Re-re-rewrite

Imagine if you will a movie scene: A car hangs on a cliff, its front end over open space, balanced on the edge of a precipice. Several people are pushing it forward, toward the lip. They strain, metal squeals, (closeup of gravel and dirt spilling into the void as the balance point nears). The car teeters. And…

If that tortured metaphor describes my third novel, Fail Deadly, I had quite a crowd pushing, not just that one guy in the picture..

My critique groups helped me excise unnecessary details with week-by-week observations of the draft. But I kept the overall plot outline. Then beta readers said the first fifty pages were slow. I cut the words by twenty percent but kept the story line. Then the MS got on the long list for the Grindstone Literary Prize, so I felt that I’d arrived at a final version. The car was still secure on the on the cliff; in fact, it seemed as if the Grindstone pulled it back to comparative safety. More confident, I called a contact in the New York publishing world for advice. He knows lots of agents. He said, “When the MS is the best you can make it, send it to me.” 

Was it the best I could make it? I retreated to the comforting thought that you can always find changes to make, and over-critical editing might just make it worse. 

The underlying problem was too much information in the beginning. I suspected that I had left some explication in that really didn’t need to be there. One problem most of we authors face (at least, the authors in my critique groups) seems to be that, when we draft the story, we explain the plot and its mechanisms to ourselves … in (sometimes excruciating) detail so we won’t be embarrassed when someone finds a logical flaw. We end up satisfied that our plots are well thought out, but the story often carries too much detail. Which slows it down. Which is a bad thing. 

I finally decided to subject Fail Deadly to the not-so-tender mercies of an editor. 

The crash you hear echoing up from the abyss is that poor car hitting the rocks. 

Call it re-re-rewrite. 

Agatha Christie and Sexual Abuse

Agatha Christie gave me the courage to include a currently-risky idea in Fatal Score

As I’ve mentioned before, I am not as widely-read in my own genre as I should be. The category ‘Thriller’ is a subset of Suspense, which is in turn a subset of Mystery. So I set out to read some contemporary and classic mysteries. My prior post covers several contemporary works. 

I’ve just finished Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, widely considered to be one of her best. It’s also the best-selling mystery of all time. 

It makes one understand why she is so important to the genre. The book was published in Britain in 1939 under the title Ten Little Niggers, taken from the minstrel song that structures the plot. It has been published in the United States under a couple of titles (including a substitution of ‘Indians’ for the n-word, which probably worked fine in 1940 but is surely suspect today). The edition I read uses the last line of the song. Which brings us to fashion, which is to say, what is considered good form at a point in time.

Clothing fashion moves quickly. I always thought writing fashion was far slower. But even eighty years ago, writing fashion was quite different than today.

Today, authors are encouraged to minimize the number of named characters to reduce confusion. By my count, Christie has twenty. We are taught not to switch character perspective (point of view) often. The exception is the Romance category, which tolerates rapid POV change (derisively known as head-hopping). Christie would give a heavy-breathing romance novel a run for its money. In dialog, we are told not to lead with ‘he/she said’, because we end up with a string of them. Christie does it all the time.

The point for me is, after all that, And Then There Were None is a ripping good story. Clean structure set up by the poem. By the second death, every reader knows what’s going to happen and has hints as to how. The technique issues quickly become irrelevant to the reading of the story.

I mention all of this because I got a surprising response from one of my (female) beta readers of Fail Deadly. In the story, Weezy is captured and tortured to force her to keep a secret. The torturer is a man, and when he gets the opportunity (when his female boss is not around), the torture is sexual. The beta reader said, “I would not read this. No agent will accept it.” The gist of the argument was that the tenor of the times will not allow it, particularly as written by a man. Too sensitive; too toxic. 

Unfortunately, the despicable acts are important to character arc, so I’m presented with a conundrum. Weaken the story or risk rejection and censure?

Emboldened by several other female beta readers and my editor, I finally concluded that the bones of the story override the sensitivity of the times. Hope I’m right.