Friday, February 19, 2010

The Writer Who Knew Too Much

I've been running into a new problem while working on the rough draft of Bodie's Men lately.  I've tried doing some research on it, but everything I've run across so far talks about the positives of writing fiction about subjects you know well.

What about the hazards of writing about a subject you know well?

Bodie's Men is (supposed to be a novel) about a girl who graduates college and decides, on a whim, to join the Marine Corps as an officer, in part to horrify her upper-crust parents. With my background as a Marine officer and Iraq vet myself, I know quite a bit about the Marine Corps. Too much, actually; it keeps tripping me up during my writing.

Take this paragraph, for instance (Rough draft, remember, people? I know this is a little terrible, but I'm giving myself permission to be terrible):

“You keep telling them that.” I stuck my brown plastic spoon into my MRE pouch.  I was eating Chicken Breast With Salsa, which was only moderately disgusting, especially since we were on our five hours of rest for the night, less watch, and I’d had time to heat it for once.

I'd like to submerge the reader in Marineland, but how many details are distracting? What makes sense without explanation? How do I stop explaining crap that people do not need to know?

The spoons that come in our MRE (Meal-Ready-to-Eat) packages are brown. It's the only utensil in there, and when out in the field, most of us tuck our spoons into one of the loops in front of our flak jackets. It's not entirely cleanly, but convenient.

But you don't need to know that, do you?  Is it interesting? Is it a lot of extraneous crap about a spoon? It certainly can't all be dumped into one paragraph, but does putting it as little details even work, or does it distract the reader from the story?

Everything is an internal debate like that, so far. I feel like my paragraphs are too long, too full of explanation between action & dialogue.  There are all these little things, techniques, practices, phrases, titles, that don't make sense to any newbie on day one in the military.  I want to be realistic without leaving the reader irritated or confused.

I don't know whether I should just throw it all down, with whatever explanation or lack thereof comes naturally. Then I can beg people to read it and tell me what is unnecessary and what needs clarification.  I know this is a technique problem, not actually an issue with knowing too much (although the latter sounds much more flattering ;)). I need to learn how to separate out what's truly relevant and vital for the reader, and what's unnecessary explanation.

Right now, the challenge is irritating me immensely. Something tells me that Bodie's Men is going to be its own unique challenge, and an excellent learning experience... which is great. Really.

Anyone else ever struggle with how much detail to put in, to avoid either confusing or irritating your reader? Can you know too much about your fictional world?

6 comments:

Karen Amanda Hooper said...

I struggle with details all the time. Reading and writing them. If there's more than a few lines of details in a novel I'm reading, I skim through to get back to the story. Makes me realize to cut out some of the fluff in my own writing.

Stephanie Thornton said...

I write pages of details for certain things- the most recent one was a tomb. I wanted all the details to be accurate, but then I'll go in and chop what I don't need, knowing everything in there is correct.

Could you use hyperbole to describe the food? I find that's often the way to make an impact with few words.

Ellen B said...

My gut feeling is to put it all in and the take it out when you edit.

That way, if, say, the spoon bit comes two pages after an equally detailed reference to something else, you'll see that it's too much detail. Or if you read the whole book as one and find that you've established everything you say in the spoon bit effectively somewhere else, you can get rid of it.

Also, it has the advantage of postponing the problem :D

Jen said...

Love the picture!!!

I'm with Ellen B on this one, if you feel it write it, editing will allow you to decide what parts are too descriptive too detailed, you can learn the flow once you're through it, but at least here and now you can capture the good, the bad, the ugly!

Guinevere said...

Karen, I'll start skipping if there's a lot of detail sometimes, too. I want the story part! It's definitely good to remember how we read when we're writing!

Stephanie, thanks for the ideas. You must have a ton of experience editing for the perfect details by now!

Ellen, Jen, I'm going to go with your suggestion and then try to chop like Stephanie does. It certainly sounds better than trying to self-edit as I go. Writing is never a cakewalk, is it?

Piedmont Writer said...

You hit the nail on the head. You can't self-edit as you go, it's way too hard. Just write the story the way you want to write it, with or without the spoon, it doesn't matter, it's only a first draft. Don't get too bogged down with what you think is good or bad, you'll drive yourself nuts. Just let the words flow, use them any way you want. When you write 'the end', then you can go back and edit whatever you want. IF you try and do it now, you'll never finish the book.