Tess’s blog on Tuesday reminded me of a blog I posted last year on Murder She Writes about how manuscripts change. I had blogged about one scene from rough draft to final draft. I’d picked a scene that had stayed in the book, not one I had cut. Most of the scenes I cut either on my own or during the revision process I wouldn’t want to share because they lead the reader down the wrong story path. The exercised showed that the first, lean draft (for me) can have the same rhythm and content and voice . . . but be so much stronger with layers and depth and editing.
Revisions usually make an “okay” scene stronger. I love revisions—not just my own edits before I turn the manuscript into my editor, but editorial revisions and even line edits which, for me, tighten and strengthen the story.
Every writer has a different process, and most of us are stifled when our process is forced to change. Our process is as much part of writing as the writing itself. Meaning, some of us plot extensively, some of us plot loosely, and some of us don’t plot at all. When I say don’t plot I mean it literally—I start with a premise or situation, a “What If” scenario, and at least one character I kind of know (or think I do) and start from there. This is why my beginnings (the first act) take me twice as long to write as the second and third acts combined. I write and rewrite until something clicks, then I finish the rough draft, usually with only light editing until my editor sees it. I usually revise once with her notes (sometimes extensively, and sometimes not), then another clean-up edit to tighten, fix errors, add more layers to a scene if necessary, ultimately making sure each scene is as strong as it can be.
Some writers—published and unpublished—love to tell people that their process is the best way, or the “right” way, or some other such nonsense. I’m telling you right now: my process is mine. It’s not better or worse than anyone else’s (though I sometimes wish it were easier . . .) The process works if you put words on paper (or screen) and write the best story you can. Process isn’t talent, it’s not voice, it’s not anything except how you create.
When I get the page proofs back, I don’t make major changes (though I have been known to add or cut a scene or three and I probably make a mark on nearly every page.) I read the proofs out loud because it helps me make sure the rhythm of the book works. (See Alex’s fabulous post yesterday on voice—the rhythm of the book is part of the author’s voice.)
I’m not looking for how the book sounds as much as how it feels when I read it. I’ll catch the obvious typos and repetition, but more important, I’m making sure the dialogue is natural, that the characters aren’t just talking heads but there is action even in the most sedate scenes. That when I’m in deep POV, I feel like I am that character. If I need to add an internal thought here or there to deepen the POV and make it more immediate, I will.
Another thing I do is take a visual assessment. This isn’t conscious on my part, but when I see a lot of text on a page, I’m looking for obvious breaks that I have missed. This is where I’ll break apart paragraphs—sometimes I’ll add a single sentence paragraph between two larger graphs if I missed it before. This might be weird, I don’t know, but see my comments regarding process. It’s mine, it doesn’t have to be yours. I don’t like big blocks of text.
My “clean” rough draft, which is usually what I send to my editor knowing I’ll be working on revisions, is usually short. It’s mostly the meat of the story with no dressing. My descriptions are vague, if there at all, and my ending is usually rushed (because I’m excited to figure out crime!) Case in point: my first draft of LOVE ME TO DEATH was 78K words. My revised draft was 117K, and the final draft 120K. My first draft of KISS ME, KILL ME was 86K, my final draft 96K.
And what is my point? That writing is rewriting. That very few writers, if any, write a perfect first draft. Writing is practice. I believe in writing every day, because for me if I don’t write for a day or two, it always takes me a day or two to get back into my rhythm. If I write every day, I can keep up the momentum for a longer time, and my final product is always better.
As I was writing LOVE ME TO DEATH, I knew it was about a vigilante group killing sex offenders. Originally, I had the group using Lucy to draw them into a trap ala Dateline’s TO CATCH A PREDATOR, but instead of exposing them on film, the suspected sex offenders were killed. But I had a bit of a moral dilemma with the set up (innocent until proven guilty.) Lucy was having some issues with it as well, and no matter how I wrote it, she was either too cold and criminal, or stupid because she didn’t catch on.
I was wrestling with that problem when I toured Folsom State Prison with my FBI Citizens Academy group (fellow thriller writer James Rollins was also there.) During the tour, the warden told us that with the tight budget cuts, parolees were rarely, if ever, sent back to prison because of parole violations. They usually had to be convicted for a new crime before they went back (while waiting trial, most accused are in jail—funded by counties—rather than prison, which is funded by states. Though I’m sure all states have different processes, I only know mine.)
That tidbit of information solved my problems. Lucy would have no problem targeting paroled sex offenders. Sex offenders, particularly those who prey on children, have a high recidivism rate. She happily set them up to go back to prison . . . and when she found out some of them were being killed, she could have a moment’s pause. That maybe it wasn’t such a bad thing.
Of course, vigilantism breeds anarchy and it’s a slippery slope to complete lawlessness.
My story took off, and also gave me a strong sub-plot that had theretofore been weakly connected to the main story.
What did that revelation ultimately mean? You got it—a near complete rewrite of the first 100 pages of LOVE ME TO DEATH, before it ever went to my editor. But the story ended up so much stronger, it was worth it.
Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Practice is part of everything we do. Musicians practice daily. Artists draw daily. Athletes exercise daily. And often, what they all do when they’re not practicing or playing, contributes in some way to their talents. I wasn’t writing when I took the Folsom Prison tour, but it was instrumental to my creative process.
Next month, I’m going on another fun FBI excursion, this time back to the former McClellan AFB to participate in SWAT training exercises. I was a “victim” last time . . . I might ask to be a bad guy this time. It might just fuel my muse.