Thursday, March 5, 2020

Physician, Heal Thyself from James W. Ziskin

What element of the craft is the one you most need to improve?

This week’s question is a tough one. Many writers are unaware of which elements of their craft they need to improve. If we knew, we’d probably already have corrected them and hit the bestseller lists or won great critical acclaim. 

To answer the question, I’ve decided to look at two elements I do NOT feel I need to improve, and four that I do (might) want to improve.

Here are two areas I feel don’t need improvement:

1. Spelling
This is not usually a problem, what with spell check and editors and my own efforts to get it right.

2. Grammar 
The same. While I’m sure I make mistakes, either intentionally or unintentionally, I consider myself a pretty good grammarian in general. I keep an eye peeled for dangling modifiers, subject-verb agreement, comma usage, and the like. 

So what might I want to improve in my writing? 

1. Speed 
I’d like to produce more than one book a year. But, let’s face it, quantity over quality is not the solution. Also, speed is more about self-discipline than craft. It’s not my typing speed that’s holding me back on my daily word counts. It’s the staring off into space, searching for ideas or the mot juste. I should remind myself that the first draft is just the beginning. Nobody expects it to be perfect, so why should I? And the cold, hard truth is that you can’t get your book ready to send to your editor until you’ve revised it several times. And you can’t revise anything until the first draft is complete. 

Jim’s advice: Vomit the first draft onto the page, and clean it up later.

2. Brevity
Most of my books tend to be on the long side of the mystery genre’s word-count spectrum. The low end of word counts for a novel typically starts around 60,000 words. (By the way, did you know The Great Gatsby is only 47,000 words long? That’s really a novella, not a novel.) Most murder mysteries weigh in at 70,000 to 85,000 words. Thrillers are usually longer. Below is the list of my Ellie Stone mysteries with their word counts.

Styx & Stone, 85,000
No Stone Unturned, 87,000
Stone Cold Dead, 112,000
Heart of Stone, 99,000
Cast the First Stone, 97,000
A Stone’s Throw, 93,000
Turn to Stone, 111,000

So maybe I should pare down my books. But here’s the thing: I enjoy description. I love showing the reader the world through Ellie’s first-person-narrator’s eyes. I realize many readers prefer less description, more action, more dialogue. That’s what makes a horse race. Vive la diffĂ©rence. 

I also like to include the occasional “tail fin,” as I like to call it. Tail fins are details that aren’t strictly necessary to a car’s design. In my books, they are the details that do not necessarily advance the story, but are fun/interesting/informative/decorative. The appearance of Little Leon, the pug that appears in every Ellie Stone book, is a good example of a tail fin. He has nothing to do with any of the plots, except perhaps a tiny influence in No Stone Unturned. He’s there for fun.

3. Appeal

Wouldn’t it be great if my books were irresistible page-turners? Better sales would surely follow the popularity, wouldn’t they? But just what is the secret formula? And would I trade my soul to get that formula? I doubt it. I don’t believe I could write something I didn’t believe in or didn’t love just to make money. So I think I’ll continue writing what I would like to read and hope for the best.

4. Third-person Narrator
My Ellie Stone mysteries are all written in the first person. Some of my short stories have third-person narrators, but I’ve never done it in a novel. I like first-person narrators because they tell us so much about themselves. And they give the author remarkable leeway with some the “grammar” or “stylistic” rules that so many experts toss around. It’s the same with prospective dating partners: personality goes a long way.

There are certainly advantages to third-person narrators, as well, and I want to try writing one someday. But I will do so with a whole different set of expectations, limitations, and advantages not found in the first person. Knowing what’s inside your characters’ heads is just one pro. Or is it a con? I guess I’ll find out.

1 comment:

Susan C Shea said...

I relish every one of your points, Jim. Right now, I need you hovering over my shoulder urging me to vomit the last of my exceedingly insufficient first draft onto the page! But all of your comments are thoughtful and I hope some aspiring writers read this post.