12 October 2016

The Devil in the Details

On the heels of my last post, about the movie JUGGERNAUT and the physicality of detail, I had an exchange with Leigh Lundin about how much is too much.  
Leigh and I agree that there's a wicked temptation in arcane vocabulary. I used S-18's as an example some few weeks back. He mentions chatter between pilots and Air Traffic Control. Professionals talk in jargon. It's the Capt. Midnight secret decoder ring culture. You get to be the guy behind the curtain. The anointed, the brotherhood of furtive handshakes and rope-soled sneakers.

For writers, there's an obvious snare we've all fallen into. You know something intimately, or if you don't, you do the homework. And of course you don't want all that effort to go to waste, so you shovel it on, because nobody stays your hand. But it's an undigested lump, that sinks to the pit of your stomach. This is also where the expression's likely to come in, that it smells of the lamp. You had to look it up, and it shows.

Supposing, though, for the sake of argument, that the special skill or knowledge we want to use in our story is something we're actually hands-on with. We've got every confidence, we're not going to drop a stitch, we've got ownership. You can still bog yourself down. Witness my story "Cover of Darkness," which was also referenced in the JUGGERNAUT post.

A word of explanation. "Cover of Darkness" is about a clandestine mission. A covert ops team is flown into West Berlin to recover a Russian fighter plane that's crashed in the British sector, in sixty feet of water. The team has to make the dive at night, and before the Russians get wise to what they're doing.

Okay. Underwater salvage work, which is already dangerous enough. Then you got the clock ticking, and the Russians breathing down their necks, and everybody in the competing spy hierarchies looking to take credit. But wait one. What really interested me about the story was how they knew what they had. What made this particular aircraft such a prize? So in the original draft, I had fifteen or eighteen seriously dense pages of explanation, the decrypts, the radar signatures and ELINT profile, performance data, Pilot Billet Suffixes - it all fed the mix. And my then-editor Cathleen Jordan said to me, Ahem. Correct me if I'm wrong, but the story actually starts when these guys go in the river. This is all deeply fascinating stuff, but it just goes on forever, and my eyes doth glaze over. I hate to be the one to tell you this, but it's gotta go.

I was heartbroken. Not least because I knew she was right. It was deeply fascinating stuff to me, but it was dead weight on the story. It was cement shoes. Of course, it was good. Don't get me wrong. It was assured, it was authentic, it was solid, it was sexy, even. It was a great intelligence briefing. And it was irrelevant.

So. The trick is to strike a balance. Enough to catch a scent, but don't overstay your welcome. Which isn't always easy. And sometimes, if it's one of your enthusiasms, there's no such thing as too much. There's never enough. You have to trust to instinct. Learn by doing. Just don't take all the air out of the room.

Because there's always the chance that you're right, and the conventional wisdom is mistaken. Tony Hillerman tells a story. When he finished the first of the Navajo books, THE BLESSING WAY, he was shopping it around, and a name agent (who shall remain nameless) wrote him a note. She thought there was a lot to like, but she had a question for him. Couldn't he get rid of all that Indian crap?


  1. You make some great points, David. We do have to do what's best for the story and that often means cutting things we like, or at least consolidating them.

  2. I was lucky enough to take two courses with the great classicist Rex Warner, who said to me, lose the first two or three pages of everything you write and you'll be a good writer. I guess I was an extreme case, but a few good cuts at the beginning are rarely a mistake.

  3. Luckily, I have very little expertise in ANYTHING technical at that level, so I've never had that problem. I have a friend who tells me which handgun/rifle/etc. my character should bring to the show when I need it and that's about it... But I have read some of those techno-thrillers that do go overboard. Skip, skip, skip....

  4. Great post here—great points throughout. And I love the punchline on Hillerman! Congrats to you and to Eve on stories in the new issue of AHMM--just got and looking forward to them.


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