Saturday, June 13, 2015

Story: Caught between an Iceberg and the Titanic

   A seagull, someone answering a knock at the door in Spanish, an iceberg, and a county sheriff of Irish extraction, talking to a Japanese-American coroner who is in the act of conducting an autopsy came clanging together this morning after a week or so of independent orbit.

The seagull was wheeling in effortless circles over the Santa Barbara waterfront.  At least, the seagull was wheeling with no effort until you challenged the author,an articulate enough fellow, with a question that stopped him cold.  "How do you know the seagulls flight was effortless?  How do you know it wasn't costing him because he has arthritis in his wings?"

The author paused to sputter.  "I just assumed," he said. "Seagulls make it look effortless."

"But you aren't telling the story, remember?  The story is being told by one of your characters, a guy name of Jim, who has no access to the inner state of mind of the seagull."

With your prodding, the author saw the reason for settling on the notion of the seagull wheeling or coasting on an afternoon thermal.  The Spanish response to a knock at the door involved the same dynamic.  The point-of-view character, inside the door on which the knock came, was of Latina heritage, her birth language Spanish.  Further, she had every reason to believe the person knocking at the door would be another Spanish language speaker.

Here's you, acting the bad cop by asking the writer, "What are the probabilities someone whose first language is Spanish, who lives in a small, Central California farm area populated by an overwhelming Spanish-speaking population, would respond, "Come in," she said in Spanish? as opposed to "Entre."

"The reader might not know what 'Entre' means."

"Here we are, in a small town, in the field worker housing,"  you said.  "We know the point-of-view character's first language is Spanish.  Someone knocks at the door.  This character says, 'Entre.'  What are the odds more than ninety-eight percent of your readers will not have to be told 'Entre" in Spanish means 'Come in?"

"Okay," the writer said.  "I get it.  'She said in Spanish' throws you out of the narrative."

The iceberg was brought to your attention by your literary agent, who sent you an essay on Ernest Hemingway and his bare bones prose, with special reference to his short stories.  You responded to the agent's email with the observation that the essay caused you to recall a Hemingway short story, "Hills Like White Elephants," that was a perfect demonstration of the points about minimalism and restraint articulated in the article.

The county sheriff was--still is--a character in the novel-in-the-works of a student who tells a bang-up, intriguing story, which she douses in details, often to the disadvantage of the story.  The sheriff and the coroner, of diverse ethnic backgrounds and not a likely pair to become friends, are in fact close friends, thus the dialogue between them about how the coroner is able to get on with the autopsy within an hour after his own breakfast seems, when you read lines of it, more an information dump for the reader rather than a demonstration of the friendship shared and enjoyed by the two men.

The entire setting and focus of the novel begs for recognition of the theme of racial animosities in this small, Ventura county, California town, right after World War II settled down into Post-War Recovery.  In this case, the coroner, performing the autopsy without a facial mask or a lit or unlit cigar or some glob of mentholated plopped right under his nose would cause the sheriff to some kind of BFF ribbing, bordering perhaps on but not into racial traits.

All these themes have the common thread of relevant detail and ways in which even one inappropriate word throws the reader out of the narrative.  The culprit in most of these cases relates to the point of view of the character in charge during a particular scene, but a close accomplice is details the writer wishes the reader to know.

The Hemingway aspects brought forth here have to do with that author's often described method of putting everything in during the early drafts, then removing as much as possible on the theory that what is left remains not because it was described so much as because of the way it was evoked.  If, Hemingway seems to be saying, you put in everything you can think of, then start cutting back, what you get is an evocation,  The reader in effect fills in the void from his or her extrapolations of the things the author puts in and the things the author leaves out.

Story becomes most effective when it becomes both iceberg and The Titanic.

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