It took me three years to write my first mystery novel, Murder in Madden. During that time, I worked with several wonderful writing instructors. They taught me how to make the shift from business writing to fiction, which wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be. Much of my previous work focused on instructing readers on how to do something, so step-by-step details were important. But writing fiction was a different animal, as I quickly discovered. I found myself having to unlearn many of my coveted business writing skills. While I knew how to construct a sentence, where to put the commas, and how to apply the grammar rules, I often stumbled, especially during my first attempts. And then, over time, word by word, sentence by sentence, and paragraph by paragraph, I learned how to write fiction.
When I began writing the second book, which only took eight months from the first word to a first draft, I realized I had to learn something else: what not to write. I’m not referring to merely avoiding ornate language or eliminating you-need-a-thesaurus words. Fortunately, my business background had taught me to write at an appropriate comprehension level and to stay within the maximum word count. But, on those occasions when I did get overly descriptive, I followed Elmore Leonard’s 10th Rule of Writing: Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.
My form of overwriting came from something one of my instructors called “temporal linearity.” I tended to instruct the reader on how a character got from one place to another, in a linear fashion, just as I had provided comprehensive details in business writing. Of course, fiction readers need enough information to make logical assumptions, but they don’t need to be led by the hand.
For example, if one scene ends with “Sara” telling her boyfriend she’s going to the library, you can insert a break and begin the next scene in the library. Unless it’s germane to the story, the reader doesn’t need to know how she got in the car, backed out of the driveway, and drove down the street to get to the library where she had to drive around the block three times looking for a parking space. I wasn’t quite that bad, but I did overwrite some scene transitions in my first draft.
Mostly as a reminder to myself, I developed “Raegan’s Rules to Avoid Overwriting.”
- Trust your readers to figure out how Sara gets to the library.
- Practice writing six-word stories and other forms of micro fiction where you have to tell a story within a strict word limit: writers should spend words like gold.
- Read your work aloud. If it sounds boring, it is.
- Hire a good editor—listen and learn.
- Keep writing and eventually you’ll overcome inexperience.
- Continue to overwrite, and you risk arrogance.
Perhaps all I really needed to do was re-read Leonard’s 10th Rule of Writing.