Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Don't tell readers stuff you already told them or that they can figure out on their own...

Here's the kind of critique a writer would pay for,
but it came free from my friend Kerri Sandberg,
with respect to a novel I'm working on:

Hey Richard.... One thing I did notice in the first half was that I found myself feeling a little impatient with Jonah's introspection. I understand that he's a cerebral fellow and most of the time his internal stuff is interesting and feels necessary (like the opening sequence when he thinks of the abortion, his past sins, whether he wept for them enough). But sometimes when he is thinking to himself, I feel as if you the writer are spelling things out for me rather than letting me make the connections for myself.

For example, we know that Jonah has been having a rash of strange dreams -- we've been reading them -- and I would rather be allowed to remember his past dreams on my own, rather than be overtly reminded of them when Jonah sits there thinking about Jung. It's good that you're not providing any interpretations of the dreams, I just wondered if the Jung paragraph was there as a reminder to the reader rather than a necessary and organic part of the story itself.

It's weird, though, because sometimes I really can't decide whether you're spelling things out too much or not.... For example, this part:

"For a minute I sat there listening to the silence. It was one of those sobering moments where everything settles into place, simple and clear, where reality shines just as it is, not one watt more nor less. Where your life stops and turns and looks back at you, eye to eye. I saw that all I had going for me were (1) a hodgepodge of notes and quotes on crying with no rational chance of publication, and (2) a ghost tapping in my attic and coming to me in my dreams. I thought that Coral must have seen me and my life in same glum light and would choose to stay up there in Berkeley with her ex and her kid and never come home to me again."

I mean, that's such great writing, but part of me feels I understand all that already. It's something I can discern without having to be told directly. I know Jonah well enough by now to know what's troubling him, his insecurities, his fears, his relationship to the tears project, to Coral, the ghost, etc. Of course there are always new layers (the loss of this father, the abortion) and I like when those revelations appear in Jonah's introspective moments. But as far as his thought process goes, how he reacts to things, what he thinks and feels about them, a lot of that I can assume on my own at this point. He's been so well developed as a character that some of his thoughts feel like a rehash. I'm sure other readers may not feel that way, though, so obviously take this with a big grain of salt.

I love the entire street scene. The exchange with Donald is great and it gets even better when Roberto and his friends walk over. Any time your humor and sense of the absurd have a chance to shine is so wonderful.

It was hard to believe that Jonah's thoughts would be so controlled while he's sobbing, but then that seems to be the whole point. Even in the midst of an emotional meltdown, Jonah doesn't lose himself completely in his tears. He's self-conscious, aware of how he looks, how he sounds, who's watching him, even what the neighbors will think of this episode in years to come. It's like his mind is completely disconnected from his heart. He can't just surrender completely to what he's feeling. That was interesting and irked me at the same time, which may be what you were going for.

Anyway, just thinking aloud. I'm not sure if any of this will be if use to you. The writing is great as usual, a lot happens here, and it makes me anxious for the next installment. Rosa moved the curtain! That was so cool.
Thanks for all that, Kerri. Yeah, it's a struggle, that too much inner stuff versus the pleasure of the/writing. I'll see more clearly when I'm done and can go through it from the start and see what's too much, repetitious, obvious, irritating, etc.

I'm pretty sure you're right about a lot of it, but I can't see it clearly enough right now as a whole. I admit I get too much of a kick out of having this guy meander through the wringer of his own making.

I think in this particular case I wanted him to be at about at the end of his mental string. But I'm explaining, and you're right, it likely is too much. And you got what I'm trying for in the weeping scene, yes, with him observing all the time even then in the mush of total emotion. I think her telling him to drop the tears project is tied into that, and her whole purpose in returning, or remaining, and yes he has a ways to go. But I know that feeling when I'm reading something good & I'm going, OK we get it already. I'll see, it'll come clear later, but what you're saying only confirms my main concern--that it not bog or irritate the intelligent reader, the ally. So thanks very much, it's just what I need to keep me on track.

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