The post I put up last week—just below this one—had to do with not describing everything in a piece of writing. I generally write fiction (novels and short stories) but that admonition applies to non-fiction as well. Keep description short, I said, just enough to allow the story line to flow from the page into the reader’s mind. Let the reader imagine everything else in his/her mind’s eye. Let the reader fill in the details. Keep it simple, stupid. (That’s the KISS philosophy.) In short, never tell the reader what to think. Now I want to take that concept in a slightly different direction.
It’s that word “details” that’s important in writing. Details get filled in by the reader. This has the effect of allowing the reader to stay focused on the action. I know I like to follow the action of a novel I’m reading if the writer hasn’t peppered it with too many details. I like to visualize it on my own. The more details I fill in by myself, the more I enjoy the book I’m reading. I have a difficult time with manuscripts that try to cram in too much detail in the narrative. I can get confused, wondering if the details of the action are those of the author or my own. I don’t want to be told everything, I want to imagine it.
That’s where, as the title of this post demonstrates, movies come in. Movies are great at showing action, but they show everything. Car chases, airplane dogfights, love scenes, you name it and its all there, put on the screen for the audience to see. Movies are a descendent of the stage play, of course. Plays existed for thousands of years before Edison invented the motion picture camera. Playing things out on the screen in all their glory is a time-honored way to provide an exciting and entertaining time for all of us. And motion pictures can do things that would be impossible in a stage play. Can you imagine the chariot race in Ben-Hur on the stage?
But isn’t that the problem with transferring novels to the screen? The novel is, if done correctly, a medium of minimalism. Minimal description that allows the reader the chance of experiencing the action in his mind. Taking a novel to the screen removes that chance. The movie does it all for you. It shows you everything—what the characters look like, what they’re wearing, their mannerisms—in short, everything. These are two different ways of doing the same thing.
I like movies that didn’t come from a book. Star Wars and Star Trek, for example. (Books have been written using the Star Wars and Star Trek characters, but they came after the movie.) When you watch a movie, everything is done for you. The plot may have twists and turns you couldn’t see coming, but the details are spelled out. A novel gives you more chance to immerse yourself into the action. You have to do more. You don’t have the advantage of someone else showing you. And that is why I have decided, provisionally, at least, not to allow my books (if they ever get published) to be optioned or purchased for the screen. Either the big or small screen. I want the reader to imagine what is going on. Not see it as imagined by some movie company. Never tell the reader what to think. And that’s just what a movie does.
I’ve become a proponent over the past few years of taking a minimalistic approach to the description of characters in a story. Whether it be a novel or a short story, or anything in between, the less description an author can give to a character, the better. Within reason, of course. The reason has to do with my favorite admonition to the writer which is not “Show, don’t tell,” but rather, “Never tell the reader what to think.” Let the reader make up his own mind about a character. Allow the reader the opportunity and privilege of devising in his/her own mind’s eye the image of the character. That could extend to almost anything other than people—buildings, terrain and landscapes, interiors, plants, animals, anything that can be described. Minimal is the word. Let’s take the example of Captain Bill.
Captain Bill shows up in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, very early in the book. In the second paragraph of the first page, to be exact. He’s described minimally by Stevenson as “a tall, strong, heavy, nut-brown man” with a tarry pigtail, and a sabre-cut along one cheek. A few other adjectives complete the description, but that’s all. Captain Bill doesn’t last very long in the story; in my edition of the book, he’s dead by page 30 (and that’s in a book where the text doesn’t begin until page 11). Captain Bill is the figure who owns the map that leads the main character, young Jim Hawkins, and his companions on the trip to recover the treasure. We’re never privileged know Captain Bill’s last name. We’re never even sure if he was really a captain, though Hawkins says he “seemed like a mate or skipper accustomed to be obeyed or to strike.” When another character, Black Dog, appears, he calls him “my mate Bill” only. Thus we, as readers, are left with a short description and several limited scenes of Captain Bill interacting with Hawkins, his mother and father, and a few others on which to draw our mental image.
Yet Captain Bill looms large over the story. He introduces us to the general tone of character we see in others who stick around for the rest of the story, including during the voyage to recover the treasure. People like Long John Silver, (the man with one leg), and Israel Hands, the scheming first mate. Stevenson doesn’t bog us down in overbearing description and detail. Our image of the man is based more on what he does and how he acts than on simple description.
I took this concept to mind when composing the description of a character in one of my science-fiction novels. I originally had, in the first few paragraphs of the novel, a detailed description of the main character. I did it because I felt the reader needed to know what he looked like. I also did it because I had read the first couple of paragraphs of a novel by Tom Wolfe (of Right Stuff fame) where he indulged in a long description of his main character right at the front of the book. I figured that since Tom Wolfe is a well-known novelist, then if he can do it, I can too. Not necessarily.
I’ve come to the conclusion, however, that minimal is better. Let the reader supply the details in his mind. Never tell the reader what to think. Get in and get out. This is true even in science fiction. It’s less boring that way.
Bubonicon 47 is over. Now for the post-mortem.
Bubonicon 47, that is the 47th running of the Albuquerque Science Fiction Convention, was held August 28-30, 2015. This was my seventh con to attend, and as usual it was filled with the interesting and interested, the timely and the timeless, the bizarre and a bazaar (I’m thinking of the dealer’s room here). As usual, I spent all day every day at the Con, attending the panels, browsing the dealer’s area (I didn’t buy anything this year), and browsing the art show (I did buy a computer designed work by Lance Beaton entitled “Phantom Flight.”)
The theme of the Con this year was “Women of Wonder,” celebrating the role of women in science fiction and fantasy, especially women who take the leading role. Wonder Woman, Princess Leia, Ridley from the “Alien” movies, and so forth. Since my (as yet unpublished) science fiction novels have women in leading roles in most cases, I took a special interest in this con, especially to see if I could glean some good details about how to write strong women characters. There were discussion panels on women in combat, strong females needing strong males, the romance subplot, the curse (?) of the strong female, and a few others. The panels were populated mostly by women writers (as you’d expect) and I took home several important tidbits about female characters. One of the most important was in a session entitled “Warrior Women In Combat: Fighting Females.” One member of the panel, Jeffe Kennedy, a Santa Fe author and resident, made the comment that using rape and sexual abuse just to “incentivize” a woman to fight is probably not a good idea. Why not? Because it demeans and diminishes the warrior woman, as though she needs some sort of “extra” incentive to fight for what she believes in, an incentive a male warrior doesn’t have or need. I took that to heart because I’m in the process of writing the third novel in my sci-fi trilogy, and one of the leading characters is a woman raped and abused. That was supposed to give her a reason to fight back against the forces abusing her. But she doesn’t need any special reason to fight so I took that out. She fights for what she believes in, the same as any male would in the same situation.
The recent announcement that two female army officers just completed Army Ranger training under the same circumstances as the men who’ve been going through that course for years, made just before the Con opened, cast an exciting tone through the conference this year. It fit exactly with the theme, and was mentioned a couple of times that I heard. Women have tried Ranger training before, but none of them has finished the course. (I’m not sure I could finish it, even in my prime. It’s a tough course.) But the two women who did certainly didn’t need any extra incentive to get through. They did it on their own, and your characters in your books can too.
Enough said. Looking forward to 48.
I watched an interesting movie several weeks ago. Interesting because of the ending. The movie was “Absence of Malice,” with Paul Newman and Sally Field. Newman plays the son of a mobster, but isn’t himself involved with the mob. Sally Field plays a newspaper reporter to whom is leaked by an unscrupulous Justice Department employee some information that Newman is involved in the murder of a labor leader in Florida. (The movie was shot in Florida.) The newspaper she works for prints the story and Newman’s reputation is destroyed, and it leads to the murder of a close (female) friend of his. But what interested me most about the movie was the ending.
Wilford Brimley portrays a member of the US Justice Department sent to Florida to do damage control when the accusations and news stories get out of hand. Brimley was well cast; he’s a larger-than-life character with a gruff manner who gets the principal players in a room together and lays down the law. He shuts down the investigation and threatens to prosecute anyone who doesn’t go along. Newman is exonerated (viewers know that he was never involved all the way through the movie anyway) and Field is revealed as the naïve, gullible reporter she really was. Then the movie ends.
Okay, so what? This type of ending is a form of deus ex machina, or literally, “God out of a Machine.” It refers to ancient Greek and Roman drama when a god (“deus”) was introduced near the end of a play by means of a crane (“machina”) to decide the final outcome. So often it has a bad connotation, that using it is an indication of lazy writing. More recently, in fiction especially, it refers to some device that is introduced suddenly and unexpectedly at the end to provide a solution. Shakespeare even used it occasionally. (As You Like It, for example) If used improperly, and even willy-nilly, it can seem contrived. As though it was something thrown in to end a play because the writer got his characters in a too convoluted plot line and/or was simply too comatose to figure a more appropriate ending.
In the movie, Brimley’s character plays the deus ex machina. He doesn’t come in on a machine, he just walks down the hall and enters the room where the others are waiting. But his pronouncements and decisions basically terminate the movie. And rather abruptly, too. However, it’s important to realize that, in this particular case, the ending isn’t contrived or staged. The investigation was part of the Justice Department, and when it got out of hand and threatened to destroy several lives, it was natural that the higher-ups in the Department would want to end it. Enter Brimley.
Actually, I liked the ending that way. I found it uplifting to realize that the Justice Department took sufficient interest in the case to lower the boom on everybody. In short, I enjoyed it.
That brings up the most important thing about a deus ex machina ending. It has to be foreshadowed in the early part of the narrative. Otherwise, just having a character make pronouncements right at the end without any build-up will be grossly unsatisfying and just simply fabricated. I used the deus ex machina ending in one of my (so far unpublished) science fiction novels, but I made sure that the ending was logical and reasonable, based on incidents taking place in previous parts of the book. So don’t reject the deus ex machina ending out of hand. Used properly, it can work. It’s not for everybody, sure, and shouldn’t be used in every book you write. You are a writer, aren’t you?
Oops. I’ve gone over 600 words. Time to stop.
Over the past several years, beginning in late 2011, I’ve been sending out queries to literary agents around the country, trying to persuade one of them to take on my first novel and sell it to a publisher. (This is what most people refer to as the “traditional” method of getting published.) So far I’ve been singularly unsuccessful in my efforts. Rejections nowadays come in two forms. Some agents still actually reply to a letter, invariably by email anymore. But some agents have decided they have just too little time to send out rejection replies, and the only way you know if you’ve been rejected is to check their website and note their usual response time. If that amount of time, or more, has passed since you sent in your query letter and you haven’t heard from them, you can assume the agent won’t be taking you on as a client. Sadly, that second method of query rejection is becoming more and more common.
But what I want to focus on for this blog post is the general response from those who still do reply in one form or another. Replies are invariably short and sweet, usually one or two sentences, although I have had a few rejections that took up to three paragraphs and went into exquisite detail about how busy they are and how they can take on only a few clients at a time, and so on and so forth. That may be important to them, but it’s hardly informative.to a prospective client. What has become interesting to me is the use of the word “right” in so many of the rejections I’ve actually gotten. Boiling rejections down into the few significant and concise words that actually convey a message, the word “right” occurs frequently. The agent will say, referring to the manuscript, “It’s not right for me,” or “It’s not right for our agency at this time.” Or, “We’re not the right agency for this project.” Or, “This particular work is just not right for me.” Or other variations on the concept.
I’m not sure exactly what to make of that type of response. Of the 50 rejections I’ve received so far (that’s out of over a hundred sent out), 21 have used the word “right” in one context or another. That’s 42 percent. (The rest have not responded at all.) None of these have told me anything as to what the agent thought of the manuscript, so I can’t really draw any significant conclusions from their statements. Granted, these responses are designed to be wholly and uniformly generic and serve as a rejection for any type of manuscript that crosses their computer screen. But it would be nice to be able to conclude something from all these rejections and revise the manuscript to reflect what people are saying.
Ah, the caprices of being a writer.
I’m going to stick my neck out here and try and define a characteristic of fiction that is, at least to me, new. I’ve written a few short stories as well as three novels, but when I finished a short story of about 4600 words a few weeks back, and read through it several times, I was struck by the story’s lack of a characteristic I’m going to call “import.”
What’s import, you ask? It’s going to be hard to define, and I’m not sure I can do a very good job. Perhaps the best way to define it is to look at stories that lack the concept. A story without import is bland, unimaginative, listless. That’s not to say that a story without import can’t be well written, or well conceived, or well executed. But when I finished reading through my story I asked myself, “What the hell was that?” It wasn’t that the story wasn’t satisfying, and it wasn’t that I didn’t get anything out of it, but it fell flat on its face, and I was left with the feeling of, “So what?”
To be effective, a story has to mean something. It not only has to have a real beginning, middle and end, the final impression left in the reader has to be real. My story didn’t do that. I thought it was reasonably well written, it has a real beginning, middle and end all right, and when I was through, I felt it gave the reader a lot of interesting information. I even had to do some research to get my facts correct. Yet, it was flat. Dullsville. Again, I said to myself, so what?
This was the first time this had happened. All my stories I feel give the reader something significant to take away. But this one didn’t, and I can’t really define why not. A story has to leave an impression on the reader. That can be either a positive or negative impression. Leaving a negative impression is at least an impression. If a reader says, “I hated that story,” that’s better than, “I got nothing out of it,” or “I didn’t understand it,” or “So what.”
I’m not sure how I can fix the story to make it more significant. It actually tells the story I wanted to tell, and does it effectively, with even a little humor, yet it lacks something important. The story falls into a category called magical realism, a relatively new genre which is sort of a subdivision of science fiction, and a genre I’m just getting into. I suspect no reputable journal or magazine would ever accept it, though; it’s too bland. I could spice it up, yet that would be to pollute it with details that have little to do with the plot. That probably wouldn’t fix the problem anyway.
Ah, the vagaries of the writing life.
I just finished reading Jonas Salk, A Life, by Charlotte DeCroes Jacobs, published in 2015 by Oxford University Press. Here’s my take on the book and the main character.
Jonas Salk was born on October 28, 1914 in a tenement in East Harlem, New York. His mother was a Russian immigrant, his father a natural-born American of Lithuanian ancestry. He was intelligent and eager to learn, prodded both by his strong-willed mother and his innate desire to learn. He was quite intelligent in fact—he skipped several grades in school and went on to attend City College of New York and eventually University and Bellevue Medical College where he graduated with an MD degree in June, 1939. When World War II broke out, he was classified IIA (deferred in support of national health), and never actually served in the Army, though later he worked with the Army in testing an influenza vaccine. He’d gotten his first position at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor where he began his work on an early influenza vaccine, an accomplishment he doesn’t very often get credit for. In fact, some of the techniques he devised in that study helped make the vaccine feasible.
Here Jacobs briefly reviews the history of vaccines, including Jenner’s smallpox vaccine, Pasteur’s rabies vaccine, and Max Theiler’s yellow fever vaccine. Salk’s influenza vaccine was a killed vaccine, made by inactivating the virus with formaldehyde.
In October of 1947, Salk moved to the University of Pittsburgh where he continued to work on influenza and where he tested it in Army recruits. It was here he started the work he’s best known for, an inactivated poliovirus vaccine. His name is so synonymous with the inactivated vaccine it’s even in the dictionary to this day. (Look under “Salk vaccine.”) By this time, polio was a worldwide scourge. Epidemics came around every few years when children (mostly) were cut down with fever, pain, and eventual paralysis. The paralysis could affect one or more limbs or the breathing muscles, requiring the child be hospitalized in a full-body respirator, better known as an iron lung. Deaths from the disease were common. Salk himself, though he grew up in a lower-class neighborhood of New York City, never caught either influenza or polio, thanks in large part to this mother who kept him inside studying more than many others of his generation.
Salk’s work on the polio vaccine was funded in large part by the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (NFIP). It had been started in 1937 by President Franklin Roosevelt (himself a polio survivor.) Interestingly, Jacobs reports that FDR attended a Boy Scout rally where he most likely became infected. I’d never heard that story, though she gives it without attribution, unusual in a book so full of references on all aspects of Salk’s life. Roosevelt picked Basil O’Connor to head up the NFIP, and O’Connor became one of Salk’s closest friends and allies for a long time, almost until his death. O’Connor got Salk the money he needed to do the work on the vaccine. It was the NFIP that started the “March of Dimes” program, though interestingly, entertainer Eddie Cantor was the one who actually coined the term. Salk continued to receive funding from the NFIP for many years, even though his founding of the Salk Foundation in La Jolla, California.
It’s instructive to look back on Jonas Salk’s work with the hindsight of history. I can state from my own experience that poliovirus is a relatively easy virus to grow and work with. Salk took advantage of the new science of cell culture, where living cells could be grown in a glass vessel such as a test tube or a flask. Viruses have to have living cells to grow in. One type of early culture cell was made from the kidneys of monkeys (a technique still in use, though not for making vaccines), and poliovirus grew easily in it. I’ve grown poliovirus in many different types of cells, including continuous cell lines such as HeLa, where it grows well. So it’s easy to see why polio was one of the first viruses used for vaccine production. Salk could get large amounts of it, and it could be titrated (measured) easily. He inactivated it with formalin (formaldehyde dissolved in water), which killed the virus but kept its ability to induce immunity in an individual. The techniques were there, and Salk took advantage of them. Ironically, it is for this probable reason that Jonas Salk was never inducted into the National Academy of Sciences in the US. His work on the inactivated vaccine, though a tremendous advance in the ongoing fight against infectious disease, may not have risen—in the eyes of the members of the Academy—to a level that met their guidelines of “distinguished . . . achievement in original research.” Salk was hurt, and carried his disappointment the rest of his life.
If there is a dark figure in Jonas Salk’s life, it would have to be Albert Sabin. Sabin criticized Salk beginning even before the inactivated vaccine came out. Sabin called him a “kitchen chemist.” “You could go,” he said, “into the kitchen and do what he did.” Sabin eventually developed a live-virus vaccine for polio, and it became the standard vaccine in the US (though not in all other countries), even though there have been reports of the live vaccine causing paralytic disease in some people. Sabin steadfastly refused to ever acknowledge this, however. Sabin took every opportunity to belittle Salk and his vaccine, promoting the live-virus vaccine whenever he could. It sounds like jealousy to me. Salk got the first vaccine against polio and the major share of the recognition.
On the dust jacket of the book is a picture of Salk holding a rack of about thirty test tubes. He’s holding the rack above his head and looking at the bottom of the tubes. While the picture was probably posed, he’s examining the tubes for something. Most probably he’s looking at the color of the liquid in the tubes. The liquid is a nutrient medium the monkey kidney cells grow in. If the medium is pink, it means the virus killed the cells, while yellow means the cells grew and were not infected. Behind him are many more racks, a testament to the huge amount of work it took to develop the vaccine.
Jonas Salk went on to work on AIDS and cancer, developing an early inactivated vaccine against AIDS. It didn’t work very well (actually, most vaccines against AIDS don’t work.) The Salk Foundation he set up in La Jolla continues to this day, and continues to try to work toward his vision of merging science and the humanities. That had been a life-long dream of his, though it didn’t work out exactly as he envisioned it. Salk was always a visionary, yet took no remuneration from his fame as the conqueror of polio. He worked almost entirely on the salary he drew from his academic appointments.
Many vaccines today are made from recombinant DNA which eliminates the need for inactivating a whole virus. The influenza vaccine, however, is still made of inactivated virus, still grown in embryonated hens eggs, using techniques that, though slightly changed from Salk’s day, would be familiar to him. Formaldehyde is now considered a carcinogen, and isn’t used any more. Monkey kidney cells can contain other viruses and these viruses can show up in a vaccine. But it’s interesting to look back at Jonas Salk and learn from his work. Poliomyelitis has been almost entirely eradicated from the earth, thanks in large part to the inactivated vaccine. Polio still exists in a few third-world countries, especially those torn by war. I suggest this book be required reading for any biological scientist, virologist or not, and undoubtedly will become the definitive account of Salk’s life. At least for a while.