The Fat Lady Has Not Yet Sung

In August and September I wrote a novel. I thought it was pretty good. I still think that. I also thought it was finished. I was dead wrong.

As I started to do the interior design of the novel in InDesign (yes, I’m planning to publish it in print as well as as an ebook), I started reading bits and pieces, and my subconscious started tickling me. Maybe there were a few little things I could polish or fluff up. Not the prose; my prose is okay; I mean details of the plot.

So I opened up the Scrivener file, started a new page of notes, and in no time at all I had listed ten things that the story needed, things that ought to be there but that just plain weren’t. Things like, get the villain onstage earlier! Build up the suspects rather than letting the reader focus too quickly on the real murderer! (It’s a mystery as well as a YA fantasy.) More magic!

After working my way through the first eight chapters (out of 30), I can already see it’s going to be a much better book. Here’s a quick example. In the I-thought-it-was-finished draft, I had this sentence: “The police returned, asked a few more questions, and went away again.” Be honest, now: Is that or is that not the lamest excuse for a sentence you have ever seen in a work of fiction?

The reason I wrote it that way, or at least the reason I convinced myself I could get away with it, is that the heroine is in kind of a daze or a blur owing to an extremely traumatic event — the murder, which the police are investigating. I didn’t see that the police were going to accomplish much in that scene, so I skated right past it.

That sentence has now blossomed into a 700-word scene. The police detective knows something, and the heroine is forced to tell him part of the truth she has been hiding, while carefully not telling him the most important thing. One of my notes when I started the rewrite was, “Make the police more active. They’re cardboard.” So there you are.

My new scene is still inconclusive, and may have no plot consequences further down the line. But that may not matter. This is a trick I learned once upon a time by outlining, chapter by chapter, an entire Perry Mason mystery. Erle Stanley Gardner was a dreadful writer — yet he sold more than 300 million books. What I discovered by outlining that book was that every single scene cranked up the tension in the plot. Some of the tension points were pointless; the tension was fake, because the events referred to in the scene had no later repercussions in the plot. But by golly, Gardner knew how to keep you turning the page.

The lesson here, if you’re a writer, is this: Don’t take any of those tempting shortcuts. Or rather, do go ahead and write a sentence like, “The police returned, asked a few more questions, and went away again,” if you feel so inclined, in order to get on with the story. But then go back and fix it!

I suspect most writers, even published authors, are a bit lazy. Filling in the details is hard work, because some of the details do have consequences elsewhere in the plot. A novel is read linearly, one sentence at a time, but in truth it’s a multidimensional machine, with gears grinding together at lots of different angles. Sometimes, to get the gears to mesh, you have to bang your head on the desktop for an hour or so.

But you do want your book to be amazing, don’t you? If, at the end of the day, your feeling is that you’ve written a pretty good book, be very suspicious. Set it aside for a couple of months and then go back through it. Better still, make a list of ten things that could improve it and then go back through it, wielding hammer and tongs. You’ll be glad you did — and so will your readers.

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