(I’m blogging this week with my fellow writers at MissDemeanors.com and this post appeared there as well. Follow us every weekday where we chat about writing and any other thing that strikes our fancy).
My neighbor is a big reader and we had an interesting conversation over the fence this lovely spring weekend. He doesn’t like to read elaborate descriptions. To him, an elaborate description is the gun on the tabletop in scene one that never gets discharged. He gave an example: in the thriller he is currently reading there is a scene where the protagonist walks down a long corridor. The scene is complete with a detailed description of the doors the protagonist passes, what he sees at the other end, etc. In the end, the man gets to the end of the hall and goes into a room.
My neighbor read the passage carefully, sure that the careful attention to detail meant that there were important clues in the text – or at a minimum something would happen behind one of those doors. He felt that the description made it difficult to separate important detail from general atmosphere.
This is a problem for writers. First of all, no two readers are the same, so you can’t satisfy everyone. Some people like to use their imagination to fill in most of the details of places and people. A long narrow corridor. A tall dark stranger. Good enough. They’ve got the idea and the tall dark stranger gets filled in with their ideal, not the writer’s. Same thing with places. My long narrow corridor may look different from everyone else’s, but does it matter if there is crown molding or not?
I believe that there should be enough detail to get close to what the author imagines, but I can sympathize with the notion that too many details are information overload for a reader. This came up in my conversation with my neighbor. Afterwards it struck me that the average reader’s access to information has altered what we want. Think of Charles Dickens or Leo Tolstoy or Victor Hugo. These men were literary giants in their day, hugely popular in every sense of the word. They set a scene that was possibly unimaginable to their readers – a glimpse of the darkest side of industrial England’s workhouses and slums and law courts. The vast battle fields of Russia and the gaiety of aristocratic balls. The dark currents of Paris, including those running under the streets. These scenes were so finely wrought that they are useful to historians today.
Modern society has access to images on television, at the movie theater and on-line. Take Industrial England. Google it and you are overwhelmed by images and descriptions (not all accurate, but that’s a separate issue). No longer are novels the main form of exposing people to faraway places or ideas. As a result, we have adapted as readers and therefore as writers.
Or have we? Description still plays a vital role in a novel. I read to remember places I’ve been, and to dream about places I’ll never go. For me, it remains a balance. I want to see into the mind of the author, all the while knowing I’ll continue to fill in details from my own imagination. That’s also my goal as a writer.
I’m curious, though, what do others want? Plenty of description or spare spare spare? There is definitely room for both.
This is not an uncommon situation – in fact, I should acknowledge how fortunate I am to be a ‘working’ author at all. However, there is something a bit odd, perhaps even awkward, about being in the midst of finalizing, working on finalizing and at the beginning all at the same time.
Swiss Vendetta is in some ways a thing of the past – I’m still out and about in bookstores and libraries talking about Agnes’s first adventure in Violent Crimes – however, what I’m really thinking about is A Well-Timed Murder, her next adventure (set amidst the watch industry in Switzerland). No cover art yet, in fact I’ve not seen the first round of edits….. so I’m in waiting mode.
Did I mention that I’m waiting? The moment an author hits send the waiting begins. I like to think that I’m a patient waiter. I like having some distance before getting this all important feedback from my editor. Too soon and I might not be ready to hear suggestions. Hit it just right and I can read with a fresh eye. Certainly time and distance will have made me re-think some parts of the book (the question is will my editor and I agree on the changes…. back to waiting patiently). I won’t bother fretting (will my editor want changes that I agree with?). I defer to Stephen King on this – and I paraphrase – writer’s write and editor’s edit.
At the same time, I’m well into research for book three. I know what the big theme is, I’m working out the various characters, and have some ideas for the story (beyond the big idea). There’s still time for the story to evolve and change and likely it will look much different when finished that I envision it now, but it is the next big project! This is where I want my mind to be 100%.
On the other hand…. the mental hopper needs time and feeding and when I get A Well-Timed Murder back (today? tomorrow?) I am ready to dive in and rotate a bit backwards in the cycle.
I’m curious, though, how do other authors do this? Wait until one is completely finalized before starting the next? Or is everything always on a middle, simmer burner?
Swiss Vendetta recently released as an audiobook and it’s generated a little curiosity on my part about the recording process. I’m not an audiobook devotee – like many of my friends. However, I might turn to the audio version of a book for a long solitary drive. When I do, I typically select a familiar title since I tend to zone in and out of listening – an unbreakable habit. A familiar book is best for me. I need to be able to fill in the blanks when I miss something. (This may come from listening while driving up and down the California coast. It’s best to not be distracted in LA traffic!)
As an author, I am a firm believer in craft. That translates into respect for the professional narrator’s craft. Because of this, I trusted that the narrator chosen by my publisher would do for Swiss Vendetta exactly what needed to be done. That meant creating the characters’ voices, setting the tone, and invoking atmosphere. All with her voice.
My narrator, Cat Gould, has a long and distinguished resume, particularly with accents, both as varieties of English and foreign. I’m so pleased to have her on this project. She makes the listen feel like they are in Switzerland!
Curiosity about the life of an audiobook’s narrator led me to a great article giving Steve Marvel’s perspective about his ‘reading’ experiences and process. http://bit.ly/2mUCIfk
I hope all audio listeners enjoy Cat’s reading of Swiss Vendetta. Hat’s off to our audio collaborators!
A few confessions. First, meeting strangers can be daunting, but when the strangers want to talk about books – and possibly your own book – then it’s incredibly fun. I’ve met people in Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana, and Arkansas with Tennessee, Virginia, Texas and New York to go, have driven through a snow storm and heard tales of local flooding, crossed the Mississippi River a few times in a car, and traversed the Arkansas River on foot (via a pedestrian bridge in case anyone envisions my walking on water).
I’ve met writers and readers and convinced a few people to buy their very first mystery (a special shout out to Josh, a high school senior hoping to go to film school who purchased Swiss Vendetta. I expect to see him walking across the stage to accept his Academy Award in about eight years).
Part of the delight of a tour is visiting so many bookstores. Every time I enter, I am struck by a dozen titles I want to buy, and the sight of familiar covers that make me want to dive in for a re-read.
With eight stores in ten days I feel like I should have a preference in stores types, but I don’t. Each and every one has its own charm. Tiny and crowded – feels like entering a personal library! Huge and multistory – clearly they have every title I could wish for! I believe that each one plays an important role in our lives as readers.
Amazing dinner with friends in Lexington, Kentucky last night to celebrate the launch of Swiss Vendetta! What a pleasure to see old friends and to share such meal.
As for the rest of ‘launch day’… not as glamorous. A quick skim through the book before tonight’s reading is probably in order. I’ve avoided doing this because selecting a section to read feels like favoring only one child. They are all my favorite parts…. but it must be done.
Today I’m a guest on Jungle Red Writers. If you read mysteries you will recognize the individual Reds. A stellar group!
It was an honor to guest blog for them, but not a complete surprise because that’s how the mystery/thriller community is. A real community. Supportive and – now that I think about it – inclusive. After all, the ‘community’ extends from cozy mysteries to traditional, up the chain of chills to police procedural and suspense before landing at thriller.
Think about the elements of cozy. I’m not the Webster definer of the type, but sex and violence are typically ‘off the pages’ with the reader learning about it peripherally. That’s doesn’t mean cozies are without tension! Tension is at the heart of moving the story forward. But hopefully not tension that will make the reader keep their lights on all night. (I am reminded of Susan Breen’s Maggie Dove series. Her books are a ‘puzzle’ built around interesting characters. And at the end you are pulling for Maggie, hoping that her search for truth won’t mean a bad end for her! (She’s had some close calls….)
Bruce Coffin’s John Byron Mysteries are police procedurals, and boy does he do it right! Bruce is a retired detective so the details are spot on. There’s more reality, more grit. You might even witness a murder!
Suspense your thing? Then you likely are a fan of James Patterson or Robert Dugoni.
Moving toward the ‘keep the lights on’ end of the mystery continuum and you will eventually get to Stephen King. Never, ever turn your lights off again.
What do these folks share? A love for the puzzle created by what happens when we humans break the law. What happens when someone is killed or kidnapped, or when a bomb is planted and you only have 12 hours to find it and cut the wires? We love people in jeopardy – from the small crime to worldwide intrigue (think Dan Brown)!
The writers in this community must get all of their penchant for violence out in their writing because one-on-one they are the nicest bunch of people you will ever meet. Not a bad group to spend even virtual time with.
What’s been your experience in the writing community?
What a way to end the month! A box full of Swiss Vendettas arrived. This feels like Christmas in January, which is perhaps simply second Christmas.
I took one out for a test spin. A preview of what the title looks like in the bookstore in advance of the official February 7th release. Makes me want to send thank you chocolates to all of the designers at my publisher, St. Martins. Gorgeous cover!
Looking forward to seeing it on shelves across the country.
It’s the new year and time to start fresh, right? Maybe not. This year, I’m taking a page from one of my MissDemeanors blog colleagues and saying no, I’m not starting fresh. At this time of my life I’m okay with my habits, and even the ones I don’t like, I’ve gotten used to.
This is particularly true when it comes to the state of my desk. Teapot, strainer and cup, those are essential (Even more essential is the Twining’s Lady Grey tea inside the pot). Calendar (yes, I use a paper one) to make sure I don’t forget phone calls, meetings or other deadlines. Pens, tape (for adding thoughts to my big wall outline), Mr Edgar Allen Poe and his nodding raven for inspiration and then…. well, all the rest. Technically “all the rest” could probably find a home somewhere neat and organized but that falls into the category of no resolutions. I’ve lived with the clutter this long…
The only drawback of this organizational style is the other desktop. The virtual one. I would have included a snapshot of that screen but too many people would recoil in horror. Bits and bobs of deleted paragraphs, possible chapters. Copied sections as a back up before a major revision. Thoughts jotted on virtual notes. It’s all there. Somewhere. I know this is a bad habit because tech support has literally recoiled in horror at the number of files on my desktop. They’ve called me later and said they had nightmares about it. Occasionally I start a folder called – things taken from desktop on such and such date. Like a bottom drawer that will likely never be opened again. I may actually tackle this in 2017. A clean virtual desktop. I’ve found my resolution!