Wednesday, September 11, 2013
Good Advice if You Can Use It
In a recent email exchange with another mystery author, she brought up the late Elmore Leonard’s dictum, quoted in many of his obituaries, that a big part of the revision process on a manuscript consists of getting rid of the stuff the readers will skip over.
That’s a fairly old line, with a lot of variations. For instance, Charles Ludlam, founder of the Ridiculous Theater Company, once did a production of the complete plays of Shakespeare in two and a half hours. Asked how he could possibly condense all those plays into a length of time generally taken up by one (if abridged a bit), he replied, “Easy. I just left out all the boring stuff.”
And there’s the rub. If someone could argue that the greatest writer ever was boring nearly 98 percent of the time, what hope is there for the rest of us? Not much. And it comes down to the question of how does the author figure out when something is boring. I mean, you wouldn’t have written it in the first place if you thought so, and a line like Leonard’s isn’t much help when the devil is in the details.
To Fish or Not to Fish?
In my mystery novel The McHenry Inheritance, the protagonist is on a fly-fishing vacation in the High Sierra when he gets caught up in a web of local intrigue, culminating in murder. Because of his reason for being there, I put in a couple of detailed fly-fishing scenes, describing the scenery and the technique in some detail.
Is that the boring stuff that readers will skip over? I’ve heard from some who did, but nonetheless said they enjoyed the rest of the story. I’ve also heard from a number of people who don’t fish but said they really liked the descriptions of place and enjoyed learning more about fly-fishing, which was more complex than they had imagined it to be.
So help me out here, Elmore. Who do I listen to?
Actually, the decision has been made. I’m halfway through the second book with the same protagonist, and since the running story line is that he goes on a fishing vacation and ends up in the middle of a mystery, I’m including the fishing scenes, a few pages’ worth anyway. If the reader wanders, so be it.
Just Tell the Damn Story
This calls to mind something one of my mentors at the newspaper, Bud O’Brien, used to say. Every young reporter would inevitably get carried away with some story and try to overwrite it and be too clever for his or her own good. When Bud was on the city desk, those efforts would get bounced back to the reporter with the following advice:
“You have a pretty good story here. When you have a good story, don’t try to be clever; don’t try to be cute. Just tell the damn story.”
Excellent advice as far as it goes, but again, the problem is how does one “just” tell the story? It’s a question of knowing the structure and having a sense for when and where to bring in the piquant details. Not to mention knowing what those details are and being able to separate them from the details that don’t matter and should be left out. That’s the problem with writing and the reason so many people fail at it. Anybody can get the general idea, but figuring out how to make it work one sentence at a time is a bitch.