Saturday, December 20, 2008

Slicing It Thin

By Pat Browning

Has anyone else noticed that mysteries seem to get longer and longer? It’s as if editors and publishers have decided that longer is better, which ain’t necessarily so.

Unless you’re writing historical mysteries which are dense with detail, you should keep your book as lean as possible, especially if you’re a beginner. Readers recognize rambling and padding when they see it. The book may get good reviews but readers may desert you. Or not. As one of my sisters tells me when I get nervous about what I’m writing, “People will read anything.”

In the years since I wrote my first mystery, I’ve learned to cut and cut, and cut some more. In simple terms, a plot comes down to what the main character wants, and what stands in his/her way. But when I began, I kept going off in other directions. Nearly all of what I wrote was back story. I assumed because I knew the complete details of a character’s life I had to explain it to everyone else.

That’s not true, of course. Aside from leaving a little something to the reader’s imagination, it simply isn’t necessary to tell everything. A line here, a paragraph there, maybe even a page or short chapter, is usually enough.

That’s the modern way, and it’s hard for people my age to make the adjustment. We grew up reading the English classics, Charles Dickens, for example. Dickens was paid by the word for his novels published in installments. Of course he put in everything he knew.

Among more modern writers, even Daphne duMaurier in REBECCA described every leaf, bush, flower and cloud in the sky, furniture, silverware, and clothing. But she was skillful at spinning a web to draw the reader in and she got by with it.

Learning as I wrote FULL CIRCLE, I cut out some very good scenes and chapters because they moved the story backward and sideways instead of forward. They were mostly explanations of what happened years earlier.

For instance, I threw in my travel experiences by putting my two main characters in Paris as college students. I actually took them through some of the cities I visited on my first trip to Europe. Well, heck, I thought, those were interesting experiences, and I had copious notes, so why not? Why not? Because I was trying to write a cozy mystery, and not a travelogue or memoir.

While I was cutting, I cut my entire Chapter 2, which had some good dialogue and interplay among characters but dragged out the beginning. I hung an imaginary banner above my computer: FICTION IS NOT REAL LIFE.

The hardest cut I had to make was priceless, in its way, because it was written from life. I devoted an entire chapter to my protagonist’s mother writing about her childhood for a senior citizens writing class. I had written it 30 years earlier, intending to turn it into the Great American Novel. Didn’t happen, so I filed it away.

Why not slip it into my mystery? I thought I was clever in the way I presented it, and it survived numerous critiques by other writers. At the eleventh hour, one puzzled comment by a professional publicist was all it took to nudge that chapter out. Once again, I filed it away.

In the meantime, I learned to cut extraneous material almost as second nature. I give my years as a newspaper reporter credit for that. When Krill Press came along with an idea for reprinting FULL CIRCLE as ABSINTHE OF MALICE, I cut and rewrote and revised with gusto.

This has been an extraordinary year. Not only do I have a shiny new – or at least different – book, but that piece of writing I saved for 40 years has found a home. Two years ago I revised it as a short memoir and submitted it to a magazine. Rejected. Last year I revised it again and entered it in a contest. Won second place and $50.

This year I rewrote it again, and submitted it for publication in the Red Dirt Book Festival Anthology. It made the cut. The anthology was supposed to be out in time for Christmas, but after 40 years – hey, what’s my hurry?


Terrie Farley Moran said...

Hi Pat,

What a great column.

It's hard to remember that not every reader wants to know that bit of trivia that sets my writing gene atingle.

One of my short stories, "Strike Zone" is set in 1961 in New York City. All through the fifties and early sixties, men (my mother said they were old soldiers) used to go in the alleys between the tenements and sing. Then the mothers (who were always home in those days) would wrap a nickle or a dime in a piece of paper and through it down.

I was so enamored of this piece of historical trivia from my early life, that I wrote an entire section of the story and made a charavcter sing so that I could refer to the alley singers. Of course both the original singer and the alley singer had to go in the end.

Oh well, maybe some day I'll put them in another story along with the subway acapella groups.


Chester Campbell said...

I agree, Pat. The first three novels I wrote ran from 100,000 words up. They didn't sell. My published books run in the 70,000-75,000 word range. Over the years, I've learned to shoot for more colorful but shorter descriptions. Keeping things snappy speeds up the pace, also. Good advice.