GLOUCESTER, MA—Admitting that he has “absolutely no idea how other authors do it,” novelist Edward Milligan, 46, told reporters Tuesday that he’s just no good at all when it comes to describing people’s hands in his writing.
“I’m fine with most details, but for some reason hands completely and utterly elude me,” said Milligan, who recently described a character’s hands as “dangling around like big, meaty spiders.” “I’ll often create an entirely fleshed-out character, and write easily at length about their face, their personality, their voice, their hopes, dreams, and desires, but then I try to describe their damn hands and it ruins the whole story.”
Milligan, whose novella Grand Rapids was reportedly rejected by publishers due partly to a passage in which the protagonist’s hand “trundled and shimmered on the top section of his wrist,” revealed that while he is able to portray realistic trees, emotions, and most body parts, hands consistently give him trouble.
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Calling the way he represented the proportions of his characters’ hands “way off,” Milligan said he is especially bad at delineating human fingers, which the writer once portrayed as “flabby pink-tan logs, but a bendy kind of log.”
Milligan noted that he can envision how hands should look and behave in his mind, but always messes up when translating the imagery into words.
“Sometimes I hide the hands by saying characters had really long sleeves or having them stand behind tables, but that starts to feel awkward,” said Milligan, adding that no matter how much he practices writing about hands, “they always come out weird.” “I’ve also tried to avoid doing hand descriptions altogether, but you can only put a few amputees in your stories before people start to notice.”
“I just want to say that a character has, you know, these big…twisty things next to her wrists,” he added. “See? I can’t do it. I fucking suck at it.”
Milligan said that his problem was made more frustrating by the fact that he believes some of his writing, including the following excerpt from his unfinished novel Old Juniper, is “actually pretty good if you ignore the parts about hands”:
They moved closer now, and their shadows stretched across the sand, twin silhouettes cut from the same canvas. She laid her finger hub across his tentative, dandelion hands and then slowly let that glorious gripping machine tighten like a mighty vise until at last she could feel that their spirits, too, were entwined, just like their touching-organs were, except emotionally instead of physically.
Readers of Milligan’s work agreed that the passages concerning hands tended to be especially distracting.
“I enjoy Edward’s writing, but it’s true the hands can really take you out of it,” said reader Evan Forster, 39, who mentioned he was jarred by a sentence calling someone’s hands “bony ball-sticks that grab hard.” “I don’t think he’s doing it on purpose, because everything else seems normal. It doesn’t make sense when he tries to gets around it by saying that people’s hands are ‘hand-like in their stature and bearing.’ What does that even mean?”
“Then he tries to shoehorn in something like a guy who’s always moving his hands so fast no one can see what they look like,” Forster added. “It’s clear what he’s doing.”
The exasperated 46-year-old novelist admitted that in some cases—including a passage in which a couple walks along a path “arm-foot in arm-foot”—he isn’t even sure what he was going for in the first place.
“Listen to this: ‘What seemed like a thousand tiny hands (though in truth there were only two) extended from his arms. They were sparsely knuckled, punctuated only by the occasional thumb or forefinger jutting up like a lighthouse from a handy sea,’” said Milligan, quoting from a draft of the second chapter of his novel. “God, that’s fucking terrible. It doesn’t even sound like I’m talking about hands.”
Milligan confirmed that he recently sent an email to author Philip Roth with the subject line, “How do you do hands?” but has not received a response.