f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: Day 2 of Details – James Fenimore Cooper Syndrome

f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Day 2 of Details – James Fenimore Cooper Syndrome

(Sorry this is late. Blogger's been testy today.)

I have read only one JFC books, as those of us in the know call him, and it was The Deerslayer. There’s not much I retain from my reading—it was assigned in high school—just random things. Natty Bumpo. Chingachgook. And the fact that Mr. Fenimore Cooper felt it necessary to describe every single freakin’ leaf in upper New York State.

I’ve been to Cooperstown. Pilgrimmaged there in fact to visit the Baseball Hall of Fame. It’s a lovely area. One of the most beautiful in the country, I think. Still, one need not describe every single freakin’ leaf.

This is James Fenimore Cooper syndrome.

It strikes the best and the worst of us. My first novel was 150,000 words after my first draft. I cut 30,000 words before publication—mostly long, portentous and portending passages using the weather to foreshadow dramatic events to come. Those were easy cuts.

These tend to be detail overload. You’re writing a book starring a nuclear scientist, you’ve researched fission, you’ve visited a reactor, you’ve watched Silkwood—and thus you want to show off a little. That’s perfectly natural. Just believe your readers and editors when they point out that this paragraph here, the page-long description of the smell of uranium, it’s boring.

You are beholden first to your story and characters, second to the writing, and third to the details that fill your book.

Three great tips for including details in your book.

1. Make them crucial to the plotChop Shop gets away with telling us about maggots, because it’s important for us to know about maggots to understand the plot. We’ll pay attention to something if we realize it’s crucial. Like the way students ask, “Will this be on the final?”—that’s your reader.

2. Make them crucial to characterization – Be it a physical description, or more likely, an idiosyncratic trait, these details help fill in your characters.

3. Make them unignorably interesting – We’re all suckers for well-written, interesting passages. So if you find a bit of history our or a detail about whales that doesn’t seem to fit in your novel, but is simply fascinating—cram it in somewhere. Make them concise and well-written. But do include them.

Tomorrow we’re going to look at the place where detail and metaphor merge.