Posted tagged ‘Nancy Drew Moment’

Plot dumps

September 12, 2011

So I’m working on the latter third of my work in progress, one of my Finnegans novels, and I need to bring in some history about one of the characters and the small town where she lives. How to do this without being intrusive or pedantic?

I more or less stumbled into having the necessary information presented as chatter among a group of old men at the town cafe. My main character is among them. She’s a freelance journalist writing an article about the town, and she’s urging the men to blather away, hoping to pick up some tidbits for her piece. I, of course, am urging them to blather away to provide some plot points about the past that figure in the story of the present.

It’s only first-draft stuff at this point, and I will probably modify/revise/enhance it several times down the writing road. I have a group of old men, the collection you might find hanging around the seed mill of a farming town, or at the cracker barrel of the country store, or, in this case, at the small town’s only cafe. What I haven’t done is give any one of them a name or description. One has a cane, but that’s it. I don’t intend to present these characters again. (I suppose there is a temptation to describe each of these characters. To give each a name and some colorful, quirky characteristic, but I don’t see any value in that. I’ve already written in this humble bog about my anathema for Nancy Drew Moments.) These men have no individual importance to the story. They are more of a Greek chorus than individual characters. What they are doing for me is imparting a lot of plot in a small space.

I’m sure I’ve seen this technique in other fiction I’ve read, though I can’t point to any specific examples. The knowledgeable sidekick is often used this way. This is the person who knows the history of some situation. Or it’s the scientist who can give the necessary technical explanation. Or some other expert who can credibly spell out some important facts that would be too tedious or incongruent to put into narrative form. It’s pure telling and little showing, a dichotomy I’ve seen anguished over by too many writers.

My old men are gossips, and my protagonist has already judged much of their material to be dubious at best. It’s useless for the article she is writing, but it is valuable for the actual plot of the novel. At this point, it’s working as a device to move my plot into the reader’s mind. We’ll see how long I keep it.

in which I speak of Nancy Drew moments

July 5, 2011

In a recent long weekend involving hundreds of miles of road travel (yet another distraction from my writing time) I had the occasion to listen to Sue Grafton’s novel Q is for Quarry. I’ve listened to many of her alphabet novels through the years; they’re a reliable story for listening to. The plots are compelling and the characterization, while sometimes over baked, is engaging.

So I’m a bit uncomfortable writing this post since I want to make some complaints about the novel. Normally, when I find problems with novels and post about them here, I don’t identify which I’m talking about. It doesn’t seem charitable in our business to be finding fault with each other. I think my complaint in this case, however, is with the editor not with the writer.

I’ve mentioned before the unfortunate phenomenon of Nancy Drew moments, in which a writer interrupts the narrative to give an inventory of what a particular character is wearing. I generally consider this to be more noise than signal; it’s hardly ever important to know what a character is wearing. (I usually promptly forget how the person was described and get on with the story.) Yet this novel is full of these interruptions. Just about every single time a character is presented, Grafton gave a run down of their clothes. In a couple of cases, these were helpful as part of character development: the vain character, the slob character. But most of the time it just read like a sudden halt in the plot. A needless sudden halt in the plot. A jarring, needless, sudden halt in the plot.

There were also countless incidents of elegant variations throughout the novel. Granted, these alphabet novels are narrated in first person, and perhaps Grafton wants her protagonist to be verbose in some cases, but it all sounded clumsy and affected. The protagonist “availed myself of the facilities” (went to the bathroom) and other such overwritten statements that didn’t seem like necessary euphemisms or enlightening character quirks. I was cringing nearly every mile as I listened to the story on my road trip.

But as I said above, I think my complaint is with the editor rather than the writer. I’ve discussed before what I call the “successful author syndrome” in which an editor doesn’t want to mess with the writing of a commercially successful author (or can’t be bothered to put in the effort?). But surely any writer serious about the craft would welcome at least the suggestions of an editor serious about that craft. I imagine if I submitted a novel written like this an editor would spill red ink all over it. I would want my editor to spill red ink all over it.

I continue to be baffled by what I see so commonly in successful fiction. Grafton, I’m sure, can write better than this, but is she being pushed to?

It’s about stuff

December 20, 2010

“Novels need stuff in them — fabrics, dry goods — if they are to maintain a proper distance from tracts, treatises and moral essays. Let there be tweed, cashmere and corduroy, the narrative voice urges, lest we lose ourselves in an immaterial play of essences.”

Malcolm Bowie
from the Introduction to
The Book and the Brotherhood
by Iris Murdoch


I’ve often lamented here the gratuitous inclusion of physical descriptions in fiction, especially descriptions of clothing, that serve no purpose (aside from the writer’s apparent compulsion to follow the “rule” of writing that says readers must have information like this in order to envision the scene). Balderdash, I say. Readers will furnish a room or clothe a character or envision the weather however they imagine, often in spite of what the writer may say, and the intrusion of such pretty much useless detail has been disparagingly described as “Nancy Drew Moments” by some.

Still, I can appreciate the need to give the reader tangible information lest the story be one exclusively of ideas (and Iris Murdoch is certainly a writer of ideas). As I’m reading this novel, I noted that she uses the inclusion of such detail for more than merely its tangible service. Generally she goes on to add some psychological insight about the character. One may be described as nicely dressed to show that she is an orderly thinker or that he invites the ridicule of other characters. The point is that while Murdoch does sometimes give us details about the clothes of her characters, she puts it to more use than merely to give the reader something tangible to envision.

(But someone enlighten me about this: the book was published in 1987, and nothing in it suggests that it is set any significant time earlier than that. So why are women still wearing “petticoats”? Is that some British term that is still in use that doesn’t mean the same thing it used to mean a hundred years ago here in the States? I fear that I’m missing some important allusion to her repeated reference to this type of clothing.)

I chatter on about this subject — clearly one important to me as a writer and reader — in this old post too.



Writing too much

February 11, 2010

I came across this interesting quote from Paul Auster in a twenty-year-old interview in the magazine BOMB.

“There’s a way in which a writer can do too much, overwhelming the reader with so many details that he no longer has any air to breathe. Think of a typical passage in a novel. A character walks into a room. As a writer, how much of that room do you want to talk about? The possibilities are infinite. You can give the color of the curtains, the wallpaper pattern, the objects on the coffee table, the reflection of the light in the mirror. But how much of this is really necessary? Is the novelist’s job simply to reproduce physical sensations for their own sake? When I write, the story is always uppermost in my mind, and I feel that everything must be sacrificed to it. All the elegant passages, all the curious details, all the so-called beautiful writing—if they are not truly relevant to what I am trying to say, then they have to go.”

I don’t mind throwing in all that comes to mind when I’m doing my first drafts; it’s not always clear what may be useful later. But much of it will not be, and that’s what rewriting and editing are for. I know many writers espouse this same thing, but, really, what do they mean by it? And how often do they practice it?

I can still recall with mirth (and a little bit of distaste) a novel by a famous and successful mystery writer (one who, by the way, believes S.S. Van Dine’s mystery writing rules are hidebound absolutes) who was repeatedly guilty of what Maud Newton called “Nancy Drew Moments.” Every time a character was introduced — even the same character appearing in a later scene — the narrative would stop while a thorough inventory of the character’s clothing was given.

There is a school of fiction writing that says readers are not very imaginative and need to be given vast amounts of detail so they can “picture” the scene. More than mere character description. The setting. The weather. The room. The aching tooth. The tight shoes. Many people are taught to write this way.

I hold a contrary opinion (not surprising, eh?). I think a reader is going to dress a character, furnish a room, and know the color of the sky in whatever way they want, often despite what the writer tells them is the case. The story pretty much becomes the property of the reader, or if not the property, then partly the artifice of the reader. And why not collaborate with the reader? Unless some such detail is absolutely essential to understanding the story or character, why waste the words on it?

Robert Boswell makes a similar assertion in his essay collection The Half-Known World, in which he says that there has to be space in a story for the reader to make discoveries. To allow this, the writer has to hold back some of what he knows so that the reader can provide it instead.

For the whole Auster interview, go here.

A fragment

August 31, 2009

Going through the 40,000+ words of notes I’ve accumulated for my current novel, I came across this fragment that I chose not to use:

“When I want to lament my circumstance, I sometimes try to imagine that my master’s mania was to re-create scenes in novels. I consider this an utter impossibility, for each of us may read the same descriptive paragraph and envision it differently in our own minds. Furthermore, what is not described allows more leeway in each mind as we dress a character or decorate a room within our own imagination when the writer has not done this for us, and sometimes, I think, even when the writer has.”

Part of my narrator’s tragic flaw comes from his inflated sense of his importance, and I think his high-sounding language serves that end. It’s a pity in a way that he doesn’t get to narrate his own tale in the end (since I must convert to a third-person narrator to make the story work).

I didn’t use this fragment because it strays from the story I am telling. The point my protagonist is making is one I happen to believe about reading fiction. There is a certain school that believes that writers must give their readers plenty of specific detail about the way characters are dressed or what is in a room or such. The readers somehow need this in order to sustain interest in the story or picture what is going on. I happen to think that is baloney. Most often these descriptive passages are intrusive and add little to the drive of the storytelling. In their most extreme these instances have been termed “Nancy Drew Moments” after the frequency in which they occurred in those novels. Furthermore, I truly think that thoughtful readers will dress the characters as they imagine them to be, despite what description the writer provides.

Robert Boswell makes this very point in his non-fiction work The Half-Known World: On Fiction Writing. He asserts that, at least in literary fiction, the story emerges from a world unknown to the writer (that has certainly been my experience with this novel) and that some things about it will never be fully known by either the writer or the reader.

This is not to say that a given character’s clothing or facial features or even the decor of a room can’t be important to a story. Indeed, facial features and physique are especially important in the novel I’m working on. When the reader truly needs these details, they ought to be provided. But if they are not needed, if they don’t contribute in some way to the story telling, whether in plot or tone or setting or something, they are superfluous and unnecessary. Some readers might even find them insulting.

So you can see that I care a great deal about this kind of thing, and I was ready to use my protagonist’s musings as a soapbox for my own, but I decided I was turning the story too much to my own ends and not to the needs of the story, so out it came.