Monday, December 28, 2009

Pronzini's Errors

Cool, windy Monday in late April. Pale sun, scattered cumulus clouds. Nice day for a long, solitary drive into the country, especially when you had a partner and best friend who was getting married in a few days and who was turning everyone concerned into basket cases with his prenuptial mania...

There wasn't much traffic on Highway 101 south of King City, and when I turned off at San Lucas there was no traffic at all...

-- Bill Pronzini, Quarry

I don’t quote this directly from Bill Pronzini, but rather from my friend Richard Mabry who wrote a recent post about the Rules of Writing. Richard identified a number of rules that Pronzini violated in this passage. He begins his book talking about weather; he writes in first person; he uses be verbs; he includes backstory and Richard also mentioned that he didn’t introduce tension early. I will respectfully disagree with that statement, because we see tension in that the narrator is out for a drive to get away from his friend.

Rule violations or no rule violations, I like this opening. Richard argued that Pronzini gets away with these rule violations by having a following. There may be some truth to that, but I’d like to suggest that he gets away with it for an entirely different reason; these rule violations are good writing

Before you get your bloomers in a knot; I’m not saying that the rules are completely wrong. I would, however, like to say that we generalize the rules too much and there are cases in which the rules either don’t apply or should be applied differently. Let’s look at what Pronzini has done and try to figure out why it works.

Talking about the Weather

The rule says not to talk about the weather, and Pronzini appears to have violated this, but if we take a closer look at his opening, what he is actually doing is giving a sense of place and pace. Through his words, he paints a picture of lazy sort of day. In a few words, we know where this guy is and what he is doing. It is not unlike a television show or a movie showing the exterior of a house or and office building before showing the interior, so we know where the story is taking place. But in this case, we aren’t in a house, we are outside, in a car, driving a long a deserted stretch of road. If we want readers to see that, we need to talk about the weather.

Writing in First Person

The big problem with first person is that it traps you as a writer. Rarely will a character see the whole story unfold, so by writing in first person may not be able to move over to where the action of the story is taking place. But this rule simply doesn’t apply to detective stories. The narrator of every detective story, whether first person or third person, is the gumshoe. While we may allow the reader to see more than the gumshoe sees, the whole point of the story is to follow the gumshoe as he solves the case, though the reader hopes to figure it out the facts of the case before the gumshoe reveals what he has discovered.

Be Verbs

Excessive use of be verbs produces passive writing. This is true, but be verbs have their place. When we are stating the current state of things, we should use a form of be. But if we are talking about an action, we should not use a form of be. In the Pronzini example, he is describing the current state of things in which his friend is driving people nuts. It would be a mistake to use an action verb because it would imply change. If change is taking place, then the narrator really has no reason to run away.


Backstory can be a bad thing, but I can’t really guess as to whether what Pronzini includes here is truly backstory or not. As far as I can tell, what is included here goes to the current state of mind for the narrator and thus has relevance to the current story. This would make the comments about his friend flashback rather than backstory.

In brief, Pronzini’s opening isn’t as big of a problem as we might think. We shouldn’t then think that they publisher lost his mind by agreeing to publish this book. But we might learn from an opening like this and see that the rules can be overly generalized.