Rule 9: Strive to eliminate skimming

Here’s another in my randomly numbered rules for fiction writing, which apply to folks who aren’t good enough to break the rules.  That includes you.  And me.

This rule came to mind as I considered the Ohlin/Giraldi bad review controversy, which I wrote about here (and which generated a lot of search hits–it’s a popular topic!).  First, there was the review itself.  When I read a book review, what I want to find out is whether the book is worth reading–not whether the reviewer is clever.  So I found myself skimming the first paragraph, which quotes Ezra Pound and throws in references to Middlemarch and Don Quixote and calls entirely too much attention to itself.  Just tell me about the book!

But when he finally does start to discuss Ohlin’s work, he makes what seem to be valid points.  If an author’s prose is flabby–if her descriptions and narrative are filled with clichés–then why bother reading that prose?  If I ever do read the book, I know I’m going to start skimming. (Of course, I did read the first chapter of Ohlin’s novel and didn’t skim, which makes me wonder if the reviewer was overstating his case.)

If readers aren’t going to read your words, why bother writing them?  The only way you’re going to find out if readers are skimming is to get yourself some readers–and that’s another rule, which I haven’t written yet–maybe because it’s so obvious. Short of that, here are some things worth thinking about–at least, they’re the kind of things I think about:

  • Have I eliminated all unnecessary words?  This is standard writing hygiene.  Make every word count.  Don’t say “in order to” if you can just say “to”; don’t say “all of” if you can just say “all”.  It makes the prose tighter and clearer.
  • Have I right-sized my descriptions?  This probably deserves to be yet another rule, but the idea is to make your description the length that is appropriate for the significance to the story of the person or thing or event you’re describing.  For example, minor characters don’t deserve fully developed back-stories; we don’t need to know exactly what they’re wearing or where they grew up or what their politics are.  If a meal isn’t a major event, we don’t need to know what everyone ordered and what kind of wine was served.
  • Are my descriptions too ordinary?  This is one thing Giraldi complained about. You can’t just say, “She was medium height, with brown hair, green eyes, and white teeth.”  Why bother?  Typically, a physical description has to merge into characterization.  For example, if you describe someone’s teeth are “impossibly white,” you are starting to say something about that person.
  • Have I de-clichéd my prose?  This is another Giraldi complaint.  If you’re going to say “Nice guys finish last,” you’d better have a good reason for it–for example, it could be funny or ironic in context. Otherwise it’s pure deadweight.

My first drafts tend to be underwritten–I’m too eager to get through the story and reach my destination.  I add detail and depth in succeeding drafts. But sometimes I overwrite, which will happen when you’re not sure of yourself–you’re describing a character for your own benefit, not just for your readers.  Then you need to prune ruthlessly.

I sometimes worry that I worry too much about skimming.  I recall taking out a lot of detail in the final draft of Replica, concerned that the pace was too slow for what was supposed to be a breakneck thriller.  When I re-read it recently in the process of turning it into an ebook, I thought maybe I had gone a little overboard.

There are no right answers; that’s why they call it art.

Bad Reviews 2: The Alix Ohlin Story

Here we pondered a bad review of Lawrence Krauss’s A Universe from Nothing in the New York Times.

The latest kerfluffle is about an especially scathing review in the Times of Alix Ohlin’s latest books — a novel called Inside and a volume of short stories, Signs and Wonders. I’ve never heard of Ohlin, but her books have A-list publishers — Knopf and Viking — and bunches of good reviews and blurbs.  The review is by William Giraldi, whom I’ve also never heard of.  He’s published a novel called Busy Monsters.  So what’s up?  The review is online, and here’s the first paragraph:

There are two species of novelist: one writes as if the world is a known locale that requires dutiful reporting, the other as if the world has yet to be made. The former enjoys the complacency of the au courant and the lassitude of at-hand language, while the latter believes with Thoreau that “this world is but canvas to our imaginations,” that the only worthy assertion of imagination occurs by way of linguistic originality wed to intellect and emotional verity. You close “Don Quixote” and “Tristram Shandy,” “Middlemarch” and “Augie March,” and the cosmos takes on a coruscated import it rather lacked before, an “eternal and irrepressible freshness,” in Pound’s apt phrase. His definition of literature is among the best we have: “Language charged with meaning.” How charged was the last novel you read?

That paragraph was written by a guy who is trying way too hard.  To all you would-be writers out there: Take my advice and never use a phrase like “the cosmos takes on a coruscated import it rather lacked before.”  Your readers will be forever grateful.

Giraldi’s complaint about Ohlin’s work is that it “enjoys the complacency of the au courant and the lassitude of at-hand language.”  And he gives plenty of examples.  She describes teeth as white; people’s hearts sink and sing; she uses clichés like “Nice guys finish last.”

So anyway, thanks to Amazon, I was able to take a look inside Inside.  And the

Alix Ohlin, apparently dreaming up banal things to write

first chapter was, well, pretty good.  She sets up an interesting situation and draws a couple of interesting characters.  A young female psychotherapist goes out cross-country skiing and literally runs into a guy who has apparently just tried to hang himself.  She takes him to the hospital; she takes him back to his apartment afterwards; she takes an interest.  The dialog is snappy and occasionally unexpected, and the language was cliché-free; no one’s teeth are white in Chapter 1.

So then I looked at Giraldi’s novel. It too has good reviews and a mainstream publisher.  But he tries too hard.  He describes someone as “heaving his psychosis our way, sending bow-tied packages, soilsome letters, and text messages to the bestial effect of, If you marry that baboon, I’ll end all our lives.”  Soilsome?  WordPress’s spellchecker doesn’t recognize that word, and neither do I.

His novel is probably fine, too — it just inhabits a different universe from Ohlin’s.  He will claim it’s a better universe; he’ll claim he has Thoreau and Pound on his side (neither of whom wrote any novels that I can recall).

So why would the New York Times assign Ohlin’s books to be reviewed by someone you can be reasonably confident is going to hate them?  Dunno.  Why bother?  And, if you’re Giraldi, why write a review that makes you look like a dick? How is this going to help your career?

Here’s a balanced article in Salon about how to write a bad review. It ends with this advice:

In the end, the literary world is basically a small city. We could maybe all comfortably occupy Madison, Wisc. And so a book review is not being read in a vacuum: when you angrily eviscerate somebody’s work, you are shitting where you eat. It is important both to support each other and criticize each other, and to find ways to do both, respectfully and constructively. This means thinking things through before you open your piehole, whether it’s on Twitter or in the pages of the Times. Is that so hard?

Sounds right to me.