Thursday, August 13, 2009

The 100-Page Hiccup on Steroids

I always throw a fit just about the time I hit the 100-page mark on a new manuscript. I’ve even developed a name for it: the Hundred Page Hiccup. At that point I have the story established and the characters introduced and enough pages written that I can get a feel for how the story is shaping up. I go back, do some line editing, print out a clean copy, and sit down to read. And I always, always freak out.

This book is sh*t!! It’s too slow! The idea sucks! What’s wrong? I don’t know how to fix it! Oh my God, my career is ruined!

That’s exactly what happened to me last week when I sat down to read the first 100 pages of The Babylonian Codex, my next remote viewing thriller. Oh, I was happy enough with the first fifty pages or so. Then the story turned into a wet noodle. Since I’m already far, far behind on my schedule, I had a panic attack. Steve said, “Give it to me; I’ll read it.” So he read it, handed it back, and said, “I think it’s good.” I wanted to believe him. But in my heart of hearts, I knew he was wrong.

I headed up to the lake house anyway, planning to spend a few days of intensive writing. I am sooo far behind schedule it’s not even funny, so I really, really needed to tear out at least 75 pages. But before I buckled down to write, I decided to reread. And perhaps thanks to the extra oxygen in the air up there and the super quiet, light bulbs started popping in my head. I sent Steve a text message at 1:30 am that read, “I know what’s wrong with this book!” (Of course he was asleep.)

So what was wrong? So much that it deserves its own post. Suffice it to say that I spent virtually my entire time at the lake figuring out how to fix it (knowing what’s wrong and knowing how to fix it are two very different things). I only managed to write about 20 pages of new scenes to insert, and my reorganization and rethink ended up massively requiring me to rewrite the last 50 pages (I'm still working on that) and completely cut three entire scenes that added up to 16 pages. When you’re already way behind schedule, that’s a killer. But it was necessary.

Is the book better now? I don't know. Once I've finished this planned overhaul, I'll sit down and read it again. God help me.

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Monday, September 22, 2008

A Learning Process

Well, the last scene of The Deadlight Connection is written, which would be cause for celebration if I weren't so frantically combing through the manuscript, looking for errors and little turns of phrases that just don't quite sound right while keeping a nervous eye on the calendar. It doesn't help that I compressed the action into seven days, rather than eight, which means I'm also doing some date juggling. But the important point in all this is that the #@$% thing will be finished by its official deadline, even if it is six months late by my own deadline.

I've realized I write books in one of three ways: 1) I make reasonable revisions as I write, then finish the first draft and go back for a more substantive overhaul and cosmetic corrections;. 2) I write the first draft in a white heat, barely looking at what I've written until I reach the end; and 3) I make a series of massive, bloody overhauls long before I finish the manuscript, as well as less drastic but still substantive revisions, so that by the time I write the last chapter, all I need is to go back and do the final cleanup.

After having written upwards of fifteen books, you'd think I'd have an established work pattern, but I don't. Of the three approaches, I personally prefer #2, but that only seems to work when the book is working. I simply can't keep going when I realize there's a hideous problem (or two or three) in what I've already written.

Now that I'm (almost) finished with it, I find I'm surprisingly happy with this book. I think it's a fun read. The only thing that startles me is that it's LONG--which is one of the reasons (but only one of them) it took so long to write. You'd think after having written all these books I'd be better at judging a story's length.

All of which reminds me that while I know a great deal about this book-writing business, there is still much that I am learning.

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Friday, August 15, 2008

Rewriting, Again

I’m rewriting The Deadlight Connection once again. How many serious reworkings does this make? I’ve lost count.

So what drove this particular rehashing? The realization that I didn’t have enough conflict between my two protagonists. In the first book of the series, The Archangel Project, Jax and Tobie spar back and forth constantly. In Deadlight, they were getting along way to well. The sizzle was gone. It was…boring.

So I’ve rethought Tobie’s motivations and goals, gone back to her roots, and started rewriting. In the process, I’ve recaptured the characters I loved in Archangel and given this new book a much needed spark. Maybe, just maybe I can finally say, "By George, I think I've got it." About six months late, but better late than never.

How did I go wrong? Distraction, I suspect. This has been a sucky year. But my mom’s in our house now, things are beginning to settle into a pattern, and while I find my writing hours reduced, I also find that in my non-writing hours I’ve started doing something I haven’t done in a long time: I’m thinking about my book.

Which is how I realized I’d lost the conflict between Jax and Tobie, and how important that was for making the book a fun, fast read.

Now, if I could just finish the #@%& thing!

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Monday, February 11, 2008

The Hundred-Page Hiccup

I’ve been at this writing business long enough that I’ve begun to notice a pattern. Not in every book, but in enough of them that I’ve learned not to panic (too much), somewhere around about page 75 to 100 I find I frequently start getting uncomfortable with the way a manuscript is progressing. If I were a pantser I guess I’d just charge ahead and finish the book, figuring I’ll go back and fix it on my second pass. But because I have this thing about control, I can’t do that. I also have this fear that what’s wrong may be so fundamental that I need to fix it now before I get irretrievably headed off down the wrong path.

So I go back and reread. And fret. And reread. And struggle to figure out why things just don’t “feel” right. Eventually, I have a eureka moment and I realize out what’s wrong.

Sometimes it’s a plot problem. Sometimes it’s a problem with character development. In the book I’m working on right now—my second thriller, THE DEADLIGHT CONNECTION—I knew that for a three to four chapter stretch, the book was going flat. Why? It wasn’t a plot problem—those scenes were pivotal. So why did that section feel off? I finally realized that in that section I was forgetting to make my scene questions clear. I was also failing to add the necessary depth to my character’s experience.

Now that I know what the problem is, I’ll go back and rework. Only then will I be able to move forward again. Until I hit the next hiccup.

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Thursday, November 08, 2007

Surviving the Editorial Letter

What is an editorial letter? It’s the letter your editor sends you after she’s read your manuscript. Anywhere from a week to a couple of months after you send in your manuscript, your editor will send it back. Minor corrections or questions will be noted on the manuscript, but more detailed or involved suggestions will be spelled out in what is called an “editorial letter.” I just received my editorial letter for WHERE SERPENTS SLEEP. It’s six pages long. Single spaced. Gasp.

My first reaction, whenever I receive an editorial letter, is consternation. Chagrin. Dismay. Despair. And, always, always, Tears. I think, “I can’t do that! There’s no way I can make these changes!” It’s not that I think my editor’s suggestions are wrong—she’s always spot-on. In fact, many of her suggestions are things that niggled at me when I read through the final draft, but my thoughts ran along the lines of... I don’t know how to fix it. Or, I don’t have time to fix it. Or, Maybe no one will notice.

Editors always notice. They always start out telling you how much they loved your manuscript, how they think it’ll be a great addition to your series. BUT… Don’t you hate the Buts?

So, what kinds of things do editors put in their editorial letters? Here’s some samples from my latest:

“TOO MANY DEAD BODIES. By the end, there’s an incredibly high body count. I understand that there are many reasons why that can’t be avoided in this novel, but at one point it seems that in every new chapter we hear of another death. I wonder if some of these people might be allowed to live…”

“MORE FULLY EXPLAIN REFERENCES TO PREVIOUS BOOKS: In the few places where you mention or refer to characters and events from previous books, I generally feel that more explanation is needed. For example…”

Sigh. At this point, I am sick to death of WHERE SERPENTS SLEEP. The last thing I want to do is pick it up again, but tackle it I must. Some of these suggestions are not going to be easy to implement, but I know I’ll figure out a way in the end (although there’ll be a few tense moments when I think, “This is never going to work!”) I also know I’ll have a better book when I’m done. My editor is brilliant—one of the best in the business—and I know I am lucky to have her.

But editorial letters ain’t pleasant.

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Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Revisions Revisited

After my last discussion of revisions, Liz posed a question: How much of my hatred of revisions stems from the time constraints created by my publication deadlines? An interesting suggestion, and it prompted me to remember my attitude toward revisions before I started writing to contract.

In my experience, pre-published writers fall into one of two camps. In the one camp are those writers who dash off their manuscripts very quickly. They send them out, get rejected, toss the inadequate manuscript aside and start writing the next book idea. In the other camp are their opposites, the pre-pubs who take forever to write their first one or two or three manuscripts. They write a book, and then they rewrite it, over and over and over again.

Both tendencies have their plusses and minuses. The non-revisers have lots and lots of ideas churning around in their heads, clamoring to be written. Their ability to come up with saleable ideas matures as they learn what works and what doesn’t. But because they move on too quickly, they never learn to analyze their manuscripts and they never learn how to polish. Yes, they learn to put together better ideas, but they never learn from their WRITING mistakes. I know non-revisers who’ve produced more than a dozen manuscripts without selling one.

The revisers, on the other hand, learn to analyze what works and what doesn’t in their manuscripts; they learn how to rewrite, and how to fix problems. The downside is that their first book ideas are usually flawed at some basic level. They could spend a lifetime rewriting those manuscripts, but they would never be publishable because their basic idea was, well, flawed.

I understand it is really, really hard to walk away from a manuscript you’ve been revising for years. “But I’ve invested all those years in it! I know I can make it work. I understand the process now.” To these writers I say, “Great. Now take what you’ve learned and apply it to a fresh, new idea.”

That can be scary. The trick is not to become too wedded to any one book idea. Keep a “plot idea book” where you jot down conflicts and character sketches for future books. Force yourself to turn your back on your darlings and learn to love again. Tell yourself you can always come back to your first or second or third born in another year and rewrite it again, if you still want to. But move on.

So by now you’re probably wondering, Which category did I fall into before I was published? I was a reviser. I revised my first two books to death. I turned a sweet Regency into a sexy historical. I turned my dashing villain into the hero and made my dull old hero the foil. I wrote a contemporary suspense, then changed the plot line, the characters, the inciting incident; I rewrote the first chapters so many times I barely remember the original beginning. I started a new historical romance, about a convent-bred orphan who inherits a whorehouse in a Colorado mining town, and rewrote it to death, too. I spent eight years rewriting the same damn three books. It was only when I moved on and started the manuscript that became NIGHT IN EDEN that I finally sold a book—and the only thing I had to revise was the ending (I personally liked my originally ending better). I then revised the Colorado whorehouse book (THE BEQUEST) and sold it, too. I have at various times had publishers willing to buy the first two manuscripts, but only with so many changes that I knew it wasn’t worth it—I could write an entirely new, better, book in the same time. I said, No, thanks.

So, given my history, why do I now hate revisions? I think I kept revising when I first started writing for all the usual reasons. My first manuscripts were so precious to me, I couldn’t bear the thought of them not being published. But I suspect I also did it because it seemed easier to rewrite than to come up with an entirely new book idea. Now I have more ideas churning around in my head than I have time to write.

I suspect Liz is right: the time constraint now adds tremendous pressure. Trying to write two books a year, do the kind of self-promotion publishers demand, take care of two daughters and an aged mother, rebuild a hurricane-devastated house, and still keep myself healthy and sane is not easy. Finally making that first sale is nice (okay, it’s HEAVEN); but my writing income is now a critical part of the family budget, which means that a lot rides on every book. And the revision process, coming at the end when the time crunch is on and I’m forced to confront all my manuscript’s weaknesses, is never a good time.

On another front: If you’ve been following my car saga, the slow boat from Germany has finally—allegedly—docked. I could have had a silver or a gray months ago, but I wanted red, with a sunroof. And I should have it on Saturday. Do you know how many months it’s now been since my little Golf drowned? I am deliriously happy. So is everyone who’s been driving me around for the last six months!


Thursday, May 03, 2007

Getting it Wrong

After writing only a handful of pages last week (I misspoke; when I counted them, there were actually eight pages), I sat down Sunday night to reread what I had produced. Two scenes, and both were unadulterated sh*t.

Steve said, “They can’t be that bad. Let me see them.” He read them, handed them back, and manfully said, “Well, they are a little weak.”

“Weak? They’re unadulterated sh*t!”

Some writers, I know, have the ability to charge onward without reworking or even rereading what they’ve written. Not me. I feel as if I’m building a house on shaky foundations. I couldn’t continue writing until I fixed what was wrong with those two scenes.

For one full day I was paralyzed. You must remember, this is a book I haven’t touched since I submitted the proposal last November 1. All the standard fears raised their heads. Oh, God; what if I just can’t DO this? I retreated into an old Georgette Heyer book (I haven’t read GH in ten or fifteen years) and spent the day chuckling. On Tuesday, I took a deep breath and started rewriting.

So what was wrong with my two scenes? They were boring. Why were they boring? Well, the first scene introduces a character named Jules Calhoun, Sebastian’s valet. Those who read the series know that Sebastian has valet problems, due largely to his habit of sometimes dressing like a beggar and at other times having his expensive coats and waistcoats ruined by would-be assassins. Calhoun arrives at the end of WHY MERMAIDS SING. He’s a colorful character (his mother runs the most notorious flash house in London), and just what Sebastian needs. So what is he doing when we’re introduced to him in this book? Sewing a button on a shirt.

I know, I know. Where was my head? Not only is the scene hopelessly static, but it gives us no sense of Calhoun’s character at all. I also realized that, despite the fact that this is the first time (in this book) we see Sebastian’s house and meet his household, I provided no description of his house or his household or why he lives the way he does. All that is now integrated into the new scene, which includes the major-domo’s hostility to Calhoun (for conflict), and introduces Calhoun in the midst of concocting his secret boot polish in the kitchen and carrying on a light flirtation with Sebastian’s French cook. The scene is so much better. Last week’s scene was written by an incompetent idiot. This week’s scene isn’t the best I’ve ever produced, but it more than holds its own weight.

In the next scene, Sebastian visits a brothel. How can a visit to a brothel be boring? It was a tough feat, but I pulled it off. How? I left out virtually all description. There was no description of the neighborhood or even an awareness of the time of day. The girls were described but not their clothes. The house itself was described, but badly. It was like a cake without frosting. Now it’s iced and decorated, and it is much, much better. I was able then to move smoothly into writing the next scene, where Sebastian tangles with the brothel’s bouncer. I now have 14 pages (counting the reworked scenes, not counting the 38 pages written last fall for the proposal). Not a great total, but I’m back in the story, and it’s flowing.

It’s funny that after all these years I can still get it so horribly, horribly wrong. I guess what the years have taught me is how to recognize when it’s going wrong, how to understand why it’s going wrong, and how to fix it.

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Thursday, March 29, 2007

Revision Letters

Finally, two months after finishing THE ARCHANGEL PROJECT, I have received the edited manuscript and revision letter (that’s what I get for turning it in a month early). The first thing I always do when receiving a revision letter is look at its length. This one was seven pages. Ouch.

A closer inspection showed that the first page was all praise (editors can be so diplomatic) while the last page was final manuscript delivery instructions. So really five pages. I sucked in a deep breath and started reading.

This is the first time I’ve worked with this particular editor, so it was all unknown territory. I like her style. Her comments are insightful and well explained, hence the five pages. All were suggestions rather than dictates, and I only found one I disagreed with. Interestingly, several of her points had already been made by a reader at one of the production houses considering the project (a reader who had liked the book enough to send it up to her producer—we’re still waiting), so I know the comments are spot on. I’m not saying the revisions are going to be easy, but it will be a matter of adding stuff rather than reworking or reorganizing or—most painful of all—cutting. Even when I agree with an editor’s suggestions (which I usually do), my first reaction is always, Oh my god. How can I do THIS? But the solution has always come to me in the past, so I’ve learned to try to be calm and let my subconscious work on it. Although there’s always that niggling little fear that maybe this time I won’t be able to find a way to make the changes, that the mojo is broken and I’m doomed…