Monday, January 30, 2012

Past your eyes

The writer as researcher

I can't help myself. I read prefaces and acknowledgments in books. It fascinates me when the author thanks the people who helped him dredge up the arcana that enriched his writing or when he cites source material that might reward further reading. I want to know where the amazing detail or fascinating inside information came from.

Of course, sometimes it's fake. One of my old college chums pointed out a passage in a bestselling novel that described in loving detail the wardroom of the aircraft carrier John F. Kennedy. The minutiae gave weight and verisimilitude to the scene set therein. But my friend scoffed.

“I've been there. It's nothing like that! The author just made it up.”

I guess it was even more a work of fiction than I realized at the time.

On another occasion I asked a bestselling author about his use of apparently real California neighborhoods. I asked him if he was depicting real-world venues or products of his imagination. He stated that every scene was set in a place he knew personally, and that he either scouted out locales in person or used neighborhoods in which he had lived or often visited.

This question came up as my publisher obtained pre-publication reviews of my manuscript. One reviewer sent in a single-spaced three-page commentary that warmed the cockles of my heart with its praise. Of course, the reviewer also suggested some judicious cuts in the manuscript, which I dutifully embraced, but most of my attention was focused on his more positive observations:
One suspects the author's encyclopedic knowledge of dairy farming comes not only from personal experience, but even more of it must come from serious research.
Um ... no. Research? What's that?

I lived on a dairy farm for twenty years. All of the utterly (udderly?) persuasive detail that so impressed my reviewer was based on simple experience—stuff that passed before my eyes. I would have known even more good stuff had I not been so willing to defer to my eager younger brother when there was work to be done. If he was willing to volunteer, then I was willing to sit behind the haystack with a book.
Every tool or machine employed in the sowing, raising or harvesting of crops is described in loving, complex detail, as is the nurture, handling and transportation of the cows themselves. One chapter entitled “Green Cotton,” for example, could be used as a primer for anyone interested in the cultivation of that particular crop.
This may astonish you, but my editors and I did not choose to quote this on the cover of the book. Nor did we use the line where he praised my “abstruse knowledge.” Hey, bookstore browsers! Want to read a rapturous ode to farm equipment, crop rotation, and animal husbandry?

The movie rights are as good as sold!

Still, the reviewer was exceedingly kind in his comments about my grasp of farm arcana, which I tell you in all honesty is nothing remarkable. Here's the “abstruse knowledge” comment in context, where you can see the reviewer's generous and kind appraisal:
The author’s abstruse knowledge, however, is never employed gratuitously, but invariably to establish some point of character (as in the above instance, the incompetent Candido’s attempts to “cut corners” which invariably end in disaster) or to advance the plot, as is the case of the elaborate description of the marvelously complicated—and dangerous—machine used to harvest alfalfa which causes the young Trey’s life-changing accident. This information is presented with such consummate authority the reader never for an instance questions its accuracy.
So there! I is an expert!

The reviewer shares my Portuguese heritage, which is certainly one of the reasons he was asked to review my novel in manuscript form. He appreciated my efforts to capture and convey the cultural tangles that arose as the novel's immigrant protagonists put down new roots in the New World and are gradually transformed into Americans. He also thought that I was mostly successful in presenting the travails of the main characters.
The plot is long and complex, the cast of characters large, and since one of the joys of reading is to meet them on one’s own terms, they are best left for readers themselves to discover. They are a lively and varied bunch and the author delineates them with considerable verve, humor and intelligence. You will enjoy getting to know them.
The reviewer also gave me some fatherly advice about improving the novel's dialogue. I tend to use direct address quite often, with the use of proper names intended to avoid any ambiguity about who is speaking to whom. In real life, however, people seldom do this, so my conversations were a bit “wooden” in places. (On the other hand, no one ever had to go back several lines to go even-odd-even-odd to figure out who is talking.) I performed the reviewer's recommended excisions and similarly smoothed my dialogue. Of course, I didn't feel obligated to take all of his advice:
Your style is generally clean, straightforward, simple and direct, not much given to metaphor, which, unless it comes naturally, should generally be avoided. Nor do you, fortunately, attempt to wax lyrical. [You are, however, occasionally given to showing off your vocabulary.]
Yep, no waxing lyrical here! But as for showing off vocabulary? Indubitably!

And he finished by calling my book “excellent”! Coming to a bookstore near you this summer.


The Ridger, FCD said...

Yay! I can't wait. Based on the vignettes you've given us in this blog, I expect to like this book very much. (I do hope there'll be a Kindle edition right off, too.)

Zeno said...

I wish that I could promise a Kindle edition right off the bat, but it doesn't appear to be in the cards. I'll keep asking, though.

Jeff said...

I'm eagerly looking forward to reading your book, and I imagine you're eager for us to read it, but one thing's been bothering will you be able to tell us about the book upon its publication while maintaining your anonymity?

Zeno said...

I can't, really. But I'll give you a link to the book when it's available and you can go there and discover my—gasp!—secret identity. I'll continue to use my pseudonym here and retain a kind of pseudo-anonymity, like lots of other bloggers who blog under an assumed name but whose identities are open secrets. No big deal.

Gene O'Pedia said...

Wait a minute, authors have been none to use a nom de plume on their books, maybe Zeno will, too. How will we know? It will be a mystery wrapped in an enigma, wrapped in bacon.

Zeno said...

Oh, yeah? Well, how do we know that you're really Gene O'Pedia and not just some scoundrel hijacking his famous name?

Gene O'Pedia said...

Touché to that, Big Z. The real G. O'Pedia, as is so well known in legend and song, would never mistakenly use "none" instead of "known". So you may be right, which only makes me wonder, who's really writing this comment?

Our anticipation of your upcoming novel is topped by the accompnaying and perhaps shocking revelation of who Zeno is in real life.

Kathie said...

"One chapter entitled 'Green Cotton,' for example, could be used as a primer for anyone interested in the cultivation of that particular crop."

Reminds me of Katherine Vaz' short story "How to Grow Orchids Without Grounds -- A Manual" in "Fado and Other Short Stories," for which in the Acknowledgments section at the end of the book (p. 168), she cites 2 botanical publications as sources for her background info. At the time I read that, I was sure hoping that Vaz did more than just research orchid culture before writing that story, i.e., that she or someone she knew had actually grown orchids and that her research was more of the "dotting the Is and crossing the Ts" type of exercise (or "crossing the eyes," as the case may be with research sometimes, alas).

To Zeno's many followers: I was privileged to proofread the galleys of his novel, and can vouch that it's a genuine page-turner. Not only should you buy copies for yourselves, but also for all your friends, families, neighbors, co-workers, even random strangers you encounter on the street -- not only so they might read it but also to stake Zee to a small fortune so he can afford to take a sabbatical in order to write his next novel (which, assuming he adheres to the conventional wisdom of writing about what one knows best, will presumably be about the joys and travails of math-teaching, right, Zee?).

Shameless plug terrain: In the meantime, if you need a fiction-fix re Azorean immigrants living and dairying in Tulare County, just click on my URL (blush).

Zeno said...

who Zeno is in real life

There is ample evidence provided in this blog alone to suggest that Zeno and "real life" have very little in common.

Zeno said...

It's true. Kathie, did read the entire thing most diligently. We should therefore take her description of its brilliance at face value!

On the other hand, let's not concern ourselves unduly with her talk of a "next novel."

Kathie said...

Zee, you don't want to be a "One Hit Wonder," now do you?

Bob Becker said...

About acknowledgements:

They all of course thank friends, family, etc. who read the mss. for them, and invariably include some line about "any errors are my responsibility and mine alone."

But there was one author, of a history as I recall, who after the usual thank yous, added that if there were any errors in the book, it was the fault of all those people he'd just thanked, because he'd asked them to spot and fix them. If they failed to do that, wasn't his fault.

All tongue in cheek, but as I recall, he had to put out a letter explaining that it was all in fun. Wish I could remember his name. I cracked up when I read it in his book. [Yes, I read acknowledgements too.]

Zeno said...

In their classic work Graphical Enumeration, Frank Harary and Edgar Palmer concluded their acknowledgments with "Unlike Gilbert and Sullivan, we intend to continue talking to each other. Unlike Allendoerfer and Oakley, we do not blame each other for the misprints, but we join in blaming the publisher."

That delighted me when I first saw it back in 1973 and it still amuses me.

Karen said...

Zeno, lad, please do a Kindle version! I don't have a Kindle, but I downloaded their PC app to be able to read Jim Downey's "Communion of Dreams", and it's surprisingly easy to use.

My house is awash in books. There are whole walls of stuffed bookshelves, with books piled on the floor in front of them. I went to Amazon recently to order a particular title, and ended up ordering four more books. The five are sitting on the floor by my desk. I can't deal with this anymore. I HAVE to switch to Kindle.

Kathie said...

"...if there were any errors in the book, it was the fault of all those people he'd just thanked, because he'd asked them to spot and fix them. If they failed to do that, wasn't his fault."

I wonder if anyone was ever willing to proofread any of that author's subsequent books ;-)

Liam Ryan said...

Hi. I've been following your blog for some time. I know you take your anonymity seriously, but is there any way to link us to your new book? I live in the UK too, so I'll have to resort to Amazon. :)

Zeno said...

When the book becomes available in a few months, I'll provide a link here to Amazon or the publisher's page. The release date is still July 1. Thanks for your interest, Liam!

Zeno said...

Kathie, at least a "one-hit wonder" has one hit. There is, of course, no guarantee of even that. (It helps, though, if people follow your advice to buy copies for "friends, families, neighbors, co-workers, even random strangers." Helps a lot!)

Karen: My place is also awash in books so I understand, but it's not my call whether the novel gets a Kindle edition or not. I'm hoping for an early-enough posting on Amazon so that hordes of people can click the "I want this on Kindle" button.