Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Part 2--Setbacks

Repairing the damage

Last week I talked about discovering that the book I had been working on for months was unacceptable, both to the friend I asked to read the first few chapters, and to me. This week I will talk about my approach to repairing the damage.

The first step to repairing a broken book is to acknowledge that it isn’t working. Whatever fantasy you had about how wonderful the idea was, it hasn’t translated to the page.

The second step? Decide whether you are going to fix it or junk it. I was tempted to do the latter. I had worked diligently for months. Did I really want to start at the beginning? I had 100,00 words. Were any of the sentences, scenes, and chapters worth saving? Were any of the characters interesting enough to work with? I decided that the answer to these questions was yes.  There were two characters that every time they showed up, I perked up. And there was something that still intrigued me about the plot. So the decision was that I thought there was enough to the story to tackle a major rewrite.

The third step was to analyze where I ran off the rails. In previous books when I realized that things weren’t going well, I could usually find a scene that wasn’t true to the story. But in this case it was something different—I started the story too late. Usually a story that doesn’t work has too much lead-in in the beginning. What I realized was that I in my zeal to avoid that error, I had robbed it of suspense. I thought about why some scenes came alive while others just lay there and I realized that I didn’t know enough about the villain.

Finally I started replotting. I thought carefully about not only what the antagonist was up to, but how he had approached his villainy. I realized the protagonist was reactive rather than proactive—and thought about how to change that. I constructed a new timeline a timeline. And rewrote it. And rewrote it again. And with all that, something started to emerge that excited me.

I copied the whole manuscript and then started stripping out whole chapters and rearranging others—bringing some from the end to the beginning. And something magical happened. The characters started to speak up and take their place as if now they had a place in the book. And by some miracle, I realized that there were whole chunks of the book that actually worked.

I’m now feeling something I haven’t felt for a while. I want the world to go away so that I can get the book rewritten. I feel rejuvenated and excited.

 I Like what is happening. In the end, I don’t mind so much if no one else likes the book—but I have to like it. I have to hand over a book that satisfies me. And I think I’m getting there.

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.


Wednesday, December 2, 2015

An Assessment

An Assessment

Recently my good friend said, “I have to go to Paris in January. Why don’t you come with me?”

Paris. Any time of year beckons. She tried to persuade me: In winter the fares would be cheap. We have somewhere we could stay. It will be cold, but the crowds will be lighter. Yes, yes, yes….uh, no I can’t. I have a book coming out January 12, and for the following month or two I’ll be in a frenzy of promotion. I’ll be doing library and bookstore readings, and interviews, guest blogs and social media events. I’ll be hosting giveaways, publishing a newsletter, etc, etc. All designed to say in as nice a way as possible, “buy my book.”

The promotion will involve car travel and plane travel and hotel bills. Oh yes, and drinking too much wine and eating too much. In addition to the expense (no, small publishing houses do not pay for your travel expenses—they grudgingly have bookmarks made),  it takes time and energy—time and energy that could be spent writing. Or going to Paris.

Here’s the problem: I don’t have a clue whether it actually does any good. I know that at present the money I spend on promotion isn’t worth it in terms of book sales. It gets me out of the house, allows me to have some fun, and gives me a break from writing, but it doesn’t sell books on-the-spot. Does it sell in the long run by getting my name out there? No idea.

There are some indicators that make me suspect that it doesn’t do much good in terms of book sales. Despite never having gotten anything but great reviews from professional reviewers, and having received many, many complimentary emails about my book, my Amazon reviews stay stubbornly low. Meanwhile, I see the reviews pile up for authors who don’t do any travel and readings. Do they have batter and more friends than I do? Are they better at social media?

Possibly. But I suspect the real answer is that no one knows what promotion works and what doesn’t. I get bombarded with emails from people who tell me that they have the keys to success, that they can guarantee me a huge audience—for just a few thousand dollars.

This sounds like whining, but I’m just taking stock. I’m trying to do a risk/reward ratio to determine what makes sense. At my worst moments, when I contemplate another round of flinging myself into the fray, I despair of getting anything out of it but a few extra pounds. But then I remember that except for a very tiny percentage of writers, writing as a business makes no sense at all. It only makes sense as a passionate undertaking. And I am passionate. I write because I want people to read my books. And the only way I’ll get the books read is if people know about them. And the only way people will find out about them is if I promote them.

So, no Paris for me. Hmmm…Maybe in the spring, right after I turn in my next manuscript and before I hop back on the promo treadmill.