The joy of lex

So now that I’ve finished with TOUCHSTONE, I’m finished with it, right? I can give it to other people and go sit in the sun eating strawberries and reading all the novels that have come out in the past six months, right?

Well…

Sure. Except it’s Edgars week in New York so I leave tomorrow for five days, and I have a short story badly overdue so I’ll be working on the plane, and by the time I finish the story my editor will have done her read of TOUCHSTONE and have her suggestions for tweaking the ending, and just a little in the beginning, and maybe that middle…

Actually, although I complain as loudly as anyone else about the process of the rewrite, in truth I find it the most satisfying part. If writing were a sport, the first draft would be the downhill slalom, a barely-controlled fall off a mountain while dodging obstacles: equal parts thrill and desperation. Making it to the bottom in one piece is the primary objective, after which you can worry about the time it took.

But the rewrite process is closer to figure skating, where craft comes to the fore: the craft of shaping the routine, the relationship between the moves and the theme, and then going over and over every part, to make sure you’ve hit it absolutely right. Over and over, every part, with a pencil to change that generic verb to a specific one, to sharpen that description to remove the waffle, to delete all those unnecessary phrases that appear when thinking about how to say something gets in the way of saying it. Then when you’ve done all that fine-tuning, you have to stand back and look at the arc of how it hangs together, at which point you realize there’s a little problem with the protagonist’s motivation, so you rip out six chapters and redo them, starting over again with the pencil and the generic verbs and sharpening the waffles. Oh, and watching out for peculiar mixed metaphors.

Whenever I am asked to give a lecture on writing, I generally talk about the art of the rewrite, handing out Before and After examples from my own work. Sometimes it’s just a matter of tweaking words, chapter breaks, and punctuation, and reading the two samples aloud generally illustrates why I’ve made certain choices. Other times the rewrite will have changed straight narrative into dialogue, and I’ll spend a while talking about why too long a stretch of one form or the other wearies the reader. And sometimes a two-line scene will have become three or four pages, when I’ve realized that I needed a) to expand my description of a character or setting, b) to add a plot twist, c) to pause for a more leisurely exploration of what’s going on, giving everyone a breather, d) needed to divert for a while into humor, again as a breather.

As I’ve said before, my first drafts are little more than 300 page outlines of the book I am trying to write. Some people put everything into their first drafts including their protagonist’s kitchen sink: the brand, whether it’s stainless steel, porcelain, or fiberglass, its size, even the depth (real cooks like deep sinks, after all, as do parents of small babies, and if God is in the details then surely the more detailed the writing, the closer to divine it is?)

I don’t usually write that kind of first draft (although some chapters of TOUCHSTONE were awfully prolix, as I felt my way through the political situation by having the characters talk, and talk, and talk some more.) Some parts of one of my first drafts are complete, but others give little more than the bones of the story, so that even minimalists like Hemingway (or, as he claimed to be) would find it hard to support any cuts from them. The rewrite adds form and color, individuality and interest. The rewrite crafts the life in the routine.

It doesn’t matter if you’re sweating over your first novel or if you’ve published seventeen novels and made it onto the New York Times list: If you’re not just phoning it in, every book is a new universe. Every book is a learning experience. Every book involves re-inventing the wheel.

Every book, I remind myself that it is so.

Comments

  1. Anonymous says:

    No wonder I buy everything you write the minute it comes out, in hardcover.

  2. And every book you write is a gem to those of us who read them, carefully cut and polished. I’m glad you do what you do.

  3. Impressive! Thanks for sharing your process and feelings. It makes me really appreciate your work and the time you spend here. Every one of your novels has opened up a new world for me and it’s obvious that each is written with love, detail, and perfection. Your “wheels” are brilliant! As Elisa said, your books are truly gems…of the finest cut and quality. Enjoy New York!

  4. This not actually belong here, but i cant find the post i wanted to put in on…
    In the first week of February we have here, The International Book Fair of Havana, it’s a nice event, and I usually wait impatiently for it the whole year.
    Its Celebrated in two old Spanish fortress with reeeeally long names by the bay, and it last at about fifteen days. Its mostly full of Latin-American literature, and a bit of the rest of the world, sort of.
    This year I came across two of your books, well, translation of books by Editoras Umbriel: “El Juego del Loco” y “Un rastro del pasado”. I suddenly thought that your had written something that I knew nothing about, I had to read the back cover to figure out which books were, “To Play the Fool” and “With Child”.
    I didn’t like the titles in Spanish, I only skimmed through it and I didn’t like it, but I don’t like translations in general, especially if they are made by Spaniards. Translation used to be an art, now its just a tool, and it tends to lost the voice of the writer. I think maybe its just they are doing it too fast, or not paying attention and I don’t think I can be blame too much by not liking to read Sherlock Holmes saying “Hostias”, though you probably need to be this side of the language to understand that bit.
    The Harry Potter books, and I don’t know how it will be this year because there was a lot of talk about this last year, go out in Spanish one year after they are published in English, so, the Spanish speaking world found a solution. A group of students from Argentina between 13 and 15 years old, decide to translate the books, they distributed the chapters among themselves and put it in a web page, chapter by chapter while they were doing it, and a translator, an adult translator, and admirer he said, or she, I don’t know, sort of correct it, mostly there were spelling mistakes.
    Well, this I can say, it was an splendid translation, I wouldn’t change it by the official one, not even if they pay me. I was not the only one who said so, it was all on the papers for a while mostly about breach of copyright issue, but everyone agreed that maybe the writer should hire those students to do the Spanish translations.

    Well, what I really wanted to say, and got sidetracked by the rant, was that, it was very nice to fine those books in my country with your name on it. In my city, in my fair, I was very happy, sort of like finding an old friend in the middle of the crowd, I hope to find some more next year.

  5. R.J. Anderson says:

    Being mired in the first draft and despairing that it will ever turn into readable (let alone brilliant) prose, I needed this very, very badly and it helped me a great deal. Thank you for sharing this with us.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Oh wow, one more time Laurie tells us ‘how to’. I notice that the title ‘writing’ is at the bottom of this post. Does that mean one can go ‘search’ posts by topic and pull up say all the ones on ‘how to’ writings?

    I hope so. A lovely manual they will make. For we aspirings.

    Shelya, how wonderful and adventurous of all those kids to do their own Spanish translation of Harry Potter. How silly to imagine an adult could improve on that! Thanks for telling us about what goes on in your country.

    I want very much one day to come to your country. Perhaps via Mexico I can arrive. I’m getting my passport now.

    M. Diane

  7. writer72 says:

    I don’t know where else to say this, but I am SO disappointed to read the section of the website about Laurie R. King and find out in 3 seconds that Mary Russell becomes Sherlock Holmes’s wife. I am reading the books in order, having just discovered them last week, and in the middle of A Monstrous Regiment of Women, I find to my delight that Russell REALLY entertains notions of marrying Sherlock. I was looking forward to spending the first few weeks of my summer vacation (I teach British literature to 12th graders) recuperating by deliciously finding out what happens along this line. Please tell the webmaster to take this spoiler off one of the most basic pages of the site. I will continue to read all the Mary Russell books, but a very large part of the pleasure of that anticipation has now been ruined.

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