Too Much Detail?

The mystery writer Allen Eskins spoke to the Minnesota Mystery Night* gathering a couple of days ago. In the question session, Eskins was asked:  When you write, do you think about the reader? Eskins said no, and his answer got me thinking.

I had never really analyzed my own process this way. On introspection, I realized I do not think much about the reader when I draft. I have the story in a rough outline; mainly, I live in the characters’ minds. Since my novels are to some degree techno-thrillers, though, I do think about the reader during rewrite. I need to put in just enough technical detail to convince readers that they can trust that the technology part is believable. After several years of help from fine critique groups, I know not to fulfill my inner temptation to show how astoundingly clever/knowledgeable I am and bore readers to death with detail. Then, of course, I run headlong into the question of how much is enough. Techies will want more detail; readers more interested in character arc will want less.

Two books I’ve read recently crystallized the issue for me. The first, The Rose Code, by Kate Quinn, is literary fiction traveling as a mystery. Marvelous writing, three strong female protagonists who work in various capacities at Bletchley Park, the WWII English code-breaking facility. You’ll want to read it. Quinn has every reason not to tell the reader how the people at Bletchley broke the Enigma cyphers because Bletchley was famously compartmentalized. The three protagonists each knew only part of the process. Yet the brief description Quinn gives of the actual code breaking was too little for me. (Here’s my Goodreads review.)

The second book will remain unnamed. It’s one I reviewed prior to publication. The central idea dealt with biotechnology. At one point, the text discussed “recumbent” DNA technology. (One hopes the author meant “recombinant.”) Of course, “recumbent” is a dictionary word; a dumb spell checker would find it perfectly acceptable. There were other hints that the writer hadn’t had the book copy edited, but even given that it might just be a typo, “recumbent” destroyed the author’s credibility with respect to the mostly unstated biological/pharmacological processes that were central to the plot. For me, at least.

My takeaways: 1) write to abandon in the first draft; consider what’s necessary in the second. 2) Get your work copy edited.

* Minnesota Mystery Night is produced by Midwest Mystery Works, a group of five of us who write mysteries and thrillers. If you’re in the Twin Cities, it’s on the third Monday of each month. You can get advance notice through my newsletter or on the MMW Facebook page.

Grammar Resplendent

Marvelous opinion piece by Catherine Rampell in the Washington Post on Christmas day.

The whole article is a great read—it’s Rampell’s lessons in the language and writing from her sixth-grade teacher. Its first three points were a gift of confirmation, the fourth a gift a recognition of reality, and the fifth a source of pain which will be subject of the my next post. Here are the first three:

  1. Learn all the rules of language, even the stodgy-seeming ones. You will find freedom in structure.

In particular, of her teacher, she says “He taught us the masonry of language. Now we could build whatever we liked.” One of the finest defenses of grammar I have read.

  1. If you must break a grammatical rule, do so on purpose, not out of sloppiness. Do so only if it serves your audience. 

“The best excuse for a grammatical error … is clarity.” Perfect.

  1. If a reader doesn’t understand what you are trying to say, that is your fault — not the reader’s. 

I need to have a sticky on my computer reminding me of this every day.

Then I hit the fourth rule:

  1. Rewrite. Rewrite. Rewrite. No piece of writing is ever done; it merely meets a deadline. 

I suspect that #4 is true for Rampell because her deadlines are weekly or biweekly; she probably never gets above rewrite five or six. For me as a novelist, cycles of rewrite begin to wear down the prose, and the hard question is when to stop.

And on to the agony of her point #5 … next time