Monday, November 05, 2007

Obsession with Telling Details

Patty here…

Lately, I’ve been obsessed, and those of you who’ve been reading this blog for a while know it’s not the first time.

I’m reviewing the copy-editor’s comments on my 4th novel—COOL CACHE. Most people would long ago have responded to the grammar police with a, Yeah, whatever, but for me, understanding—not to mention acceptance—is sometimes hard to come by. My first two copy editors trained me to use fewer commas. This copy editor seems rather fond of them, and as a result, my manuscript pages are a sea of red pencil marks. So many, that I’m having grade-school flashbacks.

To make matters worse, last night I couldn’t sleep because I was gripped by indecision. I was trying to decide on the best generic name for a female dog. And—no—bitch doesn’t fit into the metaphorical context. Bowser, Spot, Rover, Fido, or Old Yeller, all seemed like boy-dog names. It had to be Fifi or Fluffy or Lassie, a name that most people would recognize as a female dog’s name. Why, you ask, can’t I just use the word dog and let it go? Because… how can I say this…I’m OBSESSED.

I suspect most writers are consumed with finding just the right word or phrase. However, I’ve made so many changes to my changes that some of the manuscript pages are thinned from eraser friction. It’s hard to let go, because I know I could make this bloody book into War and Peace if I just had a little more time. That’s why editors impose deadlines. Without them, we writers would still be making corrections as the undertaker placed pennies on our eyelids.

Telling Details

Friday night, I saw a screening of the new Coen brothers film No Country for Old Men, which opens in theaters this Friday. It's an excruciatingly suspenseful and violent tale about the Mexican drug trade and the brutality it spawns. Based on Cormac McCarthy’s novel of the same name, the movie will forever change your take on the words: “What’s the most you’ve ever lost in a coin toss.” Here’s the trailer.

Spanish actor Javier Bardem portrays a glowering sociopath who gives new meaning to the term cold-blooded killer. But what struck me even more about his character was one telling detail: his neat, dorky pageboy hairdo, which must have been gummy with Aqua Net, because all through the movie, it never seemed to move, perhaps a metaphor for the character’s lack of emotional growth. I haven’t read McCarthy’s novel, so I don’t know if the author created the character’s hairdo or if someone connected to the film thought it up. Regardless, that controlled "do" was emblematic of the methodical killing machine who wore it.

We writers work hard to create telling details for our characters. So what does that mean? In Elizabeth George’s book Write Away: One Novelist’s Approach to Fiction and the Writing Life, she explains it this way:

Landscape of person brings characters to life in an efficient manner. It is the very epitome of showing something about a character instead of telling it outright. When you show something rather than tell it, you imprint an impression of a character in the reader’s mind…

The simplest way to achieve landscape of person is to use specific and telling details. They are details with a message attached to them, the kinds of details that no reader forgets. They fix within the reader’s mind the sort of character the writer is creating.

Indeed. That pageboy was a telling detail I won’t soon forget. It still gives me chills.

Happy Monday!

p.s. Female dog names and examples of telling details welcomed.


  1. I know a lot of people name their female dogs Molly.

    I know because that's our daughter's name. And no, she's not all that happy when someone tells her that.

    As for telling details, I'm not sure this qualifies, but in an early version of Beneath A Panamanian Moon, the main character is given a used piano by his girlfriend, a prostitute. He sits down to play the first song on that piano and I needed that song to be the perfect song. For weeks I thought of I Cover The Waterfront, Love For Sale and others that just seemed cruel or callous. Then one day I heard people on TV singing the perfect song.

    They were singing "Everybody loves my baby but my baby don't love nobody but me."

    The scene was cut from the published version because the book went in another direction, but it's still one of those moments that was just right.

  2. I was going to say that my daughter's attempt to replace our dog several years ago led her to create an imaginary horse named Molly. She hoped to convince me that she could take care of a fake horse therefore she could also handle a real dog.
    Unfortunately Molly broke her leg so I used an imaginary gun to put her down.

    Now my daughter doesn't speak and is afraid of anything with fur.


  3. Oh, first of all - Jim, how could you have put Molly down with a gun? I think at least a little conversation and then an injection of humane kiler might have done the trick. Mind you, I remember a film - not the name, just the segment - where a man was threatening his uppity horse with the gun, and painted a white "X" across his forehead to let him know what was on his mind. If my horse is giving me some attitude, I remind her that if she isn't careful, she'll be on a plane to France at about a $1.50 a pound. Of course, being a mare, she just looks at me as if to say, "Oh do be quiet and give me an apple."

    Patty, in my next book (due out in January), I've referred to the female dog as a "bitch." The female dog had first dibs on this word, and years ago it was the generic word used to refer to the female dog until we all because politically correct. And of course giving her a female name really lets us know what sex she is.

    But don't get me started on copyeditors - you love their work, give thanks for their presence in your life, then on the other hand find yourself saying things like, "Oh, I don't (blank) think so," and "Oh yeah, not in this book!" I've always tended to be the good student and have been judicious with use of "stet," deferring to the copyeditor's red pen, however, with my last book, I was the one with the pen and "stet" all over the place. Let's just say that there would have been more than a few Americanisms going into a book set in Britain in 1931, and I was not having it! I both love and dread the copyediting process - it makes me think about ever single word, but at the same time, it sometimes makes the hair on the back of my neck stand on end! And like you, I become a bit obsessive in the process of going through the copyedits, with my trusty copies of The Synonym Finder, my Oxford Encyclopedic Dictionary and various other reference books by my side.

    And thank you for Elizabeth George's wise words - that's a quote for the wall in front of my desk, if I can find a space.

  4. David, the song is a great example of a telling detail. And I sympathize with your daughter. In first grade I read a book about a pig named Patty and it warped me for life.

    Very funny, James O, but everybody knows what a cupcake you are and that you'd never put down even a fake horse even with a fake gun.

    Our J, my two "bibles" are The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language and the Oxford American Writer's Thesaurus. Couldn't write without them.

  5. Patty, these "details" are what makes a book stand out, for me. There's a beautiful balancing act between tidbits that illuminate the charcters and drowning in minutae.

    Girl dogs -- here's the list of names from my youth, where we only had female dogs because the boy ones had those silly dangly things that still make me laugh...

    Joe Willi
    Baroness Jessica Von Jinger (a show doberman) usually referred to as Jessie

    The cats are even more feminine:

    (And yes, my parents named all the kids with J's too...)

  6. JT, LOVED those names. I actually never had a female pet until I was an adult, so your input is much appreciated.

  7. Patty, I'd use the generic Sweet-Dog nomenclature. That always says female to me.

    And if the film rivals the book, No Country For Old Men will never leave you. What a tour de force.

  8. But, Louise, was the hair-do in the book?

  9. Details and character.

    This has been copied many times since, but in 1942's "This Gun for Hire" (adapted from a Graham Greene novel), it was pretty neat stuff. Hit man Alan Ladd feeds a stray cat in the opening scene and moments later guns down two men.

    Ah yes, we see the glimmer of humanity in him, and it's paid off later.

  10. My girl cat is named--um--Molly. As for the dog? I'm picturing a poodle. Her name? Lulu.

  11. Since my childhood, the epitome of a girl dog's name has always been 'Lady'. Blame my mother. :-D My literary bent and sense of humour would ultimately name the same dog today as 'Lady Di', and 'Lady' for short.

    Thanks for the great post, Patty. We're back from the World Fantasy Convention. Did lots of business, had lots of fun, and caught up with lots of great people. Found out too late, however, that there were panels on Mystery novels/writers, etc. Sigh. Next year, Bouchercon! :-D

    Marianne (whose deadline is now done, and get back to real writing)

  12. Oooh, I love the kitty-cat scene, Paulie. And Mims, let's not tell David T. after Molly. Marianne, welcome home! We missed you.

  13. I've only had one dog, named Arlo (male). For female cats we've had Angela, Edelweiss, Stoner, and Booger.

    Female horses of my acquaintance:

    Estrellita (manic polo pony)
    Ginger (former mustang)
    Nantucket (nasty piece of work)
    Cornflake (dear old swaybacked thing)

    My maternal grandparents always called their dogs Ratsey (surname of family friends), except for the last two Pekinese--Annie and Tulip. My paternals had Shih-Tzus named Pensee (pan-ZAY) and Bouton. Nasty yippy little critters.

    Aunt Julie has had a Westie named Tashie, a Golden named Brick, a wooly mutt named Sophia, and I forget what else.

    Friends in Syracuse had a female Doberman named Nadine.

  14. My father (after whom I named my dog), had a German short-haired pointer named Lady. His only female dog though. My grandfather had Dinah, a border collie, and her sisters or cousins nearby were Sheba and Flurry (a great name for a border collie, a dog too smart for me). I have come across both dogs and kids named Molly and Sophie.

  15. Cornelia and Auntie Knickers, those are fabulous names to add to the list. There seems to be a common thread to the Molly/Sophie names. Love Booger. I had a friend in high school who named her white cat--Pus, Eeyew!

  16. Ah, German Short-haired Pointers! I love those dogs. My buddy Muffy Srinivasan's family had a wonderful GSP named Freddie, short for Frederica.

    And I nearly forgot the dog my mom had for a few years in NY, Perla, named for Mom's then-boyfriend's
    Havana mistress during the Thirties, Perla Michelino.

  17. Miss C, we need to know more about your 30s Havana connection. Sounds intriguing and slightly dangerous.

  18. Come to think of it, Patty, there was no reference to the guy's hair in No Country For Old Men. So the filmmakers have added a signature of their own.

  19. Thanks for the info, Louise. A movie metaphor. I love it.


  20. SO, now that we've got the doggie names sorted out - yes, I've noted them all for future reference - how about names for rescue-shelter donkeys? :-D One of my characters has one.


  21. For some reason, I like Cleopatra, just from your question. I don't know why. Er, was Cleopatra blond perchance?

    My writing prof once told me that you can never put too many details into a story. She related a tale of how, in one of her books, several critics complained that she had done entirely too much research into the daily life of this particular prehistoric tribe.

    This amused her, because it was a prehistoric tribe, after all. You know the definition of "prehistory"? She'd made it all up.

    Female dog's names? In my youth, a mongrel named "Rusty" (after a certain comic, I understand), and two successive Chinese Pugs, named Tinker Belle and Bandit (in memory of Johnny Quest).

    What exactly is the personality of this particular female dog--or her owner? Are you betraying a major plot point?

  22. Back on the "personality/naming" front--

    Our current household cat is named "Fumble", a named derived from her origins.

    She was found, bleeding and ragged (lasting injuries included a notched ear, and missing a chunk of tail and a couple of toes), on a country roadside. Obviously someone had "fumbled" the cat.

    Of course, she was also found by a houseful of guys who happened to be football fanatics.

    Following a visit to the vet, she has emerged the ferocious hunter and devoted mother (two huge litters that emaciated her six pound frame). Given how much time she spends on various laps and purring, phoneticaly the soft sibilance of "Fumble", regardless of it's meaning, has proven to be completely appropriate.