Should a Fiction Writer Use a Thesaurus?

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Dr. Peter Mark Roget

In college my roommates and I used to play a game with a dictionary. We cleverly called it “The Dictionary Game.” It was played with a big dictionary and scraps of paper. When it was your turn you’d look through the dictionary until you came across a word no one was familiar with. You wrote down the correct definition. The other players made up fake definitions that sounded right. The object was to fool as many people in the game as you could. You got a point if you guessed the correct definition. You got a point if somebody guessed your fake definition. The person who chose the word would get a point for every wrong guess.

I learned some cool words this way. The one that has stayed with me for over forty years is borborygmus. It means a “rumbling in the bowels caused by gas.”

This still cracks me up. It’s an onomatopoeia, a word that sounds like the thing it describes (although onomatopoeia itself is definitely not an onomatopoeia). And it makes for a great insult: You borborygmic swine! That’ll stop a bad guy in his tracks!

Which brings me to the subject of word choices. We have them. We have a whole passel of them (passel: a large number or amount). We even have a resource dedicated to word choices—the thesaurus (brainchild of Dr. Peter Mark Roget [1779 – 1869], a British physician and lexicographer).

Which invites (not begs) the question: should a fiction writer use a thesaurus? Mr. Stephen King has an oft-quoted opinion on this matter, as expressed in “Everything You Need to Know About Writing Successfully—in Ten Minutes.” This article appears in the 1989 edition of The Writer’s Handbook, which I just happen to have on my shelf (you can also find King’s essay here).

You want to write a story? Fine. Put away your dictionary, your encyclopedias, your World Almanac, and your thesaurus. Better yet, throw your thesaurus into the wastebasket. The only things creepier than a thesaurus are those little paperbacks college students too lazy to read the assigned novels buy around exam time. Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule.

Well now! What are we to think … I mean, what are we to surmise, suppose, conjecture, conclude, and determine about Mr. King’s rule?

Some might call it bunk (balderdash, bosh, codswallop, twaddle). But the context of this quote comes under the heading: Never look at a reference book while doing a first draft. King wants you to get that story down, in flow. So much so that he has advice on another form of flow:

When you sit down to write, write. Don’t do anything else but go to the bathroom, and only do that if it absolutely cannot be put off.

Ahem.

Anyway, I mostly agree with King. When you’re first setting down your tale, you should do so as expeditiously (swiftly, rapidly, efficiently) as possible. Don’t stop and go looking for a ten-dollar word when a buck or a fiver will do the job.

But I will offer a wee (used in the sense of little) exception. When King wrote his piece we were only in the beginnings of the personal computer age. At the time, King was using a dedicated word processor—a big (huge, bulky, Brobdingnagian) machine that did only one thing: saved your typing on floppy disks. Thesauruses (Thesauri?) were bound, paper books. It would take you precious flow-minutes to look up a word.

Now, of course, we all have personal computers with a Dictionary/Thesaurus app. I use mine most often to find a synonym for something mundane, like walk. Sure, a character can walk into a room. That doesn’t do much for the reader. So I open my computer thesaurus and in five seconds find: stroll, saunter, amble, trudge, plod, dawdle, hike, tramp, tromp, slog, stomp, trek, march, stride, sashay, glide, troop, limp, stumble, and lurch.

Recently, I was working on my NIP (novella in progress). I was writing a scene with a drug kingpin and his pet monkey. The monkey keeps shrieking. But I didn’t want to use that same word over and over. So I popped open the thesaurus and immediately found: scream, screech, squeal, squawk, roar, howl, shout, yelp. Just what I needed. I used five of them.

The alternative to using the thesaurus in this manner is that you sit at the keyboard for several minutes trying to come up with alternatives. But in this case “the hunt”— to use Mr. King’s term (expression, phrase, idiom, locution) — is faster and more efficient with a thesaurus app.

Is there another exception to Mr. King’s rule? I think so. I like to lightly edit my previous day’s work before jumping back into the first draft. When I do this I’ll sometimes find a spot where I wish to apply Mark Twain’s dictum: “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—’tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.” A minute or two here pays off in stylistic coin that will please your readers.

So I’m not ready to discard (jettison, scrap, chuck, dump, dish) my thesaurus.

What about you?

13+

Stir Your Echoes

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Some of you will recognize in my title an homage to Richard Matheson and his novel Stir of Echoes (one of his best!) Not very clever, but I had a heck of a time coming up with something better.

But I digress.

What I wanted to tell you is that the other day I picked up a novel in a long-running series by a mega bestselling writer (now deceased). It was one of the later books in the series which, truth be told, was starting to run a little thin. Some critics have noted this, but I’m a fan of the early books so I thought, What the hey?

Unfortunately, I was only a few chapters in when I decided to set the book aside. I just got the feeling that this one was mailed in, that the writer wasn’t working hard anymore.

The final straw was a grating echo.

A writing echo is the close repetition of a word or phrase:

Monica charged into the room.
“So there you are!” she said.
Harvey said, “You don’t understand.”
The girl in the bed elbowed Harvey. “I think she does.”
“See you in court,” Monica said as she charged out the door.

The obvious echo here is charged. The words occur in close proximity. The echo clangs on the ear of the reader. It’s what I call one of those writing “speed bumps” that, even for a brief moment, can take the reader out of a smooth, fictional ride.

So don’t put them in.

But an echo is easy for a writer to write and overlook when editing his own manuscript. It should be something a good editor or reader catches for you.

In the novel I’m talking about, either the editor was asleep at the switch or, more likely, the manuscript went straight to copy editing. After all, the mega bestselling author sold 80,000 hardcovers out of the gate. Plus, he probably made it clear he was not going to edit the thing anyway.

So a clunky, clumsy echo found its way into the book:

Shepherded by the detail cop, it backed up out of sight. Somebody held up a clacker board in front of the camera.

A few paragraphs later:

Shepherded by the detail cop, the limo backed up out of sight. I’d been around movie sets before.

Now, one might argue that this glaring echo was somehow intentional stylistically. But there is no stylistic reason for it. If you’re going to echo intentionally for effect, you do it in a way that is unambiguous—usually following the “rule of three.” To wit:

I devoured the sandwich.
I devoured the fries.
I devoured the news, then decided it was time to get my butt in gear.

Or you can do a double:

I cancelled my subscription, then Twitter cancelled me.

All the way home I screamed at the injustice of it all. When I walked through the door, Stan screamed at me for being late.

In both cases, the echo is a pleasant one, and the reader knows it.

Two observations:

  1. The more distinct the word, the greater the echo

Common verbs like run, walk, went don’t stick out so much, though in the same paragraph you should really choose another verb. Someone who runs into a room can scurry out, for example. Just don’t have them scurry in, too.

  1. Do a word to search for your personal bugaboos

I always have a word or phrase that repeats in my first drafts. Mrs. B catches these, and I then search for that echo throughout the document and make changes accordingly.

Do you ever catch echoes in your own writing? What are some of your frequently repeated words or phrases?

12+

Write Tight

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Embed from Getty Images

Unless you’re writing literary fiction, where an expansive style is part of the experience (e.g., Thomas Wolfe), you should strive to write tight. You’re telling a story. Your goal is to draw readers into that story, fast, and keep them there. Every sentence should serve that purpose. Writing tight means no excessive prose, no over-padded paragraphs, nothing to get in the way of the fictive dream.

Now, this does not mean you can’t have what John D. MacDonald called “unobtrusive poetry” in the style. The key word is unobtrusive. It does its work pleasantly, then steps out of the way. Not this:

With sharp whetted hunger he thought of breakfast. He threw the sheet back cleanly, swung in an orbit to a sitting position and put his white somewhat phthisic feet on the floor. (Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe)

Eh? What? Is that a typo? Phthisic? What the heck is that? (It’s actually a word. You can look it up. Which is not a good way to write, sending readers to the dang dictionary!)

Instead, this:

The sun that brief December day shone weakly through the west-facing window of Garrett Kingsley’s office. It made a thin yellow oblong splash on his Persian carpet and gave up. (Pale Kings and Princes by Robert B. Parker)

So let’s look at some ways you can write tighter.

Cut Flab

In Stein on Writing, Sol Stein defined flab as “superfluous words and phrases.” Most flab comes in the form of adjectives and adverbs. Stein’s advice is to cut all the adjectives and adverbs in a manuscript, then readmit only “the necessary few after careful testing.”

As an example, I want to show you a sentence I read in a non-fiction article posted on a popular sports website. It had to do with NBA Mavericks owner Mark Cuban getting into hot water with the league (a habit with him):

Cuban felt the refs did his team dirty and ultimately blamed the officials for the Mavericks ultimately losing the game.

We’ll get to the repetition of the adverb ultimately in a moment. But first, does that word help this sentence in any way? No. It adds nothing but flab. How much stronger it is this way:

Cuban felt the refs did his team dirty and blamed the officials for the Mavericks losing the game.

And, of course, using that adverb twice in the same sentence is truly felonious. You need to watch for the same thing in your paragraphs, too. I call these…

Echoes

Take a look at this:

Max walked into the bar. It stank of beer and sweat. He spotted Henderson sitting at a table, alone. He walked over and stood there, arms folded. Henderson looked up. His eyes told Max he just wanted to be left alone.

The repetition of alone is an echo. While it doesn’t violate any rule of grammar, it is what I would call a little “speed bump” that momentarily takes the reader out of the scene. The repeated sound is jarring.

The solution is simple: cut one of them. You could do it this way:

Max walked into the bar. It stank of beer and sweat. He spotted Henderson sitting at a table. He walked over and stood there, arms folded. Henderson looked up. His eyes told Max he just wanted to be left alone.

Or this way:

Max walked into the bar. It stank of beer and sweat. He spotted Henderson sitting at a table, alone. He walked over and stood there, arms folded. Henderson looked up. His eyes told Max he didn’t want to talk to anybody.

The exception to this guideline is when you purposely want to emphasize a word, as in the following:

His shirt was black. His pants were black. His boots were even blacker, if that was possible. He looked like Johnny Cash at a funeral.

Dialogue

As I contend in my book on the subject, dialogue is the fastest way to improve a manuscript. An agent or editor, or reader for that matter, knows good dialogue because they’ve seen so much of the bad variety.

One of the marks of effective dialogue is compression. Unless there is a reason a character long winded, keep the dialogue tight and to the point.

The easiest way to do this is to cut words. You can almost always cut a word or two out of dialogue and make it sound better. Example:

“I don’t think this is a good idea,” Max said.

“Well then, what do you suggest we do?” Henderson said.

“I don’t know, drive around to the back maybe.”

“That would be a stupid thing to do.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Because that’s where all the cops will be.”

Can we tighten this up? I think we can:

“This isn’t a good idea,” Max said.

“What do you suggest?” Henderson said.

“Drive around the back maybe.”

“Stupid.”

“Why?”

“That’s where all the cops’ll be.”

Obviously you adjust according to the way your characters talk. But you will be amazed how much better your dialogue sounds when you trim the fat this way.

How would you describe your default writing style? When first drafting, do you tend to write long and cut? Or do you write lean and add? 

13+

Stretch Your Style

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Not every writer is interested in style. If they can write lean, mean plots that move, with interesting characters and a satisfying ending, that’s enough. They’d rather write fast and turn out more work than spend extra time trying to find the “right” words.

Isaac Asimov was such a writer. He purposely developed a stripped-down style so he could churn out the books. He was once asked what he would do if he found out he had just six months to live. “Type faster,” he said.

Other writers do seek to enhance their prose. One such was John D. MacDonald, considered one of the great crime writers of the 20th century. He wrote a string of paperback classics in the 1950s, and then invented an enduring series character for the 60s and beyond—Travis McGee.

He was a great plotter, but a careful stylist as well. As he himself once put it: “I want a bit of magic in the prose style, a bit of unobtrusive poetry. I want to have words and phrases really sing.”

While “unobtrusive poetry” is not necessary for a well-plotted novel, it is an elevation. It’s a fine thing to consider stretching your prose. The main proviso is that you never let the style overplay its hand. Serve the story first.

One place where prose style is most fitting is when there is a high emotional moment. Nothing is higher than a young writer dying, in the aptly titled and justifiably famous short story that made William Saroyan’s reputation, “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze.”

Then swiftly, neatly, with the grace of the young man on the trapeze, he was gone from his body. For an eternal moment he was all things at once: the bird, the fish, the rodent, the reptile, and man. An ocean of print undulated endlessly and darkly before him. The city burned. The herded crowd rioted. The earth circled away, and knowing that he did so, he turned his lost face to the empty sky and became dreamless, unalive, perfect.

Go ahead and stretch your prose in the safety of your own writing room. Three ideas:

  1. Read poetry

Ray Bradbury, one of our greatest unobtrusive poet-writers, read some poetry every day. “Poetry is good because it flexes muscles you don’t use often enough,” Bradbury says in Zen in the Art of Writing. “Poetry expands the senses and keeps them in prime condition.”

  1. Write page-long sentences

As an exercise from time to time, write a run-on sentence of 250 words or so. Don’t edit yourself. Let the words take you wherever they roam!

This is a good way to add emotional depth to a scene. When you get to a point where you describe emotion, start a fresh document and write a page-long sentence of inner description. Don’t judge it; just write it.

When you’re done, look it over. Maybe you’ll use most of it in your novel. Maybe only one line. But what you’ll have is fresh and stylistically pleasing. I’m certain this is how Jack Kerouac came up with that famous passage in his novel On the Road:

The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!”

  1. Play with metaphors

Dow Mossman, author of The Stones of Summer (the subject of a documentary, The Stone Reader) says he considered each page of his massive novel to be its own poem. Naturally it is filled with metaphors and similes.

He stood, leaning against the wooden jamb of the double glass doorway, looking back, and his eyes seemed almost dull, flatter than last year, muted somehow like reptiles not swimming in open water anymore.

Dull eyes like reptiles not swimming surprises in a pleasing way, but also fits the overall tone of the novel. The best similes and metaphors do both.

So how do you find these images?

Make a list. At the top, write the subject. In the above example, it would be dull eyes. Dull like what?

List as many images as you can, absurd and farfetched as they may be. Push past your comfort zone. Force yourself to come up with twenty possibilities. One of them will surely work.

Robert Newton Peck uses nouns in place of adjectives to plant the unexpected in his novel A Day No Pigs Would Die:

She was getting bigger than August.

The whole sky was pink and peaches.

Like Peck, you should occasionally step outside the normal, grammatical box. You’ll find some pleasant surprises when you do!

How important is style to you, when you write and when you read? We all agree that story comes first, but are you also an “unobtrusive poetry” fan? Do you think about it as you write or revise? 

NOTE: This post is adapted from PLOTMAN TO THE RESCUE: A TROUBLESHOOTING GUIDE TO FIXING YOUR TOUGHEST PLOT PROBLEMS.

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11+

How Beautiful Should Your Sentences Be?

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Mickey Spillane

“Those big-shot writers could never dig the fact that there are more salted peanuts consumed than caviar.”

So said one of the all-time bestselling writers, Mickey Spillane. He was always getting bad-mouthed by literary writers (most famously Hemingway) for succeeding in the sweatshop of mass market paperback fiction. Many “big-shot writers” who wrote beautiful sentences did not take it well that this hardboiled typist was outselling them ten thousand to one.

I thought about that quote recently as I listened to an agent and editor on a panel discussing “up-market fiction.” That seems to be what “everyone is looking for” in the traditional publishing world. But what the heck is it?

A few years ago, Chuck Sambuchino, of Writer’s Digest, defined “up-market” this way:

Simply put, it’s fiction that blends the line between commercial and literary. To further examine this, let’s break down those two terms. Commercial fiction, essentially, refers to novels that fall into a typical genre (thriller, let’s say). Commercial fiction can sell very well because it usually has a tight premise/logline (“Someone is trying to kill the president!”) and people like reading a category like thrillers because it’s exciting. Literary fiction refers to novels that don’t fit into any standard genre classification – romance, mystery, sci-fi, for example. Literary fiction requires the highest command of the language. Not pretentious, over-the-top purple prose – just simply excellent writing. Literary fiction has a harder time selling because it’s not easily defined, and sometimes the premise is not easily explained (or just isn’t that exciting).

So that brings us to “upmarket.” EVERYONE is looking for this genre. “But why, Chuck?” Well, think about it. It’s literary fiction, so it’s pretty damn good writing, but it has commercial potential. It has the ability to infiltrate lots of book clubs and start discussions and take off as a product. It’s a win-win for everyone. I’ve heard a lot of agents say that they are looking for “literary fiction with a commercial appeal,” or something like that. Well, one word that does the job of those six is “upmarket,” and that’s why you hear it so much.

 

The article went on to quote agent Kristin Nelson, who said, “Really, editors are looking for literary writers who can tackle the more commercial themes in a way that’s fresh and well constructed.”

The agent on the panel said that literary fiction is “all about the sentences” and commercial fiction is “all about the plot.” Up-market fiction occupies “the space in between.” It has “more beautiful sentences” than raw commercial fiction.

I guess I understand. But let me say, first of all, I don’t believe a collection of “beautiful sentences” necessarily adds up to a quality literary novel. If you’d like to find out why, read the famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) essay called A Reader’s Manifesto.

On the other hand, lovely prose in service to story can indeed elevate the fictive dream. I give you, e.g., White Oleander by Janet Fitch.

It’s an interesting balance to consider. My approach is to start with plot and then consider my sentences, rather than start with style and root around for a plot. Therefore I counsel: Don’t write to impress your readers; write to distress your characters.

When I write a sentence I don’t want it to pull the reader out of the story by being either a) clunky; or b) purple. If there’s to be some “poetry” in the prose, I want it to be, as John D. MacDonald put it, “unobtrusive.”

To bring things back to Mr. Spillane, his writing was favorably contrasted to Thomas Wolfe’s in an essay by, of all people, Ayn Rand. And it seems to me she was right. Wolfe’s sentences often get in my way (I wrote about that here). But Spillane’s pull me into the story world. Read the opening of One Lonely Night sometime.

So just to be clear, I really do love a bit of caviar now and then. But I’ll take a bag of salted peanuts anytime—and will likely finish the whole darn thing.

So what repast do you prefer—caviar or peanuts? Do you think about writing “up market”?

10+

Authors I Have Learned From: John D. MacDonald

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

On July 14 I’ll be leading a panel at ThrillerFest on literary influences. The guests are David Morrell, Lisa Gardner, Ted Bell, Peter Blauner, Robert Gleason and W. Michael Gear. Still time to register for TFest. Hope to see some of you there.

That subject got me thinking about the authors who have influenced me, so I thought from time to time I’d write about them, and some of the lessons learned.

I begin with John D. MacDonald. For those of you unfamiliar with his work, here’s a clip from The Red Hot Typewriter by Hugh Merrill:

From the 1950s through the 1980s, John Dann McDonald was one of the most popular and prolific writers in America. He was a crime writer who managed to break free of the genre and finally get serious consideration from critics. Seventy of his novels and more than 500 of his short stories were published in his lifetime. When he died in 1986, more than seventy million of his books had been sold.

I first became seriously interested MacDonald when I read that he was one of Dean Koontz’s favorite writers. I’d read a couple of the Travis McGee books, for which MacDonald is most famous. But it was when I picked up some of his 1950s paperback originals that I really got into him. I went on a collecting binge for several years and now have a full collection of said paperbacks, including the one hardest to get, Weep For Me (1951). MacDonald refused to let it be reprinted. He was embarrassed by it, calling it a lousy imitation of James M. Cain. (I went to her in that shadowy place under the concrete arch. The early traffic slammed across the bridge, tearing the air. I took what I had won, the way any animal does.) It’s better than that (the folks at Random House have decided to give it life again) but was still hewing to the minimalist style popularized by Cain, Hammett, and Spillane—who were all beholden to Hemingway.

In those early years MacDonald wrote science fiction, hard-boiled detective, crime, contemporary adult, and even a multi-protagonist novel (The Damned) centered around a single event, influenced no doubt by Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey.

One theme he returned to was the existential angst of the 50s man. His 1953 novel, Cancel All Our Vows, is superior to Sloan Wilson’s more famous The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1955). It’s the story of one Fletcher Wyant, age 36, a middle manager at a big company. The following passage is quintessential MacDonald:

And, as he was looking, it happened to him again. It was something that had started with the first warm days of spring. All colors seemed suddenly brighter, and with his heightened perception, there came also a deep, almost frightening sadness. It was a sadness that made him conscious of the slow beat of his heart, of the roar of blood in his ears. And it was a sadness that made him search for identity, made him try to re-establish himself in his frame of reference in time and space. Fletcher Wyant. He of the blonde wife and the kids and the house and the good job. It was like an incantation, or the saying of beads. But the sadness seemed to come from a feeling of being lost. Of having lost out, somehow. He could not translate it into the triteness of saying that his existence was without satisfaction. He was engrossed in his work and loved it. He could not visualize any existence without Jane and the kids. Yet, during these moments that seemed to be coming more frequently these last few weeks, he had the dull feeling that somehow time was eluding him, that there was not enough of life packed into the time he had.

When MacDonald finally settled on writing mostly crime fiction, he produced some true classics, like The End of the Night, which pre-dated Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, and The Executioners, the basis of the movie Cape Fear. (Note: The 1962 Gregory Peck-Robert Mitchum version is better than the 1991 Robert De Niro-Nick Nolte remake directed by Martin Scorsese, though it was a nice gesture to give both Peck and Mitchum minor roles in that one.)

There’s a great story around the writing of The Executioners. MacDonald regularly met with a group of writers in Florida, one of whom was MacKinlay Kantor. Kantor, who had won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction, used to needle MacDonald about all the “paperback trash” he wrote. One day he asked John, “When are you going to write a real book?”

MacDonald was ticked. He said he could write a book in thirty days that would be serialized in a magazine, become a book club selection, and be turned into a movie. Kantor laughed. MacDonald bet him fifty bucks. And, of course, won.

The first lesson I picked up from a wide reading of MacDonald is what he termed “unobtrusive poetry” in the style. That’s not an easy thing to accomplish. You don’t want a style that calls so much attention to itself that’s all the reader is thinking about. On the other hand, it’s not stripped-down minimalism of the Hemingway-Cain school.

MacDonald found the right place. His books are filled with passages that capture a character or setting with just a few incandescent lines. Here’s an example from one of the Travis McGee books, Darker Than Amber:

She sat up slowly, looked in turn at each of us, and her dark eyes were like twin entrances to two deep caves. Nothing lived in those caves. Maybe something had, once upon a time. There were piles of picked bones back in there, some scribbling on the walls, and some gray ash where the fires had been.

I’ve never forgotten that image. Indeed, I believe MacDonald could have been one of our best mainstream writers, a Book-of-the-Month Club darling like Norman Mailer or John O’Hara. He could have written “big” books that weren’t disasters. But his paperbacks paid the bills, and that’s what he kept producing.

Which brings me to another aspect of his career that inspired me—his work ethic. MacDonald came out of corporate America and approached his writing like a job. He wrote each day from morning till noon, had lunch, went back to work and knocked off at five for a martini and dinner. He took Sundays off.

MacDonald also left behind a legacy of short stories. Two collections of his crime and mystery stories are The Good Old Stuff and More Good Old Stuff. But I think I prefer his more literary collection, End of the Tiger. One of the stories, “The Bear Trap,” inspired me to try my own hand at this type of tale. So in honor of JDM, I’m making my story “Golden” free this week. Enjoy.

John D. MacDonald was once asked how he’d like his epitaph to read. His answer: “He hung around quite a while, entertained the folk, and was stopped quick and clean when the right time came.”

MacDonald’s time came much too soon. He died at age 70 from complications arising out of heart surgery. He left his wife an estate worth $5 million (in 1986 dollars) and left the rest of us some really good stuff. Not a bad way for a writer to go after all.

9+

Pack More Punch in Your Prose

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

We talk a lot about the big stuff here at TKZ—plot, structure, characters, scenes, and so on.

Today, I want to discuss the small stuff: words and sentences. But though they are small in stature, they are monumental in effect. It’s our sentences that create the pictures which deliver the stories to our readers.

If they’re flabby (the sentences, not the readers) the book won’t have nearly the effect it should.

So let’s get serious about sentences. The jumping-off point for our discussion is another of our first-page critiques. See you on the other side:

Lies on the Seine

Chapter One

There were three people in line in front of her. Danny Sullivan didn’t recognize the man behind the cart. Having to deal with a stranger wasn’t unheard of, but ever since the woman in Berlin it always made her throat dry and she had to force herself not to swallow. She was on high alert whenever it happened.

Danny surveyed the area around her for anyone who looked suspicious. A woman sitting on a wooden bench had a stroller and a book, but she didn’t seem to be reading or paying any attention to her child. A man in a fully buttoned suit was leaning on a tree talking on his phone. He wouldn’t stand out if he loosened his tie, she’d keep him in her sight. She noticed a group of teenagers over her left shoulder, the one in the baseball cap and sunglasses seemed to be looking directly at her, she couldn’t be sure. She wasn’t paranoid, suspicious people could be extremely dangerous.

There were two people in line in front of her. Danny turned her attention to the sandbox. Jacob and Jason were playing their favorite game, burying their cars then needing help to find them. Being that it was rare for their father to get a few minutes off in the middle of the day to meet his family at the park, Mark was unaware that the four-year-olds were conning him. She watched as he desperately looked for cars where the twins pointed even though they each knew he was excavating in the wrong location. To him, ruining his suit was a small price to pay if it meant he could play with his sons. Her family was a distraction.

There was one person in line in front of her. Her hand shook as she reached into her bag preparing for the worst. Meetings like this always put her on edge. At least she was out in the open, unlike the time inside the rubbled hospital remains in Iran when the only thing she accomplished was getting out alive. Danny had been with the CIA for almost fifteen years, danger came with the job. Now, as an operative assigned to bring down a black market arms dealer, she expected to find herself in situations that put her life at risk. However, being in such close proximity to her family was a whole different kind of scared.

***

JSB: Author, you’ve got the makings of a good scene here. CIA, something big about to go down, kids and husband close by. So let’s see if we can’t render this with more vigorous prose, more action, and less telling.

There were three people in line in front of her.

I want you to be on the lookout for sentences that begin with the There were… construction. It’s not ungrammatical, and I use it myself sometimes. But there are (!) other ways to deliver the same information. I mention it because you use this construction in three of the four paragraphs. I get that you’re showing the line getting shorter, but variety in the language would make this more inviting.

Also, while it’s often done, beware of beginning a story with a pronoun (her) instead of a name. Yes, a writer could have a valid reason for doing so, but be darn sure about that reason.

Why not this for the opening line:

Danny Sullivan didn’t recognize the man behind the cart.

Now we have a name, which gets us closer to the character from the jump. We have action—she’s looking and not recognizing. And we have a specific image—the man behind the cart. This opening line put us right into an actual scene. In medias res, as they say.

I like the mystery that’s dropped in about the woman in Berlin. I think we can also make this crisper, not only by cutting flab (there’s that word again) but by making this two or three sentences:

OLD: Having to deal with a stranger wasn’t unheard of, but ever since the woman in Berlin it always made her throat dry and she had to force herself not to swallow.

NEW: Dealing with a stranger wasn’t unheard of, but ever since the woman in Berlin it made her throat dry. She had to force herself not to swallow.

OR: Dealing with a stranger wasn’t unheard of. But ever since the woman in Berlin it made her throat dry. She had to force herself not to swallow.

In general, compact sentences increase tension.

The second paragraph gives us Danny’s observations. We can do some more cutting:

OLD: A man in a fully buttoned suit was leaning on a tree…

NEW: A man in a fully buttoned suit leaned on a tree… 

Grammatically, there’s nothing wrong with the first version. But when you can cut words and still convey the same information, try it. Especially if you’re writing a thriller.

He wouldn’t stand out if he loosened his tie, she’d keep him in her sight. She noticed a group of teenagers over her left shoulder, the one in the baseball cap and sunglasses seemed to be looking directly at her, she couldn’t be sure.

Odd use of commas. Change each comma to a period and I think you’ll see it reads better.

Third paragraph: As I’ve already mentioned, There were… should go. Also, we can cut some more flab. Try it this way: Two people to go. Danny looked at the sandbox.

I’d also cut the last line: Her family was a distraction. I’m not sure what it means. What kind of distraction—one that gives her pleasure, or makes her nervous? If you want this information in the scene, show us how Danny’s feeling by way of something physical—a smile, a twitch, inner warmth, inner trembling, a deep breath—or perhaps a thought beat (e.g., Mark, why’d you pick today?) 

In fact, you should cut the last line of each paragraph. There’s a little guideline called RUE (Resist the Urge to Explain). Each of your last lines is an author explanation of what we’ve just read. Let the action speak for itself.

The fourth paragraph begins: Her hand shook as she reached into her bag preparing for the worst. Meetings like this always put her on edge. At least she was out in the open, unlike the time inside the rubbled hospital remains in Iran when the only thing she accomplished was getting out alive.

I like this because it’s active and has a bit of backstory is woven in naturally. Notice how the effect can be enhanced by leaving some things out:

Her hand shook as she reached into her bag. At least she was out in the open, unlike the time inside the rubbled hospital remains in Iran.

Now we have micro-mysteries. What is she reaching for? Why was she in Iran? Micro-mysteries are great in opening pages. They compel the reader to read on.

So cut the rest of the paragraph, which is plain exposition—CIA, fifteen years, black market. Instead, let us see by Danny’s subsequent actions what her skills are.

Act first, explain later.

I recall an action movie, The Long Kiss Goodnight starring Geena Davis. She’s this nice, prim wife in a small town. But when she’s viciously attacked in her home, she suddenly has this amazing skill with a knife, and dispatches her attacker with lethal force.

WHU?

We have to wait a long time to find out the backstory. That’s okay. We’re hooked. (Oddly, I can’t remember the rest of the movie. But the opening remains vivid.)

Author, you’ve got the stuff here for a tense opening page. Rework it. Cut and shape those words so they punch us in the heart.

Oh, and one more thing—don’t ever start a sentence with However. That’s for academic papers and stuffy speeches to the Rotary Club, not fiction! [UPDATE: Unless it’s in the mouth of a prim character who would begin a sentence with However!]

All right, kids. Your turn.

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Don’t Kill Your Darlings—Give Them a Fair Trial!

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

I’ve never been a big fan of the writing admonition to Kill your darlings. It’s been a virtual axiom among writers for decades. Yet it seems to me about as useful as Destroy your delight and as cold-hearted as Drown your puppies.

I mean, if something is your darling, should your first instinct be to end its life? Sounds positively psychopathic.

Isn’t a darling at least owed a fair trial?

The phrase itself has its origin in a lecture on style delivered by the English writer Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch back in 1914. He said:

To begin with, let me plead that you have been told of one or two things which Style is not; which have little or nothing to do with Style, though sometimes vulgarly mistaken for it. Style, for example, is not—can never be—extraneous Ornament … [I]f you here require a practical rule of me, I will present you with this: ‘Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.’

At least Sir Arthur was honest enough to call it murder! But murder requires malice aforethought, and that is a terrible way to think about a darling.

Darlingicide should be outlawed, not encouraged!

Stephen King strikes the right balance. In his book On Writing King says the whole idea behind “kill your darlings” is to make sure your style is “reasonably reader-friendly.”

Which means sometimes a darling stays, sometimes it goes, and sometimes you give it a skillful edit.

It’s mostly a matter of ear, what it sounds like. It’s that thing called voice, which is (as I’ve defined it) a synergy of author, character, and craft. You can develop an instinct for the right sound. The more you practice, the better you get.

Begin by being aware of three areas where darlings tend to present themselves:

  1. Metaphors, Similes and Turns of Phrase

I love writing that creates striking word pictures. That’s why I dig Raymond Chandler over most of his contemporaries. I mean, come on, you have to love things like this:

I lit a cigarette. It tasted like a plumber’s handkerchief. (Farewell, My Lovely)

It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window. (Farewell, My Lovely) 

From 30 feet away she looked like a lot of class. From 10 feet away she looked like something made up to be seen from 30 feet away. (The High Window) 

Obviously, finding just the right touch for this is crucial. I use metaphors and similes in my Mike Romeo series, because it’s true to his character. But my wife (and first editor) is usually right when she says, “This is too much” or “I have no idea what this is supposed to mean.”

Then I don’t kill the darling. But I do show her the door. Much more civilized.

  1. Dialogue

There’s a fine line between memorable dialogue and dialogue that seems to be straining too hard to be memorable.

In Revision and Self-Editing I suggest “one gem per act” as a rule of thumb. A line that really shines. One that you work and re-work.

In my workshops I’ll use an example from the movie The Godfather. It’s in the scene where Michael comes to Las Vegas to tell Moe Green that the Corleone family is taking over. Moe Green is furious. He shouts, “Do you know who I am? I’m Moe Green! I made my bones when you were in high school!”

Actually, no, he doesn’t say that. That wouldn’t be all that memorable. Here’s the actual line: “Do you know who I am? I’m Moe Green! I made my bones when you were going out with cheerleaders!”

Ah…

Perhaps this line went through a few iterations. Anything more added to it would have killed the effect. It would have been too darling.

Make sure your dialogue is true to the character who speaks it and true to the moment.

  1. Emotional Beats

Some time ago I read a scene from a manuscript by a young writer. It involved two women who are natural adversaries. The dialogue was pretty good between these two, but unfortunately it was slowed down considerably by line after line of emotional beats. Here’s an example of what I mean (I’m making this up):

“I don’t know what you mean,” Audrey said.

Sally felt the pull on her heart. Did Audrey really not know? How could she not?

“Do I have to spell it out for you?” Sally said. Her hands trembled as she waited for Audrey to answer.

“Maybe you’re talking about Frank,” Audrey said.

Frank’s name on Audrey’s lips made Sally stiffen. If only Frank were really there! But she mustn’t let Audrey see any longing in her eyes.

“I think we should leave Frank out of this,” Sally said.

Audrey smirked. Oh, how Sally hated that smirk. Since they were kids, that smirk had always driven Sally crazy.

You get the idea. While writing with emotion is part of the art of the storyteller, choosing how and when is the essence of that art. Instead of allowing us to flow with the inherent conflict in the dialogue, we’re given way too much interior life here. That dilutes the overall effect. This scene ought to look more like this:

“I don’t know what you mean,” Audrey said.

“Do I have to spell it out for you?” Sally said.

“Maybe you’re talking about Frank.”

“I think we should leave Frank out of this.”

Audrey smirked. Oh, how Sally hated that smirk.

There are times when you do want to emphasize what’s going on inside a character. Times when you want to “go big” for dramatic effect. And you should. I have a suggestion for you: overwrite those emotional moments the first time around. Go for it. Come back the next day and edit it a bit. When you go over your first draft, edit some more. Get feedback from a crit partner or trusted friend on those pages.

Keep what works and trim the rest. You’ll eventually feel the right balance.

It pleases me greatly to write darlings. So I don’t immediately plot their demise. I let them sit, I look at them again, I have my wife render an opinion, and then I decide if they must go. They get a fair trial. And sometimes they are set free!

Case dismissed.

So how do you treat your darlings?

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Don’t Drive Your Readers to the Dictionary

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Wolfe

Thomas Wolfe

I have a good friend who’s a college English prof. He’s an expert in American Lit, with a specialization in Thomas Wolfe. I made some attempts to read Wolfe back in college, but quickly got over it in favor of his contemporary, Ernest Hemingway, and one of his heirs, Jack Kerouac.

But I’ve long had it in my mind to give Wolfe another try. What stopped me was the steep decline in his literary reputation over the past fifty years or so. No less a literary light than Harold Bloom considers Wolfe a “mediocre” talent who has no (as in zero, zilch) “literary merit.”

Now there is a major motion picture out about Wolfe and his editor, the legendary Maxwell Perkins. The movie (which I have not seen yet) is called Genius, based on A. Scott Berg’s award-winning book about Perkins.

So it seemed like a good time to break out my old copy of Look Homeward, Angel and try again. Almost immediately I got frustrated. There is a lot of prose (Wolfe once admitted that his great fault was “too-muchness.”) that is mostly narrative summary. I knew this was supposed to be a novel about a boy named Eugene Gant. But I was not picking up any reason to care about Eugene, the Gants, or the town of Altamont where everything takes place.

After about 150 pages I sent an email to my friend, asking him what I was missing. He sent me a paper he’d done for a conference on how we should approach Wolfe. Wolfe was not interested in writing a traditional novel with an identifiable plotline, my friend explained. Wolfe was, rather, writing to immerse us in a world. He wants us to live there, experience moments and settings. He wants us to feel life deeply even through mundane details.

Okay, that helped. I’m fine with experimental fiction. But in the nitty-gritty of Wolfe’s words I often stumble and grab the dictionary for support. Here, for example, is a clip from a section where Eugene Gant wakes up in the morning and gets dressed:

With sharp whetted hunger he thought of breakfast. He threw the sheet back cleanly, swung in an orbit to a sitting position and put his white somewhat phthisic feet on the floor. Standing up tenderly, he walked over to his leather rocker and put on a pair of clean white-footed socks. Then he pulled his nightgown over his head, looking for a moment in the dresser mirror at his great boned structure, the long stringy muscles of his arms, and his flat-meated hairy chest. His stomach sagged paunchily. He thrust his white flaccid calves quickly through the shrunken legs of a union suit, stretched it out elasticly with a comfortable widening of his shoulders and buttoned it. Then he stepped into his roomy sculpturally heavy trousers and drew on his soft-leathered laceless shoes….

I found myself talking to Wolfe. “C’mon, Tom, really? Phthisic feet? WHAT DOES THAT EVEN MEAN?”

I looked up phthisic. It means a “wasting disease” like tuberculosis.
“Tom! Are you telling me Eugene’s feet had a lung disease? Can feet even look tubercular? Why are you making me stop to think about all this?”

A few pages later Wolfe writes about nacreous pearl light. Back to the dictionary! And guess what? Nacreous means pearly. So it’s not just a ten-dollar word, but I think Wolfe used it redundantly.

And then there are times when Wolfe pops in with author intrusion. To be fair, that’s part of his experiment. But we have things like this: The seed of our destruction will blossom in the desert, the alexin of our cure grows by a mountain rock, and our lives are haunted by a Georgia slattern because a London cut-purse went unhung.

Back to the dictionary! Alexin? (n., a defensive substance capable of destroying bacteria.)

Slattern? (n., an untidy, slovenly woman; a slut.)

But then … what does that passage even mean?

One more: Eugene got back his heart. He got it back fiercely and carelessly, with an eldritch wildness. 

Good thing I had the dictionary right next to me! Eldritch, adj., weird; eerie.

Come on, Tom! Why do you do this? Why do you slatternly drive the alexin of phthisic prose eldritchly before my white-footed socks?

Yet in deference to my friend, I’m going to darn well finish Look Homeward, Angel. But I have to say it ain’t easy.

Does that mean I only prefer books with stripped-down style?

Far from it. I do want some style, some voice. But I want it the way John D. MacDonald described it: unobtrusive poetry.

It’s sort of like actors. I’ll confess: I’ve never been a big fan of Laurence Olivier. I always feel like I’m watching an actor working a bit too hard. I admire the craft, but I see the craft. I never feel that way about, say, Robert Mitchum. Mitchum’s performances always look easy. Which is why he is often underrated as an actor.Mitchum digital cover

Mitchum actually had a terrific range. He could be cool (Out of the Past), vulnerable (Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison), menacing (The Night of the Hunter), scary (Cape Fear), funny (What a Way to Go). He could be a man of the West (El Dorado), a man of the cloth (5 Card Stud), or a man after a girl’s heart (Holiday Affair). [Also, I find that Mitchum movies have a great deal to say about true manliness, lessons we need to recover. So much do I believe this that I wrote a little book, Manliness: The Robert Mitchum Way.]

How does all this translate to your writing?

  1. Don’t use a word that a majority of readers will have to look up. Get the story to your audience without needless obstacles, like phthisic feet.
  1. Major in the voice “formula” of character + author + craft. See my post on that subject here.
  1. A heightened style is fine if we don’t stop to stop and try to figure out what you mean. I like high style and even lyricism – when it works. For instance, in Ken Kesey’s Sometimes a Great Notion. It’s Wolfeian in heft and experimental in style, yet it doesn’t require a dictionary. And it has a plot!
  1. It’s okay to overwrite when you draft. That’s often how you get the right touch of emotion and deepen a character. Write like you’re in love.
  1. But cut mercilessly to make the final product accessible to the reader. This is where you buckle your tool belt and get down to the real work. Edit like you’re in charge.

Now, I don’t want to leave poor Thomas Wolfe hanging out there with Harold Bloom sauce all over him. The guy was in love with writing. It was his life. I can’t deny his passion. So I’ll give him a fair hearing. But when I’m done with Look Homeward, Angel I have a feeling I’ll want to crack open a Travis McGee.

So are there books out there you’ve tried to like, but can’t? You don’t have to name names **COUGH**Middlemarch**COUGH**, but tell us why the book didn’t work for you.

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Finding Your Writer’s Voice

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell


 

 

You hear it every time there’s a panel of agents and/or editors, when they are asked what they’re looking for in a manuscript. Someone always says, “A fresh voice.”

But no one knows how to define it. Over the years I’ve heard some attempts at explanation, and I’ve jotted them down. Here they are:

• A combination of character, setting, page turning.

• A distinctive style, like a Sergio Leone film.

• It’s who you are.

• Personality on the page.

• It’s something written from your deepest truth.

• Your expression as an artist.

Well, okay. I guess. But how do we develop voice? Indeed, is it something that can be developed? Or is it something you’re born with?
What if you write in different genres? Is your voice in a noir thriller going to be the same as your voice in a romance?
Should writers even worry about voice? I counsel my students to be true to the story they’re telling, true to the characters, and not to worry about this elusive thing everyone says they want. If the tale is well told, that’s the main thing.
But I do think there is something to be said for trying to coax out a little more voice, even though you can never quite nail it down to pure technique.
So what is it that does the coaxing? In a word, joy.
“In the great story-tellers, there is a sort of self-enjoyment in the exercise of the sense of narrative; and this, by sheer contagion, communicates enjoyment to the reader. Perhaps it may be called (by analogy with the familiar phrase, “the joy of living”) the joy of telling tales. The joy of telling tales which shines through Treasure Island is perhaps the main reason for the continued popularity of the story. The author is having such a good time in telling his tale that he gives us necessarily a good time in reading it.” – Clayton Meeker Hamilton,A Manual of the Art of Fiction (1919)
I think Professor Hamilton nailed it. When an author is joyous in his telling, it pulses through the words. When you read a Ray Bradbury, for instance, you sense his joy. He was in love with words and his own imagination, and it showed.
I recall a Writer’s Digest fiction column by Lawrence Block, back in the 80’s, and he was telling about being at a book signing with some other authors, one of whom was a guy named Stephen King. And Stephen King’s line was longer by far than for any of the other guys.
Which got Larry to thinking, what was it about King’s stuff? And he decided that it was this joy aspect. When you read Stephen King, you feel like you’re reading an author who loves writing, loves making up tales to creep us out, enjoys the very act of setting words down on paper.
Because when you’re joyful in the writing, the writing is fresher and fuller. Fuller of what? Of you. And that translates to the page and becomes that thing called Voice.
So the question is, how can you get more joy into your writing?
Here are some thoughts:
1. Be excited about your story. If you’re not jazzed about what you’re writing, you can’t be joyful about writing it. Dwight Swain, the great writing teacher, once said that the secret of excitement is to go deeper into your characters. Create more backstory, more secrets, more complexity, and you’ll get excited again.
2. Write at your peak “freshness” time. Find out when you’re most creative and awake and alive. Write for all you’re worth during that time.
3. Take a break when it’s drudgery, and do something else for awhile. I find that if I read a passage by one of my favorite writers, I soon enough get excited about writing and want to go back to my project.
4. Try a dose of Dr. Wicked. This neat little program can be accessed online, or downloaded to your desktop for ten bucks. Basically, it makes you write fast, because if you don’t it will soon emit a terrible sound that will sandpaper your brain. Writing fast, without thinking too much, is fun, and many times you’ll tickle out some of your best stuff that way.
5. Picture the reward. Now and then you need to daydream about your finished book and all the happy readers who are going to enjoy it––and who will put you on their favorite authors list.
For more on voice, please see my book on the subject.
So what about you? Do you find joy in your writing? If not, what are you going to do about it?

 

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