Dare to Become Better Sinners--Reb MacRath

There's no joy in watching an average sinner burn. But there's more fun in viewing the flights of the best than in hearing an angel hosanna.

Now, before your knickers start doing The Twist, as the British like to say, I mean saints and sinners in writing. And I'll start with a few wee examples to help set the stage for my rant. In fact, let's make this a brief game, with your identifying the relevant sin. The examples are taken from Sullivan's Sting, a delightful mystery by Lawrence Sanders, one of my favorite writers.

1) Mrs. Winslow was happy she'd worn her basic black and pearls, for all the women were in evening gowns and the men...were spiffy in white dinner jackets and plaid cummerbunds. She was introduced around and everyone was just as nice as they could be. Champagne was served in crystal flutes.

2) "Mort, I told you not to bet," Nancy said morosely. "David always wins. I need another drink."

3) More regulars came in; the tables filled up; someone fed the jukebox; the joint began to jump.

4) They drank a little wine. They danced to "You're the Top." They drank a little wine. They danced to "I Get a Kick Out of You." They drank a little wine. They danced to "Let's Fall in Love." They drank a little wine. They danced to "Anything Goes," and stopped.

5) The (mural's) painted sun looked like a toasted English muffin.

1) There's a whole lot of was-ing going on here. And the Style Nazis (SNs) forbid it, of course. Always use the active voice? Absurd. Bertie Winslow, a rich older lady, has been taken to a party peopled by a handsome con man's shills. The passive voice reflects her own passive, deer-in-the-headlights reaction to the promise of quick riches.

2) Morosely is an adverb, forbidden by the SNs. From Elmore Leonard to Stephen King, even bestselling authors deplore the use of adverbs. But--and it's a huge But, the size of Kim Karsashian's--used judiciously, an adverb can help the reader. It's far lazier for a writer to delete all adverbs than to use them where they count. If a character turns his head slowly, by all means let that 'slowly' remain. Ditto, if he or she says something triumphantly. P.S. : In flipping through King's IT, I found adverbs in abundance.

3) Jesus Christ, three semicolons in a single sentence? Replace them, though, with periods and you get a string of choppy schoolboy sentences instead of a one smoother, complex one that shows a bar coming to life.

4) Now, what the bloody hell is this? Haven't the SNs warned us to avoid all rhetoric and stylistic flourishes that call attention to themselves? And yet, for God's sake, here we have four parallel pairs of  short sentences that begin and end identically, except for the name of tune...then those last two words 'and stopped.' But here the rhetoric comes to life with a last brief paragraph:

 They went to his bedroom. The sheets were silk, and he couldn't get enough of her.

5) Hell, even the greenest of newbies knows to avoid adjectives and similes. But here, with an undercover agent scamming a flim flam man before a Florida mural, the sentence does just its job. Try removing 'painted' and/or 'toasted', and see for yourself.

Now, I found occasions in Sullivan's Sting where the prolific author could have used the active voice. For all I know, he should have. But these occasions didn't trouble me. Far from it. I'd rather read a great author who slips than a loser who licks SNs' boots.

Some may argue that times have changed and that the SNs reflect our day's taste. To which I answer: Izzat so? Last night I returned from vacation to find two books in my Amazon locker: The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep. Today's agents would have rejected each mystery on the sins of their first paragraphs.

Samuel Spade’s jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth. His nostrils curved back to make another, smaller, v. His yellow-grey eyes were horizontal. The v motif was picked up again by thickish brows rising outward from twin creases above a hooked nose, and his pale brown hair grew down— from high flat temples—in a point on his forehead. He looked rather pleasantly like a blond satan.

It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.

In each case, the passive verbs set us up brilliantly for the first paragraph's last pop. Sam Spade looks rather pleasantly like a blond satan. (Three modifiers--no, no, no!) And Philip Marlowe lets us know after four successive passives when why he's so well-dressed and sober.

In each case, we're hooked though so many rules have been broken. And we'll all do well to keep them in mind whenever the SNs' mad whispers try to beat us down. We may have caved in times past, but there's still time for all of us to become better sinners and break more rules in bolder ways because they've been written by writers...not slaves.

This cry for freedom comes from your old pal,



Here are two selections for you to grade, using what you've learned.

1) As written by Dashiell Hammett: 
"That--that story I told you yesterday was all--a story," she stammered, and looked up at him now with miserable frightened eyes.
    "Oh, that," Spade said lightly. "We didn't exactly believe your story."
    "Then--?" Perplexity was added to the misery an fright in her eyes.
    "I mean that you paid us more than if you'd been telling th truth," he explained blandly, "and enough more to make it all right."

2) As rewritten by Miss Grundy:
 "That--that story I told you yesterday was all--a story," she said, and looked up at him now.
    "Oh, that," Spade said. "We didn't exactly believe your story."
    "I mean that you paid us more than if you'd been telling the truth," he said, "and enough more to make it all right."


Umberto Tosi said…
Thanks for the style romp, Reb. Worth the trip for brushing with Sanders, Hammett, and Chandler alone!
Bill Kirton said…
Thanks Reb. I can't resist adding one of my own favourite examples of the spare directness of good crime writing. In this case, it's the opening of Elmore Leonard's Tishomingo Blues. Every word exactly right.

‘Dennis Lenehan the high diver would tell people that if you put a fifty-cent piece on the floor and looked down on it, that’s what the tank looked like from the top of that eighty-foot steel ladder … when he told this to girls who hung out at amusement parks they’d put a cute look of pain on their faces and say what he did was awesome. But wasn’t it like really dangerous?’
glitter noir said…
Umberto, it's always cool to meet another fan of The Colonel (Sanders). Bill, I've never been a fan of Leonard till now, but--those adjectives and telling passive! Now I'll have another look.
Great article, Reb! I've always cared more about the rhythm of language and clarity than anything that has been printed in a SNs guidebook. Still, I think inexperienced authors should follow these rules until they've reached the point where they can break them with the flourish and style you've demonstrated here.
Sandra Horn said…
Great post, Reb - and I agree with David N-M that you need to know what you're doing before breaking the 'rules'. Then it's a joy.
glitter noir said…
Thanks to both David and Sandra. We'd be spared a lot of howlers if newbies honored their Learners' Permits before attempting Poetic License.

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