Cultivate your writing style

by Chester Campbell

(Welcome to my wonderful guest blogger for today Chester Campbell. His book, The Surest Poison, has just been released. Chester is a well known and well-respected mystery writer in the Nashville area. He’s currently Secretary of the Southeast Chapter of MWA and President of the Middle Tennessee Chapter of SinC. Perhaps we should ask him when he finds time to write?)

In her book How To Write Killer Fiction, Carolyn Wheat wrote: “Sentences are composed of words; the choice of the right words in the best arrangement is what we call style.” Barbara Norville said in Writing the Modern Mystery, “Style may be consciously contrived or may flow out of you from who knows what nether regions of your mind.”

I’m not sure what nether region it came from, but I think the process of writing Private Eye novels caused me to develop the style I’ve become comfortable with. I started my career as a novelist after retiring from 42 years of writing in various fields, from newspaper reporter to non-fiction freelancer to political speechwriter to magazine editor to creator of advertising and public relations copy. I began with spy stories just as the Cold War ended. It was the genre I had loved to read for years.

I won’t go into my agent horror stories. It’s enough to say the manuscripts remain stacked in a corner of my office. The message I got from one agent was that my greatest sin was overwriting. I’d never heard the term. The dictionary defined it: “To write about in an artificial or an excessively elaborate, wordy style.” You need to trim the 600-page manuscript by a third, the agent wrote. I slashed and cut and trimmed until I got it to a manageable size and the agency took it.

I finished a few more books before realizing I tended to write descriptions that were excessively elaborate and wordy. Meanwhile, the post-Cold War spy story market had about dried up, and I turned to reading more conventional mysteries. I particularly enjoyed Robert B. Parker’s Spenser series. It was also the heyday of James Patterson’s Alex Cross stories. Parker’s snappy dialogue and Patterson’s short chapters resonated with me.

After a trip to the Holy Land in 1998, I came up with the idea for a book about the discovery of an ancient scroll. It involved a retired Air Force investigator whose wife became a hostage to the return of the scroll. As I worked on the book, I found myself toning down the descriptions and using short, snappy dialogue for the most part. It quickened the pace of the story, enhanced movement of the plot.

When the book found a publisher and garnered reviews with comments like “a classic page-turner,” I knew I had found my style. I continued to hone it, using the characters to develop a series. I followed the pattern of shorter chapters and cultivated the spare writing style that is now my hallmark. Too much detail will slow the pace. When describing a scene, I give only enough to let the reader see where she is and stir her imagination to create the rest of the picture.

And I’m wary of explaining things too deeply. “Don’t underestimate your readers,” my first editor told me. “They know a lot more than you think they do.”

The bookshelves are filled with lots of different writing styles. Which do you prefer?


15 thoughts on “Cultivate your writing style

  1. Peter

    I much prefer the short descriptions, feeling they increase the tension and don’t distract from the book. Whether I’m reading or writing, if I come across a paragraph or three of description when I’m reading I glaze over and skip ahead; if I’m writing and find myself doing that I immediately think to myself that the reader’s going to skip it or put the book down. Imagine picking up a book in the store and all that’s on the page is a two paragraph description of the clothing an unnamed character is wearing? Unless they’re wearing a band t-shirt and you happen to be in that particular band, most likely you’re going to try again with the next book on the shelf.

    Now it’s off to amazon to find your books…

  2. Pari


    I saw a GREAT review of THE SUREST POISON in my new Crimespree: "A top rate mystery by a gem of a writer," writes Jon Jordan.

    Nicely done.

    As to style, I don’t have a particular preference as a reader. Some books catch me with marvelous writing and the descriptions can go on and on. Other books attract me with a great story and I’m hooked. And there are still others where the voice is so strong and alluring I’m swept into the story.

    As a writer, I tend to shorter description and strong 1st-person voice. But in the newest book I’m writing, I’m trying a 3rd-person POV. It’s interesting to play with voice in this new context. I’m not sure I’ll be able to pull it off or if I’ll go back to 1st but it’s stretching my writing chops . . . that’s for sure.

  3. Dana King

    I can live with more description if it’s important to the story or character, or if the writer is REALLY good at it. (Raymond Chandler comes to mind on both counts.) other than that, leaner and tighter is always better.

  4. Jean Henry Mead

    Hi, Chester,

    I enjoyed your post as well as your books. I think journalists who write novels are usually sparce on description and heavy on action. At least I am. My forte is dialogue and I spoon in a litlte description when needed.

  5. JT Ellison

    Welcome to Murderati, Chester!

    I’m open on style. Every author gives me something different to take away. But it is the bane of our existence – this constant analyzing of the stories we read. Drives me nuts. I sort of miss my days of ignorance when I could be pleased by any form and any style.

  6. Chester Campbell

    Pari and Dana, I agree that I could read lots of description by great writers like James Lee Burke. But even Burke doesn’t go overboard lengthwise. He can say a lot in a limited number of words.

    Jean, I also think the newspaper writing influenced my style of brevity, although my earlier writing tended toward the opposite. I suspect I was working too hard to sound literary.

    I guess you’re right, Louise. Thanks for the welcome.

    JT, I’ll confess that when I’m reading for pleasure and get immersed in a good story, I pay little attention to all the mechanics writers get concerned with (like ending a sentence with a preposition)

  7. toni mcgee causey

    I was about to list James Lee Burke–he’s such a favorite! (I named my personal blog–woefully unused sadly–in honor of one of his books.)

    I’m with Pari on voice. The right voice and I’ll read the longer descriptive paragraphs and not notice. Most of the time, however, I prefer leaner, visual.

    Great to have your here, Chester!

  8. Allison Brennan

    Great post. For me, I like lean, but I also like enough to stage the scene. I want enough texture to the story that I can picture it, using the authors story/characters and my own experience and imagination. But if there’s not enough, then I’m lost. If there’s too much, I’m bored. I like my description threaded through the story so well that you can’t really *see* it but it’s there nonetheless.

    But I’m not a good person to ask. In virtually every one of my books (12 now) my editor inevitably tells me I never described my characters, and I have to go back during revisions and figure out how to describe them without it sounding ill-placed. *I* know what they look like, after all!

  9. Chester Campbell

    Well said, Allison. I know what you mean about the editor wanting character descriptions. My editor on the Greg McKenzie books was big on eye descriptions. I guess each editor has his or her preferences for what to emphasize, and they don’t necessarily agree with what readers like. But that’s the nature of the game.


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