Write Tight isn’t always Right

I’ve read two very different books lately that have made me think about spare writing.

As a reporter I was was taught specific nouns, strong active verbs, few adjectives, no adverbs. Subject, verb order. The Dallas Morning News had a rule that you couldn’t start a sentence with a prepositional phrase. Never in the lead, rarely anywhere else.

Leads were supposed to be no longer than 23 words — the Portland Oregonian’s writing coach used to routinely count leads in the paper and urge writers to simplify. One month, the leads averaged 42 words, resulting in a scathing memo.

Write tight.

Fiction was the land of descriptive writing. There you could use your adjectives and adverbs. There you could use a — gasp — semicolon. Correctly, one hopes. Sentences could be long; paragraphs could have more than two sentences.

I tend to write fiction like a reporter. I feel like I am getting away with something when I have descriptions that go on for a whole paragraph, and without attribution. So far readers say they like the style.

But you can go overboard.

Cynthia Eden writes some excellent paranormal romances. I’m particularly fond of Cry Wolf. It was the first I read of hers, and I liked it enough that I sought out and read most of the rest. I hope she someday expands on the somewhat haphazard world she’s created and moves into a more urban fantasy series that dovetails with her existing books. She’s also written some romances, and those I’m less fond of simply because I find “contemporary romances” predictable. After all, I snuck out my Mom’s Harlequins over 40 years ago. So it says something that I’d read one of her contemporaries at all.

I didn’t like it. Yes, it was somewhat predictable, but I expected that. But the style seemed overwrought. And I realized that the writing especially at the end of the chapters was so spare, it had the reverse effect that reporters intend.

Short paragraphs. One sentence, maybe two.

Even shorter sentences.

Just a word or two.

Jon Land is an old pro. His series featuring Caitlin Strong starts with Strong Enough to Die, a completely different genre than Eden’s. His writing varies the pace with descriptive passages, dialog and action. It is his dialog that echoes the spare but overwrought pace that I found annoying in Eden’s book:

“I’m skeptical that someone of your background can understand victims of violence, Miss Strong.”

“Because I practiced it.”

“Quite well, apparently.”

“Torture is a different kind of violence, more like rape. The strong dominating the weak.”

“Do you know a lot about rape, Miss Strong?”

“I know a lot about the strong and the weak, Miss Navarro.”

(I don’t like my kindle app — it won’t let me copy a passage. Have to flip between the book and my note pad. So it’s not completely accurate.)

Communication scholarship estimates that 70 percent of oral communication is non-verbal. How we say things is as important as what we say. This passage reads as if it were two gunslingers in a spaghetti Western. Terse. Deadpan. Instead it is between two women in a job interview. We aren’t given attribution tags, emotion, body language. Nor do we have any of the ums, pauses, sentence fragments that characterize human conversation — especially female conversation.

Just words.

So even “write tight” can be too much of a good thing. Never thought I’d say this, but sometimes you need to edit and put words in.

The Darwin Elevator

The Darwin Elevator by Jason M. Hough.

First, I really liked the book. I read about it on Chuck Wenig’s blog, bought it on Aug. 1 devoured it by Aug. 3. All 496 pages of it. Even for me that takes a bit of time, but it was worth it. I also appreciate that it is part of a trilogy with the second book out in a month, and the third a month after that. That’s a strategy I wish more trilogies would try.

Hough brings two strengths to the book: world building and his action sequences. Darwin, Australia, has become the last bastion of mankind. A plaque has turned most humans into feral subhumans. But those who could make it to Darwin and huddle around the sky elevator the aliens left don’t succumb. Those, and the humans who live in habitats at the top of the elevator. The wealthy and the scientific community live in comfort and safety, the masses in fear and squalor below. Bt they depend upon each other: food goes down, air and water and specialty items go up.

The protagonist is an immune — a rare human who does not catch the plaque. He and his crew of other immunes fly out to the potential sites to scavenge what might keep humanity afloat a bit longer. The scavenge scenes and the battles with the subhumans are excellent. I feel as if I were one of the team.

The book has some weaknesses — don’t we all. And for a first book, it’s a pretty smooth read.
A smaller weakness is his characterization. The characters are a bit cardboard-like,
and we’ve seen them them before — the scheming businessman, the brutal dictator that rules the masses, the large man who rarely leaves his hideout as the fence. That doesn’t make them bad characters — they fit into the world the author built. His females are even less fleshed out — the asexual sidekick with the smart mouth, the princess in the tower is a scientist who holds the key who of course is beautiful but wants to be recognized for her brain. Likeable, but without much depth. That may come as the writer develops.

But the biggest problem is the pacing of the narrative arc. The book is likened to Josh Whedon’s well-loved, but short-lived TV show. It is a fair comparison. If the book was a TV series, the episodic, world building that the book does so well would be all that we’d ask of it. But with a book we ask where are we going with this? — the overall narrative arc. The Darwin Elevator reads like the author realized he was 400 ages in, and that he need to wrap it up. As a result, some key events toward the happen off-stage. Hard to believe, but the book needed another 50 pages so that the author could detail the action sequences that wrap up the story in the way that he did the other, earlier world-building scenes.

Still, I will eagerly wait for the next installment. This is a good story. And I like the title. There is the physical meaning — the elevator is in Darwin. The religious fanatics believe the elevator to be Jacob’s Ladder, a religious metaphor. And the book questions why the builders were changing humans — some kind of evolution, and Darwin becomes a reference to Charles Darwin. Nice.

Writing Lessons

As a writer, I wonder if there are pacing guidelines that help you plot the key points of the narrative arc. In Everybody Lies, I worried that the plane/auto race would happen too fast leaving the reader wondering what just happened. It was good for me, because I went back and re- visualized it adding more detail, ratcheting up the tension. And then I went back and did it again, until I felt like it was weighty enough to be the final anchor to the narrative arc.

I’ll probably reread some of the action scenes. I think that’s a weak point in my own writing, and this book does them very well. I was envious.