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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or:

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

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

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

As promised, I’ve been working on my next book.  I hit a bit of a rough patch where I wasn’t sure how much exposition to give.  It’s a new thing for me because previously I’ve only known two different scenarios in my writing:

  1. Writing a section that is just really fun to write.
  2. Writing a section that I need to have, but am not enjoying and am just slogging through.

Needless to say, the things in category 1 are much better done than those in category 2.  The latter inevitably end up needing to be revised.

But I reached a point in my new book that was really neither.  I felt like I could go either way on this section; I could linger a bit and give some more atmospheric exposition, or I could just say what I needed to say and move along to the next part.  I’m torn about how to go–part of me wants to move on, and I have read advice for writers that says not to put in unnecessary stuff.

On the other hand, I think (and have been told by multiple readers) that my earlier stories fell into the trap of moving too quickly and not lingering enough on certain things to set the scene.  So I am inclined to spend more time on stage-setting than I ordinarily would, to try to correct for this tendency.

One thing this forces me to do is really picture the scene in my mind.  This is harder than you would think.  In the past when I have written stuff, I have had a general sketch in mind, but nothing too detailed.  This caused me to try and get away with saying some pretty vague stuff.  This way, I’ll now have a more firm idea in mind, and can communicate it better to the readers.

The scene I’m currently writing is also important because (not to give too much away) it is setting up a location that the protagonist will return to later, where the majority of the action in the story will take place.  So it’s a good opportunity for some foreshadowing, and I don’t want to miss out on that.

I think there are a lot of people who don’t really listen to song lyrics.  This occurred to me the other day as I was listening to the song “Waltzing Matilda”–the unofficial Australian national anthem, by Banjo Paterson.  It’s a catchy tune, but it makes no sense.  And no, I don’t mean because of the Australian lingo.  Here are the lyrics, via Wikipedia:

Once a jolly swagman [vagrant] camped by a billabong [a pool of water]
Under the shade of a coolibah tree,
And he sang as he watched and waited till his billy [tea] boiled:
“Who’ll come a-waltzing Matilda, with me?” [“Waltzing Matilda” means wandering carrying your belongings in a bag.]

Down came a jumbuck [sheep] to drink at that billabong.
Up jumped the swagman and grabbed him with glee.
And he sang as he shoved that jumbuck in his tucker bag:
“You’ll come a-waltzing Matilda, with me.”

Ok, so what kind of sheep is this that you can fit inside a bag? Or did he slaughter the sheep before he did that?

Up rode the squatter, mounted on his thoroughbred.
Down came the troopers, one, two, and three.
“Whose is that jumbuck you’ve got in your tucker bag?
You’ll come a-waltzing Matilda, with me.”

This is a remarkably efficient police force–homicide investigations are not treated with the same rigor as this sheep theft. Also, why do the policemen use the same expression?  Are they planning to carry the guy off in a bag?

Up jumped the swagman and sprang into the billabong.
“You’ll never take me alive!” said he
And his ghost may be heard as you pass by that billabong:
“Who’ll come a-waltzing Matilda, with me?”

So… this guy committed suicide rather than give back the sheep he had stolen? Was the punishment for sheep theft worse than death?

Now there are indications that the song is based on a true story, and is in fact related to an incident in the 1891 Shearers’ Strike. That means it has some political subtext.  If that’s the case, it might have been better to mention it was a striking worker, as opposed to a passing tramp.

Anyway, that’s my opinion.  Don’t let it stop you from enjoying the song; it’s a nice little tune.  Maybe some other time I’ll post about why the confusing syntax in the official United States National Anthem is so annoying, and why we should replace the “Star-Spangled Banner” with the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

So, I am currently in the early stages of writing a new book.  It’s going to be much longer than the last one–probably will end up being a novella, but maybe a novel if I’m lucky.  It’s already about as long as the longest story in my first book, and I’m still introducing the main characters and conflicts.

I’ve tried to incorporate the helpful suggestions and critiques I’ve received from my first attempt–many of which came from Blogger friend P.M. Prescott, to whom I’m very grateful. The book so far is much more like the last story in the collection,  ‘The Quarry”, in that there is more dialogue, and the dialogue is used to convey information about the characters and setting, rather than just using the description.

One of the hardest things about writing fiction is that I’ll get stuck with a certain”voice” in my head, and it gets translated to the page it permeates the whole story.  In the last collection, the “voice” was very much like H.P. Lovecraft’s, and Lovecraft rarely did dialogue.  And regardless, when you have a single authorial voice, it can make it hard to write dialogue that seems like it’s really multiple people–you have to be careful to differentiate how they speak, so it’s clear who’s who.

That is not to say there is not any description.  The other thing that I’m working on is putting a little more thought into the descriptions, to try to do a better job of painting a picture for the reader.  In previous work, I’ve consciously shied away from doing too much in the way of description, because I think that too much can bog the story down, and that sometimes the most effective way of scaring somebody is to leave some things unsaid or just hinted, so their mind fills in the blanks with the scariest things they can imagine.  But it’s a delicate balance, and I may have gone too far in the direction of vagueness before; making the scenes seem too clinical and detached.

The other thing I’m doing differently this time is what I’m doing right now: occasional blog updates on my progress.  I’ll maybe even post an excerpt or two, depending how it goes.

P.M. Prescott’s comment on this post reminded me about the concept of “fractal” structure for a piece of literature.  I was about to write a post about it, but then I remembered–as with the vampires a few weeks ago–that I’d already done so, two years ago, almost to the day.

He’s right that there’s a limit to how much complexity you can give a character before people will get bored of hearing about it.  That’s why the best character development is done through “showing, not telling”, as the old adage says, and having their complexity displayed through the plot-driving actions they take. And maybe best of all is having characters who are ambiguous–that way, the audience will start to make up their own explanations for their motivations–provided you give them enough material to work with.

It’s also true that you don’t need complex characters to have a good story.  The characters in Animal Farm, for example, are largely just allegorical caricatures of political figures and parties from the first half of the 20th century.  But it’s still a great book.

I guess the real key, whether your characters are nuanced and complex, or simply cut-outs who represent something else, is to make sure it all works together as part of the story you are telling. The characters and incidents need to somehow reflect or represent the larger story.

For example, one of the major of themes of the book Of Mice and Men is loneliness.  To quote the Wikipedia article:

Candy is lonely after his dog is gone. Curley’s wife is lonely because her husband is not the friend she hoped for —- she deals with her loneliness by flirting with the men on the ranch…  The companionship of George and Lennie is the result of loneliness. Crooks states the theme candidly as “A guy goes nuts if he ain’t got anybody. Don’t make any difference who the guy is, long’s he’s with you.”

Each of the characters and their major issues are somehow related to that theme. That’s what makes it a theme.

Another example of what I’m talking about–not so much with characters, but rather concerning the idea that the individual pieces reflect the whole, is in the Sherlock Holmes stories.  Many of them start out with Holmes and Watson talking about some minor curiosity.  Holmes then explains it to Watson by using his deductive powers, and shows how he was able to figure out what Watson (and everyone else) would miss.

Then the actual plot of the story, the central mystery, is introduced. It will be resolved in exactly the same way; with Holmes making deductions to solve the case.  This is called “foreshadowing”, but it’s just a matter of the micro-elements of the story resembling the macro-elements.

Needless to say, as P.M. noted, this is all really, really hard to write.

Weird article in The Daily Beast by a writer called Frank Bill.  Idea is that men are not manly enough these days, so there are fewer manly novels about manly things.

What I don’t know is what he means by “masculine writing”.  Does he mean subject matter–wars and hunting? There are books about those things. Or choice of words–short, blunt sentences?  Like Hemingway, who did both.

Tough to gut it out through lots of words.  Have to fight your way through dense jungles of adjectives and adverbs, hunt down the meaning.  Cut out useless bits.  More manly to use short sentences, or fragments.  But that has drawbacks, too. Can be hard to follow the logic.

Probably, fewer men read than women. So topics are chosen accordingly.  It’s tough, but you have to man up, grit your teeth, and realize that probably, they’ve already won the war for dominance of the bookshelves.

Famous scene from the 1922 film “Nosferatu”. The shadow is scarier than the actual monster (see below) because your imagination fills in the details.

Saw the movie House of Dracula on TV the other night.  It’s a 1945 Universal Monsters flick that contains three of their most popular monsters: Dracula (duh) the Wolf-Man, and Frankenstein’s monster.  It was fairly well-done for what it was.  John Carradine is great as Dracula.  Also, the film features the stereotypical hunch-backed assistant to the mad scientist, but for a change the character is female, and fairly attractive apart from the hunch-back. It’s an unusual role, and the actress, Jane Adams, does a pretty good job.

But what was especially notable about the movie was that it falls into the awful horror movie pitfall of trying to explain the source of the horror scientifically.  So, it turns out that Dracula has a blood disease, and that the Wolf-Man can be cured by brain surgery and some kind of weird fungus that the aforementioned scientist grows in his castle.

Folly!  I’ve blogged about this before: horror movies should not rationalize or explain the horror in any way.  When they do, it becomes less frightening.  They make this mistake all the time in horror movies.  It’s much better when the scientifically-inclined are skeptics and shown to be wrong, and the monster is an inexplicable violation of the laws of nature.   The intelligent, scientific  types being wrong is how you know you’re in trouble.

If you try to explain everything, it is less scary.  This applies not only to trying to give explanations for the monster’s origin or condition or whatever, but to every element in any scary story.  Just give people a few hints of the monster, and  let them piece together the rest, that’s what I say.

See what I mean?

“The Fallen Tree” by Albert Bierstadt, via Wikimedia Commons

Eurobrat has a good post about blogging.  Read it, and be sure to read the comments as well. (Although I take issue with her computer game comments. (J/K))

Ultimately, she comes to the same conclusion I have, which is that blogging is worth doing even if no one reads it.  I read a good article about this long ago, back when almost nobody read my blog.  The advice the author gives is spot-on from my experience–writing this blog has helped me think better and more clearly about all kinds of issues.  (And I have acquired a few more readers since since I read that article!)

There really is nothing like blogging for helping you think.

I’ve been reading a curious book called As Told at The Explorers Club. It’s a collection of stories mainly having to do with exploration and adventure, but frankly the types of stories are pretty varied. There’s one fairly cute one about the discovery of the coelacanth, but it’s not really an “adventure.” In the introduction, editor George Plimpton claims they are all “true-life” stories. Sometimes this seems very hard to believe, but who knows.

But for me, the most remarkable story I’ve read so far is one entitled “Arctic Ghost”, by Felix Riesenberg. It’s almost indescribable–the writing is so vivid, mystical and powerful, and the subject matter so bizarre, I am forced to assume it is at least a bit embellished. But what a story! It is an eerie tale that I doubt Poe or even Lovecraft himself could have dreamed up. The atmosphere of the tale is amazing.

I have tried to find out more about this Riesenberg guy and this story, but so far I haven’t found much. I have decided that, since he was apparently an arctic explorer, he should have signed his name as “F. Riesenberg”–pronounced “freezin’ berg”.

Sorry about that. I don’t know what came over me.