Tuesday, April 08, 2014

You don’t have to use a lot of words to be effective

I was approached by Orca Book Publishers a few years ago and asked if I would be willing to consider writing a book for them. The details of the project were that it had to be simply constructed: few characters, simple sentence construction, straightforward timeline, vocabulary of no more than mid Grade 4 and between 12,000 and 20,000 words. “But above all, it has to be a good story, well told,” said the email from Bob Tyrrell, the publisher.

I knew Orca as a childrens’ book publisher, but this series, Rapid Reads, was aimed at adults with low literacy skills, or adult ESL students, but also for people with normal reading skills who wanted a quick read, say, for a one-hour plane trip or something to take along when faced with time in a doctor’s waiting room.

I was definitely interested, but also apprehensive about whether I could pull off what I was being asked to do. I don’t write this way. Or I should say didn’t write this way. Signing the contract was one of the tougher things I’ve done. Somehow or other, I now had to do accomplish this task.

My usual way of writing is to begin my day rereading what I had put down the day before. I’m from the school where you charge to the end of the book, and only then do you go back and begin smoothing out the rough spots, sorting the plot “wheat” from the chaff, and correcting as many errors as possible. If you’re constantly editing as you go along, you often get so bogged down you risk losing enthusiasm for your story.

With this book (Orchestrated Murder), I found myself every morning looking at each sentence with a critical eye to the assignment: keep it simple, direct and with sentences that popped while still using simple vocab. I’d certainly written with that in mind, but every day when I reread, I was amazed how much dross had still crept through. So as I read to get myself back into the story, I succumbed to doing what I thought of as “preliminary weeding”. Quite often I’d prune away a good quarter of what I found.

And you know what? It was better. Sometimes compromises had to be made in word choice, but I always found it possible to say what I needed to even within the tightly restricted framework. Once I found my centre for this kind of writing, I really began to enjoy the little game.

Now that my second Rapid Reads book has come out (The Boom Room), I’ve been again looking at what I learned in writing these two novellas. Even though I love words and am so thankful that I write using the English language with its nearly infinite flexibility, I’ve discovered (ha!) that less can be more. For someone who loves words, trying to keep my writing to a minimum is a sort of sad thing to have to do. But I can’t argue with results.

What’s going to be really interesting is to see what readers and reviewers think of my next “post Rapid Reads” full-length novel, Rose for a Diva – because my writing has changed. Yes, I love the freedom of not having to constantly look over my shoulder for the Sentence Structure and Vocab Police. (Not that Orca ever made me feel this way – that construct was completely my own) But I had fortunately learned something very useful, and due to the fact that I was seriously over the word count, my new skill became indispensable when I was trying to lose as many words as possible during my final edit of the novel. Will anyone notice the change? I don’t know. At this point in every book, I have zero idea whether I’ve done something worthwhile or failed miserably. I wouldn’t trust anything my editor says since she’s not about to tell me that the book sucks even though she tried to make a silk purse from my sow’s ear. As a matter of fact, she hasn’t said anything – hence a lot of my doubt.

Now for the Big Reveal. What got me started on this topic today is THIS. I think these little gems are brilliant work. Ernest Hemingway would be proud. Reading them, I’m led to think of the classic Hollywood pitch. You need to hook a producer in a few deft sentences. In the case of a horror story, I think any of these might do the trick. They’re evocative, succinct and they sketch a picture that leaves it completely up to the readers’ imagination to fill out and make real.

You don’t need to use a lot of fancy words and brilliant sentence construction, just a few deft phrases can do engage your readers’ imaginations. That’s what real writing is all about, isn’t it?


Nanci Rathbun said...

Those short 1-3 lines of horror are crazy good. I hope I sleep tonight - without any of the issues those writers described!

Eileen Goudge said...

Brevity is harder than it looks, and a wonderful discipline for writers. I think of it as prose haiku. I believe it was F. Scott Fitzgerald who penned a novel in a sentence: "One pair of baby shoes, never worn." Oh my.

Rick Blechta said...

You've got that right, Eileen. It requires a completely different mindset. What's been interesting for me is the change writing the novellas has wrought on my "regular" writing. That was unexpected.