Monday, August 14, 2006

Cheer Me Up, Please

At the request of several beginning writers, I’ve been reading a lot of first chapters of books. The writers are unpublished but eager and hardworking. The plot and situation look promising. And I am saddened that many of the same problems crop up again and again, killing the promise.

Too much background in the early pages. At one of the first iterations of “Of Dark and Stormy Nights,” the Midwest Mystery Writers of America’s writing workshop, Dorothy Salisbury Davis said, “Begin with something happening, after something has happened, and before too much has happened.” Yes, I know this sounds like the stock market advice “But low and sell high.” But think about it. Get into the story first. You can explain background, when and if it’s necessary, later, after the reader is interested in what’s going on.

Too many adjectives, and especially too many double adjectives. Example: “The hot, amber sun rose over the wide, green lawn on that last, long day of my vacation.” The reader feels like he’s wading through a swamp. A good exercise is to take any three pages of the manuscript and go through with a red pen, asking, “Is this adjective necessary?” Also, see if you can show the same info by action, or by the reaction of characters in the story.

Too many tentative words. Words like almost, practically, nearly, partly, and such are signs of self-doubt. While I certainly am victimized by a whole lot of self-doubt, I go back after the first draft and take words like this out. In fact, I’ve done this long enough that my brain has started to say, “Dummy, don’t put them in in the first place.”

Too many “conclusion” words. Conclusion words: beautiful, arrogant, ugly, magnificent, ghastly, stately, scary, and so forth. Pick words that give facts, and let the reader form the picture in his mind.

I want your writing to work for you. Write the book. I need more mysteries to read.

Barbara

40 comments:

Pete said...

The nitpicker in me couldn't help noticing that when the sun is still "amber" in the sky, it's not yet throwing off a great deal of heat. (The heat comes later in the day, when the sun would more accurately be described as orange or yellow.) Thus "hot, amber sun" is not only unwieldly, but it also doesn't make any physical sense.

That is, unless it's the third sun on Cyklon-8 we're talking about.

Kevin Guilfoile said...

That's excellent Barb. I'll probably write more about this at some point, but I recently taught a workshop at the Northwestern Writers Conference and one of the things we discussed was the fact that when something interesting happens to you and you relate a story to your friends you don't begin with a lot of backstory and setting of the scene. You tell them, "I have a great story to tell you" because you want you're friends to pay attention. The start of a novel has to contain a similar promise. You have to start with an action that promises the reader that you really do have a great story to tell.

Until you become extremely famous, the most important thing a writer has to remember is that no one is going to read your story just because you wrote it.

David Terrenoire said...

I'm with you. I don't want to know about a character's green sportscoat unless he's won the Masters.

If you haven't seen these, Dutch Leonard shares your frustration in his ten rules: http://www.elmoreleonard.com/index.php?/features/elmores_rules_of_writing/

I sleep with them under my pillow.

Sara Paretsky said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Sara Paretsky said...

My husband, who's my first reader, was always on me about my adverbs. We used to argue about it--him physicist, me writer, after all! It wasn't until I started teaching writing that I got it. Maybe too many Hardy Boys mysteries in my adolescence, she said fuzzily. Mark Twain advised, "As for the adjective, leave it out!"

Julia Buckley said...

That's great advice. I wonder why people feel the need for adjectives? When my little nephew was playing basketball with his father and wanted to convey the importance of his next shot, he said, "Now this is the basket that can win the World, World, World Championship." He was only five, but the desire for modifiers was evident even then. :)

Mystery Woman said...

Dear Barbara,
Thanks for this post. I'm working on my first mystery and I found myself faced with many of these issues. Especially how much background information to give the reader right away. This is a first draft so I know there will be rewrites to follow but for now I've decided to stick with the action and to slowly reveal details about the character along the way. After reading your post I feel better about not trying to jam too much background into the beginning of what I hope will someday be a completed manuscript.

ab said...

Thanks Barbara, I couldn't agree with you more! Look at Jane Austen, she is a master at letting out adjectives. Do we miss longish descriptions of furniture and dresses? No.

Still, I often find myself doing the opposite. The story is a film running in my mind (I have a hard time keeping up) and the images are so vivid, I can't help putting them into words.

Sara Paretsky said...

Yes, AB, I have the same problem. It's only 2 or 3 years after the book is in print that I finally have enough distance to see what I could have eliminated!

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