Actually, I have the silver linings of two clouds to report to myself and celebrate and neither is the result of detonations of atomic weapons.
Four days ago I posted on here severely criticizing the writing of Clive Cussler. I was a good hundred pages into one of his books and not impressed would put it mildly. I wondered whether I should persevere. In the end I decided not to. I like reading too much and don’t seem to have enough time for it to waste cherished hours on books where the prose regularly grates and irritates with its banality.
Serendipitously, I stumbled across a copy of a book by Gerald Seymour called ‘Field of Blood’. I was waiting for a meeting to start and to kill a few minutes snatched it off the members’ lending shelf in the staffroom of Istanbul City Zoo, where I work part-time in the monkey house. The book is about the troubles in Northern Ireland and dates from the eighties. Within a couple of pages I was gripped and hooked and it was all because of the quality of the man’s writing.
One of the big differences that I noticed – or perhaps I should qualify that by saying the difference that had the greatest impact on me as a writer – between Cussler’s and Seymour’s writing is how they report the dialogue. Reading Seymour reminded me of one of the ten rules of writing from one of the masters of writing dialogue: Elmore ‘Dutch’ Leonard. Leonard says that one should never use anything other than ‘said’ to qualify what a character has spoken. And only use ‘said’ if you have to use something. (I don’t know if he added that last bit or that’s me, but it sounds like him.) Seymour hardly uses any words to qualify the speech in this book. It’s just raw dialogue and he doesn’t inflict himself on the reading, or insult the reader’s intelligence, by dictating to the reader how every utterance must be interpreted and making it painfully obvious who it is speaking (see Cussler). In consequence the writing – and reading – flows so much better, as it bloody well should.
The silver lining of cloud one that was the Cussler reading experience is that I had the lesson about qualifying speech repeated and reinforced, paradoxically, by an example of how not to write. We all need refreshers, reminders of what to do and what not to do, no matter how sorted we think we are in whatever we are turning our creative hands to.
As I know because I’ve been following my blog closely I recently claimed to have completed my final, final proof-reading of the first Romney and Marsh File that I intend to launch my literary career with (eyebrows raised, as SN1 would say). Well, I effing well effing hadn’t.
Because of the logistics of my writing I work on three different computers when I write my books (it’s a long story about work and home). What I do is email myself the latest version/work that I’ve managed to spend an hour or two on wherever it happens to be. The plan is that, so long as I have internet access, I always have the latest version at my fingertips wherever I’m being forced to write.
When I get to finishing the first draft of the book I print it off, get it fitted with spiral thingy up the spine and plastic covers at the local stationers for a couple of Turkish lira and then I go to work with red pen on creating the next draft. I might do this three or four times until I’m happy with it. Now, because I’m going to go the e-book self-publishing route I now have to return to the computerised form of the book to update it with the editing that I did on the latest and final hard-copy. With me?
Well I did this with Enough Rope the first Romney and Marsh File and then discovered that the computerised copy that I had spent two days updating from the hard-copy revisions was not the latest computerised copy of the book that I thought it was. It was not the computerised copy of the hard-copy that I’d printed off and been working on. If I haven’t lost myself here that means that I understand that I swore a fucking lot when I twigged. And then I fucking swore a-fucking-gain. Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! (Elmore also says don’t use exclamation marks. He doesn’t mind profanity.)
So, I had to go back to the latest updated-computerised-edited-version and edit that again by reading the whole effing book again thoroughly and with full effing attention on the effing computer. Not my favourite effing thing to read on. I was so effing cross with myself.
But now I’m not. I’m not cross now because it gave me another run through on the final, final, final, draft that I’m glad to have had the opportunity of despite the anguish that the realisation of it cost me. This is because of the lesson that I got from Cussler and Seymour. I had neglected to adhere strictly to Elmore’s writing rule – something that I believe strongly in – and I had let myself get involved in the reader’s interpretation of my writing.
The silver lining from cloud two is that this extra work that I gave myself has made me much, much happier with the finished article in which I found myself editing out phrases like …said Romney, enigmatically, and …answered Sergeant Marsh and …replied Romney and … questioned Marsh. All unnecessary because it was so obvious from the writing that they were replying, answering, questioning and being enigmatic.
I also learnt a really good lesson about dialogue writing and something that I am going to stick to religiously. In future drafts and writings I will only use ‘said’ to establish at the beginning of a stream of dialogue who is speaking and then, providing it’s obvious that those speakers carry on, don’t use any qualifying words at all. They get in the way and they are unnecessary. Thank you Mr Seymour.
This is how my final draft of Enough Rope is now and it’s so much better for it. It’s made such a difference. I was dreading that unnecessary extra draft that I’d created for myself with my mistake but I so enjoyed the paring down of the writing and getting myself out of the reader’s face. I enjoyed it because every single word that I ditched made me happy and the book better. I’ll say it again because I want to and it’s my blog – the book is so much better for it.
So two clouds, but valuable lessons learned, as they always seem to say after another terrible and costly tragedy – not that I’m considering the forthcoming e-publishing of my book ‘another terrible and costly tragedy’.
As for the Seymour book, I tucked it under my jumper when the meeting was over – I don’t have a library card – I’m half-way through and I think Mr Seymour is bloody good. So, I have more good news for myself: I now have another fine writer to ferret around for the output of. Bonus.