Monday, February 07, 2011

Revising in the Dark

What I'm reading: Love me to Death, by Allison Brennan

When you're an author, you sit and write the books in your head. Sometimes the story flows, sometimes it slogs, but you write. Most of us have critique partners or groups—people to bounce ideas off of, and to offer feedback on the WIPs. If they say they have trouble with a plot thread, or even the way you've worded a paragraph, the decision to change things is yours. But what happens when someone with more clout than a crit partner wants changes?

Late last week, I heard from my agent, who finally heard from the editor. We'd submitted a three chapter proposal last November, and, as happens so often in this business, we waited. And waited.

The news. Good and not quite so good. The good. The editor didn't say no. The not so good. She wanted me to revise.

While the revisions she requested seemed to contradict what she'd asked for to begin with, I certainly wasn't going to say no. Her suggestions included things that I don't necessarily like to do—include more back story up front. She even suggested a flash back. However, her suggestions were broad (or vague, depending on how you interpret them). Her biggest concern was that she didn't want the murder to happen as soon as I'd written it. Unlike most mysteries, where starting with the murder is common, in this case, she wanted to see more of the protagonists interacting. "Let the readers get to know them before thrusting them into a murder investigation."

The book is a cozy mystery, and it's not a genre I've written before. Since the cozy genre involves "civilians" or "amateurs" rather than professional crime investigators, I can understand the point. It's more like the heroines in my romantic suspense novels, who aren't really equipped for the situations I shove at them. Things escalate until they're forced to deal with the mystery plot. These characters have no experience in crime solving when the book begins.

In the original proposal, the murder victim was discovered at the end of scene 1. The editor wasn't specific about where she wants to see the murder in the revisions. Most of what I've been doing is exploring the characters at work, discovering their backgrounds. But, as readers of this blog know, I'm not in favor of opening of a book with back story, so I'm trying to make sure I'm not writing "filler" just to delay discovering the body. The new scenes have to provide clues, indicate where the story is going, as well as simply letting the readers get to know the protagonists.

So, I've been busy deciding how far back I need to go, whether to introduce new characters, whether to start going in a different direction. Normally, if I think I've taken a wrong track, or if I don't like a scene, I revise to fit my vision of the story.

However, in this case, I'm trying to fulfill someone else's vision of the story—a vision that I haven't seen. Kind of like trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle when there's no picture on the box. At least it's only a 3 chapter proposal.

(And if you want a little fun with a puzzle where you DO know the picture, click here.)

Here's hoping the second go-round is more to the editor's liking. According to my agent, if she hadn't thought there was potential, she'd simply have said, 'no thanks.'

Tomorrow my guest is Ana Kenley, who's going to be talking about writing for the Young Adult market. Come on back!


jdcoughlin said...

You're right. She would have said no. She didn't. That's a very good thing.
I'm rewriting myself right now. I wanted to clean up a few things and ended up in a total rewrite. I added something that changed the direction of my book. I can't say I'm a fan of rewriting, but I can say that every single time, it's been well worth the work.
Good luck to you!

Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

Good luck with it, Terry!

I frequently like to open cozies with the future victim creating disharmony among the suspects. So I'm sort of setting up the crime, in a way.

Terry Odell said...

JD - thanks. Writing to an invisible editorial vision is a bit stressful. But even if the final word is 'no', I know my writing wasn't what caused it.

Elizabeth - it's a switch for me, trying to introduce the players first without revealing too much. I figure as long as the readers know someone is going to die, why prolong it? But if I have to put it off for a couple of chapters, I'd rather keep the readers guessing as to who the victim will actually be. We'll see why happens.

Carol Kilgore said...

Good luck, Terry. Think of it as an exciting adventure. You'll learn a lot that you'll be able to use going forward, too.

Kristi Helvig said...

Best of luck with the revisions, Terry. You can do it!

Terry Odell said...

Carol, Kristi - thanks. It's kind of fun discovering how to write to someone else's idea.

Hart Johnson said...

Terry-I had a similar surprise coming into Cozy mystery--I had expected them to want murder in the first chapter. As it ended up, the body is found first thing in chapter 3 (but don't tell anyone). I spend my first chapter really setting up the situation (there is an event my MC is coordinating) and introducing some of the primary other characters. The the second chapter I had a party of sorts to 'kick off' the event where I showed several episodes of the 'to-be-victim' acting badly--offending a lot of people in a lot of ways. THEN he turned up dead.

It was a tricky line. I'd read that all the suspects should be introduced BEFORE the murder--I don't know how hard and fast that rule is, but it is about fairness to the readers (Cozy readers, unlike a lot of mystery genres) expect to get enough info to solve the crime with the sleuth, so there are more cards on the table, so to speak. I'm not a pro, by any means, but once I sort of looked at it that way, it was easier to plot--I story-boarded--an idea i got from YOU.

Terry Odell said...

Hart - the strange/frustrating thing was that according to the editor's 'guidelines' for the book, the mystery DID happen right away, so when she said, "it happened too soon" both my agent and myself were confused.

Glad my storyboarding helped. IF I get a contract, I'll be setting one up, but I don't want to 'jinx' it by moving too far ahead.

Jim Hartley said...

Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. I have several books published or contracted with MuseItUp publishing, and if Lea, the publisher, suggests changes to submissions I generally do my best to go along.

But on one story, after a small change or two and a bunch of e-mail, it became apparent to me that she wanted a different story than the one I had written! It might have been a good story, or not, but it wasn't the one I had set out to tell. And it wasn't the one I wanted to tell! So I just stopped trying to fit her suggestions to the story, and said nothing more about that story. It became simply a rejection.

Maybe, someday, I'll find a market that wants the story as I wrote it.

Janice said...

Good luck with the changes.

Terry Odell said...

Jim - this is kind of different, since it's the editor's concept, not mine for this book.

Janice - thanks.