"Bull fucking shit." The imagery you have used is intense. There is movement, sound, smell. Very evocative. I give it 4 and 1/2 stars. Writer Daniel Hatadi*
Are you in fashion, scoring a 4.5*?
I’ve isolated one of the reasons I’ve been stressed out about my book. It all comes down to this, the phrase de jour, the new trend. Not whether or not you’re noir, but are you an original voice?
Now, most of what I see on this is in the crime genre. It could be pervasive, across the board for all I know, but specifically I’ve seen these comments from crime writers. And one of the things I’ve seen referenced by numerous people is the push towards lean, tight writing. I’ve seen some authors comment that a book shouldn’t be over 100,000 words, for example.
People debate whether they like short or long. Some publishers will only publish books a specific length.
In my opinion, that constricts what one can do with their style, making it even more difficult to be a “refreshing new voice” that rises above the din.
I started reading a book by one of the publishers that will only publish books in the 80,000-word range. There was a lot of “telling” writing, as you could guess, because the author simply doesn’t have room, or the ability (who knows, without seeing other work?) to really get the sensory descriptions in. Honestly, it didn’t hold me and I put it down and forgot about it.
I mean, you can’t “show” everything in a story or it would be 10,000 pages long. But sometimes, those nice, descriptive touches really add. And I’m one of those people who loved LOTR The Two Towers in the theatre, and loved it even more when I got the extended version with an extra half hour of footage in it. And I think we all know it wasn’t a short story to begin with.
That’s something that still lingers with me, to this day, when I think about reading my first Rankin book, The Falls. I felt like I was right there. The book just evoked this atmosphere, it was so vivid in my mind. And I was absolutely hooked.
You don’t even need to use an abundance of words to say a lot. From Fleshmarket Close, “Knoxland had been built in the 1960s, apparently from papier mache and balsa wood. Walls so thin you could hear the neighbours cutting their toenails and smell their dinner on the stove.”
Can’t you just picture that? Papier mache, balsa wood. Cheap, flimsy, the plaster crumbling off at the slightest touch, paper-thin walls that give the illusion of privacy when in reality, your neighbour can hear you burp. You can imagine the defeated looks on the faces of the people scampering through those hallways, trying to hold it together, wondering how their lives came to nothing better than this.
There’s a lot to be said for not wasting words. But there’s also something to be said for flow. If you cut the words so tight, sometimes it gives the reader a headache trying to stay on top of it. I definitely get that when I read some work. Not everything, but some. It’s like trying to play music that has no pause in it at all but start to finish is furious. Any of you who, like me, play the piano, the bass guitar, the fiddle, know how hard that is. It’s taxing. And reading something like that becomes exhausting sometimes.
Not that long ago, I was going over a story for a fellow author, and there was one thing I commented on, something I was wondering about at the beginning and still wondering about at the end. Doesn’t matter what or who, but I passed on my comments. The person came back and said they’d added seven words, showed me the change to one paragraph.
And they’d filled the gap and tied up something else I’d commented on, all in seven words. It might take nothing more than one short line, but it can make all the difference to making a story read complete. Less isn’t always more. And this person’s an absolute pro to know that, and to go back to their work and find a way to put it in.
As an editor, I walk the line all the time between addressing questions of technical error, and issues of style. And often, that line is no wider than a thread.
Now, I want to apply everything I’ve learned in the past few months, and make my book as good as it can possibly be in the final edits.
But I also want to make sure this is still my book.
When I was first writing Suspicious Circumstances, I couldn’t read anything at the same time. I would take a few days off – I remember that summer, I took time off to read A Question of Blood - and then I’d go back to writing. I worked pretty hard to keep my head clear so that my own style of writing wasn’t contaminated.
Now, I have more experience and can usually separate out my writing and reading, but I did realize over this past weekend that part of the reason I was worried about my book was because of talk I’ve seen from writers about liking books lean.
I like my weighty tomes. I love 400-page + books by Val McDermid, Ian Rankin, Simon Kernick, Mark Billingham… Makes my mouth water, thinking about sinking my teeth into one of their books, knowing I’ve got plenty of great reading ahead of me. In fact, I’m more likely to pick up a longer book than a shorter one, and I know I’m not alone. Oh, I know there are others who prefer small books, but you see, that’s just the whole point. People have different tastes, they like different styles.
I mean, look at music. Even within country music. I like Corb Lund, and he calls his music scruffy country. And by God, it is. Bar music too. It’s Time To Switch To Whiskey. Guy music. Then you’ve got people like Shania Twain, Faith Hill. All flash, all playing to the mainstream, much loved and loathed, megastars.
Then there are those like Big & Rich. In-your-face artists who worked controversy with their first single, Save a Horse, Ride a Cowboy and became superstars.
Now, I have a distant cousin, Deric Ruttan, who is a musician and songwriter. He’s co-written songs recorded by people like Dierks Bentley – songs that have been number 1, award-winning hits. And songs recorded by Canadian country superstar Paul Brandt, plus Aaron Pritchett, and American Gary Allan.
Deric was interviewed on radio, asked about songwriting, and one of the things he talked about was that not every artist felt comfortable with expressing things the same way. Which explains why he co-writes these fantastic, fun songs that Dierks records, like Lot of Leavin’ Left To Do and What Was I Thinkin’ -
She snuck out one night an' met me by the front gate,
Her Daddy came out a-wavin' that 12-guage
We tore out the drive, he peppered my tailgate.
What was I thinkin'?
Oh, I knew there'd be hell to pay.
But that crossed my mind a little too late.
'Cause I was thinkin' 'bout a little white tank top,
Sittin' right there in the middle by me.
An' I was thinkin' 'bout a long kiss,
Man, just gotta get goin', where the night might lead.
I know what I was feelin',
But what was I thinkin'?
What was I thinkin'?
- and then records thoughtful story-songs like I Saved Everything himself
In a drawer there's a key with an old wooden box
Sometimes Jesus and me, sit down and unlock another time
When you were mine
Rose petals and a letter,a piece of baby's breath
A single white feather you found the day we met
You said it came from an Angel's wings.
It really helped me to think about this. I was having a great weekend, playing hooky, reading a Simon Kernick book, exchanging emails with some of my favourite people, playing with kittens.
I’d been thinking stupid stuff, like “People who like Cornelia Read aren’t going to like my stuff. They’re going to laugh at it.” I mean, how many times have I seen Stuart MacBride talk about the inevitable comparison to Ian Rankin that Scottish authors face. Some guy moans on amazon, “This isn’t Ian Rankin.” No shit, buddy. That’s why it says, “Stuart MacBride” on the cover.
Right now, walk into bookstores all over and what do you see? Da Vinci Code knock-offs. Harry Potter-esque children’s books.
And I shut my eyes to all of it and go after the books I like, the ones I’m interested in.
Now, why is it so easy for me to be that way as a reader, and yet so easy for me to be afraid that my book will suffer by comparisons?
I mean, my book shouldn’t be just like Cornelia’s. It shouldn’t be just like Ian Rankin’s.
It should be like Sandra Ruttan. I’m either a writer, forging my own path here, or I’m nothing but a cheap imitation that will be here today and gone tomorrow. For all I know, my book could come out and I could be compared at length to existing writers. I haven’t got a clue. What I know is, compared to what I read, this isn’t a replica. I hope there’s shades of influence in terms of effective writing, but not imitation of individual style.
It’s a simple saying, but I guess it’s one I needed to remember. Just be yourself.
End of the day, I’m a person who prefers The Wire over Law & Order. Oh, I like Law & Order. But The Wire has a hell of a lot more story, more characters, more intricacies that play out over 12 hours instead of one.
That’s more how I write. Mega subplots.
I’m going to stop apologizing for that.
Oh, and, by the way, I’m now officially on the editing schedule. There are a lot of moments we authors go through, from sale to print, and seeing my name on the house update at TICO is one of those moments for me. One of those ‘My God, this is for real’ moments.
* Thanks for the approving comment regarding yesterday's post Daniel. Or at least that line. If I’m not mistaken, Daniel and I are making our Crimespree debuts in the same issue this year. He’s an exceptionally talented writer, great guy, and it’s nice to share the experience of magazine publication together.