Thursday, July 16, 2009

"The End" Is Just the Beginning, Part IV of Four: Two writers talk about editing, critique, and craft

Elizabeth Zelvin & Sharon Wildwind

What have you learned about writing since your first book was published?

Sharon: Old habits die hard.

The word “the” should not make up 33% of an entire chapter.

Remove every qualifier (just, almost, nearly, possibly, etc) as a matter of course. Occasionally, you may replace one, but only one, and that’s usually in dialog because it reflects how a character speaks.

There are words for which I lack a gene to spell correctly, ever, under any circumstances.

There’s not enough time or space in my life for people who are rude or stupid when they critique.

If more than one person says something is clunky or doesn’t read right, fix that part, no matter how much you adore it the way it is.

One of the great joys of writing it to pick up a terrific book, say to myself, “I’ve read this before,” but know that can’t be true because it’s just been published, and then realize that I read it in manuscript form. To know I was there at the beginning, before the story went public, is a gift.

Liz: With each book, I internalize more of what I’ve heard about writing fiction since I started talking with—and listening to—other mystery writers. The kind of editing I learned at my mother’s knee is essential to a clean manuscript that reads smoothly. But fiction writing—characterization, plotting, pace, “showing, not telling,” dialogue, backstory, point of view—is a whole different skill set. Crafting a mystery novel is different from crafting a short story. I hardly ever read short stories, and certainly never dreamed I’d write them, until a couple of years ago. It’s not a matter of deliberately following rules to construct these elements of the mystery. I think the information about what’s needed gets assimilated gradually and then bubbles up—either in a new intuitive ability, say, to stick to a point of view or pace an action scene—or in a new ability to see what’s wrong and fix it when you read it over.

What aspect of your craft as a writer are you most proud of?

Sharon: That little click I get in my brain when I know that a heart-breaking scene is right. What makes it even sweeter is when someone later says, “I cried when I read that scene.”

Liz: In my mystery series, I’m very proud of my protagonist Bruce’s voice. I didn’t know if I could create a male character in the first person and make him real, smart, funny, and vulnerable—and nothing like me. To me, going beyond the autobiographical is the hallmark of professionalism in a fiction writer. I’m thrilled that reader feedback indicates I’ve pulled it off.

What’s the hardest part of writing for you?

Liz: The first draft of a novel is a nightmare. I’m telling myself the story, creating a world or community and characters to populate it, and I’m never sure I’ll make it through to the end until I’ve done it. And then I have dreadful doubts about whether I can do it again. It’s a little comforting that I’ve heard highly successful and prolific writers say the same is true for them. Revision is a breeze in comparison—and at that point, I have trusted critiquers to share the burden.

Sharon: It’s like this quote from the mystery writer, Claudia McCants: “What gets in my way when I'm writing? I think the question really is, What doesn't?” On any given day, anything, even things I’ve previously done easily, can be the worst chore in the world. Writing is a matter of keeping your courage up enough to write every day, even when you are convinced that you should have taken up any other occupation.

1 comment:

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

I completely agree about the difficulty of first drafts. I'm glad to hear it's scary each time for other people, too!

Mystery Writing is Murder