Composition

I have noticed that it takes me longer to produce a page of output than it used to.  When I first started writing, I would write about one page per hour.  Now it takes me at least twice as long.  I’d like to think that’s because the quality of my writing has improved.  What I can say is that I take extra time to:

  • Capture the characters’ feelings
  • Avoid common-place language
  • Make the story interesting to the reader
  • Clarify the scene and the context
  • Be concise

I thought it would be interesting to compare an actual passage from my first novel, Fishing in Foreign Seas, with the same passage as I would write it today.  Here, for example is a discussion between Caterina (the heroine) and Jamie (the hero).  They have just come back from a sailing trip with her parents, her brother, Pino, and Pino’s girlfriend, Marina:

They were in her car, driving back from Marsala.

“Caterina, I don’t understand.  Why didn’t your mother object to all the touching and giggling that was going on between Pino and Marina . . . and that swimsuit she was wearing . . . whereas, she would have objected if we had behaved the same, and you had worn a similar suit?”

Caterina smiled: “It is not Mama’s problem.”

“What do you mean?”

“Mama wants me to be a virgin when I get married, and that includes ‘virginal behavior’ until the big day.  For boys it’s different.  He must not get a girl pregnant before he marries her.  I’m sure Papa has made that very clear to Peppino, and explained, in detail, how not to get a girl pregnant.”

“But Marina was behaving like a bit of a tart.”

“What is a ‘tart’?  ‘A whore’?

“No, just a very sexy girl.”

“That is her mother’s problem.  And when the cat’s away, the mice will play,” she said looking at him with a mischievous grin.  “I bet that Marina spends plenty of ‘after hours’ time at the winery.”

Jamie was puzzled: “Why at the winery?”

“Because Pino has a little apartment there.”

“How convenient! Can I get one there, too?”

“You do not need one. . .   He has an apartment there, because there is a need to keep someone on the premises after hours.”

“Why is that?”

“About two years ago some thieves broke into the storage area and stole over one thousand cases of wine.  Since then, we’ve put in an elaborate alarm system, we fixed up an apartment for Pino, and there are three rather fierce guard dogs which are let out at night.”
“I take it that the guard dogs won’t bite Marina when she comes visiting?”

“The dogs obey Pino, and I guess she calls to tell him she is coming.”

“Was it the Mafia who stole the wine?”

“I doubt it.  When Papa took over the winery from grandfather, the Mafia began asking for protection money.  Papa refused.  They threatened.  For several years, Papa had two carabinieri either parked at the winery or next to his car at home, depending on where he was.”

“Good God!  Why doesn’t he have them now?”

“About three years ago the local Mafia had a shoot out with the police.  One policeman and three Mafioso were killed – two more were captured.  One of those killed was the local Capo Mafia.  He was the one pushing the protection scheme.  Since then three men have been arrested and convicted for attempted extortion.  The public was also getting angry at what amounted to theft from honest people.  Omerta was breaking down, so the Mafia decided to stick to drugs, gambling and prostitution – at least around Marsala.”

 

And here is the way I would write the same passage today:

Jamie was pensive as she was driving back from Marsala.  “Caternia, did you notice all the touching and giggling that was going on between Pino and Marina?”  His eyes were wide with exaggeration.  “And the bathing suit she was wearing?”

She gave a slight shrug.  “Yes.”

“Your mother doesn’t object to any of that?”
“She may not approve, but it’s not her problem.”  She glanced at Jamie, who wore a perplexed frown.  “Jamie,” she continued, “you have to remember that in Sicily young women are treated very differently from young men.  Mothers expect that their daughters will be virgins when they are married.  Fathers expect their sons to experiment, but not to the point of getting a girl pregnant.”  She tapped the steering wheel for emphasis.  “Those are the rules!”

“So Marina’s mother doesn’t know what’s going on?”

“Probably not.  Marina’s a smart girl – maybe a bit oversexed, but she knows what she can get away with.”  Caterina gave Jamie a sly smile.  “And she gets away with plenty!”

“What do you mean by ’plenty’?”  He was intrigued.

“Well, she goes to the winery in the evening to meet Pino.”  Jamie was puzzled.  “Pino has an apartment at the winery,” she added

“And your father knows about that?”

“Yes.  There was a break-in at the winery two years ago.  Thieves made off with about a thousand cases of wine.  After that, Papa wanted the premises to be occupied twenty-four hour a day.  So the apartment, an alarm system and guard dogs were added.”

“And Marina can get past all the security?”  Caterina smiled and shrugged.  “Do you think it was the Mafia who stole the wine?”

She shook her head.  “Burglary isn’t really their thing.  They specialize in protection money, and when Papa took over the winery from my grandfather, they started demanding money to ‘keep things safe’.  Papa refused.  They threatened him.  He reported them to the carabinieri (the Italian civil police), and for a couple years there were two carabinieri parked either at the winery or at home.”

Jamie frowned.  “Why aren’t they there now?”

“About three years ago, there was a shoot-out in which three Mafiosi and a carabiniero were killed.  One of the dead Mafia is believed to be the one who ran the extortion racket.  Since then, Sicilians are less fearful, and key Mafiosi have ended up in prison.”  She smiled.  “Now, their business is mainly drugs, gambling and prostitution.”

 

This first passage is 462 words in length; the second has 405 words: about 15% shorter.  I will leave it for you to judge which version you like better.  My only comment would be that I believe practice can make one a more skillful writer.

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