05 April, 2010

Day 14

Total word count: 8,477 (including deletions)

I had a kind of epiphany this weekend – bad pun since it was Easter weekend – but it was the other kind of epiphany, the “EUREKA” kind.

I’m reading Chris Roerden’s book, Don’t Murder your Mystery.  I’ve picked it up several times before, reading bits and pieces, but never cover to cover.  This time I’m really reading it, word by word, digesting the advice, seeing how I can apply the Find &Fix Clues at the end of each chapter to my own writing.

My “eureka” (the first of many, I"m sure) came when I read what she had to say about descriptive passages, using an economy of words to describe people and places, and, most of all, avoiding information dumps.  Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea culpa.  I looked at my first MS and (I’m blushing, here) I am guilty of dump after dump.

I was particularly taken with Roerden’s idea of “timed release,” of selecting one key feature or attribute for the character’s first action, and saving the rest for later.  It seems obvious when you look for in it a well-written book; less obvious when you’re writing your own first book.

Sunday (after cooking a lovely rack of lamb and fresh asparagus), I took red pen in hand and mercilessly cut out fluff words, then whole paragraphs.  Does my reader need to know the house is a Victorian?  No?  Then out it goes.  Does my reader care what color dress the secretary is wearing?  Hardly.  Out it goes.  Does the doorman's baldness impact the plot? Strike it.  Does she need to know the contents of the medicine cabinet?  Yes, that's a clue; it stays in.

I’m only part of the way through the manuscript, which is now 3,000 superfluous words shorter.  And, IMHO, it’s made a huge improvement in the mystery.  I’m no longer stopping the action just to stick in some facts or details which never appear again and have no impact on the plot.  I’m not distracting the reader and, best of all, I’m not giving said reader an excuse to put the book down.

It’s been painful.  I find myself hesitating before swiping the red point through that prose I so carefully composed.  Thank goodness there’s no law against verbicide, no matter how justified (or whatever you call murdering your own words) or I’d be doing hard time.  It’s tempting to just cut the word/sentence/paragraph and paste it into a new document, preserving it for future use, but I’m resisting the seduction.  Good riddance to bad prose.

Roerden’s examples were so obvious; I don’t know why I didn’t get the point before: when you stop to describe something, you’ve stopped the action, the reader, and the interest.  Amen. 

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