Monday, January 13, 2014

BREAKING UP IS HARD TO DO





 By Ellen Kennedy

Infatuation is a wonderful feeling. There’s a kind of “high” involved that probably surpasses anything the drug culture can offer. In a good relationship, it matures into a deeper kind of love that involves respect and long-term kindness and loyalty.

However, as a writer, it’s wise to beware of that feeling when it comes to your work, you can take it from me. My literary cutting room floor is littered with countless past verbal old flames. Sit back and let me tell you a few little stories:

When I first began writing on my mystery, Irregardless of Murder, I wanted to make my main character, Amelia Prentice, memorable. Like me, she had happy memories of childhood spent in a small town. The first chapter of the book had her strolling along a street in her neighborhood. She was on her way to the public library and as she went, she remembered the different things that had happened in each house: baking cookies there, playing tag over here, etc. It was warm, friendly and it established her character. I adored it. I read and re-read it, just to make myself feel good. I was in love with this piece of writing.

I was a novice and wanted feedback, so when I saw that there was a professional editor online who would read your first 20 or so pages and give you a critique for free, I jumped at the chance. I sent in my prologue and first chapter and waited eagerly for the kudos to arrive. I soon found that it’s a tough world out there. Not only didn’t he like most of it, but he compared it to Murder She Wrote—and made it clear that he didn’t like Murder She Wrote.

As I dried my virtual tears, I assessed his assessment: he didn’t like the reference I’d made in the prologue to a mysterious man. He couldn’t know that it was a pivotal clue to the mystery later on in the book. I dismissed that comment. As for the first chapter, he said it was boring—argh!—and slowed down the action. Hmm. Was he right? I took another look at my adored chapter and realized with a sinking heart that he was. If you weren’t yours truly, you’d be a bit bored reading it. So I remorselessly cut approximately three thousand words from the front of my book and began the action when Amelia awakens from being knocked unconscious in the library. It worked.

It was a learning experience. Later, as I wrote more of the story, I crafted a tumultuous and impassioned love scene between Amelia and Gil. It took a lot of effort to write, and set my heart to going pitty-pat, but a week or so later after a sober re-read, I realized that their relationship was different: more subdued, more subtle. After all, it had lain fallow for twenty years. Again, I brutally made use of the delete button and dumped about two thousand words into the stratosphere.

When the novel was finished, I felt I had matured enough to control these bouts of self-indulgence. I was wrong. 

Book number two involved ice fishing on Lake Champlain. Amelia and I did research. We both learned a lot. However, Amelia (my character, I must remind you) was far more circumspect in dispensing the accumulated information than I was.

In searching the Internet, I had learned all about what thickness of ice was safe to go out on, what parts of the lake would be safe, the different kinds of equipment one might use—they are highly varied, let me tell you—and even the brand names. I learned what kinds of fish were caught this way, what the fishermen tended to eat (and drink!) while fishing, and all about the various ice fishing festivals out there.

I also made use of my extensive study of the fabled Lake Champlain Monster, making use of a fascinating book, Champ—Beyond the Legend by Joseph W. Zarzynski. It was such fun learning about the sightings of the monster and the theories as to what it was. I had my character Dr. Alec Alexander, who has made hunting this monster his life’s work, give a lengthy talk about it at a high school assembly. It went on for pages. I thoroughly enjoyed writing it.  

It was all fun, but just before I submitted Death Dangles a Participle to my publisher, I went through and tossed paragraph after paragraph of info back into the virtual ice water.  I’ve learned that if you’re writing a novel, it can be risky to make it sound like a textbook, no matter how much fun you’ve had with the research.

Book number three, Murder in the Past Tense, was finished just before Thanksgiving and will be released in September. My first prologue involved an Adirondack hermit witnessing the burial of bodies in the deep woods. I named him Nimrod Rabideau. (He’d taken the Biblical nickname for himself—it meant “mighty hunter,” he pointed out.) I’d read another book, Noah John Rondeau—Adirondack Hermit, years ago and had always thought a hermit would make a fun character. He did. In fact, he was a more likeable man than Rondeau. I took pains to explain his background in the prologue: a runaway farm boy, who tried to make it in show business in New York City but was chased out of town by thugs. He narrated this himself. It was exciting, I thought, and went on for pages.

I loved it, but my editor disagreed. It bogged down the story, took it in a different and confusing direction, she commented. I looked over the story and reluctantly agreed that she was right. I took the prologue out of the woods and moved it to a toney Manhattan office building, where the murder takes place. Nimrod’s still in the story, but he is less prominent. The book is much better now, I have to admit. Another case of misplaced, self-indulgent love.

The takeaway from all this is that as a fiction writer, no matter how much you enjoy what you write and how much you know, you must always keep your reader in mind: Is it fun to read? Is it understandable? Where does the action flag? Are the bits of information digestible for a pleasure reader?( I’m not one who considers my books deep enough to offer discussion questions at the end.) I’m all about entertainment. So as I work on the opening chapters of book number four, Incomplete Sentence, I am on self-notice: do all the research you like, but keep it fun! 



11 comments:

  1. Ellen, You've described one of the unpublicized problems for a writer, one that most people don't recognize but one which is quite real (and often the cause of self-doubt and a bit of depression). Thanks for letting me know there are at least two of us who've suffered this fate. I suspect there are more.

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    1. I hear you, Dr M! It helps to know I'm not alone.

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  2. Ellen, Thank you so much for your words of wisdom and instruction.

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    1. You're welcome, Lill! Thanks for reading it. We all write tone read!

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  3. I love editors because of their ability to see what I as the writer can't see, but you're so right. It's tough cutting those parts you were certain when you wrote them were literary genius! And after seventeen years of writing, I'm still learning!

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  4. It helps to know that, Lisa. Thanks!

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  5. I agree, some authors I read give too much detail on a subject I'm not interested in. On the other hand, I enjoy learning new things from an author's research. I need to read a book or two of yours.

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  6. This post was a great help. I too have found how important the line is between needed info and unnecessary details. And it can be so hard to take out the parts you love so much about your work.

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    1. You're right, Erin. We have to be firm with ourselves.

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  7. Contrarywise, I have a cousin who prefers novel-mixed-fact books. The story carries her along like a magic carpet so she can enjoy facts without getting bored. The story is the show and the facts are the commercials. I like to record everything I watch on TV so I can fast forward commercials, but some people actually like to watch the commercials. (My wife and my brother in law for instance rarely record anything.) However, the cousin and the wife don't care for tech stuff like you might find in Clancy or Cussler. Cousin likes history, geography and architecture, like Michener or Dan Brown. Wife and Bro like dumb and dumber type comedy, like The Big Bang. I can tolerate that show and get a giggle here and there. I wonder if you and your editor like different topics, and so, if you have bought into his or her preferences as if they are your own, and more to the point: your readers.

    If you send some of the stuff you're cutting, I will comment. I understand that you know Detective Lewis. You can get my email address from him. Will.

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