Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Setbacks—Part I The Tail Wagging the Dog

I asked one of the members of my writing group to read the first 50 pages of my completed (or so I thought) manuscript. I knew he understood the way drama works--the repeated suspense/payoff kind of drama that makes for a thriller. I had been talking about the thriller I’m writing for months, and was beginning to think it was time to put up or shut up.

He agreed to read it, and our subsequent discussion was every writer’s nightmare. He’s a seasoned editor and knows all the right diplomatic phrases to make his verdict palatable. But I’m a seasoned member of critique groups who knows how to cut through to the reality. The verdict: what I had written was crap. Back to th drawing board. The word “authentic” was tossed around.

I have readers who will say, “What does he know? You can’t possibly write crap.” But there’s a reason I asked his opinion. I knew in my heart this book was failing. If it didn’t engage me, how could it engage readers? “Oh, you’re just tired of looking at it. It’s better than you think, “ say my loyal readers. I wish I could believe that, but there were too many scenes in the manuscript when I would think, “That makes no sense.” And then I would fluff it up to try to make it look like it made sense.

Thrillers are rarely “believable.” They put the reader in a parallel world where ordinary people experience extraordinary challenges and somehow rise to the occasion. But even if they are unbelievable they have to make internal sense. And this one did not. The premise is a good one, but I had not honored it.

So what to do? Scrap the whole thing? Bull my way through with more fluffing? Pretend my reader didn’t know what he was talking about? No, I was determined to find how and why I had run off the rails.

From the beginning I had decided to let this book be a “fly by the seat of my pants” book rather than plot it out. Which was okay, but it meant I had to have a good, solid platform from which to take off. And that’s where I went wrong.

I started from a scene taken from an article I read in the newspaper, and I began building the book around it. I liked the scene a lot. When I finished the first draft, I realized it didn’t hang together, so I built a little structure around the scene to prop it up and make it seem more integrated. I had struggled to fit my protagonist into that scene. He did not want to fit there, and therefore he became inaccessible to me. He became a stick figure that I was moving around to fit the increasingly disassociated plot.

I took a hard look and realized that the original scene was not only irrelevant, but it was toxic. It was a tail wagging the dog of the book.

Next week I’ll talk about my approach to repairing the damage.

Book recommendation this week: Flame Out, by M.P. the second in the June Lyons series set in Hopewell Falls, New York, the book is proof that Cooley’s debut wasn’t a fluke. Well-plotted with great characters, this is one of those series where I’m impatient for the next book to come out. If you haven’t read Cooley, you are in for a treat.


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