Revision under way

Just after the new year, I finished the first draft of my last novel, as yet untitled. (It had a title, but the story that emerged made the title obsolete, so I’m still in search of a new one.) I deliberately set it aside for a few weeks to get some distance. Yesterday, I decided it was time to start.

I made some changes late in the novel that will require me to re-arrange the beginning. Some scenes need to be rewritten. Some will be replaced with new ones; others will be cut entirely. I wanted to make the structure visible so it would be easier to understand how changing one scene would affect others.

I first thought I would use the blank wall in my home office to map the structure. Color-coded sticky notes and swim lanes would do the trick. Trouble was, I ran out of wall 1/3 of the way in. Today I transferred the physical notes into a spreadsheet. Manipulating cells isn’t as enjoyable as having something I can touch and feel, but at least this is portable, which will be good when I travel on business.

Tomorrow, I’ll print the entire draft and start reading it and marking it up. For the first time, I’m eager to revise. Usually, I’m so sick of a story by the time I finish the first draft that revision is a torment. I don’t know why this feels different.

The Apology


Nehemiah stared into the diner from the safety of the unlit sidewalk, watching Margo wrap napkins around silverware. No customers so late on a Monday. That’s why he’d chosen this night. But even without an audience, his stomach gnawed on itself like an animal chewing its way out of a trap.

You need a drink, friend. Steady your nerves.

He recognized the whisper in his mind for what it was. He squeezed his eyes tight.

“Go to hell, Whiskey,” he said.

He ignored the throaty chuckle of his eternal enemy and pushed the door open. The clank of cowbells announced his entrance. Margo looked up, her eyes as big as a startled owl’s.

Her walnut hair was shot through with silver. The harsh, fluorescent lighting made every line on her face look chiseled in.

She was too young to look so old.

How had two years changed her so much? Or had the amber haze he’d lived in for so long before she left made him unable to see her?

“What do you want, Nehemiah?” she spat. The muscles on her neck stood out, cord-like against her skin. Her disgust deepened his shame. Even in his thrift-store jacket, t-shirt, and blue jeans, he felt naked.

He let the door swing shut behind him. The bells clanked again. The place smelled of decades of eggs, bacon grease, and coffee.

“Nothing bad. I ain’t here to cause a scene.” It sickened him to have to say it. His hands trembled, and he hid them in his pockets. “I only want to talk.”

“Well, I don’t want to talk to you.” She finished wrapping a paper napkin around the silverware in her left hand and dropped the bundle into a grey, plastic tub. “You go on and get, or I’ll call the cops.” She picked up the handset of the old red phone on the wall behind the counter.

“Go ahead, if it will make you feel better. I can say what I need to before they get here, anyway.”

She stared at him a long time, brown eyes underlined by dark smudges. She remained still until the dial tone gave way to angry beeping.

“I let you say your piece, you’ll go on and go?”


She hung up the phone. Then she braced her hands on the counter, wide to the sides so that the crooks of her elbows showed.

“Get it over with, then.”

He pointed at one of the counter stools, bolted to the floor as though they might flee if given the opportunity.

“Can I… can I sit down?”

“You stand right there. That way you won’t have so far to walk when you’re done.”

She ain’t making this easy, Whiskey whispered. Nehemiah ignored it.

What have I ever done to deserve easy, he thought.

“I, uh, I came to say—” he began, but his words failed him. He’d written it out this afternoon. Memorized it, so when the time came, this wouldn’t happen.

“Let me guess. You came to apologize. Twelve-stepping it. Is that it?”

“No. I mean, yes. I mean, I’m not doing twelve steps, but—”

“So you’re still a drunk.”

Her words ran up and down his spine like cockroaches.

“I am not. I ain’t had a drop since—”

Since he hurled the bottle at the door after she slammed it for the last time. He had sliced his fingers to ribbons picking up broken glass with shaking hands.

“I don’t even want it anymore.”

“Liar,” she said.

Liar, Whiskey said.

“I don’t,” he whispered. “You ain’t me. Not anymore.”

“Who are you talking to?” She narrowed her eyes. “Oh. Whiskey. Like always.” She crossed her arms and dug her fists into her ribs. “Like it’s some other person inside of you, making you do things.”

His face burned.

“Not anymore.”

“I bet.”

The hell with her. Let’s get out of here. You know they’ve missed you at Charlie’s.

No. He was never going to be that man again. He breathed in deep, through his nose.

“I only blame myself.” And then the words he’d memorized came back to him in a torrent, rising so fast he feared they would choke him if he didn’t let them out.

“I did wrong by you. I treated you worse than anyone deserves. I ought not have said the things I said. I had no right. You never gave me anything but kindness and I repaid it with cruelty. I spent the last two years thinking about that. Regretting it. And now, I’m here to say… to say I’m sorry, Margo. I’m sorry for everything.”

Silence pressed down on him like a sack of gravel draped across his shoulders. He had thought he would feel better once he got it out, but his guts still twisted.

Margo pressed her lips into a bloodless line.

“That it?”

He nodded.

“Then you can leave, now.” She plucked a knife, spoon, and fork from a tray and started wrapping them in a napkin.

The cockroach sensation ran up and down his spine again, then down into his legs.

She didn’t even listen.

“You didn’t listen to a word I said!”

“I heard every word you said.” The words ricocheted off the counter, the walls, the floor. “And I heard all the things you didn’t say.” Her eyes shimmered.

“You think I owe you something now. Don’t you? I’m supposed to tell you I forgive you, and you can go on and feel better about yourself. Is that it?” She slammed the silverware bundle into the tub so hard it bounced out. She drew the back of her hand across her eyes, but new tears bubbled up to replace the ones she wiped away.

His mouth gaped, and his mind whirled.

“I don’t know.”

“Well, now you can listen to me. You put me through fifteen years of hell.” She thrust her finger toward the door. “So, you turn around and march yourself out that door, and you keep thinking about that for another thirteen years before you come back and apologize to me.”

All you wanted to do was apologize.

“All I wanted to do was… set things right.”

“Set things right?” She slammed her hands down onto the counter. The tray of silverware rattled.

“You can’t set things right, Nehemiah. Some things, you break them, you can’t fix them.” She sucked in a deep ragged breath.

“Get out!” she screamed.

He slipped out into the night. He looked back, over his shoulder. Margo was slumped over the counter, her face in her hands. Her shoulders shook.

A plume of steam escaped Nehemiah’s nostrils.

Where you headed, friend?

He looked down the street. The neon lights of Charlie’s beckoned. He turned his back on them.

“I’m going home, Whiskey.” He started walking.

“I got another thirteen years of thinking to do.”

I am what I say I am

I’ve been tearing it up vis-à-vis word count lately, turning out about 500 words per day for my novel. Which may not sound like much, but given how little time I have to write, it’s amazing. I can generally devote 90 minutes max to fiction a day, five or six days a week. So I’m pleased with my output lately.

I’m even more pleased because until three weeks ago, I was lucky to get 500 words in a week. I’d gotten bogged down over a plot detail that I thought I needed but just couldn’t make work. I was considering giving up on this manuscript. I was considering giving up on writing fiction entirely. “If I’m not writing,” I told a friend, “Then I’m not a writer, res ipsa loquitur.” Because I have the kind of friends to whom I can say “res ipsa loquitur” (not to mention “vis-à-vis”) and not have them slap me silly. I have great friends.

My friends told me what a loss to the world it would be if I stopped writing, because they are great friends who are willing to lie to me right to my face.

When I took the last week in October off, I set a goal of writing twice each day, with a target of 500-750 words for each session. I decided that background and planning would count, since I wasn’t going to add much to the manuscript until I worked out some plot problems. And I did it. I wrote, and as I wrote about the problem, I found a way to get past it. I created a matrix of characters and their possible means, motives, and opportunities to have committed the crime. I turned that matrix into a chain of plot points. Then I created plot points for my two subplots and wove them all together. And while I was doing all that (and ever since), I added to the manuscript a little each day. Ever since, I’ve been on a tear. This morning I wrote 520, which put my total over 45,000–halfway to the target length I established for the first draft.

I guess I can keep calling myself a writer.

Pueri Alleynienses

The May issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine arrived two weeks ago, but I’m so far behind in my reading that I’ve only just finished the April issue, which contained the delightfully well-written story,  “Pueri Alleynienses” by Stephen Ross. It opens with a wonderful example of how to grab a reader’s interest and hold it:

“Whatever happened to Tupper?” I asked. We had been chatting idly over a bottle of claret.

“I murdered him,” Coates answered, with all sincerity.

I believed him.

In four sentences, Ross establishes a lot of character and plants several questions: Who is Tupper? Why did Coates murder him? Why does the narrator believe him? Why does Coates so blithely confess?

The first and third questions are answered deftly and quickly, and the answers develop both Coates and the narrator, reveal their history of mutual animosity toward Tupper and each other. The other two questions, and their corollaries, aren’t answered until two masterfully executed twists near the end. There is very little action and yet the story is fascinating, filled with tension. This story was a great example of why I subscribe to Alfred Hitchcock.


Criticizing fiction from a writer’s perspective

When criticizing fiction (whether we’re talking about published work or material for a critique group), it’s easy to fall into the trap of asking “Did I like this?” The subject of that question is not the work, but the reader: “I.” These are some of the questions we should ask instead:

  • What work does the first line do? Does it set up what’s to come? Does it provide a hook for readers so that they’ll be curious enough to continue?
  • What viewpoint is used? How does it affect the story and the reader’s expectations or experience?
  • Who is the protagonist? What does he want in this story or scene? What is stopping him from getting it?
  • Who are the other characters? What do they want? How do their desires interfere with or complement the protagonists?
  • What’s important about this story or scene? What’s at stake for these characters?

Examine what’s in the work rather than whether you like it. You’ll understand it better and provide better criticism.