Adele Annesi

Adele Annesi is an award-winning editor and writer for global Web content and print publications. She is an editor with the IT analysis firm Gartner, Inc., and has worked as a development editor for Scholastic Publishing. She is also a fiction and nonfiction book editor. As a press correspondent and columnist, Adele has written for newspapers, magazines, blogs and literary journals, including Hotmetalpress, and Trillium. She won Poetic Voices of America’s editor’s choice award, and presented the innovative "Art of Editing in Writing" workshop for the Ridgefield Writes 300th Anniversary program. A nominated member of Who’s Who in America and Who’s Who in American Women, Adele is at work on a novel and several short stories. Visit my blogs, Word for Words, and Writing Linx or, see me on Facebook or LinkedIn

A Cricket in Her Hair

It’s tempting to cut the odd bits of a story that don’t fit—a character’s idiosyncrasy, an unusual setting detail, an unexpected plot twist. Although seemingly strange facets of a story can distract without adding redeeming value, when they’re valid and handled well, they can enhance or deepen the story by enhancing or deepening an element—plot, character, or theme.

A couple of great examples of not cutting these seemingly out of place details appear in My Ántonia, a memoir-style novel published 1918 and among the best by American writer Willa Cather. In this poignant tale of immigrant families in rural Nebraska in the early nineteenth century, Cather didn’t shy away from the peculiarities of the time or the people who inhabited it. In one instance, she drew attention to sunflowers growing alongside a rural Nebraska roadway, even though they belong more in California or the fields of central Italy. The unexpected flowers, transplanted into a harsh climate where you wouldn’t expect them, were like the Bohemian and other immigrant families who settled in the area: out of place, enigmatic, exotic, not in small part because they weren’t where you’d expect them to be.

The brilliance is that the reader can’t help but feel the “out of place-ness” of the sunflowers. Even if you pass over them because you want to hurry on to something that feels more “in place,” it’s too late to ignore them. They’ve already registered on an emotional level. Why? Not just because it’s arresting to see sunflowers in the middle of nowhere, but because the families who were likewise transplanted brought unique aspects of themselves and their cultures into this “nowhere” place and took root there. Without these people and the world they brought with them, the area would have been comparatively desolate and unremarkable.

Maybe it’s partly true of the families, too. In their native Bohemia, in central Europe, they would have been few among many, small fish in a big pond. Now, the reader has a reason to remember them and respect them. Empathy instantly registers how hard it must have been for these people so far from home. In several dazzling strokes, like sunflowers in a barren place, the author restores a bit of dignity to them and their world. What a wonderful redemptive touch, without the heavy handedness of a hidden message.

Just as memorable is Cather’s description of Ántonia’s rescuing a cricket from certain death. Ántonia does this in an unusual way, though it’s not strange to her. She hides the cricket in her hair, under a scarf. Yet, the image is more than unusual; it’s arresting, uncomfortable for the reader, though not for Ántonia, a young girl at this point in the story. For her, the cricket was a reminder of home in the form of an old woman in Ántonia’s hometown to whom children flocked and called grandmother. By way of Cather’s skilled description and expert weaving of Ántonia’s choice to save the cricket by putting it in her hair, an oddity becomes a memory not only for Ántonia but also for us, another warm and instructive moment in an otherwise bleak Midwestern landscape.

Both the sunflowers and the cricket are important to Cather’s story because they reveal the humanity and identity of the German and Bohemian immigrants at a specific time in history, as well as their strangeness among other settlers, also immigrants once. These details show, without telling, the immigrants’ indispensable contributions to this part of the country just by being there.

Cather’s treatment of setting and character don’t necessarily mean that every quirky detail in our stories should be kept just because they’re quirky, or because we’ve grown fond of them. But the examples do make it easier to embrace quirks, and to discern whether they advance the story, and if so, how. This is where it’s important, from an editing perspective, to determine whether and when to cut. One way to know is to ask yourself if the unusual detail, character trait, setting description, or other quirk deepens the meaning of the story (theme), reveals something important about a main character, or moves the storyline (plot) forward. The key is to be honest with yourself when answering the question. If you’re not sure, mark the section with a note to work it out later—before you send it off to a literary magazine, a literary agent, or an editor.

One reason Cather’s descriptions worked so well was that each was instructive, revealing some truth, whether flattering or unflattering, and she didn’t shy away from these realities. Truth never does. Cather’s descriptions also worked because they’re timeless. We find ourselves again living in hardscrabble times; yet we’re not the first to do so. Nothing new is under the sun.