I just took Gabe Tovar out of my third novel, Fail Deadly.  Damn!  I liked Gabe, but the poor guy was compromised by Russian mafia types, and he did add complexity.  Maybe he’s relieved, but I’m sorry to lose him. However, his loss didn’t hurt as much as Raisa Jarvinen, whom I had to take out a couple of months ago. She was an FBI agent, a specialist in languages.  She allowed me to exercise my interest in etymology, languages in general, and the Finno-Ugric branch of Indo European. See, Estonian is closer to Finnish and Hungarian than the Slavic languages that surround it as a result of the Uralic tribes … hmmm. Maybe it’s good for my readers’ sanity that I took her out.  

What I’m learning is that parsimony is valuable in writing, just as it is in science.  I don’t mean the penny-pinching skinflint kind; I mean the Aristotle-Duns Scotus-William of Ockham’s razor kind.  The kind that says Non sunt multiplicanda entia sine necessitate, loosely translated for the novelist as Don’t put in stuff that doesn’t move the story forward.

When I was about to publish Fatal Score, I asked for a review from Brian Lutterman, a Minnesota author whose work I admire.  He graciously accepted and wrote a lovely review.  Then he asked if I wanted an honest appraisal of the less-than-nice stuff. I did, and he explained that, while the plot was interesting and the writing good enough to merit his fine review, but I had too many characters. Parsimony, again.

Eep … The novel I’m finishing, Fail Deadly, had more characters than Fatal Score.  The plot is about as complex, which, following Ockham loosely means there’s less space for characters. 

Sic transit Gloria personae, Gabe and Raisa.  You’ll be back in other books, I hope.

Critique Groups and the Mirror

As I pass through the stations of writing skill improvement, I am realizing that I have a custom set of writing weaknesses.  I got a notion of it from critique groups … the same issues kept coming up again and again.  It was cemented by the editor who raked over my second novel with a fine-toothed linguistic comb.  The same problems kept recurring.  For me, it was leading a sentence with description, following with action.  (“Hearing a knock, John went to the door.”) Or having a character say something, then having me as narrator come along behind and tell the poor benighted reader what the character meant (rather that writing the character’s statement well enough to convey the feeling in the words). And so on. There were … ahem … many others.

Conclusory Bludgeon

Any Google search will provide a list of tens or even hundreds of these writing mistakes.  It’s a little less daunting that one’s own style features a few … not all … of them.

There is an advantage of critique groups that has only recently become clear to me:  It’s easier to see one’s own weaknesses in other people’s writing.  As in: “The scene is engaging, but in the second paragraph, Jason’s facial expression and sigh says it all.  You don’t need the sentence that tells us that Jason’s exasperated.”  Oops … wait a minute … I do that too.  But I don’t see it as easily (ego, perhaps?) in my own writing.

Critique of others’ work teaches me to look in the mirror, and … oops again.  You already knew that without the conclusory bludgeon, didn’t you?