How to Fix a Book

Novels are easy to write if you turn off your thinking and dive into the story stream. They might be easy, but the results are not always pretty. Such was the case with my WIP, Jane. I got a first very bad extremely horrible draft done in a couple of months last year.

This year I am revising. Jane needs to be almost completely rewritten, despite the fact that I really kept the first plot I came up with and all the original characters. I had to lose one subplot, snip an annoying thread and significantly improve upon one character. Nobody who read my early draft liked her, they wondered why she was even in the book. I considered cutting her but I couldn’t do it.

I liked her even though I didn’t know her very well. She intrigued me. That was good news but also a problem. I’d written Barb into a short story I wrote after Lily White was finished and I needed something to bring my critique group. I caught a charming criminal and pinned him to the page. It felt effortless. And just as easy to sketch was his foil, an FBI agent who captures him and suggests he change his ways.

Short stories are fun. In and out. None of this hundreds of pages stuff. But novels propel themselves from the inside out and after a few short stories, I had one in me, begging to be let out. And it involved the reformed and relocated criminal. Also, the FBI agent, Barb. Also a few other people, but Barb is the one my critique group was hung up about, she felt like air. How right they were.

In the short story, I’d been able to do quick and dirty FBI research. After months of thinking about it, trying not to think about it, making excuses to myself, and continually running into walls with Barb, I sat down and did my homework. With revision, I have to stop rewriting and do some research, because I don’t do much research in the first draft. When it becomes apparent to me that I need to research, I’ll just take a day to read, jot notes, form a first scene and, most important, adjust my attitude.

When I started Jane, I promised myself it would be a lighter book than Lily White. More caper than crime. Amateur sleuth falls into murder mystery. Sure there was a cop because with murder there’s always a cop. But the FBI? I decided to let Barb be on vacation. No FBI business to attend to. No FBI rules to follow. What I concluded was that Barb’s vacation was in fact my own vacation. From research and the hard work of revising a weak first draft.

When I first begin a novel, I have some set ideas. I have a firm concept of the overall theme. I want this character of this age with this background in this setting. I want X point of view voices. Usually there are at least a few elements I’ve never tried before. I like to challenge myself to try new things with each book.

For this particular book, I was determined to write the whole thing in one point of view. One character tells the entire story. That would be Jane. The problem before me was Jane. She is a law abiding civilian. She knows nothing about the FBI. From Jane’s pov Barb is just a woman in love with her friend who has come to St Pete on vacation. Sure she’s in the FBI but that doesn’t impact the story from Jane’s pov.

You can see where the problem comes in. I had to decide if I wanted to keep trying to stay in one person’s head the entire book. I’d never done it before. I just wanted to see if I could do it. By the end of that excellent FBI book in the featured image photo above, I had a lot of ideas about Barb, none of which I could convincingly convey via Jane. That’s fine. I know enough about revision to stay open to new ideas, to be flexible with my first idea wish list.

So I wrote a scene starring Barb. I like it. I think I just solved several problems, one of the biggest being the book was way too short. It needed a substantial meaty subplot. I’d made a start before I gave Barb a primo role, and it was good. But she’s going to take things up a notch. Sure, now there’s a huge problem I didn’t know about before my research weekend.

But huge problems are conflict by another name and novels thrive on conflict. Almost the minute I cracked open the book, I read this FBI mantra “Never fall in love with your informant.” In fact, agents are not allowed to socialize in any way with informants. It apparently always leads to tears. The pages I’d written for Barb on vacation and in love with George blew up and scattered around me like gleeful confetti.

Fine. I already knew this was a major rewrite. Now I at least have an idea how to fix it. And more conflict. Always a good thing.

Revision & Research

 

My favorite part of writing is the first draft. It’s like flying on a magic carpet inside my mind. I do not bring my inner critic along. I know she’ll be back for revision, when I need her. I finished that fun first draft in November. December I took a month off to enjoy the holidays. It’s difficult to be a friend when I’m in writer mode. My closest friends understand, but many people don’t get why I am out of touch. Here’s why: I shut myself off for hours every day and come out exhausted, my mind spent. I can do mindless things like cook dinner, sip a glass of wine, and maybe watch an episode Madam Secretary. But I do need time for the magic carpet to land before I’m worth much more than that. Lucky for me, my husband understands.

In November, I saw very few of my friends, as I worked to finish a first draft of new novel. I did take Thanksgiving Day off, but I worked harder than usual the rest of the month. It’s joyful work. I really love that first draft where a story unfolds itself onto the screen from my willing fingers dancing on the keyboard. It’s a party for one, that first draft. But, like all parties, it leaves a bit of a mess to clean up. In December I avoided my messy first draft and saw all my friends, some more than once. I went out to dinner, to parties, to lunch. I shopped and gabbed on the phone. I was the social version of Cindy. I didn’t miss writing because I still got up every day and wrote morning pages which is pen to paper and a habit I love. I do those pages while having tea. It’s a wake up ritual where I sometimes plan my day, sometimes complain, sometimes make a gratitude list. 

Come January, I was ready to revise. I take revision in steps. First there’s the big picture. Is my plot tight with just the right amount of digression to make it quirky but not too much to bog it down? Are my characters fully realized? Is there conflict? Does my murderer have motivation, means and opportunity? Do a few other characters have some of that too? Are any important characters stereotypes without their own personality and flair? Yes to all the above. It happens every time. That’s okay. I figure out which characters need work and the rest of it, too. 

With bad guys, they need to be really bad and their motivation has to be more than “he’s a psyco” ~ Motivation needs to be personal and complicated, like people are complicated. Murder is seldom random. Seldom committed by a stranger to the victim. It happens. But not in my books. I want the killer there in the midst of the characters, hiding in plain sight. The other thing I do with my murderer is write his story of “why” and “how” in his own words. That doesn’t show up in the book, but it helps make the book better, just because I know exactly what the killer knows. I like research, so I bought a few books to help me with the two characters I knew needed work in the new book. The first was my villain who really is not “superbad” as he needs to be. So Sasha Black, I’m counting on you to clue me in.

img_5102The second character I knew I’d glossed over because the reader only sees her once. She’s an FBI agent involved with a main character and I kind of wanted to keep her hidden because I did so much research on police detectives and procedures plus everything about being a PI in my last novel. So I felt like hell no I don’t want to research the FBI. But really I couldn’t have the book I wanted without doing the work. I didn’t have an easy time tracking down any FBI books. I was ready for FBI for Dummies but found this instead. I’ll be reading both of these books and fleshing out these characters as the next step in my revision process.

Funny how a first draft flies for me. I can literally write one in a month. But it takes a year or more to revise that first draft. That wonderfully chaotic and rushing world will change, gain depth, but still keeps its boyant fervor. First drafts take a month, finished drafts take a year. Or more. I love every single part of the process. Even fully rounding a previously flat FBI agent.  

Ways to be Wicked

The current writing project is gathering steam. It will be my third mystery and I hope to have an easier time with it than the last two. They say third time’s the charm, right? To that end, I have been doing a lot of plotting and planning. I’m finding Writing & Selling Your Mystery Novel by Hallie Ephron a blessing, particularly when it comes to fleshing out my killer.

I wanted this killer to be unique to St. Pete, where the book is set, and where I’m lucky enough to be currently holed up alone while my husband works in Detroit. Al should be here soon, but I want to nail down this bad guy (and it usually always is a guy, in books and in real life) before my good guy gets here.

My main character and her sidekick have been fleshed out for ages. I know almost everything about them. I know all about the murder victim, too. But I only have the slightest inkling of what makes my villain tick. I know the motivation for the murder, what drove him to do it. I’m fairly new to writing crime fiction, but it seems to me there  are so many ways to be wicked.

Acting out violently when experiencing negative emotions like hatred or jealousy is one way. Covering up a lesser crime by getting rid of a witness is another, more cold-blooded way. Revenge is an evil motive for killing if ever there was one. It brings me to the mind of the killer: sometimes the bad guy is psychologically damaged. Sometimes he’s without empathy, a sociopath. Not all sociopaths go psycho. Many sociopaths get along just fine in the world without murdering anyone, but everyone has to be a little crazy, at least in the moment, unless it’s self-defense or in the line of duty, to kill.

I’ve heard it said that we all have it in us: the ability to kill. Is that true? I’m not sure. A mother might kill if someone is harming her child. As a mom, I would not hesitate. A soldier will kill in war. A society may deem some crimes punishable by death. There’s the crime of passion. That one got a lot of men pardoned for murdering their cheating wives, and not so long ago. Here in Florida, “Old Sparky” is itching to get the Parkland school shooter in his electric chair.

If our president has his way, teachers would get “little bonuses” for carrying guns and shooting domestic terrorists who prey on schoolchildren. I’m a former teacher and find that a chilling idea. But it might make a good story. Think of all the ways arming teachers and paying them bonuses to kill could go wrong. Two teachers having an affair, one or both are married to other people. One, let’s say the guy, pressures the woman to leave her spouse and she refuses. She breaks up with him, even. He pulls the fire alarm and says he saw a woman wearing a red sweater and carrying a semi-automatic weapon heading to his ex-lover’s classroom. He shoots his ex, who’s wearing a red sweater and is also armed, because that’s what teachers do in this new world when the fire alarm goes off. Spurned lover claims he believed she was the intruder intent on harming kids.

That’s a pretty lousy plot and I won’t be writing it. I’ve got my own murderer to try to understand. Peeling back the layers of a killer’s life, dwelling on the evil within, is not exactly my favorite part of mystery writing. I like everything else better: pulling the plot together, fleshing out the other characters, getting the setting just right, having a theme or two humming under the surface. All of these are cake compared to writing a killer. But having a believable murderer, one who is exactly right for the book, who feels real, is high priority. He needs to scare the crap out of me. And readers, if I get lucky and get it right.

Hidden Things

I’m at the most difficult part of writing my next novel: imaging a deadly crime and how someone (almost) gets away with murder. There’s much work to be done off the book, work unknown to all but the writer, at this stage of the game. Maybe that’s why I’m consumed today with the idea of hidden things.

Most of what is observable in the universe is hidden, so it shouldn’t be surprising that large chunks of our lives and our world are unknowable, too. Astronomers say that 95% of the universe is either dark matter or dark energy, neither of which they know much about. Almost everything in space is a mystery to us here on earth.

Our own corners of the planet can hold hidden secrets, dangers of which we aren’t even aware. Hiding places are everywhere, just ask the tiny ants that come from nowhere into my kitchen. You might think, well these are tiny ants, so sure, they can hide in cracks in walls or windows not observable to the naked eye, or so my exterminator tells me.

Yet right outside my home, there’s danger lurking in the bayou. My husband, Al, likes to walk the nature trails on the shore of the bayou. I shudder when contemplating joining him on these hikes. There’s a sign saying “enter at your own risk” and another further on with a picture of an alligator and the word DANGER. Those gators are hiding just under the bayou surface, waiting for the unaware, for the less vigilant hiker.

This week I finally consented to take a walk with Al, something I hadn’t done for several years due to my fear that a gator would rush out of the water, grab my ankle with his sharp teeth, and chomp. It happens. We all know it. Somehow we convince ourselves we are safe. We are the lucky ones who can enjoy nature without colliding with its evil elements.

On our walk, Al told me the hilarious story of another time he’d been hiking and gradually became aware of a six foot long snake walking beside him. Al said the snake was bobbing along, maybe three feet of him raised tall, as if they were pals out for a stroll. When Al flicked his eye toward the snake, it went belly-flat and slithered away. Snakes are really smart about hiding in plain sight. And that will be my last walk on the nature trail for awhile.

I’ve got a crime novel to write.

Writing seems to me much safer. Yet, crime novels, too, feature plots that are hidden behind the surface of the words, action, setting and characters. The hidden plot, the one the reader will never see, is that of the murderer. His motives, machinations and methods may never be fully revealed, but the author must write a complete hidden history in order for the visible plot to flow.