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The Mess

by Barb, in Key West where it is a gorgeous evening

I’m deep in my favorite part of the writing process with Maine Clambake Mystery, #8, Sealed Off.

I’ve mentioned before, many times, I don’t enjoy first drafts. They are like pulling teeth for me. But once that awfulness is “done,” I get to have fun.

Because I love to revise.

Revising is bringing order out of chaos, which is my driving force in life. It was essentially my job as a chief operating officer in software startups, where there was always plenty of chaos, and you never knew what you would find when you turned over any given rock, but it was sure to be a juicy, complicated problem.

Prior to the actual grinding through the pages part of revising, there is always plenty to figure out. Like, what, exactly, is the timeline of the critical events in the backstory? What is every little thing that happened on the day of the murder and what time did it happen? On what day of the week did each scene in the book take place, and what was the weather on that day? What is the final name of each character ever mentioned, plus the name of their store or their boat or their car or their house, whatever of those might be relevant?

Maybe some authors figure this stuff out before they start writing, but I never have enough information. During the drafting, characters’ names change, sometimes because I’m looking for just the right one and sometimes because I have honestly forgotten what I wrote days ago. (I never look back. I am afraid, like Lot’s wife, I will turn into a pillar of salt.)

I often describe the process of writing a novel as one of making smaller and smaller decisions. You start with the biggies. What kind of book is it? Who are the characters? What is the setting? (For subsequent books in a series, these decisions are often already made.) And the biggie, what is this book really about?

In the drafting you get to the medium stuff. What time of year is it? What is driving each character? What do they look like? And what, for goodness sake, happens?

By the end, you’re deciding much more mundane stuff. Here are the things I’m wondering about now (no spoilers).

–How long have Jason and Pru been divorced? Because, honestly, there are a few scenes where they seem really settled into a routine and comfortably co-parenting, but other times their relationship seems really raw. If it’s confusing me, it’s going to confuse readers, so I need to make up my mind.

–That storm that blew through before the story started, how many days was that? Was it the remnants of a hurricane? What was the track of the storm? What were the top wind speeds?

–What is the name of that convenience store? I thought it was a bit player, but now that it’s been mentioned 37 times in a dozen scenes, I can’t keep calling it “the convenience store–mini-mart–gas station out on the highway,” because if it’s annoying me, it will definitely annoy readers.

–What kind of boat is Jason’s, exactly? I’ve told readers it’s new and big and show-offy, but what does that mean, specifically?

There are dozens of these questions that I can’t tell you about because they are definitely spoilers. I love making decisions and finally nailing stuff down (both in writing and in life), which is another reason I love this part of the process.

My drive to create order out of chaos is often thwarted in life, by, well, life, which goes on its crazy way heedless of my desire to tame it. But in the fictional realm I am the queen, and my subjects must obey. Lots of writers say, “I can’t control my characters. They have minds of their own.” To which, I always say, “I have enough people in my life who don’t do what I think they should. My characters have to. That was the point of making them up in the first place.”

Sometimes I feel like if I was a better writer, I would know all about Jason and Pru before I got to this point. But that’s not really how it works. They are like acquaintances in real life. You observe their behavior and draw certain conclusions about them. But if you can’t figure it out, if you’ve become close enough, you just ask. “So, how long have you and Jason been divorced?” And Pru gives you an answer and from then on (and sometimes even retrospectively) you view their behavior through that lens.

I’m off to do more revising. I do it on paper, so I have to type changes into the manuscript at the end of the day, which can be incredibly tedious. When I’m grumbling about that, remind me–I love this part.

Writers: Does any of this sound familiar? Or maybe not at all?

Readers: I don’t know what to ask, because if we’ve done this part right, made all the tiny decisions and implemented them consistently and with finesse, you shouldn’t notice them at all.

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