by Dave Moyer
Editorial feedback for a writer is imperative. Objective sets of eyes force the writer to critically examine the extent to which particular passages work as intended. There are those times when a writer knows that his original conception of how to invite the reader in is best, which begs the question, “How much advice is too much, and when should a writer ’trust his gut’?”
For my novel Life and Life Only, two separate editors provided conflicting advice. One suggested that I should describe places and things in greater detail, while another said I was doing too much “telling”. The latter pointed to what she considered an effective exchange between two characters and prompted me to utilize dialogue more frequently. According to her, readers could relate to the characters better when they interacted with each other. Additionally, she wanted to know more of the characters’ thoughts and encouraged me to include more of what they were thinking. In all cases I was told, “Readers like that.”
So, who was right, and in what circumstances was one set of advice superior to the other? Consider this analogy. In basketball, players tend to fall back on their favorite move in tight situations when the game is on the line. They do so because when a person experiences success, they tend to resort to what they know has worked in the past. How a person learns that a particular strategy is effective in a given situation could be due to natural talent, a lot of practice, or some combination of both. What is certain is that more often than not individuals revert to a preferred technique without conscious thought.
Tom Wolfe is a trained observer, and, in his books, he describes scenes as a journalist would. In A Man in Full he writes, “Roger . . . had on a navy hard-finished worsted single-breasted suit, a shirt with white collar and cuffs and a body of pale blue stripes, a medium blue crepe de chine necktie with tiny navy pin dots at half-inch intervals, and cap-toed black shoes. From his breast pocket debouched a plain white silk handkerchief.” For Wolfe, this is just getting warmed up.
Saul Bellow, known for his use of interior monologue, in Seize the Day writes, “He believed that he must, that he could and would recover the good things, the happy things, the easy tranquil things of life. He had made mistakes, but he could overlook these. He had been a fool, but that could be forgiven. The time wasted—must be relinquished. What else could one do about it? Things were too complex, but they might be reduced to simplicity again. Recovery was possible. First he had to get out of the city.”
Many consider Ernest Hemingway the grandfather of modern 20th Century American dialogue. In his short story “Indian Camp”, a man commits suicide while his wife is undergoing a Caesarian Section, and a father and son try to make sense of what happened.
“Do ladies always have such a hard time having babies?”
“No, that was very, very exceptional.”
“Why did he kill himself, Daddy?”
“I don’t know, Nick. He couldn’t stand things, I guess.”
“Do many men kill themselves, Daddy?”
“Not very many, Nick.”
“Do many women?”
“Don’t they ever?”
“Oh, yes. They do sometimes.”
“Where did Uncle George go?”
“He’ll turn up all right.”
“Is dying hard, Daddy?”
“No, I think it’s pretty easy, Nick. It all depends.”
My favorite novel is The Great Gatsby. The economy of the prose, each word intentional, and the sum of the parts brilliant, is my preferred style. I do not care for excessive description or dialogue. I like a book that breathes a little and allows the reader to make the connections to their own experiences and use their imagination to both make meaning and derive enjoyment. Still, as a book reviewer, I try to be objective, as do the editors, who also have their individual preferences.
Perhaps writers should take a lesson from the great American troubadour Bob Dylan. Dylan does not tailor his live performances to please the audience. Rather, the audience is pleased because of what it experiences. Dylan has made a career of taking his audience with him, rather than pandering to their pre-conceived ideas of what his music should be. Typically, the instant that bands begin to lose relevance coincides almost exactly to when they become more concerned about how their fans will react than the quality of the art they produce. Like audience members, all reviewers, editors, writers, and readers have their own tastes. Sometimes, a writer must simply trust his gut and take the reader along with him.