Finding that sweet balance between telling a story cleanly and clearly and evoking powerful emotional responses in readers challenges every writer. I used to think I wrote cleanly and clearly. I considered it one of my strengths. Boy, was I deluded! Having birthed my fifth novel, I can now see I was neither clean nor clear in my earlier writing. ‘Turgid prose’ is an ugly phrase, but one that I can, sadly, claim.
I’ve been known to admit (okay, boast a little) that my writing has improved in each successive novel. How do I know that? How can I empirically prove that? This blog tries to answer that question.
‘Turgid’ is defined as swollen and distended or congested. In short, wordy! “Cut the adverbs. Cut the adjectives. Shorten your chapters. Shorten your paragraphs. Shorten your sentences.” I’ve said these words to my students at all levels, from elementary through to writing a Ph.D. dissertation. In fact, my advice bordered on the abusive when I used to say, “Make every word both a tool and a gem. Make each word both functional and beautiful.”
Eliminating -- or at least reducing – turgidity was one of my goals for my second novel, Chapel on the Moor.
My second goal was closely related to reducing turgidity. My son, an honest and straightforward critic, said it most clearly. “Every character in your novel sounds like an English professor. People don’t speak like that. They don’t think like that.” Am I suggesting that the speech of English professors is turgid? Possibly. In trying to clarify an idea, we English professors, retired or otherwise, are known for fulsome explanations that sometimes baffle our students and occasionally inspire them. Depends on the student; depends on the professor; and depends on the relationship between the two. But I interpreted my son’s observation as a critique of the world I was trying to create within my first novel, Fall of a Sparrow. A world populated with thoughtful, observant people. How could I keep that world but not fall into the trap of being too wordy? How could I make thoughtful and observant dialogue crisp and engaging?
Having my characters express their thoughts and observations realistically became my second major goal as I began Chapel on the Moor.
I wrote the first draft of my second novel with those two goals not only in mind but also in writing, on a sheet of paper beside my computer. But I did not allow these goals to impede creating the first draft of the novel. I dedicated the second draft to applying these goals to every chapter, paragraph, sentence, and dialogic utterance. My method was similar to writing a précis: At the sentence level, I made every clause a phrase, every phrase an adjective or adverb, and then eliminated the adverbs and adjectives by trying to find the precise noun or verb I needed. It took a long time. The result was sterile. Ugly in sound. Cold in emotion. It was clean, clear prose but it lacked magic.
What it did have was the essence of the thought. The nuts and bolts of the story. The clean foundation.
Draft three involved creating the magic. It’s the part I used to think came automatically to writers. And to some, I do believe it comes more easily and naturally than to others. But magic is a craft as well as a talent. It involves techniques that can be taught and learned. It involves creating the sweet balance between idea and word that hits a home run with readers. Most effectively, it generally eschews flowery prose. “They shoot the white girl first, but the rest they can take their time.” That’s a first sentence that hit my head and heart together when I read it, and still does every time I think of it. So much world-building, history, culture, pain, and storytelling genius dwells within those few words that begin Toni Morrison’s Paradise. And Toni Morrison is the author who inspired my phrase, ‘Make every word a tool and a gem.” Because she does.
Critical friends tell me what is not working. Life experiences, workshops, and seminars continue to teach me ways to fix my problems. Reading inspires me with examples. There is no formula other than that.
The first chapter of Fall of a Sparrow is 50 pages long; the first chapter of Chapel on the Moor is 9 pages long. The characters, fewer in number, speak more realistically, often in fragments. And speaking of numbers, not only are there shorter chapters and fewer characters, but the sentences are shorter, and the words average fewer syllables.
Is every word both a tool and a gem? No. But the effort put into using precise nouns and verbs and avoiding adverbs and adjectives is noticeable.
Do the changes make the second novel a better novel?
The changes are mostly technical in nature. I cared intensely about my characters and my story as I created both novels. From my author’s perspective, the first novel showed me I could create a novel. The second novel showed me I could learn from that effort and improve the readability of the next novel. But the ultimate transaction is between the novel and the reader. I’d love to hear from you any comments (yes, both positive and not-so-positive but constructive) that you would care to make – about any of my novels. You can post a comment on this website or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
And no, it’s not just about the numbers, although I continue to monitor the length of words, sentences, paragraphs and chapters as well as the number of characters.
My next blog will focus on changing goals and transitioning from Chapel on the Moor to The Doolally Gang.
“Sharon, you never have any real villains in your novels” or “Your bad guys are never punished.”
These are the two most prevalent comments made about the lawbreakers in my previous murder mysteries.
In Better Dead Than Bred, I wanted my villain, my antagonist, to match my hero in his adherence to his personal ethos, no matter how twisted. I wanted him to be compelling, able to compete for the interest of the reader, no matter how evil. Because evil is compelling. Otherwise, how could good people be tempted to do bad things? The Old Testament of the Christian Bible is structured upon a compelling Prince of Darkness. Milton’s Paradise Lost presents a magnificent Satan, a son of of God who disagreed with his Father and was consequently hurled out of heaven. Furious at his cataclysmic rebuke, Satan devotes his existence to luring people into sin in order to destroy the Garden of Eden his Father has created. Satan easily corrupted Eve. In order to corrupt a man as morally and ethically good as my protagonist, Sean Bergmann, I needed to create a devil as cunning and as magnificent as Satan.
Cooper Newsome is not Satan but he deludes himself into thinking he is. He is gorgeous, meticulously tailored, intellectually astute, and morally empty. But he is ethically robust according to his own ethos. He is true to himself as he has created himself. To blur and confuse his evil nature, I have given him two backstories, both of which are partly true and partly false. What is the reader to believe? What is Sean Bergmann to believe?
Can the devil be destroyed? Is evil ever destroyed? Does Cooper Newsome deserve to be punished? Absolutely! But does Cooper Newsome live in an absolute world?
These are some of the questions I have tried to raise in this story of a good man (almost) destroyed by his need for revenge, a need planted in him by Cooper Newsome. I hope you will enjoy teasing out answers to these questions as you read Better Dead Than Bred.
Blog 4: BETTER DEAD THAN BRED: Fact, Fiction, and Character
Every writer of fiction entwines fact and fantasy. Proportions between the two differ, but all fiction is grounded in what the writer has experienced. How could it be otherwise? Most writers read voraciously, living a multiplicity of lives vicariously, contemplating how it must be to survive, love, and make decisions as this character or that character. Few of us consort with murderers or rocket scientists or struggling citizens of war-torn countries, but we’ve read, watched television, viewed film, and attended dramatic productions, avidly inserting ourselves into the lives we are experiencing second hand.
We integrate everything we read or experience into our world view, consciously or subconsciously, so that when we write, we draw upon the elements of our life. We inhabit, in some way, every character in our books – and they inhabit us. Imagination inevitably ‘sticks’ to something or someone concrete in our existence.
Consequently, creating character involves drawing upon our integrated understanding of humanity, separating out the relevant strands, and weaving them into a person just right for our fictive intentions. It’s a puzzle. We have all the pieces.
Originally, because he asked to be ‘bad,’ Opi was going to be a villain. But knowledge of my friend on whom the character was to be based conflicted so profoundly with that notion, I abandoned that plan. Instead, I decided, he would begin the novel as the good man I know him to be. I had to make him a little flawed because flaws humanize a character. More significantly, in a character who journeys to a personal hell and back, that flaw needs to cause, or contribute in a major way to, his fall from grace.
Ironically, as Tom Stoppard points out in his play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, fiction appears more real on stage – and, by extension, in all forms of transactional art -- than reality. So while characters may be grounded in people the author knows, or in historical characters known around the world, the author fictionalizes the character to fulfil the needs of the story.
Following this logic, I created my protagonist: Sean Bergmann, a good man, comfortable in his life and his marriage, who joins a rogue activist group using the name “Opi” and risks everything for revenge. That need for revenge is his flaw and his propellant into evil.
(Continued from the previous blog) As the last glow of sun dissolved into the horizon, my agility class friend asked if he could be a character in the novel we had been talking about. My initial plot idea had focussed on our breeder and her family, fictionalized of course, but based on her family, those who lived on the property. But initial plot ideas have a way of morphing into quite different stories than originally imagined. Enveloped in autumnal darkness, I regarded this man I’d known for four years through our ownership of shelties from the same breeder and our participation in training classes and dog shows. His face, obscured by nightfall, nonetheless revealed a man with a settled soul, comfortable and content in the life he had shaped for himself. I asked him, “What kind of character would you like to be?”
His answer astounded me.
“I’d like to be bad. I’ve always been good. I think it would be interesting to be bad.”
There was a challenge. A character grows inside a writer, inside the novel, inside the story within the novel. A writer develops a relationship with the characters she creates. When I create a character who is somewhat based on someone I know, everything that character does or thinks or says is fiction. At the same time, the nature of what that person says or does is grounded in my sense of that person’s ethical core. Often the fictionalized character moves and thinks in patterns similar to those of the person I know. Sometimes the character even looks and dresses similarly. How could I create a bad character grounded in a good man?
I asked a follow-up question, hoping to gain some insight to the kind of ‘bad’ he wanted to be. “What would you like your name to be?”
His reply came after only a few seconds of thought. “Opie.” Opie is the name of his six-year old sheltie, identified by the breeder a few weeks after his birth as a future champion, even a potential grand champion, with his perfect sheltie stance, his speed, his intelligence, and his beauty. But at eight months of age, one of his permanent teeth appeared at a substandard angle. No championship possible for imperfection.
My head exploded with possibilities. How does a potential grand champion become no longer a potential grand champion overnight? How does a good man become bad in the space of a novel? What kind of villain would be called ‘Opie’?
I wrestled with that challenge for several days, during which I happened to be reading about the structure of the mythical journeys of tragic heroes. And therein I found my answer. My character, my ‘hero’, would have a tragic flaw, an irrepressible need to seek revenge for a terrible harm done to his beloved Opie. That flaw would transform him at his core, as he takes on Opie’s name to enact his vengeance.
And thereby my protagonist -- my villain-hero ‘Opi’ -- came into being.
My decision to use the phrase, “Better dead than bred,” as the title of my fourth novel was not easy. At times, I still question the choice. After my breeder agreed her property could be used in the novel, and I talked about ‘the bad guys’ who wanted to import drugs via the airstrip (see previous blog), the conversation fractured into other possible nasty deeds that could camouflage the real evil of drug trafficking. For example, the bad guys might want to sponsor dog fights or turn the property into a puppy mill. The conversation turned to animal abuse and animal activism and spiralled to abusers using activism to divert attention from their brutal deeds.
One of my agility buddies, a lawyer, mentioned an incident of rogue activism in Vallejo, California in 2018. A group of PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) activists raided a dog show, releasing dogs from their crates and shooing them outdoors, where several ran across the highway and were killed by motorists. Even more horrific, this rogue team went to the parking lot where air-conditioned motorhomes were sheltering several show dogs from the sweltering heat. They unplugged the electricity and the dogs suffocated. Their rallying cry: “Better dead than bred.” Even as I now type the words into my computer, I feel the sludge in my stomach rebelling against the idea. I certainly had no thought at that time of using that slogan for my title.
I was sickened. I couldn’t listen to anymore. We were all disheartened and disgusted by the cruelty inflicted on animals by fellow human beings. We went to our cars with our well-exercised and well-loved shelties, horrified by what we had heard and shared and speculated. As another agility friend lifted his dog into his crate for safety, he turned to me and asked a question that ultimately would impact every aspect of the novel, including the title.
Beginning to write a novel is like many little fires burning. A flame of a topic bursts into your awareness. A spark of character lights your horizon. A site for murder burns into your consciousness. Then a catalytic event, like an accelerant, intensifies the little fires into the conflagration of an idea: this could make a terrific story! And the process of a new book begins.
P.D. James, author of literary crime thrillers, at a 2010 Literary Festival at Dartington Manor, Devon, speaking of her writing process, pointed to place as the most common catalyst for her novels. Whether the awareness hit suddenly or evolved slowly, she prickled with the knowledge that this particular place would be the scene of a crime in one of her novels.
For Better Dead Than Bred, the place struck me first. My partner and I were at an evening agility class for our two shelties on the property of the dogs’ breeder. Located only a few kilometres outside Winnipeg, surrounded by farms and protected by a grove of spruce, the yard was perfect for running and barking shelties. The fields beyond boasted an unused airstrip, desired by local farmers for irrigation and weed control purposes, but unavailable to be rented because the growl of the planes’ engines would distress the puppies. Old farm buildings loomed over the agility field, lit by the flaming sun sinking beneath the prairie horizon. I shivered, but not with the cooling night air. Rather I felt what P.D. James spoke about: this would be the site of my next novel.
Immediately, the threads of a story began to knit together. A drug cabal wanted to buy the property and camouflage the airstrip to import illegal substances. Finding the owners unwilling to sell, the leader would seduce the breeder’s mother, who lived in her own cottage on the property, and gradually take over. By the end of the agility class, my storyline consumed my thinking processes so much that I guided my dog through the wrong half of the agility course.
While my head was still swelling with burgeoning ideas, after the agility class, I spoke with my breeder, to ask if she would mind my using her home as the site of a crime in my next novel. She gave me an enthusiastic “yes!”
My sheltie friends, overhearing my request, were full of suggestions.
The plot did not develop at all as I had begun to plan it that night. However, the property became the site for a puppy mill in my story and the airstrip and outbuildings inspired the helipad and general layout of Paradise, the centre of evil in the novel.
In the meantime, my conversation with my agility buddies had two significant consequences, which I will write about in my next two blogs.
Sharon J. Hamilton has taught English in every grade, from one through master’s level, during her forty-year career. She earned a PhD in language and literacy at the University of London and has participated in writing seminars at Corpus Cristi College, Oxford, and the Faber Academy, London.