Q: What advice do you have for new authors in dealing with the “mechanics” of writing—all those “he turned”s and “she turned her head”s, and all the business of getting people in and out of a room and settled into their chairs or whatever. Any tricks you can offer for smoothing out the rough edges?
A: I feel like such a fraud answering that question because I struggle with the same things. But I will say this much: “Said” is good. “Said” and “Asked” are pretty much all you need, and use them as sparingly as possible. (As James M. Cain said, “What else would they be doing? Gargling?” That’s a paraphrase, but close enough.)
I do think reading one’s work aloud is essential. As you move from draft to draft, no matter how carefully you try to read, the eye will start to skim. At least, mine does. But the mouth can’t skim and you’ll find that if you read work aloud in the final stages, your ear will catch things that the eye has missed. The overuse of certain words, even factual tendencies.
This may sound moronic, but I confess, I like some of those decorating shows on television and the experts often speak of “editing” a room. Of course, we all know we’re supposed to edit our work, but if you think about this more concrete practice – removing items, moving items about – it can be very helpful. This is, of course, another variation on “Kill your darlings.” It is remarkably sound advice, which is hard to take, because it means admitting that we simply can’t learn from past mistakes. I’ve written fifteen books and my fear is that I didn’t kill enough darlings. There’s a passage I love, from Philip Roth’s Zuckerman Unbound, where the main character, a Roth-like writer, is confronted by a wannabe, who demands a critique of his work. The writer objects to one line, says it sounds labored. No, it came easily. And the writer says that might be the problem. The wannabe sees this as a frustrating contradiction, but the writer is right: It can come too easily, it can be too labored, but chances are, if you love, love, love a passage, it’s a candidate for deletion.
Q: Please name the writers (mystery or otherwise) who have had a major influence on your writing.
A: You know what? Every writer I read has an influence on me, some profound, some just as horrible examples. I am mindful of the fact there are writers who may not be considered great, yet have this amazing talent for getting readers to turn pages. That’s something that can’t really be learned, I think, because it flows from sincerity, an absolute belief in the material. You can’t fake your way through a page-turner, which is why some literary writers fail when they attempt crime novels; they don’t really believe in what they’re doing.
Q: What can we look forward to next from Laura Lippman?
A: Life Sentences is the newest novel (March 2009). After a shockingly prolific ’08 – a novel, a novella and a short story collection – it feels absolutely carefree to be back on a book-a-year schedule. Although, come to think of it, I owe two short stories as well.
More at http://www.lauralippman.com/