This article originally appeared on Women Writers, Women's Books on July 31, 2017
Case Study: WHERE THE SWEET BIRD SINGS
Subject: Canavan Disease
Authors choose to write about a subject, location, or timeframe because there’s something about one or all of these things that makes them tick. They’re willing to spend time, often years, rolling around in the details, envisioning the scenes, researching.
But if the work is fiction, there is always a point when enough is enough. Readers enjoy fiction for the story, how it brings to life a certain place, time, or situation. If they learn a few facts along the way…awesome. If they are confronted with only facts, they feel like they’re reading a text book.
I encountered this situation several times while writing my most recent novel: WHERE THE SWEET BIRD SINGS. I researched genetics, human migration, autosomal recessive genetic diseases, and ancestry. These things are fascinating to me, the science behind the story, but after learning amazing/awful details, I didn’t include even some of the most fascinating tidbits. Why? Many and varied reasons.
Today I’m going to illustrate why you must leave intriguing information out of your book using three cut details about: Canavan Disease.
Canavan is an autosomal recessive genetic disease. Although this concept is a critical element in my story, I never used these words to describe the disease, because to anyone but a scientist they mean nothing. In lay terms: two parents can be absolutely healthy (and all known relatives are healthy) but they can be carriers of a deadly condition. When the disease manifests there is no visible genetic link to past generations. I illustrated the What If of this situation with characters who were blindsided and grieving. They didn’t care about the scientific name and neither would the reader. Cut.
Canavan Disease is devastating. Children with Canavan appear normal at birth but very quickly they suffer seizures, become paralyzed, mentally incapacitated, and/or blind. They cannot crawl, walk, sit or talk. Onset of the disease: three to nine months.
I wanted to understand what happens in a young body to cause these profound symptoms. I watched videos, read memoirs, devoured medical journal websites. Here’s what I learned: a gene mutation prevents the production of a critical enzyme in the brain called apartoacyclase. Without this enzyme, an acid called NAA or N-acetylaspartate, is not broken down, thereby it accumulates to dangerous levels in the brain. This causes cells responsible for making myelin sheaths, known as oligodendrocytes, to fail at this critical developmental task. Myelin sheaths are the fatty covering, or the insulation, around nerve fibers in the brain. Without functioning myelin sheaths, communication between the nerve impulses and the body are misdirected, slowed down, or incomplete, and the brain deteriorates.
Did you skim much of that last paragraph? Most people do. Cut.
Where the Sweet Bird Sings begins one year after the child, Joey, dies. Why? Here is another instance of research hitting the cutting room floor, but for a different reason. In my first draft I’d written 30,000 words describing the anguish felt by Joey’s parents as symptoms emerged day by day. I captured their worry and finally the diagnosis. I cried while I wrote it. I cried every day. My agent read my pages and asked if my story was about watching a child die.
“No,” I said. “I want it to be an exploration of ancestry and cobbling together a family during trying times. It’s full of secrets, personal identity, and eventually hope. Joey’s death was intended to be a catalyst.”
“Good,” she said. “Because I can’t read this without bawling. I think your readers will close the book because they can’t handle the pain.” Cut.
Once you do the research, especially if you find it fascinating, it can be hard to leave some of the less necessary details out of the narrative. This is the time to listen to your beta readers, agent, or editor. They may not be quite so passionate about the subject (and they don’t care about the hours you spent diligently collecting the information).
There is a point when enough is enough. Now you must be brave. Now you must…cut.