mlI blogged about Mark Paxson’s story The Marfa Lights a while back. This week I finally got around to reading the rest of the stories in the collection, and I enjoyed them tremendously. I think my favorites were the post-apocalyptic poem (bonus points to Mark for his use of the excellent word “gloaming”) and the sci-fi tale laced with David Bowie references. All the stories are quite good.

Some of the stories have a bit of a Twilight Zone-like feel to them, which I liked quite a lot. Like Phillip McCollum, Mark has a knack for setting the reader up for a surprising ending in a subtle and economical way.

Branded-Book-Cover-e1531246444684Speaking of Phillip, I blogged about him recently as well, and since then he’s just kept on putting out more terrific stories. Branded and Halfway are two of his most recent works that I’ve enjoyed lately.

Both Phillip and Mark are very adventurous in their writing. While there are certain themes that recur, they are always experimenting–trying on different voices, styles and genres, and it never fails to make for an engaging read.

Ever since I first started dabbling in the writing business, I’ve read numerous people claiming that short stories aren’t read much outside of schools and small literary circles. If you want wide acclaim as an author, goes the conventional wisdom, you’ve got to write novels.

Halfway-Book-CoverThis has always baffled me. Modern audiences are famous for their short attention spans. If anything, you’d think they would be more interested in a short tale that can be finished in a few minutes or an hour than a long, drawn-out novel. (Or, as is even more popular, series of novels.)

Think about it: when it comes to other entertainment, most people watch sit-coms or hour-long episodic dramas. A sizable but somewhat smaller audience goes to two-hour movies. And only hardcore artsy types go to sit through really long movies or, for the truly committed, operas. Why is this situation reversed when it comes to literature?

Maybe in the past you could have said it was because novels were all that was widely available, but the internet changed that dynamic in two ways. The first is simple economics–you can get a good short story collection like The Marfa Lights for ninety-nine cents on Kindle. Phillip publishes his work on his blog. You can get good writing while spending less of your time and money than a novel requires.

The second thing is that the internet makes it easy to discover authors that big publishing outfits haven’t taken yet because they are too risk-averse. I would never have read the work of Mark, Phillip, and other terrific indie authors if not for the internet.

So why aren’t the short, independently-published stories flourishing? Talented writers are all around us and easier to find than ever. The big publishers’ stranglehold has been broken, just as the major traditional news outlets have lost out to bloggers and independent, specialized news services. What is holding so many readers back?

In a way, novels from big-name authors and publishers are like major Hollywood movie franchises, in that they are a relatively safe investment. Audiences go to them because they know pretty much what to expect. Similarly, when it comes to novels, people feel like they can be confident about what they’re getting–especially once they know a certain genre or author. And moreover, once you get into a novel, you (usually) don’t have to worry about changing gears and getting reintroduced to a new situation and set of characters with every new chapter.¹

Short story collections, by definition, can’t be like this. There has to be variation in them, or reading the collection will be a slog. For that matter, writing such a collection would be a slog. Almost every writer likes to try out different things now and then.²

So consumers are still playing it close to the vest with their entertainment choices. Most of them would rather invest in novels from major authors and publishers, from which they think they know what to expect. (Ironically, consumers of news couldn’t wait to jump at any excuse to ignore the traditional news outlets. They’re more careful with how they invest their entertainment budgets than who they trust to tell them the news.)

Don’t be like typical consumers. Give independent authors and short stories a shot. Reading is like anything else in life–if you want better than average return, you can’t just do what everyone else is doing and hope someone will give you exactly what you want. You have to be willing to be different if you want the best.

Footnotes

1. Lest anybody misinterpret what I’m saying here, I’m not claiming that novels are somehow intrinsically inferior to short stories. Some stories really do need to be 40,000 words or more in order to be told well. My point is just that I can’t see why novels should attract more readers than short stories. A satisfying story is a satisfying story, regardless of its length.

2. The King in Yellow, by Robert W. Chambers, which contains one of my all-time favorite short stories, “The Repairer of Reputations”, is a good example. Chambers loosely tied the first four stories together using the sinister title character and some other elements, but the later stories gradually turn away from the weird and more to the romantic. But all the stories contain elements of weird horror and fin de siecle romance, so the reader is always a little uncertain of what’s going to happen next. That’s what makes it good.

 

 

abstract beach bright clouds
This white-hot sun symbolizes the rage with which overuse of symbolism fills me. (Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com)

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.

The answer the study aids give as to what the cakes symbolize is usually something like this: “the cake symbolizes the townspeople’s compassion.”

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?”

Pumpkin Pie
I like pumpkin pie. I still would probably never think to write about one, though.

Lydia Schoch tweeted this the other day:

…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 Directorate where 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’s Eating Bull, and so she is careful to describe what characters eat, and why. In Sheila Hurst’s Ocean 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’s One 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’s Surreality, where the detective is always hankering for a Reuben sandwich.

I’m currently reading Eileen Stephenson’s Imperial 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.

So, for the last few days, I was agonizing over whether or not to post a poem I’d written. I eventually decided to do it, then had second thoughts, then finally settled on making it a page of its own instead of a regular post. (In the process, throwing off some readers who were linking to the original post. My apologies, Phillip!)

The reason I got so concerned about this, as I mentioned on Twitter, is that the poem is very dark. I hate to inflict this kind of gloomy subject matter on an unsuspecting audience. I myself have very mixed feelings about dark fiction.

So why did I write it then?

Well, first of all–and this is especially true of poetry–these things take on a life of their own. In this case, I started writing with the general concept that I wanted a poem about a Knight writing to his Queen for help. I wanted the Queen to initially seem unsympathetic, but have the Knight (and hopefully the reader) come to understand why she behaves the way she does by the end of the poem.

I didn’t have any specifics in mind of how this would work, and I just let things play out line by line. Rhyme is a major factor too–if I write a line I like, I’ll try everything I can to come up with a respectable rhyme for it rather than cut it. So the words I pick in lines 1 and 2 dictate what happens in subsequent lines.

Why does my subconscious mind tend to go to these dark places so easily? I don’t know. It’s bothered me for a while.

I remember reading an interview with the comedian Danny Kaye, in which he said he would like to make a recording of some Gilbert and Sullivan patter songs. But when he tried, he said, “something goes haywire inside me–and the words go haywire.” The result was he would sing updated parody lyrics.

I think I have a similar condition, only instead of updated lyrics, my words tend to turn into bleak ruminations on the dark side of humanity and the universe.

And the reason I really wonder about this is that, in fact, I have led an extremely blessed and happy life. Probably better than about 98% of the world’s population. I have no tragedies or trauma in my past. The only loved ones I’ve lost are my grandparents, who lived well into their old-age, and pets, most of whom lived to their full life expectancy. These are sad things, but also part of the natural order of the world.

Moreover, I happen to know–either from reading their blogs or from other communications with them–that some of my readers have had to go through much worse things than I ever have. I feel guilty when I inflict made-up horrors and tragedies on people who have almost certainly had to deal with plenty of sadness in real life.

There are times I wish I could be like P.G. Wodehouse, and write brilliant pieces of light entertainment that are funny and fun and make a person feel better while reading them. But, as I’m not a genius like Wodehouse was, when I try it comes off as fake and saccharine.

And on that note, Happy St. Patrick’s Day! Ponder this: why did he cast the snakes out of Ireland but leave the spiders be? Seems like a rotten deal to me.

 

I keep writing reviews that include a line to the effect that “it’s like Lovecraft, but it also explores aspects of human psychology that Lovecraft always ignored.” This has happened with The Ballad of Black Tom, Annihilation (the book and the movie), Prey, and The Friendship of Mortals. I’ve been writing this so much that I can’t call this an exception to the rule anymore. It has become a style of its own.

It feels wrong to call it “Lovecraftian” horror. Lovecraft deliberately minimized the role of human emotions and thoughts in all his stories. Lovecraft’s philosophy was that human beings were unimportant “incidents” in the grand cosmic scheme, and he wrote accordingly. That was part of the horror. (Hence “cosmic horror” as a synonym for “Lovecraftian”.)

The works I listed above certainly retain elements of cosmic horror, but flesh out their human characters, making them interesting and relatable. Whereas Lovecraft approached the horror of humanity’s place in the cosmos with a detached, dispassionate tone, subsequent writers have framed it by humanizing their characters first, then pitting them against the unimaginable outside forces.

This style is also different from the kind of horror that humanizes things too much to be called “cosmic”. Stephen King, for example, writes in a style more like that of noir detective thrillers that feels too immediate and gritty to be “cosmic”—even in stories that have what you might call Lovecraftian elements. (e.g. 11/22/63) The works I’ve described above are much closer to a 50/50 balance than King’s style of an “earthly” horror story with a few cosmic elements.

My point isn’t that any one of these styles is better or worse than the others; but just to point out that they are distinct, and that I don’t know of any term that fits stories like those I’ve listed here. Calling them “semi-Lovecraftian” or “semi-cosmic” feels too weak. “Weird fiction” or “New Weird fiction” is too broad. The best I can come up with is “humanized cosmicism”, but that sounds awkward.

Thoughts?

51GOZPH3rhL._SY346_[I recently read The Friendship of Mortals by 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. 

[Audrey Driscoll is the author of the Herbert West series, as well as numerous short stories. Be sure to also check out her blog, where she discusses writing, gardening, and many other topics.]

One Night in BridgeportOne Night in Bridgeport is a legal thriller that follows Jack McGee, a law student who is sent to Bridgeport, California to deliver some papers concerning the purchase of some land by a large corporation. While there, he decides to have a one-night stand with a local woman, Lea Rogers. (Who, though McGee doesn’t realize it at the time, is the daughter of the property owner.)

The next morning, McGee wakes up feeling overwhelmed with guilt and regret over cheating on his fianceé and leaves without speaking to the still-sleeping Rogers. She wakes up in time to see McGee’s car pulling out of the parking lot, and immediately feels angered and hurt by his caddish behavior.

Later, she discovers that McGee is handling the purchase of her mother’s property, and her anger only increases further. In a conversation with her friend and local lawyer, Butkus Sweet, she mentions sleeping with McGee and Sweet decides that it must have been rape. After he pressures her to do so, Rogers presses charges against McGee.

From this point, things go from bad to worse for McGee, beginning with his initial decision to tell the investigators he has never met Rogers, and continuing through his trial, where many other questionable aspects of his past come to light.

The book has an almost Rashomon-like quality to it, in that we see things from different characters’ points-of-view. In addition to McGee, Paxson also shows the perspectives of Rogers, Sweet, and the Judge. (Personally, I found the Judge and McGee’s determined-but-overworked defense attorney, Tammy,  to be the most sympathetic characters in the story.)

The plot is well-paced, and the final twist that resolves the story is both set up well enough that it doesn’t feel like it came out of nowhere, but hidden well enough that you don’t see it coming. I also enjoyed the descriptions of McGee’s walks in the snow. At one point, Paxson alludes to the eerie, muffled silence that accompanies a new snowfall–I loved that, because to me it’s one of the most interesting things about snow, and not enough writers make mention of it.

My only real problem with the book was how unlikable McGee is, but I suspect that this is a pretty realistic depiction of this kind of case. Some readers might be alienated by his personality, but if you’re the type who needs someone to root for to feel engaged with a story, be patient–in the second half of the book, the Judge emerges as a very well-written, sympathetic and interesting character.

It’s the sort of book that I think can be perceived very differently by different readers, so before you read my last bit of analysis, I recommend you read it yourself and make up your own mind. I’m not only going to spoil some plot points below, but also say some subjective stuff that could color your perception of the characters. So, now’s your chance to bail if you don’t want spoilers.

Ready?

(more…)

Maybe you’ve heard the term “experimental fiction”. It’s usually used to mean some form of fiction that is very unusual in form, as opposed to “literary” or “genre” fiction. Experimental fiction typically means fiction that breaks all the established rules of literature.

As with everything, breaking the rules often means you crash and burn. The rules are there for a reason. But once in a while, it leads to great discoveries and innovations that alter the entire field.

I’ll be honest: I have never much liked these divisions of “literary” and “genre” and “experimental” fiction. To me, there are only two kinds of books — good ones and bad ones.

The truth is, all fiction is an experiment. The writer puts together the tale as best he or she can, and then there is a process — similar to a chemical reaction —  that determines how it plays in the readers’ minds. Every reader brings their own experience and perspective to a book, and there’s no knowing what their perception of it will be.

Now it’s true, there are certain types of stories that each individual will tend to like or dislike. I like sci-fi and horror in general, and am usually not much for fantasy or murder mysteries. But there are always exceptions. There are horror stories I hate and murder mysteries I love.

Every writer, regardless of whether they are classified as literary, experimental, or in some genre or other, is writing because they feel they have something to say that no one else can. Maybe there are those who write so-called “potboilers” and are just in it for the money, but even they have to try to bring something at least somewhat new to the table — otherwise their work won’t sell.

But it’s always an experiment, even for the most famous authors. I could name works by my favorite authors that I don’t think are very good, and one-hit wonders by authors who never again wrote anything I liked.

[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.

h-_p-_lovecraft2c_june_1934
H.P. Lovecraft

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?

pgwodehouse
P.G. Wodehouse

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.