One year ago today, I began work on a sci-fi novel. The day before, I had gone to interview for a job I really wanted. I resolved that I’d either get the job or write a novel, and I figured I’d have about a week to start on the novel before I got a call back.
At the start, I called the file for my novel “SFN” for “Science-Fiction Novel”, because I had no clue what the title ought to be. I’d been wanting to write a science fiction adventure with a space elevator in it since I was 12 years old, and had tried several times before, but never got anywhere with it. And at first, it didn’t seem like this time would work out any better. I remember sitting at my computer, wondering how I was ever going to do this, when inspiration struck.
As a junior in college, I’d had an idea for a completely unrelated story about a soldier named Theresa Gannon. It was set in the present day, and followed Gannon as she tried to cope with some sort of traumatic battle in her past. But again, I never got much beyond an outline of the story and a sketch of the main character. I hadn’t thought about it in years.
And as I sat there, staring at the blank page, I decided to put Gannon in the space elevator story. (Previous drafts had been written from various perspectives, including that of the character who would eventually become Chairman Wilson, as well as various denizens of the space station connected to the elevator.)
Making Gannon the protagonist turned out to be the spark I needed: after that, the story came together relatively quickly. I finished the first draft by early October, and from there started revising based on beta readers’ and editors’ comments. There were a few moments of frustration, but for the most part, it was exhilarating. During those few times when I felt the creeping shadow of discouragement, I reminded myself that Chris Avellone had written Planescape: Torment when he was my age. If he could manage that, surely I could do this.
The end result was The Directorate. That it took pulling together multiple threads of story ideas from my past makes me all the prouder of it. And the fact that I’ve met so many wonderful authors along the way has just made it even sweeter. Thanks to all of you wonderful folks who read the book, follow my work, and provide such terrific feedback and support. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: you guys are the best!
Oh… and that job I mentioned interviewing for? I didn’t get it. But I’m not sorry–in fact, I’m glad, because if I had, I would not have finished the book. And you know what? My 12-year-old self would not be remotely impressed if he knew that I got some slightly higher-paying office job. But if I could go back and tell him that yes, we finally did write that story about the space elevator, he’d be absolutely thrilled.
To hear me read an excerpt from The Directorate, click here.
To read reviews of The Directorate on GoodReads, click here.
I was inspired to write this after reading Audrey Driscoll’s post on the same subject. Audrey lists the music that influenced her writing, some of which she worked into her books, and some of which, as she puts it, “lurk[s] unseen, despite its huge influence”. It’s a good post, and I encourage you to read it.
I don’t usually listen to music with lyrics while I am in the act of writing. That would just distract me. Sometimes I’ll put on a little atmospheric instrumental music that suits the mood, but that’s about it.
But as any author knows, writing a book is more than just the time spent hitting the keyboard. You spend most of the time “writing” a book thinking about it, mulling over plot intricacies and character motivations in your head. And then is when what you’re listening to really plays a role.
I didn’t listen to much music for The Start of the Majestic World, but I did listen to quite a bit of the radio show Coast to Coast AM while I was planning it. That definitely influenced the story. A few times while writing, I did cue up the soundtrack to Deus Ex, because that game was just the right vibe of weirdness I was trying to get in Majestic World.
The Directorate also has relatively few musical influences. I listened to “The Captain” by Leonard Cohen almost daily while I was writing it, as well as assorted military songs and marches, including “Heart of Oak” and “The British Grenadiers”, which probably influenced the militaristic tone of the novel.
For my current work-in-progress, I’ve been listening to Western music and soundtracks from Western films. Also, the folk song “The Bonnie Earl of Morey”, which I currently have referenced in the book itself, though I may yet cut that.
For the most part, in all my work, music is a minor influence. I’m not sure why. Maybe because I’m not very knowledgeable about music, and so don’t think about it that much. I couldn’t write about it the way Audrey does, for example.
But there is one other story I wrote that was much, much more influenced by music than any of the rest. It’s the super-dark tale I alluded to in this post.
First of all, during the process of writing that one, I was listening over and over again to Kay Starr’s performance of “The Headless Horseman” song. It’s a children’s song, so it’s more cutesy than scary, but for some reason it was running through my head constantly when I wrote this book. I don’t know how to explain, but the light-hearted handling of a rather frightening subject somehow fit very well with my mood.
Then, while I was writing the story, a friend played Blue Öyster Cult’s “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” for me. I thought the unnerving blend of romance and death was exactly the sort of eerie dissonance I was going for in my book, so I included a reference to the song.
Coincidentally, on the same album that includes “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper”, there is also a song called “E.T.I. (Extra Terrestrial Intelligence)” that references The King in Yellow, which was a major influence on my book as well.
But the weirdest part of what was already a surreal writing experience didn’t become apparent until nearly a year after I had already finished writing the story, when I heard the song “The End” by The Doors.
I had heard the beginning before, in the film Apocalypse Now. But when I heard the full, uncensored version, I was immediately stunned by how well the disturbing imagery Morrison used in his lyrics matched the tone of my book. Images and motifs in each fit together eerily well, as did the song’s general feeling of a slow descent into madness. I felt like Carl Jung or Joseph Campbell could have had a field day with it.
What about you? When you write something do you listen to music, or otherwise let it influence your writing process? Any examples of a song that really fit your work?
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.