My family reads books aloud the way some families watch TV. We don't have a TV, you know.
(Ooh, conservative-homeschooler-snob alert! Blare the alarms!)
We've been doing it since I was three and my mom began reading through the Little House on the Prairie series. In the following fourteen years, we've made our way through The Swiss Family Robinson (blech), Old Yeller (amazing), Around the World in Eighty Days (great), The Yearling (twice!), Anne of Green Gables, A Little Princess, Treasure Island, From The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, (love that one!) Robinson Crusoe, Gentle Ben, Oliver Twist, Journey to the Center of the Earth (don't ask...), The Cabin Faced West, Toby Tyler, Little House on the Prairie (again), and way too many others to count. We're in Carry On, Mr. Bowditch right now, in case you're curious.
By now you're probably glancing back at the post title and asking, what does all this have to do with fish? And what on earth does it have to do with writing?
Be patient. I have to have an introduction, don't I? Grab your attention and all that.
So I like fish. I really, really like fish. But I like them on a plate and not in the pages of a book.
(I mean that FIGURATIVELY, peeps. Do you honestly think I've opened books to find flattened salmon squished inside them? Please. Peanut butter and jelly, yes, fish, no.)
Four or five years ago, my dad read aloud 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea to our family. It was pretty good as far as Jules Vernes' science fiction goes-- better than Journey to the Center of the Earth (we didn't even finish that one) but not as good as Around the World in Eighty Days. The premise of the story is fascinating-- it's all about this crazy guy named Captain Nemo who built himself a submarine, a marvel of engineering, in which he lives all the year round, hiding from the world in the depths of the ocean. Oh, and he stabs ships with the submarine. Did I mention it has a tusk thingy? He's actually become the enemy of pretty much the entire seagoing world: navies from dozens of countries are bent on finding Nemo and getting him to stop his unexplained ship-stabbing.
The book is told from a professor's point of view, an ordinary man whose ordinary ship sinks in the Atlantic. He and two of his friends are--quote, unquote--rescued by Captain Nemo and permitted to stay on the submarine, known as the Nautilus. (It's chambered, by the by.) Captain Nemo's mysterious existence fascinates the professor, whose name escapes me, and the professor and his friends are most curious to find out who this man is and why he does what he does. They travel all over the ocean floor together, and a lot of interesting things happen (I won't give too much away, I promise) but for a good deal of the time, the submarine just zooms along quietly and a great many fish swim by the windows.
Fish! Fish! There they are at last! Now we get to the fish!
If you've read 20,000 Leagues, you'll understand what I mean when I say that the fish descriptions are... lengthy. If you haven't read it, let me endeavor to explain. Imagine that Jules Verne is an overexcited five-year-old sitting at the breakfast table recounting a long and involved dream he had last night. Now imagine that he has a book contract and is being paid by the word. Add a shake or two of Fondness For Description, be sure to include a bit of Let Me Educate My Ignorant Readers, multiply by 100 and repeat ad nauseum.
Um, okay, so I exaggerated a wee bit. BUT STILL. The amount of fish description that goes into this book is unbelievable. In some parts it reads like an adventure story, but in others it reads like a textbook on marine life. And the marine life parts are about as boring as Mr. Woodhouse's grocery list (which, if you're interested, consists of oatmeal, oatmeal, oatmeal and skim milk).
But why? What's wrong with description? Why can't Jules Verne drone about fish and hold our attention at the same time? Is there something wrong with fish? Does Amy have something against fish? Hmmmmmm?
Nope, there's nothing wrong with fish. Or description for that matter. The point I'm trying to make here is not that fish and endless description are bad, but that they are often unnecessary. Fish are good. Especially with lemon butter. Description is good too... when properly used. You can have too much of a good thing, you know.
Part of the appeal of a book (for me at least) is that a truly good one will make pictures in my head without any effort on my part. (Laziness may have something to do with my enjoyment of that...) A truly good book will allow me to "see" what's going on by combining just the right amount of words. Too much description tempts me to skip. A mention or two of the heroine's beauty is fine, but if every other page contains a drawn-out harangue on her porcelain skin and fine golden hair, I'm going to start yawning. (Listen up, Baroness Orczy.) Too much politicking and sewer history is guaranteed to put anyone to sleep. (I'm looking at you, Victor Hugo.) An overabundance of subplots and the full family history of Mrs. Wiggleflipper's godmother's milkman is not always interesting reading. (Do you hear me, Charles Dickens?)
You notice I didn't mention Jane Austen in that last paragraph... there's a good reason for that and it's called One Does Not Criticize Perfection. Jane Austen left things to the reader's imagination. Sure, she described from time to time. But she didn't whap her readers over the head with twelve-sentence paragraphs about the luster and sparkle in Elizabeth Bennet's eyes-- she merely said that Lizzy had fine eyes and left it at that. (Could she have described a little more? Probably, yes, but she did an amazing job with what she did describe and as I said before, perfection cannot really be improved upon, thankyouverymuch.)
Jane Austen herself said that she did not write for such dull elves as had not a great deal of ingenuity themselves. (See, she was a poet, too. I bet she did not know it, eh what?) That is to say, she did not believe in over-explaining-- and that, I think, is a key to good description. Teddy Roosevelt was fond of the maxim, "Stand up, speak up, and then shut up." I'm inclined to apply this to writing as well. Certainly there is always a time and place for good, well-executed description, but a clear word-picture of a beautiful part of the ocean need not become a biology lesson.
Unless, of course, you're writing a textbook on fish. In which case, have at it.
But most of us aren't. So if you aren't writing a textbook on fish, leave fish out entirely. Leave any and all superfluous windbaggery out, for that matter, or else you may be saddled with a finished product looking something like this...