Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Too Subtle? Too Obvious?


At our critique session yesterday, some of us discussed our tendency toward minimalist writing—putting far less on the page than we know about our characters, settings, or story situations.

“I know the backstory,” one writer commented. “I’m completely comfortable with what my characters are doing and saying, because I know everything that’s motivating them. I know the whole situation. It’s perfectly clear—in my mind.”

But will it be clear to the reader who does not have access to the writer’s inside information? Ah, there’s the question.

The discussion reminded me of the diametrically opposed advice I read in Noah Lukeman’s excellent book, The First Five Pages (which covers way more than its title might suggest); and Jack M. Bickham’s practical how-to, The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes (And How to Avoid Them).

The Case for Subtlety

Says Lukeman:
            “[I]f we were to stop and ask what best signals the proficient writer, the answer would be subtlety. … A writer who is subtle … can hint, foreshadow ever so slightly, set things up hundreds of pages in advance. He will often leave things unsaid, may even employ a bit of confusion, and often allow you to come to your own conclusions.
            “The main lesson the unsubtle writer must learn is that less is always more. These writers will often argue to their deathbeds that such and such information absolutely need be included; they will say, Think of the consequences if the reader doesn’t know such and such. But they never stop to consider the other consequence, the consequence of the reader knowing too much …
            “Achieving subtlety is all about gaining confidence, not only in yourself but in the reader. … Picture the reader as brilliant, perceptive, having a photographic memory, taking everything in the first time he reads it, able to grasp ideas before you even begin to say them, able to see where things are leading before you begin to lay them out.
            “Look back over your manuscript and ask yourself if you spell anything out, if you are too blatant. If so, cut and replace with something more low key.
            “It can take time to become proficient in detecting and cutting your own excess, and even the most proficient will not be able to catch it all. You will need an astute outside reader to point out what’s overdone, what’s extraneous.”
Which is why a good critique group is a pearl without price. Critique partners who are watching for overly obvious writing can point out redundancies—passages the writer might view as necessary, but which are, in fact, repetitious or superfluous.

The Case for Being Obvious

Now, listen to Bickham saying: “Don’t worry about being obvious.”
            “Every time you try to be subtle, you run the risk of losing your reader’s understanding.
            “[D]on’t make the mistake of trying to be subtle about what plot happenings mean … Readers confuse easily. If you have any doubt that the reader will understand the meaning of what someone in the story says or does, you must work in at once some method of pointing out what you may think is obvious.
            “Your reader is going to be careless, lazy, in a hurry, distracted and none too patient when she reads your copy. She isn’t going to get anything you don’t put down there pretty clearly.
            “[W]hat seems obvious to the writer may be obscure as hell to the poor reader. And you’re writing for the reader, not for yourself. Aren’t you?”
Who's Your Audience?

That last bit is the crux of the matter: Who are you writing for?

If you’re writing for someone like Noah Lukeman (a literary agent whose clients include Pulitzer Prize nominees, Pushcart Prize recipients, and American Book Award winners), then you’d best be a master of subtlety.

But if you’re writing for fidgety young readers or distracted readers (folks who grab paperbacks off the racks at grocery stores or airport gift shops), you’re likely to confuse—and lose—them if you’re even slightly subtle. Bickham says: “Make the point obvious!”

Once a writer has mostly mastered the fundamentals of her craft, her next big challenge, on her way to becoming a truly proficient writer, is to identify—and walk—the fine line between telling too much and telling too little.

In my WATERSPELL trilogy, I’ve labored mightily to find, and follow, that line. My critique partners have been immensely helpful—invaluable—in pointing out places where I’ve repeated myself, where I’ve told them things they already know, where I’ve beat them about the head and shoulders with obvious information.

They’ve also caught me when I’ve been too subtle, when I’ve failed to give them necessary information: when I’ve expected them to read my mind.

I know every detail about my fantasy world and the people who populate it. The trick is to decide—with the help of my excellent critique partners—which of those details must be committed to paper, and which of them are nuances that are best left to the reader’s imagination.
“Language is not an algebra and … there is no single right answer to any given predicament with words.” —Jacques Barzun



Sunday, June 26, 2011

A Crumpling of Revision Notes

A clowder of cats … a covey of quail … a crumpling of revision notes …
             For the past several weeks, I’ve had tremendous fun wadding up my notes for WATERSPELL, my fantasy trilogy, and lobbing them across the room to the wastebasket. Every note I throw away brings me one step closer to finishing a work that has consumed me for more years than I care to admit.
            WATERSPELL is long, complex, somewhat unconventional, and possibly controversial. (We’ll see how controversial, when it debuts as a set of e-books later in 2011.) Keeping up with the myriad details of a whole ’nother world and culture has meant keeping extensive notes.

What I've Had to Remember

           Some notes have been strictly for continuity. What were the characters wearing at the end of Book 2? Since I never gave them a chance to go home and change, they’re wearing those same tattered clothes when the story picks up in Book 3.
            Some of my notes are reminders of the characters’ idiosyncratic speech patterns. They all have their pet phrases: the imperative “Tell me!” and the blaspheming “Drisha’s teeth!” (Verek); the relieved “Sweet mercy!” and the angry “Beggar it all” (Carin); the amiable “Don’t you know” (Welwyn); and the annoyed “Wheesht!” (Meg). I know these people so well by now (after 360,000 words, over three books) I hear them talking in my sleep. Even so, it’s been handy to keep a list of their favorite phrases, particularly so I can vary the swearing with an occasional “By the blood of Abraxas!” from Verek and “Perishing oaths!” from Welwyn.
            Some of my notes have been detailed accounts of the history of Ladrehdin (pronounced LAD-ruh-din), the world where most of WATERSPELL is set. That history, only hinted at in Books 1 and 2, is central to Book 3. Though “the sins of the fathers” certainly play their part in the first two books, the roots of Ladrehdin’s present-day distress reach much farther back in time, to the age of the ancients—when a greedy wizard first opened the void between the worlds and set in motion the events that ensnare Carin and Verek. I had to learn all the history. And now that I have it firmly in mind (having completed my Second Round of Deep Revisions to Book 3), I must once again go back through Books 1 and 2 to make sure all are consistent. World-building requires unassailable attention to detail! If I overlook any element, some sharp-eyed reader will be sure to let me know about it.

What I've Filed Away, "Just in Case"

            Certain notes have escaped a crumpling. In my WATERSPELL files (which fill dozens of hanging-file folders, suspended in a two-foot-long storage box, and which constitute only the latest set of my notes—other boxes are tucked away now, filled at first-draft stage and currently inactive) … er, what was I saying?
            Oh, yes. In my active WATERSPELL files, I have squirreled away the research that could come in handy, later. These include descriptions of such things as:
  • Types of coughs (barking, wheezing, gasping)
  • Effects of adrenaline (panting, trembling, rapid heartbeat, dry mouth, dilated pupils)
  • Evocative sounds from nature (a babbling brook, the roar of a waterfall, the buzz of a cicada … the crunch of boots on autumn leaves, loose gravel, or hard-packed snow)
  • Parts of a horse harness (collar, breeching, traces, reins)
My To-Dos 

            What with all the notes I’ve filed away, and those I’ve crumpled and sailed into the trash can, I’m seeing parts of my desk that haven’t come to light in years. The only notes facing me now are a few Post-Its that I’ve stuck to a board near my computer. These are final refinements, minor things such as:
  • Find-and-replace “Argerich” with Brogar. One reader pointed out that I have a whole bunch of proper nouns starting with the letter A. Most of them are too firmly fixed in the reality of Ladrehdin to undergo a change at this late date. My readers will just have to keep their concentration, and realize that Archamon is a person, Angwid is a place, while Amangêda is … well, we don’t actually know WHAT Amangêda is, do we? At the minor end of this range of names, the Horse Formerly Known As Argerich can easily take a new identity. I’ve renamed Verek’s mount “Brogar,” for the Ring of Brodgar, or Brogar, in Scotland. However, considering the number of major H elements in the Harry Potter books—Harry, Hermione, Hagrid, Horcruxes, and Hallows—I'm leaving my M names alone, and trusting my readers to not confuse Myra with Merriam or Megella (Meg-Ella).
  • Omit the hairpin from Book 2. This is a continuity issue. That accessory never crops up again. But if Carin is wearing it when she leaves Ladrehdin at the end of Book 2, then it must be accounted for in Book 3. Even little things like hairpins—or scraps of paper—can cause trouble if they are left in places where they don’t belong. Since the Book 2 hairpin has no role to play in Book 3, the easiest fix is simply to remove it from Carin’s beautiful auburn hair before she makes the jump.
The Editing of a Trilogy

            Did I mention? World-building requires impeccable attention to detail. Every reader and writer of fantasy knows how essential this is. Fantasy fans know that some seemingly minor item, mentioned in passing as the story unfolds, may come to play a major role later on.
            Which is why editors should take care with their strikeouts. A little thing that seems superfluous, at first glance, may prove to be the pivot upon which the plot turns. I firmly believe that anyone who undertakes to edit a thoroughly-thought-out fantasy trilogy, such as WATERSPELL, should sit down and read the entire 360,000 words before daring to make a single mark on Page One of Book One.

            How strange it feels, to be so close to THE END after all these years. I’m not sure I’ve completely grasped how few are the items on my Revisions To-Do list.
            At this point, my reality as a writer of a complete trilogy is less clear to me than my status as the chronicler of Ladrehdin’s history. I learned it, and I wrote it down. I followed along, notepad in hand, to record the events as Carin, Verek, and their fellow citizens of Ladrehdin wrote new pages in the ancient Book of Archamon.


© 2011 by Deborah J. Lightfoot