On Wednesday, May 13, I had dinner with a dozen or so fellow members of Mystery Writers of America at the Seasons 52 restaurant in Orlando. Our Florida chapter president Nancy J. Cohen picked up the tab for the wine. Thank you, Nancy! We are trying to organize a regular meeting of Central Florida MWA members for educational and marketing purposes. Judi Ciance and I are working up an agenda and a convenient site.
Every experienced writer has heard the advice to use action verbs. This also includes the advice to avoid adverbs and adjective. Instead, choose verbs and nouns that are more descriptive by themselves. For example, don’t say “She walked proudly down the street.” Say “She strutted down the street.” Don’t say, “He opened the car door quickly.” Say “He jerked the car door open.”
Most best-selling authors are masters of the action verb and the descriptive noun.
Take Lee Child for instance. Here’s an example of his from Chapter 33 of Die Trying, the second Jack Reacher novel: “The air force Bell put down on a gravel turnout two hundred yards south of where the road into Yorke narrowed and straightened into the hills. [emphasis supplied.]”
Mr. Childs could have said: “The air force helicopter landed on a gravel turnout two hundred yards south of where the road into Yorke dropped to two lanes and turned into the hills.”
But Child used more expressive verbs.
Here’s another example from the same chapter: “A random pattern of military vehicles slewed across the blacktop. [emphasis supplied.]” He could have said: “A random pattern of military vehicles sped across the blacktop.” But
Child used the more expressive “slewed.”
Another: “An officer slid out… saluted the General and skipped around to open all the doors. The five men squeezed in and the car turned again and rolled the two hundred yards north to the mess of vehicles.” Another writer might have said, “An officer got out… saluted the General and hurried to open all the doors. The five men got in and the car turned again and drove the two hundred yards north to the mess of vehicles.”
And note Child’s choice of “mess” for the grouping of vehicles. Even nouns can be made more descriptive without adding an adjective.
Small, insignificant differences? Small, yes. Insignificant, no. Small differences can turn a pretty good story into an excellent one.
Here’s an example from chapter 8 of Invisible, by James Patterson and David Ellis: “I pop awake, gasping for air, the dancing flames on the ceiling receding to a dark, quiet room. [emphasis supplied.]” The protagonist didn’t “wake suddenly”; she “popped.”
A good writer can even draft a noun like “bucket” and convert it to a verb. An example from chapter 1 of The Escape, by David Baldacci: “When the two rampaging fronts met…, the result was a storm of shattering proportions, with jagged lightning slicing sideways…, rain bucketing down….” I loved the use of “slicing” to describe the lightning.
Here’s how I used these principles in my third Carlos McCrary novel, Quarterback Trap:
Old: A green Mercedes approached the main garage exit.
Improved: A green Mercedes rolled to a stop at the garage exit.
Old: We waited until the last of the cars had driven off the ferry.
Improved: We waited until the last of the cars had bumped off the ferry.
Old: I started the engines, then called Flamer while they warmed up.
Improved: I cranked the engines, then called Flamer while they warmed up.
Old: The B-r-r-r-rap of automatic weapon fire came from the sun deck.
Improved: The B-r-r-r-rap of automatic weapon fire ripped from the sun deck.
Old: I closed the door behind the two Port City detectives….
Improved: I bolted the door behind the two Port City detectives….
Old: I picked up Pisarczik’s AK-47…. Improved: I grabbed Pisarczik’s AK-47….
Even staid, ordinary nouns can be punched up.
Old: The sound of Bob opening his bedroom door woke me.
Improved: The click of Bob opening his bedroom door woke me.
“Click” is more descriptive than “sound.” Exciting, expressive verbs and descriptive nouns add that extra oomph to writing.
I just finished reading Lee Child‘s third Jack Reacher novel, Tripwire. I give it five stars. I browsed on Goodreads for other reviews of the book and noticed a two-star review of the same novel. He said: Unfortunately, his prose is like fingernails on a chalkboard. Most irritating of all, it’s not irredeemably bad, it just needs a good editor. Who is Lee Child’s editor? Does he even have one?
I loved the book, so I commented: Just goes to show that there’s no accounting for taste. I just finished Tripwire for the second time. I read it several years ago before I began my own career as a novelist. Now, after finishing three of my own mystery novels, I am going back to study the techniques of Child and Robert B. Parker, both of whom I admire. I loved Tripwire even more the second time, because I can appreciate the skill with which Child plants the clues, weaves the sub-plots, and develops the characters.
Just because someone else didn’t like a book doesn’t mean you won’t like it.
What do you think? Have you ever read any reviews you didn’t agree with?
Robert B. Parker is the master of private detective mysteries. Ceremony is no exception. Ceremony is the ninth book in the Spenser series, written in 1982. Spenser’s girlfriend Susan Silverman asks him to locate a teenage girl who has run away from a dysfunctional home. Spenser’s adventures take him from tony suburbs to sleazy urban streets where he confronts a variety of misfits, pimps, and mobsters in his search for the runaway who has become a prostitute. When Spenser finds the runaway and tries to rescue her, she doesn’t want to go home because she thinks her home life is worse than life on the street. Spenser and Susan rack their brains on how to help this confused girl. Their solution will be a surprise to some readers. Spenser and Susan tackle a moral dilemma and develop a real-world compromise between the ideal and the practical. This is a thoroughly satisfying adventure where Hawk and Susan both take center stage to defeat the bad guys and bring a semblance of justice.
I discovered Lee Child and the Jack Reacher novels a couple of years ago when Tom Cruise was selected to star as Jack Reacher. I am a big Tom Cruise fan, so I read the novel the movie was to be based on. That’s when I discovered Lee Child. I quickly read all the Reacher novels.
Now that I’m a mystery novelist myself, I’ve set out to re-read my favorites as textbooks on how to be a better writer.
I first read The Killing Floor a couple of years ago. It is hard to believe that this is Lee Child’s first novel. I have read lots of first novels, and this is one of the best. The plot is tight and fast-moving. The characters are developed with skill and vision. The settings are described as though the reader is right there.
The edition I read included a foreword by Lee Child giving some of the background on how he developed the Reacher character. I found the foreword very helpful and entertaining. I loved the book and enjoyed it even more the second time through. Well done, Lee Child!
I attended sessions on the craft of writing, plotting, scene setting, and characterization, as well as marketing and promoting the author’s work. Best-selling author and former professor of writing, James W. Hall, led a humorous and informative session on Analyzing What Makes a Bestseller.
Our final speaker was best-selling humor writer Dave Barry, who told attendees lots of funny stories and related a few tidbits from his new book Live Right and Find Happiness (Although Beer is Much Faster)
Michael Sears presented “Start Write” At Sleuthfest 2015. It was a great session on how to write openings that grab the reader and pull them into the story. Mike said the opening paragraph should include five elements:
2. Characters—at least one strong character, but not necessarily the protagonist
5. Voice of the author
In a group exercise, Mike asked us to pick one of ten opening scenes and write an opening. I picked “Two men are sitting in a car. The window explodes from the impact of a bullet. One of the men slumps dead.”
Here’s what I wrote: “When the windshield shattered, my first reaction was to duck. Tiny shards of shattered safety glass peppered my hair and the straps of my armored vest. I glanced over at Mike. It was too late for him to duck.”
I thought that was pretty good for a start. Then Hank Phillippi Ryan, an investigative reporter for WHDH-TV in Boston and an award-winning mystery writer in her own right, asked, “Where are they? What is the setting?”
So I added the setting. Now I had: “When the windshield of our Atlantic County Sheriff patrol car shattered, my first reaction was to duck. Tiny shards of shattered safety glass peppered my hair and the straps of my armored vest. I glanced over at Mike. It was too late for him to duck.”
Better, right? Then Charlotte Levine Gruber asked, “Who was driving?”
Another addition. Now it read: “When the windshield of our Atlantic County Sheriff patrol car shattered, my first reaction was to duck. Tiny shards of shattered safety glass peppered my hair and the straps of my armored vest. I glanced over at Mike, slumped in the driver seat. It was too late for him to duck.”
Even better. Then Charlotte asked, “Were they moving or sitting? Is the car going to crash?”
When I told the group that the two men were on a stakeout, Hank asked, “Why were they there? How long had they been there?”
Here’s the final version: “Jim Bob Willis hadn’t made a move since he had punched out the window of his broken-down mobile home with the barrel of his Remington 700 Varmint Rifle over an hour ago and threatened to kill himself. When the windshield of our Atlantic County Sheriff patrol car shattered, my first reaction was to duck. Tiny shards of shattered safety glass peppered my hair and the straps of my armored vest. I glanced over at Mike, slumped in the driver seat. It was too late for him to duck.”
How important is a good opening to get you to read a book?
I’ve registered for the 2015 Sleuthfest, sponsored by the Mystery Writers of America. I will attend February 26 to March 1 to rub elbows with James Patterson, Dave Barry, and lots of other talented writers. I expect to learn a lot.
When I attended the Lake County Book Fest last year, one of the speakers was Lisa Black. Lisa is a forensic scientist with the Cape Coral, Florida, police department, working mostly with fingerprints and crime scenes. She also writes great mystery novels. I bought her book Trail of Blood at the Book Fest. I give it five stars. The excitement and suspense are first rate. You can order it at http://tinyurl.com/klhkjab. You’ll be glad you did. Lisa’s website is http://www.lisa-black.com
Quarterback Trap teaser
Port City is excited to be hosting the New York Jets and the Dallas Cowboys in the first Super Bowl in its fabulous, new billion-dollar stadium. Chuck McCrary=s old friend from high-school football, Bob Martinez, is starting quarterback for the Jets.
One week before the game, Martinez’s supermodel fiancée, Graciela, disappears in the middle of the night from the headquarters hotel of the Super Bowl. Martinez hires Chuck to find her, but won’t let Chuck involve the police.
That same day the odds on the Super Bowl game change dramatically when someone bets a hundred million dollars on the Cowboys to beat the point spread. Is it Vicente Vidali, the New Jersey casino owner and mob boss? Did he kidnap Graciela?
Chuck discovers that Graciela has a secret that places her life in danger, regardless of the outcome of the game. Was she really kidnapped, or did she run away from her own secret life? Martinez also has a dangerous secret that threatens to destroy his multi-million-dollar career in the NFL.
To save Graciela’s life, Vicente Vidali demands that Martinez shave the point spread on the Super Bowl, so Vidali can collect on his hundred-million-dollar bet.
Chuck’s search for the missing supermodel takes him from the dangerous streets and drug dealers of a Port City ghetto to the waterfront high-rises and private island mansions of billionaires, movie stars, and crime moguls.
Chuck must assault the mob boss’s mega-yacht, risking his own life to bring Graciela to safety. Then he must invade Vidali’s luxurious island mansion and take the fight to the mobster’s home.