Bloomsday, June 16th, celebrates James Joyce’s protagonist Leopold Bloom’s 1904 meander around Dublin, in which he replicates Ulysses’ travels in Homer’s Odyssey in one relatively ordinary day. (Apparently Joyce’s first exposure to the Odyssey used the Romanized name, Ulysses.)

Bloomsday brings two thoughts: The first comes from one of the disheartening aspects of the present day: When will we ban Ulysses again (for “pornographic” content)?
Possibly it’s safe because few to none of the book banning enthusiasts have read it.

The second thought is about an author’s balance between communicating with the reader and writing the author’s own truth. Some of Joyce’s chapters are difficult to access, but Joyce was investigating—experimenting with—literary styles. His intention was not to write accessible prose and poetry. The last and perhaps most famous of the chapters is a 3,000+ word sentence, Molly Bloom’s stream of consciousness interior monologue. It is gorgeous writing, and Joyce pulled off the behemoth sentence without confusing the reader. I was thinking about that author-reader balance and Ulysses because I’m reading a book that is very difficult to get through (A Journey to the End of the Millennium), partly because its author uses long sentences (not stream of consciousness). I went back to Joyce to help figure out why the long sentences of Journey don’t work as well as Molly Bloom’s. The difference is at least partly that A Journey is popular literature—on starting it, I expected the author to lean heavily toward making the story accessible to the reader. Once I got beyond that expectation, the reading got easier.

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.