Last week, ten of you left comments favoring Sample 1. I, too, favored it. It was more immediate and, I think, more lyrical. It situated you, the reader, in the scene.
Now the question is “What happened between Draft 13 and 19 that made me change my writing style?” The answer is that I began to pay attention to the way contemporary mystery novelists write.
In an earlier posting, I examined the way I was taught to write with a variety of simple, compound, and complex sentences. I quickly fell into the habit of beginning many sentences with a subordinate clause that established a timeframe. After she decided to write about the craft of writing, the dismayed writer realized she knew nothing about that topic. Or I’d begin with a participial phrase: Sitting at the computer, the dismayed writer tried to compose her post for the day.
However, last year I began to examine paragraphs in the mysteries I read. Most were straightforward, that is, the novelists put the subject of the sentence as close as possible to its beginning. They didn’t avoid complex sentences that began with the subordinate clause, but they didn’t favor them either—as I did. With this writing style, a plot moved forward quickly. These novelists built a paragraph of simple, compound, and complex sentences that were simpler in construction than the ones I wrote.
Some of them seemed to be shooting bullets pointblank at the reader: bang a sentence with subject/predicate at the beginning. Bang, another sentence. Bang, a third. But more often, the novelists were gifted at establishing transition without using the link of a beginning phrase or subordinate clause. I admire this skill.
So for Draft 19, I edited to rid the manuscript of sentences in which the reader had to slog through a number of words before getting to the subject and its predicate—the “meat” of the sentence. Unfortunately, I do not yet have the ability to write that way without sounding stilted. I need to work on the craft. When I simply write what I’m thinking and the way I'm thinking it, my writing is much more like the 19th century than the 21st.
Here’s a painting by Goya of a Spanish writer with the tools of his trade.
I’ve now merged the two samples from last week into the following sample. You will note that it illustrates the way I wrote as I grew up. It's not an example of the way many novelists write today.
Burdened with shame, I trekked down to the Jordan to spy on John. By the time I arrived at Elisha’s spring, the sun had already climbed the heavens' vault. Cupping my hand in the rush of its chilled water, I drank deeply, then rose and headed southeast.
Warily, I descended steep ravines and forded wadis swollen with water rumbling through the steep gorges on its turbulent journey to the Jordan. Only a trickle would reach the winding river when the dry season began.
As the sun drew the early morning rain back into the heavens, the day grew muggy. Heat shimmered like a spider’s dream as chirring locusts scoured the well-worn path to the river. Rivulets of sweat trickled down my back and soaked the hair massed in the hollows of my armpits. Thistle from low-growing brambles and sweet-smelling acacias snared my tunic with bristled burrs. Thus it was that I arrived at the ford of Bethabara stinking of sweat.
Beyond the plumed reeds, chattering pilgrims thronged the embankment, chewing figs, spitting out pomegranate seeds, telling overblown tales. Besides subtle phrases spoken in Hebrew, I could hear the musical cadence of Greek and the more familiar Aramaic, spoken with a deep twang by peasants from the Galilee. Amidst the dissonance, I longed for the quiet of my courtyard and the tools of my trade.
Do you think this opening is getting better? That is, does it draw you into the scene and make you want to read more?
“The New Novel” by Winslow Homer.
And would you rather read fewer words or would you rather live in the scene? Some writers can manage both feats. I’m still working on that.
All the photographs are from Wikipedia.