Book Review: The Accident makes mistake of being too wordy

I like short, snappy sentences and paragraphs.

And lots of white space.

Stories read faster.

Your eye swiftly races through the action, reading from left to right, from top to bottom, the pages turning.

James Patterson novels are a perfect example. Most of his books feature paragraphs of two or three sentences, and short, tight chapters. You can’t help but keep flipping through the pages to see what happens next.

The downside is the prose is very simple, minimalistic. The details are more sparse, the settings more arbitrary. The dialogue and action take center stage. It’s usually a compromise I’m willing to live with as I prefer the action and quick pacing to the slow, methodical buildup.

So, at first glance, I didn’t think I would like The Accident by Chris Pavone.

The Accident - coverIn The Accident, an author thought to be dead has scribed an unauthorized, anonymous biography about media mogul Charlie Wolfe. The novel recounts a deadly deed from Wolfe’s past that, if published, would threaten to topple Wolfe and his media empire and his connections with the CIA, which in turn could have worldwide implications. Both Wolfe and the CIA are intent on keeping the manuscript from ever seeing the light of day, to the point that they are willing to kill anyone who comes in contact with the manuscript.

Pavone’s book – a New York Times bestseller – includes lots of chunky paragraphs throughout. Or, should I say, lots of chunky sentences? Pavone details everything. And not just with a word or two, but with several words. Dozens of words, sometimes. I counted in excess of two hundred words alone in one sentence. To put that in perspective, from the viewpoint of a former newspaper journalist, if a reporter wrote a sentence with more than thirty words in it, we editors would usually cry foul. And here’s an author writing two hundred-plus word sentences!

Certainly, with all those words to work with Pavone can and does paint a vivid picture of his settings, characters, and situations. There is no need for the reader to fill in the blanks. It’s all laid out right before us. There’s little left to the imagination.

An example: There’s one sentence where a character goes to hang up the telephone and we get a detailed description of the “accordion-like” phone cord and the big push buttons on the phone cradle.

All the articles I’ve read on writing stress less is more. I’m pretty sure that Patterson would have simply written: She hung up the phone. And I’m sure if I brought a story to my writing group to read in which I described the phone cord and push buttons on the phone, I’d be told to cut it.

Pavone was probably trying to make a point about the phone call, the shock that followed for the caller. But still, that much detail seems excessive. There were many more instances while reading The Accident in which I was of the mindset: Okay, I get it. Move on.

Still, Pavone compensates by putting his prose in the present tense rather than past tense, like most novels. By doing so, the story of The Accident churns swiftly for the reader and the pages do keep turning. I read the 381-page book in six days. (Not bad, since I generally only have time to read fifty pages a day).

I read somewhere that Millennials actually prefer to read stories in the present tense. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I’m used reading stories in the past tense, and writing in the past tense, that’s all. But I’m always open to new experiences, especially if they work.

The Accident works, but it would work better if Pavone tightened his prose and quit trying so hard.

Note: I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

When the pieces fall into place…

I’m getting a late start today (I slept late). But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Last night was a wildly productive night. I used up one ballpoint pen and another is nearly spent of all its ink. I have page after page of hastily scrawled notes relating to my work in progress, or, more specifically, the main character of my work in progress.

What’s interesting is that I thought I had all this hammered out previously. I mean, I knew who my main character was. I knew what his job was, I knew what inciting incident was about to befall him, I knew he was facing a plethora of challenges that were about to make his life miserable.

But somehow, last night more pieces of the puzzle just clicked into place.

I think that comes from having spent much of the past few days, or weeks, reading about characters, character flaws and character arcs. I’ve been outlining my novel for months, trying to come up with plenty of scenes and situations to throw at my main character. I have a pair of small corkboards I bought at Walmart that I’m using to organize my scenes on, using sticky notes.

I’m approximating needing sixty scenes or chapters, averaging about 1,500 words each, to reach my 90,000 word novel. However, I noticed that I still have a number of gaps on the corkboards: missing scenes or scenes yet to be discovered. I also realized that while I have an exciting plot, I didn’t really have a great character arc.

Now, I believe I do.

Everything sort of coalesced last night. I woke up three times in the middle of the night and grabbed the notebook each time. The words spilled onto the page and with each new word my character’s flaw and arc began to take shape. I think I already knew this information, somewhere in the back of my mind. Yet, here it was flowing out of me onto my notebook, suddenly complete and completely logical.

Somehow, seeing it all on the page like that is immensely rewarding in itself. I feel like after my months of struggles and self-doubts over whether this story would work, my questions have been answered.

I’m determined to start pounding out the words now. I won’t call on luck to help guide me through the process. I don’t need it. I will instead call upon persistence.

So, excuse me if you will. I’ve got a book to write. Talk to you later.


The burning question ‘Dead’ writers haven’t answered

Before the much-anticipated season finale of The Walking Dead airs this Sunday, I have to get one thing off my chest. It’s a story hole that the writers of the show have so far let slip by them.

In a season of episodes that have been as poignant as they have been shocking, it’s hard to knock the writers at all. But here goes…

What caused the outbreak of the walking dead?

Fans know that show newcomer Dr. Eugene Porter (played by Josh McDermitt) professes to know what caused the plague of zombies and, what’s more, how to stop it. And it’s the job of Abraham Ford (played by Michael Cudlitz) to get him to Washington, D.C., presumably to put his answers to work.

After enduring the prison episodes during the first half of this season, Ford and Porter’s arrival on the show was a welcome change of pace – and exciting. Finally, more than three seasons in, someone is asking “what’s going on” and “can we stop it?”

Sadly, however, the pair instead follows Glenn on his mission to find Maggie and the answer – or at least the quest to find answers – is put on the backburner. What’s more, neither Glenn nor his latest traveling companion, Tara, seem remotely interested in the answers. At no point do they take the bait and ask, “What caused this?”

Even after Glenn is reunited with Maggie and the others, the question remains not only unanswered, but unasked.

Maybe it’s the old journalist in me, but I’m dying to know the answer. If someone told me they know the answer, wouldn’t you at least ask? What else is there to talk about in this apocalyptic landscape anyway?

OK, maybe the conversation took place off screen. It’s not like the viewer is with these characters all the time. But still, it seems like an important enough conversation to have and one that should be held on screen.

Of course, it’s possible that Eugene may be full of it. Maybe he doesn’t have the answers. Maybe he’s just saying he does so that he can get the protection of Ford and the rest of the group. I haven’t read the comics – I don’t want them to spoil this wonderful TV show in any way – but someone should step up and ask. Here’s hoping that someone asks some tough questions in Sunday’s season finale, even if we have to wait ’til October to get the answers.

Addendum (post-season finale):

OK, no answers and no question asked in the season finale either. But who cares? Episode “A” was just too damn intense as it is. I’m happy to wait a few more months…I trust the writers will take us there. Season 4B my favorite season so far!

The plot thickens…

Yesterday I participated in a Writer’s Digest webinar: Plot Your Book – Scene By Scene, with author Jordan E. Rosenfeld. It was an hour well-spent, even though she covered much of the same ground I’d already picked up through dozens of how-to books and articles.

I think that sometimes hearing a person talk about things helps reinforce what you know or what you think you know. Plus, you never know, there’s always a chance you’ll learn something new or have an epiphany (an ah-ha, now I get it moment) during the discussion.

Jordan shared the typical three-act structure of writing your book: beginning, middle, end. In each, she explained how you should be ratcheting up the tension, both internally and externally, for your main character as the book progresses. She talked about how plot is a journey of character transformation or change, the elements of a scene (character, action, plot information, setting, sensory imagery and tension), the linchpin scenes that build your plot (first scene, first doorway, recommitment, ordeal, climax/resurrection, resolution and final scene). I won’t go into all of it here as, like I said, you can find this information in numerous places online or in various how-to books. 

What I think will stand out about this webinar is the bonus portion of it, wherein I get to send my plot outline or summary to Jordan for her critique. Feedback on this phase of my novel should help keep the novel on track and strengthen it overall. It should help with any revisions along the way, as well. 

At the very least, the deadline for getting my plot outline to her is incentive to actually get something done.