Sometimes it’s easier to demonstrate rather than talk about writing – partly because the difference between mediocre writing and good writing is often subtle – difficult to spot if you don’t know better. If you haven’t been taught. Trained. And yet it feels utterly different to the reader.
The excerpt below isn’t astoundingly bad -- mostly. In fact, it’s semi-competent, if uninspired, writing. Very typical of what you find in M/M or GLBT first novels or first-time submissions.
With water dripping down his face from wet, plastered hair, he glared at his watch again. An hour had passed. He didn’t believe another fifteen minutes would hurt him. What were a few more minutes when he’d waited four years to kill him.
First problem is that we’re getting the POV (point of view) second hand. Rather than being inside this character’s head, he’s being described to us. We’re actually getting a visual on the POV character – his “wet, plastered hair.”
With water dripping down his face from wet, plastered hair, he glared at his watch again.
You see how that removes us one step from the character and his thoughts/feelings? Whereas if the writer tried something along this line – The rain in his eyes made it hard to read his watch – we’re instantly inside the character’s head. Which is where we want to be, regardless of whether the story is taking place in first, second (rare) or third person POV. We’re experiencing the rain and his frustration, rather than being told about it.
Good writing is immediate writing.
An hour had passed. He didn’t believe another fifteen minutes would hurt him.
Again, what the POV character is thinking is being told to us, whereas if we write it like this – One hour down. What would another fifteen minutes hurt? – we have both the immediacy of the character’s thoughts, and we have a chance to establish the character’s “voice.”
We could give him a formal, prissy voice: An hour had passed already. Why not grant another fifteen minutes?
Or a more casual: An hour wasted already. What did another fifteen minutes matter?
What were a few more minutes when he’d waited four years to kill him.
There’s nothing vastly wrong here, but the redundant “What were a few minutes more” weakens “he’d already waited four years to kill him.”
Also, it’s a wasted opportunity to give the reader the name of the potential victim (and in this case it was simply oversight, not deliberate messing with reader expectations).
Shadows darkened while the rain let up, and a gloom settled over the bars near downtown Houston. Streetlights emitted an eerie glow spreading through the dense air like a dull halo. He slid deeper into the darkness while people leaving the nightclub hurried to their vehicles, heads bowed, their only intent to get out of the rain. With his backside against an old wooden building, he wrinkled his nose at rotting timber odors.
There’s a lot of confusing and clumsy imagery here.
Shadows darkened while the rain let up,
No. Wrong order. We’re getting the reaction before the action. The rain let up. The shadows darkened. Or deepened -- but that’s subjective.
and a gloom settled over the bars near downtown Houston.
Okay, he’s trying to draw the scene, and that’s good, but this particular phrase doesn’t convey what he’s trying to say, does it? Because we already know about the gloom from the previous line. So the only thing pertinent here is the info about bars near downtown Houston, and there’s more interesting things we could say about them. We could talk about the thump of music, about music slipping out through a crowded doorway as wet and giggling customers squeeze inside. We could talk about people making out in the alley behind the club, or a kitchen door banging open and trash carried into an alley and emptied into bins, etc.
And, in fact, a couple of lines down he does go on to describe people rushing to their cars -- which is good.
Streetlights emitted an eerie glow spreading through the dense air like a dull halo.
I like the image, but the wording is awkward. “Emitted” suggests sound (I know that it can be light or heat or whatever, but it doesn’t work for me). When a sentence is awkward, I think it helps to simplify it. Chop it into bits. Say it in as few words as possible.
Streetlights were haloed in eerie light
Not great, but cleaner, and I think it gives the same image.
With his backside against an old wooden building, he wrinkled his nose at rotting timber odors.
Why do we need to know his backside is against “an old wooden building”? Does this add to our understanding of the scene? And…his backside? Does the writer mean the POV character has his back against the wall or his ass? It’s confusing. Goofy.
Again, the author distances us by trying to describe the POV character while at the same time put us in the character’s head. The character wrinkles his nose at rotting timber odors, but what does that smell like? I don’t know if readers have a strong instant association for “rotting timber odors,” but if you say he smelled sawdust or tar or rain or wood, that’s more likely to evoke reader identification.
The more precise you can get, the better.
His t-shirt clung to his body, his teeth chattered and he shivered.
This is increasingly becoming what I call busy writing. Again, the POV character is being described – I’d rather know what that clammy T-shirt feels like clinging to his wet skin rather than being told what he does in response to it.
Why? Because the point of these descriptions is to describe the scene for us, to put us in the scene with the character, so if the best the writer can do is tell us his wet T-shirt clung to his body…well, why do I need to know that? What’s useful or interesting about that? If the writer can tell me something that makes the scene more vivid, more real, more original…then, yes, I want that description, otherwise, it’s more interesting to get the character’s response.
See, it’s the selection of detail that you want to share with the reader. Sometimes the interesting thing you want to share is in the description of the POV character, but usually the interesting thing will lie in the character’s responses or feelings or thoughts.
By the way, either his teeth chatter or he shivers, but not both at the same time. They weaken each other when you put them together in the same sentence. It’s just…busy.
This wasn’t the first time he’d stalked his intended victim. He’d sworn years before he’d make the three police officers pay for his father’s death. He ground his teeth together.
Okay, did he really grind his teeth together? Because that seems stagy and artificial. Why doesn’t he just twirl his mustachios and be done with it? Busy writing again.
Also, it’s an info dump. Just a little one, but still glaring. Do we really need to know the killer’s motivation in the prologue? I’m thinking this is a bit of a spoiler for the crime novel that follows.
They hadn’t killed him. His father killed himself. They destroyed his spirit, his will to live. In the stalker’s eyes, they’d killed him. His eyes narrowed like dart tips. He would get revenge or die trying.
“In the stalker’s eyes.” Sheesh, this is about as far removed as if we were observing a specimen through a microscope.
His eyes narrowed like dart tips.
Yeah, right. Pin points? Is that what we’re supposed to picture, because I can only visualize this happening in a cartoon. This is a writer grabbing for an original metaphor – which, yes, that’s good – but original and anatomically impossible is merely silly.
He would get revenge or die trying.
Where are those mustachios when we need them? The worst thing here is not this melodramatic statement, it’s the fact that it’s redundant. No KIDDING he’ll get revenge or die trying, he’s the villain in the prologue! What else would we think?
Again, he glanced at his watch. When he looked back to the bar’s entrance, a man and woman, laughing and clinging to each other, ran for a small red Fiat parked close to the entrance.
Laughing and clinging and running at the same time? Okay, I’m going to allow it. They’ve been drinking, after all, and God knows it does sometimes feel like you’re doing all three at the same time.
I give points for the “small red Fiat,” although "small" is redundant (one of those words you want to generally eradicate from your final draft), and why are sportscars always red. But still, points for being precise.
His face contorted in rage. His eyes narrowed to slits, recognizing his intended victim. His hand darted to the pistol sticking in his pants. Trembling, he gripped the wooden butt. That bastard didn’t have any right to laugh and have a good time. His father wasn’t able to, and the stalker couldn’t till he killed them all.
I’m very interested in this wooden butt. Is it significant? In a stronger writer, I’d think so. Here, I’m not sure. I am sure that face contorted in rage, eyes narrowed in slits is clichéd overwriting. And “his hand darted to the pistol sticking in his pants” is a very tricky line to pull off. Nuff said.
The rant that follows is predictable, mechanical. Better to give us a memory of the father dying, or visiting the gravesite or…something evocative, something that stirs emotion or gives us a mental image.
Referring to the POV character as “the stalker” is about as distancing as it gets.
With a poisonous smile creasing the corners of his mouth, he nodded, his jaw firm.
Busy, busy, busy.
He released the pistol butt. Let Mr. Detective John Hayes have his fun. It won’t be long and I’ll make him wish he’d never been born. He looked around, but now wasn’t the time. People got caught by making rash decisions.
Huh? We suddenly slipped into second-hand first person POV. Suddenly it’s “I’ll make him wish he’d never been born.” Which tells me that the writer did indeed want us to feel the immediacy of the POV character’s thoughts and feelings, but didn’t know how to go about doing that.
Putting these first person thoughts into italics, might fix the problem right here, but it doesn’t solve the overall problem, does it?
Also, now this entire scene doesn’t make sense. He was lying in wait to shoot John Hayes, but now he’s stopping himself from killing him on… impulse. Was this the plan or not? What’s rash about following through on the plan? Confusing. Silly.
As the Fiat sped away, he eased from the darkness and headed to his car. He needed to sleep. He’d planned this for four years and knew it was perfect. Three police officers were about to die, and he would get away with it.
"Eased from the darkness" is not a bad image.
He’d planned this for four years and knew it was perfect.
Apparently not -- if the last hour and fifteen minutes are anything to go by.
Three police officers were about to die, and he would get away with it. No. And neither will the author.