Course Correction – When a work-in-progress isn’t working
Last week I wrote a long post lamenting the shitty state of my new novel Summer Wind. If you want to read the whole boohoo thing it’s here. The short version is: It sucked. My main character Detective Mike Malick was stiff and uninteresting. One of the solutions I pondered was “Try switching to the first-person POV” but I quickly nixed that as a “cop-out.”
My hesitation went deeper than a knee-jerk reaction. I wasn’t sure I could write a whole book from a man’s viewpoint. I’ve written brief scenes from male points of view in my Lexy Cooper series, but never in the first-person. I don’t know what it’s like to be a dude. Will Malick, channeled through me, come across like a chick in a false mustache? I was afraid.
But then I tried it.
And it flowed pretty well. Better than I expected. I rewrote a chapter of Summer Wind changing the third-person past tense to first-person present tense, and compared the versions side-by-side.
And yeah, I liked it. And my alpha readers liked it too. One of them said, “I already love it. his dry noir wit comes comes through even when he’s taking the high road on the outside,” and another said, “seeing it through Malick’s eyes is much more telling about who he is.” So it was decided. Now I just had to do a complete rewrite on a by then 37,000 word novel-in-progress. I estimated it would take nine days to fix and then I’d be able to go forward and write the rest of the book.
What I hadn’t really considered is how much I would end up cutting. About 5,000 words actually. The entire prologue (which I wasn’t sure was going to be in the final version anyway), scenes in Officer Yi and Officer Rogers POV, and while I was at it a clue that was too obvious too soon and a scene with a character that I’d sent out of the town in the previous chapter (logic fail.)
Here are a couple examples of how I did the rewrites. In scenes that were orginally in Malick’s POV (most of the book) it was an opportunity to add a little more stream of conscious personality. I changed this scene, when Malick wakes up and houseguest Lexy Cooper is burning breakfast:
She had twenty-nine years on her, but looked five years younger and acted ten years younger. He blamed part of it on her job. She worked in video games as something called a “community manager” which as far as he could tell involved writing stuff for the company website, traveling around making videos that streamed on the company’s online gaming service, and being subject to startling levels of harassment and abuse. That’s sort of why she was here. Had been here for weeks sleeping on his sofa and burning his bacon.
She has twenty-nine years on her, but looks five years younger and acts ten years younger. I blame part of it on her job. She works in video games as something called a “community manager” which as far as I can tell involves writing stuff for the company website, traveling around making videos that stream on the company’s online gaming service, and being subject to startling levels of harassment and abuse. That’s sort of why she’s here. Has been here for weeks sleeping on my sofa and burning my bacon. I keep buying it, she keeps burning it. Hope springs eternal, right? At least when it comes to salted meat.
The part of the rewrite that stung the most was eliminating the Cricket Yi and Mark Rogers scenes. I was especially fond of the scene in which my young redheaded cop interviews the murder victim’s daughter, who is sunbathing on the deck.
“Soooo if you want to ask me questions or whatever, I should probably put some clothes on. If you’re just here for the view…”
Rogers looked down, ashamed. “No, I…”
“I meant the view. You know, the valley and shit?” She swept an arm across the horizon and Rogers felt like a bumbling teenager. He pulled out his notebook and mechanical pencil so she wouldn’t see him blush.
“Go change and I’ll meet you back inside. You know gingers can’t take too much sunshine.”
How do I keep the gist and the flavor of the scene but make it Malick’s? This is what I did:
“Soooo if you want to ask me questions or whatever, I should probably put some clothes on. If you’re just here for the view…” She rolls her shoulders, suggestively.
“What? No, I…” I’m surprised at how offended I am.
“I meant the view. You know, the valley and shit?” She sweeps an arm across the horizon and I feel like a dirty old man. This is not going well. I pull out my pen and notebook and attempt to get control back.
“Go change and I’ll meet you back inside.” When she disappears behind her bedroom door, I call Rogers and tell him to get his ginger ass up here, pronto.
Once all that was done and all the “Malick”s and “he”s had become “I”s and “me”s, I got back to writing. In the first-person present tense. And man, do I feel better about the book. I’m so glad I decided to stop and check the map instead of just blundering along in the wrong direction. Sure, I’d probably be 10,000 words closer to finished, but it would be a shitty book. I’m behind schedule now, but only by a week, and the difference in the story, the character and my confidence in the book is more than worth the short delay.
If your book isn’t working, stop. Not forever, but long enough to assess the problem, mess around under the hood a bit and find a solution.