Meaningless Symbolism

Reading a novel, there are some elements that stand out more than others. Very vividly created characters, for example, may stay with the reader long after the last page. Immersive scenery depictions may leave a reader wishing they were somewhere else. And sometimes, recurring thoughts or trinkets will haunt the reader in the same way. These recurrences, sometimes metaphorical stand-ins for larger, more complex ideas, are often written in by the author: intentional symbols for the reader to subtly observe and dwell upon. But sometimes, the same symbolism is not intentional, merely a recurring physical object of no importance to the author, but the reader picks it out from the text and attaches a value to it that the author had never intended.

A sixteen-year-old in 1963 sent a series of letters addressing the issue of symbolism to 150 well-known authors, including Ayn Rand, John Kerouac, and Ray Bradbury. He asked them about symbolism in their own work as well as symbolism in others’ works. Of the seventy-five that did respond, the general consensus seemed to be that symbolism is more of a subconscious act, though many acknowledge the deliberate care that some authors, such as Joyce and Dante, clearly took with their symbolism in their writing.

Some of the authors in this questionnaire also expressed their distaste in readers finding symbols they never intended as such. All the same, some indicate their understanding that symbol-making may not necessarily be the role of the writer. “Have you considered the extent to which subconscious symbol-making is part of the process of reading, quite distinct from its part in writing?” wrote Richard Hughes.

This understanding takes some weight off a writer who believes they need to create and implant symbols in a book—readers will naturally find their own, quite independent of the author’s intentions. In one of his responses, Bradbury likens fiction to a Rorschach test. He goes on to say succinctly, “There are other things of greater value in any novel or story…humanity, character analysis, truth on other levels…Good symbolism should be as natural as breathing…and as unobtrusive.”

Read more on the story here.

As a writer, do you consciously choose to use symbolism in your work, or do you just hope it happens naturally? Let us know!

How to Drop Info-Dropping

There is little that makes a reader roll his or her eyes faster and harder than info-dropping.

It happens like this: the story is moving along smoothly, and the main character picks up the phone. It’s her sister; they are very close.

“Hey, Marcie. Are you coming to dinner tomorrow?”

“Oh, you mean our traditional Sunday dinner at our parents’ house? Sure, I’ll be there. Are you bringing Grandma’s pumpkin pie?”

“Yeah, it’s the delicious pumpkin pie Grandma made every Sunday until she died. I’ve made it every weekend for fifteen years.”

“That’s great. Well, see you tomorrow!”

Eye roll. Both sisters already know that “dinner tomorrow” is the traditional Sunday family dinner, and when referencing “Grandma’s pumpkin pie” they clearly both understand the history of said pie. The only reason they are saying any of this is because it’s a quick-and-ugly way for the author to get the info to the reader without actually having to find a proper place for it—and at the same time, it gives much less information to the reader than a paragraph of narration would, and because the dialogue sounds stilted, the characters lose their believability.

The real conversation would go something like this:

“Hey, Liz, you bringing pumpkin pie for dinner tomorrow?”

“It’s in the oven as we speak.”

The end.

Conversely, it doesn’t sound so stilted if a character spouts the same information to someone she recently met at the gym.

“Where are you running off to?”

“Oh, my parents’ house… my family has had dinner together every Sunday for fifteen years.”

“Fifteen years!”

“And I’ve made my grandma’s fabled pumpkin pie every week for fourteen of them.”

Still, though, it’s just an overview—a lot of potential meaning is missing.

While telling certain familiar stories multiple times is common (“Remember that time when Grandma set that pumpkin pie on the windowsill to cool, and a badger crawled in the window, burnt its mouth, and tried to climb up her leg?”), real people rarely rehash everyday information they both already know. It sounds wholly unnatural. The information will often fit better into a narrative musing:

I pull the pumpkin pie out of the oven, and breathe in the warmth and spice. The smell always reminds me of Grandma—her cozy house, her hugs, big family on holidays—and my eyes water a little. Yes, water. I set the pie on the stovetop and wipe my face with my sleeve. It’s 4 pm on Saturday, which means Marcie will be calling me any second, just to double-check that I won’t forget to bring the pie to dinner tomorrow. It’s that strict-older-sister syndrome. Hell, we’ve gotten together for dinner every weekend since Marcie left for college, and in fourteen years I’ve only forgotten the pie once. Well…maybe twice.

But how do you recognize info-dropping in your work, and learn to work around it? We would suggest that it is a separate but intrinsic piece of learning to write good dialogue.

When you’re rereading your dialogue, listening for various dialogue miscues, you should pay attention to the characters’ standard speech patterns. But that’s not the most important part: the most important part is knowing your characters well enough to hear their voices in the back of your mind, and understanding them well enough to recognize what they already know about each other. If your characters are speaking about something they should already be familiar with, but they act like it’s news to them—you are probably guilty of info-dropping. Unless they have amnesia.

Ask yourself: Where can you fit the information into the narration, instead? How can you subtly expand upon the information, so the reader becomes as familiar with it as the characters already are?

Do you find yourselves guilty of info-dropping now and again? Do you see much info-dropping in the books you read? Let us know!

Announcing: William T. Delamar


Shannon & Elm is pleased to announce the signing of William T. Delamar and his historical novel, The Brother Voice.

They fight for their country, they fight for their beliefs, they fight for love. Sel and Hold Danner are identical twins who find themselves on opposite ends of the ideologies that divide the Union, and consequently find themselves on opposite ends of the battlefield.

The Danner twins, who can hear each other’s thoughts, have been inseparable their entire lives. So when the Civil War finally drives them apart, it does more than sever their past friendships and their familial ties—it severs the speechless connection they once had with each other.

Delamar deftly embodies the differing political opinions of the north and the south and grounds them in two soft-spoken young boys in rural, small-town America.

William T. Delamar is originally from Durham, North Carolina, where he grew up in a home full of books, which helped him develop a love for reading. In high school, he worked part time at the Duke University Press, further increasing his insatiability for books. He now resides in Melrose Park, Pennsylvania, in a century-old house with wall-to-wall books covering four floors. He is on the board of the Philadelphia Writers’ Conference, having served five times as president.

What else should we know about the redoubtable Mr. Delamar?

What do you write?

I write fiction primarily, because I believe more people read fiction than nonfiction. However, my fiction is based on reality. The Brother Voice was well researched, so the setting is accurate, down to the streets in Frederick, Maryland where the Battle of the Monocacy took place. Few people know about that significant battle. This battle delayed the Confederate march on Washington, giving the Union time to move back to protect the city.

How do you write?

In general, I get an idea for a story. I write down a short outline and a preliminary list of characters. This includes a few notes about each character. I post the outline, chapter by chapter, on a storyboard. I write from beginning to end on my computer, making changes to the story-board. I frequently revise. I do a lot of rewriting to get the story just right. Even then, I let it sit for awhile and then go through making revisions. My friends call me a perfectionist, but I feel the ring has to be just right to get the message across.

What is a cherished memory from your life you would like to share?

At a party in Pittsburgh, I was introduced to a girl. I made a negative comment about the marching band of the University of Pittsburgh. She didn’t like it and shoved her packages into my arms, then slapped me, and then took back her packages. I had never been that close to a woman before. I called her the next day and asked for a date. She said yes. A year and a half later, we were married.

You can read the rest of Delamar’s interview on his author page—and afterwards, check out some of Shannon & Elm’s other wonderful authors!

The cover art, created by Izaak Moody, will be revealed late this summer. Then be sure to mark your calendars for The Brother Voice, coming this October from Shannon & Elm.

Part Two: Writing Great First Lines

The first line to a novel is undoubtedly the most important. Past the title, it is (usually) the first a reader sees of an author’s writing. The first full sentence, the first complete thought to introduce both the author and whatever strong, often recurring trope the author has chosen to draw attention to. The first line is used to hook the reader and develop an insatiable intrigue so that putting the book down is difficult to do, if not downright impossible.

But what makes a good first line? How does one go about crafting a great opener for the next bestseller? Taking lists of the greatest first lines (all subjective) from the American Book Review, The Telegraph, and The Guardian, among others, here are some recurring traits:

Introduce the Main Character or the Narrator

Probably the most straightforward technique, the aforementioned character needs to be interesting and unique enough to beg such a blunt introduction. “Call me Ishmael” (Moby Dick) says nothing about Ishmael, except that he is casual and straightforward, while “I am an invisible man” tells us very plainly about the condition of the eponymous character. The Old Man and the Sea introduces the protagonist solely as an old man in a skiff on the Gulf Stream who hasn’t caught a fish in eighty-four days. Mark Twain has Huckleberry Finn reference an entire other work (also by Twain) as an introduction to the narrator, and J.D. Salinger sardonically has Holden Caulfied begin with “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born… and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”

Introduce the Setting

This often goes hand in hand with introducing the characters, but not always and not explicitly. “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit,” writes J.R.R. Tolkien very openly about the abodes in Hobbiton. “Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell… it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.” The introduction to Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities makes nearly every first line list, and while lengthy, does a comprehensive job (if limited) of introducing the tone of the book and the mood of the time period. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy pinpoints Earth within the “backwaters” of the Milky Way, and The Bell Jar begins by describing “a queer sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs.”

Write About Relevant Universal Generalizations

“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” writes Leo Tolstoy at the start of Anna Karenina. Pride and Prejudice, a novel about marital affairs, begins by claiming “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” This is Jane Austen’s best known work, which is commonly accepted as well introduced. For first lines such as this, however, what needs to follow in the rest of the narrative is evidence to support or disprove these “universal truths” as, well, true.

Mention Something Odd or Out of the Ordinary

This creates intrigue, and the reader keeps reading solely to answer the question of “How?” or “Why?” Fahrenheit 451 begins with “It was a pleasure to burn.” What is burning, and why is it so pleasurable? “All children, except one, grow up,” introduces Peter Pan, George Orwell mentions the clocks were striking thirteen in his first line for 1984, and the reader immediately questions why Mr. and Mrs. Dursley so adamantly claim they are “perfectly normal” in J.K. Rowling’s debut children’s novel.

Of course, these good first lines are not limited to these particular parameters, and in fact many of them embody more than one—so use discretion and open your novel with a line deserving of the rest of the narrative.