Like any number of authors, John D. MacDonald wrote a few essays on the “how-to” of putting together fiction. He felt plain writing was the most vivid, a few telling details awakened the reader’s imagination to supply the rest, and modifiers weakened. (I almost said “modifiers invariably weakened,” they’re that sneaky.) MacDonald may have given his best instruction by revising an early novel of his own, the 1954 espionage paperback Area of Suspicion. The differences between the first Dell edition and the “specially revised” version that Fawcett published in 1961 are a master class in tightening and sharpening.
Take the opening sentence. “I woke up with that queer feeling of disorientation an unfamiliar bed gives you; woke up in a room too small, and too still.” He substitutes “the” for “that queer”, replaces the quaint semicolon with a comma, and removes some of the stink of cliché.
Hundreds and hundreds of revisions. A sample, with his rare additions of words underlined:
Once, in an unguarded moment, I had told Midge Tarleson just enough of my personal emotional history. . .
. . . as though I were being continually accused of . . .
Yet, in spite of the nagging restlessness it caused . . .
I had a feeling of apprehension, a quick inward twisting of alarm . . .
She looked at me quite absently and then resumed her silent study of Jigger’s broad brown shoulders. It was quite evident that she had found a focus for her attentions.
She climbed quickly and deftly over the rail . . .
“You react like a hermit or something lately . . .”
She sat in the canvasa fishing chair . . .
“This is your woman-of-mystery mood. Shall we play some more?” I made my tone as light and casual as possible.
He belonged entirely to that other world, the world I had given up.
Midge . . . put hercold fingers on my arm. They were very cold.
I moved away from her and stood balanced inat the stern.
It had scared me, but it had challenged me. I stayed with it . . .
Niki had come along, fitting into my life in a way that made wonderful sense of the whole situation.
. . . with the bumping heart and throat-flutter that the thought of seeing her always gave me.
. . . I pushed her out of the way so I could get at him . . .
Perhaps I couldmight have managed it if the job hadn’t suddenly turned tasteless. And perhaps I might also have managed it if it had been someone else who had taken her . . .
Lester Finch was wearingwore a neatdark gray sharkskin suit, a gleaming white shirt . . .
. . . he said, onas though it explained something. And there was a faint annoying tone of accusation.
He took offpolished his glasses and polished the lenses on a bone-white handkerchief.
The [wave] swells curled and broke at the last possible moment.
It changed him from a man I thought I hated for what he had done to me back into my kid brother.
The hate had been strong. Yet one word had taken it away as though it had never been.
I turned quickly and he drew his hand back hastily.
“. . . one of those crazy, pointless sort of things.”
I had drifted off again into the awareness of loss, into nostalgic memories of Ken.
He leaned back and looked at me sadly and shook his head.
“If it’s this important my stock should be voted, then it looks as though I should vote it myself.”
These are sampled from the first two chapters. MacDonald ruthlessly eliminated equivocation, over-explaining, and over-describing, even when it meant ditching a metaphor a writer might have liked. If one ever had to teach a course in fiction writing, this would be a textbook for economy and clarity.
Steve Scott’s enjoyable JDM blog The Trap of Solid Gold mentions that there are actually three versions of this novel. It appeared first in 1952 as a serial in Collier’s magazine entitled “My Brother’s Widow.” A correspondent notes that MacDonald added a whopper of a sex scene for the Fawcett edition.