Points of Contention

We had what I’d consider a couple of points of contention in writers group last week.

Not that that’s a bad thing, necessarily. I mean, it ain’t like we threw ms pages at one another or had screaming fits. We’re not sensitive artists by any means. (I have to wonder if there can really be such a thing. I doubt a truly sensitive person will last long in the creative arts because criticism and the ability to take it are integral parts of anything creative.)

I’ll start out with Greg Camp’s story.

Greg is reading a Western he’s written about a man named Dowland. Dowland is a Confederate veteran (kudos to Greg for not making him the typical Union veteran just because they won) who’s come west, as many did, to get away from his past, and, it sounds like, the Recent Disagreement in particular. Of course, this is an incomplete picture because I don’t get to be there for all the readings.

Anyway, one of the things the group tends to get on Greg the most about is that ephemeral thing called sense of place. At least, it’s ephemeral for me. I have a rough idea of what it means, and I think I manage to put it in most of the time. But I have a hard time differentiating between description and rooting us in the scene. For me, description does root me in the scene and gives me that sense of place. I generally manage sense of place by stretching out my description of what’s around the characters or what’s happening around them. Usually a mix of both.

Greg’s scene involved Dowland and another man sneaking up on a cabin where they felt another character, a young boy who’s latched onto Dowland as a sort of father figure, is being held captive by the bad guys.

Now, as the scene unfolded, I saw the pine trees, the mountains, felt the wind blowing, smelled the pine sap, all that stuff, even though Greg didn’t necessarily spell it all out for me.

But there were others who said he didn’t have a sense of place.

Now, for me, there’s always been this ongoing argument: as a writer, it’s my job to tell you the story. But I’m to tell it to you in such a way that you are engaged in it.

That doesn’t mean I have to hold your hand the entire way.

For instance, one story I tried writing some time back involved a scene that’s common here in Arkansas, and contained a description that included some Queen Anne’s lace, a flower that grows pretty much everywhere around here during a certain part of the summer. When I showed that scene to my friend, he said I should explain what Queen Anne’s lace is and I disagreed. Why? Because I’m not gonna lead you by the hand. Neither am I going to bog you down in needless detail. To have the flowers there was important. To describe them in detail wasn’t. If you really want to know what they are, look ’em up.

I’m not the only one who feels this way. I often see things like this in other novels and I haven’t a clue what it is or what it looks like. That’s fine. If I really want to know, I’ll find out. If I don’t, it’s not gonna distract from the story for me.

 I didn’t need Greg to tell me of all the scents, sounds, and sights to be in the scene. Is that a shortcoming on my part? Well, I’d like to think not. It’s like the graphics in a video game: sure, the better they are, the prettier the game is. But what are awesome graphics if the games sucks? Nothing. Sense of place, to me, isn’t half as important as the story. Entertain me and I’ll fill in some of the gaps. And by filling in those gaps, I’m engaged in the story.

Another point we had was in my story. Early on, I have Lyle’s son Cody call him out on what he’s been doing by saying that he and his sister knew their dad was cooking meth in the car because they could smell it. A couple of people had problems with this, and they were different problems, too, though possibly related.

The first problem—and it had come up before—was that they didn’t like Lyle putting his kids in danger like that, by hauling them around in a car he’d cooked meth in. Now, to be perfectly clear, he wasn’t hauling them around in it while he was cooking, which is a big difference. But it can be reasonably argued that residue could endanger Kendra and Cody and you wouldn’t get much disagreement from me.

The problem came because some of the other members of the group said they really like Lyle, and this makes them uneasy about him. That it’s the one thing about him they don’t like.

Well, my first argument is: do you know anyone you like everything about? If you do, you don’t know them very well.

The second point about this, which I came to with a little help from a friend, is that most of those objecting to this are women. I don’t mean that in a chauvinistic way, either. Women and men just view this kind of thing differently, and therein lies one of those weird contradictions of personality that makes our characters real. We all do things we aren’t proud of, and Lyle agonizes about it later in the book. He regrets it. More than once, and admits he just didn’t think about what he was doing.

But more than that, he didn’t think about it because men and women view keeping children safe in different ways. To women, you don’t do anything that even remotely resembles putting them in any kind of danger. Men, meanwhile, view it from a caretaker’s point of view, which says, “I’ll do anything to provide for my children.” Yes, that means that sometimes we later wonder why the hell we took that particular approach to that particular problem—such as cooking meth in the same car you haul your kids around in—but that’s just us. It doesn’t make us wrong or right.

Besides, I can’t stand characters who don’t make mistakes.

So, I left it the way it is. Why? So I could torture Lyle with it later, and because mostly it’s men who read crime fiction. They won’t question what happens, for the most part, until Lyle does. Or, if they do, they’ll at least understand why he could make such a stupid mistake.

And, to tell you the truth, I hope Greg leaves his scene the way it was, too. I was there. I crunched across that forest floor with Dowland, smelled the pine resin, felt the heat lying like a blanket all around me. I thought it was an exceptional passage.

But that’s Greg’s decision, just as it was mine to leave things as is with Lyle.

That’s the thing about these points of contention: we need them. If we didn’t, there’d be no need for writers groups, editors, or any of that. We’d just send our stories in and everybody would be bestselling authors without effort.

And where would be the fun in that?

Much better to listen, consider, and respectfully agree or disagree (or agree to disagree).

One last point I’d like to make. When I asked my daughter her opinion on Lyle cooking meth in the car, she said she just got the idea they were smelling the leftover scents. She even compared it to walking into a smoker’s house and smelling the cigarettes even if the person isn’t smoking right then. You can still tell when you’re in a smoker’s house. It stands to reason meth would leave the same evidence in the air, and that the person cooking it might not smell it anymore.

If I ever write a novel that doesn’t have something wrong with it, that tells me that I’ve probably written one so bland that everything is wrong with it.

And I’ll trash the damned thing.




5 thoughts on “Points of Contention

  1. Russell

    Nice post, Gil. I agree. I don’t want to be spoon-fed. Leave something for my imagination to chew on. You’re also spot-on about women & men having different perspectives on raising/protecting children. Children who are raised in an all-female home may find it hard to adjust to the harsh environment of the “real world.” On the other hand, and all-male upbringing might lack training in compassion, sensitivity, and other qualities needed for balance.

    Bill Bernhardt teaches that your protagonist should have 4 good qualities and 1 really bad one, and the bad guy should have 4 bad qualities and 1 thing that is really endearing in his character. That’s a pretty good formula for success.

  2. Greg Camp

    I’m likely to leave things mostly as they are. I’m a minimalist when it comes to planting shrubbery all over the scene–yeah, that’s it. There’s a name for what I do (or can’t do. . .). You’re right to leave yours as is, too, so long as he gets smacked with a moment of realization at some point later on. Some people latch on to a piece of advice that they’ve heard in writing workshops and toss it into the discussion at every opportunity, whether it fits or not. Take only such advice as is useful to you.

    Of course, when an editor at a publishing house tells you to do it, smile and get to work.

    1. gilmiller Post author

      It’s funny. One of the things I realized, but didn’t put in this post, is that I ws sometimes making changes just because I was afriad I’d offend the one making the suggestion! How’s that for getting things backwards?

      1. Greg Camp

        You own your work. Our suggestions are from our perspective, and you’re free to do with them as you wish. I won’t be offended, at least. I can’t say how others will take it.

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