Month: December 2010

Too Much Action is Boring

Writers of fiction are frequently advised to put more action into their writing, instead of description, back-story or even dialogue. Your characters shouldn’t be sitting around thinking, chatting or admiring their surroundings. They should be doing things. The premise behind this is that prose describing action is always more interesting to read than any other kind.

I don’t agree. Yes, action of some sort is necessary in a work of fiction. It moves the plot forward, it changes the situations in which the characters find themselves, it creates tension, conflict and quite possibly excitement. But action isn’t the only way to do those things, and long action scenes unrelieved by anything else are as boring to read as any other long stretches of prose monoculture.

This realization broke upon me about halfway into Dan Simmons’s novel Carrion Comfort. (I am definitely of mixed minds about this book, but this isn’t really a review of it). A good-sized chunk in the middle of the book takes place in Germantown, a part of Philadelphia that is home to street gangs and criminal elements. Members of one particular gang interact with several of the book’s main characters in a mind-numbing series of violent episodes that result in widespread death and destruction. Many pages are devoted to descriptions of people running, jumping, crawling, slashing, dodging (bullets, blades and buses), spinning, leaping, spasming and dying. You would think all those verbs would make for riveting prose that keeps the reader reading. I found myself flipping pages, looking for a quick way out of Philly and on to more interesting things.

Why was this? Part of the problem is that reading should create a mind-movie, but making that movie from extended descriptions of mere physical action is too much work, at least for my aging brain. But there’s more to it than that. I’m thinking of two equally long action scenes in a couple of Stephen King’s novels — Gerald’s Game and Pet Sematary — specifically the parts where Jessie Burlingame finally frees herself from the handcuffs attached to the bed, and Louis Creed breaks into the cemetery where his son has just been buried, digs up the corpse and reburies it in the Indian burying-ground in order to bring it back to life. Both of these sections are prose of the can’t-put-it-down variety, not only because of the inherent grisliness and horror of the situations, but because as readers we totally identify with and care about the characters engaged in the actions, and really want to know how things turn out for them. That simply isn’t the case with most of the characters in the lengthy action sequences in Carrion Comfort. One problem is that there are too many of them. It’s not possible to care about the fate of (literally) a whole gang of new characters who are simply names and falling bodies.

There are only three likable characters in this book, and one who is repellent but horribly fascinating. If Simmons had given us more about their inner workings and less about the antics of faceless, weapon-toting ciphers in baseball caps, the book would be more interesting.

For me that’s the final criterion — a novel has to be interesting or it’s not worth reading, no matter how much action there is. Simmons’s basic premise in Carrion Comfort — the existence of “mind-vampires” — is very interesting. I wish he had worked on that concept more than he did. About three-quarters of the way through the book, we get some quite intriguing stuff about brain waves and memories, but it comes too late for readers who bailed out in Philly.

Real, human characters in interesting situations — those are the absolutely necessary elements for a compelling novel. And I, for one, have more use for vivid, atmospheric description of settings, and even of characters’ back-stories, than I do for arid descriptions of violence, no matter how many verbs are used.

(One last comment on Carrion Comfort:  the title is taken from a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins, in which these words describe despair. Brief quotations from this poem are given at the beginning of each major section of the book. But this novel is about as distant from Hopkins as anything can possibly be. Perhaps Simmons should have called it Despair and let Hopkins alone).


The Truthful Garden Calendar

Being a gardener, over the years I have been given, or have bought for myself, numbers of calendars that feature pictures of gardens. While admiring the monthly scenes, I noticed something annoying — not all of them were appropriate for the month in which they were featured. Because some of the calendars are quite beautiful I have kept them, so have a few examples at hand. Most egregious in this seasonal discord is a 2009 calendar entitled Country Gardens with photography by Adam Gibbs. The photographs are quite splendid, depicting scenes from the Morrisburg, Ontario garden of Jeff Arsenault, the self-styled “Frugal Gardener.”

January features, among other things, a white mullein (looks like Verbascum chaixii, but I could be wrong), which normally blooms in July. February shows a birdbath turned into a planter, overflowing with petunias, lobelia and other annuals, with a daylily at its feet, and lupins peeking out from behind a big sedum (possibly ‘Autumn Joy’ ) in bud. In April, we see some roses and alstroemerias in magnificent bloom. For December there is a lovely picture of red petunias with a red astilbe and lots of green foliage.  At least the colours are seasonally appropriate, in a way.

Now, there’s no law that requires garden-themed calendars to show scenes from the months they represent. It’s quite possible that the people who put the Country Gardens calendar together had no such intention. It could be that all they wanted to do was to show Mr. Arsenault’s garden at its summer best. If that was the case, they certainly succeeded.

But gardening is so tuned to the seasons, that it’s only appropriate for each of the pictures in a garden calendar to match its month. A calendar that features cats or cottages or shoes doesn’t demand this seasonal fidelity, although even those would likely show a cat sporting a Santa hat in December, a cottage fronted by tulips in April, and a shot of sandals, rather than fuzzy slippers, for July.

I have before me now three calendars from 1996 through 1998 that featured gardens from my part of the world. These hewed closely to the seasons, for the most part. Two Januaries feature snow scenes (although we can get snow here in November and even in April, or not at all), and one shows bergenias and oriental hellebores. Crocuses in February, daffodils in March, the obligatory rhododendrons in May. There is even a rose and alstroemeria pairing, but this one is in July. Quite appropriate. My only quibble with these calendars is that every one of them has an out-of-season scene for the month of December — all three appear to have been taken in July or August, judging by the lilies (including callas), salvias, Echinacea, roses, chives, hollyhocks and yes, another Verbascum chaixii. In December. I can only guess that the intention was to remind the gardener, in the darkest month of the year, that summer will come again.

This small annoyance inspired me to resolve that if I ever put together a calendar with photographs from my own garden, each scene would actually be from the month with which it is paired. The challenge would be to find something visually pleasing to feature every month, even in November, December and January.

I acquired a digital camera in October of 2009 and immediately began compiling a series of garden photographs. When I started this blog in May 2010 I posted a few pictures every month. By late fall I had enough to put together several calendars. But I didn’t. I had good reasons for this lapse, but the reasons don’t matter. The fact is that despite my intentions and all the great pictures I’ve gathered, I haven’t gotten around to selecting twelve of the best and creating my own garden calendar for 2011.

Not yet, anyway. With luck, I will manage to get this project done in January. In the meantime, here is a scene from December of 2009, full of the green of hope.

Corsican Hellebore


Update to this post:  I got my own Truthful Garden Calendar out on January 2, 2011. The final product arrived by January 15. It includes some of the photos I posted here through 2010.

Winter Rain

Summer rain is a blessing here on the west coast of Canada, but from November through January rain is something else. That’s when we get the bulk of our annual rainfall, and it’s the reason many people refer to this fortunate part of the world as the “wet coast.”  The average rainfall in each of those 3 months is about 100 mm. (4 in.), but I have recorded amounts as high as 246 mm. (nearly 10 in.), in November 1998 and 297 mm. (about 11.5 in.), in November 2006.

Aside from problems such as flooded basements, this rain is annoying because it comes at the low point of the garden year, when not much is growing and watering is definitely not an issue. Rain barrels are kind of a joke here. In winter I don’t bother to collect water in mine; I move the drain hoses to the bottom tap and let the water run through, draining into the pond. In summer the barrels would be empty much of the time if I didn’t fill them with the hose, for hand-watering purposes. Winter rain is, in a sense, wasted.

The best solution would be to capture and store it somehow, for use in summer. I have visions of a huge storage tank somewhere near the garden shed, or a cistern under the house. The houses used by lighthouse keepers here on the coast (yes, we still have staffed light stations, despite sporadic initiatives on the part of the federal government to close them down), are equipped with cisterns. Water from the roof drains into the cistern and is used for household purposes. It works. So why aren’t cisterns standard in all houses built in summer-dry places such as ours?

In a way, my region does have a huge communal cistern, in the Sooke Hills to the west of the city. It’s the reservoir from which we draw our drinking water (and washing water, and swimming pool water, and garden-watering water).  Several years ago it was enlarged, a matter of controversy at the time. Usually it takes a couple of months to fill up once the rains start in fall, after which any surplus drains away. From May 1 to September 30, which is when rainfall becomes slight or nonexistent, the region is under watering restrictions. Because of this and other water-conserving measures, our total consumption has remained constant for the past decade or so, despite an increase in population. So I suppose that works too.

In the meantime, we are expecting a “pineapple express” here in the next couple of days, a period of heavy rain and warm temperatures from a monster weather system stretching from Haida Gwaii to Hawaii, tapped into tropical air and moisture. Floods may occur — it’s time to prime our sump pumps and get out that wet-dry vacuum! We don’t need to worry about our rain barrels; our lawns are green and lush, and are likely to remain that way through Christmas.

Reading the Real and the Unreal

A while ago I posted here about reading Dan Simmons’s book The Terror, a clever grafting of a horror theme onto a historical one. In an afterword to the novel Simmons cited a large number of sources he consulted in the process of writing the book. Among them were two books, Frozen in Time by Owen Beattie and John Geiger, and Ice Blink by Scott Cookman. Even after the nearly 800 pages of Simmons’s book, the fate of the Franklin Expedition lingered in my mind, so I got hold of those two books and read them quite quickly. Each espouses its own theory as to what brought down Franklin and his 128 men — Beattie thought it was lead poisoning and Cookman favoured botulism, both originating in badly processed canned foods.

Maybe it’s all the critiquing I do these days (I belong to two critique groups), but I found myself paying more attention to the writing of these two nonfiction books than I would have years ago. Beattie and Geiger’s writing is more academic than Cookman’s but their narrative is more personal. The odd thing, however, is that Geiger was not a member of the expeditions in which bodies of three members of the Franklin Expedition were exhumed and autopsied. He wrote the book in the third person — describing how Beattie did this or that, along with other members of the various research parties involved. I found this a bit disconcerting, especially in sections describing personal impressions of weather and field conditions, encounters with bears and other wildlife and the emotions generated by dealing with the three individuals whose remains were exhumed and studied.

Cookman did not actually visit the sites in Nunavut where Franklin Expedition remains and artifacts have been found, as far as I know. His book  is a result of research at a remove, and it is an interesting read. Toward the end, Cookman seems to abandon objectivity and waxes a bit too enthusiastic on the evils of shoddy food processing. Earlier, he delves into the personal histories and characteristics of the men in charge of the expedition — Sir John Franklin and his senior officers, Captains Francis Crozier and James Fitzjames. I recognized quite a few details that Simmons seized upon and expanded with the flair of the novelist — for example, Crozier’s melancholy personality and romantic failures, the amazing variety of foodstuffs and luxuries brought on board the ships by the officers, and the theatrical entertainments staged on icebound ships in order to keep the crews in good spirits. It was interesting to see these links between works of fiction and nonfiction and got me thinking about these two modes of writing.

Lately there is a lot of buzz about something called “creative nonfiction.” Often this term is applied to memoirs which supposedly demonstrate the kind of “creative” prose found in fiction, an artful use of language that brings immediacy and freshness to the reader. I think that any kind of writing can be creative in some sense, even academic papers and legal briefs, within the strictures imposed by the primary purposes of the writing. “Creative nonfiction,” then, is merely a new term applied to something which has existed for a long time.

As someone who writes fiction by choice and nonfiction (reports to do with my job and, long ago, term papers in university) by necessity, I do have an appreciation for well-written nonfiction. I find it to be a relief from fiction, with its sometimes desperate and self-conscious search for originality, its contrived conflicts and manufactured “hooks.” Writing about something objective frees the author from the need to create worlds and characters. Garden writing is a good example. I return again and again to books by the late Henry Mitchell, Eleanor Perenyi and Sara B. Stein, and their British colleagues Christopher Lloyd and Beth Chatto.

Then there is travel writing, another genre to which the term “creative nonfiction” is applied. I do not read much in this genre, but I have recently discovered the books of Craig Childs. They are far more than accounts of travel; Childs’s journeys into remote parts of the American Southwest carry the larger themes of the migrations of the Anasazi (House of Rain), the ethics of antiquities collecting (Finders Keepers), or being in a landscape (Soul of Nowhere).

Childs’s prose is exquisite. Whether he is describing a landscape, the movements of a climber or an ancient artifact (discovered, observed and left in place), his words are as carefully selected and assembled as those of any novelist. He demonstrates a broad knowledge of and deep familiarity with Southwest archaeology. Apparently he considered entering that field once, but decided against it. Archaeology made the leap from the humanities to the sciences some decades ago, and is very sensitive to its status among the quantitative fields of scholarship. Present day archaeologists are careful not to speculate beyond their painstakingly assembled evidence, at least not in writing. In published papers, their use of language is as precise, dry and emotionless as that of any physicist. Childs, a familiar of archaeology rather than a practitioner, is free to interweave field research with accounts of his personal explorations, to extrapolate from an interlude in a laundromat to the significance of the arrival of polychrome pottery in southern Arizona 700 years ago. Archaeology’s loss has been the reader’s gain.

You can find Craig Childs’s website at: