Continuing with our look at the just published second edition of “The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing,” more writing advice as we welcome mystery author Elizabeth Sims, the author of three Rita Farmer mysteries, including just published “On Location.”
HALLIE: Elizabeth, in your essay “Write This Not That” you compare good writing to healthy eating, and advise authors to make smart choices. Your advice about coincidences was so interesting. What kind of coincidences are OK and what aren’t?
ELIZABETH: When my agent (Cameron McClure at the Donald Maass Agency) and I started working together, we had the first of many conversations about fiction. At one point she said, "Readers love coincidences," and I sort of bookmarked that in my brain, because I'd tried to avoid using coincidence in my earlier series, the Lillian Byrd mysteries. That's because I considered coincidence a cheap way out for lazy authors.
But I thought about Cameron's comment, and I started to pay attention more to coincidence in fiction. I realized that some of my favorite books contained coincidences, like OLIVER TWIST. I mean my gosh, Oliver just happens to pick the pocket of a guy who turns out to be an old friend of his father's? But you read it and you love it. Then I looked at other books (which will remain nameless) whose authors used coincidences as easy escape routes, and I analyzed why they were so unsatisfying.
I saw that what separates good coincidence from bad can be summarized in one word: groundwork. When an author presents a dreadful, complex situation, and you the reader are licking your chops and going, wow, how's this gonna come out? and then the author just uses some sudden act of God, or an out-of-left-field thing like a cop happens to be walking by, you feel let down. Because the author hasn't laid any groundwork for that coincidence, or they've laid very weak groundwork.
By contrast, when an author spends some time and plot capital laying good bedrock before unleashing that coincidence, you feel like it couldn't have happened any other way.
HALLIE: And what do you mean when you talk about “action-packed” dialogue?
ELIZABETH: This is a two-pronged thing: The best dialogue springs from action, and it represents much more than characters sharing words. Many aspiring authors find themselves writing along, then they realize they need to tell the reader something, and they stick in some dialogue out of the blue. The reader's like, 'Where did this come from?'
The problem can be solved by two techniques. One, resist the temptation to write dialogue when you need explication, and instead write some action.
HALLIE: Ha ha! In my writing group, we talk about dialogue that explicates as "Did you know Bob dialogue." It's awful.
ELIZABETH: Right. Instead, think about what are your characters doing- if they're doing something that moves the story along, any dialogue you add will feel spicy. And two, realize that when people talk to each other, they are usually motivated by something more than wanting to say stuff. They want to manipulate, or gain something, even if it's just a feeling of importance. A sentence as simple as 'Where were you last night?' is freighted with meaning.
HALLIE: I'm writing all this down. By the way, congratulations on your new Rita Farmer mystery, “On Location.” Opening line: “A hairy forearm mashed my face.” Was that the first line you wrote, or did you come up with it later?
ELIZABETH: I have great fun with my opening lines, and in the Rita Farmer series I start every book with a situation that seems dire. The opening line of THE ACTRESS, for example, is simply, "I screamed." Eventually I enlarge the frame, so to speak, and you see that Rita is literally playing a role. In ON LOCATION, I wanted to portray Rita getting attacked, and the line, "A hairy forearm mashed my face," popped into my mind before I'd worked out much else. The sentence seemed appropriately alarming, so it made it from first draft to last. Actually I think it started as "THE hairy forearm mashed my face," and I changed it to "A".
HALLIE: And what about that character description: “He was built like a tomato stake, great vertical presence without much visible flesh on him, very different from his stockier brother. He looked as if he existed on vegetable broth and high-fiber crackers. You certainly follow your own advice, to base descriptions on unconventional comparisons. How do you reach past cliché?
ELIZABETH: Sometimes I think I was put on this earth to fight cliché, I'm so offended by sloppy metaphors and first-to-mind slogans. The first thing to do is stop and loosen your brain. You can use just about anything as a launchpad from the commonplace.
I remember while writing one of my earlier novels, DAMN STRAIGHT, being tempted to describe a golfer as being unable to hit the broad side of a barn. How boring. But I thought about other things that are large, and the word 'brewery' popped into my mind. "Couldn't hit the broad side of a brewery" sounds unusual and kind of peppy.
Right now, I'm looking at a glass of water and thinking I could describe a character as "shapeless as a water tumbler," or "she had all the personality of tap water." Or you can take that further and think of other beverages. "She had all the personality of warm tomato juice." "She had all the personality of chamomile tea," which gives information about the narrator as well as the character being described. "She was like a champagne fountain, all bubbles and sass." And so on.
Experimenting with context helps as well. If you're talking about a house, for example, you can liken it to a ship at sea: "The prow of the house pointed east, as if it wanted to plunge into the combers rolling in from the Atlantic just beyond the hedge." Or you can liken a house to an animal: "The house sprawled in the mist like a sleeping hound." It's so much fun!
HALLIE: Great examples. In another essay, “Rough Up Your First Draft,” you advise authors to give up control and let ‘er rip when writing first draft. We have so many authors who are taking our “Write First” Jungle Red Writers Challenge and so this advice seems so apt. Tell us more!
ELIZABETH: Writing fiction is very Zen: The more control you give up, the freer your creative core becomes, and the more truly original stuff comes out.
And I just had an insight, right this minute: While many writers get bogged down in their first draft because they're afraid of making mistakes, I think some new writers get bogged down in their first draft because they don't feel comfortable with the revision process itself; they fear it, and therefore they try to get everything right the first time, which of course leads to stilted writing.
Sometimes we get stuck because we're not listening clearly enough to our inner voice. Therefore, you've just got to give yourself permission to let out whatever wants to come out.
HALLIE: Thanks! Elizabeth will be checking in today to respond to questions and comments, so please, if you have any comments or questions, join the discussion! And tune in tomorrow to join the conversation with James Scott Bell, author of the classic “Plot & Structure.”