5 Tips from The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing

Years ago, I skimmed Evan Marshall’s book The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing.  At the time, I was an undergraduate English major who did more drinking and talking about writing than actual writing, so the book didn’t really make much of an impression on me. Cut to six years later.  I was in a graduate program for Creative Writing, and my professors, all accomplished writers with decades of wisdom and knowledge, were explaining to me, in laborious detail, just how much work it was to write well, and it finally dawned on me that I needed to work on my craft. So I dragged a desk, a laptop, and The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing into the windowless closet of my 400-square foot apartment and got to work. One of the first sections of the book I read (and re-read, and annotated, and applied) was Marhsall’s section on breaking bad writing habits. Suffice to say, I was a serial offender (and still am before revisions), and I wanted to pass a few of these along. I’ve excerpted several very helpful tips below from Marshall’s website, which I’ve also linked to at the bottom of the page. Read and apply!

1)Identify Character Perspective at the Beginning of Each New Chapter

A globally popular mystery writer often likes to start a chapter or new section without identifying which character she’s writing about—the character is “he” or “she” and we scratch our heads, trying to guess who it is, until the writer decides to tell us. Then, once we know, we have to go back and reread those paragraphs to get the fully import of what’s been written.
2)Repetition of Phrases or Body Movements
Perhaps the most common bad writing habit is “She nodded.” “He nodded.” One book I read recently had so much nodding that I had a picture in my mind of a bunch of bobble-head dolls, like in the back window of a car.
3)Unnecessary Punctuation
A common bad writing habit is “Morse Code”: constant use of dots (ellipses) and dashes. This is frequently a beginner’s habit. Characters are always trailing off or being interrupted. Remember, fiction is like life, only neater. Try to let speakers finish speaking whenever possible, and save the Morse Code for when it’s really necessary.

4)Edit Descriptions
Delete unnecessary details. Not: He opened the cupboard, took out a can of beans, opened the drawer, took out the can opener, and opened the can of beans. But: He opened a can of beans. . .Don’t describe what doesn’t need describing. We all know what certain things look like. Describe an object only if it differs from what we’d expect.
5)Describe weather…sparingly
Spare us the weather reports. If the weather matters, describe it quickly and move on.
Reading Marshall’s book and applying the principles therein helped me secure a book contract for my detective novel Go Go Gato. I give his books and website my highest recommendation. I plan on dropping many more of these pearls of editorial wisdom in the future. In the meantime, I’ve linked to two articles on Marshall’s website, one called “Breaking Bad Writing Habits” and one called “Novelist, Edit Thyself.”

Wonderland by Ace Atkins

Pop quiz: which of the following qualifies as a reasonable favor for a friend? A) Bumming a ride to the airport. B) Helping move furniture into storage. C) Picking up the lunch tab. D)    Going head to head with a megalomaniacal Las Vegas billionaire hell-bent on bringing a casino to Boston.

If you answered D, your name is Spenser, and you are one of the toughest and most memorable fictional PIs of the last three decades. Originally created by the late great Robert B. Parker, Spenser is now in the capable hands of Ace Atkins, who would be on my short list for the best crime fiction novelist still among the living.

In Wonderland, Henry Cimoli, an old boxing buddy of Spenser’s, is offered a buyout on his beloved condo in Revere Beach to make way for a casino.  When Henry refuses, thugs are sent to expedite the process.  Enter Spenser and his new apprentice Zebulon Sixkill, a six and a half foot Native American first introduced in The Professionals. From there, things get political, and violent, and the familiar hard-boiled themes bubble to the surface: greed, greed, and more greed.  But Spenser, never one to back down no matter the odds, digs his heels in and tries to make things right for his friend…and the greater good.

What is so satisfying about Wonderland is the ease with which Atkins captures nearly every aspect of the Spenser series.  Rapid fire dialogue? Check.  Descriptions of Boston settings? Check.  Fantastic fight scenes? Check. Atkins has not only Spenser’s character down pat, but all the series regulars, too: Susan, the beautiful intellectual who can trade barbs with Spenser all day, and Hawk, the deeply dangerous backup man.  The addition of Zebulon Sixkill (called Z) gives Spenser a sidekick, which adds another satisfying layer to the series.

Pop quiz: would I happily read more of these Spenser novels as penned by Ace Atkins? A)  yes B) yes C) yes D) hell yes