I've been a huge fan of the Harry Bosch series ever since I picked up Trunk Music one day and sped through it. Since then, I've read every single Harry Bosch book and am awaiting the next. They're smart, cleverly written, and most of all, entertaining. Reading a Michael Connelly book is like watching a master at work. You can see the artistry and yet you have no idea how it's done.
But I'm starting to figure it out, and listening to an audiobook version of his non-Bosch novel Void Moon was the catalyst. It's not a bad book, not at all. In fact, it's quite good, with clearly drawn characters, an engaging plot, and plenty of suspense to go around.
But I'm onto Connelly's style, and it's been bugging me. Not only because I like Connelly's work, but because I hope to avoid some of the following tics in my own.
First, Connelly often writes in the third person, past tense. He doesn't go all the way omniscient, but instead uses a limited form, reserving his omniscience for the viewpoint character. In Void Moon, there are only two view point characters, the ex-con thief Cassie Black and the gun hired to catch her, Jack Karch. When you're on a Cassie chapter, you know her actions, her thoughts, but you only see the other characters and their actions through her eyes. Same thing with Karch.
That in itself isn't a problem, and in fact, it's an effective way to structure a book. You get to see the story through their eyes, and you also get to see their inner thoughts. However, in order to keep that effect rolling, Connelly resorts to using a few stale devices. There are too many sentences that start with "Cassie knew" or "Cassie saw" or "Cassie decided."
Wait, wait, I know, I know. So horrible! "Cassie knew!" Oh, the humanity. But hear me out.
Here's a few examples from a single chapter:
Karch was about six feet from her. He decided it was too risky to make a move from that distance.
"He had hoped she would actually put the weapon away but nonetheless was pleased by what he saw. He decided to stay on the offensive."
"She held the Sig by the barrel in her other hand and also at her side. Karch knew he had her."
"Karch looked over at the wastebasket next to the bed table. The photo of Cassie Black and Max and the umbrella drink could be seen over the lip of the can. He knew without a doubt then that it had been taken in Tahiti."
There's nothing really wrong with any of those sentences. The technique is an effective way to get into a characters head, to see what they're thinking.
But the formula can get old. Just because you have a viewpoint character doesn't mean you have to filter everything in the narrative through them. Sometimes you can just come out and say it.
Karch was about six feet from her. It was too risky to make a move from that distance.
That wasn't so bad, was it?
Another thing that I never noticed until I listened to Void Moon is the incredible detail Connelly goes into. This is a trap I find myself in all the time. You start writing and instead of saying "He got into the car adn drove off," you say, "He opened the door and slid behind the wheel. After putting the keys into the ignition, he gave them a turn and the car started. He put his foot on the gas and drove off."
These extraneous details can be cut out, not only because they're not very interesting, but because they are completely unneccesary. Saying "He got into the car and drove off" is economical, concise, and it conveys the same exact thing as the longer, wordier version. (It also encourages the reader to fill in the blanks with their own imaginations.)
Take this passage from Void Moon, where we learn every detail about parking a car in a garage:
"After a few more minutes he turned the car into the Cleopatra's entrance and followed the signs that said SELF PARKING to the rear of the property. He drove into the west parking garage as he had told Grimaldi he would. He found a parking slot on the fourth level and then he and the girl took the stairs down to the ground floor. Karch walked quickly, holding the girl by the hand and tugging her along."
Did you get all that? I hope so, because it's very important to know that he self-parked in the west parking garage on the fourth level. Well, alright, beyond providing some versimilitude, it's not important at all.
There was a passage that I can't find now that, swear to god, detailed the steps required to get a cellphone out of a backpack. It went something like this: "She flipped open the flap on the backpack and her fingers dug around for her cellphone. Finding it, she pulled it out and dialed a number."
That kind of detail is enough to make you yawn. Seriously, just say "She got her cellphone out of the backpack and dialed a number."
Obviously I don't expect a best-selling professional novelist to take advice from a soon to be unemployed paper pusher with a part time writing fetish whose only published work consists of a pair of short stories and a handful of music reviews. But when I'm writing my book, I'll be looking out for those formulaic verbs and too much exhaustive detail.
So thanks, Mike. Not only have you shown me what to do, you've shown me what not to do, too.