Tag Archives: rewriting

An “Ice on the Bay” Milestone

A couple of days ago, I completed the first draft of Ice on the Bay, my third Howard County mystery. Its completion coincides with another change in my life: a job change. For the past 10 months I’ve been making a two hour commute by car, train, light rail, and foot from my home in Baltimore County to northern Virginia. Today is my last day there. On Monday, I assume a new position much closer to home.

Both changes impact my writing. The completion of a first draft is a time to sit back, relax, and recharge. Not that I don’t continue writing. I currently have two other projects in the works: my SF/humor novel Space Operatic, which is about two thirds complete, and the rewrite of a manuscript my father left behind. But now I need to get some distance from Ice on the Bay, so that I can evaluate and revise it.

The job change means I won’t have writing time on board the commuter train anymore. Much of Ice on the Bay was written while riding the rails. I won’t know how my writing life will be arranged until I see what the new position is like in terms of schedule, commute, and work load. In previous positions, I often wrote on my lunch break. That may or may not be possible this time.

Either way, change provides new inputs for writing: new people, new experiences, new settings. All parts of life are interconnected, even if only in subtle ways, and any of it could be fodder for the next story.

 

The Umpteenth Draft

If you’ve ever written anything, including term papers for school, you know what a first draft is: a complete but unedited work. So what comes next? Well, you say, obviously editing. And you’re right. But what kind of editing?

Broadly speaking, the adventure starts with overall structure and gradually works its way down to typos. Although not always that neat, once a first draft is done it’s time to step back, draw a deep breath, and look at the big picture.

Ray Bradbury, in his mystery Death is a Lonely Business, summed up the process rather graphically. His lead character, a writer, develops a friendship with a local police chief. The police chief, it turns out, harbors literary ambitions, so the writer helps him get started. His key advice: “Throw up into your typewriter every morning. Clean up every noon.”

That’s worth remembering, if only to remind you how good your first draft likely is.

These days, few of us use typewriters. Via computer, it’s easy to edit as you go, and I regularly do that. Most days before writing anything new, I get a running start by rereading what I wrote the prior day and cleaning it up. By the time my so-called first draft is done, it’s already been edited substantially. Even so, it won’t be free of structural problems, substandard writing, or scads of typos. It remains a first draft in spirit, if not precisely in number.

Usually I crawl through a story at least three times before I’m happy with it, after which my wife tears it apart and makes me fix it up again, often contributing new material along the way.

These rewrites are not merely finding better words or fixing spelling errors. I rearrange material, throw out entire scenes and start them over, and add new scenes. I fix glaring continuity errors, plug up holes, and expand upon ideas.

To take one small example, in Ice on the Bay (my current work in progress) , I introduced a stack of boxes at the back of a room in which a murder had occurred. At the time, I didn’t have any plans for them. I didn’t even know what they contained. Nearing the end of the first draft, I realized that Eric Dumas, the principal investigator of the murder, never bothered to ask what was in them, much less look for himself. He should have. And once he did, it turned out to be important.

Completing the first draft may seem like a lot of work, but once it’s done, the real work begins. And until it’s done, one doesn’t have a story worth reading.

One Million Words

Earlier this summer, my father passed away. Like me, he was a writer, although in the main he kept his writings to himself. As a result, I’m not familiar with most of what he wrote. I do know he wrote at least two novels, a fair bit of poetry, and some essays.

Near the end of his life, he self-published his first novel and sent me the second one on CD, which I promptly managed to lose. Fortunately, my wife rediscovered it the other day. I’m planning to edit and publish that novel for family members. In quickly reviewing it, though, I realized that my father’s fiction, like that of many would-be novelists, is what I call immature.

I have to be careful with that word. Call someone’s writing immature and they’re likely to think you’re calling them immature. But no, it’s about the writing, not the writer. Immature writing lacks the craftsmanship associated with professional writing. An apprentice carpenter who hasn’t acquired the skill of cutting a smooth, straight line can’t produce mature, professional work. Likewise, a writer who regularly uses fifty words to say what can be said in ten or mistakes exposition for story can’t produce mature, professional work.

Nearly every writer starts out immature in this sense. We learn through practice, by reading the works of others, by studying the craft–whether formally or informally–and by getting feedback. No writer is expert from the get-go. Even prodigies read before they write. All expertise is acquired, and in many technical fields it’s said one must spend about ten years developing a skill before reaching expert level.

Writing is no different, except the point of expertise is typically given in words instead of years: you have to write one million words before you’re an expert writer. The number isn’t as significant as the concept. Some acquire expertise faster, others need longer. Either way, writing takes consistent practice.

Today, technology makes everyone a potential publisher. There may be good in this, but it comes with a dark side: a great many writers rush their work to completion and publish long before it’s ready. Even if they’ve spent years putting words down, they haven’t spent years developing their craft. Result? Huge numbers of books debut every day, a large percentage of which are poorly written. Immature.

I had the good fortune to suffer through many years of my wife’s critiques and edits. Generally it’s a bad idea to ask a friend or relative to comment on your work, because those close to you may be afraid to give you bad news. Not so with my wife. She once referred to her technique as “Kathy’s slash and burn school of writing.” Her first comment on The Fibonnaci Murders, which I wrote after nearly a decade of not writing fiction, was, “I can tell you’re out of practice.” Honest feedback in invaluable, if painful. I suspect that many writers never get that kind of feedback. If they had, they might not have rushed into print (or electrons).

My father at least tried. At the end of his manuscript he noted the dates when he finished the first draft and several revisions. He also noted the date he sent the manuscript to a friend. Unfortunately, as he also noted, he received no comments. Fortunately, his work is now in my hands. With any luck, I can whip it into shape for him. I promise I won’t publish it until I do.