Monday, May 23, 2011

On Writing, Part VIII — The Scalpel or the Ladle

Before you write that first crime fiction novel consider a few things. What follows is the eighth in a series of short articles about what you might want to consider as you put pen to paper or fingers on the keyboard.

Personally, I believe less is more when it comes to writing. Then again, am I really going to critique Proust? So, this is another one of those diatribes that likely ends in a whimper not a bang, with a wishy-washy “do what feels right.”

Even so, there are some simple rules that I think even the most descriptive writers would endorse. Use concrete descriptors. Unless they are used to define the character out of whose mouth the words flow, such adjectives as “lovely,” or “fantastic” or “pretty” are useless. They are much like empty calories — no nutritional value. They are there. The reader’s mind must process them, but they add nothing to anything. On the other hand, a word like “yellow” conveys meaning. So does “oblong” or “corduroy.”

How much description is necessary? I have no idea. I’m a fan of the stark prose of Paul Bowles. Certainly descriptions are necessary to establish mood, provide a sense of time and place, and differentiate characters, etc. But, writers who spend a paragraph describing a doorknob drive me up the wall. Of course, the problem is that what bores the hell out of me may magically entertain someone else. The answer lies in your style, your voice. My suggestion is to make sure they (the descriptions) do something — advance the plot, develop the character(s) or provide some level of meaningful context. And sometimes, I admit, more is more. While a character might appropriately say, “she’s a lovely little thing,” the storyteller might prefer. “She’s the size of a toy poodle, pale as cream with bones so delicate she might break if grasped too forcefully” — or something of that nature (I may have been carried away).

The “he said, she said,” debate is another area. Most readers, I suspect, don’t mind the repetitive use of the word, “said.” But it seems to bother some writers. If it bothers you, there are many other ways to identify who is speaking and the way they are conveying their speech without repeating the word “said,” or using more colorful, but often unintentionally silly variations — “He squawked, she bleated.”

For example, “Mildred looked at Henry, unbuttoned her jacket. ‘What do you think of my new dress?’” We already know that it is Mildred speaking. Using “Mildred said” is unnecessary. Or “With all the force she could muster, Mildred threw the vase at Henry. ‘You spent the whole evening flirting with Melissa.’” Not only do we know who is speaking, we know she was angry. We don’t need to add, “she said,” or “shouted,” or “ventilated angrily.”

In this case, less is definitely preferable.

I wonder also, if publishers, who currently demand 80,000 to 100,000 words as a minimum requirement for the submission of manuscripts, tempt writers to use words with more abandon. Let me call it reckless abandon. Certainly as the “word processor” replaced the manual typewriter and carbon paper, it became easier to just keep writing and writing and writing.

But, if you look back, particularly at crime novels in the 1950s and ‘60s, they were, generally, much shorter. Double Indemnity is 115 pages in the edition I have. A classic by Donald Westlake is barely more than 200 generously leaded pages. The Lonely Silver Rain by John D. MacDonald comes in around 200 as does The Maltese Falcon. The Big Sleep is available at 139 pages.

The point is that an important part of writing is editing. No matter how precious that sentence is, if it is only that, it should probably go.

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