Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The critical importance of every word

I’m currently nearing the halfway point in my second novella for Orca Book Publisher’s Rapid Read series.

Writing these books is a very interesting intellectual exercise. First of all, I have to submit a chapter by chapter plot synopsis and then stick to it – something at which I’m not always the best. (Sidebar: Boy, would that last sentence get flagged by Orca in a big hurry!) These books, since they’re primarily aimed at adults who don’t read well, must be straight ahead in construction, simple in plot – but not simplistic – and use vocab that’s not past a Grade 4 reading level. And did I mention that this all has to be accomplished in 20,000 words or less?

To anyone who hasn’t tried writing in this constricted a space, I heartily recommend it. Literally, you must pay attention to every single word you throw down on the page. When I started the first novella, since published as Orchestrated Murder, I was filled with self-doubts as to whether I could pull it off.

I learned a lot about myself, vis-a-vis my writing style, in that first outing, and the second one is proving just as enlightening (and easier going). First and foremost, because of the word count restriction, your writing has to be incredibly succinct. My goal (at which I’ll probably fail miserably) is to not have a single extraneous word or phrase. I’m finding that I have to go through every chapter far more than I normally do, plucking out words, phrases, sometimes whole sentences and paragraphs to make sure by the time I approach the end of the story, I’ve still got enough words “in the kitty”.

I find myself constantly considering things like:

  • Can this sentence possibly be simpler?
  • Oops! A four-syllable word. Is there anything I can do about that?
  • Is this conversation really necessary?
  • What about this character?
  • How can I work in this bit of character development without eating into my word count too much?

Descriptive passages, of course, need to be pretty well thrown out the door. Here’s where you have to use a few (hopefully) deft words to sketch a bare bones picture which you have to rely on the reader to fill in, not that we shouldn’t do that all the time, but here it is crucial.

The process of writing these books requires real intensity of purpose. The skills I am developing, though, can be felt throughout my fiction. I now try to focus on every single word, though I don’t have to be niggardly about the number I use. The result is my writing has become more precise (except when I’m blogging!) and, I believe, more impactful.

We’ll have to wait and see how it all turns out this time after final polishing by my editor and me, but having to work in this constricted environment has brought positive benefits to my skill level. It is possible, though difficult, to tell a full-length story simply, and it’s a skill I think every writer should have, so that when word count and simplicity isn’t first and foremost, you can still be economical with your prose and perhaps give it even greater impact.

And I want to end this week’s post by giving a shout out to Type M’s own Barbara Fradkin and founder Vicki Delany for being finalists in this year’s Arthur Ellis Awards for their own Rapid Reads books, Evil Behind That Door for Barbara, and A Winter Kill for Vicki. And lastly, Lou Allin (a guest here in the past) for her Contingency Plan. And get better, Lou!


j welling said...

I am in awe.

I always marvel at Cormac McCarthy and the extremely tight edit in his books. In _The Road_, even verbs may be dropped as extraneous.

What a powerful writing drill. What a great mission to bring stories to an audience.

Frankie Y. Bailey said...

Congratulations, Barbara, Vicki, and Lou!

Hannah Dennison said...

Congratulations Barbara, Vicki and Lou! That's fantastic.
Rick - really interesting post ...