Front Page Fatality by LynDee Walker
I read a lot of genres, but probably my sentimental favorite is the cozy, i.e., the amateur sleuth mystery. These tend to feature female protagonists, cute pictures on the cover, and puns in the titles–and they also tend be filled with almost an equal amount of mystery and romance.
They are my thing.
So I was ready and eager to dive into Front Page Fatality by LynDee Walker. It’s about Nichelle Clarke, a crime reporter who, you guessed it, will wind up solving a mystery. But just as I was preparing to settle in for a fun read, I realized that the author was more interested in rushing me along.
Facts were coming fast and furious, with little time to absorb them. Consider the following passage, after Nichelle has walked into her editor’s office:
“I’ve got another dead drug dealer on Southside. They just found him this morning.” My words dissolved his annoyed expression to one of interest, his perpetual aggravation with my last-minute arrivals for the morning staff meeting forgotten at the mention of a homicide.
From this, we’re meant to understand that Nichelle has just walked into the staff meeting, late once again, and that the editor’s office is in fact full of people. But we’re never actually told that, and we’re given no details that might help set the scene, no, “The chief copy editor had taken up her usual position by the coffee machine,” or “The sports columnist grinned at me and pointed to his watch.”
But what’s worse is that we’re given no interiority, no notion of what’s going on in Nichelle’s head. Does she feels embarrassed for arriving late, or perhaps nervous about potential consequences? Is she relieved to have redirected her boss’s attention to her story, or does she consider him a big pussycat whose bark is worse than his bite? I don’t know. The writer has given me no clue.
And I sympathize. I often feel, while writing the opening pages of a book, that I need to keep moving. Make stuff happen. Get this plot in gear. Don’t pause, don’t even slow down, or the reader will lose interest!
Right? Wrong. Too little exposition saps reader interest far more reliably than too much.
The thing you should be asking yourself when you’re writing exposition—by which I mean all the little bits of text where action doesn’t occur, but information is conveyed—is not whether it’s too long, but whether it’s interesting.
And don’t be too hard on yourself when determining where the bar for “interesting” lies. The lines I penned about where the copy editor was sitting, and the sports columnist taunting Nichelle—these are pretty mundane details, but I think they are interesting. They help to draw Nichelle’s world. Whether your book’s about a crime reporter or a refrigerator repairman, you have to assume that if a reader picked it up, she’s willing to be interested in that character’s world. But she can only sustain that interest if you give her something to hang it on.
But regardless of how much scene-setting you do, the one place you must show us is the inside of your character’s heart. Let’s look at another passage:
Political jokes fired faster than a drunken celebutante’s antics circle the blogosphere, and I chuckled at the warring punch lines as my eyes skipped between the faces of my colleagues—my family in Richmond, really. They adopted me the second I’d stepped into the newsroom without a friend in a six-hundred-mile radius, the ink still wet on my degree from Syracuse.
This is the good stuff. Knowing how Nichelle feels about her colleagues makes everything sharper, realer, more involving. I do dearly wish this paragraph was expanded to about twice its length, that we got a look at a maternal copy editor, or a political reporter who Nichelle considers a sort of big brother. I could even go for a few pages of anecdote showing young Nichelle being folded into the witty, competitive, but ultimately loving bosom of her newsroom family.
In short, I want more.