Monday, February 29, 2016

Make Every Word Count

One of my early writing instructors stressed the need to make every word count. He said each word needs to pull its own weight and every unnecessary word should be culled from the plot. Good advice that I've followed over the years, although, coupled with my journalism training, I'm sometimes too brief, leaving out desirable descriptions.

I've found that writers need to engage readers, not simply enlighten and entertain them. Creating strong word images that readers can relate to is preferable to forcing them to fill in the blanks. For example, a military Hummer conveys a much stronger image than having a protagonist ride to the rescue in a Volkswagen bug. Sue Grafton's Kinsey Millhone was a notable exception..

Strong verbs are necessary to give one’s plot a dynamic, energetic tone. Words such as hurried, leaped and flew as opposed to passive words like walked fast, made his way or became airborne. And as we’ve all been told, stay away from the verb to be in all its forms because it’s the weakest of words. But I confess that I still use all forms of to be in dialogue. Some rules are made to be broken, often at your own risk.

Adverbs that end in –ly also weaken a writer's prose. Use them sparingly. On the other hand, strong specific verbs give writing vitality. I’m reminded of my interview with A.B. Guthrie, Jr. who said, “The adjective is the enemy of the noun and the adverb is the enemy of damn near everything else. Writers use too many descriptive words." As for adjectives, author Lois J. Peterson once said, “One well-chosen adjective can be more effective than two or more, which used together might weaken the idea or image.” I agree.

Do we really need adverbs? Not unless it's impossible to come up with strong verbs. Eliminate the adverbs in a second draft and replace them with muscular verbs. As for adjectives, the rundown house can be rewritten as a hovel or shack. A good reason for every writer to have access to a thesaurus, including an electronic one.

Word choices affect the plot’s pace. If every symphony movement maintained the same pace, the audience would fall asleep before the finale. So writers need to think of themselves as conductors, controlling the pace with word choices, syntax and variety. Long sentences and paragraphs slow the pace and seem introspective while short, choppy sentences are much more dramatic and conducive to action scenes. So, in order to keep someone reading, sentences and paragraphs should vary in length.

Sentence rhythm is important, so reading one's work aloud before committing it to a final draft can prevent clumsy sentence structure. Some word choices bring a sentence to an abrupt halt and should be rewritten or replaced, along with all unnecessary words. The musical analogy is a good one (not my own) because sentence flow is so important.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Plotting Your Mystery

A strong opening sentence is obviously the best way to pull your reader into the story:

~Today is the last day of my life.

~The body was hanging at eye level.

~ The snow was so deep that only his cap was visible.

I know that you can write better opening sentences to entice your reader into your fictional world. It’s a writer’s job to seduce and lure, one carefully crafted step at a time into an adventure away from reality.

The reader needs to know where you’re taking her and why. Is your fictional world believable? Fantasy writers can get away with great stretches of the imagination but mystery writers need to stick to the facts. So don’t have a body suspended in mid-air unless you have a logical reason to do so.

Your opening sentence should lead directly into your main theme. Don’t start with a couple kissing on a park bench unless one or both are shot or witness to a nearby killing. And don’t start with boring backstory or you’ll soon lose your reader. Jump immediately into the action. Keep your reader breathless for pages before you let him up for air.

Motivation and goals are essential in developing your plot. Another good way to lose your reader is to have your protagonist risk his life simply because he had his foot stepped on. If the killer murdered the character’s mother, you have a believable reason for him to go after the culprit. Some amateur sleuth stories border on the ridiculous when ordinary people decide to trap a killer simply because they think they can. Give them good reasons to place their own lives in danger.

Don’t people your plots with too many characters. Mark Twain wrote that the best way to get rid of characters when they’re no longer needed is to have them jump down a well. Better yet, make sure characters are only there to further the plot and can be eliminated when you tie up all the story’s loose ends.

Killing off characters can be painful for the writer but extraneous side plots can kill a story. In the old western films cowboys rode off into the sunset with the townspeople staring after them. Not so with mystery novels, no matter what the sub genre. We want to leave the reader wanting more. Readers like to solve the mystery on their own before the conclusion, so don’t make the killer’s identity the most unlikely candidate in your plot. Be fair when you plant red herrings and clues so that the reader will be able say, “Aha, I should have known it was him (or her).”

What’s the best opening sentence you’ve written or read?