Writing craft

So, my mother passed me a new Dortmunder book by Donald Westlake, which I don’t really expect to read because I have an overflowing TBR pile already, although I do rather like the Dortmunder books, so who knows. I bring this up because at the end, the editor included a selection of Westlake’s letters to various people — his agents and copy editors and so on.

The one to a copy editor includes comments about the semicolon. Let me share a bit of that one with you all:

. . . I suggest that the purpose of the semicolon is at least in part rhythmic.

My own rhythms tend to be long ones, and I grant you that as a result I tend to over-use the semicolon, but some of them are right, and in most instances the copy editor’s alternatives are less correct. Breaking the offending sentence into two sentences is grammatically correct but often rhythmically wrong.

I, of course, agree; often one of the last things I do when polishing a manuscript is to search for and take out some semicolons (and dashes), but generally I leave in a whole bunch of both, as you may have noticed.

Unlike, apparently, Westlake, I have never yet had a copy editor attempt to remove correct semicolons and replace them with equally correct (but rhythmically incorrect) periods. Plenty of times I’ve had copy editors go the other way, trying to replace technically incorrect (but imo rhythmically correct) comma splices with semicolons. I accept this correction some of the time, especially if I discover that I’ve tended to sprinkle that kind of comma splice into more than one character’s dialogue or internal thoughts. That’s supposed to be for more informal characters; you wouldn’t catch Grayson Lanning speaking or thinking in comma splices.

Even better than Westlake’s take on semicolons is this letter of his to David Ramus, in regards to the manuscript of his first novel, which Westlake had obviously agreed to read and critique. It’s a good critique. Here are several useful excerpts:

I think you can improve the reader’s grasp of Ben Hemmings [the protagonist] by having other people say what they think of him. Not a lot, maybe two or three times in the book. But for instance, when Grace, on the boat, tells him he doesn’t look like an ex-con, he could ask her what do I look like, and she could say something along the lines of, “You look like a carnival roughneck, but a nice one, who’d let a poor kid sneak in.” But earlier than that, possibly with Grantham, who could tell him how he’d look to a jury. …

Next point. If you tell us something twice, it’s a plot point. When Black mentions that FBI men never work alone but Partone is working alone, that’s the second time I’ve been told that, and now I know Partone is a rogue, not doing the government’s work but his own. …

Finally, I have one absolute objection. We do not overhear plot points. No no no. He just happens to be standing here when somebody standing over there says the stuff he needed to know. No. But if Ben wanted to know what was going on, and felt it was important, he could put himself at risk to deliberately eavesdrop. Almost get caught. …

There’s more, but these are three suggestions that are soooo generalizable, and such obviously good advice, that I thought it might be useful and instruction to share them.

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5 thoughts on “Writing craft”

  1. Got to say I wince whenever I run across someone just happening to overhear important stuff in stories. Writers still do it and do it badly.

    And the get other characters to opine on the protaganist is very good advice. Dorothy Dunnett wrote a six book set where that’s almost all we got. It worked marvelously when if we’d been in his head he’d probably have read way too angsty. As it was, he was interesting.

  2. Dunnett’s separation of the protagonist from the pov role was completely fascinating. You mean the Lymond books, I expect. That series would never have worked if Lymond had ever taken the pov.

  3. Especially since you may need to go through and remove foreshadowing when something turns out to, oops, not be a plot point after all…

  4. In my experience, it has generally make itself so at home that it’s easier to fit the plot to it than root it out.

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