June 7, 2011

The Right Amount of Detail

As I read IF SONS, THEN HEIRS by Lorene Cary, I was struck by the number of nonessential but delightful details and moments that were woven into the story without ever bogging it down. I call these details "nonessential" because each one individually could have been omitted without losing crucial story information. Yet they aren't the pointless, boring descriptions I railed against in a recent review and column. These are specific, compelling little pieces of narration and dialogue that enrich the world. They make the characters more identifiable and the situations more believable, and they never last long enough to detract from the plot's momentum.

I'll give an example, though I'm not sure it's meaningful out of context. In one scene, a boy interrupts a serious conversation between adults to pester his dad about soda. In the next scene, an elderly relative scolds the boy about the way he's throwing away the soda cup. There's nothing important about the soda, and what's shown about the characters in these interactions isn't substantial new information. It all could have been cut without impacting the story. But there are subtle reasons for including the soda: The interruption makes the serious conversation more palatable for both the characters and the reader, and the boy's realistic behavior adds credibility to a novel that's partly about raising children. None of these purposes stick out. On the page, it all blends naturally into the action.

I wish I was capable of analyzing exactly how Cary achieved the proper effect so that I might offer some writing advice more useful than "Include the right amount of detail." I'll try to expand a bit: First, notice when you've included details that don't directly move the story forward. Next, don't edit out all of them.

I have a rather spare writing style and a tendency to expunge any line that I can't justify as serving a clear and necessary purpose. In revision, I agonize over the revealing but tangential moments, fearful that I love them too much to impartially judge whether they are superfluous. IF SONS, THEN HEIRS served as a good reminder that some of my beloved nonessential details may still have a place in my novel.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Nathan Bransford deconstructs How to Craft a Mystery in a Novel: "A character's desire + Consequences/stakes + Obstacles + Delay = Mystery"

→ Melville House bestows the Moby Awards for the best and worst book trailers. (Thanks, The Millions!)

June 2, 2011

June Reading Plan

I'm carrying two books over from May:

THE CITY AND THE CITY by China Miéville - Looking forward to starting this, after hearing a lot about it.

GREEN MARS by Kim Stanley Robinson - I'm a little less than halfway through this big book. I'd like to try finishing it this month.

Since I know I have a busy month planned, I'll just add one more book to the list:

36 ARGUMENTS FOR THE EXISTENCE OF GOD by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein - Eleanor Brown did a joint book event with Goldstein a few months ago. My mom attended, bought this book, and recommended it. It's a novel about academics debating religion. Flipping through the book, I see lots of typographical gimmicks like email messages and lists, and I love that sort of thing.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Jessica Francis Kane, author of THE REPORT, which I wrote about in April, discusses the label and nature of historical fiction. (Thanks, The Millions!)

→ Artist Chip Zdarsky presents posters for children's stories reimagined as Hollywood films. (Thanks, Nathan Bransford!)

June 1, 2011

May Reading Recap

Writing and real life have been taking precedence over blogging lately. But it's a new month, so let's see what I read in May:

THE INTUITIONIST by Colson Whitehead - This is a novel about elevator inspectors, set in an alternate version of 1950s New York in which elevator inspection is a really big deal. The Department of Elevator Inspectors wields significant political power in the city, inspectors graduate from the Institute for Vertical Transport, and tension is building between those who inspect empirically and those who test the machines through intuition. The book's protagonist, Lila Mae Watson, is a black female Intuitionist who is forced into a confrontation with the Department's old-boy network when she becomes the target of an investigation. It's a weird, fascinating premise, with a plot that gets quite exciting as Lila Mae uncovers a series of conspiracies and secrets.

IF SONS, THEN HEIRS by Lorene Cary - The book opens with a family tree charting the many members of the Needham family, who are descended from slaves. The novel is set in the present day, with some flashbacks to other eras, and concentrates on a few members from one branch of the tree. But all the other relatives are important because the story's main conflict concerns a piece of heir property, land owned jointly by all descendants of the original owners. The characters and storytelling in this book are fantastic. There's a wonderful balance between big issues -- the property, a character finding the mother who abandoned him, concerns about an aging relative -- and minor everyday problems like how to keep a small boy entertained.

GREEN MARS by Kim Stanley Robinson - I got through another chunk of this book early in the month, but I haven't picked it up in a while. Maybe I'll focus and finish it in June.

I also read a manuscript for a friend who is getting ready to self-publish. I'm looking forward to announcing her release sometime this summer.

I didn't get to the final book on my May reading list, THE CITY AND THE CITY by China Miéville, so it rolls over to June.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ The Intern explains how a plot is different than a series of events after musing on "how funny it is (and how perplexing) that you can write an entire novel (or even several drafts of a novel) and only realize at the very end that -- oops! -- you forgot to give your story a plot."

→ Nicholas Tam presents a detailed essay on fictional maps: "So when we open up a novel to find a map, we can think of the map as an act of narration. But what kind of narration? Is it reliable narration or a deliberate misdirection? Is it omniscient knowledge, a complete (or strategically obscured) presentation of the world as the author knows it? Or is the map available to the characters in the text?" (Thanks, Pimp My Novel!)