By Bob McCrillis
Since I learned to read, books have been my ticket to adventure and a means of escape from…well, escape from lots of things. That is not to say that my reading list runs in any particular direction. For example, the last book I finished was Thomas Merton’s Seven Story Mountain, which details his search for God. Ultimately Merton was accepted as a monk at a monastery in Kentucky where he spent the rest of his life writing and advocating for social justice. However, this weighty tome is bookended by Michael Connelly novels featuring the flawed detective Harry Bosch.
The problem? Instead of becoming, for a time, a hard-bitten Los Angeles detective on the trail of a psychotic killer, I’m pondering whether Connelly should have taken us deeper into what triggered Harry’s flashback to Viet Nam. With Merton, I filled pages with notes. Not on his lifelong struggle to find meaning in life, or the superficiality that he found in the Church of England, but comments like “too many clauses” and “why not simplify” or “these damn euphemisms are frustrating me!”
Tags, Beats and Stage Directions – Huh?
Now that reading for pure escape has been hijacked, I attempted to fill in the gaps in my day that used to be pleasantly filled with reading for pleasure with reading about writing. These books of advice are killing my writing. I’ll soon be reduced to relentless thinking every waking minute.
First it was Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules. Then I started using a software application that analyzed my work for how many adverbs I used, how many occurrences of passive voice, how often I used adjectives for which there are simpler words, and, my favorite, how many sentences were hard to read. Why did the gods give us adverbs, if they didn’t want us to use them?
My latest brainstorm is a little work by Lisa Hall-Wilson (never trust anyone with a hyphenated name) entitled Method Acting for Writers. Ms. Wilson seems to be a nice enough person trying to make a living by teaching the Deep Point of View (Deep POV). This is a technique that, “eliminates the distance between the reader and the point-of-view character by utilizing a close subjective framework.”
In simple terms we get rid of all knowledge that wouldn’t be available to a character and present characters’ actions, thoughts, or feelings without interpretation. We let the reader do the interpretation. Let’s try it.
First the way I might have written it:
I opened the door to Menchen’s study and stepped in. My eyes were drawn to the blood dripping from the edge of the huge walnut desk. The leather office chair had been shoved back against the drapes. Walking over to the desk, I saw Menchen’s foot. Two more steps and I could see his blood-soaked body on the floor. He’d been stabbed.
Second, what I think is Deep POV:
Pushing open the door, I was met with the stink of excrement and the coppery-sweet smell of blood, not the smells of old leather and dusty books. Heart rate and pulse raced. What is in there? I had to know. My stomach rebelled at the sight of blood slowing dripping from the edge of the desk. I need to get out of here. But to where? Menchen, where are you? A foot behind the desk. On trembling legs, I approached the desk. The smells were overpowering. Menchen lay behind his desk. How could one body hold so much blood?
According to Hall-Wilson, the statements in bold in the first paragraph are unnecessary stage directions and description which do not move the story along. Then comes the real fun – attributing dialogue to a character. Remember, Elmore said to use nothing but “said.”
“You were staying with Mr. Menchen?” the older detective asked, pointedly looking around the opulent drawing room. I was thankful that the questioning didn’t take place in the study with poor Menchen’s body. “Are you two related?”
I nodded. “Yes, I’m staying here.” Embarrassed by his second question, I rushed to explain. “He was helping me with my manuscript.”
“Manuscript?” I could see the disapproval in his expression.
“My novel,” I answered. “Menchen felt it had promised but needed to be tightened up before it could be shown to a publisher. He had several friends in the publishing business. As soon as it was ready, he was to introduce me to them.” My nervousness was increased by his skeptical look.
“He was going to help you, you say?” He emphasized the word help in such a way that it was clear he didn’t believe a young woman could stay with a much older man without something sinister going on.
Now trying to use beat, an action or bit of internal conversation that also indicates who is speaking.
The detective flipped open his notebook. “You’re staying here?”
“Yes. I’m a writer and Mr. Menchen has been helping me with my manuscript.”
The detective made a note. “You related to him or something?”
“Why, no.” Blood rushed to my face as the intent of his question penetrated. “I’ve been corresponding with him for more than a year, but he thought it would be more efficient we worked together here.” I stopped my hands from adjusting my skirt.
The second, younger detective looked around the opulent room. “Pretty nice setup. How was the old man helping you?”
My face must be positively glowing. Sweat popped out on my forehead and under my hair. I’m not that kind of girl. “Mr. Menchen was the managing editor of a well-known publishing company before he retired. He was helping me edit my novel.
Following up on his question, the younger man looked up from the study of a very elaborate gold lamp. “Editing, was he?”
I don’t know if either piece is better than the other. In the second, I tried to eliminate any telling and any dialogue tags.
What I am convinced of is – reading is beginning to ruin my writing.