Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Taking Out the Errors and Filling in the Blanks

I’ve been working on the second book in a new series that I’m hoping my agent will sell. She has the first book, and I have an eighty-thousand-word draft of the second. That’s a fairly long draft, but as I read it over I can see I’ve missed a few things.

The story concerns one of the heroine’s cousins and his wife. This is his second wife, and he has two children, a son by his first wife, now deceased, and a daughter by his second wife. I’ve set up the story with a reasonable number of suspects, developed and set out clues, explored the characters so that readers can see their motivations if not their guilt, and explored the setting and its influence on people’s behavior. In the end I have what I think is a sound confrontation scene, a few surprises, and, of course, changes in the protagonist’s life. What have I missed?

I missed the obvious. The teenage son is pivotal to the crime and its aftermath, though he is never a suspect. He is mentioned by the parents, the high school principal, the town librarian, and some other characters. He comes up in conversation, and he triggers some significant developments. So what have I missed? The protagonist never talks to him.

The protagonist is Felicity O’Brien, who owns a farm in a small community in a very rural part of New England. She talks to just about everyone, but somehow I managed to get her through this entire crime story without ever having her talk to one of the key players. I’ve set out to rectify the omission, with several scenes lined up at crucial points in the story.

I don’t think I’m the only one who falls into this trap. Indeed, Agatha Christie used the omission of the obvious as a clue (and the title) of one of her mysteries, Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? (1934). I can’t speak for other writers, but I know that I sometimes focus so closely on what’s happening on the page that I miss details (and bigger things too) I should be including—location, time of day, day of the week, name of the character I’m writing about, and a number of other details. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was famous for changing his character’s eye color.

Correcting these errors is the work of the near-final draft and a good beta editor. But let’s face it. It is impossible to be both human and a perfect writer. But it is possible to look for errors and omissions and correct them. You can take this too far, and be obsessed about the text and miss the story itself, but overall, every writer should want the text to be as clean and as complete as possible.

When I began working on the scenes for the teenage son, I discovered other parts of the story I could strengthen. One change suggested others, and once again I followed them through the story. My task now is to fill in the blanks I’ve created, and make sure every detail is present and makes sense.

For a longer discussion of errors in books, you may enjoy this article on editors who also make mistakes: http://penultimateword.com/editing-blogs/when-editors-make-mistakes/


14 comments:

  1. Susan, I had this same problem with my last published book, Secret Exposure. After finishing the first draft, I realized my protagonist, Paula, needed to talk to two more people. So, I inserted several chapters! I also have to be sure I describe major characters when they first show up and do more about weather and settings. So much to think about! I'm glad to see I'm not the only one who runs into these issues.

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    1. I'm right there now, inserting chapters where my protagonist interviews people she should have talked to earlier. Most of the time the story flows, but I always find gaps. Yes, it's comforting to know you're (I'm) not the only one. Thanks for commenting.

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  2. Always important to go back through previous books in a series to catch those pivotal things, Susan. Great post!

    Thanks for sharing.
    Good luck and God's blessings
    PamT

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    1. Thanks, Pam. Details, details, details.

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  3. enjoyed hearing about your "process" etc, I used to work as freelance copy editor and beLIEVE me, I had clients who, I swear, *lived* by stream-of-consciousness and never even looked at their work after first putting it on paper or screen! (grin) Being mildly (cough...) OCD I tend to over-work what I write myself, but luckily this tendency seems to be ameliorating a bit as I age. Or, equally likely, I fall asleep.....!
    Abbey

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    1. Any good writer has to be willing to do both parts of producing a ms--get the story down on paper, and then make sure the story is all there. It's easy to write and write, but not so easy to edit. And, if I fell asleep while editing, I knew I was bored. Thanks for commenting.

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  4. It's good you caught your error right away. Self-editing is so necessary and important. Wishing you much success with your new work.

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    1. Thanks, Jacquie. Fingers crossed for this new series.

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  5. Good blog, Susan. And thanks for the link to the blog about editors being human. When you're a perfectionist but you also make little mistakes, it can really drag you down. That link came along at the right time for me. So thanks.

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    1. Barb, thanks for letting me know you found the link useful. I often wonder who reads them (if anyone). Yes, wanting to get everything right and then getting one detail wrong seems to send me off the deep end, at least for a while.

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  6. Susan, it's not easy to spot all our own errors and omissions. On a good day, I may find a few, but I rely also on the trained eyes of my critique partners. I'd be lost without them.

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    1. I too rely on others to catch things that are so obvious when someone else points them out. How did I miss that, I wonder. Thank goodness for fellow writers and reader.

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  7. No, I've never done that… (cough, cough).

    One of my critique group members is great at identifying problems with "stage business." She's always hyper-focused on objects that appear and disappear. "She walked in with groceries but never put them down. What happened to them?" "Did she lock the gate behind her?" "What happened to the cat?" "Did she feed the dog?!!!" (She especially worries about pets.)

    It's handy to have a critique partner like this, but it's still easy to miss some of the things that only show up when you look at the big picture. That's why I recommend making an outline of your story AFTER you finished a draft. I've developed detailed guidelines to do that. You can download that here: https://chriseboch.com/for-writers/

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  8. Yes, I often worry I've abandoned the dog or cat in the middle of the story, never to be seen or heard from again. I like the idea of an outline after the story is written. Thanks also for the link. Thanks for adding to the discussion.

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