignificance of humanity.

After reading the journals, the biologist enters the Tower and finds the Crawler–a suitably mind-warping encounter with the indescribable, in the best Lovecraftian tradition.  At the center of the unimaginable, incomprehensible thing, she sees the face of the lighthouse keeper from the photograph, providing some hint at the creature’s origin.

After this last encounter, the biologist decides to follow her husband’s last recorded plan which was to go to an island off the shore.  The book ends on an ambiguous and yet strangely bittersweet note.

I have said that the core of Annihilation is not its plot, but rather its atmosphere.  Reading what I have outlined here does not give you the sense of it.  VanderMeer writes the sort of story I love: an undefined time and place, with the tension residing in the eerie setting and the horror being the horror of doubting one’s own sanity.  He has written the book that At The Mountains of Madness wanted to be.

There are some flaws–early on, I felt it was bogged down too much by description. (Though i have frequently been found guilty of too little description.)  He uses the expression “far distant” too much, and occasionally the biologist’s detached, scientific tone would be jarred by the use of a word like “scary”, which seemed too simplistic to me.

But in spite of these flaws, it nevertheless remains one of the creepiest books I’ve read. If we use Lovecraft’s own definition of a weird tale:

The true weird tale has something more than secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains according to rule. A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain–a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space.

…then Annihilation serves as the very model of a weird tale.

Yesterday, I got the first bad review of my novella, The Start of the Majestic World.  My friends were consoling me about it, but the funny thing was, it actually made me happy, for two reasons:

  1. Criticism is the only way you can improve as a writer.
  2. It meant somebody actually read the book, and cared enough to review it.

The only thing about it that made me feel bad is that I’m sorry I couldn’t deliver a better experience to that reader.  If somebody takes the trouble to buy and read something I wrote, I want them to enjoy it. So, dear reader, know that I will do better with my next book, thanks in part to your input.

This brings me to my second point, which is that I try to get in touch with and thank all my readers, whether they like the book or not.  Reading a book takes time and costs money, and I appreciate that they are willing to invest both in mine.

But, thanks to the nature of the product, it’s hard to get find out who my readers are, unless they go out of their way to tell me.  This is rare.  When was the last time you wrote to some author to tell them what you thought of their book? Most people never write a review at all, let alone contact the author.

Also, my publisher has a strong policy against collecting user data.  This makes sense, because users hate having their data collected.  They worry that it will be sold, or that they will lose their privacy.  That is totally understandable.  Before I got into making and selling products, I felt the same way.  I hate the idea of some company gathering information on me.

Once I started selling things, I saw the other side of the issue.  That is, when you sell stuff–books, apps, whatever–it’s helpful to know who is buying it and why.  That way, you can figure out what drives sales, and get more people to buy your product.

So, the question is: how to gather that information from your users (readers, in my case) without seeming like a creepy, intrusive, dystopian corporation?

51ojcxq47jlThis book is probably the single most significant and influential book for my intellectual development.  It changed the way I thought about fiction.  When I talk about motifs and  imagery and thematic coherence in my reviews of novels, movies, TV shows, and yes, even video games–that is Wren’s influence.

Without this book, I might not have ever learned the critical skills needed to appreciate dramatic art the way that I do. I’m not saying everyone’s reaction to it will be the same–it’s probably just a function of it being the first piece of critical writing I ever read–but nevertheless, I can’t overstate how much it shaped my thinking. It influenced me tremendously as a writer of fiction as well–after all, you can’t criticize fiction if you aren’t willing to put your ideas into practice, and hold yourself to the same standard you hold others.

But enough about how it completely altered my life.  You’re here because you want to know if it’s any good.

Answer: yes, it is very good, although I disagree with Wren on a few points.

A Most Ingenious Paradox is a critical analysis of all the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. Wren’s thesis is that each one contains a central theme, usually about Love, that is supported by all the lyrics, dialogue and music.  Wren argues that this underlying thematic element is the reason for the incredible staying power of the operas.

For example, the conflict of Love vs. Duty is a theme that occurs in at least 9 of the operas, and Wren argues that it is not fully realized until Yeomen of the Guard. (The only G&S opera with an unhappy ending.)

Wren’s thesis is that the endurance of the operas is due to their powerful central themes rooted in human nature.  Wren points out that scholars have long given the same reason for the longevity of Shakespeare’s plays. He makes a good case, offering extensive examples of how all the elements in each opera tie together to reinforce a thematic point–or don’t, in the case of less successful operas.

Still, there are some objections that can be raised to this idea.  For example, if Ruddigore is vastly more thematically coherent and developed than H.M.S. Pinafore–as Wren argues it isthen why has Pinafore been more popular, from its original run to the present day? Wren makes some effort to explain this, but never quite does.

(For the record: Ruddigore is my favorite of all the operas, and Pinafore among my least favorites, even though it was the first one I ever heard.  But while I agree with Wren’s analysis, there is just no way to argue Ruddigore is more popular. This suggests that perhaps the thematic element isn’t what determines a G&S opera’s fortunes.)

Then there is the problem of The Mikado, which is Gilbert and Sullivan’s all-time greatest hit, and Wren has to admit it is not as thematically sophisticated or emotionally deep as the operas either before or after it.  Wren writes: “The opera has something of the charm of a clever clockwork… [T]he ingenuity of the machinery is so remarkable, so flawlessly meshed, that it remains a source of joy on many repeated viewings.”

He’s right; and it would be hard to find any G&S fan who didn’t like The Mikado. But where does that leave Wren’s central argument? If the most enduring of the operas doesn’t contain the things he says make an opera endure, the whole thing looks shaky.

Re-reading it now, for the first time in about a decade, I realize I don’t–and never did–know if Wren’s main thesis is right or wrong.  And I don’t care.  What I do know is that it is an absolutely brilliant piece of critical analysis.  Wren’s masterful critique of what went wrong in Utopia, Limited should be required reading for all authors and dramatic critics. It is worth learning about the opera just to be able to understand that chapter.

Of course, if you don’t know Gilbert and Sullivan at all, you have to familiarize yourself with their work before the book will even be intelligible.  Obviously, I can’t understand why anyone wouldn’t love G&S, but if it’s not your cup of tea, you won’t understand this book.

For anyone familiar with the operas, however, I consider it a must-read.

One of the early titles I considered for my novella The Start of the Majestic World was “Caligula in Washington D.C.” This was inspired partly by F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famously discarded title “Trimalchio in West Egg”, and also partly because that was how I originally envisioned the villain of the story, Colonel Preston.

I was asking the old “can it happen here?” question, and trying to come up with a way that it might. I have read about the way various dictators came to power, particularly Napoleon Bonaparte, Josef Stalin and Adolf Hitler, and those were all major influences on Preston’s plot in the book.

But Napoleon, Hitler and Stalin were all members of political/ideological movements. The extent to which they agreed with the original goals of their political movements varied, but they all at least used political movements to seize power. I wanted Preston to be somebody who was not a member of any political movement. I wanted a crazy but very intelligent person who was capable of largely cloaking his madness except to people who knew him well.

The idea of Preston being in the military was based mainly on Napoleon, and also to a degree on Julius Caesar, because that command structure and loyalty was something they exploited to take over the government. But Preston’s methods and his cruelty are more based on Caligula, Hitler and Stalin.

One idea I didn’t explore as much as I wanted to, but vaguely hinted at, was the idea that Preston is getting so out of control that his loyal followers are dwindling, and he is coming to rely more and more heavily on combat automatons to do his bidding.

The other thing I wanted to add was a small humanizing touch. Preston is close to being a complete monster (I actually toned him down a little from early drafts, believe it or not) and that can get tiresome. So I wanted to have a little bit of a hint that he hadn’t always been this way–something happened to him.

Strong villains are tough to write, mostly because it is easy to be lazy and let them be evil with no explanation. At the same time, I didn’t want to delve too much into his motivation, because that removes the mystery and takes away from the intimidation factor. I tried to give the reader just enough clues to imagine his motives for themselves.

Did I succeed?  Read the book and tell me.

A long, long time ago, I wrote about Ian Doescher’s delightful book The Empire Striketh Back–a re-imagining of the Star Wars film as though written by William Shakespeare.

Well, I recently learned that Doescher also wrote more of these books for the prequel trilogy.  As my readers know, I like the prequel trilogy very much, but there’s no denying it has a weak script that undercuts its other strengths. This is especially true of Attack of the Clones.

Doescher’s treatment fixes these problems. Most notably, it fixes the character of Anakin Skywalker.  In Doescher’s version, Skywalker seems like he actually cares about Padme Amidala.  This really helps the romance between them. (I know, you would think this would be obvious, but apparently it wasn’t to Lucas.)

That’s not the only improvement–all of the dialogue is much better when done in the style of the Bard.

The irony is that Lucas has always defended his awkward script by calling it “stylized dialogue”.  Well, Doescher’s dialogue is even more stylized; but what’s more is that it’s good. It trips off the tongue.

What Lucas should have done was give his story outline–which is very strong, with its political machinations, epic battles, and forbidden romance–to Doescher or someone like him, who could give it a fittingly poetic script to match.  Then maybe put the exceptionally talented cast under the direction of a Shakespearean director (say, Sir Kenneth Branagh?) and they would have really had something.  It would have been stunning.

The prequels are not bad–they just needed a better script.

Via Paul Graham, a WSJ article on teaching kids to write by banning them from using certain “boring” words, such as “good” “bad”, “fun” and “said”.  To quote from the article:

“There are so many more sophisticated, rich words to use,” said (or affirmed) Ms. Shelton, whose manual “Banish Boring Words” has sold nearly 80,000 copies since 2009.

Her pupils know better than to use a boring word like “said.” As Ms. Shelton put it, “ ‘Said’ doesn’t have any emotion. You might use barked. Maybe howled. Demanded. Cackled. I have a list.”

This reminded me of novelist Elmore Leonard’s rules for writing, one of which was: “Never use a verb other than ”said” to carry dialogue.”

And people wonder why kids have trouble learning to write.

So then, who is right: the teacher or the novelist? My answer: it depends.

There are times when using something other than “said” is appropriate.  This is especially true with humor–saying “burbled” is so much better than “said” if you want people to laugh.

That said, you can go too far with it.  And since Leonard’s goal was to make the writer “invisible”, I would say in that case sticking with “said” is usually a good idea.

My rule of thumb: if it sounds right, use it.  If “said” doesn’t sound right, but “called” does, use “called”.  But don’t spend your time trying to find some other bizarre word if “said” will do.

Take this exchange from my novella, The Start of the Majestic World:

Maynard and Brett sat outside on the steps that led into the headquarters.  Brett was studying schematics of a sniper rifle on his tablet.  Maynard stared straight ahead, deep in thought.

“I’ve received no communication of any kind from anybody at the Bureau,” muttered Brett. “It doesn’t make sense.”

“Yeah, it does;” said Maynard slowly. “This is a Dead Zone.  They are blocking any signal they don’t want getting in.”

Brett nodded.  “And most likely any they don’t want getting out, too.”

“Yes.”

“But D.C. would know it was being blocked.  Any decent Intel machine would—”

“They want it blocked,” she said. “They don’t want to know, and he doesn’t want to tell them.  It’s better for everyone that way.  I’ve seen it a million times—I’ve just never been on the wrong end of plausible deniability before.”

The two agents sat in silence for a minute.

“They have to be listening to us,” said Brett.

“Probably,” said Maynard. “But they don’t give a damn what we say.  They figure there’s nothing we can do.”

The first time Brett speaks, I used “muttered” to indicate he was still looking at the rifle schematic, and not thinking fully about talking.  When Maynard responds, it becomes “said” because now they are just having a conversation.  And I dropped “said” or any variants after that, and left it to the reader to follow.

Leonard had some other interesting rules.  I took particular note of these two:

8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.

9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.

As I wrote recently, I used to believe this too.  Then I wrote a collection of short stories that contained very little description, and my readers complained that there wasn’t enough description.

I thought there must be some other problem.  So I wrote a novella that contained very little description, and my readers complained that there wasn’t enough description.

Was Leonard just wrong? Seems unlikely–he was an award-winning novelist. I am guessing it’s more that once you are a really good writer, it doesn’t take much effort to describe someone or something.  It barely feels like you are doing anything when you know exactly what words to use.  There have been great authors (John Steinbeck, F. Scott Fitzgerald) who could take things that were not very interesting in themselves, and write gorgeous descriptive passages about them.

One of the most common criticisms of my fiction has been that there is not enough description. I’ve heard this from both P.M. Prescott and Jonnah Z Kennedy, as well as other readers who don’t have websites I can link to.  It was not an accident that there is so little description.  I had a hypothesis that most fiction contains too much description, and that this was particularly a problem in horror fiction, when describing things detracts from the horror.

I think my aversion to description goes back to when I read the following in Paul Graham’s essay “Taste for Makers”:

Good design is suggestive. Jane Austen’s novels contain almost no description; instead of telling you how everything looks, she tells her story so well that you envision the scene for yourself.

That sounded good to me.  And hell, I thought,  it’s even more important to avoid description when you’re writing psychological horror than when you’re writing a comedy of manners.  Horror, I’ve always said, is all about the unknown, and nothing screws up the unknown like describing it.  So I made a conscious effort to not describe stuff; the idea being that people would fill in the details for themselves.

Based on the feedback I’ve received, this was a mistake.  Keeping description to a minimum was not a formula for success, at least not in my stories. Now, maybe there are other issues as well–maybe I didn’t tell the story well enough that readers could fill in the blanks.  But all  I know for sure is people specifically complained about the lack of description.

Fair enough.  So, how is it best to describe stuff?  Should I say:

The pale blue Autumn moon shone its faint light on the cemetery.  A passing cloud would now and again cast the ancient graveyard into darkness.  A howling of some distant animal echoed through the surrounding wood, and the bewitching southern wind wafted the leaves over the long-forgotten tombstones.

Or:

It was a dark cemetery.  The moon was occasionally obscured by clouds. It was windy, and a dog was howling far away.

The former is poetic, but it takes forever to convey a fairly simple scene.  The latter communicates the same information more quickly, but it seems boring and dry.

“Well, it depends what you’re writing!”, you say.  Ok, but in the above example, it’s the same basic point both times: to show the reader that we are in a graveyard at night.  And it’s creepy.  But what’s the best way of doing that?  Normally, one would think conveying that in as few words as possible is best.  And yet, writing: “They were in a graveyard at night” seems a little bare, doesn’t it?