Listening to the story

This part of writing, the rewrite, is why I’m glad I don’t have to produce two or three books a year.  And it’s why I’m glad (well, almost glad) that I’m not a writer who locks herself into an outline.  Because what I’m doing now is listening to the story.

The first draft gives me the plot, a series of events that leads (with a fervent Oh thank God!) to a conclusion.  It’s the rewrite that tells me what it all means.  For example, one of the book’s narrative threads involves Mycroft and his position in the Intelligence machinery of 1920s Britain, but only two weeks ago did I listen to the reverberations of that fact, and realize that the thread comes out of an event in the past that carries importance to events in the present (1924 present)—and in the future, will shift what Mycroft looks like, to Russell and to the reader.

In a Murderati post on plot twists the other day, Alexandra Sokoloff says that M. Night Shyamalan went through several drafts of “The Sixth Sense” before realizing that the character who counsels a boy seeing the dead is himself dead. Would that movie make any impact if Shyamalan hadn’t listened closely to the characters and the situation and heard the new direction?

The first draft is fixated on getting down the sequence of events: this and this and this and that.  Once the narrative arc is drawn, the writer can stand back and think about the significance.  Okay, this book begins where The Language of Bees left off (I’m assuming you saw the first line in the post I did Friday?)  Russell is headed across the main island of Orkney with her step-granddaughter, Holmes sets to sea with his wounded son.  And in the first draft I figured out where they went and what they did.  Now I’m making sure that those events not only make sense, they have an impact. 

What would it mean for a 24 year old woman who has never been around children to suddenly be responsible for an intelligent but no doubt frightened three and a half year old?  Sure, Russell is omni-competent, but is competence all a small child needs?  And because this is suspense fiction and not the leisurely tale of a step-mother’s self-discovery, anything I have to say about that growing relationship, and Russell’s awareness of it, has to be worked into the corner of the action.

Multiply times seven major characters and 420 pages, and you can see why I’m currently working 10 hour days.

This is no doubt why I so rarely read any of my stories after they’re published: because I’m terrified that if I do, the book will tell me something I missed, a revelation that changes everything, and there will be absolutely nothing I can do about it. 

Donkeys and meteors

I’m over at the blog for Kepler’s bookstore this week, The Well Read Donkey, talking about beginnings, middles, and ends. While you’re there, maybe you could even click onto the Kepler’s link and buy a book?  Hooray for indies!

And I would be remiss if I did not point out that the Perseid meteors are doing their thing right now, although you probably will need to wait until dark to see them. There’s a map, even, with the SF Chronicle article. Although the article doesn’t mention what happened during this time in 1924—for that you’ll have to read The Language of Bees.

And in case you were wondering, yes, the title contest is now closed. Please stop sending names. Please. Stop.

Congratulations, Ms King, it’s an ending

Yesterday was crunch day. I’d worked my way through the rewrite, incorporating half a tree’s worth of PostIts and a brick of graphite, and reached the final scene.
I wrote it back in April, which as you may or may not remember was a busy time anyway for LRK and her e-world, and although there was the definite satisfaction of creating an end, there was also the clear knowledge that it was inadequate.
People tend to find my endings inadequate at the best of times, and I admit, the idea of making a deliberate bid to leave the reader with a last burst of suspense and excitement interests me less than weaving suspense into the previous 350 pages. But first draft endings are all duct tape and chewing gum: Just let me FINISH the damn thing, would you?
So yesterday came that point in the ms where It Had To Be Done, and I sat down and did it. 3500 words (14 pages, or about twice my good-day rate) in 6 hours, and although I haven’t looked at it yet, I know it’s fine.
I’m going to be writing three posts next week for Well Read Donkey, the excellent blog kept by my beloved Kepler’s bookstore, and I think I may talk more comprehensively about endings for one of those. But here I just wanted to say that I am very happy with the new shape of the Green Man (working title: we’ll close the contest on Monday and name the book definitively next week.) The final scene wraps around to the beginning, which always gives me a shiver of pleasure, and all four major viewpoints get a play there.
There’s even humor—or, it being Russell, humour.

The devil’s in the details

I hate plots.  Why do I need a plot, anyway?  I have 300 pages of all these great scenes with all these grand characters, and then I have to sit down and do a rewrite that makes sure it all makes sense. 

Because a mystery novel kind of needs to make sense.  Mainstream fiction can bumble around and follow the characters through their messy human days, and science fiction can always introduce an alternate reality, but crime fiction has to have a tidy sequence of events.  And because people who read crime fiction are both bright and pay attention, they sort of notice when the author tries to arrange a nice brightly patterned carpet over a gap in the floor.

So for the past week I’ve been wrestling with plot, producing a blizzard of paper scraps with notes and problems and solutions, taking breaks to cook (weird meals get produced at this point) and swim (great way to allow ideas to drop into the mind) and when all else fails, to go out and stab weeds for a while.  Which last may not help with the plot, but it both helps with the weeds and reminds me that writing is better than a lot of jobs out there.

And my general state of distraction is even greater than usual.  My daughter talked me into taking a break to get coffee, and I spent half the time staring off into space (Now, if Mycroft did X and Sophie then could be there, but why didn’t Russell see…)

Please God of Crime Writers, if you help me out here and let my poor fevered brain see how this is supposed to work, I swear that next time I will be good and hammer out some kind of outline before I begin.  I swear I will stick to a nice linear plot that can be described in two sentences.  I swear I will never write a book with more than two points of view.

And then the other day I get the schedule for the Book Passage Mystery Writers conference, in two weeks, and what do they have me talking about?  That’s right.

Plot.

Book tours

One of the odder sides of being a writer in modern times is the way a solitary, dreamy individual is periodically required to become a travelling salesman.

Once a year, more or less, the person who spends her working days in clothing that resembles pajamas folds up her laptop, scowls at her hair, retrieves her jackets from the dry cleaner’s, and walks out the door with her suitcase. Her eyes, fixed myopically on a screen for the past ten months, rise to take in a roomful of people. She clears her throat, long dedicated to indistinct muttering in the privacy of her writing quarters, and gives forth rational speech: She is a writer on the road.

And the really odd thing about it? The book she’s talking about to one group of readers after another is one she hasn’t thought about in months. She opens the book to read an excerpt, and wonders who wrote it. When question time comes, she has to work to recall the plot and characters, and struggles to answer questions about a writing process that has faded into the mists of time.

That’s right: she has moved on, like an adolescent with a new crush.

The new book is what’s exciting, not the old one. The characters she’s exploring, whom cruel fate and Random House has ripped her away from in order to go on this book tour—that is where her mind has been dwelling, not on last year’s tired love. It’s a wrench to have to pull away from the source of her fascination to make sensible conversation about a project that is just so last year.

Once upon a time, writers went on speaking tours, not book tours. Arthur Conan Doyle circled the globe talking about Spiritualism, and sold a lot of books along the way. Mark Twain pocketed considerable speakers’ fees in his day. And some writers still do.

Most of us, however, go on book tour, and while we are grateful for the willingness of our publishers to back the effort financially, it’s definitely a mixed feeling. If nothing else, it’s been a long time since flying has been anything like fun.

However, having recently survived a book tour, I am reminded that touring is A Good Thing. Not just for the selling of books—which is in fact highly debatable, although I’m not going to delve into that question here—but for the writer lurking within that travelling salesman.

For one thing, it forces her to make a break. Yes, there are a few writers who plug in their laptops on the plane and in their hotel rooms and pound out their daily requirement, and all I can say about these freaks of nature is that either their publishers give them a very different kind of book tour, or they’re using their writing as an escape. When a book tour means an airport and a new bed every day, regular nights of three to five hours’ sleep, strange meals, and stranger conversations, anything most writers produce during a tour is best deleted unread.

However, it does mean that when the author is home again, when her laundry is done and her jackets are back at their second home at the dry cleaner’s, when she has caught up on sleep and the mail and finally picks up her work in progress, she sees it with new eyes. Any lingering assumptions or delusions about the book that she might have had before the tour are wiped away, and she can look at her prose and her plot as coldly as if she had put it away in a drawer for a couple of years.

For giving an author a basis for a cold, clear look at what she’s been writing, there’s nothing like two or three weeks of author tour.

But the tour is helpful as well because, somewhere in the back of her exhausted mind, the new book is hanging on by its fingernails. A random question about, say, The Language of Bees makes a tiny ping in that portion of the brain where The Green Man resides. And on the way back to the hotel that night, or the next morning on the plane, that ping makes itself heard. What if, instead of approaching the problem this way, Russell comes at it that way instead? And that remark tonight by the woman in the hat, although it had been about something else entirely—doesn’t that also raise some interesting suggestions, which make one of the characters in The Green Man stir, and look for a new shape…

Of course, two weeks on a sandy beach would probably have the same result, permitting the author to turn the shape of her WIP around in her mind as she sipped from a cold glass and worked on her tan. Perhaps it might even be a more efficient way of getting there, since it wouldn’t involve submitting her to a complete cycle in the psychic tumble dryer.

However, since few publishers can be talked into providing their authors with two weeks on a sandy beach, the author tour will have to do the job.

So thanks, to everyone who came out during my recent tour and gave me someone to talk to, and cleared the ground for the next book…

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