Sandra Neily here: This post is about simple food and simple writing. Both, easily digestible.
Author Louise Penny has ruined me for any restaurant or pub memories I used to cherish. What’s more, she may have ruined every attempt to enjoy future restaurant meals, no matter how much I might be willing to pay.
Nothing anyone serves me can measure up to the food in her novels. I’ve read most of Penny’s books. The food in them is literally to die for.
Instead of a book page I want a flaky, just-out-of-the-oven croissant stuffed with chunks of maple-baked ham and melted Gruyere wafting out fresh rosemary, and I want it next to crisp Pommes frites with the Bistro’s homemade mayonnaise.
And that is just what she feeds her cops for lunch!
Even after a harrowing escape, bedraggled survivors covered in concrete dust stumble into a wood-stove warmed home where fragrant pea soup, pungent beef stew, and apple crisp exhaling cinnamon—greet them. I think I could be caught in a collapsed house if I could eat like that afterwards.
Her website has a featured recipe for various novels. Yum!
But that’s not what I am writing about today.
Food is just one of her talents for bringing readers deeply into her fiction. Driving along, I am listening to a Penny mystery novel filled with sophisticated, rambling discussions. We are asked to take deep dives down philosophical, moral, ethical, and sometimes literary rabbit holes.
How can she do that and still keep us turning page after page in anticipation?
Of course, there’s her amazing and artfully differentiated characters but also, pacing is the key. She reliably returns readers to drama, tension, and intense action, but here’s a deft trick she uses.
Penny’s syntax, grammar, and reading ease equal a fifth-grade readership. So, while much of the discussion is elevated, the language is easy to read.
I have no idea if she uses a Flesch Kincaid analysis or she just found her accessible, technical strategies as part of her talent, but here (below) I have used that device to analyze a passage from “The Brutal Telling.”
“Chaos is coming, old son, and there’s no stopping it. It’s taken a long time, but it’s finally here.
The Hermit nodded, his eyes rheumy and runny, perhaps from the wood smoke, perhaps from something else. Olivier leaned back, surprised to feel his thirty-eighth-year-old body suddenly aching, and realized he’d sat tense through the whole awful telling.
I’m sorry. It’s getting late and Gabri will be worried. I have to go.”
Olivier got up and pumping cold, fresh water into the enamel sink, he cleaned his cup. Then he turned back to the room.
“I’ll be back soon,” he smiled.
Then before closing the door, he whispered the single word that was quickly devoured by the woods. Olivier wondered if the Hermit crossed himself and mumbled prayers, leaning against the door, which was thick but perhaps not quite thick enough.
And he wondered if the old man believed the stories of the great and grim army with Chaos looming and leading the Furies. Inexorable, unstoppable. Close.
And behind the something else. Something unspeakable. He finally broke through the trees and staggered to a stop, hands on his bent knees heaving for breath. Then, slowly straightening, he looked down on the village in the valley.
Three Pines was asleep, as it always seemed to be. At peace with itself and the world. Oblivious of what happened around it. Or perhaps aware of everything but choosing peace anyway. Soft light glowed at some of the windows.
Here’s the Flesch Kincaid analysis. Penny has 2.4 sentences per paragraph, 10.2 words per sentence, and a reading ease of 73.6. That adds up to a fifth grade reading level. That’s eleven-year-olds. (See a reading ease graph at the end of the post.)
When I was writing my first novel, “Deadly Trespass,” I used the Flesch Kincaid device to analyze passages from other mystery and thriller authors. I wanted my work easy-to-read, even if the subject matter was complex.
Here’s what I found by typing up some pages from the following authors. (I included narrative as well as dialogue.)
Barr: Sentences per par 5.2. Words per sentence, 13. Reading ease, 78. Grade level, 5.6.
Evanovich: Sentences per par 6.2. Words per sentence, 7.5. Reading ease, 82. Grade level, 3.6.
Spencer Fleming: Sentences per par 4. Words per sentence, 10. Reading ease, 79.4. Grade level, 4.8.
Lee Child: Sentences per par, 7. Words per sentence, 16.4. Reading ease, 75.9. Grade level, 6.7.
(All authors averaged 4-5 characters per word. That’s a gross average that allows them to vary word length a lot. I think that goes to rhythm and pacing.)
How Did I Do?
At the end of my first “Deadly Trespass” draft: sentences per paragraph 3- 4.5. Words per sentence 9-10. Reading ease, 79-86. Grade level, 4-5.9
My readability was right in the middle of successful authors I admired. While I now occasionally check a chapter, this easy-to-read goal is now part of my author voice.
Yes, what makes a story sing has many magical elements that are not reduced to math or analysis, but I was teaching myself by reading other authors: how they pulled readers onward page-by-page, whether by design or talent. I just wanted to learn.
Here’s how to use the device in Word.
Sandy’s debut novel, “Deadly Trespass, A Mystery in Maine” won a national Mystery Writers of America award, was a finalist in the Women’s Fiction Writers Association “Rising Star” contest, and was a finalist for a Maine Literary Award. The second Mystery in Maine, “Deadly Turn,” was published in 2021. Her third “Deadly” is due out in 2023. Find her novels at all Shermans Books (Maine) and on Amazon. Find more info on Sandy’s website.
The Flesch Reading Ease Score table. Writers should aim for a 60+ score minimum. The higher the page score, the easier it is to read. Especially on-line where scanning reigns!
|Score||School level: USA||Notes|
|100.00–90.00||5th grade||Very easy to read. Easily understood, average 11-year-old|
|90.0–80.0||6th grade||Easy to read. Conversational English for consumers.|
|80.0–70.0||7th grade||Fairly easy to read.|
|70.0–60.0||8th & 9th grade||Plain English. Easily understood: 13-15 age students.|
|60.0–50.0||10th to 12th grade||Fairly difficult to read.|
|50.0–30.0||College||Difficult to read.|
|30.0–10.0||College graduate||Very difficult to read. Best understood, university grads|
|10.0–0.0||Professional||Extremely difficult to read. Best understood, univ. grads|
Really interesting, Sandy. Some readers not wanting to be challenged, but getting challenged in other ways . . .
Thank, Dick! I think I am interested in how we write really challenging ideas into readable fiction. My current work deals with real estate development gone rogue. (Well. We certainly saw that happen in Maine in the pandemic.) It behaves a lot like out-of-control metastasis in the body. Whew. Heavy. So now, how to wrestle it into a decent plot. Onward!
Fascinating post. You put a lot of work into this one.
Thanks, John! Yes. Lots of work on it. But am thinking of how it might be an article for Writers Digest someday. Of course…in my free time. hahaha..
This was such an interesting post! Thanks!
Thanks for the feedback. It’s fun to discover how talented authors do what they do….and then just forget it and let the book take over.
Thanks. I had used a analyzer once, to see the grade level of my work, which I don’t rmemeber, now. something with a literary sounding name. One more tool in my box. And also, I’ll have to go look at her books,now.
Thanks for checking in, Louy! When I listen to Penny in the car I can replay parts that seem really instructive: lately it’s her talent for how to write a whole room of people talking. She’s got it down. Enjoy!
Thank you for such an enlightening post. It really makes sense and explains why some authors are able to be such a compelling read over others with similar store arcs. Believe it or not I have never read Louise Penny, but you’ve convinced me to give her a try. Yum!
Thanks for checking in. Lately, because of the rugged times we live in, I enjoy Penny in the car. The narrator of most of her novels is amazing. It’s part of my “Don’t Think Much” strategy. Get in car. Turn on Penny or a good mystery. Don’t Think Much. But I can replay parts that seem really instructive: lately it’s her talent for how to write a whole room of people talking. She’s got it down. Enjoy!
Sandra. enjoyed reading your essay. I am going through Perry Mason again – and although Gardner seems to care about cigar quality more than meal quality – in THE CASE OF THE ROLLING BONES – he meets a suspect at a down and out diner/joint – the suspect tells him – don’t order anything but “THE LUNCH”. It started with Barley Soup, then to a meat pie with succulent carrots and potatoes and tenderest meat – then apple pie a la mode and coffee and of course cigarettes. And a lot of clues. Fun read