Mistakes Writers Make-Even the Big Ones (R)

I've become more aware of how writers write as I hone my own writing, and one thing I notice that we (yes, me too) do is put too much of ourselves into a work. As a teacher, I want to teach, so I have to guard against putting lessons on Scottish history into the middle of an otherwise swiftly-moving story.

Now that I've admitted my own fault, I notice that it happens to other writers as well, some much more famous than I. Sometimes it's just the irresistible urge to put in a factoid that the writer found too cool to leave out, and that's not so bad. But when the reader must endure several pages of the writer's opinion of modern psychiatry, industrial practices that pollute, or governmental indifference to the lower class, I begin to wonder, "Where was the editor in all this?"

The book I'm reading now, by a slightly famous author, keeps stopping to give the reader lessons: temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico, stages of grief, laboratory procedures. The author sometime tries to camouflage them by making them dialogue, but no real-life person who lectured his friends at such length on any topic would be invited to their clambakes a second time.

I remember reading Sinclair's "The Jungle" as a young person and being disappointed in the ending, which wandered away from the characters I'd come to care so deeply for and descended into a socialist diatribe.

Some authors can do it. We don't mind a bit, in fact we love it, when they teach us what they learned in research. It's done quickly and cleverly in most cases, woven into the fabric of the story so it doesn't appear as a black and white patch atop the color, and they have a sense of how much to tell, how much we want to know before we return to the characters' lives.

As writers of fiction, we should keep in mind that we aren't teaching the reader. We can only show what exists in the world we create and let the reader draw her own conclusions about how that applies to reality.

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Comment by Peg Herring on March 25, 2008 at 5:40am
I like your analogy to seeing the puppeteer -- that's exactly what it's like to hear the author's voice behind the characters' story.
Good luck with balancing. Like I said, even some of the great ones have trouble with it (as do I when the schoolteacher in me sticks her two cents in).
Comment by len howlett on March 25, 2008 at 3:28am
Firdt Things Firdt (Or Second)

I just had another thought on pontificating. A lot of people who read James Lee Burke's Detective Dave Robicheaux love the character. I do, and especially enjoy the descriptions of the Louisiana cuisine, since I grew up in the Gulf Coast and married into a Cajun family and have eaten my way across the area many times. Then you also know that Dave Robicheaux is a reformed alcoholic and remarks upon it at gret length in every story. But I would be surprised if anyone is distracted or offended by it. The reason is that it explains the character, it is integral to who Dave Robicheaux is, and it is not ever to be confused with a temperance lecture. Dave is who he is and, through this revelation of character, we know the reason. And Mr. Burke is not recruiting anyone to his side of the question. As for me, I find his degenerate, libertine partner Cletus a fine counterbalance and personal role model.
Comment by len howlett on March 25, 2008 at 2:59am
Let me firdt relate this to another discussion I noticed about there not being enough opining on this site. I as a relatively new, unpublished member have, until now at least, tried to be a good boy and know my place and read and let my learned elders tell me something. So when should I start opining? Hopefully, when (and if) I am published and have something to say, I will exhibit enough class to not try to tell everyone else to stand back at let me tell them the way. So maybe the time is now.

Let me opine a second or two: ENTERTAINMENT is the thing here in this line, and it is based on the love of an author's characters. We have to love even the villains because we have seen enough revelatory info delivered skillfully to feel a certain creepy intimacy. When the author gets in the way and shows their need to lecture, it's like the kids seeing the puppeteer's legs and hands behind the character. I am having that trouble right now. My character hates current events and the villains that hold the world stage so much I find that I have launched into diatribes and lectures, and my con man is left moralizing and preaching good instead of what we all know he should do as a good scammer which is look out for number one and admire the other big time guys who run the world like a horrible, fixed arcade game. Oh,oh, there I go again. Hopefully, I will have the discipline to edit out the soapbox pronouncements and couch my space allowed on the character. After all, as Karl Rove once said, "The play's the thing."
Comment by Peg Herring on March 19, 2008 at 3:19am
You're right. I think the key is knowing when to say when, and it's hard to police your own work (not sure if a pun was intended there, or achieved, for that matter). I just know that "authortorial" (great term) is irritating when I find it. Oddly, others often look right over it or even consider it great stuff!
Comment by Grant McKenzie on March 19, 2008 at 2:05am
Yep, my editor keeps slapping my wrist about that in the line edits - unnecessary information and authortorial are the two biggest red pen marks. The weird thing is that in a lot of books I've read and enjoyed, it's these little asides that made them something special. I mean where would Police Captain Edward X. Delaney be without his sandwiches?

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