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Towards a theory of writing

Thank you all for your good wishes on my previous post.  I’m back from a marathon weekend in Massachusettswith my independent editor.  We worked until two every morning going through the manuscript for Body Work, and all the flaws in it are now strictly of my own production.  While I was going through the text line by line, comparing what I’d written to how it had been rewritten, I realized I have a goal in my writing.

My desire is that the written word be transparent, so that the reader is within the minds and actions of the characters.  I strive to write in natural rhythms that make the reader hear as well as see the text.

Text has a cadence like music.  When I am writing action scenes, I use text breaks to increase tension.  The break is like a pause between measures of music; it arrests the reader’s attention.  Too many pauses, or too many uninterrupted phrases and the piece becomes monochromatic, banal.

Some writers, like the great but sadly late Donald Westlake, used short terse dialogue to good effect.  I prefer to have my characters in motion while they’re speaking.  I find “he said” “I said” on the page distracting to the reader’s eye, or at least to my eye, so I try to alert the reader to who’s speaking by the actions of the speaker.

Victorian novelists wrote long and lavish travelogues as part of their novels, but today we don’t have the patience for that.  Scenery has to contribute to mood or action in a thriller, or to mood in a non-genre novel.

Enough!  I’d be glad to know how some of you approach the written word, what works for you on the page as writers and readers.  I’m always eager to improve my craft.

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  • I find “he said”, “she said”, slightly distracting if used too often, but I have found myself in some novels (never yours) going back to try to figure out who is speaking. Sometimes it is the fault of the author, occasionally a printing error, but most often it is simply my own fault.

    In my own incompetent attempts at writing, I tend to try to do as you do – identify who is speaking by their actions.

    Glad to hear you fixed your mauscript!

  • genny from jersey

    It’s interesting that you should talk about text having a cadence like music. My all time favorite TV show was “The West Wing”. The dialogue written by Aaron Sorkin always sounded like great music to me.

  • Sometimes I struggle working out who just said what. Sometimes I feel the best thing would be to have someone totally new to the book read through it for such details. The author and the editor have seen it too many times to notice what’s unclear.

    And I’m not saying your books are not clear, Sara!

  • Shirley

    Something I always liked about the late Robert B. Parker’s mysteries–the snappy dialogue without the “she saids” “I saids.”

    Concerning your wanting to improve your craft, whatever you’ve been doing, keep it up. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!”

  • I want my work to have the right rhythm. I have never tried to define what is “right”. Something sounds right or it does not. It is an intuitive thing for me.

  • Penny Thornton

    Well, I’ve just finished Hardball and the writing was excellent. I felt I was riding along with the briskly moving storyline as it developed, with a stop off now and then to take a breath. Identity of the characters’ dialogue was easy as they were so well defined. Really enjoyed it, Sara. Looking forward to Body Work!

  • Shirley

    I have to “eat” my words now. I looked at dialogue in a recent Robert B. Parker book and saw quite a few “saids.” I will check facts next time!

    Thanks for explaining about flow in your writing and how you manage to keep it interesting. Understanding the flow/sound of words is an art. I think that Joseph Mansfield is correct and that it is mainly instinctive.

  • Shirley, thanks. Peggy, when I see me books in print, the things I should have done better jump out at me, seldom the things I did well, so I am grateful for your good opinion. Bookwitch–I hate it when I have to count backward to see who was saying what! Joseph, you’re probably right, although it probably also helps to have a good grounding in poetry. There’s a theory that so many writers of Shakespeare’s generation wrote as beautifully as they did because of the grounding they got in basic rhetoric in the new grammar schools that flourished across England in their youth–thanks in large part to Cardinal Wolsey’s efforts.

  • Shirley

    Sara, Do you remember the British author Liza Cody? I just found a copy of “Musclebound” at a used book sale, and she credits you with helping her writing.

  • There have been books where the lack of attributions make me count back, but I think that’s a good test — I can’t recall ever having that problem with your books because the voices are distinct enough, even without the actions (though I think that the combination of the two makes it feel seamless)…Keeping the dialogue in character is a big deal for me, and rationing out the tension. the hardest thing, I think, is to keep the thoughts transparent while doing justice to the fact that people have so many different layers of things that they admit to themselves, let alone others.

  • Shirley, I’m so glad you found Liza’s work–she’s one of the best writers I know, and a wonderful woman in person as well. A number of years back, we were in charge of separate anthologies, and we let each other write pretty much anything we wanted, so I did a sort of magical story for her (The Great Tetsuji) and she did one for me. I don’t remember the name of it, but it was about the two sisters living on the streets, and made her decide to go ahead and do a whole novel about them. She is a bolder, riskier writer than I am–I truly admire her. As for the copy-editor–he’s always done good work in the past, so I’m thinking there’s something wrong with him. Or maybe he was held hostage and forced to copy-edit under duress!

  • Idzan Ismail, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

    Hi Ms Paretsky

    Do you ever get writer’s block? For how long does it last? And how do you break it? Thanks

  • Ms Ismail, I don’t exactly get writers block, but I’m prone to depression about my work, which can slow me down. Being physically active is for me the best antidote. I get anxious that I’ll never be able to move forward and I work at it too hard–kind of like snipping and clipping at fabric until you can’t make anything wearable out of it! I’ll try to do a separate blog post on writers block so we can get feedback from others on

  • It’s not so much a “block” as a paralysis for me. I might know what I want to write or even have several possible subjects but just can’t bring myself to start. It’s fear, I think. A separate blog post on the subject would be welcome.

  • Amy

    There have been books where the lack of attributions make me count back, but I think that’s a good test — I can’t recall ever having that problem with your books because the voices are distinct enough, even without the actions (though I think that the combination of the two makes it feel seamless)…Keeping the dialogue in character is a big deal for me, and rationing out the tension. the hardest thing, I think, is to keep the thoughts transparent while doing justice to the fact that people have so many different layers of things that they admit to themselves, let alone others.

  • A. Joyce

    “Victorian novelists wrote long and lavish travelogues as part of their novels, but today we don’t have the patience for that.”

    Pshaw!  I think you misjudge us madame.  (Then again, maybe not.)

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