CRAFT: epiphany and editing

We haven’t drowned up here on the hilltop. It’s still pretty wet, though. I’m enjoying the rain and the low temperatures, but others are complaining. They’ll be sorry when it hits 106 in the shade and the ground cracks open, though.

Where have I been? First, I spent a week polishing up the last few chrome bumpers on BAD HEIR DAY and got it sent off to the Tony Hillerman Contest. I can only continue to hope and pray that no one else enters, or that if anyone enters, they’re a complete newbie who doesn’t have it all together. That way, maybe I have a chance. I think the book is the best one so far, as far as marketability.

So . . . Coney mentioned that I have a number of writers and people who are interested in writers’ processes and methods reading my journal. I hope I can continue to serve as an example, even if it’s as a bad example. This is going to be one of those what-have-we-learned posts.

I think my “process” (ha) has been shown to the LJ world over the past few months, and the stepwise-refinement nature of it has been especially apparent to those of you who exchanged critiques with me this time. I often wish I had a different process, one in which there was not so much moving around of stuff and filling in of holes . . . but that’s the way it is around here.

I still think it must be so much easier for writers who do scenes in order! Just think, when I used to type stuff on Daddy’s old Royal portable, I had to type all this stuff over when I revised. Of course I’d un-tighten and throw in extra words with every draft, which was bad. I used to cut out passages and actually tape them to other scraps of passages to make a continuing narrative before retyping. There were these oddball antiques called teletypes, for which they sold these long rolls of paper . . . like the paper your doctor covers the examination table with before you get up there. Some of us would cut off long lengths of that and try to do drafts on it. Trouble was that if you got the paper in there the least bit crooked, you were soon having it tear up along the left and right edges as the platen rolled it along and pulled it in. And we always had to retype. You kids don’t know how good ya got it *grump*

I’ve spent a little over a week (between doctor visits and various things to cope with) going through to tighten up NICE WORK, the mystery that the agent wants. I hope I don’t blow the chance with her over some nit or another that she finds (“I don’t like the way you characterize the cops” or some such silliness.) I’m editing it down once again and taking out a lot of the extraneous stage direction that I put in at the suggestion of various critique groups over the years.

Haven’t I done that before, you might ask . . . yes. The gist of it is that some of my older mysteries had a lot of extraneous stage business and directions. That stuff generally got put in after three or four critiquers said they could not “see the movie” or visualize what was going on, and that I had pages’ worth of talking heads, and that they wanted to know if people were sneezing, etc., and that I should make scenes happen in interesting places. They were right in a small sense–I needed to have more vivid settings, and the way to do that was to make them unusual, such as Marfa and chili cookoffs and the like, and tornadoes, of course, and rushing water such as they’re seeing today in Marble Falls and Gainesville! *But* they were misguided and/or I got it wrong by putting in TOO MUCH of the stuff. I was searching for a way to be all things to all readers. And of course critiquers can’t always put into words why they can’t “see” the scene.

I was so tired of the book that I just left it alone for a while, but now that I’m going back through it, I see how to make it more like the new work.

Some time ago, Coneycat said that she’d noticed (in my work) that she would be reading along and have a concept of what was going on, but then I’d write a piece of stage business that blew it away, and so she got bogged down in NICE WORK. Houseboat mentioned that she felt I had started BAD HEIR DAY with the wrong setting and pointed out where the setting should be instead. My mother and my aunt didn’t like certain passages in various novels, but all they knew was they couldn’t form the movies in their heads, but not WHY. This was all good advice, but I wasn’t sure how to implement it until the epiphany. Where did the epiphany come from? How did I come across the “way of knowing” how to do this?

It came from doing the Pundit book (which is only in unfinished draft form even now). Recall that I based that one on a viewing of a few old movies and on a decision to re-use those characters and their interplay with the new plot and setting. Okay . . . when I started writing that one, I was seeing it more as I saw the film. For some reason, I didn’t put in very many stage directions. It doesn’t have much revision baggage. Somehow, the “knowing” that came out of writing that one (even if it isn’t in demand right now) has flipped a switch.

NICE WORK has a lot of setup, but people who have read many mysteries will suspect that’s what’s going on. Still, because the body doesn’t actually drop until page 60 or so, and it has to happen offstage, to boot, I was advised some time ago by an agent that I should insert a couple of “interludes” from the POV of the unnamed villain. I know there are many thrillers in which this is done. The agent felt that would help a first reader realize that I was setting up stuff and not merely doing “a day in the life” opening that should be deleted, as so many agents had assumed. The first reader doesn’t trust you to know what you’re doing, and they jump to the conclusion that you are merely rambling rather than doing a setup. However, these “interludes” confused the heck out of my mother and my aunt, so they may still have to go. Anyhow, with or without interludes, NICE WORK is coming out FAR better this time.

It’s tough for me to articulate how I’m doing this tightening that doesn’t involve getting rid of the book’s voice (because some tightening does, and we don’t want that.) So here are some examples of horrors I have removed from the text.


“We need a specific motive.” Jacquidon waved her fork. “We have to know all the details.”
“There has to be something we could get. Somewhere there’s a clue to tie this all together.” She dipped the egg roll in the velvety plum sauce. “But I don’t have any hope of finding it. Nobody from the office is going to talk to me.” She took a bite of the concoction. It was delicious.

Yeah, she’s eating while she talks, but that didn’t make the stuff she was saying any less obvious. Duh! We need a clue! Get the clue-stick! (Is that like a glue stick?)


“We don’t have to do it aboveboard, you know.” Chantal worked up a vulpine grin.

Gross! She horked it up? What’s a vulp? (It means “wolfish,” but even that didn’t fit.)

Ice cubes cascaded down her esophagus.

*cringe* Maybe they cascaded back UP when she read THAT, though.


“Wind them up and they all do the same dance.”

Ack! The guy who said that . . . well, I just took the character out to the woodshed and re-educated him. He was out of karma points.

Here’s a REAL groaner/screamer.

“Terror gripped her midsection in its meaty fist.”

Good Lord (as they used to say all the time in MAD Magazine)! A crit group member some years ago actually scribbled that in as a suggestion, and everyone present cooed, “Oooh, that’s good.” And so I said, well, I just don’t know what people like, and took it.

Against my better judgment, I started putting in a lot of stuff like that which I am now taking out. It just ain’t me and don’t fit with the voice. And it’s STOOOPID-sounding a lot of the time. What’s a wonder is that I convinced myself that they were improving the manuscript. I mean, maybe those sentences fell out of a category romance manuscript that somebody was using as a bad example. I don’t know why they seemed all right* at the time.

* [I don’t want to get into it the way WordWeaverLynn did in her LJ, but as my grand old teacher used to say, “Only write ‘alright’ if you would also write ‘alwrong.’ ‘Alright’ is ‘alwrong’!” She also grew these huge and fragrant gardenias that she’d bring to school and keep in a glass of water on her desk. You could smell them all the way back to the third row.]

“Had the INS paid an unexpected visit for a green-card check, [the manager] and I would have been the only ones left.”

Well, not only was this bit unnecessary, but it would’ve pushed everyone’s immigration buttons. It was basically something I had overheard and stolen out of the air at a diner one day years ago, and I’d thought it would help show the character into whose mouth I shoved it. It did, but it made her look like too much of a jerk, and me with her. There were better ways of getting the situation across.

She opened her mouth and found she was tongue-tied.

Is that like waking up to find that . . . well, anyway, it sounds painful.

Her heart started a drum solo, and her mouth went dry.

This one is okay, but there’s nothing outstanding about it. I mean, it’s OK. But I figured out something else that I thought was better.

And that’s one of the lessons reiterated at the convention (I WILL get to that post soon.) If your book is workmanlike and very nice, and you’re a first-timer, it won’t sell, most likely. It has to be better than the ones already on the shelves and it has to stand out and be excellent/most excellent. Unfair, but that’s the way it is. If you have a lot of mundane lines and stage business like “she smiled” and “she nodded” and “he looked around and smiled” and “he grimaced,” that’s merely OK. Denise Dietz suggests we find these phrases and try to do better than that 80% of the time.

I find that my characters sigh, smile, and grin too often, so I have to go back and search for these. Also, if you have implied in the dialogue that she’d be smiling or shaking her head, don’t include the tag. And search for “well,” “little,” “just,” and whichever are your pet extra words. Sometimes you need them, and other times they don’t add a thing.

Lightning outside, and thunder! More later.
# # #
Harper’s claims that the Bible, with six billion copies sold, is the best-selling book of all time–well ahead of its competitors, which include Dr. Benjamin Spock’s Baby and Child Care (#7) and Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls (#9).
# # #
Such a big original horror-scope 4 us fish twodae:

It may be a smarter strategy to be quiet and just do your job today. You are in touch with your wide inner world of dreams, but it might not be such a good idea to indiscriminately share them with others.

Well, THAT’S true every freakin’ day for Pisces!


Author: shalanna

Shalanna: rhymes with "Madonna" and "I wanna," and is not a soundalike with "Hosanna" or "Sha-Na-Na." Aging hippie with long hair, husband, elderly mother, and yappy Pomeranian. I've been writing since I could hold a crayon. I started with fiction, which Mama said was "lying." “Don’t tell stories,” she would admonish, in Southern vernacular. “That's all in your imagination!” When grownups said this, they were not approving. So, shamed, I stopped telling stories for a few years--rather, I stopped letting anyone read them. I'm married to a fellow computer nerd who doesn't really like hearing about writing, but who reads sf/fantasy and understands the creative drive. I'm actually a nonconformist/hippie still wearing bluejeans and drop earrings and the Alice-in-Wonderland hair with headbands and sandals. Favorite flavor is chocolate/orange, favorite color is either Dreamsicle orange (cantaloupe) or bubble-gum pink, favorite musical is either Bye Bye Birdie, Rocky Horror, or The Producers . . . wait, I also love The Music Man. Is this getting way too specific and irrelevant yet? Obvious why I don't sell a ton of flash fiction, isn't it? To define oneself, I always say, it is good to make a list. How about a booklist? Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird Frank and Ernestine Gilbreth, Cheaper by the Dozen C.S.Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (all the Narnia books) J.R.R.Tolkien,The Hobbit/LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy Gail Godwin, The Odd Woman F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby J. D. Salinger, Catcher in the Rye (before dismissing it, actually read it) George Orwell, 1984 Kurt Vonnegut, Cat's Cradle Donna Tartt, The Secret History Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn James Allen, As A Man Thinketh Mark Winegardner, Elvis Presley Boulevard James Thurber, My Life and Hard Times The Wizard of Oz, L. Frank Baum Winnie-the-Pooh/House at Pooh Corner, A. A. Milne Peter Pan, J. M. Barrie The KJV and NIV Bible (each translation has its glories)

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