Those who’ve grown familiar with these posts over the past few months realize that I have severe diarrhea of the keyboard, but that’s only here on the Kill Zone blog where I let my mind free. My Red River and Sonny Hawke novels come in somewhere around 90-100,000 words. They aren’t Tom Clancy-size doorstops.
I also write short bursts of weekly self-syndicated mostly humorous outdoor columns (though there are plenty of serious columns) that began back in 1988, and so through the decades…
…good lord. I’ve written those for decades, and I’m from the generation who said, “Never trust anyone over twenty-one years old.”
Anyway, in those columns for The Paris News, The Rockport Pilot, and Country World (a rural newspaper distributed across the entire Lone Star State), I have to tell an entire story in less than a thousand words. They usually come in at around 850-950 words and most of them are in the right order.
Now there’s a lot of info packed in there containing the traditional three parts of a story, beginning, middle, and end. It can also translate into the three acts of a novel, something I hadn’t consciously considered until I’d written three of my books.
Here’s where we pause to make fun of myself. Gilstrap and I were drinking scotch outside at a conference somewhere after the release of my third novel, and talking about books and writing. We were alone (thank the Lord), when I mentioned that I’d recently noticed an interesting structural component in my work.
“They seem to be divided into thirds, somehow.” I took a sip of Glenlivet. “It just happens, and I didn’t notice it until I was proofing this last one. Then I went back and looked at the other manuscripts I’d sent in. It’s like my high school English teacher taught us. There’s a beginning that’s about a third of the book, then the second part seems to arc up, and in the third part, all the action races downhill to the end.”
He took a delicate sip of Lagavulin and cut his eyes at me giving me that country bless your heart look. “Rev.”
“Those are the three acts in a novel.”
“Oh, yeah. Uh, let me pour you another drink.” A torrent of long-forgotten memories rushed through the haze of single malt peat. “Good Lord! Now I remember those lessons. I’d completely forgotten!”
But I hadn’t. They were still chugging away in my subconscious and I’d been applying those lessons for years as I developed my newspaper columns and magazine articles without knowing it.
If I’m writing those humor columns, the three acts are the setup, the story arc, and the punchline (and that sometimes translates to the punch-paragraph). To accomplish all this with enough detail to put the reader in place and time, I learned to write tight.
That’s hard for novelists, and so in a way, it worked in reverse for me. Two thousand columns taught me concise structure, and that’s the way my mind works, no matter what I write. So when I was hammering out my first novel, I decided to abandon the write tight rule and put it behind me, so I could include everything I wanted.
There were broad, sweeping descriptions of the world I’d created. In my mind, I wanted to preserve the way my Old Folks spoke, so I added a lot of their phraseology and words. In addition, I went into great detail about how to render lard in large cast iron pots, or how my grandmother canned vegetables and fruits, and how the house smelled and felt through the seasons.
I ended up with a tome that required severe editing. Once I was finished, you couldn’t tell anything had been deleted and the manuscript flowed like a spring-fed creek.
In the years since, I construct novels with an eye toward an 80,000-85,000 word length in my first draft. That gets the structural foundation in place. Then I go back and add more conversation in places, tightly controlled descriptions, and elements left out in the first frenzy of construction.
But back to compact construction. While pounding away at the keys this morning to meet my weekly newspaper deadline, I registered a song playing in the background and stopped to listen. It’s a fine example of writing tight, a song that’s the perfect structural foundation for a novel. A story written tight.
I use this song and those lyrics when teaching classes how to construct a story (and I even tell those in attendance it’s the textbook outline, if outlining is easiest for them).
The structural foundation for this popular song (in my part of the world) could become a short story, or a screenplay, is titled, The Lights of Loving County, by Charlie Robison. (I really hope someone approaches him to buy the rights for a movie). It’s a song with three full acts circling back to mesh with the beginning with an astonishing connection. The song was written by Charlie Robison, too (I’m trying to give as much credit as possible so as not to get sued here). Read this as a story, and not as a grand poem set to music, and I’ll be waiting for you on the other side.
Well, I loved a girl,
She lived out in Pecos, and pretty as she could be.
And I worked the rigs on out in Odessa
To give her whatever she needs.
But that girl, she run with an oil company bum
‘cause a diamond was not on her hand.
And he left her soon ‘neath the big loving moon
To go out and X-ray the land.
Now I sit in my car at the New Rainbow Bar downtown.
And the frost on the windshield shines toward the sky
Like a thousand tiny diamonds in the lights of Loving County.
Well, l walked in that bar and I drank myself crazy
Thinking about her and that man.
When in walked a woman, looking richer than sin
with ten years-worth of work on her hand.
Well, I followed her home and when she was alone,
I put my gun to her head.
And I don’t recall what happened next at all,
But now that rich woman, she’s dead.
Now I drive down the highway
Ten miles from my sweet baby’s arms.
And the moon is so bright it don’t look like night,
And the diamond how it sparkles in the lights of Loving County.
Well, she opened that door and I knelt on the floor,
And I put that ring in her hand.
Then she said, “I do: and she’d leave with me soon
To the rigs out in South Alabam’.
Now I told her to hide that ring there inside,
And wait ’til the timing was good.
And I drove back home and I was alone
‘cause I thought that she understood
The next night an old friend just called me to wish us both well.
He said, he’d seen her downtown, sashaying around,
And her diamond, how it sparkled in the lights of Loving County.
Well that sheriff, he found me out wandering
All around El Paso the very next day.
You see, I’d lost my mind on that broken white line
‘fore I even reached Balmorhea.
Well, now she’s in Fort Worth and she’s just given birth
To the son of that oil company man.
And they buried that poor old sheriff’s dead wife
With the ring that I stole on her hand.
And sometimes they let me look up at that East Texas sky.
And the rain on the pines, oh Lord, how it shines
Like my darling’s little diamond in the lights of Loving County.
God, I wish I’d written that. There it is, an entire novel in one neat little package. An outline, if you will, just waiting to be fleshed out. This is a prime example of writing tight with just enough detail to bring the story to life, and yet not too much fat.
In there, we see the harsh West Texas landscape, and a hardscrabble life in the oil business. Charlie shows us the two main characters who set this story into motion, a man who loves a woman deeply and despises another suitor, and a woman who sees worth in the baubles men provide to make her feel better out there in the desert.
Then the action begins. The jealous protagonist needs two things on a cold winter night. Booze and money. One to sooth his emotions, and the other to buy the girl he’s crazy about. It always comes down to money, doesn’t it? In an alcoholic blackout, he commits murder. He has what he wants, but at the same time is struggling with right and wrong, soon to be overcome guilt and mental breakdown after she starts flashing that diamond around town.
Murder, intrigue, and a brilliant twist that leads to his capture and final incarceration in Huntsville State Prison where he sometimes can see rain caught on the pines that surround the penitentiary. It’s the dichotomy between the dry west and lush eastern part of our state, still another level in this multifaceted story.
I’ve provided a link below so that you can hear the original version of the song. It needs nothing else, except to be fleshed out with a minimum of instrumentation, another brilliant version of writing tight. As my young daughters heard until they gagged, “Less is more.”
Hope this quick little lesson has some impact on your writing.