I belong to a book discussion group at my local library, which met tonight to discuss a work of historical creative nonfiction, that also happened to be a New York Times bestseller. The book was nearly five hundred pages with exhaustive notes, an index, and bibliography, the setting centering around the road to the 1936 Berlin Olympics. The concept was interesting and the writing good, and upon first glance, it looked like it would be a compelling read. But the more I got into it, the more it became a slog, and I thought perhaps it was just me. Which is weird, because I love historical reads, fiction or otherwise. Then I got to my reading group. Seems I wasn’t along. Of the ten people in the group, only five showed up, and of the five, only two finished it, and only one they really liked it.
“Why?” I asked of the group. “What didn’t do it for you?”
“TMI,” they said. “Just too much information.”
Hmm…. I thought. I’ve heard this complaint before, from other readers, from other writers–from editors who chop away at your darlings. Too much information. Too much detail, too much minutiae. Too much see how much research I did? Aren’t you impressed? And I’m going to cram it all between the pages of this book whether you like it or not! One of the comments was the info was too technical, that it was directed toward a very specialized group of people, who wouldn’t give a damn about it otherwise. For example, like if you were reading a medical thriller about an emergency heart surgery, and the writer decided to toss in the metabolic panel, radiology screening, and post-op report, with a side of pharmacology for good measure. Sure, if you were a doctor you might, but then again only if you were on a busman’s holiday. Another comment was too much of a build-up, and not enough main event. The book touted itself as one thing, but there was so much surrounding info, there was very little room left for the main event. Like matryoshka, or those Russian nesting dolls, so many to go through before you get to the point. By the time you get to the middle, you run the danger of being worn out.
So what’s a writer to do which the research seems to take over the story? When there’s so much of it, it almost becomes impossible to pare? When you simply can’t decide what to lose so you lose nothing at all? Look, you have to decide what kind of book you’re going to write. In all fiction, you need to remember a basic principle: to disseminate information on a need-to-know basis. Is that factoid absolutely necessary to your narrative? Is it essential to your characterization? Will it move the plot forward? If it doesn’t, lose it, or at least save it for when it will make a difference. If you’re writing a novel, it’s absolutely essential to create a world, a milieu, a setting for your characters to revolve in, so some carefully placed details are absolutely necessary. But don’t overwhelm your reader, or your characters will literally be sucked into the woodwork. If you’re creating the definitive guide to Gimbel’s Department Store in New York City circa 1927, then yes, be as detailed as you like. But if you’re writing about a woman who found her first love among the cloches in the millinery department, then choose your darlings wisely. You never know when any of them will get the slash.