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.
I posted about this on Twitter yesterday, but I want to make sure the word gets out to my blog-only followers, as I’m sure they will enjoy these stories as well. Phillip is currently in the middle of a 52 stories in 52 weeks challenge. That’s right; he’s writing one short story per week, for an entire year.
Phillip writes in a variety of genres and styles, and does great work in all of them, but if you asked me to concisely label his work, I’d say his “signature” style lies in sci-fi/fantasy tales, often with ironic twists or unexpected endings. There’s a very Twilight Zone-ish flavor to many of his stories, which I love.
I’ve enjoyed reading his stories from the first in the series on, and he just keeps getting better. Part of the fun of following his work is seeing him challenge himself and grow more ambitious with his writing. His latest, Drafted, is one of my personal favorites because it works on multiple levels—first as a dialogue-driven dark comedy, secondly as an exercise in military sci-fi world-building, and finally as a satire on professional sports.
Another cool thing about Phillip’s work is that for each story, he posts a follow-up detailing his process of writing, the elements that influenced the story, and notes made as he created it. This is a great educational tool for other writers.
And to top it all off, his stories are published on his blog and on Wattpad, so you can read them for free. I don’t know Phillip’s intentions, but my hope is that when this is done, he’ll publish them in book or ebook form. Regardless, his work deserves your attention. So go check out his blog, and join him on this adventure as he creates this eclectic mix of tales.
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.
I didn’t know what to expect from this book. Glancing at the categories and the description, it didn’t match any genre I was familiar with. I figured it would be a romance set on a scientific voyage. And it kind of is that, but there’s way more to it.
The book follows marine biologist Ellen Upton, an expert on jellyfish whose grant money is rapidly dwindling. In desperate need of a breakthrough to save her career, Ellen ventures out on a research ship into the Pacific, hoping to find something that will earn her more funding.
The majority of the novel is told from Ellen’s perspective, and in many ways, her plunge into the unknown depths of the ocean mirrors her journey into her own equally complex and mysterious psyche. I usually don’t like using such lit-crit terms, but that truly is what happens here, and what’s more, it works. It never feels like an overplayed metaphor, but rather an organic marriage of character and plot development.
Ellen has great difficulty feeling close to others, having gone through a painful break-up when her fiancé stole her research ideas for his own. Unwilling to trust others easily again, she loses herself in her work, much to the disappointment of Ryan, her loyal research assistant.
On the cruise, she meets other scientists and students, including one researcher whose skepticism of man-made climate change sparks a friendly rivalry. She and the other scientists also visit a small island populated with a tribe of welcoming natives, and a family whose patriarch has gone missing at sea. Ellen and Ryan later find him on another island that formerly housed a military installation.
The book is filled with strange vignettes that make Ellen’s experience feel more like a surreal journey into a mystical realm than a scientific expedition. From her encounter with a waiter who speaks of ghosts following her, to the magical rituals performed by the islanders, to the antics of one of the students on the expedition who has a penchant for dressing up as a gorilla, the book gradually builds a feeling of melancholy mystery woven from bizarre, dream-like incidents.
When Ellen finally makes the major discovery she has longed for, it is not a triumph, but rather a frightening experience—one that disturbs her so much she questions her own sanity. As did I, I’ll admit. I wondered if Ellen might be transforming into an “unreliable narrator” of sorts, though the book is written in the third-person.
Hurst’s prose throughout is haunting and hypnotic. The tale unfolds at a slow pace, but the writing is filled with evocative descriptions and intriguing turns of phrase. At times, it reminded me of Steinbeck in the way it dwells upon seemingly minor things without ever becoming dull or tedious. Little details, like the apparent changing expressions of a rock face the islanders believe represents the moods of the sea, stick in the memory to create a beautifully odd atmosphere. (It reminded me of Mal, the demonic face in the trees in Patrick Prescott’s Human Sacrifices.)
Maybe it’s just because I saw the film adaptation so recently, but the book also put me in mind of Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation. Like VanderMeer’s nameless biologist, Ellen’s seemingly cold reserve and preference for biology over human interaction mask a wounded soul with deep emotional scars. And also like Annihilation, Ocean Echoes depicts nature as simultaneously dangerous, mysterious, and eerily beautiful; all while weaving an environmentalist warning of humanity’s potential to unwittingly cause unimaginable harm to our own planet.
Does the book have flaws? A few, yes. Some of the scientific exposition sounds a bit awkward as dialogue, and I swear that a couple times some background information about jellyfish was repeated almost verbatim. Also, the above-noted slow pace of the book may not be to every reader’s taste. If you have a strong preference for fast-paced action, it might not work for you, at least early on.
But even then, I still encourage you to give Ocean Echoes a try. It’s a weird, haunting, hypnotic mystery of a book, a love-letter to the ocean, written with respect for its dangers and fear for its fragility. When it rambles, it rambles in the way the best novels do—with love and understanding of its theme that commands the reader’s attention.
It’s very bold to write and publish a book that doesn’t easily fit into any pre-defined genre, and that goes double for an indie author. And yet some of the greatest works of fiction ever created defy categorization. So I admire Hurst tremendously for going through with it and taking the risk to write this mesmerizingly weird and thought-provoking tale. It may not always be what you expect—but then, what better reason could there be to read it?
[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.
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.
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.
Many moons ago, when I was in college, I had to take what they called a “writing course”, which was a class designed specifically to teach writing, but about subjects in our chosen major. (Mine was Econ.) I think the point was to prevent a bunch of mathematics geniuses from taking over the field with equations and graphs strung together by incoherent babble.
It doesn’t seem to have worked.
Anyway, the section I was in was unpopular, because the professor assigned not one, not two, not three, but four books. Now, they were all short books, and one of them (The Ghost Map) actually became one of my favorites. But that’s not the one I want to talk about here. I want to talk about the first one we had to read:The Doctors’ Plague.
The book is about Ignaz Semmelweis, a Hungarian doctor who, in the 1840s, tried to reduce the so-called “childbed fever” then prevalent in the hospital where he worked. Germ theory was not widely understood at the time, and Semmelweis’s radical proposal was that doctors and nurses who treated infants and mothers should wash their hands.
This sounds absurdly obvious to us modern readers, but at the time it was heretical, and indeed, Semmelweis wasn’t taken seriously by the medical establishment. Whether due to his difficult temper, some unknown mental disorder, or possibly a language barrier, Semmelweis failed to prevail upon the medical community to adopt hand-washing as a regular practice. He died in an insane asylum, and his work was not recognized until long after his death.
Naturally, we Econ students were all puzzled by this. (Those of us that read it, that is. I suspect a quarter of the class just looked up the book’s synopsis online, and another quarter didn’t even do that.) What on God’s Green Earth does this have to do with Supply and Demand?
After the week or whatever our allotted time to read the book was, the professor started the class by giving his summary of the book–I assume for the benefit of the ones who didn’t read it. He finished up by raising the question we were asking ourselves: why did he assign this?
The point of the book, he said, was that Semmelweis couldn’t communicate his ideas to his colleagues. “So,” he concluded, “You have to learn to write well! It doesn’t matter if you discover something great if no one can understand you.”
I think he intended this as a carpe diem moment, but most of the class felt like they’d just been told the world’s longest shaggy dog story. But he was right; you do have to be able to write well, no matter how good your underlying point is.
I’m not even sure if that was really the main lesson of the Semmelweis story, but nevertheless, it’s true. And regardless of whether writing well has anything to do with Semmelweis or not, the professor created a helpful mnemonic: writing well is as important as good hygiene in a hospital.
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.