Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Resting and Revising

For the last three months I've been working on a novel built around a new series character. I followed my usual practice of scratching out on paper a few ideas about the story and making a list of scenes or clues I wanted to include. Then I began writing. Some days I produced only a thousand words, but other days I produced up to five thousand words or more, with my fingers chasing the story across the keyboard. Now, at the end of April, I have 80,000+ words. And it's time to rest.

Using the word resting can be misleading, as other writers know. This is really a period of pausing and stepping back, of forgetting enough of the feel of the story to be able to come to it fresh in three weeks or so. During the first writing period, I might begin a scene and realize that the protagonist is going to interpret a clue in a particular way and I have to prepare the reader for that. This means I have to go back a few scenes or even chapters and set things up. I may want to introduce another character much earlier in the story, and that too may mean returning to an earlier section and dropping in his or her name, or a casual sighting of the person in a cafe or on a sidewalk. Only as I write do I know what I need, and then I can go back and make sure I've supplied it.

During the writing of this draft I rewrote the first forty pages several times. I decided to remove a specific feature of the protagonist's life, and that meant rewriting several earlier scenes. The story is stronger for it, but it means that I've redone the first few chapters several times. On some days I felt like I was never going to get any forward motion, and I might as well have been writing with a quill pen for the time it was taking me to get through the beginning. But the beginning must make sense, so I kept reworking it.

What I regard as the completed first draft is really only the first one I'm willing to print out. I've revised pages and scenes and entire chapters throughout the last three months, but I haven't printed out anything yet. Now I'm ready to print.

The draft I print now will again be revised and rewritten. I may add another character to strengthen a subplot or complicate the villain's plan. I will certainly rewrite some of the critical moments, building suspense or deepening the protagonist's feelings.

Overall I may do as many as thirty drafts. This doesn't mean the entire book has been rewritten thirty times. It means that my perspective on some aspect of the story changed and that change had to be made and carried through the entire manuscript.

In three weeks or so I'll return to the printed manuscript and read it with fresh eyes. The purpose of this reading is to find anything that is jarring or off-putting for the reader, scenes that don't make sense, missing clues or faltering suspense, anything that doesn't work. I may do three or more pass-throughs after this, but I'll know I'm coming to the end of the revision process when I read a new printout and find only a few things here and there to tinker with.

By late June I hope to have a finished novel. I'll let you know if things go as smoothly as I hope.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Two Hundred Pages or Less

A week ago I walked through the new books section in my local library and pulled out a few titles that interested me. Before I moved on to the check-out desk it occurred to me that the two books I held in my hand and the last two I’d borrowed all had one thing in common—they were approximately 200 pages or less.

It’s not uncommon for mystery readers to finish a book and think it should be at least a hundred pages shorter, perhaps two hundred. This comment shows up in reviews official and unofficial, and in general conversation. The same comment less often but predictably shows up in reviews of other forms of fiction and nonfiction. But apparently no one is listening. Editors and publishers have embraced the idea that readers buy their books by the pound, and therefore, the more pages, the better. I disagree. Length has nothing to do with a good story. My reading choices at the moment are an eclectic mix that underscores how much quality can be packed into two hundred pages.

I spent an enjoyable evening with The Cellar by Minette Walters. I haven’t read anything by her in a while, and was glad to find she hasn’t lost her touch. A well-to-do African family immigrates to England, bringing with them an orphan girl as their daughter. Only she’s not their daughter, and she lives the life of a slave—until the younger son in the family goes missing.

Next up I learned I could change my life (in two hundred and six pages), according to The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo. I believe in taking good advice when I encounter it, so I went to my closet and kept only those things that truly sparked joy. I now have three pairs of khakis, four pairs of black pants and two black skirts and numerous blue tops and black turtlenecks. I have one black-and-white jacket and three blue jackets/sweaters. Fortunately, I have six months to make it through the entire process, by which time I will be wearing nothing but khakis and turtlenecks.

Less of a contrast than you might think because of the personal tone is my current read, Essays after Eighty by Donald Hall. To my great delight, the author offers writing and editing advice that is as pure and as succinct as any I have ever come across. The essays are leisurely, thoughtful, and captivating.

Next is Hemingway in Love: His Own Story, A Memoir by A.E. Hotchner. I haven’t begun this yet, but I’ve read the blurbs and cover copy a number of times and I suspect I’ll enjoy this book immensely.

Four books. Each two hundred pages.

I could add to this list, but it’s not necessary. Anyone who reads widely can name any number of books that come in at two hundred pages or less. My point is only that sometimes, and oftentimes, less is more.