my own transgressions

Here’s something from Into the Wilderness that I would rewrite if I could:

They paused, both breathing hard, like statues in the moonlight. Kitty’s clothing was disturbed; a white breast glinted between the edges of the bodice she clutched in one hand. Her loosened hair hung in frowzy ropes to her waist. Her complexion was gray, but her eyes glittered.

The ‘statues in the moonlight’ thing irks me, far too cliched. I’m uneasy with the glittering eyes (but maybe that has to do with my current study of eyes in print). But worst of all: the bodice she’s clutching in one hand.

Okay, so the detail is historically correct. But it’s a bodice. A bodice, and I’m always telling people that I don’t write bodice rippers (that is, books full of sex scenes that are there for no other reason than to arouse, rather than to move characterization or story along). And here’s Kitty, clutching her bodice. Yikes.

Mea culpa.

On another front: the hardest thing about writing a series is the constant challenge of bringing new readers along for the ride without confusing them too greatly, and at the same time, not boring everybody whose been on board since the beginning. I’m at that point in the fifth volume where readers will need some background on the village, but I hate recapping. Wendy (my editor) says, people will be confused, to which I want to say, well hell, let them go read the first four volumes, right?

Now she’s wondering about a foreword for the fourth novel, in which the Author Recaps formally and thus saves the uninitiated reader from having to go read the first three. Stephen King did this in the new editions of his Gunslinger books — there’s an introduction that tells you what happens in one, two, and three if you happen to pick up four first.

Does this sound like a good idea?

twinkling transgressions, and not.

I’ve found quite a few authors who have allowed eyes to twinkle, though none have resorted to exploding with merriment. Most of what I found was not good.

I’ve decided not to give you citations, because in one case the author is dead, and I have no urge to beat anybody up.

“He eyed them with a twinkling eye. “

“He laughed, his green eyes twinkling impishly.”

“…Paul said, grinning and narrowing his eyes, which were the twinkling blue of a boy’s, though he was fifty-five years old”

And then I came across Tim O’Brien, who shook things up, as he always does. O’Brien is best known for his collection of short stories about his experiences in Vietnam, The Things They Carried. In the story in question, there’s a dead American soldier in the road.

“The one eye did a funny twinkling trick, red to yellow. His head was wrenched sideways, as if loose at the neck, and the dead yong man seemed to be staring at some distant object beyond the bell-shaped flowers along the trail.”

There’s cliche, and then there’s what you can do to turn cliche on its ear and make it work again. This is one of the many things O’Brien does so well. The right detail, the right twist, and you’re on that road in Vietnam looking at this unfortunate young man and seeing him clearly, as painful as that must be.

PS I haven’t listed The Night Before Christmas (which somebody mentioned yesterday in a comment) as a good or bad example. That one you’ll have to deal with on your own terms.

give your readers some credit

I like to think of this as a basic commandment: never underestimate your readers; treat them with respect, and they’ll hang with you.

That means, in part, that you don’t shove things in their faces. Let them watch the characters act and interact, and if you’ve done your job right, they will figure the important stuff out for themselves.

Maria Capstone was 87 but she was still sharp as a tack.

Boring, and a cliche, too. Try this:

In the ten seconds the Maguires spent wondering if they should offer to help the dignified old lady with her groceries, Mrs. Capstone had already hatched a plan to separate the newlyweds from their savings.


She liked to gamble.

Maria Capstone could get a craps game going in a nunnery.

As you may well have figured out by now, this is the same old “show don’t tell” thing you’ll hear every writing teacher spout. Because like most cliches, it’s true. So you give it a try with this boring, empty sentence.

Mr. Mahoney was very rich.

Empty words, wasted words. Let the reader see Mahoney being his priviledged, clueless self. Try it here: